Once Again on Education: Beyond Ordinary Leftism

Introduction

A few months ago, a participant in a listserv that I belong to posted a proposal for “A Day without Teachers” in solidarity with the members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) who subsequently went on strike for seven days in September. See my article on the strike in this issue. For what it's worth, I don't think that anything ever came of the proposal. Nonetheless, its sentiments deserve scrutiny.

He quoted from a Call for that Day:

The situation in public education as it stands is intolerable and is only getting worse.

The carefully planned attacks by the ruling class to defund, deskill, and privatize our education system have resulted in the avalanche of attacks we face on a daily basis. Massive budget cutbacks, exploding class sizes, media vilification, testing mania, school shut downs and charter school expansion, destruction of tenure and seniority, packaged curriculum, and on and on.

Both Republicans and Democrats serve this agenda and while so called “education reformers” use racial justice for their public relations, in truth their policies only increase the oppressive inequities facing our children, parents, and communities.

Make no mistake. We must choose between watching the promise of our children silenced or joining a massive resurgence to fight against these attacks and for a transformed educational system worth fighting for. One that delivers quality education for all. And that choice is upon us.

This fall, teachers in Chicago are being pushed into a corner they can't survive without fighting-a 29 percent increase in their work day and the replacement of standard raises by financial favoritism, essentially ending the union itself.

This struggle is of crucial importance, signaling the fate of teachers for the country as a whole. Chicago is home to the third largest teacher's union in the country and a President of the United States seeking reelection this fall. Rahm Emanuel, Chicago's ruthless Mayor who is out to destroy the union, is Obama's former Chief of Staff.

If Chicago loses this struggle, so do we. The Chicago Teacher's Union is preparing to strike. But to win they need the world behind them. If we want quality education for all, we need the Chicago Teachers to win this showdown.

That is what “A Day Without A Teacher” is all about. Like the millions of immigrants who refused to work on May 1st, 2006. Like the thousands of Madison teachers whose courage showed people across this rich nation what is possible if teachers take collective action for the well being of all.

We all face struggles like what is happening in Chicago. Only by acting together can we reverse the tide. Another education is possible. A Day Without A Teacher is the first step in making it so.

Stand with Chicago when they need it!

Quality Education for All!

In response to that post and some other comments on the list, I wrote the following (which has been slightly edited for this article):

I'd suggest that we stop thinking of teachers as a special case and enlarge the discussion and debate way beyond them—their "specialness" doesn't help them or the rest of us as much as it might seem.

Let me start with tenure. If tenure is understood as protection for the teacher/faculty worker from harassment and possible firing for the expression of views about work and the world (in other words, political positions) and from harassment or firing for reasons other than political views, I think we should reconsider the special treatment that teachers and college faculty members enjoy as compared to virtually all other members of the working class. The only defensible position is to demand protection from firing for all workers. But that should not be understood as demanding protection from what I would suggest amounts to “scabbing” on fellow workers by acts that inflict harm on the children of and members of the working class. In this instance, I want to define “scabbing” as the opposite of solidarity.

Tenure effectively provides teachers and college faculty with protection from another quite serious challenge to their continued work—that is the possibility/likelihood/certainty that they are not effectively educating the overwhelmingly working-class students in their schools and colleges. Whether viewed from the perspective of students' (and parents') everyday experiences in schools and colleges or from the perspective of the long-term trends in student learning, it is evident that there is a lot going on that's deeply harmful to the children of workers and workers themselves. While teachers and college faculty do not deserve all of the blame, they must be prepared to take a lot of the responsibility. I think they should define their relationship to their students as an obligation of social solidarity. But not very many do so—even those ostensibly on the left.

The most ostensibly “militant” faculty union in NYC is the one at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University, a private non-profit college that enrolls an overwhelmingly working-class student body. The tuition charges are not comparable to those of elite private colleges but it is close to $15,000 a year for full-time undergraduates—an amount that most students can only afford by taking out student loans. Those students clearly expect that it's worth the money. But the six-year graduation rate at the University is about 18 percent. But, so far as I know, the union has never said a word about that scandalous figure nor discussed what it might do to change things. Indeed, I'd be willing to bet that many of the faculty members don't even know what the graduation rate is). The tuition costs for baccalaureate degree students at the public CUNY colleges are much lower—about $5,000 a year for full-time study and, at some of them, the graduation rates are quite a bit higher but not all that good. In a particularly outrageous case, Medgar Evers College which enrolls an almost entirely black student population, the most recent six year graduation rate (as reported to the federal government) is 11 percent. Once again, the CUNY faculty union (the Professional Staff Congress), with a classic soft-left leadership, says nothing about it or about its members' responsibilities.

The question of teacher and union responsibility for school failure must be taken seriously. While teacher union leaders have often expressed their support for the best possible education for students, it is clear that their primary concern has been to secure and maintain sufficient improvements in wages, benefits and working conditions to obtain enough support from members to allow for their re-election. The best illustration of how this works is the Unity Caucus of the UFT in New York City, the caucus that Al Shanker established—in part to thwart the Communist Party remnants in the city's teaching force and in part to forge a caucus that could be relied upon to provide support for the election campaigns of favored candidates in municipal and state elections). To this day, the Unity Caucus remains the base of support for Michael Mulgrew, the UFT president, and Randi Weingarten, now the AFT president.

Beyond the narrow focus of the leaders, it is also often the case that rank and file groups within teacher unions emphasize their determination to obtain even better wages, benefits and working conditions but infrequently address the needs or concerns of students and parents—other than to claim that if teachers get a better deal, students will benefit. Perhaps the classic instance of these claims is the one that smaller class sizes will lead to improved student achievement. In all likelihood, most students would benefit from the greater attention made possible by smaller numbers but there is no guarantee that a teacher will know how to pay productive attention or how best to promote learning. The quality of the teaching always matters. However, as opposed to the mindless preoccupation with measuring and evaluating the performance of individual teachers, I believe that teaching quality needs to be understood and supported as part of a process of collaborative work among all the teachers and other staff in a school. That, in turn, requires a collective commitment to the well-being and development of the students that a school enrolls. Once again, however, that collective commitment cannot be taken for granted. The profound cleavages between school staffs and students/parents in NYC (and I would imagine most other cities) are the results of multiple complex interactions in classrooms, cafeterias, hallways, parent meetings, etc. More than anything, there is a frequent, and often justified, perception by students and parents that many of the people who work in the schools do not care especially much for the students—I should emphasize that not all such perceptions are necessarily accurate but there is enough substance to them that they cannot and should not be discounted.

The coincidence of reductions in school budgets and the prevalence of school closings with attacks on teachers and teacher unions can make it appear that teachers and students/parents have unproblematic common interests. I don't think that is the case. If and when the establishment and preservation of union power requires opposition to the demands of community residents, so be it! This was the case in the 1968 NYC strikes.[1] Indeed, I believe that teacher union power in New York City was built on the basis of the defeat of the black community—as was the power of the police union built on the basis of the defeat of a referendum on a civilian review board in 1966. It's worth noting that the new and improved UFT/AFT leadership seldom mentions the union's actions in that epochal battle. Instead, they have learned to simultaneously play to both their own members and to parents.

In 1968, I was a college student supporter of community control and believed that such community control would lead to better schools. I increasingly believe that community control would not have led to better educational outcomes. Nor do I think that most of the commonly advocated strategies will do so. Indeed, one of the most striking things about just about everything that's happened in schools over the last fifty-seven years (since the 1954 Brown decision) is how little things have changed for the better. In fact, I think you could make a case that they've gotten worse—in spite of all sorts of things that should have made things better—like the end of legal segregation, the requirement that children with disabilities be provided an appropriate education and the requirement that English language learners be identified and offered meaningful choices leading to English language proficiency.

My guess is that, in virtually every medium to large-sized city in the United States, the following is true—

  1. black and Hispanic students graduate from high school at significantly lower rates than their white and Asian counterparts;
  2. students identified as having special needs hardly graduate at all (other than the children of prosperous families who seek special needs labels as a strategy for extra time for their children on high-stakes tests such as the SAT);
  3. large numbers of children born into non–English speaking families living in the United States and consistently attending elementary and middle schools wind up in high schools not yet proficient in English—because they have been relegated to fairly dreadful ESL or bilingual education programs;
  4. a large majority of high school graduates are not especially well-prepared for college.

As I wrote in my “Rethinking Educational Failure” article in Insurgent Notes #3, I think there is a powerful relationship between the overall decline in the social economy of many communities and the somewhat paradoxical hanging on to education as a way out and a more or less simultaneous disinvestment of the time and energy needed for substantial learning.

The establishment of a new type of solidarity relationship between the people who work in educational institutions should be at the front and center of all of our efforts. Bonds of solidarity between teachers and the members of the communities they work in (however those communities might be defined) must be built on the basis of a willingness to confront the ways in which the normal workings of schools and unions and the normal ways that teachers interact with students and parents are part of the problems that students and parents face.

I would also suggest that the obligations of social solidarity are not limited to education workers. I think they also extend to healthcare workers and to all those workers whose quality of work performance has the potential to protect or hurt fellow workers—I'm thinking of workers such as airline mechanics, railroad workers, pharmaceutical technicians, food safety inspectors and many more. I believe that workers need to actively take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. I realize, of course, that this is treacherous territory—as convincingly demonstrated by the writings posted on Disparaged CNA. Bosses of every stripe will not hesitate to play the responsibility card when they insist that individuals work harder and longer. I have no easy answers to offer other than to suggest that the issues need to be confronted.

One way that they might be confronted is through the establishment of joint worker–working class organizations where the issues could be brought forward and struggled over. Jack Gerson, a retired Oakland school teacher and an activist in Occupy Oakland and Occupy Education in Oakland, wrote separately about his article on Longview published in Insurgent Notes #5:

I should say here—but probably won't try to shoehorn it into this article—that the Occupy movement has gotten me to think more about something I had been toying with already: namely, that the "labor left's" rank and file caucus approach is the wrong framework. I don't know if you're familiar with the debate around this in the IS [the predecessor of the ISO, Solidarity and the League for a Revolutionary Party, —JG] in 1969–71, but at the time several of us were counter-posing "struggle groups" to "rank and file caucuses." The difference was that struggle groups would take up more than just workplace and work-related issues, and would be open to community members who weren't working at the union's work sites. Basically, I think of them now as pre–workers' councils type formations. As it happens, the collapse of the mass movements removed most opportunities to connect rank and file organizing with mass work around broad social issues, and "struggle groups" disappeared from the discourse. Rank and file caucuses won that debate in practice, but they've just been incubators for "progressive" bureaucrats and secondary reform leadership. I think that the Occupy movement presents the chance to build those pre–workers' council type formations, and we should jump on it. I'm working with some others in trying to build the Occupy Oakland education committee (including some from Advance the Struggle; some parents organizing against school closures; some afterschool workers; a few teachers), and that's the conception I have in mind.

At around the same time that Jack was talking about, I was a member of a group called the Taxi Rank and File Coalition in New York. I was actively recruited by the IS but never joined—mostly for reasons having to do with its insistence on democratic reforms of the union and taking over the unions. Over time, the Rank and File Coalition became a very different kind of rank and file group—so much so that one CP stalwart used to call us "rank and infantile." There's now a web page which includes all our newspapers, some history and other documents. We never used Jack's language but I think we were inspired by some of the same concerns. In any case, it's long past time for us to break out of old models and do something new.

In that regard, I'd urge everyone on this list to read Mike Staudenmaier's new history of the Sojourner Truth Organization, Truth and Revolution—especially the section on what Mike describes as the “first period” of intensive workplace activity.[2]

I got a lot of responses to the post within the list and after I circulated it beyond the listserv—mostly positive but also mostly saying that I needed to talk more about the difference between my argument and “teacher bashing.” A number of people also cited evidence of teachers they knew who were, in their minds, exceptionally dedicated to their work, especially caring in their relationships with children and working under increasingly worse conditions—typified by significant growth in class sizes and by layoffs prompted by school district budget shortfalls. I'm going to try to respond to those concerns.

Since my post was mostly focused on the responsibilities of teachers as members of the working class, I didn't say anything about the array of antagonists that teachers and their unions are facing. I therefore will try to capture what I think are the essential elements of what has clearly become a nationwide effort to frame education “reform.” That framework enjoys the support of opportunistic politicians, appropriately maligned hedge fund philanthropists, ego-inflated Ivy Leaguers and powerful foundations, but elements of it are also supported by many individuals that find the state of the schools to be pretty deplorable.[3] It's not easy to sort out the casts of characters or the different implications of different “reforms,” but we need to know what we want to be for and what against.

I also hope to extend the scope of my argument to include criticisms of other dimensions of what I'll suggest can be called “ordinary” left perspectives on education—by which I mean a set of convictions and positions that are more or less held in common by social democrats, Trotskyists (of all varieties), Stalinists, Maoists (once again of all varieties), anarchists (of at least some varieties) and left communists (by which I mean anti-state Marxists of all varieties). I hope I haven't left anyone out.[4] Let me take on the ordinary leftists first.

On Ordinary Leftism

I'd suggest that, the common “ordinary” perspectives are the following:

  1. More or less automatic insistence that teachers (and other education workers) and teacher unions bear little, or no, responsibility, for the failures of public education;
  2. Unqualified support for “better” contracts regarding wages, benefits and working conditions;
  3. Assumption that better contracts will lead to better educations for students;
  4. Support for more militant union action on behalf of members;
  5. Opposition to standardization of curriculum or teaching approaches;
  6. Opposition to high-stakes testing for assessing student learning or evaluating teachers;
  7. Opposition to extensive test prep in classroom instruction;
  8. Opposition to the closing of failing schools;
  9. Opposition to the establishment of charter schools;
  10. Advocacy for more resources for education as the primary remedy for educational inequity (frequently linked to a set of arguments about the adverse effects of poverty on children's school achievement).[5]

These common positions are then situated within a range of other political views regarding the nature of trade unions, the character of the union leaderships, matters of union democracy and relationships with the Democratic Party. Even then, however, I would suggest that the commonality is much more substantial than are the differences. Furthermore, with the possible exception of the need for militant action, the commonly held views are all but indistinguishable from those of the two national teacher unions (the AFT and the NEA) and their local affiliates. I want to suggest that “rank and file” opposition to bureaucratic or un-democratic local or national organizations of teachers should not be a sufficient condition for support of rank and file organizing among teachers. Teachers may very well be being screwed by their leaders but insurgent groups need to commit to something other than “We don't want to be screwed anymore!” In that context, let's look at what's been going on among rank and file educators.

Recently, several teacher groups in New York City have coalesced in the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE). Here's their self-description:

  • We believe our strength lies with our members, organized into strong chapters. This requires an active effort to educate our membership about how their union works, and involve them in democratically determining its direction. We believe in social justice unionism.
  • We fight for equitable public education and against racism in the schools. Building an alliance of students, parents and community members is a key part of our strategy. The UFT must fight for our members and our students. Our working conditions are our students learning conditions.

The onslaught of high-stakes testing, privatization, weakening or elimination of job protections, school closings and charter co-locations threatens the very existence of public education as we know it. Unionized teachers in particular have been singled out for demonization. The strategy put forth by our union leadership to take on these challenges is inadequate. UFT officials rely primarily on lobbying, media blitzes and procedural lawsuits. When occasional mobilizations are called, they are organized without a long-term plan for escalating actions or increased membership involvement. The union leadership takes a concessionary stance in order to maintain its “seat at the table” with politicians and corporate forces like Bill Gates, who turn around and attack teachers and the union at every opportunity. Union leadership then sells serious concessions to the members as victories claiming—“It could have been worse.”

Some of the key policy failures of the UFT leadership:

  • Supporting mayoral control even in the face of the devastating impact
  • A weak stand against closing schools
  • A compromising position on charter schools and co-locations
  • Giving up on the fight to reduce class size
  • The acceptance of rating teachers based on high-stakes tests
  • Agreeing to merit pay even though every single study shows the failure of this policy
  • Steadily deteriorating working conditions and power in the workplace
  • Erosion of job security and tenure protections
  • A one-party undemocratic system that shuts out the voices of the members

We need something different. A union that fights for the rights of students, teachers and communities.

A union that fights for racial and economic justice inside and outside our schools.

The group has tried to be explicit about its desired relationship with the larger community:

MORE believes that the UFT can play a crucial role in rebuilding the social movements necessary to halt the onslaught of school closings, budget cuts, and test-driven curricula and teacher evaluations. These attacks are destroying our working conditions and our students' learning conditions. Students in lower income schools and in communities of color have been hit hardest of all. A MORE leadership will trade union members as organizers all over the city. We will work with parent and student activists to build a city-wide movement for a vision of school reform based on well-funded schools, equal access for all, and democratic governance of our schools. Finally we will mobilize a movement to reverse the transformation of our schools into test prep factories. The Mulgrew/Unity leaders often speak the right words and have their pictures taken with parent and civil rights leaders. But they have made no effort to build the kind of bottom-up mobilization needed to turn the tide in our favor.

The New York group has apparently established close ties with the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) which is now leading the Chicago Teachers Union. The Caucus's web page suggests that it is committed to building alliances between educators and communities:

The Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) is a group of dedicated teachers, retirees, Paraprofessional School Related Personnel (PSRPs), parents, community members and other champions of public education. We fight for equitable public education and hope to improve the Chicago Teacher's Union (CTU) so that it fights both on behalf of its members and on behalf of Chicago's students.

Its web page lists a number of education reform and community organizations as allies.

But what do all these professions of concern for the community amount when it comes to real demands and action? Recently, the CTU published a report titled The Schools Chicago's Students Deserve, which it asserts is based on research. There is not a word in the recommendations about the need to change what's going on in classrooms and schools every day. What's really astounding about the report, although not surprising, is that it completely neglects the findings of what is perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of school improvement ever done in the United States—an analysis that was completed on the basis of twenty years of empirical data from Chicago's public elementary schools by researchers associated with the Consortium on Chicago Schools Research housed at the University of Chicago.[6]

The authors concluded that:

Students' academic learning occurs principally in classrooms as students interact with teachers around subject matter. How we organize and operate a school has a major effect on the instructional exchanges in its classrooms. Put simply, whether classroom learning proceeds depends in large measure on how the school as a social context supports teaching and sustains student engagement. Through our research, we identified five organizational features of schools that interact with life inside classrooms and are essential to advancing student achievement.

The five essential components for school success were:

  • Effective leaders: The principal works with teachers to implement a clear and strategic vision for school success.
  • Collaborative teachers: The staff is committed to the school, receives strong professional development, and works together to improve the school.
  • Involved families: The entire school staff builds strong relationships with families and communities to support learning.
  • Supportive environment: The school is safe and orderly. Teachers have high expectations for students. Students are supported by their teachers and peers.
  • Ambitious instruction: Classes are academically demanding and engage students by emphasizing the application of knowledge.

I realize that this is the kind of language that readers of radical political journals are inclined to meet with glazed eyes and suspicious brains but I want to suggest that readers avoid doing that and imagine, if those supports are essential to improving education, what kinds of recommendations and demands rank and file educators should be making to get schools to move in that direction?

What is most noteworthy about their findings is that they move the discussion about good teaching away from individual teachers in their own classrooms. Instead, good teaching is the result of a complex inter-play of values, practices and supports. Interestingly enough, the most fervent defenders of teachers and the most biting of critics share a preoccupation with the individual teacher. The defenders insist upon the need for the teacher to be free of constraints that interfere with his/her imaginative engagement with students and object to proposals that teacher quality be evaluated since good teaching really can't be measured. The critics insist that what the individual teacher does or does not do is the make or break factor in student learning and therefore are preoccupied with the development of measures to assess the “value added” by each teacher all alone. Either view is a fiction; children learn in complex environments where the contribution of any particular teacher is more or less significant.

There are some unusually charismatic teachers but they offer little in the way of helpful models for most teachers. In a somewhat different context, the recently deceased poet Adrienne Rich, described the influence of Mina Shaughnessy on writing teachers at the City College of New York in the late 1960s/early 1970s:

By personal example, Mina taught many of us that teaching is not charisma, or inspiration, but careful preparation and hard work. That impressionistic and histrionic methods were a waste of a student's time, that a romantic pedagogy cannot take the place of a truly accurate identification. She managed to convey all of this without preaching or admonishing, by the kinds of examples she brought to staff meetings, by her own presence which became, for me at least, a kind of personified intellectual conscience, and, above all, by her respect, untinged by white liberal romanticism, for the minds of the young women and men with whom we were working.

The authors argue that trusting relationships among the school staff and between the staff and parents and children are essential preconditions for good schools. Many of the essential elements reflect the importance of social cohesion within the institution. Such bonds of trust and cohesion can only be developed within environments that are humane for all involved.

For the most part, urban public schools do not come close to the kinds of internal organization that's needed to sustain good teaching and significant learning. Furthermore, some, probably many, have become toxic environments where there is little likelihood that things might become much better.

As a result most kids are going to schools that are not providing them with much of an education. This is so much the case that we need to take seriously the question if there is public education to be defended. The education that children receive in the public schools of prosperous suburbs or the gentrified neighborhoods of many cities or in the more or less elite schools based upon examinations (such as Stuyvesant High School in New York) has very little to do with the public education that most city kids, kids in poor suburbs and in many rural areas are getting. And there's some evidence that things are getting more unequal.

The responsibility for the sorry state of affairs can be distributed across many different constituencies—corporation-dominated policy makers, politicians of all varieties, school district leaders, principals who have little idea about what they're doing and teachers. In this article, I am mostly interested in the teachers since I'm interested in highlighting the ways in which they contribute to the existing state of affairs and the ways in which they might come to break away from the practices that yield the results we have. I am especially interested in encouraging teachers to rethink the relationship between intentionality and responsibility.

Nicole Pepperell has some useful ideas about this:

…actions can have multiple layers of consequence. Some layers are immediate and easy to perceive, so that most social actors will have some awareness of their responsibility for effecting these immediate consequences that follow from their actions. Some layers, however, are much more indirect and downstream—and may depend on the tandem performance by many other social actors of the same, of other kinds, of social practices.

Marx thinks the complexity of the aggregate process generates so many sticking points—so much experiential flypaper—on which competing theories can get stuck. When stuck, theories fixate on a certain level of consequence, but lose the ability to keep track of other levels. Sometimes, as with vulgar political economy, this can be apologistic and self-serving: it can be in the interests of a particular observer to attend to certain consequences of their actions, but not others. Sometimes it can be closer to a socially-instituted optical illusion: some consequences can be incredibly difficult to see, because other aspects of our social experience are more prominent, and tend to deflect the eye in a different direction.

…This isn't to say that it's impossible for people to understand what they are contributing to, but that it's easier for many participants to focus on the immediate consequences of their actions—interacting with colleagues, earning a wage, holding down a “respectable” position in society—than on the indirect and aggregate effects which rely on the tandem performance of many other people. It's easy to rationalise that withholding one small contribution will in any event have little impact on the end result. And, if the impact of withholding your own contribution is so small, the calculus of how much risk to take on, for that small impact, becomes more difficult for those who confront it.

…We are each of us participants in immediate actions that are not on their face harmful—and may even be, on a local level, morally beneficial. Our actions have consequences, however, beyond this immediate and easily-perceptible layer of experience. Combined with the actions of others, in a complex global network, we make our small contributions to what, in some cases, are horrific end results. How do we think our responsibility for these downstream consequences? What sorts of institutions would be required to prevent this sort of blind, senseless, thoughtless causation of a rolling juggernaut of human tragedy?[7]

When the normal operations of schools results in widespread failure, we have no alternative but to disrupt those normal operations. Teachers and organized groups need to break with the regularities and routines within their schools and within school systems which reproduce educational failure and inequality. That's not what the Chicago Teachers Union did when it went on strike and it's not what the MORE group in New York is about. Both groups leave those regularities and routines securely in place. I'd suggest that teachers should join with interested parents and other community members to scrutinize every single aspect of what does and does not go on in their schools and school districts and determine the extent to which it contributes to failure and inequality (regardless of what it was intended to do) and once they have done so, that they refuse to go along and develop strategies to bring the evidence and their determination to refuse to the attention of all involved, especially students and parents and be prepared to make common cause with them not only on the occasion of big events like school closings and teacher strikes, but on an everyday basis—which is where the most damage is being done to children.

Some of the school-level matters I can think of offhand are the following: student and teacher schedules, planning and preparation activities, diagnostic assessments, class placements, referrals to special education, school behavior rules, discipline procedures, curriculum and instruction (down to the everyday details), instructional materials, and homework. At the school system level, they would include the role of seniority in layoffs and assignments to schools, intra-district inequities in school funding (as reflected for example in the use of formulas to determine the number of “positions” a school gets, without regard to the costs of those positions) and, as I'll explore a bit more below, the enrollment patterns in selective schools. I do want to emphasize, though, that teachers should not become preoccupied with the problems imposed through contracts and district policies since too often a preoccupation with even genuine problems imposed from the outside can obscure what's close at hand.

Let me close this section with a word about money. I have no doubt that education (along with childcare, healthcare and elder care, as well as other human needs) should have far more resources devoted to it. But, unlike many, I do not think that austerity has been introduced as a nationwide ruling class strategy. In fact, average per capita spending (in current dollars) on public education in the United States steadily increased from $5,001 in 1992 to $10,615 in 2010. The last two years may have changed that pattern but not in ways that would fundamentally alter my point.

The national average does obscure significant state to state differences with some states spending less than $8,000 per student and others spending more than $16,000 in 2009–2010. In addition, there are significant differences between districts. In Illinois, Chicago spent $11,596 per student but the suburban Palatine Township High School District spent $17,213. But the difference expenditure levels don't always correspond to what we might expect. In 2009–2010, New York City spent $19,597 per student but Half Hollow Hills, a wealthy Long Island district, only spent $19,020. (The current New York City school budget exceeds $20 billion.) In many cases, school expenditures are financed by real estate taxes and it is likely that budgets in some places have been severely impacted by the foreclosure crisis and other decreases in revenues for cities and states but that same thing is not true in other cases. In addition, per capita averages are misleading because they collapse the costs for very expensive items (such as special education) with expenditures for less expensive ones.

So, what's the point of all this? Simply put, I don't believe that it's helpful for teachers and their unions to avoid taking responsibility for what goes on in schools by claiming that the failures are due to funding cuts. Funding cuts matter a great deal in some situations and not very much at all in others. That observation has nothing at all to do with the need to fight against budget cuts and, more importantly, budget inequities.

Beneath the Surface of Education Reform

In 2009, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago issued a report entitled “Still Left Behind: Student Learning in Chicago's Public Schools.”[8] It presented clear evidence that, in spite of numerous claims to the contrary by the school system, almost two decades of reform efforts in that city had not produced much in the way of improved achievement. It also presented what might be considered the standard message for what was needed to change things for the better:

The vested interests have no incentive to publicize the reality [of the poor performance of the schools, —JG]. If the real state of affairs were widely known, perhaps the pressures would grow for fundamental reform—including a tough-minded system for evaluating teachers and principals, and dismissing those who do not perform, getting rid of the entire tenure system, taking results into account in setting teacher compensation and bonuses, and the broad outsourcing of the management of failing schools to independent organizations through charters and contracts.

We cannot change the fact that some CPS students start school at a disadvantage. But we can change the fact that Chicago's schools do too little to overcome that disadvantage. Although there are many superb principals and teachers working for CPS, too many of Chicago's schools have too few excellent teachers. Chicago should offer school families more and better choices. Established charter schools, according to CPS reviews, consistently perform better than the “comparison” schools their students would otherwise have attended. On May 31, 2009, the Illinois legislature increased the legislative cap on Chicago charter schools from 30 to 70. It also authorized 35 “contract” schools, which likewise operate with greater autonomy and flexibility. All these charter and contract schools—both the established ones and the new ones—need buildings; they also need adequate funding, which should be no less than the per-pupil funding received by traditional Chicago public schools.

We end where we began. Until all Chicago's school families have school choices that include more innovative charter or contract schools, “equal opportunity” for them will be only a slogan.

Let me take up just some of the issues associated with the standard prescriptions: 1) school choice; 2) charter schools; 3) high-stakes testing; 4) teacher evaluations; and 5) business model education management.

School Choice

The NYC public school system has perhaps done the most to expand school choice. By way of example, the system now has more than 400 high schools and admission to the overwhelming majority of them is open to any student entering high school. Of those 400 or so schools, more than half are relatively new—mostly small. Many of them were opened to replace large failed schools. The somewhat frantic pace of school closings and new school openings has had mixed results. The graduation rate has improved but only a small minority of high school graduates is considered to be ready for college.

The efficacy of choice hinges on the availability of enough good schools to choose from and on the degree of selectivity that's applied in admissions decisions to the more successful schools. In a 2011 New York Times column, Michael Winerip reported that children graduating from the fifth grade of PS 24 in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn seldom gained admission to District 15's most successful middle schools. Of 110 graduates, only five were admitted to MS 51, perhaps the district's most high achieving school, while 36 were admitted to IS 136, a nearby consistently low-performing school. And the patterns of inequity within District 15 are magnified in other districts across the city.

Perhaps the single worse example of such inequities is the profile of students admitted to the city's exam high schools. Black and Hispanic students combined comprise about 70 percent of the total population in the city's schools. But at Stuyvesant High School, one of eight schools that admit students on the basis of a special exam taken in 8th grade, only 2 percent of the incoming ninth graders this year were black and only 3.5 percent were Hispanic. The percentages at the other seven exam schools are a bit better but still dreadful. In spite of significant exposure of the situation, going back more than fifteen years, nothing effective has been done to change the situation and even modest proposals are shouted down.[refRecently, the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a complaint with the US Department of Education alleging that the composition of the student bodies violated civil rights laws.][/ref] A revelation of the thinking of the current leadership of the city's Department of Education regarding the significance of the issue came about when they decided to force Brooklyn Latin, a school for high achievers where initially admission was not based on the exam, to adopt the exam instead of a more holistic admissions process which had yielded a much more representative student body.

Expanding choices in the city's schools has effectively resulted in expanded choices for two somewhat discrete populations (determined by an inter-play between neighborhoods, wealth, race and ethnicity) and more inequity. But the city's charter schools, in some ways, represent a countervailing development because they do, to some extent, represent meaningful choices made by parents.

Charter Schools

New York City now has about 160 charter schools, not quite 10 percent of the total number of public schools in the city. They enroll approximately 5 percent of the city's public school children. All but six of the charter schools are operated by non-profit organizations and state law prohibits any new charter schools being operated by profit-making entities. (To be sure, the difference between profit-making and not-for-profit means less than some might think when the chief executives of some not-for-profit charter operators earn salaries approaching $400,000. On the other hand, we might be tempted to say the same thing about the difference between a company and a union when Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, makes $493,859 a year.)

Charter schools receive the same per capita funding as the city's regular district schools. The teachers in most of them are not unionized but there is no bar to union organization—teachers in fifteen of them are in the UFT. Admission to the charter schools is by lottery open to any interested family. There are preferences given to siblings of children already in a school and to residents of the local community school district. But there are no academic requirements for admission. Charter schools are disproportionately located in local school districts with the worst performing regular schools. Two high-performing districts in Queens have no charter schools.

In Harlem, 20 percent of children are now attending charter schools. While parents of young children in Harlem have no choice about the zoned school their children will attend, no one is forcing the Harlem parents to send their kids to a charter school. In all likelihood, they decided to apply to a charter because they hoped their children would get a better education than they would have in the school they otherwise would have had to attend. Whether charter schools deliver on that promise is a separate matter—about which more below. But, for the moment, I want to suggest that a blanket opposition to charter schools simply does not take seriously the disappointments and fears of the parents of black and Hispanic children. If a charter school represents a real alternative to the educational dead ends of existing district schools, we must be prepared to make common cause with the parents who simply want something better for their children.[9]

It's important to recognize that a lot of parents are attracted to charter schools because of their deep fears and mistrust about the regular schools. Put simply, I think they're desperate for something that will be good for their kids. I don't think it's so different from the way that a good number of black parents use Catholic schools here in NYC (I'm not sure about elsewhere)—even though they are not Catholic.

Mentioning Catholic schools reminded me that I've often thought that some charters are quite a bit like Catholic schools used to be—with lots of memorization and learning to follow exact procedures, along with strictly enforced arbitrary rules, routines and punishments. By way of example, when I was in elementary school, we would have to draw a pencil margin down the right hand side of the loose leaf paper and were not allowed to write beyond the margin. If we did, we had to do the assignment over again. If one or more of us appeared to be misbehaving (whatever that meant), we would either have to sit at our desks with our hands on our heads for endless minutes or write "punish lessons" consisting of things like "I must be good in school" 1,000 times. We were also subject to some degree of corporal punishment—although in elementary school, it was more the fear of the "spanking machine" in the closet outside the principal's office more than any real pain. In high school, it was something else—the single best teacher I ever had (for geometry, physics and religion) used to slap misbehavers on the face to the point that I thought they would collapse. I never misbehaved in his class although I did manage to be expelled from a tenth grade world history class and forced to kneel outside the classroom door when I challenged the teacher (who was mostly a high-powered basketball coach) about his allegation that blacks in American cities were awaiting a call from Moscow to move in and kill all the whites. But enough nostalgia!

But not quite enough! While the Catholic schools of fifty years ago, or those of today, were or are hardly models of enlightened educational practice, they were and are something else—they are examples of schooling built on mutual trust—parents have a deep-seated confidence that the schools will do right by their kids. In eight years of grammar school (as it was called back then), I don't believe my parents ever attended a parent-teacher conference. There was no need for such an event—the nuns, mostly, knew what they were doing and my responsibility was to do what they said—even when one or more of the teachers had not a clue about what they were doing. My point is that the social cohesion of the school mattered a great deal more than the efficacy of individual teachers. It may well be that some of my classmates from those distant years have a different take on this subject. Fortunately, they're not likely to be readers of this journal. If they are, I'd be pleasantly surprised—even if they disagree with me.

Because charter schools are freed from many of the institutionalized regularities of the larger school system, it is somewhat easier for them to achieve various kinds of social cohesion—not all of them so enlightened. A friend here in New York has made a provocative argument about the significance of various traditions of “uplift” within the African-American community (including the legacy of Booker T. Washington) that have been tapped into by what we might consider the charter school movement. He has suggested that charters should be attacked for the political values they embrace. I think his suggestion is a really exciting one. Although I've known about the ways in which some, perhaps many, charter schools attempt to indoctrinate their students, I never thought of connecting it to the Booker T. Washington legacy.[10]

Perhaps the flagship of charter schools across the country are the KIPP schools—the Knowledge is Power Program. KIPP is the brainchild of David Levin and Michael Feinberg, two Ivy Leaguers and Teach for America members. Their defining mottos are “be nice, work hard” and “there are no shortcuts.” Jim Horn has described their approach:

…Feinberg and Levin seem to have created a steroid and manic version of the traditional classroom. They combine this vision with ongoing psychological interventions intended to breed an unwavering positive outlook among students. The energetic and bureaucracy-busting reformers also borrowed from the inimitable Harriet Ball, whose teaching style offers a culturally-sensitive mashup of gospel, hip-hop and Schoolhouse Rock, which, no doubt, loses some of its effect and charm in the hands of the white TFA teachers that KIPP has recruited since the early days in Houston. It was one of Harriet Ball's chants….that inspired the name, Knowledge is Power Program:

You gotta read, baby, read.

You gotta read, baby, read.

The more you read, the more you know.

Cause knowledge is power,

Power is money, and

I want it.

The “psychological interventions” used to instill “character” are based on the work of Martin Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania who's a prominent exponent of the power of positive thinking. His ideas have been made use of by the CIA to prepare people for torturing terrorism suspects and by the Army to convince damaged soldiers that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can be taken care of by happy thoughts. Put simply, KIPP's character education is behavior modification and political indoctrination.

In a report released last year, the KIPP folks acknowledged that they had not been as successful in preparing their graduates for college as they had hoped and, while promising to improve their academic approach, mostly concentrated on buckling down even more on "character development." I believe that the fact of the matter is that they have no coherent academic approach other than a series of gimmicks to inculcate student compliance in drill-like activities. While many charter schools share these kinds of approaches with KIPP (see the book titled Sweating the Small Stuff), not all do. Some have quite sound educational visions and would never imagine treating kids as KIPP does. Similarly, some charters appear to be quite successful in comparison to regular district schools but many others appear to be no better and even worse.

There is another objectionable thing that some charters, including KIPP, do—they exclude kids who they come to believe will not be successful—meaning they will not do well on state tests. Apparently at one point Geoffrey Canada from the Harlem Children's Zone simply dismissed an entire class of students from his charter school for this reason.

Therefore, we need to develop campaigns against charter schools that are not so much opposed to their status as charters but, instead, to their educational/political goals, their failures, and their exclusionary practices. In fact, we should adopt the same approach to regular public schools. This would allow us to make common cause with parents who are simply trying to do well by their kids and raise larger issues about the purposes of education. And furthermore, if we're in favor of closing down lousy charter schools, we should be in favor of closing down lousy regular district schools.

Standardized Tests and Teacher Evaluations

The increasingly widespread use of test results for high-stakes decisions represents a mostly awful development. Most standardized tests are not nearly as carefully designed as their makers, mostly big publishing companies like Pearson, claim. They are also “teachable,” by which I mean that, when similar tests are used year after year (and they often are since that's the simplest way for the testing companies to promote the “reliability” of the tests), schools and teachers can narrowly craft their instruction around the expected form and content of the test items rather than more broadly around the content and skills that the test is ostensibly intended to sample. When the future employment of teachers and principals, as well as the future existence of a school, is at stake, many cannot resist the short-term advantage of test prep as a dominant instructional strategy. The truth of the matter is that such test prep models are not nearly as effective in producing high scores, presumably reflecting high levels of student achievement, as would be the use of high quality curriculum and sophisticated instruction. But far too many teachers and schools don't necessarily know how to recognize the difference and, if they were freed from the shadow of mandated testing, they might very well use approaches that are not especially more thoughtful than “drill and kill” test prep.

Most of the current approaches to teacher evaluation rely on standardized test scores for a set percent of a teacher's overall rating (in Chicago, it's now 25 percent). The balance of the rating is determined by student achievement on school-made measures, formal observations of teachers in classrooms and a review of other aspects of teachers' involvement in the life of the school (such as participation in planning teams). However, the use of test scores has dominated the discussion. In part this is because most states and local districts are making much ado about the use of “value-added” measurements in what they claim is an effort to level the playing field and not to penalize teachers who work with less successful students. In spite of a lot of razzle-dazzle, the claims by the proponents of “value-added” approaches seem to be flimsy ones—so much so that they have led John Ewing, a prominent mathematician and the President of Math for America, to accuse the proponents of “Mathematical Intimidation.”[11]

I confess that I don't have an easy prescription to offer. I do believe that teachers should be active participants in scrutinizing their own work and that they need to be especially careful not to become comfortable with their own assumptions about how good they are. One important step would be for schools, with the involvement of teachers and parents (and possibly students in the upper grades), to adopt what could be called “protocols of practice” that describe what the different dimensions of effective teaching look like and to expect that all teachers will conform their practices to those protocols.[12] Lest I be misunderstood, I am not suggesting that every school be left to its own devices. There are a number of very thoughtful models for this kind of work and they should be used as starting points.[13] This is not so different from the situation in medicine where the treatments for most illnesses are rather precisely described and prescribed. Thus, if someone is apparently having a heart attack or asthma attack, doctors and other medical personnel are expected to do what has been prescribed rather than to go it alone. To the best of my knowledge, few doctors or nurses complain about being told what to do. Such an approach clearly does not eliminate bad practices from medicine but they all but certainly make it better than what it would be otherwise.

If this approach was used, I think it would then be incumbent for the teachers in a school to engage in collective “self-enforcement” of the agreed upon practices.

Business Model Education

Recently, Will Johnson, a New York City teacher wrote an analysis of what's going on in schools which suggested that “lean production” models were a key element.[14] His article is well worth reading so I'll let it speak for itself. However, I'd also like to mention that there's a bit of a witches' brew of ideas that inform the thinking of people like Joel Klein in New York and J.C. Brizard in Chicago. Two of the most prominent of the influencers are William Ouchi from UCLA and Clayton Christensen from the Harvard Business School. Christensen is especially important as the theoretician of “disruptive innovation,” which ostensibly explains the success of products like the iPhone. His somewhat naïve views on education are presented in a much more soft-sounding version than that used by the tough talkers like Rahm Emmanuel. But they nonetheless lead to great mischief in schools. By way of example, Christensen writes:

Every student learns in a different way. This idea—that students have very different learning needs—is one of the cornerstones of this book. A key step towards making school intrinsically motivating is to customize an education to match the way each child best learns. As we explain in our first chapter, schools' interdependent architecture forces them to standardize the way that they teach and test. Standardization clashes with the need for customization in learning. To introduce customization, schools need to move away from the monolithic instruction of batches of students toward a modular student-centric approach using software as an important delivery vehicle [emphasis added].

It's evident that the software is intended to take the place of the teacher, thereby providing increased income flows to the hardware and software makers, and eliminating any semblance of craft from the work of teaching—but all couched in the best of intentions.

What all of the “business model” approaches have in common is a conviction that the quality of the thinking involved in making good schools matters not very much at all.

On Teaching and Teachers

Let me begin by writing about some of what I know about and think about teachers. I don't want to do a song and dance about it but I spent more than thirty years teaching in and developing education programs—I taught in New York City's jails, in adult literacy and GED programs, in college writing classes and in a graduate program in literacy. I developed programs to prepare students without high school diplomas to earn a GED credential and go on to college (most recently, a full-time program for sixteen to eighteen year olds in the Bronx, called CUNY Prep). I oversaw the development of programs that provided secondary school students with opportunities to take college courses. I initiated the development of a project that brought together high school and college teachers in a collaborative seminar series to improve writing instruction at both levels. And during my last few years at CUNY, I was responsible for overseeing the development of a Teacher Academy, a multi-campus program to prepare math and science teachers for New York City's public schools. In the course of doing that, I worked closely with many faculty members and school teachers to design courses and other learning experiences for the undergraduate students in the program.

In none of those instances did I ever “bash” a teacher—in spite of numerous occasions when I saw teachers not being especially knowledgeable, thoughtful, considerate or effective. In fact, my basic response to seeing not such good teaching was to try to understand all of the surrounding factors that contributed to it and, in some ways, to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt that the circumstances were more to blame than either he or she was. But that was not always the case.

All too often people are inclined to make somewhat intuitive positive judgments about the quality of teaching without really knowing that much about good teaching. It's not so different from what I have done when I'm in situations that I don't really understand that much—like hospitals. Over the years, for example, when members of our family have been hospitalized, I've tended to judge the quality of nursing care by fairly simple indicators—do the nurses come quickly when you ask; do they seem responsive when someone needs something; are they considerate? On those measures, I've often thought that the quality of nursing care was quite good—unless and until I spoke to my wife, now a nurse for almost forty years. She would point out to me, over and over again (sadly, we spent a lot of time in hospitals), the more or less egregious errors that had been committed—errors that often could have had serious consequences—which I had not even noticed. As a nurse, she had no interest in nurse bashing. But as a daughter, sister and mother, and especially as a nurse, she had a great deal of interest in making sure that the care was as good as it needed to be.

I'm also the father and father-in-law of two teachers in New York City. I have seen close up how they are physically and emotionally exhausted by their work. As a result, I have little sympathy for the simple-minded slogans advanced by mindless, but hedge-fund endowed, reformers, such as “It's not about the adults. It's about the kids.” If the adults can't sustain themselves and don't receive the consistent support they need, then it's not going to be about the children either. I realize that I'm trying to navigate a delicate balance—teachers must be much better at teaching and they must be responsible for what they do but they also need to be understood and supported.

I'd like to try to pull back the veil on the quality of teaching so that we might have more informed discussions about when it's right to defend teachers and when we need to do something else. Let me begin by pointing out that asserting that teachers “care” about their students doesn't really have much to do with knowing how good they are at teaching. Caring certainly is a helpful precondition but it's not anywhere near enough.

A wise educational philosopher, Eleanor Duckworth, observed that “Teaching is helping people learn, and you have not taught if people have not learned. Teaching is not telling” (emphasis added). Unfortunately, the wisdom embodied in those brief sentences is not frequently enough evident in much teaching. In fact, many, probably most, teachers have an exactly contrary view—“I can't understand why they didn't learn it. I covered it.” In a really reprehensible version, it comes out as “I can't believe they're so stupid.” The fact of the matter is that most teachers have what might be considered a “common sense” understanding of how people learn. They more or less think that if you explain something carefully enough and if you provide interesting examples, students should get it.

Fortunately, even from the contributions of mainstream education research, we can do much better than that. In a 2005 publication titled How Students Learn: History, Mathematics and Science in the Classroom from the National Research Council, the authors reported that research had yielded the following key principles:

  • Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.
  • To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.
  • A “meta-cognitive” approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.[15]

While I think that all three principles are very important, I want to focus on the first—students' preconceptions about how the world works. While the authors of the report were interested in preconceptions about math, science and social studies, I think that the insight can be extended beyond the boundaries of those subject areas. Children whose school experiences have been unsuccessful develop their own understandings of what has been going wrong. In many ways, they believe that they indeed failed, that it was their own fault for not attending more regularly, or not paying attention more carefully, or not doing homework more diligently. But they also recognize the ways in which their teachers and others in the schools didn't seem to be paying all that much attention or doing much about their steady progress backwards.[16] And to return to the basics, these same students don't read, write or do math very well. Unlike those who have never been to school, they have acquired some very confused and counter-productive notions of what reading, writing and math consist of. But that's not all.

Charles Payne has written extensively about race and public schools and I think we need to take his observations very seriously:

…Chicago schools used to frequently invite me to do Black History Month presentations, and an easy way to do that was to show some footage about the civil rights movement from the PBS television series Eyes on the Prize and use that as the basis of a conversation. When middle school and junior high students watched demonstrations with dogs being sicced on people and people being fire hosed and clubbed by police, a very common reaction, perhaps the dominant one, was to decide the demonstrators were at fault for taking it. It was easier for some students to identify with the police doing the whipping than with the demonstrators being whipped. The demonstrators had to be punks: “If I were back there then…” Young people in whose names the movement was waged could not identify with it.

….

…History confronts children of color as an accusation—they were slaves or peasants or the militarily defeated or the colonized; Sambo or Dumb Pancho; they were the least intelligent, the wetbacks and the illegals, the poorest, the worst educated, or perhaps, most damningly, they just weren't there; they don't come into the picture. (And “contributionist” history—“Look what minorities have contributed!”—is probably not the way to answer this.)

At the same time, as much as anyone else, youth from stigmatized groups can see the “evidence” of collective underachievement all about them—the poverty, the troubled neighborhoods, the absent fathers, the academic failure, their own constant exposure to violence, real and symbolic. Nothing about being in a subordinate group automatically gives them deep insight into the contemporary forces reproducing inequality. Like many majority group members, they may not have sufficient historical or sociological understanding to explain those failures in any way other than some kind of collective deficiency—or to just not think about them.

Both the past as imagined and the present as experienced [emphasis added] suggest, indirectly, as if whispered, that there may be something wrong with Blacks and Latinos. On top of that, often irrespective of their class background, children of color have to negotiate their way through institutional contexts that are anything but welcoming—the stores and malls where it looks like you're being followed, the hassling from police, the harsh and punitive nature of many schools. Data from the U.S. Department of Education, for example, shows that Black students are three and a half times more likely to be suspended than white students…. Previous studies have shown that Black and Hispanic students receive harsher punishments for the same offenses…and that this differential treatment is noticed by students and teachers and attributed to racism, although white students and teachers perceived racial disparity in discipline as unintentional or unconscious, [while] students of color saw it as conscious and deliberate, arguing that teachers often apply classroom rules and guidelines arbitrarily to exercise control, or to remove students whom they do not like.…

It shouldn't be surprising, then, if Black and Latino youth start off with a sense of being behind, of having something to prove that others don't. They respond as young people will, by creating, from the cultural materials around them, their own counter-narratives of worth, among them narratives that center on personal style, toughness, and aggressive masculinity and that create symbolic distance between themselves and previous generations. Without guidance and support, youth will create some counter-narratives that are useful, but also some that undermine their own development, that discourage them from taking advantage of such opportunities as they do have.

….Much of the national discourse is simply in denial about the difficult developmental terrain facing too many youngsters from socially marginalized communities. The way we continue to scratch our heads about achievement gaps is itself one form of denial; the presumption in many such discussions is that we're giving children what they need to succeed and they are still failing for some mysterious reason. A corollary denial is the idea that all would be well if we could just raise test scores. Of course, that is important, but children may be wrestling with issues that are much more fundamental. And when they get help with that, there is reason to believe that some of the narrowly academic issues wither.

….education for liberation becomes increasingly important. I use that term to mean those forms of education that are intended to help people think more critically about the social forces that shape our lives and think more confidently about their ability to react against those forces. It can take a variety of forms…—consciousness-raising groups, Freedom Schools, Afro-centric schools, Native American survival schools, Black Panther Liberation Schools. I have focused on race and ethnicity, but young people are also enmeshed in taken-for-granted narratives about gender, poverty, sexuality, and the operation of power in society. I suspect the groups that are doing the most effective work are moving on multiple fronts, as learning to think critically in one area facilitates thinking critically in others.

A heart-wrenching tale with a bit of an encouraging ending![17]

Concluding Thoughts

Payne is acutely aware that the beliefs and practices of the young people he wrote about have been developed in the context of the catastrophic deindustrialization in Chicago. Young people there were among the first to come to grips with what is now widely recognized as the “no future” facing young people across the globe. Despair is in plentiful supply and hope is scarce. Is there a way that an alternative educational vision might enable young people to develop “an optimism of the will and a pessimism of the intellect?”

I think it's possible to imagine and fight for an education that enables young people to prepare themselves for the challenges of living in and changing the world—without being guilty of the substitution of one form of indoctrination for another. These concluding thoughts are mostly about high school students—they would need to be significantly modified for elementary or middle school children.

What is needed is not an approach to education that further fossilizes old identities but rather one which nourishes the cultivation of new ones—with new notions of possibility and responsibility. Educators can prepare their students for changed circumstances by establishing situations, within and without formal school settings, for individuals to expand their own political capacities. Those capacities include the ability to understand the relationship between personal action and social consequence, the ability to understand other points of view, the ability to articulate one's own ideas to various audiences as well as the ability to work with others to achieve agreed upon goals.

Let me make clear that I am not talking about political propaganda or indoctrination. Indeed, I specifically reject that kind of approach. Instead, I think we would be better served by creating opportunities for students to imagine themselves acting in different ways than they might be accustomed to. At the same time, I realize that this approach has its risks. There are ways in which many young people might imagine themselves acting that will dismay and frighten their elders. I see no way around that issue. There are choices to be made—either we continue with things as they are and bear the consequences or we attempt to create a different future—a course that will undoubtedly be more dangerous for those who step forward.

Resistance and accommodation co-exist in the minds and hearts of many young people and cynical resignation is often the resolution. I believe that the ambivalence has to be addressed directly.

Enough for now!

  1. [1] For an account of the events of that year, including the role of powerful city elites and the Ford Foundation in supporting community control, see Jerold Podair, The Strike That Changed New York, Yale University Press, 2002.
  2. [2] This issue of Insurgent Notes includes a symposium on Staudenmaier's book.
  3. [3] See Steve Brill's Class Warfare for an especially groveling account of the millionaires and their supplicants who dominate much of the policy conversation.
  4. [4] I should note that I had the good fortune, over the course of thirty-plus years in education, to work with many people (mostly, but not only, at the City University of New York) who considered themselves to be on the left, of a broad range of political loyalties, who shared very little of the “ordinary” perspective. I should also note that I worked with lots of other people who had no leftish views but who were similarly dedicated to students' education. In addition, I had numerous interactions with educators on the left who had virtually no interest in ever thinking seriously about their or their colleagues' responsibility for good teaching or the achievement of their students. I haven't read Dante for a long time and my guess is that he didn't have a place in hell for such people. I don't have the poetic skills to describe the place they deserve but I do want to make sure that it's in hell. My views have been deeply shaped by my experiences with all of these people but none bears any responsibility for them.
  5. [5] This is an article for another day but it's really quite extraordinary that when Michael Harrington, the prominent social democrat, published The Other America in 1963, his description of poverty at that time, the popular reaction was first, disbelief, and second, sympathy for a campaign to end poverty. Thus came about Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Here we are, almost fifty years later, and the most radical of popular voices in education circles call only for “dealing with” the effects of poverty on children's achievement. Without being too obvious about it, dealing with the effects of poverty mostly results in more jobs for people who are not poor (although some may have been poor); the end of poverty means ending the need for “dealing with” poverty.
  6. [6] Anthony S. Bryk, Penny Bender Sebring, Elaine Allensworth, Stuart Luppescu, and John Q. Easton, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2010).
  7. [7] See “Banality and the Fetish: Reflections on Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.”
  8. [8] The Civic Committee can best be described as the public voice of the local ruling class.
  9. [9] For a very recent account of what’s happening with charter schools in Harlem, see “Harlem Schools See High Student Turnover.”
  10. [10] See Jim Horn, “The KULT of KIPP: An Essay Review”, education review: a journal of book reviews (Volume 12, Number 3, March 5, 2009), for a further exploration of the similarities to the Hampton Model promoted by Booker T. Washington.
  11. [11] John Ewing, “Mathematical Intimidation: Driven by the Data,” Notices of the AMS (May 2011). The AMS is the American Mathematical Society.
  12. [12] One essential issue to take up is the extent of time devoted to testing, separate and apart from the use of test results. Children are being tested so often in some districts and states that it effectively is resulting in the same loss of time for learning as students being absent from school.
  13. [13] The frameworks most commonly recommended for teacher observations are quite good in this regard.
  14. [14]Lean Production: What’s Really Hurting Public Education.” Johnson, who had been a contributor to Labor Notes, appears to be developing an interesting new position on teachers and education.
  15. [15] I should mention that these key learning principles should be of special relevance to political activists who would like to engage others in serious conversations about the state of the world and the need for action.
  16. [16] For a really painful description of what these experiences are like, read Beth Fertig’s Why Can’t U Teach Me 2 Read? (FSG Books, 2009).
  17. [17] Charles Payne is a professor at the University of Chicago. He’s also the author of I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. I believe though, that he has spent most of his attention on education issues.

Comments

4 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. GJ,

    Thanks for this article. Exploring the possibilities of social solidarity between teachers, students and parents is highly worthwhile. Questions that came to mind:
    – Do we pressure unions to be more responsible in a total social sense or do we form our own organizations?
    – How do we reject standardized tests and come up with (and implement) our *own* criteria for student success? What do *we* mean when we say “high achieving” and “low performing”?
    – Was the “black community” really defeated in the community control experiment in 1968? I recall it being more complicated than that. I recall that the community was not unanimous as things escalated. I even recall something about a black teacher being physically attacked by nationalist militants for supporting the union teachers…
    – Although the point about defending bad teaching is well taken, which defenders of teachers are really saying that “good teaching really can’t be measured”?
    – We need to spell out what makes a “lousy” school lousy. Something beyond simply test scores and the drop-out rate.

    Many more things I could comment on in this article. My overall feeling is that we teachers need to push our colleagues to do better, to be more aware of the big picture and have this inform our teaching. But my other strong feeling is: when the hell are we going to have time to do this? The very organization of school inhibits our *own* solidarity, and we too often let the union dominate the conversation about what “improved conditions” really means. In some ways we need to push back on the bread and butter issues just to free up some space for us to do our jobs better in a radical social sense. This idea needs to go beyond union boilerplate and be rooted in the kinds of working class organizations hinted at here.

  2. John Garvey,

    These were really tough, good, questiions.

    About unions or new organizations—I wouldn’t want to pre-judge the situation in any particular place. It might be possible for a union to transform itself into a constituent party to a new class-wide group that included students and community members. However, in light of the ways that laws, customs and the ambitions of union officials constrict unions’ practices, I’d be inclined to think that new organizations will be necessary.

    About our “own” criteria for student success: I have two quite different responses. First, in the short run, we need to be really sensitive to the profoundly idiosyncratic ways in which individuals develop and learn (as distinctive as fingerprints) and that our criteria always need to be sensitive to the goal of engaging children and sustaining development. Therefore, the criteria we need to apply are primarily criteria about what the adults do and what the learning environments are like, rather than what the children learn. Second, in the long run, I think education needs to lay the groundwork for the progressive abolition of the distinction between mental and manual labor—a goal that would imply far greater levels of knowledge and skill acquisition for almost everyone than we’re familiar with.

    About the defeat of the black community in 1968: I’m not especially interested in defending the particular demands of the community control movement (although I do think they need to be placed in the context of many years of stubborn white resistance to school desegregation). Nonetheless, combined with the earlier defeat of a proposal for a civilian review board for the police department, the decentralization that was adopted as an alternative to community control transformed a popular mobilization into a quagmire of nepotistic corruption which all but completely led to the dominance of the UFT in the city’s education system for thirty years. In retrospect, it would probably have been better if the community control advocates were more sophisticated about the educational issues but, perhaps to our dismay, a comparable effort in Chicago years later (with a much more sophisticated analysis) didn’t lead to much more.

    About good teaching can’t being measured: I confess that this is an impressionistic judgment based on reading lots of teacher comments in various media, including blogs. I may be wrong. In any case, I really think that teaching needs to be informed by a coherent understanding of learning and not by a whole bunch of common sense assumptions.

    About lousy schools: I k now that the tests are really lousy (perhaps we can meet some time so we can share stories about them) and are not necessarily good measures BUT kids in schools that have really high scores do really well on all sorts of other important measures. I have no interest in test prep but I have a lot of interest in kids learning a lot. High scores, not mediocre scores, reveal that kids have learned a lot. About dropouts: I realize that there are really good reasons why kids drop out of school. In the absence of any other good opportunities for kids to learn very much, however, I see their dropping out as a defeat.

    About time: I agree—it’s all about time. Every teacher should be fighting every day about time!

    John

  3. Robert,

    “Therefore, the criteria we need to apply are primarily criteria about what the adults do and what the learning environments are like, rather than what the children learn.”

    First of all, is this not exactly what the CTU strike was “about” (working conditions for adults are assumed to be somehow related to learning environments for students , no?)?  Second of all, the “what” of learning is likewise inextricably linked to the “how,” as you point out in the sentence immediately prior to the above.  As an example, why am I (dual cert. Math and Sp.ed. teaching in a Title 1 high school) being forced to teach intermediate Algebra content, in the format of a mandated college-prep curriculum which is built on the assumption of requisite skill sets, as well as average to above-average intelleligence, to students with IQ scores below 70, many of whom require a calculator for single-digit operations?  Is there not something else to be done with the school day that might be slightly less alienating (and much more in line with individual needs and abilities) for these students?  Mind you, I am far from being anything close to a “cognitive fundamentalist,” but there is something amiss here, and when our school (as well as every other school with a disproportionately high number of sp.ed. and ESL/ELL students) is labeled “Persistently Low-Achieving” time and again, after, surprise, suprise, the aforementioned students fail to score a 19 in the ACT math subtest, the local bourgeuois press, and the School Board, and the State Department will scream yet again, “See – mediocre scores, mediocre schools, close them, defund them, ‘transform them!'”

    I would be careful about the importance you give to test scores here, and would ask you, exactly, how it is that we might fight “transformation” on their terms if not in the way that the CTU has.  

    As an aside, the NAEP came up recently in our district, and one of the tricks in the state in which I teach has been to exclude students with disabilities from taking this test.  This is, of course, patent discrimination.  The state’s justification?  Students with disabilities are not provided accommodations on the NAEP – likewise, patent discrimination.  NAEP’s justification?  The accuracy of their exam would be compromised.

    The point being, our most vulnerable populations (e.g. students with disabilities and new immigrants with limited proficiency in English) are being hammered by demands that they perform as well as their peers on standards-based, and sometimes norm-referenced (e.g. the ACT) measures of academic achievement, performance and skills-acquisition.  Such measures are not designed with these students in mind, the companies which produce them assume that the extent to which these tests are valid is PRECISELY the extent to which these students score very poorly (e.g. Quality Core, ACT), and they work very hard to guarantee that the testing accommodations to which these students are legally entitled are denied them when/wherever possible.  As far as the ACT goes, this means the necessity of a standard distribution, or else colleges and universities (by nature highly exclusionist in academic terms) will consider such exams worthless.  The crux of the matter becomes clear when a state, like ours, suddenly decides that the ACT is their new accountability gold-standard, and that the standard distribution “does not matter.”  In addition, by placing a new emphasis on dropout rates and attrition, many students who would never have laid eyes on a college entrance exam two years ago will now be included in this number.

    All combined, this becomes the latest recipe for making our poorest public schools look like disaster zones.  In short, the tests are another weapon to be wielded by capitalists against the ‘expense’ of basic social provision.  The context and approach may vary over time, but the basic assumption will always be, “We can’t afford to subsidize the education of those who won’t be likely to contribute very much to the surplus anyway, so how best to cut this expense?”  It might be dressed up as the latest imperative to “Close the Achievement Gap,” or some such nonsense, but that’s just used to sell it all too the many well- intentioned liberals who still have jobs (as of today) in Central Office.

    I apologize for the tone, but I can tell you from very real and immediate experience that the issues related to assessment and due process for sp.ed. students in CPS are exactly the same issues we struggle with in our district, and I am personally inspired by the CTU strike action.  I don’t care much for any analysis that ridicules such resistance, or anyone who would applaud such resistance, as being part of the “ordinary left,” and in the same breath browbeats teachers and students for their “mediocrity” as indicated by capitalist tools of measurement.  

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