Monthly Archives: September 2016

A Word If You Please, Governor Christie

We are a month into the 2016-2017 school year in New Jersey.  Public school children across the Garden State have met their new teachers and learned the expectations for the year.  My teacher friends (many of whom are former students) have set up their classrooms, welcomed their students, and begun the long process of getting to know the young people in their care and helping them learn.  In many of these schools, veteran teachers have welcomed student teachers as well, slowly giving them more responsibility as they begin the most intensive part of their preparation to become licensed teachers themselves.  After years of studying both pedagogy and content, of combining that knowledge in planning for both learning and assessment of learning, and of demonstrating their combined skills in supervised field placements, these young people are ready to take the final steps on their journeys.

In my own classes, I have had the great pleasure of welcoming the Class of 2020 to their first class in our teacher preparation program.  I have to be honest: after 23 years of teaching at every level from seventh grade to graduate school classes, this is my favorite time of any year.  My students are both excited and nervous, and they are only just beginning to learn what it means to become a teacher.  After thousands and thousands of hours of watching teachers teach, they have a great deal to learn about what goes into that work that they never saw, and they will have to learn how to translate their passion for their content and for learning into effective teaching.  They also happen to be great people, a conclusion I draw basically every year.  My students are bright, passionate, diligent, incredibly hard working, selfless, and they are giving up many of the traditional distractions of college life for their chosen profession.  This time with us in university based teacher preparation is really a gift.  Sandwiched between their thirteen years in K-12 classrooms and their future decades of work in a profession of millions, we have four short years to help them get their career journey off to a great start.

So I really have to ask you, Governor Christie:  Exactly from where do you think our future teachers are going to come?

This is no idle question at this point.  Concerns about the teacher pipeline have been brewing for some time, and while the phenomenon is complex, there is also no doubt that we’ve made it much harder for young people to imagine a positive future as a teacher:

And we have to admit that Governor Chris Christie has been a leader in this trend since he began his time in office.  Chris Christie ran for office promising teachers to leaves their pensions alone, a promise he swiftly broke with a pension reform bill that he has steadfastly refused to fund – even as he turned the state’s pension fund over to Wall Street buddies who tripled fees without improving returns.  Governor Christie slashed school aid and has never fully restored it, leaving districts underfunded according to the state’s own school aid law.

While financial esoterica may escape the attention of today’s school children – although the cumulative impact of $6 billion of lost funding surely has an impact – Governor Christie’s continued and vicious attacks on the Garden State’s teachers is impossible to ignore.  Governor Christie plainly hates the New Jersey Education Association, having opened his failed candidacy for the Republican Presidential nomination by saying NJEA needs to be “punched in the face,”  but the governor takes that hatred out in public on any teacher who dares to stand up for her profession while he slathers contempt upon the state’s schools and teachers.  Governor Christie has accused the state’s teachers of using their students like “drug mules” for a civics lesson, and he has whined that the NJEA claimed that he hates children for a fairly mild billboard:

NJEA billboard 2011

He has screamed at a teacher in public for daring to question him:

Christie Yells Again

Governor Chris Christie, Raising Teachers’ Public Esteem Again

And he has pretty much consistently disparaged teachers as doing a terrible job and implying the 180 day official school year means they have pretty cushy jobs compared to other professionals:

So even by Chris Christie’s appalling standards, his “welcome message” for the 2016-2017 school year was almost shocking.  After a summer where New Jersey’s teachers and students found out that the PARCC examination will become the sole test accepted for completion of high school and that 30% of teacher evaluations will be tied to discredited value added measures based on those tests, Governor Christie held an hour long rant where he signed some education legislation – and compared New Jersey’s teacher union to the Corleone family.  Clearly not satisfied with mere insults, he has gone on to press New Jersey’s Supreme Court to let him and his education commissioner – he’s on his fifth one since David Hespe quit shortly before the mafia comments – to break labor agreements and state law at will in the state’s Abbott Districts.  These are the poorest districts in the state that the state is required to give supplemental funding  – and which Governor Christie wants to throw under the literal bus by seizing that funding so he can make good on a long broken promise of property tax relief for the suburbs.

Let’s be crystal clear on this:  Governor Christie wants to be freed from the various Abbott decisions and the legal requirement that Trenton give supplemental funding to the state’s neediest students.  And at the same time, he wants the state Supreme Court to allow him to rule those same districts he plans to defund by breaking contracts at will and ignoring state tenure laws.  S0 – he doesn’t want to pay AND he wants to break contracts and rules on his say so with no accountability.

I guess all the time he has been spending with Donald Trump, who has a track record of not paying bills and stiffing people in contracts, has really rubbed off on New Jersey’s Governor.

Which brings me back to my question again:  From where does Governor Christie expect the future teachers in New Jersey to come?  Those future teachers are currently in New Jersey’s K-12 schools watching a governor compare their teachers to organized criminals and proposing to make vast swaths of them into at will employees while criminally underfunding their schools.  They have been watching him for a good portion of their K-12 education as he’s slashed school funding statewide and insulted the work ethic of teachers in every corner of the state.  They’ve watched as he’s lashed out at anyone who dares to question his rhetoric about teachers.  They watched as he’s forced more and more emphasis on state tests and as he cruelly derided a bill meant to guarantee that our youngest children have recess.

Paradoxically, Governor Christie’s administration has made it harder to become a teacher in New Jersey, increasing the GPA for prospective teachers and expanding student teaching to a full year experience.  In addition, entering candidates must either pass a “basic skills” assessment or be in the top third of SAT or ACT test takers, and in addition to the traditional licensure exam upon graduation, candidates will have to pass EdTPA, an external performance assessment that costs $300 each time it is submitted.

Whether or not these are good or bad ideas is open for debate, but what is not open for debate is that Governor Christie is raising the bar substantially on who is even allowed to begin teacher training in New Jersey in the middle of an environment where he has derided the state’s teachers for years and where he is demanding the ability to both slash school funding and deny urban teachers their contracts as he sees fit.  Jersey Jazzman astutely observes that these proposals will be of significant cost to New Jersey’s teachers of color, who disproportionately work in the Abbott districts, but nobody should assume that Governor Christie would settle for merely breaking the NJEA in the cities.  He wants to be Scott Walker on the Delaware, and it will probably have similar consequences if he succeeds.

And we’re supposed to try to convince the top third of New Jersey’s high school students to become teachers under these circumstances.

hermione_eye_roll

Like I said – my students are passionate and dedicated.  They love school.  They love students.  They love their subjects.  Whether or not that love can be sustained and whether or not future students will have enough love to even consider teaching is an open question.

 

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Filed under Drumpf, Funding, Pearson, politics, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, Unions

This Was The Summer of Charter School Discontent

As summer gives way to Fall, it is worth taking note how shifts, both subtle and substantial, are changing the ground on which charter school advocates fight for more of our public education system.  This is not what they are used to.  Backed by billionaire financing, using that money to pull the Democratic Party towards education policies more typical of the Republican Party, calling in favors from elected officials who owe their donors, getting unfettered and poorly monitored largess from the federal government, permitted to engage in practices that would land any public school district in a federal civil rights lawsuit, and existing in a regulatory environment that is charitably described as “permissive,” charter schools and their advocates are used to owning the conversation…and pretty much getting their way.

Slowly — but possibly steadily — that is changing.

An early blow actually came last November when current Democratic Party nominee for President Hillary Clinton was campaigning and made an entirely factual observation about the charter school sector as a whole:

“Most charter schools — I don’t want to say every one — but most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them. And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation, because they do, thankfully, take everybody, and then they don’t get the resources or the help and support that they need to be able to take care of every child’s education.”

There is literally nothing inaccurate about that observation.  Self selection helps charter schools in general with their student population, and many flatly rig their supposedly open lottery processes.  The attrition rates at many charter schools, especially ones that apply incredibly narrow disciplinary regimes to their students, are well established, and the enrollment and financial impacts of these practices on host districts are also well known.  Every observation she made in that comment was fundamentally true.

Which did not stop major charter school advocates from lamenting her statement.  The pro-charter and hedge fund backed group “Democrats” for Education Reform (DFER) immediately released a response saying, it was “highly disappointing and seemed to reinforce fears about how her endorsements from both major teachers unions would affect her K-12 platform.”  This is the same DFER that enthusiastically responded to Secretary Clinton’s campaign announcement, but which apparently has problems with her suggesting that charter schools be held to the same standards as fully public schools and doesn’t want anyone noting how quickly many charter operators purge themselves of students with disabilities, with behavioral needs, or with second language learning needs.

Since then, Secretary Clinton seems to have tried a bit of a pivot, saving her most negative comments for so-called “for profit” charter schools, which, to be fair, are a general disaster zone of a sector.  However, as Peter Greene rightly noted in July, this is a distinction in desperate search of a difference.  An actual charter school can be a non-profit entity run by a for profit charter management organization (CMO).  A non-profit CMO can contract exclusively with for profit vendors that the CMO operators have a financial interest in.  Real estate plays abound in the charter school sector, and various investment arrangements allow guaranteed returns for large financial firms.  Operating as a not for profit also doesn’t stop charter school administrators from paying themselves extravagantly from the public money they receive.

In fact, these very issues were at the heart of a Last Week Tonight segment by John Oliver.  The comedian and social critic was blistering.  While explicitly avoiding the debate over the existence of charters and carefully noting that he was looking at the problems associated with a poorly regulated sector taking public funds, Mr. Oliver looked at financial scandals and fraud in charter schools across the country:

This level of scrutiny has been sorely lacking over the quarter century of charter school growth and promotion, but Mr. Oliver was specific and devastating, looking at schools that suddenly shut down without warning, crooked financial arrangements, questionable charter school applications, and oversight laws allowing administrators to select their own non-profit organizations as the legal overseer of their owns charters.  Consider the quote in this screen shot warning parents in Philadelphia what to do before selecting a charter school:

philly

Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

But the charter sector is still only in the denial stage of grieving, so, despite Mr. Oliver’s careful framing of his examination of fraud and mismanagement, the pro-charter Center for Center for Education Reform announced a $100,000 contest called “Hey, John Oliver, Back Off My Charter School!” I wish every public school district in the country had a spare hundred grand laying around for something like this.

The pro-charter camp also suffered set backs at the Democratic National Convention this summer when the education portion of the platform was amended with language explicitly supporting democratically governed public schools and making some actual demands of charter schools:

“We believe that high quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools. Charter schools must reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools.”

It is hard to imagine anyone having a problem with this, so, of course, Shavar Jeffries of “Democrats” for Education Reform laced into the changes saying that the platform had been hijacked by the national teachers’ unions, and DFER tried, unsuccessfully, to block the language.  The lack of total obsequiousness from elected Democrats must have been very shocking to them.

However, the most difficult blow to absorb must have been from the NAACP. The venerable civil rights organization, sometimes an ally in education reform during the No Child Left Behind era, called for a general moratorium on privately managed charter schools – in effect, all of them.  The resolution cited the fact that charter boards accept public money but lack democratic accountability, that charter schools are contributing to increased segregation, that punitive disciplinary policies are disproportionately used in charter schools as well as other practices that violate students’ rights, that there is a pattern of fraud of mismanagement in the sector in general, and it then called for opposition to privatization of education, opposed diversion of funding from public schools, called for full funding for quality public education, called for legislation granting parents access to charter school boards and to strengthen oversight, called for charter schools to follow USDOJ and USDOE guidelines on student discipline and to help parents file complaints when those guidelines are violated, opposed efforts to weaken oversight, and called for a moratorium on charter school growth.  Professor Julian Vasquez Heilig defended the resolution, saying that education reformers have only offered top-down and privatized solutions and that choices can be community based.

Dr. Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University explained the importance of the resolution clearly:

Civil Rights workers were concerned first and foremost with the eradication of legal policies or structures like separate but equal that resulted in inequality. This mirrors the cornerstone of the NAACP’s current call for a moratorium on charter schools. They do not claim that all charters are bad, as some commentators have suggested, but declare that the unchecked proliferation of such schools represents a real danger to communities of color. They expressed concern about the dearth of evidence proving their effectiveness and deplore the resulting segregation they often produce. Most importantly, they question the equity of diverting public funds to support private enterprises. As the NAACP rightly observed, “[Charter schools] do not represent the public yet make decisions about how public funds are spent [and have] contributed to the increased segregation rather than diverse integration of our public school system.”

This is really the crux of the problem. The Civil Rights Movement was about inclusivity, while those who appropriate its language to buttress corporate education reform do so largely in support of programs that promote exclusivity at the public’s expense.

I find it difficult to emphasize this enough. For more than a decade and half, education reformers – backed by powerful philanthropies and funded by PACs funneling dark money from billionaires – have attempted to co-opt the language of civil rights.  They have used the plight of children of color who attend schools that are deliberately segregated and criminally underfunded to justify, as Dr. Denisha Jones explains, privatizing schools, setting up “choice” systems where schools choose children, and offering barely trained, infinitely replaceable teachers for children of color.  The NAACP resolution calls for a full pause in that agenda and recognizes it as antithetical to civil rights.

Of course, reformers could not stay silent on the matter.  Secretary of Education and former charter school head Dr. John King chartersplained that there should not be any “artificial barriers” to charter schools calling them “drivers of opportunity.”  Various African American led school choice groups pushed back on the resolution as well.  Self-proclaimed “most trusted educator in America” Dr. Steve Perry took a blunter approach on social media, calling the NAACP platform “anti-Black”:

And former Assistant Secretary of Education Peter Cunningham continued his efforts to use millions of dollars in seed money to build a “better conversation” by blaming the whole drubbing that charter schools have suffered this past summer on AFT President Randi Weingarten:

Mr. Cunningham is also referencing a suit in Washington state against the charter school sector that was working its way through the courts at the time – charters in Washington lost, with the state Supreme Court ruling that the state’s charter school law violated the state Constitution.

Of course, charter schools are in no danger of folding up shop and going away (although the faster that virtual charter schools which even charter advocates cannot defend just die already the better).  There are billions of dollars in public funds still up for grabs, and numerous ways to monetize public education.  Despite their complaints at hearing actual criticism, it is unlikely that charter schools would face an implacable foe in a Clinton administration as much as they’d face an ally telling them to behave better.  Charter school advocates are pouring money into a fight to convince Massachusetts voters that their already best in the nation school system needs unlimited charter schools — painting itself as a progressive cause when it is funded mostly by the same conservative groups – DFER, New Schools Venture Fund, billionaire donors – behind school privatization everywhere else.  They might win that one, but, for the moment, they are in unexpected territory and feeling defensive.

That’s long past due.

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Filed under charter schools, Corruption, DFER, Funding, Hillary Clinton, John King, politics, Social Justice

New Jersey <3's PARCC

Garden State teachers and students returned to school this month to find that both the state board of education and department of education have declared undying love and devotion to the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.  The decisions, made when presumably fewer people were looking, first enshrined the controversial assessments as the sole standardized exam accepted to meet graduation requirements for New Jersey high school students beginning in 2021, and for extra measure the state tripled the weight that those exams will play in teacher evaluations beginning this year.  It was a very busy summer for questionable examinations and discredited evaluations.

New Jersey has long required students to pass either a basic competency test or one of a range of tests used in the college application process in order to graduate, allowing students to assemble a portfolio of grades and other materials if an adequate test score is not recorded after attempting the exams.  This layered approach to a testing requirement made sense when applied to the entirety of the state.  After all, the requirement is to find a minimum level of competency required to graduate, so the logical option would be to give students different ways of demonstrating that competency and being certain that you are looking for what can be reasonably expected for students graduating from the state’s 586 school districts.  Moreover, it is a nod to simple reality:  high school students do not, as a whole, care a lot about proficiency exams administered as part of state accountability systems, although students with college ambitions have plenty of reasons to care about SAT, ACT, or advanced placement exams that carry actual personal consequences.  Washington D.C.’s Wilson High School saw this very phenomenon this year where students openly admitted that they skipped or ignored the PARCC exams to focus on advanced placement tests scheduled for the following week.

New Jersey will have none of that now.  By making PARCC the sole examination allowed for graduation, the state is telling all high school students they must take the state’s accountability exam seriously or face the possibility of not graduating.  It is also aiming directly at New Jersey’s Opt Out movement which, while not the same force across the Hudson in New York, still boasted tens of 1000s of students refusing PARCC with 15% of 11th graders refusing the exams in 2015.  That option will be vastly more problematic beginning in 2021, and parents who considered opting out in younger grades could easily be intimidated into not making that decision.  New Jersey’s rationale for making PARCC the sole manner for meeting graduation requirements seems aimed primarily at forcing reluctant students and families to take PARCC seriously.  As policy, this is a lot of stick with very little carrot.

It might also be illegal.  Sarah Blaine, an education activist, blogger, and attorney, wrote cogently back in May that the new regulations seem to contradict the law they intend to implement.  The state is required to administer a test for all students in 11th grade, and that test must “measure those minimum basic skills all students must possess to function politically, economically and socially in a democratic society: specifically, the test must measure the reading, writing, and computational skills students must demonstrate as minimum requirements for high school graduation.”  Ms. Blaine notes that the 10th grade ELA test will not be given to all 11th graders statewide by definition.  Further, she correctly notes that the content in the Algebra I test is taken by many New Jersey students as early as junior high school, leaving them in the ridiculous position of securing their “minimum” competency in math before they have even enrolled in high school.

Ms. Blaine was also correct when she noted that the state testing requirement only allows the state to deny a diploma to a student who does not meet the minimum basic skills — and the PARCC exam is, by design, not a measure of those skills at the 4 and 5 cut score levels.  This cannot be emphasized enough:  whatever else PARCC aims to measure, it is obvious from both available content and the results themselves that it is not an examination of grade level basic competenceNew Jersey boasted some significant improvements from the 2015 PARCC administration in 2016 (some of which might be explained by increased participation); the percentage of students scoring 4 or 5 on the 10th grade ELA exam was 44.4% compared to 36.6% in 2015, and the percentage of students scoring that on the Algebra I exam was 41.2% compared to 35% in 2015.  These gains are significant but would still leave more than half of New Jersey high school students ineligible to graduate.  Commissioner Hespe claims “Those are areas we know we have work to do,” but given that PARCC in 2015 pretty closely matched New Jersey’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)…

NJ NAEP AND PARCC

…and given that NAEP proficiency levels are not meant to measure minimum grade level expectations, the Commissioner can promise to work all he wants…he’s working with an examination whose proficiency levels are looking for and labeling advanced students.  We can have a very fruitful and important conversation about the unequal distribution of students scoring at those levels and about the unequal distributions of educational opportunity in the state – but not while threatening to withhold high school diplomas simply because students are not getting straight As.

Increasing the percentage of teacher evaluations based on test scores from 10% to 30% was always a threat waiting in the wings, but it remains a giant blunder of an idea.  New Jersey decreased its Student Growth Percentile (SGP) component in deference to the newness of PARCC in the Garden State, but increased familiarity with the exam does not mean that the bulk of the evidence is in favor of using growth measures to evaluate teachers.  If you like the expression “arbitrary and capricious,” you will enjoy the next 3-5 years in New Jersey as the state tries to fend off lawsuits from teachers inappropriately labeled as ineffective due to SGPs and as it tries (and likely fails) to explain why SGPs that more effectively measure student characteristics than teacher effectiveness should be used in evaluating teachers.  Fans of legal briefs should be popping the popcorn sometime next Spring.

Predicting the future is not exactly easy.  New Jersey’s $108 million contract with Pearson to administer PARCC has two years left, by which time Governor Chris Christie will no longer be in Trenton.  For that matter, PARCC’s long term health is legitimately in question.  The consortium web site no longer boasts a map of states using the exam on its homepage because in 2011, they were able to boast of 25 participating states that “collectively educate more than 31 million public K-12 students in the United States, over 60% of all students enrolled in the nation’s public schools.”  In the 2015-2016 school year, they had “eight fully participating states” and now offer a “tiered approach” for non-participating states to access PARCC content.  I’m not taking bets on PARCC dying any time soon, but I wouldn’t suggest anyone place similar bets on it surviving either.

One prediction is pretty simple, however.  In New Jersey, PARCC will become a de facto curriculum and disrupt even more children’s education.  We have seen this over and over again in the No Child Left Behind era, and while the new federal education law grants states more flexibility on how they use accountability testing, New Jersey has chosen to double down on the test and punish policies of the past 15 years.  School children in New Jersey, especially those in struggling districts, will get less science, less social studies, less art and music, and our youngest children will get a lot less play – and far more test preparation.   The Class of 2021 will begin ninth grade algebra in a little less than a year, and a substantial percentage of those taking the course will find out that they do not qualify to graduate after only one year of high school and will scramble to repeat the exam (at whose expense?) or assemble other evidence of their “basic competence” for the Commissioner to review.  The state DOE will take certain districts to the wood shed for plummeting graduation rates, and various parent coalitions will sue over the use of a test that violates the letter and spirit of the law as a graduation requirement.  My bet for the next few years in New Jersey?

fasten-your-seatbelts-o

“Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

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Filed under Chris Christie, classrooms, Common Core, ESSA, Opt Out, PARCC, Pearson, standards, Testing, VAMs

You Bet My Classroom is a “Safe Space”

This week I have the pleasure of meeting the Class of 2020 who just began their 4 year journeys to become teachers.  They join us at a very particular time in our national dialogue, such as it is, on inclusiveness and diversity.  We are four years into a movement demanding awareness of the interaction between African Americans, police, and the rest of society – and calling for substantial change on those fronts.  We are in a Presidential election where one of our historic great political parties has nominated a candidate whose campaign traffics openly in racism and xenophobia and has hired  a champion of forces ridiculing inclusiveness into the campaign.  A great deal of push and pull about what kind of society we are and what kind of discussions about ourselves are even possible is afoot.

And, into that environment, the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago has told incoming students that the institution does not condone “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings.”

The welcome letter from the dean explained to incoming students the intellectual history and tradition at University of Chicago:

Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. This is captured in the University’s faculty report on freedom of expression. Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship.  Civility and mutual respect are vital to us all, and freedom of expression does not mean freedom to harass or threaten others.  You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement.  At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.

Without irony at all, I think this is excellent.  As a statement of principles for a liberal education grounded in the best traditions of inquiry and debate, I could hardly imagine better wording, and I would applaud seeing this paragraph widely disseminated.  It speaks to the vital importance of ideas facing scrutiny, previously held assumptions facing challenge, and intellectual growth in an environment predicated on respect and rigor.  It would serve many more institutions to make such statements about the nature of discourse on their campuses and to embrace similar principles.

Which is why what followed that paragraph was distressingly unnecessary and appears rooted in the worst misconceptions about efforts to expand inclusiveness in the Academy.  Having made a clear statement about the need for inquiry and debate that it both challenging and respectful, the Dean wrote:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger-warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

This paragraph has fostered a fairly wide ranging debate with many coming out both in support and in dismay at the wording.  The letter appears to be responding to a Straw Millennial who embodies the worst stereotypes of his or her generation as fragile and incapable of dealing with anything but affirmation.  Worse, the letter seems to assume that trigger warnings and safe spaces exist to allow students to avoid any material they wish rather than to facilitate their engagement with such material in the classroom and to provide additional venues with clearly defined purposes aligned with been historically marginalized experiences within academia.  I do not object, per se, to the commitment to invited speakers, although one has to wonder the reason for its inclusion.  Yes, there are examples of organized students in the country calling for speaking engagements to be rescinded, but I should not have to remind the University of Chicago that the plural of anecdote is not “data,” nor should the wider phenomenon of students organizing protests around certain speakers be confounded with disinviting those speakers.  Protests, editorials, and teach ins are, in fact, entirely within the intellectual realm the dean outlined in the statement about University of Chicago’s academic tradition and commitment to academic freedom.

The statement did not ban trigger warnings and safe spaces, although with the Dean of Students saying the University does not “support” or “condone” them, one wonders how probationary faculty will find themselves constrained to either use trigger warnings or advise student groups.  However, the statement does invoke literally the worst possible interpretation of those terms as antithetical to an environment of academic freedom and rigorous debate, and that is completely unnecessary.  Offering a trigger warning for extremely challenging content is not inherently about avoiding that content; it is about recognizing that people have experiences that can make that content far more personal and challenging for them than for others.  It is about adequate preparation rather than avoidance.  Consider a professor in a modern film class airing The Accused.  Is it unreasonable to warn students, some of whom may have been sexually assaulted themselves, that the movie contains a gang rape scene?  It is certainly unreasonable to assume that an 18 year old today knows the plot details of a movie from 1988, but it is entirely reasonable to assume that the scene is widely disturbing to all audiences and especially troubling for a class member who has been raped.  Consider a contemporary American history class studying the birth of the second Klan and the Red Summer of 1919.  These are events not often well studied in high school courses, and they fundamentally challenge many students’ perceptions of American history.  Students in the majority may have very little knowledge of how deeply White Supremacy is embedded in our history and of the brutal violence it used to enforce white dominance, and students of color may very well have family history inextricably linked to these events.  Is it out of the norm to show personal care for all students by letting them know how difficult this material will be for them – or does it enable them to more thoroughly engage in the material?

The dean’s letter is written from the assumption that a trigger warning is a tool of avoidance rather than a method of preparation.  That assumption is unnecessary.  And by naming it as something the University does not support, many instructors, especially those without tenure, may end up with less freedom in their teaching.

The statement about safe spaces is equally troubling because, in very real ways, it is not possible for universities to engage in academic inquiry without safe spaces of various kinds. The entire structure of disciplinary study is premised on the acceptance that certain subjects are off topic in various disciplines and that faculty have both authority and a responsibility to shape discourse in the courses along those lines. I can imagine no biology course at any reputable university that would accept Kenneth Hamm enrolling in that class and demanding significant time be given for Biblical creation. Similarly, I cannot imagine that Richard Dawkins would be given free rein in a course on Islam to insist that his increasingly anti-Muslim ideas become the major focus of the class. There are lines between legitimate and illegitimate inquiry within different disciplines, and while all courses should have room for robust discussion and disagreement, they do not have room for fully derailing the content of the class. A Shakespeare course is about the works of William Shakespeare. A course on African American history is about the history of Americans of African descent. This is as true at University of Chicago as it is anywhere else in academia.

Beyond the classroom, however, the Dean’s letter is contradicted by the University of Chicago itself. There are over 350 recognized student organizations at the University of Chicago, and it is without question that large numbers of them meet any reasonable definition of a safe space for students who share interests and experiences and desire a place to meet and interact with like-minded students. Does the Christians on Campus organization have to open up its Bible study meetings to people wanting to debate the existence of God? Do the College Republicans and University of Chicago Democrats get to control the agendas and topics of their own meetings around their shared ideological interests? Does Hillel help Jewish students follow Halachic dietary requirements? Do I even need to ask? Of course they do, because there is no significant question about the validity of those groups to set and determine their own focus.

But University of Chicago also has student organizations that are more likely to be associated with safe space debates within academia. Among recognized student groups, are organizations for women in the sciences, African Americans, and members of the LGBTQ community.   Assuming those groups are allowed to set their agendas, moderate their own meetings, determine what is on and off topic for a discussion, and do everything that all other student groups get to do, then the university absolutely “condones” safe spaces. While many critics of higher education may not approve of giving this privilege to people historically marginalized within academia, it is obvious that University of Chicago does not have a blanket problem with these student organizations, so it is objectively untrue for the Dean of Students to say the institution does not “condone” them. The Dean may be under the impression that “safe spaces” only exist to allow students to “retreat” from disagreement, but that impression does not make it true.

Perhaps the Dean of Students has a completely biased idea of what these terms mean and wanted to discourage incoming students from seeking them out despite the fact that the university obviously embraces many aspects of them. Perhaps the goal is based in alarm at various anecdotes of alleged threats to open discourse – threats that are frequently far more overblown than reality – and a hope to head off any such incidents at University of Chicago. I honestly do not know, but it is fairly obvious that the paragraph was unnecessary for affirming the university’s admirable goals of academic freedom – and that it is actually contradicted by the actual climate at the institution.

In my own classroom, I frankly hope that I am sufficiently embracing the concepts of a safe space for my students. The students I have met this week are taking an introductory course on the history of, purposes, and current issues in American education. Although they have been in school for 13 years, it is typical for most of them to want to be teachers but to have never critically examined the education system they wish to serve. After all, in many ways school is like air for them – always there, extremely important, but rarely thought about very deeply. In this course, my students will, hopefully, gain a better understanding of what John Goodlad meant when he endorsed the vision of teachers practicing “good stewardship” and learn what it means to use equity as a tool to promote opportunity. Doing so will require a genuinely critical and open minded examination of our educational history, both positive advances and legacies of intolerance. We will explore how legislation and litigation have expanded opportunity in our schools, and how legacies like segregation, attempts to wipe out Native American culture, and the horrific abuse of the disabled have played out and continue to play out in our schools. For some of my students these issues will be connected to personal and family experiences. For others, these will be new issues, largely hidden in their previous education.

In order to engage with these issues, my students absolutely need a safe space. They will need to know that their experiences will be considered valid whether those experiences are “typical” or not. They will need to know that they will have supportive and empathetic classmates and instructors as they think about new ideas that may thoroughly challenge their worldviews or which may recall painful family and personal histories. They will need to know that they can push themselves, and, more importantly, that they make mistakes without incurring unbearable cost.  Personal and intellectual growth can occur in an educational environment that takes no care for the well being of its students, but it is more likely to happen in spite of that environment rather than because of it.  Absent the qualities mentioned above, learners far too often retreat to well known pathways for “success” – seeking out and repeating approved of answers whether they believe in them or not.  Worse, dominant mythologies that discount the full spectrum of human experience can remain entirely unchallenged.

This is entirely compatible with being “engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement,” and it is compatible with students finding themselves both challenged and discomfited.  I would argue that within the classroom, safe space attributes are actually vital to and enable the kind of discourse valued at University of Chicago.  I will certainly strive to enact them.

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