Category Archives: racism

Teachers in the Trump Era: Your Students are Still Watching

the-abels

I’d like to introduce you to the Abels.  They are one of the four families with immigrant parents who are responsible for my family’s history in the United States of America.  Golda and Samuel sought a better life than they could have had in Eastern Europe early in the 20th century.  Their children in this picture are Bernard, my maternal grandfather Robert, and their two daughters, Lilian and Ruth.  Their third daughter, Shirley, would be born later.  Like many Ashkenazi immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leaving Eastern Europe was an escape from centuries of discrimination and violent riots aimed at their communities, but not an escape from hardship and prejudice.  America looked at the latest wave of immigration with similar suspicions that had met the Irish – my great grandparents talked in a strange manner, they ate unusual foods, they dressed differently, they worshiped “incorrectly,”  their loyalty to their new home was considered suspect.

Despite these impediments, they managed to thrive and build a life.  Their son Robert became a builder and an architect of industrial buildings.  Their grandchildren have served in the nation’s military, become teachers, and professionals, and today their great great grandchildren are growing up as the fourth generation of American citizens to follow them and their efforts to seek a better life.  Like all immigrant families, their story shares similarities to the stories of millions of others and, simultaneously, is uniquely their own.  America is somewhat in love with the archetype of the immigrant family coming to America, assimilating, and finding economic advancement from one generation to the next, and, to be sure, many families slot into that experience.  But no family is entirely the same and, more importantly, there are thousands of nuances to the American experience from generation to generation.

Consider:  This “Nation of Immigrants” is not made up entirely of the descendants of people who emigrated voluntarily like my family.  Some families were always here, descendants of  the first people to live on this continents and who were forced off their lands and killed in wars against them.  Other families were brought here in chains during the slave trade and faced centuries of unrelenting cruelty and discrimination.  Still other families lived on one side of a border one day and found themselves on the other side the next such as Mexican citizens living in Texas in the early 19th century.  And while many millions have emigrated voluntarily over the centuries, their reasons for doing so have been as various as the people themselves.  Many have come here as refugees to escape warfare and oppression. Others have come because of promises made by American administrations to those who helped in wars abroad. Others were seeking opportunities not possible in their homelands.  Others seeking education.  And not all of them found what they were looking for, finding instead a country that projects a message of welcome from New York harbor but too frequently offers suspicion and discrimination and violence.  While I firmly believe that the story of America can be seen in the gradual increase of the franchise over the centuries, it is also true that we have often resisted that story and told vast swaths of people they were not welcome.

Teachers and schools must consider these nuances very seriously and understand our history.  While it is mainstream today for many educators and school systems to extol the virtue of diversity and to offer welcome to students of greatly varied background, our reality and our past are quite different.  Sixty-three years after Brown vs. Board of Education, integration remains aspirational across the country rather than a reality, and efforts to integrate our schools into truly diverse communities still meet active resistance.  Further, our schools have often been instruments of enforced assimilation rather than communities of acceptance for immigrants and minorities.  The Bureaus of Indian Affairs operated a school system precisely with the goal of separating native children from their heritage and completing the “work” that the Indian Wars did not finish.  The often heard term “melting pot” to describe the immigrant experience has roots in deliberate efforts to enroll immigrants’ children into public schools in order to hasten their abandonment of the cultures they brought from their home countries.  Both African Americans and women have been systematically denied and discouraged from equal educational opportunities based upon systemic prejudices.

Into this complicated web of family history, personal identity, and institutional priorities comes the Trump administration’s “temporary” ban on immigration from 7 majority Muslim nations and upon refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war.  The administration claims that these bans are necessary for the security of the nation against the threat of terrorism.  A great deal of ink has been spilled about how the order is poorly drafted without proper vetting and input from impacted agencies, about how it has unleashed chaos on travel and immigration across the world, about the ever shifting “standards” of the order that have caught up legal residents with green cards and Iraqis who risked their lives to aid American forces, about the questionable basis of the barred nations’ inclusion in the order over other nations whose citizens actually participated in terrorist attacks on the U.S., about allegations that this is a defacto ban on Muslim immigration, about the potential legal and Constitutional challenges to the order, and about whether or not the administration is overtly defying court orders issued since the executive order was signed on Friday — which just happened to be international Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Teachers, given the weight of history, have a particular challenge in this situation.  According to Pew Social Trends, roughly two thirds of American Muslim adults were born in another country, a large proportion of them are from Arab countries, and a full 8% are from Iran, also included in the ban.  This means that that a large proportion of the Muslim children in our schools have parents who were not born citizens.  Initial estimates said as many as 500,000 green card holders, legal permanent residents of the United States, were subject to being barred from entry if they traveled abroad, and while the administration now says the order does not apply to them, the situation is extremely fluid and people justifiably are unsure of their status.  We’ve seen elderly green card holders detained.  We’ve seen interpreters for American armed forces in Iraq stranded as their entry was barred.  We’ve seen an Iranian born professor at Yale University unable to reunite with his wife and child who were visiting relatives in Tehran:

Universities across the country are offering advice to their international students potentially impacted by the ban and are announcing they will refuse to share students’ immigration information with the federal government.

If you are a public school teacher, it is possible that the ban does not directly impact any students in your classroom, but the indirect impacts should be self-evident.  As educators, we are tasked with a responsibility to truly live up to the promises made to immigrant families – equal treatment, opportunity, and acceptance.  While our nation has been imperfect at fulfilling those promises as a whole, and while we have tried to shoehorn all immigrant families into simplistic narratives, individually, we can resist those injustices and make our own classrooms and schools places that strive for better.  Our nation has feared and scapegoated immigrants throughout history and yet the vast majority of us would miss the contributions to America made by our varied immigrant communities over the centuries.  Can you, as a matter of classroom community and curriculum, celebrate the contributions and cultures of past immigrant communities who were subjected to discrimination and marginalization when they arrived while looking away while even worse discrimination and marginalization is visited upon today’s immigrants?  Can you teach your students that past generations were plainly wrong to suspect immigrant communities while ignoring or – worse – supporting suspicion today?  If you profess that you would not have met my – or your own – immigrant ancestors with hostility, can you be quiet as this generation’s immigrants are subjected to worse?

If you teach in a community with immigrant families, your students are watching you to see if you truly value them.  If you teach in a community with very few immigrant families, your students are still watching you – to learn how to respond to injustice that does not directly impact them. This is a test.  Don’t fail it.

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Filed under Activism, Drumpf, politics, racism, Social Justice, Stories

Education is a Trust: Carl Paladino Must Go

On Thursday night, the school board for Buffalo Public Schools sent a clear and scathing message to one of its own:  resign or we will find a way to force you off our council.  The member in question is upstate real estate developer, former Republican candidate for Governor of New York, co-chair of Donald Trump’s New York state campaign, and all around dumpster fire of vulgarity and bigotry, Carl Paladino.  Mr. Paladino earned national attention and scorn when he was asked to reply to a Buffalo weekly about his wishes for the upcoming year.  In a fashion familiar to those who have observed his public antics over the years, Mr. Paladino wished for the death of President Obama from mad cow disease contracted by bestiality.  He further wished for the death of White House adviser Valerie Jarrett by beheading after conviction for treason.  He piled on with a hope that the First Lady “return to being a male” and that she would “return” to Africa to live with a gorilla.

Condemnation of his remarks were swift and pretty much total.  While Donald Trump has not yet spoken on the issue, the Trump transition team issued a rebuke calling Paladino’s words “absolutely reprehensible,” and his own son took to the family company’s Facebook page to distance the business from his father’s words.  The Chancellor of the New York Board of Regents announced a blistering rejection of Paladino’s bigotry on Twitter:

Further denunciations came from sitting Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mr. Paladino’s alma mater, St. Bonaventure University, and parent groups in Buffalo while official calls for his removal from the school board grew.

In his typical fashion, Mr. Paladino defied his detractors, insisting he was not racist and that his remarks were a form of “deprecating humor.” On his own Facebook page, he insisted that his comments had “nothing to do with race,” and proceeded to go on a lengthy rant about his alleged grievances against the Obamas, including numerous accusations that source from fake news and debunked rumors from the dredges of the Internet…or from emails forwarded by your racist uncle (Ms. Jarrett is an American by birth, Mr. Paladino).  He also casually referred to the President as a “lazy ass” and signed off by saying “tough luck if you don’t like my answer.”

Considering the long history of dehumanizing African Americans by comparing them to gorillas and the body shaming African American women endure,  Mr. Paladino’s comments were blatantly racist.  However, to be fair – his comments were not merely racist.  They were also obscene, misogynist, homophobic, and immoral.  None of this is that much of a surprise.  During his catastrophic run for governor in 2010, Mr. Paladino’s personal email habits became public and let’s just say what he offered to Artvoice is in line with his penchant for racist and sexually obscene material.  What was not expected was a revised statement as the controversy deepened where Mr. Paladino said that he had not intended to make those “wishes” public, apologized to the “minority community,” and characterized his words as “inappropriate under any circumstance.”  Not that his statement admitting to having made a “mistake” was anything resembling adequate contrition, but the mere fact that a man who has made his public life about never backing down on any horrendous thing he utters felt the need to revise his sentiments in any way shape or fashion is significant.  In flailing about to keep his school board seat, Mr. Paladino had to do the one thing he loathes the most: admit an error.

Of course, Mr. Paladino’s potential problems as a member of the Buffalo school board are not limited to his mouth.  He openly admits that he makes money in the charter school sector, a sector that he can promote from his seat on the board.  Interestingly, neither of the state’s most vocal proponents for expanding charter schools and who claim school choice as a civil rights issue have said boo about Mr. Paladino to the public.  Don’t take my word for it – check out “StudentsFirstNY” and “Families for Excellent Schools” on Twitter, and then click through to their web pages and look for a single press release or mention of the fact that a school board seat in Buffalo where charter schools enroll about 1 in 4 students is held by a vehement racist.  Not a word in condemnation.

Mr. Paladino’s dire situation was made abundantly clear by School Board President, Barbara Seals Nevergood who said before the Thursday vote, “Words matter, Mr. Paladino….The impact on children of color, especially African-American children is incalculable…..They would like me to tell you, ‘You’re fired.'”  Board members argued that Mr. Paladino had broken a trust with parents, especially with minority parents, when he could not express his dislike for the Obama administration in anything resembling respectful words.  If he fails to resign, the next step is that the board will seek legal means to end his tenure.

This result is entirely correct for numerous reasons.  Mr. Paladino’s ability to make dispassionate decisions has long been in question because of his business interests in the charter sector.  He seems incapable of expressing his personal views in a manner that remotely assists the board in seeking the best interests for all children.  And despite his frequent avowals to the contrary, his words are those of a racist.  While Americans have a Constitutional right to repugnant views, certain positions in society demand a character that is free from those views – and member of a school board is one such position.  Within that office, Mr. Paladino is responsible for making choices and policies that directly impact the lives and opportunities of 1000s of children.  Their parents and guardians are entitled to know that the people endowed with that authority are free from systemic bigotry.  How else can they trust that the board will only consider what is best for them and their children?  How can they happily send their children to schools governed, at least in part, by a man who thinks racist humor is personally acceptable?  These are people who have entrusted their children to public schools, and their faith in that system is vital to its success.

Mr. Paladino cannot regain the trust needed to serve the families of Buffalo.  He must go.

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Filed under "Families" For Excellent Schools, New York Board of Regents, politics, racism, Social Justice

Repairing Our Civic Discourse – Teachers’ Role

When I woke up on November 9th, I had to explain to my children, aged 7 and 9, that Donald Trump is going to be the next President of the United States.  They cried.  They cried because they know, at most, a fraction of the horrible things he has said in his campaign and that was enough to convince them that he should not be President.  They cried because although they are young, they believe that America is a country for everyone and that Donald Trump has attacked that ideal.  They cried because they have friends and people they care about who are terrified that a Trump administration will break apart their families.  They cried because we have taught them to value kindness and respect and to abhor bullies.

I cried with them and told them that we would always protect them and that our job now is to make certain if our new President tries to hurt anyone that we protect them.  My children are fortunate, though – their fear quickly subsided probably because they have never personally experienced the injustices promised by the incoming administration, and because as children of white, professional parents they are inclined to believe that they have strength in our society.  Friends of mine who teach in schools with minority, immigrant, and Muslim children had much harder work trying to allay their students’ genuine apprehension about what might be coming.  And my friends are not alone in New York City or elsewhere for that matter.  A teacher in Chicago set up this message for students:

As they are almost always called upon to do, teachers this week have been seeking ways to help anxious and shocked students to cope with circumstances that are both beyond their control and threatening to their well being.  I do not need to reiterate the ways in which a Trump Presidency is poised to harm millions of our students – his campaign promises make that crystal clear as does the bigoted and inflammatory rhetoric with which he made those promises.  His enablers assure us that he intends to be the President for “all” Americans, but many of his supporters appear to have very clear ideas of what his victory means, so even if President Trump takes a softer stance than candidate Trump, he has unleashed some of the ugliest elements of our society and putting that back in the bottle will be an arduous and uncertain task:

While America’s teachers are helping students who fear President Trump, there is also another role for them and for our schools: helping to repair a civic discourse badly damaged by bull dozed norms and lack of mutual understanding typified by the President-elect’s campaign.  Something that was already evident became crystal clear on election night:  Americans do not understand each other very well.  As the returns came in, it was obvious that Donald Trump had successfully energized a demographic that wasn’t weighted properly in the polls because they are not part of most pollsters “likely voter” model — rural whites voted for him in unprecedented numbers, erasing Secretary Clinton’s strengths with urban and wealthier suburban voters.  The election was apparently as much an expression of their grievances at a political system that seeks their vote every few years and then fails to deliver very much as it was an expression of support for Mr. Trump’s most vile rhetoric.  While a discernible portion of his vote did come from genuinely horrible people, quite a lot of it came from a demographic that feels forgotten by our political system.

These voters are not exactly wrong (although I would argue that Mr. Trump is entirely the wrong vehicle – even a dangerous vehicle – for their frustration).  The trends on what has happened to the working class in America has been stark for decades.  Pundits love to talk about the “college wage premium” – the gain in lifetime earnings with a college degree, and that phenomenon is real enough.  However, since the 1980s, the “increase” in that premium has not come because of rising wages for college graduates so much as it has come from the collapse of wages for those without degrees:

SDT-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-03

While both the rural and urban poor have suffered under these trends, Mr. Trump directly appealed to working class whites by blaming globalization and free trade pacts for their plights, an appeal that resonates far more with lower income Americans than with the middle and upper class.  It would be curious to see if Mr. Trump’s economic populism would have resonated more with the urban poor if he had not wrapped it in so many layers of racism, nativism, and other bigotry.

It is also evident that Americans do not actually see how people in different economic circumstances live.  Residential Income Segregation has been rising for decades, so not only do the urban and rural populations not live together, but also people live separately based upon their income.  Wealthy and middle class city dwellers do not live in similar neighborhoods, and wherever you live, you are increasingly likely to live in an area where most of the other people share your economic circumstances.  The consequences of this are destructive.  It is very difficult for the wealthy and upper middle class, constituencies heavily courted by typical politics, to understand much about the lives of those in urban and rural poverty.  Meanwhile, the urban and rural poor, while separated by geography, history, and a presumed cultural divide, certainly vote very differently but actually may have far more in common with each other than is often assumed.  That point is driven home by Saturday Night Live’s pre-election episode of “Black Jeopardy” where Tom Hanks played Doug, a rural Donald Trump supporter whose sentiments often aligned with the other contestants, up until the sketch ends with a deflected confrontation on “Lives that Matter” and the racism that blinds many white Americans like Doug to African American’s shared concerns about law enforcement and justice in America:

None of this is meant to excuse the willingness of Donald Trump’s voters to overlook and even excuse his abhorrent statements about women and minorities, nor is it meant to excuse the behavior of a disturbing number of his supporters who have taken his victory as a signal to unleash hate at groups singled out by his campaign.  And it certainly does not change the real evidence that Donald Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters are animated by bigotry.  But it does complicate my understanding of this phenomenon – some of our barriers to understanding each other in America are real, created by geography and lack of shared experiences.  But some of those barriers are of our own making, created by policies that reject integration and created by a lack of willingness to consider others’ experiences as valid when we have no similar frame of reference.  The result of which is an inability to see our similarities.  Of course, this is too simple:  our mutual blindness is made far more complex by modern media that allows people to cocoon themselves in information bubbles and never hear opposing views.

What, then, is the proper role for school in these problems?  It is a tricky one to navigate because while it is not proper for school to require certain political views from students, it is absolutely within school’s historic mission to promote civics and civic-mindedness.  Almost 20 years ago, David Tyack put it this way:

Today, some people are talking about the broader democratic purposes of schooling. Deborah Meier (1991) puts the issue well: “While public education may be useful as an industrial policy, it is essential to healthy life in a democracy” (p. 270). Mike Rose (1996) shows in Possible Lives that in communities and schools across the nation, teachers, students, and parents are practicing John Dewey’s dream of democracy in education and education in democracy. Rose finds that there is a far richer sense of educational purpose than we generally hear about in policy talk on the national level.

Education as essential to Democracy and as a form of Democracy itself goes back to the origins of the common school movement.  Consider Horace Mann’s justification of common schools in the life of a democratic society:

If the responsibleness and value of the elective franchise were duly appreciated, the day of our State and National elections would be among the most solemn and religious days in the calendar. Men would approach them, not only with preparation and solicitude, but with the sobriety and solemnity, with which discreet and religious-minded men meet the great crises of life. No man would throw away his vote, through caprice or wantonness, any more than he would throw away his estate, or sell his family into bondage. No man would cast his vote through malice or revenge, any more than a good surgeon would amputate a limb, or a good navigator sail through perilous straits, under the same criminal passions.

Mann promoted education that would inspire all not only to vote, but also to vote in a manner that promoted the common good and which reflected sound judgement.  The long festering divisions in our civic life today stand in the way of that, but schools and teachers have tools at their disposal to help students reach for a higher civic ideal.

The first obvious tool is a renewed commitment to information literacy and critical thinking – far beyond the stultifying confines of “critical thinking” curricula aimed at passing a standardized test.  Our heavy emphasis on tested subjects and on preparing students to demonstrate their competency in the narrow skill bands of standardized testing has already damaged the critical thinking skills of one generation of students.  We need to do a lot better, especially in an age where media consumption in new forms requires the sharp critical literacy skills.  Programs like “Deliberating in a Democracy” provide additional space to engage students in critical thinking around core issues in society and internationally.  We need more spaces like this in our curriculum.

Beyond critical thinking, however, is using our curricula to assist all students’ comprehension of experiences beyond their own.  We have nibbled at the edges of this for a long time.  The English curriculum, for example, is an ideal place for literature that expands students’ understanding of others, although for far too long, we’ve merely supplemented the curriculum with a few representatives of lives outside of the majority — it is past time to bring Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, and Amy Tan some company.  Beyond the book list in English, however, are opportunities to promote contact and dialog among students of many different backgrounds.  Take the premise of the “Black Jeopardy” skit with Tom Hanks and consider what might be different if students with more in common than they know could discuss and listen to each other?  In many locales, it would not be difficult to arrange face to face meetings and discussions among urban, suburban, and rural school students, and technology could facilitate “Sister Schools” arrangements where distances are more difficult.  Research suggests that fairly simple exercises in empathy can reduce racist sentiment – the possibilities of schools promoting genuine contact and discussion among students whose lives are separated by geography and experience seem very hopeful.

We have to think about this.  Promoting civic mindedness is a core function of public education, and it is clearly one that needs our attention.  Too many of our children are watching to see if we adults are interested in making things better.

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November 8th, 2016 – Your Students are Watching You

I can hardly blame any teachers who hesitate to vote for the Democratic nominee this year.  One obvious reason is that many teachers are themselves Republicans and hesitate to vote for any Democratic nominee.  Another is that many teachers, with cause, are wary of many Democratic politicians who have embraced the agenda of school privatization with a vigor that was hardly conceivable twenty years ago.  In the era of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, Democrats such as Andrew Cuomo of New York and Rahm Emanuel of Chicago have been passionate architects of school closings, have embraced blame-the-teachers-first evaluation and retention policies, and have promoted school privatization that undermines truly public schools.  While I have argued that Secretary Hillary Clinton has signaled willingness to pivot from these policies in her administration, I cannot blame teachers who hesitate in the wake of a pair of two term Presidents, one Republican and one Democratic, both of whom embraced awful education policies.

But I address this blog to teachers who are contemplating what I find unthinkable – casting a ballot for Donald Trump.  I call it unthinkable because I am starting from a premise that teachers care about their students and want what is best for them.  For every single one of your students, regardless of who they are and who their families are, there is something horrible at the core of what Donald Trump’s continued domination of the national landscape would mean.  While I find his policies – such as they are – harmful and nearly farcical, what is even more disturbing to me as an educator would be giving him four years in the most visible and influential office in the nation where he would have a guaranteed national audience for the unending sexism and bigotry that has become the lingua franca of his campaign.  As a teacher, you should be able to look all of your students in the eye and say that your vote has helped them.  I do not believe you can do that if you vote for Donald Trump.

Half of your students are girls and young women.  What could you possibly say to them that justifies a vote for Donald Trump?  That it does not matter if the President of the United States of America is a man with a decades long record of belittling women in public mostly because of how they lookThat it does not matter if the President of the United States is a man who routinely barged in on partially dressed teen aged beauty pageant contestantsThat it does not matter if the President of the United States has a record of making sexually suggestive comments to under-aged women?   That it does not matter if the President of the United States is a man who routinely relates to women only in terms of their sexual desirabilityThat it does not matter if the President of the United States is a man who bragged about his ability to get away with sexual assault and then tried to brush it off as “locker room talk”?

I challenge any teacher looking a classroom full of girls and young women who deserve to be seen as complete human beings and to be evaluated on the basis of their accomplishments – and to explain how the President of the United States can be a man who speaks and acts like this.  For that matter, I challenge any teacher to look a the boys and young men in their classrooms who deserve to be taught to respect all people and say that electing a man with such pervasive and obvious misogyny is okay.

You have students with disabilities in your classroom.  Donald Trump famously mocked a reporter, a reporter he knew reasonably well, in an effort to deflect criticism of his false claims about Muslims celebrating the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  When called on his revolting display making fun of the man’s physical disability, he basically lied about it.  The incident reveals starkly how little regard Donald Trump has for either the truth or for affirming the dignity of people with disabilities.  As a teacher, could you honestly tell your students with disabilities that it does not matter if the President of the United States shows so little care for their dignity?

Donald Trump as President threatens harm to other students in your classrooms as well.  While 1.4% of U.S. school children are themselves undocumented immigrants, millions of school children who are United States citizens have at least one parent who is an undocumented immigrant.  Donald Trump’s signature policy proposals on immigration would cause them unspeakable harm.  While Muslims remain a small percentage of Americans, they and their children are under staggering pressure due to the Republican nominee.  Almost two thirds of American Muslim adults, who are largely middle class and mainstream in beliefs, are foreign born, which means that their families overseas would be barred from visiting under Donald Trump’s various plans to bar Muslims from entering the U.S.  Donald Trump has also called for a national “stop and frisk” policy for police as part of his “law and order” campaign pledge.  This would be an unmitigated disaster for African American and Latino students, especially African American and Latino young men.  “Stop and Frisk” in New York City was an abject failure of a policy that could only justify itself by coinciding with nationwide decline in crime whose reasons are multi-faceted and complex.  At its height in 2011, “stop and frisk” policing stopped mostly African American (53%) and Latino (34%) New Yorkers a total of 685,724 times.  88% of those stopped were entirely innocent of doing anything that was even worthy of a ticket, let alone doing anything criminal.  The only thing a national stop and frisk policy would encourage is the ongoing and continuous violation of the rights of young African American and Latino men.  Could you, as a teacher, look at your students of color, who are children of immigrants, and who are Muslim and say that a vote for Donald Trump is a vote that will protect and respect them?

Beyond the actual harm caused by these policies, is the harm caused by the man himself and the careless manner by which he espouses bigotry against Muslims, other minorities, and immigrants.  Hate speech is on the rise, and there is a direct line between Donald Trump’s willingness to entertain practically every form of prejudice imaginable and this phenomenon.  The Southern Poverty Law Center has written about a “Trump effect” in our schools where Muslims and immigrant children are facing increased bullying in school.  Donald Trump’s campaign has also given form and purpose to the “alt right,” a previously amorphous collection of white supremacists and anti-Semites who  have identified a champion in Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric and promises and believe that they can muscle their way into the American mainstream through him.  Millions of young people are watching this campaign and forming their ideas about what is and is not acceptable in American democracy through the first Presidential campaign they have paid attention to in their lives.  What lessons are they learning that will serve the crucial values of Democracy and Pluralism through a candidate who embraces racial, religious, and national bigotry, who expresses those ideas with careless abandon, and who emboldens the sickest corners of our national character to think that their time has come?  Can you, as a teacher, vote for a man whose campaign rhetoric would earn him immediately detention in your school and whose worst followers target so many of your students with hate speech and harassment?

Teachers pledge to do a great deal more than to teach their students content and academic skills.  We are also caretakers of our students’ emotional and social development.  Every young person in your classroom is a sacred trust between parents and guardians and society through you and your colleagues.  Your job involves creating a small version of a pluralistic and welcoming society in the space of your classroom, a society where all students are welcomed and affirmed so that they can take risks and grow both intellectually and socially.  There is literally nothing in the Trump campaign or a potential Trump Presidency that is congruous with that trust.  In Donald Trump, we have a potential President whose language and behavior towards women, the disabled, ethnic and religious minorities, and immigrants would earn him immediate discipline from any teacher and principal worthy of the job.  As President, he would be an ongoing disaster to those of us who hope to foster an environment of care in our classrooms, and he would consistently demean those we are charged to uplift.  I challenge any teacher contemplating him for President to enter the voting and imagine the children in your classroom – if you could not explain your vote to them, think carefully about what that means.  Your students are watching to see what kind of a nation we really are.

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A Teacher’s Case For Hillary Clinton

I suppose I ought to front load this:  In the Democratic Party Primary in New York State, I voted for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.  My reasons for the doing so were various, but they focused heavily upon how well Senator Sanders articulated what I consider to be a genuine crisis in our time: the out of control growth in income inequality and the consequent damage to opportunity and justice that comes with it.  Senator Sanders’ ability to make a genuinely competitive campaign outside of the system of large donor politics was also inspiring, and it pointed to another vital issue – how our campaign finance system grants large donors more access and more voice to the point of commanding far more attention than the voters.

In contrast, former Secretary of State and Senator Hillary Clinton, while acknowledging such issues, has spent the last quarter century at or near the very highest offices of political power in the country.  While I did not doubt that she recognizes these as problems, I did question her ability to give full critique to them while running a campaign that is fully enmeshed in big donor politics, especially when given the choice of Senator Sanders’ avoidance of typical large donors.  Further, as an advocate for public education and full-throated critic of the current reform environment, Secretary Clinton’s long standing connections to education reform was, and remains, a real difficulty for me.  Secretary Clinton has been supported by Eli Broad, whose education “philanthropy” has been consistently aimed at aggressively favoring charter schools over fully public schools.  Secretary Clinton’s PAC received a massive donation from Alice Walton, and the Clinton Foundation has been a financial beneficiary of the Walton Family Foundation whose education efforts are geared towards privatization and hostility to teachers’ unions.  “Democrats” for Education Reform, an organization founded largely by Whitney Tilson in a effort to convince Democrats to support anti-union and pro-privatization policies that are  more typical of Republicans, greeted Secretary Clinton’s campaign with enthusiasm.  Secretary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chair is John Podesta who is President Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff and the founder of the Center for American Progress (CAP).  CAP, while often progressive and innovative on a range of issue, is reliably on the wrong side of education reform. If there is a bad idea being proposed for our public schools, there is a good chance that CAP has written a position paper in support of it.

Suffice it to say that this has been at least a bit of a difficult journey.  In reality, finding American politicians who truly support – and understand – public education and its purposes is not actually easy.  Senator Sanders’ education record – beyond college financing – is not actually stellar considering missed opportunities to trim back today’s test and punish environment.  California Congressman Mark Takano is a former school teacher who has explained that most of his colleagues, however well-intentioned, have limited time to learn an issue as complex as teaching and learning and are readily swayed by ideas that fit their known areas of expertise such as law and finance.

So how have I come to support Secretary Clinton’s bid for the Presidency?

One thing to remember is that, despite my initial support for her opponent, I find a huge portion of the criticism hurled at Secretary Clinton either false or overblown.  The Clintons really have been the target of a now generation long effort to both defame them and to blow up every misstep into major scandal.  Despite her currently dismal poll numbers on trustworthiness, Secretary Clinton has been admirably honest in her campaign statements – this really isn’t even close in comparison to the Republican nominee.  Secretary Clinton has been endlessly accused of corruption, and while I agree that our big donor political system is rife with the corrupting influence of money, it is hardly fair to claim that Secretary Clinton is some extraordinary example.  This is a system of campaign finance that touches most elected officials at most levels of government.  60 Minutes did a story in April about how the need to raise campaign money is so important to remaining in Congress that Congressional Republicans had personal targets of raising $18,000 a day over a six month period.  While I desperately want this system to change, it is not fair to single out Secretary Clinton as some kind of avatar of political corruption merely for having been around for as long as she has.

While her long time associations and past positions have worried me, it is also true that Secretary Clinton has proven herself persuadable on key education issues.   Last Fall, she created a near panic among education reform advocates for saying something that is objectively true: many charter schools “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.”  This is objectively true by any normal analysis, especially of the high flying “no excuses” schools who claim they “prove” that urban public schools are full of lazy teachers — even while they do everything they can to suspend students they do not want until they leave.  It is also fair to say that Secretary Clinton seems to be trying to have it at least one and a half ways on charter schools, making statements about high quality “public” charter schools and trying to thread a needle on the difference between “for profit” and “not for profit” charters.  These are attempts to dichotomize situations that are often much murkier.  For example, a charter school can be run by a “not for profit” management organization that then contracts services to companies that entirely for profit – and which have ties to the people running the not for profit.  Fraudulent use of public funds is a very real problem across the charter sector and unlikely to improve without strict public scrutiny that charter operators and their investors have mightily resisted.  Further, current school financing situations generally mean that charter schools, as a whole, operate at the expense of their host districts who find that their fully public schools have higher concentrations of the highest need students without accompanying increases in spending to help them succeed.

Secretary Clinton and the Democratic Party, however, appear to be making some progress on the issue as evidence by subtle but meaningful changes in the platform.  The original platform language on charter schools was basically more of the same – equating them with fully public schools and insisting that parents have options while offering a relatively meaningless opposition to for profit charters and a weak call for transparency.  The new language inserted:

“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.”

This should not be controversial – unless you believe that it is a great thing for schools accepting public money to operate to the detriment of existing schools and to fail to retain their students.  The platform also addressed accountability and testing, adding language that called for testing to meet reliability and validity standards, opposing testing that unfairly labels vulnerable students as failing, using test data to redirect funds, close schools, and in teacher and principal evaluation, and it directly supported parents’ right to opt out of standardized tests “without penalty for the either the student or their school.”

Shavar Jeffries, head of “Democrats” for Education Reform, was not at all pleased.  His statement said the platform had been “hijacked” at the last minute and declared that the platform would harm the nation’s most valuable children.

You have to wonder about someone who thinks calling on charter schools to stop kicking out so many poor and minority children and not financially destabilize their host district and calling for testing to be used in ways that do not actually harm schools and teachers and children is a massive affront to progress.  The good news is that Secretary Clinton and the Democratic Party as a whole may have begun a slow and ponderous turn from failed policies of test and punish and letting charter schools do whatever they want.

Another issue for teachers to consider is the composition of the Supreme Court.  This term, the court heard Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, and the court’s five conservative justices were poised to issue a death blow to public sector unions and to rule that people who enjoy the protection of a union contract did not have to contribute money to the union if they do not join.  Such agency fees are a vital way for unions to still have enough revenue to represent all members even though they cannot mandate membership.  A decision against the CTA would have overturned decades of precedent and only the unexpected death of Associate Justice Scalia prevented the anti-union ruling.  The composition of the Supreme Court should be on teachers’ minds not simply because of the Friedrichs case, but also because of Vergara v. State of California case which is working through appeals and which is inspiring copycat lawsuits financed by dark money.

Where they cannot win with elections and legislation, education “reformers” are trying to break the back of teacher unions and are trying to sue away teachers’ workplace rights in court.  The four justices appointed by President Bill Clinton and by President Obama voted against the most recent case to reach the court.  The four justices appointed by President Reagan and by both Presidents Bush voted in favor.  There is no reason to believe Secretary Clinton would appoint justices markedly different than those appointed by her Democratic predecessors.

Secretary Clinton should also get some recognition for her choice of Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate.  Many progressives that I know are not happy with the pick, citing that Senator Kaine has, at best, a mixed record on many issues of sincere importance.  On education, however, he was one of the most promising of Secretary Clinton’s potential running mates.  Simply put, among prominent Democrats, Senator Kaine is not a favorite of education “reformers”.  As Virginia’s governor, he was not a proponent of standardization, high stakes testing, and privatization – the grand trifecta of what passes for education reform today.   Further, Senator Kaine’s wife, Anne Holton, is Virginia’s current Secretary of Education and in that position, she has worked to reform standardized testing in the Commonwealth, blaming it for making the achievement gap worse, and she has opposed charter school expansion.

Consider the other possibilities.  New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was reported to be a top contender, and as a rising star in the party, he certainly would have added quite a lot to Secretary Clinton’s ticket, especially with his prodigious political talent.  But he is also a horrible choice on education policy, supporting vouchers, privatization, merit pay, and high stakes accountability testing.  Frankly, I was holding my breath wondering if I could ever be pleased voting for Secretary Clinton in the general election, and while Senator Kaine may not be a fully progressive pick, his selection gives me confidence that on education issues, Secretary Clinton is listening to a much broader and more informed set of advisers than President Obama has.

The issue of listening is actually another reason to be hopeful of a Clinton Presidency on education.  Ezra Klein wrote a fascinating portrait of Secretary Clinton, one that discussed some of her flaws as well, that got to a central strength of her leadership style – listening.  Klein stated that this seemed almost too cliche for him at first, but person after person repeated the same observation:  Secretary Clinton not only listens to others, she does so with a sincere interest in understanding their point of view, and she saves notes and records from those conversations to use when it comes time to craft policy:

It turned out that Clinton, in her travels, stuffed notes from her conversations and her reading into suitcases, and every few months she dumped the stray paper on the floor of her Senate office and picked through it with her staff. The card tables were for categorization: scraps of paper related to the environment went here, crumpled clippings related to military families there. These notes, Rubiner recalls, really did lead to legislation. Clinton took seriously the things she was told, the things she read, the things she saw. She made her team follow up.

This is substantial, and it makes me consider the very strong possibility that Secretary Clinton and the Democratic Party’s “evolution” on issues like charter schools and high stakes testing may be more than cosmetic and that they might signal the beginning of a shift away from the era of testing and punishment and privatization.  President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten has long been a supporter of Secretary Clinton.  While some rank and file members of the AFT were critical of the union’s early endorsement and while I do know members who have questioned the union’s efforts to cooperate with education reformers in the past, two things are indisputable:  1) as evidence has come in, AFT has been more forceful on opposing policies such as value added measures in teacher evaluation; 2) President Weingarten had a substantial and sincere role in assisting a ground breaking study by the Badass Teachers Association on workplace issues for teachers.  This study gained major, unprecedented, response from AFT membership, and issues that it highlighted even made their way into the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed last year.  Given Secretary Clinton’s leadership style and given President Weingarten’s role in supporting her this year, it is entirely reasonable to hope that genuine shifts are beginning.

Of course, it is possible that I am entirely wrong.  I accept that.  President Obama certainly said many of the right things about testing and accountability in 2008, only to hurl our schools into even worse policies than those imposed by the Bush administration. The reality is that we are 30 years into a policy cycle premised on accountability rather than equity and 15 years into a policy cycle using high stakes testing as a bludgeon on schools.  The reform side of education today is backed by enormously powerful and enormously wealthy interests such as Rupert Murdoch who claimed in 2010 that education was a “500 billion dollar sector” waiting to be “transformed” by technology.  That’s a pile of potential profits that none of them will simply walk away from readily.  At their best, education reformers tend to be blind to the consequences of creatively disrupting a core democratic institution the way they disrupt wireless communication.  At their worst, they are outright fraudsters enriching themselves at the expense of equity and justice.

The consequence if I am wrong about Secretary Clinton on education is that we continue to argue with the Federal DOE and that we continue to lobby state by state for needed changes from punitive accountability and towards support and growth.  These are arguments that are gaining traction community by community, so if Secretary Clinton turns out to produce no substantive change in education policy, there is at least familiar, if exhausting, work ahead.  Certainly, education reformers have no intention of going anywhere regardless of federal education policy, so we’ll be in this for the long haul.

But what is the alternative in this election?

I have seen friends insist that others make a positive case to vote for Secretary Clinton without mentioning her opponent.  That is an entirely reasonable request, and I hope that I have made a positive, if heavily qualified, case on those grounds.  However, it is also impossible to ignore her opponent in this election.  Whatever flaws Secretary Clinton may or may not have, they are within the normal parameters of American politics.  Donald Trump is far beyond the bounds of acceptability, not merely because of his utter and total lack of qualifications for the job, not merely because of his horrendous temperament, not even because of his documented lies, racism, and sexism — but because he represents a genuine threat to our system of governance. President Trump guarantees a rolling series of Constitutional crises from the moment he is sworn into office.

Some public education voters may be swayed by his promise to get rid of the Common Core State Standards.  Among all of his empty promises, that is quite a whopper as he will possess literally no leverage to change that.  While the CCSS were pushed into place with federal incentives during Race to the Top, the states were the ones that ultimately adopted them in response to those incentives.  Does Mr. Trump propose a DOE grant program to convince states to repeal the standards now?  Actually, that power is pretty much gone as the Every Student Succeeds Act passed last year places extraordinary limits on the Department of Education’s ability to mandate or coerce states into adopting standards and academic content.  Whatever fighting is going to continue over the Common Core standards, it is entirely at the state level now.

What passes for education policy from the Trump campaign was in full view when his son, Donald Trump Jr., addressed the Republican National Convention and blasted our public schools, comparing them to “Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers.”  He touted school choice and the free market, and he further decried the Democrats as more concerned with “tenured teachers” than with children’s education.

If you really like Campbell Brown’s war on teachers, you will absolutely love the Trump Administration.

Donald Trump’s broader proposals will harm the children in our classrooms.  One of his most consistent proposals is to deport every single undocumented immigrant in the country, an idea that would require massive investments in extra police, extra police powers, mass detention facilities, and emergency courts.  Beyond the stark horror of trying to round up and deport many millions of people, the plan would inflict terrible hardship upon millions of our school children.  Approximately, 1.4% of school children in America are themselves undocumented immigrants, and in 2012, roughly 4.5 million children born in America, and therefore American citizens themselves, lived with at least one parent who was an undocumented immigrant. Donald Trump would inflict unimaginable agony upon them.

American Muslims are only about 1% of our population, but they would take it harshly on the chin due to Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the country.  Nearly two thirds of adult Muslims in America were born in another country, which means Muslim children in our schools are very likely to have relatives who live abroad — and who would be unable to even visit during a Trump administration.  In addition, Donald Trump continuously defames Muslims in America from falsely claiming that 1000s of Muslims cheered the destruction of the World Trade Center to claiming that Muslims in America “know what is going on and they don’t tell us,” blaming the entire Muslim community for the acts of a very few extremists.  Muslim school children face increasing cases of bias and acts of hate against them — can we imagine what will happen to those students in schools if Donald Trump is President using that bully pulpit to spread his lies and hate?

Donald Trump’s acceptance speech painted a picture of America spinning into chaos, terrorism, and violence.  While the facts do not support these claims at all, he used them to repeatedly claim that he will be a “law and order” President and that “safety will be restored.”  If this does not send chills down your spine, you need to investigate history and ask yourself if children of color in our schools will see “safety” or if they will see even more aggressive and even more antagonistic policing in their communities and in their schools.  Donald Trump’s platform is a manifest threat to millions upon millions of the children in our schools.

All of this is bad enough, but Donald Trump represents a different and even worse threat.  It is unfortunate that we have used the word “fascist” as a political epithet in recent decades largely to mean “I don’t like how conservative this politician is.”  The term has actual meaning and a set of core ideas and themes that are emblematic of actual fascism that is extremely hard to map onto typical American politics with any honesty.  But not this time.  While not “pure” fascism in the traditional sense, both Donald Trump’s acceptance speech and the overall agenda of his campaign hit a distressing number of fascist themes – call it American proto-fascism, but the fact remains that Donald Trump is a genuine threat to our system of governance.

In 1995, Italian author and philosopher Umberto Eco wrote an essay about what he called “Ur-Fascism” or “Eternal Fascism”.  Having witnessed the rise of Italian Fascism and being forced to participate in Fascist competitions about the glory of the state and Mussolini, Eco was well equipped to explain central themes of fascism that managed to endure even though they did not manifest as national political forces in Europe of the early 1990s.  Consider some of Eco’s themes of Eternal Fascism and how well they line up with Donald Trump’s speech accepting his nomination:

  • Cult of Tradition: Trump’s portrait of an America falling into violence and chaos was an inherent effort to call for a return to a traditional, nearly mythic, national order.  His signature theme of “Make America Great Again” inherently calls for a period of glory lost to our current generation.  Trumpism sees no advancement except in a return to a mythologized past.
  • Rejection of Modernism: Nearly everything about the world we have made since the end of WWII seems a threat to Trump.  Modern economics.  International agreements. Inclusive immigration policies.  He does not propose reforming them. They are all rejected in favor of a retreat to isolation and protection.
  • Cult of Action for Action’s Sake: Throughout this campaign, Trump has repeatedly emphasized that we must “do something” about all of the problems he claims we have.  He does not have a real plan because that is not the point — we must act and must act now.  Trump’s own son, himself the product of elite private schools and universities, declared his disdain for the educated elite and proclaimed that he and his siblings learned from those with “PhDs in common sense,” indicting expertise in favor of blunt action.
  • Fear of Difference: Trump has thrived on seeking to make his supporters afraid:  undocumented immigrants are murderers and rapists; Muslim immigrants and visitors are potential terrorists; Black Lives Matter protesters are thugs seeking to murder the police and overthrow order.  His support is hugely based upon stoking these fears.
  • Appeal to a Frustrated Middle Class: Unlike progressive politics which identifies economic hardships and proposes policy fixes, Trump identifies those same hardships and uses them to whip up more anxiety and resentment and a belief among followers that their rightful place in the economic order has been stolen from them, leading to…
  • Obsession With A Plot: Again, Trump thrives on the resentments of his followers and directs their fear and sense of humiliation towards others who have victimized them.  Again, this should not be mistaken with progressive politics that seeks to address economic insecurity through policy.  In Trump’s speech and campaign, the fault is that others, immigrants, Muslims, minorities,  foreign governments are existential threats to his followers and must be removed or controlled or beaten.
  • Humiliation from Enemies: Consider the typical Trump tack on trade — everyone cheats the United States and gets rich at our expense. In the world according to Trump most of our supposed allies take advantage of us and laugh at us while our adversaries do not respect us and cheat us.
  • Life Is Permanent Warfare: Trump promises swift military action against certain enemies, even to the point of committing overt war crimes, but the themes of war are evident in his constant talk of winning and losing.  To Donald Trump, all of our problems are summed up by how we “do not win anymore” because there are only two possibilities – victory or defeat.  This gives Trumpism another theme of Eternal Fascism:
  • Contempt for Weakness: Whether he is mocking the disabled or proclaiming that “only he” can fix our problems, Donald Trump oozes contempt for anyone he sees as weak and viciously attacks on that front.
  • Everyone Educated to Be a Hero:  Trump promises us that we will “win” as a nation and all of us will prosper as a result. Eco links the Fascist impulse to herorism to a willingness, even a desire, to die which seems absent from Trumpism as of yet, but his appeal to our desire to heroic victory is present.
  • Machismo: Heroic death may be elusive, but macho strutting and bragging is readily available to the Ur-Fascist.  Donald Trump’s hyper-machismo is on full display with its attendant sexism and disdain for women.  This is perhaps one of his most reliable personality traits from his personal life to his business career to his current career in politics.
  • Selective Populism: Fascism requires that individuals give up their individuality for a Common Will.  This is not entirely present in Trumpism as it is still wedded to more typical American conservative ideals of individualism, but in his acceptance speech, Trump openly declared “I am your Voice” and said of our problems that “I alone can fix them.”  Trump has openly proclaimed himself the legitimate voice of his aggrieved and furious followers.
  • Opposition to Corrupt Parliamentary Governments:  Trump does not openly advocate the replacement of our Constitutional system of government (assuming, of course, that he remotely understands it), but his contempt for that government is evident.  He repeats endlessly that are leaders are “not very smart” and that his skills are essential to save us.
  • Use of Newspeak: Trump does not yet have a unique form of speech replacing common language, but Fascist regimes typically use diminished syntax and poor vocabulary that requires little reasoning.  That stands on its own as a description of Trump’s speeches to date.

None of this means that Donald Trump intends to replace the United States’ political order with a fascist regime.  To begin with, he does not possess the paramilitary force that historic fascist leaders surrounded themselves with before ascending to power.  Second, he is seeking the Presidency through our existing political structure even as he derides it constantly.  However, it does point to a truly unique danger of a potential Trump Presidency: he holds views of power, authority, and the social and political order that are antithetical to our system of shared power among equal branches of government.  Consider a President Trump ordering our INS and border guard to begin building massive detention centers and rounding up millions of undocumented immigrants. Now picture him being ordered to stop by a federal judge.  Will he stop?  Will he recognize the judiciary’s authority over the executive branch?  Or will he lash out at the judge and simply proceed?  What then?  Does the court hold him in contempt?  Would Congress impeach him under those circumstances?  What happens when he makes good on a promise of ordering the military to violate international and military law?  Do the Joint Chiefs resign en masse?  Does he go through every general and admiral until he finds someone willing to commit a war crime?

Perhaps our Constitutional system would be strong enough to remove him from office.  Perhaps not.  As a nation, our political order has not faced a threat like this since General Beauregard ordered the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Trump is a potential sledge hammer to America’s Constitutional system, a system for which he displays no knowledge and no regard, and to which his views of both his power and of his governing mandate are entirely antithetical.  Donald Trump portrays himself as the avenging voice of an aggrieved and humiliated population on whose behalf he will remove parasitic outsiders and force all of our enemies to “lose” as we “win” under his leadership.  This is a candidate who promises to smash all norms for rhetoric, policy, and respects for the roles of our institutional limits on the Presidency.  He may not seek to be an actual dictator, but he threatens to stretch our system to the very breaking point.

As teachers, we should be horrified by this.  Our system of Common Schools was established in no small part to promote democratic values and to contribute to the health of our civic sector.  Public schools are working instantiations of the ideal that a healthy civic order provides for the education of all and through that education promotes the wise and beneficial exercise of the franchise:

If the responsibleness and value of the elective franchise were duly appreciated, the day of our State and National elections would be among the most solemn and religious days in the calendar. Men would approach them, not only with preparation and solicitude, but with the sobriety and solemnity, with which discreet and religious-minded men meet the great crises of life. No man would throw away his vote, through caprice or wantonness, any more than he would throw away his estate, or sell his family into bondage. No man would cast his vote through malice or revenge, any more than a good surgeon would amputate a limb, or a good navigator sail through perilous straits, under the same criminal passions.

– Horace Mann, 1848

Over time, we have seen our schools become the very places were advancement in inclusiveness and expansion of the franchise have played out, but this has required working branches of government: executive offices, legislatures, courts responding to the needs of the day and the petitions of people seeking justice.  A Presidency that threatens to damage those institutions and their balance will inevitably damage our schools as the system that supports them is thrown into uncertainty.

Some may read this and accuse me of trying to frighten teachers into a particular vote.  I will gladly own that accusation, for the prospect of Donald Trump assuming the Presidency is truly frightening.  I do not merely believe he must lose this election; I believe he must lose by a margin that thoroughly repudiates his worldview.

I understand that after the past 15 years, it is very hard for many teachers to support a Democrat for President who has been an ally of many in modern education “reform”.  I also accept that the observations I have made in favor of Secretary Clinton may be unpersuasive for many teachers and for good reasons.  I also hope very sincerely that everyone sees what is truly at stake in this election.  If I am correct that Secretary Clinton is beginning a slow pivot on public education, then her administration offers a chance for education policy to, slowly, move towards support and growth instead of test and punish.  If I am wrong about that, then we continue our familiar advocacy on familiar ground.  It will be painful, and it will lead to more harm of schools and children.  But if Donald Trump is President, it is a certainty that millions more of our students will be caught up in his racist and xenophobic policies, and the very political institutions that sustain public education face serious peril.  On election day, I will vote for the hope of a wiser set of education policies from a candidate who has a genuine gift for listening, and I will vote to repudiate what her opponent represents.

 

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Filed under Activism, charter schools, Common Core, Corruption, Cory Booker, DFER, Drumpf, ESSA, Hillary Clinton, NCLB, politics, racism, Unions

Why We Need the “Public” in Public Education

Without undervaluing any other human agency, it may be safely affirmed that the Common School, improved and energized, as it can easily be, may become the most effective and benignant of all the forces of civilization. Two reasons sustain this position. In the first place, there is a universality in its operation, which can be affirmed of no other institution whatever. If administered in the spirit of justice and conciliation, all the rising generation may be brought within the circle of its reformatory and elevating influences. And, in the second place, the materials upon which it operates are so pliant and ductile as to be susceptible of assuming a greater variety of forms than any other earthly work of the Creator.

– Horace Mann, Twelfth Annual Report to the Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, 1848

It is perhaps difficult to remember, in 2016, that the original purposes of the American common school movement lay in ideals about the public good as well as goals for individual advancement.  Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, politicians and policy makers have emphasized accountability as the primary goal of school law with an increasing emphasis on accountability for individual student outcomes.  Often supported by parents who saw the purpose of their children’s education in the accumulation of credentials, accountability as a framework for school success gives special importance to whether or not schools boost students’ seeking to improve their financial and social situations.  School is doing its job, we are told, in those places where the enterprise of personal advancement works as anticipated, and school is a failure when too many students remain locked generation by generation in the same economic circumstances as their parents.

The appeal of this is understandable, but it is also perilous.  David Labaree of Stanford University warned in 1997 that our concept of school’s purpose was already significantly out of balance.  Arguing that the rise of standards and accountability emphasized social efficiency goals for the labor force, Labaree also noted the significant rise of social mobility  for individuals as a key goal for public education:

Instead, the main threat comes from the growing dominance of the social mobility goal over the others. Although this goal (in coalition with the democratic equality goal) has been a major factor in motivating a progressive politics of education over the years, the increasing hegemony of the mobility goal and its narrow consumer-based approach to education have led to the reconceptualization of education as a purely private good.

We are now, in the late 1990s, experiencing the sobering consequences of this ideological shift. We find credentialism triumphing over learning in our schools, with a commodified form of education winning an edge over useful substance. We find public schools under attack, not just because they are deemed ineffective but also because they are public. After all, if education is indeed a private good, then the next step (according to the influential right wing in today’s educational politics) is to withdraw public control entirely and move toward a fully privatized system of education.

We are almost twenty years later and these forces have been driving education policy for most of that time.  Accountability measures set up under No Child Left Behind demanded that schools show consistent progress in increasing students’ standardized test scores, and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top Program moved accountability down to the individual classroom level – with the expectation that teachers would oversee constant student growth absent any other considerations.  Advocates of the Common Core State Standards wrapped themselves in the language of social efficiency by constantly emphasizing American competitiveness in the international economy and in the language of social mobility by claiming the standards would lead all students to become ready for “college and careers”.  Meanwhile, Common Core aligned testing systems have promised American parents that score reportscan  inform them whether or not their individual children are “on track” for college and career readiness, and no less a figure than former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared that our educational goal should be to be “able to look every second grader in the eye and say, ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not…'”

As Labaree noted, there is nothing wrong, per se, in the goals of social efficiency and social mobility.  They have, in various instantiations, been significant forces in American public education and provided legitimate rationales for our national investment in universal, compulsory education.  We have long called upon schools to provide the economy with workers prepared for the ages in which they lived, and our constant expansion of education’s reach is at least partially premised on the belief that all children, regardless of circumstances, should have an equal chance to succeed in school and therefore achieve economically.  In his Twelfth Annual Report to the Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, Horace Mann stated:

Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery. I do not here mean that it so elevates the moral nature as to make men disdain and abhor the oppression of their fellow-men. This idea pertains to another of its attributes. But I mean that it gives each man the independence and the means, by which he can resist the selfishness of other men. It does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility towards the rich; it prevents being poor.

Mann embraced the power of education not merely to fairly distribute existing wealth, but also to create new wealth, adding both individuals and the nation itself.  However, Mann’s vision of the developing common school did not end with these purposes, and, as the opening quote demonstrates, he devoted great significance for the role of a public school system in promoting the very values necessary for the health and vitality of a democracy.  The common school ideally welcomes all the children of a community, creating a truly shared space without regard to economic and social stratification, and Mann recognized that children could be greatly influenced at a very young age by their education.  By educating those normally considered outcast by society – described in Mann’s 19th century language “in teaching the blind, and the deaf and dumb, in kindling the latent spark of intelligence that lurks in an idiot’s mind, and in the more holy work of reforming abandoned and outcast children” – society can save itself “against intemperance, avarice, war, slavery, bigotry, the woes of want and the wickedness of waste.”

Further, Mann envisioned a strong role for education in preparing all citizens to both embrace and cherish their franchise:

If the responsibleness and value of the elective franchise were duly appreciated, the day of our State and National elections would be among the most solemn and religious days in the calendar. Men would approach them, not only with preparation and solicitude, but with the sobriety and solemnity, with which discreet and religious-minded men meet the great crises of life. No man would throw away his vote, through caprice or wantonness, any more than he would throw away his estate, or sell his family into bondage. No man would cast his vote through malice or revenge, any more than a good surgeon would amputate a limb, or a good navigator sail through perilous straits, under the same criminal passions.

The contrasts with preparing children for jobs and for individual advancement are obvious and critical.  The “public” in public education refers to truly public purposes not merely to sources of funding, and those purposes are related to foundational aspirations of the American Republic.  Public education must be pluralistic by welcoming the children of all community members within its reach.  Public education must be equitable in assuring all children in attendance are provided with what they need to learn.  Public education must support a healthy and vigorous democracy by educating all in our system of government and promoting our admiration of the voting franchise.  It is absolutely and shamefully true that our public schools, like our society, have frequently failed these ideals.  School and society enforced a legal apartheid system for generations, and when the legal edifices of segregation fell, people with means fled integration.  Our system of school funding frequently betrays equity by leaving communities with low property values struggling to meet the needs of their students.  However, it is also true that our schools have steadily grown more inclusive over time, mirroring the slow but usually consistent progress of our society.

Mann was keenly aware that the democratic mission of school could be perilous.  After lengthy discussion of the keys problems that politics and political controversy could visit upon schools, leading to withdrawal of public support, Mann proposes a largely common sense position for schools in the civic curriculum:

Surely, between these extremes, there must be a medium not difficult to be found. And is not this the middle course, which all sensible and judicious men, all patriots, and all genuine republicans, must approve?–namely, that those articles in the creed of republicanism, which are accepted by all, believed in by all, and which form the common basis of our political faith, shall be taught to all. But when the teacher, in the course of his lessons or lectures on the fundamental law, arrives at a controverted text, he is either to read it without comment or remark; or, at most, he is only to say that the passage is the subject of disputation, and that the schoolroom is neither the tribunal to adjudicate, nor the forum to discuss it.

Mann’s proposal is for a studied neutrality that should be familiar to many teachers of civics.  In a modern classroom, teachers are frequently called upon to be moderators of contentious political topics rather than to be advocates, and by declining to take sides while ideally allowing open and full discussion, teachers can avoid exerting undue influence on matters of political conscience.  This is certainly a sensible position given the role teachers must take upon being fair and politically inclusive, and it is not hard to understand that in most situations, it is necessary for teachers to approach politics with caution and neutrality.

Under most situations.  But not under all situations.

There are times when situations in politics do not merely involve passionate partisan division,  but actually call into question values such as pluralism, equity, and democracy that are essential for truly public education.  There was no virtue, for example, for school and school leaders to treat Bull Connor as merely another citizen who held a passionate opinion.  Connor’s vicious racism and willingness to use violence to defend White Supremacy had a constituency, but no ethical validity.  So while school leaders in his time may have risked some of the political chaos that Horace Mann feared, speaking and, yes, teaching against Connor would have been the correct stance in defense of the values that make education public.

We are witnessing something akin to Bull Connor play out in the nomination contest for the Presidency of the Republican Party.  As hard as it is to imagine, the nomination for President of the United States is plausibly within reach of real estate developer Donald Trump who has run a campaign based upon plans to mass deport over 11 million people within two year, unleashing havoc upon the entire country and likely requiring a network of concentration camps to hold people being “processed,” a blanket ban upon over a billion people in the world from entering the country based on their religion, promises that he can force a sovereign nation to pay us billions of dollars to build a wall on their border, promises to make torture legal, has promised to order the military to commit war crimes, relishes the idea of setting off a global trade war, doesn’t possess even a casual relationship with truth, happily repeats racist mythology about African Americans and crime and about Muslims and September 11, is a lifelong misogynist, finds it unusually difficult to turn down the support of avowed White Supremacists, at a minimum flirts with fascist imagery and ideasis obsessed with “strong leaders” even when they are autocratic thugs, and, temporarily, turned the Presidential race into a conversation about this size of his penis.

If it is possible to be worse than the candidate’s avowed policies, many among his supporters come close.  While all of Donald Trump’s supporters are not racists, some of the worst racists in the country have identified his positions and rhetoric as their own. Consider white supremacist Matthew Heimbach, who was caught on camera in early march violently pushing and shoving an African American woman as she was ejected from a Trump rally in Louisville, Kentucky.  In fact, Trump supporters have a history of violently reacting the presence of protestors, even ones being entirely peaceful.  Despite his weak denials, the candidate has long encouraged and incited violence, expressing his desire to beat protestors and his promises to pay legal bills for supporters who engage in violence.  And just to make things even better, a group of Trump’s supporters have started organizing themselves to “expose” “plots” to disrupt campaign events and to use social media to encourage rally attendees to identify specific people at Mr. Trump’s rallies. Because in the past century, devotees of strongman ideology organizing to intimidate others has never gone horribly wrong.

While American politics possesses many backwaters that are, at a minimum, distressing, this campaign goes well beyond them in its reach if not in its ugliness.  If Donald Trump wins the nomination of the Republican Party, then one of our two historic great parties will have endorsed a platform of exclusion and violence that has energized and emboldened some of the very worst people in our nation.  Consider the implications: a political party that issued the Emancipation Proclamation under Abraham Lincoln, that forcibly integrated public schools over the violent objections of White Supremacists under Dwight Eisenhower, and that expanded educational opportunity to children with disabilities under Gerald Ford will put up for President a man whose major policy proposals center on narrowing America.  At its core, the Trump campaign is against pluralism and inclusion – and it is willing to employ violent rhetoric that stirs up actual violence in its pursuit.

This is far beyond mere partisan politics, for it threatens the very values that make public education possible. There is no “public” in public education if we do not, even with our manifest flaws, strive towards greater pluralism and greater equity within those schools, and how can we strive towards those goals if our electorate rejects them for the highest office in the land – and tacitly endorses Trump’s racism, sexism, nativism, and affection for strongman rhetoric and violence?  The normal political season role for schools and for teachers is to arbitrate among competing ideals for the future of our democracy, but a normal political season does not typically feature a campaign that actually threatens the core values needed to have a democracy.  Schools and, especially, school leaders cannot be on the sidelines under circumstances where vast portions of the public are actually threatened. Truly public education cannot be silent this time.

 

 

 

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Filed under Activism, Drumpf, Media, politics, racism, Social Justice

“Successification”

Another month, another Success Academy scandal.

This time it involves an undercover video of a first grade teacher in Success Academy Cobble Hill in Brooklyn that was shot by an assistant teacher who was unnerved by the ongoing abusive behavior of the lead teacher, one of the networks “exemplar teachers” who is considered so effective she trains her colleagues.  The video, submitted to the New York Times, was shot in 2014 and was given to reporters when the assistant teacher left the Success Academy network last year.  The video is hard to watch by anyone with a hint of empathy for very young children struggling with instructions and a challenging concept.  It begins with a room of Success Academy students sitting cross-legged around the classroom rug, hands folded, backs in fully upright posture.  The teacher instructs a little girl to “count it again, making sure you are counting correctly.”  The girl pauses, apparently confused, and the teacher commands her to “count” in a quiet but stern voice.  The girl begins to count and then looks at the teacher who immediately rips her paper in half, throws it at the child, and points sharply to a corner of the room:

Go to the calm down chair and sit.  There is nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper. Somebody come up and show me how she should have counted to get her answer done with one and a split. Show my friends and teach them. (a child does as she says)  Thank you. Do NOT go back to your seat and show me one thing and then don’t do it here.  You’re confusing everybody. Very upset and very disappointed.

Every bit of that was delivered in a loud and angry tone of voice.

Kate Taylor, who wrote the story for the Times, reported that a Success Academy spokesperson said the teacher’s behavior was “shocking” and had been suspended from teaching, but was then back only a week and half later and still in the role of “exemplar” teacher.  Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz cited network manuals that say teachers should never use sarcastic tones or humiliate students, and, as is typical, dismissed the video as an “anomaly,” telling Ms. Taylor that the teacher reacted emotionally because she “so desperately wants her kids to succeed and to fulfill their potential.”  Ms. Moskowitz went on to insist that the video meant nothing and questioned the motives of the former assistant teacher who took it.

This video is not an accident.  It was taken because the assistant teacher had become concerned about daily occurrences of abusive behavior and did not merely get lucky to begin filming the lead teacher at the precise moment when she anomalously lit into a very young child for a simple mistake.  While the network defended itself, Ms. Taylor interviewed 20 current and former teachers whose statements indicate the behavior caught on the video is far more widespread in Success Academy than Ms. Moskowitz and her defenders admit.  One teacher, Jessica Reid Sliwerski, who worked for three years as both a teacher and as an assistant principal said that embarrassing children for “slipshod” work is both common and often encouraged: “It’s this culture of, ‘If you’ve made them cry, you’ve succeeded in getting your point across.”   New York University education professor Joseph P. McDonald said he would hardly be surprised if the classroom was one where children were often afraid. “The fear is likely not only about whether my teacher may at any time erupt with anger and punish me dramatically, but also whether I can ever be safe making mistakes.”  This was confirmed by another former Success Academy teacher, Carly Ginsberg, who said she witnessed papers torn up in front of children as young as kindergarten, an assistant principal openly mocking a low test score in front of the child, and a lead kindergarten teacher who made a little girl cry so hard that she vomited.

None of this is surprising to observers who have long known how Success Academy uses staggering pressure and laser-like focus on standardized test scores to get their results and to drive away children who cannot quickly and totally conform.  Kate Taylor’s lengthy examination of the culture of the school last summer documents it,  John Merrow’s story on Success Academy’s hefty use of out of school suspensions confirms it, and the network’s scramble to explain away a principal who compiled a “got to go” list of children to drive out of the school pretty much sealed it.  Success Academy does not merely have high expectations and sets lofty goals; it single-mindedly pursues them with a near zero tolerance for mistakes and for any behavior outside its rigidly defined norms.  Children, and teachers for that matter, who cannot swiftly comply are subjected to mounting pressure until they either break or go away.

I’ve written previously that Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy are likely to continue to have bad press for the simple reason that there are too many former Success Academy families and teachers to keep the kind of message discipline and information control that the network has employed until recently.  If Success Academy were merely an extreme anomaly in our education system, it would be possible to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude over Ms. Moskowitz’s obvious discomfort and inability to keep up the convincing arrogance that has typified her tenure as an education leader.  The trouble is that while Success Academy may be an extreme instantiation of disturbing and unethical priorities in our education system, it is by no means alone.  To varying degrees (and predating the founding of Ms. Moskowtiz’s network), huge swaths of American education have fallen victim to Successification: creeping emphasis on the shallowest of measures as ends unto themselves, the steady assault on childhood as a time of play and exploration, growing intolerance for error in both answers and behavior.  We are doing this to ourselves and to our children.

Children of color have long known that schools in many cities show almost fanatical intolerance for misbehavior.  The proliferation of “zero-tolerance” policies has lead to a “school to prison pipeline” where minor infractions of rules are criminalized and school discipline is routinely farmed out to police enforcement.  In this video by the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Project Liberty, New York City students describe their experiences with these policies and the impact it has on their ability to even think about school success and their future:

Success Academy may be a pioneer in subjecting very young students to out of school suspensions and extreme levels of behavioral conformity, but schools throughout our vast education system subject students to direct contact with police and arrest for rules violations that should be treated vastly differently.  The cycle here is especially vicious as suspended students often have home environments that cannot provide structure and supervision while they are out of school, leading to far greater risk of dropping out and ending up within the criminal justice system.

Schools that serve students from economically and racially privileged backgrounds place their own forms of pressure on students.  Writing in The Atlantic magazine, Erika Chistakis explained how research is now showing that the increasing emphasis on academics at younger and younger ages, even to preschool children, is actually harmful:

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to—while at the same time obscuring—the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more.

Ms. Christakis also noted that many parents of preschool aged children approved of the new approaches because of palpable fear that their children would fall behind others and that an early stumble could have life altering consequences.  Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania teacher and blogger, notes a similar theme among his own students in this very important essay entitled “One Wrong Move.”   He describes a class of honors students in his small town school completely paralyzed by the fear of making errors that they could never do anything without complete assurance they would get it completely correct, all because of the outsized risks associated with ever being wrong.  It reminds me very much of my own college students who are bright, caring, eager, passionate – and who are geniuses at  completing four hours of homework assigned on a Monday and due on Tuesday, but who, by their own admission have very little experience with high risk work that requires them to embrace uncertainty and the possibility of instructive failure.

I was recently walking my own children to school in our New York City neighborhood when we were passed by a father and son walking together.  The child looked to be about in 4th or 5th grade and was saying to his father, “You know in my school a one or a two are really not looked at as something good.”  It took me a moment, and then I realized he was talking about the level indicators on the New York State assessment system that are baked into elementary school report cards as the numbers 1 through 4.  At what point does it become painfully absurd for an elementary school student to have internalized the language of academic standards performance levels, and at what point does it become unethical for him to know what is or is not approved of in his school?  But this is just another example for where we have come in our education system by making performance to cut levels on standardized exams more important than actual learning.  We have normalized this, and our children know it.

As is typical for Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy leader lashed out at The New York Times in an email circulated to all of her employees where she claimed the newspaper has a “vendetta” against her and called her critics “haters” who are trying to “bully” the network.  While it may be desirable, even necessary, to deflate the self aggrandizing mythology of Success Academy by documenting reality, it is also important to remember that the charter network is not actually the illness.  It is merely an extreme rash that has broken on the surface.  Looking deeper, it is evident that much of our schooling today suffers from “Successification”.  Whether it is black and brown children subjected to zero tolerance policies that send them on a collision course with the criminal justice system or it is students terrified of making errors because their education has no time for learning from mistakes and genuine discovery, we are slowly building a school system where the worst priorities are granted full control.

It is time for a good, long, hard look in the mirror to see if Eva Moskowitz is staring back at us.

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Filed under charter schools, child development, Media, racism, schools, Social Justice, teaching, Testing

The Inequalities Are Still Savage

Twenty-five years ago, author and activist Jonathan Kozol published what remains one of the most important examinations of educational inequity ever printed, Savage InequalitiesThe book is a direct and searing look at how districts serving urban minority children suffered from segregation, inequitable funding, and crumbling facilities while serving student populations suffering the worst deprivations of poverty.  It is a story of malign neglect where school funding based upon the value of a community’s property compounds the economic and environmental violence inflicted upon helpless children.  Kozol criss-crossed the country from East St. Louis, Illinois to New York City, to Camden, New Jersey, to Washington, DC, examining schools and speaking with the students in them.  What he reported should have shaken America to its core.  Consider the following from East St. Louis:

East St. Louis – which the local press refers to as an “inner city without an outer city” – has some of the sickest children in America.  Of the 66 cities in Illinois, East St. Louis ranks first in fetal death, first in premature birth, and third in infant death. Among the negative factors listed by the city’s health director are the sewage running in streets, air that has been fouled by the local plants, the high lead levels noted in the soil, poverty, lack of education, crime, dilapidated housing, insufficient health care, unemployment.  Hospital care is deficient too.  There is no place to have a baby in East St. Louis….Although dental problems don’t command the instant fears associated with low birth weight, fetal death or cholera, they do have the consequence of wearing down the stamina of children and defeating their ambitions.  Bleeding gums, impacted teeth and rotting teeth are routine matters for the children I interviewed in the South Bronx. Children get used to feeling constant pain. They go to sleep with it.  They go to school with it.

Later in the chapter on East St. Louis, a 14 year-old girl spoke about the annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and startled Mr. Kozol by calling the reading of “I Have a Dream” perfunctory.  She explained her thinking: “We have a school in East St. Louis named for Dr. King.  The school is full of sewer water and the doors are locked with chains.  Every student in that school is black. It’s like a terrible joke on history.”

In the years since Jonathan Kozol wrote Savage Inequalities, great changes have happened in the U.S. economy.  Our Gross Domestic Product has grown, in chained 2009 dollars, from $8.9 trillion to $15.9 trillion.  Internet use has become almost universal as has mobile cellular use.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average opened 1990 at 2810.2, and it closed 2015 above 17,000. In 1987, Forbes magazine published a list of 140 international billionaires, 44 of whom lived in the U.S. By 2012, that list swelled to 1,226 – 425 of them living in America.  With such incredible increases in wealth and life changing technologies, one would assume that it would be hard to replicate Mr. Kozol’s exegesis on inequality in America.

But one would be wrong.

In the 2012-2013 school year, the federal government estimated that 53% of the nation’s school buildings needed repairs, renovations, or modernization at an estimated cost of $197 billion.  It has long been known that adverse building conditions have discernible impact on student achievement and on teacher morale and effectiveness.  60% of schools serving communities where 75% or more of students qualify for free and reduced price lunch needed such repairs compared with 48% of schools where 35% of students qualify.

Poverty in the United States dropped from a high of 22.4% of the population in the late 1950s to its lowest point of 11.1% in 1973, but in 1980 it began to rise again, reaching 15.3% in 1993 when it began to decline until the year 2000. Today, the Census Bureau reports that the poverty rate sits at 14.8% where it has stayed roughly unchanged since the end of the Great Recession. Poverty’s reach is not distributed evenly in society with African American and Hispanic citizens living below the poverty line at rates twice as high as White and Asian Americans.  21.1% of children aged 18 and younger live in poverty.  Of the 34 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States’ child poverty level is only surpassed by 5 nations.  In the time since the publication of Savage Inequalities and today, whatever progress that has been made in reducing poverty in the United States has regressed considerably.

Family income has lost ground it gained in the past 25 years as well.  In 1990, median household income was $52,623, and it rose to $57,843 in 1999; in 2014, it was $53,657. In 1986, the average starting wage for a person with BA was $44,770, but by 2013, it had only risen to $45,500 while average starting wages for workers with no college fell from $30,525 to only $28,000.  The stagnation and lost ground of large swaths of American families manifests in health outcomes.  While the top quintiles of income earners have gained years of life expectancy since 1980, the lowest quintiles have remained unchanged for men and have actually declined for poor women.  The United States has a staggering imprisonment rate of 698 per 100,000 population – outpacing Rwanda, Russia, and China – leaving millions of citizens with dismal employment prospects and no ability to vote.

These figures would be stunning enough in their stark detail, but recent, horrifying examples, make it clear that the tragic personal situations that were detailed a quarter of a century ago by Jonathan Kozol still haunt us.  Consider the unmitigated disaster still being uncovered in Flint, Michigan.  The city, after years of cutbacks, was placed under a state appointed emergency manager in 2011 who had the power to appeal local decisions and make cost cutting a primary goal.  That manager, Darnell Earley, blames the Flint City Council for switching from the Detroit water system, supplied by Lake Huron, to the Flint River (as a temporary source until a new system came online), but members of the council flatly deny this and local reporting cannot find reference to using Flint River water in council resolutions.  However the switch was made, the result has been a calamity. In order to use the heavily polluted river water, it had to be treated, but as soon as the water came on line, residents complained about the color, smell, and taste of the water despite assurances from Mr. Earley’s office that it was safe to drink.  For 18 months, Flint residents could see the problems with their water with their own eyes, but hidden from view was a worse danger: the treated water was corrosive and leaching metals, including lead, from the aging pipes in Flint.  It took a pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, to uncover the depth of the matter – with parents complaining about hair loss and rashes in their families, she pulled lead level records and found rates had doubled or tripled.

Lead poisoning’s impacts are life long .  There is no cure.

The circular firing squad of local and state officials blaming others for the crisis is on full display, but that does not change the fact that serious problems with Flint’s water were evident within months of the switch.  By October of 2014, General Motors reached an agreement to switch water sources because the water from the Flint River was too corrosive to use in their engine manufacturing facility.  GM’s water change came at a cost of $400,000 a year and had the approval of the emergency manager – even though the water continued to be piped into resident’s homes.  Flint officials and the state appointed manager knew in October, 2014 that the water every person in Flint was drinking, including all of its children, was unfit for use in a factoryBy summer, 2015, researchers from Virginia Tech University had confirmed that lead particulate levels in Flint drinking water was far beyond safe levels, some samples containing a mind-boggling 2000 parts per billion.  Despite this, the city was not reconnected to Lake Huron sourced water until October, and the now corroded pipes continue to leach toxic metals into the city’s drinking water.

Mr. Earley is now the emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools, and teachers there are staging a series of sick outs to protest deplorable conditions in many of their buildings.  Just how deplorable? Mushrooms have been found growing on walls in Vernor Elementary School:

DPS mushrooms

At Spain Elementary School, the gymnasium is unusable due to buckled floors, leaking ceilings, and mold growth:

DPS Decayed Floor

In a demonstration of supreme self unawareness, Mr. Earley held a press conference to denounce the teachers’ actions, and a Saginaw lawmaker called upon the state education authorities to sanction Detroit’s teachers.

The reality here is both frightening and harsh, but there is a simple truth at the heart of it.  If the citizens of Flint have been poisoned by their own water supply and if the children of Detroit attend schools that are decaying and full of mold and mushrooms it is because we have let it be so.  The United States of America has never been collectively wealthier at any time in its history, but our commitment to the well being of all of us has not been this low since before the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt – and the distribution of wealth has not been this unequal since before the Great Depression.  We look at the total money spent on education and declare that it is “a lot” of money without bothering to ask what needs to spent to make certain that every child comes from a safe and healthy community and has a safe and healthy school to attend.  That this question is not on the lips of every candidate for the Presidency is a stunning indictment of our current social order.

We must remember: our current situation is a choice, one made at the expense of our future.  A society that pumps $4.8 billion in corporate subsidies to oil companies alone does not have to poison its children.  A consumer culture that literally wastes $11.8 billion a year on bottled water can fund new school construction.  A nation that tolerates a weapon program that is 7 years behind schedule and $167 billion over budget does not have to tolerate a single child going to a school that jeopardizes her health.  Our politicians would prefer to blame teachers than to demand that their donors give a fraction more.

The inequalities are still savage.

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Filed under Activism, Corruption, Funding, Media, politics, racism, schools, Social Justice

What Teachers Owe Tamir Rice

Imagine, for a moment, you are a teacher predominantly of students of color.  Now imagine that one of your students’ siblings is a 12 year old playing in a public park with a toy pellet gun when police, responding to a caller who said that the gun was “probably”fake, pull their cruiser within feet of the child, jump out before the car even stops, and shoot him in the stomach within two seconds.  Or perhaps your student’s father was shopping in a Walmart where he picked up a BB gun from the store shelves, and police officers approached him and shot him without giving him any time at all to respond – despite the fact that what he was carrying was a toy from the store’s own shelves.  Or perhaps your student’s aunt or older sister is driving long distance to begin a job at her alma mater in Texas when she is pulled over for a very minor traffic violation, and during the stop, the officer becomes increasingly hostile to her legitimate questions, threatens her with his taser, violently throws her to the ground and arrests her without ever explaining why – and she is found dead in her jail cell in an alleged suicide that not one of her friends and family believes.

And now imagine that in not one of these cases is a single person even required to stand trial for deaths of young black people simply minding their own business.

Of course, these tragedies – and the infuriating aftermaths that send a chilling message about how black lives can be cut down on the slightest or imagined provocation by state actors with no fear of consequence – do not have to be directly connected to your students’ lives.  All they need to do is watch these events unfold in the news and wonder if it will ever be someone they know and love.  Or they can reflect on their own experiences with discrimination and the gradual toll it takes on their psyche.  The reality is that if you are a teacher of students of color in America, these events impact the children in your care, possibly more deeply than you have ever known.

Very talented authors with far more authentic ties to these experiences of racism and the horrendous messages we send to young people of color have written on the what these outcomes feel like and the dire sense that our society is inherently hostile to black bodies.  Charles Blow’s words upon the death of Tamir Rice are searing.  Brittany Cooper astutely points out how the system does not value black lives. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote to his teen aged son (in an article adapted from his book) about the reality of life for black people to this day:

“And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.”

Boys and girls touched and confused by tragedies – both personal and national in scale – enter teachers’ classrooms every day.  Young men and women whose consciousness of injustice is flaring brighter than America’s white majority can possibly understand enter teachers’ classrooms every day.  In today’s education environment – where achievement scores matter far more to policy makers than the humanity of those in school – this poses a difficult and possibly contradictory dilemma. As teachers, our responsibilities to children demand that we acknowledge and affirm the lived realities of their lives.  It further demands that we confirm their sense of injustice in the world in real and substantive ways.  Even though most teachers will never experience racism the way their students of color do, it is vital that they work to help those students maintain visions of their futures and how to obtain them as they navigate their lives.

But perhaps most important, and most difficult, is the need for teachers to admit our own culpability in an oppressive social system and to join our students and their communities in actively opposing it.  School is, for better or worse, a social institution, funded and shaped by our collective aspirations – and by our numerous failings.  If our police departments openly engage in racial profiling and use selective enforcement of the law as a revenue stream, and if politically popular policies of mass incarceration leave millions of mostly black and Hispanic men unable to find work, and if the water minority children in cities like Flint drink can be replaced with toxic sources to save money, and if the right to vote itself is subject to constant and organized obstruction aimed at diffusing the impact of minority voting, can we really absolve our schools and ourselves from any responsibility for the injustices that impact so many of our students?

Individually, teachers may bear little responsibility for the school to prison pipeline and the different policies that quickly consign students to low expectations and betrayal of their right to an equitable education – although there can be no honest denial that many teachers either willingly or unthinkingly support questionable and actively harmful disciplinary practices in their schools.  But both individually and collectively, teachers can lend their voices to the public discourse on education and demand that the chief architects of school’s role in devaluing of young people of color be called out.  We can speak out against the deliberate and chronic underfunding of schools for our most vulnerable children.  We can oppose the constant threats of school closures that disproportionately impact black and Hispanic children.  We can demand to know why schools with high proportions of black and Hispanic children are most likely to have police officers who increasingly treat school disciplinary matters like law enforcement on the street.  We can argue for smaller class sizes, improved physical plants, and the replacement of rigid zero tolerance discipline with restorative justice practices.  We can call out politicians and school officials who ignore that schools cannot afford libraries or librarians and have to cut their art and music programs.

In short, we can demand, loudly and continuously, that all of our students have the schools that the most privileged in society take for granted.  For three decades now, we have replaced calls for equity and justice in schools with calls for accountability and consequences in much the same way that we have made policing and our prisons rougher and more concerned with numbers than with justice.  Those policies have failed us as a nation, and they have been catastrophic for our most vulnerable children.  Millions of children are told that the only choices they have are between chronically underfunded and decaying zoned schools or a privately operated charter school that may work to push them out of the school or whose discipline policies favor total control of behavior rather than fostering leadership. This horrendous dichotomy cannot be the best a society with 17 trillion dollar GDP can deliver.  If it is so, it is because we choose to let it be so.

Schools themselves cannot transform society, but if millions of public school teachers can demand the tools and resources we need to truly transform schools into models of social justice that fully affirm the lives of students, perhaps we can lead the way for the rest of our critical institutions.  Perhaps we can gain the moral authority to demand it.

We owe it to the children to try.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, politics, racism, schools, Social Justice

Being Thankful

It is easy when writing a blog to get caught up in negativity.  In a strange way, it can be a form of fun.  You sharpen your instincts for sarcasm while deploying your skills skewering policies and people actively causing harm to a topic near and dear to your heart.  In today’s public education battles, with billions of dollars being deployed to reshape one of our core democratic institutions without the public’s input, it is almost always easier to state what I am against than what I am for.  Sometimes that is intensely necessary as getting past catchy slogans and plans not backed with research requires taking claims apart with deliberation and focus.  But it is not enough. It fails to highlight the real good being done by pro-public education activists every day.

So I’d like to take this appropriate time of the year to consider for what and for whom I am thankful in addition to my family, my friends, and my community.  Every single group or event for which I am thankful has made significant strides to keep public education public and mindful of its core missions in an age when powerful forces are trying to bend it away from them without bothering to convince the public.

I am thankful for the Opt Out movement.  I am not against the prudent use of very limited and minimally disruptive standardized testing for very limited purposes.  We have gotten far from that in the age of test-based accountability, and the real consequences for the quality of education are well known.  Despite the evident dangers of test-based accountability, the federal government and the states, spurred by intense lobbying by private foundations, actually made the situation worse since the 2008 election, making teachers’ livelihoods tied to statistical uses of standardized test data that is not even supported by the American Statistical Association.

Parents, after watching a decade of standardized testing slowly taking over every aspect of education, are finally saying “enough” and demanding that education regain its sanity.  They are tired of being ignored and rolled over.  They are tired of being told the schools they cherish are failures.  They are tired of seeing test preparation pushing aside genuine learning.  They have been insulted by the Secretary of Education as spoiled complainers.  They’ve been implicitly called union pawns and openly compared to anti-vaxxers by the powerful Chancellor of the New York Board of Regents.  They’ve been threatened if their districts don’t somehow manage to convince and/or force them to test their children.

And it hasn’t deterred them one iota.  20% of New York state’s eligible children refused the state standardized tests in 2015, and there is little to suggest that number will go down.  The message is being heard broadly.  President Obama dedicated time to voice concern about over-testing, although the substance of his actual remarks was not impressive.  More impressive?  A report in The New York Times indicating that Governor Andrew Cuomo may be on the verge of throwing in the towel on test based evaluations of New York’s teachers.  This is the same governor who a year ago declared that the evaluation system he had pushed for himself was “baloney” and declared his intention to make student test scores 50% of teacher evaluations – which he got through the state budget process.

For Governor Cuomo to be considering, as reported by Kate Taylor of The Times, reducing the role of testing in teacher evaluation – and even contemplating removing it altogether – is tremendous.  It is not merely blinking; it is a flat out collapse, and I suspect the governor’s allies at Students First and other reform outfits will be howling their protests soon enough.  But for now, this development can be entirely chalked up to Opt Out’s relentless focus and refusal to fold under pressure.  Of course, history shows that Cuomo cannot be trusted, and he is probably calculating that if he can mollify suburban voters by relieving some of the testing frenzy, then he and his allies can regroup and focus upon taking away local control from urban districts and converting as many of their schools into charters as possible.  In fact, Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute already laid out this strategy in 2014 – saying that reformers had overplayed their hands by saying that even suburban public schools were failures and should instead focus as much as possible on getting no-excuses charter schools into place in urban school systems on the false premise that the test prep factories really represent “excellence”.

So the challenge for Opt Out in the future will be to recognize the progress it has made and to keep fighting so that all children are given schools freed from testing mania and full of enriching and empowering curricula.  I think they can do it.

I am thankful for the Badass Teachers. True grassroots movements are incredible to watch.  They are the result of hard work and organizing, usually spreading because a small group of people kept talking to others until a large group is formed around common principles.  It cannot be faked.  It cannot be bought with foundation money buying splashy web pages and getting “commitment” in return for funding.  It is born out of genuine, lived, passions.

That’s the Badass Teachers Association, or BATs, in a nutshell.  This organization of classroom teachers and allies was born out of teachers who were increasingly frustrated by the efforts of reformers to blame them for all of the problems that land in school but for which society at large accepts no responsibility.  In short order, it has grown to tens of 1000s of members across the country, and it is a vibrant presence in social media and, increasingly, the wider public discourse on our national educational commons.

And they have had an amazing impact already, influencing both national union leaders and legislation in our nation’s capitol.  Because they are a true grassroots organization, BATs leadership and BAT members are in constant and close proximity to each other, and real conversations about real teachers and classrooms are ongoing.  That led to genuine concern over the number of teachers speaking about workplace stress increasing under current reforms, leading even to recent suicides.  Members of the Badass Teachers contacted the American Federation of Teachers which led to direct conversations with AFT President Randi Weingarten.  President Weingarten lent AFT assistance to the BATs in putting together a first of its kind teacher workplace survey which went live in April of this year.  In a mere ten days, over 31 THOUSAND classroom teachers responded.  The team of teachers who wrote the 80 question survey were told to expect maybe 1000 responses.

The initial results are available online here.  On its own, such a survey highlighting the impacts of today’s education environment would be incredible, but the influence is much more far reaching.  The survey results gave the AFT enough information to convince Senators Corey Booker of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado to author an amendment to Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act legislation directing the federal DOE to examine workplace stress among teachers.  In a conversation with me, President Weingarten of the AFT expressed her enthusiasm for the work the BATs group did.  “This time the process was as important as the product,” she said, “Because the process empowered people.”

To witness the impacts of influence flowing up from the real grassroots – that is empowering and it is potentially very long lasting.  I cannot wait to see what the BATs do in the upcoming years.

I am thankful for the Dyett Hunger Strikers.   We live in a time when school privatizers have wrapped themselves in the language of the civil rights struggle and have claimed that their efforts to wrest control of our public schools away from democracy is a civil rights matter.  Given the history of local and state control fighting integration and racial justice, it is not entirely surprising that they have allies among traditional civil rights organizations on matters like testing and accountability.

But the overall package has little to do with civil rights, and while suburban parent constituencies have been angered recently by the impacts of over testing and loss of local input into schooling, urban communities of color have been experiencing that loss of voice for years now.  Dr. Denisha Jones of Howard University makes it very clear how school reform efforts aimed at privatization of public schools are not civil rights advances: privatization is unaccountable and refuses to serve all children as public schools do; school choice leads more to schools choosing the children they want rather than families choosing the schools they want; privatized schools employs huge percentages of novice teachers who they burn out and replace with more novices in short order – experienced teachers are, ironically, reserved for the fully public schools in suburban communities while privatized schools in urban communities get well intentioned do gooders with no experience.  In school privatization, wealthy communities retain full control of their schools while poorer communities are given “choices” — but only those the more powerful deign to give them.

With that in mind, it was incredibly powerful when a group of parent and community activists in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago did something astonishing.  They went on a hunger strike to demand that the Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Rahm Emanuel listen to what the community had been advocating for and planning for over several years: a fully public, open enrollment high school with a green technology and global leadership focus that had been carefully planned for within the community. The strike continued for an agonizing 34 days during which Mayor Emanuel pettily refused to acknowledge the strikers but during which CPS gave ground in slow dribs and drabs. The strikers won not only the reopening of their community’s high school, but also the commitment that it will be an open enrollment, public school not handed over to an outside contractor.  And while CPS would not commit to their specific plan, there will be elements of the green technology and global leadership focus in the school.

The strikers, however, did more than win some concessions on one school.  They put a dramatic spotlight on the inequities of how “reform” plays out in impoverished communities in our country.  While they were starving themselves for a fully public school, CPS, which had claimed budget woes in efforts to close 50 schools in predominantly African American and Hispanic neighborhoods, unveiled plans for multimillion dollar annexes in schools in predominantly white neighborhoods.  Jitu Brown, a lifelong community activist in Chicago, made this discrepancy in education reform crystal clear:

“There’s a huge fight now that I hope this hunger strike has helped to energize and that is the fight for sustainable community schools not only in Chicago but around the country.  You shouldn’t have cities like New Orleans where the largest base of African American home owners in the United States are labeled as refugees and their city is taken from them. They lose their county hospital. They lose their schools and now virtually every school in New Orleans is run by a private company that makes a profit off of administering what is supposedly a human right.  Children in New Orleans have a perfectly good school across the street but they can’t go because they didn’t win the lottery to go.”

Mr. Brown’s fellow hunger striker, April Stogner, spoke on this with John Hockenberry of Public Radio International:

“When you talk about community, the community should be involved in the decisions, and we were not involved. We submitted this plan. We’ve been working on this plan for well over five years, so it’s funny that he said you’re doing what’s best for our community. You don’t know what’s best for our community, or we wouldn’t have had 49 schools closing at one time. Tell the truth and say what it is.  They just want to make money off the backs of our children, and they feel like they can just come into our community and take what they want. But we’re not having that anymore.”

This was a fight that refused to cede the moral high ground to school reformers and put a clear spotlight on how little community voices matter to the people who claim to be acting on their behalf.  The fight for Dyett High School was a powerful message that while the civil rights movement has made great strides using federal power for equality, that does not mean that school privatizers can claim that mantle by grabbing power from afar and then steamrolling communities.  Mr. Brown went on to say:

“There is no group of people who is better than the others. We are different. You know, we have different cultures, but we all bring something…. and we should not stand for inequity.  Because an inequitable school system an inequitable system denies us the joy of knowing each other. It denies us the joy of building a country together. Building a community together. Building a system together. And we have for too long – I mean our white brothers and sisters, but I mean as Americans period — we’ve ignored the racism that flows through this country, that feeds it like food. We’ve ignored it.”

In a time when one of the most important discussions we are having as a nation is the one prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement and its insistence that we face the systemic inequalities built upon racism  permeating our society still, it is incredibly powerful for a community to rise up and insist that their SCHOOLS matter as well.  It is absolutely shameful that people had to put their very bodies on the line for more than a month to make that message completely clear, but it is inspiring that they did so.  I hope to hear much more from them in the coming years.

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