Category Archives: Social Justice

#NationalSchoolWalkout – Grown Ups Need to Listen

Student activists, responding to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, organized a national walk out to memorialize murdered classmates, to protest gun violence, and to call for national action from elected officials.  Across the country, at exactly 10am, 100s of thousands of students (100,000 in New York City alone) walked out of their classrooms to participate in a 17 minute long protest, one minute for each victim of the Parkland shooting.  Scenes from across the country:


Adults had various levels of difficulty accepting what the students had to say.  Citing safety and disruption concerns, school districts around the country threatened disciplinary action if students participated in the walk out.  And, of course, people continued to lob vile opinions about some of the organizers of the Never Again movement, such as Republican candidate for the Maine House of Representatives, Leslie Gibson, who called Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez a “skinhead lesbian” and referred to her schoolmate David Hogg as  a “bald-faced liar.”  Fox News host Sean Hannity used his radio show to first brag a little about the purity of his racial ancestry and then to dismiss the student marchers as indoctrinated.

It is 2018 and gun violence is a polarizing issue, so the vileness is expected and fairly easy to flip on the perpetrators.  What is less expected but also troubling is the viral response that students should not “Walk Out” but rather “Walk Up,” meaning that they should make an effort to include others and to break down social barriers that are at the root of bullying and exclusion in our schools.  #WalkUpNotOut trended on social media, typified by images like this:

This idea is painfully, almost achingly, well-intentioned by most of those promoting it.  However, it misses the mark in several important ways. First, the syntax of “Walk Up Not Out” directly tells students NOT to participate in the Walk Out and use their free speech rights in their chosen manner.  Several graphics for the idea actually cross out the word “Out” to replace it with “Up” as if participating in a one time protest is antithetical to participating in daily kindness.  Second, it conflates equally important issues that deserve their own platform.  The Walk Out was organized to signal that students and their supporters are weary of America’s massively disproportionate share of the developed world’s gun violence and that they are willing to take political action to change that.  The concept of walking up is one that tries to confront the issues of gun violence with issues of bullying and social isolation – issues that deserve their own independent attention.  It is true that bullying victims are twice as likely to bring a weapon to school, but the assumed link between bullying and mass shootings is empirically unverified. “Walking up” is likely a good basis for reducing the risks of teen suicide, but as a response to mass shootings, it is not strongly correlated.

Other critics quickly pointed out that the “walk up” meme is attempting to deflect attention from America’s outlier position regarding guns and gun violence and to place the blame for mass shootings on the victims themselves.  If the shooter had been treated better, then the victims would not have been victimized:

Although many quickly protested that was not their intention, I cannot help but to agree with the accusation of victim blaming.  Many places, frequently schools, could be much kinder environments that eschew bullying and offer people inclusion and warmth.  But the need for that change should not be held up as a reason to tell young people to halt their creative protests on other issues, nor should anti-bullying efforts be conflated with addressing gun violence.  And above all, the responsibility for addressing and alleviating bullying within schools lays squarely upon the shoulders of the adults who run the place and have ultimate authority over what goes on in school.  A school culture of bullying can be toxic – and it can be lethal mainly in the form of suicide – but the people who let it go on unchecked are the people with the legal and moral authority to intervene.

And additional problem with the walk up meme is that it is attempting to silence student protestors at the exact moment in time when those of us in older generations should be quiet and listening to what they have to say.  The survivors of Parkland have impressed a great many people, but they are not exactly atypical of their generation and the general awareness of inequity and the need for change that they embrace.  For two generations now, the adults in the room have largely stood by and watched as the economy decoupled rising productivity from wages, and as earning potential for anyone without a college degree has collapsed:


We’ve stood by as the concentration of wealth have made it possible for small groups of extremely wealthy people to wield power far disproportionate to their number, leading to inaction on issues as broad-ranging as climate change to gun policy.  We’ve stood by as two generations of African American and Hispanic men have faced mass incarceration and the economic, social, political, and racial costs that it inflicts.  We’ve stood by as police departments have been increasingly militarized in communities of color.  And yet, even as representatives fail to take action even on issues that have broad support, voting-aged Americans continue to send them back to Congress at rates as high as 90%.

The young people at the center of yesterday’s walk out event are well aware of these facts, but when they decided to take a day of collective action to tell the rest of the country that they are finding a common voice on an issue the adults have not figured out in decades, they are being told that they are doing it wrong.  This is as completely backwards as the media firestorm aimed at Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality that somehow make even the most understated of protests the wrong thing to do.  We need to comprehend that we’ve made at least as much of a hash of domestic policy as the “Best and Brightest” managed to make of foreign policy in the generations before ours (and to be fair — foreign policy is not exactly in an upward spiral). Young people are telling us that they are paying attention to how we have failed to be stewards of a “more perfect union” for our Posterity, that they can command the attention of the media, that they can energize their peers in great numbers – and that they want change.

It is time for us to listen.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, Media, politics, school violence, schools, Social Justice

What, Exactly, Am I Preparing My Students For?

On February 14th, 19 year-old Nikolas Cruz entered his former high school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, armed with an AR-15 rifle and proceeded to murder 17 students and staff before he fled the scene and was quickly apprehended.  The tragedy was the third mass shooting with more than a dozen fatalities in only 4 months and the seventh mass shooting in the same period.  The event also brought a swift round of accusations and counter accusations about responsibility and apparent inaction to repeated calls to law enforcement over Cruz’s behavior.  The fallout of that is still ongoing, and it will certainly sort itself out over time.

What was less expected was the swift and, for now, sustained call for action from the very victims of the mass shooting, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas.  America is caught in a cynical cycle where a mass shooting tragedy is met with a chorus of political “leaders” offering their “thoughts and prayers” and declaring that now is “not the time” to discuss policy changes that might address America’s unique problem with gun violence in general and with mass shootings in particular.  It was widely, sadly, believed that after 20 first graders were murdered in Sandy Hook in 2012 with little more than a round of “thoughts and prayers,” a call from President Obama for action, and zero action by Congress for years that nothing will change.  That belief seemed validated as the years ticked by with over 400 additional people shot in more than 200 shootings in schools.

There is a chance that might change.

The reason for that hope is the unexpected but inspiring “Never Again” movement that the high school survivors of Parkland have put together at breakneck speed. These students, raised entirely after the Columbine massacre, well-educated, media and social media savvy, have captured a tremendous amount of attention and have openly expressed the frustration and exasperation with the nation’s complete standstill on gun policy purchased by millions of dollars in political donations by the NRA.  Consider this speech by Senior Emma Gonzalez:

This interview with her classmate, David Hogg:

Cameron Kasky, asking Senator Marco Rubio if he will reject NRA donations:

Or Delaney Tarr explaining to lawmakers that they will not go away:

For their efforts and their eloquence, the teenaged leaders of the past three weeks have been subject to bizarre conspiracy theories, patronizing mocking by conservative pundits, and death threats.  So far, they show no signs of being deterred nor of losing their platform.

It would be remiss to not mention how activists and supporters of Black Lives Matter expressed both admiration of and support for the Parkland survivors, and dismay at how powerful figures in the media, in entertainment, and in politics never afforded similar attention and support for their protests:

It is also important to note the passion and dignity that Black Lives Matter brought and continues to bring to their protests, despite constant misrepresentation, backlash and police response, as evidenced by the arrest of Ieshia Evans in Baton Rouge after the death of Alton Sterling:

This is important because both Black Lives Matter and Never Again ask at least one clear question in common:  Is it possible to go about a daily life without constant fear of violence and death?  Both movements deserve answers in the affirmative, but neither are likely to get those answers soon.

It appears, also, that America’s teachers have been forced into the same question alongside the student activists.  Educators have been present at every one of the 400 school shootings since Sandy Hook, and they have been victims.  Teachers in American schools are tasked with training students through mandatory “lock down” drills in the event that the increasingly thinkable visits their schools.  During actual school shootings, teachers are responsible for following school procedures that are hopefully designed to keep their charges safe.  In the days after the Parkland murders, teachers shared stories of their discussions with students about what would happen in the event of a shooting in their school, and they have been, frankly, heart breaking.  A teacher in Ohio, Marissa Schimmoeller, explained how her students promised to “carry her” to safety as she is confined to a wheelchair, and other teachers took to twitter to explain their gut wrenching conversations with students in the wake of the Florida attack, like this one about how a teacher would have to lock her students into a closet from the OUTSIDE:

Teachers were further forced to wonder what their lives and safety mean when the President of the United States insisted upon using his social media platform to claim that arming teachers would be a big step in “solving” the problem:

I have already written at length about how absolutely terrible an idea this is.  Mark Webber details further points about the impracticality and expense of such an idea.  Peter Greene points out the incredible juxtaposition of all of the explicit criticism of teachers that has been at the center of our national education debate for, well, forever, but then assuming teachers can carry guns in school and be first responders in an actual crisis.  Unfortunately, since the President of the United States decided to interject, repeatedly, this terrible idea into the national discourse, it has become a part of the debate on what teachers ought to do in the face of gun violence in schools.

It would be tempting at this point to take comfort in raw numbers.  The reality is that the vast majority of America’s 50 million school aged children and their 3 million teachers go to school 180 days a year and never have more than a preparedness drill.  American education is a vast enterprise spanning 98,000 public schools spread across 15,000 school districts.  Students spend a total of 54 BILLION hours in public schools in every year, and Americans’ odds of dying in a mass shooting in any location are about 4 times less than the odds of choking to death on food.  But that is not how terrorism really works.  The sheer randomness of mass gun violence in our society means that even if we are very unlikely to die from such violence, we can never really dismiss the possibility, and the unique position America occupies in the developed world as the undisputed capital of gun violence and mass shootings cannot be dismissed either.  Besides, the odds of dying in a tornado in Kansas are also very low for any individual.  It is still prudent to have a storm cellar and a plan to get to it in an emergency.

Does this mean I have to change my teacher education curriculum?

This isn’t an idle consideration.  Since I moved from the classroom to teacher education in 1997, one of the core principles that has guided my work has been preparing future teachers for work far beyond instruction.  Gary Fenstermacher, interpreting the work of John Goodlad, states that teachers have to learn how to be “good stewards” of their school, meaning that they take responsibility for the well-being of the entire enterprise within the school within the context of free public education in society.  Further, teachers must practice communication and be informants to the community, they must understand and promote the role of citizenship in a democracy, and they must model transformational learning, demonstrating to students that they themselves are always learning deeply and meaningfully.  This is complex vision of teachers’ work that takes a tremendous amount of dedication and knowledge to put into practice and which the best teachers refine over the course of their careers.

The work beyond instruction points to an ethical responsibility for teachers that is both humbling and daunting.  How can I practice stewardship of the school and its role in the community if I do not confront bullying and abuse regardless of its source?  How can I be an effective communicator to parents and the community if I condescend to them or embrace pernicious stereotypes?  What kind of citizenship will I promote if I do not challenge injustice and the complacency that lets it flourish?  Teacher education that does not present these questions to future teachers fails to provide even the barest preparation for what teaching really is.

Do we now have no choice but to fold “What will you do if someone aims a gun at your students?” to teacher preparation?

On the one hand, this does seems like a “storm cellar in Kansas” concept.  You can go your entire life without ever needing it, but if you do not have it if the time comes, you are far worse off.  On the other hand, merely acknowledging this as a responsibility of teachers – as if it were taking attendance – without at least trying to challenge the insanity is a massive failure of moral imagination.  Perhaps this is why Black Lives Matter activists make so many people uncomfortable and why the Never Again activists have captured an available platform.  As the young people who have grown up in a system that is insufficiently outraged by the outrageous, they are not simply accepting it and are demanding to know why those in power will not use their legal authority to make it better.

Perhaps it will be sufficient for teacher preparation to follow the lead of NYU’s Steinhardt program with a crisis preparedness seminar centered on case studies of situations that arise in school and which brings in guidance counselors, other professionals, and students themselves to consider what can arise in schools — including shootings.  But I think this is stunningly insufficient if we do not add our voices to those calling for real and comprehensive answers to our gun problem, and if we fail to highlight how many schools are insufficiently prepared to meet their most pressing needs — a rich curriculum, guidance and full care of students, nutrition programs, fully funded and staffed libraries, working facilities — then we are merely acquiescing to further neglect of our students and co-workers.  Responding to the tragedies that have spanned Columbine and Sandyhook and Marjory Stoneman Douglas requires not to simply run children through preparedness drills, but also requires that we add our voices to the young activists demanding why our political system can offer them nothing more than drills layered with thoughts and prayers.


Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, classrooms, Corruption, politics, racism, school violence, schools, Social Justice, teacher learning

Deep in the Heart of Whiteness

In 1993, I took my Bachelors Degree, my Masters Degree, and my teaching coursework, stepped on to an airplane and left for Honolulu, Hawai’i to begin a one year teaching internship.  I was confident that I knew the subject I was going to teach, English, and I was confident that my teaching coursework had taught me what I needed to adapt that content into a curriculum suited for learners anywhere.  I was also possessed of a young, white, suburban liberal’s confidence that I valued diversity and in the ability of that disposition to make up for the lack of either theoretical or practical knowledge that I had about the community I was moving to.

As it turned out, I did know a great deal about English.

My other assumptions were woefully inadequate, and I soon realized that if I was going to be anything more than a tourist who also collected a paycheck, I had an enormous amount to learn about the political, economic, racial, and linguistic history of my new home. Hawai’i’s history since contact with Europe and America includes colonization, disease, displacement of native peoples, a plantation labor economy, and concentration of land and wealth into American-born hands. Eventually,  a cabal of American-backed businessmen, not content with what they had already accumulated at the expense of Native Hawaiians and imported plantation labor, overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 with assistance from the U.S. military and worked towards annexation by the United States, succeeding in 1898.  In 1896, the government set up by the coup leaders officially banned the use of Hawaiian language in all schools, both public and private, a law which would remain on the books until the 1980s and which nearly succeeded in wiping out the Hawaiian language outside of tourist kitsch.  I knew none of this when I stepped foot on O’ahu.

Teaching English is always a political act, but the starkness of that become far more clear as I accumulated experience in Honolulu and got to know my students better.  A few years later, I was handed a textbook that was supposed to be on the subject of “American Literature” for a class of eleventh graders.  The text was nearly 600 pages long, and it contained perhaps 30 pages written by African Americans, no more than that by Americans of Hispanic heritage, literally nothing by Asian Americans, and a 3 page speech attributed to Chief Seattle for which there is no definitive text and a lot of mythology that served other people’s interests.  Thumbing through the book and thinking about my students – who largely traced their ancestry to continental Asia, the Philippines, Hawai’i, and other Pacific nations – was enormously depressing.  Here was a text of “American” literature that would have been inadequate in countless American communities and which effectively erased the majority of my students from the nation’s literary tradition.  Luckily, the Bishop Museum Press had just published Mary Kawena Pukui’s bilingual collection of Hawaiian folktales, and breaking my department’s copying budget, I set about using it as the basis for a semester long project on family folk stories incorporating oral, written, and visual presentations.

This doesn’t mean that I did not fail frequently, especially in my first year teaching.  I did.  I recall with shame showing visible impatience with a student in my first year who tried to explain that his family was Buddhist, and he simply did not know a lot of the religious references in the Hawthorne story we had read.  I had difficulty sustaining students’ conversations about our reading until I recognized that the classroom speaking pattern I was used to at home and in school was culturally specific and until I tried to embrace the richness of students’ language in all of the forms that entered my classroom as classroom talk.   It took me too many years to really question the ethnocentrism of the English curriculum, far too often taking the easier path of sticking with the literature that spoke to me.

As I grew to appreciate the complexities of this community, I grew to love it as well.  Hawai’i had far more to teach me that I had to teach it, and while it was not always comfortable, it was surely valuable.  And that growing value was why, in my second year teaching, I was absolutely flummoxed by an admission a fellow “mainland transplant” made to me.  It was at a party at a friend’s home.  This friend was also white but had lived in Hawai’i all of her life, and one of her guests was a young woman who had moved to O’ahu with her husband for his job a few years earlier from the east coast.  We spoke briefly before she, perhaps assessing me as similarly-situated and sympathetic, made an admission:

“You know, living here really makes me understand what black people must have felt like in Alabama in the 1950s.”

I don’t recall my exact reaction, but I must not have registered anything obvious as she continued for some minutes about how much she disliked Hawai’i in general and Honolulu in particular.  I do not recall getting into an argument with her, and I do not recall any further discussions.  I do remember being bothered by her hostility and absolutely floored by her comparison to herself, as a white person in Honolulu, to a black person in the Jim Crow era.  Numerous explanations seemed possible:

  • Perhaps she had a staggeringly shallow understanding of the history of White Supremacy, the kind of terrorism inflicted upon people of color in the Jim Crow South, and just how much of that persisted past the legal victories of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Perhaps she was plainly unused to being in the racial minority.  Hawai’i, as is often overlooked by the national press, was a “majority minority” state the moment it was admitted into the Union.  To be suddenly thrust in a position where her status no longer appeared guaranteed may have been supremely uncomfortable.
  • Perhaps she had experienced genuine racial animosity and had considered it the equivalent of systemic racism.  Hawai’i’s history has born complex and often painful racial relationships, and I knew more than one white person who bristled at being called “haole” especially in the sense that the words denotes a judgement of one’s character.

Of course, it is entirely possible she simply didn’t like Hawai’i.  I have lived in places I found less than wonderful in my life.  But her comparison of herself to a person of color in the Jim Crow South screamed at a deeper level of resentment, uneasiness, and angst in need of explanation.  Even today, over two decades later, I have trouble understanding it.  At the time I seriously could not grasp it all because except for reasonably average homesickness and an inability in my first year of detecting the change of the seasons, I really could not understand what she was trying to explain and did not feel that sense of racial discomfort and anxiety she expressed.

This doesn’t denote anything particularly special about my enlightenment regarding race in my mid-twenties.  I suffered not a single professional consequence as a white male with an Ivy League degree while teaching.  It is possible that some of my chosen social activities, like the Sierra Club, were over-populated with people like myself, so I effectively “shielded” myself from situations where racial tension was more evident.  I grew up in a majority Jewish town, but spent college in an environment with a very small Jewish population, so I had already experienced moving to a place with a different culture.  Perhaps the nature of my job meant more contact with young people who had grown up in Hawai’i, giving me the opportunity to know and appreciate them.

Whatever the reason, I genuinely cannot recall a single incident in Hawai’i where I personally felt my identity as a white person disadvantaged me.  It is entirely possible, although I’d be hard pressed to recall, that an individual here or there was personally hostile, but nothing left any lasting impression and certainly nothing was consequential.  Ultimately, I can only understand the young woman’s response as a viscerally negative response to being suddenly thrust into a visible minority status, where the majority of people looked very different than herself and possessed cultural histories and practices with which she was unfamiliar.  Being taken from a position of comfort and presumed normalcy to a space where your standard assumptions might no longer work is not an experience many people in America’s racial majority are prepared for by any of their upbringing.  I assume (and it is an assumption) that the woman who clearly thought I would understand her assessment of her situation was struggling with that to such a degree that she was erupting with her own resentment.

I’ve been thinking about this encounter off and on since the election in 2008 and almost nonstop since 2016.

The election of Barack Obama to the Presidency sent a shock wave through many white Americans that manifested in opposition to him far beyond what can be explained by mere partisan politics.  As late as Fall 2015, 29% of Americans still believed that the first black President was secretly a Muslim, furthering an ongoing campaign to “other” Mr. Obama and to refuse to accept his legitimacy as President of the United States.  This has been an outgrowth of a general sense of shock among much of the nation’s white population that their assumed normalcy and social/political status was under threat due to Mr. Obama’s Presidency and demographic projections of a dwindling white population in coming decades.  Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and Samuel Sommers of Tufts University noted this in a 2011 study where whites expressed that racism is a “zero sum game” and that they see themselves “losing” in America today.  In that study, both black and white Americans believed that racial animosity towards blacks had fallen from the 1950s to the 2000s, but whites startlingly saw racial animosity against themselves as having simultaneously risen to the point where there was more discrimination against them than against blacks.  The authors concluded that their white respondents were seeing that progress for black Americans had occurred and that it had done so at their expense.

This phenomenon exploded into support among Republican primary voters for Donald Trump who initiated his campaign on racism, nativism, and isolationist populism.  Pew Research found that warmth towards Donald Trump in the primary campaign was closely associated with seeing immigration and a shrinking white demographic as negatives.  A minority of Republican voters (39%) believed that the fact that America will become “majority minority” was negative, but an overwhelming 63% of these constituents had a favorable view of Donald Trump.  Economic anxiety may have gotten a lot of media attention in the last election cycle, but when a lot of white people went into the voting booth, racial animosity and fear of living in a diverse future motivated their votes.

The only way to explain this fear and animosity is with the inability to see a future for themselves in an increasingly diverse national community which is inexorably coming.  In 1980 (the first year the census recorded a “Spanish Origin” population), whites numbered roughly 189 million in a national population of over 226.5 million,  roughly 83% of the population counted in the Census.  In 2014, non-Hispanic White Americans were 62.2% of the population, projected to be only 43.6% of the population in 2060.

In other words:  in coming decades, more and more white Americans will find themselves more and more a demonstrably minority population, and much like the young woman I met in Hawai’i in the mid-1990s, they are uncomfortable with that and often down right fearful.  Much like their predecessors in the 1800s and early 1900s who saw waves of Irish Catholic immigration, Southern European immigration, Eastern European and Jewish immigration, and Asian immigration as inherent threats to a cultural and political order dominated by Anglo-Saxon Protestants, white Americans fearful for their place in the social, cultural, and political order are lashing out.  The march by avowed White Supremacists in Charlottesville this summer that sparked a national furor was merely the most ugly manifestation of this — and not even the most problematic.  It takes little courage to denounce people marching in Nazi regalia.  It takes a bit more to ask friends and neighbors to think about what really motivated their vote last year.

And yet not asking that is not a viable option.  A shocking percentage of white Americans believe that they are discriminated against racially and that their dwindling demographic majority is an actual threat rather than a natural outcome of a changing society.  This is a process that will continue for decades, and white Americans need a very different framing of the ongoing changes if they are going to adapt to it without the upheaval we have seen recently, and the echoes it has of past, violent, responses to immigration and civil rights movements.

Nell Irvin Painter, professor emerita of history at Princeton University and author of A History of Whiteness, suggests just how difficult this might be.  As a construct, “whiteness” has a long and complex history beyond simply noting a cluster of a few, vaguely-shared physical attributes, and Dr. Irvin Painter documents how the concept has changed over time:

In the mid-to late-19th century, the existence of several white races was widely assumed: notably, the superior Saxons and the inferior Celts.  Each race – and they were called races – had its characteristic racial temperament.  “Temperament” has been and still is a crucial facet of racial classification since its 18th-century Linnaean origins.  Color has always been only one part of it (as the case of Ms. Dolezal shows).

In the 19th century, the Saxon race was said to be intelligent, energetic, sober, Protestant and beautiful.  Celts, in contrast, were said to be stupid, impulsive, drunken, Catholic and ugly.

Dr. Irvin Painter also documents that by the 1940s, anthropologists, dominated by white men as academia was, determined that white, Asian, and black were the only “true” races and that each existed as unitary without any racial subgroups.  This new classification system had the side effect of removing white people from any burden of racial identity in America:

The useful part of white identity’s vagueness is that whites don’t have to shoulder the burden of race in America, which, at the least, is utterly exhausting.  A neutral racial identity is blandly uninteresting.  In the 1970s, long after they had been accepted as “white,” Italians, Greeks, Jews and others proclaimed themselves “ethnic” Americans in order to forge a positive identity, at a time of “black is beautiful.” But this ethnic self-discovery did not alter the fact that whiteness continued to be defined, as before, primarily by what it isn’t: blackness.

This leaves white Americans in modern America with a disturbing binary in their identity.  Toggling between “bland nothingness” on the one hand and “racist hatred” on the other, white Americans have little that is compelling to hold on to, but this has at least one positive effect.  Like the young woman who asked me to affirm the injustice of her situation, “nothingness” meant that she was entirely “normal,” that her sense of how the world worked and how culture functioned was unproblematic, and she could navigate life without her identity causing any special discomfort. This is perhaps the “heart of whiteness,” the ability to live and interact with others wrapped in the privilege of assumed normalcy.  Finding herself in Hawai’i flipped that construct in a way she could not process without lashing out, and the rest of the white community in America is entering a future where the assumption of normalcy is methodically being deconstructed by the sheer weight of demographics.

The past decade says that deconstruction will be turbulent under current understandings of whiteness and identity, risking severe backlash from wide segments of the white population.  Dr. Irvin Painter argues that breaking down the binary toggle of whiteness is essential and that the abolition of white privilege and social justice could be incorporated as a component of identity.   It is a worthwhile vision.  The alternative is decades of fear, resentment, and efforts to retrench white privilege across our political and cultural system.



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

How Betsy DeVos Could Fail

Betsy DeVos has been Secretary of Education for less than three weeks, but her tenure as the custodian of federal education law and policy promises to be as stormy as her confirmation process.  According to this summary from The Washington Post, Secretary DeVos managed to, in a few weeks, insult teachers at a middle school, bashed protesters, claimed she would be fine if her department was shut down by Congress, complained about critics wanting to “make her life a living hell,” did not participate in a scheduled Twitter chat for teachers, suggested that schools are supposed to be able to compensate for all home problems, needed U.S. marshals to protect her during a school visit, demonstrated little understanding of the Common Core State Standards, and signaled her number one priority is any form of schooling other than traditional public schools.

Additionally, insider accounts says that DeVos was opposed to the immediate roll back of Obama administration guidelines protecting transgender students, but she was bullied by Attorney General Jeff Sessions into supporting the decisionIn an interview with Axios, Secretary DeVos confirmed that she would not mind if Congress put her out of work by ending the department, and she confirmed her enthusiasm for different “models” of education:

“I expect there will be more public charter schools. I expect there will be more private schools. I expect there will be more virtual schools. I expect there will be more schools of any kind that haven’t even been invented yet.”

It was in an interview with columnist Cal Thomas that DeVos complained about protesters and where she suggested that lack of “character education” was partially to blame for lagging achievement in schools.  In her appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference this week, she joked that she was “the first person” to tell Senator Bernie Sanders that there was “no such thing as free lunch” – despite the ironic fact that federal law does actually provide free lunches for millions of public school students – and she accused the American Professoriate of more or less brainwashing our students.

It is therefore understandable if advocates for American public education are terrified.  Betsy DeVos is absolutely, almost religiously, dedicated to “disrupting” the public school system, and her record of political advocacy shows that she has little regard for the impacts of her preferred reforms and sees them as a goal unto themselves. With the force of federal education law and spending behind her, and with a Congress eager to abet her efforts, there is a great deal of disruption that she can manage.  Stories from New Orleans and Detroit as well as other cities where charters and privatization have had significant impact with little oversight should serve as cautionary tales for teachers, parents, and students alike: there will be a full frontal assault on the very assumption that compulsory education is a public good serving any public function at all.

But it is also very likely going to fail.  That isn’t to say that there will not be a lot of disruption; there will be.  And that is not to say that a lot of schools and classrooms will not become more uncertain and stressful places; that will happen.  But it is to say that the public school system in America is a lot more resilient than someone like Betsy DeVos, who called it “a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market…. a monopoly, a dead end,” can understand.  Like Arne Duncan before her, I strongly suspect that Secretary DeVos will struggle to coordinate influence across a vast and diffuse education system that has overlapping and competing stakeholders unwilling to simply take orders and march in unison towards one goal.  I see three potential stumbling blocks that will ultimately limit what DeVos is able to accomplish:

1. Her Reach Will Exceed Her Grasp

Congressional Republicans may very well give Betsy DeVos what she has always dreamed of: an opportunity to shovel huge swaths of American education over to private service providers.  Steve King of Iowa has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would essentially gut the federal role in public education.  H.R. 610, which has only been referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce so far, is written to “distribute Federal funds for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers” and to “repeal a certain rule relating to nutritional standards in schools (because OF COURSE it does)”.  Representative King and his co-sponsors propose to eliminate the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and to send all federal funds to states as block grants that can be used for eligible students to attend any private school or for families that choose to home school.  States will only receive this money if they comply with voucher program requirements and if they make it “lawful” for any parents to enroll their child in any public or private school or to home school them.  For added measure, Representative King appears intent to do away with former First Lady Michelle Obama’s signature initiative on children’s health by doing away with nutritional guidance on school lunches…I’m guessing the makers of sawdust based breakfast cereals and lunch “meats” have been hurting too much.

This would gut the federal role in assisting states and communities to provide fair and equitable education for all students, reducing Washington’s role to handing out bundles of coupons states would distribute to parents to pass through to private education operators.  In any normal political climate, I would assume that the bill was dead on arrival, but given current leadership of the House of Representatives, Steve King’s popularity with the voters that put Donald Trump in office, and the leadership in the Executive Branch, I would not bet against some version of this bill making it to the floor of the House.  Even if H.R. 610 fails to make it through, other ideas are floating in Congress, such as a suggestion from the “School Choice Caucus” that some or all of the $15 billion spent on Title I could be turned into a school choice fund.  Knowing DeVos’ zeal for school vouchers, it is easy to imagine her applying leverage from a bill like that or even applying leverage to existing federal funds to push states into opening more and more school choice schemes even without Steve King’s bill.

A recent history lesson would do Secretary DeVos some good if she were inclined to learn lessons about reaching too far too fast in federal education.  For example, Bill Gates probably thought he had it all lined up:  He had a Secretary of Education open to his technocratic approach to education reform.  He had the National Governors Association on board with adopting standards across the states.  He had the people he liked and who had convinced him to back the project writing the standards.  He would soon have the federal government using a grant competition and waivers to encourage states to adopt those standards, to sign up for shared standardized exams, and to use test score data to rate teacher effectiveness.  In short order, the federal government would offer massive grants to multi-state testing consortia to design the first cross-state accountability exams. To wrap it all up with a bow, he had 100s of millions of dollars he was willing to pump into the effort.

And we all know how that turned out.

Fans of the Common Core and the associated testing and teacher evaluations would probably like to chalk up all resistance to the same forces that reflexively assaulted anything done by President Obama, and to be sure, if you go to Twitter and searched #commiecore you will see what they mean.  But that is only explanatory to a degree.  A lot of the backlash to the reform efforts that rolled into schools was based on a massively disruptive set of interconnected policies.  Common standards informed high stakes assessments that refocused the curriculum, and teacher evaluations tied to student growth on those exams meant no classroom could avoid seeing test scores as goals in and of themselves.  Even if the standards themselves were universally recognized as high quality – and they were not – driving disruptive reforms into nearly every classroom in the country so quickly and with so little public discussion about what was happening and why was guaranteed to foment backlash.  Teachers had little to no time to learn about and understand the standards or to develop their own critiques.  Quality materials to support the new standards were in short supply.  Test based incentives increased urgency and narrowed teaching options.  Parents turned around to discover that people were trying to rejigger most of the country’s schools without bothering to talk to them about it.  And when they talked about their frustration in public, the Secretary of Education said  they were “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

This is the kind of disrespect and dismissal that has been sadly common place for parents of color for decades now.  Those communities frequently have control of their schools taken away from them by distant state governments, have suffered the consequences of No Child Left Behind which labeled their schools failures without doing anything substantive to help them, and then made them choose between charter schools that are well funded but might not accommodate their children and public schools that are underfunded and neglected.  But that level of being dictated to and told to like it or go pound sand is not typical in suburban schools whose parents both expect and demand access to local decision makers and who believe their schools were serving their needs before any of this arrived.  That is not the kind of environment you “disrupt” without creating massive backlash.

Today, Common Core is not exactly dead, but it also isn’t getting invited to any parties.  Formerly supportive governors dance away from the standards (even if they do little to change them), while one of the testing consortia struggles to retain the few remaining states.  While variations and remnants of this effort are likely to survive, the technocrats’ dream of a coordinated system of state standards, assessments, and teacher evaluations is pretty much off the table.

Secretary DeVos looks to be on a similar path, and Congress is very likely to give her a pool of money to use to her heart’s content which, if history is any judge, is to set up as many alternatives to public schools as she can without regard to their quality or impact on district schools.  If even a significant portion of Title I money is turned into a voucher program, DeVos will have leverage on every state to increase school choice policies dramatically, even in places that receive only small amounts of Title I funding.  Imagine the reaction of a community that finds out that pep band has been canceled to cover the transportation costs of children traveling to parochial schools in neighboring districts and you have some idea of how many Congressional Republicans will just stop meeting with constituents altogether.  Like Arne Duncan before her, Betsy DeVos is in a hurry, and, having pushed for unregulated privatization and vouchers for decades regardless of what people actually want, it is impossible to imagine that she will not reach for whatever she can as fast as she can – with predictable consequences.  My biggest fear is not that Secretary DeVos will be able to bend the entire school system to her privatized will but that the influential communities will beat back her efforts and call it a day, forgetting that what offended them has been the unjust norm for families of color for years.

2. See You In Court

Trump’s administration landed in court, on the losing side, almost immediately after implementing its travel ban, and there is no reason to believe that lawsuits won’t be filed almost immediately if Secretary DeVos moves on her favored policies. Two legal fronts will be ripe for action – First Amendment grounds and state constitutional grounds.

Betsy DeVos loves vouchers.  She and her family tried to get Michigan to adopt them in 2000, only to face overwhelming opposition followed by her husband’s failed bid for governor.  Her tactic following that loss was to systematically buy the political system in Michigan and settle for unleashing a chaotic flood of unregulated charter schools on the state.  The DeVos family also made efforts to blur the boundaries between church and state, and one of her ultimate goals is to use public money to advance “God’s Kingdom” by helping religious education:

But the DeVoses’ foundation giving shows the couple’s clearest preference is for Christian private schools. In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy magazine, Betsy DeVos said that while charters are “a very valid choice,” they “take a while to start up and get operating. Meanwhile, there are very good non-public schools, hanging on by a shoestring, that can begin taking students today.” From 1999 to 2014, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation gave out $2.39 million to the Grand Rapids Christian High School Association, $652,000 to the Ada Christian School, and $458,000 to Holland Christian Schools. All told, their foundation contributed $8.6 million to private religious schools—a reflection of the DeVoses’ lifelong dedication to building “God’s kingdom” through education.

It would be out of her character to resist funneling federal dollars set aside for school vouchers to religious schools.  The effort might be slow at first, getting the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, but even a small, “experimental” voucher program for religious education would be an immediate First Amendment case arguing that the federal government is forbidden from “establishing” religion.

Another, more interesting front, would be lawsuits filed in both state and federal courts arguing that DeVos led reform efforts would violate state constitutions.  While the federal role in public education is completely undefined in the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions are full of language obligating state governments’ support of public schools.  The language varies, but there are common themes such as states needing to establish “thorough and efficient” school systems, setting up systems that are “general” and “free”, securing “the people the advantages and opportunities of education,” and even ringing endorsements of public schools as promoters of democracy.

Betsy DeVos’ favorite school reforms arguably violate all of those principles, and efforts to impose them nationally could force states to violate their own constitutions.  There is nothing “thorough and efficient” about the chaotic system of unregulated charter schools that DeVos’ advocacy supports in Detroit.  DeVos mentioned expanding virtual school choice options, but there is mounting evidence that such schools perform poorly and disproportionately enroll lower income students – expanding them would hardly meet state’s constitutional obligations.  There is plenty of evidence by now on the impact of school vouchers on school quality, but that evidence does not support expanding them.  Some state voucher programs, such as Indiana’s under Mike Pence, contribute to further segregation in public schools, violating the notion of schools as instruments of democracy:

According to data from the state, today more than 60 percent of the voucher students in Indiana are white, and more than half of them have never even attended any public school, much less a failing one. Some of the fastest growth in voucher use has occurred in some of the state’s most affluent suburbs. The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a Chicago-based think tank, recently concluded that because white children’s participation in the voucher program dwarfed the next largest racial group by 44 points, the vouchers were effectively helping to resegregate public schools.

Squaring outcomes like these with the lofty language of various state constitutional obligations for public education is going to be difficult, and a DeVos led effort to make her style of unregulated, for-profit charter and virtual charter schools coupled with unregulated school vouchers funneling public cash to private and religious schools is not going to go unchallenged in court.

3. Good Help Is Hard To Find

Betsy DeVos has never had a real job in her life.  She was born into money, and married into more money.  She is exceptionally skilled at leveraging that fortune to influence politicians to do what she wants them to do, but that is not a skill set that allows you to run an agency with 4,400 direct employees and an annual budget of $68 billion.  Like every Cabinet Secretary, even those with vastly more experience than she has, Betsy DeVos is going to need help to implement much of anything.

Unfortunately for DeVos – and perhaps fortunately for our nation’s schools – she reports to a boss who loves chaos and sees confusion as his tool to dominate others.  Further, the Trump White House is demanding complete loyalty to Trump from all appointees, gumming up the works of finding qualified deputies and assistants to keep the U.S. Department of Education running.  This is no easy task considering that Republicans with actual experience running government programs lined up to vocally oppose Trump during the election, and school choice Democrats who might have been willing to work for, say, a President Kasich or Bush wouldn’t touch this administration with 10,000 foot pole.  Like Cabinet appointees in the State, Defense, and Treasury departments, Betsy DeVos is not on track to have a full staff any time soon.

This isn’t necessarily bad.  Without a staff of knowledgeable and skilled deputy and assistant secretaries able to implement new programs and revise existing regulations, the department will be on cruise control as the non-political employees keep the day to day operations working without clear directions to change anything.  In the case of a DOE tasked with making Betsy DeVos’ vision of American public education a reality, incompetence is actually our friend.

The upcoming ride will be rough, but, if everyone remains vigilant and vocal, DeVos is going to fail.

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Filed under Arne Duncan, Betsy DeVos, charter schools, Common Core, Corruption, Drumpf, politics, School Choice, Social Justice

Betsy DeVos Broke the Ed. Reform Coalition – For Now

When Betsy DeVos was confirmed as United States Secretary of Education, she required an unprecedented tie-breaker vote by Vice President Mike Pence.  This was because all 48 Senate Democrats voted against her along with 2 Republicans.  A barrage of phone calls from constituents, her demonstrable ignorance about federal education policy, her utter lack of experience with running a large organization, and unanswered questions about her financial conflicts of interest could not scuttle her nomination – but it got closer than any cabinet nominee in recent memory.  Betsy DeVos took her office with a the only bipartisan consensus being the one against her.

On the one hand, DeVos presented a very reasonable target for opposition.  She really has no relevant experience whatsoever.  She is an ideologue rather than a expert who has made her “name” in education by leveraging her inherited wealth into buying the votes of state legislators.  While many school reform advocates favor shifting tax money to privately managed entities, DeVos appears to see the privatization of public money as a goal in and of itself without regard for outcomes.  Advocacy groups funded by her actually scuttled legislation in Michigan that would have kept failing charter schools from expanding, and she has demonstrated no interest in holding the overwhelmingly for profit charter sector in her home state accountable to much of anything, leaving Michigan sending $1 billion annually into a sector rife with self dealing and absent any oversight worthy of the wordDeVos favored policies have wrought additional havoc on Detroit Public Schools, leaving children wandering a landscape with a glut of seats which are distributed so unequally that getting to a school consumes hours of commuting time and where families are encouraged to “vote with their feet” – even if it means changing schools multiple times a year.

And if that record were not enough, DeVos gave Senators plenty of reasons to oppose her during her testimony which was peppered with evasions and displays suggesting she knows painfully little about federal education policy.  She whiffed a question on one of the central policy issues of the past decade.  She bobbed and weaved to avoid talking about accountability.  She appeared to have no knowledge about federal laws regarding educating students with disabilities.  She was pathetically glib about the question of guns in schools.  And when Senators sent her written questions to answer in further detail after her hearing, she plagiarized some of  her responses.  On top of all of that, DeVos was confirmed with votes from a raft of Republican Senators who reply on her cash for their campaign coffers.

So given this basket of deplorable qualities, it is not so surprising that her nomination went right down to the wire with not one Democratic vote and two Republicans breaking ranks as well.

Then again, maybe it is a bit surprising.

Democrats, after all, have been full members of the education reform club for some time now.  As Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post notes, Democrats who opposed DeVos’ confirmation have not been shy about joining the education reform coalition in the past two decades:

That’s why it was unusual when, in 2001, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat, gave critical support to the new conservative Republican president, George W. Bush, in passing a new education law called No Child Left Behind (NCLB). A bipartisan, they said, was to make sure public schools attended to the needs of all students, but the law actually became known for creating new “accountability” measures for schools based on controversial standardized test scores.

By embracing the NCLB system of high stakes testing coupled with dramatic consequences, Democrats enabled the move to privatize more and more public school money as charter schools proliferated in the wake of schools being labeled as failing.   Today, a cadre of Democratic politicians such as former Newark Mayor and now Senator Cory Booker, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and yes, former President Barack Obama are as dedicated to some or all of the central tenants of education reform as any Republican.  And as the debate over the Every Student Succeeds Act demonstrated, most Congressional Democrats are still in favor of high stakes accountability testing that is the centerpiece of education reform – and which provides the leverage necessary for Betsy DeVos to have wrought her special kind of chaos on her home state of Michigan and leaves her poised to try the same at a national level.

How Democrats got to this point is a layers and complicated situation.  Some followed the lead of many of the nation’s most venerable civil rights organizations who argued in 2001 and continue to argue that high stakes accountability is vital to make certain that states and communities do not ignore communities of color in allocating education resources.  This coalition split somewhat from the mainstream of education reform when the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter school expansion in the election last year, citing the widespread problems of fraud and lack of accountability in the sector, but the general premise that schools with high percentages of minority students will be neglected without high stakes accountability is powerful and rooted in centuries of systemic racism.  Representative Mark Takano, who is one of the few members of Congress who actually has teaching experience, also explained that his colleagues assume that accountability systems which make sense for banks and for legal entities work in public education:

First, I don’t have a lot of time to talk with my colleagues and have this kind of conversation. Second, the attention span of the average member is so short, and it’s hard to have a conversation that goes beyond a superficial level of knowledge.

So when you come to Congress with particular expertise, you tend to stick with your expertise regardless of the topic. Take Elizabeth Warren. I really love the woman. She makes my heart beat when I watch her on banking. When she says we should have broken up the big banks, I say, you go, Elizabeth Warren. But she has been a lawyer all her life. When she takes a position on education, she brings her experience as a lawyer on the issue of accountability. And to her, accountability is some sort of punishment.

Certainly there has to be some level of accountability. But if you liken education to bean counting, that’s not going to work. Likewise, if your background is in criminal justice or civil rights, you’re likely to want to remedy education problems by putting into place a law with all these hammers to correct the ways in which minorities are systematically excluded. But that same mentality isn’t going to work in education.

Representative Takano makes a compelling case that it is very difficult for Representatives and Senators who possess little practical or academic expertise in education to discern how incentives commonly used in legal and civil rights contexts will fail to achieve the same results in education.  Further, given the way that time and influence operate at the federal government’s level, it is extremely difficult for what teachers and administrators know about the system and the nature of teaching and learning to reach Congress.

In addition to these shortcomings, it is indisputable that other Democratic members of Congress have been enthralled by the enthusiasm for “big data” in the technology sector.  The Obama Department of Education was particularly convinced that large data sets from standardized tests could sort failing schools from thriving ones and incompetent teachers from brilliant ones, and this conviction was certainly aided by the enthusiasm of technology sector donors and philanthropists like Bill Gates.  Unfortunately, the enthusiasm for use of “big data” to rank and sort schools and individual teachers far outstrips the evidence that it can work the way Bill Gates thinks it can, and we are nearly three years past the American Statistical Association issuing a statement urging policy makers to not use value added measures in individual teacher evaluations.  Regardless, the Arne Duncan and John King education departments continued to plow time and resources into promoting those measures, leading President of the NEA, Lily Eskelen-Garcia to dub the department an “evidence-free zone.”

Yet another strain among Democrats has been the perspective of firm believers in the Clinton “Third Way” style of centrism – emphasis on free trade and market based solutions while defending some aspects of the social safety net and maintaining a left of center stance on many social issues.  It certainly has been an effective political stance in the West’s most conservative Democracy, and as the traditional labor support for Democrats has waned, it also attracted campaign donors from sectors of the economy that increasingly benefited from growing income inequality.  But it also brought the inevitable expectations that Democrats taking those donations would favor policies espoused by those donors – who have been hostile to organized labor and in favor of school privatization.  Third Way Democrats like Andrew Cuomo and Rahm Emmanuel have been dreadful for public schools, public school teachers, and public school students as a result.

It is therefore surprising that Betsy DeVos, with her lengthy portfolio of favoring school privatization, could not muster a single Democratic vote except when she is regarded as an almost living example of education reform’s reductio ad absurdum.  In this light, it is not that Betsy DeVos is wrong to favor school privatization per se, but she is wrong to favor it in the wrong way.  That construction was all over the statement opposing her nomination issued by “Democrats” for Education Reform, the hedge fund created advocacy group aimed at convincing Democrats to expand school choice and privatization:

“Outside of her commitment to parental choice, the hearing provided little insight on Mrs. DeVos’ vision for educating the 50 million American children who currently attend public schools. We are strong supporters of choice married with accountability, but as vital as parental choice is, choice alone is not an answer for ensuring the education of 50 million kids.

“In sum, the hearing did little to clarify concerns that progressive reformers have about Mrs. DeVos’ policy commitment to strong accountability and a strong federal role spanning the scope of the Education Department’s work, from finance equity and teacher preparation to higher education and civil rights. We do hope that at some point Mrs. Devos will speak more expansively about her vision for all public schools and the federal role in ensuring our schools work for our kids. But based on the record before us, we cannot support her nomination.

DFER positions itself as a voice of “progressive reformers,” and the education reform movement has certainly been skillful at positioning itself as a civil rights struggle.  DeVos’ enthusiasm for any privatized school, even those engaged in outright fraud, is simply too far for their brand.  Last month, before the DeVos hearings, Peter Greene astutely noted that charter school enthusiasts were concerned about her nomination to protect their brand, to protect the left flank of the reform coalition, to block vouchers, and because DeVos’ regulation free ideal is not actually good for many charters fighting over finite pools of money.  Jersey Jazzman further noted that reform Democrats were bemoaning the nomination of DeVos, but on the premise that the center “consensus” on accountability, school choice, and charters was working really well until Trump went over the top with his pick for Secretary of Education.  This is, as he noted, bollocks because like their counterparts on the conservative side of school choice, reform Democrats ignored evidence about the charter sector as a whole and never acknowledged how those with impressive test scores achieve them.

Consider this painful exchange between Virginia Senator Tim Kaine and DeVos during her confirmation hearing:

I honestly do not know how she got ten votes in the Senate after that, but we should examine the Senator’s question and its premise as well.  On the one hand, it is an excellent question, and given DeVos’ long record of favoring any private entity getting public money over any truly public school, she was either going to evade answering it, outright lie, or give an answer even Republican partisans could not have ignored.  On the other hand, Senator Kaine’s belief in “equal accountability” for all schools that receive public funds should break apart the education reform coalition if every Democrat actually believed that and meant it.  In Senator Kaine’s defense, his record is not one of unabashed love for charter schools, but plenty of Democrats love to tout urban charters schools, especially of the “no excuses” models that boast about high test scores.  The rationale is that those schools “prove” that “poverty is no excuse” and that all things being equal, urban schools can match suburban test performance.

The trouble?  All things are almost never equal.  Urban charters, even ones with high test scores, are not held to equal accountability with public schools and such accountability will never be accepted by the sector.  Even if they are spotted being free from union work rules, charters inherently draw from a pool of families more attentive to the system than fully public schools can guarantee, and the “no excuses” charter schools championed by Arne Duncan, John King, and a raft of Democratic politicians use restrictive conduct codes and heavy use of out of school suspensions to force either quick conformity by students or quick withdrawals.  This shows up in the research all of the time, and the end result are schools claiming that they have the “same” students as their host districts but which in reality have fewer of the students with the greatest needs, leaving district schools to care for a population that is even more high need with fewer resources with which to do it.  The equal accountability that Senator Kaine favors does not exist and will not be accepted by school choice advocates, even those on his side of the aisle, unless something much more earth shaking than Betsy DeVos’ tenure in Washington happens.

So, for now, the education reform coalition has split, but mostly it has split into conservatives hoping to achieve long thwarted dreams of school vouchers and so-called “progressive” reformers asserting that Betsy DeVos “goes too far”without questioning any of the underlying premises of high stakes accountability and privatization.  Unless Democrats get themselves a genuine education on the core issues facing our school system, it is entirely likely that the education reform coalition will just bide its time and re-emerge as strong as ever.


Filed under Arne Duncan, Betsy DeVos, charter schools, Cory Booker, Dannel Malloy, DFER, Drumpf, ESSA, Funding, John King, NCLB, politics, Social Justice, Testing, Unions, VAMs

Teachers in the Trump Era: Your Students are Still Watching


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.


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

Cory Booker Whiffs It.

Let’s not mince words: Betsy DeVos, the designated nominee for Secretary of Education, is a potential wrecking ball aimed at public schools.  The Michigan billionaire brings literally no qualifications to the post except a decades long zeal for privatizing public schools and an alliance with Christian Dominionists who see public schools’ secular and pluralistic mission as a threat to their values.  Her advocacy in Michigan helped spawn one of the most shoddy and unaccountable charter school sectors in the nation with the city of Detroit especially suffering under a bizarre maze of over capacity and an environment that was dubbed “The Hunger Games” for public school.  Even the typical funders of school choice and charter school networks tend to steer clear of Detroit because they simply have no idea what they are getting themselves into.  None of this seems to matter to DeVos who gives the impression that simply removing regulation and getting public money out of fully public schools is the only real goal — advocacy groups funded by her even blocked an effort to prevent failing charter schools from expanding.

It is possible, of course, that the reality of governing and managing the federal education bureaucracy will stifle her.  After all, the work of being a Cabinet Secretary is vastly different than the work of privately bending politicians to her will via campaign donations.  Further, the federal government only provides a small portion of the nation’s annual P-12 school budget, putting an inherent limit on the reach of the Secretary of Education.  However, Republicans are already suggesting that some or most of Donald Trump’s promised $20 billion school choice fund could come from the $15 billion spent on Title 1 grants.  $15 billion is not a lot of money compared to the $600 billion spent on public elementary and secondary education, but it reaches over 56,000 schools serving tens of millions of students.  There’s a lot of potential for chaos during her proposed tenure in Washington.

The DeVos nomination must pose a bit of difficulty for current education reform advocates who have really come into their own under President Obama.  Those who claim to stand for standards and accountability and push the narrative of “high performing” charter schools will have a difficult time defending DeVos funded outcomes in Michigan.  Perhaps more difficult is the fact that today’s education reformers have labored constantly to portray their issues – accountability and testing, privatization, breaking teachers’ unions – as matters of civil rights.  Whether writing for Peter Cunningham’s Education Post, or providing content for Campbell Brown’s The74, or lobbying Democratic politicians to favor policies long championed by Republicans like Democrats for Education Reform, education reformers do two things consistently:  1) distract from the fact that they are largely funded by what education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch has long called the “Billionaire Boys Club” who have no special interest in civil rights and progressive politics and 2) insist that turning as many schools as possible into privately managed charter schools and weakening teachers’ union rights are THE civil rights struggle of our time.  DeVos’ service as Secretary of Education will provide cognitive dissonance for these advocates.  On the one hand, she will almost certainly be a bonanza for the charter school sector.  On the other hand, she will serve at the pleasure of a President whose rise to office has sent spasms of joy among literal Nazis. Further, the incoming administration’s promises of mass deportation and “law and order” policies are aimed directly at the urban minority communities education reformers claim to serve.

Small wonder, then, that when “Democrats” for Education Reform issued a statement about the election, Shavar Jeffries suggested that Democrats resist any temptation to serve in a Trump administration.  In it, he invoked progressive principles and tried to tie them to reform priorities, but he also gave a strong nod to the condition of children in general in our communities and the need for a government that cares about those issues:

The policies and rhetoric of President-elect Trump run contrary to the most fundamental values of what it means to be a progressive committed to educating our kids and strengthening our families and communities. He proposes to eliminate accountability standards, cut Title I funding, and to gut support for vital social services that maximize our students’ ability to reach their potential. And, most pernicious, Trump gives both tacit and express endorsement to a dangerous set of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender stereotypes that assault the basic dignity of our children, causing incalculable harm not only to their sense of self, but also to their sense of belonging as accepted members of school communities and neighborhoods.

Less than a week later, Mr. Jeffries issued another statement about the nomination of Betsy DeVos.  The statement, more measured than the previous one, congratulated her and “applauded” her commitment to “high quality” charter schools.  The statement then turned to concern about other policies that might come from the new administration, called upon Ms. DeVos to be a “voice” against those policies, and once again blasted Donald Trump for his rhetoric.  To say that Ms. DeVos is an advocate for quality of any kind is belied by what she leaves in her wake in Michigan, but, as Mercedes Schneider points out, DFER’s lobbying arm, Education Reform Now, is a beneficiary of DeVos money.  It is hard to give full throated criticism to someone who can cut off your spigot.  This is the bind that education reformers find themselves in – unable to shout “huzzah” that one of their top allies is in the Trump administration lest they betray ideological dissonance….and unable to shout “boo” lest they bite the hand that feeds them.  America is the only advanced nation where education “reform” is made up of billionaires paying millionaires to wreck middle class unions teaching working class children.

And then there is New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.

Senator Booker is a bit of a phenomenon in the Democratic Party.  Having risen from city council in Newark to the mayor’s office then to the United States Senate in a little more than a decade, the Senator is well educated, charismatic, and he literally saved a neighbor from a burning building.  Actually, he also saved a freezing dog, fixed a broken traffic light, and personally shoveled out snowed in residents after a blizzard.  Give the man an armored body suit and a utility belt, and he could be Batman.  Political pundits already suggest him as a Democrat to watch out for in 2020.

What he isn’t, however, is a particular friend to public education.

While mayor of Newark, Mr. Booker famously partnered with Republican Governor Chris Christie to use a $100 million donation from Facebook CEO to reform the Brick City school system.  The resulting program, called “One Newark,” threw open the entire school system to choice and increased charter school options.  The implementation was flatly wretched, slating schools for closure even when they met their improvement targets, confusing parents and guardians in a poor managed enrollment process, sending children from the same family to schools in different wards, and leading to massive student protests and the eventual ouster of state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.  Mayor Booker was already in the United States Senate by the time Anderson was yanked from the project, but his finger prints were all over it, including $21 million spent on consultants who concocted the whole mess. This was no anomaly for Booker – his record is firmly in the education reform camp, including close ties to DFER and he has enjoyed campaign support from Andrew Tisch who was on the board of virtual charter school operator K12, Inc – which just happened to open 3 schools in Newark using their systems while Booker was mayor.

So what, exactly, does Senator Booker have to say about Betsy DeVos, a nominee who even his allies at DFER are being cautious about in tempering their enthusiasm?  A potential Secretary of Education who has never attended a public school, never taught at a public school, never sent her own children to a public school, has never studied education practice and policy at any level, and who has spent decades trying to funnel public education money into private hands?

I’m not saying anything.”

At an event where the Senator had no trouble voicing his, reasonable, concerns about Senator Jeff Sessions becoming Attorney General, he evaded entirely the chance to speak about Betsy DeVos, even though, as RollCall noted, he has served on the board of the Alliance for School Choice while she was chairwoman and spoke in 2012 to the American Federation of Children when she was chair of that organization – whose amiable title is largely cover for its support of vouchers and privatization.

I suppose the question was uncomfortable for Senator Booker.  Ms. DeVos is an ally, and she is certainly influential among some of the Senator’s donors.  She also promises to be a zealous advocate for expanding Mr. Booker’s favored school sector, charters, but she is likely to do so by gutting Title I funds to our nation’s most vulnerable communities, something not exactly on Mr. Booker’s agenda.

Still – “I’m not saying anything?”  With more than a week to contemplate the nomination, he cannot come up with anything more thought out than that?  He could have said, “I know and have enjoyed working with Betsy on issues of common interest, but the record of reform in Michigan is decidedly mixed.  My support depends upon her standing only for quality schools for urban children.”  Or he could have said, “Although I have found some common ground with Betsy before, I am very concerned that the new administration is eyeing money that 21 million children depend on.  If she supports projects that harm them I will certainly oppose her nomination.”  Or he could have said, “Betsy has advocated for ideas I can appreciate, but she should use her new position to strongly advocate for the dignity and safety of all of our children who have reason to fear the new administration. If she does not, I will oppose her nomination.”

But, no – “I’m not saying anything.”

Senator Booker had a chance to show that his education reform credentials are really wrapped tightly in at least SOME progressive principles.  He whiffed it instead.


Filed under Betsy DeVos, Cami Anderson, charter schools, Corruption, Cory Booker, DFER, Newark, One Newark, politics, School Choice, 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:


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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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Drumpf, Media, politics, racism, Social Justice, teaching

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.


Filed under Drumpf, politics, racism, Social Justice