College Affordability and the Order of the Day

The other day, speaking at Binghampton University, in New York, President Obama said the following:

“But…let’s assume that we eliminated all discrimination magically with a wand, and everybody had goodness in their heart, you’d still have a situation in which there are a lot of folks who are poor, and whose families have become dysfunctional, because of a long legacy of poverty, and live in neighborhoods that are run-down and schools that are underfunded and don’t have a strong property tax base.”

Concomitantly, as it so happens, Noam Chomsky, speaking in Bonn, Germany, at the DW Global Media Forum about how the United States is not behaving anything like a democracy, said the following:

“Well, another important feature of RECD [really existing capitalist democracy; it has several daunting characteristics described in Chomsky’s talk] is that the public must be kept in the dark about what is happening to them. The “herd” must remain “bewildered”. The reasons were explained lucidly by the professor of the science of government at Harvard – that’s the official name – another respected liberal figure, Samuel Huntington. As he pointed out, “power remains strong when it remains in the dark. Exposed to sunlight, it begins to evaporate”.” [inclusion of brackets mine]

We can’t have it both ways. Which is it? Are we indeed moving towards a classless society where social justice, compassion and empathy – and opportunity for all – are at the heart or are we moving towards a society where more and more, each day, we are “herded” further into “bewilderment” and unknowing, which is very quickly followed by apathy, the sense of giving up, because nothing will change so we have to go along with the plan that we don’t see?

We can find an answer to these questions in President Obama’s most recent bus tour to promote his education policies – college affordability – meant to extend the opportunities for those that graduate from college. These policies, interestingly, run parallel to the Administration’s Race to the Top, the K-12 program (more on this below).

A way to end poverty, says President Obama, is to ensure that all citizens that want access to affordable higher education should have it.  Makes sense. Good idea. Obama’s plan is to grade institutions of higher education by matching outcomes to costs. Presumably, then, somehow the cost of higher education will be measured by where graduates land jobs, what they achieve and how these achievements can then point to a profitable, worthwhile future for students and the country. Okay, very dreamy.

But what this proposed plan will undoubtedly create is the following:

  • A stronger demarcation between the haves and the have nots, a more stringent hierarchy.
  • A greater concentration of power among the few, but particularly among those that will follow the path of banking (see Chomsky, above), which is where wealth is being made today.
  • A greater concentration of power is always followed by tighter surveillance, tighter policing and a further reduction in civil liberties; it’s also followed by a more nationalistic approach to foreign policy (isn’t it ironic – even uncanny – that a rise in racial profiling, an increase in drone terrorism and greater power given to Wall Street all happened while the first African American president presides over the nation? never mind the diminution in civil liberties …)

Why do I say these things? Because while the Obama Administration is looking to use outcomes as a means to curtail education costs, a reason for the high cost of higher education is not outcomes, but rather, inputs.

Here’s what I mean: the best colleges and universities – Harvard, Princeton, Yale, so on – make sure to attract the best – and best known (read: best published) – professors; this entails paying well and having personalized budgets for the professors’ respective research projects. In turn, these luminaries attract money from all sectors of our society – military, technology, science and medicine, and business. Money begets money.

Students in the best colleges and universities work closely with some of the best minds in the country; students are connected to future work through research, internships, and simple face-to-face meetings at conferences, and so on. In other words, the best students are carefully groomed to be on the cutting edge stage.  Also, these great schools have tremendously powerful and well connected alumni groups that take on as their responsibility the promotion of young, up and coming undergraduates and graduate students. It’s a conveyor belt to wealth and power. The reward is of course a wonderful life, material security, and great fun without needing to worry about the rest, those left behind.  This is not going away; it’s only going to get stronger.  And no one in this world is going to give this up – that’s for certain.

This conveyor belt wants participants to enter into different nodes in the current production system. This system does not want game changers, people that will come up with changes to level the playing field – President Obama is a prime example. In fact, this system works because it relies on the very notion that education is hierarchical and the different nodes in the system are synonymous with the inputs elite colleges and universities have put into place with donor funding.

The outcomes Obama wants to measure are easily done by these elite schools – in fact, they’re already doing it: go to the leading industries in this country – the military, government and Wall Street, technology – and you can see who is sitting where, wielding power and making policy: they all come from top schools – say the top 20 -50 schools. Take a quick look when college seniors look for work in powerful enterprises and you’ll find that the most profitable industries already have in place a method for hiring – and it starts with the Ivies. The back rooms on Wall Street are filled with students that have attended second and third tier schools (Of course there are exceptions, but generally speaking, this is par for the course.)

If we then add Obama’s K-12 plan, Race to the Top, we can note some parallels. Take New York City, for instance. Those students and families that have enough understanding of the system, are moving to charter schools and elite public schools such as Bronx Science and Stuyvesant. What’s happening in NYC is that those kids that don’t have family support, that don’t have the proper preparation to take entrance tests, and so on, are left behind in some of the more challenged, large, urban public schools. It’s difficult to get ahead. In turn, the best colleges and universities, whether working through special programs in the inner city or looking at individual students, first go to the best schools because, naturally, they want students to succeed; their success turns up on the bottom line.

So where are we?

We are where Chomsky says we are: a nation where power is easily kept hidden from the majority; where the majority are too easily sold programs and ideas by people that have other notions in mind – namely to maintain the status quo. Power, kept this way, is deeply rooted; it’s ancient and therefore hard to move – if at all. This is not pessimism, rather the way things are. We live in a spectacle society because it’s essential; it is a means by which powerful entities claim to have answers, color these answers – college affordability – in dreamy language, when in fact what’s happening is a deeper, more powerful entrenchment of the (historical) ways power is kept. Education is – and will be – a very powerful way to ensure our means of existence stay just as they’ve always been. Education is another arm of power.

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The Elements of Teaching

for Shipnia, Brittany, Dane, Becca, Christine, Chris and Amanda and Taylor and Annie — and the countless other young souls that will call themselves new teachers

There is a lot of talk, politically and otherwise, about education reform, but there is little conversation about what teaching actually is — and who the teacher is. What are the elements of teaching?

There is a singular demand on education today, namely that it develop producers — students that will mature to be workers and consumers. This single demand is blind to the sources of this production model, the teachers, and the nature of human culture. Of course, citizens have to be productive, engaging the world creatively, we hope, but this is not the first criteria. There are other requirements. In order for education to be productive — produce productive individuals — it must preserve the health and welfare of teachers and, in so doing, it must sustain students in the process. For this to happen, teachers must know themselves well, must have a full understanding of their students, and, just as significant, teachers must have a complete understanding of the context in which the teaching and learning happens. Teachers must be well motivated, active learners that engage the environment in which students reside; likewise, teachers must also know the relationships that exist between their subjects, pedagogy and the environment in which s/he is teaching. What is the place of my knowledge in the context of our culture? This question teachers must ask themselves over and over. Then teachers must know how to use this knowledge well. Teaching cannot take place except in culture. We seem to be unaware of this vital fact.

The appropriate measure of teaching is the culture’s health. We can look around and realize that our culture is not healthy, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Education, we hear in the talk, is in trouble; it has broken down. It’s limping along, even declining, we hear. A central reason for this breakdown has to do with our lack of understanding concerning the elements of teaching. We recognize the potential — and place — of the teacher, but we have strapped the teacher down in a system that privileges competition rather than cooperation, homogeneity rather than diversity. We falsely believe, now, that a single test can determine excellence — for teachers and students. This is far too simple a standard because it’s focused solely on production; it enslaves those in the system — administrators, teachers and students. This is an economic standard that parallels the current economic standard that has taken our welfare to the brink of disaster. We are beginning to see — only in some circles — that this standard is very expensive and, while it has solved some immediate problems, it has, overall, failed on a consistent basis to address the ills of our culture. Education has worked by confinement, concentration and separation; this design has lead to the industrialization of human experience. We, who work in schools, have been responsible for this move towards the factory model of education. It’s synonymous with the factory model of agriculture, which has lead to making our food vulnerable that, in turn, makes all vulnerable to all sorts of problems and diseases.

This is to say, then, that we have to re-describe the elements of teaching so that we can create better, more meaningful measures that comply with the art of teaching. Many like to say that teaching is an art and a science. It is not. It’s only an art. The science — the data, the verifiable knowledge, etc — only exists in the disciplines — Mathematics, English, Literature, Geography, History, Philosophy, Foreign Languages, and so on. The application of these knowledge fields to excite a student’s imagination is not a science; the synthesis of discipline knowledge and pedagogy is an art. This is why current, high stakes testing cannot measure, with any meaningful results, the teacher’s practice. We need another way of doing this; these measures must be layered and multifaceted — observations, journals, video, dialog, and so on, along with tests. I say along with tests because by integrating a variety of diverse measures we will be able to (a) experience the rich and layered practice of a teacher, and describe it, and (b) come to understand the limitations of the factory model, high stakes test.

So let’s just talk about three elements of teaching (in the weeks to come, I’ll describe others). I want to do this to show what I mean by the need for diverse measures that defy the factory model of education.

The first element of teaching is love. A teacher must love. She must love herself, but more importantly, she must love experiencing herself as a node that engages others in the healthy creation of culture. Love requires that the teacher be healthy, personally and in her practice. Love, therefore, leads the teacher to care about the well being of her students; this measure — the health of students — leads to atonement between the teacher, her students, and the world they are engaging. It proposes conscious, careful recognition of the ecology of learning. It also demonstrates knowledge of the interdepence between the teacher, students, the institution and the culture. These interdependencies always exist; however, in our current factory model of education focused solely on production, we categorically reject these connections, begin separating, confining and concentrating on diffused knowledge that is without context, without purpose. Teachers love, first and foremost, because it is the only way to get to a student’s heart; without the heart, there is no learning that’s possible. We can measure this quite easily by simply walking into any school and observing disinterested students. Disinterest comes about because love is not practiced in the classroom. Either a teacher doesn’t love her discipline or she doesn’t love the conditions for learning or she doesn’t love her students because, perhaps, they represent insurmountable challenges that she imagines cannot be addressed.

Teachers that begin with love are easy to find in schools. They are the most exhausted. This is the direct result of a dictatorial or totalitarian form. The teacher is always fighting an uphill battle against political demands on her identity, measures that don’t make sense, dictates that come from “on high,” usually boards of education — the Federal Government included — that have no idea who the students are. On the other hand, this teacher knows that the right approach to teaching and learning is more consistent with a conversational model; it proceeds directly to serious thought — inquiry — about our condition and our predicament. In conversations you always reply — and here is where we can measure. If a teacher honors the other party, namely students and their identities, she thus becomes reliant on a secondary element of teaching faith. The teacher has faith that the other will reply, though sometimes not in expected ways or in ways that the teacher may like — but this is, in fact, a healthy environment that begs for a third element, freedom. The teacher must always transgress constraints and boundaries to expose the work required, by a citizen, to be free. The teaching and learning act is to inspire the quest for freedom, creatively, personally, politically. Transgressing boundaries for freedom excites the imagination, which can be measured in actual work — writing, calculations and their applications, art and music, and so on, right to the effective uses of languages to communicate deeply felt emotions to an Other. Faith that the Other will reply fosters the quest for freedom, which is the sole purpose of education.

Love, faith and freedom, we can rightly see — and imagine — are easily measured, in teachers and students, by closely examining their practice, not by standardized tests, but, rather, by observation, close examination of texts and testing; the multi-layered approach, as I mentioned above, enables us to distinguish between individuals, rather then assuming that all individuals are the same, one. It allows us to apply what we learn — and what we have learned about the factory system that has gotten us nowhere — to our culture. We can then, slowly, begin to measure whether our culture is moving towards healthier ways of being since, right now, we’re not.

For a long time, we have dreamt that our systems have been taking us towards some Edenic future; we’ve convinced ourselves that our constructions, completely reliant on human ingenuity, are the key to our health and happiness. Now we realize otherwise. We have forgotten that everything we do resides in Nature; that everything we do affects Culture. Nature and Culture are hurting. We can turn to science, technology, medicine, history and philosophy, as well as the Arts, and see that this is absolutely true. All these disciplines are pointing to our troubled ways– to the troubles we’re facing. Might it not be time to take what we’ve learned and turn this ship around?

Pass or Get Out of the Way: Defining the Future for Our Students

As we awaken to a new dawn in the US, about half of all state schools in England and Wales are being affected by a strike by UK public sector workers.  The right to work will be the single most important issue affecting the public sector — all of us working today.  In the US, as in the UK, the assessment and control methods that are politically sanctioned to evaluate teachers are unprecedented.  And the most Draconian aspect of this almost universal (in the West) re-evaluation and castigation of teachers is that those who will suffer most are the children: their world, particularly if these kids live in socio-economically challenged areas, will fall further into the abyss of the cyclical nature of poverty.

An approach that’s being tactfully admired by the powerful in many US states is the “Impact,” in name and approach more reminiscent of a Terminator movie then a subtle teacher evaluation system.

Sam Dillon, writing for a New York Times that’s more comfortable covering the “accepted” mainstream methodologies of any system of power rather then investigating the reality of things, does a credible job of lining up, for the careful reader, what the challenges this method of evaluation pose for parents, students and teachers.

In his Teacher Grades: Pass or Be Fired Dillon tells us that, “Spurred by President Obama and his $5 billion Race to the Top grant competition, some 20 states, including New York, and thousands of school districts are overhauling the way they grade teachers, and many have sent people to study Impact.”

The Impact is “a centerpiece of the tempestuous three-year tenure of Washington’s former schools chancellor, Michele Rhee.”  This detail is enough to raise concern.  But it hasn’t.  Blindly we march on, seduced by Obama’s Race to the Top, rather then careful criticism of what will likely cause a lot of collateral damage.  I warned against this in Education Stimulus Package: In Duncan’s Hands, Hope is on a Tightrope.  But, just as the right to work will be the defining issue of our times, collateral damage will be the defining metaphor. Does anyone care?  Why are we so silent? At least in the UK, teachers are taking to the streets.

The Impact is best described as an efficient sorting system.  Some educators  describe Impact this way — efficient  and sorting.  These are accounting terms, not terms mindful of teaching and learning.  The terms follow a trend in education that moves away from a pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment and  towards a business model.  Impact is a business model, not an education model; it aligns with the current goals of many governors and mayors, particularly in New York and New Jersey, two hostile states to the right to work: privatize education.

What’s the problem?

Educators “note that the system does not consider socioeconomic factors in most cases and that last year 35 percent of the teachers in the city’s [Washington] wealthiest area, Ward 3, were rated highly effective, compared with 5 percent of Ward 8, the poorest,” says Dillon.

Impact relies heavily on classroom observation — a good thing.  It has 9 criteria: explain the content clearly, maximize instruction, check for student understanding are some examples used to rate a lesson.  These are good, solid criteria.

The problem with this methodology — and the problem with most if not all methods for evaluating teachers and, at the college and university level, for advising students and, likewise for evaluating professors — is that it measures the students’ capabilities simply from the shoulders up.  That is to say, the whole student is not being evaluated; only reasoning skills, computation and understanding according to a system that leans favorably to accepted classical methods of teaching and learning — delivery and acquiescence in silence — are privileged.   In essence, what is being evaluated is the teacher’s ability to transmit traditional pedagogical methodologies.  But these methods may be way too abstract for some students, particularly if these students come from poorer communities.

We are in fact assessing how well teachers transmit traditional forms of social mobility, negating the realities of certain students’ lives. Before we begin, then, in the assessment model — Impact — we are already rejecting the student.

The Harvard sociologist, William Julius Wilson, in More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, says,

It is important to remember that one of the effects of living in a racially segregated, poor neighborhood is the exposure to cultural framing habits, styles of behavior, and particular skills that emerged from patterns of social exclusion; these attributes and practices may not be conducive to facilitating social mobility … These patterns of behavior are seen as a hindrance to social mobility in the larger society.

A system such as Impact comes about, as Wilson tells us, this time using the work of Eliot R. Smith, because “most Americans believe that economic outcomes are determined by individuals’ efforts and talents (or their lack) and that in general economic inequality is fair.”    We could argue that Smith’s pronouncement is now the politics of the day — the attack on the right to work, the dismantling of unions, and the Draconian measures of teacher performance.

“Indeed, living in a ghetto neighborhood has both structural and cultural effects,” says Wilson, “that compromise life chances above and beyond personal attributes.”

Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers Union, speaking to Dillon for his NYT article, said, “Teacher have to be parents, priests, lawyers, clothes washers, babysitters and a bunch of other things” in schools in poor and challenged neighborhoods.  “Impact takes none of those roles into account, so it can penalize you just for teaching in a high-needs school.”  Saunders echoes Wilson.  And I’ve describe this phenomenon quite clearly in Newark’s  South Ward: The Miller Street School and the American Paradox.

The solution to our education problems, as I’ve described it, actually lies in Saunders’ description of what teachers are called to do when working in poorer neighborhoods.  In these communities, as I’ve said in Newark’s South Ward, the school, as is The Miller Street School, are an oasis pushing against the chaos found in the streets.  If teachers are parents, priests, lawyers, clothes washers, babysitters and a bunch of other things, as Saunders says, then we must create, in each school, a hub of support for all these things.

Right now, parents have to move to multiple locations and work through multiple human services departments, filling out form after form, seeing multiple people, more often then not being shoved to yet another office and more forms, more interviews and never really voicing their concerns and problems. This is costly — and it agitates the notion that it’s their fault, that if they worked harder people would be better off.

What if all social and professional services were under one roof?  What if all aspects needed to enable a more graceful, dignified and cogent approach to social mobility were in one place, a hub or mall for social mobility? Isn’t this efficiency? Wouldn’t this cut costs?

I’d argue that not only is this a cheaper approach, but then it would allow us to pool together resources, including the tracking of a student through this system so as to better get a sense of how the student learns — the obstacle and challenges, the conditions for study at home, and so on.

Of course, this would thwart the interest of many governors and mayors to privatize; it would run against the desire of many corporations to extract the poverty dollar from the most needy; it would, in fact, work against today’s trend towards the newest form of governance, inverted totalitarianism. (There are so many examples of inverted totalitarianism, today, that I’m thinking of changing my blog’s title! I’m getting exhausted constantly having to explain it!)

What we need is less Impact.  We need to realize — and accept — that schools in poor neighborhoods are an oasis of hope.  It is this realization that can lead to a conflation of resources — child care and health care, nutrition, family counseling, on the job training, study skills training, even community colleges — under one roof, held together by technology and carefully trained experts — nurses, social workers, first year general practitioners, counselors and teachers — working together.  From this vantage, we can create teacher assessment vehicles that will include master teachers, parents in the community, student evaluations and outcomes and all read against what today we call social mobility. Anything else is failure. Anything else is a genuflection towards the powerful elite that seek to define our lives for us.

Fresh Examples of Inverted Totalitarianism

It’s uncanny, but it’s very difficult to keep up with the numerous examples of inverted totalitarianism appearing daily in our popular media. That these events are routinely covered by the popular media without question and concern should give us pause.

Yesterday, in Nothing Will Change: the 2012 Presidential Election,  I gave the following example:

The NRC (US Nuclear Regulatory Commission), that boasts it’s “protecting people and the environment,” in an unprecedented move, voted 3 – 2 to advise the Obama Justice Department to intervene on behalf of Entergy Nuclear in the company’s lawsuit against the state of Vermont. Vermont wants to shut down Vermont Yankee, the aged nuclear power plant.  A government agency that is solely responsible for the nuclear safety is extending its sphere of influence and advising the Federal Government to intervene in a state’s negotiations with a private entity.

Today, we learn that the US Supreme Court has given pharmaceuticals twin wins:

In one case, a First Amendment decision, the court, by a 6-to-3 vote, struck down a Vermont law that barred the buying, selling and profiling of doctors’ prescription records — records that pharmaceutical companies use to target doctors for particular pitches. And in a second, the court ruled 5 to 4 that the makers of generic drugs are immune from state lawsuits for failure to warn consumers about possible side effects as long as they copy the warnings on brand-name drugs.

The US Supreme court ruled that the State of Vermont was infringing on the pharmaceutical’s first amendment rights. “The amendment prohibits the making of any law “respecting an establishment of religion“, impeding the free exercise of religion, infringing on the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.”  This is untrue, the State of Vermont is not trying to restrict the first amendment, rather they are trying to restrict pharmaceuticals from getting private information concerning different drug protocols doctors use for specific patients.

“Basically, it’s going to allow the drug companies to have more influence on doctors’ prescribing practices, to manipulate their prescribing practices, and to promote the use of more expensive drugs. Almost certainly, health care costs are going to be driven up,” said Dr. Gregory D. Curfman, executive editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Information privacy experts also criticized Thursday’s ruling. “One of the practical consequences of the court’s decision will be to make it easier for pharmaceutical companies and data-mining firms and marketing firms to get access to this very sensitive information,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “The states are going to have to go back to the drawing board.

Ever since the Bush v Gore election, we’ve learned quite a a bit about where the US Supreme Court stands. The Court is aligned with right – wing conservative government and big business, this we know. The appointment of Justice Roberts, adding to the Court’s extreme conservatism, demonstrated a move to activist justices for the right.  The Court thus becomes the legal thread essential for big business to control government.  The  Court is the “bag man,” if you will.

In Eduction a story from the mainstream, Republican Challenges Administration on Plans to Override Education Law.  I’m no fan of Arne Duncan and Obama’s education policy, but what we find when we look under the hood of Representative John Kline’s, the Republican chairman of the House education committee, forceful attack on Duncan policies and maneuvers is an attempt to move closer to the privatization of education.

“He’s not the nation’s superintendent,” Mr. Kline said of Mr. Duncan, who assumed powers greater than any of his predecessors when, in 2009, Congress voted $100 billion in economic stimulus money for the nation’s school systems and allowed the secretary to decide how much of it should be spent.

Kline wants control of outcomes and we know that the outcome sought by the right is privatization. This move, by conservatives, is linked to a greater effort for student vouchers, creationism and an anti-gay agenda.

Imagine if all these efforts are also supported by the US Supreme Court.

And now we can look at the Obama withdrawal from Afghanistan proposal — 10,000 soldiers this year (roughly 7 percent of the occupation force) by the end of the year.  No one in the main stream press is covering what’s likely to happen:

“There’s going to have to be an accompanying increase in private security for all the activities of the new soldiers going in,” says Jake Sherman, a former United Nations official in Afghanistan who is now the associate director for Peacekeeping and Security Sector Reform at New York University’s Center for International Cooperation.  “It’s ludicrous. It’s completely implausible.”

The mainstream media is stuck wondering why the usually war hungry Republicans — except for McCain — is going along with the withdrawal. The real story is that as we withdraw — and as the French and the British withdraw as well — there will be a void.  Private sector security companies will fill this need — and they’re the darling of the right, a pay for service military force.

Up and down the economy and culture — pharmaceuticals, energy, education and defense — we see the big reach of business; more importantly, though, we can readily see how government is stepping in and doing the bidding for this new world order. That it’s happening right in front of our eyes and that the mainstream media is simply going along suggests that the media is yet another arm of this move.  The media is not, as pundits would argue, a liberal enterprise; it’s just the opposite and simply looking at who owns the media should tell anyone that story.

The Miller Street Struggle: Part 3

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“You have to see what we do here,” Maria Ortiz, the literacy coach at Miller Street, said to me.  “Only by experiencing their frustrations can you possibly understand. You have to get involved.  It doesn’t take much to care.”

I was there to chronicle the Miller Street struggle and lend a hand.  Maybe she was right, and this is what it will take – more of us, PhDs at schools like Miller Street.  Nothing else is working – not high stakes testing, not the approximately $84 billion in Education Recovery Act grants, not Obama’s Race to the Top, which unfortunately links “race” with “learning.”

Learning takes quite a bit of time, especially when we consider the developmental stages of children – it’s not a race.  And learning is not about getting to “the top,” but rather, about understanding one’s place in the world, about finding an emotionally and spiritually satisfying place to work so as to give the imagination full use.  Race to the Top is the antithesis.

I wasn’t sure how to begin to unravel the disorder I was experiencing.  On my first visit to Miller Street in March of last year, 10 out of the 39 teachers were absent, and most hadn’t bothered to make sure a substitute covered for them, a contractual requirement.  If an absent teacher doesn’t replace herself, then an automated “subfinder system” is supposed to kick in.  But the system was broken – and it remains broken.  Office personnel had to go to the phones to find last minute subs, and Principal Shakirah Miller had to orchestrate new class configurations, pairing two grades into one, for instance.

Amalia Dejeno, one of the absent teachers, was scheduled for observation that day.  Ms. Dejeno, a stout Puerto Rican woman in her early 50s, told me that she was “legally sick,” meaning that “illness” – flu, a sudden cold, fever – is an acceptable excuse. Amalia Dejeno is “Tier 1,” a final stage after all other reviews – Tiers 2 and 3 – had already been exhausted for her and she was consistently found “unsatisfactory.”  Tier 1 is where teachers are about to lose their license.  It can take anywhere from 3 to 5 years to dismiss a teacher, if documented properly.  In Amalia Dejeno’s case, it’s taken over 20 years, which is more along the lines of how this really works.  Some unsatisfactory teachers are never dismissed, but rather, moved from one school to another and never given an unsatisfactory rating.  Critics of education blame the teacher’s union for the collusion, a “blue flu” – an internal, never discussed protectionism.  For twenty-nine years Amalia has received “satisfactory” ratings – until she came to the Miller Street School.  She’s been marred by a system that’s refused to qualify her “unsatisfactory” early on when she might have been able to turn her performance around; she’s never been given guidance either, she told me.  Instead, she’s just been moved on.  Ms. Dejeno is harsh on the kids, always short and angry, scolding them at the slightest infraction, like speaking while walking in line to lunch.  She knows very little about teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), her presumed area of expertise.  In personality and knowledge of her stated field, she is unqualified to be in a classroom.

“She’s trying to get rid of me,” said Ms. Dejeno, in a halting English, referring to Miller Street’s principal.  “I’m fighting it.”

When I first looked into Shakirah’s office, prominently displayed on her desk was a long wooden plaque that read: John 3:16: For God so Loved the World that He gave His one and only Son.  Shakirah lost her father to a drunk driver when she was thirteen, which in part has made her who she is – strong, driven, intense, physical.  (She plays basketball, volleyball, runs track, and goes to the gym several times a week.)  Her mother became a drug addict soon after her husband died, relinquishing all responsibility for her 13-year-old daughter.  A car hit her mentally handicapped younger brother at the age of ten.  In four months, Shakirah lost five members of her family – a father, an aunt, her brother and two male cousins, 19 and 22, shot dead in the streets.  Yet her fondest memories are of Newark, growing up in the 17th Avenue projects and attending the 18th Avenue School.  Although life in Newark was not easy for her, she did well in school.

“I guess you could say that my mother was in the house,” Shakirah said.  “Some of my aunts helped me then.”

Now Christian Love Baptist Church in Irvington, New Jersey, is her respite; prayer gives her clarity, a sanctuary that gives her peace.

“The job is emotionally draining,” she told me.  “I take on everyone’s energy.”

She spends endless hours documenting poor performance — probation, withholding pay, no advancement—and creates teams for each grade, pairing weaker teachers with stronger ones and moving weaker teachers to lower grades from the higher ones where higher order thinking is required.  It’s like a military operation.  She estimates that 10-15% of the school’s teachers are incompetent. Maria Ortiz, Miller Street’s literacy coach, estimates much higher, more like 30-40%.

“Dejeno isn’t going to make it,” Shakirah informed me.  “We have all the documentation we need.  Now I can turn to others. “

Newark’s South Ward: ‘Racism Lite’ and the Milller Street School — Part 2

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The Miller Street School is a racially segregated school in a racially segregated community in a racially segregated city – post Brown v the Board of Education.  All evidence – high stakes testing that can change the fiscal nature of a school, as well as its teaching methods, including the elimination of teachers and administrators, standardized testing, an increase in charter schools and home schooling, privileged students attending private schools (all this occurring while illiteracy rises) – suggests that, in practice, Plessy v Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court ruling of “separate but equal” – meaning, the acceptance of a dual system of education – is more appealing to the dominant class.

A “separate but equal” education system restricts access to social mobility; it strengthens a hierarchical socio-economic system controlled by few. The gains of the Civil Rights Movement are long forgotten in education.  Privileged African Americans along with white Americans have given up the struggle for integration, receiving undeniable benefits from private academies.  “Separate but equal” has become a rationale for a dual system in American society – the privileged succeed and the underprivileged must find what works, though always one step behind.  We then call attention to the infrequent victories coming out of challenged communities, but we never  bring up the obvious: the lack of adherence to Brown v the Board of Education. The truth is that the Miller Street School is the result of “separate but equal.”  I represented a potential voice that could speak of the despair caused by indifference.  But I sensed the parents also wanted me to address its cause – and my role in it.   This is beyond what I had planned – research was all I was after, as we in academia like to say.  But I was being pulled into something larger, the dynamics of which I didn’t understand.  I was being led into a reimagining of myself as an educator.

I was deep in thought, reflecting on my predicament, when I spotted Juan Ramos across the street. He nodded hello from a distance and gave me a smile of recognition.  Juan and I immediately took a liking to each other.  He was a lanky, long-limbed, fifty-seven-year-old Puerto Rican born in the United States, who walks with a cane because his knees are arthritic and weak.  Yet he takes his grandchildren to school on foot every day because their mother Sara—his stepdaughter—works long hours.  There isn’t a father around.  Juan sees to the children’s homework, gives them dinner, puts them to bed.  He is a diabetic on Medicare and looks much older than he is, beaten down.  He can’t work, so he lives on social security.  (Juan went through a period without insurance that landed him in the emergency room because he couldn’t afford the prescribed medicine, and his blood glucose level rose to 800.)  He is nearly blind in one eye, having sustained an injury when he was hanging a billboard; the vinyl edge of it snapped his eye in a strong gust of wind.  As vulnerable as he is, Juan is the backbone of this small American family.

“Anything happens, you know, I try to be involved.  I give something to everyone,” said Juan in accented English.  “Kids need watching.  There is no village to raise a child here.  I take my kids to school feeling desperate, you know.  I don’t know what’s there for them tomorrow.  Maybe nothing.  Gotta keep’m safe.  Is all I can do, you know man.  All I can do.”

He lowered his head and shook it back and forth.  Then he pulled out a letter from his jacket pocket and handed the tightly folded square to me while leaning hard on his cane.  It was from the Newark Board of Education.

“Look,” he said.  “What’s it mean, man?  I don’t understand what they’re saying.  Whata they saying about my kid?”

We went into the school nurse’s waiting room, a quiet, private place, and sat side-by-side in gray plastic chairs. I read the document, which said that one of his kids, the oldest, Julio, needed special education because of his problems with reading.  The Board of Education was informing Juan that they were going to provide his son with a special class to work on reading skills.  The Board was willing to test Julio for “learning disabilities”.  I reached for Juan’s shoulder and leaned in and told him that this was a good thing because the Board was acting on teacher recommendations that his grandson needed extra help.  I looked him straight in the eye, my forearms resting on my thighs as if I were an athlete sitting on the bench waiting to be called into the game.  Julio had been identified and would likely receive a modified education plan that would include additional reading classes.  But I realized, having deconstructed the letter for Juan, that I was cast unexpectedly in the role of ad-man and apologist for the education system, explaining the best-case scenario, the ideal, in an environment that couldn’t possibly meet all the special needs cases it has.  Julio would be added to a list of names and may or may not receive any adequate help at all.  Or he might end up in a dull classroom with an unqualified “specialist” and spin his wheels.  He might even be worse off – but I insisted on a better picture, doing the system’s bidding, erring on the side of hope not logic.  I couldn’t locate the truth.  I felt inadequate, something we may all feel when confronted by such despair.  I was an “institution man,” not a teacher.

“I can’t get the kids away from watching TV,” he said, as if somehow Julio’s learning challenges were his doing.  “They like to stay up late.  Man, I know it’s no good.  I don’t know what to do.”

Many parents blame themselves for their children’s lot in life, a mystifying narrative that is leveled by those who seem to think that simply pulling hard on the bootstraps will do the trick.  Work harder is the mantra of a new racism in America that is subtle and profound.  We did it, says this narrative, why can’t you? It must be that you’re not working hard enough, that’s what it isEduardo Bonilla-Silva, a sociologist at Duke University, in his book Racism Without Racists, calls this “racism lite”:  “Instead of relying on name-calling (niggers, spics, chinks), color-blind racism otherizes softly (‘these people are human, too’); instead of proclaiming that God placed minorities in the world in a servile position, it suggests that minorities are behind because they do not work hard enough; instead of viewing prejudice against interracial marriage as wrong on a racial basis, it regards interracial marriage as ‘problematic’ because of concerns over the children, location, or the extra burden it places on couples.”  This is the latest reasoning for man-made poverty and segregation.

“Why don’t they teach us how to help our children?” pleaded Juan in frustration. “This stuff is hard, man, you know.  I don’t get the math.  If they helped us, we can help them.  I can help him read.  I can.  I just need some help.  What can I do, man?  Tell me.  Give me something.”

“Well, one thing you can do is turn off the TV,” I said, unsure of how to begin to answer him. “We did this a long time ago in my house, and you’d be surprised how things change.”

“Oh man, that’s hard, you know.  They ain’t going to like it.  I sit with them and try to help them with the homework, but some stuff I don’t get.  That’s what I need, help with understanding what it is they’re doing.”

I didn’t know how to help Juan, except to translate Board of Education letters.  Education has changed; it’s more complex, subjects more sophisticated.   But Juan has remained the same.  The Math his kids take in school, the books they read are beyond Juan.  No one helped him when he was younger so he doesn’t have the ability to help his family.  It’s an endless, destructive cycle. Public schools such as Miller Street are barely able to provide for students, what can they do for the families of the kids, for Juan?  The challenge is that schools in neglected communities, by default, become community centers, a hub.  Families come to the school for answers.  They see education as a place with answers, a place where knowledge is center stage.  Families come to Miller Street to demystify the challenges they face.  In our current zeal for education reform, we fail to understand that, in some places, community reform is needed if education reform is the goal.  One can’t happen without the other.  The insurgency from the mean streets is too strong.

Juan Ramos is in Miller Street every day – as are other parents – lending a hand where they can.  They go on field trips, ask questions, and want to know how best to help.  A sense of powerlessness comes from having to deal with confusing bureaucracies – education, health care, welfare, human resources.  It also comes from having to walk the hazardous streets of the South Ward.  In this complex square plot of earth, parents have limitations, as we all do, but the greatest of all is lacking the language of social mobility – a missing professional class that communicates about opportunities and has the means to fund them.  Education is not providing the means for social mobility to the people of the South Ward.  The problem in school begins and ends with the teachers.

Charlie Sheen, Kim Kardashian and the Dismantling of American Schooling

Five Irvington New Jersey teens are charged with dragging an eighth grade math teacher, Muideen Oladoja, from his classroom and beating him. A month ago, the Crips gang marched on to the campus of the Rafael Hernandez Elementary School, in Newark, New Jersey, and beat up a student who had allegedly said some words to a child of the Crip leader.

In Providence, Rhode Island, 2000 teachers serving mostly African American and Hispanic students — approximately 90% — are about to lose their jobs. In Wisconsin, the same. In Indiana and Ohio and New Jersey, here too, the dismantling of education is taking shape. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg, taking control of the Department of Education, began the break up — and break down — of education some time ago, moving towards charters and privatization.

And yet, it’s uncanny that as violence in our schools is a daily occurrence — mostly unreported by mainstream media — and our infrastructure deteriorates and our schools are carefully and forcefully being dismantled, American eyes — one million last count — are on Charlie Sheen, and Kim Kardashian’s, arguably the most popular reality TV star, release of her debut single, Jam.

What’s wrong with this picture?

According to the Economic Policy Institute, one in five American children lives in poverty and nearly 35 percent of African-American children are living in poverty.   And the figures are getting worse: In 2008, 39.8 million people were in poverty, up from 37.3 million in 2007 — the second consecutive annual increase in the number of people in poverty.  In 2008, the poverty rate increased for non-Hispanic Whites (8.6 percent in 2008 — up from 8.2 percent in 2007), Asians (11.8 percent in 2008 — up from 10.2 percent in 2007) and Hispanics (23.2 percent in 2008 — up from 21.5 percent in 2007). Poverty rates in 2008 were statistically unchanged for Blacks (24.7 percent).   The poverty rate increased for children under 18 years old (19.0 percent in 2008 — up from 18.0 percent in 2007).

When we venture into politics, we find that no political figure of color comes from any social movement. These political figures have usually joined their party of choice during college; they have moved quickly up through the ranks, and they are not race rebels, as we witnessed about 40 years ago. This is Obama; it’s also Corey Booker of Newark, Michael Steele, Alan Keyes, Deval Patrick and others. None of these politicians represents a threat to the power structure of America. These politicians, as are all, black and white, male and female, are beholding to a new paradigm: a corporate – government alliance.

What am I suggesting?

I am following the notion of “racism lite,” found in Racism Without Racists, by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Instead of relying on name calling (niggers, Spicks, Chinks), and lynching and black/white bathrooms, color-blind racism “otherizes” softly (“these people are human, too”).  It suggests that blacks and minorities in general have fallen behind because they’ve not worked hard enough.   This form of racism, a new ideology, which is in compliance with inverted totalitarianism — the corporate – government alliance — aids in the maintenance of white privilege without fanfare, without naming those it subjects and those who it rewards.   In this world, whites can even claim, “reverse racism.”   The Tea Party Movement, small as it is, is replete with this kind of language.

Where are we?

Kenneth Clark, back in 1965 – that’s 45 years ago – in his seminal work, Dark Ghetto said the following:  “The dark ghettos are social, political, educational, and – above all – economic colonies.  Their inhabitants are subject peoples, victims of greed, cruelty, insensitivity, guilt, and fear of their masters.”

This is the world we’re still creating, not realizing that the resulting tragedy of this always-ongoing story is that fellow citizens – fellow Americans and in some cases immigrants, legal and not, lured by the promise of prosperity – are disenfranchised and relegated to a life where hope is indeed on a tightrope.  What’s more, children, by the thousands, have no cultural armor to protect them while navigating the terrors and traumas of daily life.

Even an extreme conservative doesn’t seem able to understand how fiscally costly this is, never mind the human cost. In fact, it’s cheaper to send a student to an elite liberal arts college, costing over 45K a year, then it is to send this same person, usually Black or Latino (but mostly Black), to prison.

President Obama in his Nobel Peace Prize speech in Oslo, December 11, 2009 said the following: “It is undoubtedly true that development rarely takes root without security; it is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive.  It does not exist where children cannot aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within.”   He was speaking to the world about the world outside the United States.  He was speaking as the Commander-in-Chief.

Yet closer to home, in the communities in which I work and learn – Newark’s South Ward and Washington Heights, Providence, R.I., Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, Compton – families and their kids live in “despair,” which is a word that parents and teachers share with me to describe their condition.   Young people need a community to sustain them, and these days, we’re in deep trouble because we’re dismantling education, ensuring deep divides in our society based on access to the language of social mobility — some can still find hope, while other are relegated to a bleak and dark future.

In the beginning of his powerful work on American Education, The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, Jonathan Kozol sits and talks to an elementary student, Pineapple. In this exchange, Kozol is drawn to Pineapple’s use of “over there” when she points to the Manhattan island:

“What’s it like,” she asked me, peering through the strands of her cornrows that cam down over her eyes, “over there where you live?

“Over where?” I asked.

“Over — you know …,” she said with another bit of awkwardness and hesitation in her eyes.

I asked her, “Do you mean Massachusetts?”

She looked at me with more determination and a bit impatiently, I thought, but maybe also recognized that I was feeling slightly awkward too.

“You know …,” she said.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“Over there — where other people are, ” she finally said.The moral of the story is that Pineapple has little contact with white people, Kozol explains, except for her principal and teachers. Racially, kids like Pineapple are totally cut off; they have “little knowledge of the ordinary reference points that are familiar to most children in the world Pineapple describes as ‘over there,'” says Kozol.

The violence in Irvington New Jersey and the Rafael Hernandez Elementary School is, in part, a consequence of this lacking in reference points — desperate acts always follow.

The dismantling of education by proxies of corporations, as are the governors of Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and New Jersey, is the dramatic sign that the way business has been done in the past is over and that a new world order, beginning here in the United States, is taking shape.  The dominant class — those closely aligned with the corporate state — marginalizes class and race , breaks up collective bargaining, and dismantles education because the last thing inverted totalitarianism needs is an educated class, so our focus is kept on Charlie Sheen and Kim Kardashian. What a world.