The Uncanny Decline

It’s uncanny, but one quick view of the headlines can make anyone’s head spin — Afghanistan is a chaotic shambles, a fog, Wall Street gains, Main Street loses, education is heading in the wrong directions (NY just reported record low test scores) and many schools opting out of the dubiously title Race to the Top.

What else?

WikiLeaks, the Russians want more biotech corn, an 88 year old former Nazi is charged with the mass murder of Jews, health insurance is in disarray–everywhere–and states want Fed help, no energy legislation, muscle flexing — South Korea and the US began their largest joint war games, Sunday, which includes a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, and North Korea threatens retaliation.

And less we forget, Sheryl Sharrod’s story — the bogus notion that we’re somehow in a post-race America, whisked in by Obama’s magic carpet ride.

No one can make this up! This is who we are.

It’s no wonder we want to put our heads in the sand — or into a tall Vodka! There are no jobs and Americans continue to suffer. There is no future, and Americans are worried sick. There is no leadership, and congress continues to bicker, schoolyard kids arguing for who gets to control the swings, each side trying to bully the other. A great example being set by our alleged leaders.

We are definitely and assuredly spiraling downward.

The first to make us aware was Paul Kennedy, in his The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987!). Readers balked, but, nevertheless, were glued to his chapter, “The United States: The Problem of Number One in Relative Decline”:

the United States … cannot avoid confronting the two great tests which challenge the longevity of every major power that occupies the ‘number one’ position in world affairs: whether, in the military/strategical realm, it can preserve a reasonable balance between the nation’s perceived defense requirements and the means it possesses to maintain those commitments; and whether, as an intimately related point, it can preserve the technological and economic bases of its power from relative erosion in the face of ever-shifting patterns of global production.

Of course, the United States has not been able to adjust to the “ever-shifting patterns of global production.” This is obvious. As Kennedy points out, the “decision-making structure that permits a proper grand strategy to be carried out” has to be robust. It’s not, we know this now too. Why? Because, historically, the United States has relied heavily on the mechanisms of “piracy” and protectionism in its development, ensuring the world view of the United States as a predator. It’s not by chance that the single most problematic piece of military hardware is the predator drone.

What we are experiencing in this global paradigm shift is a crisis in Education, writ large. That is, we are having problems synthesizing information, siphoning through the wreckage that is mass media induced information, communication, and, most importantly, we are having great difficulty analyzing and putting into practice our historical antecedents. We forget them, toss these out. We are therefore in a global crisis of knowledge, lead by the United States — we shun it. I mean, let’s be real, Sarah Palin is a character that can sway people, even perhaps elections and she doesn’t even know Geography, for God’s sake. How can we blame children for not succeeding in school when someone such as Palin can become a mouth piece for democracy (lower case) and our political system?

In Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Chris Hedges, says that, “The multiple failures that beset the country from out mismanaged economy to our shredding of Constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the door of our institutions that produce and sustain our educated elite.” Elite institutions do only a “mediocre job of teaching students to question and think”; their focus, instead, is “on creating hordes of competent systems managers.” All creativity vanishes and hierarchies with clear parameters and highly rewarded specialists blossom. “It destroys, the search for a common good,” says Hedges. In this world, we want TV wrestling and pornography, a reality based on illusion and the notion that consumption is an inner compulsion. The corporation has won.

In 1995, John Ralston Saul already saw this, too, in his The Unconscious Civilization: “What is more contemptible than a civilization that scorns knowledge of itself.” Saul told us that, “The result of such a denial is a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of the public good.” Historically, then, we have shifted from an American culture of production to a culture of consumption; with it, our values and philosophy — community, self-reliance, equal rights and justice — have vanished and we find ourselves in a new a quite harrowing world that embraces, as Saul says, a dominant ideology: corporatism — junk culture and junk politics.

Where do we go from here?

Preliminary Notes NCORE (Day1-PM 2)



5-5:45 (Potomac Ballroom A and B/Convention Center, Level 2)
Afternoon Conference Pleneray Session

Teach the Children, Free the Land: The Political Economy of Public Education

Mari J. Matsuda, J.D., Professor of Law, William S. Richardson School of Law, University of Hawi’i—Mãnoa, Hawai’i ( pioneer in critical race theory; top, most influential Asian Americans)


•    Loves coming to the conference – she can tell it’s NCORE.  It is a convention of people who are dedicated to the heart and spirit of the country, rich in its diversity. It’s not a convention in Arizona
•    Currently working on a book on the state of public education – history, economy, race and subordination and class
•    3 worlds: (1) greed is good: plow orchards and build macmansions to people that can’t afford them; bail out too big to fail ponzi schemes that are too large to fail, the $ coming from the workers; experts say that this is not suppose to happened; (2) greed is good lite: a modest national health care system, leaving all intact –pharmaceutical, hospitals, etc; business as usual; give cash for clunkers; what you can pull together for yourself will be yours – up and down and malaise: (3) just beyond our grasp: expected to work hard, but the market does not make rules, we do it under the Constitution and build a democracy – we choose how to regulate markets; we will impose reasonable regulations on the food industry; we will propose reasonable regulations on oil and coal so that they can’t kill our oceans and our land.
•    Topic: if we could take hold of our government, we can start investing in our needs – education, health care, homes, etc., everything that’s as important as militarism. This place is imperative, because our nation’s survival dependents on an educated citizen that can build our future.
•    We’re losing minority enrollment because of the economy.  As a critical race theorist, I ask what race has to do with it and I consider all forms of subordination intersecting in our schools.
•    No more orchestra, no glee club, no more play – it’s all gone from public schools.
•    What happened?


•    In DC, in public schools, mouse feces in closets, no heat, so students have to learn to write and ware mittens
•    To avoid social problems (critical race theory) is to place them on the shoulders of a disenfranchised group
•    Reagan cut social investments using images of poor, homeless people of color, although most recepients were white
•    What does it mean when we say, “They just can’t learn?”  We have to keep “our” students from “their” students
•    Most schools are “black”—black teachers, black students, etc. – all coding, encompassing all ethnic groups of color
•    Derek Bell – when people say urban, we mean “black”; it happens at the uncoscious levels: “We can’t just throw money at the problem because it will be waste.  The problem is waste and inefficiency.”
•    The presuption that they will fail is racist—they don’t have what it takes to succeed
•    No form of subordination is without cause: everyone can read, write and succed
•    Where is the interconnection of forms of subordination that cause this
•    Gender is less obvious: look for gender where it’s hard to see: we swim in the objectification of women. Where is gender of subordination in education?
•    Second wave feminists were involved in practice, though what they asked for became theory, one such area is public vs private, so women originally entered the public in private sphere jobs
•    Ideology of separate spheres carried over, after the second wave
•    Post New Deal Era marked a sharp decline in women wages – short paying women and unfunding schools; we have decreased the total amount of money put into the infrastructure
•    Broken systems generate costs, inefficiencies generate costs – it sends a message to students, which is education is not important.  Feminist take: education of children is woman’s work; in the middle class, women still pick up the work. Women are doing the job that the state is suppose to do.
•    Well endowed private schools do spend money on infrastructure, things are fixed
•    Poar New Deal generation have the same sense of entitlement, but now the parents have to pick up the slack: what will it take to stop accomadating and resisting all efforts to divest the public sector
•    In deep economic era, there is no public outcry at the abuse of the working class
•    Capital will make consessions to the worker if it has no choice; it responds with just enough to quiet it down
•    During the last depression, people did fight back – people marched, 20,000 strong, on to capital hill (unemployed veterans of WW1, run out by tanks and Army personal on horseback) – this image gave us the New Deal (note: we never hear this narrative)
•    Three decades later, poor women, stood up demanding demanding for their children
•    Power concedes to the demands of the poor; we have models of multiracial divesting and as educators we need to retrieve them
•    Now we see public education as expendable: the country belongs to us and we have the power to make the country strong
•    We need a new deal for education
•    DuBois: a deep hunger for learning among those we consider the outcasts
•    We have protoypes of multiracial, small schools that work
•    We know what works; it’s not a mystery, so it’s proof that we are making a deliberate choice to have urban schools fail. Charters, etc., words that supplant the kind of integration that’s needed
•    We have become unknowing survilists in terms of education; we’re taking on education as a personal problem.  But people must be called back to the table to re-do what we’ve left behind
•    Every child is our own – feed, teach, shelter, embrace every child with the love human beings are entitled. This is when we’ll see peace.  An investment has to be made – and it’s a big investment
(note: we do make this investment, but it separates those that can afford it from those that can’t; standardization is what we do when we’re aiming low)

Death in Chicago and the American Decline

I’m taking a slight break from revisiting my schooling past to address what just happened in Chicago: Chicago Targets Teen Violence After Teen Brawl (and death). Earlier, in Education Stimulus Package: In Duncan’s Hands, Hope is on a Tightrope, I wrote that,

If the rest of the stimulus package proposed by the President and approved by Congress (the Senate is debating the package) is handled the way Secretary Duncan discussed the $140 billion increase in federal money for education we are in for a difficult ride. Duncan (University of Chicago Laboratory Schools / Harvard) is long on hyperbole, short on any understanding of the challenges facing education.

The recent violence in Chicago demonstrates that at its core the way education has been managed (in Chicago) needs to be revisited since Duncan’s Renaissance 2010 project to improve public schools. Renaissance 2010 converted several failing high schools into smaller specialized schools. The goal was to improve learning and boost test scores. But it forced thousands of students to attend schools farther away from home and across dangerous gang and neighborhood turf boundaries.

Chicago education officials support Renaissance 2010, saying that “deeper” problems promulgated the violence in Chicago that ended the life of a young man. The tragedy in Chicago is a convergence of 2 American tragedies: (1) The Renaissance 2010 project is an ill conceived method of management based ONLY on what Freire has called the “banking system of education,” meaning that Duncan’s concern is solely management, the herding of students and teachers into a hierarchical — and quantifiable — system, rather than thinking about the creation of learning spaces that are both safe and invigorating; and, (2), the ongoing work by the US Government, since the stimulus package, to cut the education budget, which then converges with the decline of support in neighborhoods throughout the country–the South Bronx, Newark’s South Ward, Compton, in LA, and, yes, Chicago.

We cannot address problems in education unless we likewise address problems in our communities — unemployment, health care, and the malaise brought on by hopelessness.

In The Uneducated American, Paul Krugman, writing for The New York Times, says that, “Until now, the results of educational neglect have been gradual — a slow-motion erosion of America’s relative position. But things are about to get much worse, as the economic crisis — its effects exacerbated by the penny-wise, pound-foolish behavior that passes for ‘fiscal responsibility’ in Washington — deals a severe blow to education across the board.”

Duncan and Congress are entrenched in a mission to increase efficiency by “busing” students into massive schools focused intensely on standardization, while paying absolutely no attention to the decay that is so evident in some of our communities. Since the Reagan years, the gap between the haves and the have nots has increased. We are now seeing the results of the same old policies that have, through Bush II, ensured that the gap has remained, obvious in the way we’re handling education and health care.

The lack of creativity, the lack of a future looking agenda that taps some of the best thinkers in education, community development and health care means that we’ve not seen the end of this tragic approach. More students will die. Of course, many more students do, perhaps not as dramatically (meaning: getting media attention) as they have in Chicago (last spring, working in Newark’s South Ward, 2 children were shot in a playground — a drive by shooting and the children were collateral damage).

If we don’t take stock of our blindness, we will continue our downward spiral.

Education Stimulus Package: In Duncan’s Hands, Hope is on a Tightrope

On January 30, 2009, CNN’s Campbell Brown interviewed Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the President’s $140 billion increase in federal money for education.

If the rest of the stimulus package proposed by the President and approved by Congress (the Senate is debating the package) is handled the way Secretary Duncan discussed the $140 billion increase in federal money for education we are in for a difficult ride. Duncan (University of Chicago Laboratory Schools / Harvard) is long on hyperbole, short on any understanding of the challenges facing education.

Duncan begins by trying to mirror Obama’s own rhetoric. “This is an extraordinary opportunity and if we want to become a strong economy again, the best thing we can do is have an educated work force.”

But how do we do this ? How are we going to meet the needs and challenges of our diverse society?

Says Duncan, “So the stimulus package is going to do a number of things. It’s going to help us [word missing in transcript here] a tremendous unmet capital needs and so it’s really going to be a huge opportunity to invest in infrastructure and several ready projects that we want to get to work on very early on, late spring and through the summer.

We want to save literally hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs. We’re very, very worried about tremendous cuts, devastating cuts in school districts and states around the country. We want to stay those off going into the fall. We want to continue to raise the bar academically, raise standards, raise expectations, and there’s opportunities in the stimulus package to do that.”

Wait. Capital needs, invest in infrastructure, ready projects, raise standards and expectations–what does all this mean?

It means that the Obama Administration is assuming that what we have to do is pour money into existing buildings, programs and the old ways of doing business in education without first spending some needed money to try and create an atmosphere of inquiry and critical assessment.  We have to save teachers’ jobs, even if some of these teachers, like bankers and Wall Street types, don’t merit the jobs they hold. That is, the early money for the education stimulus package is going to be spent on bolstering what we already have without first trying to understand–and realizing–that what we have has gotten us into the pickle we’re in now.

When a society is in crisis, as is ours, it means that education has been in crisis for far longer.

Let’s not forget that highly educated people created the mortgage crisis, the disintegration of our financial systems and two wars. The educated people in our society argued for Weapons of Mass Destruction that didn’t exist–and they new it. Never before have so many highly educated people in America been without work and there’s none to be had in the not so distant future.

On the other end of the scale, in New York City, for instance, less than half of its students graduate high school. I asked New York City teachers why and the most resounding answer is that for over 50% of the students, the curriculum is totally irrelevant. They can’t identify with it at all. Add to that segregation, rampant in urban schools, family problems, health care problems, unemployment and no investment in capital needs is going to alleviate the suffering and move these people from a cycle of self-doubt, depression and hopelessness.

When Ms. Brown asked Duncan about No Child Left Behind, something he says he knows quite a bit about, he was tongue tied, unable to respond in any meaningful way about either the pluses or the minuses of the law.

“Well obviously,” said Duncan, “I’ve lived on the other side of the law for the past seven-and-a-half years so I have lots of strong opinions about it. But what I want to do is really get out this and travel the country, and I’ve about frequently as has President Obama [word missing from trranscript] that the philosophy behind it makes a lot of sense. We need to raise the bar, I would argue, we need to raise the bar even more and have high expectations. We want to hold people accountable.”

Is Duncan kidding? This is Bush rhetoric disguised in the Obama aura. Ms. Brown pushed harder. She asked Duncan to be specific.

CB: But be specific. I mean you certainly know about it, about No Child Left Behind and what it entails to have formed an opinion on whether it’s the right way to go.

DUNCAN: Yeah well again, philosophically, directionally, it’s the right way, but there’s many things in the invitation that we think we can improve on moving forward.

CB: Like what?

DUNCAN: There’s a number of things. I’m very interested in graduation rates, and we want to make sure more of our students are graduating from high school and prepared with college-ready, career-ready skills. I’m interested in raising the bar and having high standards. I’m also interested in growth towards those standards, how much a student is gaining each year. But again, I really want to get out…

Duncan here shows incredible hubris, appearing on CNN totally unprepared, reliant solely on the notion that the Obama magic carpet would carry. This tack is right out of the Bush White House playbook.

Campbell Brown was clearly frustrated and insisted. “Let me stop you because there’s specific complaints here, and the President has talked about them. He certainly did on the campaign trail. We have teachers saying that the reality of No Child Left Behind, is that because it uses testing to grade a school’s performance that many teachers find themselves teaching for the test. And again, the President has talked about this. Now, I assume that’s not what we think is best for the kids so how do you fix that?”

This was a unique opportunity for Duncan to address at least one reality of No Child Left Behind: for children in schools in socioeconomically deprived areas, the conditions set forth by this law stack up against  success. For instance, in the past ten years we’ve moved aggressively against Brown v. the Board of Education. Schools today are more segregated than they were in 1954. Martin Luther King, Jr. High School, on Amsterdam Avenue in New York City, in the prestigious Lincoln Center neighborhood, has not attracted a single student from that community. They all go elsewhere so the high school is completely segregated, a hub of color among the affluent who walk around it and ignore it.

How do we raise standards and create an environment of accountability where the odds are always already against the most vulnerable?  Secretary Duncan doesn’t demonstrate any understanding of this very real problem.

What we are in fact doing continuing down this mindless path, as cogently and elegantly discussed by Jonathan Kozol in The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, is returning to 1896 and the “separate but equal’ rationale found in Plessy v. Ferguson. Blindly and without much imagination, Duncan is advocating a rationale “for the perpetuation of a dual system in American society”(Kozol 34). This goes all the way through to college and beyond, to how we live in our communities deeply divided by the haves and the have nots. A segregated education system creates a segregated society, regardless of the color of the President. We are far from a post-race America.

“Higher standards, higher expectations, are insistently demanded of these urban principles, and of their teachers and the students in their schools, but far lower standards certainly in ethical respects appear to be expected of the dominant society that isolates these children in unequal institutions,” Kozol reminds us (34).

This is the heart of the matter, the most profound challenge facing our culture today. Isolation causes a feeling of inferiority and disenfranchisement. Kids and their families learn that the world of the Other is not their own. Different standards are in place. Children in the South Bronx, Newark, Washington Heights, areas of Brooklyn, as well as the South side of Chicago or Boston or Compton and South Central feel that they are not a part of the world around them; that they are indeed different, less capable, expectant eyes on them. The tools for success, as we measure it today, are hidden from them.

But Duncan has a solution, at least partially, he says. In Chicago they used money to motivate students, a program that pays kids for good grades: $50 for an A – $20 for a C and a straight-A student could earn $4,000 a year. Imagine the audacity and the extraordinary blindness of such a program. Teaching kids–and enforcing quite powerfully–the notion that the end result to all things is money. Isn’t that why we’re in the mess we’re in now? And what’s $4,000 a year? To a doubting, unmotivated young boy, for instance, existing among other cynical young boys (and I’m using boys purposefully here), watching for cops on a street corner or going down the block to pick up a nickel or dime bag will earn him three  times that. So this kid finds himself in a bleak world where everyone is trying to buy him.  He’s simply a means of exchange, not a young person with dreams and aspiration.  He’ll never be able to find out what he’s good at; he’ll never be able to pursue a dream. (on teens and money attitudes )

On the other side of the socioeconomic scale, affluent parents will spend $4,000 dollars on character building summer camps for their sons already in good, solid schools; perhaps they’ll spend even more money and have their sons go abroad, study a foreign language, gaining an advantage in the global market place of ideas.

For the children from socioeconomically challenged communities, the solution is always the same: pull up your bootstraps, work harder.

Secretary Duncan is facing daunting problems and, so far, he is clueless as to how to proceed. He isn’t even showing that he understands what the problems are.

We have crossed a threshold into an age requiring new methods of collaboration–cooperation, collective action and complex interactions. This new emerging narrative is a transdisciplinary approach to getting things done, to learning, to knowledge production. But we are stuck in a 19th Century education model facing 21st Century problems and challenges.

Education is the key for a successful and fulfilling life. Education opens doors. But the world has changed and we have to determine whether education is ready to meet the needs of tomorrow. America is no longer dominant. New powers, Brazil, China and India, will continue to grow. Challenges are evident around every corner—global warming, terrorism, and limited resources. For the first time in human history, more people live in and around urban centers. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing exponentially. The key for negotiating all these challenges depends upon global cooperation focused on knowledge production, transaction, and exchange. Education, though, is still mired in an ancient silo approach—insular departments, idiosyncratic and narrow studies, the privileging of work done in isolation.  The school isolated from the life of the community.  We need new methods for training the next generation of leaders, our students.

If every institution is going to be scrutinized, education must be also. Here are the areas we must redefine (nothing Duncan is talking about):

  • segregated communities and schools that lead to self-doubt and isolation must be challenged; revitalization of Brown v. the Board of Education
  • teachers unions that in the past have provided great benefits to teachers now also provide protection for incompetence and tie the hands of those who would discipline and re-educate and dismiss; if in other sectors of our society we can get rid of the garbage, in education we have to do the same
  • technology, lacking in all schools but which should be ubiquitous, should not merely be for communication; technology must be used to create and develop new forms of knowledge construction; OpenSource and OpenCourseware must be utilized to their full capacity, developing new ways of collaborating across disciplines and across populations
  • the role of the teacher can no longer be defined by a 19th Century model; the teacher has to be versed in new technologies, psychologies of learning, sociology and economics and how these create social constructions that pre-define our communities and our students–and be able to speak to these and challenge these in collaboration with students, community leaders and families
  • community problems need not be left outside the school’s door, but rather, be at the heart of a curriculum that is inquiry based and whose outcomes are measured not by a standardized test, but by the community’s implementation of  solutions students and teachers provide
  • in many communities suffering because of disenfranchisement, the school has to be the community center; that is, it must be the community organizing hub, the health center (emergency services, routine physicals, administration of prescriptions), job center, the place for social networking and spiritual support, this way the entire community is involved in the production of knowledge
  • the production of knowledge cannot continue to be done in silos, divided into disciplines as if the problems of a community and the  identities of its citizens are somehow outside the domain of knowledge construction; teachers must collaborate with each other, team teaching in many cases, exploiting the benefits of a transdisciplinary approach that requires the uses of technology
  • the only true test of knowledge is application–tests, particularly high stakes standardized tests are absolutely opposed to this truth; in the 21st Century, the era of cooperation and collaboration, knowledge production that requires technologies, the standardized test is obsolete, like trying to cross an ocean in a canoe
  • colleges and universities have to adopt school districts and work jointly to address the needs of their respective communities; colleges and universities have to put down their ivied walls and embrace their communities
  • the disparity in salaries between those teachers working in socioeconomically challenged communities and those that do not has to be equalized because this is one of the most profound moral inequities in our culture today

These are only some of the challenges facing us today that, I would argue, require that we in education engage in a process of re-evaluation and re-definition because continuing with the same rhetoric we’ve heard for the past 10 years, and which now Duncan is continuing, will guarantee that we not move one step forward in meeting the complex demands of the 21st Century. And if we don’t like what the Education Department is doing, then our moral imperative, taking a page from bell hooks, must be to teach to transgress.

Education is the last vestige of hope we have for a healthy society. But hope is on a tightrope.