Turning the Tide: An Historian’s View of School Reform

high school principalSpeech to a Principals’ Workshop at Columbia Teachers College

It is hard to put in words how honored I am to have been invited to speak to this group. I can think of no gathering whose work is more important to the future of this nation, or have handled this responsibility more honorably, than public schools principals in the state of New York. You are the last line of defense between public school teachers and a political juggernaut of unprecedented proportions seeking to change the way public education in the United States is organized.

This movement, led almost exclusively by people who come from business and the law rather than education, is responsible for the public demonization of members of a human services profession unprecedented in American history, yet it commands virtually unanimous support of the press and broadcast media, leaders of both political parties, the nation’s wealthiest foundations and some misguided civil rights leaders.

What other cause can you think of that can unite Barack Obama, Newt Gingrich, Al Sharpton, Bill Gates, The Koch Brothers, The Walton Family, Scott Bradley, Andrew Cuomo, Michael Bloomberg and Chris Christie? The unlikeliness of this coalition would be amusing were its consequences not so tragic — the closing of schools which have served hard-pressed communities for generations, the development of testing protocols that crowd out science, history and the arts, the development of school and teacher evaluations whose results defy common sense, the erosion of the democratic rights of school professionals and a daily numbing attack on the teachers that destroys the morale of the best people in the profession.

But I don’t have to explain these events to people in this room because you live with their consequences every day. You watch your schools be deluged with unnecessary tests. You watch “value added” systems for rating schools and teachers be developed which use minute variations in test scores as the basis for life-changing decisions about schools and the people who work in them. You watch your teachers collapse in tears as their profession is attacked almost daily in the pages of the New York Times, the the New York Daily News and The New York Post, and as people from the President to New York’s Governor and New York City’s Mayor blame them for everything from poverty, to racial inequality to the inability of American workers to compete in a global economy.

And in the face of all of this, you hold your school communities together. You stand up for your teachers and let them know you have their back, you educate your parents about the craziness of current school evaluation protocols and warn them not to believe what they read in the papers, and you make sure your students in spite of all the testing still have room for imagination and play and community building.

I know this because I have seen it first hand in working with several extraordinary principals at high poverty schools in the Bronx, as well as from someone many of you in this room know — one of the greatest leaders I have ever met in any capacity, in any profession — my wife, Liz Phillips, principal of PS 321

But you have done more than just protect your school community. Many of you have spoken up publicly against the policies coming from Washington, and Albany and The New York City Department of Education which undermine the best practices you have spent your life learning and implementing. The Long Island School Principals’ letter, which some people in this room helped to launch, and some of you have signed, is one of the most important grass roots initiative in the nation challenging the stifling, and ultimately reactionary testing and teacher evaluation features of Race to the Top. You have set a standard of professional integrity for the entire nation, and I feel profoundly honored to be in your presence.

Because of this, I have not come to you today to talk to you about issues you know more about than I do, whether it is how to teach reading and writing, how to identify and nurture good teachers, or even how to distinguish between the useful and the irrelevant on standardized tests, but rather, I am going to try to draw upon some of my own training as a historian to put the current Education Reform juggernaut in historical perspective. But before I do that, I want to explain why someone whose fields of study are African American, urban and labor histor, suddenly became involved in speaking about and writing about education issues.

My emergence as an education blogger flows directly from my experiences doing community history projects in Bronx schools under the auspices of a public history project I launched ten years ago called the Bronx African American History Project. We started this project because the Bronx had almost completely been left out of research and writing on New York City African American history, and from the very beginning it was driven by input from community residents who wanted to tell their stories.

As we started collecting oral histories, we very quickly became exposed to a narrative of Bronx history that departed markedly from the stories of urban decay, violence and white flight that so often appeared in the media portraits of the boroughs recent history. When talking to Black residents of the Bronx who were born or arrived in the borough between the 1930s and the 1950s, we learned about an era when the Bronx was a place of optimism and hope for African American, West Indian and Latino families who moved there from Harlem, resulting in South Bronx neighborhoods, schools and housing projects which were among the most racially integrated in the nation.

More than that, we learned of a thriving musical culture in South Bronx neighborhoods, unparalleled in the nation, than encompassed, jazz, mambo and, doo wop and later funk, salsa and hip hop, that was nurtured in scores of small clubs, along with ballrooms, theaters and the neighborhood’s public schools.

Less than four years after we began the project, social studies coordinators in the Bronx heard about what we are doing and asked us to present our work at workshops and conferences for teachers. The teachers who attended these presentations got so excited about the potential of the material we had uncovered that we found ourselves deluged with invitations so speak at Bronx schools so that students and their parents could begin to feel a new pride in their surroundings

Within a year of my first presentations, I found myself doing walking tours, workshops and lectures for Bronx teachers through Teaching American History Projects, and then was hired by a network leader in what was then Region 2 to come into 13 Bronx schools and help them launch community history projects involving students, teachers, parents, school aides and neighborhood residents.

This proved to be a life-changing experience for me. Each school spent two months on these projects, culminating in day-long community history festivals that involved everything from photo exhibits, to dance, to documentary films, to food festivals to plays. The hundreds of teachers involved in this displayed amazing creativity and enthusiasm and inspired levels of student and parental involvement far beyond what I dreamed were possible

It is in the context of these experiences with Bronx teachers, many of whom were teachers of color, many of whom grew up in the neighborhoods that they were teaching in, that I began to feel a simmering rage at the ever-increasing attacks on public school teachers that were starting to appear in the New York and national media, some of them coming from the Mayor and then New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein.

mark naisonThe argument being made — that incompetent and poorly motivated teachers were the major reason for failing schools in high poverty neighborhoods — was contradicted by what I was seeing every day in Bronx schools, where teachers were stubbornly, creatively, and at times heroically, trying to teach young people living in stress filled environments who often brought those stresses to school with them.

Worse yet, when it came to rating and grading schools, the Department of Education ended up giving low grades to some of the best schools I had visited, places where the entire staff went the extra mile to create to make students feel nurtured and supported and family members welcomed.

This experience, coupled with my daily conversations with my wife Liz about how protocols for rating schools and teachers were based on ridiculous, minute variations in test scores that had some of her best teachers rated lowest, convinced me to use the platform my academic position gave me to speak out in defense of teachers and principals who were now under ferocious attack by people of influence in politics, the media and business.

Very simply, I felt that teachers were being assigned responsibility for patterns of racial and economic inequality which were centuries in the making and had multiple causes. Worse yet, those making these accusations were proposing that schools become the society’s major instrument of eliminating those inequalities through a reform program featuring competition, universal testing, test based teacher evaluations the closing of failing schools, and selective privatization.

To any reputable historian or social scientist, the two pillars of the Educational Reformers argument, that “bad teachers” bore a major responsibility for the persistence of racial and economic inequality, and that transforming schools along a business/competition model would bring immediate results in the form of greater educational equity and economic equality would be so improbable as to defy credulity.

Yet this Crackpot Theory not only commanded the support of the bulk of the nation’s editors and business leaders, it was bought hook line and sinker by the incoming Obama Administration which institutionalized these ideas in its Race to the Top Initiative which has proved even more damaging in its consequences than No Child Left Behind.

How could this happen? How could ideas so flawed and divorced from real-life experience become the basis of the Nation’s Education Policy no matter what party was in power?

I do not pretend I am ready to solve this riddle, at least not yet, but I do want to point out that this is not the first time in our nation’s history that a simple explanation for complex social problems led to a failed attempt at social transformation. Right after World War I, a huge mass movement to ban the production and sale of alcoholic beverages culminated in the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Like education reform, prohibition promised an immediate remedy to class and cultural cleavages in American society and was supported by a cross section of the nation’s political leaders, including some feminists and people on the left.

Supporters claimed that banning alcoholic beverages would reduce domestic violence, undermine organized crime, weaken urban political machines, and promote the assimilation of recent immigrants. It was promulgated with the same fervor educational reform is today, and had the same level of support in the mass media, but unfortunately, none of the results it promised came to pass and thirteen years later, in the heart of the Depression, Prohibition was repealed

It would be comforting to think that it won’t take 13 years for the Education Reform juggernaut to collapse and its policies to be reversed. But I am not sure I can state that with confidence. While some of the supporters of education reform support it because they hope against hope such policies will reverse rampant and growing in equality in the United States, others are involved because they stand to directly or indirectly profit from the measures they are trying to implement.

In the latter category, first and foremost are those who produce the tests that No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top Require as the basis of school and teacher evaluation, or the new software required for their implementation. Figures like Bill Gates, whose involvement in education issues is alleged to be disinterested and humanitarian, or Rupert Murdoch, whose media regularly comment on education issues from what is presumed to be an objective standpoint, both stand to gain financially from the test protocols associated with Race to the Top.

But there are other reasons a cross section of America’s top business leaders support Education Reform as a solution to problems of poverty and inequality, the foremost being that it diverts attention from their own complicity in maximizing those very problems. It is a peculiar species of shamelessness that allows hedge fund directors in Democrats for Education Reform, who have made a fortune speculating while most Americans have lost jobs, income and retirement funds, to make teachers unions and public school teachers responsible for denying poor children education and economic opportunity.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Koch Brothers and the Walton Family Foundation, both of whose companies have prospered in a union free environment, find it convenient to use the attack on teachers as an opening wedge in a broader attack on public employees unions which has spread through states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.

After having successfully supported an offensive against industrial unions in the 1980s and 1990s, driving executive compensation up, while driving working class incomes down, they have turned their attention to public school teachers as one of the obstacles to the creation of a compliant, non- union labor force in the United States

There is no better example of the consequences of their efforts than the CEO/Worker gap at Wal Mart, whose CEO makes $16,000 an hour while the entry level worker in the company makes $6.50 an hour. Public education, where teachers salaries almost equal those of school administrators, represents an alternative model of operation which the Walton Family Foundation, through its support of Teach for America and the American Legislative Exchange Council, is doing everything in its power to undermine and discredit

Given the political momentum of the Education Reform juggernaut, and the powerful interests who stand to profit from it, how can teachers, principals and parents prevent it from totally undermining their profession and turning schools into places of Fear and Dread? I have no simple answers to this question, but I do want to point out three important places where the corporate education reform movement is vulnerable, all of which can be exploited by people trying to preserve space for creative teaching and learning

  • Testing to the Point of Absurdity. One of the things that generated the Long Island Principals Letter is the insistence of US Department of Education that teachers must be assessed on student test scores to receive RTT funding, thereby requiring that students be tested in every grade and every subject to that teachers can be properly evaluated. Once elementary school parents realize the implications of this — namely that students will be tested in kindergarten and in subjects like music, art and gym- some, possibly many will begin to rise up in revolt against a regime that makes their children hate going to school. We as educators must explain to parents, early and often, that accepting Race to the Top requires universal testing of a sort that will squeeze most of the joy, creativity and play out of early childhood education. Perhaps, they will start to assert political influence before these policies are actually implemented, not after they experience their horrible consequences.
  • Gratuitous School Closings that Destroy Communities. This is what we have going on in New York City right now, with over 60 schools targeted by the Bloomberg administration for closing, some of which were schools the Department of Education created after an early phase of closings. These closings, totally immune to parent and community input, not only traumatize teachers and principals who have worked hard to make these schools work under daunting conditions, they are going to enrage students and parents who have felt invested in school communities and feel their democratic rights are being violated. There are already protest movements being organized against school closings at several schools in the Bronx, as well as at schools in other boroughs, and these movements could pick up considerable momentum when the weather becomes nicer and local Occupy Movements become involved. Which brings up point
  • School Policy Is Now on the Radar Screen of the Occupy Movement Which Represents the Most Formidable Ally Teachers Have On the American Political Landscape. Although the Occupy Movement is less than six months old, it has exposed as nothing before it has done since the Depression, the disproportionate power the very wealthy exert over social policy. Nowhere is that influence more prominent than in Education Reform, where a cross section of the American Business elite from Gates and Broad to Koch and Walton, are funding initiatives which take power away from teachers and expand universal testing. Occupy movements around the country are beginning to realize that and are making alliances with teacher activist groups challenging school closings and attacks on teacher unions. These alliances have a huge upside for teachers and have great potential for yielding mass protests on a local scale which will complement what was begun with the Save our Schools March on Washington and which is continuing with the Occupy The DOE protests taking place in late March and early April under the auspices of United Opt Out, a national parents group.

Despite these emerging opportunities, the Corporate Education Reformers still have the initiative. The limitless funds they have at their disposal, which allows them to buy off politicians and neutralize teachers unions, and their virtually complete monopoly on national media, means that school closings, attacks on teacher autonomy, and imposition of more and more standardized tests will continue unabated for some time

mark naisonBut over time, people of courage and integrity, including the people gathered in this room, will turn the tide and begin to restore sanity to educational discourse and develop a powerful alliance of teachers, parents and students, supported first by the Occupy movement, and later by unions, religious organizations and progressive politicians, which will try to make the public schools once again what they were designed to be — a place where curiosity is nurtured, where imagination flourishes and where young people learn the value of intelligent citizenship in a Democratic society.

Mark Naision
With A Brooklyn Accent

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