Saturday, March 31, 2012

Flip This School

Below is an article by Kevin Ryan that challenges the district's "official rationale of ... finances" that Ron Kristof refers to in his candid article calling the closure of Doyle Park "morally reprehensible." The Press Democrat did not accept this submission but it should be disseminated widely as it reveals the distortions in the financial "bottom line" narrative the district and Board used to justify what Kristof rightly identifies as a "political decision."  If we peel away the misleading numbers about finances and so-called school achievement that were used to destroy the Doyle Park Elementary school community, we must confront the unapologetic embrace of segregation that covers itself with the fig leaf of "choice."  

After the article you will find the statement that Kevin Ryan read to the Board this past Wednesday, 3/28; it contains bullet points that our Santa Rosa community should expect the Board to either refute or concede.

Flip This School 
In the early hours of March 15th the Santa Rosa Board of Education voted 4 to 2 to close Doyle Park Elementary School and give the site to the Santa Rosa French-American Charter School (SRFACS), which plans to offer a French language immersion program for kindergarten through 6th grade. The vote will in effect displace the current Doyle Park students, who are mostly Latino and poor, with a whiter, more affluent student body drawn mainly from other school districts.
The Board members who pushed this action through freely admitted that it had little to do with education, community or justice.  It was simply a financial decision, they said. To their profound discredit, they argued this point as if it were sheer common sense that finance would override all other considerations in these hard times. 
The Board claims that this was a well-considered and sound financial decision. It is neither.  They argue that their action will save money and even increase revenue to the district. Sadly it will not. A thorough review of the Board’s documents on the matter reveal that their self-proclaimed “tough but responsible” decision is actually a high-risk gamble. It is bad enough that the bet is made with money they don’t have.  But what is unforgivable is that the wager is also built on the anguish and tears of Doyle Park students who will never benefit even if the long shot comes in.  
The Board members pointed to the severe budget cuts to Santa Rosa schools and the fact that Doyle Park lost $180,000 in 2010-2011 due to low enrollment.  No one is disputing these facts. But closing Doyle Park Elementary and opening the new SRFACS does not save money; it costs money.
SRFACS begins in the hole with an immediate expenditure of $52,461 for a half-year salary and benefits for a new principal. The Board also projects an $84,351 loss in the school’s first year.  The loss is grossly underestimated because it is based on inflated enrollment projections. Incredibly, the Board assumes that more than 91% of those who signed a non-binding form expressing intent to attend SRFACS will actually enroll their children there. The count includes signatures from parents as far away as France, Oregon, Menlo Park and San Francisco!  If actual enrollment slips a mere 3% - just 8 students- below the district’s enrollment projection for the SRFACS’s first year, it will lose more money ($126,000) than Doyle Park would have lost ($123,000) if it were allowed to remain open.
What justifies this bet? The Board boldly asserts that SRFACS will turn a profit after just one year!  As most businesspeople know, it is rare for a startup to turn a profit in one year.  Based on pumped up enrollment projection for 2012-2013, the district simply claims that enrollment will increase by 20% in 2013-2014. The rosy scenario rolls on with steady profits in subsequent years. 
The Board’s analysis of the financial future of SRFACS is an exercise in wishful thinking. It has all of the misplaced optimism of the reality TV show “Flip This House" that was popular during the real estate bubble. This time, the Board is playing “Flip This School” with already tragic harm to the current Doyle Park students and future damage to the taxpayer and our beloved public schools.  
How could Doyle Park Elementary have become a financially viable school?  If the Board had allowed it to remain open next year, it would have needed about 25 new students to close the gap. One way to get there would have been a Spanish immersion program for kindergarten and 1st grade.  
But some Board members were too busy dreaming of profits from a new French charter school to allow that to happen.

Kevin Ryan is an IT professional and serial entrepreneur who has lived in Santa Rosa for over 20 years. 

My name is Kevin Ryan. 
I was here at 1:15 in the morning on March 15th when Board member Haenel, Carle, Wakefield and Jeye voted to close Doyle Park Elementary and give the site to the French American Charter School.  I thought the decision was profoundly unfair because it will, in effect, displace the current  Doyle Park students, who are mostly Latino and poor, with a whiter, more affluent student body drawn mainly form outside the district.
They said that the overriding issue compelling them to close Doyle was financial. They claimed that the decision was well considered and sound. I decided to carefully review the Board’s financial analysis to see if this is true. Sadly it is not.
Here’s what I found:
  1. The vote to open the French charter school was a vote to immediately spend some $52,000 for a half year’s salary for a new administrator for the school. Spend $52,000 when the district is broke.
  1. With a projected enrollment of 260 students, the charter school loses some $84,000 in its 1st year. This loss is a gross underestimate because to get to an enrollment of 260, the Board assumes that an astounding  91% of all petitioners will actually send their children to the French school.  
  1. If actual enrollment slips by only 3%, or 8 students, the French charter school loses more money ($126,000) next year than Doyle Park ($123,000) would have lost, had it been allowed to stay open.
  1. What justifies this bet on the charter school?  The Board assumes that the French school will turn a profit in one year.  Most businesspeople will tell you don’t bet on making a profit in only one year.
  1. How do they turn a profit? The Board’s analysis asserts that the enrollment will increase by 20% in the 2nd year. The estimate is simply pulled from thin air. 
The Board’s analysis is an exercise in wishful thinking.  It is not a careful financial plan. It’s a speculative bet. People used to flip houses during the real estate bubble.  Now with charter school mania, the Board is playing “Flip this School” with tragic harm to the current Doyle students  and future damage to the taxpayer. It is bad enough that the Board is gambling with money they don’t have.  What is unforgivable is that bet is at the expense of Doyle students who will never benefit, even if the long shot comes in.
Could Doyle have been saved?  If the Board had allowed it to remain open next year, it would have needed an additional 25 students to close the financial gap. One way to get there could have been a Spanish language immersion program for kindergarten and 1st grade.  
But some Board members were too busy playing “Flip this School” and dreaming of the profits to allow that to happen.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

No Public Education, No Democracy

I teach English at Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa, California. I love my school, my amazing colleagues, and the kids who enter my classroom each year. But I hate what is happening to public education.
From the national to the local level, our public schools -- and that means our students -- are under attack. This attack takes more than one form. The cuts to vital education services are horrifying enough, but they're only half the picture. The other half is the violation of our public trust by private interests.
It's not a pretty sight, but we must look squarely at the vultures of privatization that prey on the damage to our schools, from New York to New Orleans to Wisconsin to California. Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education in the first Bush administration, refers to the three big education funders, Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Walton Family, as the Billionaire Boys Club in her excellent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System.
Vultures and their corporations are poised to supply the artificial heart of learning to a wounded public school system they fully intend to finish off. But they won't succeed because our communities are going to fight for our beloved schools, we teachers are going to fight for our students, and our students are going to demand the education they deserve!
Education is a human right; it is not a humiliating race for basic funding, something the Obama administration and Education Secretary Arne Duncan would do well to remember. Education is a right, and yet there is more segregation in our schools today than at any time since 1968, the year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The corporate obsession with charter schools and high stakes tests has contributed mightily to this segregation while shamefully distracting us from the poverty and income inequality that go hand in hand with it.

I'm not going to lie down while corporations prey on our students. I don't want to see our nation's young people at the mercy of a Rupert Murdoch or a Michael Milken. Do you remember Michael Milken, former felon and Junk Bond King of the eighties? He is also co-founder of K-12 Inc., America's largest provider of online education for kindergarten through 12th grade.
An online school exists inside of a computer. Today, kids can conduct their entire social lives on a computer and get all their schooling done there, too. They never even have to leave the house. It's very compact, very efficient, but there is one missing link: the human link, the spacious beauty of the human bond.
Online or virtual schools typically have high withdrawal rates, and that's not surprising. It must be very tempting to drop out of a "school" when there is no teacher there in person to get to know you, to care, to see who you are and who you might one day become.
These online schools are marketed to English learners who need the exact opposite of isolation and benefit most from cooperative strategies in natural, not virtual, settings.
Or they are preposterously promoted as beneficial to low income students as though it were a good thing to get education at a discount, off the rack. As Diane Ravitch warns of the educational dystopia that is fast gaining on reality, "the poor will get computers and the rich will get computers and teachers."
The corporate predators also target struggling learners, kids with learning disabilities or emotional problems; in other words, the very kids who need human engagement and interaction the most. And make no mistake: all kids need it! One shudders to imagine children as young as 5 attending a virtual school. It's a 'brave new world.'
How can we allow Michael Milken, a man who wouldn't be allowed inside of a real classroom because of his felony conviction, to make a profit marketing his online curriculum to kindergartners?
Letting the business world gain control of our public schools has many sad consequences, but there is no question that it is making a few people very rich. Rupert Murdoch referred to the for-profit K-12 education industry as "a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed." We must keep Rupert Murdoch waiting desperately until the end of time.

And we can't forget the Walton Family. The Walton Family spent $157 million dollars on Ed Reform in 2010 alone and has spent $1 billion to date on pushing charter schools and busting teachers' unions. Do we really want the people behind Walmart to set the education agenda for America?
We hear so much these days about standards in education and holding teachers accountable to the standards. Ask yourself what the Walmart standard of education might be: a 'chain' school system force-feeding one standardized diet of junk learning to all those unique kids across the nation? Corporations are pushing the fast food of education, with budget cuts pumping up the size of classes to 40 plus students. How big can an online class get? Super size me.

In the current education climate it is not fashionable to examine the big picture, nor to ask too many questions about what students are learning and why we are teaching it to them. It's not recommended for the teacher and it's not prescribed for the student. Nevertheless, we teachers are not about to give up on critical thinking within or beyond the walls of the classroom.
Here is one critical piece of the big picture: The Walton Family owns more wealth than the bottom 40% of the whole U.S. while one in five kids here live in poverty.
Finland, the country whose scores in international test comparisons we've been holding up as a model, has high-performing schools in large part because they do things like provide food and free health-care for their students. They understand that a quality education emerges from a strong community and a humane society. Why can't we figure that out here in the wealthiest country in the world?
So if the Walton family really wants to improve education, maybe they should start supporting Single Payer Healthcare. Maybe they should launch a massive campaign to end child poverty. And no education reform effort would be complete without a major challenge to the corporate stranglehold on our system of government. Come to think of it, these so-called philanthropists might want to join the Occupy Movement! But we're talking about the owners of Walmart.
The 1% is hoping that if America continues to blame teachers for everything then they might forget to tax the millionaires. But we can't afford to forget the real scope of the problem. We can't forget that Occupy was a verb before it became a noun. Whatever your political identity, your party affiliation, your status in America today, please occupy your conscience. We need to vote to fund public education and other essential human services. We need to occupy our hearts, our minds, and our capacity for critical thinking. And we need to do more than rouse ourselves for intermittent election cycles: we can't go back to sleep.
People everywhere are waking up to the radical threat that corporations pose to our global economy, to our planet and to our very existence as a species. But first of all corporations are a threat to our democracy, to our self-determination. For without public education, there can be no democracy.
This is why we reject any authoritarian education mandated by an illegitimate corporate power. We must overthrow the plutocracy! We cannot afford to wait timidly for politicians powered by big money to give their lukewarm legislative blessings to our kids' fundamental human rights. We the people need to take to the streets to demand those rights, to demand the legislation that is just and fair in the wealthiest country in the world. We are the decision-makers and "we're the people - we go on." And I'm not just quoting The Grapes of Wrath because I'm an English teacher.
I would never have become a teacher if I didn't believe in the power of people to change the world, and especially the power of young people. Students, I know you can change the world! You can change the world! I believe in you.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Occupy the Classroom

If Occupy in its infancy has some of the characteristics of a child, it makes me wonder what should be preserved and what refined and matured. I ask myself where innocence should be maintained and where boundaries become practical and necessary.

I think of the movement's struggle to forge a community out of diverse classes of people who have made their way to various sites of encampment or protest. As a teacher and union representative, I am aware that some in our association balk at the prospect of teachers standing shoulder to shoulder with the homeless, addicted and mentally ill in a joint day of protest for Occupy Santa Rosa and the Santa Rosa Teachers Association. SRTA has officially endorsed the Occupy Movement, but we have yet to make our presence felt at the site of resistance.

Several people in our community have reached out to me about organizing this day of solidarity, but the concern that we will weaken our credibility by consorting with society's outcasts continues to stall any demonstration of common ground. As a parent and teacher, this saddens me deeply. There is no question that some troubled and alienated people have gravitated to City Hall alongside the more lucid political activists. The only question is how the Occupy community is prepared to greet them.

My son is now three years old and lately I have been reading him a book that I had as a child called Jack the Bum and the Halloween Handout. The story is about a guileless New York City homeless man on Halloween who goes trick or treating after some kids good-naturedly explain to him how it's done. Predictably, Jack meets with horror and revulsion as he knocks on the doors of various apartments. My son seems to really like this book but I don't think he understands its dramatic irony. How could he? He is too young to realize how savagely class divides us.

When I was his age growing up in NYC, my mom likes to remind me of the way I ran gleefully into the arms of a "bum," a guy who looked and smelled like Jack, someone who would repulse any properly socialized adult. There is pride in her tone when she tells this story, but it is mingled with a residual alarm that most cautious parents would feel at the incongruous sight of their young, tenderhearted lambs leaping into the arms of something wild, someone whose official stamp of humanity has faded. There is caution and then there is calcified callousness.

I would like to see Occupy preserve some of the unrestrained humanity of children as it evolves from its infancy, but I recognize the challenges this presents, no more so than when I am faced with annoying, obnoxious, or even outright disturbed students in my classroom. Almost from their earliest experience of school, kids are socialized in stratification. They are placed in different tracks and not so subtly ushered into very unequal destinies.

When I teach a "low-performing" class I frequently encounter kids with mild to severe behavior problems, which is another way of saying they are having a hard time. As teachers, we are institutionally encouraged to control the behavior of these kids regardless of its cause. We learn strategies to shut down the symptoms of distress, pain, poverty, abuse and neglect. But if as teachers we want to guide our students into a shared and inclusive community, we must be as concerned with the way our students feel as the way they behave, with the cause as much as the symptom.

There are occasions when a student harasses, bothers or distracts others to the degree that the only appropriate response is to remove this student from the room. However, more common are the many times when such an extreme action is taken gratuitously as part of a systemic marginalization of "problem people." I believe it is part of a teacher's job to model how to treat each member of a shared community, how to empathize, be flexible, and show kindness even to those who annoy or aggravate us.

The other day, one of my more obnoxious students in a class full of struggling learners was acting out and trying to derail a lesson. Precisely speaking, his aim I'm sure was not to derail this particular lesson, but rather to express some dimly understood feeling that cried out for attention. Another student immediately said "you should send him to the office." I saw the exasperated kid's point, of course, leaving aside the irony that he is a rascal most days himself. In that moment I weighed the importance of removing an obstacle to other kids' learning with the dehumanizing logic that reduces a child to an obstacle.

I asked my students how many of them had been sent to the office at least once since elementary school. The majority raised their hands. I asked how many had visited the office numerous times. The hands stayed up. "How many of you have ever been suspended?" A few hands went down but at least half stayed up.

"Did all those years of detentions and punishments make you better learners, or more respectful or more caring?" Unanimously, they said no.

"Did they even make you behave better?" Sometimes, they said, on a particular day or with a particular teacher they feared. But the good behavior didn't stick, they acknowledged. It had even gotten worse over the years. We then talked about the fact that California spends more money on prisons than on schools. An unplanned lesson began to sink in. These kids get that many in their midst are headed to the margins of society. They have been conditioned to expect it, just as they have been conditioned to reinforce its logic in their dealings with each other.

"Send him out! Send him out!" I wonder where they will all go? In a shared human community, there is nowhere but here. I hope Occupy continues to contend with the social misfits, though as the movement ages certain lines must be and will be drawn. For instance, I don't think Occupy needs to provide a platform for an anti-immigrant sentiment that I regretfully noted in a few signs during one very large protest gathering here in Santa Rosa; of course, a dialogue is always preferable to an expulsion. But we should not be afraid to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people whom society has thrown away. The Occupy community can model for the larger society what humanity looks like.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Occupy Nowhere

On the weekend before our high school's screening of "Race to Nowhere" I ask myself what inspired me to take part in the grassroots movement surrounding this film. For the past year, I have been dreaming of the potential that could be unleashed by a community dialogue sparked by the many issues it raises; it is the planned discussion to follow the film more than the passive viewing experience that I eagerly anticipate.

The film itself is vulnerable to dismissal as an incomplete and halting analysis of what ails education. People will complain that it is anecdotal and lacks statistical credibility. The dominant culture refuses to take anything seriously in education that does not present itself in "measurable" or easily digestible terms. The lived experience of teachers, students and parents in all its human complexity will have trouble fending off the reductionist juggernaut of measurable data. Although the personal stories animate sound research, the film does not focus on proof as much as stirring testimony. As a heartfelt attempt by one mother to form a coherent narrative about the policies that are endangering childhood and leading to an increasingly mechanistic society out of touch with humanity, I found it deeply affecting. Admittedly not the aesthetic achievement of "Waiting for Superman," its logic is more scrupulous but less unified than the other film's simplistic propaganda.

Upon viewing the film a second time in preparation for Wednesday night, I am struck by the cumulative impression of so many kids under the gun, scared for their futures, humiliated by their failures and in constant dread of plummeting from the artificial heights of their achievements. In my 10 years of teaching, I have come to believe that test scores and grades constitute the artificial heart of learning that threatens to replace permanently the natural rhythms of curiosity and creativity. If learning could look in the mirror, would it see a grade or number reflected back? Or would the portrait be something far more complex, fluid, dynamic and intangible? Again and again I witness my students obsess over a grade-check like addicts in need of a fix. When I was in high school we got our grades once a semester. Nowadays, in the age of computerized grade programs, students can check their grades once a day if they are so inclined, and inclined they are. With welcome exceptions, the most common question I get when students approach me is "how can I raise my grade?" "How can I find out more about what you were teaching us?" is rarely uttered.

We have created absurd conditions for student learning: rotting infrastructure, bloated class sizes, demoralized teachers, and a chronic sense of emergency permeating our schools and classrooms. Our academic culture is one of high stakes and high alert, survival of the fittest when the future itself seems poised to foreclose on our kids' survival, never mind their dreams. The high stakes tests have come to represent their ultimate value in a society of unforgiving bottom lines where poverty and futility is as likely to claim their efforts as is their college or career of choice. Who wouldn't be terrified under such circumstances? Who would have the time or ease to reflect on the big existential questions when one's very right to exist is being tested?

In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein writes about the triumph of the "free market" through the manipulation of people who are stunned by disaster. Education bears out this doctrine in direct ways as private interests swoop in to "save" us from the manufactured emergency of failing test scores while we are understandably disoriented from the shocks and blows of budget cuts. Ideologues push policy down the barrel of a union-busting demonization of teachers. Charter schools and the profitable industry of virtual learning are the private sector's panacea for education the same way the so-called free market is the panacea for economic crises. In a more metaphorical sense, I think we are seeing something in education akin to the "Test Doctrine" where students, teachers and parents have acquired a low-performing disaster mentality brought on by damning test scores, and the spaciousness of authentic learning has collapsed into the desperate drills of do or die. Knowledge has been conflated with one's self-worth to the degree that many young people feel their very humanity is on the line when they learn. Being objectified as a number in school takes a real human toll and discourages critical thinking. It's hard to think critically when you are wired to criticize yourself incessantly, when your attentions are less captivated by the wonders and puzzles of the world than by a crippling fixation on your own ego. This siege mentality makes our young people today ripe for authoritarian and economic exploitation. Fear and insecurity are the emotional building blocks of a politically subservient population that is easily dominated by unquestioned systems of power.

Ironically, while we foster an ever-present fear of individual failure in our students, we enshroud the true high stakes of learning in the jargon of test achievement and accountability. Students are adrenaline junkies riveted by the perceived horror show of their grades and test scores while the real existential threat of Climate Change and its Corporate agents demand their full engagement. After reading Naomi Klein's latest article, I am struck again by the urgent intervention between truth and power that public education can make in our society. As a teacher who wants to protect her students' common future, I know which side I am on. That is why at our union's last Rep Council Meeting, I moved for SRTA to support the growing Occupy Movement on behalf of the 99%. The vote passed 27 to 6.

There are people of all ages camped out in cities across the country and the world, but more and more I take note of the young revolutionaries of our times, the kids who are here to teach all of us what it means to be creative, critical and visionary, to stretch the shrinking parameters of a deadly status quo and to make the mind and the heart accountable to each other. I wish for all young people to awaken to their full potential to change the world. Nowhere leaves a lot of space for humanity to occupy. But first we have to leave the race.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Cheating our Children

In her syndicated column that appeared in Wednesday’s Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Esther Cepeda accuses standardized testing critics of using the Georgia cheating scandal to “bash” tests when they should be placing the blame squarely on “flawed human natures.”  Cepeda pluralizes this abstract idea to refer specifically to teachers who “made wrong choices” without surrendering the crowd-pleasing generalization:  Human nature is a convenient scapegoat when we don’t want to ask the tough questions about why people make stupid or harmful decisions in the first place. Teachers certainly did make wrong choices when they falsified student tests and/or failed to report the widespread cheating in their midst.  So did administrators and, according to the investigative report issued by the Georgia Governor’s office, so did 2009 Superintendent of the Year Beverly Hall and her senior staff.  Apparently, human nature was showing its bad side from top to bottom.

Take those seemingly innocuous tests.  Cepeda lets them off the hook of moral agency even though they are overloaded with simplistic choices for our kids.  Tests don’t cheat any more than guns kill, right?  People and their ugly natures are the real culprits, but if we accept this false dichotomy then we fail to ask who hides behind the standardized tests that have swallowed our schools.  The answer, of course, is more flawed humans prioritizing bottom line profits and faux proofs over actual teaching and learning. The Governor’s report identifies “three primary conditions” that “led to widespread cheating” in Atlanta Public Schools: a “culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation,” “unrealistic targets set by the district,” and Dr. Hall’s focus on “test results and public praise to the exclusion of integrity and ethics.”  The question is not whether humans can fall prey to fear or greed.  We know that they can, and we disapprove when they do.  The question is whether there are human-made conditions that contribute to the morally lazy actions we decry in others, and whether we are complicit in maintaining them. 

Do we want to entice teachers into bad behavior with misguided rewards and punishments that make doing the right thing a gamble with personal survival rather than a social good?  Do we want children in all of their complexity, rich or poor, to be reduced to bubbles for a subjectively designed exam that is no more proof of learning than a greeting card is proof of love?  These are ethical choices we all need to make, but Cepeda skirts accountability for them by shrinking the exercise of free will to one question, (a) to cheat or (b) not to cheat. Meanwhile, we flawed humans face several momentous choices that go unacknowledged by testing apologists.  We can choose to allow high stakes tests to be used as a lever of privatization or we can fight for authentic education befitting a democracy.  We can decide that poverty, a major factor in low student achievement, is inevitable or we can call it inexcusable.

While Esther Cepeda appears to defend poor children from the fuzzy “bigotry of low expectations,” her rhetoric leaves them easy prey for the greater, concrete evil of poverty. She implicitly accepts that being poor is an irrevocable identity and poverty a permanent state of nature.  Poor kids can learn too, says her logic, so we are doing them a terrible disservice by suggesting that poverty might impede achievement.  We should continue to debate the narrow and superficial measures of this achievement, but the crucial point here is that poverty is a changeable condition.  When we draw the connection between poverty and education, we are showing our optimism that poverty can be challenged and our faith in the future of our children and our society.  The cynical view that we can do nothing to change these stark economic inequities comes wrapped in upbeat sermons about token equality, but it is the same old tired nineteenth century Horatio Alger myth that school reformers have repackaged.  They rationalize social inaction on a massive scale and then cloak this passive cowardice in pretty words about individual expectations.  Imagine if American society rose to our expectation that child poverty would end and children’s most basic rights such as education would be adequately funded.  Until then, let them take tests!  Perhaps it’s human nature to take the path of least resistance.  Some might even call it cheating.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Thinking in the Trenches: Teacher as Soldier

    In their April op-ed in The New York Times, "The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries," Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari compare teachers to troops and ask why we blame educators for the failures of education policy, but not soldiers for the defeats or setbacks in war.  Assuming education comes down to a war on ignorance, they argue that we should support the teachers on the ground fighting on behalf of our nation’s kids, just as we support the noble efforts of our troops on behalf of our country.  When battles are lost, we may bolster our resources, adjust our strategies, or redefine our goals, but we don’t scapegoat the men and women in uniform.  The hypocrisy in our culture’s response to teachers and troops seems clear.  Where we grant that soldiers need more resources to confront tough conditions, we expect underpaid and overworked teachers to transcend all obstacles and limitations to student achievement.  We idealize the sacrifices of troops but demonize “ineffectual” teachers who fail to produce “results,” regardless of their immeasurable passion, dedication or devotion to students.  It’s an enlightening analogy, if not entirely for the reasons the authors make explicit.
     Our culture’s view of soldiers is complex and contradictory.  If the soldier as heroic symbol is almost universally revered in our national imagination, the flesh and blood humans who fight in wars are often treated as disposable once they return to civilian life as veterans.  To the degree that we admire the image of the brave warrior, an image that transcends the corporeal and moral limitations of mortal men and acquires mythological status, we can trace our admiration to a source.  We might be impressed by a soldier’s courage, his strength and perseverance, or her willingness to be martyred for a cause.  We might value the loyalty and camaraderie between soldiers fighting for a common goal.  Even the word “soldier” has enough positive connotations that it can be used to define devotion to purposes as divergent as war and peace.  However, there is one aspect of being a “good soldier” that our society has celebrated perhaps more than any other, and that is the unblinking acceptance of authority.  Although the Nuremberg Trials set a precedent for challenging "Superior Orders" as a defense for war crimes, soldiers are still largely expected to adhere to the hierarchical chain of command.  It is in this arena of absolute, unquestioning duty that the comparison of soldier and teacher breaks down.
     Imagine for a moment that teachers in America were given not only the same respect, but also the same symbolic treatment as soldiers.  With No Child Left Behind, President Bush launched what amounted to a war on low student achievement, or at least this was his official target.  Imagine this had been an actual war.  After initial campaign misgivings, President Obama enthusiastically continued this war, and when the public asked too many questions about charter schools and standardized testing, a ubiquitous bumper sticker won them over:  Support the Teachers.  We must support the reform agenda pushed by the Federal Government and its corporate backers in spite of all the research and statistical evidence that it is misguided.  Why?  The teachers need us to get behind them.  They’re out there teaching those test questions every day, plugging away at the standards like a shooting target, so the least we can do is valorize their hard work. 
     If this reasoning sounds familiar, then what is odd about the substitution of teacher for troop in the message?  Where troops are expected to follow orders without challenging the rationale of their leaders, teachers should ideally ask questions and engage in critical thinking and skeptical inquiry.  Teachers have an indispensable role as intellectuals in our democracy.  We can no more relinquish this role than we can abdicate the responsibility to nurture creativity and critical thinking in our students, but we will be punished for teaching students how to think; in a hierarchical, authoritarian society, intellectuals are reviled.  The attacks on teachers are a troubling sign that our democracy is slipping away.
     It is important to note that soldiers have not infrequently been intellectuals and artists.  According to Kenneth Slawenski’s new biography of J.D. Salinger, the antiauthoritarian Holden Caulfield took shape amid the trenches of World War II, literally, with bombshells exploding around Salinger’s typewriter.  Before that, World War I soldiers like Wilfred Owen wrote poems condemning the glorification of war. In spite of the cynical way that the government used “the troops” as a tool to garner support for an immoral war as recently as the invasion of Iraq, there are those soldiers who saw the forest for the trees and objected to their mission.  There will always be those soldiers, but too often they are dismissed as disloyal or insane.
     Meanwhile, the soldier, the steadfast, unselfish soldier whose ultimate sacrifice becomes the circular justification for war remains a potent symbol for patriotism.  In patriotism’s perverted logic, the war must be just because people are giving their lives in its name, and it is unjust for people to give their lives to an unworthy cause.  As to the clause after the comma: indeed. That is why we must defeat unworthy causes and end all unjust wars, on behalf of soldiers, civilians, and humanity.

     And how must we respond to the metaphorical war on authentic, democratic education?  If not teachers, then who are the troops in this war?  The answer, of course, is students, the young and innocent who follow orders that we teachers, in the chain of command, are meant to give them, the kids who do as they are told in the ever-dimming hope of attaining success and a decent quality of life.  It is in the name of students that the reformers attack teachers or anyone with intelligent criticisms of their policies.  The implication is that we must not care about our kids if we're not on board with their notion of reform.  "Support our kids" can easily degenerate into a mindless slogan to instill obedience in educators.  Moreover, the bloated rhetoric about student achievement disguises an indifference to the complexity and autonomy of real kids; they are not mere receptacles of our knowledge nor are they instruments of our best-laid plans.  They are free to make of their education what they will, and we must not deceive them on this journey.  To paraphrase Owen, “my friend, you [should] not tell with such high zest, to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie, dulce et decorum est,” to sacrifice one’s real education for a passing CAHSEE score and the promise of a low wage job or a violent death in a foreign country; in other words, “pro patria mori.”


Monday, May 2, 2011

Motives Matter

In English class we devote considerable attention to motives.  We ask about character motivation and we may also wonder how characterization reveals an author's design or purpose.  We may inquire into our own reasons for responding to the text as we do, exploring as we read our social conditioning or personal experience.  Motives can be confessed or concealed, implied or announced, clear or convoluted; perhaps they are not even conscious. 

In education we sometimes forget to question our motives, though at minimum we pay lip service to objectives and goals.  Our intention is to teach the standards within a certain timeframe, but why?  Are we merely following the rules of our profession, reflexively doing our job in the conventional language of duty? Or do we embrace the standards and the prescribed pace of our instruction on their own merits?  These questions awaken older ones:  Why did we become teachers in the first place?  Did we have a passion for a particular discipline, or an empathetic ease with a specific age group?  Did we consider our role as teachers in an institutional setting or the classroom in relation to the larger society?  

Let's agree that we want to prepare our students to function well in our society.  What does that even mean?  Does functioning well mean accepting the current status quo, being well paid or content, not asking questions with no satisfying answers?  On the contrary, perhaps high-functioning people ask many questions and assume the psychic burden of all their provisional answers.  If that is true, we don’t just need to reflect on our own motives as educators, but we need to encourage students to reflect on theirs. 

“Teachers hate this question, but why are we doing this?”  Many of us have heard this comment or one similar to it in relation to a lesson. Most of us will admit to feeling on occasion a spasm of annoyance when it is asked.  “Why are you being contrary, kid?  Why are you asking me to dredge up a reason tailor-made for your unique sensibility when I already know, or think I know, why you are doing this?”  We sigh at the energy it takes to explain our unexamined assumptions.  Can’t our students take it on faith that we know what we’re doing, that our authority deserves their respect and deference? 

These days, few are taking our authority and expertise on faith, and ironically this is one of the reasons we expect students to adhere blindly to our most prefabricated lesson plans, those we implement rather than create.  The more we surrender our agency as teachers to the czars of privatization, the more we expect our students to do the same.  As we carry out orders that belie our claim to autonomy, we settle for the simulacrum of authority in their enforcement.  We don't make the rules, but we do impose them on our students, and when they resist we perceive it as an affront to our dignity.  But what if my students, however confused and disorganized in their rebellion, are right to resist, and what if their resistance is less an insult and more a test of my conscience?

Beyond honest debates about practice, pedagogy and policy, we might think long and hard about the motives of some of the biggest backers of the education reform crusade. Intelligent and well-meaning people can of course disagree about the best way to assess learning, or the most effective way to provide equal access to a decent education.  One hotly debated topic in public educational circles these days is whether and to what extent to offer incentives for good performance on standardized tests.  Some teachers and schools have determined that grade enhancements are in order when struggling students improve on high stakes exams, or as I see this practice, intrinsic motivation twice removed. 

On the other end of the spectrum, from capable students we suspect are tanking their results, many do not hesitate to withhold college recommendations.  Their lack of effort is bringing down the whole ship, the reasoning goes, the school's reputation not to mention individual teacher reputations, so why reward their ingratitude?  Besides, shouldn't laziness or perverse obstructionism disqualify these students from getting an extra boost into a good college or job?  Why aid their unjustified aspirations and loose these students on an unsuspecting work world?

Anyway, they may not be the end all and be all, but some of these exams are useful measures of what our students are learning.  They may be mandated by federal or state policies, imposed on us from above, but what's so wrong with that in principle?  If students are sabotaging the results, aren't they in effect sabotaging their education? 

 Even some who are fiercely critical of standardized tests and their material consequences may believe that our best defense is simply to pass them with flying colors, using incentives or any legal means at our disposal.  If we have made this pragmatic calculation, perhaps we should invite students to define their own conscious motives instead of enticing them to "buy in" to the testing program. 

We can debate these important questions assuming the good intentions of all parties; perhaps this is a prerequisite to nonpartisanship and diplomacy.  Or we can acknowledge the ambiguity of motives.  While plotting Othello's downfall, Iago pretends to be his loyal friend.  He later notes that the "parallel course" of his advice to Cassio would indeed be good and helpful were it uttered in a completely different context.  "When devils will the blackest sins put on, 
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows."  

If the purpose of the standardized testing movement is to educate students better, then however much we may question the strategy or call for a more balanced approach to learning, we are more likely to respect it as the current law of the land.  By this logic, if students refuse to follow testing protocol, they are rejecting the best efforts of our national elite to give them a solid education.  In short, they are acting stupid, and if we need to offer incentives to make them act smarter, so be it.  

However, if by contrast these exams are tools of the Corporate Establishment to dismantle public education, then we have got to ask why in the world we are advancing our own destruction.  If this testing culture is by design a way to justify the takeover of public education by private interests, then as its enforcers we are blindly acting out a tragedy of epic proportions, and we are not merely doing violence to our own interests, but more poignantly to the interests of our students whom we have a sacred duty to protect.  As we learn from Othello, motives are more instructive than outward behavior and appearances.  Sadly, honest people are often the last to recognize the duplicity of others, a fact upon which Iago relies.  Othello's ignorance, however, does not absolve him of responsibility.