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.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Politics of Teaching

When is teaching political? Many of us will answer simply,"never."  After all, shouldn't there be an enforced separation in our classrooms between the lofty goals of education and the muck of politics? Don't we need to protect the "objective" sphere of pure learning from partisan manipulations of information and the biased agendas of political parties?  When it comes to factual distortions and omissions, of course.  But are teachers ever really operating outside of the political universe, even when they aspire to transcend it?  And is such an aspiration noble or dangerous in today's world?  When we insulate students from political controversy, are we truly serving them or their future?  Must teachers avoid thorny social, political and moral questions in order to serve students digestible lessons?  Is academic knowledge designed to go down smoothly without excess emotions like doubt, fear, confusion, anger, or even love?  In short, can we truly teach without touching down on the real world in all of its contested fragility?

Leaving aside a prolonged acknowledgement of this question's different degree of relevance depending on the subject matters we teach, I believe we all must confront the matter of politics in education, now more than ever.  One reason is outlined in this article from Rethinking Schools.  In spite of the way we separate and demarcate types of knowledge, our disciplines are interrelated and commonly implicated in the world's major challenges.  Grades and test scores are puny symbols for the true human stakes of learning, and so much in our world hangs in the balance between ignorance and knowledge. While the Climate Crisis may seem outside the parameters of a high school English course, Frankenstein is not.  Mary Shelley's warning about the monstrousness of technology that is out of sync with nature is a theme our students will confront writ large, and it is crucial that we prepare their consciousness for this challenge from every academic angle.  Politics is an arena too often ceded to "specialists" and "special interests," to people who have the mind or stomach for it, but in truth, we are all political actors on a political stage.  This brings me to my second reason for believing that teachers must confront politics.

We are political scapegoats.  Our collective image is being used to further an agenda of austerity and privatization, not just in the realm of education but in the society as a whole.  Private interests and profits are superseding the interests of children, workers, and people everywhere who want a sustainable life.  Teachers are on the frontline of the resistance to this corporate takeover of our public resources. This is not a self-centered observation of complacent victimhood, but a troubling recognition that we must confront as a profession if we are to save public education.

However, much of the public sees the members of our profession in a selfish light.  Misinformation is rife about pensions, teacher tenure and the supposed epidemic of bad or "ineffective" teaching.  The mantra that teachers must be held accountable to student test results sounds to too many ears like a battle cry on behalf of children, particularly poor and minority children, against institutional neglect; in fact, the steady drumbeat of testing and reprisals for low performance reinforces an education apartheid that has already taken root in our country. Disadvantaged populations are churned out to low wage job slots from testing factories, while children of privileged parents emerge from well-rounded private educations.  This inequity is untenable in a democracy, a fact of which antidemocratic forces are well aware.  I could go on and on, or you could just read Diane Ravitch's latest.

What do we do when the fight for our salaries and our working conditions is pitted against the needs of our students, as though the more we stood up for ourselves, the less we cared about our kids?  Jim Judd's editorial in The Press Democrat suggests that we teachers need to get over ourselves and our frail egos, and get down to the business of educating our kids.  So if tying our pay to student test scores works to improve their learning, we need to do it.  If firing principals and teachers when schools "fail" is the answer to meeting our students' needs, then what's stopping us? Teachers. What else!  Disregarding ample evidence to the contrary, Judd presumes that both of the above measures do work.  He then enshrouds this presumption in an especially clever form of scapegoating when he implies that we are the problem for noticing that we are being scapegoated.  That's right.  We are now being scapegoated for objecting to being scapegoated as Jessica Jones and Michael Aparicio do in their Guest Opinion at which Judd takes aim.

We cannot fight this kind of assault by pretending to be above the fray, or telling ourselves that politics is beside the point of education.  When oligarchical power plays threaten the foundation of democracy in public education, politics is hardly beside the point, in or out of the classroom.  The accelerating pressure to replace substantive lessons with testing soundbites is a political maneuver, and we must meet it head on with a clear articulation of our own values.  I value authentic learning and democracy, and I refuse to throw my students and our nation's children under the bus of budget cuts, school closures, and mind-numbing testing curricula divorced from personal, and yes, political engagement.  We need to define teacher and student interests together.

It is instructive that the nurses at Kaiser Hospital in Santa Rosa just negotiated a salary increase amid a recession.  They succeeded  where we did not because the CNA knows that nurses are there to protect patient care, and that reduced funds translates to compromised care.  We have an analogous situation in public education, but we must embrace more fully our role to protect our students from budget cuts.  Until we can articulate the real damage to kids of slashed funding and imbecile policy choices, we will be marginalized as selfish people.  Although that damage is intellectual, social, moral and spiritual, we must express it in concrete political terms.  Public education is a right, and we will fight for it in the classrooms, in negotiations, and out in the streets.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Who We Are

We are educators in the Santa Rosa City Schools District who are concerned about widespread budget cuts amid the mounting pressures to transform the democratic province of public education into a mouthpiece for corporations.  Most of us teach at the high school level but we have been joined by University Professors, librarians, and elementary school teachers from different parts of the country. We wanted a place to discuss the crossroads in education that confronts our public schools here, and all across the nation.  

We chose a public place to have this dialogue because we believe it is urgent that the public gain a nuanced view of public education from teachers on the ground.  We do not have the corporate funds to launch a public relations campaign that delivers the truth about our nation's schools to the public; all we have are our own voices.  We hope to use those voices to amplify student, parent, citizen and resident voices everywhere as we demand the collective right to an authentic education, one that affords real opportunities to participate in a genuine democracy.  In the spirit of democracy, we welcome diverse perspectives and seek a robust and respectful dialogue.

Recommended Actions

Please inform us here of any upcoming campaigns, conferences, vigils or demonstrations that pertain to the fight for public education.

Tomorrow, April 4th is the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in Memphis.  He was there to support workers' collective bargaining rights.  In honor of him, Cesar Chavez and working families everywhere, there are events across the country on Monday, April 4th.  As of now, the closest event to Santa Rosa is in Novato.  Follow this link to learn more.

Then, this Friday at SRJC there will be a panel to discuss the Education Crisis affecting California.

Panelists To address “Our Education Crisis” April 8
To help promote informed discussions at SRJC and across Sonoma County about the college’s current education challenges and the predicament of the larger education crisis that affects all California community colleges, universities, and the state’s K-12 education system, a panel discussion is scheduled on the Santa Rosa Campus on April 8 regarding “Our Education Crisis.”
Held from 2:00 - 4:00 PM in Newman Auditorium on the Santa Rosa Campus, the panel is the first of a three-part series that are organized by Michael Aparicio and co-sponsored by the Associated Students. The well-informed panel will include:
California Senator Noreen Evans, California Assembly Member Jared Huffmann, California Assembly Member Michael Allen, Santa Rosa School Board Member Larry Haenel, California Teacher's Association Sandra lowe, SRJC Vice-PresIdent of Student Services, Ricardo Navarrette
Following the panel discussion, panelists will participate in a 45 to 60 minute audience discussion. For more information, contact Michael Aparicio, Philosophy Department, at

  The March: Save our Schools March and National Call to Action is a powerful event planned for July 28-30 in Washington, D.C. and Nationwide.

This National Call to Action says Americans everywhere should demand

  • Equitable funding for all public school communities
  • End to high stakes testing for student, teacher, and school evaluation
  • Curriculum developed for and by local school communities
  • Teacher and community leadership in forming public education policies

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Contract Negotiations

We are in the process of negotiating the contract for next year, and have an opportunity here to discuss our priorities.  We have already approved the calendar that specifies 2 to 6 furlough days on given dates, so that is off the table.  What remaining concerns do we want to see addressed, and in what order?  Your thoughts?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

This Is Not a Test. This is Not Only a Test.

Several people have asked me to post something about the standardized testing movement.  While I appreciate the need for discrete topics, it is difficult to know where one ends and another begins.  The mounting corporate control of education, the slashing of teacher salaries and undermining of unions, the Orwellian language of accountability and choice and the call for merit pay all dovetail in the high stakes test; and yet,  as the site where all these disturbing trends converge, standardized tests ironically tend to pry related ideas apart in a manner that makes it difficult to bring them back together.  The myopic focus on testing fragments knowledge and atomizes individual teachers and learners until we are all trapped in solitary cells of information, unable to connect meaningfully to our thoughts, feelings, or to each other.

I have been intending to write something about standardization for the past couple days, but became distracted and depressed by the tragic events in Japan.  I can't get my mind off the devastation and terrifying radiation unleashed by the earthquake and tsunamis.  I feel strongly that we, along with the rest of the world, need to rethink our dependence on nuclear power.  There is a real potential for such an accident to occur here, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says that "we ought not to make American and domestic policy based upon an event that happened in Japan."  This, to me, is a staggering form of compartmentalization, i.e., gross stupidity, ever more likely to encumber our population as we churn out disconnected skills instead of engaged human beings who think and feel, whose hearts are not amputated from their minds.

As long as we drill, baby, drill our students to memorize information and adopt skills in isolation from their real world contexts and consequences, we cannot be surprised when those individuals fail to react to moral, spiritual, and material crises.  The CAHSEE exam must avoid "sensitive topics" such as religion, war, politics and poverty, to name just a few.  While we don't want to disadvantage any student by crafting test questions in a culturally biased way, our fixation on these tests as the true measure of learning is bound to infantilize our society to the point that we can't think about or discuss anything of consequence.  

How are we going to preserve our democracy unless we teach our kids to greet controversy with healthy dialogue?  How can we inspire students to seek knowledge and cultivate wisdom unless we embrace our role as intellectuals?  We are teaching and thinking in a political universe with real world consequences, not a testing arcade in which players rack up points.  As schools and teachers continue to be judged and ranked by their performance on tests, more and more educators will accept the devil's bargain of rewarding and/or punishing students based on solely on their high stakes test scores.  In short, we will be tempted to do to the students what we feel is being done to us.  If our teacher performance is going to be scrutinized on the basis of these arbitrary measures, then we want the students to "buy in" to the urgency of effort and results.  We can tell ourselves this is for their own good, but I suspect there is a selfishness at the core of all this behaviorist conditioning.  We will inflict even those values we reject on our students out of desperation, frustration, and misplaced resentment.  If we don't have the guts to rebel against the corporate sabotage of our profession, I fear we may wield a coercive power over our students in compensation.  

Let's not lend legitimacy to the tyranny of the test.  By incentivizing learning with grades, scores and competitive games, we are trivializing what is truly at stake when we choose to think or not to think: to be or not to be.  Isn't that the question?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Of Calendar Votes and General Strikes

We in the Santa Rosa Teacher's Union recently agreed to salary cuts in the form of a tentative calendar which would distribute several furlough days throughout the 2011-12 school year.  The negotiating team approved two furlough days in the increasingly unlikely event that Jerry Brown's tax extension passes, and 6 furlough days if it doesn't.  I was thinking of entitling this post Calendar Vote: The Aftermath but that seemed entirely too grim and divisive; and no doubt it would have led to the childish amusement of renaming the first post Calendar Vote: The Final Countdown.  Can I help it if these are ominous times?  I don't mean to suggest that anyone who voted for the budget crime days did the wrong thing.  In these times, it's hard to know what's right.  All irony aside, I believe the 2 to 1 majority that succumbed to the Great Budget Appeasement of 2011 was trying to save jobs. (Ok, some, but not all, irony aside.)  That is how the union leadership presented its case for the negotiation, as a conciliatory gesture of mature sacrifice to ward off a greater evil, and so it was on that basis that educators gave their approval.  2 to 1.

Except at Montgomery, where I hear it was a 2 to 1 majority against the new calendar.  Are we Vikings on something called Charlie Sheen, or do we have a point about staking out a strong position and refusing to yield prematurely?  I do not wish to sow seeds of rancor between teachers over a vote that is now a fait accompli.  Teachers must stick together, and in all seriousness I respect the rationale of others who made a different calculation on the recent vote.  However, I wish we had stuck together with our librarians who perform an essential service to students and our schools. They, and we, lost those valuable positions, and the losses in this state are only slated to escalate.  We are heading for a financial bloodbath and I fear, at best, that the calendar vote was our last bandaid before the wounds are opened for good.  At worst, it was a signal to our enemies that we are willing to bleed slowly in the shadows until they deliver the coup de grace.

To appease means "to buy off an aggressor with concessions usually at the sacrifice of principles."  As I see it, the big conundrum in our district is whether we are at the mercy of an actual aggressor or simply an act of Economy.  Michael Brenner, a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, dares to probe into the obscure workings of this god and reports back to us in his recent Counterpunch article.  It turns out there are mere mortals behind the curtain of our fearsome Economy, but mortals can be pretty scary in their own right, especially those who are bent on abusing power and engorging themselves with resources that should rightly belong to the earth and all of its dwellers.

With so much urgency surrounding the passage of Jerry Brown's tax extensions on income, sales and vehicle registration, and his push to get it on the ballot for June, consider the following undisputed tax rates:

CA Income Tax Brackets
Tax Bracket (yearly earnings) Tax Rate (%)
$0+ 1%
$7,168+ 2%
$16,994+ 4%
$26,821+ 6%
$37,233+ 8%
$47,055+ 10%
$1,000,000+ 11%

That's one giant step from 47k to 999k. You heard right.  If you make 50k you pay the same rate as the guy behind the gates with six cars, three homes and a yacht.  This seems unfair, aggressively so, and I want to know why reversing that injustice isn't on the table to save our schools, our healthcare, our fundamental human rights.  Do we really think the 999k yachtsman is creating tons of jobs?  Can we check? I'm mindful of the danger of using overheated rhetoric in these times.  Words like "enemy" should not be applied lightly and liberally to anyone with whom we disagree.  But when I read about the implications of Brown's
spending cuts that he and the Democrats in the legislature are pushing alongside the call for more tax revenue, I can't help but feel that there is an enemy among us, and I know that enemy by the name of Greed and Cowardice.  Okay, two enemies.  

Leave it to an English teacher to use personification to avoid blaming people.  I'm not comfortable assigning individual blame.  I'm too self-deprecating and steeped in my own flaws to point the finger at another.  But I gotta tell you, there are some very, very, greedy people in our midst who have absolutely no compunction about hurting the neediest among us.  With apologies to Jon Stewart (who earns my highest esteem for his hilarious takedown of Wall Street ideology,) Stephen Colbert, and their Rally For Sanity, evil does exist.  You know it, I know it, and J.K. Rowling knows it.  Sure, sure, liberals don't want to sound like Bush when he made his axis of evil speech.  I get it!  But sometimes, sanity lies in calling your enemy by its true name.  

Furlough day sounds way too comfortable, like a glass of red wine or a warm, expensive coat.  It comes from the Dutch verlof, or, permission.  Really?  Not too well paid to begin with, we are being granted permission to lose our much needed earnings, and we are even invited to lose them at sporadic times during the year so that we cannot easily recoup our losses at a time like, say, the start of summer?  Our students are allowed to lose important learning time when too many of the days that remain are hijacked by meaningless tests?  And these same tests cost money that is not going into the retention of actual human beings who have a real relationship with our kids, unlike a multiple choice exam which can't listen or talk or care?  Seriously?  People, we need a new name for these FDs, and fast.

Another thing we need to do is consider whether Jerry Brown has essentially hemmed himself into the position of selling out our union in order to pass the tax extension we are being told is our only hope.  (I'm still wistful over the potential to tax a yachtsman, or a hundred.) He didn't even have to put this tax extension to the voters.  It's almost like he doesn't want the final decision on his shoulders.  He could have MADE THE CASE for why extending the tax hikes for five years is vital to the well-being of our state and its people, and he could have tried to get this passed the straightforward way.  Did anyone hear him make a passionate case for this?  I guess it's hard to make a passionate case for a budget that already has something like $14 billion in cuts stinking it up.  And please don't tell me that austerity here is about taking the high road, the mature and practical road, or I will reintroduce you to the yachtsman.  

Just go for it, Governor Brown!  Let's tell him!  You don't have to make all these sleazy deals and cuts.  You can fight for what's right.  Remember Bobby Kennedy?  Yes, I realize it was the times, and yes, Jerry Brown is about as much like Bobby Kennedy as a furlough day is like a vacation, but come ON.  Show a little passion, a little verve, a little moral gravitas. These times are as electric as the sixties, and our elected officials need to start acting like it.

Admittedly, for the tax extensions themselves, (as opposed to an agreement to put them on the ballot), to go through the legislature, Brown still would have needed a two thirds vote, and yes, the Republican lawmakers would still have refused to budge.  But when you stake out a strong and principled (feigned or not) position, negotiations tend to go in your favor. Just ask our State Republicans who are sitting pretty on an awful lot of leverage.  The path to hell is paved with too many concessions.  

If you build it, they will come.  It applies to the leaders who need to craft the moral appeal, as well as to the people; we need to make them remember there is still a moral imperative, and we will toss them out of office if they can't dig it.  Remember, Wisconsin teachers didn't start fighting the good fight because their union leadership gave them the go ahead.  Teachers and their students had finally had enough, and they took to the streets.  How is the public going to see us for who we are if we can't make our case directly?  Negotiations behind closed doors have their place, but it may be time to open a few windows and let in the light.  We all could decide it feels good to step outside.