Fighting for the Schools Our Children Deserve

This is an edited version of a talk I gave on Wednesday, March 6, 2013 in Harlem. I was speaking alongside educator and parent activist Diana Zavala. 

We are in a critical situation. Public education is under a sustained attack, and in some cities — New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia — is ceasing to exist as we have known it. The idea that schools should be “run like a business” has taken hold, and even those who are in charge of public education seem hell bent on turning it into a system governed not by the logic of teaching and learning, but by the imperatives of the free market.

Many of us are critics of public education and defenders of its public nature. We’re critical because the schools as they are, are, in many places, not the schools that our children deserve. In too many ways, too many of our schools still resemble factories — an inheritance from the last business craze in education — roughly 100 years ago. On top of that, we have tremendous inequality of resources and funding — disparities which nearly always correlate with race and socioeconomic status. In my chapter of the book, Education and Capitalism, I wrote about the ways African American families have fought for education for hundreds of years in the face of institutional racism.

In the 1960s progressive educational ideals — constructivism, child-centered learning — made a comeback in American education.

That’s not surprising, since something special was happening in the 1960s — millions of Americans — through organizing, marching, protesting, and civil disobedience — forced the larger society to question racism, work, poverty, sexism, homophobia, and war. 

Naturally, when masses of people decide that the world, as it is, is intolerable, they do not accept education which aims to adjust their children to the world as it is. They seek an education system which can help their children to challenge the world, that teaches them to question the world, to criticize the world, to see beyond it, and develop their intellectual and creative powers so that they may be prepared to change it.

We don’t have an earth-shaking movement like that today. In fact, I think we can reasonably say that the absence of such a powerful movement is the essential pre-requisite for this business-oriented takeover of public schools.

I don’t think of this as some kind of nefarious conspiracy. Every society in history has to reproduce itself. Most societies have done so through the family and the workplace — which, for most of human history, was the same thing. But in capitalism, we have developed a separate, formal institution for preparing young people — school.

If the factory model is the template for the way all work is organized, it’s just unthinkable that school wouldn’t prepare young people for factories.

Today, in a growing number of workplaces, your productivity is tracked by elaborate digital “real time” data systems. And so, it is equally unthinkable to today’s capitalists that schools wouldn’t be governed by data — in order to establish at the earliest possible ages — the importance of measured productivity for each and every soul!

So even though we know that sustained imaginative play is the work of early childhood, now even 3 and 4 year olds are going to have to demonstrate measurable progress in academic skills or they can be held back, their pre-K can be closed down, and their teachers forced to find other jobs. 

Of course profiteering is a factor. The Wall Street Journal rejoiced when the Common Core standards were announced because they understood it was going to be a windfall for Pearson and other test-making companies. Instead of having to tailor their tests to the various standards of various states, now they could sell the same product to every state.

The architect of the Standards, David Coleman, says that kids need to read less fiction and write fewer personal narratives because “When you grow up in this world, you realize people don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.”

The good news is that a growing number of parents, teachers, and students disagree — and are getting wise to what this is all about. Certainly, the growth of high stakes standardized testing is one of the most odious aspects of corporate education reform and is a big reason more people are developing a critical consciousness.

In Seattle, a group of teachers unanimously voted to refuse to administer a standardized test. They risked their jobs, but won so much support from parents, students, and community members that the superintendent was put in a position where it was impossible to punish them.

Even more dramatic was the Chicago Teachers Union strike last year that showed how a group of teachers could take on corporate education reform and live to talk about it. Importantly, the teachers boldly proclaimed the “apartheid” nature of the school system in Chicago — which schools had libraries, and which ones didn’t, which schools had science labs, which schools had arts, and so on.

They pointed out that while Democratic Party officials like Rahm Emmanuel like to prescribe high stakes testing, data driven teacher evaluations, school closings and charter schools for our kids, they send their own children to schools that look entirely different.

In fact, the nation’s private schools — minus inherent elitism — are often repositories of many of the best practices in education — child-centered learning, inquiry based units of study, assessments that are organic to the learning process, and so on. 

The Sidwell Friends school, which President Obama’s daughters attend, doesn’t focus on standardized test scores, but on the role of the individual as a thoughtful, responsible member of a community. The school’s website says:

For more than 25 years, Lower School students have developed and written their own monthly Queries for consideration of the community. For example:

“Do you have the courage to stand up to your friends when they are not being fair and just to others?” —Second Grade

Interestingly, the very things that we’ve been arguing for decades that our schools desperately need, are the very things that the rich insist on in their schools: more resources, rich curriculum (not just reading and math), experienced teachers (not just grinding through newbies), and small class sizes!

Here are the student/teacher ratios in the Sidwell Friends School:

PK   11:1

K-2   12:1

3-4   12:1

5-6   16:1

7-8   12:1

9-12   13:1 (varies)

Similarly, the Spence School, where New York City Mayor Bloomberg sent his daughters, has 17 students per class in elementary grades, and 14 per class in middle school and high school.

When it comes to meeting our students’ basic needs, they claim there’s no money. But when it comes to data gathering there’s a blank check. New York City is going to spend $32 million to pay Pearson to develop more tests over the next five years. 

Meanwhile, in 2011, the New York City Comptroller audited a sampling of 31 schools from all five boroughs and found that not a single school was providing enough physical education to students. Every single school audited was out of compliance with the minimum state requirements for physical education.

Bloomberg would never tolerate that state of affairs for his own children.

For just 700 students, the Spence school has:

6 Science labs

6 Art studios

2 Music Rooms

1 Computer Lab

1 Darkroom

2 Gyms

2 Performance Spaces

2 Dance Studios

2 Libraries

So when we’re talking about the schools our children deserve — for starters, we’ll take what they have. If it’s good enough for their children, it’s good enough for ours. And if they ask how to pay for it, we’ll tell them: end the sweetheart contracts with Pearson, Wireless Generation and the rest of the edu-vultures, start collecting rent from the charter schools operating for free in public buildings, and end the contract with Teach for America. The tens of millions of dollars currently being wasted on data systems, data gathering, and six-figure salaries for data analysts would be much better spent in our classrooms.

As we sit here, they are literally developing standardized music tests, but they have not even made sure that every child has a music teacher.

I heard a woman who’s been involved with high-level education policy discussions defend the Common Core’s de-emphasis of personal narratives because, she argued, that’s not the kind of writing people need to do in college. At the end of her presentation, a teacher who opposed the Common Core standards asked her if she, as a teacher, could really do anything to influence policy. This same woman told her that the most powerful thing a teacher could do to influence policy would be to speak to lawmakers directly and tell a story — tell a specific story about how these policies affect her classroom. Without realizing it, she argued that personal narratives were not important for “college and career readiness”, but if you are setting out to change the world, personal narratives are the most powerful thing you’ve got.

If we let the corporations organize education, it will be an education that’s about fitting our children into their workplaces — into the narrow vision of working life that they have in store for the next generation.

The schools our children deserve, would prepare them to do more than function in the world as it is, it would prepare them to develop their intellectual and creative powers so that they are truly equipped to change the world. David Coleman is probably right that the employers don’t give a shit about what our kids think and feel — but we do, and our children deserve schools that do, too.


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