A case against charter schools: send back your saviors

As a professor, I work with public school teachers who are in the process of becoming certified to teach in the New York City Department of Education in a program called the New York City Teaching Fellows. These new teachers support students from all over the world, many of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants, emergent bilinguals (meaning people who are developing multilingual competences and literacies for a world that, they are told, will value these unique abilities when they enter the workforce), Black and Brown, and generally, within a single classroom, quite diverse. The important task of working with these young people puts my teachers into all kinds of schools and programs across the city, some in the neighborhoods where they grew up, and when we meet on a weekly basis, I hear great – and sometimes hard – stories about their experiences.

Some tell me they struggle with a demanding schedule, rushing from one teaching block to another with little time for a bite of lunch. Many have classrooms filled to the brim with students, working, for example, with 30 or 40 second-graders with wide-ranging individual needs requiring differentiation, personnel, and resources that the teacher often cannot provide. Others work in places like transfer schools which serve students who are struggling to graduate before the age of 21, when they age out of the system, because they have different language and academic needs and backgrounds than their more advantaged counterparts in other parts of the country. There are disciplinary issues, academic challenges, programmatic limitations, and a host of other struggles that these teachers face on a daily basis as they enter their classrooms and hit the ground running with “Miss!” “Miss!” called from the back of the room in the morning.

These classrooms are microcosms for the broader sociopolitical context of the United States and the city. For example, several of the teachers in my classes have received an influx of Puerto Rican students whose families have emigrated from the island in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria this summer. Others work with large numbers of lower-income students  (the term “free lunch” appears in such conversations) who make up a sizable portion of the New York City public school population. One of biggest challenges is the policy environment we’re working in, known as the high-stakes testing era, where student test scores can help define how much funding a school gets, what teachers are retained or receive tenure, and even how teachers teach their classes. Both causes and effects of inequality and injustice at municipal, state-wide, and broader levels, the victims are students often essentialized according to their race or immigrant identity and consequently blamed for the deficits in their “performance” (a term I put in quotes because so often in our social context we are primarily concerned with test scores, rather than with growth and development, which pits students against each other in the race for scant academic and economic resources).

Underlying most of these difficulties that tax our new teachers and demand their time – weekends, early mornings, evenings included – and health is the fact that the public school system has been perceived by our leaders as a bigger and bigger problem needing resolution, and, paradoxically, a place where less and less funding should go. Betsy Devos, current U.S. Secretary of Education, has been proposing since Summer 2017 a 9 billion dollar cut to public education while singing the praises of school choice, the blanket term used for the implementation of school vouchers and the expansion of charter schools across the country. Devos has suffered an embattled tenure thus far in office, for good reason. She is a huge proponent of privatization of education in this country, which she and her family directly benefit from, while showing little real understanding of the schools and their inhabitants, the teachers and students who engage in teaching and learning there every day. Devos’s perspective is critiqued as characteristically a policy maker’s one, with a dark twist: a belief that free-market thinking and business models, which emphasize streamlining, accountability, competition, and cost reduction above all else, will “cure” our schools of their problems. Charter schools represent such thinking because they ostensibly take the burden of education off the backs of tax payers and allow private entities to do better what our schools have not been able to.

However, I have never, ever heard one of my teachers say, “We should close my school and send our students to a charter school.” They have never said, “Someone with money from outside the community could do this better than we could. We’re just waiting for them to come in on their expensive white horse to help us out.”

A knight and his lover astride a horse try to escape ghostly figures of Death. Engraving by Harding after Lady Diana Beauclerk, 1796. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The problems our schools face are rooted in an issue that our government and much of the United States public are gravely mistaken about. We blame our schools for being ineffective, for not keeping us in the international game as economic competitors and leaders, for listening to teacher unions who, we say, slow down the important process of getting rid of bad teachers and replacing them with good ones. All of these points have some truth to address. But we do not give our schools enough money to solve their own problems. We don’t trust our teachers, who have over time been demonized by “bad teacher” scare stories in the press. Sucking the funding out of public schools, through policies that cut this funding, and put it into the hands of private enterprise that starts charter schools – which, incidentally, can be nonprofit or for-profit – while popular over the last few years, is much to blame. And policy makers who support this approach have failed in their promises that such an approach, paired with privatization, will save our schools. Cited in public debate as a savioristic option for youth of color in cities who struggle through the public education system, charter schools as a symbol of this corporate and philanthro-baron takeover in education have fallen far short.

Read “There Is No ‘Progressive Case’ for Charter Schools” in Truth-out for a thorough discussion of this issue. While some of my colleagues will disagree with me and cite their own schools as examples of charter school success, the pars pro toto argument cannot and does not apply across the board, though it provides an easy out for policymakers who face pressure to cut taxes. To avoid the much bigger, more complex, interrelationship of racism and capitalistic profit – where prejudice against Black and Brown and immigrant communities and the mad search for profit by the elites and corporations that influence political leaders to depict our schools as needing a business approach to “correct their missteps” go hand in hand – is to see schools as sick patients, rather than as groups of individuals already working together in and committed to their communities. My teachers see this, and suffer from the effects of social myopia that refuse them the resources, policy, and social support that they need to help our country’s youth engage with all of the possibilities of the future ahead of them. I fear that in a generation’s time, the problems we cite today will pale in comparison to the loss of creativity, diverse thinking, and responsibility to our fellow community members that is becoming normalized as we demonize “low-performing” schools and scapegoat our teachers for the starvation diet, on ideological and economic terms, we’ve put them on.

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Education is a right

Just got home from teaching at City College, where I work with public school teachers developing their pedagogical practice and scholarship as grad students in the City University of New York, arguably the oldest public university system in the country (rivaled only by the University of California). I am a teaching fellow in the same system, and teach at City in exchange for my ability to do a PhD at no cost.

A rare thing to consider, nowadays: that education be considered something everyone should have a right to. Education is becoming increasingly commodified, rarified, costly, and competitive. This gets me down when I think about the pressure in the 21st century to value education solely as job preparation, not as a space for creativity, exploration, political inquiry, and inspiration. A banner on the wall at City reminded me that this was not always the case, at least not in New York City.

Here’s hoping the city that never sleeps continues to inspire and excite the imagination of the rest of the country.

Learning with lions: public pedagogy in NYC

Recently, a friend of mine shared with me an amazing opportunity to join a reading group with Stanley Aronowitz, professor emeritus and world renowned public scholar in the fields of sociology, political science, and critical theory who taught at the Graduate Center for over 30 years. My advisor at UMass Boston had mentioned Aronowitz specifically by name as I was considering PhD programs, and he even went so far as to invite me to join them for dinner before I was accepted to the program. I believe I said three things at that dinner, two of which were, “no, thank you, I don’t need any more water at the moment.”

Fast-forward four years, and I found myself this afternoon sitting in a makeshift classroom with Aronowitz, a few of his colleagues, many admirers, and other curious and hopeful autodidacts from New York.


We listened to Aronowitz give a background to the course – an eight-week introduction to dialectics, through the writings of Lukács, Adorno, and LeFebvre – and then to each other as we explored our reasons for being there, our own work and intellectual journeys, and questions we hoped to answer in the coming weeks. What was truly wonderful was the fact that this course was nearly free: $100 suggested donation for sitting in a small room with one of the greatest living public thinkers today.

This learning with lions, as I playfully entitled this post, is something I espouse in my own work as a professor, which I adopted from the generous and committed work of my own advisor in my PhD program. I ran a public pedagogy reading group over the summer with several of my students from City College, where we discussed readings and videos and the events from the week. My advisor has just started something similar with me and several of her other students, which I think she hopes will become self-sustaining even when she can’t make it. Important to these kinds of groups is accessibility, and communal hope that learning in community is consequential, an event that has impact in all of our lives.

This is public pedagogy in body and spirit. What would be possible were we all to engage with this on a regular basis, learning and teaching and incarnating what “pedagogy” according to Lev Vygotsky truly meant? Vygotsky’s term was obuchenie, a concept that saw education as a co-constructed, dialectical (see, dialectics is everywhere!) process in which teachers and students experienced mutual transformation. This radically changes the top-down, unidirectional way we tend to enact education in public schooling today. It also challenges the ivory tower paradigm in which academia maintains the keys to the castle in terms of knowledge.

More is possible when the lions open their dens up for the rest of us to come in and warm ourselves by their fires!

Public schools: the starting point for questions, for possibility, for the anti-dictate

I am a field mentor for student teachers getting their masters degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at New York University. I myself am not a public school teacher, and for this reason, I love coming to schools and working with student teachers and their mentoring cooperating teachers over the course of a semester of developing lesson plans, new strategies, and relationships with the students. These are precious, powerful times for new teachers. Student teachers are learning to be authoritative rather than authoritarian, kind yet clear, and knowledgeable as well as inquisitive. This experience tends to be particularly meaningful for teachers who come from very different backgrounds than their students, especially White teachers from homogenous suburban middle-class towns very different from the busy, multilingual, multiple-way-of-being neighborhoods of New York. By extension are beneficial to these new teachers the ways in which these complex, dynamic communities express themselves in schools, the ways they push their children to think about the world and their place and participation in it.

Community Roots Middle School in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan-Brooklyn Overpass), a shipping area-turned-artist-haven-turned-locus of gentrification off of the York Street stop on the F train, asks these questions in politically active, clear-voiced ways. The display on the bulletin board in the 7th-grade hallway I visited included the following signage:


Beautiful. Because it always starts with questions.


Image of Angela Davis (above) and political cartoon depicting labor protest.


A brilliant question, one that should be asked over and over again.


The question of resistance.


One of my favorite quotes by Alice Walker.

This is where questions, and questioning, start. Public education cannot be about competition at the global level, or about test scores, or about conformity in and preparation for economically and politically strident times. We are in a time when we believe this is so. Schooling is about starting to ask questions, to learn what is possible, to explore ways of being that are not dictated to us, which is the essence of democracy. Community Roots Middle School, at least in these images, expresses just this.

More love, less labor: adjuncts and the hierarchy of labor in higher education

Teaching is, for those of us who are lucky to have figured this out, a joyful and deeply rewarding profession. I’ve been teaching for over 12 years, and have worked with adults from 18 to over 70. I have taught classes on English as a Second Language (ESL), professional communication skills, computer literacy, citizenship, bilingual education, second language acquisition, and other topics. Every class is like waking up to a new way of thinking and problem-solving, as my students and I find new ways to make connections between the material we are engaging with and our worlds. I tell friends and family members that it is seldom that I leave class feeling worse than I did when I got there. I regard it, perhaps a bit selfishly, as the best therapy I’ve ever had.

The problem with therapy, unfortunately, is that unless you have the right circumstances, it’s extremely costly. While I don’t pay, per se, to teach graduate students at two colleges in the City University of New York, as an adjunct, I am compensated little for the amount of work I do. True, some of it is in exchange for a generous teaching fellowship that I receive to do my PhD at the Grad Center. However, I also teach a class at another school in the CUNY system, where, when you break it down, I make what I first made as a new ESL teacher for the labor I put into class for class prep, meeting and communicating with students, and correcting and maintaining student grading and support. “Unthinkable!” my family would say if they knew. “But you have a masters degree and over 12 years of experience…and you’re getting your PhD!”

All true. This is the way of higher education nowadays, the slow and steady fight to save budgets through the ‘adjunctification‘ of colleges and universities across the country. As in other educational contexts, the rise of neoliberal thinking in higher ed – essentially the claim that market values like efficiency, accountability, and bottom-line thinking produce healthy businesses schools and satisfied customers students – justifies the trimming back of faculty and the use of contingent labor to pick up the slack. Read: adjuncts.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m happy to put all of this great experience on my CV. It’s nice to know that when I am interviewing for jobs as a professor in the next couple of years, I will be able to say I’ve worked with undergraduate and graduate students teaching a range of courses that would make me a smart hire for their department. This is seen as a sort of rite of passage, a paying of one’s dues when professionalizing as a professor-in-the-making.

Nevertheless, this situation can be improved once we move past the mystification that is attributed to Being a Professor in higher ed. Yes, it can be argued that all teaching is a labor of love, a point that I will be the first to make. I love this work, because it means I am doing something important, something that has, I hope, a significant impact on the world. Yet I also want to think of myself as more than a low-level laborer in the service of an erstwhile dream of what higher education should be.

We can poke all the fun we want at people pursuing what seems like a wild dream of being a thinker, writer, and educator for a living. However, all individuals have a right to be compensated for their work. And saying that the budget won’t permit such a change, while an expression of the numbers on a page, also justifies the status quo arrangements that divide the haves from the have-nots on faculties across the country. All of us who work in higher ed need to work together to make changes toward a more just arrangement for adjuncts in higher education. It’s time for more love, and less labor, for conditions that are just and compensation that reflects the reality of the work being done. Hierarchies can change and move into new arrangements, so long as there is agreement that justice is a goal that all must share.

Is a conversation action?: bell hooks and theory for healing and liberation

A politically conscious and active friend of mine teaches in an early college program in Queens, where teenagers learn from him about U.S. history and great literature. This weekend, we chatted a bit about his work, how wonderful and inspiring it can be, as well as how uncertain in terms of greater consequences. My friend is not cynical about education, but he did lament the fact that his conversations with his students might have little real-world impact. “It’s not the same thing as getting out there and marching,” he said. “Not the same thing as action.”

Or is it? bell hooks, public scholar who writes and speaks about race, feminism, capitalism, and many other topics (I attended a panel which included her at The New School about Beyonce and “the booty” a couple of years ago), wrote in a 1991 essay entitled “Theory as Liberatory Practice” about the power of creative engagement, of theorizing in responding to our pain, a response takes place in the mind and heart and yes, in the community as well. Yet the proposition that thinking and talking, the generative imaginative tilling of soil, is “action” in and of itself is one that continues to meet resistance.


bell hooks. Image from the bell hooks institute.

hooks cites a meeting she has with Black female thinkers, in which she hears the frustration some women had with with dominant feminist theory, with “all this talk” which appears to oppose real responses, authentic, embodied ideas that address the lived struggles of the Black community. She responds that speaking can itself be subversive, when it disrupts elite claims on knowledge and the ability to produce it:

…I dared to speak, saying in response to the suggestion that we were just wasting our time talking, that I saw our words as an action, that our collective struggle to discuss issues of gender and blackness without censorship was as subversive a practice…Just as some elite academics who construct theories of “blackness” in ways that make it a critical terrain which only the chosen few can enter, using theoretical work on race to assert their authority over black experience, denying democratic access to the process of theory making, threaten collective black liberation struggle, so do those among us who react to this by promoting anti-intellectualism by declaring all theory as worthless. By reinforcing the idea that there is a split between theory and practice or by creating such a split, both groups deny the power of liberatory education for critical consciousness thereby perpetuating conditions that reinforce our collective exploitation and repression.

hooks reminds us that academics, of all colors and backgrounds, have perpetually been regarded as singular creators of theory, an activity which is seen simultaneously as elite and without relevance to our worlds. Her words call for praxis – a reflective, dynamic, unfinished cycle of theory and practice – toward critical education evoked the work of Paulo Freire in the late 20th century as he advocated for the disruption of hegemonic, oppressive forces through emancipatory pedagogy. Importantly, hooks’s notion of democratic access to this ever-emergent praxis is a feminist, collective one, inviting contestation and imagination for changing times.

In responding to my friend, I mentioned this, and added that I had a socioculturalist take on the process of education. “How do you know what you and your students talk about won’t have impact outside the classroom?” I asked. “What if one of them comes home, tells her dad about What We Talked About In Class Today, and then her dad speaks to someone at work tomorrow, and then this creates some influences, and then, and then…?” I trailed off but I hoped it made sense. We can’t always anticipate or control the outcomes of our teaching, nor should we. We can’t tell our students what to do with the learning that they experience with us, but what we can do is have faith that building theory and creating new knowledge together can have influence far beyond the 45 minutes we’re with them.

This is where social movements start: with an idea, with a theory, with a question. How can you really say where talking stops…and action begins?

“If we can think, feel, and move, we can dance”: Anna Halprin’s radical pedagogy

At Hunter College last week, I saw an installation which accompanied a dance performance taking place this fall on campus entitled Radical Bodies, which features the work of choreographer Anna Talprin. Halprin, whose experimental workshops took place on a beautiful outdoor stage, did work that “rejected the high style and codified technique of reigning modern-dance choreographers like Martha Graham in favor of improvisatory tasks and everyday activities.” (NYTimes, March 24, 2017)

Many of these images are featured at Hunter College in the North Building, along with a description of the commitments to community building, embodiment and moral philosophy, and the search for authenticity through “self-generated creativity” (from Halprin’s Manual of Dance, 1921). Beautifully, and rightly, the Hunter description describes Halprin’s work as a radical pedagogy that speaks to the pain and struggle of the individual in the present era: isolation, homogenization, commodification, and standardization collude to obscure and trample on the stirrings of soul and unexplained, nascent, vicious little visions and vitalities we all have buried deep within us.

Halprin’s work resonates with John Dewey and other educational philosophers who explored the relationship between art and experience, and emphasized the importance of an education premised upon experience, of interacting with one’s world to create new meanings and emerge into a more fully developed self.

A beautiful proposal, indeed, one that is rare nowadays but not, thankfully, gone from our pasts, or our futures.