Sunday, January 29, 2012

Reality Check on the Federal Role in School Reform

President Obama’s comments on NCLB in his State of the Union — combined with state-level discussions on NCLB waivers — require some reality checks.

If the federal government truly wants to promote learning for all students, it needs to discard NCLB’s “test, punish and privatize” approach and adopt reality-based initiatives that acknowledge the relationship between teaching and learning and underlying issues of race, class and segregation.

Yes, everyone knows urban education must better meet the needs of all students. But punishment, finger-pointing and scape-goating are not the answer. Nor does pious rhetoric of “high expectations for all” help classroom teachers who see their resources slashed, their class sizes growing, and their students’ families increasingly subjected to unemployment, incarceration and substandard healthcare and housing— more often than not in ever-more segregated neighborhoods.

As Congress limps through discussions of NCLB reauthorizations, and states debate the merits of NCLB waivers, we need some reality checks.

The first reality check is one of history. (In this era of Newt Gingrich as Republican presidential candidate, historical reality checks are incredibly important.) I suggest Robert Lowe’s and Harvey Kantor’s Harvard Education Review article, “From New Deal to No Deal: No Child Left Behind and the Devolution of Responsibility for Equal Opportunity.”  It’s substantive, historical, well-researched — and worth the time to read carefully.

As Barbara Miner summarizes in her forthcoming book*, Lowe and Kantor outline “the shortcomings of both NCLB and ESEA. They place the initiatives within a broader context of the federal government’s long-term retreat from a broad-based agenda to ensure equal opportunity. Both NCLB and ESEA refocused federal domestic policy almost exclusively on education. Both were in contrast to the New Deal during the Great Depression of the 1930s, which had a wide-ranging emphasis on jobs programs, protecting the right to unionize, promoting efforts such as a minimum wage, unemployment insurance and Social Security, and developing income/taxation policies that helped redistribute income in order to prevent gaping disparities. “

The Great Society of the Johnson era shifted away from these direct interventions in the economy to “provision of services” – particularly education and job training.

Miner’s summation notes that  the NCLB, passed during a post-civil-rights, pro-marketplace era, took the retreat a step further — the federal government no longer felt the need to even protect existing social benefits.  She then quotes Lowe and Kantor, who write: ‘[T]he dominant view today seeks to free the market from any social encumbrances and to limit federal responsibility for social welfare by privatizing it or eliminating it altogether.”

The results are clear. As Miner states, “Public schools – the only social, political or economic institution given a mandate to close racial gaps, and already battered in urban areas by segregation, poverty, institutional inequities and lack of resources – were unable to should their NCLB burden. They failed.”

Labeling the schools as failures was an essential step in abandoning and dismantling public education and easing the way for privatization, whether through voucher schemes or publicly funded but privately operated charter schools. Not surprisingly, the dismantling occurred primarily in urban districts, where no one can reasonably defend the status quo. The problems are so persistent and glaring.

A second reality check is provided by Linda Darling Hammond in her excellent article in the Nation magazine, “Why is Congress Redlining Our Schools?”

Hammond echoes the concerns of many educators and parents stating that while some proposed changed scale back sanctions of schools failing to reach “adequate yearly progress,” similar sanctions “are now focused solely on the 5 percent of schools designated as lowest-performing by the states. As we have learned in warm-up exercises offered by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative, these schools will nearly always be the ones serving the poorest students and the greatest numbers of new immigrants. In many states they will represent a growing number of apartheid schools populated almost entirely by low-income African-American and Latino students in our increasingly race- and class-segregated system. “

Unfortunately this “punish the less-fortunate 5% provision” is central to the NCLB “waiver” application the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction is putting forward. According to a January 18 Education Week article,several states are deciding not to apply for a waiver. “The biggest broken pieces of NCLB are not fixed,” notes Denise Juneau, Montana’s state superintendent of public instruction. “Taking on additional requirements to get a waiver that isn’t really a waiver doesn’t seem smart.”

(Here in Wisconsin, people have until Feb.3 to comment on the DPI’s draft waiver proposal.)

Hammond, in her Nation article, offers several suggestions for changes in federal education policy. Among other things she suggests

1) Deal with jobs and poverty
2) Address disparities in school funding
3) Equalize educational learning opportunities outside of school, including early childhood education and enriched summer programs for students
4) Invest in the quality of educators

Hammond was a chief advisor to Obama during his 2008 election, and was considered as a potential secretary of education. Unfortunately, the nod went to Arne Duncan, a non-educator with great rhetoric and a lousy understanding of daily life in the classroom. When Obama gets reelected, perhaps he will have the good sense to bring in Hammond when cabinet assignments are reshuffled.

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One final note. President Obama’s said in his State of the Union address, that “We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance.”

I have two concerns with this seemingly sound but problematic statement. I recognize the essential role of education in helping students earn a living. But to reduce education to a bank account calculation negates the importance of any number of educational essentials, from an appreciation of art and literature, to being an active and informed citizen, to understanding the importance of tolerance, diversity and anti-racism. Second,  Obama’s assertion was based on a study that itself has come under criticism. Professor Bruce Baker at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, for instance, did the math behind the numbers. The economic benefits of Obama’s imaginary “star” teacher (assuming the national average of 26.6 students in a classroom, and that people work for 40 years) comes to $250 per year a student. That’s less than $1 a day — probably not enough to help someone “escape from poverty.

* Barbara Miner’s forthcoming book is Lessons from the Heartland: Milwaukee Wisconsin, public schools and the fight for America’s Future (New Press, fall, 2012.) 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Keep It Positive and Focus on the Issues

One million people have answered the question: Will there be a recall of Gov. Scott Walker? The new question on people’s minds:  Who will be the Democrat running against Walker?

It’s too soon to answer that question. But it’s not too soon to expect that the Democratic hopefuls will avoid destructive negativism and in-fighting.  As Newt, Mitt and Santorum have made clear, negative primaries are poisonous and counter-productive.

It’s essential that those running in the almost certain-to-happen Democratic recall primary pledge to keep the campaign positive. All the candidates should run on what they would do differently than Walker rather than how they are better than their Democratic opponents. Issues include but certainly go beyond collective bargaining — from public education to the environment, taxing the wealthy, promoting family-sustaining jobs, health care, reproductive rights, paid sick-days, and voters’ rights.

The same code of ethics should go for the candidates’ supporters. Let’s show that, unlike the hyperbole and negativism that has dominated the Republican Presidential primaries, this anti-Walker groundswell will promote substantive discussion of the issues that face our state.

Our goal is to remove Walker from office and reclaim Wisconsin for the 99%. One way to do that is to run positive, issue-oriented campaigns.

I encourage readers to push prospective candidates to make such a public pledge – keep it positive and focus on the issues.

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Charles Blow’s recent New York Times opinion, “Newt’s Southern Strategy,” exposes some of Newt’s slogans as little more than code words for racist attacks on the first African-American president in U.S. history. Using a model perfected by candidate Ronald Reagan and his repeated references to a “welfare queen,” Newt’s continued mention of Obama as a “food stamp President” promoting minority “privilege” is little more than pandering to racism in an attempt to win over white voters. It’s an unfortunate reminder that race remains a central divide in this country.

And a final note. In last week's blog I noted that a book I co-edited, Rethinking Columbus, was banned in Tucson, Arizona -- collateral damage resulting from the right-wing legislature's banning of ethnic studies programs, targeting a Mexican-American Ethnic Studies Program in the Tucson Public Schools. On Sunday, Jan. 22 a New York Times editorial, "Rejected in Tucson" criticized the legislature and specifically mentioned "Rethinking Columbus" along with Paulo Freire's "Pedagogy of the Oppressed." 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Rethinking Columbus Banned in Arizona

The recent spate of book bannings in the Tucson, Arizona should be a wake up call for all who care about multicultural education and academic freedom in our schools.

The list of banned books range from Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States to Rethinking Columbus, published here in Milwaukee by Rethinking Schools.  The bannings stem from an Arizona law passed last year that, among other things, banned ethnic studies programs in K-12 schools.

The banned books, according to a district spokesperson quoted Jan. 13, [highlight salon blog] will be “cleared from all classrooms, boxed up and sent to the Textbook Depository for storage.” One on-the-scene report indicated  “banned books were seized from [students’] classrooms and out of their hands.”

The banning of Rethinking Columbus stands in sharp contrast to the dozens of public school systems that have bought thousands of copies of the book since it was first published in 1991. Bill Bigelow, who co-edited Rethinking Columbus along with Barbara Miner and Bob Peterson (me), quotes from the introduction to Rethinking Columbus in his recent blog:

 “Why rethink Christopher Columbus? Because the Columbus myth is basic to children’s beliefs about society. For many youngsters the tale of Columbus introduces them to a history of this country, even to history itself. The ‘discovery of America’ is children’s first curricular exposure to the encounter between two races. As such, a study of Columbus is really a study about us—how we think about each other, our country, and our relations with people around the world.”

Bigelow writes that the last time one of his books was outlawed was during the state of emergency in apartheid South Africa in 1986. He speculates that the book was banned “because it included excerpts from a speech by then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Confronting massive opposition at home and abroad, the white minority government feared for its life in 1986.”

“It’s worth asking what the school authorities in Arizona fear today,” Bigelow writes.

I personally have never had one of my books banned before. I guess it’s a badge of honor. But it’s a badge no one in this country should want to wear.

What’s most disturbing is the banning’s broader context, in particular Arizona’s anti-immigrant legislation and the move across the country toward scripted curriculum that too often ignores students’ cultural heritages and that undermines the ability to promote critical thinking. On a more positive note, however, the banning can be seen as the flailing of small-minded bigots attempting to derail multicultural, anti-racist curriculum. In this sense, the move is similar to the anti-gay rantings of Santorum and Company. 

The Tucson banning is a an outgrowth of an Arizona law passed last year that bans k-12 schools from teaching anything that may be interpreted as promoting the overthrow of the U.S. government or resentment toward a race or class of people. The ban also prohibits courses that are designed primarily for pupils of one ethnic group, or that advocate ethnic solidarity.

This has led to the termination of Mexican American literature courses and the banning of several books.

Information on the list of banned books is still unfolding —it’s  not something the school district is making public. However, a blog by Nambe Pueblo writer Debbie Reese listed several books. They range from Sherman Alexie's Ten Little Indians and Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fist Fight in Heaven, to Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities.

Ethnic studies programs have shown to have positive impact on students. This was the conclusion by scholar Christine Sleeter in her recent study, The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies. She states, “There is considerable research evidence that well designed and well-taught ethnic studies curricula have positive academic and social outcomes for students.”

Specific data in Tucson confirm these findings. According to a Tucson Unified School District report issued March 11, 2011, TUSD's Mexican American Studies program give students a measurable advantage over non-MAS students in passing standardized AIMS reading and writing tests, and that MAS students graduate at higher levels than their non MAS counterparts.”

Educators should demand that Arizona officials lift their prohibition of ethnic studies classes and cease their book banning.  We should also examine our own curricula, textbooks and student learning objectives to see if we are adequately addressing issues of our community’s cultural diversity, the history of racism and struggle against its current forms.

Ironically, the Arizona book banning comes at the time when many people are celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

These developments in Arizona remind us all that much work is to be done – in Arizona and in our own communities – before we realize King’s dream.


A last note on Dr. ML King.  As Barbara Miner points out in her forth coming book, Lessons from the Heartland, Milwaukee, schools and the fight for America’s future, just months after his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, King visited Milwaukee in January 1964. He publicly addressed the issue of Milwaukee’s schools and agreed that residential segregation should not be used “as an excuse for perpetuating de facto segregation” in all schools. In a prescient comment, he also noted, “But honesty impels me to admit that the school problem cannot be solved permanently until the housing problem is solved.” Milwaukee, which has the infamous reputation as the country’s most-segregated metropolitan region, might want to take note as it celebrates MLKing Day.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Speak Out Against Santorum and His Bullying Pulpit

When will Presidential candidates stand up to the hate that Rick Santorum is spreading? What should educators do to counter Santorum’s homophobia?

Santorum’s positions on birth control and black people are no better, but his homophobia is particularly virulent and mean-spirited.

According to the Los Angeles Times, former Pennsylvania Senator and GOP Presidential candidate Rick Santorum said that children would be better off with a father imprisoned than living with two gay parents.

Santorum, citing the work of what he called an anti-poverty expert, said that “even fathers in jail who had abandoned their kids were still better than no father at all to have in their children's lives."

Allowing gays to marry and raise children, Santorum said, amounts to "robbing children of something they need, they deserve, they have a right to. You may rationalize that that isn't true, but in your own life and in your own heart, you know it's true."

The audience at the private New Hampshire boarding school where Santorum spoke responded with “snorts and applause.” The principal said that three of the students at the school had gay parents.

(In a 2003 interview with the Associated Press Santorum said that gay marriage is no different from "man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.”)

Clearly, people have the right to free speech. But what’s so disturbing is that the person who is saying this is running for President and is treated as a legitimate, mainstream candidate.

New York Times columnist David Brooks in his Jan. 2 column, “Workers of the World, Unite!” credited Santorum as being a champion of the working class. Brooks, often considered a centrist, wrote, “I do believe that he [Santorum] represents sensibility and a viewpoint that is being suppressed by the political system.”

Three days later, Brooks in his Jan. 5 column, “A New Social Agenda,” again praised Santorum, this time for some of his social views. Brooks wrote, “I’m delighted that Santorum is making a splash in this presidential campaign.”


How about ashamed? Outraged?

It’s disturbing, and frightening, that the conversation in this country has shifted so far that intolerant extremists are treated as legitimate, respectable candidates. That mainstream columnists promote proponents of such ideas only makes it more difficult for those attempting to counter the hatred and prejudice that too often affects our students and our schools.

All children and youth need loving parents and caregivers. The sexual orientation of the parents of the children we teach is a non-issue.

Moreover, such a vitriolic statements will likely encourage bullying of children and youth who exhibit characteristics that might be deemed by their peers as not fitting into rigid gender stereotypes.

We as educators have a responsibility to stand up and make sure all students we teach are treated with respect and dignity.

Educators looking for resources on teaching about gay and lesbian issues might go to: