Category: public schooling

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.

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.

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.

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?

Educators as political participants, sanctuary as co-authored activity toward radical hope: Politico article about CUNY professors and our syllabi

On Wednesday, Politico published an article about the opening statement I and other professors use on their syllabi at City College, Hunter College, and other CUNY campuses in New York. The statement, which I adopted in January 2017 and have included for all of my classes since, reads:

 As an educator, I fully support the rights of undocumented students to an education and to live free from the fear of deportation. If you have any concerns in that regard, feel free to discuss them with me, and I will respect your wishes concerning confidentiality.

Furthermore, I am committed to making CUNY a sanctuary campus for undocumented immigrants, not just in word but in deed – through the campus community refusing to allow ICE to enter our campus and refusing to cooperate with and struggling to prevent any government attempts to ascertain the immigration status of members of our community or to detain or deport undocumented immigrants.

Since I included the statement – which I read aloud on the first day of every class – I have gotten strong, generally positive reactions from my students. In New York it’s common to have very diverse classrooms and conversations about racial, linguistic, gendered, and other types of difference include challenges to stereotypes and misconceptions about people of color, poor people, and transnational (immigrant) students and their families on a regular basis. Many of my students themselves are immigrants or from immigrant families, and many are directly impacted by the decision by Donald Trump to rescind DACA this week.

What I have loved about this statement since I included it is that it asks educators to think about what their role is in their classrooms and with their students. We should always be asking what being part of an educational community means, how we want to live and learn and teach in this community, and more than anything, how we define “community.” Including such a strong and unequivocal statement establishes an ethos of equity and safety in our classrooms, a space for learning where undocumented students could hear from their professors and know that while total protection can’t be guaranteed, their professors will stand up and fight to keep them safe, just as they would do for all students.

This equity view is very important, as is the desire to rehumanize a group of individuals which is typically homogenized and totalized as a social “issue.” I believe that we tend to take a charity view of this issue, talking about “these poor undocumented immigrants,” but the reality is, they also have positive, hopeful stories as well, hopes and plans like other students, and also regular human lives and experiences. They are regular people and not a statistic, as an undocumented student of mine over the summer reminded our class. 

While this last thought was not included in the limited space of the Politico article, I am including it below. I speak of radical hope, and of remembering our history as a public university system, arguably the oldest in the country. It’s one I am very proud to be a part of as a student, an educator, a community member, and an ally:

I believe that collective activity which supports the idea of “sanctuary” as a co-authored political alternative to intimidation and fear is the only option we have. Sanctuary means acting in ways that actively resist and oppose terror. It means visibly and unequivocally protecting, valuing, and uniting behind undocumented students and colleagues as an expression of community. And I think an effect is that it means demanding that our country’s and city’s leaders refuse to support policies which are used to intimidate and divide our communities. To do anything else would be to turn our backs on our own history as well as our community members who need us now.  It’s a form of radical hope and it’s an honor to be a part of this now.

Education and civil society: a mini-festo and a short reading list (for starters)

I’m starting, with several fellow graduate students at CUNY, a Working Group on Philanthropy and Civil Society. We come from the fields of sociology, political science, social welfare, and other disciplines which, we argue, do not speak to each other nearly enough and share learning and language around the core questions we must face as members of a shared society. We decided as a group to provide the other members a short reading list, as well as a general background, for understanding how our field approaches the question of what civil society is and should be. Here is my post to the group, which may help educators looking for more of a critical approach to education get started…

The field of education doesn’t typically explore questions about civil society, tending instead to follow the general assumption that thoughtful, comprehensive education contributes to a healthy society. I hypothesize that this comes from a couple of issues in our field:

(a) We are interdisciplinary by nature (the subfield of pedagogy draws upon psychology, linguistics, social theory, philosophy, literary theory, sociology, and other fields; the study of schooling is situated in political theory and history; certain critical approaches to our work relate to feminist theory, critical race theory, postcolonial theory; and so on)

(b) The last 20 years have seen a trend toward developing educators in teacher preparation programs via the ethos of “teachers as technicians,” no doubt related in part to the marketization of education (consider the role of standardized testing and its justification on the grounds of data-driven decision-making in supplying or denying funding to public school and the selection of Betsy DeVos as our Secretary of Education for starting examples)

(c) We’re still in the mindset of prioritizing “inclusion,” which foregoes possibilities of “transformation” or sustained social change (this is a controverted claim I’m making but I stand by it)

It’s my opinion that teachers are not developed as thinkers. We focus on mastery of technique and instrumental understandings of history, policy, and the role of schooling in our country, rather than engage our teachers with the kind of critical collaboration we need to resolve much of the struggle of public schools and institutions of higher ed today. There is also a great divide between scholarship and schools, often depicted as abstracted and out-of-touch (in the case of the former group) and overworked and struggling to keep up with the daily demands on being in the classroom (in the case of the latter). Relatedly, educational research and educational practice do not always speak to each other, which further perpetuates this perceived divide. However, there are many teachers (some of whom I work with) who are deeply concerned and committed to conversations about social justice and ethical politically conscious approaches to education that are long overdue…

I have done my own work to learn about civil society and political philosophical approaches to these questions (which is why I loved [name redacted]’s list and can’t wait to jump in). I have some contributions which attempt to provide some starting points for those of us in education who approach this work on philosophical (ontological, epistemological), political, historical, sociocultural terms rather than as a mastery of a core skill set. It’s important to remember, though, that my selections are driven by the core principle that education can begin contribute to a vibrant democracy only if it is thoroughly understood for its cultural history as well as the political realities of this work. However, the status quo must be understood as contingent and subject to contributions by all participants in society, in a constant state of struggle and change. (This is controversial in my field!) See my choices below.

Five favorite readings:

Bakhtin , M. ( 1993 ). Toward a philosophy of the act (V. Liapunov , trans.; V. Liapunov and M. Holquist, eds.) (pp. 1-75). Austin: University of Texas Press. https://monoskop.org/images/2/26/Bakhtin_Mikhail_Toward_a_Philosophy_of_the_Act.pdf

Biesta, G. (2010). A new logic of emancipation: The methodology of Jacques Rancière. Educational Theory, 60 (1), 39-59.

Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau (2002). Hope, passion, politics. In Mary Zournasi (ed.), Hope: New Philosophies for change (pp. 122-150). London: Lawrence and Wishart. available at http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1087&context=artspapers

Du Bois, W. E. B., & Edwards, B. H. (2008). The souls of black folk. Oxford University Press.

Stetsenko, A. (2016). The transformative mind: expanding Vygotsky’s approach to development and education. Cambridge University Press.

Honorable mentions (so many more I left out!):

Amsler, Sarah S. (2008), Pedagogy against “dis-utopia”: From conscientization to the education of desire, in Harry F. Dahms (ed.) No Social Science without Critical Theory (Current Perspectives in Social Theory, Volume 25). Emerald Group Publishing, pp.291 – 325. http://eprints.lincoln.ac.uk/5679/1/Pedagogy_against_disutopia_Amsler_Nov_2007.pdf

Barone, T. (2006). Making educational history: Qualitative inquiry, artistry, and the public interest. In G. Ladson- Billings and W. F. Tate (eds.), Education research in the public interest: Social justice, action, and policy (pp. 213–230). New York: Teachers College Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1989). Social Space and Symbolic Power. Sociological Theory, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring, 1989), pp. 14-25. http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/ct/pages/JWM/Syllabi/Bourdieu/SocSpaceSPowr.pdf

Dewey, J. (2004). Democracy and education. Courier Corporation.

Emirbayer, M., & Schneiderhan, E. (2013). Dewey and Bourdieu on democracy. In P. Gorski (ed.), Bourdieu and historical analysis (pp. 131–157). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Giroux, H. A. (1983). Ideology and agency in the process of schooling. Journal of Education, 165:12-34.

Holland, D. & Lave, J. (2009). Social Practice Theory and the Historical Production of Persons. Actio: An International Journal of Human Activity Theory, (2), 1–15.

Marx, K. Thesis on Feuerbach. https://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/gned/marxtonf45.pdf

Smith, M., Ryoo, J. and McLaren, P. (2009). A revolutionary critical pedagogy manifesto for the twenty-first century. Education and Society, 27, 59-76.

Stengers, I. (2002). A ‘cosmo-politics’ – risk, hope, change. In Mary Zournasi (ed.), Hope: New Philosophies for change (pp. 240-272). London: Lawrence and Wishart. available at http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1087&context=artspapers

Swamp Monster Betsy Devos: Nominee for Secretary of Education

Going to protest the possibility that Betsy Devos could become the Secretary of Education of this country tomorrow at BMCC in lower Manhattan. Watch her avoid responding substantively to any questions about equal protections for all students who have disabilities, who suffer bullying, who take out student loans, who are taken advantage of by for-profit career colleges.
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Here are some of the reasons why I’m demonstrating tomorrow:
  • Devos is a dominionist, which means she believes in Christian education and doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state
  • She is a billionaire whose family has funded anti-LGBTQ social actions in the South
  • She is pro-charter school, pro-privatization, pro-voucher (which Senator Hassan (D, NH) in the first video pushes Devos to say she will make available to students with disabilities, instead of signing away their rights to protections they have now), anti-public school and anti-protection at the federal level of fair and decent public education for American children
  • She still has not completed her ethics questionnaire and thus has dodged the proper vetting procedure needed to evaluate her fitness as the country’s lead figure in determining education policy
  • She has never worked in a public school as an educator or an administrator
  • Her work has signaled a desire to protect corporate profits over the needs of children of color, children with disabilities, children who are poor, children who are non-Christian, and other children whose civil rights have consistently been compromised and attacked historically
  • She clearly is unfamiliar with federal laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and debates about “growth” vs. “proficiency” (see the Franken video)
I love this last exchange in the first video:
Hassan: “I would urge you to become familiar, should you be nominated, with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, and I do have to say, I’m concerned that you seem so unfamiliar with it, and that you seem to support voucher schools that have not honored, you know, have made students sign away their rights to make sure that the law is enforced. That’s very troubling to me.”
Devos: “Senator, I assure you that I, if confirmed, I will be very sensitive to the needs of special needs students and the policies surrounding that.”
Hassan: “And with all due respect, it’s not about sensitivity, although that helps. It’s about being willing to enforce the law to make sure that my child and every child has the same access to public education, high-quality public education, and the reality is that the way that the voucher systems that you have supported work don’t always come out that way…”

“GOP Gov. Snyder’s office says Detroit school kids have no right to literacy”: an opportunity to develop media literacy

The post title comes from an article a friend of mine posted on my Facebook feed, alarmed and asking what I thought of this situation.
herbert-randall
Photograph by Herbert Russell
Below is my response…

It’s a very interesting proposition. Checked out the story on the CBS website and this is what was included:

“The lawsuit says the schools are in ‘slum-like conditions’ and ‘functionally incapable of delivering access to literacy.’ The case, filed in federal court, directly accuses Gov. Rick Snyder, the state school board and others of violating the civil rights of low-income students.”

A couple of missing connections:

1) Schools in Detroit (and Philadelphia and Chicago and other struggling school districts) have suffered from a lack of funding which is connected both to housing issues as well as to the direct connection of federal funding to school performance, which has been in part due to the way that some states have interpreted the Common Core (see http://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/common-core-state-standards/). Obscured with this kind of commentary is the connection between federal funds and testing/school performance, which also drives decision-making on teacher retention, and the fact that schools continue to be financed by property taxes. Those tax revenues in Detroit have fallen significantly over the last decade or more, due in part to the Great Recession as well as other economic issues germane to Detroit, all of which has contributed to the struggles of that school system.

2) The accusation that Governor Snyder — who has indeed been taken to task for mismanagement and shady dealings with the public school system in Michigan — explicitly believes that students should not have a right to literacy is not accurate. Here’s another story whose header reads, “Literacy Not A Right For Detroit School Kids According To State” (http://detroit.cbslocal.com/2016/11/21/literacy-not-a-right-for-detroit-school-kids-says-state/) but which doesn’t include any specific comment that Snyder actually made about this.

I’m concerned that this is sensationalistic reporting rather than a deeper exploration of the complex questions in play. I would say that negligence is definitely a part of this, but saying that Snyder was attacking the civil rights of poor and the illiterate children of Detroit is an exaggeration. This is attack-the-individual thinking which has characterized “reporting” of late and keeps us from working on bigger and more complicated problems.

A final point: We as Americans are stuck in the democratic paradox (see my discussion of this in a previous post), which allows liberalism — freedom to pursue your own way of doing things, freedom not to be responsible for other people, etc. — to coexist with democracy. How can we support the participation of all Americans in our civic spaces when we prioritize the education of some over others through inequitable economic policies and “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” thinking?

I don’t think my friend liked my response. It’s been three hours, which is like an eternity in FB world.

Getting started

It’s a funny title for a post, since I’ve been writing this blog since 2014. However, what began as a scholarly exercise, to be executed faithfully but unhurriedly, has shifted in my mind. The stream of conversation now, in the aftermath of Donald J. Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, has become a torrent of great anger, anxiety, sorrow, and uncertainty, with smatterings of told you so’s and many predictions for the future. I am writing this now to exercise my voice and to contribute what I can, as a PhD student, a professor, and a reader and writer about immigration and education. As both aspects of the conversation about the future of America very much need defense and advocacy, I commit myself to doing this as much as I can, both here and elsewhere in my work.

 

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Coalition of Immokalee Workers protest on March 10, 2012
Source: http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/why-im-walking-200-miles-with-the-immokalee-workers/

Last night I read a Truthout article about the increasing influence of big donors on public education. Entitled “Are Wealthy Donors Influencing the Public School Agenda?“, the piece detailed the shifts in education policy at the local and state level that have occurred more and more via the donation of big money from wealthy “reformers” (the discursive construction of the term reform will be the topic of a future post.) These philanthro-barons come to the proverbial table with disproportionately loud voices, silencing participation from smaller (read: less well-funded) participants on decisions relating to educational policy taken by local school boards. Donations from such “education reformers” — who are often not members of the communities to which they donate — have influenced the ways in which school board elections come out, using the power of media representation to undercut messaging from competitors with smaller coffers. Aside from skewing the democratic election process, the influence of wealthier, more powerful donors brings the increasing presence of the values they espouse, which, according to the article’s authors’ background research (see here and here), differ significantly from most people in the United States. These donors tend to hold neoliberal perspectives rooted in market-driven solutions like “school choice” (code for controversial voucher programs and the increase in the number of charter schools, which are meant to provide alternatives to struggling district schools and compel those in existence to ‘step up their game’) and “accountability” (code for highly problematic data-driven decision-making which supports funding cuts and staff reductions for underperforming schools).

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Cat with a cigar by Louis Wain, courtesy of Wiki Commons

The issue resonates with the 2016 presidential election for me, not because of the “fat cats always win” crowing I’m doing along with many other folks. Instead, I see this as part of a conversation we in the United States need to have about the role of the media and messaging in shaping our public discourse. The Truth-Out article includes the story of a local school board candidate who, like me, works in the education of adult immigrants. He states the following:

It [money] changes the discourse…their [the reform candidates] message is the only message. Not just the dominant message anymore. It’s the only message people are hearing.

Why is this the case? Are parents and communities literally unable to get access to a diversity of perspectives in decisions about education? Is it the fact that we are so overloaded at work, so wrapped up in the latest Netflix series that we can’t find the time to talk to the other people on our street or on the bus or subway? The blinding and deafening of corporate media blitzing, which likewise draws strength and influence from the strategic controls of wealth, may have something to do with this. The news tells me the schools are struggling, teachers are not doing their jobs, students are innocent and must be saved, our families are under fire, and other messages that induce panic. We must make change. Enter…reform. Exit community togetherness, dialogue with equal sharing of the mike.

Money massages us into forgetting that we don’t need saving by outside angels. We forget that we have our own tools. Can we recall that in a democratic country all voices should be equal, not some “more equal than others” because they come from throats swathed in silks printed in glossy campaigns that inundate and lure us away from critical thinking and connection to our neighbor?

Relying on “experts” and the problem of expertise

I teach a class about emergent bilinguals and bilingual education in the United States. This week, we’re talking about what constitutes a “successful” program, a highly polemical topic stemming from Civil Rights Era-challenges to the status quo, though the debate about the official language of America and what language to school our children in has origins in the earliest days of the republic. We’re exploring how — and whose — decision-making determines programming for students who are English Language Learners (ELLs), drawing from empirical study, learning theory, and experiences in different schools across the country. One of our readings for class, Successful Bilingual Schools: Six Effective Programs in California, documented “successes” in spite of challenges relating to funding, political opposition to bilingual education, and the ubiquitous pressures to compete, be accountable, and prepare for future job opportunities which can often shackle schooling to the leg of capitalistic destiny-making.

A question I often ask — and did in class last night — is, who is the expert in this conversation? Whose words and experience carry more weight, and why? It’s often the case that expertise comes with many letters after one’s name, conferring value through years of study and research, as well as official titles like “Secretary of _______________” or “Director of _______________.” But for those of us seeking to reach such generally unchallenged heights of expertise, the truth must always be maintained: we can’t know what happens in all given schools, for all children and parents and teachers, within all communities. An obvious statement, to be sure, but the point our class came to last night is important: Local context matters. Student voice and choice matter. What happens in a New York City French-English bilingual program may simply be implausible in Lubbock, Texas, for reasons ranging from resources to political will to community views of language use to geography.

A complicating issue is how we, as progressive thinkers in education, involve students’ communities, especially their parents, in the conversation about bilingual education. This is an asset view of students’ cultural knowledge, arguing that their family backgrounds, cultural knowledges and practices, and community histories inform their ways of experiencing and making meaning through schooling. I struggle with the asset view at times, because it’s a theory that often meets resistance on political and economic grounds. Many parents are often unable to participate more as they are pushed away, outside, beyond the walls of a school by prejudice or struggle with pressures to earn money and work harder to support their family. Some schools think they are including parents in decision-making when in reality, they are simply dictating what parents’ behavior should be. Other parents feel that this is exactly what schools should do: make all the decisions and manage their kids for 7-8 hours per day. Another issue stems from beliefs about rightness in language use. Is it a service provided to “low-status” families to help them assimilate, or a process of enrichment like a foreign language, or else the building of political opportunity and ability to participate in civic engagement?

Schooling in general is complicated, and it is experts that are invited to weigh in on what is best for our nation’s youth. Yet I’m glad that we finished the class last night with the question far from resolved. I emphasize the power that teachers, educational scholars, and policy makers have over others, a power that is too often underproblematized outside and even within the academy. Our ability to tell someone, “Yes, this is right” is historically determined and therefore contingent. While we can argue we have years of expertise, we don’t live the life of our students, and the portal via which we attempt to see in — empirical study — is fraught with complications that include bias, silencing, and misinterpretation. The posture of inquiry and uncertainty, uncomfortable though it may be, is an important one given the risk of replicating injustices past. Considering the current state of affairs when it comes to racial achievement gaps or disparities in educational outcomes for ELLs compared to American-born children, we clearly need to be asking why all of our highly-paid experts haven’t resolved these problems yet.