Category: public schooling

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Crying us a river: the New York Times’ lament of the poor education of detained migrant children

The expression “cry someone a river” according to Wiktionary has two definitions:

  1. (idiomatic, often sarcastic) To weep profusely or excessively in the presence of another person.
  2. (idiomatic, usually sarcastic, by extension) To try to obtain the sympathy of another person by complaining or sniveling.

I’ll focus on the first definition. The New York Times published an article on July 6th entitled “In a Migrant Shelter Classroom, ‘It’s Always Like the First Day of School.'” The article discusses the ongoing challenges in the education of migrant youth being held in detention centers for days and weeks at a time, mostly from the perspective of their teachers and those who visit to monitor for human rights compliance and violations. According to the article, the teachers who attend to the education of these children are working with limited curriculum (educational programming), resources, and training (some are not certified to teach), and they lament this. The author of the article likewise laments this state of affairs, citing a troubling example of a human rights worker who visited one of these detention facilities:

At Berks County Residential Center, an ICE facility in Pennsylvania, there are two classrooms, one for children aged 2 to 11 and another for children 12 to 18, according to Eleanor Acer, of the nonprofit Human Rights First. Ms. Acer, who has visited the center several times, said that the wide age span left the older children in each group bored, and that much of the instruction was done through computers and worksheets.

She added that some teachers were unable to communicate effectively in Spanish, and that classes cycle through the curriculum every two weeks, meaning students who stay longer repeat the same material.

“The impression is that they are not really taught much of anything,” Ms. Acer said.

This of course is a terrible situation. The odds are stacked against the teachers and, much more importantly, the students in these classrooms, who have been struggling with trauma, abuse, stress, inappropriate medication with psychiatric drugs, and, of course, a senseless and inhuman incarceration experience that does not see any immediate resolution, in spite of a federal judge’s order that children be reunited with their parents (which apparently isn’t even possible for some children, whom the Trump administration has lost track of). All of us in education shake our heads at such insurmountable odds, at the injustice, at the loss of opportunity to learn and grow of these children, of the potential damage this may cause them in future educational contexts and, by implication, in future opportunities after school.


Source: https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/We-Protect-ICE-Trump-Tells-Rallying-Crowd-as-Thousands-of-Migrant-Children-Await-Reunification-20180708-0007.html

But here’s the thing: Those of us who work with immigrant youth in public schools, particularly in large urban centers like New York City, see a version of this same story in our public school system every damn day. It is an ongoing injustice that we do not have the resources (including classroom space, materials, support staff, etc.), the sort of dynamic, flexible curriculum that can support and include all of our diverse learners, including newcomers (recently arrived immigrant students) and students who are categorized as SLIFE (students with limited or interrupted formal education), or the consistent training and support that teachers working in our cities’ public schools require to educate fairly, justly, and appropriately.

The Times mentions that HHS requires that the schooling provided for detained migrant children “[take] into account their ‘linguistic ability’ as well as ‘cultural diversity and sensitivity.'” For god’s sake: Our education system doesn’t do this now. We do not support our Brown or Black or immigrant students in public schools now, preferring to focus on individualizing, psychology-based strategies like mindfulness and resilience/grit which make children responsible for “resolving” their challenges while ignoring the structural issues that non-White, lower-income children experience like poverty, unstable housing, disproportionate policing and punishments in and out of schools, and other issues derived from systemic racism, xenophobia, and marginalization. We do not recognize that the slashes our country’s leaders have made to the education budget at the federal level and policy mandates that maintain our myopic, maniacal focus on testing punish our public schools, their teachers, and our students, all the while justifying moves to privatize and militarize. The following quote rings so hollow when we consider the state of affairs most children of color, immigrant children, and poor children experience in the day-to-day now in our public schools:

“You can only imagine the children surrounding them, how that impacts their education.”

Cry me a river. Yes, these migrant children are facing bald myriad injustices, but the reality is that their situation, lamentable though it absolutely is, is an extreme version of the same story of heartlessness, blindness, exclusion, and marginalization that millions of children in U.S. public schools face right now. We who are U.S.-born, and especially those of us who are White, should recognize that while these are not crocodile tears per se, the professing of ignorance will not do.

I’ve made my point, but I have to mention the last kick in the pants that shows up in the paternalistic final quote included in the article, taken from Ms. Baez, one of the teachers who work with the young people:

“The kids are very responsive, very glad to be in school learning and very eager to learn English.”

Well, what the hell else would they do? These children are prisoners. They are desperate for stability, for human contact, for stimulation, for any hope that correct and obedient behavior will get them out. And we can’t forget that our public outcries for this to stop, forceful and beautiful though they are, have many more lives awaiting their calls for justice.

The threat of blindness: the problems with merging education and labor

Something that has gotten little attention in the news lately is the fact that under discussion is the merging of the U.S. Department of Labor and the Department of Education at the federal level, a conversation that was apparently inspired by businesswoman and First Daughter Ivanka Trump. The fact that this momentous change is under consideration is understandably obscured by current news about the separation of asylum-seeking migrant parents and their children at the Mexican-U.S. border, which results in illegal incarceration, trauma, and the destruction of family units. Important to our thinking is the consciousness that this seemingly recent stage of of politics which is drawing our attention (and, perhaps, morbidly creating an opportunity for broad, ecumenical, supra-political unity on what amounts to violence and abuse) is in reality part of a much longer history of dehumanization of immigrants coming to this country seeking work, succor, or opportunity.

According to CNN, the proposed merger is part of a major government overhaul, which Secretary of Education Betsy Devos claims to be a means by which to “reduce the federal footprint in education and to make the federal government more efficient and effective.” As Devos has argued publicly since her appointment in early 2017, states and individual municipalities should have control over what happens in their schools, overlooking the fact that the federal government continues to exert influence through funding policies as well as constitutional protections of student’s civil rights, including protection against discrimination (see here, herehere , and here for more information about this ongoing tension).


By Lexicon, Vikrum [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney stated that this merger “makes tremendous sense. Because what are [these departments] both doing? They’re doing the same thing. They’re trying to get people ready for the workforce. Sometimes it’s education. Sometimes it’s vocational training.” Essentially, Mulvaney is articulating a shift that has been taking place in educational thinking in our country over the last several decades, a progression which included Ronald Reagan’s pledge in 1981 to eliminate the Department of Education in a time when “big government” received increasing criticism. Reagan’s pledge, unfulfilled though it remained, referenced his and other conservatives’ ongoing push to make education a process of job training, a position illustrated in his public speeches in the 1960s in which he argued that “taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing intellectual curiosity.” (That Reagan was a mediocre student and didn’t seem to care about his own schooling is perhaps a separate conversation.)

Two questions to address are these: how are we defining schooling, and how are we defining education? What is the purpose? Yes, schooling prepares us to emerge into and participate in the adult world, but this is so much more than work. True, we have moved through different eras of educational approach and philosophy, ranging from Taylorism (a.k.a. industrial education or a factory model of education) to John Dewey’s view of education as a laboratory for democratic thought and exploration. We have employed schooling to serve political as well as economic purposes, as a buttress against perceived threats of nuclear war and a preemptive strike against losing our place as a world superpower. There has never been a single unified vision of what schools should do,  how teachers should teach, or how children best learn. I would suggest that healthy and impassioned debate about this should continue on as long as schools exist.

Instead, I hold and hope that education itself – not schooling, that embattled and ever-changing space where children adopt ways of thinking that adults approve of (yes, this is a radical stance, but not necessarily a leftist one!) – can survive the neoliberal, market-friendly restructuring that threatens from the highest office. Education is the means by which we encounter – note, not “become” – our thinking selves, our feeling and knowing selves. We explore abilities, take chances, find heroes, start fires, and trip and swing and, damn it, learn. Grow. I take a radical view in stating that I believe that education takes place in many places and spaces: at home, in religious centers, with siblings and grandparents, on playgrounds, when we travel, when we suffer loss. Schools may purport to act as a locus for such experiences, which urge excitement of the mind into spaces of new becomings, but it is education itself that accompanies all of us as we become our human selves and grow into possibilities.

These possibilities may include ways of participating in work, but they also include ways of participating in society as democratic subjects and human beings living together in a shared political community. If we reduce education to job training, they we lose the opportunity to explore and understand so much about our reality. We begin to accept our current state of affairs as what is “right,” “normal,” and “unavoidable.” We begin to lose sight of the fact that this time is only one of many shimmering off the back of collective humanity. And in a time of great pain, anger, fear, and abandonment, we cannot afford to go blind.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”: Mr. Rogers, the separation of immigrant families, and the complicated notion of “love”

Last night I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a biopic about the life and work of Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister and TV personality known to people of my generation as the host of PBS show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Rogers donned his iconic cardigan sweaters and talked to the audience through the camera in every episode, welcoming children into his world of puppets, imagination, music, and conversation about being a kid and being human. Along with Sesame Street, this was my earliest memory of television, and, after remembering this experience through the movie last night, a precious one.


Screenshot from Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Focus Films, 2018)

I didn’t realize how intentional the work of Fred Rogers was, in terms of his commitments to children and their development, as well as to helping them understand a confusing, sometimes cruel world, as well as their feelings and reactions to it. Rogers believed that children should feel as though they were special just as they are, and that a neighborhood, as he framed his show and its unifying theme, should be a place where you feel welcome, and safe, and accepted. This posture was affectionately termed “radical” by some of the team that supported his work, and indeed it continues to be today. Indeed, in public schools, we define “specialness” according to test results, conformist behavior, and eyes-on-the-prize thinking which make the experience of being a young learner a question of educational management rather than exploration, contestation, and becoming oneself at one’s own pace. Some of these tensions have existed in schooling for generations (see critiques here, here, and here), to be sure, but the pervasion – perversion? – of neoliberal values in our schools has changed education in the United States fundamentally, if not irrevocably.

Rogers, who died in 2003, held the unshakeable perspective that children should be guided by adults in approaching the world in safety, reassured that the grown-ups would take care of them, and that each the way each person, young or old, experienced this world was valuable and important. A beautiful quote from Rogers is as follows:

Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.

A beautiful and moving idea, one which the filmmakers suggest was rooted in Rogers’ faith. It was with this ethos in mind that he explored topics related to the Vietnam War, racism and segregation, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and, much more recently, 9/11. 

Interestingly, Rogers was a lifelong Republican, which makes me wonder how he might respond to our current cultural and political environment. While a living expression of the deep power of care and commitment to one’s fellow human, he was, like all of us, a limited individual with his own experiences and commitments upon which he built his world. This made me wonder how he might address, or even think about, the recent stories that have emerged in the news about immigrant parents being separated from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border, which Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended using a now-critiqued citation of the Bible. Rogers might well have spoken out against this blatant cruelty, trauma, and violence being inflicted on families and children, some of whom are toddlers, and called upon the U.S. government to consider the lasting impacts these actions would have on the young people who are taken from their parents, put in detention, and relocated to foster families or relatives’ care. Yet I also wonder: would Rogers’ political conservatism generated complication and controversy for him?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Rogers would have thought these terrible events excusable or even tolerable. I suspect he would have been appalled. Yet I can’t help but suspect that this would be complicated for him, like all of us. Would he, like many of the members of our society today, feel even slightly differently were these U.S.-born children, especially White, English-speaking children?

My point is this: Even if a person believes that they are doing good in the world, their political alliances and the narratives that support them condition their way of enacting this good. It is, ironically, this reason that supports the rise of the testing regime in this country as a means to avoid leaving any child behind. The creators and users of these tests truly believe they are helping our children. And the nativists and White chauvinists in power today truly feel that they are protecting their country. We can love, and we all should do our best to do so as inspired by Fred Rogers’ life and work, but we also must remember that to love does not mean to love blindly, universally, or without tradeoffs. 

By Rhododendrites [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

“Adjuncts: Underpaid, Overworked and Mobilizing on International Women’s Day” (article for Left Voice)

I just published an article for Left Voice, a progressive news source where several of my friends and colleagues from the GC collaborate to dig in to news that affects us as workers, students, citizens, and human beings. So proud to offer my services again! Here’s the link, and here’s the text below…


In “Living a Feminist Life,” Sarah Ahmed claims that “to become feminist is to kill other people’s joy; to get in the way of other people’s investments.” (p. 65) While suggesting a somewhat sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek tone, this line also resonates with the reality of what it is to review, resist, reject, and re-envision the structures, relationships, and histories that generate our now and our tomorrow. To become aware of our current state of affairs – and to act on this awareness, in solidarity – is to get in the way of an established way of thinking about how we define what is ethical and possible in our labor and our politics.

The International Women’s Strike, taking place this week on March 8th in demonstrations across the globe, is an example of this rising collective get-in-the-way-ness that is challenging some of our most venerated institutions and traditions. As a political strike, rather than a strike for bread and butter demands, it is asking questions that in the past have been dispersed across different groups with distinct agendas. These questions address workers’ rights, reproductive rights, immigrant rights, housing rights, even the right to mobilize ourselves, but are not limited to these areas of focus. The International Women’s Strike, writ large, is a call to action against a state of affairs that has normalized tenuous and unjust living and working conditions, a call that asks all of us to consider the ways in which our society shushes our political voice and consciousness by working us harder and harder and separating us one from another. The Strike on March 8th is, as Tithi Bhattacharya reminds us, vital to our current state of affairs because “for the first time in many, many years we are seeing questions being raised about what it means to be a worker in this country.” Bhattacharya suggests, in no uncertain terms, that it is our lived experiences as laborers, increasingly characterized by rising inequality, anxiety, and precarity, and our ability to fight back to regain our dignity and self-determination, that are at stake. We are, she claims, opening a conversation about “a wider world of better living” in the global actions on March 8th.

Such questions invoke thinking about public discourse and our national narrative. Put the phrase “U.S. worker” into Google and you get images of men in hardhats, working with large machines to produce cars, steel, buildings, roads. This reflects a default view of labor in this country which is masculinist, nationalistic, and heteropatriarchal, grounded in a narrative that locates worker rights within certain male-dominated spaces, industries, and geographies. Under such a rubric, women’s labor become ancillary, a support role, an afterthought. This doesn’t mean that women have not made great strides in labor equality, education, and political representation. Far from it. But when we think of “labor,” of “workers,” we still tend to project a very specific set of images and ideas. Other forms of work which do not conform to this narrative, and the bodies that rise to produce it, are often invisible-ized, misunderstood, devalued, denuded, depoliticized. This is the case with immigrant labor, with domestic labor, with emotional labor and other forms of un(der)compensated, unrecognized work. These work activities are usually feminized, downplayed, seen as the purview of female-bodied, Brown and Black, and/or immigrant people, yet they are in fact necessary to the successful running of the global capitalist machine. As political philosopher Nancy Fraser argues, the un-recognition and exploitation of feminized labor as an aspect of social reproduction, which perpetuates unequal social arrangements over time and space, is the “backstory” which makes capitalistic accumulation possible.

One of these subsets of feminized labor is adjunct work in higher education. Adjunct professors, lecturers, and instructors are part-time, at-will laborers who fill in the gaps created by the budget shortfalls that plague the institutions of higher education. As I stated in an article I wrote in December 2017, those of us who work in this capacity make up half of the teaching faculty in these institutions across the country, yet tend to be poorly compensated and struggle with a lack of job security as well as visibility and respect. Ironic is the fact that adjunct faculty take on important responsibilities including structuring important coursework for undergraduate and graduate students, advising and supporting these individuals, and contributing to the curricular materials and the ongoing needs of the departments where they teach. In an analog to Fraser’s discussion of how capitalistic relations require unrecognized, un(der)compensated labor to support official production activities, an argument could be made that adjunct labor is a “backstory” to the officially recognized and rewarded full-time faculty, supporting the latter’s existence by covering courses that are inconvenient and/or unstaffable at a low cost. This is, indeed, understood to be “the way things are.”

There is an affective, relational dimension to this. As adjuncts, we simply don’t “get in the way.” We are of service. Generally, we do this out of love for what we do. We are grateful to be able to support our students and our departments. But gratitude is a tricky thing. When I think about my work as an adjunct professor, I am similarly grateful to have worked with graduate students for the last three years. The majority of these individuals are public school teachers in New York City, and it brings me joy to think that my energy, my hours spent, my creativity, and my scholarship contribute directly to the health and strength of our city’s schools and the young people who attend them. So this begs the question: if I’m more often satisfied than not with this work, why would I interrogate how adjunct labor functions in the context of higher education, and dare to question on what conditions adjuncts should be working? (It should also be said that daring to do such a thing may have real consequences as to my future hireability as a full-time professor.)

I would respond to this unasked question with another question: Is it ungrateful for the teachers in West Virginia, who no doubt care deeply about their students, to be striking in demand of a pay increase and more reasonable health care premiums, an ongoing movement which is inspiring similar actions in Oklahoma and other parts of the U.S.? What about the strike by lecturers, librarians, and other workers in over 60 institutions of higher education in the U.K. for stable pensions? Is getting in the way of the marching drum of dehumanizing capitalist accumulation and progress ungrateful…or ethical, real, and just? This is also a question of history, and how we contribute to it as active members of society. The strike in the U.K. is the biggest strike in its history, as these brave individuals refuse to accept what they are calling the “casualization” of staff and challenge their consignment to future poverty. They are writing history, recognizing that the only way change can be made is if collective action can emerge to contest the inequitable, extractive conditions in which they have been working and claim new possibilities.

Is it getting in the way to ask that the way be made together? Is it getting in the way to disrupt the status quo political economic arrangements that have benefited the few on the backs of the many, especially women, people of color, immigrants, and/or other the members of the precariat, for so long? Is it getting in the way to demand that all people’s joy, all people’s investments, should comprise our present and our future? On March 8th, I will march with colleagues and friends in downtown New York. I will yell until hoarse, and I will get in the way. I would not dare to tell my students that I did anything but.

Our educational ecology: adjunct professors and our role within our communities

I was invited by Left Voice to publish a version of a speech I gave yesterday at the Graduate Center’s rally for better compensation and conditions for adjunct professors (like myself) who struggle with precarious labor conditions yet comprise the majority of labor in higher education across the country. The link to the story, entitled “Our educational ecology,” is here. My main point: Exhausted adjuncts directly influence the experiences of their own students, some of whom (like mine) work in public schools as New York City Teaching Fellows…which means our work together influences the education of our city’s kids. If this isn’t enough reason to review the unstable and stressful conditions under which we and other adjuncts work across the country work, I don’t know what is.


​Image from March 23, 1995 CUNY walkout from Slam! Herstory Project

Protesting the GOP tax bill: yet another attack on public higher education

Today I and my classmates at the Grad Center are joining forces with students from NYU and Columbia in a Walkout to protest the Republican text bill, which will tax tuition waivers and reduce our already small incomes as graduate assistants and teaching fellows. (For those of you who don’t know, adjunct professors like myself comprise over 50% of the country’s faculty, meaning that many college students today work with us.) My own grad students at City and Hunter Colleges, New York Teaching Fellows who study full-time while supporting NYC public schools, are in a similar situation. They will likewise see their incomes reduced by these cuts, painful for people many of whom are supporting families. All of this is taking place to ensure that money flows into the pockets of corporations, while the national deficit is poised to increase by over a trillion dollars.

Education is one of the central tenets of a democracy in which people contribute ideas and work together to make a better and more equitable society. This is an attack on our communities of scholarship, but also on our communities of working people with aspirations for their children to make a good life. Our institutions of higher learning stand to lose thousands of already struggling graduate students who simply cannot afford to stay and imposes a greater burden on those who do, compelling us to borrow more money to survive while working long hours as adjuncts and contributors to scholarship.

Today we marched in Union Square to protest this inhuman attack on our institutions of higher ed. We work very hard to serve our universities and our communities. It is time to stand together and fight for the rights of all students to a good education and become educated citizens in a country who must not forget us.

Is love an emotion or an act?: White nationalism as a complicating complement to Bakhtin’s philosophy

Is love an emotion or an act? I recently asked this in a student working group where we discuss topics including whether men have a right to contribute to the shaping of public discourse about sexual harassment (appropriate as the #MeToo movement has emerged to inspire and to generate new questions) and how community college students can engage as agentive, conscious scholars even as they are frequently overlooked in discussions about higher ed (see here and here). The question came from a brief paper I’d read by Beth Ferholt, a professor at CUNY’s Brooklyn College, in which she reviewed a book in 2015 about Bakhtinian concepts  (who I’ll admit I reference quite liberally) as they frame early childhood education in ambitious and creative new ways. Concepts like polyphony (the presence of multiple voices in a social context or even within an individual), authoring (the notion that each person is responsible for, and contributes to, their future-in-the-making), and answerability (an ethical claim that all people are responsible for their actions in our unique, “once occurrent being” in the world) all appear, and it’s nice to see philosophical approaches to education pave the way for new thinking. Love, according to the author, has an aesthetic (unifying) proposition in dialogic pedagogy, e.g., it is an act of lovingly being with another as this other learns.

So again, is love an emotion or an act? When I posed this question, a great starting point emerged when someone asked, “is this an either/or? Could it be both?” I wondered post facto whether it could even be a project, rather than a single experience. Intriguing and evocative for educational thinking.

This idea emerged back into my consciousness a few days ago when I read an article in Truth-out about a racially motivated and anti-immigrant attack that took place in Boston in May 2016. Characterized as a hate crime, two White men beat a Latino man with a metal bar and urinated on him. They were on record as making the following comment:

Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.

When asked about the attack, the response from President Trump was as follows:

People who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate.

A flashbulb went off in my head. I wondered: Can a love for one thing – one’s definition of country, for example, or one’s membership in a social group (which often overlap) – generate the predicate of hatred, even almost in a circular, self-sustaining way? Can this kind of love fall be an example of what Bakhtin meant? Is it possible to separate out the circumstances from the events, to challenge the inevitability of a cause-and-effect perspective in which a feeling of love and an act of hate can co-occur and, according to a White nationalist perspective, be raised to a higher value on some strange terms? To play demon’s advocate, this attack might have been less hateful in the assailants’ eyes and more a loving defense of their vision of home, country, and the way of life they see – however, myopically (sorry, my left-y side snuck in there) – is slipping away.


Piero della Francesca, Cupid Blindfolded — detail, c.1460, Basilica di San Francesco, Arezzo

Is this love? Is it love-as-act? It is also rancor, and it evokes violence as well as a dehumanization of the individual upon whom the violence was enacted. Can one make such judgment calls outside of politics? I would say yes, of course…but I wonder that these two criminals might not, however perversely it may sound, agree with me.

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.