A dream of education equality

January 16, 2012

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the effects of rampant poverty and the scapegoating of teachers are on display in the classrooms of public schools across the U.S.

I TEACH fourth grade in a public school in Brooklyn. On Friday, I wrote the initials "MLK", a plus sign, and the word "education" on the board. A boy raised his hand and said, "Do you realize that MLK plus education equals Melducation?" I decided to concede that particular point and move on.

"Think about your life here in school," I said, "What do you think needs to change?"

It didn't take my students long to come up with a good list of ideas. I wrote them down.

They wanted more "helpers" in school (meaning: more adults), no homework and more time for recess. They wanted sports teams, more arts- and science-related activities and an elevator (our classroom is on the fourth floor).

A growing body of education research supports that idea that elementary school children need, for their development, the very things that my students want.

There are profound changes taking place right now in our public education system. Unfortunately, these changes are going to mean fewer "helpers" in school, more homework and less time for recess. Our students are going to have less time for athletics and for genuine exploration of the arts and sciences.

Alongside these changes, we hear a steady drumbeat about teacher quality. The teacher, we are told again and again, is the single greatest factor in a child's educational career. A new study even claims to quantify, in lifetime earnings, the difference between "effective" teachers and "ineffective" ones.

This and other related claims, which may even at times sound like high praise for teachers, have become blunt instruments with which to beat teachers, and especially, teachers' unions.

But when we interrogate the logical threads that support this line of thinking, we realize that they cannot possibly support the weight.

Last year 2.7 million homes went into foreclosure. Are we to conclude that those mortgage holders had ineffective teachers? According to the U.S. government's own data, 5.7 million people are now among the ranks of the long-term unemployed. Was this the result of ineffective teaching methods?

The new Census data tell us that half of the people in the United States of America are officially living below the poverty line. Are we really to believe that the employers are not hiring or promoting tens of millions of people because of their fourth grade test scores?

How convenient that the mortgage lenders, the banks, the hedge funds and credit card companies, the largest employers and the politicians can cut budgets, lower taxes on themselves, bail out themselves and their associates, pay themselves handsomely in the process, throw millions out of their homes, separate millions more from gainful employment, leave millions hungrier each year, and have no meaningful effect on student achievement or on lifetime earnings.

There are more Black men under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system today than were enslaved in 1850, notes lawyer and author Michelle Alexander. How convenient for the police, judges, prison officials and politicians that only teachers are to blame.

GUIDED BY "free market" principles, the powerful have decided that schools need to be run more like businesses. They call themselves educational "entrepreneurs" and the people they hire to run schools "CEOs."

And so it's not surprising they have a nearly universal conviction that the principal obstacle to their vision of school "reform" is teachers' unions.

Their anti-union prejudice is so profound that simple, pro-child reforms cannot be seriously considered if they happen to strengthen the union. We are told, therefore, that we cannot lower class sizes. Worse, some politicians try to even say that class size doesn't matter.

We know hiring (or not) is not simply a question of budget shortfalls, because municipalities nationwide are spending tens of millions of dollars to develop new high-stakes standardized tests for more subjects, and elaborate new data systems that evaluate teachers by the test scores.

This kind of reform--essentially the raising of the stakes in standardized testing--is bad for children. It narrows the curriculum, creates tremendous pressure to teach to the test, to cheat or otherwise cut corners. Furthermore it sends a message to children and to their teachers that it's not the ability to pose questions that matters, but to answer them.

It teaches them that knowledge is not something that they can create, but something that is controlled by far away entities who can sit in judgment of their intellectual powers without ever meeting them. It discourages critical thinking, and forces teachers and students into a highly pressurized relationship where obedience to authority is paramount.

It's not good for children, but it's at the top of the reform agenda precisely because it threatens to weaken, if not break, what remaining power teachers' unions possess.

In New York City, a recent audit of 31 schools found that none of them were complying with the state mandates for physical fitness. Class sizes are high and rising. But reducing class size (having more "helpers") means hiring more union members, so it's off the table. Organizing time for physical education and sports teams means hiring or paying more unions members, so it's off the table. Funding arts and science programs means hiring more union members, so it's off the table.

New York City is spending millions to design a standardized music test, but it has never felt the same urgency to make sure every student had a music teacher. They will spend untold sums to sniff out the "ineffective" teachers, but have little to say about how to set up a teacher to be effective in the first place.

This regime of simpleminded punishments and rewards is crushing creativity, freedom, inquiry and fun...but not in all schools. In some schools, these reforms are not implemented at all.

One such school boasts on its website that the "faculty works to instill a feeling of self-worth and self-confidence in each student while also requiring that he or she recognize the needs of others. The atmosphere is relaxed and informal with a balance between freedom and discipline."

Special programs and physical education are not sacrificed to high stakes testing. "Scientific and artistic exploration as well as physical activity are important parts of the curriculum."

Helpers? They've got those, too. "All classes, with the exception of one third grade class and one fourth grade class, have team teachers. Individual class sizes range from one teacher for every 10 students in the lower grades to one teacher for every 16 students in some fourth grade classes."

These quotations are taken from the website of the Sidwell Friends School, where President Obama's children attend.

Historian Alan Singer likewise pointed out that Mayor Michael Bloomberg sent his own daughters to the exclusive Spence School where, he wrote, "the extras are not considered extra. It has six science labs, six art studios and an art history room, two music rooms, a computer lab, a photography darkroom, two gymnasiums and a fitness room, two performance spaces, two dance studios and two libraries. Spence also offers both international and domestic study programs to Upper School students."

MY STUDENTS know that being fair means treating everyone the same way. In the name of "excellence," we have lost sight of the need to demand equity. As a result, we achieve neither.

Perhaps the occasion of a day to honor Dr. King is an annual opportunity for us to remind ourselves that another politics is possible.

King argued that fairness meant going beyond equality and toward the concept of reparations. "It is," he wrote, "however, important to understand that giving a man his due may often mean giving him special treatment...A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him."

Whereas our current leaders impose budget cuts on public schools, try to figure out new ways to fire teachers and increase class sizes, King argued not just for equality of resources, but for the resources afforded poor children to exceed those of the rich: "Much more money has to be spent on education of the children of the poor; the rate of increase in expenditures for the poor has to be much greater than for the well-off if the children of the poor are to catch up."

Whereas our current leaders see unions as the problem, King saw them as an essential part of the solution. King, we should remember, literally died fighting for public-sector unions--specifically the sanitation workers of Memphis.

King was not blind to the racist history of America's unions. Still, he was convinced that the future of African Americans was bound up with that of the labor movement. "Negroes," he wrote, "who are almost wholly a working people, cannot be casual toward the union movement." Conversely, he argued elsewhere, "the enemies of the Negro are the enemies of labor."

Whereas our current political leaders are wedded to "free market" solutions, Dr. King explicitly challenged the logic of profit. At the end of his life, Dr. King argued for a profound "revolution of values."

"When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people," he wrote in the book Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, "the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

"A nation that continues year after year to spend more and more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift," he said, "is approaching spiritual death."

Augmenting the words of his famous speech against the Vietnam War, he continued:

America, the richest and powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing to prevent us from paying adequate wages to schoolteachers, social workers and other servants of the public to insure that we have the best available personnel in these positions which are charged with the responsibility of guiding our future generations. There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer. There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum--and livable--income for every American family.

Unfortunately, that kind of vision is not on offer in the coming election. Dr. King would probably be disappointed, but not shocked by that fact. He remained, after all, an activist, not a politician. We may not be able to vote for King's dream, but we sure can fight for it.

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