The wrong reforms for our schools

March 11, 2013

New York City educator and activist Brian Jones looks at the stakes in the battle against the corporate school deformers, in this article based on a speech he delivered at a March 6 meeting on "Fighting for the Schools Our Children Deserve," sponsored by the Harlem branch of the International Socialist Organization.

WE ARE in a critical situation. Public education is under a sustained attack, and in some cities--New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia--it is ceasing to exist as we have known it. The idea that schools should be "run like a business" has taken hold, and even those who are in charge of public education seem hell-bent on turning it into a system governed not by the logic of teaching and learning, but by the imperatives of the free market.

Many of us are critics of public education and defenders of its public nature. We're critical because the schools, as they exist, are, in many places, not the schools that our children deserve.

In too many ways, too many of our schools still resemble factories--an inheritance from the last business craze in education--roughly 100 years ago. On top of that, we have tremendous inequality of resources and funding--disparities which nearly always correlate with race and socioeconomic status. In my chapter of the book Education and Capitalism, I wrote about the ways African American families have fought for education for hundreds of years in the face of institutional racism.

Parents and students showed their support for striking Chicago teachers at huge rallies
Chicago teachers challenged the politicians' prescription for high-stakes testing and other corporate reform measures

In the 1960s, progressive educational ideals--constructivism, child-centered learning--made a comeback in American education. That's not surprising, since something special was happening in the 1960s: Millions of Americans--through organizing, marching, protesting and civil disobedience--forced the larger society to question racism, work, poverty, sexism, homophobia and war.

Naturally, when masses of people decide that the world as it is cannot be tolerated, they do not accept education that aims to adjust their children to the world as it is. They seek an education system that can help their children to challenge the world, and that teaches them to question the world, to criticize the world, to see beyond it, and to develop their intellectual and creative powers so that they may be prepared to change it.

We don't have an earth-shaking movement like that today. In fact, I think we can reasonably say that the absence of such a powerful movement is the essential pre-requisite for this business-oriented takeover of public schools.

I don't think of this as some kind of nefarious conspiracy. Every society in history has to reproduce itself. Most societies have done so through the family and the workplace--which for most of human history was the same thing. But in capitalism, we have developed a separate, formal institution for preparing young people: school. If the factory model is the template for the way all work is organized, it's just unthinkable that school wouldn't prepare young people for factories.

Today, in a growing number of workplaces, your productivity is tracked by elaborate digital "real-time" data systems. And so it's totally reasonable to today's capitalists that schools should be governed by data--in order to establish at the earliest possible ages the importance of measured productivity for each and every soul.

So even though we know that sustained imaginative play is the work of early childhood, now, even 3 and 4 year olds are going to have to demonstrate measurable progress in academic skills or they can be held back, their pre-K can be closed down, and their teachers forced to find other jobs.

Of course, profiteering is a factor. The Wall Street Journal rejoiced when the Common Core State Standards were announced because it understood that this was going to be a windfall for Pearson and other test-making companies. Instead of having to tailor their tests to the various standards of various states, they could now sell the same product to every state.

One of the architects of the Standards, David Coleman, says that kids need to read less fiction and write fewer personal narratives because "[A]s you grow up in this world, you realize people really don't give a shit about what you feel or what you think."

THE GOOD news is that a growing number of parents, teachers, and students disagree--and are getting wise to what this is all about. Certainly, the growth of high-stakes standardized testing is one of the most odious aspects of corporate education reform and a big reason why more people are developing a critical consciousness.

In Seattle, a group of teachers unanimously voted to refuse to administer a standardized test. They risked their jobs, but won so much support from parents, students and community members that the superintendent was put in a position where it has been impossible to punish them, at least so far.

Even more dramatic was the Chicago Teachers Union strike last September, which showed how a group of teachers could take on corporate education reform and live to talk about it. Importantly, the teachers boldly proclaimed the "apartheid" nature of the school system in Chicago--race and class were the primary factors in which schools had libraries and which ones didn't, which schools had science labs, which schools had arts and so on.

The teachers pointed out that while Democratic Party officials like Mayor Rahm Emanuel like to prescribe high-stakes testing, data-driven teacher evaluations, school closings and charter schools for our kids, they send their own children to schools that look entirely different.

In fact, minus their inherent elitism, the nation's private schools are often repositories of many of the best practices in education: child-centered learning, inquiry-based units of study, assessments that are organic to the learning process and so on.

The Sidwell Friends School, which President Obama's daughters attend, doesn't focus on standardized test scores, but on the role of the individual as a thoughtful, responsible member of a community. The school's website says: "For more than 25 years, Lower School students have developed and written their own monthly Queries for consideration of the community. For example: 'Do you have the courage to stand up to your friends when they are not being fair and just to others?' --Second Grade"

Interestingly, the very things that we've been saying our schools desperately need are the very things that the rich insist on in their schools: more resources; rich curriculum, not just reading and math; experienced teachers, not just grinding through newbies; and small class sizes.

Here are the student/teacher ratios in the Sidwell Friends School:

Pre-K: 11 to 1
Kindergarten through 2nd grade: 12 to 1
3rd and 4th grade: 12 to 1
5th and 6th grade: 16 to 1
7th and 8th grade: 12 to 1
9th through 12th grade: 13 to 1 (varies)

Similarly, the Spence School, where New York City Mayor Bloomberg sent his daughters, has 17 students per class in elementary grades and 14 per class in middle school and high school.

When it comes to meeting our students' basic needs, they claim there's no money. But when it comes to data-gathering, there's a blank check.

New York City is going to spend $32 million to pay Pearson to develop more tests over the next five years. Meanwhile, in 2011, the New York City comptroller audited a sampling of 31 schools from all five boroughs and found that not a single school was providing enough physical education to students. Every single school audited was out of compliance with the minimum state requirements for physical education.

Bloomberg would never tolerate that state of affairs for his own children. For just 700 students, the Spence School has:

- 6 science labs
- 6 art studios
- 2 music rooms
- 1 computer lab
- 1 darkroom
- 2 gyms
- 2 performance spaces
- 2 dance studios
- 2 libraries

SO WHEN we're talking about the schools our children deserve, for starters, we'll take what they have. If it's good enough for their children, it's good enough for ours.

And if they ask how to pay for it, we'll tell them: end the sweetheart contracts with Pearson, Wireless Generation and the rest of the edu-vultures; start collecting rent from the charter schools operating for free in public buildings; and end the contract with Teach for America. The tens of millions of dollars currently being wasted on data systems, data-gathering and six-figure salaries for data analysts would be much better spent in our classrooms.

As we discuss this, they are literally developing standardized music tests, but they have not even made sure that every child has a music teacher.

I heard a woman who's been involved with high-level education policy discussions defend the Common Core's de-emphasis of personal narratives because, she argued, that's not the kind of writing people need to do in college. At the end of her presentation, a teacher who opposed the Common Core standards asked her if she, as a teacher, could really do anything to influence policy. This same woman said that the most powerful thing a teacher could do to influence policy would be to speak to lawmakers directly and tell a specific story about how these policies affect her classroom.

So, without realizing it, the defender of Common Core argued that personal narratives weren't important for "college and career readiness"--but if you're setting out to change the world, personal narratives are the most powerful thing you've got.

If we let the corporations organize education, it will be an education that's about fitting our children into their workplaces--into the narrow vision of working life that they have in store for the next generation.

The schools our children deserve would prepare them to do more than function in the world as it is. They would prepare kids to develop their intellectual and creative powers so that they are truly equipped to change the world. David Coleman is probably right that employers don't give a shit about what our kids think and feel. But we do, and our children deserve schools that do, too.

First published at No Struggle, No Progress.

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