Thursday, October 16, 2014

A PUBLIC Education Nation in Brooklyn

Last Saturday, the Network for Public Education held a PUBLIC Education Nation at the Brooklyn New School with a live feed at that is being archived. Four impressive panel discussions preceded a final conversation between Diane Ravitch, whose blog has surpassed 15 million views since its inception two years ago, and Jitu Brown. A growing network of bloggers met prior to the event to strategize and discuss next steps. Organizer Anthony Cody intentionally, in contrast to past versions of NBC’s Education Nation, made prominent the voices of parents, teachers, and students accompanied by scholars, writers, union and community activists. Although it was not easy to sit in a hard auditorium chair for five hours, the enthusiastic audience energized the proceedings with applause, questions and insightful comments. Also providing a boost were the countless people on Twitter who kept #PublicEdNation trending at the top all afternoon.

Superstar principal from Long Island, Carol Corbett Burris, led the first panel discussion on high stakes testing and the Common Core. A parent of a third grader from the Brooklyn New School, Takiema Bunche Smith, began with the litany of problems for early childhood with barely a pause to ask, “Are you sad yet? I’m sad.” She made the good point that our deeply flawed public education system makes it vulnerable to “shiny, bright” ideas that are potentially harmful to children. The current singular focus on the new standards also obscures other important issues such as class size. In the elementary schools I visit regularly in the Bronx I am seeing the lower grades with 28 or more students, and in some cases, more than the legal number of children with special needs. Victoria Frye recently wrote of similar overcrowding in Washington Heights. 

The next speaker was Rosa Rivera-McCutchen, a former Bronx high school humanities and history teacher and currently an assistant professor at CUNY’s Lehman College, who prepares school leaders for the considerable challenges they face in these times of high stakes accountability. Drawing on the framework for facing troubling policies eloquently laid out by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Rivera-McCutchen argued that school leaders have to not only examine the intentions, outcomes, and impact on stakeholders of the flawed policies. In the self-purification step described by King, they must also consider their own complicity in perpetuating oppression through tacit continued support of the flawed policies that contribute to the harm being done. She further argued that those with more privilege and social capital have to question if their acts of resistance will extend to other communities and provide the necessary advocacy work in socio-political realms for all school communities, which requires careful examination of the power dynamics at work. She said principals in the Bronx are somewhat skeptical about joining the efforts of those in the opt-out resistance movement for they fear the very real political and even economic consequences that might result from resisting.

Her words struck a hard truth that resistance itself can reproduce the same inequities it is arguing against. I was reminded of when Principal Elizabeth Phillips wrote an elegant op-ed last spring in the New York Times about problems with the new tests yet seemed on the defensive when bragging about her school’s performance and enthusiastic support for the Common Core. “It truly was shocking to look at the exams in third, fourth and fifth grade and to see that they were worse than ever. We felt as if we’d been had.” You can’t embrace Common Core and oppose the tests, for the two go hand-in-hand in terms of their destructive impact on low-income communities. As Dr. McCutchen cautioned, we must all move beyond self-interest to consider all communities and shield the most vulnerable from additional harm. Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin described non-violent resistance by explaining, “The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we have to tuck them in places so the wheels don’t turn.” Yet job insecurity, contractual obligations, and fear of destructive consequences keep most teachers quiet and compliant. I feel this conflict on a daily basis in my work as a teacher educator. On the one hand, I have to prepare my students at Mercy College for the certification exams, including the burdensome and thoroughly problematic edTPA (see my previous posts), while on the other making them aware of the harmful effects of these new policies. As I sat in the auditorium listening I couldn’t help wondering: How do you stop the turning wheels of a jumbo jet that has taken off?

Other speakers offered messages of hope and possibility, calling for building awareness in communities, speaking out, standing up for the values that fuel a healthy democracy, while some provided harsh reminders of just how bad things can get. Tanaisa Brown, a student activist from Newark, described a school principal telling students to choose either breakfast or lunch, because there wasn’t enough money for both, and while money goes to more metal detectors, the schools take away dance, art, music to chain and constrain. Later Diane Ravitch reminded us that you can’t live without music, it’s human instinct to sing and dance. Edwin Mayorga of Swarthmore College tweeted in response to panelist Professor Yohuru Williams,

Tanaisa Brown has bravely protested in Newark against the powerful Governor Chris Christie and Superintendent Cami Anderson by creating a human chain a month ago to block Broad Street (see here for the story and photos). Nevertheless, Anderson said Tuesday that her heavily criticized One Newark plan will move forward, and even expand, while parents, teachers, and students held a town hall meeting to grow the protest and publicize the federal investigation through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened last spring. Tanaisa said the Christie and Anderson rhetoric of believing in order to fix a flower you have to uproot it is obviously not true: “You have to water it!”

Even more ominous were the tales of woe in post-Katrina New Orleans described in heartbreaking detail by parent activist Karran Harper Royal, who said that nearly all schools in her city are charters: “We are like the canary in the coalmine and the canary has died.” Phyllis Tashlik, the Director of the Center for Inquiry for the New York Performance Standards Consortium, posed the question, “Why do we have to plea for social studies? We are at the point of absurdity!” Jitu Brown spoke with passion and conviction that this is not merely an intellectual fight, but a spiritual one where livelihoods and promises are shattered, and children’s lives are lost due to negligence and indifference. Diane Ravitch responded that the hypocrisy of the so-called reformers to say they are civil rights leaders is what fuels her anger and keeps her going. She wants to shout back at them, “No, you are not, you are hurting people!” As a historian, she closed by pointing out that we are currently living in unprecedented times, because public education in the past has always been seen as a public responsibility. Now we see a movement funded by foundations and billionaires to eliminate public education in our cities with the political backing of the federal and state governments that are enabling this privatization and profit-making scam.

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