Back to School: An Interview With Bill Ayers

Back to School: An Interview With Bill Ayers

As the 2010-2011 school year grumbled to a start – and millions of public school students settled into overcrowded, underfunded, under-resourced classrooms – I sat down in Chicago with education theorist and activist Bill Ayers to discuss true democracy, false reform and his latest book (co-authored with cartoonist Ryan Alexander-Tanner), “To Teach: The Journey in Comics.” In an educational culture increasingly permeated by top-down marketplace values, Ayers, who taught primary school for years, still believes in the possibility of a schooliverse where every teacher is respected and every student is valued as a full human being, where collaborative learning and growth trump the school-eat-school “Race to the Top.” And by the end of our conversation, I did, too.

Maya Schenwar: In “To Teach,” you talk about how a good school is defined by good teachers. What do you think of this practice that’s been circling the country, of “reconstituting” schools and firing all the teachers? Does that logic work?

Bill Ayers: Not at all – not even close. We’re living in the darkest times for teachers that I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s hard to fully understand how the conversation about what makes a robust, vital education for citizens in a democracy has degraded to the point where the frame of the whole discussion is that teachers are the problem. It’s true that good schools are places where good teachers gather, but there’s another piece to that: Good teachers need to be protected to teach, supported to teach, put into relationships with one another – and with the families of the kids – so that they can teach.

The attack on teachers is a classic example of what [cognitive linguist George] Lakoff calls “framing.” We’re hearing from every politician and editorial board in the land – including The New York Times and The Washington Post and The New Yorker – that we need to get the lazy, incompetent teachers out of the classroom. And everyone, including you and me, nods stupidly. Because what am I going to say? “My granddaughter deserves that lazy, incompetent teacher!” They’re getting the conclusion that they want by framing the question as a statement. So there’s only one answer; no one can take the other side of that proposition. But what if I got to the podium first and said, “Every kid in America deserves an intellectually grounded, morally committed, compassionate, caring, intelligent, thoughtful, well-rested and well-paid teacher in the classroom”? We’d agree with that, too! So, who gets to say what we’re talking about?

There’s always been a contest in this country between the notion of the public and the notion of the private individual. This is in our DNA: the struggle between a kind of radical individualism – that cowboy, pioneer, explorer mentality – and the idea of the common good. And this is fought out constantly. Since 1980, a sustained attack has been going on against the very idea of the public – that nothing public is useful or good, including the schools.

In the past five years, that attack on public education has ratcheted up to dimensions that were unthinkable 30 years ago. And so people talk about the public schools in a way that is disingenuous and dishonest – and also frightening in its characterization: they say the schools are run by a group of self-interested, selfish, undertrained, undercommitted teachers, who have a union that protects them.

An example: The New Yorker does a profile of a thing called the “rubber room” – a space in the central office where people who are judged incompetent to teach are awaiting adjudication under the contract. Remember, the contract doesn’t only belong to the union, even though in The New Yorker and in the New York Times editorials, it’s as if the contract is all the union – the school board is also party to the contract; they negotiated it! Anyway, The New Yorker profiles 15 teachers – and I have to admit, just like everyone else, it was lip-smackingly interesting to read about these very, very crazy people; how fun! But there were 15 of them, in this system of tens of thousands. Why is that what we’re focused on? It’s because a case is being built that somehow teachers and their unions are the whole cause of the misery.

What they’re ignoring in all of these examples is the reality of poverty. They’re ignoring the reality of lots and lots and lots of Americans who do not have a living wage. And if you want to change what’s going on in schools, you have to realize that. We’d do more for education with a full-employment economy with a living wage than anything anyone can do by tinkering with the schools and firing teachers.

[Washington, DC, Chancellor of Education] Michelle Rhee got a cover story in Time Magazine right after Obama’s election. She’s the poster child for what they’re calling “reform.” The pivotal paragraph in that story says, “In the year and a half she’s been on the job, Rhee has made more changes than most school leaders make in five years.” It said she’d fired 36 principals, closed 21 schools, fired 270 teachers. Not a word about connecting the schools to their communities. Not a word about teacher retention. Not a word about the curriculum. Not a word about bringing resources to the starving system. She’s a “reformer” because she’s doing what the bosses of Enron did to Enron. That’s ridiculous! A school is not like a business, and the market metaphor that’s dominating the conversation actually misses everything important about schools.

This is the real tragedy for teachers: Education is like love. You can give it all away and still have plenty. You can share all the knowledge you have and not lose anything – except if you’re in a system where one school is being judged against another school, one classroom against another classroom, one state against another state. Well, then – I’m not giving you my shit. You go ahead and struggle on your own, because you and I are in a vicious fight for the Race to the Top money, for teacher jobs, for everything. That’s a catastrophe for the reality of how teaching is done at its best.

I speak to young teacher groups all the time, and I often start by asking, “Are any of you going into teaching because you think you’ll get rich?” And they laugh. And then I say, “Are any of you thinking you’ll have the overwhelming respect of your community?” They laugh again. And then they tell me, “My parents, my brother, my sister, my partner all told me not to teach.” So I say, “Why are you gonna do it? What’s wrong with you?” And what’s “wrong” with them is a desire to do moral work in an immoral world. Yet, we’re putting a stake in their hearts.

MS: And it’s all about “fixing” the schools …

BA: Right. If you read any of these stories about education – about KIPP [Knowledge Is Power Program], about Teach for America, about charter schools – all of [the media] have drunk the Kool-Aid on this ideological question of how to fix the schools. An example: There was a story in The New York Times after the recent Race to the Top competition. They say that Race to the Top is having a great effect on reform, even for those states that don’t get it. What’s the evidence? The “evidence” is that more schools have gone private, that the union is being crushed. That’s the proof of reform!

In a New Yorker story on [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan, the writer says that in the world of school reform, there are two camps. One is the radical “reformers” who want to privatize everything; the other is those who defend the status quo. Really? I haven’t seen one person defend the status quo! But that is the way the discussion is divided – there’s not another side. So, my book “To Teach” from 20 years ago, and also the comic book, are an attempt to enter into this discussion on the side of teachers.

In the movie “Waiting for Superman,” there’s a cartoon aside that shows “how learning happens.” They show the top of a kid’s head being sawed off, and knowledge pouring in – and then the teachers’ union and the bureaucrats come in and stop it. So, I’m arguing that learning is something quite different – and that a smart teacher is on a journey of discovery and exploration with the kids.

MS: How do you encourage that type of teaching on a national policy level? If you were Arne Duncan, what would you do?

BA: You have to start with the premises of a democracy. If you think about Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, medieval Saudi Arabia, apartheid South Africa, every one of those countries had educational systems that wanted their kids to show up on time, learn their subject matter, stay away from drugs, not get pregnant. We all want the same things, except, in a democracy – at least theoretically – you also want to base your educational system on a profound democratic premise: the incalculable value of every human being. That means that the savage inequalities in the education are an affront to democracy. All the systems I mentioned – Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia – along with math and science and phys ed and music, they wanted obedience and conformity, and they taught it relentlessly. That’s why you can have a Germany or an Italy or a South Africa that produced brilliant scientists and brilliant artists, and also produced a culture that could march people into the ovens. You can have an educated population that is morally blind.

Theoretically, we’d want something different in a democracy. Along with math, science, music and phys ed, we’d want you to develop a mind of your own – to learn initiative, courage, imagination, curiosity.

Back to the Arne Duncan question: I’d make it very clear that the standard we have for public education in this country is a standard of excellence and equity. I would use the bully pulpit to say that all kids should be able to have the education that my kids had and that the Obama kids had. I’m not going to impose it – but I’m going to say that that’s what we’re aspiring to as a minimum: small classes; dedicated, unionized teachers; well-resourced classrooms; encouragement of curiosity.

Secondly, I would keep the military out of the schools. The military bases itself on following orders, and education should base itself on initiating and being courageous – and not necessarily following orders. Education is about asking the queer questions. So, no recruitment, no ROTC, no JROTC. In the cabinet meetings, I’d say, “Secretary Gates, get your fucking hands off the schools.”

Next, I would initiate the Septima Clark Ella Baker Teacher Corps. That would be a funded attempt – using the stimulus money – to hire unemployed people, mothers, community members as aides, as trainees, as literacy coaches. Get everybody in the schools, and spend money to do that. Because if we’ve got a class size of 35 in the second grade, I at least want community members in there, helping the teachers out.

Next, I’d initiate a gigantic, messy, national conversation that would take place in every neighborhood, every barrio, every ghetto of every city and every town, to raise the questions: “What knowledge and experiences are most valuable? What makes someone an educated person? How do we make that knowledge and experience accessible to all students?” That’s not the business of Bill Gates; that’s the business of all of us.

I would also invest in teachers. I’d turn the conversation from disrespect to respect. One of the ways I’d do that: every teacher, every five years, would get a one-semester sabbatical. They’d get to take free courses, organize their own courses, travel, like college professors do. There has to be a sabbatical, because teaching is that kind of work – it’s exhausting on every level. Also, I’d create a system of mentoring, in which every teacher would have a partner and a coach. Not just young teachers. That way we create conditions for horizontal rather than vertical staff development: I learn from you, you learn from me. I want that to be the culture of the schools; not “racing to the top.” That horizontal development is what we need for democracy.

MS: What about test scores? You’ve written about how, not only are they invasive and interfering with learning, but they’re also ineffective for assessment. So, what can we do to assess kids in a way that will actually work?

BA: This goes back to what I was saying about investing in teachers. There are lots of assessments that work. You have to start with the idea that as a second-grade teacher, which I was for years, my interest is how to get these kids to read more and read better. I’m thinking, how do I take them from where they are to a deeper and wider way of knowing? That’s my goal as a second-grade teacher. As a policy guy standing above it, I’d have a very different goal: ranking these kids from winners to losers.

Whatever we do in assessment ought to link back to the teacher, to allow her or him to do a better job. So, what we want is assessment that helps us teach, not assessment that says, “you win, you lose.”

As I argue in the book, we need to do portfolio assessments. My nephew graduated from Central Park East High School in New York, a public experimental school in Harlem. In order to graduate from that high school, he had to put together a portfolio that included his grades and test scores, but those were just two out of 15 items. It also included an original essay, an original piece of art, a physical challenge that he’d set for himself as a freshman, a critique of a piece of public art, a record of community service, an internship, a work-study plan projected five years hence, and more – 15 items. And then he sat down with his adviser, a family member, a friend, the principal and a teacher that he picked, and defended his portfolio. Now that’s assessment – in the hands of teachers, close to the kid, close to the family, close to the community. That can help to make an educated person.

If you start with the premise that each person is of incalculable value, it must mean that the full development of each kid in the school is the condition for the full development of everyone. And the full development of everyone is the condition for the full development of each kid. If you start with that idea, you end up with that type of assessment – rather than a punitive, top-down system where you rank kids on a scale, then tell some that they’re going to the unemployment lines and the prisons.

Another thing that I get into in the book, about assessment: there’s no such thing as a “normal third-grader” or a “normal three-year-old.” There are three-year-olds who read, and there are three-year-olds who pee in their pants and there are three-year-olds who pee in their pants while reading. The range of people [in an age group] is vast – in terms of capacities, in terms of thoughtfulness, in terms of health – so the idea that you can say, “third-graders must be this way” is bullshit. What we ought to do is have support for teachers, small classrooms, a range of activities and a range of ways to succeed, with the goal of challenging kids to move from where they are to deeper and wider ways of knowing, being and experiencing.

MS: I loved the description in the comic book of Chicago public high school Lawndale Little Village, and how that school came about. Can you talk a little bit about how a school like that can emerge, through grassroots activism?

BA: Well, it started when a group of mothers got fed up with the overcrowding at their kids’ schools, and said, “You know what? We’re gonna sit in.” So they [staged a] sit-in. It became an electrifying moment in the city. Mayor Daley was furious. Then [former Chicago Public Schools CEO] Paul Vallas went down there and scolded them. He said, “Don’t do this! This is ridiculous.” But he said it in such a nasty, patronizing way that when they showed it on the news, it must have really infuriated Daley – Vallas was gone within a week. Arne Duncan came in, and his first act was to meet with them and give them their school. So, this is activism with bite, with punch.

And then, these mothers were no-bullshit: They started meeting with [local education experts] and investigating what makes a good school. I remember going to one of the meetings in the neighborhood, and the mothers had just come back from visiting North Side Prep and New Trier [two very well-funded Chicago-area schools], and they were reporting back. They described the gym, the auditorium, the Olympic swimming pool. I said, “Why do you want an Olympic swimming pool?” And they said, “Because we want whatever the other kids get. We don’t want our kids to get less.” And in a democracy, that’s what it should be.

MS: It’s funny. School is where you’re first absorbing this national message – that we live in a democracy where everyone has equal opportunity. But school is also where people are experiencing some of the most obvious inequalities.

BA: That’s right. The New Yorker did a puff piece on Arne Duncan, and it points out that the Obama children and Arne Duncan himself (and, parenthetically, my children) all went to the University of Chicago Lab School. At the Lab School, they had a class size limit of 15. And how did they get that? A union contract.

So Arne Duncan, the Obama kids and my kids went to a school with a class size of 15, a well-respected union and a curriculum that’s based at least in part on following kids’ interests and curiosities. When the Obamas went to Washington, anyone who knew the Obamas and knew the scene in DC knew the kids would go to Sidwell Friends, and that’s where they went – class size of 15, well-respected unionized teacher corps, curriculum based at least in part on kids following their interests. Now if that’s good enough for the Obamas and Arne Duncan, why are those things not even part of the discussion about what’s good enough for the west side of Chicago?

I’m not such an idealist that I think we could get there tomorrow, but right now, class size is not even on the table. In Chicago, second-graders can have a class of 35, because of the budget. That’s 20 more than the Obama kids get! And does that make a difference in terms of educational outcomes, as well as teacher morale and capacity? Of course it does – I’ve been in classrooms; I know there’s a difference between 15 and 20, let alone 35.

John Dewey said it brilliantly: He said that whatever the best and most privileged parents have for their kids should be the baseline for what we want for all kids. Anything less undermines our democracy.