Wayne Au, editor of Rethinking Schools and co-editor of Pencils Down: Rethinking High-Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools, writes of the book, Badass Teachers Unite: “In this powerful collection of essays, education activist and historian Mark Naison offers teachers, parents, students and anyone else concerned with the health of public schools in this country some invaluable tools in the fight against corporate education ‘reform.’ Badass Teachers Unite is a clarion call for all of us to reclaim public education in the name of social justice.”
Naison’s broadside attack on the co-opting of public schools is in the same vein as Jose Vilson’s This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class and Education (previously featured as a Truthout Progressive Pick).
Education Reformers and the New Jim Crow
If somebody told me 15 years ago, when I was spending many of my days working with community groups in the Bronx and East New York, dealing with the consequences of the crack epidemic, that you could solve the problems of neighborhoods under siege by insulating students in local schools from the conditions surrounding them and by devoting every ounce of teachers’ energies to raising their test scores, I would have said, “What planet are you living on?” Students were bringing the stresses of their daily lives into the classroom in ways that no teacher with a heart could ignore, and these stresses created obstacles to concentrating in school, much less completing homework. People living in middle-class communities couldn’t imagine these forces. To be effective in getting students to learn, teachers had to be social workers, surrogate parents, and neighborhood protectors, as well as people imparting skills. At times, the interpersonal dimensions of their work were more important than the strictly instructional components.
The leaders of the education reform movement, from Secretary Arne Duncan – to the head of Teach for America, to Michelle Rhee, to the heads of almost every urban school system – regard discussions of neighborhood conditions as impediments to the quest to achieve educational equity and demand that teachers shut out the conditions they are living in. Teachers must now inspire, prod and discipline their charges to achieve results on standardized tests that match those of their middle-class counterparts living in more favorable conditions.
The position they are taking, that schools in depressed areas can be radically improved without doing anything to improve conditions in the neighborhoods they are located in, flies in the face of the common sense of anyone who lives or works in such communities, so much so that it represents a form of collective madness! The idea that an entire urban school system (not a few favored schools) can be uplifted strictly through school-based reforms, such as eliminating teacher tenure or replacing public schools with charter schools, without changing any of the conditions driving people further into poverty is contrary to anyone’s lived experience and has in fact, never been accomplished anywhere in the world. Let me break down for you what the no excuses approach to school reform means in commonsense terms.
Basically, reformers propose to raise test scores and radically improve graduation rates in urban school systems without doing anything to:
1. Reduce homelessness, residential instability and housing overcrowding as factors in student’s lives.
2. Deal with hunger, poor diet and obesity as factors impeding education performance.
3. Challenge racial profiling and police violence in student’s lives, not only in their neighborhoods, but in the schools.
4. Deal with unemployment, underemployment and wage compression as factors in the lives of students and their families.
5. Deal with the impact of the prison industrial complex on students and their families, particularly the psychic and economic stress of having close relatives in prison and having them be unemployable when they return.
6. Deal with the trauma of domestic violence and peer violence as it impacts students’ lives and their educational performance.
7. Deal with the way students are profiled by police, store owners, and ordinary citizens when they leave their neighborhoods and go into downtown business districts or middle-class neighborhoods.
Essentially, reformers are asking everyone involved with schools in underresourced communities, especially teachers and administrators, to block out all the conditions that Michelle Alexander has highlighted in her book The New Jim Crow. Not only will this approach fail miserably, it gives a free pass to economic and political elites whose policies helped create the very conditions that lock people into poverty.
No wonder billionaires love these policies. It takes the onus off of them for concentrating so much of the nation’s wealth in the top 1% of the population. No wonder politicians love it. It absolves them of responsibility for building the largest prison system in the industrialized world, filling it with poor people and people of color, and creating huge police forces and drug enforcement policies that assure such prisons are filled.
Essentially, current school reform policies represent a brilliant tactic to avoid dealing with the real causes of poverty and inequality in society, while finding a convenient scapegoat in public school teachers and their unions. These policies are transparent, ill considered and immoral. And over time, people in the communities most targeted by these reforms will rise up in protest.
Copyright of Mark Naison (2014). Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Haymarket Books.