Students Should Be Creative Innovators, Not Force-Fed Consumers of Status-Quo Knowledge

2014 828 naisonMark Naison. (Photo: Haymarket Books)Make a contribution Truthout and receive the book Badass Teachers Unite by clicking here.

The following is an interview with Badass Teachers Unite author Mark Naison:

Mark Karlin: As the excerpt from Badass Teachers Unite, Truthout chose a section you wrote called “Education Reformers and the New Jim Crow.” You make the case in just two pages that the ruling elites are pushing privatization of schools by ignoring the social and economic realities surrounding many students of color and limited economic means. Can you elaborate?

Mark Naison: Much of what is in this piece comes from my perceptions of how Bloomberg-era school reform affected Bronx schools. When the Bloomberg administration decided to give letter grades to schools in 2007, largely based on student test scores, and followed it up by closing large numbers of Bronx public schools and replacing them with charters, one of the consequences was to drive out the community history projects I was doing in more than 20 Bronx schools. Public schools, fearing closure, now had no time for anything but test prep, and the charters had no interest in community history. It became clear to me, watching this happen, that the Bloomberg DOE had no interest in drawing upon the Bronx community’s history and traditions as a source of inspiration and strength

There was also no room in school reform, Bloomberg style, for social justice pedagogy. During the last four years of the Bloomberg mayoralty, Bronx residents, especially young people, were up in arms about stop and frisk and the militarized policing that had descended upon Bronx neighborhoods. There were scores of protests and meetings in the borough, but schools were not actively participating in these protests, even though their students were those most affected. There was no attempt to link the most important social policy affecting young people in the Bronx to what was going on in the classroom. That to me symbolized school reform policies that aimed to insulate schools in low-income communities from the problems their residents faced, rather than have schools actively engage with those problems and help solve them.

Of three parts of the book, you devote the second to “youth issues and student activism.” You also state on page 138 that it’s time to transform into “liberated zones where teachers, students, and parents can talk freely about” how to improve their schools and empower their neighborhoods. What is the role of students in the battle for strong public schools and fighting back against the wealthy, primarily white, funders of privatization of education?

Unless students are empowered to help shape their own educations, and use their skills and energy to fight for justice and make their neighborhoods better places to live, there will be little progress in solving the nation’s most pressing problems or reversing the obscene concentration of wealth at the top layers of our society. We need to go back to the activism of the ’60s, where young people took the lead in fighting for civil rights and transforming their own schools. Black studies programs, including the one I teach in, were created by student protests, and it was students who forced changes in curriculum from the University on down to include the contributions of women and people of color. Current reform policies transform students into passive, obedient consumers of status quo knowledge packaged in a form that can be easily tested. We need to encourage students to go back to being creators, innovators and makers of history.

You write of public school teachers who “deserve respect and support, not contempt.” You also state “the persistence of all sides of the spectrum to blame teachers for the persistence of poverty in the United States.” Isn’t the relationship to public schools in need of resources in their communities – and in their schools – reflected by the fact that there are almost no charter schools of any kind in wealthy US suburbs, even those with unionized teachers?

School Reform in the US is policy made by elites for “other people’s children.” Not only are there no charter schools in wealthy communities, but there are no common core aligned tests in the expensive private schools that most politicians and business leaders send their children to. The most powerful people in the country blame teachers for problems not of their making and impose “bitter medicine” in poor communities that they would never inflict on their own children. It is rank hypocrisy.

Obviously, you are critical of the ongoing effort through both the Bush and Obama administrations to educate students to achieve high test results, which you call “coercion.” Why is putting such a lopsided emphasis on educating students to perform well on standardized tests so counter-productive to a vibrant, successful educational experience?

Here’s the problem. The way both administrations, especially the Obama administration, have tried to raise test scores is to rate teachers and schools on the basis of test results and penalize them for poor results, even if as some observers have said, up to 80 percent of the contributing influences on test results are things that happen out of school. And what are the results of this? In low- and moderate-income communities, teachers do nothing but teach to the test, crowding out all creativity and spontaneity and making people hate school. Worse yet, in some schools in high-poverty neighborhoods ( and this has taken place all over the Bronx), gym and recess are used for test prep, putting students’ health in jeopardy and magnifying already severe obesity problems. The result of this data-mad approach is that young people in high-needs communities hate going to school and teachers hate teaching in them.

Tell us a bit more about “what is lost when teaching as a lifetime call is undermined.”

Huge amounts of money have been invested in a program called Teach for America, which puts talented young people into low performing schools, with only five weeks training, and then allows them to leave after two years, Why aren’t we trying to train talented young people to become “Teachers for Life.” The program not only is guilty of unconscionable experimentation on the children of the poor, it reeks with contempt for the teaching profession by encouraging people to use a trial teaching experience as a stepping stone into careers in law, business, or shaping education policy. We are now at a point where the best teachers – and indeed all teachers – are leaving the profession in droves. Students learn best when they can stay in touch with their teachers long after they’ve left their classes. A revolving door teaching force makes that impossible.

Your chapter on page 32 is called, “The Money Trail in Education: Reform Leads to everyone but Those Who Need It the Most.” Why are wealthy elites and so many politicians, including the past two presidents, so passionate about destroying public schools?

Some have convinced themselves that public schools have failed, but most have seized upon education as a vehicle to allegedly promote equality when every other social policy seems to be maximizing inequality. They are looking for a short cut, but what they are doing isn’t working. Since No Child Left Behind, every indicator – from test scores to income to wealth – show social inequality has increased.

You discuss “how school turnaround mandates undermine effective community organizing.” Can you elaborate?

Closing down a school deemed to be failing – largely based on test scores- devastates and disorganizes communities. Schools are neighborhood institutions, places that parents, students and community residents count on as forces of stability in an often stress-filled environment. You close the school, you remove that sense of security. And also make it harder to organize around issues of concern to residents, be it police practices, housing deterioration, foreclosures, or environmental hazards. In some cities, like Chicago, where neighborhood boundaries are policed by gangs, closing schools actually jeopardizes public safety. This is why more and more people say you should help a troubled school, not close it. But Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hasn’t gotten the message

You use the Morrisania section of the Bronx as an example of how even though there is new apartment housing that has gone up, there are almost no new services, recreational activities or jobs for young people. Why aren’t the ruling elite in favor of privatizing schools talking about such neighborhood deficits that have a profound impact on students?

I think the ruling elites are totally insulated from what is happening in communities like the Bronx. We live in a society that is now more segregated by race and class than it was in the ’60’s, and the world view of young people in the Bronx never reaches the radar screen of our policy makers because they don’t go to the same schools, play on the same teams, or participate in the same cultural programs as their own children. If they knew what was going on, would they respond differently? I would like to think so, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The name of your book is also the name of a separate organization, Badass Teachers Unite! Not too long ago, a respected blog posted accusations that the organization had in its past been guilty of “abuses of power and privilege,” particularly in twitter exchanges and Facebook policies. What is your response to those charges?

The criticism of the Badass Teachers Association (BAT) were made when the group was in the midst of a wrenching transition from a predominantly white organization whose major issue was common core to a multiracial group equally concerned with school closings, charter school favoritism and the destabilizing effect of School Reform on communities of color. The criticism, while not entirely fair, actually helped us make some painful but necessary changes in how we organized ourselves and how we conducted discussion among our members. Here is a summary I wrote of how the group has changed:

BATs is not the same group as it was a year ago. It is far more urban and multiracial and has changed its focus. It is now as concerned with school closings and school privatization as it is with testing and common core and with fending off attacks on teacher tenure and due process. It is also much more explicitly concerned with issues of poverty, racism and social inequality than it was when the group first began. This has been a gradual evolution, and many people have left because they are uncomfortable with the change. But history does’t stand still and neither did BAT. Some people may disagree with my analysis. But that is what I think has happened. The group is also far more collective in its leadership and I do not call the shots.