JUSTICE, JUSTICE

July 19, 2007

Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism (History of Schools and Schooling, V. 40)

reviewed by William Ayers & Richard Ayers — July 18, 2007

coverTitle: Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism (History of Schools and Schooling, V. 40)
Author(s): Daniel H. Perlstein
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820467871 , Pages: 218, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

 

 Teaching For Change  

 

Justice, Justice, the title of Daniel Perlstein’s searing and illuminating history of a decisive moment in the modern history of American education, is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy:  “Justice, justice shall thou pursue.” It’s a fitting refrain here, and it’s a useful compass to traverse the tangled terrain through which Perlstein guides his readers. Justice, and again — when things get messy and muddy — justice.

 

In a style both spare and elegant, Perlstein exposes the contradictions that animated and found their full expression in the 1968 New York City teachers’ strike and, indeed, that echo with force and heat in every significant school struggle today. His great accomplishment here is pinpointing the pivotal event in which contradictory visions of social justice and change, democracy, progress, and the American dream — articulated by teacher unionists and Black community activists — met in dramatic and bitter confrontation. The site was the New York City public schools, the struggle was over who had the power to reorganize and lead, the outcome forever altered the terms of subsequent debate and struggle.

 

Perlstein’s capacity to evoke a scene with both depth and detail, to focus on the local, is matched by his ability to hold in view the larger concentric circles of context — economic condition, for example, historical flow, cultural surround — in which people necessarily make sense and take action. So we see in these pages Albert Shanker and Milton Galamison, Bayard Rustin and Annie Stein, Rhody McCoy and Liz Fusco and Herman Ferguson as three-dimensional characters in action; and we simultaneously feel the press of the Black Freedom Movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the rise of Black Power, the war in Vietnam, the drive to unionize teachers, de-industrialization and the explosive growth of poor communities of color in American cities matched by the easy availability of suburban housing for whites, the assertion of ethnic identity among Jewish teachers and the retreat from a civil rights ideal, Israel’s six-day war, and more. Perlstein notes that “the social conditions that restrict our actions do not dictate them” (p. 2), and that real choices were being made by real people acting within the conditions and the swirl of history as they found them. The result is an account that is fair and evenhanded, profoundly human and fully accessible.

 

It was a year of transformation, a watershed, and a flashpoint of revolutionary crisis. There were monumental, cataclysmic struggles exploding all over the globe, and the New York educational crisis ranks as one of the most important. It was here, in the Black community initiative for control of the schools, and in the teachers’ organized opposition to this development, that the fundamental templates for future action were forged.

 

The conflict broke out after the New York Board of Education authorized the election of experimental neighborhood school boards in Harlem and Ocean Hill-Brownsville (Brooklyn) in the spring of 1967 as a way to promote school equity. While the United Federation of Teachers at first supported community boards, they were doubtful after militant reformers won elections in August. When the local board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville sought to reassign some 13 teachers and six administrators who were deemed ineffective, the UFT, which had not opposed dozens of transfers in the past, called a strike that became one of the most divisive conflicts in labor and civil rights history, pitting traditional allies against each other.

 

The teachers’ union leadership evoked images of the “blackboard jungle” and the dangerous Black student, emphasizing that their safety depended on their ability to discipline students.  The community activists pointed out the dismal state of the schools and the high failure and dropout rate of African American students. Those who opposed community control had to maintain not only that things might get worse, but that the status quo was mostly acceptable. This was a stance the Black community could not abide — white teachers seemed to be defending business as usual when that business meant the failure and the crushing of Black youth. The strong response of the union against community control combined with assertions of the pathological nature of the Black community, solidified a belief among community activists that schools were institutions of domination and colonial control rather than hope and access.

 

Another dimension of the confrontation was charges of anti-Semitism on one side and white supremacist thinking on the other. Perlstein reports several instances of extreme rhetoric from each side – Albert Shanker saying that “If community control becomes a fact, they will paint swastikas on your schools”; Herman Ferguson reading a poem about a “Jew-boy” on the radio – noting that while these were not in any way representative, each was willing to seize on such comments to insist that the others were either anti-Semitic or virulent white racists.

 

Organized teachers, especially the UFT and its leader Albert Shanker, emerged as the clear winners, gaining a measure of political power and clout that had been unimaginable just a few years earlier. And yet, as Perlstein argues, their victory, “coming at the expense of the movement for racial justice, discouraged interracial coalitions for better education, subverted the notion that schools could help construct an equitable society, and exacerbated feelings of demoralization in teacher’s daily school work” ( p. 154). Liberal whites had concluded that Black advancement had gone far enough, that anything more would be at their expense. Teacher unionists won a battle then, and simultaneously lost another: they narrowed the sense of what teaching is and could be, and they impoverished the sense of what teachers might become.  More than settling for a blue-collar metaphor for what constitutes the work of teaching, they irrevocably stamped professionalism itself as standing against parents and opposed to the possibility of a shared commitment or mutual community of interest. Teachers as laborers or teachers as professionals — each now stood off by itself and carried the bitter stench of racism.

 

The losses suffered by the Black Freedom Movement were even more profound and lasting, for not only did it lose the immediate battle for meaningful community control, but, according to Perlstein, “the flowering of racial pride and consciousness never translated into an effective movement for racial justice” (p. 154).  All the roiling energy of the Black Freedom Movement for civil and human rights, for equality and membership, for unequivocal recognition of the full humanity of Black people, coalesced around the school struggle. Everything was in play from questions about what role school should play in society to what should be taught and how, and who should have the power to decide such things. Teacher unionists insisted on greater power to discipline students, while teachers aligned with the community argued that “schools were fundamentally oppressive to youth, organized not for learning but for social control” (p. 74). Writing in an underground newspaper at the time, a 14-year-old high school student compared schools to prisons: “we were required by state law to be there, but when we were there we had no rights” (p. 75).  And Herman Ferguson, an assistant principal and a major voice for community control argued for a “black survival curriculum” of “self-determination, self-control, and self-defense [against] the whole phenomenon of white supremacy spread and fostered and supported through the educational system” (p. 134).

 

Worse, white supremacy had not only endured but strengthened, for the concept of race blindness was transformed at this moment and in this struggle “from a means for opposing racial inequality into a means of justifying it” (p. 10).  New York’s white teacher unionists played a critical role in that transformation, which is at the heart of Albert Shanker’s legacy – a legacy that was recently acted upon by the Supreme Court invoking the new color-blind standard in their decision forbidding the racial balancing of schools.

 

The “self-described socialists of the UFT gradually slid from the notion that superficial racial divisions masked more fundamental ones of class to the notion that inequality would wither without any intervention from activists” (p. 25). The union opposed measures to integrate schools, and promoted instead programs to eliminate the “cultural deficits” of ghetto youngsters. The assumption was that the schools were fundamentally fine, and that the problems reside in the kids, an assumption community advocates rejected in toto.

 

Today when we talk about school reform, plan for change, strategize about closing the achievement gap, consider decentralization as a tactic, pursue alternative routes to teacher certification in order to attract smart and energetic young people, bring in staff development gurus to help us overcome the failings we take to reside inside students themselves, or face a teachers’ strike — when these and a hundred other possibilities confront us, we would do well to consult Justice, Justice.  This is a text for all times.

 

 

 

 

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 18, 2007
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14557, Date Accessed: 7/18/2007 8:06:54 PM

 


PUPPETS and QUAGMIRES

July 19, 2007

The tragic consequences of Bush and Cheney’s scam war must some day be accounted and paid for. Impeachment Now!!

Their puppets in Karachi and Baghdad are now being blamed for US failure in both Pakistan and Iraq, and they’re learning a fundamental lesson about empire: a primary responsibility of being the front man is to take the fall so the  evil puppet masters can live to kill another day.


Where Justice is Denied…

July 14, 2007

where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe….   Frederick Douglass


Brother Rick Sez:

July 4, 2007

Download the original attachment

REVIEW

Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade.

by Linda Perlstein

Henry Holt and Co.

2007

reviewed by Rick Ayers
I knew a man from a small Mayan village.  He said something that has always stayed with me.  “When you look out at the ruins of Tenochtitlan, with its massive buildings and straight avenues, perhaps you see evidence of a great civilization.  What I see is a fascist nightmare.” 

I couldn’t help thinking of that phrase again and again as I read Linda Perlstein’s Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade.   Perlstein, an education reporter for the Washington Post, has spent a year in a low-income elementary school in Annapolis, Maryland.  Specifically, she was looking at the impacts of testing, of No Child Left Behind and the Maryland School Assessment (MSA) on children’s lives.  What she found, while not always fascist, was certainly a nightmare.

Perlstein has done what hardly anyone else has in the current policy debates on education and testing:  spent time in a real school, with real people, for enough time to get a feel for the daily life of children.  At Tyler Heights Elementary School we meet youngsters caught up in a frenzy of test prep and drills – driven by a principal and superintendent who are obsessed with meeting the MSA test levels so their school won’t be punished. 

The year starts with a buzz of excitement because Tyler Heights has scored well, very well, in the previous year in the tests.  The anxiety now was to be able to repeat the results. “Scores were posted throughout the school and recited at meetings, a constant reminder of the ultimate goal.”  Teachers were held to scripted curricula, required to make academic progress every day.  On day one, first graders were drilled on the difference between consonants and vowels.  By now, independent reading, and rich imaginative play were out the window. 

In this brave new world of schooling, students don’t simply respond to a piece of writing.  They must learn (in third grade) to create a “brief constructed response” – which has an acronym like everything else, it’s a BCR.  Students are taught to use BATS, to borrow from the question, answer the question, use text support, and stretch.  These students must do five BCRs per day, in their practice for the March testing days.  They must also answer the question, “why is this a poem?” with such inane (and wrong) comments like, “I know it is a poem because it rhymes and has stanzas.”  Don’t tell Allen Ginsberg about this.  Stories are reduced to the “message” – devoid of wonder.  My writing teacher in college told me, “Only Western Union sends messages.”

Some schools, the ones that make a fetish of test prep, indeed make improvements in test scores.  But is this good education? At Tyler Heights, physical education, art, music, play, and even science are pretty much set aside.  And whatever small amount of art or exercise they do is justified because it might help math scores, not because it has value in itself.  What kind of citizens are we making here?

So, you might wonder, what if we are miseducating the kids a bit, making them stupid in the short run so they can perform higher tasks later?  At least they are learning, right?  But you have to look more closely.  Students are required to sit in a “learning position”:  with feet on the floor, back against the chair, hands on desk, head up and forward.  Students are criticized, harped at, intimidated, and threatened. 

During an attempt to cram geography factoids into a group of third graders, one teacher became frustrated with the squirming and distraction of the kids.  “‘Put your papers away in your social studies folder and put your heads down,’ Miss Johnson said.  ‘I’m done teaching for today.  I’m not talking any more.  You don’t want to get smarter, that’s your problem.  If you don’t pass third grade, if you don’t pass your report card, if you don’t pass the MSA, you can explain to your parents why not.  If you want your third grade to be awful and miserable, keep doing what you’re doing.’”  (p. 49)  Wow, sounds like a lot of people are confused about their responsibility. 

This horror is not for all kids, of course.  Don’t believe the children of politicians suffer these tortures – most of them go to wealthy suburban or private schools where independent thinking, critical reflection, and free play are the norm. Even at nearby Crofton Elementary School, with a white middle-class population, test scores were always pretty good and students were treated to projects, field trips, and creative writing. The tests, you see, are calibrated to white middle-class discourse and approaches so the achievement gap is in place before the students ever arrive at school.

One of the most disturbing discoveries Perlstein has made in her investigation is the host of consultants and packaged education programs that buzz around schools, selling them pre-packaged curricula and test-boosters.  Like the war profiteers who respond with glee to the Iraq quagmire, these companies make literally billions in the currently constructed education crisis.  Some of the catchy names that show up at Tyler Heights include the Open Court reading script from McGraw-Hill (for which the district paid $7 million for just one year), Saxon Math, Corrective Reading, Soar to Success, SpellRead, Brain Gym (who present a new age set of exercises called Education Kinesiology, I’m not kidding, that costs a pretty penny), Second Step (violence prevention), Ace Your Test, Polishing the Apple, Total Quality Management, and the Positive Behavioral Intervention System.   The latter has teachers writing on turkey decoration during Thanksgiving:  “We are thankful for great behavior!”

Perlstein’s account makes the reader shudder and wonder how we let education “reform” become such a mess.  My one quibble with her is that she tends to repeat the misinformed prejudices about the inadequacies and deficits of the poor, mostly African American and Latino, community.  The stereotype that the community is rife with crack, abusive parents, malnutrition, and constant television is belied by real data (there is often more cocaine, alcoholism, divorce in nearby wealthy communities – yet kids are doing well in school).  Pathologizing the poor instead of looking for ways to make education institutions more relevant is an old game in public policy.

As Wisconsin education professor Gloria Ladson-Billings has pointed out, we should not define the problem as an “achievement gap” as much as an educational debt that has accumulated as a result of centuries of denial of access to education and employment – which is exacerbated by deepening poverty and the lack of funding for schools.

One comes away from Tested with a sad sympathy for the people involved.  The children, of course, who endure this official abuse; the families who are marginalized and detested by the schools; even the principal and the staff, who are working hard every day on this impossible project.  After all, just because it is wrong does not mean it is not a lot of hard work.

Rick Ayers is the author of Great Books for High School Kids A Teacher’s Guide to Books That Can Change Teens’ Lives


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