Friday, November 30, 2012

Bullying: Why are we surprised?

In education circles, there is often a lot of talk about how to prevent and deal with bullying in our schools.  There are anti-bullying programs, trainings for teachers, social-emotional curricula designed to increase empathy.  Teachers are taught how to work with the bullying victim, the bully themselves, and the bystanders who must be encouraged to interevene.

But when I look around at our society, I sometimes wonder why are we surprised that bullying is such a rampant problem in schools?  Do we honestly wish to pretend that this is problem unique to the schoolyard, to our young people who just don't know better?  Or, are we willing to take a long hard look at ourselves, what our society teaches and rewards, and the daily lessons our children learn growing up in an grossly unjust and abusive America?

Think about what a typical child witnesses in their life.  Perhaps they overhear their parent complain about an abusive boss.  They watch as that parent works longer hours for less pay. They see the fear in that parent's eyes knowing that they can never speak up, speak out, fight for better conditions.  There are mouths to feed and bills to pay so the parent has no choice but to return to the abuse day in and day out.  Children feel that tension.

That child, especially an African-American or Latino/a child, leaves that stressful home and walks down the streets towards school. On their way, they observe the police, once again, harassing, accusing, perhaps beating another member of the community.   The child hangs their head low and walks by quickly, the lesson that the police will bully you for little or no reason etched into their brain.  And knowing all too well that a prison cell awaits anyone who resists.

The child arrives at school and sees their teacher welcome them.  She seems tired and frightened.  That child watches the teacher catch her breath as an administrator walks in later that day in a surprise evaluation.  The child hears the nervousness in her voice and watches her forced smiles and fake enthusiasm.  The child sees the administrator scold the teacher, right there in front of the class, for not having the correct words written on the board or paper filed away.  The child knows the dread on their teacher's face as yet another test approaches.  And they know that their teacher has no choice in what she is being asked to do.  Children see it all.

And on some level, children understand who the winners are in our society.  They see their city's mayor on TV, a bona fide bully, continue his bullying towards the child's teachers, relatives, and community members.  They see the billionaire bullies, the political bullies, the business bullies fleece the entire nation's milk-money without so much as a detention.

And we are surprised when children try to exert power over someone less powerful?  That is how the game is played.  That bully, provided he has the right connections and does not have the wrong skin color, will be rewarded for that nasty behavior someday.  Perhaps, he can manage a hedge fund, become a ruthless banker, or even run for office.  Bullying equals "success".

I am not condoning bullying.  As a teacher, I work everyday to teach my students to feel another's pain, to care for their classmates, neighbors, even strangers.  But I also acknowledge where that desire to dominate and be cruel comes from.  It is taught.  Keep fighting bullying, but until we live in a more just and equitable society, don't be surprised when you see it in the schools. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Twilight of the EdReformers

I just finished reading MSNBC host and Nation contributor Chris Hayes' new book: Twilight of the Elites.  In the book, he highlights how America's version of meritocracy has spiraled out of control into a small group of elites who make decisions and govern with little to no accountability, who feel entitled to take an ever growing chunk of the wealth this country produces, and who remain so far removed from the reality of our grossly unequal society that they rarely see the consequences of their greed.

Hayes chronicles how the wealthy elites are so deep into their meritocratic story of worth--being the "best and the brightest", being the smartest people on the planet and therefore the only ones capable of making decisions--that they are immune to outside criticism or blame for mistakes.  And our elites have made many many mistakes.  Hayes picks the example of the disaster following Hurricane Katrina where the elites were so far removed from the reality of the people living in the Ninth Ward--such as the lack of access to a car, the lack of money (especially at the end of the month for those living on a fixed income), the sickness and immobility that comes with a lack of access to health care--that they simply were not capable of planning appropriate evacuation procedures.  After all, telling people who cannot physically leave to leave and expecting them to somehow do so, is ridiculous.

Hayes also follows the grave mistakes leading up to the financial collapse of 2008. To this day, the elites have not had to pay for their mistakes.  Meanwhile, far away from the millionaire bankers and hedge fund managers, millions of average Americans' homes are being foreclosed on and families are falling into bankruptcy.  He also discusses how the elites in Washington allowed themselves to be duped into two long, expensive, and deadly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Hayes notes that almost none of the people making the decision to go to war would ever have to risk their own son, daughter, husband, wife, friend, or relative's life.  They make their poor decisions from a safe place far removed from the repercussions of those decisions.

When looking at the actions of the elite over the past decade, Hayes writes, "All the smart people fucked up, and no one seems willing to take responsibility" (Kindle location 230).

Also interesting is when Hayes mentions Karen Ho's book entitled Liquidated which looks into the dysfunction on Wall Street.  Ho talks about how the "elite educational institutions and Wall Street have fused into a sort of educational industrial complex." (Location 753).  She also calls those who believe the current status quo of privilege and elitism have
...A kind of neo-Calvinist logic by saying that those at the top, by virtue of their placement there, must be the most deserving.  [She] describes this "meritocratic feedback loop" as common on Wall Street, where the finance industry's "growing influence becomes further evidence that they are, in fact, "the smartest." (location 788)
These are the elites of today: uber-rich, unaccountable, greedy, self-righteous, drunk on power, and completely isolated from the vast majority of humanity and their suffering.

These elites-the wealthy, the powerful, the Wall Street tycoons, the members of the "educational industrial complex"-are the very same people pushing corporate education reform.  It is Wall Street and its hedge fund managers, the billionaires, the socialites, the wealthy politicians (for only truly wealthy individuals can afford to run for top offices anymore), and students and graduates from elite universities which make up the EdReform crowd. I want to make this very clear, the same people who callously crashed the economy with little personal consequence while sending millions into poverty and distress, the people who ignorantly and wantonly left thousands to suffer in the flood waters of Katrina, the people who call for tax breaks and corporates subsidies for themselves and their friends while social programs and education are gutted, the people who remorselessly sent young Americans into battle, trauma, and death on foreign soils, taking thousands of in-country civilian lives along the way, are the same people who are telling us how to reform education. 

The reformers, these elites, are so deep into their "meritocratic feedback loop," so very sure of themselves and their ideas, that they simply cannot hear dissent.  When teachers and parents tell heart-wrenching stories of the cruel consequences of Ed Reform, telling about beloved schools being shuttered, children treated like lifeless commodities, growing segregation, the spikes in youth violence in the midst of the chaos of opening and closing schools, Ed Reformers literally cannot accept that their actions might be wrong.  After all, the people in the trenches, families from low-income areas, teachers, communities groups all have not proved their worth by entering the elite upper-echelons.  Parents and teachers do not have "merit" in the EdReformer eyes.  Only the "Masters of the Universe", as demonstrated by accumulation of money and power, could possibly be smart enough to fix a problem as complicated and convoluted as education. The Billionaire Board of Education in Chicago is a prime example of the disconnected coldness of the elites and why the fight for an elected representative school board is so important to the parents and teachers of Chicago Public Schools. The board does not just seem distant, they actually are living on an entirely different social plane of existence.

Chicago's Board of Education, Graphic designed by CPS teacher
It is no accident that organizations like Teach for America have become so very popular in Education Reform circles.  TFA takes the "best and brightest", the top of the meritocracy, and puts them in the middle of the problem.  According to the elite, how could they NOT work miracles?  Never mind that they have no degrees in education, no experience working with children, and only five measly weeks of training, the hubris of the elite claims these novices know better than the seasoned professionals they are displacing. And throughout the TFA experience, TFA is careful to keep a clear social distance between members of their organization from traditional teachers and the communities where they serve.  They see themselves as TFA first, and part of a teaching community second, if at all.  And once members have put in their time with the ordinary, UN-meritorious masses, many TFAers jump quickly back into the far removed world of corporations, non-profits, high-profile education jobs, or political life--straight back into the safe space of the elites.

It is this social distance, which has grown exponentially in just the past few years, which allowed the space for the growth of horrible ideas being promoted by the elites: merit pay (naturally in a meritocracy), evaluations based on test scores (show your merit through bubble tests--getting ranked and sorted is oh so very meritorious), charters (the wealthy and elite can certainly figure out a better way to run a school than those working-class union thugs), and the end of tenure and LIFO (if you are still teaching after 20 years, you are clearly not competing hard enough), and of course Race to the Top (we'll give you money, but only if you prove your worth.)  Social distance allows reformers to make edicts from on high without ever having to hear the consequences of excessive testings, or school closures, or ruined careers, or lifeless, dull curriculum.  Neither they, nor their children, nor-importantly-their circle of friends will ever have first-hand knowledge of the bad policies being put in place.

To real educators, corporate education reform ideas are simply insane.  They don't work and we have research to prove they don't work.  But there was plenty of evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that sub-prime mortgages were dangerously precarious long before the housing bubble burst, and that the levees were not going to hold as Katrina rolled in.  But the "best and the brightest" refused to listen to anyone but themselves.  And the results were disastrous, just like we are seeing in education.

Hayes calls for a massive shift in our social order.  He recalls that meritocracies often go in cycles and that we are at the end of the current swing toward massive inequality and an elite class that is out of control. He contends that these elites are right now at their very worst.
The extreme inequality of the kind that we have produces its own particular kind of elite pathology: it make elites less accountable, more prone to corruption and self-dealing, more status-obsessed and less empathetic, more blinkered and removed from informational feedback crucial to effective decision-making. For this reason, extreme inequality produces elites who are less competent and more corrupt that those in a more egalitarian social order would.  This is the fundamental paradoxical outcome that several decades of failed meritocratic production has revealed: As American society grows more elitist, it produces a worse caliber of elites. (Location 2351)
Are these the types of people we want to entrust the lives of our children and the future of our schools with?  Hayes ends his book by asking us to direct the...
...frustration, anger, and alienation we all feel into building a trans-ideological coalition that can actually dislodge the power of the post-meritocratic elite.  One that marshals insurrectionist sentiments without succumbing to nihilism and manic, paranoid distrust.  One that avoids the dark seduction of everything-is-broken-ism.  One that leverages the deep skepticism of elites into a proactive, constructive vision of a moral, equitable, and connected social order. (Location 3482)
The only way forward is the creation of a more moral, equitable and connected society?  Sounds good to me....

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Why Can't I Opt Out of the GREs?

I have dropped off the face of the blogging world.  The reason is two-fold.  First, life at the psychiatric hospital where I work has become unbearable.  From where I stand, there is a mental health crisis happening in this city which is being exacerbated by the continued cuts and privatization of mental health services in Illinois.  And school "choice" has worsened these conditions as public money is funneled into charters which do not serve the children with the greatest mental health needs.  Add into the mix the exhaustion of the longer school day and the weeks of testing and test prep, coupled with spikes in youth violence and child poverty/income gap increases and what we have is a city full of very sick children.  Our facility is running at or over capacity.  DCFS is being crushed by growing need. Insurance companies are paying out less and less.  And Illinois' medicaid benefits are being chopped giving children fewer paid days in hospitals to recover from trauma or abuse.  We are at a critical mass, folks.  And as far as I can tell, the powers that be will do nothing about it.

But there is another, more inane reason why I have not been adding my voice to the bloggosphere chorus:  I have to study for the GREs.  

I cannot believe I have to waste my time on this crap.

The PhD degree program I wish to pursue is in Education Policy where I would like to examine the negative effects of standardized testing on children.  And in order to get into the program, I must take an f-ing standardized test.  Oh the irony....

I went to the professor I hope to study under and asked her about opting out of the test.  I suggested sending in some of my writings to demonstrate my ability to succeed in a graduate program instead. The professor said she loved the idea, that the people who would review my application at the School of Education would love that idea, but that the School of Admissions would never let an application without a GRE score reach them.  No, she said, you must take the GRE.

So I asked some of the other graduate students in the program what their experiences with the GRE were.  One student told me "I'm a horrible test taker, so I locked myself in a room for six months to study."  This seemed to be a common response.  Other people told me how they saved and sacrificed to afford a Kaplan course, many of which run in the 1000s of dollars.  The fact that you can, in fact, buy better test scores speaks wonders, don't you think? "Higher scores guaranteed or your money back!"

So I sucked it up, bought myself the practice books, paid the $175, and signed myself up for The Test.

Can I just say how very useless this test is?  I am sitting here today trying to memorize random vocabulary words which I will probably never be able to use in actual writing or discourse because of the decontexualized format in which I am studying them.  I am going over math which I will never, ever use again. It will not help me when I need math for statistical analysis for my actual program.  Afterall, when I need to do statistical math, I will learn the math I need!  It will be useful math, directly applied to what I am studying, rather than disembodied formulas and tricks which I am being forced to jam into my head now.  And as for analytical writing?  I have hundreds of essays for them, essays that were actually published or used in the current education debate.  What use is it to know if I can come up with something on a random topic I may or may not care about, in a few short minutes?  How will that help determine whether or not I will be able to write an entire dissertation?

But the saddest part is that I will probably get a decent score (not great, since apparently I have decided to "waste" my time blogging, or going to the many educational events happening in my city contributing to actually CHANGING the system I would like to study in grad school).  I have always been a good test taker, although I like to quip that I am terrible at, you know, actual life.  I graduated from one of the best public high schools in the country.  We were very well prepared for academic excellence.  (As well as for replicating our privilege.) When I think of the potentially fantastic candidates out there who will be rejected because of this idiotic test, people who are far more knowledgeable than I, I feel like screaming.

And of course, I come back to thinking about the students in our schools being subjected to this waste of time.  To jamming useless facts in their heads to be able to "compete" on the unfair battlefield of labeling, sorting, and punishment. 

How much time have we as society lost to the disgusting standardized testing movement?  How much of that time would have been better spent marching, singing, organizing, building, DOING instead of cooped up in a room memorizing nonsense?

Well, no more contributing to the national conversation on education for me today.  I need to lock myself away so I can jump through some hoop in order to be able to join the national conversation on education.  Sigh...