March 19, 2014

Nino Brown

New Jack City, Warner Bros. 1991
In 1991 the urban classic film New Jack City, Nino Brown (played perfectly by Wesley Snipes), and his right hand man, G-Money, throughout the film repeat the phrase “am I my brother’s keeper.  Yes I am.”  In fact, those are the last words uttered between the two before Nino kills G. 

Fast forward to 2014, the President of the United States is Black and he has revived the phrase “My Brother’s Keeper.”  This time, the aim is not to keeping his “boys” from the neighborhood in line, but rather it is an initiative designed to keep all boys of color in line by being more responsible and compassionate towards one another and for us, as a society, to value boys of color in more positive ways rather than strictly as drug dealers, corner boys, high school dropouts, unemployed, or deadbeat fathers.
While one would think that the premise advanced by the President and his Administration would be seen as beneficial both for the community and from the community, there are those who have been vocally critical, or at the very least, skeptical of the merits of this initiative. 

Last month when the initiative was rolled out, in addition to Magic Johnson, Colin Powell and others Black leaders being in attendance at the White House, the President had a cadre of young black boys from a predominantly all-black high school on the south side of Chicago behind him as he gave his speech.  The optics were one of positivity.  Seeing black boys out of the “context” of expectations, meaning suited up, clean cut standing tall and proud behind the first Black President, was an important visual.  However, where I am conflicted is whether or not we should EXPCECT Black boys and boys of color to “perform race” in multiple ways such as this example, or should the narrative exclusively be relegated to their supposed stereotypical “authentic” urban, hip-hop selves?  In my own experience, it was irrelevant whether or not I was wearing a suit or a sweatshirt, too many cabs from Washington DC to Chicago have passed me by.  Why does this happen?  If adults with a little bit of status (as exemplified by wearing a suit) are seen as “problematic” or “threatening” (let me add not just by white cab drivers, but by a large number of Black immigrant cab drivers too), then how should we as a society view even younger Black male bodies?

Historically we know that Black and Brown bodies have been problematic to the dominant group, and seen systemically and structurally as “inferior.”  Does one initiative by the first Black President change those systems and structures overnight?  Of course not.  Anyone who bought into the false premise of living in a “post-racial” society simply because of the election of Obama is living in a Willy Wonkaish dream world.  

However, as I have repeatedly articulated, how do we flip the script and create a counter-narrative that both honors the historical background, but is not stuck there?

I will not repeat the statistics concerning boys of color the President cited. In citing the statistics in this context, in my opinion, he was not framing the discourse from a deficit perspective. Rather he was framing it from a structural and historical one.  I think this aspect went unnoticed by many of the critics who claim that this initiative is nothing more than talk.  It is not as if a President, of any race by the way, could explicitly come out and say that we are starting this initiative because the United States was founded on and has historically demonstrated institutional, and structural oppression, violent hatred and racial animus.  As a politician, even one with no campaign on the horizon, any President would be cautious about exactly how “honest” he can be.  By stating the obvious narrative of his own history of growing up without a father and citing this issue as one of “national importance,” he is saying implicitly what all the prognosticators, academics and critics would like to see him make explicit.  

Dr. Lewis-McCoy in a piece in Ebony is quoted as saying “creating change is not simply about behavior but also about changing the pervasive unequal systems that ensnare young men of color.”  No doubt Dr. Lewis-McCoy is 100% correct, but is it not possible to change systems and structures AND hearts and minds of the boys of color at the same time?  Is it not possible to both encourage boys of color to be resilient and demonstrate persistence AND teach them about the world as it is – perhaps by articulating examples of our own experiences of navigating through the world as positive black males through highlighting difficulties in being unable to get a loan, being denied housing, tenure or a job simply because we are “too aggressive,” or any number of negative experiences even “successful” black males endure?

Mychal Denzel Smith both in the Nation and on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC explicitly called the initiative “flawed” and “counterproductive.”  His premise is similar to Dr. Lewis-McCoy’s in that he claims the initiative does not address structural problems, specifically the two examples of stop-and-frisk and mass incarceration.  I believe that any initiative when first launched cannot and should not be so etched in stone that it cannot adapt to legitimate criticisms such as articulated by these two commentators and scholars.  However, I am realistic, or perhaps optimistic enough to know that just like it is difficult to lose weight gained over years of neglect, so too is it difficult to change structures and institutions overnight.

Changing the narrative from a negative to a positive one is never easy.  Oftentimes people see highlighting what is good as disrespecting the history or reality of the negative.  That does not have to be the case.  We can, as Smith says “turn every black and brown boy into a ‘respectable’ citizen” AND advance society by eliminating the historical inequities inflicted upon them.  We, as communities of color cannot succeed alone in changing the narrative.  It will take allies from every walk of life to make change happen.  I believe that the President’s initiative is a step in the right direction. Not the entire marathon, but a much needed, and long delayed step towards positive social change. 

March 12, 2014

Failure IS an Option...

My last post of 2013 was an introduction to my educational journey. After a few more recent dust ups on social media, my credentialing still being challenged, and other personal attacks being aimed in my direction, let me aim back and set the record straight.  I completely understand that in this microwave era, many folk have already made up their minds about my positionality to respond to the inequities in public education, education policy, and my intellect all together. However, if you are someone willing to listen to truth and complexity, here we go...

As I left the Public Relations agency and entered the world of formal education, I came to the profession with trepidation.  My grades never reflected my “true abilities.” This was a term I saw all too often on report cards all through middle school, high school, and if there had been a place for them to have made the comment, in college too.  I have always been a cerebral person who tries to think from multiple angles.  What that means is that while I can write with precision, that precision becomes less impactful when given multiple choices via test or through short answer responses.  Further, the more personal my relationship was with my teachers and professors, the more they understood that I my poor outcomes on testing demonstrating “text anxiety” and not “laziness,” or lack of intellect.  

In retrospect, some 25 years later, seeing the pervasive and disparate numbers of black boys in special education, remediation, suspensions and the like, I wonder if I too would have fallen “victim” and become a negative statistic rather than a positive one?  If I had attended public school for more than a year in high school and two in grade school, would I have succeeded in all the arenas I have entered?  Would I have been exposed to the same opportunities?  Would I have the same friends who have been there for decades to pick me up and motive me towards success?  Of course I cannot definitively say, but one can wonder...

When I started teaching Service Learning (called Community Learning) at Lab, I was “going home.” 
Having been a student there for four years, I was, by no means a lifer as so many of my friends were, but I did feel a sense of home that had been absent from many of my professional endeavors.  My position gave me the best of both worlds at Lab.  I was able to explore the city with students who had been out of the country abroad, but had hardly scratched the surface of their own city.  Because of my status as an alum, which I never wore on my sleeve, but was quickly found out nonetheless, I was able to connect with the day to day milieu that so many students experience in independent school settings – test, homework, community service (both religious and “required” from school), extra-curricular activities, travel, college expectations and pressures, and of course being a high school teen. This meant that I "understood" them and expected their excuses and challenges before they even were uttered.

At the beginning, some of those sophomores who entered my “classroom” (i.e. the Van that carried about 25-40% of the students to and from their service site) thought I was nothing more than a glorified bus driver.  That sentiment quickly vanished when they realized that in most instances (hospitals being one area where I did not), I volunteered right alongside them, modeling how to work with the various populations of ‘other;’ Latino grade school kids in Pilsen, Senior citizens in Woodlawn and Uptown, and Black youth from the Cabrini Green Housing complex on the near north side, just to name a few of my favorite sites.  In each of these areas, for the duration of my tenure I not only modeled, but taught, mentored, comforted and educated bilaterally – meaning those we were serving had preconceived notions of our students, and of course our students had preconceived notions of where we were volunteering.  One of the best ways I acclimated many of the students not just to the volunteer site, was through immersing them into the community, oftentimes through food, but also various cultural events.  This, as I found out later, was the epitome of John Dewey’s philosophy of “learning by doing.” Thus whenever someone ask me about my number of years “in the classroom,” I always include my years at Lab because the community and van were my classroom and I affected intellectual change deeply in those students who entered this domain as much as any book or test about community would have, even more so. 

After a point, as I was approaching 30, I realized that as much as I loved (and still do) this position, it was time to take my knowledge from Capitol Hill and the communities of Chicago to my desired career goal, law school.

As the new century approached, I applied to many law schools on the west coast.  I was rejected from most, in part based on my poor LSAT score, and was wait listed at one, in northern California. Rather than wait to find out if a spot opened, I took a crazy chance and went up to the Bay Area to meet with the admissions folk and a few professors face to face.  After a few weeks of pounding the pavement in the Bay Area, nothing worked out.  Not only did I not get into law school, I couldn’t even find a job in the area.  In retrospect, perhaps then I should have looked at entering the classroom as a substitute teacher then, but it was not on my radar at that time.

Rather than come back to Chicago, I flew down to Los Angeles, a place where I had gone to college and still had a few contacts and friends.  I came to LA LA Land at exactly the wrong time.  There was a transit strike going on, and of course, here I was without a car.  Again, I persisted and tried to make things work for a few weeks, but eventually returned home to Chicago.  Broke, embarrassed, and a failure.

Part III coming soon…

March 6, 2014

BAT Dance

I have had enough with all these so called “progressive” education reform groups who want to change (revamp, renew, restructure, etc…) policy and practice but are barely able to change the toner in their printer.  They act, ironically enough, like the millennial students they lament are entitled and whiny.

I have never seen the level of discourse from “well intentioned” folk be this divisive, and more importantly, this divergent.  It’s well beyond two ships that pass in the night.  One is a ship and the other is a whale.  We are not even relating as the same species. What is even more problematic is that these same folk see their students continuously, even though some think they are not, through their deficits rather than their assets.  For me, this cannot stand.

A few years ago in 2011, I braved the extreme humidity of Washington DC and drove down from Philadelphia for an event entitled “Save OurSchools (SOS) Million Teacher March.”  I am not sure what I was expecting to see, having been witness to many of the largest civil rights marches of the 1990s in Washington (Million Man March, March for Women’s Lives, 30th Anniversary of the Civil Rights March of 1963, just to name a few). What I saw when I arrived was a small stage with an even smaller number of individuals (5000 according to SOS estimates, but even fewer in my opinion). I was encouraged to come down based on the number of key speakers who I have generally philosophically aligned myself with – Deborah Meier, Jonathan Kozol, Pedro Noguera and Diane Ravitch.  I was anticipating that their presence would lend some levity, and most importantly historical perspective, surrounding the cyclical nature of American public education.  Unfortunately their words were drowned out by those yelling for an end to high-stakes testing, to reclaim public education and the incessant complaints that teachers were being “bashed” by policies that were designed to “privatize” the profession.

Fast forward three years and while SOS is still kicking (albeit on life support), another new organization has taken hold across social media – Badass Teachers Association (BATs).  There is a great deal of overlap, but their two biggest gripes are Common Core and high-stakes testing. They too are holding their own “march” in Washington this coming July (doesn’t anyone know how hot is it in DC in July?!?!).  They have even created a 10 point “Contract” in which they are DEMANDING change (see picture to right).  To me they first need to come to grips with a few things concerning what I have dubbed “Politics 101” before even being considered serious challengers to the status quo, and more importantly achieving meaningful reform.

In many of these so called progressive organizations demanding to “reclaim public education, White privilege, which I mentioned begrudgingly in last week’s post, has completely taken hold. In organizations such as BATs, Philly Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), and to some extent Teachers Action Group (TAG) (just to name a few), much of the so called “leadership” claims repeatedly that they are “inclusive of all perspectives.”  What does this mean?  It means that too many within the leadership and rank and file of these organizations clamoring to be the “saviors” of public education know very little if anything about the history of the schools they are trying to save. 

For example, imagine the dialogue if folk had a better understanding of the history of some of their biggest gripes – Teach for America (TFA), high-stakes testing and charter schools (just to name a few). I am far from na├»ve. While I do not believe that simply understanding the history of TFA, testing or charters (especially local charters) would mean an end to the incessant “bashing” and complaining, I do think we would be better off in regards to having a higher level of sophisticated discourse and respect pertaining to the educational the landscape.

Here’s a quick point by point critical examination of the BATs 10 point plan, err I mean list of demands:

  1. Replace Common Core (CC) with??? What would high expectations and standards look like for BATs and others who critique Common Core?
  2. This is intended to critique Race to the Top (RttT).  What percentage of student’s test scores in a teacher’s evaluation would be acceptable?  If the answer is zero, replace it with what?  Same with high-stakes testing, replace this accountability measure with??
  3. Since the 1983 report A Nation at Risk the Federal government has been arguing that public schools are in decline.  What have large comprehensive public school districts done correct in the last 30 years that warrant their blind trust?
  4. The curriculum in each district and school should be chosen at the local level.  Standards are not curriculum.  There is a difference.
  5. What you’re really saying is replace Arne with Diane.  Tell the truth! Please show me the empirical or peer reviewed evidence that demonstrates the ineffectiveness of Duncan as compared to his predecessors.
  6. Equity, adequate and appropriate are buzz words for give me what I want without qualification.  If there is an increased costs, who pays?
  7. No problem here.  Looks like you’ve got one right…
  8. ALL Public schools are public.  The information you seek exists out there.  Should we make Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and other confidential information public?  I think not. Free speech is not free.
  9. Classic example of blaming the victim.  TFA is a product of an environment that has placed an undue burden on urban underserved schools to staff their buildings.  Too many “veteran” teachers upon reaching tenure run from these schools.  A better “demand” would be a formula that all schools have to have a percentage of a combination of TFA, Vets (3-5yrs, 6-10yrs, etc) and other teachers.
  10. The protections of these important populations already exists.  No school is perfect for every population.  There has to be an honest acknowledgement that there is a need for some specialization and some differentiation between schools in a district.  One size does not fit all. 

February 25, 2014

Reform This!

In last week's blog (Gas Face 2/18) I concluded that opting out of high stakes testing was a cop out.  Some people tried, unsuccessfully to push back by saying that the test is wrong and because it is wrong, we should not subject our children to taking the test.  Upon further review…nope, still believe it is a cop out.

This past Saturday (2/22) I had the privilege of viewing the Daniel Hornberger documentary Standardized Lies, Money & Civil Rights: How Testing is Ruining Public Education. 
If I were Siskel or Ebert, I would begrudgingly give it a thumbs up.  As a teacher, I’ll give it a B-.  The reason being that there are several key things that struck me as fundamentally flawed and prevented me from liking the film more.  While I agree with the premise that the current batch of high-stakes testing is not benefiting students, there were several problems I had with the film.

1) Hornberger does an excellent job of painting the educational reform landscape since the late 1990s starting with the Clinton initiative “Goals 2000,” transitioning into No Child Left Behind (which is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization of 2002), and finally to Obama’s Race to the Top initiative enacted during his first term.  What I didn’t realize until seeing all of these programs en masse was that no one, or very few, have openly acknowledge that since the initial reauthorization of ESEA (dubbed NCLB, now back to ESEA) there hasn’t been ONE reauthorization of this most important piece of legislation.  This goes beyond insane.  Not only is NCLB an unfunded mandate, it is also a non-reauthorized one as well.  Imagine if Social Security or the Defense department was not reauthorized but simply languished in flux for 12 years? 
     2) Something else that is problematic is how some interviewed in the film create false notions of there being only one way of navigating through this muddy water.  They pretend that in order for “order” to be restored, you need to have gym, arts/music, social studies, etc…My thought goes beyond the simple either/or proposition to the more complex.  How do we get a child to read at grade level, assess where they are, assist in their growth and NOT lose these invaluable classes?  I do not believe that we need to boil down the school day into reading, math, science, and test prep.  I believe that this generally occurs in schools where there is a distrust between the administrators of a school and it's teachers which exists that does not allow for freedom at the school site level.  That seems like an easy proposition to solve.  Be counterintuitive, give MORE autonomy to failing schools.  Partner them with higher performing schools and see what happens.  Clearly drill and kill is killing not just the students, but the teachers as well. Why not try something new?
      3)  Some of the hyperbole in the film was laughable if it wasn’t so damaging. For example, one interviewee termed RttT as “extortion” while another made the statement that using data to drive instruction is not “teaching” students.  It gets even better, another interviewee stated that school reform equals “…Black and Brown kids being kicked out of their town and being replaced with White kids…” I have repeatedly lamented that the language of the educational reform discourse in this country is in dire need of improvement, but this is beyond depressing.  Not only are there these quotes and others which highlight the disrespect taking place, there is an entire segment of the film devoted to Michelle Rhee and other "reformers" which is simply embarrassing.  Teachers often lament that they are being “scapegoated” as the cause of the failure of schools and children.  Turning around and scapegoating someone else, regardless of her flaws, does not seem to me to be an intelligent action when seeking to eliminate the practice all together.
     4) Finally, when I saw the scene in the film in which the Long Island Opt Out group was meeting in the kitchen of one of the women’s homes, I realized what is so problematic about this entire faction of education reform. There are only two people of color in this film, Professor Yong Zaho of the University of Oregon and a young man calling Rahm “racist” during an impassioned speech to the Chicago Teachers during their strike. To me this fatal flaw is akin to why Colorado and Washington State have legalized “recreational” marijuana and Detroit does not.  Privilege has its positionality. 

Imagine if a group of Black or Latino parents wanted to opt out their children from taking…well from doing ANYTHING in the educational system?  Many would lament how “these” parents want special treatment, want affirmative action, want to hide the flaws in their children, etc…I’m sorry.  What is offensive is the notion (the false belief) that mothers and fathers in poor and urban neighborhoods do not possess the cultural and social capital to want better for their children and cannot advocate for them – thus we need “progressive” organizations and teachers to “fight” for our children. [Note: this concept was brought up again during the Q & A period of the screening when one woman said that her school district was a "great community."

In short, what has happened is too many people with White privilege have decided that this issue is too ripe to pass up.  They believe that they have the high moral ground to help "save our schools" by showing parents and students a "better" way.

For example, Hornberger made a comment during a Skype interview after the film that really was telling.  He said that the “SATs are a joke.”  This assertion has been known by decades of researchers who have lamented racial bias in testing, yet these tests are still here and still used (luckily to a lesser degree than when I applied to colleges in the late ‘80s).  Now that White folk whose families moved to the suburbs a generation or two ago in the wake of the Brown decision are gentrifying and “revitalizing” urban areas and
are subjected to not just the SAT/ACT high stakes but also the state test, they want come in and acknowledge what has been occurring for decades as if it is new?  NOW it has become a fight worth fighting?  Please.

So these are a few reasons why I give this film a B-.  In grad school parlance that’s a fail.  If you have seen the film, what are your thoughts?  How can we move beyond fighting words towards positive outcomes?  I’m sick of people using coded language such as “great community” to mean high SES, predominantly white and safe.  I am sick of films not presenting multiple sides of the issue by bringing in the perspective of people of color – either intentionally (which is bad) or purposefully (even worse).  

As someone else noted post screening, and as Marvin Gaye said so eloquently; “what’s (really) going on?”  There is no right answer, no singular solution.  Is that provocative? Perhaps…

February 18, 2014

The Gas Face

I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who put themselves on the front lines, even if I disagree with their tactics and conclusions.  I am quite aware of the multitude of confusing information and misinformation that passes as “news” in this hyperbolic, 24/7, social media era.  Consequentially, I can understand how some can be in a state of confusion...a little bit.

With that said, let me be clear, “opting out” is a copout.

Photo from Kelly Ann Photography
The picture of this young lady on the left has become “viral” and is being used as conclusive evidence surrounding the idiocy of "high stakes testing."  As I have said previously, ANYONE who knows me personally, knows that I abhor testing and most simple quantifiable measures of academic performance.  As an avid sports fan I can see the merits of numbers.  However, when it comes to the classroom and life outside the lines, there are so many variables which enter the equation that it is difficult to quantify performance exclusively by using such measures as A,B,C or “proficient,” “basic,” or the dreaded “below basic.” 

So Stuart, since you think it is wrong to opt out of this overindulgent, excessive amount of "high stakes testing," you are in favor of testing our babies incessantly and measuring the worth of their hard working teachers by their test scores?  If I had $5 for every time someone wanted to pin that on me, I’d be riding around in my new 2014 Range Rover.  So for the umpteenth time, let me clarify my position and my disdain with the incomplete conclusions drawn from my fellow bloggers at The Chalk Face and by those who call themselves so called Badass Teachers

     1) To describe the face of the young girl as “hearbreak” is well…disingenuous.  I know countless teachers who would look at that face of frustration and see not just the frustration but also persistence (yes a dirty word for some of y’all) and resilience (even worse, I know).  What these two words mean to me is that yes, things are hard, but with time, patience, practice and yes teaching (both from parents and educators) it will get better. 

I am 100% positive that James Baldwin, Miles Davis, Itzhak Perlman, John Lennon, Michael Jordan, Hank Aaron or any other person who has achieved excellence in their respective profession (intellectual or otherwise) has had, at some point, that same exact look, or worse, on their face as they drove to reaching the highest levels of proficiency in their professions. 
2) What message are we sending to children of this generation if we insist that if they, or others think something is “hard” then they can “opt out?”  It is already bad enough that there is a false sense of accomplishment with this generation concerning receiving awards for simply showing up and participating on the soccer field or other sporting endeavors. When these same kids enter the classroom, they expect that if they do the same thing (show up) their simple attendance equals positive academic achievement.  Sorry, it doesn’t work that way, no matter how many ways people try to spin it.  Hard work and success require significantly more than showing up.
      3) “The testing culture has created an environment where kids are told almost constantly, by way of test scores, that they are not good enough, regardless of how hard they try.” (The Chalk Face - Nelson 2/12/14)  Really?  I constantly see people on social media, in professional development trainings in my years in the classroom, and at academic educational conferences, constantly repeat the refrain that teaching is as much an “art as it is a science.” 

With that said, science is about the process of failing, learning from ones mistakes, making adjustments and retrying from the beginning, and ultimately succeeding.  So yes, you’re not good enough on your first try, or maybe your second, but if you simply “opt out” you’re never going to learn.  Does that take the joy out of learning?  I’m sorry, my perspective is that is EXACTLY where the joy is.  In finding different routes to conclusions, in examining the inquiry process, in learning with and from your classmates, in finally finding the answer and quickly raising your hand to be acknowledged.  THAT is the joy…So for all of you who think that because something is hard, we should not try, think about your own life experiences.  Did you give up?  Did you simply crawl into a hole because you could not do something?  Sure, sometimes that hole is comfortable and comforting, but as the saying goes “if you can make it through the night, there is a brighter day.”

So in my most humble opinion, don’t opt out, opt in…

We can all agree that we should reform the incessant high stakes test preparation that passes as pedagogy these days, but overall we need to keep going, keep fighting, and keep pushing towards teaching our children to find the joy in the simplest discoveries, and yes, in the process.  Another adage that I used to have on my classroom wall was from the inspirational speaker Marianne Williamson, “it is not up to you what you learn, but whether you learn through joy or pain.”  

Find the joy.