This article was originally published in Dissent
The heart of education lies in the relationship between teacher and student. The quality of that relationship—its capacity to nurture, to inspire, to awaken the imagination and to cultivate the intellect—is crucial to student learning. This is an ancient truth, equally central to the pedagogy of Socrates in the West, Confucius in the East, and many others in between. But it bears repeating in an age when many self-styled “education reformers” seek to reduce the value of teaching to standardized test scores and statistical algorithms.
José Luis Vilson’s This Is Not A Test (Haymarket Books, 2014) bears witness to the enduring vitality of that relationship. Vilson teaches math to poor black and brown students in New York City middle schools, and his writing is rooted in his classroom experiences. His voice is an authentic teacher’s voice, with the resonance of a teacher’s calling and the timbre of a teacher’s passion for the welfare of his students. Teachers will recognize themselves in Vilson, from his fatherly affection for his students and disarmingly open accounts of classroom triumphs and defeats to his sorrow at a former student’s senseless death and anger over the poverty that throws up so many obstacles to student learning. Read More »
The late conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was famous for declaring “there is no alternative” as she executed her laissez-faire economic policies of austerity and privatization, redistributing wealth and helping to concentrate power into the hands of that nation’s rich and powerful. The notion that current ideas and policies are inescapable, that there can be no feasible or desirable alternatives, became a staple of apologies for the status quo long before Thatcher’s declaration. Unfortunately, it has also become a common trope in discussions of U.S. education policy in the wake of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.
A few weeks ago, noted education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond and AFT President Randi Weingarten[i] appeared in the pages of the Huffington Post with an essay declaring that the current accountability regime in American education was badly broken, and that there was indeed an alternative, a system of real accountability, that should be adopted in its stead. What is needed, they reasoned, is nothing less than a paradigm shift from the current fixation on “test and punish” to a “support and improve” model.
Darling-Hammond and Weingarten argued that, after more than a decade of proliferating standardized exams, our curricula had narrowed and too many of our schools had been transformed into ‘test prep’ factories. The linking of these tests to high-stakes decisions about the future of students, educators and schools has created a culture of fear and anxiety that saps student and teacher morale, drains the joy out of teaching and learning and diminishes the quality of education. The mass closure of schools has negatively impacted communities that can least afford to lose their very few public institutions, without meaningfully improving the education of students living in poverty, students of color and immigrant students. Read More »
Last month saw the publication of a new report, New York State’s Extreme School Segregation, produced by UCLA’s highly regarded Civil Rights Project. It confirmed what New York educators have suspected for some time: our schools are now the most racially segregated schools in the United States. New York’s African-American and Latino students experience “the highest concentration in intensely-segregated public schools (less than 10% white enrollment), the lowest exposure to white students, and the most uneven distribution with white students across schools.”
Driving the statewide numbers were schools in New York City, particularly charter schools. Inside New York City, “the vast majority of the charter schools were intensely segregated,” the report concluded, significantly worse in this regard “than the record for public schools.”
New York State’s Extreme School Segregation provides a window into the intersection of race and class in the city’s schools. As a rule, the city’s racially integrated schools are middle class, in which middle-class white, Asian, African-American and Latino students all experience the educational benefits of racial diversity. By contrast, the city’s racially segregated public schools are generally segregated by both race and class: extreme school segregation involves high concentrations of African-American and Latino students living in poverty. Read More »
We at the Shanker Institute are taking a break for the holidays.
We wish all of our readers a peaceful holiday season.
Posts will resume after the New Year.
- Leo Casey
In recent months, the Common Core has come under increasing criticism from a number of different quarters.
An op-ed in the New York Times’ Week in Review is emblematic of the best of this disapproving sentiment. Yet even it mixes together fundamental misconceptions about the entire Common Core project with legitimate issues of inadequate preparation for teachers and students and poor implementation by state education departments and districts. The Common Core is described as a “radical curriculum” that was introduced with “hardly any public discussion.” We are told that it is a “one size fits all” approach, built upon a standardized script that teachers must use for instruction. Finally, it is suggested that the Common Core is a “game that has been so prearranged that many, if not most, of the players will fail.”
This is the Common Core seen through the prism of a fun house mirror. In truth, the Common Core is neither “radical” nor a “curriculum,” but a set of grade level performance standards for student achievement in the core academic disciplines of English Language Arts and Mathematics.* Indeed, one of the more telling criticisms of the implementation of the Common Core is that in all too many states, districts and schools, these standards have not been developed into curricula which teachers could readily use in their classrooms. Read More »
“Injustice anywhere,” Martin Luther King famously wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Two events last week which might seem worlds apart provide evidence that working people around the globe are indeed tied together in King’s “single garment of destiny.”
In Texas, fourteen people died and up to 180 were injured in an explosion that obliterated a fertilizer factory and leveled the surrounding town. In Bangladesh, over 400 garment workers died when a factory building collapsed with thousands inside. Rescue and recovery operations continue to find additional Bangladeshi dead, with hundreds still missing. The human toll makes this the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry worldwide, even before the terrible final count is known.
Neither of these terrible events was “an accident.” In both cases, factory management engaged in dangerous and reprehensible conduct, creating entirely avoidable conditions that made these events possible, even predictable. Read More »
This is part two of a two-part post. The first part can be found here.
As the war against American unions reached a fever pitch in recent years, there emerged a small group of right-wing academics and think tanks that have taken up the anti-union cause in intellectual circles. Of particular note for our purposes are Terry Moe’s book, Special Interest, and a recent study, How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions?, which was jointly sponsored by the Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now. 
Since I’ve already written a critique of Moe’s book for the American Political Science Association’s journal, Perspective on Politics, my focus here is mainly on the Fordham/ERN report.
Both publications tell a very similar story (all the more remarkable given the political and economic context I discussed in Part I of this post), in which incredibly powerful teacher union Leviathans invariably win the day in all manner of educational and public policy fights. The Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli offered a ten-second sound bite for this meme, when he recently wrote that teacher unions “were the Goliath to the school reformers’ David.”
How does one find one’s way to such an unfounded conclusion? With an ideological analysis that has only the thinnest veneer of social science. Read More »
Last week, in “Is There A ‘Corporate Education Reform’ Movement?”, I wrote about the logic of forming strategic alliances on specific issues with those who are not natural allies, even those with whom you mostly disagree. This does not mean, however, that there aren’t those – some with enormous wealth and power – who are bent on undermining the American labor movement generally and teachers’ unions specifically. This is part one of a two-part post on this reality.
The American union movement is, it must be said, embattled and beleaguered. The recent passage of the Orwellian named ‘right to work’ law in Michigan, an anti-union milestone in the birthplace of the United Auto Workers and cradle of American industrial unionism, is but the latest assault on American working people and their unions. Since the backlash election of 2010 that brought Tea Party Republicans to power in a number of state governments, public sector workers have faced a legislative agenda designed to eviscerate their rights to organize unions and bargain collectively in such states as Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia.
Fueling these attacks is an underlying organic crisis that has greatly weakened the labor movement and its ability to defend itself. Union membership has fallen from a high point of 1 in 3 American workers at the end of WW II to a shade over 1 in 9 today.  At its height, American unions had unionized basic industries – auto, mining, steel, textiles, telecommunications – and had sufficient density to raise wages and improve working conditions for members and non-union workers as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report for 2012, organized American labor has fallen to its lowest density in nearly a century. Today, American unions have high density in only one major sector of the economy, K-12 education, and in that sector unions are now under ferocious attack.  Read More »
One of the more thoughtful voices in education, Larry Cuban, has delivered an interesting brief for the argument that there is no such thing as a “corporate reform movement.” While he acknowledges that America’s corporate elite largely share a view of how to reform America’s schools, focused on the creation of educational marketplaces and business-model schools as the engines of change, Cuban argues that it is mistake to overstate the homogeneity of perspectives and purposes. The power players of the reform movement have “varied, not uniform motives,” are “drawn from overlapping, but distinct spheres of influence,” and “vary in their aims and strategies.” The use of a term such as “corporate education reform” suggests “far more coherence and concerted action than occurs in the real world of politics and policymaking.”
Cuban’s argument amalgamates two different senses of the term “corporate education reform” – the notion that there is a movement for education reform led by corporate elites and the idea that there is a movement for education reform that seeks to remake public education in the image and likeness of for-profit corporations in a competitive marketplace.
In co-mingling these two distinct senses of the term, Cuban is adopting a common usage. And it is a usage not entirely without justification: many of the strongest advocates for transforming public schools into educational corporations are found in the corporate elite. But it is vital, I will argue here, that we separate these two conceptions of “corporate education reform” if we are to adequately understand the complexity of the political terrain on which the battles over the future of public education are being fought. Read More »
We at the Shanker Institute are taking a break for the holidays.
This is a sad holiday season, as we mourn the death of twenty school children and of six educators who gave their lives in defense of the young people placed in their care. We wish all of our readers a peaceful holiday season and some moments to begin to heal that part of our soul that was wounded in the Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday.
We will resume posting after the new year.
- Leo Casey
Leo Casey, UFT vice president for academic high schools, will succeed Eugenia Kemble as executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, effective this fall.
“You want me to teach this stuff, but I don’t have the stuff to teach.” So opens “Lost at Sea: New Teachers’ Experiences with Curriculum and Assessment,” a 2002 paper by Harvard University researchers about the plight of new teachers trying to learn the craft of teaching in the face of insubstantial curriculum frameworks and inadequate instructional materials.
David Kauffman, Susan Moore Johnson and colleagues interviewed a diverse collection of first- and second-year teachers in Massachusetts who reported that, despite state academic standards widely acknowledged to be some of the best in the country, they received “little or no guidance about what to teach or how to teach it. Left to their own devices they struggled day to day to prepare content and materials. The standards and accountability environment created a sense of urgency for these teachers but did not provide them with the support they needed.”
I found myself thinking about this recently when I realized that, with the advent of the Common Core State Standards, new teachers won’t be the only ones in this boat. Much of the country is on a fast-track toward implementation, but with little thought about how to provide teachers with the “stuff” – aligned professional development, curriculum frameworks, model lesson plans, quality student materials, formative assessments, and so on – that they will need to implement the standards well. Read More »