Monday, September 10, 2012

What Education Reform and the Chicago Teachers' Strike tell us

What Education reform and the Chicago Teachers’ Strike tells us.

Here’s a story:  For the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, which became the home of the Miracle on Ice, where the United States finally beat the U.S.S.R. in hockey to win the gold medal, the Olympic village was built a few miles away in Saranac Lake.  Rumor or legend has it, that given the opportunity to turn the Olympic Village into either a University or a prison, post Olympics, that the community chose a prison – for the jobs, presumably.   This is 1980, remember, and the War on Drugs has not yet been declared.  Indeed, it is two years before that war is declared and a few more before the crack epidemic hits the streets of urban America.  The Rockefeller Drug laws begins carting young men (mostly from the streets of New York) to face long prison terms over what is often no more than possession for personal use.  By the time I land in New York in 1987, we know when brothers say they were gone ‘upstate’ for a minute, that is code for having done a bid.  By the time Notorious B.I.G. releases his first album ‘Ready to Die’ in 1994, most black New York boys recognize the album’s early reference to C-76, a cellblock on Riker’s Island.  At one point, New York State boasts more prisons per capita than any other state in the union.  The absurdity of the Rockefeller Drug Laws having been brought to bear, the NY prison population has actually fallen by about 20 percent in recent years, but for an entire generation of young men, the damage has been done.  Further, this type of story is not germaine to New York State.  It has been a reality throughout the United States – skyrocketing prison populations between the 1970s and now, such that we outstrip every other developed country in the world (by far) in the percentage of our population incarcerated.  The vast majority are Black and Latino.  For quite a while, many states decided how many new hospital beds needed to be built, how many new hospitals, based on standardized test scores from 3rd grade, or 8th grade or 5th grade, or something equally preposterous.  In an age of prison explosion and the privatization thereof, our state apparatuses were planning, not on how to keep their youth out of jail, but on how to house them when they got there.

Education activists and teachers toil long hours trying to effect change in education policy.  There are many different theories abut how to ‘rescue’ the youth whose education, just about everyone can agree, is woeful.  Brilliant teachers find ways to actually educate even in the midst of every regulation designed seemingly to thwart that.  I speak to teachers everyday, and the lament is consistent – there are things we want these students to learn, ways in which we want them to be educated, that we cannot work on because standardized testing and /or restrictions on what we’re allowed to teach prevent teaching and learning of critical thinking skills.  Many of these teachers work ridiculously long after-hour extra-curricular activities that they hope provide some of what they don’t get to do in the class.   Further, these teachers in urban classrooms especially are finding that the massive disparity in resources available in their districts, as opposed to suburban (read: mostly white) districts, means that they’re consistently trying to produce a student who can compete on the next level, with less than half, less than quarter the resources available in other places.  Throughout the country, conservative thinking politicians have made this an excuse to gut public education – not transform, but gut.  The ambitious, beautiful experiment; the idea that a country is made stronger by educating its citizenry is paid much lip service as education is turned over bit by bit to the private sector.  We’ve always been aware that we were being educated so as to be a workforce, so as to produce the ideas that build well… the most powerful nation on Earth.  Seems like that idea has been modified some.  Apparently we no longer need big critical ideas.  We need folks who will do/facilitate the work that will help multi-national corporations get larger and larger.  What it appears we no longer need is the sort of system in which an education might lift up or God-forbid, enlighten a working class across the lines already set up to divide it.  So public education is going the way of all things.

It is important to understand that as we examine the rhetoric around the Chicago teachers’ Union strike which began today.  Rahm Emanuel et al have done a marvelous job (with the media’s help) of painting the teachers as unreasonable, as callous, greedy loafers who don’t care about the children and just do this as a job for which they want to be paid handsomely.  They will not tell you that the majority of teachers stay after school and involve themselves in after-school programs, or at some point have had to drive children home, or to the hospital, or to the poetry slam, or coach debate or chess or football – you get the picture.  They tell you it is about bigger class sizes and longer school days which teachers are too lazy to do, but they don’t tell you that the teachers are mostly already working those hours and they certainly don’t tell you that one of the biggest sticking points is about the attempt to introduce merit pay for teachers – a system in which a teacher’s salary is determined by the success of the students. 

There is no theory of education that suggests that this is a good idea, even if the magical circumstance existed, in which the playing field is level across all regions, classes, housing zonings etc.  There is just no way that the full intellectual and human possibility of a student can be held hostage to the salary of those providing the instruction.  This is but one of the big ideas being wrestled with in these negotiations.

In Englewood, on Chicago’s South Side for instance, students in High School there can all tell you about someone whom they know who’s been killed, and or imprisoned.  There are schools there without a school nurse or a varsity team of any kind, or a gymnasium.  Teachers are being asked to ensure that these students succeed in environments in which they absolutely cannot, and every year the education budgets get cut and cut again.  That education is as segregated as it was before Brown vs Board of Education is not even a subject that those in authority want to discuss.  To discuss that is to admit that we are broken; that an overhaul of the ways in which we think about education and the people who provide it, and how we equip them to provide it is necessary.

This is the fight being undertaken across the country that finds symbol now in the Chicago Teachers’ Union strike.  2012 has been the year of suppressing unions as a whole, and this struggle is no different, but here’s the bad news.  Those of us who see ourselves as education activists begin with the notion that we all want the same thing.  We begin by assuming too often that everybody wants our young people to be the best they can be.  I mean, who wouldn’t want such a thing?  Who doesn’t want to see the next generation across the board achieve the American dream?  We appeal to the authorities because we believe that if we can get them to see our arguments, that we will begin the process of positive education transformation.  We couldn’t be more wrong.

Let’s go back to prison:  The Corrections Corporation of America, the largest such company in the country boasts a war chest of $250 million and sits on the New York Stock Exchange.  It sent letters to 48 states offering to buy their prisons outright.  The corporation insists on a guarantee that the prisons be kept at least 90percent full so as to ensure their profit margin.  The world’s largest private prison corporation is banking on a weakened economy to keep afloat a business that they see as being threatened.  After all, crime has dropped significantly in the last 20 years.  Still the prison population grows as these private massas still need bodies to fill their neo-slave needs.  This is not to even begin on the actual corporations who contract with these larger private corporations for the 93 cents a day workforce, to which they’ll have access.

Our politicians and corporations already know the relationship between a lack of education and imprisonment.  In fact they count on it.  The 3rd grade test scores tell them.  We’re not about to convince them of anything.  And this cynicism towards the education of our youth finds its way in to the treatment of our teachers.  Whether or not we have children, we need to understand that their education is all our concern and that the authorities don’t intend to get it done.  We have to recommend books to the children we know.  We have to volunteer with youth organizations and sport teams.  We have to engender in our youth the sort of critical skills that they might use to transform themselves and their peers.  And we must support the teachers and tell politicians that this is not the place at which you push back against the intellectual, monetary and physical resources to which OUR children should have access.  They won’t just see the right thing to do.  We have  to stay in the streets – make them do it, anyway.

To schedule a reading or an appearance please contact Ofer Ziv at Blue Flower Arts at 845-677-8559 or email


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