Why ISIS is not a Dark Knight

Thomas Friedman recently compared ISIS to The Dark Knight in his op-ed piece for the New York Times. Essentially he states that:

These are gangs of young men who are telling us in every way possible that our rules no longer apply. Reason cannot touch them, because rationalism never drove them.

Furthermore, he quotes Michael Caine’s famous line from the movie:

some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn. …”

Friedman seems to be saying that ISIS is run by irrational, Joker-esque villains who cannot be reasoned with. The problems with such an analysis are at least two-fold.

1) ISIS is motivated (some would say primarily motivated) by a desire to make money. The New York Times reported earlier in September about how much money they make from oil revenues. It is no accident that the first places the US helped to pushback ISIS were in the oil fields. While their methods may seem “dark and irrational” to someone from the western world who does not live in such a sociological context, their ideology is perfectly rational to them and they have very concrete reasons for doing what they do. While we may disagree with their reasoning, we have no right to claim that they are “irrational” or that they can’t be “negotiated” with. In fact, the negotiations are already happening in Turkey (a fact that Friedman seems to ignore). Or perhaps put more bluntly by Robert Fisk:

the government “cannot negotiate under the edge of a knife”. But we all know what that means. You can.

2) This continues the unhelpful stereotype that terrorists are just one-sided evil caricatures. Terrorist motivations are always based in a reality that is multifaceted. To put everyone in ISIS into one big group gives them more credit and shows more unity than there may actually be within the organization.

Why do I care so much about this? Because it leads Friedman to make statements like this:

Where there is disorder — think Libya, Iraq, Syria, Mali, Chad, Somalia — collaborate with every source of local, regional and international order to contain the virus until the barbarism burns itself out. These groups can’t govern, so ultimately locals will seek alternatives.

It feels undoubtedly like a reshuffled, burdened Kipling poem for the 21st century. Friedman’s view of the situation forces him to create a world of two tribes: order vs. disorder. This kind of jihadist, cold-waresque synthesis leads us to think that we have to pick a side when, in reality, the situation is much more complex than thinking of ISIS as a “virus” in the middle east. Furthermore, he makes the assumption that “these groups can’t govern.” I don’t know where Friedman gets this idea. You only have to throw a stone so far in any direction to see that powerful dictators can lead and control countries with relative ease. All they need is a little bit of fear, torture, and military strength.

What we need to think about is how we can stop this two-sided thinking of good vs. evil American heroism history and start thinking about the complex geopolitical structures in place in the middle east and how to coexist with it in a way that is not antithetical to American aims.

Lessons for the Union from Ocean Hill-Brownsville

A Call to Action

Last week I wrote on Martin Luther King Jr’s views on education. I would be doing a disservice to King if I didn’t continue with a call to action. I want to create a framework for discussion amongst those within the union who also believe that some kind of reform is necessary in the public schools.

My research into MLK’s views on education led me what some like Charles Issacs believe to be the beginning of the split between the black community and the United Federations of Teachers: The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Experiment in Community Schools. Isaacs was a first year teacher who broke with the striking teachers in New York and decided to teach in district of Ocean Hill-Brownsville. He was a white teacher in a district made up of predominately black and Puerto Rican students.

As I listened to Isaacs speak about the issue, I saw my first glimpses into the idea that even unions are not always on the right side of history.

All the issues encompassing Ocean Hill-Brownsville are beyond the scope of this article, but a few particular notes on the basic problems of Ocean Hill-Brownsville will help to ignite the discussion I hope all unionized educators will want to have.

Brief Notes on Ocean Hill-Brownsville

There are three main ideas from Ocean Hill-Brownsville in 1968 to higlight as a framework for proposed reforms at the grassroots level (rather than the corporate reform modeled by Gates and others): 1) The issue of community schools, 2) The issue of black power and their relationship to education, and 3) The issue of “feather bedding” by the unions.

In his talk at CUNY, Isaacs first talks about the abject failure of the integration movement of New York which led black community members to try and take over Ocean Hill-Brownsville and the success he saw in the “community control” model of schools that the district spear-headed. I.F. Stone even wrote a piece title “The Mason-Dixon Line Moves to New York” explaining how hot the issue of race had become in New York.

Isaacs and others talk about a movement against the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) when Ocean Hill-Brownsville parents and community members moved to control the education system locally through a movement known as decentralization. The movement was theoretically supported by the New York City Board of Education, but when a number of white teachers were transferred out of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Union President Al Shanker cried foul and called the union to go on strike.

There were three separate strikes during this time period — each for slightly different reasons — but the important thing to know is that up to this point, the black community usually supported the teachers union.

Isaacs argues that the issue of the black power movement scared many white and Jewish Americans in NYC. They were afraid that many of the progressive teachers (both black and white), who they deemed as radicals, would teach the ideas of black nationalism and other liberation ideals to their students. Issacs dismisses these myths in his talks, but notes that the unions were able to use this prejudice to organize mass movements that would eventually end community control of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school system.

Issacs talks in the Q&A section of the video (which is probably the most interesting and informative part of the video for a discussion of the modern education system) about what he refers to as “feather bedding” programs. We would refer to these programs today as class size reduction programs, but Isaacs states that:

it was a feather bedding program which just put more staff, more union teachers, in the schools. In the place that it was tried, parents weren’t impressed by it. They said the teachers were just doing the same things, but will smaller classes. It was just easier work for the teachers. And there were evaluations done that showed that it was not effective, but the union wanted that. It was a lot of jobs and a lot of easier work for the people that were there.

I quarrel a bit with Isaacs choice of words. We all know that teachers are overworked and underpaid, but Isaacs does bring up a good point here which I want to explore later in the article.

These three issues 1) community schools, 2) black power, and 3) feather-bedding programs which Issacs brings up in his talk on Ocean Hill-Brownsville experience are important foci for a larger discussion of the modern school reform movement. Why? Because all three of these issues are still central issues in the modern debate on schooling.

Community Controlled Schools: Are they Feasible?

The question that I ask in the title line of this section is a bit of a misnomer. The reality is most public schools in America already are community schools in the sense that they have a local school board elected by the populace, parents and students from the community attend those schools, and local community issues drive many of the debates and controversy in that district.

Community controlled schools in the context of this article, however, considers how much of a voice a particular community has in the creation of educational policies in their district. These problems are particularly acute in large, urban districts because of the sheer size of the bureaucracy.

While I am not an expert on the politics of New York, I can speak from my own experience as a teacher in Los Angeles. Los Angeles Unified School District is made up of over 900 schools and the needs of students in the San Fernando Valley is going to be different from the needs of students in Downtown LA. The fact that they are all in the same district underscores the fact that someone in a downtown office is making decisions for students in San Fernando as well as students in South Gate, Hollywood, and San Pedro.

Community controlled school advocates argue that communities should be allowed local control for issues like discipline policies and curriculum decisions. One major problem that Mr. Isaacs brought up in his discussion was the hot button issue of school suspensions. Ironically, the issue has not changed much over the years. The US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights noted in March 2014 that:

Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. On average, 5% of white students are suspended, compared to 16% of black students. American Indian and Native-American-Alaskan students are also disproportionately suspended and expelled, representing less that 1% of the student population but 2% of out-of-school suspensions and 3% of expulsions.

There was a marked change of tone when Isaacs overheard an assistant principal at Ocean Hill-Brownsville say:

. . . to get these skills for survival you must respect and listen to your teachers, all your teachers be they black or white. However, if they don’t respect you, if we find they can’t do the job, there’ll be some changes made. Now remember, give your teachers – and many of them are new – give them a chance. If you do find yourself in a dispute with a teacher and you’re in the right we’ll defend you. You can depend on that.

Within the community model, Isaacs believed there was a new level of respect between the teachers and the students because there was an explicit tone given off by the administration that suspension and expulsion would not be the first option. In fact, according to this administrator, students would be given agency and voice to tell their own side of the story.

Isaacs was obviously someone who did not see himself beholden to the UFT so what he said next may not represent all members of the UFT in 1968, but Isaacs suggested that many members of the UFT who viewed blacks as a discipline problem wanted carte blanche to suspend a student without anyone questioning their authority. Isaacs argues that this was one of the major changes that took place at Ocean Hill-Brownsville because teachers didn’t see themselves as the stereotypical teacher overlord with students who must do their bidding.

When communities take control of their schools, such novel policies can take root. Alfie Kohn, in his book Beyond Discipline notes the importance of the considering this pivotal relationship between teacher and student because:

Like simple coercion, punishment models the use of power — as opposed to reason or cooperation — and this can profoundly affect a child’s developing value structure. Specifically, the child learns that when you don’t like the way someone is acting, you must make something bad happen to that person until he gives in: Do this or here’s what I’m going to do to you. Much of what is disturbing about some children’s behavior suggests that they learned this lesson all too well — possibly from us.

And discipline policies are just the tip of the iceberg when we consider all of the ways community input might help improve student morale. Other possibilities include improvements to the curriculum to make the content more engaging, non-traditional alternative scheduling to allow students to work in the community or help take care of their families, and community projects that help bring new life within community spaces. From there the list is endless, but we would really have to give that community the autonomy to do what they want to do.

Black Power: What is it good for?

There has been a long history of treating black power as something that is, at best, a compartmentalized part of history “for the blacks” or, at worst, a dangerous view that will lead to violence from the inner cities. Just as a minority of Muslims led to the unfortunate stereotyping of all Muslims as terrorists, a minority of black radicals calling for violence against the state have led some to dismiss black studies altogether. The majority of black movements, however, have had, at their core, a message of struggle to reclaim their own narrative.

Just as community controlled schools have the power to increase student morale, movements that empower minorities should not be seen as dangerous or second rate history. Instead, teachers across the disciplines ought to be celebrating racial diversity in ways that do not just compartmentalize them to a month of “black history” or that black dude who influenced white politics. These students need to be shown examples of leaders from their own communities and their own racial backgrounds who stood up for justice and healing in a broken world.

Rachel Levy wrote an interesting article recently where she argued for the importance of minority teachers in our public school systems:

Another irritating argument includes that “it doesn’t matter what color a teacher is, as long as the teacher is good, that’s all that matters.” That is completely missing the point of the importance and benefits of students of color having teachers who look like them (see: Study: Minority students do better under minority teachers, Why students need more Black and Latino teachers). Yes, all teachers regardless of race can be trained to be effective teachers of black students, but black teachers can “be more adept at motivating and engaging students of color.” Additionally, by having students of color see people who look like them in successful positions, it can help prove to them that they can hold such positions too. Also, comments such as “color doesn’t matter,” is possibly one of the most racist statements one could make. By saying, “I don’t see color,” or “color doesn’t matter,” is basically saying “I don’t see your experiences, your stories, your struggles. Those elements of your identity and life don’t matter to me.” Colorblindness is not justice, equality, or being a good teacher. Colorblindness is ignoring the very issues that your students need you to fight against.

She goes on to say that:

I wish that white teachers would not take assertions such as “we need more teacher of color” so personally or as an attack on them. I am a white teacher who has mostly taught students of color. While I am certain that I can always do better as a teacher and in particular with students of color, such statements and conclusions are not directed personally at me or usually at other white teachers; they are addressed to public education as an institution.

A teachers, we need to be more concerned about this issue of having role models that students of color can look up to in our public schools.

Avoiding The Feather Bed

Finally, Isaacs made the point that unions are often more concerned with making the job easier for teachers than actually making school better for students. As a teacher, I am always offended by this statement. Teaching is one of the hardest jobs in the profession without even noting the lack of praise or thanks from both the majority of administrators and students. But when you sit down for a minute and think about the question in a broader sense, the question becomes clearer:

What would you do differently if you had a class of 20 to 25 instead of a class of 40 to 45?

I think that I am in a unique position to talk about this because I primarily teach history in what California calls the Special Day setting. This means that I work primarily with students who have mild to moderate disabilities. In other words, these are the students that you wouldn’t be able to look at and say “they’re different,” but nonetheless either read far below grade level and usually struggle to learn math algorithms in the traditional way.

In other words, I am in these smaller classes everyday. As I consider what I did last year, I think of all the time that I spent lecturing in front of the class using Keynote and other technology tools to try and teach students about the French Revolution and the Great Depression.

I’m not saying I lecture 100% of the time. I use flexible groupings to try and work with students, I use round robin rotations to try and give individualized help based on student needs, and we use writers workshops with individual conferencing with students to help them improve their writing. All of these ideas came out of lived experiences in the classroom and learning from experienced teachers who have been doing this a long time.

But for all those times that I did lecture, did I do anything that these students wouldn’t have received in a general education setting? Was I just as guilty of feather bedding?

These questions need to be seriously considered as we look at the issues of reforming education in the near future. I am a strong proponent of smaller class sizes because I can see what can happens in my smaller classes when things run like they’re supposed to. I would be the first to admit that they don’t always run like they’re supposed to, but I am trying my damnedest to help move these students toward being on grade level with their peers.

How can we as a teaching force avoid the traps of the feather bed in the future? These are still questions that I grapple with to this day.

Conclusion

As teachers listen to education reformers like Campbell Brown try to fight to take away tenure, teachers don’t have to sit idly by and let the narrative be defined in such narrow terms. We have the power, just as the parents and community of Ocean Hill-Brownsville had in 1968, to try and define our own narrative in a positive light that accepts innovation and change on our own terms.

Rather than digging in our heels, teachers need to show that they themselves have thought about the need for change in schools and provide coherent answers as a counternarrative to traditional “slash-and-burn” ed reform. This is why I’m partly including this question and answer section below to try and decide how we can get started.

Teachers must go into this knowing, however, that just as the 1968 community controlled experiment in Ocean Hill-Brownsville ultimately collapsed, there are powerful forces at play to end the teacher narrative as well. In fact, many of the unions are playing right into the hands of ed reformers by making the debate as narrow as possible and just returning fire. The best education leaders, however, realize that education permeates every part of our society and should be treated as the complex behemoth that it is. Such leaders will try to reform not only the debate on education, but also the types of questions we are asking in those debates.

Q&A: But what about…?

Aren’t community controlled schools the same as charters?

No. While there are some charters that are part of districts, including many good schools that I know of in LAUSD, my argument for community controlled schools would be entirely district run schools with more input from more stakeholders with more autonomy from district policies. Communities would be free to work with teachers and administrators to form policies that work for their schools.

As a teacher, aren’t you worried this will hurt the power of unions because you are decentralizing power?

If done correctly, I would not be worried about these issues. I would even be in favor of permanently breaking up bigger urban districts into smaller districts as long as all of those teachers could remain part of that the same bargaining unit. For instance, I favor breaking up LA unified school district into three smaller districts, but still keep the teachers in Los Angeles unified under one big bargaining unit.

While this might be politically hard to do or even unfeasible, I would argue that the union could still hold its power because it could call a strike if one of the new smaller districts has a labor grievance because all the districts could strike in solidarity with the aggrieved unit. While this might change the way the union thinks about itself, I would argue that the idea deserves discussion before immediately being shot down by big urban teacher unions.

Adding an extra element to curriculum like black liberation movements means we will have to cut out some other part of the history curriculum? In fact, if we spend too much time just talking about minoirty groups in the school, won’t they will be less likely to understand or identify those who are different from them?

The question itself exudes the compartmentalization that still colors so many people’s view of social science. Many of the elements of racial diversity would fit nicely alongside many of the things we already teach. In addition, math teachers and economics teachers might do well to consider how they can show issues of inequality are numerical issues. These issues do not just need to be addressed in a social science setting.

In regards to the second question, I would argue that, as of now, there are little to no people of color in the high school social science curriculum as it is. During his talk at CUNY, Mr. Isaacs also talked about the election of the new Ocean Hill-Brownsville steering committee which I think would be appropriate to talk about here. When the UFT teachers returned to the district after the strike, there was some debate as to how to elect people to the steering committee at the local school. The white teachers had a majority in the school and some of the black teachers felt that they would never have a true voice in the school because the majority would always rule.

As a kind of compromise, the school decided to elect three black members to the steering committee and three white members to the committee. Mr. Isaacs was very deliberate during his talk that this decision was pivotal in creating an atmosphere of respect amongst the faculty at Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

I’m not attempting to say that 50% of the curriculum needs to focus on issues relating to minority history, but it would be sure be a step in the right direction if we started to think about how we can at least include them in the curriculum.

I also think the question about identifying with people different from you is a false question. There was never a debate when the dominant culture primarily put white people in the history books. No one ever asked, are there too many white people in the book?

Nonetheless, the question is a valid one. I am not promoting the idea that in a school with a lot of black children that only African American history should be taught. What I am saying is that students at that school ought to, at the least, be taught to ask, “Why are there so many black students at this school?” What led to this current state of affairs and how am I to understand myself within it? We must obviously go beyond this and teach them all sorts of history, but it will mean little if they cannot understand the smaller history of their own culture.

How do I start such a movement at my school?

Merlin Mann is famous for the line “no is going to give you permission to do that great thing you want to do.” In other words, no one is going to come to your school and offer you a position of “teacher leader who integrates the idea of community schools and all administrators praise him/her.” If you want change in a school, you have to start with yourself and your own classroom.

Alfie Kohn and others have noted that these discipline policies and other issues work best when done at the schoolwide level, but when barred from this, you have to start in your own classroom. Trust me when I say that students will start talking about it and others will eventually start to ask you about it. It won’t happen all at once and it won’t be a Freedom Writers type Hollywood ending. There is a lot of bureaucracy to get in the way.

I would also suggest starting by asking big questions rather than narrow, debatable questions that so often dominate the education discussion.

WWKD: What would MLK do in this age of Educational Reform?

Introduction

Recently I saw an interesting twitter conversation take place over how Martin Luther King Jr. might feel about the modern day education reform movement.

The conversation started with a tweet by Sam Pirozzolo

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The edweek article recounts the recent Wisconsin supreme court case ruling that sided against unions and upheld right to work laws. This quickly turned into a debate over organized labor with Linda1746 criticizing Dr. Steve Perry, who is a a pro-charter school principal by showing a tweet he made in November of 2013 with her own graphics thrown in:

Bt6DIy-CAAAIbRl

Others came to Perry’s defense with tweets such as this one from a twitter account known as the NYC Parents Union:

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Perry himself also responded with such tweets as:

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and

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WWKD: What would King Do?

Obviously, others on twitter asked Perry to back up his claims and he suggested that his view of MLK Jr. could be substantiated by a book written by King entitled Where do we go From Here? Chaos or Community. According to Stanford:

While vacationing in the Caribbean in January and February 1967, King wrote the first draft of his final book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Accompanied by Coretta Scott King, Bernard Lee, and Dora McDonald, King rented a secluded house in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, with no telephone. This was one of the very few times in King’s adult life that he was completely isolated from the demands of the movement and could focus entirely on his writing. He labored on the initial manuscript for a month, sending chapters to Stanley Levison in New York for his revisions.

Because Perry’s view of King is quite a non-traditional one (as AFT president Randi Weingarten noted, King supported strikes for Sanitation workers right up to his death), I thought I should check Perry on his claims. The following is what I discovered as I read through the book.

When both sides of the aisle (in this case the unions and the school reformers) claim that King was on their side, there is not so much a battle about what happened, but a battle over the interpretation of what happened. Furthermore, trying to find King’s views on a subject that really did not exist during his lifetime makes the question somewhat anachronistic. Similar arguments trying to suss out Jeffersonian or Hamiltonian views on contemporary America tire out historians due to their highly theoretical foundations.

How would MLK feel about contemporary education?

MLK’s critical tone toward segregation in the United States spread from bus boycotts and lunch counter protests of the 1950s to desegregating schools and places of work in the 1960s. If we are to ask any question about King’s views on education, they must be couched in terms of how well any reform methods would lead to higher levels of school integration. In other words, if King were alive today, what would he think of the state of integration in the year 2014? Any other discussion of tenure, due process for teachers, or effective teaching would take a back seat for him to school integration.

Any cursory look at the current state of education shows that segregation has increased since the 1970s, but not in the way you think:

Desegregation progress was very substantial for blacks, and occurred in the South from the mid- 1960s to the late l980s. Contrary to many claims, the South has not gone back to the level of segregation before Brown. It has lost all of the additional progress made after l967 but is still the least segregated region for black students.

The growth of segregation has been most dramatic for Latino students, particularly in the West, where there was substantial integration in the l960s, and segregation has soared. A clear pattern is developing of black and Latino students sharing the same schools; it deserves serious attention from educators and policymakers.

Segregation is typically segregation by both race and poverty. Black and Latino students tend to be in schools with a substantial majority of poor children, but white and Asian students are typically in middle-class schools.

Additionally, with states like Texas looking to replace governors, debates about school segregationn are raging throughout the United States. The issue of segregation comes up again and again as we consider reforms in contemporary America.

In addition to his views on desegregation, King also believed that a kind of “first act” in the Civil Rights movement ended after the 1960s. In this first act, whites had acquiesced to civil rights pressure because:

The practical cost of change [in civil rights] for the nation up to this point had been cheap. The limited reforms have been observed at bargain rates. There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities with whites. Even the psychological adjustment is far from formidable. Having exaggerated the emotional difficulties for decades, when demands for new conduct became inescapable, white Southerners may have trembled under the strain but they did not collapse. (excerpt from “Where do we Go from here” by King, 5-6)

King goes on to talk about the greater cost that white America will have to pay if they truly want to see justice brought to America. This second phase would see the “stiffening of white resistance” because “the long-range costs of adequately implementing programs to fight poverty, ignorance, and slums will reach 1 trillion dollars” (Where do We go from Here, 6).

The two issues of segregation and white resistance to real change is the lens through which I will try to explain King’s views on education and unions.

MLK on School Desegregation

In the initial portions of the book, as I noted above, King’s primary criticism of the public school system is their continued support of segregation in deed (even if their words said otherwise) when he notes that:

Even the Supreme court, despite its original courage and integrity, curbed itself only a little . . . when it handed down its Pupil Placement decision, in effect returning to the states the power to determine the tempo of change. This subsequent decision became the keystone that slowed school desegregation down to a crawl (p. 11)

This criticism of segregation is not limited to the actual people in the school. King is quick to criticize a school performance he went to where:

. . . we listened to the folk music and melodies of various immigrant groups. We were certain that the program would end with the most original of all American music, the Negro spiritual. But we were mistaken . . . All the students, black and white . . . had been victimized by just another expression of America’s penchant for ignoring the Negro, making him invisible and making his contributions insignificant.

Rather than just criticize physical segregation, King also criticizes the cultural segregation where schools ignore black contributions to American society. Throughout the book, MLK ruthlessly criticizes overt segregation and de facto segregation.

In this first case regarding segregation, MLK would probably make the same argument as the union, but probably would not ally himself with the unions (especially after the UFT actions of 1968. MLK and the union both bring up again and again throughout the book the issue of poverty. In this sense, I believe MLK and the unions would agree that educational inequity is primarily an issue of poverty and segregation rather that side with the reformers who primarily argue that ineffective teachers are what hold back the education system.

But MLK would probably have at least one caveat about the union argument. MLK would probably view the current party lines within the Union as defeatist. He says in his book that:

In the days ahead we must not consider it unpatriotic to raise certain basic questions about our national character. We must begin to ask: Why are there forty million poor people in a nation overflowing with such unbelievable affluence? Why has our nation placed itself in the position of being God’s military agent on earth, and intervened recklessly in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic? . . .

All these questions remind us that there is a need for a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society. For its very survival’s sake, America must reexamine old presuppositions and release itself from many things that for centuries have been held sacred. For the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die, a new set of values must be born. Our economy must become more person-centered than property- and profit-centered. Our government must depend more on its moral power than on its military power. (141-142)

First MLK notes that we must not be afraid to ask the tough questions. MLK would probably be quick to note that teachers are not asking these tough questions. For instance, why are teachers not allying themselves more fully within the communities they teach and fighting for the rights of the community to educational equity? Why is it accepted, for instance, that poor families must remain poor in their communities? I don’t think MLK would allow union to escape with their pat answers without asking these deeper questions.

Secondly, the arguments that MLK makes here and in other places give evidence to the idea that King was probably a Social Democrat. He talks in another part of the book that America is “still far behind” when compared to countries like England and France because they “provide more relative security for their people” (14). For education outcomes to change significantly, King would argue that everything else in America (beyond just rhetoric) would need to change as well.

Education is not a Vacuum

As noted in the quotes from the last section, King argued that a “radical restructuring” of society was necessary. Although some in the government worried that King might be a communist, King really wanted a safety net to avoid poverty for all people. King thought of the Civil Rights movement as something for more than just blacks:

Let us, therefore, not think of our movement as one that seeks to integrate the Negro into all the existing values of American society. Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved nation to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humanness. (142)

King goes on to say that the black community is “equipped” for this because they have been “seared in the flames of suffering” and “have learned from our have-not status that it profits a nation little to gain the whole world of means and lose the end, its own soul” (142).

Rather than asking the black community to enter into white community and simply be accepted, King represented the white system in their purely capitalistic, entrepreneurial exuberance as fundamentally flawed. Instead of buying into this white American dream and become a stock broker in a get rich quick scheme, King challenges his audience to consider the values of the stock market and getting rich quickly while others are dying of malnutrition. King challenges all his listeners, teachers and students included, to imagine a new world full of justice that injects “new meaning into the veins of American life” (142).

I assume King viewed the ends of education similarly. King would have argued that, like civil rights activists, educators are entrusted as the guardians of this just society King dreams of.

Tying these two themes within the book together, King sees schools as part of a nationwide movement to end desegregation of all kinds. Schools, however, are just one part of a system where very powerful people keep their jobs by maintaining the status quo. The integration of schools would be just one part of MLK’s goal of an integrated society built on just principles. He might view the schools as centers for this integration to take place, but integration of the schools alone would not be enough for King.

He talks a lot about slums and ghettos in the books and the real economic changes that would have to take place on a systemic, governmental level for any real change to take place. For instance, King argues:

Negroes have irrevocably undermined the foundations of Southern segregation: they have assembled the power through self-organization and coalition to place their demands on all significant national agendas . . . From issues of personal dignity they are now advancing to programs that impinge upon the basic system of social and economic control. At this level Negro programs go beyond race and deal with economic inequality, wherever it exists. In the pursuit of these goals, the white poor become involved, and the potentiality emerges for a powerful new alliance. (17)

And later argues that:

We must use every constructive means to amass economic and political power. This is the kind of legitimate power we need. We must work to build racial pride and refute the notion that black is evil and ugly. But this must come through a program, not merely through a slogan.

MLK realized that words only get a person so far. At a certain point, we need to have a plan and that plan needs to have realizable goals that create reasonable programs.

In terms of economic issues, MLK probably would have sided with the unions. I don’t think MLK would have stood with the reformers who call for the dismissals of teachers as a solution to educational problems. I would argue that MLK’s main concerns would be implementing systemic changes such as ending suspension rates which obviously work against minority issues. MLK would have fought for community programs that aim to empower minorities at a local level.

I also don’t think MLK would have seen charters as an acceptable alternative for public education.

MLK would probably not have accepted charters as a reasonable substitute for public schools for two main reasons: 1) Charters make up less than 10% of schools. 2) Charters are often as segregated (or sometimes more segregated) than public schools.

For reason #1, King would make the argument that making 10% of schools really, really good is not a solution for 90% of the students in America. As we have already noted, MLK saw education in terms of a larger socioeconomic system and I simply can’t imagine that he would be happy with just 10% of schools being good while the rest wallow.

Reason #2 is obviously the more important issue. The UCLA civil rights project had this to say in regards to charter schools segregation levels:

Our analysis of the 40 states, the District of Columbia, and several dozen metropolitan areas with large enrollments of charter school students reveals that charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation. While examples of truly diverse charter schools exist, our data show that these schools are not reflective of broader charter trends.

While we want to keep in mind that these rates vary widely from state to state (based on state law), the general trend is worrying and would most definitely have worried MLK.

The Connection between Education and Politics

One interesting people group that King uses in the book is the Jews. First pointing out the stereotype that Jews “attained social mobility and status today because they had money,” (163) MLK dismisses this as a lie and states instead:

Jews progressed because they possessed a tradition of education combined with social and political action. The Jewish family enthroned education and sacrificed to get it. The result was far more than abstract learning. Uniting social action with educational competence, Jews became enormously effective in political life. These Jews who became lawyers, businessmen, writers, entertainers, union leaders, and medical men did not vanish into the pursuits of their trade exclusively. They lived an active life in political circles, learning techniques and arts of politics. (163)

King goes on to argue that Jews and Blacks, despite their many differences, have a shared heritage of suffering. And King argues that Blacks “must involve everyone we can reach, even those with inadequate education, and together acquire political sophistication by discussion, practice and reading.” King goes on saying that “Education without social action is a one-sided value because it has not true power potential” (164).

King sees a direct line between education and politics, especially in the formation of protest movements and oppressed people groups. He goes on to argue that such a movement must start at the local level to “turn the ghettos into a vast school” (165).

Of course, we must remember that this book is, at least in part, a response to the black power movement that formed in reaction to non-violent movements like King. This book for King is a kind of manifesto for why non-violent movements like his might ring truer and louder than the violent movements which threatened his own. King is arguing that we ought to value education because it allows for discussion and organization to happen at the local level where people don’t need to give in to what he refers to as the “dim past” of slavery and oppression.

What to Learn from MLK

As the last section shows, MLK’s main concern was using education for blacks to help them organize and use non-violent social action to make the world a more just place. So in this sense, I must sadly conclude by saying that MLK would have little to say to the modern education movement on either side.

He might remind the union that they are, in some ways, complicit in the actions of de facto segregation by not clamoring louder and organizing more fiercely for educational equity in all parts of the United States. He might remind elected officials all over the United States that segregation didn’t disappear simply because people have accepted a new form it. He might remind the teachers union that perhaps many of these parents bringing suits like Vegara have legitimate complaints based on years of de facto segregation.
On the other hand, he might also remind the education reformers that if their primary target is teachers, they are shooting the primary people who dedicated their lives to empowering students to do the types of things that King asks. He might remind the reformers that these teachers take meager salaries to do a very difficult job with very little satisfaction. He might also remind the reformers that castigating the teachers as the center of the problems may push even more away from a profession that already affords little respect in the United States (especially compared with other countries like Finland where teachers are respected on the same level as doctors and lawyers).

And he might remind all of us that the world is far from the dream he shared on the steps of the Capitol. As an example, I would like to share a quote that shows a very subtle form of racism that King noted in the 1960s that still exists very powerfully today:

Often white liberals are unaware of their latent prejudices. A while ago I ran into a white woman who was anxious to discuss the race problem with me. She said: ‘I am very liberal. I have no prejudices toward Negroes. I believe Negroes should have the right to vote . . . Of course, I must confess that I would not want my daughter to marry a Negro.’ This lad could not see that her failure to accept intermarriage negated her claim to genuine liberalism.

I am a union member of the Los Angeles Unified School District and I will support my union because, when done correctly, unions have the power to try and erase these types of latent prejudice as we work with communities on a local level. We can combat prejudice like this (which still exists to a great extent, especially in relationships) if we combine social action and education. I’m not suggesting that every single teacher needs to attend all protests in the area, but I am suggesting that teachers ought to be more involved in their communities and parents.

If they were more involved, there would be no need for watchdog groups because parents would feel secure coming to a teacher or administrator and knowing the problem would be dealt with. Obviously, such social action on the part of teachers will not solve all problems, nor will it stop vested interests from trying to take away tenure and other protections from teachers, but it would go a hell of a long way in helping to create the type of world King and others stood for.

Conclusion

When we examine these issues from this perspective, I think we can agree that short sighted twitter battles like those between pro-reform movements like Perry and those who favor protecting teachers dumb down a much more important conversation. Not only could I not find the elements that Perry was arguing MLK stood for, but I could find very little, if any, support for charters or reform movements in MLK’s book. I’ve already stated that, on other side, the unions have no track record to show that they’ve fought to integrate schools or engage with communities on the level that King called for.

Perhaps we ought to think of King as a beacon of light guiding us toward the mountaintop. I do not say this to make his mountaintop a utopia. King would be the first to argue that the mountaintop is not some pie-in-the-sky notion of theoretical foundations. Rather, education, when thought of as part of the larger socioeconomic factors that affect cities in the United States, ought to be places where this world of justice collides with reality.

This is worth watching if you are skeptical about technology democratizing education. In the talk, Tressiemc shows:

How are inequality regimes challenged, or sometimes perpetuated, in online environments? In this talk Tressie McMillan Cottom — blogger, PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Emory University, and PhD Intern at the Microsoft Research Network’s Social Media Collective — discusses inequality in online learning, based on qualitative research with students taking courses online at for-profit institutions.

The Conversation to Fix Tenure in the United States

Campbell Brown, following in the footsteps of Michelle Rhee and the controversial Vegara ruling, wants to take on teacher tenure in the state of New York. According to an article in The Washington Post, Brown stated that “tenure is permanent lifetime employment. There’s no reason why anyone’s job should become untouchable for the rest of their life.” Her group, The Partnership for Educational Justice, filed suit in New York against teacher tenure and, much like the Vegara case, framed the case as a civil rights issue.

The Arguments

Brown argues that in layoff cycles, younger teachers are targeted more frequently even if they perform better than senior teachers. The argument then turns to “the child.” In this line of thinking, children in hard to staff schools are touched by layoffs more than their suburban peers. Unions fire back saying that if a “last in, first out” policy is not followed, administrators with dollar signs in their eyes will quickly fire senior teachers or those who disagree ideologically with district plans. They go on further to argue that attacking teacher tenure is just the first step in the privatization of education being pushed by major corporate interests.

As Paul Farhl notes in his article, Brown moved from supposedly “No Bias. No Bull” in her time at CNN to an unabashed union buster activist. Mother Jones also reported on whether Campbell Brown has been truthful in her claims and whether she has even been all that transparent in her political connections that make some of her claims dubious at best. The Washington Post even goes so far as to say that “Brown’s effort is funded by . . . well, that’s not clear. An advocate of transparency and full disclosure as a journalist, Brown won’t say who is backing her nonprofit organization.” She went on The Colbert Report July 31st and again would not reveal who is actually backing her organization.

The Complexity of Public Education

As a public school teacher, I am obviously an advocate for public schools, but most interesting to me is the attempts by the school reform movement to paint two broad camps: the union and the charters. In painting broadly, we may be able to see the political viewpoint of the two sides as they see one another, but we hardly get a true view of education in the United States.

If the implementation and the discussion behind the new Common Core State Standards was not evidence enough, we have to admit that any view of the entire education system is a mosaic made up of many different parts. We can see a picture of the educational institutions when we stand back and gaze, but each individual part is a distinct tile separate from the others. As Conor Williams notes in his article on New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s stance on charter schools:

. . . education rarely grabs headlines or news cycles the way that other, more dramatic topics regularly command. Check cable news: for every one segment covering ongoing education fights, you’ll see dozens covering the situation in Ukraine. In part, this is because the education system is just too large for a targeted national discussion. Attempts at comprehensive education reform usually span federal, state, and local governing institutions, as well as myriad union contracts and funding sources. Which makes them complicated. And nothing kills political controversy like complexity, so most education politics flareups happen at the state or local level—where the arguments don’t need to be as broad.

Ginia Bellafante, in her NY Times article, furthers the same point when she says:

It is much easier to convey in short strident sentences what some, but not all charter schools do well — raise standardized test scores — than it is to convey the problems and complexities that arise from a hierarchal education system in which admission is determined by luck. And it seems, for whatever reason, very hard to get the public to understand that charter schools are not a single entity with one kind of culture or philosophy; they vary and, as with everything else in existence, produce both good and bad outcomes.

One such anomaly somewhere between the polarizing charter vs. public school poles is Los Angeles Unified’s management model known as Expanded School Based Management (ESBM). This is a model that my school uses where I teach. According to LA Unified’s website, “ESBMM Schools transfer authority directly to the school level.” More importantly:

ESBMM schools are exempt from District policies but are still subject to state and federal laws and applicable collective bargaining agreements.

The district still holds ultimate authority over naming administrators at the school, but principals in an ESBM model work with the teachers to form consensus as to the best course of action for a school. Teachers in the school still retain all their bargaining rights (including tenure and important due process protections), but they are also free to try out new bell schedules, programs, and other innovative strategies as they are outlined in the ESBM school plan.

Such schools are just the beginning of the strange relationship between traditional schools and charter schools. In Los Angeles Unified there are also LAUSD Charter Schools and Pilot Schools trying out innovative models while still under the auspicies of LAUSD. These models do not easily fit into the national dialogue that pits the two sides against each other.

In a separate Talking Points Memo, Conor Williams makes the argument that the debate actually makes us dumber because we refuse to see ambiguity in ed data results. When we try to make all charters the same, Williams argues that:

Truth be told, ethical arguments between supposedly “pro-” and “anti-” groups fall prey to the same pitfall as the empirical arguments: they obscure the essential heterogeneity of charter schools. Charters are diverse to such an extent that they almost cease to be a definable subset.

With the complexity of education in mind, I still have major problems with Brown’s argument against tenure.

Two Major Problems with Campbell Brown

The problem with the particular brand of Campbell Brown’s educational reformism is (at least) two-fold: 1) We are not clear as to who is funding these lawsuits because Brown refuses to disclose her donors. 2) Brown starts with the premise that tenure and children receiving quality teachers as mutually exclusive.

Follow the Money

Problem #1 is not so different from the Citizens United Case. While Campbell Brown is a nice face for the reform movement, who is paying her to say the things she says? While this may not seem important in the short term, what are the long term interests of the people behind erasing tenure? Whether we like it or not, there is a lot of money to be made in public education ($7 billion by some estimates). If we don’t know who is behind these lawsuits and educational movements, how can we judge their ultimate ends for education?

To make an analogy, consider this thought experiment. Imagine that young firefighters were being fired more often than older firefighters because there is a “last in, first out” policy in the city. Whenever layoffs come around, the older firefighters keep their job due entirely to seniority. A reformer comes into town saying, “This system is arcane and unfair. Some of these younger firefighters are some of the most dedicated, wonderful firefighters I have ever seen. You don’t deserve to lose your job just because you are young.”

Imagine that this young reformer files a lawsuit with the state of Montana arguing that all firefighters should be judged not on how long they’ve worked, but on how competent they are at doing their job. The lawsuit passes and all firefighters must now be judged based on merit rather than resting on their laurels. What the young reformer didn’t think about, however, was how to create this new system of meritocracy.

Eventually the city is hard pressed for money and the firefighters have to decide how to layoff some of the employees of the fire department. One man is let go because he consistently argues with the captain. Everyone knows that the man who argues is usually right and the captain often makes the wrong decision in the heat of the moment. Another woman is let go because she is known to have inter-office conflicts with other firefighters in the station.

Of the people left, the young reformer says, “We have some bad news. Even though we were able to save your jobs, we regret to inform you that you will have to pay for half of your health benefits.” Most of the firefighters are very angry about this. Luckily, the reformer knew the firefighters would be angry and he laid off those most likely to organize and resist these new costs.

The young reformer can now go through three or four layoff cycles and grind away, bit by bit, at all the hard fought wins for labor. He knows that he cannot take them away all at once, but it is the long, slow march that eventually boils all the frogs in the pot.
We must realize the moral of this parable and consider who the people backing Campbell Brown actually are. This may be an innocent case of fighting for students, but how can we know that if they refuse to disclose their funders?

To illustrate this point further, consider this story from Crain’s New York Business. This story is from the other side of the aisle. Mayor Bill de Blasio took $350,000 from the United Federation of Teachers and then a month later — magically — the city reached a deal with teachers that gave them a raise in a $9 billion deal over nine years.

I’m not here to say whether Bill de Blasio is innocent or guilty in terms of a conflict of interest, but I am here to say that he can be accused because public money that goes to non-profits like de Blasio’s can be seen and tracked. People can look at the receipts and follow the money. There can be a public conversation surrounding the debate because the money was public knowledge. I would like to be able to have these same conversations about Campbell Brown’s group, but she would rather do her business in the dark where no one has to report anything to anyone.

Tenure and Teacher Rights

The second main problem that I have with Brown’s argument is the idea that teachers’ rights and students’ rights are somehow mutually exclusive. The rhetoric from Brown’s camp is that students will continue to suffer as long as tenure exists. Coming back to the point of complexity, the first issue is that tenure means different things in different states.

To take the two states where tenure is under attack, California takes only 18 months to grant tenure while 3 years is the norm in New York. This chart shows the complexity and relative inscrutability of tenure laws throughout the 50 states. There are so many special circumstances and asterisks attached to the chart that it would be difficult to have any concentrated national dialogue on teacher tenure.

With this in mind, I would like to argue that even the term “tenure” is a loaded word in today’s political landscape. While those in Brown’s camp like to define tenure as “a job for life in spite of incompetence,” I would like to change the narrative to say that tenure increases the quality of life for teachers and makes schools a place of collegiality and respect.

In a not-so-distant-world without teacher tenure, I forsee an Orwellian nightmare where teachers are too scared to speak out against administrative corruption for fear of losing their jobs. I see a world where corporate interests in education take precedence because no teacher would dare to deviate from a mandated curriculum. And I know some may think I am being hyperbolic, but education in America is based on the idea that lots of people can come to the table with lots of different ideas without the threat of being fired for speaking what they believe.

It is the same reason we give the Supreme court the independence from the other two branches to help decide whether laws are constitutional. If justices had to be elected every year, they would beholden to those who can help them get re-elected (i.e. those with the most money). In the same way, teachers needed to be protected from local interests that often dominate a community. We want to believe that a school board member wouldn’t try to get a teacher fired for giving his daughter a C instead of an A, but in a world without tenure, it may just be an “unfortunate circumstance” that is most cost-effective.

Conclusion

With this table in mind, I would be the first to sit down with Campbell Brown and others to discuss how to improve education. There are lots of models that greatly expand that “public vs. charter” debate that pits good vs. evil (with both sides seeing themselves as the Messiah saving American values). I would be willing to sit down with them because that is how I was educated to think. As Socrates would have wanted, I am willing to sit down in the marketplace of ideas and discuss the best kinds of ideas and how to best implement them in schools.

I would be wary, however, of any silver bullets or standardized tests that claim to tell me how much a student learned or how smart a student is at any given point in time. I would be wary because the body of knowledge a student might consider relevant in New Orleans will be very different from the body of knowledge my students see in Los Angeles.

All education reforms need to start with all the stakeholders in a grass roots setting. I personally like Peter Greene’s Model for Teacher Evaluation. Read his article for the finer points, but he basically argues that everyone should be involved in teacher evaluation: teachers, parents, students, administrators, etc., and that everyone should have a say in how they are evaluated.

Unfortunately, what usually happens in districts is the Superintendent puts together a team and that team hires a very expensive software company to create very complex teacher evaluation CMS technology. Administrators are then trained on how to enter data into the system. Teachers are then trained on how to put their lesson plans into the system. Administrators go through the motions, but usually just rely on word of mouth and their own personal, qualitative experience with said teacher. The administrator comes in to observe to get the data, but the data is already colored by their opinion of the teacher they are evaluating. Such top-down evaluation systems don’t work because they have buy in from almost no one except the team that built the evaluation system. Thus tenure is just another box administrators have to check at the end of the year if a teacher has taught long enough at a school and hasn’t made any major screwups in that time period.

The conversations that we have to fix tenure won’t be easy or clean. Even I know that there are elements of tenure and teacher evaluation that could be better. If there were an easy answer , the problem would have already been solved. I would write a book on it and give you six to eight nice bullet points that can fit on a PowerPoint slide. Unfortunately, PowerPoint and bullet point logic rarely hold up outside the meeting room. Reality tends to be a bit more complex, and we need to treat schools as the complex, sociological entities that they are.

In closing, I would like to leave you with the words of J.K. Rowling spoken through Sirius Black when he stated, “Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”

Wes Ellis on Change

There is so much more growing to be done. Ultimately, it’s not about achieving the right social status or arriving at the right state of contentment. It’s about crying out for the truly unfamiliar and utterly transcendent kingdom of God, seeking to grow into citizens of God’s reign–a future reality which visits us even now in the resurrected Christ. Do not fear the unfamiliar, perfect love casts out fear.

I really look up to old men who do this.