Archives for category: New Orleans

Civil rights activists lodged a federal complaint about abuses of the rights of African-American children in the Recovery School District. State Commissioner of Education John White referred to their complaint as a “farce” and a “joke.”


The complaint, written by Karran Harper Royal of the Coalition for Community Schools and Frank Buckley of Conscious Concerned Citizens Controlling Community Changes, said the state’s policy of closing and chartering conventional schools is racially discriminatory. It said the decisions put black children disproportionately in low-performing schools, while the higher-scoring schools have admission policies designed to favor white children. Similar complaints were filed the same day against Newark, N.J., and Chicago schools.


The state Recovery School District took over about 80 percent of New Orleans’ public schools after Hurricane Katrina. After a last wave of closures, it is now an all-charter system. The complaint asks the government to freeze charter renewals and sought to stop the final closures, of Benjamin Banneker, A.P. Tureaud, George Washington Carver, Walter L. Cohen and Sarah T. Reed.


Royal and Buckley called for White’s resignation:



June 4, 2014


John White
State Superintendent of Education Louisiana Department of Education 1201 North Third Street
Baton Rouge, LA 70802


Dear Superintendent White:


On May 15, the Times-Picayune reported that you referred to a civil rights complaint filed by New Orleans community groups as a “joke” and “political farce.” As Superintendent, you should take seriously and investigate any charge of discrimination that harms students of color in Louisiana. Your comments are reprehensible and prove you are not fit to be Louisiana State Superintendent of Education. Therefore, we demand your immediate resignation.


The discriminatory effects of school closures that students of color and their families experience in New Orleans are no laughing matter. We find no humor in our school communities being dissolved, no amusement in being forced to send our children to charter schools that are unaccountable to our families, and no comedy in schoolchildren waiting outside before sunrise for school buses to take them across the city because we have no neighborhood schools left. It is with utmost seriousness that we have called for a civil rights investigation of the harmful school closure policies that have shuffled countless black and brown children from failing schools to other failing or near-failing schools, year after year.


Under your department, the Recovery School District has suffered the following harms:

  •  More than 30 traditional public schools have closed in the last several years.
  •  Last week, the district’s five remaining public schools closed, making it the nation’s first all-charter school district.
  •  Of the students impacted by this latest round of school closures, approximately 1,000 are black. Only five are white.
  •  Many students, mostly children of color, have experienced multiple school closures.
  •  The majority of Recovery School District schools are ranked “C,” “D,” or “F.”

    Communities of color are forced to bear the burdens of these damaging policies, with no neighborhood schools in New Orleans that serve majority black neighborhoods. When schools close, students lose crucial community relationships, have their educations painfully interrupted

and are often pushed into failing or near-failing schools. As a result of selective admissions practices, these black and brown students are often not admitted to “A” and “B” schools. African-American students are over 80 percent of the student population in New Orleans, but only around 30 to 47 percent of the population at most of the high-performing schools.


Closing schools often forces students to travel further for their education. In February, a six-year- old boy was killed crossing the street early one morning to catch the school bus. In 2010, a female student was raped as she walked home from school. Many students in New Orleans East have to catch the bus as early as 5:30am to travel to their schools.


The New Orleans community has been very vocal about these harms. Last year, a mother filed a civil rights complaint documenting them. Your department did not investigate her claims. Despite repeated protests and complaints about school closures and pro-charter policies, you have dismissed these concerns – and along with it the lived experiences of countless families. That you would now refer to this current civil rights complaint as “a joke” further shows your disregard for the discrimination experienced by students of color and their parents. We have had enough of your misguided, paternalistic policies and request your immediate resignation.


Your real allegiance is to the pro-charter, pro-privatization agenda. It has become clear that you will lie, bribe, and turn a blind eye to discrimination to benefit this agenda. In 2011, you told the parents and students of John McDonogh Sr. High School that they would have to convert from a direct-run school to a charter school in order to receive $35 million in much-needed renovations. After they agreed, you failed to provide these funds.


The May 13th civil rights complaint was filed by New Orleans community members – people who have advocated for students for decades – in collaboration with Journey for Justice, an alliance of grassroots organizations advocating for neighborhood public schools across the country. New Orleans partners include Coalition for Community Schools (CCS) and Conscious Concerned Citizens Controlling Community Changes (C-6). To mischaracterize the complaint as being “dominated” by teachers unions, as you did according to media reports, is not only incorrect but another example of your dismissal of the voices of communities and families.


Your irresponsible comments make you unsuitable to be State Superintendent of Education. There is no place in the education of children for individuals like you, Mr. White. We respectfully request your immediate resignation and a moratorium on school closures.




Frank J. Buckley, C-6 Karran Harper Royal, CCS


CC: Anurima Bhargava Chief

Educational Opportunities Section
U. S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division 601 D Street NW, Suite 4300
Washington, DC 20004

Catherine Lhamon
Assistant Secretary
Office for Civil Rights
U. S. Department of Education 400 Maryland Avenue SW Washington, DC 20202

Charles Roemer
Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education 1201 North Third Street
Baton Rouge, LA 70802






Many charters in Néw Orleans tape a line in their hallways and insist that students must walk on the correct side of the line.

Reporter Danielle Dreilinger of the Times-Picayune writes here about this controversial policy and includes a video created by the charters to explain the value of this practice.

“Critics say it prepares students for prison, not college. A civil rights complaint filed this spring accuses Collegiate of imposing unnecessarily harsh penalties for stepping outside the lines — even, in one case, when a student’s disability made walking difficult.”

Defenders of the policy say it saves time and teaches automatic obedience to small rules, which later translates into unquestioning obedience to rules and authority, preparing students to succeed in life.

Jeff Bryant demonstrates that “school reform” (aka privatization) has hit a rough patch. Despite the giant publicity machine of the well-funded “reformers,” their claims are falling apart.

Louisiana’s all-charter Recovery School District is in fact one of the lowest performing districts in the state. It is not a model for any other district.

Bryant writes:

“There’s no evidence anywhere that the NOLA model of school reform has “improved education.” First, any comparisons of academic achievement of current NOLA students to achievement levels before Katrina should be discredited because the student population has been so transformed.

“Second, despite reform efforts, the NOLA Recovery School District has many of the lowest performing schools in Louisiana, which is one of the lowest performing states on the National Assessment of Education Progress (aka, the Nation’s Report Card).
As Louisiana classroom teacher and blogger Mercedes Schneider reported from her site, RSD schools perform poorly on the state’s A–F grading system. “RSD has no A schools and very few B schools. In fact, almost the entire RSD – which was already approx 90 percent charters – qualifies as a district of ‘failing’ schools according to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s definition of ‘failing’ … Ironic how the predominately-charter RSD has the greatest concentration of such ‘failing’ schools in the entire state of Louisiana.”

In Néw Orleans, the “reformers” have achieved their goal–to eliminate public education–but their model doesn’t get good results. Even if the test scores were higher, it is a bad trade to abandon democracy for higher scores.

Newark, Néw Jersey, is the district that has openly aspired to copy the Néw Orleans model. Mark Zuckerberg dropped $100 million into Newark, with the expectation that it would become a national model. The best description of the draining of the Zuckerberg bequest is Dale Russakoff’s story in The Néw Yorker.

Somehow, a large proportion of Zuckerberg’s donation could its way into the pockets of consultants. The “national model” is nowhere to be seen.

The recent election of Ras Baraka as mayor signaled a loud NO to plans to turn Newark into another Néw Orleans. The people of Newark are not prepared to give up democracy or to allow Cory Booker, Chris Christie and Cami Anderson to rule their schools without checks or balances.

New Orleans will soon be the first urban district in the nation that is all-charter, the first district where public education has been completely extinguished.

Because so much money has been invested in the privatization of the schools in New Orleans, there is a media machine that cranks out favorable stories about it. The state board of education, the state department of education, and the Governor are determined to prove that privatization was successful.

But there is another side to the story. Read it here. Read about a district that has low rankings on state measures, a district that has depended on fluctuating state standards, a district that depends on Teach for America, where charter leaders are paid handsomely.

Raynard Sanders, a professional educator and critic of the Recovery School District, says that New Orleans is a great case study:

“It’s a system where many of the schools take in only the most desirable students and then “create an economic opportunity for the people who operate the school,” he said. And many have been hurt in the process of experimentation, Sanders said, “because the rights of students and the sanctity of public education have been trampled on and forgotten about….”

“In New Orleans, the privateers got everything they wanted and more, and still failed, Sanders said. “It is a great case study, and also one of the biggest scams done on public education – and parents and students — in the history of the country.”

One day, perhaps, the nationaledia might admit that they were taken in by the purveyors of the Néw Orleans story. Or maybe they will keep saying the same things again and again, without regard to facts.

Mike Deshotels, veteran educator, blows up the carefully manufactured tale of success by privatization. What a lesson for the nation: close down every public school; turn every school into a privately managed charter school; fire every experienced teacher and replace with a fresh college graduate with give weeks of training. Is this the formula for success in any other nation? No.

Deshotels writes that:

“The Louisiana Department of education has just released the results of the state accountability testing called LEAP and ILEAP. The report includes a percentile ranking of each of the public school systems in the state according to the performance of their students in math, and english language arts. The latest student testing results and these percentile rankings demonstrate the appalling academic performance of the Louisiana Recovery District (The RSD results are given near the bottom of the chart). After more than eight years of state takeover and conversion of public schools in Louisiana into privately run charter schools, even the most ardent promoters of this radical privatization experiment can no longer hide its spectacular failure.”

“The latest state testing results in this official LDOE report now ranks the New Orleans Recovery District at the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts in student performance. By the state’s own calculations, this means that 83 percent of the state’s school districts provide their students a better opportunity for learning than do the schools in New Orleans that were taken over and converted into charter schools. Considering the fact that a special law was passed for New Orleans that allowed the state to take over, not just failing schools, but any school performing below the state average at that time, this 17th percentile ranking places the New Orleans takeover schools just about where they were before the takeover. But in addition, the schools taken over by the Recovery District in Baton Rouge and other areas are now ranked at the 2 percentile and 0 percentile levels respectively, after 6 years of state and charter school control. That means that these two portions of the Louisiana Recovery District are absolutely the poorest performers on the state accountability testing. In two of the schools run by the RSD, the academic results and the enrollments had deteriorated so much that the Recovery District has recently given them back to the local school school board systems. This latest move apparently violates the whole premise behind the RSD.”

Despite these facts, why does the media continue to praise this failed experiment?

Earlier, I posted about “the triumph of reform” in New Orleans, referring to an article in the Washington Post on the final conversion of that district to all-charter. One commenter said there are still six public schools in New Orleans, but even so the point of the article was that this is the first urban district in which all or almost all schools are privately managed.

Mercedes Schneider, writing at warp speed, says, “not so fast.”

Reformers used to speak about the New Orleans miracle.” Now they’ve dialed it back to “improvement.” But, Schneider says, even that is an exaggeration.

(Schneider has many links to document her statements. Please read her post to find the links.)

What about that so-called “improvement”:

“I would like to clarify a few of Layton’s glossy statements about RSD.

“Let us begin with this one:

The creation of the country’s first all-charter school system has improved education for many children in New Orleans.

“Layton offers no substantial basis for her opinion of “improvement” other than that the schools were “seized” by the state following Katrina.

“Certainly school performance scores do not support Layton’s idea of “improvement.” Even with the inflation of the 2013 school performance scores, RSD has no A schools and very few B schools. In fact, almost the entire RSD– which was already approx 90 percent charters– qualifies as a district of “failing” schools according to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s definition of “failing schools” as C, D, F schools and whose students are eligible for vouchers.

“The district grade for RSD “rose” to a C due to a deliberate score inflation documented here and here.

“The purpose of vouchers is to enable students to escape “failing” schools. Ironic how the predominately-charter RSD has the greatest concentration of such “failing” schools in the entire state of Louisiana.”

She writes:

“After eight years, RSD does not have a single A school. One can see the need to bury the “miracle” message.

“As to “corruption”– do not believe Kingsland’s misleading words that “corruption” did not happen in RSD following Katrina. Here’s just a brief example:

‘The relatively gargantuan salaries of many of the consultants who appeared to rule the new system was another factor in the public’s general unease. Functionaries of the accounting firm Alvarez & Marsal, for example, which will have taken more than $50 million out of its New Orleans public schools’ operation by year’s end, were earning in the multiple hundreds of thousands, billing at anywhere from $150 to more than $500 per hour. The firm’s contracts continued unchallenged, despite the fact that one of its chief assignments — the disposition of left-over NOPS real estate — was being handled without the services of a single architect, engineer, or construction expert. This omission cost the city a year of progress in determining how and where to rebuild broken schools, and endangered hundreds of millions of dollars in FEMA money. It only came to light when the two Pauls [Pastorek and Vallas] were forced to hire yet more consultants for real estate duty, and to bring in the National Guard to oversee the engineering operations. … [Emphasis added.]‘

“Compare the above blatant robbery of school funding with Layton’s words about OPSB pre-Katrina:

“When Katrina struck in 2005, the public schools in New Orleans were considered among the worst in the country. Just before the storm, the elected Orleans Parish School District was bankrupt and couldn’t account for about $71 million in federal money.”

Schneider says the bottom line in New Orleans is: “Charter churn, churn, churn.”

Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post describes the triumph of the reform movement in New Orleans: The last public school has closed for good.

A few observations.

All schools in New Orleans are now charter schools. .

It’s hard to compare achievement pre-and post-Katrina because so many students never returned after the hurricane. Test scores are up, graduation rates are up, but populations are different. “By most indicators, school quality and academic progress have improved in Katrina’s aftermath, although it’s difficult to make direct comparisons because the student population changed drastically after the hurricane, with thousands of students not returning.

“Before the storm, the city’s high school graduation rate was 54.4 percent. In 2013, the rate for the Recovery School District was 77.6 percent. On average, 57 percent of students performed at grade level in math and reading in 2013, up from 23 percent in 2007, according to the state.”

There are no more neighborhood schools.

Almost all the teachers were fired. Almost all the fired teachers were African American. They were replaced mostly by white Teach for America recruits. The fired teachers won a lawsuit for wrongful termination and are owed $1 billion.

The central bureaucracy has been swept away.

“The city is spending about $2 billion — much of it federal hurricane recovery money — to refurbish and build schools across the city, which are then leased to charter operators at no cost.”

A curious fact: “White students disproportionately attend the best charter schools, while the worst are almost exclusively populated by African American students. Activists in New Orleans joined with others in Detroit and Newark last month to file a federal civil rights complaint, alleging that the city’s best-performing schools have admissions policies that exclude African American children. Those schools are overseen by the separate Orleans Parish School Board, and they don’t participate in OneApp, the city’s centralized school enrollment lottery.”

Observation by State Superintendent John White: “The city’s conversion to charters promises the best outcome for the most students, White said. “These kinds of interventions are never easy things,” he said. “When you look at overall outcomes, they’ve been positive. Does it have collateral negative effects? Of course. But does it work generally for the better? Yes.”

Formula for success: close public schools. Open charter schools. Fire veteran teachers. Replace them with TFA. Spend billions to refurbish buildings. This is the same formula that is being imported to urban districts across the nation. Is it sustainable? Did it really “work” or is this a manufactured success, bolstered by billions from the Waltons and other philanthropists who favor privatization?

Grassroots community groups in Néw Orleans, Newark, and Chicago filed complaints of violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the Justice Department and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. They seek an investigation of racially discriminatory school closings in their communities.

They wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary Arne Duncan:

“Journey for Justice is a coalition of grassroots organizations in twenty-two cities across the country. The coalition has come together because, across our communities, education “reformers” and privatizers are targeting neighborhood schools filled with children of color, and leaving behind devastation. By stealth, seizure, and sabotage, these corporate profiteers are closing and privatizing our schools, keeping public education for children of color, not only separate, not only unequal, but increasingly not public at all.

“Adding insult to injury, the perpetrators of this injustice have cloaked themselves in the language of the Civil Rights Movement. But too many of the charter and privately-managed schools that have multiplied as replacements for our beloved neighborhood schools are test prep mills that promote prison-like environments, and seem to be geared at keeping young people of color controlled, undereducated, and dehumanized. Children of color are not collateral damage. Our communities are not collateral damage.

“Thus, we stand in solidarity, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in Chicago, Coalition for Community Schools and Conscious Concerned Citizens Controlling Community Changes in New Orleans, New Jersey’s Parents Unified for Local School Education in Newark, and Journey for Justice member organizations across the country, to shed light on the racial injustice of school closings.

“Neighborhood schools are the hearts of our communities, and the harm caused by just one school closure is deep and devastating. This is death by a thousand cuts.”

There is deep irony and sadness in the fact that these community groups are appealing for justice even as the nation commemorates the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision striking down legal segregation.

There is deep irony and sadness in the fact that these complaints are filed to the administration of the nation’s first black president.

There is deep irony and sadness in the fact that these complaints are directed at the policies not of racist governors but of the Obama administration itself.

Secretary Duncan has encouraged and funded the school closings that are at the heart of the complaints. He has applauded and funded the privatization of schools in black communities. He openly admires the “no excuses” charter schools that emphasize control over education and that teach strict conformity to arbitrary rules, not the habits of mind and dispositions of a free people.

In effect, the Obama administration is being asked to overrule its own education policies. How sad. How ironic.

Just as there have been many public resignations by teachers in public schools who feel beaten down by mandates and by the high-stakes testing regime, there is now an emerging genre of resignation letters by young people who joined short-term programs like Teach for America.

This one, by Sydney Miller, is poignant and beautifully written. Sydney was part of TeachNola, which brought in young graduates like herself who made only a one-year commitment.

The question that all these statements pose is larger than the situation of the individual. We should all wonder, as we read these letters, about the relentless demolition of teaching as a career, as a calling, as a life, as a choice that–like all choices–has its pluses and minuses. Even for someone recruited to TFA, the allure was strong, but the reality was spiritually damaging. We should ask, as we read her reflections, whether the leaders of the fake reform movement actually intend to destroy the teaching profession and whether they understand the damage they do to the lives of real people–of children, denied an experienced and well-prepared teacher; of career teachers, treated shabbily, of the idealistic young people who enter TFA, only to find that their idealism has been cynically betrayed.

Sydney writes:


“Oh, I’ve had my moments, and if I had to do it over again, I’d have more of them. In fact, I’d try to have nothing else. Just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day.”

– Nadine Stair, 85, Louisville, Kentucky

Earlier this month, I saw a jazz show at Snug Harbor Bistro. Khari Allen introduced his band and an accompanying artist named Marcus Akinlana. As Khari and the New Creative Collective buzzed, strummed, and breathed the noises of their souls, Akinlana moved vibrant colors across black paper to imitate the movements of his heart and mind. I sat in a narrow wooden chair, lost in wonder. Whether my eyes were open or closed, my body seemed to beat, sway and absorb the art that seeped into every corner of the small room. An hour had passed when I came out of this coma and I silently thanked the artists and myself for allowing those moments to have taken place. I was present, and it was a gift.


Since leaving the classroom about a month ago, I have been working on enjoying moments and taking the time to pay attention to what is going on around me. I am trying to enjoy the process, whatever process that may be at a given time, and allow my mind to live in the present.


This has been difficult. In the world of charter education from which I have recently emerged, there is a trend of urgency. That urgency comes from investing in the idea that catching up in school is the answer to solving poverty or the key to more opportunity.


While there is an urgent fight to be had, it seems the charter model is running down the wrong path. Our country is not in a state of crisis because people are not performing well on standardized tests or being accepted into college; our country is in a state of crisis because the individuals who live within it are failing to appreciate moments, people and spaces. Service programs and charter schools are pursuing an abstract “cause” and forgetting to see and hear the individuals whom these systems are supposedly serving. A plethora of new teachers and schools have implanted themselves on sacred ground, and are yielding to the sole priority of higher test scores, while failing to appreciate the importance of a culture, unique to any other that our country has to offer.

While providing insufficient services, charters disenfranchise the communities they serve, profit from self-acclaimed successes, and fail to critically examine their methods to understand their failures. Holding test scores as a solution to poverty does nothing to empower oppressed communities. In fact, this practice often facilitates further oppression.

It was a Thursday afternoon staff meeting. Pale, tired faces gathered around in one seamless circle for announcements and “shout-outs” — which were a regular part of our meetings, in an effort to raise morale. In the back corner of the cafeteria knelt Kevin, a tall, handsome young man in the senior class, and member of the football team. He crouched with one knee on a stool and one cleat on the ground, next to Jim, our school’s handyman. The two worked together to tighten and adjust Kevin’s football helmet to fit. They alternated using the drill and stabilizing the table and helmet. I watched them working together from across the room, and noticed how their gestures, out of instinct, generously accommodated the other’s movements.

A few members of the staff became aware of their presence, and someone raised an accusatory finger in their direction. Our principal whipped her head around. As she realized their presence, she immediately demanded, “Jim, get him out!” Their working momentum broke like a brittle stick, and Kevin’s short dreadlocks rose to send a hurt and disturbed glare towards our circle. He took the helmet in two hands and slammed it against the surface of the table before turning to jam open a heavy door under a fluorescent red Exit sign.

As the door shut behind him, so did the school value of “Respect,” perfectly centered and stapled to red construction paper, mounted on the door with our common definition: “Treat others how you want to be treated.” The meeting proceeded.

One beautiful thing about teaching is that nearly every aspect of your life can be related back to your job. As one learns through experience, “best practices” can hopefully find a place in the classroom. Throughout the past year, I was intent on discovering how I learn best, trying to employ these same tactics for my students. I came to fairly obvious conclusions: I learn best in environments where I feel safe, appreciated, and respected. On the contrary, if I am rushed, or I can tell I am unappreciated or undervalued, my focus collapses into surface level thinking. This pattern held true for the students I worked with, and I can only assume for most other human beings.

At a number of the ever-proliferating charter schools in New Orleans, the school policies contradict their self-acclaimed value of “respect,” and in turn, inhibit the possibility for meaningful learning to take place. When students arrive at school and are told to be silent in hallways and cafeterias, they are being sent a clear message: the people in charge do not trust you and do not respect you. They are being told that whatever manner in which they naturally is exist and interact is inappropriate.

If their “low achieving” test scores are projected on Promethean Boards without context of the biases that produce these disparities, then students will continue to internalize the feeling that they are the problem. If a higher emphasis is placed on the absence of their black leather belt — rather than their current mental state — then students will begin to lose trust in the adults that are supposed to care for them. Furthermore, if students are surrounded by white teachers from privileged backgrounds, who have college degrees and who dictate the meaning of success, it might be conflicting for them to see a place for themselves in this sphere of elitists. They may also begin to wonder what is wrong with their people, that there are so few black teachers in an all black school.

A friend forwarded me an email about a course entitled Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED) taking place at the United Teacher’s of New Orleans, and I enrolled. The space was starkly simple, especially in contrast with the complexity that filled the room once our sessions began. On the third session of SEED, as I sat in the now familiar navy, plastic chairs, atop the off-white linoleum floor, I listened to the soothing words of Davina Allen, our instructor. Around the circle sat people with faces of all colors and ages. Together in the room we read through Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Each person took a turn reading:


“1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”

“2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.”

“3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.”


And the list goes on.


It was Katrena Ndang’s turn to read. She is 70, and was born and raised in New Orleans. White hairs threaded through her narrow dreadlocks, a few twisted gently in the back of her head, with the rest falling softly on her neck. Her beautiful hands held the paper and the side of the chair she sat on. Her reading glasses balanced at the bottom of her nose, and her eyes squinted down at the paper. When she read, her voice sounded worn and disenchanted, as though she had read these words 10,000 times before.


She breathed out a sigh, and a revelation came to fruition: She had read these words 10,000 times before. Based on her stories and insights she shared with the group, it seemed that Ms. Ndang has thought about race every day, for 70 years. She has never had the privilege, as I have, of picking and choosing the hours of her day when race, and everything that it has come to mean, would affect her and her loved ones. She has never had the choice to opt in or out of a fight for anti-racism. And that is what privilege is.

As Nadine Stair wisely pointed out in her old age, moments are meaningful when we stop looking so far ahead. When schools are too preoccupied with results, it is tempting to deny a reality that good teaching responds to the needs of those individuals who occupy the classroom. This set of needs cannot be prematurely predicted or determined. When a need for control and synchronization mutes the sincerity of moments, classrooms become oppressive for all parties involved.


In the spring of 2013, I turned down an offer to spend a second year at the charter school where I began my teaching career. I said no more to demerits, lazy leadership, and the assignment to design curricula for 10th graders who were already years behind grade level, and would further suffer from my lack of experience. I quit reading e-mails that began with “Team and Family,” and followed with a laundry list of senseless tasks that challenged me to prove my loyalty to children by grading hundreds of exit tickets and attending hours of professional development that taught me to read numbers instead of people. I said goodbye to a GoogleCal that is so full you forget to pick your head up and look around you to see the damage you might have caused towards people you care about.


September 2, 2013, I quit my second job. I was a double quitter. I said goodbye to school values bargained for monetary prizes so that students could buy Blow Pops if they showed respect to their oppressors. I said “see ya” to test prep after test prep, silent study hall and lunch detention. I said “no thanks” to revering a set of formalized control tactics as my guide to becoming a great teacher, and the skills of conformity to feign success. I said “peace out” to standing in circles that silently requested I do favors for people I did not trust in exchange for shout-outs. I put a rest to the habit of telling students to be powerful while giving them demerits for speaking at all. I stopped calling students “scholars” to fool them into thinking that their education system had not failed them miserably, and I stopped suspending students for a phone that slipped from their pocket, and a subsequent refusal to turn over what is rightfully theirs. I walked away from barking the acronym SPARK, so that the position of their bodies could feed directly into the assertion of my control.


I’m a quitter of damaging institutions and disingenuous moments. I am sorry for the students I turned my back on, and can only hope that my exit has validated a common sentiment that the school system they are subject to is unjust. One day, I’ll be strong and wise enough to help change these systems, but I’m not there yet. So for now, I’ll keep quitting.

Sydney Miller has dreams of becoming an excellent English teacher. She is from New York City, and moved to New Orleans after college.

For five years, I have listened to Arne Duncan lecture the American people about how terrible our public schools are.


He goes on at length about our ignorant students, our misguided parents, our ineffective teachers, our failing public schools.


In his eyes, we seem to be a nation of slackers, bums, ignoramuses, fools, and failures.


We know that he likes: charter schools, Teach for America, closing public schools and handing them over to corporate management, and “graduate schools” that have no scholars, no researchers, just tutors of test-taking skills. And of course, he loves the heavy emphasis on test-taking in places like Shanghai and Singapore. Test scores are his North Star. He wishes we could be like Shanghai, and that all our moms were “Tiger Moms,” cracking the whip over the children and making them get ready for the next test. All work, no play. He dreams of a new America of test-taking grinds. Arne Duncan is our Mr. Gradgrind, and if you don’t know who that is, google it.


Every once in a while, he launches a campaign calling for “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” but no one believes him. They know it is just empty PR.


So, I wonder, what are the unforgettable phrases of Arne Duncan that will be his legacy, the words that encapsulate his unique combination of certainty and cluelessness.


Entry one must be his immortal comment about Hurricane Katrina, which caused the deaths of over 1,000 people and wiped out public education and the teachers’ union in New Orleans: He said that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” Forget the fact that the great majority of charter schools in New Orleans today are rated either D or F by the state of Louisiana (which favors them). According to Secretary Duncan, every major city needs a Hurricane Katrina or some other natural disaster to demolish public education and eliminate teachers’ unions so they can be replaced by privately managed charter schools and Teach for America. Of course, then Teach for America would have to train 1,000,000 teachers a year instead of only 10,000, and it would put an end to the teaching profession, but Arne hasn’t thought that far in advance.


Entry two was captured by Gary Rubinstein in this post on his blog: At Teach for America’s 20th anniversary celebration, Arne Duncan was a featured speaker. He told the story of a school that had only a 40% graduation rate. The school was shut down and replaced by three charter schools. One graduated all of its students, and all were accepted into college. Duncan said: “Same children, same community, same poverty, same violence. Actually went to school in the same building with different adults, different expectations, different sense of what’s possible. Guess what? That made all the difference in the world.” Gary pointed out that the students were not the same kids, and that the 107 who graduated were not the same as the 166 who started in the class. Yes, the graduation rate was higher, but it was not the 100% that Arne implied. And to make matters worse, the students at that particular “miracle school” had lower test scores than the Chicago school district. But Arne was trying to promote his theory that schools get better if everyone is fired and the slate is wiped clean.


Then there was the time last year when he sneered at parents in New York state who objected to the absurd Common Core tests as “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” He quickly tried to walk that one back, but it stuck. He deeply believes that our kids are dummies and their parents want to believe that they are smart when they are not. I guess you need to have a Harvard B.A. to be so arrogant about the brainpower of other people’s children.


My personal favorite occurred when he visited a charter school in Brooklyn. He told those assembled that the United States is facing both an economic crisis and an educational crisis. And then came this immortal line: “We should be able to look every second grader in the eye and say, ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not,’ ” he said. “Right now, in too many states, quite frankly, we lie to children. We lie to them and we lie to their families.”


The claim that we are “lying to our students” or “we are lying to our children” is like a mantra for Arne, so that’s not new. What is special about this line is the idea that you should be able to look every second grader in the eye and be able to tell them that they are on track to go to a good college. Since I have a grandson who is in second grade, I know how absurd this is. I look into his eyes and I see a laughing, happy child. That’s what I want to see. Sometimes I see a sad child, and I want to know what’s wrong and can I help. I see a child who loves to read and loves to play. The last thing in the world that would occur to me as a parent, a grandparent, or an educator is to ask whether he was on track to go to a good college. I want him to be on track to be happy, healthy, curious about the world, eager to learn, and secure in the love that surrounds him.

Julian Vasquez Heilig collected his Top Ten of Arne’s Inanities.

The reality is that it is easy to find Arne’s clueless remarks. They occur whenever he goes off script.


What is your favorite Arne Duncan line? I have known almost every Secretary of Education since the U.S. Department of Education was created in 1980. I have never known one who had so little respect for students, educators, parents, school boards, or public education as our current Secretary. Nor have I known one who had so little understanding about what constitutes genuine learning. Not test scores, but a love of learning, a love of tinkering, a love of knowledge. It is innovation, creativity, imagination, curiosity, wit, and the pursuit of new knowledge that is the genius of our nation. Those who care not to preserve those essential aspects of education are not educators, but technicians, bureaucrats, and bean counters.


My wish: Arne Duncan should take the PARCC test for eighth graders and publish his scores.



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