Archives for category: Students

Experienced teacher Kathleen Jeskey posted the statement of Washington State tribal leaders, expressing their opposition to high-stakes testing and standardization.

The photograph accompanying the post poignantly tells the story of the federal government’s historic efforts to remove native Americans from their tribal cultures and to assimilate them into the mainstream culture.

The tribal statement begins like this:

We, the governing tribes of the Washington State Tribal compact schools, hope to break the chronic cycle of failure among schools serving American Indian reservations. We intend to capitalize upon the opportunity presented by this new Tribal Compact School law by promoting the adoption of teaching practices which we believe to be more congruent with tribal cultures. In support of this effort, we intend to foster some important reforms in educational accountability methods that will encourage and reward a change in practice.

In recent decades, state and federal educational policy has focused on raising test scores for poor and minority students up to the general population average by the third grade (or soon after) in an effort to minimize the dropout rate. This policy has been a particular disaster for most public schools serving Indian reservations. The result has been a system that labels Indian children early; subjects them to continued remedial instruction; and fails to keep them engaged after the 4th grade. The over-emphasis on early grade test scores has evolved into a self-fulfilling (and self-perpetuating) prophecy of failure for Indian students. We believe it is this labeling effect, coupled with limited instructional methods that cause many if not most dropouts.

The Iroquois Sachem Canasatego once said to the English colonists of his time, “…you who are so wise must know that different Nations have different Conceptions of things and you will, therefore, not take it amiss if our Ideas of this kind of Education happen not to be the same as yours. We have had some Experience of it…”.

Our experience has been that our schools have diligently tried to adopt “research based” models and “data based decision making” as primary methods for school improvement for years now. For the past 15 years, federal policy has placed more and higher stakes on test results. So much weight has been placed upon them that, standardized tests have become an end unto themselves. Something must change. We do not accept that standardized testing defines the potential or truly measures the growth of our children in any meaningful way. Therefore, as sovereign tribal governments, shouldering the new responsibilities under the state compact, we feel it is our duty to make a change toward authentic assessment and accountability. If Indian students are motivated, they will succeed. It is our goal to create places where our children and young adults wish to be and where there is an inherent expectation and tradition of success.

In recent years, the state has commissioned and adopted assessments, such as the High School Proficiency Test (HSPE) and End of Course (EOC) exams, which have only served to make the student disengagement and dropout problem worse. Now, with the coming adoption of the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBA) testing will take a quantum leap toward becoming much longer, more difficult, and demanding even greater attention. We believe that we cannot test our way to success. We have walked far enough down this path and are determined to change direction. Therefore, we are proposing a five-year moratorium from standardized testing in Tribal compact schools. During this time, we propose to develop a new evaluation paradigm based on applied learning and public demonstration. During this development period, we will use formative tests and/or other tools chosen by our staff to monitor progress and assist in teaching. We will develop a viable alternative evaluation system equaling or surpassing the rigor of state adopted testing. In addition, we will demonstrate American Indian student attendance and graduation rates that match or exceed state averages. Although intended for reservation-based districts, we hope such a system might be used by any district experiencing this chronic syndrome of failure.

It goes on from there to describe a means of teaching and learning that makes far more sense than the standardized tests that have been inflicted on every child in the nation.

Rachel Wolfe made this wonderful 30-minute documentary called “Losing Ourselves.”

https://rachelbwolfe.wordpress.com/2014/06/26/losing-ourselves/

Rachel is an intern at The Future Project, an education non-profit focused on bringing passion and purpose to the lives of young people, and a sophomore in Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy. She graduated a year ago from Scarsdale High School.

She writes about her film:

I’ve been reading (and loving) your blog, and I thought you might be interested in a like-minded documentary I created during my junior and senior years of high school. The documentary is called Losing Ourselves and explores how an expectation for perfection and a status-driven definition of success undermines students’ love of learning and creativity and gets in the way of our ability to use high school as an opportunity to figure out what we love and who we are. The last chapter portrays how a fifth grade classroom in which creativity is encouraged and failure is praised creates kids who are intrinsically motivated, incredibly passionate, and terrified to have their creativity educated out of them.

Colorado Chalkbeat reports that the opt out numbers were high in the state, especially for high school students. Only five of the state’s 20 large districts met the federal government’s requirement of a 95% participation rate. The greatest concentration of opt outs was in the 11th grade.

Changes are planned, but test critics don’t think it will make a difference. The biggest source of information and support for opting out was, apparently, students talking to other students.

The PARCC language arts and math tests were given in two sections, one in March and the second at the end of the school year. Many districts reported that opt-out rates were higher for the second set of tests.

High school assessments and the testing schedule both will change in 2016. Juniors won’t be tested in language arts and math, and there will be only a single testing “window” in April.

“I don’t claim to be a prophet, but, yeah, I expected high opt-out percentages,” said Republican Sen. Chris Holbert of Parker, who was heavily involved in legislative testing and opt-out debates. He also suggested high school refusal rates were significantly driven by students. “The awareness and them advocating to each other is more important.”

“Folks have been wondering where those big districts would fall. It’ll be an interesting convers what we do about those big districts with a high rate” of opt outs, said Bill Jaeger, a vice president with the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Jaeger served on the state task force that studied testing before the 2015 legislative session and has followed the issue closely.

As for the variation among districts, Jaeger said, “It’s an interesting finding to me, and there’s a whole host of explanations that I don’t think anyone’s explored.”

Noting testing changes made by both the legislature and the PARCC, Jaeger said, “It will be interesting to see if there is a restoration of confidence in the assessments.”

One testing critic, St. Vrain Superintendent Bob Haddad, doesn’t think that will happen.
“I don’t think it will make a difference,” Haddad said of testing reductions. “I don’t think you’re going to get parents and students back at the table … because there’s no trust” in the state testing system. “CMAS was summarily rejected by our students and parents.”

Paul Farhi, a veteran reporter at the Washington Post, wrote an article recently about Campbell Brown’s new “news site” called “The 74,” which is a vehicle for her ongoing campaign against teachers’ unions and tenure and for charters and vouchers. Brown, who has no experience as a teacher, scholar, or researcher, who attended a private high school (her own children attend a private religious school), has become the new face of the corporate reform movement since Michelle Rhee stepped out of the limelight. Last year, Farhi wrote about Brown’s transition from TV talking head to advocate for vouchers, charters, and the elimination of teacher tenure. (You will notice in the earlier article that Brown takes great umbrage to my having described her as telegenic and pretty; well, she IS telegenic and pretty, and I would be happy if anyone said that about me! I consider it a compliment.)

Farhi reports the funding behind “The 74″:

As it happens, Brown raised the funds for the Seventy Four from some of the biggest and wealthiest advocates of the restructuring that the Seventy Four appears to be espousing. The funders include the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies, all of which have opposed teachers unions and supported various school-privatization initiatives. (Her co-founder, Romy Drucker, was an education adviser to billionaire and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.)

This would be just another garden-variety profile of a controversial figure, but blogger Alexander Russo blasted Farhi as biased against Brown. Although Farhi does not quote another corporate reformer, he quotes Brown herself extensively. Russo questioned Farhi’s objectivity as a journalist. He complained that there was no outside voice supporting Brown, and that Farhi ended the article with skeptical quotes from Washington insider Jack Jennings and AFT President Randi Weingarten. Russo says that Farhi should have allowed Brown to respond to the critics, and he should have found “another outside voice — a journalist, academic, or education leader of some kind — to express support” for Brown. He also wrote that “the overview was inaccurate or misleading” by stating that Brown’s views are supported by conservative politicians and business interests.

In an earlier post, Russo candidly disclosed that he had hoped to join Campbell Brown’s “team,” but didn’t make the cut:

Disclosures: This blog is funded in part by Education Post, which shares several funders with The Seventy-Four. Last summer and Fall, I spoke with Brown and others on the team about partnering with them but nothing came of it.

The curious aspect of this particular flap is that Russo’s blog is jointly funded by the American Federation of Teachers and Education Post (which is funded by the Broad Foundation, the Bloomberg Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation).

Randi Weingarten tweeted:

Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten)
7/26/15, 1:14 PM
Russo’s criticism of Farhi is off base. Farhi’s piece is smart, effective journalism: washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/styl…

Also:

Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten)
7/26/15, 3:27 PM
@alexanderrusso do u really believe Campbell Brown is no longer ideological or are u acting this way b/c of funding washingtonmonthly.com/the-grade/2015…

An earlier post today described No Nonsense Nurturing as training teachers to be robots.

Here is a video by its developers. It is indeed interesting, especially the product endorsement by Dave Levin, co-founder of KIPP. Probably the product reflects the KIPP style.

Laurie Gabriel, a teacher with nearly three decades experience, decided that she had to do something to fight back against the absurd attacks on teachers.

 

The first thing she did was to create a documentary to explore the critical issues of the day. It is called “Heal Our Schools,” and it offers practical advice that most teachers would vigorously agree with. In her video, she interviews teachers, students, and a few outsiders (like me). The people she spoke to talked about what matters most in teaching and learning, which she would say is to encourage students to find their passions and pursue them. Her first recommendation, by the way, is to reduce class size so children can get individual attention when they need it.

 

The high point of the film, in my estimation, was when she spoke to some vocal critics of teachers. She invited them to teach a list of vocabulary words to ten students, and they accepted her offer. The scenes were priceless. The students were restless; one put his head on the desk. Announcements on the public speaker interrupted the lessons. When one of the “teachers” reprimanded a student and told him that when he was in the Army, he would have gotten 50 push-ups for his behavior, another student piped up and said, “We’re not in the Army.” After their students took their tests, Laurie gave them feedback about their performance. They were less enthusiastic about grading teachers by their students’ test scores and even seemed to be more respectful of the skill that it takes to teach middle schoolers.

 

The second thing she did was to take her documentary on the road, showing it to interested audiences. Her current schedule starts tonight in Wyandotte, Michigan. You can see her other stops listed below. If you live in one of these cities or towns, please show up and bring some friends.

 

July 21 WYANDOTTE MI (Detroit area)- 7:00 at Biddle Hall, 3239 Biddle Ave.
July 22 CLEVELAND – 7:00 at the West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church
July 23 PHILADELPHIA – 7:00 at the Ethical Humanist Society, 1906 Rittenhouse Square
July 24 WASHINGTON DC – 8:00 at the Holiday Inn Washington Capitol, 550 C Street SW
July 26 – JERSEY CITY – 7:00 pm at the Jersey City Union Building, 1600 W. Kennedy
July 28 NEW YORK CITY – 2:30 pm at the Actors Theatre Workshop, 145 W. 28th Street, 3rd floor
July 29 RAYNHAM MASS. 6:00 pm at the Massachusetts Teachers Regional Office, 656 Orchard Street 3rd floor
July 30 PORTSMOUTH NH, 7:00 pm at the Women’s City Club, 375 Middle Street
August 3 – GRAND BLANC, MI – 6:00 at the Grand Blanc Mcfarlen Public Library.
August 9 DENVER – 1:00 pm at the Highlands Ranch Public Library, 9292 Ridgeline Blvd in Highlands Ranch

 

If you don’t live in one of those locales and want to see “Heal Our Schools,” contact Laurie at aspenquartet@hotmail.com

 

Perhaps you could arrange a showing in your community.

This post contains a valuable interview with Noam Chomsky.

 

Chomsky is a philosopher, not a statistician or an economist. He looks behind the facade of data to ask “why are we doing this?” “What are the consequences?” “What is the value of collecting the data?” “Why?”

 

Statisticians and economists (fortunately, not all of them) tend to think that when they have collected enough data, they will reach conclusions about the data. They think the data is as solid as “how many cars of this model sold? what was the profit margin? how should we price next year’s model to maximize profit?” or “how high will corn grow with this amount of fertilizer? how many acres should be planted with this seed?”

 

The starry-eyed data-mongers believe that children can be measured like any agricultural or mechanical product.

 

But teachers know that children are not corn; they are not electrical appliances; they are not engineered; they are all different.

 

We need to listen to philosophers. We need to think about what we are doing to children and to teachers by treating them as products of a process that can be tightly controlled.

 

Chomsky says:

 

In recent years there’s a strong tendency to require assessment of children and teachers, so that you have to teach to the tests, and the test determines what happens to the child and what happens to the teacher. That’s guaranteed to destroy any meaningful educational process.

 

It means a teacher cannot be creative, imaginative, pay attention to individual students’ needs. The students can’t pursue things that – maybe some kid is interested in something, but you can’t do it because you need to memorize something for this test tomorrow. The teacher’s future depends on it as well as the student’s.

 

The people sitting in offices, the bureaucrats designing this, they’re not evil people, but they are working within a system of ideology and doctrines, which turns what they are doing into something extremely harmful.

 

By treating children and teachers as widgets, we destroy the meaning of education. The rankings derived from data, Chomsky says, are meaningless because the tests are artificial social constructs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Washington State officials acknowledged that 53% of high school juniors opted out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment. Yesterday early estimates predicted the number was 27-28%. Obviously a gross underestimate.

Participation rates in 3-8 were high.

This was posted recently as a comment on the blog by Mamie Krupsczak Allegretti:

 

 

Both my husband and I are teachers in New York. He teaches high school English, and I teach French. We are both concerned about the state of education now, and I am actively taking steps to change my career after 23 years in teaching.

 

Let’s make no mistake about the situation. The move toward privatization of public education, the destruction of unions, and the loss of our democracy is well underway. I personally feel that the only way teachers, administrators, and parents can counter this is by refusing to participate in Common core tests and any tests that are used to evaluate a teacher’s performance. Teachers are now giving pretests in the beginning of the year knowing that students will fail because they have not yet learned the material! This is absurd, not to mention immoral and unethical. We are losing our common sense. Teachers are being evaluated by student performance on tests and those tests are in NO WAY reflective of what students have done in class.

 

For example, some teachers’ evaluations are based on how students do on a 15 minute computerized test–a test that does not count for the students! It’s not a test grade; it’s not a graduation requirement; it’s not a Regents exam. It’s an exercise that serves as a referendum on an individual teacher’s ability. Furthermore, the subject matter of the test is peripheral to the subject matter of the classroom. Many kids know this; therefore, instead of taking it seriously, they tap the keys and answer carelessly. Is this logical? Does this make sense? Would any businessman accept this evaluation system? In addition, I think parents and the public would be shocked to know how much time has been wasted on policies and plans that pop up and then are changed months later. I have worked countless hours on preparing items and then watched as the school discarded my work. Wouldn’t my time have been used better to create great lessons for students or helping them? There is no plan, no vision.

 

The two pillars of this “reform” movement are corporate greed and misogyny. I say misogyny because in NY over 70% of teachers are women, and the teaching profession is dominated by women. Our NYS union NYSUT is headed by a woman, and recent NYSUT pictures show a child saying, “Gov. Cuomo you’re breaking our hearts.” This kind of appeal will not work to influence men. Men are influenced by ACTION, not by appeals from children. Example: In basketball, Coach Dean Smith installed the four corners offense. Instead of shooting the ball, he would have his players dribble for minutes on end. He did this because he knew the game needed a shot clock, and this was the action he took within the rules of the game to bring it about. This is why I say that we need to refuse the tests. It is ACTION we need in the actual academic arena to bring about change! And teachers, if you’re concerned about losing your job for speaking out, it may happen anyway if the Governor gets his new teacher evaluation plan through the legislature! If you happen to be a teacher who has been around for a while and earn “too much” money, you’d better worry.

 

In the beginning of this post, I said I was actively seeking a new career after 23 years in teaching. Why? First, the stress of day-to-day teaching. People think teaching is easy. Try being with children all day -some of whom are disruptive, disrespectful, and not motivated. Try helping students who haven’t eaten, slept or been loved by their families. Try listening to their stories of abuse, poverty, and helplessness. It takes a toll on you. Second, I’m tired of the loss of respect and professionalism that teachers have suffered. We are losing control of our classrooms, our creativity, and our independence. We are now at the mercy of administrators, politicians and billionaires who are creating curricula, assessments, and evaluation plans for financial gain. Mostly, I am saddened at the diminishment of intellectual curiosity and joy in learning that is pervasive in our culture today. None of the “reforms” currently suggested will positively influence this. Thank you for this forum, and thank you Diane Ravitch for your cogent arguments and your advocacy.

Paul Lauter is an emeritus professor of literature at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is general editor of the Heath Anthology of American Literature. He has a long history in peace and justice education. This review is especially important because it speaks directly to the importance of teaching students to take responsibility for their lives and their futures. Students–and their parents–are crucial ingredients in the struggle to reclaim education and transform it. No one can fire them; they cannot be intimidated by threats. They have a freedom that teachers do not enjoy and a power that they are not aware of.

“No Education, No Life,” a Review of Jay Gillen’s

Educating for Insurgency: The Roles of Young People in Schools of Poverty

By Paul Lauter

“I did not enjoy high school much because my work in the Algebra Project taught me that I was not receiving the quality education I deserved. So each day I waited for the bell so I could leave and work in the program, where I learned so much more. I began organizing in high school and was nearly expelled for organizing a student strike. . . . most of my focus in high school was on organizing students to speak out, to demonstrate and demand quality education.” –Chris Goodman. (“No Justice No Life: Brian Jones Kicks it with Chris Goodman of the Baltimore Algebra Project,” Posted in Article Link, August 3, 2009.)

(This review was written before the events that have made “Baltimore” a symbol of racial tyranny and political malfeasance. It is not, therefore, focused on police violence nor responses to the killing of Freddie Gray and so many other black men. It presents, rather, a project designed to help empower students in schools of poverty–not on the specious theory that educational institutions can by themselves overcome discrimination, marginalization, and poverty, but because schools can, and must, be part of the solution rather than continuing to be part of the problem.)

Much of the debate going on in educational circles today concerns differing ideas about how to accomplish certain agreed-upon goals. Mainly these consist of the 3 R’s—reading, riting and rithmatic—with a touch perhaps of American history, whether seen through the lens of Selma or of Mountain View. Some wish to provide teachers with greater scope, better resources, and fewer students in the classroom. Others, the multimillion dollar “reformers,” promote a regime of ceaseless testing, managerial authority, privatization, and “teacher-proof” curricula. But suppose you conclude, based on observing the thousands of segregated Ferguson, Missouris, and Baltimore, Marylands throughout the USA, that the huge number of students in schools of poverty are ill-served by these very goals, that poor, often black and Latino, students, even if they pass every test and climb in to community colleges, will never—a few tokens aside—get an even break in 21st-century America. What then? Can the goals of schooling themselves be transformed? Can schools become sites not of failure and exclusion, but of insurgency and transformation? Can the young people now marginalized, enraged, and trapped in disastrous institutions become agents of creativity and growth—and real learning?

Such questions lie at the core of Jay Gillen’s essential book, Educating for Insurgency: The Roles of Young People in Schools of Poverty. I use the full title of Gillen’s book because, unlike most of what is being written today, it shifts focus from the adults fighting about schooling to the students themselves as the key actors in their own education. The question Gillen addresses is how might we think about the ways students can, indeed must, organize themselves, those close to them, and the many others with whom they must contend for a future. His approach is not to address the question always on a teacher’s mind—what do I do Monday?—but to propose a theory about how change and education could and already do take place even in, or perhaps especially in, schools of poverty. This book is not a manual for classroom management but a treatise on education, democracy, and hope.

At the center of Gillen’s treatise is his and his students’ experience with one of the three r’s, rithmatic, in the form of the Algebra Project. The Algebra Project was first devised by Bob Moses, a key figure in the efforts of the young organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to challenge and eliminate racial segregation in its most intransigent bastion, Mississippi, in the 1950s and 1960s. The Baltimore version of the Project has been highly successful, even in this society’s financial terms: students working in it have earned $2 million dollars over the last ten years “sharing math knowledge” (p. 140). It has also provided what Gillen calls a “crawl space” wherein students begin to learn how to mobilize the organizational resources necessary to confront the school boards, politicians, courts that stand in the way of their educational development. Educational and political authorities who see math as vital to 21st-century schooling are willing to provide money, some, to those who succeed in teaching it, and they interfere less with the process. As Gillen puts it, “Math hides the student insurgency as it learns how to walk.” In this way it differs from the admirable Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson, which was banned by Arizona lawmakers despite–or perhaps because of–its success in motivating and educating students to confront injustice.

A project seriously devoted to teaching math is insulated against the charge sometimes registered against radical education projects that they are indifferent to students of poverty learning the basics. Mathematical knowledge is, of course, a goal of the Algebra Project, just as the vote was the goal of SNCC organizing in Mississippi. The brilliant analogy between voter registration and learning algebra in school, which Gillen has derived from Bob Moses’ work, is apt, first, because young people are key to implementation. But for two other reasons as well: one, both are directed to changing oppressive institutions, the segregated political system in the 1960s, and the segregated school system today. And, two, both the vote and mathematical literacy are necessary to full citizenship in the technologically-driven 21st century. To vote in Mississippi of 1964 and to be able to deploy math knowledge today are important goals in themselves, to be sure. But their importance derives as much from the sense of empowerment their achievement provides, especially to those who must press through the institutional barriers to such accomplishments. Empowerment—not test-taking—is what Gillen’s book, the Algebra Project, and real education are about. To put it a bit differently, “As with voting rights, the point is to encourage students to begin to demand—of themselves and of the system—what society claims they don’t want” [Jessica T. Wahman, “’Fleshing Out Consensus’: Radical Pragmatism, Civil Rights, and the Algebra Project,” Education and Culture 25 (1) (2009), 11.]

Reading the dialogues among Gillen’s students we get a sense of their mathematical literacy, as well as a challenge to older folks who likely do not have it. Mathematical literacy has to do not with the capacity to fill in bubbles on high stakes tests, but with the ability to solve ever-new problems on one’s own and, most important, to teach your knowledge to younger students, as Algebra Project instructors do. But underlying the Project is a more fundamental goal:

What we seek to encourage, however, is the methodical rehearsal of roles that emphasize the collective purposes of the troupe, acts that self-consciously grow through demands on self and peers toward demands on a larger society. The educational system does not serve the students’ purposes now. They must learn to use the crawl spaces we make available to them to prepare for organized acts that will render that system unworkable, and compel change. (p. 132)

This passage highlights two important elements of Gillen’s book. First, it is couched in the language of theater: “rehearsal,” “roles,” “troupe,” “acts,” and the like. Indeed, Gillen develops an extended analogy between the classroom and the theater. He contrasts the kind of education he is encouraging, which he describes as a “dramatistic approach to education,” to the “technocratic approach” (p. 121) which characterizes most of today’s schooling, with its emphasis on grading, indeed monetizing, students, teachers, and even schools. This is not simply a clever metaphor. Gillen points, first, to the importance to the development of young people of trying out roles for themselves and in relation to peers and adults. “For adolescents, nothing is more important than trying on personas and rehearsing roles. They do this whether they are permitted to do it or not” (p. 132). When it isn’t permitted, their actions are generally construed as “acting out,” which is seen by authorities as a, perhaps the, major problem of students in schools of poverty—indeed in the streets of America’s towns and cities. It is met in both venues by repression, arrest, and, all too often, violence. In such dramas, hierarchies and the roles they demand are already defined, too often by the uniform, on the one hand, and skin color, on the other. Gillen’s work is to read students’ acts differently, not merely as insurrectionary, or childish, disruptions needing to be controlled, but as expressions of discontent with an authoritarian and unresponsive system, efforts to enter into more vital interactions with peers, teachers, and authorities. That involves, in practice, a more welcoming and interactive pedagogical style, which Gillen illustrates, and underlying it, a theory of classroom communications, which he develops at some length.

Classroom events, he theorizes, are usefully understood in dramatic rather than legalistic terms. As in a play, classrooms are domains in which people interact, change in relationship one to another. Legalistic terms trap and define people into particular, inflexible roles: e.g., there is the perpetrator, the policeman, the teacher, the witness, the principal, the judge, and so forth. People are able to act only within the definitions these roles impose. In dramatic terms, as in life, roles can shift, dissolve, open into new definitions: the perp becomes a baffled and enraged child reaching out for hope or at least solace; the cop becomes a slightly older, no less angry youngster acting out if not for solace or hope at least for strength. Legalistically, each has a set of predetermined lines that lead to a much-too-well-rehearsed denouement, often gunfire. Dramatically, the subtexts can be heard and responded to and the action creatively recast. The student learns to be the teacher; the teacher emerges as an accomplice; the judge is judged, or becomes a witness to actions for transformation.

In working out this theory of classroom action, Gillen draws creatively on the work of Kenneth Burke, especially his books A Grammar of Motives (1945) and A Rhetoric of Motives (1950). I was myself startled to see the work of Burke, until the last few years long out of fashion—and also of William Empson on pastoral and W.K. Wimsatt on the “counterlogical”—evoked in a book at some level about teaching mathematics. In fact, some of the most persuasive sections of Gillen’s book are his readings of scenes and characters from King Lear and As You Like It. Through those readings, using concepts derived from pastoral and courtship, he recasts the drama of the classroom.

Built into the long quotation I cited above is also another kind of theory, one having to do with the process of organizing for change: “acts that self-consciously grow through demands on self and peers toward demands on a larger society.” Those familiar with instances of radical change will recognize the sequence, if not precisely the language. What is being proposed is analogous to Gandhian Satyagraha, or the non-violent direct action associated with M.L. King and, differently, A.J. Muste. Gillen formulates the process with some care: “Demand on yourself. Demand on your peers. Demand on the larger society. This is an ordered series: the first is prerequisite to the second, the second is prerequisite to the third. . . . attempts to change the unjust arrangements of a society will be crushed unless the insurgents have developed a discipline that can withstand the oppressor’s attempts to fracture their unity and weaken their organization” (p. 125). One begins with self-discipline, with the willingness to undertake tasks, like registering to vote in McComb, Mississippi, or participating seriously in inner-city Baltimore schools, that are necessary and potentially dangerous. But one cannot move to the next stage without undertaking the first oneself: one cannot propose to others that they register to vote or come to school regularly and put time and effort into learning, without attempting it oneself.

Such change requires forcefully addressing the larger society, but as Gillen is quick to point out, “it is not the demand on the larger society, but the demand on peers that is the beginning of political action. The language ‘demand on peers’ is unfamiliar. But it is another way of saying ‘self-government’ or ‘democracy’” (p. 127). Gillen is not arguing, of course, that schools or, indeed, American politics are in this or most other senses “democratic.” As he quotes Vincent Harding, “we are practitioners in an educational system that does not yet exist.” The problem is developing an understanding of how the “educational system does not serve the students’ purpose now” and a practice (to return to our original quotation)—“that will render the system unworkable, and compel change” (p. 132).

What you want to “render . . . unworkable” is, among other matters, the systematic starvation of public education, particularly in schools that serve poor and working class students. Courts order the State to provide adequate funding to the Baltimore schools, for example, but when that funding is not forthcoming, Baltimore Algebra Project activists demonstrate, march on Annapolis, engage in a hunger strike, carry out “die-ins” at meetings of school authorities. They stage direct actions to extend student bus tickets to 8 p.m. so that all can participate in the math tutoring central to the Project’s work. They organize against police violence—no small matter as we know in Baltimore and elsewhere—and put forward alternative narratives to those offered by the powers that be. They teach algebra successfully to younger students but also develop sessions on public speaking, civil disobedience, organizing tactics and the other skills necessary for pursuing their goals in the public arena. Their goals are not only teaching mathematics but demanding quality education as a “Constitutional Right,” no less important than the ballot.

I have quoted extensively from Gillen’s text partly to provide a sense to readers of the clarity of his prose. But partly, too, because—as the last sentence in the paragraph I have cited indicates—Gillen’s goals need to be seen for what they are: not the tinkering around the edges that might elevate a few students’ math test scores by some fraction, but as a radical (to the root) transformation of the system now in place to “educate” students of poverty. Gillen does not argue that public schools are somehow failing. To the contrary, he insists that “Schools for young people in poverty are marvelously successful at teaching about the scarcity of resources, arbitrariness of authority, and shunting of joy to the peripheries that characterize the society they are actually growing up into” (p. 134). The purposes of such schools is not especially learning, or rather the learning has to do with accepting particular forms of authority and power, accepting (even with rage) particular and limited stations in life, most of all accepting that it is your own limitations and not a system of hierarchy and privilege that defines your life chances (p. 89). We might wish to evoke here some of the conversation between Augustine and Alfred St. Clare in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: says Alfred: “’the lower class must not be educated.’ ‘That is past praying for,’ said Augustine; ‘educated they will be, and we have only to say how. Our system is educating them in barbarism and brutality.’” What Augustine does not see, of course, is the contravening education provided within the society of slaves, and he expresses the fear of white liberal society at what slavery was teaching its victims. But his point is nevertheless useful: however they may be failing in terms of orthodox educational yields, schools of poverty certainly do teach, and the students do learn those social meanings. That is surely one of the implications of Ferguson.

But students are not merely the victims of a perverse system that places them in a school to prison pipeline. They are, in fact, crucial players in the dramas of the classroom and any discussion that omits them—and most do–will miss the point. But can or even should students—and particularly students in schools of poverty—be thought about as change agents? Gillen’s answer begins, as does his book, with the reflection that, historically, it was often young people of color who carried through abolitionist activities against slavery, as well as the heroic efforts to disrupt segregation in the American South during the 1950s and 1960s. The young people who sat in at lunch counters in Greensboro, who marched in and to Montgomery, who went from house to house in rural Mississippi may provide answers to the question.

But are such historical models relevant? One might point as well to the disappeared students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa. Or the American draft and GI resisters of the Vietnam era. Or the women and girls of Redstockings or the earlier Bread and Roses strike. The question is sometimes posed as “how old should a child be to participate in activities for change?” That’s a reasonable question, particularly in an era in which children’s futures are being reshaped, some would say distorted, by a variety of political efforts to control schools and privatize their budgets. But perhaps the real question might better be formulated thus: what can young people, even very young people, learn by undertaking the kind of program Gillen proposes? As my epigraph suggests, his three-part sequence—place demands on yourself, on your peers, and on the larger society—entails a considerable learning process. One learns not only algebra but about the society and its politics, and not just from books and classroom curricula but from engaging in actions to change things. One learns, too, about one’s own power within a society, about the uses of language, about the critical tensions in American culture between individual advancement and shared progress. One learns, perhaps most of all, about the schools themselves, their crucial role in the implementation of the ideas of democracy, and the differences between organizing schools to train a docile workforce and organizing them to develop an informed citizenship, organizing them to enrich the few and organizing them to unshackle the many.

The importance of Gillen’s book can perhaps be seen most usefully by placing it in the context of the opt out movement. The movement to opt students out of high stakes tests is not, from one point of view, a “radical” crusade: most of those who have been active in it would probably not see it as a challenge to American capitalism, though it has the potential, I think, to undermine the authority of the “reformers.” It is, first and foremost, a brilliantly conceived act of civil disobedience. A comment on Diane Ravitch’s blog suggests its possibilities: “The students have the power and the means to squash the test.” Were that to happen in any significant measure, the impact on the effort to impose a capitalist model on schools in America, which have heretofore been governed in quite another way, would be profound. That is true because the “reformers” have hung their hopes on testing as the pivotal instrument of change. To be sure, they have tried to privatize public schools into money-making charters; they have tried to break teachers’ unions; they have promoted the authority of managers over that of the people who do the actual work of teaching; above all, they have depended on the unspoken ability of capitalism to overturn all settled relations of labor and control. That effort has been almost entirely negative: it argues that schooling in America is broken and must be replaced, one way or another. Only then will . . . well, test scores go up. That then becomes the be-all and end-all. In the final analysis only significantly improved test scores can make a case premised on . . . improved test scores. “To squash the test” is thus to cut the legs from under the effort to change the schools from above. Those who live by the test will die by the test.

Gillen’s strategy, like that of the opt out movement, is to “render the system unworkable.” But what he offers in the place of disruption and test scores is learning rooted in the empowerment of students. The idea is not to train students to fill in bubbles but to teach them algebra and geometry, as well as how power operates, how poetry means, and how schools and communities can be changed. But most of all, it is to teach them democracy. It is not that schools in America or elsewhere have ever been democratic; they are, after all, organized around the hierarchy of one or more adults and younger children. But as students learn by placing demands on self, then on others, and ultimately on the society, they are learning, too, the practice of democracy, which is finally a system in which the critical decisions about a community’s institutions are made by all the members of the community and not by absentee governors, self-appointed philanthropists, or affluent testing agencies.

To say this another way, the conflict over the schools is really a conflict about the future of America. Are our schools and communities to be ruled by the 1% and the politicians and bureaucrats they buy? Or by the 99%, who may not know algebra but who know what the “reforms” imposed on them and their children really add up to.

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