A Different Kind of Writing

I haven’t posted anything here for a while, but that’s not because I haven’t been writing. Next week, a one-act play of mine titled Ice Cream Man will be opening at Manhattan Repertory Theatre.

The play was written in response to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson last summer. While Ice Cream Man isn’t about schools or ecosystems, I think its content grapples with some of the problems that Mark and I wrestle with here.

Michael Brown was a student. He was about to start college. I don’t know what his life would have looked like if he hadn’t been killed last summer, but I know that after he died, the story of Michael Brown’s life was often told in the media as if all he’d done had somehow led him to his death. In a way, by reframing his life as a narrative who’s arc ended in his death at the hands of a policeman, the media took Michael Brown’s life a second time. In some tiny way, I hope to offer a counter-narrative in my play.

If you’re interested in seeing the Ice Cream Man, it will be at Manhattan Repertory April 8-9 at 9pm. For tickets, just email mrtreserve@gmail.com and tell them which night you’re coming. If you’d like to support this production, which is entirely artist funded, you can make a donation at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/ice-cream-man–3/x/10085203

I look forward to seeing some of you there, and to getting back into blogging after this production is done.

On Slavery and School Management

Mark and I began blogging about schools and ecosystems because we were frustrated with the business model of school reform. As we wrote in our original schools and ecosystems manifesto, “applying an industrial-growth model” to school design doesn’t work– at least not for students and teachers. We proposed that viewing schools as ecosystems might help us design more humane and effective educational reforms than those currently on offer.

Sadly, it doesn’t seem like that’s the direction education reform will take in New York State anytime soon. In case you hadn’t heard, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to subject public school teachers to be a new evaluation scale wherein student standardized test scores will be the core measure of a teacher’s quality. Cuomo also wants a merit pay system wherein teacher pay would be linked to student test scores.

Merit pay and value-added assessment: these are common proposals from advocates of the business model. Their merits have been roundly debated elsewhere, so our readers likely already have a position on each of these management tools. What you might not know, however, is that both of these common management techniques have their roots in American chattel slavery.

Caitlin C. Rosenthal, a fellow at that hotbed of radicalism known as Harvard Business School, has been researching the connections between modern management and the techniques that slaveowners used to track and improve their slaves’ productivity. Rosenthal has found that having a captive workforce allowed slaveowners to experiment with a wide variety of management techniques. Among these, merit pay:

“This led owners to experiment with ways of increasing the pace of labor, Rosenthal explains, such as holding contests with small cash prizes for those who picked the most cotton, and then requiring the winners to pick that much cotton from there on out. Slave narratives describe how others used the data to calculate punishment, meting out whippings according to how many pounds each picker fell short.

Similar incentive plans reappeared in early twentieth-century factories, with managers dangling the promise of cash rewards if their workers reached certain production levels.”

Slaveowners also pioneered the art of measuring employee value as a function of productivity:

“Starting in the late 1840s, [slave-managing innovator] Thomas Affleck’s account books instructed planters to record depreciation or appreciation of slaves on their annual balance sheet. In 1861, for example, another Mississippi planter priced his 48-year-old foreman, Hercules, at $500; recorded the worth of Middleton, a 26-year-old top-producing field hand, at $1,500; and gave 9-month-old George Washington a value of $150. At the end of the year, he repeated this process, adjusting for changes in health and market prices, and the difference in price was recorded on the final balance sheet.

These account books played a role in reducing slaves to ‘human capital,’ Rosenthal says, allowing owners who were removed from day-to-day operations to see their slaves as assets, as interchangeable units of production in a ledger, instead of as people.”

Much of this is hardly surprising. After all:

“The evolution of modern management is usually associated with good old-fashioned intelligence and ingenuity—’a glorious parade of inventions that goes from textile looms to the computer,’ Rosenthal says. But in reality, it’s much messier than that. Capitalism is not just about the free market; it was also built on the backs of slaves who were literally the opposite of free.

Perhaps I’m being generous, but I’d like to assume that when Cuomo and other business-minded reformers propose using merit pay and value-added assessment of employees, they’re unaware that they’re proposing slaveowner management techniques. Now that this troubling history is out there, let’s hope they’ll reconsider before advocating tools used to build and maintain one of America’s most brutal and repugnant institutions.

School Reform and the Borg Complex

I had never heard of the Borg Complex until I stumbled across it on The Frailest Thing, a fascinating blog that focuses on people and technology. According to this blog, the Borg Complex “is exhibited by writers and pundits who explicitly assert or implicitly assume that resistance to technology is futile.” The blog goes on to define eight symptoms of the Borg Complex:

1. Makes grandiose, but unsupported claims for technology

2. Uses the term Luddite a-historically and as a casual slur

3. Pays lip service to, but ultimately dismisses genuine concerns

4. Equates resistance or caution to reactionary nostalgia

5. Starkly and matter-of-factly frames the case for assimilation

6. Announces the bleak future for those who refuse to assimilate

7. Expresses contemptuous disregard for past cultural achievements

8. Refers to historical antecedents solely to dismiss present concerns

Right away, I was struck by how closely these symptoms match the public behavior of advocates of corporate school reformers. From points 1 (advocating reform with grandiose, unsupported claims) and 2 (ridiculing anyone who argues that many community schools function quite well) all the way to point 8 (referencing historical context only to suggest that the community school model is antiquated), the Borg Complex appears to be at epidemic levels in the world of corporate reform.

In future posts, I’ll examine manifestations of the Borg Complex in the world of education. For now, I’ll quote the original post on the dangers that Borg rhetoric– which aggressively promotes a very narrow vision of progress as if there were no alternatives–  poses to discussions about schools, or about anything:

Marshall McLuhan once said, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.” The handwaving rhetoric that I’ve called a Borg Complex is resolutely opposed to just such contemplation when it comes to technology and its consequences. We need more thinking, not less, and Borg Complex rhetoric is typically deployed to stop rather than advance discussion. What’s more, Borg Complex rhetoric also amounts to a refusal of responsibility. We cannot, after all, be held responsible for what is inevitable.

What We Talk About When We Talk About School

I have an article in Jacobin this week about the impact of jargon on our understanding of public education. One of the key points Mark and I have made in this blog since the very beginning is that schools are physical environments. When we use jargon, or any language that is unnecessarily technical or unclear, to discuss schools, we make that physical environment seem like an abstraction. As I argue in the article:

“Beyond confusing and misleading the public, jargon obscures the fact that when we talk about schools, we’re talking about places where children live and grow for seven to nine hours a day, ten months out of the year. If they’re poor, these children spend their days in overcrowded classrooms that are poorly lit and poorly ventilated.

My first two years teaching in the public schools, I worked at a high school where students spent their entire school day, five days a week, without ever leaving the building. These teenagers received a single thirty-minute break each day for lunch and recess combined. Their recess consisted of milling about the school cafeteria after eating. Jargon reduces these pent-up children to abstractions and effaces the brutality of this type of captivity.”

The more direct and clear our language is, the less it will obscure the physical reality of school environments.

Jargon & Ecosystems

Lately, Mark and I have been very interested in the language people use when they talk about school. It’s an obvious, but important point: how we talk about schools affects how we understand them. The same is true for ecosystems.

The NY Times ran an interesting piece earlier this month about a Queens ecosystem in transition. The article describes plans to transform an abandoned railway into a massive park that would run from Rego Park to Ozone Park. As the article notes, the proposed park “would be accessible to 322,000 city residents”, providing these people with a new space to explore, play, or simply relax among trees and green grass.

The plan sounds like a no-brainer in a city that’s devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to constructing park lands, bike lanes, and other outdoor public spaces in wealthier sections of Manhattan and Brooklyn over the last decade. Strangely, however, Mayor De Blasio’s office responded to the plans with something other than enthusiasm. In fact, the response from the Mayor’s office was almost incomprehensible. As the Times reported:

The plan has been shown to officials from the city’s parks and transportation departments, as well as City Hall. But the response so far is noncommittal. “We look forward to continuing conversations with stakeholders about the future of this asset,” Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio’s office, said on Monday.

Just to reiterate, the plan in question is to transform an abandoned railway into a park so that hundreds of thousands of people can have green, outdoor space in which to frolic. That point seems worth reiterating because Norvell’s robotic statement uses the kind of business jargon– complete with reference to “stakeholders” and “assets”– designed specifically to obscure the physical realities that we’re discussing.

To those of us in education, this type of jargon is both familiar and destructive. When we talk about schools and ecosystems, we’re talking about physical spaces inhabited by living beings. We are talking about complex, specific realities. When we talk about “assets,” we reduce these ecosystems to pieces of property whose fate will be decided by “stakeholders”, a term taken from the worlds of gambling and finance to reduce human beings in need of green space to contestants in a game controlled by whoever’s got the money to run the table.

I hope that the city supports this– and any– plan to give city residents access to more green space where such space is readily available. More than that, though, I hope that when we talk about schools and ecosystems, we can avoid the practice of using the vague, technocratic jargon of the business world to describe worlds where financial profit should not be the ultimate goal. The problems of schools and ecosystems are the problems of living things. Let’s talk about them in language that illuminates, rather than obscures, the complex and specific worlds that human beings inhabit.

Word of the Day: Efficiency

The language we use when we talk about schools– or really about anything political– can be confusing. Terms as basic as “innovation”, “success”, and “learning” represent such different things to different people that it’s pretty much impossible to know what they mean within the context of education.

This morning, I’m interested in the word efficiency. The Oxford Dictionaries define “efficient” as a word commonly used in reference to a system or machine that has achieved “maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.” Maximum productivity with minimum waste sounds pretty good. Certainly, when people attack the public schools as inefficient, they’re suggesting that these schools achieve little and waste much. These attacks are often used in support of privatization. The argument is that the private sector operates according to principles of maximum efficiency.

In Chicago, this logic was deployed earlier this year to justify the privatization of public school custodial services. According to The Washington Post, the Chicago Public Schools awarded two contracts totaling $340 million to private companies Aramark and Sodexmagic. The idea was that these companies would keep Chicago school’s cleaner for far less money than the public sector’s inefficient custodial services.

Today, Chicago’s schools are infested with rats, roaches, and garbage, according principals from around the city. Despite this mess, Aramark is now laying off more than 15% of its Chicago school custodians.

There are lots of problems here, but one of them is that companies like Aramark (which, not coincidentally, has a long history of labor abuses) have vastly different conceptions of efficiency than most good-hearted people. In Aramark’s conception, the classic private-sector conception of efficiency, achieving minimum waste means eliminating whatever cost-bearing services it can without exposing itself to legal action, no matter what impact this might have on student learning or the school environment. Exposing students to pests and filth is thus acceptable if this exposure is accompanied by decreased spending on employee compensation.

To those of us who care about the people who spend their days in public schools, productivity with regard to school cleanliness would mean maintaining school environments that are not just bearable, but are actually comfortable. Efficiency would then mean employing enough custodians to achieve this. Unfortunately, as long as the people in charge of our schools and cities subscribe to the private sector definition of efficiency, students and teachers will have to share their classrooms with rats and roaches.

What We Talk about When We Talk about Poverty


As Mark noted in his last post, Success Academy Charter School CEO Eva Moskowitz recently wrote an op-ed for The New York Post in which she announced:

There is a myth in this country that poverty and race are overwhelming barriers to a child’s ability to learn. This is simply not the case.

On some level, Moskowitz is correct: poverty does not interfere with student learning. To get to that level, we have to dissociate the word “poverty” from both its literal definition and its commonly accepted meaning: the condition of having little or no wealth and the resulting lack of access to human necessities like nutritious food, shelter, clothing, books, and other things that make life comfortable and stimulating.

Once we strip the word poverty of its meaning, it becomes three meaningless syllables. At that point, Moscowitz is 100% right: those syllables have no impact on children whatsoever.

Those of us who are concerned about poverty, however, should keep the word firmly attached to its meaning. When we do that, we recognize that Moskowitz is actually 100% wrong. Over and over and over again, research shows that the elements that constitute the condition of poverty— including hunger, poor nutrition, illness, and lack of access to books— consistently and aggressively interfere with student learning. Over and over again, research shows that the #1 predictor of student learning is wealth, or lack of it.

Incidentally, poor children are also more likely to go to poorly lit, overcrowded schools that lack adequate books and supplies. That’s become even more likely in recent years because Moskowitz’s Success Academies have siphoned millions upon millions of dollars away from the public schools that serve the vast majority of New York City’s children.

Which brings us back to the topic of dissociating words from their meanings. Specifically, the word “public.” In her op-ed, Moskowitz claimed:

Success Academies are free, K-12 public schools, open to all children.

The word “public,” as most of us understand it, means “available to everyone”– like a public park or bathroom. Given that meaning, Eva Moskowitz’s schools are not public. Success Academies refuse to admit students they don’t want (they currently accept roughly 20% of students who apply) and get rid of students they don’t like.

Since Success Academies are not public, it’s kind of shocking that when the chips are down, their students can’t compete with the best and brightest from the city’s allegedly failing public system. But those were the results this spring when every single member of the Harlem Success Academy’s first graduating class failed the entrance exam to the city’s select public high schools.

It’s hard to know what went wrong, but we do know that we’re not allowed to blame poverty when students fail. And you can bet I’m not going to blame the Success Academy’s teachers, who get worked to the bone. Maybe we should just blame Moskowitz.

On the Limits of Problem Solving

When Mark and I aren’t blogging about schools and ecosystems, we like to get together for a cold beverage and talk about…schools and ecosystems. Our conversations usually start with some really lucid, optimistic ideas about how we can promote our approach to school design, how we can build connections between like-minded teachers, or how we can help our students become better people. At this point in the conversation, Mark and I are in problem-solving mode. We’re thinking about the obstacles we face as teachers, the obstacles our students face, and we’re trying to come up with ways to overcome those obstacles.

After a couple of beverages, our ideas usually become a bit less lucid and, sometimes, a bit less hopeful. In particular, since we both teach students with disabilities, our conversations often circle around the problems that disabilities present, both for us as teachers and for our students as human beings in a world that likes to pretend that such disabilities don’t exist. At this point in the conversation, Mark and I have abandoned problem-solving mode. We’re not proposing new programs or methods that could somehow measure our disabled students’ academic progress. At this point we’re more contemplative and, I think, a bit more humble.

Anyone who’s taught students with disabilities has (I hope) learned some humility. We’ve learned that no matter how a school is designed, no matter what type of curriculum we use, a child with severe ADHD who is off her meds will not be able to stay in her seat for very long. We’ve learned that increasingly rigorous curricula do not, in fact, help a student with an emotional disturbance control his anger. Even the most rigorous standards will not prevent this student from getting out of his seat, picking up a chair, and throwing it at the girl sitting across from him.

I don’t list these examples to suggest that we should abandon all hope and stop teaching students with severe disabilities. I list them to suggest that we should approach the problem of disability with humility. We should acknowledge that as a society, we are uncomfortable with disability and we are often frustrated that people with disabilities are not able to meet the same demands placed upon the rest of us.

I could hear that frustration in Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s voice when he recently proposed new “accountability standards” for special education students, stating without a shred of evidence, “We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to a robust curriculum, they excel.” Duncan was in problem-solving mode. He believed that he had figured out how to fix our students with disabilities. The solution is high expectations and rigorous curricula, which apparently aren’t already in place.

I have a feeling that the solution is actually not so simple. I recently read a brilliant essay by Fredrik deBoer on what he calls “the death of nuance.” In this piece, deBoer criticizes the ProPublica news service for its coverage of the use of restraining holds on school children. DeBoer describes his own experience as a special education teacher teaching students with severe emotional disturbance, a job that required him and his co-workers to physically restrain students when they posed a severe threat to themselves or others. He writes:

Those risks were neither hypothetical nor minor. The more severe of these cases were children who typically could not last a single school day without inflicting harm on themselves or on others. I have personally witnessed a 10 year old lift his 40-pound desk from the floor and hurl it towards the head of another student. I have witnessed a student jump from her seat to claw and bite at another, with almost no provocation. I have seen kids go from seeming calm to punching other kids repeatedly in the back of the head without warning. The self-harm was even worse. I had to intervene when a child, frustrated with his multiplication homework, struck himself repeatedly in the face with a heavy fake gold medallion, to the point where he drew his own blood.

DeBoer does not argue for or against restraining holds. He does not pretend to have the solution to the problem of disability or mental illness. Instead, he raises some serious concerns about our inability to have intelligent, analytical discussions about complex issues like disability, education, or mental health. He writes:

I am reminded of a few sad realities: that American culture is now synonymous with a juvenile Manicheanism that imagines some perfect world we could achieve if people just weren’t so selfish and evil; that getting showily, publicly angry about problems is more popular than actually attempting to solve them…I genuinely don’t know if people believe in difficult choices and intractable problems anymore; they’ve been bludgeoned by the loud noises and shouting we mistake for discussion into thinking that all problems have clear villains and easy answers.

Reading deBoer’s piece, I was reminded of Arne Duncan’s facile approach to the problem of teaching students with disabilities. The notion that all we need to help students like the ones deBoer describes are high expectations and robust curricula reflects an ignorance so profound that I don’t even know how to respond to it, except to say that when the federal appointees in charge of our public schools are so completely incapable of grasping the problems that teachers and students face, it’s time for those people to get out of problem-solving mode. Any solutions posed by people with such a clear inability to understand the complexities of public schooling and special education will only make things worse.

Dombey & Son & Schools as Ecosystems

dombey coverI’ve been reading Dickens’s Dombey & Son and having a wonderful time. Less than 200 pages in, I’ve already found lots of passages on education that seem remarkably contemporary.

One section in particular seemed relevant to our Schools as Ecosystems project. Mr. Dombey, the wealthy and highly respected head of a shipping firm, is grooming his sickly, sensitive, 6-year-old son Paul to take over the company. Dombey is trying to choose the proper school for Paul and decides on Doctor Blimber’s Academy which, he is told, “[is] very strictly conducted…there’s nothing but learning going on from morning to night.”

Dickens goes on to describe Blimber’s school in language full of ecological imagery:

“In fact, Doctor Blimber’s establishment was a great hothouse, in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work. All the boy blew before their time. Mental green-peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round. Mathematical gooseberries (and very sour ones too) were common at untimely seasons, and from mere sprouts of bushes, under Doctor Blimber’s cultivation. Every description of Greek and Latin vegetable was got off the driest twigs of boys, under the frostiest circumstances. Nature was of no consequence at all. No matter what a young gentleman was intended to bear, Doctor Blimber made him bear to pattern, somehow or other.”

This last part struck me because the approach it described — forcing all students to “bear to pattern” regardless of the student or the “season” — struck me as exactly the type of one-size-fits-all approach being advocated from the federal to the local level in public education today, from Common Core standards that make no mention of students’ varied learning needs to high-stakes tests that demand a uniform product from all students, regardless of their circumstances.

It’s interesting that methods so comically inhumane that Dickens was lampooning them in the 1840s are now promoted as the cutting edge of educational innovation.

This Week in Evil: Congress considers taking Healthy Food away from Children

Up for debate in Congress this week: should poor and working class children (the ones who rely on the public schools for their lunches) have access to healthy food? Now, there’s lots of research out there on how a healthy diet helps young people learn and even more research on how diets low in fruits and vegetables, and high in processed, fatty foods, weaken brain functioning and learning capacity). So why is Congress considering rolling back the healthy school lunch reform passed by the Obama administration in 2012?

I don’t know and I don’t care. There’s no good reason to give students less healthy food. If you think students who don’t have wealthy parents should still get to eat well, please join the Union of Concerned Scientists in petitioning Congress to maintain healthy school lunches.