Archive for December, 2010

posted by Amy on Dec 22

In her 1997 book, Ghetto Schooling, Jean Anyon argues that all attempts to reform urban education are doomed to failure unless and until the political and social isolation, poverty, racism, and hopelessness in urban environments are remedied. Anyon describes the generational and systemic dysfunction, abusiveness, low expectations and incompetence within the school system, in addition to physical defects (old, crumbling, dirty buildings, lack of instructional materials, overcrowded classrooms, etc.) and characterizes them, correctly, as symptoms of a larger issue of impoverishment in every sense of the word. However, an even more fundamental truth that the book reveals, but fails to develop, is that almost all schooling in the United States is inherently oppressive and dehumanizing. The assumptions, underlying principles, and educational theories that are producing dehumanized, oppressed, uneducated poor children who go on to become criminals, inmates, drug addicts and unwed mothers are also producing conscienceless, depressed, dissatisfied, debt-ridden middle class and upper class MBA’s, professionals, managers, bureaucrats, and others who, in less obvious ways, are just as dehumanized and oppressed as the poor. It is no wonder we struggle with obesity, family violence, divorce, alcoholism, eating disorders, shopping disorders, hoarding disorders, gambling addiction, sex addiction and unhappiness at all levels of society. Our culture is built on fallacious values and ethical constructs. The education system is a product of those values, and it perpetuates them.

Our culture defines education as a process where the schools, as owners and controllers of information, fill the empty heads of the students and shape them into a product that will be of use to business. Since the economy is based on consumption and finance, the most valued output from the education system is a well-trained consumer-debtor. Now business leaders like Michael Bloomberg want to take over education and use a business model for how to do a better job of this, including de-professionalizing teachers and emphasizing high-stakes testing of easily-measured “facts” about achievement. These are the same people who keep creating massive economic bubbles, who steal money by abusing the trust of their friends, who remorselessly lay off thousands of workers while simultaneously giving themselves obscenely large bonuses, who take advantage of the publicly-financed infrastructure that makes it possible for business to be carried out in a safe, secure legal environment, and who see no contradiction in wanting both privatized, minimally taxed profits and socialized risk. The fact that so many people think it is a good idea to turn our children’s futures over to hedge fund managers and other Masters of the Universe speaks volumes about what this culture really values.

Everyone-the president, the Secretary of Education, and most of the proponents of reform-talks about how our schools are failing to prepare students to compete in the global economy. Everyone says this means the system is broken. That is not what it means. The system was never designed to make sure everyone could succeed, either in the economy of the 1900′s, the 1930′s, the 1950′s or today. The system we have-and have always had-is preparing people to fill the roles that they, by virtue of their class-by an accident of birth-are intended to fill. Ghetto Schooling shows that the highly-esteemed Newark public schools never did do a good job educating the poor, especially minority and immigrant children, but in the days that uneducated people could find work the problem was hidden. Today the system is working to line the pockets of the business interests that make money from having more and more of the same results. These same business interests are the ones that control public policy in the United States-who consistently claim that every effort to make things better for the poor and middle class will be bad for business and, thus, bad for all of us, and who block efforts at real reform.

Poor people in the U.S. are not needed to be workers in the global economy. The market keeps seeking less and less expensive labor, and it keeps moving to poorer and poorer parts of the world to find it. Poor children in the U.S., especially poor minority children, are being efficiently and relentlessly prepared for the roles that the global economy has assigned them. Girls are producing new soldiers for our military machine and new inmates for our thriving prison industry, as well as the next generation of mothers for the next generation of killers, criminals and baby makers. Poor kids fill up our military service, our prisons, our homeless shelters, our “poverty industry.” If there were any serious desire to improve the lives of poor school children, or, for that matter, if this really were the land of opportunity and if we really did value equality and democracy, we would have a mandatory livable wage, universal health care, universal child care and preschool, and publicly supported (debt-free) higher education for everyone who is capable of doing the work. There would be a preferential option for the poor in school staffing, capital investment and funding. Poor kids would have the best of everything-parks, recreation programs, arts, music, practical arts, leadership training, nutrition, and the best teachers, books, libraries, art supplies, musical instruments, school buildings, principals, office staff and custodians. Their parents would get parenting education, job training, and counseling. That’s not happening. Instead we have school voucher proposals and charter school proposals and any number of ideas that amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or completely delegitimizing and dismantling public education.

Anyon says the teacher education curriculum at Rutgers demonstrates “that all students are capable of meeting the demands of cognitively complex activity” (176). That phrase jumped out at me. Every human being on the planet easily and instinctively engages in “cognitively complex activity.” Learning to speak, walk, sing, ride a bicycle, tell jokes, go to the store, buy bread and bring back the right change, stay out of your dad’s way when he’s in “one of those moods,” or sell crack on a street corner are all “cognitively complex” activities. Memorizing disembodied bits of “information” devoid of context and without any apparent relevance is mind-numbing. Drill and repetition are the best ways to teach nonsense, but are the worst ways to make meaning. The human brain inherently makes meaning, makes connections, and engages its environment. Every normal, healthy toddler is endlessly curious and has a relentless drive to explore and learn. If by the time they are in second or third grade children are no longer hungry to learn it is not because the work is too “cognitively complex” it is because it is lifeless, stultifying, boring and meaningless, and it’s being doled out by teachers who despise the students. (As Anyon’s book demonstrates, it also has a great deal to do with the challenges the kids face at home and on the street, in the violent, dysfunctional, hopeless environments in which they live.) Forcing kids to sit in rows filling in worksheets and parroting back bits of disembodied, irrelevant information is abusive and pointless, yet Anyon tells us of numerous court cases in New Jersey arguing over whether this sort of “basic education” is sufficient for poor kids, and even whether they are capable of benefiting from anything better. Children can sense that hidden curriculum, and the underlying hostility and contempt. They are much smarter than anyone is giving them credit for.

An educated person is one who is fully human, who is liberated from oppression, control, hatred, nihilism and domination, and whose capacity for reflection and action is fully realized. An educated person is a Subject and not an object. He or she has the capacity to effect change, to lead, to create, to think, and to transform. Although it is obvious that the kids who can barely read or write have not been educated, many of the ones who do “succeed” under the current rules of the U.S. education system are also uneducated under this definition.

Everything about a ghetto child’s life conspires to turn her or him into an object. That is tragic in itself, and cause enough for devoting a lifetime to changing those circumstances. But nearly every school child in the U.S. is oppressed and dehumanized, and is being made into a cog in the same machine. The ones who can earn money are being trained-by popular culture, by advertising, by propaganda, by virtue of the jobs they manage to land after they get out of college, to consume. The ones who fail to earn enough money for that become products-soldiers, prisoners, street people. But all are objects. Some of the “successful” ones are being trained as knowledge workers, professionals, financiers and executives. Others are being trained to be military officers, jailers, police officers, propagandists, and intelligence officers who help keep the underclass under control. Some of them are politicians who, by running for and holding office, maintain the illusion that voters have a voice in the policies that perpetuate this system while making sure that the interests that bought their election are served. They are all victims. They are all cogs.

The cogs are produced by “training.” Training turns human beings into objects who have no personal power, no agency. Objects are acted upon; they have no power to act. They are trained to respond in predictable ways to propaganda, to marketing, to cultural forces, and to what they were told in school. Subjects, on the other hand, are fully human. They think, create, learn, and act.

The military-industrial-entertainment-insurance-medical-energy-financial complex does not want Subjects. You can’t keep actualized human beings from asking questions, demanding answers, questioning authority and wanting a better life. They don’t toe the line. They might get together and talk to each other and learn from each other. They might form a tenants’ union, a food co-op, a parents’ committee. They might start demanding that their children quit being treated like criminals in their schools. They might start voting. They might organize and collectively insist on being treated like human beings.

Christianity is humanizing. It teaches that everyone is a unique, precious, child of God, made in God’s image. Christians believe that it is God’s will for God’s kingdom values and kingdom rules to be followed on earth. Christians believe that God is Love, and that human fulfillment comes from loving God and loving all our fellow human beings-not just the ones who look like us, or worship as we do, or believe as we do. “Love your neighbor” means “love everybody.” An injustice done to any member of society damages everyone. These kinds of Christian values are a threat to maintaining an oppressive system. Authentic Christianity is countercultural. If mobilized, it would be a counterweight to training, and a force for authentic education.

A loving school system would treat each student as an irreplaceable, precious member of God’s family. It would nourish the minds, bodies, and spirits of students, teachers, parents, and administrators. Students and teachers would cooperate in a dialectical process of discovery, learning, and awareness. It would liberate them from sin, from hatred, from abuse, and from oppression. It would actualize potential. It would be holistic, healthy, respectful, and efficacious.

This is not soft-hearted, soft-headed idealism. It is extremely difficult to dismantle oppressive systems. The oppressors and the oppressed are equally captive, equally invested. A loving, life-affirming education system would be threatening to the established order, and many vested interests would be dislodged by a truly revolutionary education consciousness. Ending poverty, racism, isolation and hopelessness, and radically reforming the underlying philosophy of education is, as Marian Wright Edelman says, “the civil rights issue of our day.” It should be the number one priority for all people of faith and good will.

posted by Amy on Dec 18

Ghetto Schooling; a Political Economy of Urban Educational Reform, by Jean Anyon. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997).

Jean Anyon is currently a Professor of Urban Education in the graduate program, City University of New York. She wrote Ghetto Schooling after participating in an unsuccessful four-year attempt to restructure eight schools in inner city Newark, NJ. She says, “To discover why inner city schools have not improved, it is not enough to only examine present reform or educational practice. We need, in addition, to understand how inner city schools have come to be what they are” (xv). The book traces the historical political economy of old industrial cities in the U.S., with Newark as the focus. She shows how the factors that mitigated against reform in the 1990′s developed, and how they represent the “concentration effects of the gradual ghettoization and stigmatization over time of the city’s minority poor” (xv).

The assertions Anyon makes are diligently researched and extensively documented. Unfortunately, the way the findings are reported makes it extremely difficult to follow the argument. Anyon contributes to this difficulty with a tangled and complex prose style. The demographic trends, comparisons of funding levels, changes in racial composition of students, faculty and administrators, trends in qualifications of teachers and in student/teacher ratio, number of substitute teachers, proportions of the budgets spent on classroom instruction vs. non-instructional personnel, and so on, should have been put into charts, graphs, maps and tables. Burying them in paragraph after paragraph of narrative studded with numbers, percentages, and in-text citations makes them nearly useless. For example, it is unclear to me whether Newark is considered a “large city” or not, and I couldn’t figure out which county it is in. That made it impossible to evaluate some of the things she said about other cities and counties.

The book shows that the Newark public school system, which was once considered a model, never did a good job with working class, poor, and immigrant children. Their graduation rates were abysmal, their schools and teachers were always substandard, and they were always marginalized, despised and abused. As long as there were plenty of jobs in the city that did not require an education, the second class status of the poor children in the system was hidden from view. Anyon also shows how federal and state policies regarding mortgage lending, urban renewal, highway construction, and tax incentives for investment led to the destruction of inner city neighborhoods and isolation and impoverishment of the people. It shows how the political isolation of both the city government and the school board in Newark contributed to the ascendancy of organized crime and machine politics, which diverted enormous amounts of revenue intended for schools into the pockets of criminals and their accomplices. Then it shows how the schools went into a freefall caused by loss of tax base, unjust education funding policies, and grossly incompetent and unsuitable teachers and administrators. Anyon traces the history of attempts at reform, including numerous lawsuits aimed at enforcing the requirement of the New Jersey Constitution that all school children in the state be provided a “thorough and efficient” free public education. This social, political and economic analysis makes it clear that it was not primarily teachers’ unions, or liberals, or starry-eyed idealists who “ruined” the system, but business interests, organized crime and wealthy conservatives.

Anyon concludes that it will not be possible to fix urban education without addressing poverty and racism. Urban school systems comprise parents, administrators, teachers and students who are, themselves, products of a socially, culturally, linguistically, and economically isolated, marginalized and powerless society that has no viable connection with the centers of power, money and influence in the city of Newark, the state of New Jersey or the federal government. The low expectations, dysfunctional organization, and culture of resignation, abuse, incompetence and failure that Anyon observed in the schools, and that have been rightly cited as contributory factors in school failure, are symptoms, not causes. Although Anyon  acknowledges that many individuals and groups work diligently to make things better in the Newark schools, the book shows that no program, no restructuring, no analysis of the education system that fails to address the cultural, political, and economic structures of the inner city itself can succeed. Unless the ghettos are transformed into economically viable, functional communities, it will be impossible to make any meaningful improvement in ghetto schooling.

I agree wholeheartedly with that conclusion, but the book is short on policy prescriptions. One of the most useful suggestions is that all grassroots efforts to transform inner city environments include programs to improve education. That is about as specific as Anyon’s proposed solutions get. She says, for example, that it ought to be possible to raise the money to fix the system, pointing out that the U.S. has one of the lowest tax rates in the world. Yes, but fiscal policy in this country is controlled by people who are determined to keep it that way, and who are getting more and more successful at doing just that.

The book predates “gentrification,” but that, of course, is not the kind of transformation that Anyon had in mind. Razing slums to build gated upper class communities, and demolishing old schools to create charter schools that rich people want for their kids, further displacing and marginalizing the poor, is merely a new chapter in the old story of “urban renewal” as disaster capitalism. The most striking thing about “new urbanism” and the shiny new “mixed use” communities that are being built is their whiteness. Except for servants, you won’t see any people of color in these theme parks, where the social classes of the residents and customers run the gamut from A to B.

We need a different paradigm for thinking about education itself, one that liberates the victims of oppression instead of blaming them. At first I was frustrated by Anyon’s failure to propose a different paradigm in this book, but then I realized that she didn’t promise that. She succeeded in her goal of showing what must be done. She did not undertake to describe how to do it.

posted by Amy on Dec 15

I was supposed to have been finished on December 9. I didn’t have any final exams (which are being held this week). Instead, I had five papers due between December 1 and December 8. Four were research papers and one was a report on visiting a worship service. For that one I chose to visit a mosque, so I had to do a little research about Islam.

I chose the topics for all four of the research papers. They had to be approved in advance for three of the classes, but I was completely free to choose my topic for the fourth class. One was supposed to be 8 to 10 pages long, with an upper limit of 12 pages. Two of the others were supposed to be “about 20 pages.” One was to be 17 to 25 pages.

I started all the research in advance, and had a writing schedule that, had I kept to it, would have gotten them all done on time. But I didn’t stick to the schedule, and I ran out of time. I got extensions on the papers that were due 12/8 and 12/9. I finished the second one Monday night, December 13.

The five papers totaled 85 pages. Three of the bibliographies were 1 1/2 pages long. I read five or six book-length references, plus dozens of articles, and parts of many other books. One reason I didn’t keep to my writing schedule is it was not realistic. I write slowly. But the main reason was anxiety. I’m new here; I haven’t gotten a lot of feedback on my work ; I am in awe of the talent and brilliance of my classmates; and I was scared. I kept researching–reading more books, finding and reading more journal articles, taking more notes. Then I kept crafting, revising, and changing the early papers, and stealing time from the later ones.

Monday night I woke up at midnight in a panic, convinced I was supposed to be writing. I almost got out of bed and went to the computer to write. I kept waking up every couple of hours all night. Last night I didn’t wake up, but I dreamed that I had a new section to add to one of the papers, with better ideas. I don’t remember what the idea was, nor do I intend to rewrite any of the papers.

I loved having the freedom to choose what to write about. I was able to explore in depth a number of things that interested me, within the confines of the criteria set out in the syllabus. I was able to make an unexpected and fascinating connection between a study of World Vision for my Global Christianity class, and a paper on the Common Good for my ethics/social teachings class. It could even turn into a doctoral thesis. I was able to bring in things I read on my own in the last few years, things I learned last summer in my internship at the Children’s Defense Fund, and things I learned at Palmer.

Right now it’s good to have a break, and let things sink in. I’m reading a book from my personal reading list. I’m getting ready for a trip to Denver starting tomorrow. And I’m grateful for all the twists, turns, synchronicities, and surprises that I’ve experienced in the last three years.

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