25 Sep

The past two Fridays, NJTAG (New Jersey Teacher Activist Group)–an educational activist organization I am affiliated with-hosted screenings of The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, a documentary created by educators from New York City which provides a counter-narrative to the one popularized by Davis Guggenheim’s 2010 film, Waiting for Superman. The plot ofSuperman revolves around a handful of students applying to various lotteries of charter schools, which they hope will save them from their awful neighborhood public schools.

The “Inconvenient Truth” is that charter schools are by no means the magical solution to America’s educational woes.  The largest comparative quantitative study of school performance shows that 17% of charter schools out-perform their public school counterparts; approximately half perform on the same level; and 37% “deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools” (Stanford University Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) 2009 nationwide charter school study, www.credo.stanford/edu).  Additionally, charters are often under-represented when it comes to special needs students (National Center for Learning Disabilities, http://www.ncld.org) and English Language Learners (http://www.ncspe.org/publications_files/OP188.pdf), which raises equitable access questions.

However, while we are on the topic of “truths”–another truth is that charter schools have cropped up in unprecedented numbers across the country, and both our state and the federal government have thrown their weight behind them. New Jersey has seen unprecedented numbers of charter schools opening in the past year, and the forecast only shows more coming.

As educational entities that receive public funds, charter schools should be held accountable to not only the state, but also to the local communities, parents, and students they serve.  Across the nation, some states are doing a better job of this than others.  I actually come from a charter school background–two of the three schools in which I have taught have been charters.  But in California, the schools I worked in were both approved by and held accountable to their districts and were required by the state to adopt non-discriminatory policies if they accepted public funds.

To pro-charter folks who might say that being accountable to the local district would spell doom for charters, I offer up the evidence of San Diego, where a full ten percent of school-age children attend charter schools (about three times the national average).  The charter schools there must be approved by their districts (with an appeal process to county and state levels) and are accountable to the school districts in which they are located.  For example, at the school where I worked the majority of my teaching career, we had an audit once a year, where district representatives would investigate every aspect of the school from financials to academics to board governance. At the conclusion of the audit we would be told both areas of excellence and areas that needed growth.  The rigorous process kept the school extra-transparent at every level, which did nothing but add to my school’s credibility.

In new Jersey, this level of accountability does not exist yet.  But two bills are being introduced into the Senate in the hopes of correcting that.  Senate bill 2443 will require local approval for charter schools, and Senate bill 3005 will seek to increase charter transparency as well as ensure representation in terms of income levels, special needs students, and English Language Learners.  Read about SB2443 here: http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2010/Bills/S2500/2243_I1.PDF and read about SB3005 here: http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2010/Bills/S3500/3005_I1.PDF.

These bills make sense for voters on both sides of the charter issue; the bill has bi-partisan sponsorship and support in the Senate, and nearly three quarters of New Jersey voters support it.  To drive the point home for legislators, take five minutes this week and call or email our senators to reiterate our support for the bills:

Senator Diane Allen

Email: senallen@njleg.org

Phone: 609-239-2800

Senator Thomas Kean

(908) 232-3673 (Westfield)

Email: senkean@njleg.org

Senator Theresa Ruiz

(973) 484-1000

Email: senruiz@njleg.org

The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman

7 Sep

The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman

On Friday, September 16, the New Jersey Teacher Activist Group (NJTAG) will be hosting a screening of The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman at Montclair State, in University Hall, room 1010, at 5pm (second screening to be held in Newark on Sept. 23, Bradley Hall, Rutgers Newark, 5pm).  This important film was created by the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM-www.gemnyc) to challenge the claims spread by the 2010 documentary, Waiting for Superman.  

For those of you who didn’t see Waiting for Superman, educational historian Diane Ravitch provides a succinct summary of its main message, which she refers to as “the popularized version public education that is promoted by some of the nation’s most powerful figures and institutions”:

“American public education is a failed enterprise. The problem is not money. Public schools already spend too much. Test scores are low because there are so many bad teachers, whose jobs are protected by powerful unions. Students drop out because the schools fail them, but they could accomplish practically anything if they were saved from bad teachers. They would get higher test scores if schools could fire more bad teachers and pay more to good ones. The only hope for the future of our society, especially for poor black and Hispanic children, is escape from public schools, especially to charter schools, which are mostly funded by the government but controlled by private organizations, many of them operating to make a profit.”

GEM’s film tackles the main claims from Superman, adding a dose of reality:

Superman: The business model will improve education. 

The Inconvenient Truth: Free market business principles have taken center stage in our country’s education reform debate. Increasingly, our nation’s school districts are run, not by educators, but by lawyers and corporate executives who push accountability and competition as the way to improve education. In a competitive business system, the real needs and voices of students and educators are ignored or minimized. Instead, the focus turns to cost containment and profit. Finland’s education system, which is ironically touted in Waiting for “Superman”, does not follow this model. In Finland, class sizes are low, teacher experience is highly valued, the students are not measured by high-stakes standardized tests, and most importantly, parents, teachers and students have a voice. 

Superman: Charter schools are a silver bullet. 

The Inconvenient Truth: Charter schools are not public schools. They are defined as “education corporations,” and operate with little or no oversight. Charter schools hold lotteries for enrollment, but have the ability to counsel out students. They drastically under serve children with special needs, children who receive ELL services, children who are homeless or in foster care, and children who receive reduced and free lunch. In addition, charter schools tend to have disproportionately high student and teacher attrition rates. According to a study conducted by Stanford University, only one in five charters are more successful than their public counterparts. Charter schools are not outperforming our public schools. 

Superman: Teachers and their unions are the problem. 

The Inconvenient Truth: Teachers and their unions advocate for children and their families and for better conditions in our public schools. Tenure and seniority rights are currently under attack, however they are nothing more than due process protections that all workers should have. Without these rights, teachers could not advocate for their students. While Waiting for “Superman” claimed teachers and their unions are to blame for our country’s educational challenges, the film also held up Finland’s system as a model. Yet, in Finland, 98% of the teaching force in unionized, educators are treated as professionals and are included in the decision-making process. 

Superman: Poverty doesn’t matter. 

The Inconvenient Truth: Poverty is not an excuse; it is a reality. No matter how extraordinary an educator is, without necessary supports such as parent involvement and community and health services, the effects of poverty will have a negative impact on student achievement. Well over 20% of our nation’s children currently live in poverty. Instead of attacking educators and ignoring the needs of our children, we should be working to reduce poverty and correct the policies that reinforce it. Ignoring the effects of poverty and blaming teachers is a convenient way of doing nothing at all. 

(Source: GEMNYC)

This documentary is extremely important because it provides a counter-narrative to the immensely popular story being told nation-wide to our citizens in a systematic effort to privatize education, dismantle university-based teacher education, de-skill teachers, and expand the punitive, flawed, and expensive testing and evaluation systems in place.  After the film, a discussion will take place to dialogue about the film, our current educational issues, and suggestions for tangible alternatives to the status quo.

For more information, visit http://www.facebook.com/NJTAG

The Activist Mentality

29 Aug

I’m in the midst of writing a literature review–those of you who are doc students, I know you are commiserating with me–on novice teacher development.  My work has me examining the challenges that new teachers face, as well as the factors that either facilitate or impede novice teacher development/success.  I’m sure it’s not a huge surprise to those of us who work with teachers, but many of the factors that determine success are related to the individual–personality, depth of commitment, emotional intelligence, etc (you know, the kind of variables that make education a “soft science” because they aren’t “quantifiable”).

I was trying to figure out a way to categorize two articles dealing respectively with internal locus of control and internal locus of control, and I typed “internal orientation.”  One article found novice teachers with an internal locus of control–those who felt they had agency and power to shape outcomes in their classrooms–were more likely to exhibit the complex pedagogical reasoning skills of more experienced teachers, and so were more successful in their classrooms.  The other study found that novice teachers with an external locus of authority–those who looked to outside “authorities” for knowledge, rather than reasoning and critiquing for themselves–were more likely to revert to traditional teaching practices once they entered the classroom, while teachers with an internal locus of authority tested the progressive practices they learned in their preservice program in their classrooms and finding that these worked, continued to implement constructivist pedagogy throughout the longitudinal study.

Reflecting on the locus of control and authority made me think of an extremely influential book I read, Women’s Ways of Knowing, that spoke of different ways of knowing: the person who gets knowledge only from others (received knowers), the person who gets their knowledge from their gut (subjective knowers), the person who gets their knowledge from careful observation and analysis (procedural knowers), and the person who  constructs their own knowledge by integrating their own subjective knowledge with the knowledge obtained from other sources and creating their own meaning of the world (constructive knowers).   This book also compared linear and didactic ways of knowing versus connected, relational ways of knowing, and one particular metaphor stands out: the linear knower conceives of the world as a hierarchically constructed mountain, with the powerful at the top and the powerless at the bottom; to the linear knower, change is practically impossible–one would literally have to move mountains. However, the connected knower sees the world as a web, and for major change to occur, one has only to gently pull one gossamer thread.

If teachers have an internal orientation, they are more likely to be constructive, connected knowers, and more likely believe that they can enact change in the classroom–and outside of it.  I began to think about the implications of these concepts for teacher activism and the current movement–is an internal orientation an important component of the activist mentality?  If so, how can we foster an internal orientation both for our students currently in school and our preservice teachers? I truly believe with all my heart in the need to create a more humanized educational system that can serve as a new “social imaginary,” in the words of Pauline Lipman,  but in order to do so, teachers must not only stand in solidarity–they must believe they are agents of change, be able to act on that belief, and provide their own students with the tools for self-empowerment.  Our rising generation of children must believe in their own agency, actively critique the legitimated forms of knowledge they are fed by “authorities,” and know they they are not only capable of liberatory action, but responsible for it.

Paging Mr. Jobs: TFA Turnoff

21 Aug

My husband and I are Mac fans.  We have a home full of Apple items–might as well be ihouse. So when I walked up to the Mac store today I was horrified to see the words “TEACH FOR AMERICA” emblazoned on the clear glass display beside the entrance.  It turns out, Mac is running a fundraiser for Teach for America with the tag line, “Your I-Pad is even more powerful in the hands of a teacher.”  The ad goes on to read: “Donate your I-Pad to Teach for America, and you’ll put a powerful tool into the hands of a teacher in a low-income community.”

link here: http://www.apple.com/retail/teachforamerica/


Does Apple know that they are making a political statement by supporting Teach For America–essentially aligning themselves with the conservative and neoliberal corporate ed reformers?  That the program puts fresh college grads in some of our poorest schools with little training?  That the two-year commitment they ask of their recruits does nothing to stem the revolving door of teachers coming in and out of hard-to-staff schools?  That their program employs a “no excuses” educational philosophy that dismisses poverty as a factor in educational achievement and encourages assimilatory pedagogy?

Is Apple really ready to put its considerable weight behind a corporate education endeavor that provides approximately 2% of the teaching force?  What we need is for technology powerhouses like Apple to support our public school system not by funding boutique corporate education programs that treat our inner city children’s education as some sort of character-building exercise on their way to Wall Street, but to help create stability and attract committed individuals who plan to make a lifetime career out of fighting to close the achievement gap.

Links to a study by an independent research organization regarding attrition rates and performance of TFA teachers:




Making Poverty Front and Center in the National Conversation

17 Aug
“Education Next: With a Math Proficiency Rate of 32 Percent, US Ranks Number 32”


Stories like this are misleading about the real state of our educational system because they do not highlight the real issue–as John Kuhn said at the SOS Rally: “IT’S THE POVERTY, STUPID!”  If the data they are citing–the 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) data– were disaggregated according to poverty level, our schools with less than 10% free and reduced lunch (a proxy for poverty level) topped the charts internationally. Conversely, our schools with more than 75% poverty were second to last of all countries tested. Therefore, we can pretty confidently conclude that our POVERTY (and the deeply ingrained inequalities in our society that perpetuate that poverty) is the problem that must be addressed in order to make real educational change!

I find it interesting that in this article, although the data are disaggregated by race/ethnicity, the authors do not make a connection between those statistics and poverty statistics…because then it would become clear that the two are closely related.  We need to disseminate this information far and wide so that our leaders have no choice but to make it part of the national and local conversations!!

Analysis of 2009 PISA scores here–

Additionally, this data, from the National Center for Educational Statistics, show that the poverty gap is in full evidence–“In 2009, about 53 percent of 8th-graders from high-poverty schools performed at or above Basic, compared with 87 percent of 8th-graders from low-poverty schools. Similarly, 12 percent of 8th-graders at high-poverty schools scored at or above Proficient, compared with 47 percent of 8th-graders at low-poverty schools.”

Localizing, Equalizing, Collaborating, Liberating: A School Change Philosophy

13 Aug

In the United States, our government promises educational equity.  Indeed, the U.S. Department of Education has a division entitled the “Office for Civil Rights,” with a stated mission to “…ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the nation through vigorous enforcement of civil rights” (Office for Civil Rights, 2011).  Yet one has only to visit schools in neighborhoods along the income spectrum from poor to wealthy and compare physical environments and teacher quality to observe that educational equity is a myth.  Schools located in high-poverty areas, which often serve a student population largely comprised of cultural and linguistic minorities (Noguera, 2003), often provide an inferior education that only equips their students for low-wage, low skilled jobs (Lipman, 2004).   With the morphing to a primarily information economy and outsourcing of non-degree requiring jobs to countries with cheaper labor costs, the pool of working-class jobs is rapidly disappearing, leaving students who are products of inferior schooling without options.

The most recent wide-reaching educational reform movement, No Child Left Behind, certainly has not managed to close gaps in educational equity.  By requiring all students to take standardized tests for which many schools are not able to prepare them, labeling low-performing schools as “failing,” and forcing sanctions on failing schools, No Child Left Behind maintains and expands educational and social inequities (Darling-Hammond, 2007; Lipman, 2004).  Our current system of reform through accountability, whose very name promises equality, punishes rather than supports, fosters competition rather than collaboration, and standardizes rather than responds to unique needs.    As an alternative, I suggest a change philosophy that involves localizing change, equalizing relations, intra- and inter-institutional collaboration, and culture and pedagogy that emphasize education for the purpose of liberation and democratic citizenry.

Localizing change

 Schools differ greatly in terms of context and school population, and as a result vary greatly in terms of issues to be addressed (Elmore, 2009).   For this reason, one-size-fits-all reform strategies will not meet the needs of all schools, and most certainly will not meet the needs of poor and urban communities, since standardized solutions generally are normalized, reflecting the view of the dominant power group, which in the U.S. is the white middle class.  Instead, increasing local control afforded to parents, communities, teachers, and school leaders (Darling-Hammond, 2009; Noguera, 2003) can allow for tailoring reform strategies to meet the unique needs of the particular community and school population as well as local ownership of the reforms, which could be key in seeing the reforms actually implemented.

In addition, through localizing control, common vision can develop, and reform decisions may be more expedient.   While “the system is primarily designed to serve the interests of the actors and agencies that make it up” (Elmore, 2009, p. 232), communities are connected by common interests.  If the school, parents, teachers, students, and community can harness these common interests, they can adopt a common vision with a moral imperative (Hargreaves, 2009)—the improvement of the learning of their students.  At the system level, reforms can become bogged down in bureaucratic and structural impediments: “…gradually the discussion recedes into a morass of technicalities…into the chaos of institutional politics” (Elmore, 2009).  However, with a common vision underlined by the urgency of educational improvement, local actors can come to agreement and enact changes in the best interest of their students.

Equalizing Relations

To truly combat the deeply ingrained social and economic inequities throughout the nation will require addressing the fundamental capitalistic ideologies upon which America was founded (Giroux, 2005).  However, addressing inequities within schools by dissolving structures such as tracking can perhaps limit the social reproductive functions of schools (Bourdieu, 1973).  Tracking functions as a sorting system, where students are placed in classes according to perceived cognitive ability.  Because students who are from low-income households or cultural/linguistic minorities often do not possess the cultural capital, or cultural resources, that are valued in the school setting–such as academic language–these students are more likely to be labeled as cognitively deficient and placed in lower-track classes (Schleppegrell, 2004).  In these lower-track classes, students are more likely to receive low-quality education, which will in turn only prepare them for low-wage jobs (Lipman, 2004).  In this way, the current inequalities that exist in larger society are maintained.

However, there are several successful models of de-tracked schools.  The Preuss School at the University of California, San Diego, is one such school.  All students, who come from low-income families and the majority of whom are students of color, take the same rigorous, quality, college preparatory coursework, which is aligned with the university of California’s A-G requirements, and are all strongly encouraged to take Advanced Placement courses (Mehan & Alvarez, 2006).  The Preuss School provides a spectrum of academic supports to ensure that all students are successful, including college tutors in core academic classes, after-school and weekend tutoring, and a small-group advisory period (Preuss School, 2011).   After more than a decade, Preuss has been named one of the top ten US public schools by Newsweek and boasts nearly 100% college acceptance rates (Preuss School, 2011).


Whole-school change efforts like de-tracking cannot happen without both inter- and intra-institutional collaboration.   Schools must seek active partnerships with universities, businesses, philanthropists, community members, and other schools to capitalize on outside resources and expertise.  University-school partnerships can provide useful content and theoretical knowledge, and inviting community members and parents to the table can be invaluable in terms of infusing community knowledge into classroom curriculum (Cochran-Smith, 2004).  Additionally, with the massive defunding of public education (Zeichner, 2010), partnerships with businesses and local philanthropists are essential for securing resources, especially technology.

However, internal expertise and resources are just as important, and teachers within the school must actively collaborate on developing curriculum, lesson study, and evaluating student work, in order to “become more thoughtful and reflective in their practice and hence more able to connect evidence of students learning to their planning and teaching” (Darling-Hammond, p. 51).  Gompers Preparatory Academy, sister school to Preuss UCSD, practices a professional learning model that encourages collaboration to deepen practice: each week, whole-faculty professional development is held during a shortened school day to address long-term professional development projects that include collective evaluation and reflection of commonly implemented practices such as efforts to build academic language scaffolds into lessons.  In addition, departments have common prep periods, and once a week each department meets to discuss department professional readings, collaborate on instructional design, or reflect on student work.  As a result of Gompers’s prioritization of collegial professional development, collaboration became the norm among teachers; professional development became part of the expected school week structure; and teachers learned from each other and from their students.

Education for Liberation and Democratic Citizenry

To sustain change, we must re-imagine and restructure both teacher education and K-12 education for the purposes of liberation of oppressed groups and building of the skills to help students become informed and active participants in our democracy.  Teachers must become conscientized about schools’ reproductive functions and become “transformative intellectuals” (Giroux, 2005, p.439) in order to structure experiences that will self-empower our students and help them gain critical agency (Giroux, 1988).  To do this, teachers must become critical scholars with deep understandings of the linkages between knowledge, power, culture, ideology, and socio-economic inequalities (Giroux, 2005).  The schools themselves must support this learning going forward into the teaching career by providing professional development with a critical and liberatory focus, supporting their teachers as they become “active community participants whose function is to establish public spaces where students can debate, appropriate, and learn the knowledge and skills necessary to live in a critical democracy” (Giroux, 2005, p.456).  Equally important, teachers must serve as models of civic action, embodying the spirit of democratic activism and social justice both inside and outside the classroom, providing a living example for their students of critical democracy in action.  As critical scholars and models of activism, teachers can begin utilizing their classrooms as transformative sites where their students can learn to problematize the injustices and inequalities of the world through a lens of their own experiences.  By becoming critical investigators of the world while simultaneously having their voices and experiences validated, students will gain critical agency and begin to prepare for action for responsible democracy.  Students will, in essence, become transformative intellectuals themselves, and carry forward the agenda of change toward a more equal society.

The change philosophy articulated here is but a starting point.  No single plan of reform is comprehensive enough to reverse the deeply ingrained inequalities that the American people seem to recognize as normal, and so have accepted.  To tackle the socioeconomic and political ideologies and structures that continue to maintain and expand stratified life opportunities in the United States, a revolution must occur.   Teachers, teacher educators, parents, community members, students, and others must mobilize under a common vision.  However, for this kind of movement to occur, we must first recognize ourselves as active agents who as a critical mass have the power to change oppressive societal structures and ideologies, instead of isolated and powerless individuals who see socially constructed inequalities as intractable and permanent. As the latter, we become complicit in the maintenance and expansion of oppression of marginalized groups in our society.  However, as the former, we can transform both our educational system and our entire society.


Bourdieu, P. (1973). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction.  In Knowledge, Education, and Cultural Change. (pp. 71-112).  London, UK: Harper & Row Publishers.

Cochran-Smith, M (2004). Walking the road: Race, diversity, and social justice in teacher education. New York: Teacher’s College Press.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2007). Race, inequality, and educational accountability: The irony of ‘No Child Left Behind.’ Race, Ethnicity, & Education, 10(3), 245-260.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2009).  Teaching and the change wars: The professionalism hypothesis. In A. Hargreaves & M. Fullan (Eds.), Change wars (pp. 45-70). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Elmore, R. (2009). Institutions, improvement, and practice. In A. Hargreaves & M. Fullan (Eds.), Change wars (pp. 221-236). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Giroux, H.  (1988).  Teachers as transformative intellectuals.  In Teachers as Intellectuals (pp. 121-128).  Boston, MA:  Bergin & Garvey Publishers.

Giroux, H. (2005). Teacher education and democratic schooling. In A. Darder, M. Torres, & R. Baltodano, (eds.), The Critical Pedagogy Reader (2nd ed) (pp. 439-459). New York: Routledge.

Hargreaves, A. (2009). The fourth way of change: Toward an age of inspiration and sustainability. In A. Hargreaves & M. Fullan (Eds.), Change wars (pp. 11-44). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Lipman, P. (2004). Beyond accountability. In A. Darder, M. Torres, & R. Baltodano, (eds.), The Critical Pedagogy Reader (2nd ed) (pp. 364-383). New York: Routledge.

Mehan, B. & Alvarez, D. (2006). Whole school detracking: A strategy for equity and excellence. Theory into Practice, 45(1), 82-89.

Noguera, P. (2009). The trouble with Black boys: And other reflections on race, equity,and the future of public education. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Preuss school UCSD (2011). http://preuss.ucsd.edu/about/accomplishments.php. Retrieved June 23, 2011.

Schleppegrell, M. J. (2004). The language of schooling: A functional linguistics perspective. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (2011).  http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/index.html.  Retrieved June 23, 2011.

Zeichner, K. (2010). Competition, economic rationalization, increased surveillance, and attacks on diversity: Neo-liberalism and the transformation of teacher education in the U.S.  Teaching and Teacher Education. 26(4), 1544-1552.

Politicizing (and Politicized) Teachers

7 Aug

On Thursday, I hooked up with my friend and compatriot in teacher organizing, Brian (visit his blog at teacherevolution.wordpress.com) and we made the trek from Montclair into New York City to meet Bree, a researcher on educational activism and a decade-long member of the New York Collaborative of Radical Educators (NYCoRE). As I have intimated elsewhere on this blog, we (a small group of educators and activists in New Jersey) are interested in starting a teacher activism organization in our area, and we wanted to speak to an expert about how to get started. Over lattes in a crowded cafe on Orchard Street, Bree shared the story of the conception, organization, and growth of NYCoRE.

The organization began with a small group of local politicized teachers who were brought together by a mutual commitment to enacting social justice in schools and with the common vision of organizing teacher activists throughout the city, creating social-justice oriented curriculum, and collaborating with parent, community, and student groups.  Over the years, the organization grew to include a much larger membership, began hosting an annual conference, run yearly ITAGs (Inquiry to Action Groups), and drafted 9 points of unity that serve as guiding principles for the organization:

Points of Unity

1. Racism and economic inequality in the school system reflect and perpetuate the systematic and historical oppression of people of color and working class communities. As educators in the New York City public school system we have a responsibility to address and challenge these forms of oppression.

2. In order to combat economic, social, and political systems that actively silence women and people of color, we are committed to maintaining majority women and people of color representation in our group.

3. We oppose the current policy of high stakes standardized testing because it reflects the standards and norms of dominant groups in society, it is an inaccurate and incomplete assessment of learning, and it stifles pedagogical innovation and active learning.

4. Punitive disciplinary measures such as “Zero Tolerance” further criminalize youth and are not an answer to crime and other social problems. We believe economic and social priorities should be toward education of young people and not incarceration.

5. We oppose the increased efforts of military recruitment in New York City public schools. These efforts unfairly target the recruitment of low-income communities and make false promises about educational and career opportunities. We believe that these efforts are an extension of an imperialistic strategy to maintain a powerful military force in order to protect and promote US world dominance.

6. New school funding policies must be adopted in order to ensure equitable resources for all. Current policies based upon property taxes discriminate against low-income communities and urban areas, which disproportionately affect people of color.

7. Schools must be safe spaces for females and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) individuals. Verbal and physical abuse targeting these groups is extremely prevalent in most schools, and cannot be tolerated and must be challenged by all faculty, staff, and administrators.

8. Schools should be places of questioning and critical thinking that encourage students to see themselves as active agents of change. The present educational system is derived from an assembly line model that stifles critical thinking by focusing on the regurgitation of facts and information.

9. Schools should provide a neighborhood space through which community voices are heard. Teachers are an integral part of this space and must be held accountable to the community by being involved in addressing community needs.

In terms of our own organizing, Bree offered the following advice: Whatever we do, it must be organic–that is, everything must originate from within the group.  For example, it wouldn’t work if Brian and I recruited a group of teachers and told them we had decided to adopt NYCoRE’s points of unity as our own platform; the teachers themselves must generate and own the ideas.  In addition, Bree shared that from her own research organizing preservice and beginning teachers (the group that I personally am interested in organizing), she found that activism occurred in stages. First, unless teachers are already politicized, we must raise consciousness about inequalities that are inherent in our society and reproduced by the school setting.  Without this step, teachers do not realize why they must become activists.  After become conscientized to educational inequalities and the need for educating for social justice, teachers may move to the second level, which means they will implement social justice oriented curriculum in their classrooms–but not necessarily take steps outside the classroom to act against the societal structures that support racism (and various other -isms); in Bree’s words, “They lack a deeper analysis of how inequality operates and how change happens.”  Once teachers are able to conduct that deeper analysis and come to the conclusion that addressing poverty and the structures that maintain and expand inequalities and the range of -isms is the only way to impact schooling inequality, they are then driven to act and advocate both inside and outside the classroom.  In a sense, these teachers become not only politicized, but radicalized.

It was rare, Bree conceded, to see politicized and radicalized preservice and beginning teachers.  However, after our meeting Bree led us across across the street to the basement of Lolita Bar, where she introduced us to that rarity–several beginning teachers who were very active and very committed to not just educating and acting themselves, but helping other new teachers become aware of current issues affecting them in their new positions.  This sub-group of NYCoRE (one of several specialized “breakout” groups within the organization), which included new and “alternately certified teachers, called itself the “New Teacher Underground” and had organized an impressive series of weekly discussions throughout the summer.  Speakers from all public arenas were slated to speak on topics including tenure and contracts, high-stakes testing, anti-racist classrooms and curriculum, unionism, and unpacking educational jargon like “the achievement gap,” “privatization,” and “accountability.”  The discussion I attended addressed “top-down policies” like mayoral control, and I was delighted to see that one of the speakers was no other than  “The Notorious PhD” (Mark Naison),  a professor from Fordham University and long-time community organizer in both the Bronx and Brooklyn, who offered practical advice on mobilizing community organizations in one’s school community for maximum organizing impact.  (I was delighted because I had been treated to his “Achievement Rap” at the Save our Schools March last weekend–see video below).

The experience of the New Teacher Underground was profound.  One of my main research interests–and my dissertation topic– includes novice teacher development, and the research shows that the first one or two years is a sink-or-swim time when teachers go into “survival mode” because they are overwhelmed with the newness of all the day-to-day responsibilities of teaching, largely isolated from other teachers, struggling with being socialized into an institution and culture with which they are unfamiliar, and dealing with the increasing demands of our fanatically data-driven accountability system–and despite the assertions by the research community that districts should be providing induction programs to help teachers with the transition to teaching, it often is not provided or ineffective when it is.  This factors into a shocking statistic–50% of new teachers will leave the teaching profession within the first few years.  However, these new teachers that I met in that low-lit underground space had taken their learning into their own hands, reaching out to the community at large, drawing on the resources of NYCoRE, and then inviting other new teachers to learn, discuss, and collaborate with them–all while fostering the spirit of activism and social justice in the teaching profession.  It was a revelation…and in these often dark times of increasing corporate/market-driven reform and teacher-blaming, the experience uplifted my spirits and fueled my hope for a new generation of teacher activists.

I will keep you updated on our progress in starting our teacher activism group–for details on our first meeing, please email me at kate_strom@yahoo.com.  For the time being, if you would like to find out more about NYCoRE, visit their website at http://www.nycore.org–the link for information about the New Teacher Underground is on the home page.  For more information about the New Teacher Underground, visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/NewTeacherUnderground?ref=ts&sk=wall.

Notorious PhD–“The Achievement Rap” (Save our Schools March, July 30, 2011)