“Where’s the Justice in Social Justice?” notes on the community forum at Social Justice High School August 23, 2012

You say students first, but it’s really career first for you.”  When he came to the mic, the speaker at the forum named a deep suspicion many people in schools hold of the current wave of “education reform.”  It’s hard to reconcile a fixation on test scores aggregating with concern for the capacities, interests, and identities of students.

At the community forum at SoJo last night, hundreds of people gathered in the cafeteria to get answers and from the principal and CPS officials — and to seek out dialogue.  Why, at the Social Justice High School, a community-based school “born in the struggle” of community activism culminating in a 2001 hunger strike, had CPS staged an end-run around the democratic processes of the school, disrespecting its heritage and the wisdom of the community?  Why had the LSC-appointed principal been suddenly fired?  Why had the new principal had taken away AP classes and replaced them with remedial classes?  Why had she replaced teacher-developed curriculum with Pearson materials? Why were students of the Social Justice High School rebuked for standing up for their educational rights?

The principal and Chicago Public Schools administrators at the front of the room were in business clothes — everyone else, a combination of parents, students, and teachers, and small children, were in ordinary clothes.  The principal’s power point presentation went from a list of her credentials, and her acknowledgement that this is her first principalship, to line and bar graphs of students’ test scores.  She was careful to translate everything she said into Spanish.  About 15 minutes into the meeting, she took a deep breath and said, “now let’s move on to the elephant in the room: AP classes.”

She explained that one AP class had been restored, and that the principals in the other schools in Little Village Lawndale High School “have been kind enough to allow Social Justice students to take AP classes if they want.”  A student called out, “but when we go into other schools they call it ‘trespassing.’”

A parent asked, “Now you have reinstated one AP class, because students demanded it. What was your rationale for taking the AP classes away?”

This is the question the principal anticipated, and was prepared to answer with data which, she implied, proved that the low passing rate (12% of 178 students in AP classes) didn’t justify the continuation of AP classes: “I had to make decisions based on data.”  “But you’re using old data!” resounded throughout the room.  “They gave you bad data!”

A teacher provided current data, with more detail and higher rates of achievement in multiple areas, taken from the CPS website. “All the data on this school shows a positive trend.  If you have a positive trend it makes no sense to disrupt that.”

A parent asked, “What is your understanding of the values of this school? Your bosses are not the CPS officials over there; you answer to THIS community.  They are your bosses.  We can help you understand the history and the values of this school.  Why don’t you ask us?”

The principal had no answers, and she apparently had been forbidden to turn the mic over to the other CPS officials in the room who might have had answers.  As parents denounced the disrespect CPS showed the community by holding a forum without being able to provide answers, students gathered by the mic to speak.  One student asked all the parents who had come out in support of their children to stand.  With the scores of parents behind her, the student read a poem, “listen to the voice that’s inside,” which the principal had prevented her from presenting to the other students at school. “Why didn’t you let her read the poem?”  asked the crowd. “Because,” the principal answered, “she was using it as a political platform.”  “Where’s the justice in Social Justice?”  the students responded.  Parents, teachers, and community members took up the chant led by the students: “we were born in struggle; the struggle continues!”

“This meeting is over.”

(Click here for the Substance News story, with more details and analysis.)

The New Frontier of Factory Education: Replaceable Teachers

When I heard the title of TNTP’s new report, “The Irreplaceables,” my first thought was, yes, that’s a good thing to call teachers.  And students! A good way to honor the human being engaged in learning and teaching.  I thought of Pat Carini’s description of this work:

Children (and ourselves) making things, engaged actively and dialectically with the world, have a broadly liberating influence – and sometimes, if unpredictably, a transforming effect.  To affirm a view of our human possibility by calling attention to the widely distributed capacity of ourselves as makers and doers, in which works are understood as the self’s medium, is an enactable educational, social, and political stance.  For me that view of the self and the enactment of it offers a solid center and compelling aim for education: to be the poets of our own lives (Starting Strong, 52).

One of Carini’s trademark terms is at the heart of this passage: widely distributed.  This means that good thinking and good work isn’t limited to the classroom – it takes place throughout life.  And it also means that good work isn’t just the purview of certain kinds of students and certain kinds of teachers.  And good thinking depends not so much on which teachers and which students they are but how they engage with one another and with the world.

I hoped that “The Irreplaceables” would offer much-needed quantitative support of teaching that emerges from teachers’ ongoing learning from their students, one another, and themselves.

I was wrong.  The report isn’t really about “irreplaceables.” It’s about replaceables.  It’s a brochure for school administrators, walking them through the mental and logistical steps needed to fire huge swaths of the teacher force.  It suggests that new teachers are more effective than older ones as it advocates getting rid of “bad teachers” instead of attempting to retain or improve all teachers: “Three out of four times, new teachers perform better in their first year than the low-performing teachers they replace, and they are more likely to improve over time.  Even an average new teacher is likely to be a step up.”  Old teachers, then, are the replaceables.

The report’s byline is “smart retention,” and it doesn’t actually say anything about what schools should do to retain teachers, but rather what supports principals need to be able to fire more freely.  It is chock-full of colorful graphs and pie charts about students’ scores, and empty of educational theory or practice.  It reassures new teachers coming into a fraught field that they are the chosen ones, and threatens administrators who don’t jump on the new teacher bandwagon.

Who will conduct the sorting of good and bad teachers that “smart retention” will depend on?  What are the educational values and what may be unintended consequences of this sorting?  Will administrators support the “bad teacher” witch hunt, at the risk of on the one hand sowing division in their schools and on the other hand provoking teacher solidarity and widespread organization?

I don’t have such questions about teachers’ responses to this report – we know propaganda when we see it.