Looking at the Truth without Flinching

Dear readers

I want to look at the truth without flinching. Some days it exhausts me. My brother Paul insists there is a silver-lining. For example, we did elect a man of color as President—unthinkable in the Golden Age (1945-70). Women are breaking new barriers everyday. Gay men and women are safer than they have been for centuries.

But we are also in the midst of a bold maneuver by wealthy ideological foes to roll back as much if not all of the New Deal/Fair Deal victories: enough so that even if they lose badly two years from now it will have been worth it. We would at best have to spend fulltime just undoing damages. They are prepared, I am convinced, to lose the “independents” and more. They are probably right—so to speak. It is a strategy that in my more revolutionary socialist youth I was in favor of too. They have essentially created a new rightwing political party with a revolutionary agenda led by a wealthy vanguard. Curtailing democracy and misinformation are often essential parts of revolutionary ideology as they intend to undertake reforms that would not be possible under ordinary democratic procedures.

In short: Public schooling may not in my lifetime be preservable. Something I was sure was untouchable, at the core of our nation. I am prone to short-term thinking these days. It is hard not to at 80. While I am not sure I will live long enough to see the undoing of 80 years of progress I do not regret having been on the other side of the barricades (so to speak). But… it hurts. Of course, actually the reform era I am remembering lasted “merely” 50 years.

Was I as certain of the true path to utopia as the Right is now?

They have distracted us by a fight over school reform in the name of equity and civil rights while they have destroyed the playing field that might over time have produced such equity. For example, “Chicago’s unemployment rate for African Americas is triple the rate for whites—at 21.4%, and for every dollar the employed black Chicagoan earns, an African American makes 45 cents (Don Rose, Post Racial or Racially Dead Last? The Observer, 3/22/11). The financial bust we lived through has undermined, above all, the last Americans who made it into the middle class: Black Americans.

“If New York City were a nation it’s level of income concentration would rank 13th worst among 134 countries, between Chile and Honduras.” Lower than Egypt. Nor do we rank high regarding social class mobility anymore. Odd, isn’t it, that what we all have nostalgia for is the America we knew between the 40s and 70s—”when the upper strata did just fine, enjoying a robust 10 percent of the pot” Versus 50% today (quotes from Tom Robbins, Village Voice, 2/02/11). And I used to think 10% of the pot was an outrage.

Then I look at the larger scene and realize that our flaws are built into some unwise structures and maybe we were just plain lucky to have done as well as we have. Example: I could put together eight of the most Republican states in the nation with a population smaller than NY State—but that they have 16 senators to our 2. How did we get as far as we did?

In 20 years we have tripled the number of people behind bars at a cost of billions—mostly non-Whites for non-violent crimes; a rise not due to more crime, but a policy shift.

Despite Brown vs the Board of Education, we have more segregated schools in the North (at least) than we did in 1954! And if there ever was a reform designed to segregate schools—and not just by race—the charter school movement has the patent on niche schools for aspiring poor non-Whites—note that in NYC at least they may take a lot of the poor—but the target audience are the “reduced” not the “free” lunchers. We are seeing a flourishing new K-12 market for the smart/gifted/mostly White kids in the public sector. (Data from NYC and NYS “Separate and Unequal,” from the UFT.)

No changes dependent on new habits of heart and mind can succeed over time without persuading the “changees.” But with enough money you can skip slow persuasion and fairly rapidly overwhelm what were once the norms of middle class American ideology. And it can last for longer than I would like to think given the lopsided media, and the enormous cost of running for “public” office.

Had we been able and willing to take fuller advantage of the reform climate that flourished twenty or thirty years ago, with their staunch assumption that the nation’s wealth should be more fairly distributed, we might have averted this counter-revolution. Had we been able to continue to grow the progressive reforms initiated in the 70s and 80s, and had we anywhere near the financial support that the new deformers have, we would have begun to see how much further schooling could take us. It is more than 20 years since the States began ramping up top-down pressure for testing and “our way – or no way” plans. The shift has been lightening swift. The absence of success—in virtually every state for virtually every one of the Rights favorite reforms—has not made a dent; and in fact such reforms now lead the way ideologically to the bashing not only of teachers, or public workers, but of all those who are not smart or skillful enough to be members of the organized rich. Thus meeting a subsidiary goal of the “deformers”—destroying public unions.

The promise that charter schools offered us at their start was quickly abandoned as they morphed into large undifferentiated chain stores, ruled not by independent-minded “moms and pops” the way we imagined, but by the most powerful billionaires on earth..

By focusing our attention on schools as the lynch-pin we have distracted attention from the forces that truly undermined both America’s economy and democracy. America’s economy is “recovering” while the people of America and its democracy are sinking. Fear has been restored as the foundation of a “thriving” economic system, and “security” as something only the very rich have a right to value. And leisure is again a sin—for those who cannot pass down huge wealth to their children’s grandchildren. Even my friend/foe Jay Matthews (Washington Post), in decrying the lack of sufficient homework, sees leisure as a waste of time. At least for the young. Get them pedaling on the treadmill early—maybe that is a solution to the energy crisis? It is a treadmill for, at best, staying in place because a true ruling class needs leisure and self-confidence, and encouragement to play outside the one right answer out of four. Redefining “achievement” will get harder, not easier to do. But it is a must.

I am not planning to give up. I wake up in a sweat some nights thinking about officially sanctioned torture, multiple undeclared wars, and a Supreme Court that not only thinks corporations are equal to people when it comes to their civil rights, but push comes to shove would put them first, I fear. But I continue to keep my eyes on schools—it is an old-habit by now.

Someday we shall wake up. Maybe even tomorrow. I have often been wrong.


10 Responses

  1. Deborah, I'm a bit younger than you at 33, but I have been through despair at changing things more than I'd like to admit. What's changed my thinking towards the more positive, though, is the promise of bringing the internet into schools. There are TONS of tools out there waiting for kids and schools to use them and create with. In short, my hope is the presence and the use of these tools will create environments where critical discussions take place, exposure to new ideas is the norm, and students become active contributors to broader discussions. I believe 1:1 netbook/tablet/laptop programs are going to become more of the norm. While corporations have their plans, and they may include infusing technology into the schools, I think that technology could prove to be a blessing. Granted, there are not many teachers who would use it as more than a game station or, to paraphrase Alan November, a $1000 pencil. But with social tools such as Twitter, and as teachers want to use the tools more effectively, I believe the tools the internet house are our way of this mess. I'm still skeptical. I still have my down days, but I really do believe that if we get kids connected and creating, there is hope.

  2. The "promise" of the internet in schools is the promise that Bill Gates & his ilk will be making a mint on mass produced learning modules sold at a national level & paid for by taxpayers. Students will use them in huge lab classes run by $11/hr unbenefited hall monitors in schools run by the likes of KIPP.This will be "education" for the peons. The "promise" you see is only for those with enough money to pay for it.

  3. I do not disagree that this is one possibility. Which is why I think it's incumbent that teachers become proactive and get ahead of the curve rather than being pulled under by the riptide. Too often teachers are reactive to whatever the flavor of the week is. It's time to take control of our destiny.

  4. Deborah, I still remember when you came to visit our Charter school right after we opened in 1993. This was during the days when we had to " make it up as we went along". Unfrotunately, Jingletown Charter School, a small predominantly Latino school in Oakland Ca. and later named Oakland Charter Academy fell to infighting and various challenges that the founders could not over come. It still exists but as a member of a larger entity. I learned some valuable lessons from this experience and I hope that students who attended in those early years did too.I am still inspired by your work and words.

  5. I like what you've said here and I consider this post akin to having a cup of tea with you – and that means all of you – Deborah, Bob, I already told you that, Anonymous, Alexis Adorador…The flaws of an unwise structure can be understood as a business cycle not being allowed its natural to end its course. There are obvious signs of the business of education having entered its exit stage. Thus, educational failures proliferate due to clinging to what was rather than evolving into what needs to be. Essentially, the business of education is in denied exited stage that has become a crises of educational shortcomings that only accelerate as the dominoes of the past have no resting place… like zombies of education, it decays and rots the present. Time to end this cycle and enter a paradigm shift like the people at http://www.akrna.com are gearing up to make happen. Thanks for your article, I shall bookmark it for connection points in one of my ongoing articles for evolving education. Why rewrite your talking points when we can keep the dialog alive between a network of writers/bloggers authoring wisdom that has already given an eloquent voice to the issues. I shall "Link-them-up, Deborah" (not too different from Kirk's, "Beam us up, Scotty,")! ha ha.Also, in response to your comment contributors: I don't think depending on computers for classroom instruction is the type of interaction we want to proliferation in teaching… that is info pushing. However, they do and will have a dynamic place in the balance of what is needed for teaching to the wholism of the students and their needs to be graduates prepared as 21st century adults. I'll be expounding on this over the life of our efforts to create a replicatable system dealing with education as an alive entity able to keep pace with societal advances, whatever those may be. There is hope, and @ AKRNA, we are focused on dealing with this matter beyond the theories. Everything said here on this blog is valuable and is exposing many of the issues. All things are valuable to reform, transformation, and eventual shifts in our consciousness, and educational systems are the heart & soul of how a community evolves its society.I'm out in the world wide community a bit premature, but life is the compelling force driving how the "chips fall" and how people interconnect for a greater good- one that is looming on our horizon for education change. It is looong overdue.I am co-founder & education strategist with a BHAAG (Big Heartfelt Awesome Audacious Goal) that just won't lose its head of steam! Sometimes, it just has to be outrageously Big to get the attention it needs in order to create the critical mass of making it happen, yes?! Again, thanks for doing your part; it all matters.All to Love, Sharon Quinn

  6. Dearest Deborah Meier . . .This is a wondrous missive. For me, Don Quixote that I am, I would have no reason to tilt at windmills if all was as I might think glorious. I believe balance is best. I suspect, you as, I never say "die" for we know it is possible to fly. Change comes. It is slow. Indeed, the progression is invisible. Once transformation occurs so much else has happened along the way, we barely notice the grandeur of the accomplishment.Only this weekend I heard a few reflect on what took place twenty-five years ago; Oprah Winfrey began her show. Some mused that were it not for her becoming a familiar figure in American homes, Barack Obama would never have been elected. However, the much celebrated woman might say she would not have achieved the success she did without Harry Belafonte, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, or people such as me, who, as very young children who marched in defense of civil rights. I would say it is none of these and, or all of these and then . . .In truth Deborah Meier I think it is the voices of persons such as you, he, she, we who bring about change! When we, in our daily lives, do not look to leaders or Dons to dole out the big dollars nay deliver us from what some characterize as “evil,” we evolve.Thus Ms Meier, with much appreciation, I say flinch and feel fine. It is the divine greatness of destructive measures that prompts us to move on.May life bring you peace, prosperity, pleasant dreams becoming the best of your reality. May your life reflect the goodness that is you . . . Betsy L. Angert

  7. As public educators we serve at the pleasure of parents/taxpayers/voters. We provide a service to parents primarily, taxpayers pay our bills, and the voters, hopefully part of the first two, determine how we conduct our profession through the people they select to lead the education arm of their local, state, and federal government. I shall always have faith in the American people to make the right choices for 1) their children, and thusly 2) their communities. I have taught at a charter school where the parents begged, borrowed, and (almost) stole to enroll their child; I have acquaintances who are 'voting with their feet' away from the charter school their children attend because of their current dissatisfaction. For the past 6-7 years most of the parents I know, when their child reaches adolescence, did everything they could to AVOID the regular public schools in their neighborhood. Long before NCLB, the 'privitizers' or 'billionaire boys club,' these urban-core schools have been failing at least a generation of Black, and now Black and Brown folk. Like any concerned parent these people have sought a better education option for their children, and don't have time to wait for the schools to reform as their children don't stop growing while the edu-bureaucracy sloths its way toward providing a quality product. If the reptile lubricant Bill Gates, et. al. are selling doesn't work, parents will choose something different IF GIVEN THE CHOICE. My hope is parents/voters/taxpayers will step into the voting booth and depose the elected officials who accept the smoke and mirrors in return for campaign contributions or a cushy gig post-public service, for these thieves of the public trust are as guilty as those who seduce them.When more public educators heed my father's advice (also a teacher), "Focus on the students, not the adults," commit to the type of schools the esteemed Ms. Meier created in NYC, indeed we will have 'schools we trust,' and no matter the temptation of false profits and charlatans, parents/voters/taxpayers will choose what's best for America.

  8. Lest you totally despair, I write to tell you of a River East child, student of Francis Tabone, who now teaches in Francis' special education school. My son Andrew has a masrter's in elementary education, thanks in part to the wonderful teachers and loving atmosphere of River East. I bless them and, by extension, you for the effort and innovation you all wrought. Even if it doesn't last, it was important to the many lives it reached. Thank you.Ann Gael

  9. Deborah: If you despair where will that leave us, those of us who have depended on your words: better our dreams then their nightmares. It is true that the right has launched an all-out attack on the gains of the last eighty years, but there are some signs that people aren't swallowing all the bilge. Let's keep up our spirits and our willingness to keep organizing. (As in the words of Joe Hill, don't forget he's alleged to have said that before facing a firing squad.)

  10. what I meant to say was better their dreams THAN their nightmares…whooops!

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