Children First

One of the surprising attacks on unions of late is that they try to raise wages and benefits and improve their working conditions for the sake of their members.

Big secret: Just as every corporation is in the business of trying to improve their profit status and the dividends of their “members.”

Some professions or special interest groups do it by forming things called Associations, who “bargain” for them by sharing information and lobbying legislators and the general public. Part PR firms and part lobbyists—plus professional improvement.

That makes sense for professions in which most employees are independent entrepreneurs—they are boss and employee rolled together. Like doctors and lawyers often are. But even “independent” plumbers create unions to set wages.

Even though airline pilots are paid well, they work for companies and thus formed unions. They worry about safety (that was, in fact, the basis of Air controller strike and the famous Reagan firing of them. They argued that their working conditions were not appropriate for insuring the safety of airline passengers, et al.)

In some small firms, it could be argued that employees are satisfied with approaching the boss him/herself to ask for a raise. Some have unilateral contracts that spell out promotion policy, salary scales, etc.

Would most employers—including families who hire servants—pay better just for the good of society? If they can find just what they want at appallingly lower wages would they voluntarily offer to pay more? On occasion, would we all pay our fair share of taxes, for that matter, on the basis of conscience? For myriad reasons, the answer to both questions is—no, or rarely.

There is absolutely nothing unworthy about joining together to demand the best we—individually or collectively—can get for ourselves, our colleagues or our fellow citizens. It’s the American way. During the long cold war we even in part defined democracy by its free trade unions. The right to freely assemble on behalf of shared interests is at the heart of democracy. I am perfectly ready to accept that we all hope the tax code will favor us. But…. we are counting on a system of government that is not prejudiced against our particular tax bracket. That’s the rub.

Does a Wall Street banker, for example, really try first to figure out whether it is good for the average bank employee before he asks for a bonus or bargains for a better severance package and pension? Do we expect him to? No! We expect that his or her Board of Directors will be worrying about its affect on the company before granting that compensation, and our government will worry about its impact on those who invest their money in the bank.

At the heart of capitalism, in fact, is precisely the idea of each of us seeking our best return on our money—the market will work out the negative side effects to the advantage of all. And, if it does not…. that there is somewhere to appeal to.

Of course that is hardly quite how it works, but it is irritating to hear its cheerleaders condemn teachers for their paltry efforts to imitate them. The search also for security works for rich and poor alike. It amazes me how very very wealthy people worry even after they have enough money to keep their grandchildren financially secure forever.

Teachers bargain—and like everyone else those they bargain with are supposed to be concerned with the larger effect. That teacher unions have so often shown concern for the effects on the students in their bargaining is a blessing. Maybe bankers do too (though I would like to see the evidence of that).

And does not everyone deserve due process right? Its not my lawyer’s primary concern whether I am guilty or not, although a lawyer can decline a case if he/she dislikes it too much. Court appointed lawyers do not have that privilege, because a right to due process, to appeal decisions, is offered to innocent and guilty, rich and poor, alike. Until proven otherwise… we are all innocent in the eyes of the law.

But, in fact, unions too try to dissuade their members from some grievances, and even occasionally refuse. But, that is a double edged sword. Often the reasons for the union’s disinclination is because they are “in bed” with management or do not like the complainant for other reasons. And when union President Al Shanker claimed that he would advocate for the students if they were union members he wasn’t being crass. There are other nonprofits whose duty it is to do that.

But he did not therefore claim that teachers as a whole had no moral obligations to think about the welfare of their students. Yes, occasionally it is hard to separate the two. But it is a fact, not an opinion, that class size matters to any teacher who intends to do more than give a wonderful lecture series to his audience. Actually I sometimes prefer a huge audience to a small one when I have come to give a performance.

But if held accountable—morally if not legally—for every single member of the audience understanding what I’m saying in the way I intended them to—well, I do not pretend I can do that to an audience of much more than maybe 20—even if they each come to me in clumps of every 45 minutes for 5 hours a day. And especially if I do not just want them to be able to recite back to me what I have said, but use it in a different context.

Stuff like that seems to us teachers like “common sense” and we are not surprised when people of wealth and power choose schools with very low teacher/pupil ratios. From infancy until graduate school—they know it matters. If we use their student’s future income as our only proof, we may find that class size does not matter much. Who knows—except that we all know that social mobility being what it is—very low these days—wealthy people will do pretty well regardless and poor people will do pretty badly regardless. But, actually I suspect—just a hunch that class size will matter MORE even on such a silly outcome tool for the poor than for the rich. Yet… the rich actually have always gone to schools with low class sizes. How come? In fact the very very rich have often chosen a one-on-one ratio for their young—the grand tradition of the 19th century well-to-do: tutors, until the time came when they needed to expand their networks of peers!

In short, teachers’ self-interests can sometimes conflict with their students’—but rarely. Sometimes it is of no difference in terms of outcomes—even real ones. And most of the time I would ague that most of what teachers collectively have fought for is precisely what the parents of the rich get from expensive private schools. In a real libertarian’s dream, the gap between the two would be much vaster I assume, since there would be no government to help make up the difference. Each child will get what his/her parent’s can afford or what they need in order to be more equal?


p.s. I am ignoring in this pro-union defense all the other lobbying and support roles that teacher unions take on issues affecting working and poor people in general.

Schooling for Ruling

This is my speech at the Save Our Schools Rally, Saturday, July 30, 2011, on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C.

One thing that is interesting is that only mad dogs, Englishmen and teachers could imagine having a rally at noon in Washington DC, in the middle of the summer. But I am willing to be a mad dog and a mad teacher.

There are some advantages to being old, and that is that you have been there before. As Diane Ravitch reminded us yesterday, even in my one limited life this is about the fifth major crisis caused by teachers. But I do think there is something special about this crisis.

We are in a crisis, but not the one they are talking about. We are in a crisis about human relationships, and a crisis about the survival of democracy. That is what we are fighting for. The word public is even in the word republic. There can’t be a republic if there is not a public, and there can’t be a democracy if there is not a republic.

The latest great idea for solving the public school problem is to abolish it.

We are fighting for saving the idea and the existence of a public school system in the belief that the only alternative we are being offered is one whose faults we know are greater still. That is a marketplace, unevenly stacked between competing consumers. That is what is being offered to replace the public school system.

There could not be a worse idea.

Oddly, some of those who are the most active in promoting this idea are the very people who created the last crisis of the free marketplace.

Isn’t that intriguing? They hope to use it to increase their power, not to increase our power. What infuriates me the most is that they do it in the name of civil rights. This last economic crisis wiped out virtually half of the wealth that existed in the Black community, built up over the last 40 years, wiped out in the housing crisis. We have done more damage to the poor, the Black and the Latino communities in this economic crisis than, believe me, I did in first grade.

Yes, this attack on public education is being used as a distraction from many of the other problems facing us, but more than a distraction it is undermining everything I have spent the last eighty years (I started a birth) struggling for. Only Russia today has a greater concentration of wealth than the United States. Think of that. Only Mexico, in the European/American world, has a higher percentage of children living in poverty. We are a little bit ahead of Mexico, and way behind the rest of our competitors.

We would not be facing any of these crises of budgets next year if those top one percent who control 25 to 30% of the our wealth paid the same taxes that you and I pay.

We are at fault for something however. We should have started this much earlier!

Every single one of us is at fault for not having done that. Thank god a few people said, “Let’s start even if it is the middle of summer, even if we do not know what we are doing, even if we won’t get the millions we would like to get.” It has to start, all of us start.

I think our joint motto is “Schooling for ruling.” We want a school system that teaches us all how to be rulers of our own nation. To do so we need a reform movement that helps democratize, not privatize, the schools we have, which are flawed. They are flawed for not being democratic enough, rather than being flawed by not be privatized enough.

We are a motley crew. Another thing I have learned with age is to stop fighting against the things I cannot change, like my big feet. I used to dream of having long straight hair that would gracefully float in the wind. And now I make the most of having a mop.

We have to make the most of who we are. We may be splintered. I am speaking on behalf of three or four different organizations, each of which is in a state of crisis itself. But that is our plus. We are used to that.

We are not going to wait for some foundation to provide us with the funds. We can unite around some common demands. We each in our own way can do the job.

I want to say one personal word. I have been extraordinarily lucky. I have had 45 to 50 years of living in classrooms and schoolhouses in America’s public urban schools. They have been the greatest experience in my life. I fear there will be fewer of you younger people who will be able to say that if we stop taking teachers seriously.

To view this speech, see

A Few Thoughts On National Events……

Dear friends,

It’s only a week before the various events in Washington D.C. I’m hoping, mostly, to have fun and for a sufficient size to not look foolish! As you can tell, I do my best to keep my dreams in check—but ye not abandon them! Being a long-distance runner has its drawbacks—even as one gets to one’s final laps.

On my mind: how to stay in the game”—or “who am I trying to convince of what?”

I was reading a story in the NY Times about the Tea Party’s take on schooling and realized that they were not going to be allies even on some narrow agenda—as I once had assumed. Still maybe some of those attracted to their political dramatics might be.
There are aspects of their seeming paranoia that overlaps with mine!

I read some of the Murdoch, Bloomberg stuff these days and realize that in this period of history there is no overlap in our message. Maybe there occasionally is/was with Gates.

But even when the overlap is there, it’s true ONLY about the immediate future of schooling in America. Have to remind myself that schooling is only one part of the jigsaw puzzle—and I got into it sort of by accident and the fight going on today involves all the other agendas that matter to me. Poverty, after all, is best alleviated with money, jobs, power.

We’re facing an “ideological” divide between those who truly believe that the winners of vast wealth deserve to be winners and that our future lies in putting our faith in them-no questions asked, no quid pro quo.

There is no way any of us can any longer count on the winners to even pretend to be selfless—or embarrassed. Naked greed is not shameful. It’s possible to say to ones fellow citizens: “I owe you nothing, although I may out of the kindness of my heart make a contribution now and then.”. That I make in an hour what you make in a year, that I spend on my child’s education—broadly speaking–far more than you make in a lifetime is just ‘one of those things.’ That we once – faced with a mutual stake in our nation’s future—were willing to pay 90% in taxes is just plain unbelievable in retrospect—and unlikely to even trouble our minds again.” Am I being unfair to “them”?

Imagine claiming that given our “deficit” it’s the poorest and oldest who must bear the brunt. “We” aren’t willing to contribute even a 1% tax increase. None. Our way or no way.

Obviously I’m not out to convince them—although I truly think that in the long run their “way” will be a disaster even for them. But I do think that their arguments, and their “stance” has persuaded many others who are convincible. So, it makes it hard to narrow the audience.. Usually I just aim my remarks then at teachers!

The idea of a more equitable and fair republic so clearly rests—as our funding fathers (sexist and racist virtually all) agreed on moderating the extremes of poverty and wealth. They were not men who gloried in their wealth. I’m not making paragons of virtue out of them, but I’m struck by their efforts to appear “modest”. It’s an “appearance” that many presidential hopefuls have put on every four years as well—so that part of our heritage has survived. But the disguise is so thin and so phony—and mostly takes the form of appearing dumb–that it takes very little to see the greed that it covers.

Imagine how easily they have raised the stakes for educating and caring for the poor onto the backs of the poor themselves and the relatively lower middle-class teachers and public employees who work with them., while also removing resources from them to do the job. Money suddenly doesn’t count.

Imagine how easily they have witnessed the burgeoning of a vast population of imprisoned fellow Americans with ease—perfectly willing to build a vast prison system for them.

I just got finished watching a show about chimpanzees “in the wild”—which of course means in their natural habitat-versus those essentially in prison. The speaker reminded us that any animal kept in conditions of captivity is likely to soon become mentally ill.

But we’ve increasingly done that to our fellow citizens. Even our schools—which now occupy a greater and greater portion of young people’s waking lives—are more like prison, places where we grow accustomed, socialized to expect no “rights” and plenty of obedience.

We need to counter this trend every place we can; we need to praise ornery, feisty resistance—which will sometimes be wrongheaded. We need to arouse anger when its alternative is passivity and withdrawal. We need to look for hope, for alternative paradigms, and for allies—even when it seems utopian to do so.

Next week—in Washington—some of us will gather to do so. More from me afterwards.


Neither to Praise nor Bury

[This test is from a Speech I gave at a rally at Harvard Square on may 26th in response to Arne Duncan being recognized by the Alumni Association there.
Friends. Cantabridgians, Countrymen, lend me your ears,

We have come here to neither praise Arne Duncan nor to bury him. We have come not to question his honor but to question his being honored — being honored by that time-honored institution across the street. We are told by the Harvard Alumni Association that Arnie Duncan is deserving of honor, but since they, his classmates from the class of ’86 who elected him Chief Marshall, have themselves successfully raced to the top, they have an understandable interest in honoring Arne Duncan, one of their own.

Duncan has now brought that same competitive spirit that got him and his classmates into Harvard in the first place, down to the pre-university level; down to schools, kindergarten through grade 12. Everyone is urged to join the race – children, teachers, schools, school districts, even state departments of education. The rewards for success on all these levels are huge – from grades in school to monetary incentives, to financial support to more money and, eventually, status and power.

But what about those who don’t get there first or perhaps don’t get there at all? None of the reforms which Duncan proposes will increase the number of those who reach the top – not more tests, not charter schools, not radical school closings, not tying teachers’ careers to student test results, and so on. Nor will they result in a well-educated citizenry. The well known achievement gap is getting wider, not narrower.

We stand here today as advocates for transforming schools into Institutions which can truly nourish and sustain all children in the belief that all are capable of reaching the top. We need to build on the new consensus growing in the nation to speak back to Arnie; we are here also to honor all those out there who have been speaking up and out – the Davids confronting the Goliaths with their millions and billions; We are honoring the Fair Tests with their 2-person staffs standing up to the testing/publishing Goliath.

Yet Arne Duncan says that more and better tests are what the children of this country need – and Arne is an honorable man. Can we doubt his solutions? To quote his friend and fellow basketball player, YES WE CAN!

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.


Don’t Mourn, Organize

Dear readers,

I’m riveted to my TV screen watching the action on the streets of Cairo. I’m filled with painful memories of past hopes: Hungary in 1956 and Tiananmen Square in 1989. What gives them such courage? As I cheer them on from the safety of my home I feel renewed hope but also shame. I “watched” the tragic and bloody end of those events and imagine how easily the same could happen in Cairo. But our protest over the hypocritical attack on teachers, public employees and all other unionized employees, our public school system, not to mention American mothers faces nothing so risky, but perhaps something just as powerful and relentless.

I do “feel” there’s a swelling of opposition to and concern about the Duncan/Rhee/Klein et al agenda. But in the absence of the kind of organizational wherewithal it’s hard to see how it can overcome the extraordinary efforts of Very Important People with more cash on hand (not to mention “connections?) that most of us have ever dreamed of being able to exert about a singe “narrow” issue. Either they believe their own propaganda (that America’s future is at stake) or they smell big money in it or they just have so much these days that they can afford to focus everywhere at once.

But you and I?

Still it’s nice to be joined by unexpected allies. For example, how nice to see the New Republic running an article by Samuel Abrams about the importance of….PLAY!  (see The Children at Play, The New Republic January 28th).

Another cheery note: The announcement by a crew of “nobodies” that they are organizing an event July 3lst in D.C. on behalf of saving public education. (Everyone: put this down right now on your calendar; rearrange your holidays; let’s make this a unified event.) Save Our Schools site.

Then too. The NY Times reports that Duncan has come out against Duncan—claiming that NCLB (I just noticed how close this is to the National Labor Board—is it still around to protect labor?) is wrong in its focus on a punitive agenda. Of course, his solution is more of the same.

I also enjoyed this little bit in the Jan 3lst NY Times Magazine, taken from Barbara Solomon’s interview with Goldman Sachs partner Abby Joseph Cohen.

Solomon: “Do you feel any responsibility for the economic meltdown…?”
Cohen: That’s an odd question…
Solomon. “We’re talking about your life; there was a big meltdown in 2008. …
Cohen: I would say that the causes of the meltdown were multiple, and it s a mistake to point a finger at any one entity…..

Does that include not blaming our public school system.? Or its teachers? Or unions? Is that in keeping with Abby Joseph Cohen’s argument?

Should teachers be fired, take pay cuts, an lose pensions because they failed to save America, while the board of Morgan Stanley awards its chief with stock valued at $7.4 million, with a cash bonus to come? Or Blankfein of Abby Cohen’s own Goldman Sachs who was caught in a fraud that cost them $550 million, but got a raise for his work. (Data from from TeacherKen column ).

We used to brag, in the old days, about America’s trade unions as bulwarks of democracy—why weren’t there any free trade unions in Communist nations?? Because they weren’t democratic, we were told. But now I read that the real problem with the American auto industry was…. Guess? Yes, the United Automobile workers.

And our severe state of debt is caused be….? You’ve got it. Greedy public employee pensions gained by union bosses. The propaganda lines goes, it’s time they took their lumps for having driven up American wages and working conditions. Like teachers, poor families were destroyed by a too generous welfare system and mothers to blame for not being as tough as Chinese mothers etc. I wonder if the children of the rich have suffered from the indulgent welfare plans their parents created for them thus securing for them a worry-free financial future. And last year they wouldn’t even have had to pay a “death” tax but could inherit their well-earned estates tax free, or starting soon at historically low rates of taxation.

So, it is time to turn our anger by doing something about it. That’s my optimism—I see lots of folks out there finally “doing”. (They don’t face the threats facing the Egyptians in Liberation Square, but..) It’s time to take the relentless campaign away from never stop rants against public employees. Don’t mourn, but organize some labor unionist once said. I agree. There are many ways to do it, besides being sure you’ve contributed to the Coalition of Essential Schools. Get in touch with the local activists in your community and save July 3lst.


Perennial Headlines on Education

Here are some Headlines from newspapers over the years. Can you guess when they were written?

1. “Attack Mounted on Dropouts/City Sets Standards for Schools”

2. “New York’s Great Reading Score Scandal”

3. “Diagnostic reading tests are being given this week to 150,000 high school students as the first step in a new program—the largest and most systematic ever. …We intend to follow through…to overcome deficiencies.”

4. “The University of California (Berkeley) found that 30 to 40 percent of entering freshmen were not proficient in English.”

5. “Hope for the Blackboard Jungle: … Every year New Yorkers’ performance had been getting a little worse, until by YEAR? only 32 percent of the city’s pupils [were] doing as well or better than the national average.”

6. “Even Boston’s ‘brightest students’ didn’t know ‘whether water expanded or contracted when it freezes.’ And while 70 percent of this elite group knew that the U.S. had imposed an embargo in 1812 only five knew what ’embargo’ meant.”

7. “Tougher Standards in Our High. The average freshman is a year and three months behind national standards in reading.”

8. “City Pupils Remain Behind … Official Asserts the Tests Suggest Difficulty in Early Grades. Last fall 40.1 percent were reported on grade level or above … but in March, 43 percent … were reading at grade level or above”; and “Bleak drop out stats are raising concern.”

9. “Our standard for high school graduation has slipped badly. Fifty years ago a high school diploma meant something. … We have misled our students. … and our nation.”

10, “During the past 40 or 50 years those who are responsible for education have progressively removed from the curriculum … the western culture which produced the modern democratic state.”

The quotes above come from mainstream publications over the past 150 years. The earliest is 1845, the latest…

And the Answers:

1. 1986
2. 1980
3. 1974
4. 1898
5. 1974
6. 1845
7. 1983
8. 1979
9. 1958
10. 1941