I read that article. Yes, that article. You know the New York Times article about Success Academy Charter Schools; about how they employ rigid and punitive teaching and management methods to produce very strong standardized test results. Yeah, that article. You read it too, right? And what was your response? Outrage? Indignation? Horror?
In my Twitter feed (which is how I was introduced to the article in the first place), I found an assortment of these reactions which, not surprisingly, resonated. No, I would not wish for my own children to experience that type of schooling. Yes, I find it deplorable that public shaming of underperforming students is relied on as a viable teaching and motivational strategy. Yes, I concur that the definition of academic success as evidenced by high test scores is narrow and misleading. And no, I do not believe for a moment that Ms. Moskowitz and her billionaire backers care as much about the improvement of outcomes for poor brown and black children as they claim to.
After reading and re-reading the article, I found my desire and need to cast the Success Academy Charter Schools and their feckless CEO, Eva Moskowitz as the obvious villains nearly irresistible. Because we have a narrative here. And our brains are hard-wired for stories. The story goes: innocent poor brown and black children and their families become pawns in a much larger political and financial shell game in which obscenely wealthy hedge fund managers use education reform efforts as a cover for protecting their financial gains in the short and long term. (See this article for more.) Poor brown and black families in this narrative lack agency and wits to do much beyond make the most of the hands they are dealt. At the same time, middle class liberals protest on the street and via social media while sending their own children to imperfect yet workable public and private schools. This is what I perceive to be a widespread narrative. It is simplistic, has fairly flat characters and beyond the occasional ideological skirmish, offers little in the way of visible action.
The reality, however, is and must be so much more complicated, messy and multifaceted than this particular narrative. Each intersection of individuals – students, teachers, parents, principals, charter CEO – yields a host a perspectives and ideas which may blend, align, collide, or explode at various junctures. That’s the picture that is so much harder to show. Because it’s more than a picture; these are phenomena unfolding in real-time where not all elements are on display or available for armchair interpretation. While the flat narrative fits nicely with my pre-selected biases, my thinking, and worse, my potential understanding are weaker for taking this story at face value. If I step away from the flat narrative, then I must also acknowledge all the things about which I know next to nothing.
I do not teach and have never taught in a public school. Or in a charter school. I do not live in New York City nor have I ever. I am African-American and my upbringing was distinctly middle class. I have never lived in poverty and I cannot claim to know that experience. The list could go on and on. What I do have are beliefs about society, about education, about the power of writing, about the power of reading and dialoguing to further and deepen my understanding of the world you and I inhabit. I also have my unique life experiences which inform and also filter my perceptions of what is and what is true.
While I find the portrait of Success Academy Charter Schools and their model of academic progress depicted in this single article both troubling and frightening, I must also recognize that I am not that parent whose child is thriving in that environment. I am not that student who feels like this teacher cares about her more than all her previous teachers. I am not the young ambitious educator out to change the world who gets promoted to principal at 25. There are beneficiaries in every system. My point here is that in our eagerness to judge, judge, judge, we are deeply prone to dismissing the experiences of those whose achievements we might well applaud in other contexts which align more conveniently with our unique set of biases.
One of the questions that came up for me as I continued to turn these contrary thoughts in my head was: Could it be that this portrayal irks us so much because it reflects how we actually do much of school, just taken to an ugly extreme? Because looking at my own teacher behaviors: I line kids up and walk them from place to place, I shush them, I insist on quiet when I am or others are talking, I have shamed children, I have not allowed every child to use the toilet when he or she wanted. Again my list could go on. Many of the practices which offend our particular sensibilities that appear in the article may prove to be extreme versions of what many of us do already.
In the course of my reading yesterday, I came across a post calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against corporations which feed off the prison economy. While the context of the remarks below refer to the blatant injustices of penal culture in the US, this passage strikes me as painfully applicable here:
Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow,” is outspoken about the imperative for organizing to fight back. In a speech at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in March she told her audience: “Jesus taught that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. Well, we have become a nation of stone throwers. And in this era of mass incarceration it is not enough to drop your stone. We have to be willing to catch the stones raining down on the most vulnerable. And we must be willing to stand up to the stone throwers and disarm them.”
“We have become a nation of stone throwers.” This sentences hits home on so many levels. Whenever I deign to talk about what education should be, particularly for other people’s children, then I need to check and see which stones I am carrying and prepared to cast. Which assumptions am I holding that may cloud my capacity to see what I wish was not there? How and to what degree am I perpetuating and further entrenching negative practices? Hard questions and very necessary questions. We cannot go on espousing the importance of critical thinking for our students, in our curricula, throughout our standards, if we are not willing and able to deconstruct the narratives we create and support in our own minds.
Stop and look at the stones you are holding.
Hat tip to my Twitter dialogue partners who really helped me arrive at a deeper level of reasoning on this topic: @Sisyphus38 @JustinAion @pepinosuave @LubaSays @NA_Dellsey Thanks, all!