Thursday, July 25, 2013

Democratizing the Public School System

Whenever popular education is mentioned, Paolo Freire is usually the first name that comes to mind.1 But students of democratic pedagogy in the United States have plenty of home grown examples of their own to study. 

John Dewey, for example, who saw the public school system as fundamentally authoritarian, reproducing a “superior class… [whose] culture tends to be sterile [and whose] actions tend to become… capricious, aimless, and explosive….”2 He wanted teachers to teach children not by force but by inducement; and growth itself had to be seen as an end.3 

Indeed, if American society was to become truly democratic, Dewey argued, the children had to be taught to “take a determining part in the making as well as obeying laws”4

In 1932, Miles Horton—taking democratic education to an activist level—founded the Highlander School in Tennessee, on the principle that people had the means to solve their own problems without relying on experts or institutions. Horton believed that a pedagogy that helped people analyze their own experiences, and that of others, would promote participatory democracy. Many organizers of the labor movement in the 1930s gained valuable skills at Highlander. In the late 1950s, Septima Clark made the Citizen Education Program at Highlander the foundation for the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) Citizenship Schools.5 In turn, the Freedom Summer Schools of Mississippi used the SCLC citizenship curriculum as a template.

The 1964 Freedom Summer Schools arose in response to the inadequacies of the existing public school system, which was segregated and authoritarian. The teachers were given a written curriculum but were also advised “to shape your own curriculum in the light of the teachers’ skills, the students’ interests, and the resources of the particular community.”6 The emphasis on developing curriculum and teaching method based on the students’ experiences arose out of a vision that “[encouraged] the asking of questions,” and a “hope that society can be improved.”7

Like the authors of the 1964 Freedom School curriculum, Don Arnstine argues that public schools have historically failed to produce active democratic citizens. Instead, their aim is only to socialize students, not educate them.

“Socialization is characterized by imitation, participation, and obedience to instruction and command. Its outcome is the acquisition of adaptive habits, skills, and attitudes. The processes of education… are far more subtle, adding to the above processes two-way communication, initiative, creativity, and criticism. The outcome of educational processes is the acquisition of attitudes and dispositions, knowledge and skills, that are individualized and critically thoughtful.”8 

Uprooting Bureaucracy
To change a system that merely socializes, into one that also educates, would require a social movement. Not only because “macroeconomic mandates continually trump urban educational policy and school reform.”9 Or that corporate-engineered high-stakes testing has eliminated community participation in the creation of educational goals and policy.10 

But because a social movement is the only way fundamental change can occur in any deeply entrenched bureaucracy. If the system can prevent a progressive school board in a progressive city from implementing systemic progressive educational reforms as advocated by Dewey or Horton, the only hope for change is outside the system.

The obstacles to introducing popular or progressive methods and goals to school districts caught up in the high-stakes testing paradigm are numerous, and range from the way school boards function as democratically elected bodies, to big business, to entrenched political interests, to the proliferation of foundational support for educational reform.

Because school boards rarely have their own line staff, board members depend upon the school superintendent’s office for most of their information and recommendations.11 (The seven San Francisco school board commissioners, for example, share one secretary.) Superintendents, in turn, are focused not so much on the schools’ potential, as how to manage the system they inherit. So, their recommendations to boards and district bureaucracies tend to focus primarily on the gargantuan task of managing 10,000 employees and 55,500 students—increasingly poor and working class—with a dwindling school budget and under increasingly complex and rigid rules imposed by the state and federal governments. Consequently, the school boards have tended to close the smaller but more effective schools for disproportionately large numbers of poor and working class students of color.

Board Culture and Structure Resist Change
It is doubtful, however, that even if the superintendents were driven by goals other than maintaining a system that essentially sorts and socializes, they would implement progressive goals and methods. Ziegler and Jennings’ research on district politics suggests “in unequivocal terms, the existence of an educational elite which is consciously self-perpetuating.”12 

School board incumbents generally select their successors, and most candidates do not campaign on issues that would distinguish them from rivals.13 Even when “delegate-minded” board candidates are elected, they are quickly socialized into a “trustee” mentality and begin to identify with entrenched interest groups. This culture is reinforced by national school board meetings, superintendent sessions, and a plethora of handbooks.14

In San Francisco, for instance, few voters are aware of educational issues, and school board elections are popularity contests won by those who can raise the most money. When grassroots candidates do get elected, they are subtly socialized to “work with the superintendent,” and use meaningless phrases, such as “laser-like reform on academic achievement.” The combination of propaganda from professional associations and being wooed by big business vendors makes even the most progressive school board candidate realize that it would be political suicide to challenge a superintendent’s “laser-like focus” on creating a lean and mean school system.

School board members who suggest progressive pedagogy and curricula are accused of being “leftist ideologues” or “not about the kids,” by business leaders, the media, and fellow professionals. If these attempts fail to inhibit board members, big business can threaten to withdraw its subsidies and political will from desperately needed supplemental district funding (parcel taxes, for example). But most board members respond to the carrot enough to believe that whenever there is a crisis—and there is always one around the corner—the “business advisory board” is the group to approach for advice and support.

Interest Groups Vie for Control
School board members are not the only ones effectively co-opted by the political system. Organized ethnic or identity groups, representing very few constituents, sometimes act as gatekeepers. Leaders of these groups punish those who make decisions based on progressive educational principles rather than skin color, gender, or sexual orientation. Many a San Francisco school board meeting has been rendered ineffective by speeches from leaders of non-representative but highly organized identity groups. The largely white and middle class Parent Teachers Association (PTA) is playing into the hands of the historically disenfranchised ethnic and racial identity groups (and undermining their own political power) when they urge the school board not to be critical of the existing two-tier public school system—for fear of increasing middle-class and white flight from the schools.

As for teacher and service employee unions, having only recently found a place within the system, they are on the defensive and often fight any attempt by school boards to shake up the system. Their focus on wages and working conditions leaves little political capital for social justice issues, and their aspirations for a middle class lifestyle makes them insensitive to potential allies in school reform, viz: parents who earn less than they do. Teachers are socialized to believe in the myth of meritocracy and in their own powerlessness to change the system, long before they begin to teach.

Big business, for its part, has become adept at playing the entrenched interest groups against each other while remaining ostensibly “above the fray.” Foundations and non-profits involved with the school district intensify this dynamic when they focus on issues, such as cleaning bathrooms and community alleyways, instead of focusing on empowering the poor and working classes to challenge inequalities in the distribution of wealth and the power relationships that reinforce that inequality.

Hierarchy Overwhelms Democracy
The school system in the United States is fundamentally hierarchical and authoritarian. Hence, its structures and functions are at cross purposes with democratic aims. According to Don Arnstine, education—as defined by Dewey, Horton, and the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools—can only be implemented, if:

1.    The multiple-choice and standardized testing systems and the college admissions procedures closely related to them are changed.
2.    There’s a change in the way teachers are prepared and placed in their jobs, and… “organized for effective action.”
3.    All forms of segregation (not just race) within schools are ended.
4.    Students have opportunities to learn outside school.15

Debbie Meier in her book, Will Standards Save Public Education?, offers “six alternative assumptions” that allow “schools to instruct by example in the qualities of mind that… a democracy should be fostering in kids—responsibility for one’s own ideas, tolerance for the ideas of others, and a capacity to negotiate differences…. [T]his alternative vision isn’t utopian, even if it might be messy—as democracy is always messy.”16

For democratic education to take place, ideals have to replace standards, and teachers have to understand the purposes and interests of their students. They have to teach students how to pose their own problems and solve them democratically, in groups.17 Within the current school system, this can only happen sporadically.

Possibilities for the Future
Jean Anyon argues that there are radical possibilities in “the concentration of so many poor people in relatively small urban schools… It naturally offers a potential base for organizing a new social movement.”18 Yet, the vast majority of teachers focus on high-stakes testing, believing that they have a moral obligation to prepare their students for it. Pursuing this “moral obligation” saps most of their energy, leaving very little for organizing a social movement. It remains for those outside the school system to offer teachers the hope of fundamental  change, and support for the idea that they have a moral obligation to change the system. Simultaneously, progressive school board members need to see themselves as unapologetic activists, not “team players.”

In San Francisco, we believe we have begun to do this. Eric Mar continues to cultivate a grassroots base and Kathy Emery has co-founded the San Francisco Freedom School, which uses a people’s history of the Civil Rights Movement to show educators and other activists how to build the infrastructure for the next social movement. Teachers 4 Social Justice nourishes progressive teachers and parents through study groups and provides an outstanding local and national networking opportunity during their annual conference. The San Francisco Organizing Project has begun teaching parents how to organize in schools and establish alliances with teachers, and also to connect educational reform to affordable housing, healthcare, safety, and immigrant rights. We believe that these are the building blocks for the next social movement in this country. 

1.    Freire, P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translator, Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Continuum, 1986).
2.    Dewey, J. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1944), 84-85.
3.    Ibid. pp. 50.
4.    Ibid. pp. 120.
5.    Horton, M., Kohl, J. and Kohl, H. The Long Haul: An Autobiography. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1998).
6.    “Note to Teacher” from Freedom School Curriculum. 1964. Freedom Summer Collection, 1963-1964. (New York: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). The New York Public Library. See:
7.    Freedom School Curriculum: Introduction to Citizenship. Curriculum from “The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Papers,” 1959-1972 (Stanford, North Carolina: Microfilming Corporation of America, 1982) Reel 67, File 340, Page 0830.  See:
8.    Arnstine, D. Democracy and the Arts of Schooling (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 10.
9.    Anyon, J. Radical Possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education, and a New Social Movement (New York: Routledge, 2005), 2.
10.    Emery, K. The Business Roundtable and Systemic Reform (Doctoral dissertation, University of California at Davis, 2002). See:
11.    Emery, K. and Ohanian, S. Why is Corporate America Bashing our Public Schools? (Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 2004).
12.    Emery, K. “Corporate Control of Public School Goals: High-Stakes Testing in its Historical Perspective.” Teacher Education Quarterly, Spring, Vol. 34. No. 2. (2007): 25-44.
13.    Fantini, M., Gittell, M., Magat, R. Community Control and the Urban School (New York: Praeger, 1970), 68.
14.    Ziegler, L. H. and Jennings, M. K. Governing American Schools (North Scituate, Massachusetts: Durbury Press, 1974), 51.
15.    Zerchykov, R. School Boards and the Communities they Represent: An Inventory of the Research, NIE Grant 80-0171, (Boston: Institute for Responsive Education, 1984).
16.    Cistone, P.J. (Ed.). Understanding School Boards. 63-76. Lutz, F. W. Local School Boards as Sociocultural Systems. (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1975), (D. C. Heath).
17.    Arnstine, D. Democracy and the Arts of Schooling. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).
18.    Meier, D. Will Standards Save Public Education? (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), 4-5.
19.    Arnstine, D. Democracy and the Arts of Schooling (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).
20.    Anyon, J. Radical possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education, and a New Social Movement. (New York: Routledge, 2005), 5.
Eric Mar is a member and past president of the school board of the San Francisco Unified School District. Kathey Emery is a co-founder of the San Francisco Freedom School and co-author of Why is Corporate America Bashing Public Schools?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Resisting the Normalcy of White Racism

Antiracist White Teen Speaks to Her Peers About Confronting Racism

NOTE: This was posted last year on Mar 31, 2012

My thoughts on whiteness, privilege, and activism in the wake of Trayvon's murder.



...and to the middle class, white, socially concerned activist who wears a shirt emblazoned with those slogans, you are wrong.

I know you wear that shirt to stand in solidarity with Trayvon, Troy, and other victims of injustice. The purpose of those shirts is to humanize these victims of our society, by likening them to the middle class white activist wearing it. And once we've humanized the victims, this proves to us the arbitrariness of their deaths and thereby the injustice at play.

But the fact of the matter is that these men's deaths are anything but arbitrary. The fact that the real Troy Davis and Trayvon Martin and countless other victims of oppression are buried under 6 feet of cold dirt while we middle class white activists are alive, marching, and wearing their names is an indication that our societal system is working exactly as it's intended.

A more accurate t-shirt to display on my white body would be "I AM GEORGE ZIMMERMAN." Zimmerman and I were indoctrinated in the same American discourse where we learned that the "other," particularly black men like Trayvon and Troy, were less human and were to be feared. Society taught me that as a little white girl, I must preserve my purity and goodness, and that the presence of young single males threatened it. Society taught me that being in the presence of a BLACK man compounds that threat exponentially. I have been taught that male, black, bodies are an immediate threat to my safety and the well being of society as a whole, and Zimmerman was taught the same damn thing. We're all taught it.

I look at George Zimmerman and think, "there, but for the grace of god, go I." Had it not been for a decent education, intense critical thinking, and some truly excellent parenting, I would never have questioned the societal norms that Zimmerman and I were both taught, and I would have ended up feeling his attack on Trayvon was justified, just as he did, and the state of Florida does.

If we are to effect real change in the wake of Trayvon's murder, we have to realize this. Realizing that you more closely resemble a homicidal oppressive force than a helpless victim is a really uncomfortable thing to do. I know. But wanting to identify with the victim is weak, and immature when it is not an accurate representation of reality. Real change is effected when we own up to our actions, our privilege, and our complicity with the system that murdered Trayvon and countless others.

Us privileged activists have to realize just how easy it is to be Zimmerman, and work to change this. Subvert stereotypes. Make it harder for others to buy into the bullshit that we're fed our whole lives about race, class, gender, and other people by identifying and critiquing these messed up norms. Force adults to confront these norms, and raise children without indoctrinating them with the same old bullshit. Use your privilege to actively dismantle this messed up system. Listen to marginalized people like Trayvon's family and Troy's family and insure them access to the discourse. Listen to them, stand in solidarity with them. But do not, I repeat, DO NOT claim to be them.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

No Need to Teach Black History & Cutlure in a "Common Core" World

Protests Sparked in Detroit Over the Dumping of Black History Books

Zach Schonfeld
Jul 9, 2013-
NOTE: This is one result of "Race to the Top/Common Core State Standards/Hi Stakes Testing" Policies: Furthering the Eurocentric Curriculum of Exclusion and Erasing Black History and Culture for All of children.


Published on Jul 13, 2013-- Highland Park School Leaders Destroy Valuable Books & History! 
A No Struggle, No Development Production! By Kenny Snodgrass, Activist, Photographer, 
Videographer, Author.

A Detroit area school district has erupted in protest over the discarding of a historic book collection that is said to contain more than 10,000 black history volumes, included films, videos, and other artifacts. The blame, according to residents of Highland Park, a small city surrounded on nearly all sides by Detroit, belongs to Emergency Manager Donald Weatherspoon, who claims the collection was thrown out by mistake but that the district cannot afford to preserve it. Yesterday, angry residents held a public protest, blocking traffic, wielding megaphones, and displaying picket signs with slogans like "21st Century Hitler Burning Books" and "Dump The EM, Not The Books"—referring to the state-appointed emergency manager.

Among the picketers was Deblon Jackson, a Detroit-area musician.

"The emergency manager had been in the district for over a year and then they decided to throw away all the black artifacts—books that were no longer in print or published, all kinds of tapes and catalogues," Jackson explained to The Atlantic Wire. "We want to preserve those artifacts so our children have something to look back on. We're just mad about it and we're not going to stand for it, just throwing away our history like that."

The outcry began when a small portion of the volumes in question was discovered in a dumpster three weeks ago by Paul Lee, a local historian who helped assemble the collection. According to USA Today, the collection was largely the result of civil rights-era demands to incorporate African-American studies into school curriculums—especially in communities like Highland Park, whose population is about 93% African-American. Jackson hopes to place the books in a community center, but Weatherspoon has instead expressed interest in donating those with historical value to a library or museum. (Of course, the majority of the collection has already been lost to the dumpster.)

Marcia Cotton, a member of the Highland Park Renaissance Academy Board of Directors and lifelong resident, said she attended a meeting in which Weatherspoon took responsibility and claimed the books were discarded by mistake. Her fellow board member, Vice President Andre Davis, soon resigned over the controversy. But Cotton isn't so sure the books are the most pressing issue in the community.

"I would very much like to get above the fray of the controversy and rather discuss solutions to the looming debt crisis facing the school district, the decline in school enrollment and city population, and how best we can work with our city officials and provide a greater quality of life for our residents and quality education in a safe environment for our children," Cotton said in an email. "We can't solve 21st century problems with 20th century tactics."

Jackson, meanwhile, hopes to continue protesting.

"We have a protest scheduled every day this week until we get what we want," she said. "They don't want the children to read, in my opinion. How do you have a library with no books? How do you mistakenly throw books out?"

"This is a modern-day Hitler," she added.

Watch video footage of the protest here, via WXYZ-TV Detroit:

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Fightback Against Racist Queens HS Principal

Racism Still Prevails Among Many Bloomberg MisEducation Principals

It is a high school created for the children of immigrants; many students speak only Spanish when they arrive. The educators here, who spoke exclusively to Eyewitness News, say it requires a principal who is comfortable with racial diversity, but they say that is not the kind of principal they have now. 

At the building that includes Pan American International High School in Queens, John Flanagan says he knew he was not his principal's favorite teacher.

"She had something against me, personally," he said.

The principal is Minerva Zanca, who took over the school last year. Educators call her intimidating, but they did not expect what they say they learned about Ms. Zanca after a teacher evaluation meeting in her office, where she had harsh criticism for John Flanagan.

Assistant principal Anthony Riccardo who was also at the meeting, recalled a statement she made about Flanagan.

"When he left the room, she turned to me and said, 'Did you see his big lips quiver?"

Mr. Riccardo wrote that account in an affidavit. Flanagan says he remembers the meeting very well.

"My mouth was moving around and I tried to keep still because I was very upset at what she was saying and when I read his statement, "that's how I knew that what she had against me," said Flanagan. "What I'm now coming to realize is that she had a racial bias."

But apparently there was more, also sworn to by Mr. Riccardo, and it concerned alleged words by the principal about teacher, Heather Hightower.

"One day I was actually walking down the hallway with Ms. Zanca and we're walking and we saw Heather and she said to me, 'Doesn't she look like a gorilla in a sweater?'"

"It was because of the color of my skin and the look of my hair," said Hightower. "She had issues with (me) for whatever reason."

According to Ms. Hightower, she had also received negative feedback from Principal Zanca.
"In April, she said, 'Well, you really haven't progressed at all as a teacher, I'm very disappointed and I'm going to give you a discontinuance.'"

Discontinuance means Ms. Hightower, who was not tenured, has been fired, and so has John Flanagan. We tried to speak to Ms. Zanca at her Queens home, we phoned and e-mailed the principal, but she was not available for comment about the allegations of making racist statements.

"Why is it OK for her to turn around and think because I'm white, that she can say that?" said Riccardo. "You cannot have that feeling; even flippantly have that feeling and be the leader of a school."

Riccardo says his own career is on the line because Ms. Zanca has recommended he be fired, after he filed the affidavit against her.

The Department of Education confirms it has launched an investigation.

Kevin Powell,, 718-399-8149
Peter Lamphere,, 917-969-5658

WHY? Pan American International High School will be without any African American teachers next year, because two teachers have been fired after a Queens Principal, Minerva Zanca, made racist comments about them in closed-door meetings with her assistant principal. The third African American teacher is leaving the school because of severe budget cuts (which were racially motivated) to her hugely successful Theater program.

We demand that there is a full investigation into these allegations and, if they are substantiated, that the DOE hold the principal accountable to its zero-tolerance policy against discrimination. We also demand that the discontinuances of the personnel involved (Teachers John Flanagan and Heather Hightower and AP Anthony Riccardo) be reversed.

Local Councilmember Julissa Ferreras says "The allegations brought against Ms. Zanca are very serious and concern me deeply. As a representative of an extremely diverse district, I cannot and will not stand for this type of behavior."

Kevin Powell, president of BK Nation, adds "It is not only important to have high standards for our public school teachers but we must also support the good ones, like these teachers, who are completely dedicated to their young people. I find it unacceptable that a principal can engage in this kind of conduct without any repercussions. We are not going to stop until due justice and process is served here."