Category Archives: Policy-Practice Gap

Gendering the Policy-Practice Gap

I gave a guest lecture today in a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Course, “Women: Images and Realities.” What a neat experience. Although my work as a professor is always infused in some way by thinking about gender, it is not the main focus of my practice as a scholar. This talk gave me the opportunity to really think through how my research has the possibility to consider themes of equity around gender, too.

In order to prepare for this talk, I revisited my research blog for my dissertation. What a wonderfully reminiscent (and geeky) experience that was! I haven’t stood (at least digitally) in that data space for quite some time now. I was reminded of how much time and effort I put into building the site, thinking through the architecture, and designing the method by which I would import, code, and organize my data. And, of course, it made me think of all of the incredible people who helped me along the way. It was a true learning-by-doing experience.

So revisiting those posts through a gender lens led me to locate some more thoughts on the ways in which teachers who write about their daily lives in blogs educate us about their lived realities. Following is a tiny glimpse of what I found.

Teacher bloggers write about the ways in which dress bolsters the gendered binary that often exists within school spaces. The image of ‘suit’ surfaces here and there, always as connected to administrators. Miss Rim writes, “4 men in suits; 2 in business casual. During a quality review check. They entered. I extended my hand, ‘Hi, I’m Miss Rim.’ They gave me a blank look. No one said anything. I had no idea who they were. They came in to the room, stared at the students’ coat cubby, calculated how many hooks were there, had a debate over whether or not students could or should have a hook for a coat AND a bookbag, or what. They opened closets. They turned the water in the sink on and off. They muttered and whispered. Then someone said, ‘Well, we can always add another row of coat hooks. Or probably 2 more.'”

They also write about ways in which bodies, and their needs, are disregarded. Miss Brave writes, “…one of our staff toilets broke, and our janitor informed us that that’s it, no new toilet part this year. Which means that we have one bathroom on our floor for about thirty people, most of them women, two of whom were pregnant…”

As I went back through my data, and my theoretical frames, I also considered how I might present the theory I used to help me make sense of my data in a more digestible way. So I used political cartoons. I think this one sums up the way I use the theory of political spectacle well. Mary Wright Edelman explains, “words and numbers appear precise and rational; yet depend entirely on context and interpretation” (2004, p. 13):

numbers don't lie

I’m moving in a slightly different direction now with my research — I’m looking at funding streams for technology in schools in New York State, as well as considering how to make sense of both teacher educators’ and teacher candidates’ use of technology, and the impact it has on their pedagogy.

Till next time…

 

 

 

 

Filling the Policy-Practice Gap

A few weeks ago now, I had the pleasure of attending a discussion focused on the edTPA with colleagues from several local school districts and universities. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with the edTPA, it’s a new performance assessment that is being used as a certification exam in New York State and elsewhere around the country.) Also in attendance was Kathleen Cashin, who was recently re-elected to the New York State Board of Regents. Unlike some of her colleagues, Cashin has spent most of her career working as a teacher and administrator in New York City public schools. While her colleagues on the Board of Regents have done impressive work in the field of education, the majority have never taught in the K-12 public school system in New York State. The majority of the Board is comprised largely of CEOs, philanthropists, and lawyers.

Shouldn’t extensive experience in the field be a prerequisite for making major decisions about education, especially decisions that affect the daily lives of teachers and school children? Without such expertise, policymakers can theorize classroom experience quite a bit, but they can’t really ‘know’ what it’s like to be in the classroom. I believe that part of the reason the policy-practice gap in education persists relates to the fact that so many of the individuals who make decisions about classroom practice are far removed from the realities of teaching and schooling.

My work as a scholar so far has largely focused on the policy-practice gap: the space that exists between policies as they exist on paper and the on-the-ground realities of their implementation in schools. This research was inspired by my experience as a 5th-grade teacher in New York City. My colleagues and I experienced policy implementation as episodic, arbitrary, and disconnected from what we actually needed as classroom teachers and building administrators. We experienced pendulum-like swings in curriculum and 180-degree turns in instructional expectations. It was the early 2000s in New York City, and we were knee-deep in what Michael Fullan calls “projectitis,” when schools “take on or are forced to take on every policy and innovation that comes along” before having the opportunity to see if what they’re doing is working.

In my dissertation, I wrote about this policy-practice gap with a new idea and hope: why not fill the gap with information teachers are sharing on blogs that they write? I found teachers’ critiques of educational policies shared on their blogs rife with recommendations from the view of the classroom. I thought, if we could just get policymakers to listen to what teachers have to say, we might be able to change something about the educational policymaking process.

I developed this graphic to illustrate my idea for my dissertation. I admit I’m no graphic arts expert, but it gets the idea across:

policy practice gap

With the development of the Internet, we witnessed unprecedented growth in the ability to publish user-authored content online via blogs and other Web 2.0 tools in the early and mid-2000s. The capability to research and communicate digitally has only improved since. But honestly, it doesn’t matter whether policymakers listen digitally or in person. They just need to listen. The graphic should look more like this:

policy practice gap annotated

This meeting a few weeks ago was the first time in my professional life as a teacher (16 years to be exact) that a policymaker asked my opinion about something related to what I do as an educator. The discussion was dynamic. Regent Cashin is a brilliant, sincere individual who I believe is on the right side of the high-stakes testing movement. She hears the call from the opt-out movement. She understands why the rubrics for the edTPA do little to offer specific, genuine feedback. She gets why it’s unfair and inequitable to judge teachers by their students’ test scores. During the meeting, several panels of K-12 teachers, administrators, and local university faculty shared ideas about why implementation of the edTPA isn’t working. And Cashin listened intently, promising to bring our concerns back to her colleagues.

Without more meetings like this, and opportunities for practitioners to share the realities of their daily work, educational policymaking will continue to miss the boat when it comes to changing practice in a systemic, sustainable, effective way.

The Origins of TRAUE

TRAUEOn Wednesday, December 4, 2013, the online journal Theory, Research, and Action in Urban Education (TRAUE) launched its second issue. The journal was initiated by Jean Anyon in the Urban Education Program of the CUNY Graduate Center several years ago, in an effort to educate doctoral students on the process of peer-review; create a for-and-by-students space to develop ideas in theory, research, and action in urban education; and explore the possibilities of online publication (which was, at the time, an emerging medium for peer-reviewed scholarship). I was asked to share a few thoughts on the origins of TRAUE at the issue launch, and here are my comments in full. My sincerest thanks to the students and faculty who have worked diligently in the last few months to launch an exceptional contribution to scholarship. Jean would be proud:

I decided to read from notes for this event. As much as I want to talk from my heart on the spot, it’s still hard to speak about Jean without welling up. I thought reading something would help keep the tears at bay. And somehow, talking about Jean’s work with TRAUE from notes on an iPad seems apropos.

It’s hard to describe the origin of TRAUE without also sharing a slice of Jean’s technological journey. Although the boundaries between the ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ worlds no longer feel as distinct as they once did, there was a time less than a decade ago when many of us wondered if we could read and annotate articles solely online; conduct research via digital-only media; or if online peer-reviewed journals could really have the same respect and impact as those that appeared primarily in print. If we look back on just the last five years, it’s dizzying to think about how far we’ve come.

The changes in digital communication entered most of my conversations with Jean over the last eight years. I remember discussing the advantages of having a gmail account; the mind-boggling capabilities of Apple technologies; why I felt that blogs and social media provided a new and exciting place to listen to teachers. Jean was wary at first — unclear, as so many of us were, about how digital technologies might reframe and redirect our work as teachers, scholars, and activists; but her skepticism didn’t last long, and I remember when she finally made the switch from AOL to gmail, upgraded from a flip phone to an iPhone, and gave me the go-ahead to run with my research questions about identifying online spaces worthy of educational research. When she got an iPad, she sent a steady stream of texts, amazed and delighted at her discoveries in the App Store. She became fearless in her application of digital technologies in her research and daily communication, and in many ways, her approach to TRAUE embodies her courage and willingness to try something new at a time when others weren’t willing or able to take a similar risk.

Jean was onto something when she brought the idea of an online journal to the Urban Education program here at the CUNY Graduate Center back in the 2009-2010 school year. While the idea of online journals almost seems dated now, we were one of a handful of education doctoral programs exercising the possibility and potential for digital, peer-reviewed work.

Thinking back on those first few meetings of TRAUE, it was a messy but productive time. Jean would hold multiple meeting times, to make sure everyone who wanted to could participate. She spent endless hours helping us draft and redraft our explanations for the purpose and sections of the journal; she made sure to honor and listen to everyone’s voice; and most importantly, she left the decision-making up to us. She wanted TRAUE to be a journal for and by students; to be a place for doctoral students in our program to learn the process by which journals receive, review, and publish articles; and to draw together, well, theory, research, and action in urban education.

Like so many of us have discovered –and continue to discover — since Jean passed away, she provided a wide and deep network of people, projects, and ideas with which to continue her legacy. TRAUE is, in a way, one of her many parting gifts. It is a reminder that we shouldn’t wait to try out new ideas; that research in education is dynamic and changing more rapidly than ever; that the opportunities to effect change are shifting and full of hope (or at least full of the potential for hope).

I want to end by saying that so many people were involved in the origin and evolution of TRAUE, and while I am delighted and honored to share some of my personal thoughts on the process at this event, there would be no TRAUE without the dedication, hard work, and persistence of those people who worked diligently to get the first two issues published. Jean would be proud of us for carrying on her work of fighting for change, equity, and justice in education in an ever-changing world.

 

Monday 11/18 and the Common Core

As a new 3rd-grade teacher in 2001, I remember hearing about the “new” standards being implemented across New York State (and still have one of the original spiral-bound copies of the Reading and Writing standards we were issued sitting with my collection of teaching materials). At the time, we were told the standards would guide our instruction, and were asked to make sure they accompanied bulletin board displays and were incorporated in lesson plans. But we would later find out that the standards had a dual purpose — they were also a measure by which our students would unknowingly come to be defined and by which teachers would be evaluated.

Almost immediately, our students became numbers instead of names; we were conditioned to see our students as digits that either supported or undermined our path toward becoming another “failing” New York City public school.

testing genreI recently sifted through my teaching materials from that time, and came across a packet for teaching test-taking as a genre. Back in the early 2000s, the balanced literacy model — the method of instruction in which students learn to read and write using real books in a workshop model (as opposed to using basal readers with little to no interaction with their peers) — was just being introduced (or re-introduced) in many public schools. And so we switched from using scripted lessons that were packaged by Harcourt-Brace to using scripted lessons that were packaged by Teachers College, Accelerated Literacy Learners, and America’s Choice. We taught reading and writing via a set of genres — we’d spend a month working on narrative, then move on to informational, persuasive, etc. With the influx of testing awareness, during what we now know as the start of the standardization movement, someone creatively came up with the idea of creating a unit of study around testing. And suddenly test-taking became a genre, too. Eek.

At the time, it made sense — we had to make sure test prep made its way into our instruction so that students felt prepared to take the tests that would, in many ways, determine their futures; however, it gave test-taking the same level of importance as actual literary genres. And sadly, as we’ve seen recently in the media and via personal experience, the standards attached to the Common Core — the latest iteration of learning standards — have created a similar frenzy around what counts as educational success.

Despite my own personal feelings as a literacy specialist that the Common Core provides some truly useful ideas to guide instruction at a variety of instructional levels, I acknowledge that the true problem lies in how the standards are being used and why. At the end of the day, no matter how high we raise the bar on paper, we’re not going to change how well students learn in reality unless we look at the economic, social, and political issues surrounding education. As parents across the country take a stand and keep their children out of school on Monday, November 18, to protest the Common Core State Standards and what they’re doing to public education, I stand in solidarity with their decision to make their voices heard.

Why We Need to Organize

The last few weeks have been hard. I still keep reaching for my phone to text or talk to Jean. Everything everyone said about your first year as a full-time professor being tough has been true. The learning curve is straight up: from learning how to decode university- and location-based acronyms and prep for classes to figuring out how to juggle the demands of teaching, service, and scholarship and strategize about how to find a parking spot, I’ve been spending more time at my office than at home, and I’m exhausted. Add the pressure from changing policies in teacher certification requirements to that mix, and, well, my head is spinning. The truly wonderful news in all of this is that I love my colleagues. I love my students, too, but my colleagues in particular are incredibly hard-working, brilliant people who know their stuff inside and out. I feel honored to walk among them every day.

When Jean and I started talking — roughly a year ago — about where I wanted to end up as a professor, I thought out loud about my fears of being able to be an activist in higher education. She assured me that there would plenty of opportunities, and indeed she was right. Today, I had the opportunity to attend a union meeting as the representative for my department.

The last contract, ratified earlier this calendar year, was a tricky one for the constituents: it includes a number of givebacks — some of which are overt and some of which are covertly vague. All come from the same place: to make us work more for less pay. I walked away from the meeting feeling a little bleak. Morale is very low.

And then a few things happened. I remembered back in 2004 (or thereabouts) when I started as an adjunct at Pace University, and helped organize a union there. I thought back on being a delegate in the United Federation of Teachers in the years that followed, and organizing actions with coworkers. None of it was easy, and we didn’t win every fight, but we found opportunities to organize together and be heard. I’m not sure what’s in store here at SUNY New Paltz, but people are angry and understandably so. I wonder what Jean would say…

Radical PossibilitiesA few weeks ago, my colleagues and I took photos with our favorite books to post on a bulletin board in the department. As you already know, Jean’s teaching, activism, and mentorship made an enormous impact on me — how I teach, what I teach, and why. Her call to action in Radical Possibilities is so relevant for me today: we won’t have a voice unless we collectively find one.

MORE

I’m officially a month into being a full-time faculty member at SUNY New Paltz, and couldn’t be happier about my new job so far. Everyone has been welcoming and warm, and I instantly felt at home here. My colleagues are hardworking, supportive, and brilliant, and my students are inquisitive and enthusiastic. And have I mentioned the facility!? Old Main, the building where the School of Education is housed, is the oldest building on campus. It recently underwent a renovation, and although the original stairs and beautiful stain-glass windows were preserved, the interior was completely rebuilt. Each classroom is furnished with smartboards, projectors, and document cameras that, from a pedagogical perspective, make interactive teaching with digital components a seamless possibility.

There have been many moments during the last two weeks when I’ve reached for my phone to call Jean Anyon. Despite my happiness over my new position, I have had a perpetual lump in my throat. I miss her terribly. As I expressed in my last post, she was more than a mentor and professor to me and so many others — she provided both professional and personal guidance, and it’s hard to adjust to life without her being an email, text, or phone call away.

She would have wanted to know that I went to the first meeting of our union, United University Professionals (UUP). I was grateful for the opportunity to find out more about the UUP, but the feeling of disappointment in the room about the last contract was palpable. From an important question about family/maternity leave (or lack thereof) to a report on plans to organize for a future contract in order to prevent further givebacks, it quickly became clear that we need to build more local support from the rank and file.

IMG_5574Last week, I received a t-shirt from the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), a caucus of the United Federation Teachers (UFT), in the mail. It seemed like a timely, and necessary, reminder of the work that can be done when workers come together. Although everyone at New Paltz seems very happy to be here, the one thing they often — and openly — vocalize is that they’re not in it for the money. While I agree that education as a career path isn’t always lucrative, I was shocked to find out a year ago when I went on the academic job market that university professors in education make as little as they do.

Doctoral students who are wrapping up their dissertations now are curious, and understandably so, about what they’re facing in terms of salary. After doing some calculations, I realized I’m making less than I was as a 5th-grade teacher seven years ago (in comparison, other universities where I interviewed weren’t offering much more). While context matters to some extent, the facts are clear: the cost of living is going up steadily everywhere, and teachers at every level remain underpaid. When I did a little research online to see what professors in other departments make, I found that business professors at the same level — with the same education as me — make tens of thousands of dollars more. Put simply, that just doesn’t seem right.

When I was an active member of the UFT, I signed on to several caucuses at various points that were fighting to protect members’ rights. At the time, we were lucky if five or ten people showed up to meetings. At a MORE meeting I went to this summer — in July, mind you, when most teachers are taking a well-deserved break — there weren’t enough seats for everyone who showed up. I walked away feeling energized by the reminder that when enough voices come together, people really do start to listen.

It reminded me of the time, many years ago now, when Randi Weingarten (the then-UFT president) called on me in the Delegate Assembly to speak. I turned around to address the largest audience I’ve ever spoken in front of, and started out, “Hi. I’m a teacher, and I’m tired.” The room erupted in supportive applause and shouts, and I knew immediately that our resolution — of which I don’t recall the exact details now — would garner support from members. We’d been working without a contract for several years, and the rank and file was tired of being ignored.

I have a lot on my plate to balance the demands of my new job, and fully intend to do whatever I can to successfully juggle the expectations of teaching, scholarship, and service that come with my new position. However, as I await the arrival of my first paycheck, I can’t help but wonder about how we’ve gotten to a place where 1) we feel lucky if we have healthcare; 2) managing debt (as opposed to being able to pay it off) is the norm; 3) teaching, despite it being one of the most important jobs according to public discourse, continues to be such a low-paying profession; and 4) unions have somehow been painted as an obstacle instead of a vehicle. I worry about our future, America, but hold out hope that it’s not too late to fight for what we deserve.

How Do I Even Express…

getting on the busAs many of you already know, we have lost a brilliant scholar, teacher, mentor, parent, and friend. Dr. Jean Anyon, whose work has impacted the lives of so many, passed suddenly but peacefully on Saturday, September 7, 2013, after a long battle with cancer. While her body battled inwardly to fend off the disease that ultimately consumed her, she worked tirelessly to dedicate her time, passion, and energy to her life’s work of teaching and contributing to — and often resisting — the academic canon.

When I first looked for PhD programs in the summer of 2004, I was in the midst of doing a dance with socialism as a then-member of a large organization fighting for change in our often contradictory society, and stumbled upon Jean’s article “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” As a teacher in a school in Harlem with few supplies and policy-driven expectations that ratcheted up with every day that passed, I was in search of a language to help me unpack, understand, and resist what I witnessed on a daily basis: the overwhelming inequities inside the classrooms of New York City and beyond. Although there were multiple programs in which I thought I could do good work, I decided to take my chances and apply only to the CUNY Graduate Center (GC), in the hopes that I could study with Jean. Her work provided the missing link to helping me gain an understanding of how things really work within the education policy world, and I was eager to get started on the project of becoming a teacher educator under her tutelage.

I’ll never forget my first meeting with Jean, prior to submitting my application. I had read her book Ghetto Schooling and several other articles, and arrived at her office armed with copious notes and stacks of ideas for what I wanted to study at the GC, based on my experience as a NYC public school teacher. I remember her office door being open, and having her invite several current students in during our meeting to meet me. She immediately put me in touch with multiple students via email, so that I might ask questions and find out more about the program in a candid way before I applied. I was so grateful for this welcome. As she would many times throughout the years to come, Jean let me and countless others know repeatedly that we are part of an enormous network of people who share a desire to create a different kind of world. Those who knew her are all part of a community that she built, from the ground up.

As the following eight years passed in what now seems like a flash, I had my ups and downs as a graduate student. Like so many other students, I suffered heartbreak and loss, battled bouts of illness and writer’s block, and struggled through many email exchanges and phone calls in which Jean convinced me that I should stay in the program when I wanted desperately to leave — when I questioned if being a scholar would also allow me to be an activist for the work I wanted to do. Although I took longer than some to complete my PhD, she was my guiding light throughout the entire process. There are a number of memories that struck me last night, as I tried to fall asleep long after bed time. Thoughts of her wisdom, humor, and high expectations for her students cycled through my mind. I thought of:

  • the first time we talked about switching her email account from AOL to Google, and how she struggled (in her wry, humorous way) with accepting Facebook, Twitter, and the ways in which technology was changing communication and face-to-face contact
  • it taking quite some time to convince her that researching blogs written by public school teachers was worthy of dissertation research…and when I did, she was so proud. I look often at the email that she wrote after I submitted my final draft. In three words she summed up everything I was feeling: “YOU DID IT!”
  • the delight that lit up her face when she got an iPad and iPhone and admitted that she, well, could probably get used to this
  • the time she had to have major back surgery and we were all so worried for her…and she unexpectedly sent me in her stead to deliver a keynote address at a new teacher retreat in Columbus, Ohio
  • when she got on the bus with us to head down to DC to protest the war in Iraq
  • when she asked me to coauthor an article that has since become an important piece in explaining why policies such as NCLB don’t work, “No Child Left Behind as an Anti-Poverty Measure
  • when she invited students over to her apartment, or up to her home in upstate New York, reinforcing the idea that while an educational community may start in the classroom, it travels with you wherever you go
  • when she appropriately scolded me for not completing the revisions on an accepted article for Democracy and Education because I second-guessed the points I was trying to make (which would later lay the foundation for my dissertation)
  • how much pride she took in the many accomplishments of her students and the faculty with whom she worked so closely
  • always pushing us to think outside of our comfort zone, and above all, remain ourselves in scholarship, in the classroom, and in life in general
  • how much she talked about her daughter, Jessie, who she loved with all her heart

The memories are coming at me swiftly right now, and I am overwhelmed with emotion at the loss of a woman who, in her “free” time, reached out to act as a parent when I and many others needed it most. She was more than a teacher and a contributor to the canon; more than a friend and a surrogate parent. She meant so much to me, and I hurt in her absence. But I am not alone, and gather strength from the support of the large community she built. We will continue to honor her in days to come, and reach out to one another to find ways to express the loss of someone who impacted so many of us so deeply.

Please join us at the GC in the Urban Ed lounge tomorrow, Tuesday, and Wednesday of this week, and stay tuned for news of a more formal gathering in the months to come where we can share Jean’s impact on our lives — both personally and professionally — and make plans for how to both pay forward the mentorship she so graciously offered, and ensure the immortality of her brilliant scholarly work.

Grad School and My Health

As we come up to the end of yet another school year, and I begin to think about transitioning to becoming a full-time professor, I can’t help but reflect on the last eight years of schooling, and how I’ve “mediated” my experience with my body. While I’ve encountered many highlights and benchmarks and celebrations, disappointments and frustrations and discouragements over the years — and everything in between — my mind begins to wander, without fail, to all of the ways in which I’ve carried the stress of schooling around in my body.

While I have been lucky enough to cover most of my schooling expenses over the last near-decade through fellowships, building websites, tutoring, taking on part-time teaching gigs when available, making and selling knitwear, and agreeing to odd jobs for cash whenever possible, my body feels like it’s been battered along the way. I wonder to what extent this has been due to having to work around the clock just in order to go to school. Let’s take a look back:

2005-2006: During my first year as a PhD student, I worked as a literacy coach in at an elementary school while going to school full time. I had chronic sinus infections all year, and had to have my tonsils taken out in April.

2006-2007: I decided to resign from my my job as a full-time teacher, in order to be able to accept a graduate teaching fellowship through CUNY — which would, theoretically, provide more time to devote to my studies. The fellowship, which paid me an annual salary of $13,000, required me to teach two college courses per semester. The pay was taxed, and though I was given tuition remission, I had to purchase my own healthcare. In order to make up for the cost, I took on a second job as a proofreader at a marketing firm, and a third job as a tutor.

2007-2009: I joined the fight for adjunct and student healthcare at the CUNY Graduate Center. I initially couldn’t understand why more people weren’t involved, and later realized that it’s probably because they’re too busy. I kept my teaching fellowship, as well as my tutoring and proofreading jobs, and begged my grandmother for extra cash.

2009-2011: I received a CUNY Writing Fellowship at a still-unacceptably-low-but-almost-liveable wage. The salary was about $30,000, and came (finally) with healthcare benefits. I continued to tutor, and took on a part-time literacy teaching job at an elementary school. I also initiated a knitwear company, and began making knitwear to sell.

2011-2012: I gratefully received an Instructional Technology Fellowship, which, like the Writing Fellowship, came with a salary of about $30,000 plus healthcare benefits. I continued to tutor and knit for additional money, and started building websites for pay as well.

2012-2013: I received a university sponsored Dissertation Fellowship of $22,000, with no healthcare benefits. I was forced to make the choice between 1) accepting this distinction, which would afford me the time I desperately needed to complete my dissertation, and 2) continuing on as an Instructional Technology Fellow for a second year, with a decent salary and benefits. I opted for the Dissertation Fellowship, and have paid $225 per month for the student healthcare cobra option. I continued to tutor, knit, and build websites for cash.

I am not totally complaining. Not completely. I am proud of the work I have done, and believe I received a stellar education at the CUNY Graduate Center. I also realize that many, many people face far more challenging, economically crushing circumstances. However, the fact remains that had I not worked three and four jobs for the majority of my time as a graduate student, I would, like many of my friends and colleagues, be facing an even larger mountain of crippling educational debt.

So then, what is the point of being a full-time student if you can’t actually go to school full time!? What are the actual expectations of being a full-time student these days? How does the rhetoric of doing something “full-time” match up with reality?

I started out this post thinking about all of my injuries and mysterious illnesses over the last eight years:  I have broken a bone, torn both meniscuses, suffered countless migraines, sprained my ankle at least twice, jammed my coccyx, had an extended bout with vestibular neuritis, contended with back spasms, and most recently was diagnosed with a labral tear in my hip. But as I started to write, it quickly became clear that the problem was larger than just my health — the problem all along has really been money.

It has been more than difficult as a student to make sure I’ve had enough at the end of each month to pay for rent, food, and healthcare coverage. And while I admit that there have been plenty of other factors at play, I can’t help but wonder at how the stress of having to work so many jobs just in order to go to school has prevented me from staying healthy while being a PhD student.

Don’t Know Much About History

As I push forward with data collection for my dissertation, I keep returning to the idea that history can repeat itself. And indeed, there is something repetitive — or even static –about the way the New York City public school system implements new reforms and policies.

I taught 5th grade from 2002-2006, during which a new standardized curriculum requiring a teaching method called the workshop model (defined by the the NYCDOE here) took elementary and middle school classrooms throughout New York City by storm. For some, the idea was not new and had either been introduced at an earlier time in their career or taught in a teacher education program; for others, it was an unfamiliar concept. But regardless of familiarity, many of us — particularly those of us teaching in schools with a lack of appropriate resources to do our jobs as required — the workshop model created the necessity to adapt behind closed doors.

As an example, there was the rug issue. Part of implementing the workshop model required a space in the classroom for students and teacher(s) to gather for a lesson, and creating a space with a rug for students to sit on made sense. In many schools it was compulsory. However, rugs were not provided by the school; nor was their cleanliness routinely maintained, which sometimes resulted in ongoing bouts of ringworm or infestations of lice, bed bugs, or other vermin.

In response to this expensive (and at times unsanitary) quandary, teachers were forced to adapt. Some had students gather chairs in a makeshift meeting area without a rug, or had them drag desks around in a way that created a sense of a meeting space, or, less desirably (especially for the watchful eyes of administrators), they eliminated the meeting portion of the workshop model altogether. Oftentimes, these adaptations resulted in reprimand and/or placing blame squarely on the teacher’s shoulders when test scores did not rise.

And while the Sisyphean practice of chasing the intended implementation of new policies like the workshop model without the means to do so seemed brand-new to many of us at the time, educational historians teach us that adaptation in the face of unreasonable or unrealistic policy expectations is not a new phenomenon for teachers in New York City. In a discussion of the introduction of new, progressive-education-based policies in city schools between 1920 and 1940 (shockingly similar to those “introduced” with the workshop model), Larry Cuban writes, “For teachers, contradictions multiplied as they tried to resolve the tensions generated by partisans of progressive pedagogy and the daily realities they faced in their schools” (1993, p. 113), and concludes, “The results were classrooms where contradictory behaviors appeared in an uneasy, often fragile configuration” (1993, p. 114). His words could also describe my experience many years later.

As I climb deeper into my data, I find myself revisiting the four books pictured: Radical Possibilities by Jean Anyon, City Teachers by Kate Rousmaniere, How Teachers Taught by Larry Cuban, and The One Best System by David Tyack. Each of these volumes takes a slightly different approach to the history of teaching and the policies that surround education, and not all focus solely on New York City; however, each helps me illuminate the idea that the pendulum of education policy has a tendency to swing back and forth, creating a sense of running in place without addressing the root of the problem which, often, comes down to a lack of necessary funds and resources.

There have been constant reforms in New York City schools in the last 100+ years, and yet accounts of teachers’ work almost a century ago are, in my opinion, too similar to today’s. It is my hope that we can find a new path — one that doesn’t have us constantly spinning our wheels.