Tag Archives: policy

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.

Occupy Wall Street / Power of Protest

I knew when I started this blog that it was going to be a challenge to keep up once the school year started–yikes, where does time go!?  It’s been a whirlwind of a week, and culminated in going to the Occupy Wall Street protest yesterday afternoon.  I have been to many protests, but few that were quite like this.  People were everywhere.  Some say it was because of the Radiohead rumor, but I can’t agree.  Things are bad.  People are angry.  Economic and political discontent is mounting, and along with thousands of other people, I’m ready to see something different happen.  I don’t want to argue anymore with people who think things could be worse.  Shouldn’t we try and aim a little higher?  Shouldn’t we be upset that poverty, homelessness, and joblessness are worse than they’ve ever been in our lifetime, rather than worry that things will get worse if we speak out?  Isn’t that just admitting that the wrong people control the policies that affect us?

People who know me well know I used to organize with the ISO (International Socialist Organization), and for a long while, would get up every Saturday morning and make signs for our hour-long paper sales during which we stood on street corners, talked to people about what was going on, and sold papers for a dollar.  I learned so much during this time about the history of the left, protest, labor rights, unions, the working class, etc., but I also struggled inwardly with putting the ideas into practice when we met opposition from other groups on the left.  I couldn’t understand why there was so much in-fighting between these relatively tiny groups, and why people in other groups would argue so vehemently about the intricacies of how a revolution would happen in the United States rather than focus on what is happening.  Wouldn’t the point be to decide what we want to have happen, together?  While my comrades in the ISO would listen to my questions and try and really understand where I was coming from, people in other groups would completely shut me down and shove their ideology down my throat with words I didn’t understand before I could even get my ideas together.  But yesterday, I didn’t experience this familiar divisiveness; we were all there for the same reason–change.

My point being: I’m grateful for the time I spent organizing, and everything that I learned, and my lip even quivered a little with nostalgia as I gathered up my foam core and markers to make myself a sign for the afternoon action.  I was flooded with memories of exhausting-but-invigorating days spent preparing for and traveling to protests that left me feeling like part of a community that stands on the right (er, left!) side of history.

I don’t know about you, but I was never taught about the history or power of protest as something I could participate in.  The history I learned felt episodic–like all of these events in the 60s and 70s were disconnected moments on a timeline that had nothing to do with each other.  I was shocked to learn as an adult that in fact, the history of labor organizing is long, involved, and anything but disconnected.  So many people I talk to think that real change is going to happen by electing someone through our current, fairly undemocratic, two-party system; however, when you look back, actual change that benefits ordinary, working-class people–even when legislated–happened as a result of a movement with people taking to the streets.  (For the record: I’m not saying don’t vote–you have every right to exercise that right if you choose!  And I was proud to vote for the first African-American president in 2008.  I’m just saying that thinking outside of the box might be increasingly necessary and voting for someone you’re not 100% behind because they’re the best option seems pretty counterintuitive to me.)

Lower Manhattan felt electric last night, and I’m suddenly as excited about getting back out there as I was during the 2004 RNC.  As we marched through the arch of City Hall, the goosebumps rose on my arms. Seeing a growing number of Facebook updates, tweets and blog posts of friends and colleagues who have joined the movement in the last few days makes me think those goosebumps aren’t going away anytime soon.  I can’t go back today, but will tomorrow.  Solidarity!

You can see the full album of photos I took here:

Occupy Wall Street March 9/30/11

What Do I Mean by Policy?

I asked one of my professors during my first or second year of grad school, How are education policies made?  I demanded an answer to a truly impossible question, and my professor’s answer was appropriate: It is a very complex process.

As a fifth grade teacher, I couldn’t fathom the enormous chasm that lived between the in-the-name-of-achievement intentions of various policies and the way they were lived out in actual classrooms.  As a brand-new teacher, I assumed these were official laws, coming down on high from some dictator-type person perched in his uncomfortable wooden chair (you know, the kind that swivels and is always featured in movies about teachers).  But when I became a literacy coach, and got a glimpse of what it’s like to be an administrator, I realized that decisions about policies–these supposed laws that govern the way schools and classrooms run–are made at many different levels and it’s a lot more confusing than you’d think.

That sounds a little obvious now that I’ve said it out loud, but if you think about it teacher education programs don’t spend a lot of time talking about the history or process of educational policymaking decisions in this country.  It seems that policymakers would need and want teachers to know and understand the history and process of educational policymaking, so that they could be active participants in that process once they become teachers.  Aren’t teachers the experts on teaching after all?  Writing about this makes me think about polls that newspapers and new shows so often speak of.  I’ve never been asked a question for a poll for the Post or Daily News or any other publication or production of any kind in my twelve years as a New Yorker, and I don’t know many people who have.  How can these polls possibly claim to represent my view if I’ve never been asked?  Being a teacher kind of feels like this, only way worse, because they’re not just being narcissistic and complaining–they actually aren’t ever asked, not even a little.

I have to give credit to the administration at both elementary schools in the city where I’ve worked–they listened to their teachers, even if they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) always act on what they heard.  Even if you’re lucky enough to work with a principal who has a heart of gold, their hands are often tied by bureaucratic red tape.  One time, I was urgently called into the office to help purchase books and other supplies with a large sum of money that the school would lose the following day if we didn’t use it up.  This made no sense to me.  How were we trying to force the purchase of a bunch of random materials for thousands of dollars when we actually–desperately–need new books?  soap in the girls’ bathrooms? pencils? a librarian?  But illogical things like this happened all the time, and policies were always at the root.

I remember thinking at the start of the school year, when are kids going to know who their teacher is?  There was so much jumbling and re-jumbling of students at the start of September that classrooms didn’t fall into a rhythm until well after Columbus Day.  How were we supposed to effectively employ the start-of-the-year rituals we’d learned in our teacher certification programs and new teacher professional development sessions when we didn’t even know who our students would be for the first month of school?  How were our students supposed to feel comfortable and ownership over their classroom when they might have to leave it the following day?  That supposed plateau that a teacher hits after the first few weeks of guiding students through daily routines when the classroom is running like a well-oiled machine remained a myth for many of us.

I also remember days upon days of additional students in my room in a space that already housed 32.  I remember looking up what the UFT contract said about splitting up classes, which is the process of distributing the students of a teacher who is absent among the remaining teachers’ classes.  According to the contract, this was only to happen in an emergency situation.  For my first three years of teaching, you could almost guarantee it would happen every Monday and Friday when absences were high, and there was one stretch of time when one of my colleagues was on extended sick leave and it happened for several weeks straight.  I couldn’t understand–where were the substitute teachers?  I inquired once and recall the answer having something to do with a sub pool draught and a thin budget. Like other things that didn’t seem to make sense, this was another “policy” that didn’t quite work and made my job very difficult.  And sadly, all it did was make the teachers resent each other when they were absent and got in the way of meaningful instruction.

At the end of the day, it wasn’t the students, the content, my colleagues, or students’ parents who made getting any teaching and learning done nearly impossible when I was a fifth grade teacher; it was the inconsistency in the school environment.  The ground beneath our feet always seemed to be shifting–as soon as the schedule was set, it changed; as soon as we mastered a new curriculum, it changed; as soon as we got used to the new learning standards, they changed; as soon as we’d painstakingly written our students’ names in bubble letters on construction paper (and added glitter as long as we knew we’d be getting four hours of sleep tonight instead of five), our roster would change; and the list goes on.

So I guess when I talk about policy, I’m referring to any decision that determines how things “should” go in a classroom/school/district.  And in my research, I’m concerned with making sure that the policymaking process starts considering what gets in the way–the stuff that policy decisions don’t often account for or anticipate, and that only teachers know.  I mean, who ever decided there should be 300 leveled books (or maybe it was 500…the year 2003 seems so long ago now) in each elementary school classroom library? They certainly didn’t consider how that was supposed to happen in schools that were underfunded, under-resourced, and under-staffed.  In my grad school text books, I recall images of jovial-looking teacher types talking and laughing while leveling books at a table in what looked like some sort of well-equipped teacher lounge.  The reality of getting my books leveled included weeks upon weeks of late nights looking up titles in a book one at a time (this was before Google being the oracle it is now), writing out different letters on color-coded stickers, covering each label with clear packing tape, and organizing the leveled books into appropriate baskets.  Students were kind and helped out, but where was my release time for this behemoth of a task?  Why did I have to spend so much of the time I needed to spend preparing lesson plans leveling books?  (And for those of you who don’t think teachers work hard enough, I came in early and stayed late for most of my five years in the classroom, and still never had enough time to reasonably meet all of the expectations placed on me.  The more I read about teachers’ daily lives, the more I realize my experience is hardly singular.)

Policy is big and expensive, and in my opinion, so out of left field sometimes.  I wonder how much news of failing schools, coupled with the growing national anti-teacher union/tenure sentiment, is actually a cloaked mark of the failure of polices like No Child Left Behind (which trickled down to create the 300-some-odd-leveled-books rule), rather than of the failure of students and teachers, which is the more popular theory.  Clearly, schools aren’t working as they should; and thankfully, we know a lot of what is wrong.  If we could just get policymakers and teachers at the same table regularly, talking, reflecting, and problem-solving together, we could make real change happen.  I know it’s not a silver bullet, but it would be a start.