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Archive for August, 2012

Howard Zinn was a great friend of Rethinking Schools. He generously allowed us to reprint articles of his in the magazine and our books. He agreed to be interviewed by Rethinking Schools editors.  He gave us kind blurbs for our books. He mentioned our work in his talks and referred teachers to us. Most important, Howard Zinn taught us about the world and inspired us to think more deeply about social change. To commemorate his 90th birthday, Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow wrote this article as part of the Zinn Education Project’s article series, “If We Knew Our History.”


This Friday–August 24–would have been the 90th birthday of the great historian and activist Howard Zinn, who died in 2010. Zinn did not merely record history, he made it: as a professor at Spelman College in the 1950s and early 1960s, where he was ultimately fired for his outspoken support of students in the Civil Rights Movement, and specifically the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); as a critic of the U.S. war in Vietnam, and author of the first book calling for an immediate U.S. withdrawal; and as author of arguably the most influential U.S. history textbook in print, A People’s History of the United States.

“That book will knock you on your ass,” as Matt Damon’s character says in the film Good Will Hunting.

Painting of Howard Zinn by Robert Shetterly

It’s always worth dipping into the vast archive of Zinn scholarship, but at the beginning of a school year, and as the presidential campaign heats up, now is an especially good time to remember some of Howard Zinn’s wisdom.

Shortly after Barack Obama’s election, the Zinn Education Project sponsored a talk by Zinn to several hundred teachers at the National Council for the Social Studies annual conference in Houston. Zinn reminded teachers that the point of learning about social studies was not simply to memorize facts, it was to imbue students with a desire to change the world. “A modest little aim,” Zinn acknowledged, with a twinkle in his eye.

2012-08-20-NCSSvideo.jpg

In this talk, available as an online video as well as a transcription, Zinn insisted that teachers must help students challenge “fundamental premises which keep us inside a certain box.” Because without this critical rethinking of premises about history and the role of the United States in the world, “things will never change.” And this will remain “a world of war and hunger and disease and inequality and racism and sexism.”

A key premise that needs to be questioned, according to Zinn, is the notion of “national interests,” a term so common in the political and academic discourse as to be almost invisible. Zinn points out that the “one big family” myth begins with the Constitution’s preamble: “We the people of the United States…” Zinn noted that it wasn’t “we the people” who established the Constitution in Philadelphia — it was 55 rich white men. Missing from or glossed over in the traditional textbook treatment are race and class divisions, including the rebellions of farmers in Western Massachusetts, immediately preceding the Constitutional Convention in 1787. No doubt, the Constitution had elements of democracy, but Zinn argues that it “established the rule of slaveholders, and merchants, and bondholders.”

Teaching history through the lens of class, race, and gender conflict is not simply more accurate, according to Zinn; it makes it more likely that students — and all the rest of us — will not “simply swallow these enveloping phrases like ‘the national interest,’ ‘national security,’ ‘national defense,’ as if we’re all in the same boat.”

As Zinn told teachers in Houston: “No, the soldier who is sent to Iraq does not have the same interests as the president who sends him to Iraq. The person who works on the assembly line at General Motors does not have the same interest as the CEO of General Motors. No–we’re a country of divided interests, and it’s important for people to know that.”

Another premise Zinn identified, one that has become an article of faith among the Tea Party crowd, is “American exceptionalism” — the idea that the United States is fundamentally freer, more virtuous, more democratic, and more humane than other countries. For Zinn, the United States is “an empire like other empires. There was a British empire, and there was a Dutch empire, and there was a Spanish empire, and yes, we are an American empire.” The United States expanded through deceit and theft and conquest, just like other empires, although textbooks cleanse this imperial bullying with legal-sounding terms like the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican Cession.

Patriotism is another premise that we need to question. As Zinn told teachers in Houston, “it’s very bad for everybody when young people grow up thinking that patriotism means obedience to your government.” Zinn often recalled Mark Twain’s distinction between country and government. “Does patriotism mean support your government? No. That’s the definition of patriotism in a totalitarian state,” Zinn warned a Denver audience in a 2008 speech, included in a new volume, Howard Zinn Speaks, edited by Anthony Arnove (Haymarket Books, 2012.)

And going to war on behalf of “our country” is offered as the highest expression of patriotism–in everything from the military recruitment propaganda that saturates our high schools to the social studies curriculum that features photos of U.S. troops heroically battling “enemy soldiers” in a section called “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in the popular high school textbook Modern World History.

Howard Zinn cuts through this curricular fog: “War is terrorism … Terrorism is the willingness to kill large numbers of people for some presumably good cause. That’s what terrorists are about.” Zinn demands that we reexamine the premise that war is necessary, a proposition not taken seriously in any high school history textbook I’ve ever seen. Instead, wars get sold to Americans–especially to the young people who fight those wars — as efforts to spread liberty and democracy. As Howard Zinn said many times, if you don’t know your history, it’s as if you were born yesterday. Leaders can tell you anything and you have no way of knowing what’s true.

Howard Zinn wanted educators to be deeply critical, but never cynical. When speaking to the teachers in Houston, Zinn insisted that another premise we needed to examine is the idea that progress is the product of great individuals. Zinn pointed out that Abraham Lincoln had never been an abolitionist, and when he ran for president in 1860 he did not advocate ending slavery in the states where it existed. Rather, it was largely the “huge antislavery movement that pushed Lincoln into the Emancipation Proclamation–that pushed Congress into the 13th and 14th and 15th Amendments.”

Zinn urged educators to teach a people’s history: “We’ve never had our injustices rectified from the top, from the president or Congress, or the Supreme Court, no matter what we learned in junior high school about how we have three branches of government, and we have checks and balances, and what a lovely system. No. The changes, important changes that we’ve had in history, have not come from those three branches of government. They have reacted to social movements.”

Thus when we single out people in our curriculum as icons, as “people to admire and respect,” Zinn advocated shedding the traditional pantheon of government and military leaders: “But there are other heroes that young people can look up to. And they can look up to people who are against war. They can have Mark Twain as a hero who spoke out against the Philippines war. They can have Helen Keller as a hero who spoke out against World War I, and Emma Goldman as a hero. They can have Fannie Lou Hamer as a hero, and Bob Moses as a hero, the people in the Civil Rights Movement — they are heroes.”

And to this, there is one final “people’s history” premise we need to remember — whether in education or the world outside of schools. As Howard Zinn reminded the audience of social studies teachers in Houston: “People change.” Zinn did not look to President Obama to initiate social transformation; but in 2008, he saw the election as confirmation that the long history of anti-racist struggle in the United States produced an outcome that would have been inconceivable 30 years prior. And this shift in attitude should give us hope.

As we remember Howard Zinn on what would have been his 90th birthday, let’s count him among the many social justice heroes who offer proof that people’s efforts make a difference — that ordinary people can change the world.

Related Resources:

A People’s History for the Classroom helps teachers introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of U.S. history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula.

It includes a new introductory essay by veteran teacher Bill Bigelow on teaching strategies that align with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

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The Broad Foundation wants to step on the gas….A recent memo from The Broad Center (TBC) proposes a series of strategic shifts in the foundation’s education programs designed to “accelerate” the pace of “disruptive” and “transformational” change in big city school districts, and create a “go to group” of “the most promising [Broad] Academy graduates, and other education leaders, who are poised to advance the highest-leverage education reform policies on the national landscape.”

Broad Foundation’s plan to expand influence in school reform

by Ken Libby & Stan Karp
Re-posted from The Washington Post Answer Sheet

The Broad Foundation wants to step on the gas.

The California-based foundation, built on the housing and insurance empire of billionaire Eli Broad, has made “transforming K-12 urban public education” a major priority. Its training and placement of top administrators in urban districts across the country and support for charter schools, school turnaroundsmerit pay and other market-based reforms have put it at the center of a polarized national debate about education policy.

A recent memo from The Broad Center (TBC) proposes a series of strategic shifts in the foundation’s education programs designed to “accelerate” the pace of “disruptive” and “transformational” change in big city school districts, and create a “go to group” of “the most promising [Broad] Academy graduates, and other education leaders, who are poised to advance the highest-leverage education reform policies on the national landscape.”

The plans were contained in a March memo for discussion at TBC’s Board of Director’s meeting in April 2012. It was included in documents released to New Jersey’s Education Law Center under the state’s Open Public Records Act. ELC was seeking information on a series of recent Broad Foundation grants to New Jersey’s Department of Education, which is led by Commissioner Chris Cerf, a Broad Academy graduate.

According to the memo, the proposed changes include:

  • Merging The Broad Fellowship for Educational Leaders and The Broad Superintendents Academy. The new academy (dubbed “Academy 2” in the memo) will be called The Broad Leadership Academy to reflect the wider range of positions graduates will seek to fill.
  • Creating a new advocacy group comprised of a “powerful group of the most transformational and proven leaders” who will work to “change the national landscape to make it easier for superintendents to define policy agendas, influence public opinion, coalesce political forces, and advance bold reforms on the ground.

An email from TBC to Cerf describes the proposals as “high level strategies for the Center in 2012-2013 that reflect a significant shift away from a focus on individual leadership development and career paths to an approach that seeks to have greater impact through a stronger focus on transformational leaders, driving people to reform-ready locations, and accelerating reforms across [TBC’s] network.”

Broad Leadership — “Academy 2.0”

The new Leadership Academy will seek to deepen the pool of potential candidates, pulling in more participants from outside the field of education and reducing “the experience level required for entering [the] training program.” The Academy’s revised program of study will aim to prepare leaders for positions beyond the superintendency of districts to include leaders of charter management organizations and state education departments.

Reducing the experience level required for entry into the program is designed to attract candidates with “more entrepreneurial backgrounds” and those who may be further away from assuming district leadership positions. The memo says the shift would allow the program to train future leaders of “systems that may not even exist today.”

In addition to drawing from a larger pool, the memo proposes significant changes to the training program. In the past, roughly two-thirds of Broad Academy training was dedicated to “core knowledge” (e.g. “instruction 101” and “school operations”). The remaining third was divided into “reform priorities” (including “educator effectiveness,” “innovative learning models,” “accountability,” and “school choice”); “reform accelerators” (“change management,” “political navigation/stakeholder management,” “public contributions,” and “communication”); and “systems-level management” (“providing strategic frameworks,” “theory of action,” “applied learning projects”).

The proposed plan greatly reduces the time spent on “core knowledge” of school systems to less than 10% and instead puts much more emphasis on “reform priorities” (40%), “reform accelerators” (30%), and systems-level management (nearly 20%). The shift toward strategies that produce greater political and policy impact is a recurring theme. It is also consistent with Broad’s “approach to investing” as described on its website: “We practice ‘venture philanthropy.’And we expect a return on our investment.”

Additionally, the new program will seek out potential candidates more aligned with TBC’s reform priorities rather than simply candidates looking to improve school districts. Future members of the Academy will be required “to make public contributions tied to their work, with a particular emphasis on [TBC’s] reform agenda.”

The combination of seeking more candidates from outside the field of education and increasing the policy and political focus of the Academy’s curriculum likely means future graduates would be even less familiar with school and classroom realities, and more ideologically aligned with Broad’s priorities.

Post-Superintendency Advocacy Group — “Broad Superstars”

The other major change for TBC is the creation of “a select, invitation-only group that will collaborate to address some of the most pressing challenges facing the education sector, help shape policy agendas, influence public opinion, coalesce political forces, and advance bold reform on the ground.” Comprised of 5-10 active leaders, the group would meet twice a year in Washington, D.C. to “help create a more supportive environment and change the national landscape.” The advocacy group appears to be a high-powered version of “Chiefs for Change,” a collection of state education chiefs pushing for significant changes to state education systems.

Why the changes? — “Take this program to the next level”

The proposed shifts reflect the changing education landscape, which is much different now than it was in the early 2000’s when TBC first began training future district superintendents. While superintendents remain important actors, they are hardly the only CEO-level positions in education. The growth of charter management organizations, a more active role for state departments of education (greatly enhanced by the Race to the Top and NCLB waiver process), and a variety of new non-profit and for-profit companies involved in various aspects of public education have opened up more high-profile (and high-paying) positions in the field. TBC wants their graduates occupying these positions, and establishing a human capital pipeline to fill these positions strengthens and expands Broad’s influence.

Likewise, the creation of “a go-to group for reform leaders” is a sign of the growing emphasis on politicized education advocacy. As Broad looks to make more dramatic changes to K-12 schools, this advocacy becomes an important tool for promoting TBC’s core policies and priorities to a wider audience. School choice, test-based teacher evaluation, charter expansion and business-style management “all favorite policies of TBC and the Broad Foundation”already have robust, phenomenally well-funded advocates at the state and national level and have made dramatic political gains over the past decade. The creation of an organized national voice for the Broad “superstars” of corporate school reform is an effort to consolidate and accelerate these gains.

As the memo boasts, “We have filled more superintendent positions than any other national training program, and remain the only organization recruiting management talent from outside of education. We have over 30 sitting superintendents in large urban systems, as well as state superintendents in four of the most reform-oriented states (Delaware, Rhode Island, Louisiana, and New Jersey). Broad graduates are in the number one or number two seats in the three largest districts in the country (New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago), and lead the newest turnaround systems in Michigan and Tennessee.”

With TBC’s influence already spread far and wide, the Broad Foundation is looking for more.

Ken Libby is a doctoral student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Stan Karp is a Rethinking Schools editor and  director of the Secondary Reform Project for New Jersey’s Education Law Center.

Related Resources:

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The New Teacher Book

As you prepare for a new school year, we wanted to share this short article by Rethinking Schools editor Larry Miller.  While he is no longer in the classroom day-to-day, he continues to advocate for equity and social justice in education in his role as an elected school board member in Milwaukee, Wis.

His essay is included in the second edition of The New Teacher Book: Finding Purpose, Balance, and Hope During Your First Years in the Classroom. Get the book at a 25% discount with back-to-school discount code SchoolH12

Download  and share a copy of “12 Tips” (pdf). And share in the comments what tips you would add. 

12 Tips for New Teachers

by Larry Miller

I was 38 when I started my teaching career, and I thought I knew everything I needed to know. I’d been a community and union activist for years and I’d been political all my life. I figured all I had to do was bring my experience and politics to the classroom and I’d be a great teacher.

Was I wrong. Now I’ve been teaching high school for more than 19 years  and I continue to be humbled. When I work with new teachers, I give them the following suggestions:

  1. Keep calm in all situations. Calmness allows you to make rational decisions. If a student is confrontational or out of control, it never ever works to react with anger. Getting into a tug-of-war over who has the last word exacerbates the situation. Let the situation cool down and then try to have a mature conversation with those involved.
  2. Make respect central to your classroom culture. A common expression I hear from my students and parents is “You have to give respect to get respect.” They’re right.  The only way  to hold students to high and rigorous expectations is to gain their respect and their acknowledgment that your class will lead to real learning that will benefit them.
  3. Base your curriculum on social justice. Frame it with a critical edge. I have four questions for assessing my curriculum:
    • Does the curriculum deepen students’ understanding of social justice?
    • Is the curriculum rigorous?
    • Are students learning the skills they need to be critical thinkers, advance their education, be prepared for employment, and become active citizens?
    • I am also now forced to ask the question: Does the curriculum increase students’ ability to do well on state-mandated standardized tests?
  4. Keep rules to a minimum but enforce them. Always have clear consequences and never threaten to take a particular action if you are not willing to carry it out. Talk to students as mature young adults.
  5. Whenever possible, connect your classroom discussions and curriculum to students’ lives, community, and culture.  Learn as much as you can about your students. For example, I use hip-hop lyrics as a means to discuss current trends of thought and worldviews in my citizenship class. Rappers offer plenty to discuss, both positive and negative. I get lyrics from the internet, I borrow CDs from students, and I search for positive rap on TV and the radio.
  6. Learn from other teachers and staff. Pay special attention to teachers and staff whose cultures and backgrounds are different from yours. I’ve always made a point of consulting every day with my colleagues. Their insight can be invaluable.
  7. Build students’ confidence in their intelligence and creativity. I’ve often heard my students call kids from the suburbs or those in AP classes “the smart kids.” Don’t let that go unchallenged. I start the year talking about “multiple intelligences” and how “being smart” can take many forms. I find daily examples of students’ work and views to talk about as smart and intelligent.
  8. Distinguish between students’ home language and their need to know “standard” English. Work with both. This is a huge topic, one you will be dealing with throughout your career.
  9. Keep lecturing short. Have students regularly doing projects, reading, giving presentations, engaging in discussions, debating, doing role plays, and taking part in simulations.
  10. Have engaging activities prepared for students when they walk into the classroom. I might play a piece of music, put an African expression on the board to interpret, or put students in “critical thinking groups” to solve a puzzle.
  11. Call students’ homes regularly both for positive and negative reports. Visit their homes. Students often belong to nonschool organizations. For example, during Black History Month many churches in the black community have special programs that students perform in. Attend, and go to other presentations given by groups they belong to.
  12. Mobilize students to join in new experiences. For example, I sponsor a “polar bear club”: We jump into Lake Michigan to celebrate New Year’s Day, then we all eat breakfast together.

What tips would you add to Larry’s list? 

Related Resources:

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The following is an excerpt from Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education: What’s at Stake? co-authored by Michelle Fine and Michael Fabricant. The book traces the evolution of the charter school movement from its origins in community- and educator-based efforts to promote progressive change to their role today as instruments of privatization and radical disinvestment in public education. Many parts of the New Jersey story described will likely sound familiar, as will the issues raised below.

A noted scholar and activist, Michelle Fine is a longtime supporter and friend of Rethinking Schools.

-Stan Karp, Rethinking Schools editor

excerpt from Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education: What’s at Stake?

by Michelle Fine and Michael Fabricant

In this book we track the history of charters from social justice alternatives to a campaign to dismantle and decentralize public education, through to the contemporary movements for educational justice.  It is within this context that the following six questions animate our writing:

How did a social justice education movement, initiated by teachers and teachers’ union, evolve into a corporate campaign to dismantle existing structures of public education?

What is the relationship between the promise of charters and contemporary evidence of their impact?

Even if charters in the aggregate were academically more successful than local schools – and the evidence is dubious – what are the consequences of a deregulated charter movement for participatory democracy, racial equity and deep accountability to community and youth?

How does the twinning of corporate profit and Black/Latino/poor community pain resonant across the history of the U.S., manifest itself in the current rush to reshape public institutions toward private interests and ever more inequitable forms of (dis)investment?

Recognizing that charters are now here to stay on the public education landscape, what safeguards need to be put in place to assure that these schools remain public, democratic, accessible to all and deeply accountable?

Given the well documented and racialized/class based troubles of public education, and the dramatic impact of systematic, cumulative mis-education in low income communities of color, what are the elements of public innovation and strategic investment that can promote educational justice?

Anatomy of the Charter School Movement is written to explore these questions about contemporary conditions in public education through the lens of the charter school movement.  We frame the text by taking into account the commitment of a small group of exemplary charter schools dedicated to social justice, as well as the well funded private sector and federal campaign to sell charters as the market answer to public education, and the cumulative record of disappointment of public education in low income communities of color.

Importantly, this book is neither anti-charter nor an apology for the dismal aggregate state of public education in low income communities. Indeed we have great respect for those educators, parents, youth and community leaders who have struggled to create spaces where young people otherwise denied quality education can be respected, engaged and educated.  Both of us have written on the deep and scarring inequities that litter the landscape of public education. We are however, intensely suspect of the well funded charter campaign that sells the American public on the idea that “chartering” a very small slice of public education while cutting strategic investment in the larger whole project of education will make our schools more effective….

The charter movement has emerged at a moment in history when educational despair in community of color runs high, ideological calls for privatization have gained prominence, unions are under siege, accountability regimes have been mobilized to declare public schools a site of crisis and all that is public is being hotly contested. We, as educators and parents, understand why parents, especially those in under invested communities where so much of public education has failed their children for generations, would seek a voucher, enroll in a charter and yearn for an alternative to provide a better life for their children.  At the same time, as social analysts, we are witnessing the restructuring of public education, and therefore must ask a series of questions about the experience of charter reform. Who is being gentrified out of the charter revolution? Are charters indeed the source of innovation that the federal government declares? What is their record? Who’s making money?

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