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Blinding Paradigms: Neoliberal Education Reformers Own No Mirrors

Crook. Liar. Shady. These are a few modifiers used to describe Chris Cerf, State-Appointed Superintendent of Newark Public Schools. Why so mean? He just took over the helm. Give the man a chance, right? Wrong. Cerf’s educational track record is clear: privatize as much as possible and profit off of this privatization as much as possible.

In the last month, I have had the absolute pleasure of listening to the shallow speeches of Superintendent Cerf on four different occasions. His answers to direct, critical questions about the operation of the school district are normally prefaced by, “To the best of my knowledge” and “Based on my understanding.” Unlike the previous superintendent, Cerf enjoys a verbal spar. Lapsing on one’s Bar dues certainly doesn’t make one any less of a lawyer. His attempts at personability–introducing himself to audience members as “Chris” and touting his stint as a history teacher–are superficial at best. By the time I heard him for the fourth time, I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone, complete with corny plot and overacting. If there’s one thing he should receive credit for though, it’s knowing his line.

Mark Weber bka Jersey Jazzman wrote an excellent piece tracing Cerf’s entrance into the education sphere and subsequent tenure as NJ Commissioner of Education, so no need to regurgitate that here. Rather, let’s talk about how Cerf, and other neoliberal education reformers, are able to wake up every morning, look in the mirror (though personally, I don’t think any of these folks own mirrors), and chant, “I’m doing what’s right. I’m a good person, and I’m doing what’s right.”

What they are operating under is something called a blinding paradigm–when we hold certain ideas and assumptions to be true and then use these ideas and assumptions to explain through logic why a certain political program should be carried out. Akin to ideology, we all could identify the values, premises, and beliefs that underpin the explanations and decisions we make for our own lives if we took the time to stop and think about it. I invite you to be conscious of this if you’re not already.

So now that I’ve fulfilled my selfish need to teach, let’s examine some of the assumptions neoliberal education reformers hold true so that they can continue to dismantle the democratic public school system in Newark, the state, and around the country, never losing a wink of a good night’s rest on the Shifman pillowtops purchased with their consultant fees.

Assumption #1: Choice is equal to democracy. Democracy has been devalued to a vote, a choice. Any form of disagreement is “uncivil” and should not occur. There is no need to deliberate or build consensus; neoliberal education reformers know best.

But how effective is it for the minority to make choices for the majority? And why doesn’t the minority care if the majority is part of the decision-making or not? Whereas individual choice works swell for cell phones, within the realm of public policy it can have devastating effects when resources get misallocated to unproven programs put in place for the sake of giving people a choice, i.e., marketizing the system.

Choice is also limited. Working off charter school advocates’ assumption that waiting lists exist because parents do not want their children in the public school district, there will always be families that “lose” because there are not enough charter seats to meet the “demand.” Additionally, such a parochial view of democracy invites corruption. Rather than building an inclusive process, the system is crafted as one of winners and losers, and the winner is whoever has accumulated the most power–be it financial, political, or otherwise and by hook or by crook.

Assumption #2: The past doesn’t matter. The preference is to turn the page and look to the future. What matters is the here and now. Nothing can be learned from what happened before. Any time taken for historical analysis will impede progress.

If you don’t know where you have been, you won’t know where you are going. And you’re bound to repeat your mistakes. This aphorism holds no weight with neoliberal education reformers. But it does with many people of color who make up the predominant portion of families residing in public school districts being dismantled by neoliberal education reform. The values of the local community must be privileged above the values of those who come from outside of the community, particularly when said outsiders have no intention of adapting and believe there is nothing to learn from the community.

We cannot effectively transform our schools without transforming the social and economic conditions of this city. That being said, it is no coincidence that the reputation of Newark Public Schools began to go down hill after the Rebellion, after white flight, after deindustrialization of the city. The city has yet to bounce back economically to its heyday of factories manufacturing a plethora of goods that got shipped out to all parts of the country and the world. Socioeconomic transformation means jobs at a living wage, including job training programs and apprenticeships for the new industries coming in. It means mental health services, drug abuse and prevention programs, and affordable housing. It means more green space and litter-free environments. It means a vibrant arts and cultural scene.

Assumption #3: Providing a parallel, competitive public education system is in the best interests of children and their futures. Competition forces improvement and innovation. Private companies can provide services better than the government.

Public education is not a business and public schools should not go out of business. Full, deep investment fosters innovation. Access to equal opportunities and exposure to a diversity of industries and ideas do as well. With a strong foundation of critical thinking skills that allow them to read any situation, students will be prepared to actively participate in and contribute to a democratic society. Diverting funds to a parallel system only serves to weaken both systems.

Free public education is a public good and part of the social contract. Only through a strong will will we be able to include more human rights as guaranteed. When you imagine the purpose of government, let it be to protect the civil and human rights of the people and not to protect the interests of corporations and private property. We must shift the way we think of government. After all, the government is me and you.

Assumption #4: We are living in an age of austerity. We have to do more with less. Accept it. Success is solely a function of effort; the more effort you put in, the more likely you are to achieve it.

Two to three generations ago, prosperity rang across this country–albeit predominantly in white communities–but families were achieving the American dream. It is no coincidence that this occurred at the same time as high rates of unionized workers and high tax rates for corporations. In the ensuing decades, both of these rates plummeted.

We are now living in an age of manufactured budget crises. They serve the purpose of distracting us from other viable options to our economic woes–namely to have the rich pay their fair share in taxes. Fair being the significant word, meaning that the gap between wealthy and poor must be diminished dramatically. For what reason do CEOs need to be paid 300 times more than the workers completing the brunt of the work? Our economic decisions must hinge on values that champion the well-being of all, not on the continued accumulation of wealth and the propagation of consumption.

 *     *     *

The return to local control of Newark Public Schools will be meaningless without a paradigm shift. Under the current set of assumptions, the residents of Newark are being stripped of their rights as they continue to be left out of any democratic decision making process. Their participation is expected only after the fact when they are presented with a false set of choices.

Knowing the assumptions under which neoliberal education reformers operate helps us see the ending point before we arrive at it. We don’t have to let this experiment ride out, but to stop it will take the people standing up for and speaking out about the values that are important to them. Are you willing?


Cami Created Chaos: Reflections on the 2015 NPS Budget Hearing

In the nearly empty auditorium of Belmont-Runyon Elementary, Newark Public Schools district staff leisurely finished the setup for the evening’s public budget hearing. There were a sea of blue seats; walking in, you had your pick.There were almost more security guards than audience members, even when the meeting commenced. The total count throughout the night barely reached forty. If you were looking for some place to hide, this meeting was the wrong place. Assistant Superintendent Brad Haggerty set the tone of the district’s presentation by announcing, “Despite decreasing revenues, great things can be accomplished.” Rain pounded on the roof of the auditorium. Stormy weather. A perfect metaphor for the district’s budget woes.

Several news articles covered the meeting. You can read those here, here, and here. But none of these did the speakers from the audience justice. Altogether, about ten of us lined up to speak, and we all urged for the advisory board members to vote no to the budget. Among those speakers, NEW Caucus–the social justice caucus of the Newark Teachers Union–was there. Both Branden Rippey, Chair, and I spoke up. Here’s a version of what I had to say with some added analysis (because on your own blog you get more than three minutes to speak!).

It must be repeated that we urge the advisory board to vote no to this budget. We also need to remember who created this mess in the first place: Governor Christie and, by way of him, Superintendent Cami Anderson. Governor Christie has been underfunding public education in New Jersey for years, so much that he was taken to court by the Education Law Center and ordered to pay back $500 million in aid that he cut illegally. In Newark, specifically, we see two particular situations that feed this district’s budget deficit: universal enrollment and the educators without placement (EWP) pool.

The universal enrollment system was the nail in the coffin of a self-fulfilling prophecy. At past public budget hearings, revenue projections continually showed a greater payment to charter schools coming out of the General Fund. A school district under local control would immediately strategize as to how they would stop this from happening. However, this district’s administration behaved differently. This administration instead implemented a universal enrollment system that makes it easier for families to choose charter schools, thus exacerbating the declining enrollment of NPS. How does that make sense? Oh no! More families are choosing charters. Let’s figure out a way to help more families choose charters. Huh? It begs the question: what is the plan for how small this district is going to get? 30 schools? 20 schools? 10 schools? None? Is the goal 100% charterization?

There are educators without placement teaching in classes where they are certified, but they are not being put on the school’s line budget. That refutes the administration’s argument that these are “bad teachers” who should not be in front of children, which is something that was said several times during the presentation. These teachers have been stigmatized, demeaned, and disrespected. It is appalling to think that the district’s demand for these teachers to “jump” is going to yield a response of “how high?” These individuals are trying to protect their livelihood. They have served children and families in Newark for years, some decades, but this is the created situation in which they find themselves. Cami created this chaos. There never had to be a EWP pool.

The data presented about the EWP pool was from two years ago, when there were only 159 teachers in the pool. What are the demographics of the current 243 teachers in the pool? Demographics such as tenure status, number of years in the district, sex, age, content area/grade, race/ethnicity, annual evaluation. Through an analysis, I wouldn’t be surprised if a pattern of discrimination were uncovered in one or more of these categories.

The Superintendent has requested from the NJDOE an equivalency waiver to be able to implement performance-based layoffs. The argument was that performance-based layoffs, as opposed to quality-blind layoffs, would keep more effective and highly effective teachers in the district. In other words, tenure and seniority are in the way of the corporate reform agenda to privatize public education. Their argument is that tenure and seniority have caused this problem of spending. Wrong! Cami created the pool. She created this madness. Their argument is that the waiver will “save” $10 million. No, abiding by the law and ceasing the attempts to union bust will save us money. Stability in this district will save us money. Corporate education reformers do not want to pay for quality and expertise. They have debased the teaching profession to a set of skills that anyone can master if they just follow the steps. Teaching is much more nuanced than that!

Rigidity and standardization are not going to create the kind of citizens we need are children to become. But, it makes perfect sense to someone who, consciously or unconsciously, wants to keep a permanent underclass in this world. A group of people who will complete the mindless tasks of pushing buttons and swiping screens, at least until those functions become automated, too. PARCC’s purpose is much like my Organic Chemistry classes in college. Sure, you learned a lot that would potentially help you progress in your journey to become a doctor; the information was relevant. But in reality their purpose was to weed people out. To determine who would go on to the next level. And that is what the PARCC is for, too.

If Cami is able to get this waiver, it will set a precedent across the state for other districts–particularly other state controlled districts like Camden–to also request a waiver allowing them to bypass tenure and seniority protections. Why do we have tenure and seniority? To protect teachers from being arbitrarily fired. Because of respect for experience in the teaching profession. Why is tenure and seniority being attacked? Because Wall Street doesn’t want to pay its fair share. The argument is that veteran teachers cost too much in salary and especially benefits. But one way these costs can be covered is through higher tax rates on corporations that rake in billions in profits. There is no reason CEOs need to “earn” 350 times more than their average employees earn except for insurmountable greed. This greed does not recognize human faces, only dollar signs and the bottom line.

What does this mean with the district’s contract with TFA and other teacher recruiting programs? Will new teachers continue to be hired en masse?

Last, how are we going to get rid of this fatalistic approach to budgeting? Every year, for the last five years or so, we’ve come to the table beaten. We’ve worked from the lens that “the writing is on the wall” and “woe is me.” We need to truly build a budget from the bottom up. What do children need? That’s where we start. Not with a number that we have to fit everything within. And, after we create this bottom up budget, we have to organize to fight for it.

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Lessons from the Students: Critical Pedagogy in Action

NSU_Twitter_Freire Quote“If students are not able to transform their lived experiences into knowledge as a process to unveil new knowledge, they will never be able to participate rigorously in a dialogue as a process of learning and knowing” -Paulo Freire @sueg4600

What does social justice pedagogy look like? Somewhat rhetorical. Completely sincere. A teacher-in-training asked this question while we were engaged in a conversation about what it means to be a teacher in the current sociopolitical context. Although I’ve studied the concept, sadly, I had no solid example to share from my own teaching career, as I’ve never taught in an environment conducive to this philosophy of education.

Social justice pedagogy is almost synonymous with another philosophy of education called critical pedagogy. Here, I will use the latter term as social justice pedagogy tends to refer to teaching and learning that occurs in the “traditional” classroom. Critical pedagogy has the educational goal of developing critical consciousness within the student. We will know this has been achieved when the student takes purposeful action to lessen and eventually eliminate power differentials that exist in society. The process that results in this goal has the student examine and critique differences across race, class, and gender among other aspects of social life.

The closest I’ve come to employing critical pedagogy is when I was a teacher at Barringer. This was at the time when the school was first failing to make adequate yearly progress under NCLB, and those who we have come to know as education deformers–the Koch brothers, Michelle Rhee, Bill and Melinda Gates, to name a few–were relatively low key. This was pre-“data war rooms,” as they were called, when high school teachers in Newark had a fair amount of control over what was being taught in their classrooms–for good and for bad–as long as it could be demonstrated how it aligned to HSPA testing, which wasn’t a difficult task. Almost anything you taught would be helpful for HSPA because it was such a low level test. During this point in my teaching career, I wasn’t even aware of critical pedagogy. None of the sessions in those six weeks of training I received from Teach for America concentrated on these methods of instruction. I had some awesome colleagues in the English Department at Barringer who I credit with ushering me along a path leading to a true consciousness of what it means to be an educator and what that means beyond the classroom. They invited me to collaborate with them on ideas that would actually engage students and put them at the center of learning.

Youth Media Symposium

YMS_College Center Ribbon_031115Even so, I never got to witness youth being taught through critical pedagogy until I became aware of YMS–which stands for Youth Media Symposium and is an integral program of the Abbott Leadership Institute. The high school and middle school students involved in YMS create documentaries and public service announcements on the topic of public education in Newark, NJ. They learn from videography and media professionals how to produce, direct, shoot, edit, and present media projects that have all ended up having a significant impact on the public discourse about public education. I have been interviewed for two such productions–one on high school dropouts and a more recent one on the traditional public school versus charter school debate.

What makes YMS an example of critical pedagogy is the program’s goal, through the use of media, to raise public awareness regarding the inequities that exist in urban public education systems. Along with learning media techniques, the students are immersed in history through interactive lessons that provide them with social, political, and economic context. They debate the possibilities and limitations of public policy choices and then integrate their collectively constructed knowledge into their media projects. Over the years, YMS has refined its curriculum and does nothing but grow stronger.

Yet another demonstration of this strength is the ribbon cutting of their first College Success Center! This will be the first of ten to open across the City of Newark. The Centers are a major component of YMS’s Our Schools, Our Vision campaign. The ceremony will be held at Bradley Hall, Room 148 on the campus of Rutgers-Newark on Wednesday, March 11th at 4pm. If you would like to attend, please RSVP to

NSU’s Occupation

The Newark Student Union (NSU) provides another example of critical pedagogy in action. In partnership with New Jersey Communities United (NJCU), the nonprofit I now work for as a community organizer, eight members of NSU returned from a long weekend in February with the mission to occupy the state-appointed superintendent’s office in protest of the controversial OneNewark plan.. This reorganization plan has closed a significant amount of schools around the district and wreaked havoc for parents trying to enroll their children in their neighborhood schools. The students’ primary demand was the resignation of the superintendent.

Over the course of 72 hours, the students livestreamed their activities in the office which ranged from an initial message stating their purpose for the occupation to a presentation on the PARCC to answering questions tweeted to them. I took that opportunity to ask them what lessons they were learning by being active participants in their own lives. This is what they had to say:

NSU_Twitter_Ask QuestionsAracelis: “In being in NSU, I’ve learned a lot about community and I’ve learned a lot about the different intelligence levels people have. People are intelligent in very different ways and can participate and add to the movement in so many different ways. We need people who are good with technology. We need artists. We need writers. We need intelligent speakers. It’s not just one type of intelligent person and it’s not just one type of thing that a person needs to do. They need to be well rounded. Another thing with standardized testing is it doesn’t accommodate that. And that’s why we have this movement–the student movement.”

Tanaisa: “In my opinion, I think I learned more being an active participant in protesting and stuff than–well, not more but I learned a lot protesting, as I do in class, because I get to see real world implications about what exactly democracy is and how real world class struggle fits into what we’re dealing with.”

Jose: “Really quickly, what I’ve learned in this past year being a part of this amazing movement is how much I matter to my community, to my city, and to the world. You know, because usually we’re told that we’re small, that we don’t matter. But, being out in the street, being out there and empowering other people has really given me the power to continue on. And it’s shown me how to love my people a lot more.”

Most people only notice NSU when they are taking action. They don’t get to see the democratic processes utilized during the organization’s membership and planning meetings. They’re not present at the organizing and “Know Your Rights” trainings the students receive. I’m one of the few who gets to peek in on or partner up with them, so I witness their critical consciousness being developed. With guidance from organizers at NJCU, the students are learning how to transform power differentials and create the communities in which they want to live. This is best told in their own words which I transcribed above.

Looking to an Alternative

If nothing else, both YMS and NSU are clear examples that the children in Newark–and I would argue any other place where they are being written off and labeled as failures–are intelligent, capable, productive citizens. They can meet and surpass any expectation made of them. Why so many students in urban districts continue to drop out of school or graduate without basic literacy skills is not a mystery. The social, political, and economic conditions in which they live play a central role in these dire outcomes. The lack of exposure to different ideas and perspectives also holds our children back from progressing down a path to critical consciousness. We see what critical pedagogy can do. It’s time we explicitly bring it into our schools.

More Student Action:

New Mexico students join others in nation who oppose new test intended to assess performance (Monday, March 2, 2015)


Students in Albuquerque, NM protest against PARCC for a second day [VIDEO] (Tuesday, March 3, 2015)


From the Run Radio

Just to get by

Just to get by

Just to get by

Just to get by

Do you really feel brand new?

Radio stations taking requests

Got me head nodding

Not wanting to get out my truck

Then it hits me,

What the fuck?

I usually drive in silence

Not wanting to hear the ear violence

Now you want to get conscious

In the aftermath of yet another tragedy

But only as long as it takes for me to shower and get dressed

Come back down and it’s the same nonsense

I know I can

I know I can

Be what I want to be

Be what I want to be

How hard are we working?

And I’m not talking about twerking

These incidents are no coincidence

It’s not happenstance but a clear plan

To create disaster and shock

Keep you shackled to the block

Forces unseen, yet to follow the laws of motion written by justice

It’s movement time.

Be. Be. Be.

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