Thursday, April 12, 2012

Trusting Teachers, Public Schools and Democracy

Over 100 years ago, Margaret Haley, the Chicago elementary school teacher who was also the founder of the first American teachers’ union, argued for a vision of public schools as the center of our democracy. However, she proposed, schools can democratize society only if schools themselves are democratic. Haley and another maverick, Ella Flagg Young, a prodigy who passed her teaching examinations at age 15 and went on to become the first women to serve as superintendent of a major American city, both argued that teachers must play central roles in school administration and policy-making, and as professionals who are critical to the nation, must have opportunities and support to continue to grow intellectually throughout their working lives. Without this, they claimed, schools would become little more than factories, with rote assignments administered by teachers relegated to the role of automatons.
The issues and debates about education then were much the same as they are today. What’s different is that we now have decades of evidence showing that Haley and Flagg were right. For example, the nation with the most successful education system by many measures, including highest students scores and smallest spread of scores between schools is Finland, a country in which all curriculum is local and developed by teachers who are charged with designing and pursuing high standards and shared targets within their professional communities. Yet these high levels of success and responsibility don’t translate into top-down mandates. The schools are democratically organized and decisions are made laterally. Teachers evaluate their students, and collaboratively design ways to assess and improve school-wide successes. Students spend less time in school that those in most other industrialized nations and Finnish teachers spend less time teaching than do teachers in many other countries, and are not required to be present at their schools when they don’t have classes or other duties.
The Finnish education scholar Pasi Sahlberg describes a system in which teaching is consistently rated as one of the most desirable and admired professions, ahead of doctors, architects and lawyers. Finnish teachers are considered knowledge workers, education leaders, and critical members of their communities and the nation. So what are we doing wrong?
            While we should certainly learn from the successful educational systems designed by our global neighbors, we should also look back at the insights of our home-grown visionaries in education, like Margaret Haley and Ella Flagg Young. They pointed to the need for what Finland has put into practice and proven as successful for students—a public education system that supports and trusts its teachers. 

Remarks I gave at the Chicagoland Researchers for Transformative Education (CReATE) Press Conference, March 12, 2012

Rousmaniere, K. (2005). Citizen teacher: The life and leadership of Margaret Haley. Albany, NY: State University of New York.
Sahlberg, P. (2011). Finnish lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? New York: Teachers College Press.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Tomboy: Review of the Exhibit

The power and ambiguity of queer visibility
Glass Curtain Gallery, Columbia College Chicago, Nov. 8 – Jan. 7, 2011

Reviewed by Therese Quinn and Erica R. Meiners

A tomboy is brash and fresh and in-between: Not quite adolescent; not yet adult. Both girl and boy, or neither one. “That way” or growing out of it. There is something queerishly unfixed about tomboys, something green and tempting.

Curator Betsy Odom’s succinct exhibit showcases six “queer women artists” exploring “the idea of the tomboy.” Odom’s crucial curatorial statement acknowledges the political power of visibility, but clarifies that these artists “employ identity in intentionally ambiguous, mercurial, and peripheral ways.” They may be lesbians, but this exhibit won’t tell the viewer what that means.

What shines in Tomboy is pleasure and play. In Mary George’s fine The Cult of the Endorphin, the setting is a workshop in which cult leader and members appear to be happily reinventing the wheel, and more, in wood. The shop-slash-natural gym is littered with projects in medias res—clock, speakers, disco ball, and barbells made from tree trunks, along with safety gear, pop bottles and other detritus of delirious labor. A looping video offers infomercials of dancing, jogging and cart-wheeling women exhorting family, friends, and viewers to join; they aim to recruit with the promise that action leads to natural highs.

George’s themes resonate in Daphne Fitzpatrick’s sculptural installation: a growing mound of the artist’s worn out athletic shoes. This witty work, titled Tomboy, conjures sexual and gendered fairy tales (some shoes will never fit) and a butch’s boasts (nobody can fit these shoes). But Fitzpatrick may also be signaling the isolation of identity; only her shoes can make that pile grow. And, like a reversal of Felix Gonzales-Torres’ installations that shrink as viewers take away candy and prints, this sculpture suggests loss: physicality and a youth—her tomboy—that is sliding past.

Nearby, Alison Halter’s What’s so funny? softly grainy video reinforces and challenges the theme of bliss—it captures women laughing; one after another throws her head back, slides into tears, rolls on the floor, covers her mouth and clutches her belly or her face —offering sequential snapshots that name the soft edges between pleasure and pain, and the awkwardness of affect, or how emotions are worn, and “read” by others. Does one woman have a black eye? Is her laughter a lie or is she just toughing it out?

Kelli Connell’s luminescent staged photographs also confound simple readings. Each features a female couple, but every body belongs to the same woman. Is Connell playing with feminist fantasies of easy loving between ladies or encouraging the queer question: Who is tomboy—the woman on top or the one wearing lipstick?

One answer offered to the question—Who is tomboy?—may be unintended: The near-total absence, paired with some uncomfortable presences, of women of color in the exhibit indicate that Tomboy is probably white..

For example, Leeza Meksin’s tactile interactive piece, replete with gendered neoprene bags and mysterious toys is a play party on a wall. A “black mammy” statue in the midst of these sexy utensils, linked by a pulley to an ironing board and a spatula, is a freighted presence. The exhibit insists that identity is performed; the inclusion of the caricature may be an attempted nod in this direction, but it misses the mark.

Irony, play and race also surface in another video by Halter. In Please, Please, Please, a young apparently white woman paints teardrops on her face until it is nearly covered with the marks. Is Halter, as the curator’s statement asserts, “poking fun at the sadness of the [Smith’s] song” someone is singing in the background? Or, is she commenting on our national fascination with black masculine forms—in this case, “gangsta” (teardrop tattoos, see Lil Wayne) and the soul singer (via James Brown‘s 1956 hit, Please, Please, Please)? Perhaps she’s doing both, along with some tomboyish appropriation of her own.

Dana DeGiulio adroitly claims another kind of gendered power: her thick black wall splashes one-up Jackson Pollack. He’s canonical, but she exceeds the canvas and other parameters with painted ejaculations that shout anger, pleasure, and the power of performing artist. This is serious play, and messy.

Vexing and thrilling, Tomboy is worth the bite.

Participating Artists: 
Kelli Connell, Dana DeGiulio, Daphne Fitzpatrick, Mary George, Allison Halter and Leeza Meksin.

Therese Quinn worked as an exhibit researcher, developer, and evaluator for a decade, and is currently Chair and Associate Professor of Art Education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Erica R. Meiners Professor at Northeastern Illinois University, teaches, organizes and writes about LGBTQ lives, justice movements, and prison abolition.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Making Safer Schools: Demilitarizing Public Education

January 15, 2010 Chicago Public Schools
FACT Sheet
Making Safer Schools: Demilitarizing Public Education
Researched and written by: Brian Galaviz, Jesus Palafox, Erica Meiners, Therese Quinn

On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United States voted in favor of the Declaration and agreed, with other signatories, to recognize and observe the rights it describes.

One section of the Declaration claims for children the rights to education directed at supporting the maintenance of peace:

Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Article 26. (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Convention on the Rights of the Child
Article 2 of Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the U.S. signed but, with only one other country, has not ratified, addresses the involvement of children in armed conflict:
States Parties shall ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 18 years are not compulsorily recruited into their armed forces.

Chicago’s system of public education has moved far from these global commitments to offering children a safe, civilian and non-coercive learning environment.

1) Chicago is the most militarized public school system in the nation and approximately 10,670 students, 95% students of color, are enrolled in:
- 6 Military high schools, one representing each branch of the military—Air Force, Navy, Marines, and two Army schools.
- 45 Junior Reserve Training Officer Corps Programs within high schools
- 20 Cadet Programs in middle schools

2) JROTC has replaced content courses and counts for PE credit in grades 9, 10.

3) Taxpayers subsidize the militarization of schools.
CPS total expenditures on ROTC programs for the school year 2007-08 was $12,885,966.60. Out of this $12,885,966.60 CPS received $3,810,924.45 from the department of defense, leaving Chicago taxes payers an invoice of $9,075,042.15.

4) The JROTC program has smaller class sizes, lower standards for teacher qualifications and instructors receive higher levels of compensation As of November 2, 2010 no JROTC instructor is identified as a certified teacher on the Illinois State Board of Education website.. The 2009-2010 median salary for a JROTC instructor was $75,823.24. In addition to pay inequalities, JROTC instructors are also given preferential treatment regarding class size. CPS schools are mandated to subsidize at least two JROTC instructors, no matter how many students they have and one additional instructor for every 50 students. Legally, JROTC programs must have a minimum enrollment of 100 students or 10% of the student population, whichever is lower. However, this law is not always enforced. For example, there are eleven JROTC programs in CPS that do not meet this threshold. Of those eleven schools, six of them have three JROTC instructors. That means three instructors teach less than 100 students. CPS would be the best school district in the nation if all of our teachers were given this type of preferential treatment.

5) Youth and their parents support military programs because they view these programs as opportunities to provide discipline, safety, academic and leadership opportunities. These same opportunities can be delivered through arts, sports, drama, martial arts, music – programs that have been largely cut from urban schools. Only one restrictive enrollment school in Chicago has a military program, Whitney Jones High School, and this program does not meet JROTC enrollment requirements.

6) Military programs offer false pathways to college and other post secondary benefits.
Only 43% of Military Personnel has received their GI benefits and the Average Net Payout to Veterans is less than $2200

7) Military programs in schools actively recruit young people.
a) “In recognition of the growing importance of the JROTC program to recruiting for the military services, the conferees increased the requested funding for this program by $13.5 million. The increased funding will facilitate the expansion of the program undertaken by the Secretary of Defense." (emphasis ours)
b) Field trips and guest speakers center military life:
The cadets in Rickover Naval Academy, have taken a school-sponsored field trip to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD
two years ago, RNA hosted Admiral Michael Mullen, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen told the cadets that the "Navy was a great career choice."
c) A military, not civilian, culture permeates military schools.
Young people dressed in military uniform are introduced to the military hierarchy and way of life. This cultivation of a militarized mind is the best explanation for why “40-60% of all NJROTC [Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps] graduates enter military service.” This statistic is especially telling considering that less than 1% of the population has served in the military at any given moment since 1975.

8) Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is still military policy, though it is legislated to be phased out by an unspecified date. The U.S. military is a persistent site of gendered and sexual violence.
2007 research identified that no Chicago public military high school supported lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students through the presence of a targeted student group, such as a Gay, Straight Alliance, although these clubs are common in many Chicago high schools.

We ask the CTU to:

Phase out JROTC programs and support the development of alternative programs to help foster discipline, leadership and college pathways for all students.

Until the phase-out is complete, The CTU should call for an immediate:

• Moratorium on the establishment of any new public military high schools, and JROTC and Cadet programs within schools.

• Cessation of public educational funding allocated to public military schools and programs targeted to discipline, leadership and safety development.

• End to JROTC as a Physical Education (PE) substitute.

• Halt to preferential treatment for JROTC instructors regarding class size and pay.

• Enforcement of JROTC laws, including shutting down under-enrolled programs.

• Development of visible support for LGBTQ teachers and students at public military schools.

In addition, we call on the CTU to:

• Implement a taskforce to investigate the working conditions at military schools and JROTC programs.

• Support the AFSC request to have the opt-out section included on the emergency forms
___ school;CPSSchoolType=Military%20academy
“House Armed Service Committee Press Release: Conferees Reach Agreement on Fiscal Year 2001 Defense Bill.” October 6, 2000. 11/9/07
Segal, David R. Segal, Mady Wechsler. “America’s Military Population.” The Population Reference Bureau.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Getting that desire to flee again?

It seems like a lot of folks are, these days, and it’s showing up in all the usual US ways—hipster fantasies of “living off the grid” and lefty dreams of “moving to Canada” and artist rants about the new hot place they have to be (is it Joshua Tree or Berlin, these days?) and newbie grads planning their exits via extended study abroad (MBAs in St. Petersburg!), the Peace Corps (mosquito nets in Belize!), and fellowships (anywhere away from here!).

I get the vibe, I’m not immune. School closings, teacher firings, fees at every public museums, and on and on—I see why getting out is a seduction for those who have options.

Education is hard ground to work right now. It’s painful to care about these days, if what you really love is the public part of it, all the places and structures—schools, museums, libraries, art, archives—that we have created and cared for and benefited from in the US. And then there’re the people who work in those places—I mean, I’m a geek for librarians who can find anything about everything; I love teachers who crazy-love what they are teaching; I am thankful that someone hired every WPA muralist who ever painted something sublime in a post office for me to look at…for a very long time…while I wait…to buy stamps.

Because I love public education, public art, and public cultural institutions, and think that public dollars should support all this, I am not interested in the recent re-drifting toward “un” and “open” schooling. To clarify—of course I am in favor of self-education, but that’s like saying I’m in favor of breathing. People just learn; we are all engaged in self-educating, whether we think we are or not. What I find irritating isn’t this constant, albeit often haphazard exploring that we do, but the opting out of public education structure-work by the privileged. Re-warmed 1970s impulses seem to be resurfacing: leave “the system” and make your own! It’s a “private ideas as salvation” agenda, which is a lot like what the neo-liberal right has been offering up—I’m thinking of the impact of Bill Gates and the Walton family on public education policy, presto-change-o, privatization all around!—so why does the left seem to like it so much? I don’t want to spend much time thinking about making a new private university or elementary school with all the families and intellectuals that think pretty much like me, even if our schools are going to be hipper and cooler than the old ones down the block.

I get that making your own everything might make it all feel more controllable and thus, better—though I’d also dispute that in control is always better. And when it comes to education, I think that surprise, proximity and accident is how we learn the most.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

An Open Letter to Harvard Graduate School of Education

Pasted below is a powerful letter by teachers to Harvard's Graduate School of Education (reposted with permission). As they point out, the assaults on teachers and public education now are intense, and must be countered with reminders like this one. The writers' contact information is at the end of the letter, but why not contact Harvard or, even better, your own College of Education with a similar demand.


JANUARY 4, 2010


The Harvard Graduate School of Education pursues the goal of training leaders in the field, and will soon offer a new degree in educational leadership. The school’s website mission statement reads as follows:


To prepare leaders in education and to generate knowledge to improve student opportunity, achievement, and success.


Education touches every aspect of human activity. At the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), we believe studying and improving the enterprise of education are central to the health and future of society. Since its founding in 1920, the Ed School has been training leaders to transform education in the United States and around the globe. Today, our faculty, students, and alumni are studying and solving the most critical challenges facing education: student assessment, the achievement gap, urban education, and teacher shortages, to name just a few. Our work is shaping how people teach, learn, and lead in schools and colleges as well as in after-school programs, high-tech companies, and international organizations. The HGSE community is pushing the frontiers of education, and the effects of our entrepreneurship are improving the world.


As veteran public school teachers, we are disappointed that the HGSE has not shown the leadership it professes by speaking out against the unprecedented attack on public education. To be sure, there have been courageous voices on your faculty who have defended public schools and the endangered idea of educating the whole child. We know that a thoughtful faculty does not think with one mind, and that there will always be differences about what constitutes the most effective pedagogies or curricula. But we have not heard the HGSE as an institution speak out on issues fundamental to the educational well-being of children and their schools.

These issues include:

• The over-testing of students, beginning as early as 3rd grade, and the misuse of single, imperfect high- stakes standardized assessment instruments like MCAS;

• The expansion of charters through funding formulas that divert resources from those urban and rural public schools charged with educating our most challenged children;

• The stripping away of art, music, critical thinking, creativity, experiential learning, trips, and play periods—of joy itself–from schools so that they might become more effective test preparation centers;

• The use of state curriculum frameworks–and soon, possibly, national standards–to narrow and standardize our schools, an effort that only encourages increasing numbers of affluent middle class parents to seek out for their children the same private schools that so many “reformers” have already chosen for theirs;

• The cynical insistence that all schools be equal in a society whose social and economic policies make us increasingly unequal;

• Merit pay proposals that deny and undermine the essentially collaborative nature of teaching;

• And finally, the sustained media vilification of hard-working, dedicated public school teachers.

These depressing developments have intensified over the past fifteen years. They violate the first principles of humane and progressive education, as we understand them.

We are proud to have served as teachers in the commonwealth where public education began a century before the country itself was founded and where Horace Mann reinvented it a century and a half ago. We have many wonderful public schools in Massachusetts that can serve as models for all schools. No child in our state deserves any less. Certainly all deserve more than a parched vision of standardization and incessant testing. A global economy demands more than multiple-choice thinking. Most importantly, human beings require more.

HGSE administration and faculty, we need you to speak out in defense of our public system of education and against abuses that have been allowed to pass silently as reforms. We need you to remind our leaders, administrators, parents and students–all of us–what it means to be educated.

As young teachers, we were inspired by the words of John Holt, Herbert Kohl, Joseph Featherstone, A.S. Neill, and Paulo Freire. Later, we would read the works of Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch, Ted Sizer, and Jonathan Kozol. These were powerful voices to encounter. Now we need to hear your voice.

The time for *Veritas* is now.

Thank you.

Larry Aaronson, Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, 37 years (retired)
Teacher of the Year (Class of 2007)
Recipient, Key to the City of Cambridge for “Outstanding Service” (Mayor)
Recipient, Special Cambridge City Council Citation
Mentor, Student teachers from the HGSE, 1985-2005

Ann O’Halloran, Boston & Newton Public Schools, 30 years (retired)
Massachusetts History Teacher of the Year, 2007 (DOE)
Finalist, National History Teacher of Year, 2007
Honorable Mention, Massachusetts History Teacher of the Year, 2006 (DOE)
Friend of Education, 2009 (Newton Teachers Association)

Bill Schechter, Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, 35 years (retired)
METCO Recognition Awards, 2001-2005 (L-S METCO Program)
“Outstanding Educator” Award, 2002 (Cornell University)
Faculty Recognition Award (Class of 1992)
Finalist, Lucretia Mott Award, 1986 (DOE)
Horace Mann Grant, 1984 (DOE)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Corruption in Chicago Schools?

It certainly shouldn't surprise any Chicagoan that the admissions process for our city's selective admission schools might be tainted.

For one thing, Marj Halperin, a long-time resident, former journalist (and much more), and parent of two who attended schools in the CPS system, broke this story about, oh...20 years ago? Her investigative report, published in Chicago Magazine (download scan here), detailed the ruses—from creating fake older siblings so the actual children could qualify for the sibling lottery and "principal choice" categories, to giving sizable donations to their school of choice—of many of her (and my) acquaintances, friends and neighbors. Some of Chicago's so-called "best" magnet schools were implicated—Hawthorne comes to mind—and the parents involved were everyday folks, a slice of the city, albeit well-resourced.

For another, this is Chicago, in Illinois, where our politicians from the highest levels on down, set the tone and model the behavior. Where there's a trough, they are grubbing. Is it surprising when we follow their lead? And isn't the toxic combination of access and entitlement ("I know how to get want I want, therefore I deserve to!"), salted with a dash of desperation ("Where will my children go to school?"), likely to foster sorry behavior?

If we care about each other we will push to make the circumstances—too few wonderful schools for all our children—and the kind of debates I hope these parents had with themselves before they made the choice to step over others and around the democratic process of the lottery system, obsolete.

Monday, July 20, 2009

CHiaRtS is On the Scene

For all those who have been asking, CHiaRts (not sure what the upper-and-lower variations signify) is scheduled to open this fall, 2009, with an incoming class of 150.

The school's website is lush and slick, loads 'o visuals. Its newly hired department heads, Lisa Johnson-Willingham (LinkedIn, Facebook, and curiously, the school left her hyphen off its hiring announcement), Betsy Ko, Rob Chambers (Facebook, LinkedIn...), and Diana Stezalski, all seem like accomplished artists but none are certified teachers, though Ko is studying education at DePaul. In fact, on its FAQ page, in answer to the probably often-posed question, "Who will teach at CHiaRts?" the school glides past the question of education and credentials and describes a faculty of "full-time academic educators and artist-teachers" (huh?) and "part-time artists-teachers" (sounds like...saving money?).

Too bad. There is actually quite a lot to learn about education, through education. Places that value what education offers hire the most highly educated people they can. I wish the school would acknowledge that, as a model for its students and as a nod to and appreciation of the work of teachers who study pedagogy as well as poetry, performance and painting. My students have fully engaged themselves in both; who's hiring out there?

Also oddly, the CHiaRts website notes an anti-discrimination policy that is out-dated—“handicap” anyone?—and incomplete—where is sexual orientation? I guess this is what happens when folk who aren’t actually all that concerned about the details of education set up schools. Yet, language matters, policy matters, laws and history matters—get it right; it’s important.