A call to arms for our schools

July 30, 2014

New York City school teacher Peter Lamphere reviews Mark Naison's new book on the teachers' struggle.

AT FIRST glance, Mark Naison is in an odd position to be advocating about K-12 public education. The 30-year veteran professor of African American History doesn't work in the public school system. Yet somehow, in the spring of 2013, he was at the center of the explosive birth of a massive online movement of educators angry at the attacks on their profession and the schools they work in.

The Badass Teachers' Association (BAT), initiated by Naison and Oklahoma teacher Priscilla Sanstead, struck a social media nerve, growing to 20,000 members on Facebook in the matter of weeks. Amorphous in its politics--spanning right- and left-wing opponents of the Common Core State Standards, for example--the BATs nevertheless embodied the growing realization nationally among teachers that they needed to get active to challenge corporatization of education.

Naison writes, "Clearly, the name--which implies that teachers throughout the nation are fed up with how they are being treated by the press, the public and leaders of both parties--was touching a huge chord with teachers everywhere."

Badass Teachers Association leads a march for education justice in Washington, D.C.
Badass Teachers Association leads a march for education justice in Washington, D.C. (Dawn Neely-Randall)

Whether this Internet sentiment, clearly real, can become a coherent social movement force in its own right remains to be seen. The first BAT mobilization this past week in Washington, D.C., managed to pull out 500 people and forced Education Secretary Arne Duncan to meet with them, a strong start but showing there is work to be done to cohere a real movement.

Badass Teachers Unite! is a collection of short, punchy pieces written by Naison between 2009 and 2013 that speak to the anger and the frustration that gave birth to the association. The fact that Naison isn't a K-12 teacher doesn't prevent him speaking eloquently and incisively about public education. Not being a teacher, of course, has not prevented dozens of corporate reform pundits--such as Duncan, Campbell Brown, Bill Gates and Eva Moskowitz--from blithely pronouncing on what is best for other people's children.

Naison, it turns out, has a strong organic connection with the public schools, and is in many ways the refreshing opposite of these corporate privatizers. They use appeals to civil rights and equity to disguise the smash-and-grab looting of public institutions by proposing radical anti-teacher and pro-testing "reforms."

Naison's writing, in contrast, emerges from anger at the arrogance of the education deform movement (and its disconnect from the lives of teachers and students), to paint a caring picture of the resources and model that schools need to resuscitate education that serves working-class youth of color.

NAISON CARES about the public schools because he was a product of them, growing up in a working-class district in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where he "was the kind of kid who drove teachers and parents crazy...disrespectful to teachers, and always getting in fights with other kids, inside and outside of class."

However, Naison was well served by the public schools, a fact that he attributes to the higher levels of wraparound services, including daily physical education, art classes, band and orchestra, science fairs, and supervised activities in schools after school and in the evening.

Furthermore, Naison has a strong connection to Bronx schools through his work on African American oral history in the borough. This research has put him in touch with generations of educators who embody an approach opposite data-driven approach that was at its core, about building relationships with students. He writes about two Bronx educators, Jim Pruitt and Harriet McFeeters:

You cannot go anywhere in the Bronx with these two individuals without running into someone who was one of their students or colleagues. Invariably, there are hugs, kisses and comments to me about how the person I was with either changed his or her life (if he/she was a student) or helped them do their job better (if he/she was a teacher or principal).

Naison's Bronx African American History Project also was brought into a number of schools, giving him a glimpse into the unsung school buildings where teachers were taking a community-centered approach to education.

Naison's text is an outpouring of emotion. Anger, disappointment, compassion--all are written out in short, blog-like entries, none lasting more than a few pages. Each is focused around a particular topic, an inciting incident that generates a reaction, a social media connection that fosters activism or an experience that generates reflection.

The book is not chronological, but rather topical: the first and longest section focuses on the corporate reform movement, while the second focuses on youth activism, from Naison's experience as a community ally of striking Columbia University students in 1968 to contemporary student activists fighting testing. A final section touches on specific experiences in the Bronx.

But over the course of the text an unrelenting portrait of what is wrong with the current reform effort and what is needed to actually fix today's school emerges. A simple political program emerges. Naison is crystal clear that the data-driven, test-based "accountability" has nothing to do with quality education, a point he drives home again and again through portraits of successful educators and schools he has known that have done precisely the opposite as well as empathetic echoing of the frustrations that ordinary teachers have with these reforms. Simultaneously, he does not let go of his mantra of the need for more resources combined with a community-centered approach.

There is a recognition that successful educational change must emerge from repairing the damage that neoliberalism has done to the housing, employment and health care in Black and Latino working-class neighborhoods, along with an understanding that the schools could be centers of that repair. His also understands that respect for the professional autonomy, dedication and role of the teacher workforce is central.

THE BRILLIANCE of Naison's book is its passionate and incisive language. For example, take his comments in a piece on the connections between education reform and the incarceration of youth of color:

Essentially, current school reform policies represent a brilliant tactic to avoid dealing with the real causes of poverty and inequality in society, while finding a convenient scapegoat in public school teachers and their unions. These policies are transparent, ill considered and immoral. And over time, people in the communities most targeted by these reforms will rise up in protest.

By drawing on a deep knowledge of the social conditions in New York City, animated not just by an academic understanding of the way race and class works but a very concrete understanding through relationships with teachers, students and community members built up over decades, Naison is able to make general arguments about education policy extremely specific and real.

The short format allows direct and to-the-point rebuttals of some of the most common arguments from education deformers. But the format does mean, at times, a disjointed feeling to the book. Themes, by nature, repeat often, and sometimes specific arguments or even anecdotes are repeated as well. While there is some classification of the pieces into different sections of the book, it has no arc of argument, which limits the cumulative effect of the individual texts.

Rather than a series of particular building blocks that converge on a construction of a single argument, the book is a series of short arguments that rain down like a series of blows from a heavyweight intellectual boxer, overwhelming any opponent.

The emotional impact of the book is intense, and, like the Badass Teachers Association itself, it is build around a call to arms, a sense of rising frustration and a need for change. A program for real education reform is clearly laid out in its pages--the next step is to do the organizing to build a social movement in our unions, our communities and our schools that can make it reality.

Further Reading

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