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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The NYC DOE Word Ban: Diane Ravich Writes About "The Cowardly Censors at Tweed"

The cowardly censors at Tweed 

Why they banned 50 words

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After the news broke last week that the New York City Department of Education had effectively banned a long list of topics that might appear on its citywide standardized tests, our city’s school system became a national laughing stock. Department spokesman Matthew Mittenthal lamely defended the long list of taboos by saying that any mention of them “could evoke unpleasant emotions in the students.”
For a school system that never worries about the “unpleasant emotions” caused by its harmful focus on relentless testing, it’s an outrageous and ironic response.
It is also, as I’ll soon explain, a misleading explanation of why such word bans so commonly happen in our schools.
First, let’s understand exactly what’s going on here. The city is planning to create a lot of new tests in science, social studies and other subjects, and based on the request for proposals it sent to prospective test development companies, it’s clear that the tests will be dumbed down by clumsy censorship.
How can a good science test forbid reference to evolution, dinosaurs, geological history, vermin, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, disease and bodily functions? Beats me.
How can a good social studies test avoid asking about war, terrorism, nuclear weapons, politics, poverty, religion, disasters, crime or loss of employment? Beats me.
Anyone who does not work at the DOE’s Tweed headquarters can quickly see that such tests will be stripped of much of their meaningful educational content.
But more importantly, the DOE has no understanding of why it is banning so many common topics from its tests. This is less about the sensitivity of children than it is about the influence of powerful political lobbies. And generally speaking, these lobbies don’t even reside in New York City.
In 2003, I published a book called “The Language Police,” which exposed how interest groups from across the political spectrum had compelled publishers to censor their textbooks and their tests. The publishers knew that if religious fundamentalists or feminists or seniors made noise, then big states would not buy their products.
So, to avoid any possible controversy, the publishers made lists of words, topic
s and pictures that might offend anyone at all. To appease the critics, the publishers even created committees to review textbooks and test questions to make sure that nothing remotely controversial remained.
I combined the publishers’ lists and found nearly 1,000 verboten words, phrases, topics and images. After my book appeared, the censorship regime was so thoroughly ridiculed in the national media that I felt sure publishers would extricate themselves from their embarrassing dilemma.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that our city’s educrats, who present themselves as bold reformers, are mindlessly endorsing generation-old bans that were shaped by textbook battles in Texas, California and other states.
Why is evolution taboo? Because fundamentalists don’t want to see it mentioned. Fundamentalists also oppose any reference to dinosaurs — because that implies evolution.
And our city will ban any mention of Halloween, parapsychology, the occult and witchcraft because fundamentalists long ago objected to anything that hints of paganism, deities or Satanism. In fact, any reference to religion is taboo because whatever is referred to will be sure to annoy someone.
Expensive gifts, vacations and prizes can’t be mentioned because some children might feel bad reading about others who have more than they do.
Birthday parties can’t be mentioned because some children don’t have birthday parties, and some religious groups object to birthdays. Nor should students ever encounter a reference to a home computer or a home swimming pool because many are likely to feel bad to see that other people have such items but they don’t.
Then there are topics excluded — like death, disease, terrorism, divorce, homelessness, violence, war, slavery and loss of employment — because sensitivity reviewers fear that students will be upset just to see such concepts mentioned on a test.
It’s bad enough that the purposeful exclusion of ideas and social realities that students encounter in their daily lives and see on television will make the exams bland and boring. Worse is the possible effect on what’s taught every day in classrooms across the city. Will social studies classes avoid discussions of war, terrorism and poverty? Will English classes omit books like “The Great Gatsby” (too many luxuries), or books by Elie Wiesel (disasters and religion in the same book), or the Harry Potter series (witchcraft), or the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (too many references to slavery, poverty and politics)?
Why should pressure groups who won battles a generation ago in other states and regions determine what appears on the tests of New York City?
Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University.

Assailed Teacher Blog: Teacher in Crisis

 Assailed Teacher
APRIL 3, 2012 · 6:37 PM

Teacher in Crisis

As many of you have probably noticed, the frequency and size of posts on this blog have tailed off lately. My goal is always to update this place twice a day with things that are not complete wastes of time for the people who have been gracious enough to frequent here.
It has not only been this blog that has fallen into a state of semi-neglect. My email correspondences with colleagues, friends and fellow bloggers have also backed up. I am not as quick to hand back homework or exams to my students as I used to be. A few weeks ago, I curled up into a ball in my apartment in a state of acute depression. It is like I have been having an existential crisis although, at 33 years of age, it might be a mid-life crisis.
As I read the blogs, talk to colleagues and come to work every day, it is becoming painfully obvious that I am not longed for the world of New York City’s Department of Education. Although things are far from definite, one thing I do know is that the role I am currently playing in the system is too constraining and is causing me more than a little psychic torture.
I talk to teachers from around the city. Despite the fact that these teachers are in different schools teaching different subjects to different student bodies, the story is almost always the same. One of the reasons why I did a lot of thinking about the passing of Fortunato Rubino yesterday was the fact that this system could ill afford to lose an educational leader like him. The horror stories I have seen first-hand and have heard from friends all speak to an epidemic of oppressive leadership in schools across the city.
One colleague from another school works under an AP that hates her. They have never gotten along. The teacher has never been insubordinate and, in fact, has feverishly tried to comply with the increasing number of responsibilities her AP has heaped upon her. It is of no use. This teacher is already out of license by teaching art most of the day. She has no materials and is located in three different rooms on different floors. Whenever she turns around, she is being called into another meeting or put on another “curriculum planning committee”. On top of that, she has to deal with the litany of disrespectful and sarcastic comments that spew forth from the mouth of her AP. She gets the sense that she is being set up for failure. I suppose she should be thankful that she has not been written up and still has a job in the NYC DOE.
Other colleagues of mine are not so lucky, like the one whose 3020a hearing begins tomorrow. I have known her since college and we have worked at the same school for 5 years. During that time, she has done all of the extra things that the administration has asked of her: stay late for open houses, teach some of the most challenging classes and give up time in order to be the coordinator of student activities (COSA). She regularly was the first one in the building and the last one out. The students recognized her hard work on their behalf and admired her for it. A lot of her work was done for free, out of a sense of obligation to the school community for which she worked. Few people, especially administrators, rarely ever gave her a “thank you” and would be damned to put it in writing if they did. Despite all of this, she never once complained or was insubordinate. As a matter of fact, she was quite supportive of the administration and their vision for the school.
And for all of her hard work, support and dedication to the children and the system, she faces termination.
We had a staff meeting in the auditorium yesterday. Most of the meeting consisted of students presenting some of the extra-curricular projects they had been working on. Once that was all done, they stayed in the auditorium while the principal addressed the staff. He stood at the back speaking to the napes of necks and bald spots of everyone in the room. In a tone that could only be described as angry, he shared some parental complaints he had about first marking period grades. Parents were upset because teachers were taking points off for bad behavior. Some teachers had never given exams, yet failed students who had showed up every day. He mentioned how he tried to defend the teachers by referring parents to the online grading system, yet saw that teachers really had no justification for failing the students in question. The staff largely hung their heads in shame, many of us wondering whether we were the objects of the principal’s ire. The students who had presented their projects were there to listen to it all.
These are just a few examples of what goes on every day in New York City’s Department of Education. Sure, there are horror stories out there like David Pakter , Peter Lamphere , Ted Smith  and Christine Rubino . These stories are just the most shocking and reprehensible examples of what a reprehensible bureaucracy is capable of. What causes teachers to be the most demoralized, however, is the type of treatment described earlier at the hands of people who are supposedly education “leaders”. It is the endless pettiness, immaturity and inhumanity to which teachers are subjected every minute of every day. It has become so normal, so commonplace, that it forms the unconscious background of everything else that happens during the course of the school year.
This is the norm throughout the New York City Department of Education. To be sure, there are principals out there who do not do business this way. These principals should be celebrated, appreciated and supported. But, if me or my friends’ experiences are any indication, this is not the norm. Fear, disrespect, paranoia and inhumanity are the orders of the day.
“My principal does not like me, so she is making my life a living hell” is a commonly spoken sentence in Bloomberg’s DOE. At no point have I ever heard that “my principal has tried to bridge the gap with me” or “my principal had an open and honest discussion with me” or “my principal disagrees with me but it’s perfectly fine”. At no point have I heard a principal who has a problem with someone on the staff doing anything less than try to make someone’s life a “living hell”.
Principals lead school buildings. The goal of every school building is to provide a healthy educational environment for its children. If a teacher were to stand in the back of the classroom and berate all of the students for the transgressions of a few, it would be considered bad practice. It would be noted in an observation report and probably be used as a justification for a “U”. If a teacher did not get along with a student, it would be considered harassment for that teacher to give that student extra work and make snarky comments to them. It would probably be cause for disciplinary action, maybe even a 3020a hearing.
It seems as if because principals have the power to make the lives of teachers a living hell, or because they have the power to destroy teachers they do not like, that they believe it should be a power that gets exercised. There are even some principals who fancy themselves humanitarians because they do not do this to every teacher all of the time.
As I get older, I get more intolerant and militant. I just cannot fathom why a principal, someone who is responsible for setting the tone of a school, would think that making anyone’s life a living hell at any moment is productive in any way. Someone disagrees with your vision for the school? Great. You should welcome criticism, dialogue and debate. As the principal you have the final say, of course, and it does not mean you should put the things on hold that you want to achieve because a few malcontents do not like it. Instead, how about trying to bring those teachers along to your vision, give them roles of leadership and importance in that vision and show them that your way can do great things for many people?
When a student challenges me in class, I usually ask them why they feel the way they do. I do not take it as a personal insult. If anything, everything that students do in my classroom is a reflection on me and I take it as a critique of what I am doing at the moment. I have learned a lot about teaching because of this. Maybe I am a little too secure about the righteousness of my vision and ideas.
But I do know one thing: a leader who does not lead by example, a leader who believes a different set of rules applies to them, a leader who does not encourage free discussion is not a leader at all, but an oppressor. It does not matter what the setting is. It does not matter if it is in the political arena or in the arena of education. There is something rotten if a leader does not take their role seriously enough to model the behavior they want to see in the people they lead.
Before I started teaching I had a notion, since then discarded, that schools operated on a different moral plane than the “real world”. Maybe this is one of the reasons why I wanted to be a teacher in the first place. The real world to me was ruthless, ugly and destructive. Schools were beacons of high-minded values and enlightenment. After 12 years in the system, 10 of them under the Bloomberg regime, this silly naiveté has been beaten out of me. If anything, the ugliness and ruthlessness in our education system is worse than that of the real world because it is the students who ultimately get hurt.
Along the way, a lot of innocent teachers lose their livelihoods, reputations and careers because an administrator took a bad shine to them. What does it say about a human being if they can intentionally make the life of someone’s mother, daughter, father, son, brother, husband or wife a living hell? What does it say about a human being if they can give absolutely no thought to taking someone’s livelihood away merely because that person disagrees with them or because that person rubs them the wrong way? I might be able to forgive a lot of things with people because I also would like forgiveness for my own shortcomings, but I cannot forgive people like this. So-called leaders who act in this manner are working from a morality (amorality is more like it) that does not even register in my universe.
I do not totally blame the system either. While the reptilian corporate values that Bloomberg has foisted upon our schools have caused tremendous damage, it would have gotten nowhere without a legion of willing collaborators to do his bidding. It is easy to throw up your hands and say “it’s just the nature of the beast”, but at what point does one accept responsibility for being part of that beast? I think there is still something to be said for individual choice, free will and doing what you know to be the right thing in your heart.
This is why I admire the career of Furtunato Rubino. His example points to what is possible within the context of a thoroughly rotten system. While other principals were busily seeking ways to make people’s lives a living hell, Mr. Rubino never once lost focus of the fact that he was an educator who had an ultimate responsibility to the children of the community he served. Maybe if theReality-Based Educators , Norm Scotts , Arthur Goldsteins , NYCDOEnuts ,Michael Dunns  and Bronx Teachers  of the world became administrators, they would be able to carve out a piece of sanity and humanity in this monstrous universe we call the Department of Education.
But I understand why the people I mentioned might not be thinking about making such a move. They are teachers first, great teachers, and they know the work they do is the most valuable work of all. After dedicating your life to teaching, there is a sense that becoming an administrator makes you one of “them”. Their values are too incorruptible to be able to give themselves over to the system in that manner.
As for me, I have seen and heard too much to pretend it does not affect me anymore. Too many lives have been ruined, too many lines have been crossed, too much of man’s inhumanity to man has been on display for me to plug along, teach my classes and go home like nothing has ever happened. I feel filthy with each passing day.
So, I do not know what the future holds for me but I am pretty certain what it does not hold. Bloomberg, Walcott, Duncan, Obama and all of the administrators who know no other value but to make peoples’ lives living hells can go on building their filthy world without me.