From the Archives

The crisis in education continues. Young people find themselves confronting an educational system ill-suited to prepare them for life. Teachers find their creativity buried under increasing paperwork and administrative interference. Parents often experience schools as intimidating and unresponsive. Schools are marked by boredom, overcrowded classrooms, increasing violence, and a growing incapacity to help students acquire the basic knowledge and critical thinking skills they need. Several years of desegregation and compensatory programs have failed to close the profound gap between the achievement levels of white and non-white students.

Rethinking Schools is dedicated to helping parents, teachers, and students solve these problems. As teachers and community members, we want to promote thoughtful discussion and debate on educational issues and help unite the many groups currently working to make schools better. Discussion of educational issues is often determined by administrators and educational consultants. We hope that Rethinking Schools will help give teachers, parents, and students an effective voice in determining the future of our schools.

Rethinking Schools will be broad in scope, but will also focus on certain concerns. In upcoming issues we plan to consider the following questions:

1) How can parents, teachers, and students gain more powerful roles in determining school policies and practices?

2) What must be done to overcome the significant racial, gender, and class inequities that prevent many students from receiving an equal and effective education?

3) What specific approaches can teachers use to empower students within the classroom and the community? How can we make meaningful, community based work experience an integral part of each child’s education?

4) What can we do to ensure that multicultural and anti-racist education takes place?

5) What creative and peaceful methods can we use to resolve conflicts among students, and conflicts between students and teachers?

6) What specific teaching techniques and materials have proven successful in our efforts to motivate students?

Rethinking Schools will take up these and other issues with two goals in mind. First, we want to provide a forum that encourages debate and dialogue. Second, we want to act as an advocate for educational policies we believe to be sound and necessary.

As we balance advocacy with debate, we will also need to balance the theoretical with the practical. We will complement reasoned critiques with positive examples of ways in which teachers and parents are overcoming problems. We will strive to provide both informed analysis of controversial issues and specific ideas that teachers and parents can use to help young people learn more effectively.

Our new journal will need your help. Rethinking Schools can only succeed if it has your suggestions, letters, articles, and financial support. Please join us in this effort to enliven and improve education in the Milwaukee area.

— The Editors, Autumn 1986

The standards train has left the station. When President Clinton announced a commitment to developing national standards and tests in his State of the Union address last January, he was reinforcing a trend that has already swept through more than 30 states and thousands of districts across the country. Standards-based education reform is rapidly picking up steam as state departments of education, professional education associations, business roundtables, and reform commissions turn out core curriculums and draft proficiency standards at an increasing pace. While no one is sure where this train is ultimately headed, it’s likely to steamroll through a school district near you any day.

The movement toward state and national education standards poses a variety of concerns for equity advocates, who at times seem uncertain whether they should lie down on the tracks or get on board. Some fear that standards-driven reforms will reinforce top-down bureaucracy, legitimize narrow curriculum agendas, or leave poor kids behind. Others argue that standards may be the only way to put in place the achievement and accountability measures that schools need and many parents want, particularly in communities where school failure has reached desperate proportions. For those concerned with both equity and excellence, sorting out the standards debate involves confronting real dilemmas.

— Stan Karp, summer 1997

Some of the common descriptions of the crisis in education include words like low self-esteem of students, lack of motivation, violent and disruptive behavior by students, and the problem of single-parent households. These are essentially victim-blaming terms. They locate the problem with the children and their parents. They pay no attention to the systems and the state that create the problem.

These explanations of the crisis are not a multicultural explanation. They are monocultural, racist, white supremacist ways of talking about the problem. A multicultural or anti-racist perspective would cause us to see the crisis in other ways.

In case you’re wondering why I use the term anti-racist, let me tell you. In Canada, the debate is between multiculturalism and anti-racism. Multicultural-ism is described as the “soft” stuff and anti-racism as the “hard” stuff. By the hard stuff, I’m talking about addressing the issue in terms of power, in terms of history, in terms of relationships, and definitely in terms of transformation. . . .

We are working towards equality or inequality at every turn of the clock, at every time the hand moves to another number. It is not magical; it can be seen. It is taking place at 10:00, at 10:15, at 10:30.

— Enid Lee, Autumn 1992

“Sex, hula, and naked ladies!” I had just asked a class of 11th-grade U.S. literature and history students in Portland, Ore., what images come to mind when I say the word, “Hawai’i.” I received a volley of responses: blue water, beaches, coconuts, sun, surf, luau, hotels, paradise, pineapple, palm trees, vacation, Waikiki, volcanoes, and of course, “sex, hula, and naked ladies.”

This particular answer, given by an enthusiastic young man, was different than most because of its honesty about the sexual overtones the mystique of Hawai’i holds in the “American” mind. To me, what was most significant about his remark was not just his honesty, but that it shows the need for a more critical examination of the history, politics, and culture of Hawai’i in our classrooms.

Many advocates of tourism say Native Hawaiian culture “naturally” lends itself to the tourist industry, touting that “aloha spirit” — based on sharing and love — has welcomed tourists with open arms. In fact, tourism has nothing to do with the Native Hawaiian concept of aloha, and what must be made clear is that tourism is not the natural outcome of Native Hawaiian culture.

The annual pilgrimage to blissful paradise is something many have learned to see as the payoff for trudging to work everyday. What lurks behind this reasoning is a deeper, more political, and historical argument. In the canon of American history, Hawaiis supposed to be a U.S. property, justly acquired and owned — hands down, no questions asked. It is our paradise to use at our leisure, and traveling there is supposed to be one of our quintessential, “American,” middle-class rights.

— Wayne Au, Summer 1998

No phenomenon poses a greater threat to educational equity, and ultimately, to the quality of education in this country, than does the differential performance of minority and majority students on standardized achievement tests. In the wake of increasing public concern that schools are somehow not as rigorous as they used to be, standardized tests have been hailed as the “get tough” medicine we need to restore traditional standards of excellence in our classrooms.

As the use of such tests has dramatically increased over the past several years, so has the power which tests wield over the educational lives of students. In every state, standardized achievement tests are now routinely used to determine access to education from first grade through graduate school. What has occurred in our schools is, to use FairTest’s terms, nothing less than a “testing explosion.”

There is little question that this “testing explosion” has the power to effectively destroy whatever small measure of educational equity has been achieved in our schools over the past two decades. What is perhaps less obvious is the realization that standardized tests pose a profound threat not only to equity in our schools, but the quality of our children’s educational experience as well — a threat so great, in fact, that standardized testing should be abolished altogether.

There can be little doubt that if a large percentage of white, middle-class students performed poorly on standardized tests, these test results would be viewed as invalid and their use in making educational decisions termed discriminatory. The differential performance of minority students on standardized tests, however, occasions no such concern, not even in the face of an extensive body of research on cultural bias in testing which has been collected over the past 20 years.

— Terry Meier, Winter 1989

The details are complicated, but the heart of the matter is simple. Our schools don’t get enough money, and the money they do get is not distributed fairly.

Beneath the legal briefs, the legislative jargon, and the complex funding formulas that dominate the debate about school finance, two questions persist: Will we provide schools with the resources they need to make high-quality education possible? And will we provide those resources to all children or only some children?

The answers we give will go a long way toward determining whether our society’s future will be one of democratic promise or growing division. For all their problems, public schools remain one of the few places where an increasingly diverse and divided population might still come together to pursue a vision of equality. Whether we invest in and nurture our system of public education, or starve and dismantle it in the name of reform may be the most defining public policy issue we face as a nation.

— From Funding for Justice, February 1997

My friend who works for a teacher union and who argued about the value of unions did not only talk about her father’s union. She talked of how early teacher union activists were mainly women, many of whom were involved in the suffragist movement. She explained the broader labor movement’s influence on social policy legislation such as the minimum wage, unemployment compensation, and Social Security. She noted how the United Auto Workers were major backers of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.

I believe it is within that tradition of progressive labor that teachers should push their unions. In the past, other unions have faced difficult challenges and set ambitious goals. Today, teacher unions face a similar challenge. Only when we have a democratic teacher union movement that recognizes its interests are bound up with the interests of the communities we serve, and with poor and working people everywhere, will be be able to gather sufficient forces to ensure that public education and teachers get the resources and support that we deserve and that children desperately need.

— Bob Peterson, Fall 1993

Editors’ Note: A full version of this article appeared in the very first issue of Rethinking Schools in 1986. Rita Tenorio became the principal at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee last fall.

As a kindergarten teacher, some of my most satisfying moments have come from working with children in the beginning stages of their literacy. I feel privileged to share their joy and excited sense of achievement when they realize for the first time they are actually reading.

Recently, though, I’ve also been feeling mounting anger and frustration over the policies and directives that come to us from the administration about how to teach reading.

I believe the way we are asked to teach reading is ineffective at best and potentially detrimental to the cognitive development of the young child.

The Scott, Foresman Reading Program that kindergarten teachers are being asked to use essentially consists of worksheet after worksheet that children are supposed to complete in order to learn the “skills” of reading. In many schools, teachers are finding that they can only devote the required amount of time to the workbook pages by abandoning activities that are more beneficial and developmentally appropriate for their students.

— Rita Tenorio, Autumn 1986

When I was in the 9th grade, Mrs. Delaney, my English teacher, wanted to demonstrate the correct and incorrect ways to pronounce the English language. She asked Helen Draper, whose father owned several clothing stores in town, to stand and say “lawyer.” Then she asked me, whose father owned a bar, to stand and say “lawyer.” Everyone burst into laughter at my pronunciation.

What did Mrs. Delaney accomplish? Did she make me pronounce lawyer correctly? No. I say attorney. I never say lawyer. In fact, I’ve found substitutes for every word my tongue can’t get around and for all the rules I can’t remember. . . .

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized grammar was an indication of class and cultural background in the United States and that there is a bias against people who do not use language “correctly.” Even the terminology “standard” and “nonstandard” reflects that one is less than another. English teachers are urged to “correct” students who speak or write in their home language. . . .

Teaching the rules without reflection also underscores that it’s OK for others — authorities — to dictate something as fundamental and as personal as the way they speak. Further, the study of Standard English without critique encourages students to believe that if they fail, it is because they are not smart enough or didn’t work hard enough. They learn to blame themselves.

— Linda Christensen, December 1989

I’ve been fighting for better schools for over 40 years, so sometimes it’s hard to remember which lesson I’ve learned from which struggle. But a few lessons stand out.

One is that it’s important not to let the system keep you in such and anger mode, such as finger-pointing and/or a fighting mode, that you forget that the goal is to improve the educational achievement of our children. . . .

A second lesson is that it’s essential to keep grassroots, community-based organizations alive. And it now seems harder to do that than ever before. . . .

Third, it is critically important that those of us who are social justice advocates and activists think about preparing someone to step up and fill our shoes. . .

Finally, we can’t forget the words of Frederick Douglass, “Where there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Our struggle must continue to be a collective struggle with, and on behalf of, our families, communities, and schools — specifically those least served by systems because of their race, class, gender, language barrier, or special need.

— Lola Glover, Spring 2001

I begin class by stealing a student’s purse. I announce to the class that the purse is mine, obviously, because look who has it. Most students are fair-minded. They saw me take the purse off the desk so they protest: “That’s not yours, it’s Nikki’s. You took it. We saw you.”. . . “What if I said I discovered this purse, then would it be mine?” A little laughter is my reward, but I don’t get any takers; they still think the purse is rightfully Nikki’s.

“So,” I ask, “Why do we say that Columbus discovered America?” Now they begin to see what I’ve been leading up to. I ask a series of rhetorical questions which implicitly make the link between Nikki’s purse and the Indians’ land: Were there people on the land before Columbus arrived? Who had been on the land longer, Columbus or the Indians? Who knew the land better? Who had put their labor into making the land produce? The students see where I’m going — it would be hard not to. “And yet,” I continue, “What is the first thing that Columbus did when he arrived in the New World?” Right: He took possession of it. After all, he had discovered the place.

— Bill Bigelow, October/November 1989

Most of my kindergarten students have already been picked up by their parents. Two children still sit on the mat in the cafeteria lobby, waiting. Ernesto, the darkest child in my class, unexpectedly shares in Spanish, “Maestro, my mom is giving me pills to turn me white.”

“Is that right?” I respond, also in Spanish. “And why do you want to be white?”

“Because I don’t like my color,” he says.

“I think your color is very beautiful and you are beautiful as well,” I say…

I can’t help but wonder how other teachers might have dealt with Ernesto’s comments. Would they have ignored him? Would they have dismissed him with a, “Stop talking like that!” Would they have felt sorry for him because they agree with him?

As teachers, we are cultural workers, whether we are aware of it or not. If teachers don’t question the culture and values being promoted in the classroom, they socialize their students to accept the uneven power relations of our society along lines of race, class, gender, and ability. Yet teachers can — and should — challenge white supremacist values and instead promote values of self-love.

Young students, because of their honesty and willingness to talk about issues, provide many opportunities for teachers to take seemingly minor incidents and turn them into powerful teaching moments. I am grateful for Ernesto’s sincerity and trust in sharing with me. Without knowing it, Ernesto opened the door to a lively dialogue in our classroom about white supremacy.

— Alejandro Segura-Mora, Winter 1998