Why Not Occupy The Schools? The Failures Of Bloomberg's School Reform Agenda

What’s next for the Occupy Wall Street movement as it regroups after its eviction from Zuccotti Park? A small but energetic group of New York City education activists hope the Occupiers will channel their rage toward Mayor Mike Bloomberg by taking a closer look at his local school reform record.

Last Friday at noon, some two-dozen of these protestors, many of them black and Latino parents with kids in the public schools, crowded the sidewalk on the east side of Zuccotti Park. Pack the book bags of our kids! Not the pockets of the rich!, they chanted. They mostly failed to attract the attention of the hard-core Occupiers—the tent-dwellers—who were then preparing to march to Foley Square, where Joan Baez was set to perform in honor of Veterans Day. But the school reformers continued their chants nonetheless; one of their young organizers, a bearded white guy in a leather jacket, rhythmically drummed on a bucket with plastic cooking utensils. Parents of color are the 99 percent! Protect our kids, not the millionaires!

Opponents of Bloomberg’s education agenda see the Occupy movement as an opportunity to call attention to what they consider the “occupation” of the New York City public schools by private interests: charter schools, corporate philanthropists and six-figure school-management consultants, all of whom are promoting expanded testing and “school choice.”

This isn’t the first time the concept of “occupation” has been deployed by New York City parent activists. In 1966, in East Harlem, black parents fed up with the failures of racial integration turned instead to racial separatism, demanding “veto power” over the hiring of a white principal at their children’s middle school, IS 201. Over the next two years, the community control movement gained the support of Mayor John Lindsay and the Ford Foundation, and the Brooklyn neighborhood of Ocean Hill-Brownsville won control of its local schools. Black Power activists affiliated with the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and other groups demanded that black children read books written by black authors; that the school system actively recruit black teachers; and that inner-city students stop being “socialized” into white, middle-class culture, and instead learn the histories and artistic contributions of their own African ancestors.

On May 9, 1968, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school governing board fired 18 white teachers, and the United Federation of Teachers called a strike. While the teachers picketed, parent activists physically “occupied” neighborhood schools, presiding over classes and putting Black Power pedagogical theories into practice.

Forty-three years later, the energy in school reform is coming mostly from the top-down, not the bottom-up. Bloomberg critics complain about politically-connected charter school networks like Eva Moskowitz‘s Success Academy, which is currently attempting to wrangle classroom space away from a reticent public school in Cobble Hill. In total, about 70 charter schools across the city have been housed within traditional neighborhood public schools since Bloomberg came to office, while 117 traditional schools have been shut down and over 500 new schools opened. Since 2004, eighth-graders and their parents have been asked to rank their top-12 high school choices from a 534-page directory that describes 647 programs at 394 schools. This “mandatory school choice” system has moved thousands of students into higher-quality schools than they would have otherwise attended—but it has also left 10 percent of all eighth-graders “unmatched” and then assigned to low-quality schools of last resort, those that are undersubscribed in this new competitive marketplace.

Despite this foment of change, the state Department of Education declared that in 2010, only 13 percent of New York City black high school graduates, 15 percent of Latino graduates and 51 percent of white graduates met college-readiness standards.

If the top-down education reform movement has been a disappointment, what could replace it? Parent activists represented by organizations like the Coalition for Educational Justice and the Alliance for Quality Education aren’t happy about the growth of the charter school sector, about the ideology of “school choice” more generally, and about test score-based accountability for teachers and schools. They’ve sued the city Department of Education, disrupted meetings of the Panel for Educational Policy—a Bloomberg-controlled board that acts mostly as a rubber stamp—and on Friday attempted a teach-in at Occupy Wall Street.

The dominant ethos of the school choice / Bloomberg / Obama reform movement is one borrowed not from Wall Street, with its desperate lust for profit, but from Silicon Valley, with its commitment to meritocratic innovation.

“We as parents and community are watching Mayor Bloomberg’s failed agenda,” shouted South Bronx father Jose Gonzalez, utilizing the laborious human mic. “A lot of schools are closing and students are failing!” The solution for poor educational outcomes, Gonzalez said, is for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature to levy a millionaire’s tax and use the resulting funds to lower class sizes; improve teacher professional development; expand access to music and art classes; and provide counseling, pre-K, and other “wraparound” social supports for all children.

Bloomberg won’t embrace this broad agenda because, as a billionaire entrepreneur, “he’s not at our level,” said Minerva Morales, who had come to Zuccotti Park from the Bronx with Kiki, her 13-year old son. “[Bloomberg] doesn’t understand us. He doesn’t understand our children.”

There’s certainly a compelling argument to be made that 1-percenters are exerting an outsize influence over our nation’s schools, particularly urban schools labeled as “failing.” Some of the “school turnaround models” promoted by Bloomberg and President Obama, such as shutting down schools with low test scores or transforming them into charter schools, are those that are trendy among deep-pocketed philanthropists—folks like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, former SunAmerica/AIG chairman Eli Broad and Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow. Focus groups of low-income public school parents in Denver, Detroit and Washington, D.C., convened earlier this year by a Washington public-opinion firm, found that the majority wanted their local schools improved, not shut down or turned over to charter chains; national polling has revealed similar attitudes.

Activists compare school-closings and charter school co-locations to the subprime mortgage crisis. In this analogy, charter school operators like the Success Academy are the big banks, and neighborhood public schools are the small homeowners defaulting on their mortgages. Inner-city schools are “failing,” they say, not because of the irresponsibility of their teachers and principals, but because they haven’t been given the resources and support they need to succeed with an incredibly challenging student population. Charter schools and Mayor Bloomberg’s new “small schools,” meanwhile, have many extra resources: They benefit from the attention of politicians and the wealth of private donors, even while serving fewer disabled and English-as-a-second-language students, whose educations are more expensive.

The trouble with this narrative comes in comparing education reformers with greedy bankers. The dominant ethos of the school choice/Bloomberg/Obama reform movement is one borrowed not from Wall Street, with its desperate lust for profit, but from Silicon Valley, with its commitment to meritocratic innovation that—yes, of course—earns money, but also serves the public. People like Gates and Zuckerberg donate millions to the charter school sector not because they see non-profit charters as business opportunities, but because tech entrepreneurs are powerfully attracted to the ideology of the school choice and accountability movement, which has two main components:

1. An almost religious faith in the ability of data collection to drive positive outcomes. Philanthropists like Gates and Broad have led the charge to institute standardized testing across an increasingly wide range of subjects, from science, reading, and math to art, music, and even “kindergarten readiness.” If we have the numbers, the technocrats believe, we can create incentives and processes to improve instruction. It’s true that better, more comprehensive tests can help motivate good teaching and a rich curriculum. A major error of No Child Left Behind was in building accountability systems around only two subjects, math and reading, which led to schools cutting science, art, and theater programs in a quest to devote all resources to testable “basic skills.” But standardized testing is perennially unpopular among parents and teachers, whose political support the education reform movement needs if it is to succeed. Even more problematic, the reformers are devoting billions of private and public dollars to attempts to tie teacher pay and evaluation to student test scores, even though studies of such programs have turned up high error rates, few student achievement gains, and evidence of adult test-tampering.

2. The idea of quality education being a matter of choice for strivers. Hence, the charter school lottery, a spectacle in which parents motivated to search out education alternatives for their children compete for seats in functional schools. Little attention is paid to the students who are never entered into these lotteries in the first place, because the adults in their life are unable to navigate the increasingly complex Bloomberg school choice system.

Indeed, many parents have been led astray by the Bloombergian practice of giving schools impressive names that have little to do with the educational programs on offer.

And then there are students who end up at the growing number of non-elite “choice” schools, which are no better than traditional schools and sometimes worse. Morales, the Bronx mother and protestor, enrolled her son Kiki in the new Science and Technical Academy at Mott Hall. Kiki wants to be an astronaut, and Morales was attracted to the school’s name. But city data show science is actually the school’s weakest subject, and that the majority of students haven’t reached proficiency in math and reading, either.

“I took my son to this school thinking it was going to have the right education,” Morales said. “But it doesn’t have anything.”

Indeed, many parents have been led astray by the Bloombergian practice of giving schools impressive names that have little to do with the educational programs on offer. The principal of the High School for International Studies told GothamSchools he is proudest of his culinary arts program. In Park Slope, the low-performing John Jay High School was reconstituted as the Secondary Schools for Law and Journalism, both of which have been mired in continuous crisis mode, with low graduation rates, student protests, and now co-location with a competitive admissions school expected to cater mostly to upper middle-class students.

It’s worth pointing out that the 1-percent school reform philanthropists who support the Bloomberg agenda are largely progressive Democrats in favor of higher taxes on the rich (although Bloomberg himself opposes the millionaires’ tax). A fine example is Whitney Tilson, a Teach for America alum who manages a New York hedge fund, gives generously to charter schools and the politicians who support them, and writes an influential education reform newsletter. Tilson has signed the “Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength” petition, in support of raising taxes on people like himself.

This gets at some of the problems with conceiving of American school reform as a story of the 1-percent nastily stomping on the 99-percent: What we’re actually seeing is the most socially-conscious elements of the 1-percent attempting to remake public institutions according to the technocratic, competitive principles that allowed these guys to succeed in the business world. The question is whether these principles are applicable to the public school system.

Sure, American schools can learn from the corporate practices of continuous improvement, technological innovation and performance pay. Why not allow gifted students to jump ahead in the curriculum through the use of video lectures from college professors? Why not pair first-year teachers with veteran teacher-mentors, who can sit-it on newbies’ classes and give them detailed feedback on their instruction? Other countries, like exotic old Canada, spend their education budgets paying excellent teachers more—not in exchange for higher test scores—but for supervising colleagues, writing textbooks, sharing lesson plans and even participating in education policy-making.

The hurdle is that the 1-percent education reformers must truly grasp, deep in their bones, that we need to provide every child with a decent education—not just the ones who attend charter schools, or choice schools, or whose parents can afford to move to the suburbs or live in Tribeca. This means we should focus reform efforts on traditional neighborhood schools, which continue to educate over 90 percent of New York City’s 1.1 million public school students.

What the Occupy Wall Street movement gets about education is that it is a universal right, not something for which parents and kids should have to compete, or for which they should go deep into debt. So far, the Occupiers have focused almost exclusively on the cost of college tuition. But if this movement truly wants to appeal to the 99 percent, it should learn what it can about our nation’s struggling public schools, which are about the closest thing we have—in a society without health care or child care—to a shared, 99 percent institution.


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Martin Luther King Jr.’s Lessons For Occupy D.C.
Why the Tea Party Hates Occupy Wall Street

Dana Goldstein blogs here, tweets here, and is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the Nation Institute. She lives in Brooklyn.