A Different Kind of Writing

I haven’t posted anything here for a while, but that’s not because I haven’t been writing. Next week, a one-act play of mine titled Ice Cream Man will be opening at Manhattan Repertory Theatre.

The play was written in response to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson last summer. While Ice Cream Man isn’t about schools or ecosystems, I think its content grapples with some of the problems that Mark and I wrestle with here.

Michael Brown was a student. He was about to start college. I don’t know what his life would have looked like if he hadn’t been killed last summer, but I know that after he died, the story of Michael Brown’s life was often told in the media as if all he’d done had somehow led him to his death. In a way, by reframing his life as a narrative who’s arc ended in his death at the hands of a policeman, the media took Michael Brown’s life a second time. In some tiny way, I hope to offer a counter-narrative in my play.

If you’re interested in seeing the Ice Cream Man, it will be at Manhattan Repertory April 8-9 at 9pm. For tickets, just email mrtreserve@gmail.com and tell them which night you’re coming. If you’d like to support this production, which is entirely artist funded, you can make a donation at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/ice-cream-man–3/x/10085203

I look forward to seeing some of you there, and to getting back into blogging after this production is done.


On Slavery and School Management

Mark and I began blogging about schools and ecosystems because we were frustrated with the business model of school reform. As we wrote in our original schools and ecosystems manifesto, “applying an industrial-growth model” to school design doesn’t work– at least not for students and teachers. We proposed that viewing schools as ecosystems might help us design more humane and effective educational reforms than those currently on offer.

Sadly, it doesn’t seem like that’s the direction education reform will take in New York State anytime soon. In case you hadn’t heard, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to subject public school teachers to be a new evaluation scale wherein student standardized test scores will be the core measure of a teacher’s quality. Cuomo also wants a merit pay system wherein teacher pay would be linked to student test scores.

Merit pay and value-added assessment: these are common proposals from advocates of the business model. Their merits have been roundly debated elsewhere, so our readers likely already have a position on each of these management tools. What you might not know, however, is that both of these common management techniques have their roots in American chattel slavery.

Caitlin C. Rosenthal, a fellow at that hotbed of radicalism known as Harvard Business School, has been researching the connections between modern management and the techniques that slaveowners used to track and improve their slaves’ productivity. Rosenthal has found that having a captive workforce allowed slaveowners to experiment with a wide variety of management techniques. Among these, merit pay:

“This led owners to experiment with ways of increasing the pace of labor, Rosenthal explains, such as holding contests with small cash prizes for those who picked the most cotton, and then requiring the winners to pick that much cotton from there on out. Slave narratives describe how others used the data to calculate punishment, meting out whippings according to how many pounds each picker fell short.

Similar incentive plans reappeared in early twentieth-century factories, with managers dangling the promise of cash rewards if their workers reached certain production levels.”

Slaveowners also pioneered the art of measuring employee value as a function of productivity:

“Starting in the late 1840s, [slave-managing innovator] Thomas Affleck’s account books instructed planters to record depreciation or appreciation of slaves on their annual balance sheet. In 1861, for example, another Mississippi planter priced his 48-year-old foreman, Hercules, at $500; recorded the worth of Middleton, a 26-year-old top-producing field hand, at $1,500; and gave 9-month-old George Washington a value of $150. At the end of the year, he repeated this process, adjusting for changes in health and market prices, and the difference in price was recorded on the final balance sheet.

These account books played a role in reducing slaves to ‘human capital,’ Rosenthal says, allowing owners who were removed from day-to-day operations to see their slaves as assets, as interchangeable units of production in a ledger, instead of as people.”

Much of this is hardly surprising. After all:

“The evolution of modern management is usually associated with good old-fashioned intelligence and ingenuity—’a glorious parade of inventions that goes from textile looms to the computer,’ Rosenthal says. But in reality, it’s much messier than that. Capitalism is not just about the free market; it was also built on the backs of slaves who were literally the opposite of free.

Perhaps I’m being generous, but I’d like to assume that when Cuomo and other business-minded reformers propose using merit pay and value-added assessment of employees, they’re unaware that they’re proposing slaveowner management techniques. Now that this troubling history is out there, let’s hope they’ll reconsider before advocating tools used to build and maintain one of America’s most brutal and repugnant institutions.

School Reform and the Borg Complex

I had never heard of the Borg Complex until I stumbled across it on The Frailest Thing, a fascinating blog that focuses on people and technology. According to this blog, the Borg Complex “is exhibited by writers and pundits who explicitly assert or implicitly assume that resistance to technology is futile.” The blog goes on to define eight symptoms of the Borg Complex:

1. Makes grandiose, but unsupported claims for technology

2. Uses the term Luddite a-historically and as a casual slur

3. Pays lip service to, but ultimately dismisses genuine concerns

4. Equates resistance or caution to reactionary nostalgia

5. Starkly and matter-of-factly frames the case for assimilation

6. Announces the bleak future for those who refuse to assimilate

7. Expresses contemptuous disregard for past cultural achievements

8. Refers to historical antecedents solely to dismiss present concerns

Right away, I was struck by how closely these symptoms match the public behavior of advocates of corporate school reformers. From points 1 (advocating reform with grandiose, unsupported claims) and 2 (ridiculing anyone who argues that many community schools function quite well) all the way to point 8 (referencing historical context only to suggest that the community school model is antiquated), the Borg Complex appears to be at epidemic levels in the world of corporate reform.

In future posts, I’ll examine manifestations of the Borg Complex in the world of education. For now, I’ll quote the original post on the dangers that Borg rhetoric– which aggressively promotes a very narrow vision of progress as if there were no alternatives–  poses to discussions about schools, or about anything:

Marshall McLuhan once said, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.” The handwaving rhetoric that I’ve called a Borg Complex is resolutely opposed to just such contemplation when it comes to technology and its consequences. We need more thinking, not less, and Borg Complex rhetoric is typically deployed to stop rather than advance discussion. What’s more, Borg Complex rhetoric also amounts to a refusal of responsibility. We cannot, after all, be held responsible for what is inevitable.

What We Talk About When We Talk About School

I have an article in Jacobin this week about the impact of jargon on our understanding of public education. One of the key points Mark and I have made in this blog since the very beginning is that schools are physical environments. When we use jargon, or any language that is unnecessarily technical or unclear, to discuss schools, we make that physical environment seem like an abstraction. As I argue in the article:

“Beyond confusing and misleading the public, jargon obscures the fact that when we talk about schools, we’re talking about places where children live and grow for seven to nine hours a day, ten months out of the year. If they’re poor, these children spend their days in overcrowded classrooms that are poorly lit and poorly ventilated.

My first two years teaching in the public schools, I worked at a high school where students spent their entire school day, five days a week, without ever leaving the building. These teenagers received a single thirty-minute break each day for lunch and recess combined. Their recess consisted of milling about the school cafeteria after eating. Jargon reduces these pent-up children to abstractions and effaces the brutality of this type of captivity.”

The more direct and clear our language is, the less it will obscure the physical reality of school environments.

Jargon & Ecosystems

Lately, Mark and I have been very interested in the language people use when they talk about school. It’s an obvious, but important point: how we talk about schools affects how we understand them. The same is true for ecosystems.

The NY Times ran an interesting piece earlier this month about a Queens ecosystem in transition. The article describes plans to transform an abandoned railway into a massive park that would run from Rego Park to Ozone Park. As the article notes, the proposed park “would be accessible to 322,000 city residents”, providing these people with a new space to explore, play, or simply relax among trees and green grass.

The plan sounds like a no-brainer in a city that’s devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to constructing park lands, bike lanes, and other outdoor public spaces in wealthier sections of Manhattan and Brooklyn over the last decade. Strangely, however, Mayor De Blasio’s office responded to the plans with something other than enthusiasm. In fact, the response from the Mayor’s office was almost incomprehensible. As the Times reported:

The plan has been shown to officials from the city’s parks and transportation departments, as well as City Hall. But the response so far is noncommittal. “We look forward to continuing conversations with stakeholders about the future of this asset,” Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio’s office, said on Monday.

Just to reiterate, the plan in question is to transform an abandoned railway into a park so that hundreds of thousands of people can have green, outdoor space in which to frolic. That point seems worth reiterating because Norvell’s robotic statement uses the kind of business jargon– complete with reference to “stakeholders” and “assets”– designed specifically to obscure the physical realities that we’re discussing.

To those of us in education, this type of jargon is both familiar and destructive. When we talk about schools and ecosystems, we’re talking about physical spaces inhabited by living beings. We are talking about complex, specific realities. When we talk about “assets,” we reduce these ecosystems to pieces of property whose fate will be decided by “stakeholders”, a term taken from the worlds of gambling and finance to reduce human beings in need of green space to contestants in a game controlled by whoever’s got the money to run the table.

I hope that the city supports this– and any– plan to give city residents access to more green space where such space is readily available. More than that, though, I hope that when we talk about schools and ecosystems, we can avoid the practice of using the vague, technocratic jargon of the business world to describe worlds where financial profit should not be the ultimate goal. The problems of schools and ecosystems are the problems of living things. Let’s talk about them in language that illuminates, rather than obscures, the complex and specific worlds that human beings inhabit.