‘Repeat After Me: The United States Is Not an Imperialist Country—Oh, and Don’t Get Emotional About War’

By Bill Bigelow

You may have seen that an administrative law judge in Arizona, Lewis Kowal, just upheld the decree by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction that Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program violates state law. Judge Kowal found that the Tucson program was teaching Latino history and culture “in a biased, political, and emotionally charged manner.” According to CNN, one lesson that the judge objected to taught that the historic treatment of Mexican Americans was “marked by the use of force, fraud and exploitation.

Try this “history detective” experiment. Ask the next person you encounter to tell you what they know about the U.S. war with Mexico. More than likely, this will be a short conversation, because that war (1846-48) merits barely a footnote in U.S. history textbooks. The most recent textbook I was assigned when I taught high school history in Portland, Ore. was American Odyssey. In 250 pages devoted to pre-20th century U.S. history, the book includes exactly two paragraphs on this war. (The district’s new adoption, History Alive! Pursuing American Ideals, doubles the coverage to a whopping four paragraphs.)

(Download Teaching Activity PDF from the Zinn Education Project: “U.S. Mexico War: ‘We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God’“)

And yet this is the war that “gave”—in the words of American Odyssey—California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and part of Colorado to the United States of America. And the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, formally ending the war, ratified the annexation of Texas, which had broken away from Mexico largely because of Mexico’s policies against slavery.

Most Mexicans know that the war against Mexico was another chapter in U.S. imperialism—a “North American invasion,” as it’s commemorated in a huge memorial in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park. But don’t take Mexicans’ word for it. Here’s what Col. Ethan Allan Hitchcock, aide to the commander of U.S. forces Gen. Zachary Taylor, wrote at the time in his journal about the war’s origins:

“I have said from the first that the United States are the aggressors. … We have not one particle of right to be here … It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.”

Exactly. President James K. Polk, himself a slave-owner, had ordered U.S. troops into an area claimed by Mexico and inhabited by Mexicans and waited for them to be attacked. And when they were, Polk claimed aggression and the U.S. had its war. The invading U.S. Army actually called itself the Army of Occupation.

The abolition movement regarded the war as a land grab to expand slavery. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass denounced the Mexican invasion as “a murderous war—as a war against the free states—as a war against freedom, against the Negro, and against the interests of workingmen of this country—and as a means of extending that great evil and damning curse, negro slavery.”

Henry David Thoreau coined the term “civil disobedience” in defense of his position that people should not pay taxes to support the war against Mexico. Thoreau argued that a minority can act against an unjust system only when it “clogs by its whole weight.”

Students enrolled in Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program would likely have known this history, because, after all, this is the story of how people living in Tucson no longer live in Mexico. But according to Judge Kowal, the program violates state law. That law bans curriculum that might “promote resentment toward a race or class of people.” And, as mentioned, Kowal complained that the material in Mexican American Studies was presented in “an emotionally charged manner…

I have not seen the full Mexican American Studies curriculum, although I know it includes important texts like Rudolfo Acuña’s classic Occupied America and Paulo Freire’s A Pedagogy of the Oppressed—a book studied in every teacher education program worthy of the name.

But I’m wondering how one can teach about the history of the U.S. relationship with Mexico in a manner that is not “emotionally charged.” You want to talk about “bias”? What about the bias of a textbook that can “cover” a war like that waged against Mexico in two paragraphs, or four paragraphs, and fail to so much as quote a Mexican, an abolitionist, a soldier, a woman, an African American, or a Native American—or fail to describe the death or injury of a single human being? What about the bias of a textbook or an entire curriculum that can discuss invasion and war in a manner that is not “emotionally charged”?

Here’s a U.S. infantry lieutenant who wrote his parents after a U.S. officer named Walker was killed in battle, quoted in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States:

“Gen. Lane … told us to ‘avenge the death of the gallant Walker’ … Grog shops were broken open first and then, maddened with liquor, every species of outrage was committed. Old women and girls were stripped of their clothing—many suffered still greater outrages. Men were shot by dozens … their property, churches, stores, and dwelling houses ransacked … It made me for the first time ashamed of my country.”

In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant wrote that this was “one of the most unjust [wars] ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation …”

The problem with the school curriculum in this country is that it is not emotionally charged enough. Poverty rates are skyrocketing—especially for children of color. People are losing their homes because of the criminal behavior of huge financial institutions—and race has a lot to do with who profits and who suffers. This country’s military is still being sent to invade and occupy—and murder people with silent, invisible drones. The rich and powerful poison our atmosphere, our water, our food, and our children.

So, yes, let’s have a curriculum that gets emotional—and that tells a fuller truth than is offered in our textbooks. And let’s stand in solidarity with the teachers and students in Tucson who are demanding to teach and learn about things that matter.

Bill Bigelow is Curriculum Editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, and co-directs the Zinn Education Project. He is author of The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.

Related Resources:

The Line Between Us The Line Between Us explores the history of U.S-Mexican relations and the roots of Mexican immigration, all in the context of the global economy. And it shows how teachers can help students understand the immigrant experience and the drama of border life. Using role plays, stories, poetry, improvisations, simulations and video, veteran teacher Bill Bigelow demonstrates how to combine lively teaching with critical analysis.
A People's History for the Classroom A People’s History for the Classroom helps teachers introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of U.S. history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula. Teaching articles and lesson plans — drawn from an assortment of Rethinking Schools publications — emphasize the role of working people, women, people of color, and organized social movements in shaping history, and raise important questions about patterns of wealth and power throughout U.S. history.

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Michelle Alexander on The New Jim Crow and the school-to-prison pipeline

by Jody Sokolower

Last spring I went to hear Michelle Alexander, the dynamic author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She spoke to an overflow audience at a primarily African American church.

We were transfixed as she described how difficult it had been for her, as a civil rights attorney, to face the current realities of what is happening with prisons in this country and its impact on people of color. It was the stories of one formerly incarcerated person after another that finally broke through her long-held beliefs about the justice system. She went on to explain her thought-provoking and disturbing thesis: Mass incarceration, justified and organized around the war on drugs, has become the new face of racial discrimination in the United States.

At that point, we were in the midst of planning the winter issue of Rethinking Schools—available the first week in January—which focuses on the school-to-prison pipeline. I realized how important Michelle’s perspective is in understanding how the criminalization of youth fits into the larger social picture. So we asked her to provide a context for our readers by sharing her thoughts about the implications of her work when applied to education and the lives of children and youth. She agreed. Here is the interview:

RS: What is the impact of mass incarceration on African American children and youth?

MA: There is an extraordinary impact. For African American children, in particular, the odds are extremely high that they will have a parent or loved one, a relative, who has either spent time behind bars or who has acquired a criminal record and thus is part of the under-caste—the group of people who can be legally discriminated against for the rest of their lives. For many African American children, their fathers, and increasingly their mothers, are behind bars. It is very difficult for them to visit. Many people are held hundreds or even thousands of miles away from home. There is a tremendous amount of shame with having a parent or other family member incarcerated. There can be fear of having it revealed to others at school.

But also, for these children, their life chances are greatly diminished. They are more likely to be raised in severe poverty; their parents are unlikely to be able to find work or housing and are often ineligible even for food stamps.

For children, the era of mass incarceration has meant a tremendous amount of family separation, broken homes, poverty, and a far, far greater level of hopelessness as they see so many of their loved ones cycling in and out of prison. Children who have incarcerated parents are far more likely themselves to be incarcerated.

When young black men reach a certain age—whether or not there is incarceration in their families—they themselves are the target of police stops, interrogations, frisks, often for no reason other than their race. And, of course, this level of harassment sends a message to them, often at an early age: No matter who you are or what you do, you’re going to find yourself behind bars one way or the other. This reinforces the sense that prison is part of their destiny, rather than a choice one makes.

A Birdcage as a Metaphor

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

RS: At one point in The New Jim Crow, you refer to the metaphor of a birdcage as a way to describe structural racism and apply that to mass incarceration. How does what is happening to African American youth in our schools fit into that picture?

MA: The idea of the metaphor is there can be many bars, wires that keep a person trapped. All of them don’t have to have been created for the purpose of harming or caging the bird, but they still serve that function. Certainly youth of color, particularly those in ghetto communities, find themselves born into the cage. They are born into a community in which the rules, laws, policies, structures of their lives virtually guarantee that they will remain trapped for life. It begins at a very early age when their parents themselves are either behind bars or locked in a permanent second-class status and cannot afford them the opportunities they otherwise could. For example, those with felony convictions are denied access to public housing, hundreds of professions that require certification, financial support for education, and often the right to vote. Thousands of people are unable even to get food stamps because they were once caught with drugs.

The cage itself is manifested by the ghetto, which is racially segregated, isolated, cut off from social and economic opportunities. The cage is the unequal educational opportunities these children are provided at a very early age coupled with the constant police surveillance they’re likely to encounter, making it very likely that they’re going to serve time and be caught for committing the various types of minor crimes—particularly drug crimes—that occur with roughly equal frequency in middle-class white communities but go largely ignored.

So, for many, whether they go to prison or not is far less about the choices they make and far more about what kind of cage they’re born into. Middle-class white children, children of privilege, are afforded the opportunity to make a lot of mistakes and still go on to college, still dream big dreams. But for kids who are born in the ghetto in the era of mass incarceration, the system is designed in such a way that it traps them, often for life.

RS: How do you define and analyze the school-to-prison pipeline?

MA: It’s really part of the large cage or caste that I was describing earlier. The school-to-prison pipeline is another metaphor—a good one for explaining how children are funneled directly from schools into prison. Instead of schools being a pipeline to opportunity, schools are feeding our prisons.

It’s important for us to understand how school discipline policies have been influenced by the war on drugs and the “get tough” movement. Many people imagine that zero tolerance rhetoric emerged within the school environment, but it’s not true. In fact, the Advancement Project published a report showing that one of the earliest examples of zero tolerance language in school discipline manuals was a cut-and-paste job from a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration manual. The wave of punitiveness that washed over the United States with the rise of the drug war and the get tough movement really flooded our schools. Schools, caught up in this maelstrom, began viewing children as criminals or suspects, rather than as young people with an enormous amount of potential struggling in their own ways and their own difficult context to make it and hopefully thrive. We began viewing the youth in schools as potential violators rather than as children needing our guidance.

The Mythology of Colorblindness

RS: In your book, you explain that the policies of mass incarceration are technically “colorblind” but lead to starkly racialized results. How do you see this specifically affecting children and young people of color?

MA: The mythology around colorblindness leads people to imagine that if poor kids of color are failing or getting locked up in large numbers, it must be something wrong with them. It leads young kids of color to look around and say: “There must be something wrong with me, there must be something wrong with us. Is there something inherent, something different about me, about us as a people, that leads us to fail so often, that leads us to live in these miserable conditions, that leads us to go in and out of prison?”

The mythology of colorblindness takes the race question off the table. It makes it difficult for people to even formulate the question: Could this be about something more than individual choices? Maybe there is something going on that’s linked to the history of race in our country and the way race is reproducing itself in modern times.

I think this mythology—that of course we’re all beyond race, of course our police officers aren’t racist, of course our politicians don’t mean any harm to people of color—this idea that we’re beyond all that (so it must be something else) makes it difficult for young people as well as the grown-ups to be able to see clearly and honestly the truth of what’s going on. It makes it difficult to see that the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement manifested itself in the form of mass incarceration, in the form of defunding and devaluing schools serving kids of color and all the rest. We have avoided in recent years talking openly and honestly about race out of fear that it will alienate and polarize. In my own view, it’s our refusal to deal openly and honestly with race that leads us to keep repeating these cycles of exclusion and division, and rebirthing a caste-like system that we claim we’ve left behind.

RS: We are in the midst of a huge attack on public education—privatization through charters and vouchers; increased standardization, regimentation, and testing; and the destruction of teachers’ unions. Much of it is justified by what appears to be anti-racist rhetoric: Schools aren’t meeting the needs of inner-city children, so their parents need choices. How do you see this?

MA: People who focus solely on what do we do given the current context are avoiding the big why. Why is it that these schools aren’t meeting these kids’ needs? Why is it that such a large percentage of the African American population today is trapped in these ghettos? What is the bigger picture?

The bigger picture is that over the last 30 years, we have spent $1 trillion waging a drug war that has failed in any meaningful way to reduce drug addiction or abuse, and yet has siphoned an enormous amount of resources away from other public services, especially education. We are in a social and political context in which the norm is to punish poor folks of color rather than to educate and empower them with economic opportunity. It is that political context that leads some people to ask: Don’t children need to be able to escape poorly performing schools? Of course, no one should be trapped in bad schools or bad neighborhoods. No one. But I think we need to be asking a larger question: How do we change the norm, the larger context that people seem to accept as a given? Are we so thoroughly resigned to what “is” that we cannot even begin a serious conversation about how to create what ought to be?

The education justice movement and the prison justice movement have been operating separately in many places as though they’re in silos. But the reality is we’re not going to provide meaningful education opportunities to poor kids, kids of color, until and unless we recognize that we’re wasting trillions of dollars on a failed criminal justice system. Kids are growing up in communities in which they see their loved ones cycling in and out of prison and in which they are sent the message in countless ways that they, too, are going to prison one way or another. We cannot build healthy, functioning schools within a context where there is no funding available because it’s going to building prisons and police forces.

RS: And fighting wars?

MA: Yes, and fighting wars. And where there is so much hopelessness because of the prevalence of mass incarceration.

At the same time, we’re foolish if we think we’re going to end mass incarceration unless we are willing to deal with the reality that huge percentages of poor people are going to remain jobless, locked out of the mainstream economy, unless and until they have a quality education that prepares them well for the new economy. There has got to be much more collaboration between the two movements and a greater appreciation for the work of the advocates in each community. It’s got to be a movement that’s about education, not incarceration—about jobs, not jails. A movement that integrates the work in these various camps from, in my view, a human rights perspective.

Fighting Back

RS: What is the role of teachers in responding to this crisis? What should we be doing in our classrooms? What should we be doing as education activists?

MA: That is a wonderful question and one I’m wrestling with myself now. I am in the process of working with others trying to develop curriculum and materials that will make it easier to talk to young people about these issues in ways that won’t lead to paralysis, fear, or resignation, but instead will enlighten and inspire action and critical thinking in the future. It’s very difficult but it must be done.

We have to be willing to take some risks. In my experience, there is a lot of hesitancy to approach these issues in the classroom out of fear that students will become emotional or angry, or that the information will reinforce their sense of futility about their own lives and experience. It’s important to teach them about the reality of the system, that it is in fact the case that they are being targeted unfairly, that the rules have been set up in a way that authorize unfair treatment of them, and how difficult it is to challenge these laws in the courts. We need to teach them how our politics have changed in recent years, how there has been, in fact, a backlash. But we need to couple that information with stories of how people in the past have challenged these kinds of injustices, and the role that youth have played historically in those struggles.

I think it’s important to encourage young people to tell their own stories and to speak openly about their own experiences with the criminal justice system and the experiences of their family. We need to ensure that the classroom environment is a supportive one so that the shame and stigma can be dispelled. Then teachers can use those stories of what students have witnessed and experienced as the opportunity to begin asking questions: How did we get here? Why is this happening? How are things different in other communities? How is this linked to what has gone on in prior periods of our nation’s history? And what, then, can we do about it?

Just providing information about how bad things are, or the statistics and data on incarceration by themselves, does lead to more depression and resignation and is not empowering. The information has to be presented in a way that’s linked to the piece about encouraging students to think critically and creatively about how they might respond to injustice, and how young people have responded to injustice in the past.

RS: What specifically?

MA: There’s a range of possibilities. I was inspired by what students have done in some schools organizing walkouts protesting the lack of funding and that sort of thing. There are opportunities for students to engage in those types of protests—taking to the streets—but there is also writing poetry, writing music, beginning to express themselves, holding forums, educating each other, the whole range. For example, for a period of time the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, Calif., was focused on youth engagement and advocacy to challenge mass incarceration. They launched a number of youth campaigns to close youth incarceration facilities in northern California. They demonstrated that it is really possible to blend hip-hop culture with very creative and specific advocacy and to develop young leaders. Young people today are very creative in using social media and there is a wide range of ways that they can get involved.

The most important thing at this stage is inspiring an awakening. There is a tremendous amount of confusion and denial that exists about mass incarceration today, and that is the biggest barrier to movement building. As long as we remain in denial about this system, movement building will be impossible. Exposing youth in classrooms to the truth about this system and developing their critical capacities will, I believe, open the door to meaningful engagement and collective, inspired action.

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From the Archives: Unwrapping the Holidays

A recent conversation in a Facebook group I’m a part of centered on the celebration of the holiday, specifically Christmas.

Illustration: Bob Gale

The conversation started with this: “My school is very, very holiday orientated. All the classrooms have Christmas trees and have their students participate in Secret Santa and they even have Santa Claus come and the Three Kings and Baby Jesus visit the classroom. I don’t judge anything, but I personally have a number of reasons I feel uncomfortable pushing candy, materialism, consumerism and religion in my classroom. When I try to opt out or ask questions they think I am a Scrooge… Any ideas?”

This teacher’s question reminded me how delicate an undertaking it can be to challenge “the way things have always been done” as it relates to holiday celebrations. 

At Rethinking Schools, we’ve been challenging “the way it’s always been done” for years in our magazine and with our books.  But what we offer is not a formula or a “how-to” manual. Rather, we provide a space where teachers can share their successes, but also their struggles and lessons learned as they work to incorporate social justice teaching in their classrooms and schools.

In “Unwrapping the Holidays” (Fall 2003), Dale Weiss shares a poignant story of her attempts to change holiday traditions in her first year as a teacher.  We can all learn from Dale’s experience.

Enjoy this peek into our archives. 

Warm wishes to you and your families for a joyful and meaning-filled season.

– Kris Collett

This post represents the views of the author, and not necessarily those of Rethinking Schools.

Unwrapping the Holidays: A Teacher Reflects on a Difficult First Year

by Dale Weiss

My teaching career began on the picket line. After I was hired to teach first grade in a small town outside of Seattle, I spent my first month in front of the school instead of in the classroom.

After 30 days, our union settled the strike and won smaller class sizes for first and second grade, better health benefits, and a slight raise in salary. And on a personal level, I felt that I had really bonded with my colleagues. Most of the teachers who worked at this school had been born and raised in that small town and they showed extraordinary kindness to me during the strike. My father was having major surgery and I was extremely sad and worried. Each day, teachers inquired about his health. Other teachers showed concern about my lack of income and brought me bags of food. One teacher, Joseph, even brought me several bags of plums from his tree.

But through the course of the year, many of the bonds we formed on the picket line dissolved as I became involved in a controversy over holiday curriculum.

Before I became a teacher, I had spent years as a political activist. I saw my work as a teacher as important political work and wanted to create a classroom where students would learn to challenge biases and injustice and take action against unfair situations. Since this way of viewing the world seemed normal to me, I naïvely assumed my colleagues — with whom I experienced solidarity on the picket line — shared the same worldview. I could not have been more wrong.

Holiday Decorations

Before Thanksgiving, two sixth-grade girls approached me to ask if my first-graders could make ornaments for the Christmas tree in the library.

I replied, “We have been learning about four different winter celebrations: Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas in Mexico, and Winter Solstice, and we are in the process of making a book about each celebration. We could put our books in the library for other children and teachers to read as our contribution.” The sixth-grade girls were persistent and still wanted to know if I would have my students make ornaments.

“I don’t think so,” I said, and then returned to my classroom.

I remember wondering if I would be depriving my students of something by my decision, but in my heart I felt I was doing the right thing. I was teaching them that not everyone celebrates Christmas, that there are many celebratory practices in the month of December, and that each celebration is richly marked with unique customs and beliefs. Not making Christmas ornaments would not rob my students of anything — except the belief that only Christmas occurred in December.

Thinking back to the Christmas tree in the library and feeling that holiday decorations should reflect diversity, I decided to speak with my principal, Oscar. Referring to the decorations in the library, I emphasized that I thought public areas in the school should reflect as much diversity as possible. Oscar was very supportive but he cautioned me that many staff members might not agree with my opinions.

At our staff meeting, I expressed my concern about the public Christmas displays and also mentioned the four different December celebrations we were studying in my classroom. And I shared an experience that had recently occurred in my classroom with Lindsey, a child who was a Jehovah’s Witness. Her mother had expressed concern about the class study on Christmas in Mexico. After I explained that our study emphasized the cultural and not religious aspects of the celebration, the parent was relieved. I shared that as a Jew, I also did not celebrate Christmas. The next morning Lindsey ran up to me, gave me a big hug, and said, “My mom told me you don’t celebrate Christmas either. Now I’m not the only one.” I shared my student’s reaction as an example of the pain children can experience when they don’t fit in. I also felt responsibility as an educator to minimize that pain in whatever ways I could.

As the staff meeting ended, two staff members thanked me for opening their eyes to new ways of looking at things. But mostly there was silence. Later in the day I heard, secondhand, that Robert, the librarian, was upset about what I had said during the staff meeting. When I approached him, he said he felt blamed for the library decorations, despite the fact it was the sixth graders who had put up the decorations. I told him that I was not blaming him; I was merely concerned about decorations in common areas within the school.

I visited one teacher, Linda, during our lunch hour to ask if I had inadvertently offended her. When I got there, she was ripping the “Merry Christmas” banner off her wall, saying to a colleague, “We used to be able to do anything we wanted to at Christmas time, but apparently not anymore.”

I asked if she was referring to what I said at the staff meeting, and she replied, “Well, yes. Plus, I don’t teach about Hanukkah because I just don’t know how to pronounce all those words. Besides, I just don’t feel comfortable teaching about something I don’t know much about.” I shared that my viewpoints were not only based in my being Jewish — though this is a part of who I am — but because I believe it is important for children to have exposure to all different kinds of people, customs, and belief systems. I also shared that I, too, have a hard time teaching something new and that one way I learn is to read books written for children. Alexis then responded, “We’re used to doing the same things every year. When Dec-ember rolls around, we always take out our December boxes and put on the walls whatever is in those boxes. And we really don’t think about it. We prefer it that way.” Just then the bell rang and our conversation ended.

As the days went on, I noticed lots of Christmas decorations coming off the walls. The library was almost barren. And, where the library Christmas tree once stood, a book was placed on Hanukkah. Though I had stated my hope that decorations should be more inclusive and had not requested all Christmas decorations to be removed — and certainly not that a book about Hanukkah take their place — what people heard was something quite different.

The following day, Friday, Oscar shared with me that my comments at the staff meeting had really stirred things up, and that people had been speaking with him about the meeting all week. He said he wanted to put the issue on the agenda of the upcoming faculty committee meeting, where I represented the first-grade unit.

On Monday morning, as I arrived at school, I was greeted with an anonymous letter in my mailbox. The message said, “Rights for homosexuals next?” I felt incredibly upset and scared. After showing the letter to Oscar, he said he would share the contents of the letter with the faculty committee at our meeting on the following day.

When the meeting began, one teacher said she felt it was important for me to understand that teachers have done things a certain way for many years at the school and that the holiday curriculum was not offensive because it was well within the district’s student learning objectives. I then repeated what I had stated at the staff meeting and said that it had not been my intent to hurt or offend anyone and if I had, I was truly sorry. Another teacher piped up that she had taught for 20 years — in comparison to my two-and-a-half months — and she felt no need at all to have to explain her curriculum to me. She ended by reminding me “to check things out before jumping to conclusions about the way things are done at our school.”

I thought a lot about what she said. I always had seen myself as a person with a commitment to understanding other peoples’ views and who takes the time to talk things through. I have never been comfortable with people coming in from the outside and trying to change things immediately. I wondered if I had become that kind of person. When I first noticed the Christmas tree in the library and had thoughts that holiday decorations should reflect diversity, I shared this with Oscar prior to saying anything at the staff meeting. Should I have checked things out with other teachers as well?

A few other teachers said they wished I had brought up my concerns in October, before the holiday decorations went up. I replied that, as a new teacher, I wanted to wait and see what happened, rather than assume how things would end up. I thought I was sitting back, waiting and watching — but others saw me as a newcomer barging in, but somehow barging in too late.

Joseph (the same man who had kindly brought me plums on the picket line) then stated, “You know, several of the staff of Germanic background are extremely upset by the fact that the Christmas tree in the library was removed and in its place put a book on Hanukkah.” I felt shocked by his comment. I said that I had no idea who removed the Christmas tree and whoever had, did so at their own discretion. I also did not know who put the book on Hanukkah in its place.

Oscar then shared the contents of the anonymous letter I had received, commenting that this was an example of how far things had gone and how ugly they had gotten. People were shocked and could not believe that “someone from a staff as kind as ours could have done something like this.”

As the meeting came to a close, Oscar reiterated the importance of openly speaking with one another when differences occur and that talking behind one another’s backs would only serve to divide the staff further. He said he hoped the staff could heal and move forward with understanding.

Oscar checked on me several times during the day, letting me know how offensive he found Joseph’s comment about “staff of Germanic heritage.” I appreciated his support since Joseph’s comment really shook me up. I kept thinking it would have been one thing if Joseph had simply said “several staff,” but adding “of Germanic heritage” meant something very different. It felt like a brief look into the hatred of the Nazis towards the Jews.


Prior to the faculty committee meeting, I had not realized the extent of misunderstanding and anger that existed. I felt scared and continued to search my mind for who might have put the anonymous letter in my mailbox. Up until the prior week I had looked forward to each day of teaching with great eagerness and pleasure. I now dreaded coming to school.

I felt trapped, wondering if the only way out was to join the opinion of the majority. Realizing I could not trade my beliefs for a few moments of “relief,” what instead seemed to pull me through was a feeling of strong empathy for all who struggle for something that is right. I thought about people throughout history who took the first step — and sometimes alone — to bring awareness to an injustice. I thought about people who risk so much while working to bring about a more just world, who stand on the shoulders of those who came before them and know they must keep trying. It was an empathy that forced me to keep trying as well.

In the days that followed, a few staff members offered their support, for which I was immensely appreciative. I thought back on the first days of picket duty, when relations with my co-workers seemed so promising. I was glad for these memories. They helped soften the present wounds.

At the same time, I had to acknowledge that while the strike served to unify the staff and was a way for me to become acquainted with my colleagues, sharp differences also existed. They were differences that went beyond whether or not someone was nice.

I had popped open a huge can of worms, too big to shut. My original intention was not to change others but to see more diversity reflected in the library and other common areas within the school. But what, in my mind, was a simple request upset the teaching foundations of many teachers, caused resistance and upheaval, and resulted in alienation among many staff members and myself.

It was a long year, that first year of teaching. I tried my best to remain cordial with my colleagues, something that was often difficult — yet important — to do. In January of that year, Oscar shared with me he would be leaving for the remainder of the school year due to poor health. He left in February, and his replacement, Jeanne, offered me incredible support — both as a new teacher and as someone attempting to teach from a social justice perspective. This definitely helped me finish out the rest of the school year. Before the school year ended, Oscar died. It is to his memory and his support of, and belief in, me that first year that I have always dedicated my life as a teacher.

I remained at that school one more year, at which point I transferred to a school in Seattle.

Lessons Learned

What I have come to refer to as the “December incident” provided many valuable lessons for me.

First, I had not sufficiently assessed the staff regarding their potential reactions to being asked to be more inclusive in the school’s December celebrations. I assumed I “knew” the staff because we had walked the picket line for 30 straight days. I naïvely equated solidarity around union issues with pedagogical agreement. Additionally, I was the first new teacher to be hired at this school in many years, and I was viewed as an outsider.

Second, I did not take into consideration that many teachers held negative attitudes toward the administration because of the strike that began our school year. Although the strike was over, the administration was still viewed by many as the “enemy.” Additionally, my positive rapport with Oscar was viewed by some teachers as aligning with the administration.

Finally, what I am now able to recognize years later is that for the staff of my school, the celebration of Christmas represented much more than merely honoring a holiday that falls in December. It represented an entire belief system and something they valued and wanted to pass on to their students.

If I could turn back the wheels of time, I would definitely do things differently. I would sit through a “Christmas season” first, modeling my own beliefs within my classroom, but not pushing for change within the entire school. By allowing Christmas to happen first “as it always has,” I would better be able to assess people’s attachments to doing things in a particular way. I would then bring up the “Christmas issue” in the spring when the issue might not be so emotionally charged.

If I could do it again, I would start by assessing people’s viewpoints and beliefs instead of assuming they would understand or desire to do anything differently. For example, my co-workers prided themselves on being nice. They heard my request for diversity as meaning they had not been nice to people who do not celebrate Christmas. While I believe that my co-workers misinterpreted my original intent, I also think that I was partially responsible for this. I went about things in a way that did not first acknowledge the values held by most of the staff. Perhaps if I had first acknowledged how important the Christmas season was to the vast majority of the staff, they might have been more open to adding a bit of diversity to what to them was the “normal” way of celebrating December. Since I didn’t start by acknowledging their values, people’s defenses were up and they did not hear what I was trying to say. As a result, people clung tighter to their own belief systems, and my efforts essentially moved things backwards.

Introducing change into a school environment — especially one that has been firmly established for many years — is a complex process, one that I vastly underestimated. While I don’t condone the reactions of many of my colleagues, I do feel I understand what precipitated their response.

I also did not fully consider that people’s reactions to me might be based on the fact I was a first-year teacher. I can now see that not all veteran teachers — particularly those who have shaped the school culture and prefer things to stay a particular way — welcome new teachers with open arms.

I assumed my passionate devotion to my values could enhance the existing curriculum. I spent most of my first year of teaching trying to meld the world of my political activism with the new world I was entering as a teacher. I still believe that our best teaching occurs when we live first as authentic human beings, so I would never advocate leaving one’s values at the classroom doorstep. I would, however, suggest a balance of caution and wisdom when embarking on this delicate journey.

Taking Teacher Quality Seriously: A Collaborative Approach to Teacher Evaluation

Next spring, we will release the book, Pencils Down: Rethinking High-Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools, edited by Wayne Au and Melissa Bollow Tempel. The following original essay by Rethinking Schools editor Stan Karp will be included in the book. In it, Stan discusses some of the problems with the current conversations around teacher quality, and examines better alternatives.  


Stan Karpby Stan Karp

So what’s the alternative? If narrow, test-based evaluation of teachers is unfair, unreliable, and has negative effects on kids, classrooms, and curricula, what’s a better approach?

By demonizing teachers and unions, and sharply polarizing the education debate, the corporate reform movement has actually undermined serious efforts to improve teacher quality and evaluation.  For example, there is a lot of common ground among educators, parents, and administrators on the need for:

  • better support and evaluation before new teachers get tenure (or leave the profession, as nearly 50% do within 5 years).
  • reasonable, timely procedures for resolving tenure hearings when they are initiated.
  • a credible intervention process to remediate and if necessary remove ineffective teachers, tenured or non-tenured.

Good models for each of these ideas exist, many with strong teacher union support. But overreaching by corporate reformers has detached the issue of teacher quality from the conditions that produce it. Class sizes are growing and professional development budgets are shrinking. Federal and state plans are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into data systems and tests designed to replace collaborative professional culture and experienced instructional leadership with a kind of “psychometric astrology.”  These data-driven formulas lack both statistical credibility and a basic understanding of the human motivations and relationships that make good schooling possible.  Instead of “elevating the profession,” corporate reform is eroding it.

But better alternatives do exist. One promising model is the Montgomery County, Maryland Professional Growth System (PGS), which has taken a collaborative approach to improving teacher quality for more than a decade. Several defining features make the Montgomery model very different than the test-based “value-added” or “student growth” approaches. The Montgomery Co. professional growth system:

  • was negotiated through collective bargaining rather than imposed by state or federal mandate.
  • is based on a clear, common vision of high quality professional teaching practice.
  • includes test scores as one of many indicators of student progress and teacher performance without rigidly weighted formulas.
  • includes a strong PAR (peer assistance and review) component for all novice and under-performing teachers, including those with tenure.
  • takes a broad, qualitative approach to promoting individual and system-wide teacher quality and continuous professional growth.

Developing and sustaining good teachers, rather than “getting rid of bad ones” has always been the main goal of the Montgomery system. But real consequences for persistently poor performance are part of the process. New York Times education reporter Michael Winerip wrote that the program “has worked beautifully for 11 years,” providing teachers with “extra support if they are performing poorly” and getting rid of those who do not improve.”

In 11 years, the PAR process has led to some 500 teachers being removed from the classroom in a countywide system of about 150,000 students with approximately 10,000 teachers and 200 schools. Over the same period, nearly 5,000 teachers have successfully completed the PAR process.[ii]

But PAR is only part of a professional growth system designed to improve teacher capacity throughout the system, not just identify and remove ineffective teachers. It’s a qualitative approach growing out of a shared vision of high quality professional practice. The PGS begins with “six clear standards for teacher performance, based on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards” and includes “performance criteria for how the standards are to be met and descriptive examples of observable teaching behaviors.”

The six standards are:[iii]

  • Standard 1: Teachers are committed to students and their learning.
  • Standard 2: Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students.
  • Standard 3: Teachers are responsible for establishing and managing student learning in a positive learning environment.
  • Standard 4: Teachers continually assess student progress, analyze the results, and adapt instruction to improve student achievement.
  • Standard 5: Teachers are committed to continuous improvement and professional development.
  • Standard 6: Teachers exhibit a high degree of professionalism

An extensive system of supports and professional development activities, including detailed protocols for assessing progress towards these goals, is outlined in various handbooks, evaluation rubrics and contractual agreements. The system also provides resources necessary to turn these ambitions into real commitments.

For example, the PAR system relies on 24 “consulting teachers” who are recruited from master teachers with 5 years of experience in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). The consulting teachers (CT) make a commitment to work for three years as CTs and then return for at least two years to a school in a teaching or other non-administrative position. CTs receive special training to work intensively with an average of 16-18 “clients” who include new teachers and experienced teachers referred to PAR by their principals. The supports provided by CTs include:[iv]

  • Informal and formal observations
  • Written and verbal standards based feedback
  • Equitable Classroom Practice (“Look-Fors”)
  • Coaching sessions
  • Lesson planning
  • Model lessons
  • Co-teaching modeling
  • Peer observations
  • Classroom management
  • Time management
  • Alignment of school supports

CTs document their work, but do not do formal evaluations. Their reports go to the PAR panel made up of eight teachers appointed by the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) and eight principals appointed by the administrators association. The panel reviews the documentation and makes a recommendation for non-renewal/dismissal, an additional year of PAR, or “release” to the “regular” PGS evaluation process that covers all staff. If either the client or the principal disagrees with the panel’s recommendation, he/she can initiate an appeals process that allows all parties to present additional info and speak to the panel, which ultimately reaffirms or alters its original decision. A tenured teacher dismissed through PAR does retain tenure rights and can appeal a dismissal decision. But in practice, the PAR process generally documents fully the basis for such decisions and formal challenges to PAR decisions are rare.

While the system is spelled out in detail, what really makes it possible is the level of trust and cooperation that grew out of years of developing a collaborative approach to issues of teacher quality. The commitment to collaboration between the MCEA and the district is summarized in unusual contract language:

We define collaboration as a process in which partners work together in a meaningful way and within a time frame that provides a real opportunity to shape results. The purpose of the process is to work together respectfully to resolve problems, address common issues, and identify opportunities for improvement. To be successful, the collaborative process must be taken seriously and be valued by both parties. The process must be given the time, personal involvement and commitment, hard work, and dedication that are required to be successful. The partners will identify and define issues of common concern, propose and evaluate solutions, and agree on recommendations.[v]

“It wouldn’t work without the level of trust we have here,” MCEA president Doug Prouty told the NY Times. Jerry D. Weast, former superintendent of the Montgomery County system, added “It took three to five years to build the trust to get PAR in place,” he explained. “Teachers had to see we weren’t playing gotcha.”[vi]

Beyond PAR, the larger PGS system is based on a belief that “good teaching is nurtured in a school and in a school system culture that values constant feedback, analysis, and refinement of the quality of teaching.” Formal performance evaluations are part of “a multi-year process of professional growth, continual reflection on goals and progress meeting those goals, and collegial interaction.” The aim is to support “a collaborative learning culture among teachers in each school, integrating individual growth plans into school plans, and utilizing student achievement and other data about student results.”[vii]

Besides teachers, there are separately articulated PGS standards and evaluation protocols for administrators, non-classroom professionals and support staff. Ideally, this contributes to a school-wide sense of accountability and collective purpose that helps sustain healthy school communities, and there is significant evidence that it works.

Over the past decade, student achievement as measured by Maryland’s state assessments has increased across-the-board in every student subgroup—by race, ethnicity, and income level. Achievement gaps have narrowed at all grade levels and in both math and reading. In grades 3 and 5 math, and grade 7 reading, the gap narrowed by 16 points; in grades 3 and 5 reading, it narrowed by over 20 points.[viii]

Beyond the test scores, 84% of Montgomery Co’s students go on to college and 63% earn degrees.[ix] The collaborative approach has also extended beyond teacher evaluation issues. For example, Broad Acres elementary school serves a population almost completely comprised of students of color and free/reduced lunch students. In 2000, it was on the verge of state takeover and a “reconstitution” that would have included wholesale replacement of school staff and leadership. But a collaborative approach initiated by MCEA and embraced by the school leadership led to a sustained process of renewal and reform that has dramatically improved student performance and school culture. According to the school’s principal, “The reason Broad Acres succeeded was teacher leadership; and everyone holding themselves accountable for every student.”[x]

These successes and the national debate about teacher quality have brought new attention to the Montgomery County PGS/PAR model. Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told MCPS Supt. Weast, “you’re going where the country needs to go.”[xi] Yet the PGS approach is exactly the opposite from where federal policies have led the country.

Under the Obama Administration’s Race To the Top competition, states were pressured to tie teacher evaluation to student test scores. Maryland won a $250 million RTTT grant by promising to base teacher ratings on state test results. Implementing the grant in MCPS would have meant dismantling a successful system developed by collective bargaining that works to improve results for teachers and students. After failing to get a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to continue using the PGS system, the Montgomery Co. school board withdrew from the state’s RTTT plans and had to forfeit its $12 million share of the grant funds.

If federal policy were serious about improving teacher quality it would be investing precisely in programs like peer assistance and review, which have significant costs. One Harvard study estimates the cost at $4,000-$7000 per participant.[xii] Instead the federal government has poured hundreds of millions into the development of more test-based data systems and pressed states to use them to rate both teachers and the college certification programs they came from. It’s wasted money chasing bad policy.

Montgomery County is not the only district that has implemented collaborative, peer approaches based on collective bargaining. Long-standing peer review programs in Toledo, Cincinnati, Rochester and elsewhere have shown various degrees of success. A recent in-depth study of two California districts using PAR programs reached some striking conclusions about the current push for new and better teacher evaluation models:[xiii]

The study compared the types and quality of support provided by Consulting Teachers in two districts using PAR, one near San Diego, the other near Sacramento. It also compared the work of the CTs with the more traditional performance reviews done by principals. Finally, it observed and analyzed the work of the joint labor-management PAR panels that reviewed the evaluations and recommendations of both the principals and the CTs.

“What we found,” wrote the study’s authors, “belies conventional wisdom.…integrating support and evaluation can be a more effective approach to improving instructional practice than isolating one from the other. The programs…clearly show that PAR is a rigorous alternative to traditional forms of teacher evaluation and development.”

“In an era when policymakers are calling for better teacher evaluation, our research shows that peer review is far superior to principals’ evaluations in terms of rigor and comprehensiveness. Equally important, peer review offers a possible solution to the lack of capacity of the current system to both provide adequate teacher support and conduct thorough performance evaluations.”

The study confirmed another benefit that Montgomery teacher union leaders and administrators had previously demonstrated. Collaboration about core issues like teacher quality and evaluation has ancillary benefits. The PAR panels “turned out to be problem-solving arenas where district officials and union leaders collaboratively addressed operational and policy problems that might otherwise have ended up as grievances or gone unresolved….we were struck by the collaborative labor-management interactions that form the foundation of PAR. Though both [districts] have in the past experienced rocky union-district relations, PAR has served as a springboard for building strong connections. More than simple collaborative efforts, through PAR, management and unions are doing the hard work of confronting tough, high-stakes issues and reaching accord on how to proceed when decisions carry real and human consequences.”

Just as with student assessment, evaluation can be a tool for improving teaching and learning or an instrument of bad policy and external control. The key in both cases is to make sure that people, not tests, are the point of departure and that real collaboration among all parties shapes the process.

[i] Michael Winerip, Helping Teachers Help Themselves, New York Times, June 5, 2011

[ii] MCPS Schools at a Glance, 2010–2011, Office of Shared Accountability Montgomery County Public Schools. Webinar presentation by MCPS Consulting Teacher Team, Office of Human Resources and Development, 7/25/11

[iv] MCPS webinar presentation, 7/25/11

[v] Bonnie Cullison, former MCEA president, Union Leadership: How Teacher Professional Growth Systems Can Help Transform Schools, The Union Role in Systemic Change, Coalition for Educational Justice presentation, September 24, 2011

[vi] Winerip, New York Times June 5, 2011

[viii] Cullison

[ix] Winerip

[xi] Winerip

[xii] A User’s Guide to Peer Assistance and Review, Costs and Benefits of PAR, Harvard Graduate School of Education

[xiii] Julia E. Koppich & Daniel C. Humphrey, Getting Serious About Teacher Evaluation:A fresh look at peer assistance and review, Education Week, October 12, 2011