Monday, October 19, 2015

The Prize – Who’s in Charge of America’s schools?

By Dale Russakoff

A review

There were many who thought that the $100 million gift from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to the Newark school system was like a gift from heaven.  Dale Russakoff’s book The Prize gave an analysis of how, after five years of this so-called award, there has been no improvement in education in Newark N.J.

In order to understand what happened in the Newark schools following this so-called prize, I believe we need to look at a number of facts that Russakoff failed to mention in her book.  Russakoff was a reporter for the Washington Post for 28 years, and her perspective follows the general political orientation of that paper.  In order to place these facts into perspective, I believe the following quotations are useful.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was the central leader of the Russian Revolution.  In his pamphlet, State and Revolution Lenin argued that the state or government in the capitalist system consists of a “special repressive force.”  In other words, capitalist governments are designed to rob workers of the fruits of our labor by means of repression.

The late George Novack was a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party and a Marxist philosopher.  In his book Democracy and Revolution Novack argued that the United States is a “plutocracy dressed in democratic disguise.”  A plutocracy is a country ruled by the wealthy.

Malcolm X was well aware of the horrendous discrimination against Black people in the Jim Crow southern states.  At that time, Jim Crow meant that discrimination was the law.  However, Malcolm also understood that the discrimination in the northern states was also horrendous.  He argued to, “Stop talking about the South.  If you’re south of Canada, you’re in the South.

What do these quotations have to do with Dale Russakoff’s book The Prize?

Savage Inequalities

Jonathan Kozol wrote a book titled Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools.  In his book Kozol documents the gross inequalities of education in this country.  A look at the reality of education in the state of New Jersey underscores many of Kozol’s conclusions.

First, I will say that I attended Newark public schools for twelve years.  For eight years I went to Maple Avenue School in the Weequahic section located on the southern tip of the city.  Then, I attended Arts High located in the center of the city between the former housing projects and the commercial center of the city.

While in high school, I had the opportunity of visiting Livingston high, located about 30 minutes from Newark.  I was immediately struck by the contrast between Livingston and Arts High.  From what I recall, there was a road of about 100 yards surrounded by grass and trees leading up to the school.  On the school campus, there were tennis courts, a swimming pool, a football field, as well as a baseball field.  There were and are several suburban public high schools on the outskirts of Newark that have similar facilities. 

At that time, Arts High didn’t even have a full sized gymnasium.  The school was old and in need of repair.  There didn’t appear to be grass or trees anywhere around the school.  At Arts High the large majority of the students were Black, while at Livingston High the large majority were Caucasian.

Dale Russakoff reported that a lawsuit titled Abbott v. Burke aimed at correcting this gross inequality.  The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the state government to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to begin to correct this inequality. 

We should keep in mind that in other states there continues to be this gross inequality.  Yet, state governments have ordered massive cutbacks in inner-city schools.  In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania per-student funding is about $10,000 per year.  When we cross the street on City Line Avenue, we enter the Lower Merion School District where per-student funding is over $20,000 per year.

Russakoff also reported that this massive increase in funding failed to improve the educational system in Newark.  A state sponsored study of Newark schools underscored this conclusion with the following quotation.  “Evidence shows that the longer children remain in the Newark public schools, the less likely they are to succeed.”

In order to begin to understand the reasons for this horrendous state of affairs in the most affluent nation in the world, we need to look at a bit of history. 

A history of class struggle in the United States

After the Second World War there was a massive strike wave in the United States.  Corporations experienced windfall profits during the war, but had no intention of sharing those profits with the soldiers who were returning home.  As a result, hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike.  Corporations responded to these strikes by granting concessions to workers.

Following this strike wave the civil rights movement erupted.  At that time Black people had no citizenship rights in this country.  The mobilizations against legalized discrimination could not be stopped.  As a result, the government outlawed Jim Crow segregation.

Corporations did not like these developments.  Corporate officers are routinely driven to cut costs using any means at their disposal.

So, as a result of the improving standard of living for working people, corporations made massive investments to move their factories to nations where wages were a small fraction of what they are in this country.  Instead of advancing a system of legal discrimination against Blacks, millions of immigrants came to the United States.

Every immigrant understands that if he or she attempts to organize to improve their standard of living, they are risking deportation.  Presidents Bush and Obama have been deporting immigrants at a rate of about 1,000 for every day they have been in office.  No one can control the color of the skin we are born with.  No one can control the place where we are born.  The United States government routinely discriminates against people for reasons that are beyond our control.

These developments transformed the United States from a manufacturing centered nation into a service economy where Wal-Mart is the largest corporation.  The government has also worked to re-segregate this country by supporting super-highways and suburban shopping malls.  These efforts, as well as a continuation of discriminatory practices, has separated many predominantly Caucasian suburban communities from the predominantly Black and Latino inner cities.

This process, as well as the near complete surrender of union officials, has changed the political climate in this country.  In the past, working people understood that the way to advance our standard of living was to support union battles against employers.  Today a predominant idea is that a college education is the ticket to a better life.  Millions of people have graduated from college and moved to suburban communities, or the elite sections of the inner cities.

We might keep in mind a quotation from the late educator and leader W.E.B. DuBois.  DuBois argued that, “Education is not about teaching men to become carpenters, but to teach carpenters to become men.”  In other words, education is about enriching one’s life, not a means to climbing up a so-called social ladder.   

We should also keep in mind that the goal of corporations is to derive profits by cutting costs.  This is the primary reason why the overall standard of living has deteriorated in this country over the past forty years.  This overall deterioration has hit the least affluent section of the population the hardest.

We might add to this situation the fact that the tax system in this country is, in effect, backwards.  Working people create all the wealth that exists in the world.  Yet, capitalist politicians work to tax working people, while giving enormous tax incentives to those who live in opulence.  Zuckerberg’s $100 million dollar so-called contribution to Newark was, no doubt, tax deductible.

Understanding this history we can see why Russakoff reported in her book that, “Zuckerberg had made it clear that he wanted to use half of his gift­­–$50 million­–to win a game–changing teachers’ contract.”  What was one of Zuckerberg’s goals in a new teachers’ contract?  “Abolish seniority as a factor in all personnel decisions and incentivize the removal of poor performers.”

First, it is useful to understand that seniority is one of the cornerstones of the union movement.  Employers have an economic incentive to fire workers who have years of seniority and replace them with younger employees who have lower salaries.  This is why unions have made the issue of seniority a central priority.  Without seniority workers have no job security.

We might also keep in mind that the plan to improve Newark schools,was, according to Russakoff, a complete failure.  Therefore according to Zuckerberg’s logic, Governor Christie, Senator Booker, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg need to be fired from their positions. 

In a moment of clarity, Governor Christie made the following statement after the announcement of Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift.  Christie went to Livingston High that I mentioned earlier in this review.  Christie argued that, “I don’t think I’d be governor if I went to school in Newark.”

This quotation might begin to explain why Governor Christie only received about six percent of the vote in Newark.  Government officials routinely promote the mythology that they represent all of the people, while their actions demonstrate they are merely servants of the affluent.  This quotation of Christie’s shows how even after his so-called commitment to improving education in Newark, he also supports the entitlements of the predominantly Caucasian suburban communities. 

Surviving the reality of Newark, New Jersey

The story of the Newark Schools System isn’t the so-called failure rate of the students.  The real story is how the people of Newark manage to survive against unbelievable odds in the most affluent nation in the world.

I’m talking about parents who manage to hold down horrendous jobs where they might need to spend hours on public transportation going to and from work.  I’m talking about the need to also rely on public transport to go food shopping.  I’m talking about landlords who charge exorbitant rents for substandard apartments.  Because of the deteriorating standard of living, millions of jobs have been eliminated and work is much more difficult to obtain.

We see this problem illustrated in Jeff Hobbs book titled, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace – A brilliant young man who left Newark for the Ivy League.  Robert Peace’s mother was a dietary worker in the Newark area.  She managed to get Robert into a private high school in Newark, the Saint Benedicts Academy.  Peace won a highly unusual award–a full scholarship to attend Yale University.  At Yale Peace achieved academic excellence even when he took some of the most difficult courses.  He completed his studies and received a degree. 

When he returned to the Newark area, for a time, he was unable to get a job, even with his Yale degree.  He sold marijuana and died as a result of murder.  His story illustrates how many young people have resorted to selling drugs because they are unable to find employment.  When we see stories like that of Robert Peace it is easy to understand why some teachers become discouraged.

In 1967 there was a rebellion in Newark.  While the civil rights movement had forced the government to outlaw Jim Crow, the discriminatory conditions in the northern states continued.  The issue that ignited the community was police brutality. 

Former New Jersey Richard J. Hughes, in effect, ordered the National Guard to carry out a pogrom in Newark.  A pogrom is an organized massacre of an ethnic group.  The National Guard murdered about 21 people in Newark in 1967.  All but two of these murders were of Black people.

The people of Newark were not able to overthrow the government in this country during the rebellion that spread to hundreds of cities in this country.  However, the Cuban people did manage to put in place a workers government as a result of the revolution of 1959 on that island.  The revolutionary government had a completely different view of education.

The educational system in revolutionary Cuba

Before the revolution, Cuba was a place where about 500,000 workers toiled in the sugar industry where they only had work for three months of the year.  These conditions caused massive prostitution, poverty, and police repression.  The pre-revolutionary government murdered about 20,000 Cubans.
I recommend Theodore MacDonald’s book, Making A New People – Education in revolutionary Cuba to anyone interested in the issue of education.  This book documents how Cuba mobilized 50,000 people to eliminate illiteracy on the island during the first years after the revolution.  This literacy program, unlike the so-called Prize to Newark schools, was entirely successful.

Theodore MacDonald gives the following explanation for why he believes the Cuban literacy program succeeded, while literacy programs in other nations are doomed to failure.

“A school system is not independent of society, but faithfully reflects the values of the dominant classes and interests in that society.  If people are slightly alienated from one another and have been conditioned to focus more on personal fulfillment than on social good, they are easily manipulated consumers.  When the schooling system puts them into competition with one another, a superficial observer would say that the system is thus reflecting ‘what people want.’  It is not, of course, but is reflecting what people have been encouraged to think of themselves.  One does not have to be particularly astute to realize what social classes benefit from such a degenerative view of human nature.

“Thus to speak of reforming the educational system to any serious degree is nonsense.  To change its values independently would be to bring into conflict with the society which gave it birth in order to transmit and perpetuate its values.  One such set of values is the system of social relationships––exploitative vs. altruistic, competitive vs. co-operative, individual vs. social etc.  Reform from within would be like promoting a Quaker school in Nazi Germany.”

What have been the results of the Cuban educational system 56 years after the revolution?  While Cuba continues to be an underdeveloped nation, the educational system is one of the ingredients that has transformed the island. 

Today Cuba has twice the number of doctors per-capita as the United States.  While the Cuban population is 100% Latino and about 40% Black, infant mortality is much lower in every part of Cuba than it is in the inner cities of this country.  The percentage of people who have HIV/AIDS is about one-sixth of that percentage in this country.

When we look at the immense difference between the Cuban and U.S. educational systems, there are some inescapable conclusions.  Dale Russakoff’s book The Prize proves conclusively that the educational system in this country will not be reformed.  56 years after the Cuban Revolution, we can see clearly that it is indeed possible to transform education into an instrument that benefits all of society.

James Loewen wrote a book titled Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything your American History textbook got wrong.  In his book, Loewen documents how the history textbooks in this country are filled with falsifications.  The way to improve a lie is to tell a better lie.  Informing students of the truth requires that education needs to be completely transformed.  This is the lesson of both the Cuban revolution, as well as the book The Prize.         

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