Friday 01 October 2010
by: Maya Schenwar, Executive Director, t r u t h o u t | Interview
Bill Ayers. (Photo: lloyd89
*As the 2010-2011 school year grumbled to a start - and millions of public
school students settled into overcrowded, underfunded, under-resourced
classrooms - I sat down in Chicago with education theorist and activist Bill
Ayers to discuss true democracy, false reform and his latest book
(co-authored with cartoonist Ryan Alexander-Tanner), "To Teach: The Journey
culture increasingly permeated by top-down marketplace values, Ayers, who
taught primary school for years, still believes in the possibility of a
schooliverse where every teacher is respected and every student is valued as
a full human being, where collaborative learning and growth trump the
school-eat-school "Race to the Top." And by the end of our conversation, I
*Maya Schenwar: In "To Teach," you talk about how a good school is **defined
by good teachers. What do you think of this practice that's been circling
the country, of "reconstituting" schools and firing all the teachers? Does
that logic work?*
*Bill Ayers: *Not at all - not even close. We're living in the darkest times
for teachers that I've ever seen in my life. It's hard to fully understand
how the conversation about what makes a robust, vital education for citizens
in a democracy has degraded to the point where the frame of the whole
discussion is that teachers are the problem. It's true that good schools are
places where good teachers gather, but there's another piece to that: Good
teachers need to be protected to teach, supported to teach, put into
relationships with one another - and with the families of the kids - so that
they *can* teach.
The attack on teachers is a classic example of what [cognitive linguist
George] Lakoff calls "framing." We're hearing from every politician and
editorial board in the land - including The New York Times and The
Washington Post and The New Yorker - that we need to get the lazy,
incompetent teachers out of the classroom. And everyone, including you and
me, nods stupidly. Because what am I going to say? "My granddaughter *
deserves* that lazy, incompetent teacher!" They're getting the conclusion
that they want by framing the question as a statement. So there's only one
answer; no one can take the other side of that proposition. But what if I
got to the podium first and said, "Every kid in America deserves an
intellectually grounded, morally committed, compassionate, caring,
intelligent, thoughtful, well-rested and well-paid teacher in the
classroom"? We'd agree with that, too! So, who gets to say what we're
There's always been a contest in this country between the notion of the
public and the notion of the private individual. This is in our DNA: the
struggle between a kind of radical individualism - that cowboy, pioneer,
explorer mentality - and the idea of the common good. And this is fought out
constantly. Since 1980, a sustained attack has been going on against the
very idea of the public - that nothing public is useful or good, including
In the past five years, that attack on public education has ratcheted up to
dimensions that were unthinkable 30 years ago. And so people talk about the
public schools in a way that is disingenuous and dishonest - and also
frightening in its characterization: they say the schools are run by a group
of self-interested, selfish, undertrained, undercommitted teachers, who have
a union that protects them.
An example: The New Yorker does a profile of a thing called the "rubber
room" - a space in the central office where people who are judged
incompetent to teach are awaiting adjudication under the contract. Remember,
the contract doesn't only belong to the union, even though in The New Yorker
and in the New York Times editorials, it's as if the contract is all the
union - the school board is also party to the contract; they negotiated it!
Anyway, The New Yorker profiles 15 teachers - and I have to admit, just like
everyone else, it was lip-smackingly interesting to read about these very,
very crazy people; how fun! But there were 15 of them, in this system of
tens of thousands. Why is that what we're focused on? It's because a case is
being built that somehow teachers and their unions are the whole cause of
What they're ignoring in all of these examples is the reality of poverty.
They're ignoring the reality of lots and lots and lots of Americans who do
not have a living wage. And if you want to change what's going on in
schools, you have to realize that. We'd do more for education with a
full-employment economy with a living wage than anything anyone can do by
tinkering with the schools and firing teachers.
[Washington, DC, Chancellor of Education] Michelle Rhee got a cover story in
Time Magazine right after Obama's election. She's the poster child for what
they're calling "reform." The pivotal paragraph in that story says, "In the
year and a half she's been on the job, Rhee has made more changes than most
school leaders make in five years." It said she'd fired 36 principals,
closed 21 schools, fired 270 teachers. Not a word about connecting the
schools to their communities. Not a word about teacher retention. Not a word
about the curriculum. Not a word about bringing resources to the starving
system. She's a "reformer" because she's doing what the bosses of Enron did
to Enron. That's ridiculous! A school is not like a business, and the market
metaphor that's dominating the conversation actually misses everything
important about schools.
This is the real tragedy for teachers: Education is like love. You can give
it all away and still have plenty. You can share all the knowledge you have
and not lose anything - *except* if you're in a system where one school is
being judged against another school, one classroom against another
classroom, one state against another state. Well, then - I'm not giving you
my shit. You go ahead and struggle on your own, because you and I are in a
vicious fight for the Race to the Top money, for teacher jobs, for
everything. That's a catastrophe for the reality of how teaching is done at
I speak to young teacher groups all the time, and I often start by asking,
"Are any of you going into teaching because you think you'll get rich?" And
they laugh. And then I say, "Are any of you thinking you'll have the
overwhelming respect of your community?" They laugh again. And then they
tell me, "My parents, my brother, my sister, my partner all told me not to
teach." So I say, "Why are you gonna do it? What's wrong with you?" And
what's "wrong" with them is a desire to do moral work in an immoral world.
Yet, we're putting a stake in their hearts.
*MS: And it's all about "fixing" the schools ...*
*BA:* Right. If you read any of these stories about education - about KIPP
[Knowledge Is Power Program], about Teach for America, about charter schools
- all of [the media] have drunk the Kool-Aid on this ideological question of
how to fix the schools. An example: There was a story in The New York Times
after the recent Race to the Top competition. They say that Race to the Top
is having a great effect on reform, even for those states that don't get it.
What's the evidence? The "evidence" is that more schools have gone private,
that the union is being crushed. That's the proof of reform!
In a New Yorker story on [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan, the writer says
that in the world of school reform, there are two camps. One is the radical
"reformers" who want to privatize everything; the other is those who defend
the status quo. Really? I haven't seen one person defend the status quo! But
that is the way the discussion is divided - there's not another side. So, my
book "To Teach" from 20 years ago, and also the comic book, are an attempt
to enter into this discussion on the side of teachers.
In the movie "Waiting for Superman," there's a cartoon aside that shows "how
learning happens." They show the top of a kid's head being sawed off, and
knowledge pouring in - and then the teachers' union and the bureaucrats come
in and stop it. So, I'm arguing that learning is something quite different -
and that a smart teacher is on a journey of discovery and exploration with
*MS: How do you encourage that type of teaching on a national policy level?
If you were Arne Duncan, what would you do?*
*BA: *You have to start with the premises of a democracy. If you think about
Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, medieval Saudi Arabia, apartheid South Africa,
every one of those countries had educational systems that wanted their kids
to show up on time, learn their subject matter, stay away from drugs, not
get pregnant. We all want the same things, except, in a democracy - at least
theoretically - you also want to base your educational system on a profound
democratic premise: the incalculable value of every human being. That means
that the savage inequalities in the education are an affront to democracy.
All the systems I mentioned - Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia - along with math
and science and phys ed and music, they wanted obedience and conformity, and
they taught it relentlessly. That's why you can have a Germany or an Italy
or a South Africa that produced brilliant scientists and brilliant artists,
and also produced a culture that could march people into the ovens. You can
have an educated population that is morally blind.
Theoretically, we'd want something different in a democracy. Along with
math, science, music and phys ed, we'd want you to develop a mind of your
own - to learn initiative, courage, imagination, curiosity.
Back to the Arne Duncan question: I'd make it very clear that the standard
we have for public education in this country is a standard of excellence and
equity. I would use the bully pulpit to say that all kids should be able to
have the education that my kids had and that the Obama kids had. I'm not
going to impose it - but I'm going to say that that's what we're aspiring to
as a minimum: small classes; dedicated, unionized teachers; well-resourced
classrooms; encouragement of curiosity.
Secondly, I would keep the military out of the schools. The military bases
itself on following orders, and education should base itself on initiating
and being courageous - and not necessarily following orders. Education is
about asking the queer questions. So, no recruitment, no ROTC, no JROTC. In
the cabinet meetings, I'd say, "Secretary Gates, get your fucking hands off
Next, I would initiate the Septima Clark Ella Baker Teacher Corps. That
would be a funded attempt - using the stimulus money - to hire unemployed
people, mothers, community members as aides, as trainees, as literacy
coaches. Get everybody in the schools, and spend money to do that. Because
if we've got a class size of 35 in the second grade, I at least want
community members in there, helping the teachers out.
Next, I'd initiate a gigantic, messy, national conversation that would take
place in every neighborhood, every barrio, every ghetto of every city and
every town, to raise the questions: "What knowledge and experiences are most
valuable? What makes someone an educated person? How do we make that
knowledge and experience accessible to all students?" That's not the
business of Bill Gates; that's the business of all of us.
I would also invest in teachers. I'd turn the conversation from disrespect
to respect. One of the ways I'd do that: every teacher, every five years,
would get a one-semester sabbatical. They'd get to take free courses,
organize their own courses, travel, like college professors do. There has to
be a sabbatical, because teaching is that kind of work - it's exhausting on
every level. Also, I'd create a system of mentoring, in which every teacher
would have a partner and a coach. Not just young teachers. That way we
create conditions for horizontal rather than vertical staff development: I
learn from you, you learn from me. I want *that *to be the culture of the
schools; not "racing to the top." That horizontal development is what we
need for democracy.
*MS: What about test scores? You've written about how, not only are they
invasive and interfering with learning, but they're also ineffective for
assessment. So, what can we do to assess kids in a way that will actually
*BA:* This goes back to what I was saying about investing in teachers.
There are lots of assessments that work. You have to start with the idea
that as a second-grade teacher, which I was for years, my interest is how to
get these kids to read more and read better. I'm thinking, how do I take
them from where they are to a deeper and wider way of knowing? That's my
goal as a second-grade teacher. As a policy guy standing above it, I'd have
a very different goal: ranking these kids from winners to losers.
Whatever we do in assessment ought to link back to the teacher, to allow her
or him to do a better job. So, what we want is assessment that helps us
teach, not assessment that says, "you win, you lose."
As I argue in the book, we need to do portfolio assessments. My nephew
graduated from Central Park East High School in New York, a public
experimental school in Harlem. In order to graduate from that high school,
he had to put together a portfolio that included his grades and test scores,
but those were just two out of 15 items. It also included an original essay,
an original piece of art, a physical challenge that he'd set for himself as
a freshman, a critique of a piece of public art, a record of community
service, an internship, a work-study plan projected five years hence, and
more - 15 items. And then he sat down with his adviser, a family member, a
friend, the principal and a teacher that he picked, and defended his
portfolio. Now that's assessment - in the hands of teachers, close to the
kid, close to the family, close to the community. That can help to make an
If you start with the premise that each person is of incalculable value, it
must mean that the full development of each kid in the school is the
condition for the full development of everyone. And the full development of
everyone is the condition for the full development of each kid. If you start
with that idea, you end up with that type of assessment - rather than a
punitive, top-down system where you rank kids on a scale, then tell some
that they're going to the unemployment lines and the prisons.
Another thing that I get into in the book, about assessment: there's no such
thing as a "normal third-grader" or a "normal three-year-old." There are
three-year-olds who read, and there are three-year-olds who pee in their
pants and there are three-year-olds who pee in their pants while reading.
The range of people [in an age group] is vast - in terms of capacities, in
terms of thoughtfulness, in terms of health - so the idea that you can say,
"third-graders must be this way" is bullshit. What we ought to do is have
support for teachers, small classrooms, a range of activities and a range of
ways to succeed, with the goal of challenging kids to move from where they
are to deeper and wider ways of knowing, being and experiencing.
*MS: I loved the description in the comic book of Chicago public high school
Lawndale Little Village, and how that school came about. Can you talk a
little bit about how a school like that can emerge, through grassroots
*BA:* Well, it started when a group of mothers got fed up with the
overcrowding at their kids' schools, and said, "You know what? We're gonna
sit in." So they [staged a] sit-in. It became an electrifying moment in the
city. Mayor Daley was furious. Then [former Chicago Public Schools CEO] Paul
Vallas went down there and scolded them. He said, "Don't do this! This is
ridiculous." But he said it in such a nasty, patronizing way that when they
showed it on the news, it must have really infuriated Daley - Vallas was
gone within a week. Arne Duncan came in, and his first act was to meet with
them and give them their school. So, this is activism with bite, with punch.
And then, these mothers were no-bullshit: They started meeting with [local
education experts] and investigating what makes a good school. I remember
going to one of the meetings in the neighborhood, and the mothers had just
come back from visiting North Side Prep and New Trier [two very well-funded
Chicago-area schools], and they were reporting back. They described the gym,
the auditorium, the Olympic swimming pool. I said, "Why do you want an
Olympic swimming pool?" And they said, "Because we want whatever the other
kids get. We don't want our kids to get less." And in a democracy, that's
what it should be.
*MS: It's funny. School is where you're first absorbing this national
message - that we live in a democracy where everyone has equal opportunity.
But school is also where people are experiencing some of the most obvious
*BA: *That's right. The New Yorker did a puff piece on Arne Duncan, and it
points out that the Obama children and Arne Duncan himself (and,
parenthetically, my children) all went to the University of Chicago Lab
School. At the Lab School, they had a class size limit of 15. And how did
they get that? A union contract.
So Arne Duncan, the Obama kids and my kids went to a school with a class
size of 15, a well-respected union and a curriculum that's based at least in
part on following kids' interests and curiosities. When the Obamas went to
Washington, anyone who knew the Obamas and knew the scene in DC knew the
kids would go to Sidwell Friends, and that's where they went - class size of
15, well-respected unionized teacher corps, curriculum based at least in
part on kids following their interests. Now if that's good enough for the
Obamas and Arne Duncan, why are those things not even part of the discussion
about what's good enough for the west side of Chicago?
I'm not such an idealist that I think we could get there tomorrow, but right
now, class size is not even on the table. In Chicago, second-graders can
have a class of 35, because of the budget. That's 20 more than the Obama
kids get! And does that make a difference in terms of educational outcomes,
as well as teacher morale and capacity? Of course it does - I've been in
classrooms; I know there's a difference between 15 and 20, let alone 35.
John Dewey said it brilliantly: He said that whatever the best and most
privileged parents have for their kids should be the baseline for what we
want for all kids. Anything less undermines our democracy.