Source: E. Jeffrey Ludwig

The recently appointed New York City schools chancellor David Banks portrays himself as righteous, as an idealist, and as a reformer. According to him, he is a man with a vision to make right a broken system. It is a given of new hires to this position that they portray themselves as men who can and will put Humpty-dumpty together again.  Yet, as soon as these so-called smart and experienced persons start to enunciate their vision, we hear only pap and sappiness.  Their comments seem to lack substance, knowledge, experience, and wisdom.  Plain and simple, they are bureaucrats hired to bring “sound and fury but signifying nothing” as William Shakespeare put it.

Chancellor Banks has publicly announced his vision supporting what he calls the Four Pillars of his visionary policy. Under Pillar #1 (“reimagining the student experience”) he asks us “Why don’t we provide the kind of experiences where kids can’t wait to get up in the morning to get to school?” To have this question as his opening shot at so-called reform should alarm the reader immediately.  Very few students at any age can’t wait to get to school.  To posit that as a goal is totally unrealistic.  Has he forgotten that we have compulsory education in public schools? That means that lawfully elected legislators for a long time believed that it was for the good of our society that everybody goes to school whether they or their parents want them to or not.  During my father’s era, students could stop attending in the daytime at age 14.  Now, in most states, it’s 16 or 17. 

Compulsory attendance assumes that many people would choose not to go to school, and their parents would support that idea or even be the source of that idea.  This was to eliminate child abuse, and it was to reduce the size of the labor force to help keep wages up.  For some, compulsory education was a humanitarian decision as they observed the tired faces of children who sometimes worked 60+ hours a week. So, Chancellor Banks must end his pollyanna view about “happy time.” 

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He tells us that in order to make schools more “happy places” there will be “early college credit.” This writer taught in one community college where they had “early college credit.” High school students would take classes while in high school and would graduate from community college and high school at the same time. I did not see a classroom full of happy students, but instead, a class of sloppily dressed, careless, and nonchalant students whose attitudes suggested that they were doing the teacher or the college a favor being there. Furthermore, I was not allowed to give any grade lower than C+ and could only give one or possibly two of them.  In another school where I taught in the 1990s there was also a commitment to getting students into good jobs — to the extent that one of the teachers did not teach at all but spent all her time in a “research room” where students could hang out doing nothing or else getting help from her in filling out job applications. 

Banks’ Pillar #2 is about “reimagining learning.” Here he talks about “schools that are shining,” “state of the art knowledge sharing,” and incentivizing schools “to share their best practices.”  Pillar #2 is thus one platitude after another.

Pillar #3 for Banks is “prioritizing wellness.” He mentions “school safety, mental health, attendance, and enrichment.”  This jibes with an objective view of many schools – especially high schools or academy schools — school safety officers are everywhere, metal detectors are checking for weapons, and acting out by disturbed kids and teens is commonplace. At one point in NYC, I told a second grader that he is not allowed to stand on a table and he yelled, “I can stand anywhere I want.”  “Enrichment” at one NYC junior high where I substituted consisted of confiscating chains and metal clubs from a class of 5th graders. When the armful of confiscated weaponry was brought to the principal’s office, he said he could do nothing unless he had the names of the students from whom they were taken. However, the students would not give me their names. The principal had me leave the weaponry on top of his file cabinet! Lastly, in high schools in NYC, school safety officers have peace officer status, and while they are unarmed, they carry handcuffs and are allowed to arrest recalcitrant students.

Lastly, Pillar #4 for our city’s wise new educational leader is “engaging families to be our true partners… a powerful pathway to building trust.”  This writer taught in an NYC high school with 670 mostly “at-risk” students enrolled — this was in the 1990s when society was more unified than it is today — and on a special “meet the principal” night at the school I was the only teacher who showed up along with only one parent to meet with the principal.  At least 25% of the students lived in no-parent homes with an aunt or grandma who worked as a caregiver or home health companion in Long Island during the week, and the student simply had a key to their aunt’s or granny’s apartment.  Another 40% at least had the classic single-parent home.  One mom told me she didn’t want her son to become a dummy and broke into tears.  He always cut school but was in the youth choir of a church pastored by a friend of mine. Despite his mother’s tears, one day he was shot and killed outside their apartment building.

In addition to reviewing Banks’ “vision,” it seems reasonable to note my biases in terms of educational theory.  I have been influenced by E.B. Hirsch, whose writings are concerned with the body of knowledge being imparted to the students. Of course, his emphasis is that there be a body of knowledge, not merely the social justice ideal that originated with John Dewey at the turn of the twentieth century and which has been the keystone of progressive ideation (so-called) since the 1920s.  Also, I have reviewed and loved Bruce Dietrick Price’s Saving K Through 12 as well as his various blog pieces and articles. He knows that phonics is the key to reading success and that the old math (with its required memorizations), not the new math or the new math, is the key to arithmetical proficiency.

Instead of Banks’s Four Pillars, we need officials who publicly and emphatically state and stand behind the statement that dumbing down of our students is an outrage against the taxpayers and against the aspirations and needs of our youth. We are either committed to reasonable, knowledgeable, and moral people or we are not. The Four Pillars only obscure the true needs of our violent, dumbed-down schools.