Mark Naison, Badass Teachers Unite!

(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014)

This little book is comprised of essays and posts by Mark Naison, a professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University, who became outraged at so-called reformers who blame teachers for the failures of the US education system. The author’s critique of neoliberalism and its impact on the education system can strengthen resistance to the corporate takeover of American schools.

Naison is not just an angry academic. He is an activist with considerable experience in working with school systems. He is also a scholar of social movements and African-American history, and he applies his academic training to understanding efforts by government and corporations to remake the school system. The author has been intimately involved in training teachers in New York City, and more specifically in the Bronx, to help them recapture the history of their community and present it to students in an engaging manner.

Naison provides a penetrating critique of federal, state, and local efforts to reform education by turning it into a regime of testing and test-preparation under the guise of bringing greater accountability to schools. He thoroughly refutes reformers’ claims that the failures of the educational system rest with teachers and teacher unions. Instead he argues that top-down re-engineering of the education system by elites and private foundations has not improved learning and, moreover, has contributed to growing polarization.

In a series of captivating vignettes, Naison insightfully unmasks the pretensions of corporate leaders and politicians who have recently led the reorganization of schools. The leaders of the reform movement place great emphasis on repeated standardized testing. In addition, they suggest that teacher effectiveness is best evaluated by examining the test scores of their students. It is this testing regime and the punitive ways in which it is used against teachers that Naison opposes. Naison and his allies have called for an open revolt against the cuts in education, the attacks on teachers and their unions, and the restructuring of the educational system in the image of business. Through empowering teachers, students, parents, and communities to resist the corporate takeover of schools, Naison seeks to create an authentic grassroots response to neo-liberal models of education.

Naison argues for an alternative model by recounting his interactions with teachers and students, and by making the case that teaching is a craft and cannot be reduced to a series of metrics and best practices. He suggests that effective teaching is about building relationships with students, parents, and communities and integrating their histories into the pedagogical process. He stresses that there are no quick fixes to problems in the US educational system and that only sustained political activism can turn back the tide of pseudo-populist corporate reform.

The author’s examples come from various school settings and illustrate that testing programs are turning students off and creating a pressure-packed atmosphere in schools which alienates administrators, teachers, and students. The current approach to school reform, according to Naison, is harming the very students it was meant to help – namely, the poor, the working poor, and racial minorities. The author argues that by adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to educating our students, the business model is teaching students to hate school by deemphasizing their history and their community, and by suppressing their energy and creativity. The corporate appropriation of school systems has degraded the learning environment and destroyed morale.

Ironically, and perhaps predictably, the corporate takeover of schools has mostly benefitted elites, seeking to make money from educational reform. As education becomes more commodified, the life chances of students are increasingly defined by their educational credentials. A college degree is now most often seen as a marker of middle class status. This makes the failure of corporate reform even more devastating to the students whom it marginalizes.

Naison recognizes that as the school system becomes more privatized, it is teachers that are being scapegoated for the test scores of the remaining students in the public schools. But he is wise to point out that in the past the school system did little to improve the life chances of people who did not come from privileged backgrounds. What made the difference for such students was the availability of well-paying jobs. The relative lack such jobs in the current era and the decline of social justice movements have created a dilemma for working people. For many, schools seem to be reinforcing the gap between rich and poor, and the American dream seems all but unattainable.

As Naison points out, it was the impact of movements for social justice and sustained political activism that really affected the life chances of working people. In the heyday of the 1960s social movements, communities benefitted from the fact that people went to work every day and had relative job security. The community was more involved in demanding responsiveness from schools.

By casting a wide net in his analysis of schools, the author is able to comprehend the connection between corporate school reforms and the neoliberal political economy. It takes an historian’s sensibility to make these connections and to see the attempt by corporations to dominate the school system as just another move by big business to advance its interests (both ideological and economic) and to subordinate the interests of working people.

To his credit, Naison and his collaborators do not take what has happened to school systems as inevitable or unalterable. They have spawned a resistance movement in the form of an organization called Badass Teachers Unite!, which in a short time has been remarkably successful in recruiting members. They have also promoted forums such as the Teachers Talk Back project. These organizations have spearheaded efforts to depose Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, reject No Child Left Behind, and oppose the testing movement. In addition, by galvanizing community resistance, they have been able to help resist school closings when schools have not met the testing standards.

Badass Teachers Unite! makes a valuable contribution to the struggle against corporatization of the schools. Its format makes it accessible to everyone involved with the debate on school reorganization. Furthermore, it does an excellent job of linking youth activism to history and social structure, while also providing a needed antidote to the simple remedies prescribed by corporate elites and politicians.

Reviewed by Peter Seybold
Department of Sociology
Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI)

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