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Michele Somerville Headshot

Politics and Education in Brooklyn: Not So Strange Bedfellows

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I wrote a "thank you" note to an eighth grade teacher on the morning of the last day of school this week. The teacher is a bit of a wise-ass; he cracks a lot of jokes, most of them, I gather, funny. Is he everyone's idea of an excellent teacher? It's hard to say. But he's smart, funny, actually teaches students to write five-paragraph essays on Humanities topics, and when my own child was finding herself lost (in a large "gifted and talented" school which overall disappointed, in ways that could have been avoided) this highly intelligent teacher noticed and cared.

High intelligence and caring may sound like minimum basic requirements for teachers, but in even the best New York City schools, these qualities are all too scarce.

My children recoil in horror when I tell them I used to assign the occasional D+ or B++ to students on essays. Why not give the C- or the A-, they asked? More than not I rounded up.

But when my daughter presented me with her final middle school report card, she found the grade the aforementioned teacher (whom I thanked) assigned a bit low. I thought it was a perfect grade. The teacher knew my girl was uncommonly able -- and I know she'd been dining out on aptitude for way too long. I was glad to see the teacher assign a grade designed to send a message -- a grade which is code for "We both know you could have gotten an A+ if you had tried even just a little." He cared.

A guy who lives a few blocks away from me pretty much won a congressional seat last night in New York local primary elections in Brooklyn, New York. He trounced his opponent, a pol I've been disliking from afar for years. I was not able to vote for my candidate of choice in this race earlier this week because I live outside of his district, but I voted for Hakeem Jeffries once, several years ago when I lived where I could and I confess I did so with a mist in my eyes.

When Michael Bloomberg appointed Cathie Black two years ago, Jeffries, a man educated in public secondary schools and undergraduate college, who went on to study become a Juris Doctor with degrees from Georgetown and New York University, protested. Jeffries threw down with the teachers' union and opposed Bloomberg appointment of Black on the grounds that she was not an educator. I disagreed.

I liked the Cathie Black appointment, at first. I liked that Cathie Black was an outsider. I still think the Cathie Black appointment was a good one insofar as it shined a harsh light on what the work cut out for us was, vis á vis making the public schools work. The Cathy Black blunder led us to see that the schools were so deeply damaged by cronyism, racism, bureaucracy, anti-intellectualism and the malaise of mediocrity run amok that those in charge (the mayor et al) saw no other way out -- but to sell the soul of the schools to the devil of corporate interests under the pretext of (a misnomer if ever I heard one) "choice."

I liked that Cathie Black appointment didn't have an education degree. As an educator who sends two of my three children to public schools, I believe that the way teachers are trained and certified is the second-worst problem facing the schools, the first being the systematic institutional racism that permeates and compromises it at almost every turn. I viewed Cathie Black's lack of education credentials as a plus.

That was two years ago.

My thinking on the Bloomberg plan to "improve" schools has shifted. Thinking evolves. If it stays where it starts, it's not thinking.

I was standing on a corner a few nights talking with a fellow mom I've gotten to know through our work with under-educated students in under-served public schools. She articulated a question that's been rattling 'round my head for years: "Do the schools need 'reform'? Or to have the whole thing pulled up from the roots?" A couple of nights earlier, I'd enjoyed another conversation on the matter of education with a man who has worked the NYC DOE (and before that the NYC Board of Education) for many years. For the first time ever, I heard someone from inside the DOE worry aloud and fervently about how "choice" is ramping up institutional racism in the schools. He and I didn't agree on everything educational, but I think we agreed that we cared about the problem of educational reformers and complacent lifers not caring.

The truth is that educational partisanship is counterproductive. When it comes to education, imaginative solutions are the only way to go. One of Bloomberg's biggest mistakes is that he threw money at problems when he should have been throwing intelligence at them. Hakeem Jeffries, for whom I cannot currently vote, is a proponent of charter schools at present. This disappoints me. But people who care self-correct.

Read "Politics and Education in Brooklyn: Not So Strange Bedfellows" in its entirety on Bored-o-Ed.