Guest Column: Rockford schools: Education not a business based on a corporate model

By Jane Hayes and Watchdogs for Ethics in Education

He came. He spoke. He woke … the sleeping giant of corporate interests in Rockford. However, he (Geoffrey Canada) didn’t need to awaken the lowly educators, the Jacks and Jills who climb the beanstalk daily by dealing with the crisis in public education. Why? Because we educators deal with insurmountable problems such as overcrowded classrooms and schools where violence, misbehavior and disrespect abound while trying to penetrate impoverished minds, bodies and spirits of our students with the love of learning.

We deal with paperwork, high-stake standardized testing, power standards, the lack of a teacher contract, insensitivity and irrational choices made for us by those ill-equipped to be educators themselves.

We plant the magic beans that germinate in the midst of irrational odds never expecting to find a golden egg or magic harp, but still striving to do well by our students.

So, Geoffrey Canada spoke Wednesday, Dec. 8, to nearly 500 of the elite of Rockford about his background with the Harlem Charter Zone (HCZ) in New York City, and most found inspiration from his words. However, few in attendance were educators because it was held during the school day and at a hefty cost.

I was fortunate to teach half a day and still hear his speech. Noticeably, Keith private school had a table for their teachers. The Rockford Chamber of Commerce, Alignment Rockford, Zion Development and the United Way sponsored the Education Outlook luncheon without including teachers. Just imagine how disenfranchised we feel, and WEE (Watchdogs for Ethics in Education) would like to know what Canada’s honorarium was and how much the various organizations contributed. Do we need to do another FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to find the cost?

Educators realize that to educate a child today, it takes far more than just stimuli of the classroom. As a society, we need to support and nurture the poorest among us, who have been deprived of advantages or opportunities from birth by offering wrap-around services that HCZ offers its students. However, social justice and sound educational reform have to be more creative and critical in its solutions than just giving lip service, hand-outs and costly alternatives.

For all Geoffrey Canada’s charm, do some research to understand why he is the darling of the corporate world. Goldman Sachs, an investment banking and securities firm in lower Manhattan, gave him $20 million to build another charter school. Its latest school building will cost $100 million from a private/public partnership. New York City is contributing $60 million from a capital fund for the charter school construction, and the Harlem Children’s Zone must raise the remaining $40 million, easily attained since they are nationally renowned with numerous financial and political contacts.

Another strange situation Canada has been linked with is his testimony on behalf of one of his benefactors, Raj Rajaratnam, a hedge fund billionaire and board member of HCZ, whom he considers a dear friend. And according to a New York Times article hyperlinked below, Canada would even help guarantee part of Mr. Rajaratnam’s $100 million bail after his arrest in October 2009 (hyperlink No. 4 below). Raj was accused of using inside trading tips from Goldman Sachs to enrich his riches.

According to Brian James, teacher and activist who participated in the Education Nation Summit sponsored by NBC, Waiting for Superman (the documentary movie on charter schools vs. public schools) paints Canada as a kind of educational Chuck Yeager — the pilot who first broke the sound barrier. Canada seemed particularly incensed that I brought up the fact that after New York’s test scores were re-scaled last year, only 38 percent of his students in Harlem Children’s Zone 1 fell within the benchmark for “proficient” reading ability. Canada tried to change the subject to the better scoring Harlem Children’s Zone 2. And while he claims it’s not the building that proves successful, he had been endowed with millions for support services and programs. Yet, while taking large checks from Wall Street on one hand, Canada insists that “it’s not about resources” on the other (hyperlink No. 1 below).

Canada’s personal resources extend to his annual salary, purported to be between $400,000 to 500,000 annually. Actually, President Barack Obama makes $400,000 a year as well and has pledged to replicate the HCZ in 20 other cities. But then, remember, it’s not about resources!

Some comments from a substitute teacher at the Harlem Children’s Zone (hyperlink No. 3) show insights to HCZ: I was a substitute teacher for both of Harlem Children Zone schools. I worked for one day; in one, which is the one I liked, their principal and administration seemed more organized. The other one, which had the older kids, seventh graders — teen-agers — was a nightmare. I stayed in that school for two months. They used to give the kids a paycheck to help them buy supplies in school, but instead they used that money to buy PlayStations and very expensive cell phones. They paid the teachers well, but I remember meeting up with one teacher on the street who was crying. Her students were cruel to her, and she was one of the best teachers in the school. The administration was all about appearance — they had an image to portray, Prince Charles and Clinton had visited their school already. I felt bad for all of them; everyone wanted to keep their jobs but ran the school like a dysfunctional army. I stopped idolizing charter schools after that. It’s a business in the end of the day.

Now, in fairness, Canada was an engaging speaker who entertained the audience with anecdotes, successes and personal poetry. His poem, “Don’t Blame Me,” touched a chord in me because I am not about blaming the blameless. However, I am tired of business and corporate interests blaming the teachers and excluding them from the decision-making process.

As educators, we have given and rescued as many as we possibly can without benefit of CEO salaries, respect or acknowledgement. We understand the value of an educated work force and lifelong learning. We understand the need to reach the distressed and disillusioned among our students. We reach who we can; we teach who will listen; we seek to make a difference.

Educators live to create light in the darkness, hope in the hopeless, and knowledge from the ignorance. If Harlem or Rockford is to have an actual Renaissance in public school reform, it has to do more than canonize a public face or a charter school leader. While Canada is currently the darling of the elite — the powerful of the corporate and banking worlds, politicians, media and moguls — he correctly states he is not going to save our children. That task belongs to us, but do not delete the teachers, parents and students from this movement because true reform cannot be achieved without our partnership.

Canada would say it’s not about resources, but then he has many to spare. Instead, we need to follow Diane Ravitch’s (education historian) lead: “Unless the schools provide our children with a vision of human possibility that enlightens and empowers them with knowledge and taste, they will simply play their role in someone else’s marketing schemes. Unless they understand deeply the sources of our democracy, they will take it for granted and fail to exercise their rights and responsibilities.”

Remember, education is not a business based on a corporate model. Remember us? We are the teachers who navigate the human minds and hearts of your children. It is time to start networking with us, the equitable and ethical teachers who want change that fits the students we serve in Rockford. You see, we have been thinking, creating and teaching outside the business box for years.


From the Dec. 14-20, 2011, issue

One thought on “Guest Column: Rockford schools: Education not a business based on a corporate model

  • Dec 16, 2011 at 6:17 am

    For all of the energy you’re focusing on trying to keep corporations out of our schools and pointing out anything you hear that is negative about Mr. Canada, the simple fact is that RPS 205, as a whole, is failing our children. Why shouldn’t we try some new ideas? Why shouldn’t teacher compensation be based on the quality and results of their instruction? Good educators have nothing to be afraid of in that system. We all know the good teachers in our kids’ schools. Instead we have a system that protects bad teachers and even gives them raises every year simply because they’ve survived the year and come back for more the next year. Why not have some charter school alternatives? Now that the district is moving back to neighborhood based schools, shouldn’t parents have the ability to move their kids to a different school if they don’t like the education their kids receive at the neighborhood school? I’m not so sure that WEE is about ethics so much as about promoting the status quo.

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