Transcription of the episode “David C. Bloomfield on why we need a revolution in attitude to see education as a social good rather than an individual property right”

Jon M: 00:15 I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: 00:17 And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools, where we discuss strategies for creating inclusive and equitable schools and youth programs that help student to develop both commitment and capacity to build ethical institutions.

Jon M: 00:32 Our guest today is Dr. David C. Bloomfield, Professor of Education, Leadership and Policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of “American Public Education Law” and received the first Paul Robeson Prize in Minority Leadership Studies from Columbia Law School. He served as general counsel and senior education advisor to Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger and later as general counsel to the New York City Board of Education. He is a contributor to the Daily Beast and many other publications. Welcome, David.

David B: 01:03 Thank you.

Amy H-L: 01:04 David. In your latest Daily Beast article, you wrote, “Without a revolution in the way we see education, as a social good to be broadly encouraged rather than property to be hoarded, we will continue to treat school resource allocation as zero sum. Lines will be drawn with increasing strictures, us against them, with consequential conflict and social impoverishment.” How did this view of education as private property develop in America? How deeply is it connected to issues of race? Do you see prospects for us coming to see it as a social good, for example, as Finland does?

David B: 01:45 When we look at school districts, which is kind of the root of the problem, communities throughout the United States have created enclaves, where it’s “our kids” rather than “all of our kids.” And so when it comes to property taxes, and that’s a big issue, people see their money going to support their own children, in many cases. And that’s really, I think what the root of the problem is, that we have these tiny little school districts dotting the country, well over 10,000, and in doing so, we’ve created an “us versus them” mentality. So that as that article points out, even some wealthier parts of districts are seceding in order to further divvy up the pie in their children’s favor.

Jon M: 02:42 Nick Hanauer writes in this month’s Atlantic Monthly that what he calls educationism “is a convenient myth propagated by the wealthy, including foundations, that failing schools are the cause of vast income inequality. But in fact, this confuses cause and effect, that good schools are important, but the underlying disease is income inequality itself.” What are your thoughts?

David B: 03:07 Christopher Jencks many decades ago pointed out that if we want social equality, if we want a degree of economic equity in this country, we need not to look at the schools, but at our economic system to solve that problem. The issue therefore is that schools are a symptom of that problem. But even in thinking about the school system, schools are a social good. We are all improved in our lives by a well-educated citizenry and we have to look at other people’s children as our children for educational benefit.

Amy H-L: 03:52 You know, that’s sort of how we think about it. But apparently that is not the current sentiment, at least not in this administration.

David B: 04:00 I think it’s a problem beyond this administration. I think that recent educational policy, charter schools for example, have meant that people see their children going to their schools and other people’s children going to other schools and we have this funding fight between charters and traditional public schools that didn’t occur earlier.

Amy H-L: 04:28 David, how much do you think this is a function of, of racism, pure and simple?

David B: 04:32 I think a lot of it has to do with racism. It has to do with the racialization of poverty. It has to do with seeing the other in color as well as in income. And so a lot of the problem that we have in the United States is not only a socioeconomic problem but a socioeconomic racial problem.

Jon M: 04:58 Yeah, it seems to me the roots, going back to the first question about sort of how we got here and where we go from here, it seems as though education and race and also class difference have always been tightly interwoven. You know, before the Civil War, enslaved people, Black people were denied education systematically. One of, during Reconstruction, the efforts to overturn Reconstruction included opposition to public education because it benefited Black and low income white students. And in the North, you know, Horace Mann education schools were seen essentially as kind of civilizing and controlling influences over an emerging industrial working class. Some countries, for example, I mean Finland is the obvious example, were able to shift from having a very conservative society and a very conservative school system to having a very progressive society and a very progressive school system. Obviously countries can’t be easily compared, but what do you see as what would be needed and how we get there in terms of trying to achieve some of those kinds of fundamental changes, that revolution that you’re talking about here in the United States?

David B: 06:26 Well, one solution that I don’t support is the nationalization of, of schooling. Think about if Betsy DeVos was the superintendent of schools for the United States of America. So it turns out that our great strength as well as our great weakness is the pluralism in American public education. I think what we really need, and I’m a lawyer and the law doesn’t get at this problem, is a change in our social outlook to see that our brother, our sister across the street, across the state is a partner in society and, and not somebody to compete against.

Amy H-L: 07:11 Yeah. We rarely hear anyone talking about the common good these days, do we? Although we’ve recently seen a wave of teachers’ strikes with broad public support in both red and blue states. I mean on the other hand, the LA school bond issue, which was designed in part to implement the teachers’ demands, was defeated. So what do you make of these contradictions?

David B: 07:39 I think that teacher unionism is an important force in improving American education. I think unionism in general is an important social force to improving the lot of the middle class. But I mean, the salaries of those teachers who were striking are so poor and the compensation remains so problematic that I don’t think that they’ve really made a dent in the kind of problem that we’re talking about. That teachers deserve a good salary so that they don’t have to be working two or three jobs. They need to be giving to their classrooms like professionals and not like Uber drivers. And we really need to have a greater social will for education. It’s not a country that really values education. People have this trope about Black people not valuing education. Black people, especially, do value education because of the denial of education for centuries. When I talk to a school superintendent, she talks about her school board and she says the school board member wants to see their kid as the starting quarterback on the football team rather than trying to excel in their studies. Uh, we’re not a society that really values the kind of academic rigor that people pretend.

Jon M: 09:09 Are you seeing, as you look around the country, any signs of sort of a mass education movement emerging that you know, in some sense would be a part of sort of the overall movement around economic inequality and for social justice? Are you seeing that?

David B: 09:31 I think that we see that. I think we’ve always seen that. Whether that is a massive enough movement, whether there’s really that critical mass, uh. Sure. A lot of people want to increase federal funding for education, but that’s probably because they want to spend less of their property tax dollars on their local schools. But people are still hoarding rather than looking to expand the pie.

Jon M: 09:59 Right. New York City is now the most segregated school system in the country. Can New York achieve desegregation and meaningful racial and socioeconomic integration, and if so, how?

David B: 10:12 Well, I’m not sure that New York City, rather than New York State, is the most segregated in the country. But it almost doesn’t matter. It’s a highly segregated school system. I think with political will, we can make inroads into that segregation. There is a high degree of residential segregation in New York City. Of course, the distances are quite broad at times. But the current administration has shown very little practical will, a lot of words, very little action to solve this problem.

Amy H-L: 10:49 Part of the issue seems to be that the whole concept of an educated citizenry isn’t discussed. It doesn’t seem to be valued.

David B: 11:01 I hate to be even more of a downer, but it’s worse than that. It’s trying to deprive some of an education so that others can rise above. And you know we kind of see the epitome in the SAT scandals that we’ve just revealed. But if you really think about that, I mean, the whole system is so rotten. I mean, I hired SAT tutors for my kids. Both of my children went to selective New York City high schools. Uh, everybody does it because everybody kind of feels they need to do it to make sure that their own children’s futures are secure. We need to really make it so that everybody is on a level of playing field, but that’s impossible within the testing and sorting and good school bad school conversation that we have now.

Jon M: 12:01 We’ve seen many individual schools that successfully move away from sort of the total focus on testing, that successfully integrate holistic approaches to students and academic success for periods of time. Pedro Noguera says that Toronto is probably the best urban school system in North America in achieving this. On a large scale, what would it take for other large systems to bring these approaches to scale?

David B: 12:33 What we need to do is to first of all stop talking about good schools and bad schools. Good schools and bad schools are code for racialized systems for higher income students going to some schools and lower income students going to other schools in a highly segregated way. So what we really need to do is redraw attendance zones, put down those screens to make sure that kids can go to school together, work together, learn from one another. In the specialized high schools in New York City – Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, we see this kind of social Darwinism going on and it hurts everybody, and kids are going to schools in non-social environments and treated differently because of the school and the test scores that they get.

Jon M: 13:31 Speaking of the selective high schools, you’ve written a good bit about some of the current issues around the admissions practices to the test schools and so forth. What’s your viewpoint on this? What are some of the things that could be done immediately, perhaps, at the city level to ameliorate these issues?

David B: 13:53 Right. New York City is unique in the United States in having high schools that select students based on a single rank order test called the SHSAT, required for three high schools by state law. So it’s really the State of New York, which demands a certain enrollment process for these schools. That state law should be eliminated. New York City should eliminate the test on its own if it gets that power because it really is creating a two-tiered system. Mayor Bloomberg created five new schools that are under that same umbrella, uh, which causes further issues with several dozen other schools, high schools and middle schools in New York City that also have screens. So it’s a system to sort the haves from the have nots and it really needs to be eradicated.

Jon M: 14:55 Would you like to see the mayor eliminate the tests at the non-state-mandated schools?

David B: 15:03 Oh, absolutely. The mayor and the chancellor, who talks a good game, could eliminate that SHSAT requirement for five high schools immediately and they refuse to do so. They are abetting the segregation of New York City public schools rather than stopping it.

Amy H-L: 15:25 Say if they eliminated the test, how would they determine who gets to go to those schools?

David B: 15:30 Well, Pedro says that they probably shouldn’t have the screened schools at all. I think that’s a very difficult a hill to climb, but there are other criteria that Chicago, for instance, has screened schools with, but they use a different series of criteria and in fact they have a stratified system based on income to ensure that low income students have access to those schools.

Amy H-L: 16:00 Let’s talk about restorative justice. I know you’ve written quite a bit about it. What do you see as positive steps either in New York City or nationally towards restorative justice practices in schools? What are the most serious obstacles? How can our listeners, many of whom are progressive teachers, inform themselves and effectively advocate for restorative justice practices in their schools?

David B: 16:27 Well, we do have to be teaching our proto-teachers in teacher prep programs restorative justice practices. I mean, it goes under the heading of classroom management, but it’s not your typical classroom management. It’s really about team building. It’s about not casting blame, but creating a social structure in a classroom so that kids will be nicer to one another and can learn how to resolve differences among themselves. It’s hard work. And our system of schooling, with with metal detectors and security guards and discipline codes really works against this new design. It’s not even a new design. I’ve been part of Dignity for Schools for probably 20 years at this point, but we are making strides. I think we know that there is a school to prison pipeline that starts with overrepresentation of minority students in suspensions. And so I think at a district level, we need to reduce the punitive nature of punishment and of discipline and to move toward more restorative practices.

Amy H-L: 17:44 What does that look like? Are there authorities? Are there people who are qualified to instill restorative justice practices?

David B: 17:55 Well, we have far more police officers and school resource officers who are supervised by the police department in our schools than we have social workers. And so we really have to flip that to provide a more supportive environment for our students rather than one where they’re in a fishbowl where there are law enforcement watching them all times basically. And, and kids are kids. Uh, if you’re looking for an infraction, you’re going to find an infraction.

Jon M: 18:27 So it’s interesting because like virtually everything else, it comes back to the quality of relationships and the relationships among the people in the school. And the very fact that police first of all are not trained. But secondly, the whole idea of having a police force handling discipline within an educational environment is bizarre. You know, we’ve seen situations where principals have been fighting with the police because what the principals and teachers see as sort of ordinary adolescent behavior and something to be resolved on a relationship basis immediately gets translated into some kind of a law enforcement kind of issue. Or where even the attitude that… My brothers in law are police officers and they’ve told me that what their training is is to go into a situation to intimidate everybody because if you intimidate, then you have control of the situation. And if you try to go into a situation on an equal basis, then as a police officer, from their point of view, you’re giving up a lot of your advantage and that is so totally antithetical to what you’d like to see in a school situation.

David B: 19:55 And the media play a role too, because when something happens, the immediate media reaction is to put it on the front page and to call for the kid’s head. And so we are in a society which is not pro-restorative justice, but pro-punishment. I think we’re taking steps to resolve that socially. And I think we’re taking steps to resolve that educationally, but it’s a hard slog. And every time something goes wrong, as it inevitably will, in terms of a child acting out, the calls get louder rather than be more understanding.

Jon M: 20:35 Is there anything that you’d like to add that we haven’t asked about?

David B: 20:39 Yeah, we’ve been talking a lot about school segregation and inequality. Uh, but I think we need to talk some particular populations, not only racial populations, but special needs students, ELL students, uh, girls who are selected out of these specialized high schools, for example. And I think what I would call for is a view of schooling as encompassing all children, making sure that no one is treated as the other. No one is treated better than another. And, uh, we kind of take that teacherly approach rather than one of economic competitiveness.

Amy H-L: 21:34 Isn’t this as well another question, issue of relationships. Do teachers can establish meaningful and authentic relationships with all of their students rather than just some of their students?

David B: 21:51 Yeah, but that goes to class size, too. You know, it’s very hard to do that in a class of 30 or 35 kids. There was a recent article in the Washington Post about teaching writing. I was the president of something called the Citywide Council in High Schools, which is a parent advisory group for the New York City high schools, all of them. And one problem that we identified but has never been resolved is the need to just grade students’ writings. And if you have 150 kids as a secondary school teacher, class after class after class, there is no way you can have, for example, weekly, even weekly, writing assignments where you can give the kind of feedback you need for not only that kind of skill-building but that relationship-building as well that comes from going over the work with a child.

Jon M: 22:48 Yeah, it’s, it’s um, interesting. As you know, my son Lev was a student at Beacon and then was hired as a teacher after graduating. And when Beacon was started, it was supposed to have a student body of 400 and then because it was successful, the DOE kept expanding it. I’m not sure the total figure now, but I believe it’s somewhere around 1200 and yet the ideal is for it to continue to have that kind of intimate faculty student relationship and have that translate into things like performance-based assessments, for example. And you know, careful ability to critique a student’s work.

David B: 23:35 And where we have huge concentrations of children with home instability, with low incomes to the point of crisis where they’re not getting enough to eat and not getting enough sleep, that’s where the segregation comes in again, that we need to create schools where everybody has a chance and not separating out certain populations to be effectively forgotten.

Jon M: 24:05 Absolutely.

Amy H-L: 24:07 Thank you so much, David Bloomfield.

David B: 24:08 Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

Amy H-L: 24:11 And thank you listeners for joining us. For more information about Professor Bloomfield and his work, you can check out his website, Our website, with articles and podcast episodes, is We’re on Facebook, Twitter @ethicalschools and Instagram. Till next week.

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