Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Anti- War Alternative in Afghanistan

I was troubled and saddened to learn of the capture and murder of ten Christian medical aid workers on August 7 returning from providing eye care to rural Afghans; the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

When I heard of the attack my first reaction was: I hope our leaders don’t use this as an excuse to “get tough” on the Taliban, and try to whip up support for increased military action in that country. Right now there are deliberations in Congress over whether to continue to fund the war, as President Obama has promised to do, or to begin to withdraw as a small number of Congresspersons are seeking to do. This attack just heightens the personal and political stakes of that debate.

In no way do I want to diminish the pain, grief and even anger that the friends and families of the deceased must feel. At the same time, a vengeful response would be diametrically opposed to the spirit and motivation of those who were killed. Tom Little, the eye doctor who headed up the team, had been working in Afghanistan for 30 years, which means he had been working there during the worst of the Taliban rule, and even the Russian war with Afghanistan (when ironically the US was actually supplying the Taliban with weapons that are now being turned on us!). Another victim, Glen Lapp, a Mennonite Central Committee worker on the team had been in the country over the last two years in the midst of the war. Other stories could be told of each of the victims. They died as they had lived – selflessly and sacrificially, a sign of shalom amidst death, chaos and violence.

Much has been made of the fact that they were innocent victims of this war; this is true. They were not there as combatants but as healers. Yet, they are not the only innocent victims of the war; thousands of Afghan citizens have been caught in the cross fire between NATO and Taliban troops and are simply referred to as “collateral damage.” Most experts agree that the killing of these innocent Afghans has been the Taliban’s best recruiting tool. To respond with vengeance as a way of gaining support for the war is to be no better than our enemy, and to play into their hands

I am in basic agreement with those who advocate that we must get out of this war. I did not and still do not support President Obama’s plan to increase our military presence there. I cringed during his State of the Union speech when he said we would spare no resources in support of our military efforts there. While Democrats and Republicans bicker about taxes and spending here at home, they are in basic agreement on Obama’s support of the Afghan war. Meanwhile our poverty at home increases, we bicker about health care reform, and Democrats and Republicans debate the best approach toward addressing the economic recession.

However, in my mind I hear Martin Luther King’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech in which he linked the suffering of the poor at home with the war in Vietnam; the resources we spend on war abroad only feed the poverty and devastation at home. Moreover, I think of so many in my generation directly or indirectly wounded by the Vietnam War. I worry for the twenty-somethings of today, who will be bearing the economic, social, and psychic scars of this war for decades, just as my generation lives with the after effects of the Vietnam War. Like the Vietnam War, the war in Afghanistan is un-winnable and has no redeeming purpose.

So I support the anti-war effort, and yet I don’t think we can just pull out and leave the Afghans to pick up the pieces; we have contributed to the chaos there, and have a moral obligation to do what we can to bring peace and healing to that divided nation. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire said that in calling for social and political change, people must engage in both denunciation and annunciation. Denunciation involves denouncing the status quo that needs to be changed, in this case our current military involvement in Afghanistan. Annunciation involves projecting a vision of a positive future as an alternative; that’s where I think we in the anti-war effort need to do some work. We know what we don’t want – the war – but the only alternative we offer is getting out, and leaving the Afghans in disarray.

Despite their tragic deaths, the ten aid workers represent the alternative we in the anti-war effort must present: a vision of people coming to provide assistance in quality of life. As Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools has shown, well meaning people can operate in war-torn places like Afghanistan if they operate in collaboration with the local people and offer resources and assistance that address the their basic needs. Tom Little, Glen Lapp, Greg Mortenson, and others represent a vision of a positive American presence in Afghanistan that could do more to bring peace to that land than all the weapons and soldiers will ever be able to accomplish.

At the end of Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson quotes a Muslim cleric who says that the enemy is not the Taliban, but rather ignorance, and that the building of schools in that country would do more to defeat the Taliban than the military intervention there. The enemy to be addressed in that poor and divided country are not the terrorist, but the poverty, the lack of health care, the lack of education, and other basic needs that serve as breeding grounds for terrorism. The vision we in the anti-war movement must cultivate is a vision of an Afghanistan that is healed and restored; a vision of empowering the Afghan people thru education, training and other basic services to rise out of their poverty and devastation. We need more not less people like those that were killed, who are willing to offer their services to those in need. If the military has a role, it is to protect and provide safe haven for those seeking help and those seeking to help.

If we truly want to end our military involvement in that war, this is the positive vision we must announce, even as we continue to denounce the war and its continuing devastation.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Is the "Race to the Top" Rigged?

President Obama is to be commended for making the improvement of the nation’s public school system a national priority and for challenging states and school systems to completely re-think the way they deliver education through the program called Race to the Top. States are being invited to submit proposals for funds to engage in a process of major educational reform. State plans must address six priorities that range from early childhood education to providing resources for high risk and special needs students to recruiting and training high quality teachers.
However the recent announcement that Washington, DC superintendent Michelle Rhee fired 241 “low-performing” teachers after instituting her program called IMPACT. Rhee’s action raises the question if the emphasis on teacher performance indicates that the Race to the Top is rigged against the teachers. Whenever educational issues come up, the first target of critics is usually the teachers. So as the Washington Post reported, Rhee’s action is meant to “send a message” that teachers need to raise the quality of their performance. No doubt some teachers need to find another career, but others may be forced outto that career not because of lack of skill or commitment, but a lack of structure, resources and support.
Critics often complain that teachers are overpaid for “only 9 months of work” and aren’t held accountable. Over the past several years no one group of people so valuable to our society have been so maligned and misunderstood as teachers. Now put those teachers in an old building that looks like a prison, has poor ventilation, with 35 kids per class, 5-6 periods a day, not enough textbooks, and no aides. Then include in that class 5-6 kids who come from dysfunctional families, another 5-6 who have childcare responsibilities or are expected to contribute to the family income, don’t give those kids breakfast and then blame those teachers that test scores are not “meeting standards”. You will begin to understand what Michelle Rhee’s “low-performing” teachers are up against.
I offer three points of reference. First, my own children went through a suburban school system that was at best adequate. Every year the local paper published the salaries of all the teachers in the district, and complained about “rising property taxes,” which happened to be lowest in the county. Through their 13 years of schooling, my kids had some outstanding teachers, a few poor ones, and a majority of mediocre teachers. But these teachers had adequate technology, a decent library, and manageable class sizes. Most of the kids came from families that provided enough food and other necessities, so that the kids were not expected to contribute the family income. Most of those families had at least one college graduate, so that these kids grew up expecting to attend college. My kids and the vast majority of kids graduated on time and went to various post high school pursuits including college. Mediocre and even poor teachers get by in that system, because they were operating in a context that surrounded them with adequate resources, necessary support, and a college going culture.

Second I am a college teacher who has taught graduate students, first and second year undergrads, and adults returning to earn a college degree. One year I simultaneously taught students across that spectrum. With the graduate students who were intelligent, motivated and resourceful, I was “outstanding” – my students grew and learned tremendously - by their own evaluation. However at the same time I taught a group of students most of whom were first generation college students, and who often had major economic and family responsibilities outside of class. I also taught some adult students who had difficulty reading and others who could not write coherent paragraphs. I worked doubly hard and pulled out every creative idea out of teaching bag of tricks. I ended up failing half the students in the undergrad class, even though it was one of the most creative, draining and challenging teaching experiences of my career. Even more amazing is that some of the students I failed actually thanked me for the way I had respected them in that class. So which teacher should be evaluated – the teacher of grad students, the teacher of the adult students or the teacher who failed half his undergrad class?
Third, I am part of a community group that provides support to a large urban public high school, I sit on the board of an urban Mennonite high school and I have consulted with a new charter school. All three schools serve the same demographic of students: lower income, urban, mostly students of color. The urban high school sees only about 50% of its 9th graders persist to graduation. The Mennonite high school has a 100% college acceptance rate of students, and the charter school is only one year into operation, so it is too soon to tell. However, what is common to all three schools is that they all have innovative and creative principals and a group of teachers who love kids. However the charter school and Mennonite high school have class sizes around 20, while the public high school averages 30-35. The charter school and Mennonite high school have local autonomy, while the public high school answers to the superintendent. Despite its low test scores, the public high school has seen phenomenal improvement in scores and morale, was on track to substantially improve the graduation rate. Justlooking at the scores the superintendent decided the principal needed to be re-assigned and her efforts halted. My prediction is that any momentum and hope she built with students and teachers will be undercut and the school’s performance will decline.
In these scenarios (my children’s school, my own classes, the three schools I compare) which teachers failed and who succeeded? Blaming teachers for a failed system is an easy explanation, but wholly inadequate. If I was teacher looking for a job, would I want to go into a system where the odds are stacked against me like the Philadelphia or DC school systems? Would I choose to operate in a system, where I am underpaid, and under-resourced, and yet expected to achieve progress on my kids test scores? Are the test scores even the proper measure of success? Or would I choose to go to an adequately resourced suburban district where even if I was mediocre, my kids would do okay? Or would I gravitate to a charter school or a private school, not subject to the whims of a politically vulnerable superintendent?
If we as a nation are truly concerned about public education, we need to stop laying all the blame on the teachers. The system as a whole is broken and creating a culture of fear and distrust distracts everyone’s attention, especially the teachers, from being willing to re-shape and re-form that broken system. What we need is a systemic approach to urban education like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children Zone. Canada recognizes that there many factors outside the school building that affect learning inside the school building. While I don’t fully agree with Canada’s almost totally behavioristic methods, I do think he has recognized that the problem with urban public education is systemic and is seeking to address it that way. This is why cities across the nation are seeking to adopt and adapt his model to their situations.
I recently read the reflections of a 5th year teacher in the Philadelphia public school system. Half of all teachers quit by their fifth year, and this teacher had survived that threshold. Yet, just when she should be hitting her stride, she writes that one of the realities she lives with is that most days she drives home “feeling like a crappy teacher.” Moreover, as she looks out over the career ahead of her she wonders if she can sustain her career over a lifetime. I want that teacher to feel valued, supported, and excited about the work she will do, because those feelings will be conveyed to her students, and will influence her students’ performance. Creating a culture of fear and intimidation (as Michelle Rhee has done in DC) will not help this teacher feel any better about herself, her work or her students. She needs to be surrounded by a system that helps her get better at her craft, not that threatens her to get better or else.
The Race to the Top seems rigged against the teachers, and the ones who will suffer in the end will again be the students.