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Since the turbulent 1960s, the activist and educator Bill Ayers has tried, in his way, to be free.
Back then, Ayers' radical politics drew him to Students for a Democratic Society and then the Weather Underground, a self-professed "revolutionary" group that bombed public buildings in protest of the Vietnam War and made Ayers a fugitive from the law.
Fifty years later, the country remains divided on Ayers' past judgment. It wasn't just the dust-up in 2008, when the McCain/Palin campaign seized on his ties with Barack Obama, then the Democratic nominee for president. Many have argued that Ayers hasn't ever fully reckoned with the consequences of his actions.
But Ayers' bent on freedom, experimentation — mistakes, even — has also expressed itself in his work in education, beginning with his tenure at Children's Community School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and leading on through dozens of books.
Today, that view of education risks falling out of step with bipartisan talk that emphasizes other goals and tools: workforce development, STEM teaching and what are sometimes called "no-excuses" charter schools.
In a new book, "You Can't Fire The Bad Ones," Ayers — co-authored with his brother, Rick Ayers, and Crystal Laura — attempted to tackle what they see as 19 "myths" about public education. The book argues that teachers' unions don't present a threat to quality affordable education, that American public schools aren't "utterly broken" and that school leaders can actually "fire the bad ones" with just cause.
As part of a new series of interviews about education, I spoke to Ayers by phone about his history in education, his responses to those "myths" and what kind of conversation he'd like to see replace them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What were the claims about public schools that you were trying to rebut with this book?
Right now, the debate on public education is dominated by corporate school reformers, is how I think of them. They've captured the imagination of both political parties, the major media, most of the big foundations, all the corporate money. So they have a lot going for them.
Their argument rests on three pillars. One is that the collective voice of teachers is either irrelevant or toxic. A second pillar is that an educated person can be known by a single metric, like his or her scores on a standardized test. And the third is that education is a product — like a laptop or a refrigerator — that should be part of the marketplace. And we reject all that strongly.
You admit in the book that teaching can be an exhausting profession. Mightn’t some teachers get worn out? And if so, couldn’t tenure get in the way of making sure there are passionate, energized teachers in the classroom?
Due process doesn’t mean you can't fire people who are incompetent or dangerous. You absolutely can, but you can't do it arbitrarily. There has to be some process. And before that was true, not only were communists and socialists kept out of the classroom, but also black people and women.
Most average workers succeed when they're in a milieu in which there’s support. At the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where I sent my kids, where Arne Duncan and Rahm Emanuel send their kids, they have teachers who are unionized and well-respected. And they're always asking the question, “what is a good teacher?” and trying to live up to that.
I went and met with the heads of the Lab School. I asked them, “What part do kids' test scores play in evaluating teachers?” And the two heads of this very prestigious school looked at me like I was from Mars: “Who said test scores have anything to do with good teaching?” That’s good enough for the privileged. But the people who are under the lash of school reform don't have that privilege. And that's a shame.
You argue that public schools are most highly-regarded in places where the teachers' unions are most powerful, including Massachusetts. But you also give so much credit to social context in education. You have to admit that Massachusetts has some certain economic advantages over, say, Alabama. So we can’t really chalk up our schools’ success to the unions, can we?
You’re absolutely right. I’m not making any great claim for existing teachers’ unions. But corporate-reform advocates would like us to believe that the unions are the reason schools are failing. And that’s an easy hypothesis to test. There are states which won’t allow teachers to unionize. They happen to have the lowest standardized-test scores, which is the measure they prefer.
We have to ask, what’s good about a union? One is that the collective voice of teachers is necessary to improve education. When I spoke to the head of school at the Lab School, he said to me, “We have 60 teachers here with an average of ten years’ experience.” That’s 600 years of experience. We would be foolish to discount that.
"...Our main message to kids has to be, you have the agency to learn everything. I as a teacher can’t passively fill you up with information. But you can reach out, exercising your agency, and become a learned, wise, skilled citizen. You can all do it."Bill Ayers
Second, there’s very few things you can point to and say that if teachers won a benefit — smaller class sizes, more arts education — that it would be bad for kids. Good working conditions make good teaching conditions, and good teaching conditions make good learning conditions.
One of the “myths” you attack is that good teaching is colorblind. But a refrain I hear from parents and educators all over the spectrum is that they’re militantly against the lowering of standards for racial minorities or for students with disabilities. How do you make sure that education that’s sensitive to race and other concerns doesn’t turn into a system of different standards for different groups?
Well, I’m militantly against the lowering of standards, but then we need to ask, “What do we mean by standards?” If we mean a narrow metric — a high-stakes, standardized test — then we’re barking up the wrong tree. I want high standards that are set, frankly, close to the ground by the people who are impacted by education.
And I want to keep high standards for legislatures, too: to fund education equitably and fairly. I would have high standards for the business community: that it not meddle in affairs that it doesn’t have to do with, but that it participates in funding schools so that all kids can succeed. So let’s not lower standards, but let’s make that a broader demand.
Kids come to us with amazing assets that are often discounted in schools. So when we say, “don’t be color-blind,” we’re saying: Yes, take into account the history of oppression, the history of privilege. But don’t take that into account as an excuse for watering things down. Use it as an inspiration to go further.
What does that mean to you?
My own view, as a lifelong teacher, is that our main message to kids has to be, you have the agency to learn everything. I as a teacher can’t passively fill you up with information. But you can reach out, exercising your agency, and become a learned, wise, skilled citizen. You can all do it.
I came of age, as a teacher, in the '60s. The “freedom schools” in Mississippi were a model for us. They were based on a curriculum of questions, and the first question was, “Why are you and I in the freedom movement? What do we hope to accomplish? Where are we in the world?” Those kinds of questions can animate education even today. “What are we doing here? What do I need to proceed in a way that’s productive and powerful for me, for my community, for my family?”
In your mind, what happened to that “freedom school” idea? It seems to be on the outs — if you read Malcolm Harris’s book, "Kids These Days," and hear of a millennial generation that was educated under a very different, more economically-minded understanding.
I’m not so sure. I have no nostalgia for a golden age in education, and I don’t think there is such a thing as a 1960s. I don’t think anyone looked at their watch on December 31, 1969, and said, “That’s it. It’s over.” I love the title of that book: "Kids These Days." Because that’s the song of every older generation: “Oh my God, the kids are out of control.” Every generation of kids says, “You promised us this, and look at what we have.” That’s actually a productive thing.
I look around today at the people going into teaching, at the activists — from everything to “Undocumented and Unafraid” to “Black Lives Matter” — and I’m absolutely inspired. They don’t want to push paper. They want to do something meaningful with their lives. So I think that the “freedom school” idea is not only still very much alive, but you can find it in the crawlspaces of almost every urban district: from the Algebra Project to the culture of poetry that has swept Chicago.
You list 19 myths. I would add a 20th myth, or idea: that next to ed reformers, teachers and their advocates don’t have any big ideas. All they want is more money and to keep the status quo.
I love it. The way that the discussion is framed is there are these revolutionaries who want vouchers, charters and an end to unions. And then there’s this liberal, status-quo crowd. And immediately I scream, “No!” I’m in a third camp. I hate the status quo. But the answer to hating the status quo isn’t to go backwards. It’s to go forward.
To me, that means full funding, equitable funding. And it means seeing education as more important, really, for the survival of the country than the Department of Defense. We can posit the schools we need, and we can point to them. They kind of look like what the most privileged parents have for their children. That’s what should be our standard for all children.
Right now, we don’t have the political will to do that. I’m often accused of being a utopian, and I plead guilty. People say, “Well, what good is utopia?” And my response is, look, I kind of agree. I see utopia on the far horizon. I take five steps toward it and it takes five steps away. Take ten steps toward it and it takes ten steps away. And so the answer is, it’s good for walking.
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