Nancy Lesko with Laura Vernikoff

DSC_0217Nancy Lesko teaches in the areas of curriculum, youth studies, gender/sexuality, and immigration at Teachers College, Columbia University. Recent books include: Keywords in youth studies and Act your age! A cultural construction of adolescence, 2nd edition. Current research projects involve a three-country study of beginning teachers and their responses to LGBTQ issues (SSHRC funded) and a high school initiative that uses storytelling to move beyond the discourse of sexual minorities as victims of bullying (Ford funded). In conversation here with Laura Vernikoff, a doctoral student in the Curriculum and Teaching department at Teachers College, and a former Special Education teacher in New York City public schools, we learn about their mutual concerns regarding a number of recent issues that have complicated the relationship between the college’s administration, and the faculty and students.

LAURA VERNIKOFF

I wanted to ask you about recent events, as you know. 101 out of 103 faculty members voted not to support the budget. I know our department has written a letter expressing some concerns, and I was wondering if you could start by telling a bit about that.

NANCY LESKO

I could start at least within the Curriculum and Teaching department, when the explicit talk about issues started. There was a faculty meeting, in early April, I believe, in which Harvey Specter, Vice President for Finance and Administration, presented a draft of the budget. That’s typical–to see a draft earlier in the term, before the final one is passed. The faculty is asked to vote on it. And it was in that meeting that there was a particular tenor in the discussion. When people asked questions about the budget and the budget priorities there was this really derogatory attitude towards the questioners, like the questions were either insignificant or dumb. We’re teachers; we know when we’re getting a particular tone of voice and way of speaking that says, “We’re not interested in those questions.” This went on for at least thirty minutes, maybe even longer. And, for me, it was really shockingly dismissive. I know, from talking to people in Arts and Humanities, people in that department were shocked by it too.

The budget was, in a sense, the spark of the critique and call to action. There were lots of issues that, for different people in the college, were really important. For example, the work that faculty are used to doing has now been taken over by and controlled by the administration. And similarly the work in local schools has a similar kind of change in that faculty are only allowed to develop relationships with public schools, or local schools—and private—if it comes through senior administration. So those are just two examples of things that faculty really care about. Our careers and our research are intertwined with these activities, and all of a sudden they’re being taken over by senior administrators.

And then all the concern about Susan Fuhrman’s ties with Pearson, and the way that Pearson and Meryl Tisch and the Board of Regents have been a part of this major assault on teaching, and on schooling, and on learning. And then to have Susan directly link herself with those positions around public schooling, around equity, around what schools are for, who they’re for, is just another kind of…not just shock, but real break with what lots of people here devote their work to, and what TC stands for. And we know that it’s not just one thing, but it just seems to be kind of shifting. The good parts of the TC legacy–or the TC history–that recall what TC stands for seem to be being minimized and other things are just getting much more attention. So, a lot of issues have all of a sudden converged.

I was talking with Kevin Dougherty and he was saying that, as a sociologist, he studied social movements and, in a sense, revolutions. One of the things that I think he did his first book on was the open system at CUNY—open enrollment. And he said, even as someone who studies social movements, it’s just so shocking when all of a sudden, something happens, that you kind of saw the pieces of… but, exactly what galvanized it? I don’t know. For me, it was that faculty meeting, and the way the faculty were spoken to. But then it just gets added to. Other people are coming from all kinds of different directions, concerns…pressures to keep enrollments up, and to increase class sizes. And then within the budget, this five-year plan… student tuition will go up 5% every year. And of course for me, part of the background for this is the whole Occupy movement, which critiques the banks, and the policies that place all the burden and responsibility on certain people and all the profit on others. That’s part of what we see going on. The profit, the control, being moved over to senior administration. Meanwhile, higher enrollments, year-round review of admissions, larger class sizes, and higher tuition for students. We’re all aware already of how high the tuition is. It’s just unconscionable, I think, to have a budget that rests on raising tuition 5% each year.

A lot of things just came together. I don’t know that anyone could have predicted this, but as Kevin Dougherty said, it’s hard to know that it was going to come to a head that quickly.

LAURA VERNIKOFF

I think those are a lot of issues that students have been talking about also.

NANCY LESKO

Oh that’s great! Are you willing to say more about it?

LAURA VERNIKOFF

There have been some student meetings, sort of informal student meetings. I’ve gone to some of them, but not all of them. I think we had one of the first meetings—for us, it was after a talk that Harvey Specter and the provosts gave about doctoral student funding. A lot of students there were not very happy about some things that went on in the talk. So a few of us met the next day, and that was around the time that the letter from C&T was circulating. Somebody emailed that to me. And as we were talking, I think we felt also like there were a lot of things that were kind of converging. You know, the doctoral student funding thing is something that’s near and dear to my heart for a very practical reason.

NANCY LESKO

Sure.

LAURA VERNIKOFF

But also just related to larger issues of the budget, and what the budget means. Not just as a practical thing, you know, how we are spending the money. But also, what do we value?

NANCY LESKO

Yeah. Yeah.

LAURA VERNIKOFF

Kind of like, what do we want to put our resources into and how do we want to organize that? And people in the doctoral student meeting were bringing up this idea of, why are you raising tuition and giving administrators bonuses? And then, since many of us doctoral students have been teachers, and then obviously there are a lot of people here studying to become teachers, there’s been a lot of concern with testing and Pearson and the edTPA.

NANCY LESKO

Right, right. And, can I ask what were the—when doctoral students met with the provosts about funding, what was the point of that meeting? And what were the messages?

LAURA VERNIKOFF

I sort of assumed that part of the point of the meeting was a little bit of damage control. I know that they started this year with fully funding, I think they said fifty doctoral students, and they are hoping to increase to a hundred fifty doctoral students, which is nice, but I think there are about a thousand doctoral students, so that still leaves a lot of people unfunded, even once they hit the hundred fifty students goal. So, they wanted to share that information with us and they were very pleasant, very polite. But not really taking up our questions about what was going on with students who were already here, which was a question we all had as students who are already here. What support is going to be given to us?

NANCY LESKO

Yeah. Right, right.

LAURA VERNIKOFF

I guess my sort of cynical thing about that was that it was partially damage control. They wanted to tell us what was going on, spin it in a positive light. I think some of us had been hearing that some of this year’s students were fully funded and so we were sort of aware that was going on. And people were bringing up this idea of culture. There will be these pizza and beer events, for example, to have us get together and form this culture. But it’s hard to have really positive culture when there’s this inequality in funding and things like that. So people were bringing that up. But yeah, they were pretty much just laying out the plan for us. They presented it as an informational meeting: we’re gonna tell you what’s going on with doctoral student funding. And one thing I thought was interesting also about that, and, I’m not actually a big conspiracy theorist, but it was sort of the middle of finals week and it was the middle of the afternoon and they told us about it like three days ahead of time. So, if this had been last year and I was teaching, I wouldn’t have been able to go. As it was, I was writing papers and so…I thought it was kind of interesting timing.

NANCY LESKO

Yeah, the middle of the afternoon.

LAURA VERNIKOFF

And then, like I said, when we met the next day, we talked a little bit about Meryl Tisch speaking at graduation and, we weren’t really incredibly happy about that, those of us who were talking. But one thing that I was wrestling with is the idea of protesting at somebody else’s graduation, you know?

NANCY LESKO

Mmhmm.

LAURA VERNIKOFF

If it had been my graduation, I would have absolutely. But then, is it appropriate to protest at somebody else’s special event? But people definitely wanted to make it known that many of us did’t support that decision to honor her.

NANCY LESKO

Yeah. I was at the graduation and I think the way that it came down—because I know that people were talking about standing up and putting their backs to her, which they did not, so there was kind of this range of actions that were being talked about and what ended up happening, this kind of silent protest with signs—I thought was great. It was really good. I think for me, since the economic crash of 2008 and Occupy, we read these things differently now. There is scrutiny, just as there is refusal, like in Seattle, to take the test. There are refusals to just go along quietly with what universities are up to.

I think now the question is how we will take this forward. And you probably know that Jim Borland is elected FEC chair. Steve Dubin’s term is over. And I think Jim is committed to trying to redo faculty meetings, where the faculty actually have a say in what the agenda is, in setting the agenda. Which used to be the case, and then kind of got eroded. And then, to keep going with these issues. So, Susan Fuhrman—and I’m sure you saw the letter that she posted on the TC website, which didn’t seem like much of a—I wasn’t very encouraged about that. But she is having some open meetings with faculty starting next week. I’m going June 19th. I know a lot of the other faculty from C&T are going on the 17th of June. I think they may be going to early July, too. I think the issue is to keep focusing on the budget and the bonuses as one issue, but it’s only one. And I think to raise issues of, what kind of shared governance is there? There is interest in changing the way things have been done here, and what kind of place it is to work, what kind of place it is to go to school. Money in the budget, and finances, and student aid, and so forth, are certainly a big part of that.

LAURA VERNIKOFF

Students have definitely, in the meetings and on the email list, been talking about looking for more shared governance with student voice, faculty voice, staff voice. And we have had some staff, including some union leaders, come to some of our student meetings, which was cool, and talk to us a little bit. So I think that it sounds like a lot of people—staff, students and faculty—do want to be working together more.

NANCY LESKO

Someone told me there was an article in The Nation, though I don’t think I ever saw it. It was gratifying that Diane Ravitch covered it, New York CORE, of course, was covering it, The Washington Post —it was mostly, I think, the blog posts. But that’s okay, because we know that social media is very powerful. So, the fact that The New York Times hasn’t written about it is all right. But I feel they will eventually. It is really great to see the sites, like Reclaiming AERA. It’s just great. It’s great. It feels like something is really building…

LAURA VERNIKOFF

Which I find exciting. And we’ve also mentioned Pearson, and there’s been a lot of controversy about that. I was wondering what your thoughts were on that specifically.

NANCY LESKO

Because of my position at TC, I’m not as directly as involved in teacher education and edTPA and so forth, so I always sort of get this more secondhand. But I think that, when I talk with people at other institutions, and say, okay, so here’s the situation: Susan Fuhrman sits on the board, receives, at least the Columbia Spectator reported, up to a million dollars in benefits from that. And Pearson is in charge of edTPA…people just say it’s a conflict of interest. And other people say it is not directly a conflict of interest, but it suggests one. It suggests cronyism, and therefore, it’s bad. You don’t want to be in situations that raise these questions about ethics. So I’ve had various responses. But, clearly, with Pearson and edTPA now being the new regulation for New York State, it seems to be a direct conflict of interest. And for me, there’s a way in which this has been problematic for a number of years. Somebody like Susan Fuhrman is just so disconnected from schooling. And I remember people being excited when she got hired because she had been a teacher. People were optimistic that she would have particular interest in teacher education issues—a range of teaching and teacher education issues. Unfortunately, it seems to have played out in the opposite way despite that. She doesn’t seem to be at all interested in the problems, the issues with testing, the questions about testing, what it’s doing to, what it has done already to schools. She really seems to be speaking for accountability. She’s allied herself with the Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee side of the debate. I see this refusal to consider breaking that relationship with Pearson as just a real statement about—regardless of the remuneration, regardless of the conflict of interest—where she stands in this debate, which is not with teachers, not with students, not with parents.

LAURA VERNIKOFF

It’s been mostly doctoral students at the meetings I’ve been to, but we’ve had also some students who are about to graduate from Elementary Inclusive Education at some of these meetings, especially the ones talking about the graduation protests, and they have been very, very concerned about all this testing, and what it’s doing, you know, not just what it’s going to mean for them as teachers, but what it does to students. And then also a lot of people have been saying, there’s sort of…an agree to disagree situation sometimes, where you feel like, I think this, the president thinks this, and there are going to be places where we agree to disagree. But many students I’ve talked to have also been feeling this disconnect, that it’s not just, we’ve had this conversation, we are engaging in some sort of dialogue, and came out on different sides of the issue. Especially with the decision to honor Meryl Tisch because that’s not just a personal difference of opinion on testing, which obviously she’s entitled to have, but sort of… “On behalf of this institution at your graduation, which should be a day to celebrate your accomplishment, I’ve brought in this person who, probably many of you feel doesn’t represent your particular vision of education.”

NANCY LESKO

Right. And is actively, powerfully, doing everything to further this corporate interest in education and all of what follows from that. It just strikes me that, with the testing—and I suppose it starts with George Bush and No Child Left Behind, although some people would say it goes back to A Nation at Risk, the 80s, with education having this prominence, which it hasn’t always had—prominence in terms of a political realm, in terms of what happens there…You probably saw that article in The Atlantic where the author said, it’s hard to know—again, that same idea, it’s hard to know when a revolution is going to happen, but it seems like a revolution is going to happen in education. This whole push back against tests, against testing, and–Chicago and Karen Lewis, and the standing up, the teacher strike, but also now the politicizing of the closing of schools, or the making known the, what I always think of as the economic and political elites’ decision to close schools. I wouldn’t say that some kind of tipping point has been reached yet, but it does seem like it, with the success of the protest in Seattle, the successful teacher strike. It will be interesting to see what happens with the Chicago schools. And then the protest at universities. I think Karen Lewis used that terminology in talking about Rahm Emannuel’s decision to close schools, “the wrong side of history.” And I do think that, but I’m also optimistic that at TC, as well as elsewhere, there will continue to be enough protests and actions that show that that isn’t going to be what prevails.

LAURA VERNIKOFF

51ytRlGbcoLI feel like there’s a lot of arrogance in people that make educational policy. And when I read An Elusive Science, by Ellen Lagemann, I thought it was really interesting how there was this history, and this very gendered history in particular, about who should be making decisions about education. And in particular, initially it seemed like there was this idea that, you know, you have these women in the classroom because they’re nurturing, and they’re a little less expensive, but, you know, they’re women. You can’t really trust them to make serious decisions. So we need superintendents and researchers, who are male, to come in and figure that out. And I feel like the gender part of it is much less explicit, but I feel like there’s also still this conversation going on, like, “Teachers can’t possibly be trusted to know what’s going on and to make decisions. We need people to come in from the outside.” So, in addition to the money stuff, I feel like I still see people coming in and being like, “No, you may spend every day, all day with these kids, but your impression of them is worth nothing to us. We need to administer this test that’s been developed by science”…

NANCY LESKO

Yeah, yeah. Totally. It’s still an elite that Meryl Tisch and Susan Fuhrman might now be part of, so it’s less exclusive, probably, in terms of gender… although I don’t know about race…but that it is still an elite who somehow have to… Bill Pinar always says that the teacher is still seen as female, regardless of the exact demographics, the classroom teacher is still seen in our imagination, is still always a woman. Yeah. I’ve always thought that the dynamics of what No Child Left Behind was about was this gendered, like, “We gotta get these little women back in their place. They’re not making these decisions! They’re just, like, making up curriculum, and nobody’s watching over them!” It was always about, “These teachers are kind of out of control.” And then the whole blaming of teachers that went on a couple years ago. The whole, “Oh, teachers’ salaries are so high and pensions are so high, they’re breaking state budgets.” And it’s like… yeah, okay.

LAURA VERNIKOFF

I want to be sensitive to your time. Actually, if there are any last words you’d like to…

NANCY LESKO

The last word kind of echoes earlier ones about—I think it’s really good that, it always takes particular forms of adversity to get us to, “Okay, we need to do something different. We need to work together.” But I think that’s really good. And I look forward to working with students, with professional staff, and with other faculty in trying to think through the issues, prioritize them, figure out what to do, and to try to help make a different TC, or different parts of TC.

LAURA VERNIKOFF

Great. Thank you.

NANCY LESKO

Okay. Thank you. That was fun.

Laura Vernikoff

Laura Vernikoff

Laura Vernikoff (Contributing Editor) is a doctoral student in Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. She holds a B.A. in Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University and anM.Ed. in Language and Literacy Education from the Pennsylvania State University. Originally from Flushing, Queens, she has both lived and worked as an educator in four out of five boroughs. The majority of her career has been spent working in New York City’s District 75, the citywide special education district. Her research interests are related to making schools genuinely inclusive of all children.

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