Saturday, March 1, 2014

Ras Baraka: The Cake Boss of Public Education

(Note: this is my very first blog post. Please bear with me as I learn to navigate blogspot.)

My daughter is a foodie. She’s only 14 but she loves to watch cooking shows. Two of her favorites are:

Chopped where “four chefs compete before a panel of expert judges and turn baskets of mystery ingredients into an extraordinary three-course meal. Course by course, the chefs will be ‘chopped’ from the competition until only one winner remains. They have seconds to plan, and 30 minutes to cook an amazing course with the basket of mystery ingredients given to them moments before the clock starts ticking.”

And...

Cutthroat Kitchen, which “hands four chefs each $25,000 and the opportunity to spend that money on helping themselves or sabotaging their competitors. Ingredients will be thieved, utensils destroyed and valuable time on the clock lost when the chefs compete to cook delicious dishes while also having to out-plot the competition. Nothing is out of bounds when money changes hands and we see just how far chefs will go to ensure they have the winning dish.”

My favorite is Jersey’s own Cake Boss about a big, loving, Italian family that, along with a dedicated staff, creates amazing edible works of art. Fourth generation owner, Buddy Valastro, has carried on the family’s tradition of excellence and expanded Carlo’s Bakery from its flagship store in Hoboken to a state-of-the-art production facility and satellite stores throughout the Garden State. Watching the show, it’s clear that Buddy cares deeply about the people he employs, the products he sells and his customers. He strives for excellence, trains and treats all his staff like family and makes the necessary investments to ensure they have the best ingredients and equipment with which to work their culinary magic.

When I attended Newark mayoral candidate Ras Baraka’s education policy press conference on Presidents Day, visions of these three shows danced in my head. You see, the good, the bad and the ugly of teaching and education ‘reform’ are found in all three.

For teachers, the first day of school is like an episode of ‘Chopped’. We have 180 days to use our best skills and knowledge to create the very best students possible. Whether we teach in Mendham or Newark, we really don’t know what we have to work with until we open that mystery basket. Teachers in the suburbs generally get an abundance of high quality ingredients, giving them a better shot at ‘winning’ the teacher evaluation competition. While in high poverty districts like Newark, that mystery basket may contain more than its fair share of bruised or damaged goods, but far too often those teachers are ‘chopped’ because their apple pie or strawberry shortcake is not exactly the same as that teacher’s from Mendham.

Unfortunately schools, students, teachers, budgets and resources are all sabotaged when the ‘Cutthroat Kitchen’ education ‘reformers’ come to town and throw around—and pocket—a lot more than $25,000. Need more staff training for that new evaluation system? Too bad for you, public school, we’re opening a charter school down the street and you just lost a whole bunch of funding! Gearing up for PARCC testing? Uh-oh, looks like you’ll have to lay off staff to pay for that technology upgrade. You want to start an after school music program? Fuggeddabout it ‘cause we’re closing your school!

As principal of Central High School, Ras Baraka has proven that Newark teachers and students need more ‘Cake Boss’ schools run by inspiring education professionals who care about their employees, the ‘products’ they create, and the value of a connected community. He’s raised the graduation rate, extended the school day to include new classes and new ways to engage students, and taken faculty to view best practices at schools around the country (none of which included school closings, co-locations or mass firings of teachers). He knows that “strong schools are the lynchpin of communities”, that closing schools disrupts families and neighborhoods, and while every school may not be able to work with the very best ingredients, those ingredients are worthy of the very best attention and care. He knows that Newark’s children need more, not less to succeed. His ‘chefs’ must be able to work creatively in an environment that reflects research based—not ideologically based—best practices.

Baraka knows that education policy should be written by educators, not ‘innovators’ or business people. And he’s assembled an all-star cast to do just that:
·      Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson: Lifelong Newark resident, 30-year Newark educator and Chairperson of the Newark Board of Education.
·      Dr. Janice Johnson Dias: Tenured Professor of Sociology at CUNY/John Jay College whose research focuses on impoverished mothers and children.
·      Dr. Lauren Wells: Educator with 15 years of experience in educational program design and implementation, educational policy and analysis, strategic planning, community partnerships and organizing, and grant writing. Her research and practice centers on the intersections of structural inequality, policy, pedagogy, community engagement and opportunity.

Like Buddy Valastro, he knows that education excellence is built on a solid foundation. It’s not something that can be bought with financial gimmicks, ‘competition’ or corporate ‘churn’. There are no mass firings or school closings to be found in his policy. Instead, he lays out a plan that includes quality ingredients and investments of time and money for training and maintaining a loyal and appreciated staff because, unlike Carlo’s Bakery, great schools cannot—and must not—toss out the less than perfect ingredients who arrive on their doorstep in September. Baraka knows that, like the Valastros, great public schools are like great families: they work together to raise generations of students to be the very best they can be—not what some billionaire thinks they should be. He knows that an investment in great community public schools is an investment in future generations of citizens who will give back to and help stabilize communities.

Newark is the epicenter of education ‘reform’ in New Jersey, and this is why Newark needs Ras Baraka. As the mountains of research disproving their policies grows, the ‘reform’ cover is being blown. Educators have been fighting it for years. More and more parents and community members are now rejecting it. The madness must end. New York City has Bill di Blasio. Newark—and all of New Jersey—needs Ras Baraka.