Category Archives: Activism

What The Election Taught Me About Ed Reformers

It is March, and one of our nation’s historically great political parties is still on track to nominate a lying, bloviating vulgarian with authoritarian policy proposals, a penchant for re-tweeting quotes from Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini , and a reluctance to condemn the Ku Klux Klan.  For many months, political pundits have consistently predicted his campaign’s demise, and his campaign has consistently refused to match their predictions.  What has been truly astonishing has been the silence of the Republican donor class, a group of billionaires who have, until this race, been able to command the obsequiousness of politicians seeking the Republican nomination.   The New York Times recently reported that as long ago as the last Fall, when Mr. Trump’s candidacy was showing far more staying power than was assumed possible, that an anti-Trump super PAC was proposed to help make the candidate unpalatable to voters – but not a single donor stepped forward.

To be sure, getting caught in the line of Mr. Trump’s fire can be catastrophic for regular people.  The Times also highlighted how Trump’s prolific use of Twitter focuses his ire on targets at all levels.  Cheri Jacobus is a Republican strategist and contributor to a number of media outlets, and when she criticized Donald Trump for failing to participate in the last debate before Iowa, he unloaded on her – and was quickly followed by a swarm of his followers who relentlessly attacked her for days.  In the same report, editor of The National Review, Rich Lowry, admitted that even the top Republican donors are afraid to take on Mr. Trump out of fear of his ability to send a tidal wave of negative publicity at them.

It would appear that the donor class, by and large, are cowards.

I can sympathize with a figure like Ms. Jacobus who, despite her reasonably influential political perch, has to fend off social media attacks on her own.  That is no doubt time consuming, highly disruptive, and, worse, stressful given the attacks ranged from merely nasty to outright sexist and vulgar.  But what, exactly, does a man like Sheldon Adelson fear?  Or the Koch brothers?  Or Paul Singer?  People like this have spokesmen for their spokesmen, yet the fear of being mocked on Twitter drove them away from even trying to oppose a man whose influence on the Republican Party they loathe?  More likely, they fear too much attention focused on their quiet, behind the scenes, roles as Kingmakers and agenda setters within the political system.  Daniel Shulman, who has documented the nearly 40 year long effort by the Koch brothers to change American politics via foundations, grants, and backing candidates for office, wrote in Vanity Fair:

One thing that has held the Koch network back so far, in addition to the Trump backers within their ranks, is the concern that taking on Trump would inevitably draw the thin-skinned tycoon’s legendary invective, which it almost certainly would. If the Kochs go after Trump, rest assured that he will take every opportunity to highlight how he’s being attacked by a cabal of billionaires seeking to control the outcome of the election. And this more or less explains their caution to this point. By taking on Trump, the Kochs risk lending credence to his claims of being an outsider who is battling against a corrupt political system rigged by the elites.

Does this sound familiar to supporters of public education today?

It certainly should.  While education reform has been played out in public, the financiers of those efforts have been less fond of the limelight on the whole.  Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University has frequently called them as “The Billionaire Boys Club” originally referring to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edith Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundations whose efforts coincided over various aspects of education reform in the past 15 years.  That “club” has many more members now, all working in various efforts to transform school via a combination of common standards and high stakes testing, breaking workplace protections for unionized teachers, and pushing for the expansion of school privatization via vouchers and charter schools.  While some journalism has examined the role of big money in education reform, most of these “reformers” prefer to stay out of the spotlight, channeling money through foundations and 501(c) 3 groups, creating astroturf organizations to pose as teachers genuinely interested in corporate reform, buying politicians who force through laws and budgets favorable to their agenda, and hiring public spokespeople to launch splashy legal and web based campaigns to break teachers’ unions.

But the billionaires backing all of this and using the leverage of tremendous wealth to circumvent democratic processes do not, generally speaking, care to do all of this for themselves and go well out of their way to shield their efforts from public scrutiny.  It is hard to forget the scene of former CNN anchor Campbell Brown going to Stephen Colbert’s Comedy Central show to tout her campaign against teacher tenure – and steadfastly refusing to even hint at who was funding her efforts.  Her rationale?  Protesters might bother her benefactors:

CB:Yeah, we are raising money.

SC: And who did you raise it from?

CB: I’m not gonna reveal who the donors are because the people (pointing toward window) are out…

SC: I’m going to respect that because I had a super PAC. [Audience applause.]

CB: I hear you. But, part of the reason is the people who are outside today, trying to protest, trying to silence our parents who want to have a voice in this debate…

SC: Exercising First Amendment rights…

CB: Absolutely, but they’re also going to go after people who are funding this, and I think this is a good cause and an important cause, and if someone wants to contribute to this cause without having to put their name on it so they can become a target of the people who were out there earlier today, then I respect that.

Just to be clear the “people who were out there earlier today” was a small group of mothers and teachers with hand made signs:

colbert1n-1-web

colbert1n-2-web

This pattern is hardly isolated to Campbell Brown’s efforts either.  While hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson is less shy than most about openly explaining his goals of influencing Democratic politicians to adopt privatization goals, his organization, “Democrats” for Education Reform funnels large sums of cash and influence from a variety of sources, mostly groups like the Walton Family Foundation.  When education reform’s paid advocates found that they had trouble responding to public education supporters on social media, former Obama administration DOE official Peter Cunningham was simply granted $12 million dollars to found the “Education Post” to “create a better conversation” but also, in his own words, to create “the ability to swarm” on social media and to “hire” and “subsidize” bloggers. While Bill Gates is far more visible than most financiers of education reform, one of his biggest efforts to date was managing to organize 45 states and D.C. to adopt the Common Core State Standards without most parents or teachers realizing it was happening – by aiming almost entirely at power brokers and foundations in between election cycles.

Wherever you turn in education reform today, you find a think tank, or 501(c)3, or astroturf group, or pseudo-media outlet being paid handsomely to create the public impression of organic support for reformers’ ideas.  Direct and natural engagement with the public is not one of their stronger skill sets.  Which loops back to Republican donors and their unwillingness to confront Donald Trump.  On the one hand, it looks ridiculous that some of the nation’s wealthiest and most influential individuals are so afraid of negative public attention that they dithered for months, but on the other hand given how successfully they have influenced public policy without having to bother with actual democracy and given how bipartisan majorities of American voters already think the system is rigged in favor the ultra-wealthy, it makes sense that those most blatantly manipulating the system would hesitate to step out of the back rooms and into the public’s view.

The good news for advocates of public education is that Trump’s level of ignorant bullying and outright vulgar bigotry is hardly necessary to make education reformers uneasy about scrutiny.  For Campbell Brown, a few teachers and mothers with Sharpies rattled her ability to lie about teachers’ workplace protections on behalf of her donors. Peter Cunningham needed $12 million in foundation cash to pay bloggers to counter the efforts of working teachers with blogs and on social media who are defending their profession for free.  The vast sums of money spent by Bill Gates to prop up and support the Common Core State Standards have not prevented dwindling support among parents and teachers as they grow more familiar with its impact on schools.  Helping to keep light shining on how the donor class is pushing policy without the public’s consent goes hand in hand with the how harmful those policies have been.  They’ve repeatedly shown that they dislike scrutiny.

We have no reason to oblige them.

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Filed under Activism, Common Core, Corruption, DFER, Gates Foundation, politics

The Inequalities Are Still Savage

Twenty-five years ago, author and activist Jonathan Kozol published what remains one of the most important examinations of educational inequity ever printed, Savage InequalitiesThe book is a direct and searing look at how districts serving urban minority children suffered from segregation, inequitable funding, and crumbling facilities while serving student populations suffering the worst deprivations of poverty.  It is a story of malign neglect where school funding based upon the value of a community’s property compounds the economic and environmental violence inflicted upon helpless children.  Kozol criss-crossed the country from East St. Louis, Illinois to New York City, to Camden, New Jersey, to Washington, DC, examining schools and speaking with the students in them.  What he reported should have shaken America to its core.  Consider the following from East St. Louis:

East St. Louis – which the local press refers to as an “inner city without an outer city” – has some of the sickest children in America.  Of the 66 cities in Illinois, East St. Louis ranks first in fetal death, first in premature birth, and third in infant death. Among the negative factors listed by the city’s health director are the sewage running in streets, air that has been fouled by the local plants, the high lead levels noted in the soil, poverty, lack of education, crime, dilapidated housing, insufficient health care, unemployment.  Hospital care is deficient too.  There is no place to have a baby in East St. Louis….Although dental problems don’t command the instant fears associated with low birth weight, fetal death or cholera, they do have the consequence of wearing down the stamina of children and defeating their ambitions.  Bleeding gums, impacted teeth and rotting teeth are routine matters for the children I interviewed in the South Bronx. Children get used to feeling constant pain. They go to sleep with it.  They go to school with it.

Later in the chapter on East St. Louis, a 14 year-old girl spoke about the annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and startled Mr. Kozol by calling the reading of “I Have a Dream” perfunctory.  She explained her thinking: “We have a school in East St. Louis named for Dr. King.  The school is full of sewer water and the doors are locked with chains.  Every student in that school is black. It’s like a terrible joke on history.”

In the years since Jonathan Kozol wrote Savage Inequalities, great changes have happened in the U.S. economy.  Our Gross Domestic Product has grown, in chained 2009 dollars, from $8.9 trillion to $15.9 trillion.  Internet use has become almost universal as has mobile cellular use.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average opened 1990 at 2810.2, and it closed 2015 above 17,000. In 1987, Forbes magazine published a list of 140 international billionaires, 44 of whom lived in the U.S. By 2012, that list swelled to 1,226 – 425 of them living in America.  With such incredible increases in wealth and life changing technologies, one would assume that it would be hard to replicate Mr. Kozol’s exegesis on inequality in America.

But one would be wrong.

In the 2012-2013 school year, the federal government estimated that 53% of the nation’s school buildings needed repairs, renovations, or modernization at an estimated cost of $197 billion.  It has long been known that adverse building conditions have discernible impact on student achievement and on teacher morale and effectiveness.  60% of schools serving communities where 75% or more of students qualify for free and reduced price lunch needed such repairs compared with 48% of schools where 35% of students qualify.

Poverty in the United States dropped from a high of 22.4% of the population in the late 1950s to its lowest point of 11.1% in 1973, but in 1980 it began to rise again, reaching 15.3% in 1993 when it began to decline until the year 2000. Today, the Census Bureau reports that the poverty rate sits at 14.8% where it has stayed roughly unchanged since the end of the Great Recession. Poverty’s reach is not distributed evenly in society with African American and Hispanic citizens living below the poverty line at rates twice as high as White and Asian Americans.  21.1% of children aged 18 and younger live in poverty.  Of the 34 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States’ child poverty level is only surpassed by 5 nations.  In the time since the publication of Savage Inequalities and today, whatever progress that has been made in reducing poverty in the United States has regressed considerably.

Family income has lost ground it gained in the past 25 years as well.  In 1990, median household income was $52,623, and it rose to $57,843 in 1999; in 2014, it was $53,657. In 1986, the average starting wage for a person with BA was $44,770, but by 2013, it had only risen to $45,500 while average starting wages for workers with no college fell from $30,525 to only $28,000.  The stagnation and lost ground of large swaths of American families manifests in health outcomes.  While the top quintiles of income earners have gained years of life expectancy since 1980, the lowest quintiles have remained unchanged for men and have actually declined for poor women.  The United States has a staggering imprisonment rate of 698 per 100,000 population – outpacing Rwanda, Russia, and China – leaving millions of citizens with dismal employment prospects and no ability to vote.

These figures would be stunning enough in their stark detail, but recent, horrifying examples, make it clear that the tragic personal situations that were detailed a quarter of a century ago by Jonathan Kozol still haunt us.  Consider the unmitigated disaster still being uncovered in Flint, Michigan.  The city, after years of cutbacks, was placed under a state appointed emergency manager in 2011 who had the power to appeal local decisions and make cost cutting a primary goal.  That manager, Darnell Earley, blames the Flint City Council for switching from the Detroit water system, supplied by Lake Huron, to the Flint River (as a temporary source until a new system came online), but members of the council flatly deny this and local reporting cannot find reference to using Flint River water in council resolutions.  However the switch was made, the result has been a calamity. In order to use the heavily polluted river water, it had to be treated, but as soon as the water came on line, residents complained about the color, smell, and taste of the water despite assurances from Mr. Earley’s office that it was safe to drink.  For 18 months, Flint residents could see the problems with their water with their own eyes, but hidden from view was a worse danger: the treated water was corrosive and leaching metals, including lead, from the aging pipes in Flint.  It took a pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, to uncover the depth of the matter – with parents complaining about hair loss and rashes in their families, she pulled lead level records and found rates had doubled or tripled.

Lead poisoning’s impacts are life long .  There is no cure.

The circular firing squad of local and state officials blaming others for the crisis is on full display, but that does not change the fact that serious problems with Flint’s water were evident within months of the switch.  By October of 2014, General Motors reached an agreement to switch water sources because the water from the Flint River was too corrosive to use in their engine manufacturing facility.  GM’s water change came at a cost of $400,000 a year and had the approval of the emergency manager – even though the water continued to be piped into resident’s homes.  Flint officials and the state appointed manager knew in October, 2014 that the water every person in Flint was drinking, including all of its children, was unfit for use in a factoryBy summer, 2015, researchers from Virginia Tech University had confirmed that lead particulate levels in Flint drinking water was far beyond safe levels, some samples containing a mind-boggling 2000 parts per billion.  Despite this, the city was not reconnected to Lake Huron sourced water until October, and the now corroded pipes continue to leach toxic metals into the city’s drinking water.

Mr. Earley is now the emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools, and teachers there are staging a series of sick outs to protest deplorable conditions in many of their buildings.  Just how deplorable? Mushrooms have been found growing on walls in Vernor Elementary School:

DPS mushrooms

At Spain Elementary School, the gymnasium is unusable due to buckled floors, leaking ceilings, and mold growth:

DPS Decayed Floor

In a demonstration of supreme self unawareness, Mr. Earley held a press conference to denounce the teachers’ actions, and a Saginaw lawmaker called upon the state education authorities to sanction Detroit’s teachers.

The reality here is both frightening and harsh, but there is a simple truth at the heart of it.  If the citizens of Flint have been poisoned by their own water supply and if the children of Detroit attend schools that are decaying and full of mold and mushrooms it is because we have let it be so.  The United States of America has never been collectively wealthier at any time in its history, but our commitment to the well being of all of us has not been this low since before the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt – and the distribution of wealth has not been this unequal since before the Great Depression.  We look at the total money spent on education and declare that it is “a lot” of money without bothering to ask what needs to spent to make certain that every child comes from a safe and healthy community and has a safe and healthy school to attend.  That this question is not on the lips of every candidate for the Presidency is a stunning indictment of our current social order.

We must remember: our current situation is a choice, one made at the expense of our future.  A society that pumps $4.8 billion in corporate subsidies to oil companies alone does not have to poison its children.  A consumer culture that literally wastes $11.8 billion a year on bottled water can fund new school construction.  A nation that tolerates a weapon program that is 7 years behind schedule and $167 billion over budget does not have to tolerate a single child going to a school that jeopardizes her health.  Our politicians would prefer to blame teachers than to demand that their donors give a fraction more.

The inequalities are still savage.

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Filed under Activism, Corruption, Funding, Media, politics, racism, schools, Social Justice

Connecticut Recommends Thumbscrews

Connecticut’s Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy does not always grab attention in the annals of corporate education reform.  Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has made battles with public unions more central to his image.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie plainly relishes getting to act “tough” and yell at teachers questioning his agenda. Democratic Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel shuttered 50 public schools, mostly serving ethnic minority children, in one go, without caring to listen at all to the residents of the impacted neighborhoods.  Neighboring governor and fellow Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York staked a huge portion of his agenda for 2015 on ramming through controversial education reforms, and his approval rating both overall and especially on education have tanked in a highly visible manner.  Compared to headline grabbers like these, Governor Malloy does not seem to get much attention.

Which is a shame because when it comes to the Holy Trinity of education reform – common standards, standardized testing tied to punitive consequences, and preference for charter schools over district schools, Governor Malloy is the complete package. In 2012, he called for major changes to teacher tenure in Connecticut, earning praise from ConnCAN, an education reform group promoting charter schools.  Facing push back from teachers and parents about the pace and nature of education reforms, Governor Malloy was forced to call for a “slow down” in the pace of reforms, especially tying teacher evaluations to standardized test results.  $91,000 in campaign donations flowed to Connecticut Democrats from a single wealthy businessman and charter school advocate, Jonathan Sackler, and three members of his family; those donations and others from Wall Street were rewarded with proposals for over $21 million in new charter school funding while public school spending remains flat.

It is pretty clear that Governor Malloy stands shoulder to shoulder with New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel even if he prefers to draw less national attention to himself.  So it is perhaps not surprising that his education department is contemplating thumbscrews for the Opt Out movement in Connecticut.

Opt Out was not the force in Connecticut that it was in neighboring New York with only 11,200 students not taking the state exams while the state says 267,000 did.  However, a number of individual districts did not meet the 95% testing requirement of No Child Left Behind which was continued in the new Every Child Succeeds Acts, and in some districts those numbers were significant. Roughly 7 out of 10 high school juniors opted out in Stonington, and participation fell below 95% in over 30 communities.

This Fall, roughly a dozen states got a letter from Ann Whalen at the US Department of Education, an adviser who is acting as the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, reminding them that their districts need to test no less than 95 percent of all students and that the state needs an action plan to deal with those who do not.  The letter opens by reminding state chief education officers of the legal requirements to test all children in grades 3-8 and once in high schools, that the examinations must be same for all students, and no student may be excluded from the examinations.  Ms. Whalen asserts that the sections of the law she cites “set out the rule that all students must be assessed.” The letter continues to remind the state officers that both their state and local authorities who receive Title I, Part A money assured that they would test all students in accordance with the law.  Ms. Whalen also offers “suggestions” for actions state education authorities can take to address participation in the assessments:

  • Lowering an LEA’s or school’s rating in the State’s accountability system or amending the system flag an LEA or school with a low participation rate.
  • Counting non-participants as non-proficient in accountability determinations.
  • Requiring an LEA or school to develop an improvement plan, or take corrective actions to ensure that all students participate in the statewide assessments in the future, and providing the SEA’s process to review and monitor such plans.
  • Requiring an LEA or school to implement additional interventions aligned with the reason for low student participation, or even if the state’s accountability system does not officially designate schools for such interventions.
  • Designating an LEA or school as “high risk,” or a comparable status under the State’s laws and regulations, with a clear explanation for the implications of such a designation.
  • Withholding or directing use of State aid and/or funding flexibility.

Ms. Whalen also reminds the states that they have “a range of other enforcement actions” including placing conditions on Title I, Part A grants or even withholding them.  For a real kicker, she goes on to say that if states with less than 95% participation in the 2014-2015 school year do not assess 95% of students this year, then the federal education department “will take one or more of the following actions: (1) withhold Title I, Part A State administration funds; (2) place the State’s Title I, Part A grant on high-risk and direct the State to use a portion of its Title I State administrative funds to address low participation rates; or (3) withhold or redirect Title VI State assessment funds.”

Short version: States with Opt Out numbers that put them or local districts below 95% test participation must bargain, cajole, plead, or threaten districts and schools into making that target.  The Federal Education Department has put in writing that not only failure to take action to address low assessment rates, but also failure to meet the 95% target this year, WILL result in some form of punitive action from Washington.  Presumably, the degree of the punishment will depend upon how vigorous the state actions are.  It is also safe to assume that the Education Department offices in Washington have a new logo:

DOE seal

 

Connecticut got its own version of this letter from Dr. Monique Chism in the office of state support, and Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education Dr. Dianna Wentzell quietly sent the state’s reply on December 4th, waiting until December 28th to release it to the public. In the letter, Dr. Wentzell assures Washington that although Connecticut met the 95% participation rate statewide, they are “not pleased” that a number of districts did not do so, and the state has devised a tiered intervention system to “ensure that districts meeting the standard are commended, those failing marginally are gently alerted, and those falling behind are strongly reminded of the potential consequences and provided support to remedy the situation in 2015-2016.”  In the next school year, Connecticut’s accountability system will “lower a school by one category for low participation rates in the 2015-2016 year.”  The system is explained in a graphic:

con consequences

Districts in Connecticut are now warned: if your test participation rates were below 80% in any category, funds WILL be withheld if this year’s participation rate is not at least 90%.

This remains as problematic as it has been every time the federal government or a state entity has raised it.  Yes, it is true that federal law requires that at least 95 percent of all students in all subcategories are tested in the participating grades.  Yes, it is true that state and local officials have to do what they can to test the students in the participating grades and have almost no legal authority to exempt any of those students.  However, the statute was written to prevent states and local school authorities from hiding low performing student populations from accountability systems.  I challenge Dr. Wentzell, Dr. Chism, or Ms. Whalen to find a single line of statutory authority to compel parents to submit their children for examination or to find any legislative intent in the original NCLB legislation or its successor to punish schools and districts for not exerting 95% control of the parents in their district.  There have been schools since 2001 who have not managed to test 95% of their students, but there is not a single example of a school being punished for that.

In the end, Connecticut, at the prodding of the Federal Education Department, is setting itself up for an unpleasant confrontation with parents, often parents that elected officials find difficult to ignore, with very shaky legal footing.  North Haven High School, for example, had extremely low participation rates on the 11th grade exams.  The community also has a median home value $22,000 above the state median and median household income $16,000 above the state median.  With only 4% of its residents below the poverty line compared to the state average of over 10% it is unlikely that North Haven’s schools rely significantly upon Title I funds, so it is unclear exactly what money Dr. Wentzell would withhold.  However, the loss of any money intended to help children who are in poverty based upon actions of parents rather than upon actions of school authorities is unprecedented, contrary to the intention of any federal and state accountability laws – and far more likely to increase the parental backlash than to bottle it up.

 

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Filed under Activism, Dannel Malloy, ESSA, Funding, NCLB, Opt Out, politics, Testing

What Teachers Owe Tamir Rice

Imagine, for a moment, you are a teacher predominantly of students of color.  Now imagine that one of your students’ siblings is a 12 year old playing in a public park with a toy pellet gun when police, responding to a caller who said that the gun was “probably”fake, pull their cruiser within feet of the child, jump out before the car even stops, and shoot him in the stomach within two seconds.  Or perhaps your student’s father was shopping in a Walmart where he picked up a BB gun from the store shelves, and police officers approached him and shot him without giving him any time at all to respond – despite the fact that what he was carrying was a toy from the store’s own shelves.  Or perhaps your student’s aunt or older sister is driving long distance to begin a job at her alma mater in Texas when she is pulled over for a very minor traffic violation, and during the stop, the officer becomes increasingly hostile to her legitimate questions, threatens her with his taser, violently throws her to the ground and arrests her without ever explaining why – and she is found dead in her jail cell in an alleged suicide that not one of her friends and family believes.

And now imagine that in not one of these cases is a single person even required to stand trial for deaths of young black people simply minding their own business.

Of course, these tragedies – and the infuriating aftermaths that send a chilling message about how black lives can be cut down on the slightest or imagined provocation by state actors with no fear of consequence – do not have to be directly connected to your students’ lives.  All they need to do is watch these events unfold in the news and wonder if it will ever be someone they know and love.  Or they can reflect on their own experiences with discrimination and the gradual toll it takes on their psyche.  The reality is that if you are a teacher of students of color in America, these events impact the children in your care, possibly more deeply than you have ever known.

Very talented authors with far more authentic ties to these experiences of racism and the horrendous messages we send to young people of color have written on the what these outcomes feel like and the dire sense that our society is inherently hostile to black bodies.  Charles Blow’s words upon the death of Tamir Rice are searing.  Brittany Cooper astutely points out how the system does not value black lives. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote to his teen aged son (in an article adapted from his book) about the reality of life for black people to this day:

“And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.”

Boys and girls touched and confused by tragedies – both personal and national in scale – enter teachers’ classrooms every day.  Young men and women whose consciousness of injustice is flaring brighter than America’s white majority can possibly understand enter teachers’ classrooms every day.  In today’s education environment – where achievement scores matter far more to policy makers than the humanity of those in school – this poses a difficult and possibly contradictory dilemma. As teachers, our responsibilities to children demand that we acknowledge and affirm the lived realities of their lives.  It further demands that we confirm their sense of injustice in the world in real and substantive ways.  Even though most teachers will never experience racism the way their students of color do, it is vital that they work to help those students maintain visions of their futures and how to obtain them as they navigate their lives.

But perhaps most important, and most difficult, is the need for teachers to admit our own culpability in an oppressive social system and to join our students and their communities in actively opposing it.  School is, for better or worse, a social institution, funded and shaped by our collective aspirations – and by our numerous failings.  If our police departments openly engage in racial profiling and use selective enforcement of the law as a revenue stream, and if politically popular policies of mass incarceration leave millions of mostly black and Hispanic men unable to find work, and if the water minority children in cities like Flint drink can be replaced with toxic sources to save money, and if the right to vote itself is subject to constant and organized obstruction aimed at diffusing the impact of minority voting, can we really absolve our schools and ourselves from any responsibility for the injustices that impact so many of our students?

Individually, teachers may bear little responsibility for the school to prison pipeline and the different policies that quickly consign students to low expectations and betrayal of their right to an equitable education – although there can be no honest denial that many teachers either willingly or unthinkingly support questionable and actively harmful disciplinary practices in their schools.  But both individually and collectively, teachers can lend their voices to the public discourse on education and demand that the chief architects of school’s role in devaluing of young people of color be called out.  We can speak out against the deliberate and chronic underfunding of schools for our most vulnerable children.  We can oppose the constant threats of school closures that disproportionately impact black and Hispanic children.  We can demand to know why schools with high proportions of black and Hispanic children are most likely to have police officers who increasingly treat school disciplinary matters like law enforcement on the street.  We can argue for smaller class sizes, improved physical plants, and the replacement of rigid zero tolerance discipline with restorative justice practices.  We can call out politicians and school officials who ignore that schools cannot afford libraries or librarians and have to cut their art and music programs.

In short, we can demand, loudly and continuously, that all of our students have the schools that the most privileged in society take for granted.  For three decades now, we have replaced calls for equity and justice in schools with calls for accountability and consequences in much the same way that we have made policing and our prisons rougher and more concerned with numbers than with justice.  Those policies have failed us as a nation, and they have been catastrophic for our most vulnerable children.  Millions of children are told that the only choices they have are between chronically underfunded and decaying zoned schools or a privately operated charter school that may work to push them out of the school or whose discipline policies favor total control of behavior rather than fostering leadership. This horrendous dichotomy cannot be the best a society with 17 trillion dollar GDP can deliver.  If it is so, it is because we choose to let it be so.

Schools themselves cannot transform society, but if millions of public school teachers can demand the tools and resources we need to truly transform schools into models of social justice that fully affirm the lives of students, perhaps we can lead the way for the rest of our critical institutions.  Perhaps we can gain the moral authority to demand it.

We owe it to the children to try.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, politics, racism, schools, Social Justice

Being Thankful

It is easy when writing a blog to get caught up in negativity.  In a strange way, it can be a form of fun.  You sharpen your instincts for sarcasm while deploying your skills skewering policies and people actively causing harm to a topic near and dear to your heart.  In today’s public education battles, with billions of dollars being deployed to reshape one of our core democratic institutions without the public’s input, it is almost always easier to state what I am against than what I am for.  Sometimes that is intensely necessary as getting past catchy slogans and plans not backed with research requires taking claims apart with deliberation and focus.  But it is not enough. It fails to highlight the real good being done by pro-public education activists every day.

So I’d like to take this appropriate time of the year to consider for what and for whom I am thankful in addition to my family, my friends, and my community.  Every single group or event for which I am thankful has made significant strides to keep public education public and mindful of its core missions in an age when powerful forces are trying to bend it away from them without bothering to convince the public.

I am thankful for the Opt Out movement.  I am not against the prudent use of very limited and minimally disruptive standardized testing for very limited purposes.  We have gotten far from that in the age of test-based accountability, and the real consequences for the quality of education are well known.  Despite the evident dangers of test-based accountability, the federal government and the states, spurred by intense lobbying by private foundations, actually made the situation worse since the 2008 election, making teachers’ livelihoods tied to statistical uses of standardized test data that is not even supported by the American Statistical Association.

Parents, after watching a decade of standardized testing slowly taking over every aspect of education, are finally saying “enough” and demanding that education regain its sanity.  They are tired of being ignored and rolled over.  They are tired of being told the schools they cherish are failures.  They are tired of seeing test preparation pushing aside genuine learning.  They have been insulted by the Secretary of Education as spoiled complainers.  They’ve been implicitly called union pawns and openly compared to anti-vaxxers by the powerful Chancellor of the New York Board of Regents.  They’ve been threatened if their districts don’t somehow manage to convince and/or force them to test their children.

And it hasn’t deterred them one iota.  20% of New York state’s eligible children refused the state standardized tests in 2015, and there is little to suggest that number will go down.  The message is being heard broadly.  President Obama dedicated time to voice concern about over-testing, although the substance of his actual remarks was not impressive.  More impressive?  A report in The New York Times indicating that Governor Andrew Cuomo may be on the verge of throwing in the towel on test based evaluations of New York’s teachers.  This is the same governor who a year ago declared that the evaluation system he had pushed for himself was “baloney” and declared his intention to make student test scores 50% of teacher evaluations – which he got through the state budget process.

For Governor Cuomo to be considering, as reported by Kate Taylor of The Times, reducing the role of testing in teacher evaluation – and even contemplating removing it altogether – is tremendous.  It is not merely blinking; it is a flat out collapse, and I suspect the governor’s allies at Students First and other reform outfits will be howling their protests soon enough.  But for now, this development can be entirely chalked up to Opt Out’s relentless focus and refusal to fold under pressure.  Of course, history shows that Cuomo cannot be trusted, and he is probably calculating that if he can mollify suburban voters by relieving some of the testing frenzy, then he and his allies can regroup and focus upon taking away local control from urban districts and converting as many of their schools into charters as possible.  In fact, Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute already laid out this strategy in 2014 – saying that reformers had overplayed their hands by saying that even suburban public schools were failures and should instead focus as much as possible on getting no-excuses charter schools into place in urban school systems on the false premise that the test prep factories really represent “excellence”.

So the challenge for Opt Out in the future will be to recognize the progress it has made and to keep fighting so that all children are given schools freed from testing mania and full of enriching and empowering curricula.  I think they can do it.

I am thankful for the Badass Teachers. True grassroots movements are incredible to watch.  They are the result of hard work and organizing, usually spreading because a small group of people kept talking to others until a large group is formed around common principles.  It cannot be faked.  It cannot be bought with foundation money buying splashy web pages and getting “commitment” in return for funding.  It is born out of genuine, lived, passions.

That’s the Badass Teachers Association, or BATs, in a nutshell.  This organization of classroom teachers and allies was born out of teachers who were increasingly frustrated by the efforts of reformers to blame them for all of the problems that land in school but for which society at large accepts no responsibility.  In short order, it has grown to tens of 1000s of members across the country, and it is a vibrant presence in social media and, increasingly, the wider public discourse on our national educational commons.

And they have had an amazing impact already, influencing both national union leaders and legislation in our nation’s capitol.  Because they are a true grassroots organization, BATs leadership and BAT members are in constant and close proximity to each other, and real conversations about real teachers and classrooms are ongoing.  That led to genuine concern over the number of teachers speaking about workplace stress increasing under current reforms, leading even to recent suicides.  Members of the Badass Teachers contacted the American Federation of Teachers which led to direct conversations with AFT President Randi Weingarten.  President Weingarten lent AFT assistance to the BATs in putting together a first of its kind teacher workplace survey which went live in April of this year.  In a mere ten days, over 31 THOUSAND classroom teachers responded.  The team of teachers who wrote the 80 question survey were told to expect maybe 1000 responses.

The initial results are available online here.  On its own, such a survey highlighting the impacts of today’s education environment would be incredible, but the influence is much more far reaching.  The survey results gave the AFT enough information to convince Senators Corey Booker of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado to author an amendment to Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act legislation directing the federal DOE to examine workplace stress among teachers.  In a conversation with me, President Weingarten of the AFT expressed her enthusiasm for the work the BATs group did.  “This time the process was as important as the product,” she said, “Because the process empowered people.”

To witness the impacts of influence flowing up from the real grassroots – that is empowering and it is potentially very long lasting.  I cannot wait to see what the BATs do in the upcoming years.

I am thankful for the Dyett Hunger Strikers.   We live in a time when school privatizers have wrapped themselves in the language of the civil rights struggle and have claimed that their efforts to wrest control of our public schools away from democracy is a civil rights matter.  Given the history of local and state control fighting integration and racial justice, it is not entirely surprising that they have allies among traditional civil rights organizations on matters like testing and accountability.

But the overall package has little to do with civil rights, and while suburban parent constituencies have been angered recently by the impacts of over testing and loss of local input into schooling, urban communities of color have been experiencing that loss of voice for years now.  Dr. Denisha Jones of Howard University makes it very clear how school reform efforts aimed at privatization of public schools are not civil rights advances: privatization is unaccountable and refuses to serve all children as public schools do; school choice leads more to schools choosing the children they want rather than families choosing the schools they want; privatized schools employs huge percentages of novice teachers who they burn out and replace with more novices in short order – experienced teachers are, ironically, reserved for the fully public schools in suburban communities while privatized schools in urban communities get well intentioned do gooders with no experience.  In school privatization, wealthy communities retain full control of their schools while poorer communities are given “choices” — but only those the more powerful deign to give them.

With that in mind, it was incredibly powerful when a group of parent and community activists in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago did something astonishing.  They went on a hunger strike to demand that the Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Rahm Emanuel listen to what the community had been advocating for and planning for over several years: a fully public, open enrollment high school with a green technology and global leadership focus that had been carefully planned for within the community. The strike continued for an agonizing 34 days during which Mayor Emanuel pettily refused to acknowledge the strikers but during which CPS gave ground in slow dribs and drabs. The strikers won not only the reopening of their community’s high school, but also the commitment that it will be an open enrollment, public school not handed over to an outside contractor.  And while CPS would not commit to their specific plan, there will be elements of the green technology and global leadership focus in the school.

The strikers, however, did more than win some concessions on one school.  They put a dramatic spotlight on the inequities of how “reform” plays out in impoverished communities in our country.  While they were starving themselves for a fully public school, CPS, which had claimed budget woes in efforts to close 50 schools in predominantly African American and Hispanic neighborhoods, unveiled plans for multimillion dollar annexes in schools in predominantly white neighborhoods.  Jitu Brown, a lifelong community activist in Chicago, made this discrepancy in education reform crystal clear:

“There’s a huge fight now that I hope this hunger strike has helped to energize and that is the fight for sustainable community schools not only in Chicago but around the country.  You shouldn’t have cities like New Orleans where the largest base of African American home owners in the United States are labeled as refugees and their city is taken from them. They lose their county hospital. They lose their schools and now virtually every school in New Orleans is run by a private company that makes a profit off of administering what is supposedly a human right.  Children in New Orleans have a perfectly good school across the street but they can’t go because they didn’t win the lottery to go.”

Mr. Brown’s fellow hunger striker, April Stogner, spoke on this with John Hockenberry of Public Radio International:

“When you talk about community, the community should be involved in the decisions, and we were not involved. We submitted this plan. We’ve been working on this plan for well over five years, so it’s funny that he said you’re doing what’s best for our community. You don’t know what’s best for our community, or we wouldn’t have had 49 schools closing at one time. Tell the truth and say what it is.  They just want to make money off the backs of our children, and they feel like they can just come into our community and take what they want. But we’re not having that anymore.”

This was a fight that refused to cede the moral high ground to school reformers and put a clear spotlight on how little community voices matter to the people who claim to be acting on their behalf.  The fight for Dyett High School was a powerful message that while the civil rights movement has made great strides using federal power for equality, that does not mean that school privatizers can claim that mantle by grabbing power from afar and then steamrolling communities.  Mr. Brown went on to say:

“There is no group of people who is better than the others. We are different. You know, we have different cultures, but we all bring something…. and we should not stand for inequity.  Because an inequitable school system an inequitable system denies us the joy of knowing each other. It denies us the joy of building a country together. Building a community together. Building a system together. And we have for too long – I mean our white brothers and sisters, but I mean as Americans period — we’ve ignored the racism that flows through this country, that feeds it like food. We’ve ignored it.”

In a time when one of the most important discussions we are having as a nation is the one prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement and its insistence that we face the systemic inequalities built upon racism  permeating our society still, it is incredibly powerful for a community to rise up and insist that their SCHOOLS matter as well.  It is absolutely shameful that people had to put their very bodies on the line for more than a month to make that message completely clear, but it is inspiring that they did so.  I hope to hear much more from them in the coming years.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, #FightForDyett, Activism, Cory Booker, Opt Out, politics, racism, schools, Social Justice, Unions

Who Was The Last “Education President”?

On September 25th, 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush, then the Republican nominee for President, was in a debate with his Democratic Party rival, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, and declared that he wanted to be “The Education President.”

I want to be the education President, because I want to see us do better. We’re putting more money per child into education, and we are not performing as we should. […] And I would like to urge the school superintendents and the others around the country to stand up now and keep us moving forward on a path towards real excellence.

Eventually, the Republican nominee would become President George H.W. Bush, and his education agenda was a continuation of the path forged under Ronald Reagan that led to the era of test-based accountability.  Presidents and Presidential aspirants have all set their sights on making an impact on our nation’s education system, whether it was Bill Clinton calling for 90% graduation rates and “meaningful” national examination standards, or George W. Bush claiming standardized test scores were stagnant and promoting new accountability for teachers and students – including a system of rewards and punishments that would become known as No Child Left Behind, or Barack Obama promising more aid to the neediest schools, touting merit pay plans, and decrying too much focus on testing.

But who was the most recent occupant of the Oval Office who deserves the title “The Education President”?  When was the last time an American President signed into law an education bill that has had a substantial, sustained,  and positive impact upon education?

Gerald Ford.

This is not sarcasm because it was President Gerald Ford who, on November 29th, 1975, signed PL94-142, also known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, into law.  President Ford issued a signing statement expressing his concern that the law would cost too much, but over its 40 year history and re-authorization as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), the legislation has improved educational opportunities and outcomes for millions upon millions of students who had previously faced neglect and discrimination within school.  While the law continuously needs reflection and improvement, especially in the realm of federal funding which has never approached the 40% promised by Congress in 1975, the legislation remains a landmark that provides the basis for a vastly expanded mission for our nation’s schools and progress towards fulfilling opportunity for all.

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PL94-142 was not an isolated case of federal legislation signed by the President improving our nation’s schools.  President Richard Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that included Section 504, providing protection from discrimination based on disability when an employer or organization receives federal funding.  Section 504 meant that schools could not bar students with physical and mental impairments from receiving an education and required them to provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to all qualified students.   Prior to signing this legislation, President Nixon signed the Education Amendments of 1972 which included Title IX, stating, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Nixon

President Lyndon Johnson, following the landmark Civil Rights Act, signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) into law on April 11th, 1965.  The original law provided federal funds for research, strengthening state departments of education, and, perhaps most importantly, funding to assist the schooling of low income students, and among its earliest amendments were provisions for handicapped children and bilingual education programs.  The Title I provisions, especially, noted the inequitable ways in which schools are funded using property tax revenues that immediately place communities with high percentages of low income families at a disadvantage.  Although the ESEA has since been subsumed by the standardized test based accountability regime of the 2001 amendments known as No Child Left Behind, the original legislation was intended to help with President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” by bringing resources that only the federal government could leverage to schools serving our neediest children.

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Indeed, that focus upon using federal reach and the enforcement of civil rights to expand resources available to schools while requiring them not to discriminate upon race, gender, language spoken, or disability status marked a robust period of education legislation premised upon equity and the recognition that certain populations of students were historically marginalized and required direct action of the law aimed at states and municipalities that might have otherwise ignored them.  In many regards, these efforts were astonishingly successful.  In 1971, before the passage of Title IX, women were 3.7 million of 8.9 million college students.  In 1991, they were 7.7 million of 14.1 million.  Before the passage of PL94-142, 5.9% of students in public schools were identified as disabled with no data available on the numbers with specific learning disabilities.  In 1989, 11.4% of students were identified as disabled, including more than 2 million classified with specific learning disabilities.  These efforts were substantive, aimed at increasing access and equity, and their positive benefits have continued for decades and likely more to come.

Since then?  Not so much.

President Ronald Reagan, after campaigning on abolishing the newly minted cabinet seat of Secretary of Education, set education policy away from equity and opportunity and into standards and accountability with the harsh language of school failure that has dominated our discussion  ever since the 1983 publication of A Nation At Risk:

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them. This report, the result of 18 months of study, seeks to generate reform of our educational system in fundamental ways and to renew the Nation’s commitment to schools and colleges of high quality throughout the length and breadth of our land.

The Reagan Administration followed in 1988 with amendments to the ESEA requiring states to “document and define” academic achievement for disadvantaged students using standardized test score measures, and ESEA funds began being tied to academic performance of disadvantaged children.  President George H.W. Bush proposed his “America 2000” legislation calling for national standards and testing of students but which failed due to conservative opposition in the Senate.  Standards based education policies were similarly advanced, however, by President Bill Clinton whose “Goals 2000” agenda focused upon student achievement, tougher academic standards, application of those standards to all students, and monitoring reform efforts via standardized testing.

The stage, then, was well set by three previous administrations for the 2001 re-authorization of the ESEA which was touted as “No Child Left Behind” by President George W. Bush.  NCLB required all schools to demonstrate annual yearly progress for all students in all subgroups, and failure to meet AYP for five years in row could result in school closures, turning schools over to private charter operators, or giving school operation to private or state managers.

Upon passage, the law enjoyed support in both parties and numerous civil rights organizations, and the logic of that is not difficult to understand.  By 2001, wide gulfs in test measured achievement remained stubbornly persistent between well off, mostly white, suburban communities and their poor, most African American and Hispanic, urban counterparts, and the language of NCLB demanded that states and municipalities address that through accountability systems with little wiggle room.  Given the undeniable need for federal action in both civil rights and expansion of educational equity in the 1960s and 1970s, the federal accountability in NCLB was a logical, if ill-fated, marriage of federal standards and accountability efforts with vigorous enforcement from Washington.

The ill-fated portion of that assessment lies with what was obvious from the beginning: by tying lofty goals to punishing consequences dependent entirely upon the results of standardized testing, NCLB unleashed entirely predictable and increasingly damaging consequences to the depth and breadth of curriculum enjoyed by children, especially children in schools labeled as struggling:

In contrast, since the advent of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), with its high stakes for schools, the traditional pattern of time allocation across subjects in elementary schools has changed markedly. Five years into NCLB, researchers found that 62 percent of a nationally representative sample of all districts in the United States—and 75 percent of districts with at least one school identified as needing improvement—increased the amount of time spent on language arts and math in elementary schools. These increases were substantial: a 47 percent increase in language arts and a 37 percent increase in math. Correspondingly, these districts decreased time allotted to other subjects and activities, including science, social studies, art, music, physical education, and recess (McMurrer, 2007).

President Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 as a Presidential aspirant who was aware of these fact, deriding the test and punish focus of the law, the lack of resources given to schools and teachers working with struggling students, and the teaching to the test that was incentivized by the law:

“Math and science are not the opposite of art and music. Those things are compatible and we want kids to get a well-rounded education. Part of the problem we’ve had is that ‘No Child Left Behind,’ the law that was passed by Bush, said we want high standards, which is good, but they said we are going to measure those high standards only by a single high stakes standardized test that we are going to apply during the middle of the school year…a whole bunch of schools said we gotta teach to this test, and art and music isn’t tested… It’s a shame.”

In reality, the administration of President Barack Obama, while loosening some of the proficiency targets of NCLB, has plainly made the most problematic aspects of the law even worse, and quite likely earning President Obama the label as the worst President for education policy in the post-World War II era.  President Obama, acting through Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has made testing an even bigger focus of school by coercing states to adopt invalid and unproven measures of teacher performance using standardized tests.  Instead of merely working in a school that faces negative consequences based on test scores, teachers themselves face career sanctions if they do not “adequately” raise student test scores.  President Obama’s Department of Education has lavished money and favorable policies upon the charter school sector while thoroughly failing to oversee the money it has dispersed.   The administration was so interested in fulfilling the long held goal of national standards, that it helped the Gates Foundation push through rushed and unproven standards to almost all states by using the promise of federal grants and waivers from NCLB provisions.  These changes have been touted as voluntary and “state led,” but when Washington state did not pass legislation tying teacher evaluations to student growth measures, the Obama DOE brought down the hammer and revoked its waiver.

Today, 32 years after the beginning of the standards and accountability movement, 14 years into the test and punish era of school accountability, and almost 7 years into the Obama administration’s doubling down on standardized testing to measure teachers, teacher morale is at all time lows and the nation’s teacher preparation programs are struggling to find candidates.  Far from continuing the vital work of expanded opportunity and equity that spanned administrations from President Eisenhower’s use of federal troops to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas to  President Ford’s signing of PL94-142, the past five administrations have slowly tightened the grip of standardized testing on our schools until they have become a warped goal in and of themselves and have damaged the very children supposedly helped by them.  Standardized tests used to sort children have always disproportionately harmed poor children and children of color, and the frequent, high-stakes, accountability testing of NCLB has both narrowed the curriculum and slowed progress in closing the achievement gap, progress that saw its most sustained and dramatic gains in the 1970s.

So what has been missing from the education policies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama? Equity.  The educational policies that came to fruition via the original ESEA, Title IX, Section 504, and PL94-142 all were premised on the federal role of expanding resources and equity for children facing discrimination in school and society at large.  They marshaled funding and rules for schools so that they could not deny either access or equity, and they tasked the federal government with treating these as matters of civil rights.  More recent “reform” efforts are entirely about accountability without increasing the resources available to schools in order to meet those goals in a meaningful way, nor does “reform” specifically address the conditions within which schools exist, leaving them with the sole responsibility to uplift all children regardless of circumstance.  Where once federal education efforts sought to increase access to education and to increase the resources available for that education, today it demands that school increase performance in all situations without any other state actor taking responsibility for the well-being of the children in school.  David Berliner noted this in 2006:

It does take a whole village to raise a child, and we actually know a little bit about how to do that. What we seem not to know how to do in modern America is to raise the village, to promote communal values that insure that all our children will prosper. We need to face the fact that our whole society needs to be held as accountable for providing healthy children ready to learn, as our schools are for delivering quality instruction. One-way accountability, where we are always blaming the schools for the faults that we find, is neither just, nor likely to solve the problems we want to address.

We won’t have a President who deserves the title “The Education President” until we once again have a public servant in the Oval Office who sets equity of access and equity of resources as primary goals of federal education policy.  Five administrations ignoring the lessons of history and the evidence of research is enough.

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“Wait, you hated your teachers too?”

 

 

 

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Filed under Activism, Arne Duncan, charter schools, Common Core, Funding, Gates Foundation, NCLB, politics, schools, Social Justice, standards, Testing, VAMs

Spring Valley High School Assault: When “Moderation” is Violence

On Monday afternoon, video footage showing a School Resource Officer (SRO) in Columbia, South Carolina’s Spring Valley High School flipping over a seated female student and hurling her across the room began to go viral.  The video, of which there are now several versions from different classmates, shows the officer, Ben Fields, approaching the seated student, talking to her briefly, and then flipping her backwards in her desk before hurling her across the room while classmates and a school administrator look on passively:

Officer Fields, who has been the subject of lawsuits for excessive force and discrimination, has been fired according to Sheriff Leon Lott, and the federal Department of Justice has begun its own investigation.  Initial reports that the young woman is orphaned appear to be false, but her status in the foster care system is still in question.  Classmate Niya Kenny was arrested along with the other student and told local media that she was trying to stand up for her schoolmate:

“I know this girl don’t got nobody and I couldn’t believe this was happening,” Kenny explained. “I had never seen nothing like that in my life, a man use that much force on a little girl. A big man, like 300 pounds of full muscle. I was like ‘no way, no way.’ You can’t do nothing like that to a little girl. I’m talking about she’s like 5’6″.”

The story, as we know it now, unfolded when the young woman’s teacher caught her with her cell phone out and ended up requesting that she leave class.  When she did not, an administrator was brought in who called in Officer Fields.  There is no indication that the young woman did anything other than passively remain in the classroom when asked to leave. Another classmate, who took one of the videos currently circulating, said that the girl was apologetic about having her phone out and about not leaving.  He said the situation turned violent when the girl told Officer Fields that she did not know who he was:

“I’ve never seen anything so nasty looking, so sick to the point that you know, other students are turning away, don’t know what to do, and are just scared for their lives,” Robinson said. “That’s supposed to be somebody that’s going to protect us. Not somebody that we need to be scare off, or afraid.”

“That was wrong. There was no justifiable reason for why he did that to that girl.”

I am going to start with some premises that I consider to be undeniable.  I know that some people will deny them anyway, but in my mind, as an educator, as a parent, and as a citizen, these are not up for negotiation:

  • First: The grown ups in this classroom utterly failed this child.  Regardless of her behavior (or more accurately, her lack of behavior), the adults in the room are acting in loco parentis and have legal and moral obligations to treat every child in the room with the utmost care as if they were their own.  There were tools for deescalation that both the teacher and the administrator could have used before ever calling in Officer Fields.  If those had not worked, Officer Fields’ inexcusably went almost immediately to violent assault.
  • Second:  There is no excuse, no justification, no set of circumstances, no words spoken that can ever justify the level of violence that was inflicted upon this girl and the terror she and her classmates must have experienced as a result.  She was seated.  She was passive.  There was no threat of violence or harm to anyone in the room that warranted a physical response of any kind.  Officer Fields was not placing himself between fighting students to prevent harm to themselves or to others.  He flung a child across the room solely because she did not comply with an order.
  • Third: Whether or not the young woman in question is orphaned, in foster care, or not is entirely beside the point. Our desires to find good kid versus bad kid narratives is part of our misplaced desire to sympathize with an entirely innocent, pure, victim of brutality when the fact is that we should sympathize with any victim of brutality.  It clouds our judgement and distracts from the inexcusable choices made by the adults in the classroom.  Trayvon Martin was posthumously defamed for the “sin” of not being a “perfect victim.”  Eric Garner was blamed for his own death.  Ultimately, the demand for victims of institutionalized brutality to be “perfect” is a demand to rationalize their deaths and wounds as deserved and a demand to clear our own consciences for systems that benefit us and brutalize others.

As is typical in the age of social media, there is now a steady stream of fault finders declaring that the young woman deserved her treatment and looking frame by frame at her being hauled backwards in her desk for evidence that she “caused” the assault.  I have no time or patience for that, and I readily chalk it up to racism.  But there is also a call from many that I have seen to be “cautious,” to assess the girl’s behavior, and to “wait for all the facts” as if there is some hidden information that might balance to blame assessment.

I get the temptation.  As teachers, we are frequently called upon to moderate opposing sides, and we are trained to look for multiple points of view on a range of contentious issues.  The good teacher will sometimes have to defend a point of view that he or she disagrees with if it is unpopular and is being dismissed without consideration by our students.  But this is simply not one of those cases – a seated child, passively resisting an order to leave the classroom, and who poses no threat to anyone, simply cannot be hurled across a room, and it is not “moderation” to call for more information, or to call to see both sides, or to insist that the young woman’s behavior must occupy our attention as well.  It is, intentional or not, the perpetuation of violence.  It draws our attention away from the failures of the adults in the classroom to find a peaceful solution to a peaceful problem.

Writing for The New York Times, Roxane Grey asked, pointedly, “Where Are Black Children Safe?”

Time and again, in such situations, black people are asked, why don’t we mind our place? To be black in America is to exist with the presumption of guilt, burdened by an implacable demand to prove our innocence. We are asked impossible questions by people who completely ignore a reality where so many of the rules we are supposed to follow are expressly designed to subjugate and work against our best interests. We ignore the reality that we cannot just follow the rules and find our way to acceptance, equality or justice. Respectability politics are a delusion.

Far too little attention is being given to who the young girl is, or that, according to the lawyer representing her, she is in foster care. When that officer saw her, sitting quietly, defiantly, she was not allowed to be human. She was not allowed to have a complex story. She was held to a standard of absolute obedience. She was not given the opportunity to explain the why of her defiance because she was a black body that needed to be disciplined by any means necessary.

This reality, that so many children of color cannot even find refuge in school and are subjected to detrimental policies that we have long known do not work, strikes at the very heart of our moral responsibilities as teachers.  If students in our care face institutional violence, it is a massive failure of our role as stewards, and we must resist it on their behalf.  Allowing ourselves to become distracted by calls for “moderation” of viewpoint in response to that is another failure, and it makes us accomplices in a system that makes it impossible for a young person of color to ever not be at fault when assaulted.

I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote this in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

More than half a century later, even with the tangible progress that has been made in America, that same impulse to call for “moderation” and “balance” when presented with abject injustice is still with us.  It is a call that comes most frequently from a place of comfort and privilege that apparently cannot tolerate being made uncomfortable.  It is a call that shields enfranchised people from examining their own privilege and causes them to vote for leaders and policies that subject others far from them to injustice and violence.

And it is one of the most intractable problems that we face.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, racism, Social Justice

The Hunger Strike Ended: The #FightForDyett Continues

A week ago, the hunger strike by community activists in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago fighting to re-open Dyett High School as an open enrollment, neighborhood school with a focus on global leadership and green technology came to a close.  Two hunger strikers had already dropped their action due to growing health concerns, and the remaining members decided that their victories warranted living to fight on.  They have sent a ringing message about the importance of community schools and community voices. Despite the stubborn refusal of Chicago Public Schools to endorse their years in the making plan which included numerous Chicago institutions and thorough research and despite Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s petty refusal to acknowledge the hunger strikers without being forced, there are genuine victories that can be attributed to these activists.  Before the hunger strike, they forced CPS to commit to reopening the school.  During the hunger strike, CPS announced its idea of a “compromise” to make the school open enrollment but without the focus on global leadership and green technology.

Shortly after the hunger strike ended, Jitu Brown, spoke with Robin Hiller of the Network for Public EducationMr. Brown, who participated in the hunger strike, is a lifelong resident of Chicago’s south side, a long time community organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, and the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance.  After briefly describing what must have been the best bowl of soup in his life, Mr. Brown explained to Ms. Hiller what he saw as the strikers’ accomplishments:

“We’re very clear on the accomplishments that have come as the result of, not just the hunger strike, but the work of organized parents and students in Bronzeville. You know, last year we rallied together and we made the district commit to reopening it.  The district tried to run a runaround on us and make it a contract school.  And this year we won that fight, and it will be a public open enrollment neighborhood school. We are in conversation with the district because we will not, we will definitely be part of the infrastructure regarding how that school is developed.  There’s some agreement on using the green technology and global leadership as staples in the curriculum.  So we, at 34 days, as people began to get seriously ill, you had a number of people that had been hospitalized, and the response from the city let us know they would let us rot.  And the fight is bigger than this fight for Dyett High School. We are winning this fight, and we will continue to win it.”

It is important to note that among the dozens of schools closed under Rahm Emanuel’s watch, the Dyett High School campaign is unique in getting a closed school reopened and in preserving it as an open enrollment school governed by the Chicago Public Schools instead of turned over to private contractors seeking to earn profits off of public education.

Mr. Brown was also very clear about the central challenge in the fight for public education — inequity and the glaring examples of it within Chicago that reflect shameful national trends.  While the Bronzeville activists were starving for the sake of an open enrollment school, Mayor Emanuel, who has consistently claimed budget woes while closing schools in predominantly minority communities, unveiled the plans for a $21 million annex to relieve overcrowding at the Abraham Lincoln Elementary School and a $14 million dollar annex at Wildwood World Magnet School — both of which are majority white.  Mr. Brown noted how often it is that the greatest disruption and the greatest deprivation of resources are inflicted upon schools that serve the neediest children – schools that are then deemed failures and turned over to privatized operators:

“There’s a huge fight now that I hope this hunger strike has helped to energize and that is the fight for sustainable community schools not only in Chicago but around the country.  You shouldn’t have cities like New Orleans where the largest base of African American home owners in the United States are labeled as refugees and their city is taken from them. They lose their county hospital. They lose their schools and now virtually every school in New Orleans is run by a private company that makes a profit off of administering what is supposedly a human right.  Children in New Orleans have a perfectly good school across the street but they can’t go because they didn’t win the lottery to go.”

Mr. Brown also expounded upon the challenges that will face the community now that the hunger strike is over and that Chicago Public Schools will move ahead, having signaled they are not open to genuinely listening to the community itself:

“Where we go from here is we sent a message to the district is that you can no longer come into communities and snatch away the institutions that our taxes pay for and that you will respect community voice or you will meet community outrage. What we need to realize now is that the privatization movement needs to die…..There is no such thing as school choice in black communities. This should be a clear illustration of that to everyone. We chose a neighborhood school. We chose global leadership and green technology. And they fought back against it because they are not used to black people practicing self determination. But we have that right as any other community does to say this is what we want for our children.”

This work ahead is going to be difficult.  Already, CPS is signaling that while they moved ahead with Dyett as an open enrollment school, they have no intention of including the community in its operation.  On the 24th, CPS announced that the new principal of the re-opened school will be Bronzeville resident and current principal of Clark Magnet High School, Beulah McLoyd.  While Mr. Brown said that Ms. McLoyd is an excellent educator, he expressed concern that, yet again, the community members who have demonstrated unwavering commitment to the school were not included in any discussions about the school’s leadership.  The Chicago Sun Times also reported that local council elections to run the school will not be held for at least three years, meaning decision making can completely bypass the neighborhood.  As if to drive home this point, CPS held a hearing on the boundaries of the re-opened school, but they held it in the evening on Friday – at their downtown headquarters, almost 7 miles by I-94 from Walter Dyett High School.  From The Sun Times:

“They want to appear with this hearing that they gave the community an opportunity to speak out. But it’s 6 p.m. on a Friday night. This should have been held in the community,” said Bronzeville resident Anthony Travis. “This turnout is what they wanted so they can go back and say, ‘Oh, the community didn’t care.’ But that’s not true. People went on a hunger strike, went to jail for Dyett. I got arrested twice. For them to pull this shenanigan makes no sense.”

The “sense” is sadly the kind of sense all too prevalent in Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago and in many cities whose underfunded and sabotaged schools serve students in poverty: the “sense” of community silence where people from outside the community determine what is or is not available.  Mayor Emanuel’s CPS gave just enough to say to the press that they “met” the protestor’s “halfway” but it will shut them out of every other decision making process for as long as possible.

In the face of that, it is remarkable that Mr. Brown and his fellow activists remain positive, but the vision that drives the #FightForDyett is one that can energize an entire movement to maintain our public education system as a public good as well as an individual good.  Near the end of his interview, he said:

“My lived experience working with children – and I’ve worked with African American children, I’ve taught white children, I’ve taught Latino children – my experience is that all children need is consistency, love, and opportunity. And that consistency has to be constant opportunity, constant equity, constant belief that they can be anything. And that is demonstrated by the places we put them in, the opportunities we give them. Every child can excel. There is no group of people who is better than the others. We are different. You know, we have different cultures, but we all bring something…. and we should not stand for inequity.  Because an inequitable school system an inequitable system denies us the joy of knowing each other. It denies us the joy of building a country together. Building a community together. Building a system together. And we have for too long – I mean our white brothers and sisters, but I mean as Americans period — we’ve ignored the racism that flows through this country, that feeds it like food. We’ve ignored it.”

Constant opportunity. Constant equity.  Constant belief.  And a recognition that as a nation we have a long way to go before we can claim to be past the racist legacy of our history.  That’s a set of core beliefs we should all be able to acknowledge if we truly care about all children.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, #FightForDyett, Activism, Corruption, Social Justice

#FightForDyett: What Would YOU Sacrifice for a Fully Supported, Fully Public School?

The hunger strike by 12 parents and community activists in Chicago fighting for an open enrollment, fully public, high school in the Bronzeville neighborhood will soon pass the one month mark.  Ten days ago, Chicago Public Schools announced a “compromise” that would have Dyett re-open as an open enrollment school but with an arts based focus instead of the as the Global Leadership and Green Technology school that was submitted by the Coalition to Save Dyett.  That school proposal, developed over the course of years with assistance from the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Teachers for Social Justice, Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council, Blacks in Green, the Chicago Botanic Garden, and the Annenberg Institute, was submitted earlier in the year when CPS solicited proposals to re-open the Dyett campus.  The announcement of an arts based school was done suddenly and with no discussion with community members who have been fighting for years to keep a fully public high school open in Bronzeville.

And so the hunger strike continues, including continued public pressure on CPS and elected officials, and candlelight vigils outside the Obama family home:

Pressure has perhaps increased with national media picking up on the story in outlets such as The New York Times, Slate Magazine, Essence Magazine,  and Public Radio International.  The Takeaway’s John Hockenberry spoke with hunger striker and grandmother of three, April Stogner, for nearly 7 minutes on the 25th day of the hunger strike.

Mr. Hockenberry asked her why the hunger strike was continuing when the city had agreed to an open enrollment school:

“…the decision to re-open Dyett as an open enrollment school we already had that decision last year to re-open it. What we’ve been fighting for is to have it as the global leadership school. What they’re trying to give us is not what the community asked for.  They never brought us to the table to make this decision. Many people think that it’s a win for us, but we don’t see it as that. We don’t feel that that’s victorious, and for that reason, that’s why we’re in day 25 of the hunger strike.”

Peter Greene of Curmudgucation made an excellent point about this on his blog shortly after the CPS decision was announced:

Emanuel faced an ever-growing mess, and he had to decide what to save, what absolutely could not be sacrificed in salvaging some sort of end to the public hunger strike. And he decided the one thing that he absolutely could not give up was the policy of keeping community voices silent. Okay, let them have open enrollment. But don’t let them speak. Don’t let them have a say in making any decisions about the school. And just to make it clear, don’t use their years of research and planning for the school design– because that’ll make it clear who’s still in complete control of what happens in their school.

This effort to run around the community activists – the very people who have been in Bronzeville trying to make Dyett a success despite the continuous history of being undermined by Chicago Public Schools from day one — allows Mayor Rahm Emanuel to claim he met the protestors “part way” and made a “compromise” while entirely ignoring their voices. The move was for public relations, not for the community and their goals.

And what are their goals?  Ms. Stogner explained that to Mr. Hockenberry as well:

“I would envision Dyett being a school that’s connected to the other schools in the community, the grammar schools. You’re talking about a school that has a beautiful garden, a rooftop where you can have a garden. Everything is geared toward green technology where our kids would be ensured to have a future in green technology and be sure that they’ll have jobs. Yes, we like arts and all that.  That’s fine and dandy.  But our kids can do more than dance and sing and jump around…..It’s crazy when I was listening to the statement that you played from the mayor and they always say that they want to do what’s best for the children. This is not what’s best for our children. When you talk about community, the community should be involved in the decisions, and we were not involved. We submitted this plan. We’ve been working on this plan for well over five years, so it’s funny that he said you’re doing what’s best for our community. You don’t know what’s best for our community, or we wouldn’t have had 49 schools closing at one time. Tell the truth and say what it is.  They just want to make money off the backs of our children, and they feel like they can just come into our community and take what they want. But we’re not having that anymore.”

This vision is incredibly powerful because it is not simply about what kinds of schools are available for the children in Bronzeville, but also it is about whether or not the community itself will be heard when it plainly makes clear what is desired. It is also about pointing out that when communities are called upon to “sacrifice” during times of economic crisis, the bulk of that sacrifice comes from communities that are disproportionately black, brown, and poor:

Julian Vasquez Heilig makes this abundantly clear in one of his recent posts about the Dyett hunger strikers.  Chicago Public Schools spends $13,433 per pupil.  How does that compare to wealthy, suburban communities uneffected by school closures or the need to go on a hunger strike to highlight the plight of their schools?  Seneca Township spends $25,289 per pupil.  Sunset Ridge spends $22,683.  Evanston Township, $21,428.  Ms. Stogner is keenly aware of this:

“The mayor — he’s one of the biggest gangsters I’ve seen in a long time.  Yes, anyone who doesn’t value our kids that already speaks to what kind of person our mayor is. Anyone who closes schools — those are community institutions. Where else would our children have to go?  What schools need is to be invested in, not disinvested in. It’s easy to take away all the resources from these children and these schools and say that they’re failing. But what did you do to make sure that they were excelling?  You took everything.  They don’t have libraries. No resources. You take out all of our black and brown teachers, people who love and care about our kids, who can teach them their history. That’s not what you want, but you have money for charters, turnaround schools.  I have a problem with that. Everybody should have a problem with that.”

The perversity of this is abundantly clear:  we task public education with offering opportunity to those willing to take it in our society, and to ensure that such opportunity is equitably available, we charge truly public schools with taking and accommodating all the students who arrive at their door, regardless of circumstances. It is one of the most truly democratic exercises in our society and it has historically expanded its reach as we have expanded the political and social franchise as well.  But there is one glaring obstacle to it truly functioning that way: the same economic inequality that infuses and segregates our society along race and class similarly segregates our schools into institutions offering astonishing opportunities and institutions struggling to keep up with the needs that arrive every day without equitable funding.  That term, equitable, is important because when a school has a high concentration of students with needs that must be accommodated, the appropriate per pupil funding will almost certainly be greater than in communities where almost all children come from comfortable homes with abundant family resources.

And yet, instead of that promise, they are given closed schools, fired teachers, unaccountable charters, and blighted neighborhoods; so the hunger strike continues.

The #Dyett12 require all of us to ask just what would we sacrifice for the principals of democratic education and community voices in our own schools?  I have to confess that I have been entirely lucky in my life in this question.  I grew up in a suburban Massachusetts town with well resourced schools.  My own children are growing up in a neighborhood of New York City where we have never had to question if they would have access to excellent public schools. My children go through their lives never knowing what it is like to be suspected of wrong doing simply for the color of their skin. Residents of our borough who live a mere two miles from us are not so lucky and live with injustices we can read about but will never experience.  That in the city of Chicago in 2015 there are people who have been on hunger strike for nearly a month to simply have what their peers in the suburbs never even question – an excellent, fully public school – is heart breaking and infuriating at the same time.

Ms. Stogner and her fellow hunger strikers offer a glimpse of a potential shifting of our education debate in this country to one that listens to the voices from the ground up instead of imposing solutions from above that more often than not hurt rather than help. When asked about her family, Ms. Stogner said:

“My grandson, I brought him out with me yesterday for the first time because I felt like he needed to know why when they’re at home eating, and grandma is just drinking water, why she isn’t eating. I need him to understand that you are important, you do matter. I don’t want him to believe that people can just come in his neighborhood and tell him he’s not good enough to have s school to go to up the street from him, a good community school, a great community school, a world class community school. He needs to know whatever you believe in, you stand up and you fight for it by any means necessary.”

We should all be teaching lessons so valuable to our children.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, #FightForDyett, Activism, charter schools, Corruption

NYSED’s Incoherent Opt Out Muddle

Pity those poor zealots of standardized testing in Albany.

No matter what they do, no matter what tactic they employ those pesky parents who are sick and tired of standardized testing consuming their children’s education won’t come around to see the error of their ways.

First, Governor Andrew Cuomo, perhaps taking an anticipatory victory lap days before his November re-election, unleashed a torrent of bad ideas upon his favorite punching bag – New York’s unionized public school teachers.  He vowed to “break up” the “public monopoly” of our free public school system which dates back to the formation of the New York Free School Society in 1805.  Governor Cuomo’s preferred method of “breaking” public education is the use of standardized test scores and growth models to designate schools and teachers as failures ripe for state take over and firing.

Then New York Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Governor Cuomo took up the role of pen pals after the election, declaring the need for much tougher teacher evaluation and tenure rules using, you guessed it, an even greater role for growth measures based on standardized test scores.  Governor Cuomo followed that communication by vetoing a bill he himself had proposed that would have given teachers and principals a two year grace period from professional consequences as a result of the still new Common Core aligned state examination, and then quickly announced a punishing agenda that led to 50% of teachers’ evaluations being tied to growth measures on the state examinations.

Dr. Tisch, for her part, attempted to take on the role of the velvet glove with a prepared speech to the New York State  Council of School Superintendents in March where she lamented the Opt Out movement in New York and compared it to the anti-vaccination movement:

Why on earth would you not want to know whether your child is on track for success in the fifth grade or success in college?  Why would you not want to know how your child and your school are doing compared to other children in district, region, and State?  Why would you not want to know the progress of our multi-billion dollar investment in education?  Why would you not want to know whether all students are making progress, not just the lucky few?

I do not pretend that test results are the only way to know, but they are an important piece of information.  They are the only common measure of progress we have.

We are not going to force kids to take tests.  That’s not the New York way.  But, we are going to continue to help students and parents understand that it is a terrible mistake to refuse the right to know.

We don’t refuse to go to the doctor for an annual check-up.  Most of us don’t refuse to get a vaccination.

Did you get that?  Standardized testing is as good for curing problems in education as vaccines are for preventing polio.

Dr. Tisch dug herself deeper in later comments, first trying to claim that the new teacher evaluation system over which Governor Cuomo held long overdue state aid hostage did not necessarily mean teachers would be evaluated 50% by student test scores, and then she publicly suggested that communities with histories of high test scores (i.e. wealthy, white communities) might be excused from the new evaluations – leaving a lot of African American and Hispanic teachers who teach predominantly in urban poverty on the hook and sparing their white peers.

When Commissioner John King, in a spectacular case of failing upward, left the NYSED to join Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in Washington, D.C., his replacement, MaryEllen Elia, formerly Superintendent of Florida’s sprawling Hillsborough district, was already known as a major fan of the Common Core standards, standardized testing, and evaluating teachers based on those tests.  Commissioner Elia immediately embarked upon a “goodwill tour” of sorts to listen to and to speak with stakeholders across the state.  The new commissioner did not waiver in her support for high stakes testing or in her opposition to opting children out of those exams, telling one audience that “Life is one big test.”

Then the opt out numbers came in with the results of the tests themselves, and New York’s rate of test refusal in 2015 jumped to 20% of all testable students, a huge leap from the previous year’s numbers.  And the charm offensive was over, with Commissioner Elia declaring to reporters that her office was in communication with the Secretary of Education in Washington over the potential “consequences” at hand for districts and schools where parental opt outs meant that fewer than 95% of students were tested as required by the No Child Left Behind act.  In other statements, she declared that opting out of the state tests was unreasonable and called school personnel who encouraged it unethical.

And almost as quickly as that was said, the backpedaling began.  Chancellor Tisch reported that the her office was told by the federal DOE weeks earlier that financial consequences were up to the state and that NYSED had no plans to do anything, saying, “I think when you withdraw money from a school district, what you’re doing is you’re hurting the kids in the school district. So I don’t think that’s an effective way to deal with it.”  The King of Test-Based Punishment, Andrew Cuomo, also declared that the state had no intentions of withholding money from communities that failed to reach 95% of students tested.  Commissioner Elia bid a hasty retreat from her earlier threats, first pivoting away from punishment to saying she planned to spend the next year trying to convince parents not to opt out of the exams and then saying that parents have a right to opt their children out of the state examinations.

The quick retreat from talk of punishment is no doubt tied to the dreadful politics that would be involved of playing games with funding, given that the funding in question is federal Title I money intended for districts with high percentages of children in poverty.  Withholding those moneys from the smaller number of districts and schools with high poverty and high opt outs while leaving affluent communities with high opt out numbers untouched would be a political firestorm, not to mention it is highly questionable whether NCLB was ever intended to punish schools and districts because of the actions of their parents.

The 2015 round goes to Opt Out:

mic drop

The future is, of course, murkier.  There is no chance at all that Commissioner Elia, Chancellor Tisch, and Governor Cuomo intend to back away from the central role of standardized testing in education policy for New York just as there is no indication that they really understand the multitude of reasons why parents are opting out.  Commissioner Elia’s “tool kit” for convincing parents to test their children will be an object of some interest, and there can be little doubt that significant pressure will be placed upon superintendents and principals to reign in their parents where Opt Out is strong or to block it from being established where it is not.

If Opt Out in New York grows by similar numbers for the 2016 examinations, the entire system will be on the verge of collapse, but it would be wrong to assume those numbers will materialize.  2015 was a particularly turbulent year with Governor Cuomo aggressively pursuing an agenda that made test and punish the centerpiece of New York schooling.  Further, the Opt Out movement’s future growth will also depend upon making inroads in urban and minority communities where support has been slower to grow than in the suburbs.  Nationally, African American and Hispanic parents are less likely to support opting out and less likely to say they would do so for their children than white parents (although they, like white parents, also value demonstrations of their children’s learning that are not based on standardized tests far more than they value the tests).  Given the civil rights history of the United States, it is not hard to understand and to appreciate why these parents might be more inclined to seek accountability for states and municipalities to take care of their children.  If Opt Out is to grow, it will need to listen to those concerns and articulate a compelling vision that addresses them.  Goodness knows, we can expect Commissioner Elia to tell them the test is the only way to hold schools accountable.

There are, of course, strong arguments to make for parents concerned about the historic failures of states and cities to hold themselves accountable for children of color.  The trends that harm education overall when standardized testing becomes a goal in and of itself hurts minority and urban communities even worse.  School closures, unaccountable charter schools, and the loss of non-tested subjects are trends that take their biggest bite out of those communities.  Further, contrary to the claims of testing advocates that only mass standardized testing can be used for accountability, districts and schools can use low stakes sampling to monitor the system and individual teachers can use small scale, formative assessment systems to track student progress.  The massively disruptive tests that replace the curriculum are not necessary.  Further, as Julian Vasquez-Heilig demonstrates, local accountability models not only exist, they are promising to bring communities back into how schools are held accountable.  These arguments need to be made more and more in public because we can count on NYSED to claim they are simply impossible.

For now, however, Opt Out has momentum on its side, and the bullies in Albany have backed down in a major way.

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Filed under Activism, MaryEllen Elia, New York Board of Regents, Opt Out, Testing