Category Archives: schools

Education Policy 2017: Trumpian Levels of Uncertainty

With the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency (I will take a long time to get used to typing that), education policy until at least January 2021 is a giant question mark.  Secretary Clinton’s education policy was fairly easy to predict – she’d attempt to chart a “middle course” between the full embrace of corporate reform by President Obama and the concerns of her union supporters and close confidants like AFT President Randi Weingarten.  She’d have softened the test and punishment aspects of federal education policy while continuing to support standards and testing in general, and she’d try to pivot the charter school debate into more oversight for the sector as a whole and narrowing federal support to co-called “high quality” charter schools.  That’s hardly my ideal, but at least it would have been highly predictable territory and her credentials as someone genuinely interested in policy meant that she’d have approached education with a degree of thoughtfulness that I’d have appreciated.

President Trump?  Not so much.

The only thing guaranteed by Donald Trump is something that I will deeply regret and his own preening self-regard.  Make no mistake:  education policy in the Trump Administration will favor privatization and be hostile to unionized teachers.  The evidence for this is fairly clear in his choice of Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his Vice President.  Governor Pence made education reform a central feature of his administration, and the results have not been especially pretty.  Pence’s administration made a hard charge for additional charter school funding, although he did increase oversight in the sector.  He also pushed to allow more public funds to go to vouchers for private schools, and he “rejected” the Common Core standards, only to have Indiana develop its own that look remarkably like the Common Core standards along with an Indiana specific standardized test that costs far more than the federally backed PARCC and SBAC exams.  Even if Mr. Pence does not have much say in federal education policy (his real passions in government seem far more related to banning abortion and making life hell for LGBTQ people), Trump surrogate Donald Trump Jr. used his July convention speech to trash public education in the United States without regard for facts or nuance, and when Donald Trump spoke on education he focused mostly on bashing the Common Core Standards and emphasizing school choice as curative.

Suffice to say: Education policy in the Trump administration will come down to as much privatization as they can squeeze in, aided by a Congress that is wired to the bone to hate teacher unions and to believe that the free market can do anything.  People who loathe the Common Core standards will be relieved to see an administration that is hostile to them, but they certainly cannot expect any support on keeping public education PUBLIC, and teachers in unionized states can expect Friedrich’s copycat suits to work their way back into the federal courts.

But exactly HOW all of this comes about and exactly how SERIOUS Mr. Trump is about his education policy is a gargantuan question mark.  If you do not believe me, consider the two known names on his list to become Secretary of Education:  The first is Dr. Williamson M. Evers, a research fellow on education issues for the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, a former assistant secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration, and a former holder of education appointments under California Governors Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Dr.  Evers has a libertarian background and his education priorities are neatly aligned with the new administration:  against the Common Core standards and in favor of school choice.  However, it is also undeniable that he would bring genuine policy experience and experience in both state and federal level education policy.  He has a doctorate in political science from Stanford University and has spent decades writing and researching education policy as well as providing advice to governments on that issue.  While I may not agree with all of his priorities, there is no reason to doubt that the Department of Education under his watch would be actually managed.

President-elect Trump’s OTHER top choice to head the Department of Education?  Retired pediatric neurosurgeon and former rival for the Republican nomination Dr. Ben Carson.  I did not just mistype that.  Dr. Carson is obviously an intelligent and talented man in his chosen field – nobody rises to the level that he did in a field like that without having truly prodigious skills.  However, he has absolutely zero qualifications in education, and when he spoke on education issues during the primaries, he tended to say bizarre and frightening things, such as his idea that the Department of Education should cut off federal funds to colleges and universities “guilty” of promoting “extreme bias.”  Dr. Carson is also well known for saying lots of things that make no factual or historic sense, from his assertion that the Great Pyramids of Egypt were built as granaries, to his belief that being gay is a choice, because prison, to his belief that evolution is the literal work of Satan, to his belief that there is no “war on women” but there may be a “war on what’s inside of women” – presumably he meant to reference fetuses, but considering how many organs are inside a human body, it wasn’t precisely clear.

So these are our apparent choices for Secretary of Education during a Trump administration:  One is a libertarian/conservative research fellow with a doctorate in political science, decades of experience in education policy, and who has spent considerable time in both state and federal education policy circles.  One is a retired surgeon with no relevant experience whatsoever, who has a history of saying plainly false or borderline deranged things on a host of topics he doesn’t understand, and who thinks the federal Department of Education should spend its time looking for cases of liberal bias in higher education and then slashing funding.  One will pursue policies that promote school choice and privatization but will also administer the department with an actual understanding of how the system operates.  One will probably operate the department with all of the discipline of Donald Trump campaign rally, complete with bizarre stream of consciousness and counterfactual statements and no discernible direction at all.  One will be a person whose policies and practices we can confront and counter based upon evidence and something resembling logical discourse.  One will essentially dare us to understand a single blessed word that comes out of his mouth.

The kicker?  We really have no idea which one we are going to get.  If Mike Pence has any real input in this administration, we will probably get Dr. Evers.  If Mr. Trump follows his gut and flare for showmanship, we probably get Dr. Carson.  This is education beginning in 2017.  May G-d have mercy on us all.

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Filed under charter schools, politics, schools, standards, Unions

You Bet My Classroom is a “Safe Space”

This week I have the pleasure of meeting the Class of 2020 who just began their 4 year journeys to become teachers.  They join us at a very particular time in our national dialogue, such as it is, on inclusiveness and diversity.  We are four years into a movement demanding awareness of the interaction between African Americans, police, and the rest of society – and calling for substantial change on those fronts.  We are in a Presidential election where one of our historic great political parties has nominated a candidate whose campaign traffics openly in racism and xenophobia and has hired  a champion of forces ridiculing inclusiveness into the campaign.  A great deal of push and pull about what kind of society we are and what kind of discussions about ourselves are even possible is afoot.

And, into that environment, the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago has told incoming students that the institution does not condone “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings.”

The welcome letter from the dean explained to incoming students the intellectual history and tradition at University of Chicago:

Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. This is captured in the University’s faculty report on freedom of expression. Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship.  Civility and mutual respect are vital to us all, and freedom of expression does not mean freedom to harass or threaten others.  You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement.  At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.

Without irony at all, I think this is excellent.  As a statement of principles for a liberal education grounded in the best traditions of inquiry and debate, I could hardly imagine better wording, and I would applaud seeing this paragraph widely disseminated.  It speaks to the vital importance of ideas facing scrutiny, previously held assumptions facing challenge, and intellectual growth in an environment predicated on respect and rigor.  It would serve many more institutions to make such statements about the nature of discourse on their campuses and to embrace similar principles.

Which is why what followed that paragraph was distressingly unnecessary and appears rooted in the worst misconceptions about efforts to expand inclusiveness in the Academy.  Having made a clear statement about the need for inquiry and debate that it both challenging and respectful, the Dean wrote:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger-warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

This paragraph has fostered a fairly wide ranging debate with many coming out both in support and in dismay at the wording.  The letter appears to be responding to a Straw Millennial who embodies the worst stereotypes of his or her generation as fragile and incapable of dealing with anything but affirmation.  Worse, the letter seems to assume that trigger warnings and safe spaces exist to allow students to avoid any material they wish rather than to facilitate their engagement with such material in the classroom and to provide additional venues with clearly defined purposes aligned with been historically marginalized experiences within academia.  I do not object, per se, to the commitment to invited speakers, although one has to wonder the reason for its inclusion.  Yes, there are examples of organized students in the country calling for speaking engagements to be rescinded, but I should not have to remind the University of Chicago that the plural of anecdote is not “data,” nor should the wider phenomenon of students organizing protests around certain speakers be confounded with disinviting those speakers.  Protests, editorials, and teach ins are, in fact, entirely within the intellectual realm the dean outlined in the statement about University of Chicago’s academic tradition and commitment to academic freedom.

The statement did not ban trigger warnings and safe spaces, although with the Dean of Students saying the University does not “support” or “condone” them, one wonders how probationary faculty will find themselves constrained to either use trigger warnings or advise student groups.  However, the statement does invoke literally the worst possible interpretation of those terms as antithetical to an environment of academic freedom and rigorous debate, and that is completely unnecessary.  Offering a trigger warning for extremely challenging content is not inherently about avoiding that content; it is about recognizing that people have experiences that can make that content far more personal and challenging for them than for others.  It is about adequate preparation rather than avoidance.  Consider a professor in a modern film class airing The Accused.  Is it unreasonable to warn students, some of whom may have been sexually assaulted themselves, that the movie contains a gang rape scene?  It is certainly unreasonable to assume that an 18 year old today knows the plot details of a movie from 1988, but it is entirely reasonable to assume that the scene is widely disturbing to all audiences and especially troubling for a class member who has been raped.  Consider a contemporary American history class studying the birth of the second Klan and the Red Summer of 1919.  These are events not often well studied in high school courses, and they fundamentally challenge many students’ perceptions of American history.  Students in the majority may have very little knowledge of how deeply White Supremacy is embedded in our history and of the brutal violence it used to enforce white dominance, and students of color may very well have family history inextricably linked to these events.  Is it out of the norm to show personal care for all students by letting them know how difficult this material will be for them – or does it enable them to more thoroughly engage in the material?

The dean’s letter is written from the assumption that a trigger warning is a tool of avoidance rather than a method of preparation.  That assumption is unnecessary.  And by naming it as something the University does not support, many instructors, especially those without tenure, may end up with less freedom in their teaching.

The statement about safe spaces is equally troubling because, in very real ways, it is not possible for universities to engage in academic inquiry without safe spaces of various kinds. The entire structure of disciplinary study is premised on the acceptance that certain subjects are off topic in various disciplines and that faculty have both authority and a responsibility to shape discourse in the courses along those lines. I can imagine no biology course at any reputable university that would accept Kenneth Hamm enrolling in that class and demanding significant time be given for Biblical creation. Similarly, I cannot imagine that Richard Dawkins would be given free rein in a course on Islam to insist that his increasingly anti-Muslim ideas become the major focus of the class. There are lines between legitimate and illegitimate inquiry within different disciplines, and while all courses should have room for robust discussion and disagreement, they do not have room for fully derailing the content of the class. A Shakespeare course is about the works of William Shakespeare. A course on African American history is about the history of Americans of African descent. This is as true at University of Chicago as it is anywhere else in academia.

Beyond the classroom, however, the Dean’s letter is contradicted by the University of Chicago itself. There are over 350 recognized student organizations at the University of Chicago, and it is without question that large numbers of them meet any reasonable definition of a safe space for students who share interests and experiences and desire a place to meet and interact with like-minded students. Does the Christians on Campus organization have to open up its Bible study meetings to people wanting to debate the existence of God? Do the College Republicans and University of Chicago Democrats get to control the agendas and topics of their own meetings around their shared ideological interests? Does Hillel help Jewish students follow Halachic dietary requirements? Do I even need to ask? Of course they do, because there is no significant question about the validity of those groups to set and determine their own focus.

But University of Chicago also has student organizations that are more likely to be associated with safe space debates within academia. Among recognized student groups, are organizations for women in the sciences, African Americans, and members of the LGBTQ community.   Assuming those groups are allowed to set their agendas, moderate their own meetings, determine what is on and off topic for a discussion, and do everything that all other student groups get to do, then the university absolutely “condones” safe spaces. While many critics of higher education may not approve of giving this privilege to people historically marginalized within academia, it is obvious that University of Chicago does not have a blanket problem with these student organizations, so it is objectively untrue for the Dean of Students to say the institution does not “condone” them. The Dean may be under the impression that “safe spaces” only exist to allow students to “retreat” from disagreement, but that impression does not make it true.

Perhaps the Dean of Students has a completely biased idea of what these terms mean and wanted to discourage incoming students from seeking them out despite the fact that the university obviously embraces many aspects of them. Perhaps the goal is based in alarm at various anecdotes of alleged threats to open discourse – threats that are frequently far more overblown than reality – and a hope to head off any such incidents at University of Chicago. I honestly do not know, but it is fairly obvious that the paragraph was unnecessary for affirming the university’s admirable goals of academic freedom – and that it is actually contradicted by the actual climate at the institution.

In my own classroom, I frankly hope that I am sufficiently embracing the concepts of a safe space for my students. The students I have met this week are taking an introductory course on the history of, purposes, and current issues in American education. Although they have been in school for 13 years, it is typical for most of them to want to be teachers but to have never critically examined the education system they wish to serve. After all, in many ways school is like air for them – always there, extremely important, but rarely thought about very deeply. In this course, my students will, hopefully, gain a better understanding of what John Goodlad meant when he endorsed the vision of teachers practicing “good stewardship” and learn what it means to use equity as a tool to promote opportunity. Doing so will require a genuinely critical and open minded examination of our educational history, both positive advances and legacies of intolerance. We will explore how legislation and litigation have expanded opportunity in our schools, and how legacies like segregation, attempts to wipe out Native American culture, and the horrific abuse of the disabled have played out and continue to play out in our schools. For some of my students these issues will be connected to personal and family experiences. For others, these will be new issues, largely hidden in their previous education.

In order to engage with these issues, my students absolutely need a safe space. They will need to know that their experiences will be considered valid whether those experiences are “typical” or not. They will need to know that they will have supportive and empathetic classmates and instructors as they think about new ideas that may thoroughly challenge their worldviews or which may recall painful family and personal histories. They will need to know that they can push themselves, and, more importantly, that they make mistakes without incurring unbearable cost.  Personal and intellectual growth can occur in an educational environment that takes no care for the well being of its students, but it is more likely to happen in spite of that environment rather than because of it.  Absent the qualities mentioned above, learners far too often retreat to well known pathways for “success” – seeking out and repeating approved of answers whether they believe in them or not.  Worse, dominant mythologies that discount the full spectrum of human experience can remain entirely unchallenged.

This is entirely compatible with being “engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement,” and it is compatible with students finding themselves both challenged and discomfited.  I would argue that within the classroom, safe space attributes are actually vital to and enable the kind of discourse valued at University of Chicago.  I will certainly strive to enact them.

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Filed under classrooms, schools, Social Justice, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching

Chris Christie – Reverse Robin Hood

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been an abject disaster for his state’s students, teachers, and schools.  Since assuming office in 2010, the self acclaimed teller of “like it is” has broken promise after promise, callously tossed the Garden State’s most vulnerable children into barely regulated experiments, and heaped insult after insult upon the state’s teachers.  A good way to approach almost any education proposal from Chris Christie is to simply assume that it will cause far more harm than good and then try to gauge just how far along the harmful spectrum it will actually be.

Chris Christie ran for Governor, promising teachers that he would not touch a dime of their pensions, but one of his first acts was to ram through a pension reform plan that he subsequently failed to fund – even while handing management of the fund over to Wall Street firms who raised annual fees from $140 million a year to $600 million a year and then planned to give $100 million of the fund to a firm started by a major donor to the Republican Governors’ Association right around the time the RGA was spending almost 2 million helping Christie get reelected.  Governor Christie’s refusal to meet funding obligations is not restricted to the state pension fund.  Governor Christie cut nearly $1 billion from the state school aid budget when he entered office, and that shortfall has never been made up for regardless of the district.  In fact, as Chris Christie was announcing his candidacy for the President of the United States, his own Department of Education reported that the state budget was roughly a billion dollars short of the fair funding formula used to determine school aid.

Chris Christie is more than happy to unleash chaos and mismanagement on poor children of color in New Jersey just so long as his favorite charter school operators stand to benefit.  With the aid of then Newark Mayor (now Senator) Cory Booker, the disastrous “One Newark” plan was foisted onto the state’s largest district  overseen by the incompetent and out of touch Cami Anderson – who was so standoffish and incapable of dealing with criticism that she even ignored lawmakers’ requests for meetings for an entire year.  Anderson was finally ousted but replaced by former state commissioner Chris Cerf who is cut of almost entirely similar cloth but who knows how to smile in public better.  Chris Christie pivots on other education issues with big public pronouncements that look like 180 degree changes – but which amount to almost nothing of substance.  While the governor likes to brag that he is “changing” the Common Core Standards in response to criticisms, his department of education continues its slow march towards making the enormously flawed PARCC assessment a graduation requirement in the Garden State.

And, of course, Chris Christie’s famous temper has led him to lash out in the press and directly in the faces of constituents over and over again. This is a man who claimed teachers used students as “drug mules” for a civics lesson.  This is a man who whined that the teacher union said he hated children for a simple billboard that said nothing of the sort:

NJEA billboard 2011

This is a man who has screamed at multiple teachers in public:

Christie Yells Again

Governor Chris Christie, Raising Teachers’ Public Esteem Again

And who has disparaged teachers’ work as not full time.

Given this history, it should give readers some pause that Governor Christie’s address on school funding in Hillsborough on June 21st was a new low even by his standards.  Under this “plan” the city of Newark, whose median household income is $34,012 a year, where 29.9% of the population lives below the federal poverty line, and where the median value of an owner occupied home is $229,600, would see its annual school aid drop by 69%.  Meanwhile, Summit, a community whose median household income is $121,509, where 5% of the population lives below the poverty line, and where the median value of an owner occupied home is $774,800, would see its annual school aid go up by 1506%.  The Governor would accomplish this by completely eliminating the school fair funding formula and then distributing $6,599 in per pupil aid to every school district in the state regardless of the community’s poverty or property value characteristics.  When Governor Christie watches “Robin Hood” he must see the Sheriff of Nottingham as nothing more than a misunderstood public servant making certain no ne’er-do-well layabouts get any of Prince John’s precious taxes:

sheriff-stealing

Getting every last cent out of the lazy good-for-nothings

A very brief background is in order:  New Jersey’s fair funding plan is actually one of the bright spots for equity in the Garden State’s education system.  New Jersey’s Abbott Districts are the result of decades of legislation and litigation, and the designation of an Abbott District takes into account matters such as educational adequacy, concentration of poverty, and the use of additional funding as a remedy.  The result of this has been New Jersey’s fair funding plan (the very one that Governor Christie has consistently underfunded) which directs substantial amounts of state aid to the most disadvantaged school districts throughout New Jersey.  Currently, there are 31 such districts in the state, and their current foundational aid from the state reflects the provisions of the School Funding Reform Act of 2008.  As recently as 2012, the State Supreme Court ordered the state to fully fund the SFRA, noting that consistent underfunding of the aid formula is “a real substantial and consequential blow” to students’ rights to a “thorough and efficient education.”

Governor Christie is apparently sick and tired of that.

In his speech, he pointed out that of the $9.1 billion spent annually on school aid, 58% of it goes to the Abbott Districts.  He decried this as “absurd” and “unfair.”  He claimed that school results from those districts prove that the Supreme Court was wrong to conclude that funding matters in urban education.  He provided cherry picked statistics on government spending in a few districts as “proof” that those communities can make up their school spending by trimming waste.  He blamed all of this for holding property taxes at high levels across the state.  He then proposed taking the entire $9.1 billion pot of (still inadequately funded) school aid and dividing it equally among every student in the Garden State:

If we were to take the amount of aid we send directly to the school districts today (in excess of $9.1 billion) and send it equally to every K-12 student in New Jersey, each student would receive $6,599 from the State of New Jersey and its taxpayers.  Every child has potential.  Every child has goals.  Every child has dreams.  No child’s dreams are less worthy than any others.  No child deserves less funding from the state’s taxpayers.  That goal must be reached, especially after watching the last 30 years of failed governmental engineering which has failed families in the 31 SDA districts and taxpayers all across New Jersey.

Not only does the Governor’s proposal literally take foundational aid that is mandated by law and litigation to go to the state’s poorest communities and direct it back to communities that are vastly wealthier, it also uses that redirection to promise middle class, upper middle class, and rich communities property tax relief – a campaign promise the Governor has not managed to manifest in his six years office:

In Margate, they would receive 428% more in aid.  In Fairlawn, 815% more in aid. In that town, when combined with our 2% property tax cap, this new aid would result in average drop in their school property tax of over 2,200 per household.  In Teaneck, 389% more in aid and an average drop in property taxes of nearly $1,600.  In Wood-Ridge, an 801% increase in aid and a drop in property taxes of over $1,800.  How about South Jersey?  In Cherry Hill, an increase in aid of 411% and a drop in property taxes of over $1,700.  In Haddonfield, an increase in aid of 1705% and a drop in property taxes of nearly $3,600.

The pattern is repeated everywhere.  South Orange aid up 912%, taxes down over $3,700. In Readington Township, aid up 410%, taxes down nearly $2,000. In Robbinsville, aid up 666%, taxes down over $2,600.  In Freehold Township, aid up 153%, taxes down over $1,500. In Chatham Township, aid up 1271%, taxes down $3,800.  In Wayne, aid up 1181%, taxes down over $2,100.  All over the state, we slay the dragon of property taxes by implementing the Fairness Formula.  For the first time in anyone’s memory, property taxes plummeting not rising.  And all through valuing each child and their hopes, dreams and potential the same.

It takes a special kind of chutzpah to underfund the state aid formula for your entire tenure as governor, to unleash chaos and mismanagement on the largest Abbott Districts that are under state control and whose problems are entire on your head, to thoroughly fail to deliver on property tax relief in the state as a whole, and then to turn around to your constituents burdened with high taxes and blame it on failures of schools in 31 communities, some of which are among the poorest and most distressed in the entire country.  Newark families whose schools have had dangerous lead levels in them since at least 2010?  We’re cutting your aid almost 70% so we can give it to families that earn 400% of your income and give them a property tax cut to boot!  Go find the money to make up for that in the couch cushions at city hall.

At least we now know that Governor Christie’s vacant stare behind Donald Trump in March wasn’t because he was being taken hostage – it was because he was trying to think of the most vile and damaging thing he could do to New Jersey’s most vulnerable children.

Let’s be clear:  The SFRA does not send vastly more aid to the Abbott Districts because it isn’t “valuing each child and their hopes, dreams and potential the same.”  That is absurd and offensive.  It does so because the intent is for the funding to be a remedy in recognition that it does not cost the same to educate each individual child and that certain districts with specific characteristics have expenses that other districts do not.  A school that needs additional security measures because children have to travel through high crime areas on their way to school has higher per pupil costs than one that does not. A school that has a high percentage of English Language Learners who need specialized instruction has higher per pupil costs than one that does not.  A school that has a high percentage of students with high need Individualized Education Plans has higher per pupil costs than one that does not.  A school that has special instructional programs for students whose families lack material and supplemental resources such as books and private tutoring has higher per pupil costs than one that does not.  A school that provides wrap around services such as social workers and health services has higher per pupil costs than one that does.  This is because, despite the governor’s willful misrepresentation of the issue, the SFRA is designed to account for equity so that students who begin their education with vastly less than wealthier peers have a fair shot.

Can everyone enjoy this?

The Difference Between Equality and Equity

Governor Christie further tried to obfuscate the issue by claiming that the Abbott District schools could do far better with much less state aid because the only schools that he ever speaks highly of, urban, no excuses, charter schools have higher graduation rates and test scores with fewer per pupil expenditures.  This is misleading on several front.  First, some charter school costs are actually paid for by their host districts, so the charter schools cannot properly claim they get less money when the host district carries what would normally be part of their per pupil costs.  Look at the third question on this page: New Jersey requires host districts to pay for the transportation of charter school students.  Second, we know full well that the high flying, test score achieving, charter schools beloved by Governor Christie simply do not have the same students as their district hosts, enrolling fewer students who are poor and fewer students with high need disabilities.  Further, their attrition rates are so high (as high as 60% for African American boys attending North Star Academy) that they entirely depend upon district schools to take back the students they refuse to accommodate.  Those Abbott District public schools that Governor Christie wants to function on less than half of their current state aid?  Their EXISTENCE enables his favorite charter schools to suspend the dickens out of their students until the ones they don’t want leave.

Finally, while these charter schools might spend less per pupil than some of their host districts, how they spend less is instructive. For example, in Newark, the public school district as a whole spends $3,963 per pupil more on “student services” than the charter sector in Newark. Such services include social work, attendance support, health, guidance, special education services, etc. and since NPS enrolls far more special education students – and vastly more high cost special education students – than Newark charters, this is entirely predictable and proper.  Meanwhile, although Newark’s charters spend significantly less on student services, they do manage to spend far more than NPS on administrative costs, especially administrative salaries – $2,460 per pupil compared to NPS’ $1,362 per pupil.

So what lessons can New Jersey most impoverished school communities learn from Governor Christie’s favorite schools in the state about “doing more with less”?  Drive away half of your students via massive suspension, don’t spend money on things like services that your most needy students require, and double your spending on administrative salaries?  Of course, if every school followed that model, we’d have no place for all of the kids that we refuse to educate.  Maybe Delaware will take them.

Governor Christie plans to spend the remainder of his term – at least when he isn’t playing chief errand boy for “Cheeto Jesus” – pursuing this agenda with the apparent hopes that he can entice New Jersey’s wealthy suburbanites to literally throw the state’s poorest children under the school bus.   He’s even given it hashtags: #FairnessFormula and #EquityforNJFamilies (which is deranged since this is the OPPOSITE of equity).  The good news is that New Jersey is not Kansas, and Democratic lawmakers do not sound willing to accommodate the Governor’s last ditch efforts to utterly destroy urban schools for the sake of finally keeping his broken promises on property taxes.

But just let this be known as exactly what Governor Chris Christie stands for.

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Filed under charter schools, Chris Christie, Corruption, Cory Booker, Funding, Newark, One Newark, PARCC, politics, schools, Social Justice

How to Appreciate Teachers

It is the national PTA Teacher Appreciation Week 2016, and there are a number of ideas hosted on the PTA’s website for how you can #thankateacher.  If you are a teacher, you can start a GoFundMe campaign for classroom supplies or, if you are a parent, to personally thank your children’s teachers. The PTA offers a toolkit so you can plan events to honor teachers in your schools as part of a celebration that has taken place in the first week of May since 1984.

(The National Alliance for “Public” Charter Schools also decided to schedule their “National Charter Schools Week” for the same week this year in what I am sure was not a deliberate effort to steal some free publicity at all.)

Teacher Appreciation Week is, of course, a lovely idea, and when it was launched in 1984, I doubt any of its founders could envision the issues facing teachers and teaching today.  Teachers across the country are getting cards, flowers, baked good, and some very well deserved nachesHistorically, teachers always have been highly motivated by the affective rewards of teaching – seeing children learn, gaining affirmation from their successes, building relationships with children and colleagues – but who can say no a nicely concentrated dose of positivity?

Gift baskets and flowers, however, don’t address the other 175 days of the school year, and those remain, as they have for some time now, unnecessarily stressful and subject to policies and incentives that diminish teachers’ autonomy and satisfaction in their work.  Teachers remain with policies that reduce their ability to plan their own classrooms, subjected to evaluations based upon invalid statistical methods using standardized test scores, and blamed for everything from being lazy to putting the future of the nation in jeopardy.  No wonder that enrollments in teacher preparation programs have fallen steeply from a high of over 700,000 in 2009 to barely above 450,000 in 2014 – high school students have ears and eyes, after all.  If we keep appreciating teachers like this, we may not have very many of them left to appreciate.

How should we really appreciate our teachers all year long?  A few suggestions:

Actually Treat Teachers as Professionals.  Education reform has an unfortunate tendency to treat teachers as if they are hopelessly outdated, the equivalent of a quill pen and parchment in the digital age.  In that view, teachers need a constant stream of prescriptive measures to make certain that they don’t bungle the job: new standards, scripted curricula, computer delivered instruction, constant outside assessment.  I know very few teachers who do not welcome the opportunity to try and use new tools that could improve their teaching, but tools are no substitute for actual professionals who use them skillfully – or who evaluate them and decide to seek better ones.  In many respects, that’s an operable definition of professional: someone who knows her or his job, what is necessary to accomplish it skillfully, and is trusted to construct practice effectively out of a variety of available resources in order to meet local needs.

For more and more teachers that sense of agency and professional practice is fading in a mass of expectations and initiatives that have given them little participation and voice.  In the workplace survey conducted by the the Badass Teachers Association with the AFT, 40% of respondents said that lack of say in decision making was a source of stress, and a whopping 71% of respondents cited new initiatives without proper training and development as sources of stress. 35% were stressed by a mandated curriculum, 32% by standardized testing, and 27% by data gathering expectations. A staggering 73% of respondents said they were often stressed on the job, and those teachers were less likely to have actual decision making capacity or trust their administrators to support them.  79% of teachers do not believe that elected officials treat them with respect, and 77% do not believe that the media treats them with respect.

The opposite of this is not showing up with flowers once a year and crowd sourcing classroom supplies. What teachers need is a near 180 degree turn in the way policy and policymakers treat them. If teachers are professionals, then they need to be welcomed into policy discussions and their recommendations, and reservations, taken seriously.  Further, teachers need to be allowed sufficient autonomy to both construct curricula that match their specific students and circumstances and to make necessary adjustments based upon what happens during the school year.  Such professional decision making is nearly impossible in an environment that insists upon scripted lessons and that places enormous power in the hands of one time snap shot assessments that become ends unto themselves. Professional evaluation of teachers can incorporate a wide range of materials that actually reflect the meaningful work teachers do with students embedded within a system predicated on growth and support rather than upon measurement and punishment.  Imagine schools where teachers work collaboratively on how to best approach the needs of students and where administrators and policy makers endeavor to get them the tools and resources they need to implement those plans.  We can get there, but only with a  genuine sea change in our priorities and how we view teachers.

Give Teachers the Time and Resources to Do Their Jobs: Attitude and involvement are steps in the right direction, but without the time and resources needed to do their jobs well and to continuously grow within their teaching, it will have little meaning.  Grappling with new ideas and different ways of understanding subjects and pedagogy takes significant time within a community of other professionals who are given meaningful chances to grow.  It would be unthinkable in other professions for outsiders with no specific expertise in the field to sweep in and tell practitioners to change and change quickly, yet nearly every major initiative in school reform since No Child Left Behind has done exactly that, and we have almost nothing positive to show for it.  It is time to spend less time measuring teaching and more time enabling it. How might we do this?

  • Reducing class sizes: Research is pretty clear on this — smaller class sizes improve academic outcomes for students and increase student engagement overall, and they improve long term outcomes for students and retention of teachers.
  • Time for teacher collaboration: We’ve known this for ages. Teachers and students benefit when teachers are able to effectively collaborate with each other, and in order to do that, they need space and time.  While teachers are often willing to give some of their existing time for this, it is also a systemic responsibility that has to be enabled by policy and administration.
  • Fully fund mandates: Lawmakers love giving teachers responsibilities.  They usually fail to love funding those responsibilities.  Consider the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  When it was signed into law by President Ford, Congress promised to fund 40% of the costs.  Congress has never done better than 20% in 41 years.
  • Embed needed social services for our most needy children: Children who come from highly stressed communities need far greater resources than their peers in more affluent communities, and one of the best ways to address this is to embed high quality services within their schools. Early access to nutrition, health providers, social workers, and after school support programs all have positive short and long term benefits for high needs children, and they help teachers focus on a fuller education for their students.  Certainly these services are a far better investment of resources than continuing to fund the school to prison pipeline through increasingly criminalizing school discipline.
  • Repair our schools: The federal government estimates that nearly half of our nation’s schools need repairs and modernization to  the amount of $197 billion.  This number does not capture the truly decrepit situation in some of our nation’s schools, however. Public schools in Detroit, for example, have numerous cases of buildings falling apart with mold, water damage, and even mushrooms growing from the walls. It is appalling that we can expect anyone to teach or to learn in such conditions.

The teachers that I know want to do their jobs, and they want to do their jobs well.  If we truly appreciated them we would enable that work with the time and resources necessary for them to truly do it.

Fund all of this: That might sound obvious, but it is something that has apparently escaped the federal government and our nation’s governors.  Despite the economic recovery, governors across the country from both parties still have not restored education spending to pre-2008 levels and some are still cutting.  New York remains billions of dollars annually below agreed upon funding levels from nearly a decade ago (although it did spend almost 2 million dollars arguing in court that it shouldn’t have to), and Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly insisted that the money doesn’t matter.

Bollocks.  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers explains:

We are being led down a destructive road to stupid – by arrogant , intellectually bankrupt, philosophically inconsistent, empirically invalid and often downright dumb ideas being swallowed whole and parroted by an increasingly inept media – all, in the end creating a massive ed reform haboob distracting us from the relatively straightforward needs of our public schools.

Many of the issues plaguing our current public education system require mundane, logical solutions – or at least first steps.

Money matters. Having more helps and yes, having less hurts, especially when those who need the most get the least.

Equitable and adequate funding are prerequisite conditions either for an improved status-quo public education system OR for a structurally reformed one.

It’s just that simple.

Everything we need to see costs more money – sometimes a lot more money – and it is well past time that we stop simply saying that teachers are “heroes” and step up as a society to fund what is necessary for them to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Stop attacking teachers’ professionalism and professional unions: Another front in today’s education reform is to speak with one mouth about how important teachers are and how it is vital to make certain that every child has a “highly effective” teacher, and then to speak with another mouth attacking the very notion of teachers as lifelong professionals. Education reform seems far more interested in promoting “market disruption” in teacher preparation rather than strengthening actual professional education and providing career long, meaningful, professional development.

Across the country, there is a genuine war being waged with dark money against teachers’ workplace rights.  Hoping to build off of the initial – and now thankfully reversed – success of the Vergara lawsuit in California, former news anchor Campbell Brown has taken a pile of undisclosed money to fund similar efforts across the country for the purpose of turning all teachers into at will employees.  The fact that most of her arguments do not stand up to any kind of scrutiny does not appear to matter to her backers who continue to funnel money into her efforts. Worse, those same backers appear entirely disinterested in how incredibly complicated teachers’ workplaces are and how many competing interests intersect in their work – which Peter Greene very cogently explained is one of the most important reasons for the due process protections of tenure:

A private employee serves one master — the company.

A public school teacher serves many “bosses”. And on any given day, many of those bosses will fight for ascendency. A teacher cannot serve all of those interests — and yet that is the teacher’s mandate. Tenure is meant to shield the teacher from the political fallout of these battles:  to give the teacher the freedom to balance all these interests as she sees best.

I would add to this that a truly professional teacher must often be a thorn in the side of administration — advocating for the children in her classroom even if it means telling an administrator that he is wrong. But the attack on teachers personally and professionally really has very little to do with any realistic understanding of what it means to teach and to be a teacher.  It looks very much more like a concerted effort to turn teaching into a job that an idealistic person may do for a few years in her 20s before being replaced with a fresh, newly idealistic, candidate who will teach for a few years using a scripted curriculum and then move on as well. If we truly appreciate teachers, we need to embrace making their professional education improve through thoughtful and substantive preparation for a lifelong career, and we need to defend the hard won protections in the workplace that make truly professional teaching possible.  Rejecting efforts to turn them into lightly trained and easily replaced cogs is absolutely essential.

So it is Teacher Appreciation Week.  The teachers in your community surely thank you for the ways you made them smile the past five school days.  They will also truly thank you for appreciating them the rest of the school year if you truly recognize their work and  genuinely support what makes that work possible.

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Filed under classrooms, Common Core, Data, ESSA, Funding, Media, NCLB, politics, schools, Social Justice, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

Can Teachers Talk About Opt Out?

New York City teachers Jia Lee, Lauren Cohen, and Kristin Taylor risked disciplinary action recently to speak with NBC news about their opposition to the state testing system and their support of the Opt Out movement.

bats

This was no small act on their part because the NYC DOE has sent multiple signals that it does not tolerate classroom teachers speaking against the tests which have been occupying schools’ time and attention this month.  District 15 Superintendent Anita Skop stated her belief that any teacher encouraging opt outs was engaging in political speech and that such acts were not permissible for teachers speaking as teachers. A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said that teachers are free to speak as private citizens but not to speak as “representatives of the department,” and New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina said “I don’t think that the teachers’ putting themselves in the middle of it is a good idea.”  None of these figures have specified what possible consequences could befall teachers for speaking in favor of opt out and against the state standardized tests – but the ambiguous statements alone are sufficient to deter many city teachers from speaking their mind.  Add in the history of “gag orders” that prevent teachers from discussing the contents of the examinations – even as professionals seeking to improve tests after they have been used – and speaking to the media as these teachers did is an act of exceptional bravery.

Walking the line between teacher and “private citizen” is exceptionally ambiguous.  Ms. Lee, Ms. Cohen, and Ms. Taylor were all identified as New York City teachers by the reporter in the story, but does that automatically make them not private citizens?  Most members of our society are not required to hide their professions when speaking on political matters within the public sphere, and in many communities, teachers’ identities are well known to parents, making the distinction between their professional and private selves far less distinct.  Furthermore, as professionals in a school system governed by different political systems, teachers have legitimate observations and, yes, criticism to make about policies that impact their work and, therefore, their students.  Simply saying teachers cannot be “political” as teachers is plainly too simplistic.

However, this cannot be only a matter of saying teachers have free speech rights in their role as teachers.  There are legal and legitimate limitations on what teachers can say. For example, federal law protects the privacy of students’ academic records and while a teacher can discuss a child’s performance with both parents and involved professionals in pursuit of helping that child, the law prevents that same teacher from discussing the child’s academic record outside of that context.  Teachers also possess academic freedom within the classroom, but that is not well defined, subject to significant limitations and considerations of the interests of school boards, communities, parents, and children.  Generally, teachers have to balance their rights with their significant responsibilities within the classroom, including their responsibility to the adopted curriculum in a district.

Outside of the classroom, teachers also have limits on what they can say and for good reasons.  The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against a teacher who claimed her free speech rights were violated when she was fired for keeping a public blog full of insults about students and parents in her school.  This is fundamentally different than writing about politics or using a public forum like letters to the editor to speak about “matters of public concern” as a citizen — her speech gave parents legitimate reasons to demand that she not teach their children.  The Washington branch of the ACLU maintains a page with various examples of speech scenarios in which a teacher may or may not be protected from job consequences, and the examples demonstrate that teachers often have additional constraints on their speech related to their ability to perform their responsibilities.  On the other hand, purely political speech, even related to education issues, can be strongly protected outside of the classroom.

Consider the case of Boston long term substitute teacher Jeffrey Herman who testified at a Boston City Council meeting against the expense of maintaining a Junior ROTC program in the city and advocating what he believed was a better use of those funds – and who was screamed at by the head of Boston English High School and essentially blacklisted from working there.  While that case was settled with no admission of wrongdoing by the city, the implication is clear enough:  Mr. Herman was entirely within his rights to speak in the public sphere on a matter of public concern.  A staff attorney for the ACLU made this obvious:  “Teachers are entitled to political opinions just like everyone else…We need them to feel free to share those opinions with public and elected officials, outside the school, without fear of losing their jobs for doing so. Jeff Herman had a right to speak out at City Hall about Boston spending over a million dollars on JROTC…”

This would seem to neatly point towards a general right for teachers to speak critically of standardized testing and in favor of opt out as long as they do not suggest that they are speaking for district and school administrations in the process.  While teachers are obligated to teach the adopted curriculum of the school and to participate in duties such as test administration, critiques of both the curriculum and testing are matters of public concern.  Administrators can probably restrict teachers from proactively soliciting opt outs on the school grounds, but they would be beyond bounds to restrict teachers from speaking elsewhere – even if their audience knows that they are teachers. Further, if asked by parents about the tests, it is very plausible that teachers have the right to offer an informed and critical perspective. Grumbling from Tweed Courthouse notwithstanding, Ms. Lee, Ms. Cohen, and Ms Taylor should be secure in their advocacy and their speaking with reporters.

But perhaps this should not merely be a matter of whether or not teachers disciplined for speaking against testing could win a civil rights suit.  Perhaps this needs to be framed as a matter of professionalism and professional judgement because while teachers have responsibilities and rights in the performance of their work, they also have professional obligations and norms that define what it means to be a teacher.  Among those is the need to speak up when children are being ill served or harmed by what is going on within school.  John Goodlad referred to practicing “good moral stewardship of schools” and this principle is as important to teaching as “do no harm” is for medicine or being a zealous advocate is for law.  Teachers are given an awesome and sacred trust – the intellectual, social, and emotional well being and growth of other people’s children.  Speaking out when that trust is in jeopardy is not simply a question of Constitutional rights.  It is a moral obligation.

Do teachers have good reason for concern about how these tests impact their stewardship?   New York City teacher Katie Lapham certainly makes a compelling case:

The reading passages were excerpts and articles from authentic texts (magazines and books).  Pearson, the NYSED or Questar did a poor job of selecting and contextualizing the excerpts in the student test booklets.  How many students actually read the one-to-two sentence summaries that appeared at the beginning of the stories? One excerpt in particular contained numerous characters and settings and no clear story focus.  The vocabulary in the non-fiction passages was very technical and specific to topics largely unfamiliar to the average third grader.  In other words, the passages were not meaningful. Many students could not connect the text-to-self nor could they tap into prior knowledge to facilitate comprehension.

The questions were confusing.  They were so sophisticated that it appeared incongruous to me to watch a third grader wiggle her tooth while simultaneously struggle to answer high school-level questions. How does one paragraph relate to another?, for example. Unfortunately, I can’t disclose more.  The multiple-choice answer choices were tricky, too. Students had to figure out the best answer among four answer choices, one of which was perfectly reasonable but not the best answer.

NYSED claims they removed time limits from the test in order to remove performance pressure from very young children, but there are documented cases of this actually matter the exams worse for students.  A Brooklyn teacher blogging anonymously notes:

This afternoon I saw one of my former students still working on her ELA test at 2:45 pm. Her face was pained and she looked exhausted. She had worked on her test until dismissal for the first two days of testing as well. 18 hours. She’s 9.

This is a student who is far above grade level in reading, writing and every measurable area imaginable. She definitely got a 3 or 4 on this test. She is a hard worker and powers through challenges with quiet strength and determination. She is not “coddled.” She is sweet, brilliant and creative and as far as I know she has always loved school. She is also shy and a perfectionist.

After 18 hours of testing over 3 days, she emerged from the classroom in a daze. I asked her if she was ok, and offered her a hug. She actually fell into my arms and burst into tears. I tried to cheer her up but my heart was breaking. She asked if she could draw for a while in my room to calm down and then cried over her drawing for the next 20 minutes.

New York City education advocate Leonie Haimson reported on numerous items of test content that she was able to glean from various sources.  They included a sixth grade test including a 17th century poem often studied in college, obscure vocabulary in the 8th grade exam, disturbing product placements within reading passages, and missing prep pages without adequate instructions on how to assist students.

Beyond these specific examples, teachers can be rightly concerned about the entire environment within which these exams take place.  Since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001, testing and test preparation have become more and more ends unto themselves instead of quiet background monitoring of the school system.  We have spent more than a decade now in a policy cycle based upon “test-label-punish” without considering how to give schools teaching our most vulnerable students the resources and supports needed to do right by those children, their families, and communities.  And we have very, very little to show for it except a narrowing curriculum in communities across the country and a crushing increase of academic work at younger and younger ages despite the abject harm it inflicts upon children who need play to learn and to be healthy.  Practicing “good stewardship” as a professional teacher clearly embraces openly objecting to these harmful practices.

Ms. Lee told NBC, ““Parents should definitely opt out. Refuse. Boycott these tests because change will not happen with compliance.”  She went on to call herself a “conscientious objector.”

She is also a true professional, guarding the well being of the children entrusted to her.

 

 

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Filed under classrooms, NCLB, Opt Out, politics, schools, Social Justice, standards, teacher professsionalism, Testing

No, You Cannot Test My Child

Dear Local Education Authority (LEA), State Education Authority (SEA), and Federal Education Bureaucrat (FEB?),

We are rapidly approaching the annual state mandated testing ritual in public school, and it has become evident that all of you are a little nervous about that.  I know this because you keep sending letters to each other about how important it is that every LEA test 95% of all children in every school and that every SEA make certain that LEAs know just how important this is.  Last Fall, FEB Ann Whalen sent a dozen SEAs letters explaining to them just how important it is that they meet their testing requirements and suggesting a range of measures, both persuasive and punitive, if LEAs did not make their testing goals.  This was followed by another letter to all states essentially reiterating the point. SEAs have been busy trying to impress upon their LEAs how seriously they take the federal requirement to test 95% of all students in all schools although with different approaches.  In Connecticut, state officials have more or less threatened LEAs, while New York, home of the largest test refusal movement in the country, has tried to woo back refusing parents to the wonderful world of testing with a series of concessions on the use of tests for teacher assessment and the timed nature of the tests and a nifty “tool kit” to explain how awesome testing can be.

So, okay, I get it: A lot of you SEAs have been nervous about what the FEBs are saying, and you are pressuring your LEAs to use both honey and vinegar to convince parents to just up and let their kids be tested already.

cat on leash

You still can’t test my kid.

I know that you are supposed to try to convince me, otherwise, and it is probably too much to ask you to save yourself the time.  However, if you do feel the need to persuade me that the testing ritual is excellent and worthwhile, you should know that I have heard most of your arguments, and, frankly, you need new ones.

To begin with, I am actually aware that my children will take tests during their lives, and it is not my intention to keep them from ever experiencing a standardized test.  The thing is that most of those tests will actually serve some purpose for their lives if and when they take them.  While standardized test measures are of questionable quality for college, graduate school, or professional school admission, where they are required to pursue those goals, my children will take them at the appropriate time.  You should also know that I expect my children to take teacher made tests throughout their education.  Tests and other assessments are part of an education, and professional teachers know how to use all kinds of tools to see how well their students are learning.

But when tests used for a state accountability system take nine hours – 6 hours LONGER than the LSAT and and an hour and half longer than the MCAT – and when the tests have to be taken every.single.year – something is seriously out of whack.  Of course, the tests themselves are not the only issue.  Because of the incentives attached to these tests, districts and schools across the country spend far more time preparing for and practicing test taking that any scheme for school accountability can justify.  Robert Pondiscio, Vice President of External Affairs for the pro-education reform Thomas B. Fordham Institute, gets this and has urged federal officials to back off the warped incentive systems that make standardized tests end unto themselves.  He’s argued that as long as punishing consequences for schools and teachers are attached to testing, we will have this problem.  So far, he hasn’t been listened to much.

So I expect that my children will taken standardized tests – possibly many over the course of their lives.  But when a state accountability test consumes so much time and is attached to stakes that warp my children’s education, well, the cart is definitely in front of the horse.

cart_before_horse

Further, I already know that it is a matter of faith at the Federal DOE that without testing we can never look a second grader in the eye and tell her ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not.’ Frankly, if that is your goal for a conversation with a 7 year old child, then I’d kindly ask you to never visit a school, thanks, but beyond that, it remains a horrible failure of imagination to think that a state accountability test is our best and essential way to check whether or not an individual child is learning.  If you really want to increase the ability of parents to understand how well their children are doing, there are tools with far greater sophistication that teachers could actually use in their classrooms than an accountability test given in April whose results don’t come back until the next school year is well underway.  In fact, considering the amount of time in the school year spent scrambling to prepare for and to administer state tests, it is entirely counter-intuitive to think these tests are really good for telling me how my children are doing.  And if we need to increase parental engagement with their children’s education in all of our communities, what makes more sense?  Investing in strategies and programs that are proven to help parents and guardians connect with school? Or a two page score report that doesn’t include the slightest hint of what kind of test questions the test taker got wrong or how to learn from them?

The question was rhetorical, by the way.

tests-human-resources-cartoon-400px

I also understand that you want me to know that without a system of annual standardized testing with full participation then there will be no accountability for my local schools and they will be free to ignore the needs of minority children at will.  This is certainly an argument that has been made with vigor, and it is one our friends the FEBs have insisted is the primary reason for testing every child in every year.  I will admit there is something to this argument – not because annual testing has been a great force for making education for all students equitable.  Fifteen years in and test-based accountability has been pretty wretched at that goal.  It is, however, true that our school system has nowhere near the distribution of opportunity that would make the promise of a democratic school system a reality.

But test-based accountability has the whole thing reversed.  We have a test-based “achievement gap” which reflects the opportunity gap that exists across communities all over the country.  To suggest that the test measured gaps result in the economic gaps ignores every bit of nuance and complexity that we know about both poverty’s impacts and how segregation by income concentrates large percentages of children from poor households into specific neighborhoods.  The connection between poverty and tested results is so tight that Dr. Christopher Tienken and colleagues of Seton Hall University were able to use census data to accurately predict student proficiency scores on state tests in different communities.  State accountability testing is telling us very little that we do not already know.

On the other hand, those same tests have been giving ammunition to policies that insist upon educational “improvement” without focusing upon the resources necessary to work successfully with high need students: smaller class sizes, wrap around services, teacher retention policies, facility improvements, extended programs and after school supervision – none of it is free and very little of it has been offered to schools and districts under threat because of lagging test scores.  Instead of genuine investment in their schools and communities, these neighborhoods are offered the “creative disruption” of school privatization that saps resources from fully public schools without accountability – all justified by test scores.  No wonder then that there is a small but significant and growing conversation among civil rights activists about whether or not annual testing is the tool it was presented to be in NCLB.

charter

My family does understand the pressure you are under, LEA.  The SEA, under a lot of heat from the FEBs, has been issuing dire warnings if 95% of all students are not tested.  Most of that is just hot air, however, and as long as you do actually test the children whose families do not opt out, you have done what you can reasonably be expected to do.  We’ve spoken as a family all together, adults and children, and we simply do not think that any of the arguments you have made or are likely to make in favor of annual testing are going to sway us.  When there is a state accountability system that is rational and used as the basis for helping schools, teachers, and students, when we accept that community and school improvement have to happen together, and when we recognize that we cannot improve schools without committing the necessary resources, then we’ll reconsider our decision.

Until then, no, you cannot test my child.

 

 

 

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Filed under Data, ESSA, Funding, NCLB, Opt Out, schools, Testing

“Successification”

Another month, another Success Academy scandal.

This time it involves an undercover video of a first grade teacher in Success Academy Cobble Hill in Brooklyn that was shot by an assistant teacher who was unnerved by the ongoing abusive behavior of the lead teacher, one of the networks “exemplar teachers” who is considered so effective she trains her colleagues.  The video, submitted to the New York Times, was shot in 2014 and was given to reporters when the assistant teacher left the Success Academy network last year.  The video is hard to watch by anyone with a hint of empathy for very young children struggling with instructions and a challenging concept.  It begins with a room of Success Academy students sitting cross-legged around the classroom rug, hands folded, backs in fully upright posture.  The teacher instructs a little girl to “count it again, making sure you are counting correctly.”  The girl pauses, apparently confused, and the teacher commands her to “count” in a quiet but stern voice.  The girl begins to count and then looks at the teacher who immediately rips her paper in half, throws it at the child, and points sharply to a corner of the room:

Go to the calm down chair and sit.  There is nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper. Somebody come up and show me how she should have counted to get her answer done with one and a split. Show my friends and teach them. (a child does as she says)  Thank you. Do NOT go back to your seat and show me one thing and then don’t do it here.  You’re confusing everybody. Very upset and very disappointed.

Every bit of that was delivered in a loud and angry tone of voice.

Kate Taylor, who wrote the story for the Times, reported that a Success Academy spokesperson said the teacher’s behavior was “shocking” and had been suspended from teaching, but was then back only a week and half later and still in the role of “exemplar” teacher.  Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz cited network manuals that say teachers should never use sarcastic tones or humiliate students, and, as is typical, dismissed the video as an “anomaly,” telling Ms. Taylor that the teacher reacted emotionally because she “so desperately wants her kids to succeed and to fulfill their potential.”  Ms. Moskowitz went on to insist that the video meant nothing and questioned the motives of the former assistant teacher who took it.

This video is not an accident.  It was taken because the assistant teacher had become concerned about daily occurrences of abusive behavior and did not merely get lucky to begin filming the lead teacher at the precise moment when she anomalously lit into a very young child for a simple mistake.  While the network defended itself, Ms. Taylor interviewed 20 current and former teachers whose statements indicate the behavior caught on the video is far more widespread in Success Academy than Ms. Moskowitz and her defenders admit.  One teacher, Jessica Reid Sliwerski, who worked for three years as both a teacher and as an assistant principal said that embarrassing children for “slipshod” work is both common and often encouraged: “It’s this culture of, ‘If you’ve made them cry, you’ve succeeded in getting your point across.”   New York University education professor Joseph P. McDonald said he would hardly be surprised if the classroom was one where children were often afraid. “The fear is likely not only about whether my teacher may at any time erupt with anger and punish me dramatically, but also whether I can ever be safe making mistakes.”  This was confirmed by another former Success Academy teacher, Carly Ginsberg, who said she witnessed papers torn up in front of children as young as kindergarten, an assistant principal openly mocking a low test score in front of the child, and a lead kindergarten teacher who made a little girl cry so hard that she vomited.

None of this is surprising to observers who have long known how Success Academy uses staggering pressure and laser-like focus on standardized test scores to get their results and to drive away children who cannot quickly and totally conform.  Kate Taylor’s lengthy examination of the culture of the school last summer documents it,  John Merrow’s story on Success Academy’s hefty use of out of school suspensions confirms it, and the network’s scramble to explain away a principal who compiled a “got to go” list of children to drive out of the school pretty much sealed it.  Success Academy does not merely have high expectations and sets lofty goals; it single-mindedly pursues them with a near zero tolerance for mistakes and for any behavior outside its rigidly defined norms.  Children, and teachers for that matter, who cannot swiftly comply are subjected to mounting pressure until they either break or go away.

I’ve written previously that Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy are likely to continue to have bad press for the simple reason that there are too many former Success Academy families and teachers to keep the kind of message discipline and information control that the network has employed until recently.  If Success Academy were merely an extreme anomaly in our education system, it would be possible to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude over Ms. Moskowitz’s obvious discomfort and inability to keep up the convincing arrogance that has typified her tenure as an education leader.  The trouble is that while Success Academy may be an extreme instantiation of disturbing and unethical priorities in our education system, it is by no means alone.  To varying degrees (and predating the founding of Ms. Moskowtiz’s network), huge swaths of American education have fallen victim to Successification: creeping emphasis on the shallowest of measures as ends unto themselves, the steady assault on childhood as a time of play and exploration, growing intolerance for error in both answers and behavior.  We are doing this to ourselves and to our children.

Children of color have long known that schools in many cities show almost fanatical intolerance for misbehavior.  The proliferation of “zero-tolerance” policies has lead to a “school to prison pipeline” where minor infractions of rules are criminalized and school discipline is routinely farmed out to police enforcement.  In this video by the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Project Liberty, New York City students describe their experiences with these policies and the impact it has on their ability to even think about school success and their future:

Success Academy may be a pioneer in subjecting very young students to out of school suspensions and extreme levels of behavioral conformity, but schools throughout our vast education system subject students to direct contact with police and arrest for rules violations that should be treated vastly differently.  The cycle here is especially vicious as suspended students often have home environments that cannot provide structure and supervision while they are out of school, leading to far greater risk of dropping out and ending up within the criminal justice system.

Schools that serve students from economically and racially privileged backgrounds place their own forms of pressure on students.  Writing in The Atlantic magazine, Erika Chistakis explained how research is now showing that the increasing emphasis on academics at younger and younger ages, even to preschool children, is actually harmful:

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to—while at the same time obscuring—the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more.

Ms. Christakis also noted that many parents of preschool aged children approved of the new approaches because of palpable fear that their children would fall behind others and that an early stumble could have life altering consequences.  Peter Greene, a Pennsylvania teacher and blogger, notes a similar theme among his own students in this very important essay entitled “One Wrong Move.”   He describes a class of honors students in his small town school completely paralyzed by the fear of making errors that they could never do anything without complete assurance they would get it completely correct, all because of the outsized risks associated with ever being wrong.  It reminds me very much of my own college students who are bright, caring, eager, passionate – and who are geniuses at  completing four hours of homework assigned on a Monday and due on Tuesday, but who, by their own admission have very little experience with high risk work that requires them to embrace uncertainty and the possibility of instructive failure.

I was recently walking my own children to school in our New York City neighborhood when we were passed by a father and son walking together.  The child looked to be about in 4th or 5th grade and was saying to his father, “You know in my school a one or a two are really not looked at as something good.”  It took me a moment, and then I realized he was talking about the level indicators on the New York State assessment system that are baked into elementary school report cards as the numbers 1 through 4.  At what point does it become painfully absurd for an elementary school student to have internalized the language of academic standards performance levels, and at what point does it become unethical for him to know what is or is not approved of in his school?  But this is just another example for where we have come in our education system by making performance to cut levels on standardized exams more important than actual learning.  We have normalized this, and our children know it.

As is typical for Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy leader lashed out at The New York Times in an email circulated to all of her employees where she claimed the newspaper has a “vendetta” against her and called her critics “haters” who are trying to “bully” the network.  While it may be desirable, even necessary, to deflate the self aggrandizing mythology of Success Academy by documenting reality, it is also important to remember that the charter network is not actually the illness.  It is merely an extreme rash that has broken on the surface.  Looking deeper, it is evident that much of our schooling today suffers from “Successification”.  Whether it is black and brown children subjected to zero tolerance policies that send them on a collision course with the criminal justice system or it is students terrified of making errors because their education has no time for learning from mistakes and genuine discovery, we are slowly building a school system where the worst priorities are granted full control.

It is time for a good, long, hard look in the mirror to see if Eva Moskowitz is staring back at us.

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Filed under charter schools, child development, Media, racism, schools, Social Justice, teaching, Testing

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

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