Tag Archives: media

Cory Booker Whiffs It.

Let’s not mince words: Betsy DeVos, the designated nominee for Secretary of Education, is a potential wrecking ball aimed at public schools.  The Michigan billionaire brings literally no qualifications to the post except a decades long zeal for privatizing public schools and an alliance with Christian Dominionists who see public schools’ secular and pluralistic mission as a threat to their values.  Her advocacy in Michigan helped spawn one of the most shoddy and unaccountable charter school sectors in the nation with the city of Detroit especially suffering under a bizarre maze of over capacity and an environment that was dubbed “The Hunger Games” for public school.  Even the typical funders of school choice and charter school networks tend to steer clear of Detroit because they simply have no idea what they are getting themselves into.  None of this seems to matter to DeVos who gives the impression that simply removing regulation and getting public money out of fully public schools is the only real goal — advocacy groups funded by her even blocked an effort to prevent failing charter schools from expanding.

It is possible, of course, that the reality of governing and managing the federal education bureaucracy will stifle her.  After all, the work of being a Cabinet Secretary is vastly different than the work of privately bending politicians to her will via campaign donations.  Further, the federal government only provides a small portion of the nation’s annual P-12 school budget, putting an inherent limit on the reach of the Secretary of Education.  However, Republicans are already suggesting that some or most of Donald Trump’s promised $20 billion school choice fund could come from the $15 billion spent on Title 1 grants.  $15 billion is not a lot of money compared to the $600 billion spent on public elementary and secondary education, but it reaches over 56,000 schools serving tens of millions of students.  There’s a lot of potential for chaos during her proposed tenure in Washington.

The DeVos nomination must pose a bit of difficulty for current education reform advocates who have really come into their own under President Obama.  Those who claim to stand for standards and accountability and push the narrative of “high performing” charter schools will have a difficult time defending DeVos funded outcomes in Michigan.  Perhaps more difficult is the fact that today’s education reformers have labored constantly to portray their issues – accountability and testing, privatization, breaking teachers’ unions – as matters of civil rights.  Whether writing for Peter Cunningham’s Education Post, or providing content for Campbell Brown’s The74, or lobbying Democratic politicians to favor policies long championed by Republicans like Democrats for Education Reform, education reformers do two things consistently:  1) distract from the fact that they are largely funded by what education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch has long called the “Billionaire Boys Club” who have no special interest in civil rights and progressive politics and 2) insist that turning as many schools as possible into privately managed charter schools and weakening teachers’ union rights are THE civil rights struggle of our time.  DeVos’ service as Secretary of Education will provide cognitive dissonance for these advocates.  On the one hand, she will almost certainly be a bonanza for the charter school sector.  On the other hand, she will serve at the pleasure of a President whose rise to office has sent spasms of joy among literal Nazis. Further, the incoming administration’s promises of mass deportation and “law and order” policies are aimed directly at the urban minority communities education reformers claim to serve.

Small wonder, then, that when “Democrats” for Education Reform issued a statement about the election, Shavar Jeffries suggested that Democrats resist any temptation to serve in a Trump administration.  In it, he invoked progressive principles and tried to tie them to reform priorities, but he also gave a strong nod to the condition of children in general in our communities and the need for a government that cares about those issues:

The policies and rhetoric of President-elect Trump run contrary to the most fundamental values of what it means to be a progressive committed to educating our kids and strengthening our families and communities. He proposes to eliminate accountability standards, cut Title I funding, and to gut support for vital social services that maximize our students’ ability to reach their potential. And, most pernicious, Trump gives both tacit and express endorsement to a dangerous set of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender stereotypes that assault the basic dignity of our children, causing incalculable harm not only to their sense of self, but also to their sense of belonging as accepted members of school communities and neighborhoods.

Less than a week later, Mr. Jeffries issued another statement about the nomination of Betsy DeVos.  The statement, more measured than the previous one, congratulated her and “applauded” her commitment to “high quality” charter schools.  The statement then turned to concern about other policies that might come from the new administration, called upon Ms. DeVos to be a “voice” against those policies, and once again blasted Donald Trump for his rhetoric.  To say that Ms. DeVos is an advocate for quality of any kind is belied by what she leaves in her wake in Michigan, but, as Mercedes Schneider points out, DFER’s lobbying arm, Education Reform Now, is a beneficiary of DeVos money.  It is hard to give full throated criticism to someone who can cut off your spigot.  This is the bind that education reformers find themselves in – unable to shout “huzzah” that one of their top allies is in the Trump administration lest they betray ideological dissonance….and unable to shout “boo” lest they bite the hand that feeds them.  America is the only advanced nation where education “reform” is made up of billionaires paying millionaires to wreck middle class unions teaching working class children.

And then there is New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.

Senator Booker is a bit of a phenomenon in the Democratic Party.  Having risen from city council in Newark to the mayor’s office then to the United States Senate in a little more than a decade, the Senator is well educated, charismatic, and he literally saved a neighbor from a burning building.  Actually, he also saved a freezing dog, fixed a broken traffic light, and personally shoveled out snowed in residents after a blizzard.  Give the man an armored body suit and a utility belt, and he could be Batman.  Political pundits already suggest him as a Democrat to watch out for in 2020.

What he isn’t, however, is a particular friend to public education.

While mayor of Newark, Mr. Booker famously partnered with Republican Governor Chris Christie to use a $100 million donation from Facebook CEO to reform the Brick City school system.  The resulting program, called “One Newark,” threw open the entire school system to choice and increased charter school options.  The implementation was flatly wretched, slating schools for closure even when they met their improvement targets, confusing parents and guardians in a poor managed enrollment process, sending children from the same family to schools in different wards, and leading to massive student protests and the eventual ouster of state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.  Mayor Booker was already in the United States Senate by the time Anderson was yanked from the project, but his finger prints were all over it, including $21 million spent on consultants who concocted the whole mess. This was no anomaly for Booker – his record is firmly in the education reform camp, including close ties to DFER and he has enjoyed campaign support from Andrew Tisch who was on the board of virtual charter school operator K12, Inc – which just happened to open 3 schools in Newark using their systems while Booker was mayor.

So what, exactly, does Senator Booker have to say about Betsy DeVos, a nominee who even his allies at DFER are being cautious about in tempering their enthusiasm?  A potential Secretary of Education who has never attended a public school, never taught at a public school, never sent her own children to a public school, has never studied education practice and policy at any level, and who has spent decades trying to funnel public education money into private hands?

I’m not saying anything.”

At an event where the Senator had no trouble voicing his, reasonable, concerns about Senator Jeff Sessions becoming Attorney General, he evaded entirely the chance to speak about Betsy DeVos, even though, as RollCall noted, he has served on the board of the Alliance for School Choice while she was chairwoman and spoke in 2012 to the American Federation of Children when she was chair of that organization – whose amiable title is largely cover for its support of vouchers and privatization.

I suppose the question was uncomfortable for Senator Booker.  Ms. DeVos is an ally, and she is certainly influential among some of the Senator’s donors.  She also promises to be a zealous advocate for expanding Mr. Booker’s favored school sector, charters, but she is likely to do so by gutting Title I funds to our nation’s most vulnerable communities, something not exactly on Mr. Booker’s agenda.

Still – “I’m not saying anything?”  With more than a week to contemplate the nomination, he cannot come up with anything more thought out than that?  He could have said, “I know and have enjoyed working with Betsy on issues of common interest, but the record of reform in Michigan is decidedly mixed.  My support depends upon her standing only for quality schools for urban children.”  Or he could have said, “Although I have found some common ground with Betsy before, I am very concerned that the new administration is eyeing money that 21 million children depend on.  If she supports projects that harm them I will certainly oppose her nomination.”  Or he could have said, “Betsy has advocated for ideas I can appreciate, but she should use her new position to strongly advocate for the dignity and safety of all of our children who have reason to fear the new administration. If she does not, I will oppose her nomination.”

But, no – “I’m not saying anything.”

Senator Booker had a chance to show that his education reform credentials are really wrapped tightly in at least SOME progressive principles.  He whiffed it instead.


Filed under Betsy DeVos, Cami Anderson, charter schools, Corruption, Cory Booker, DFER, Newark, One Newark, politics, School Choice, Social Justice

Ahmed Mohamed’s Clock And Teachers Checking Themselves

Unless you were on an Internet and media blackout this week, you heard about Ahmed Mohamed, the 14 year old high school student in Irving, Texas whose homemade clock got him detained by police and suspended from school for making a “hoax bomb.”  Young Mr. Mohamed is an avid tinkerer and builder who is frequently photographed in a NASA t-shirt and whose fondest wish is apparently to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his clock was one of his many home projects which he wished to share with his engineering teacher. Unfortunately, another of Mr. Mohamed’s teachers was suspicious of the clock, failing to understand that wires, circuit boards, and LED displays do not explode, called in administrators who called in police, and the result was Mr. Mohamed finding himself detained in handcuffs and then suspended from school:

Unfortunately, Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne openly defended both the school and the police, and actually voiced  concern that the incident could deter police from investigating potential threats instead of showing the least concern that bright and inquisitive student inventors are already deterred from letting anyone know they love science and inventing.  Then again, Mayor Van Duyne is known for campaigning against imaginary threats of Sharia law, so we should not expect much.

The chief of police in Irving, Larry Boyd, also defended his officers, even while admitting that they determined quickly that the clock was not a bomb.  Given that information, Mr. Mohamed’s detention and suspension are even more outrageous, and the insistence of authorities that those actions were justified because they believed the clock was a “hoax bomb” looks like a pathetically thin cover for a series of prejudiced assumptions.  Mr. Mohamed never said that his clock was a bomb and demonstrated no interest in trying to trick people into thinking it was a bomb.  The school obviously concluded it was not a bomb very quickly since they took no actions to get students to safety.  To believe the “logic” of school officials and the Irving police, you have to believe that the word “hoax” requires only the ignorant assumptions of others rather than any intention to deceive on the part of the accused.

Mr. Mohamed's Next Invention?

Mr. Mohamed’s Next Invention?

From one perspective, Mr. Mohamed’s misfortune has yielded some positive results. As his story circulated, he gained positive feedback from national leaders and figures in technology and innovations.  President Obama’s twitter feed issued an invitation to take the clock to the White House:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave Mr. Mohamed a standing offer to visit the company headquarters and meet him:

As did Google:

He got a shout out from NASA:

And, perhaps the icing on the cake, an astrophysics professor from MIT invited the young inventor to visit the campus, and said he was the kind of student the institution likes.

So – there’s a bit of lemonade from this.

Which is good because it is disgraceful that it came to a point where any of us have heard of Ahmed Mohamed.  Instead of being given the kudos and encouragement he deserved from those who knew him and were entrusted with his well being, he was humiliated and punished for nothing more than being a curious and inventive student.  Assume for a moment, that his English teacher’s confusion and suspicion of the clock was justified.  I don’t actually want to because it betrays a really staggering amount of STEM illiteracy to look at an LED display, a circuit board, some wiring, and a plug for a wall outlet…

Note the complete lack of explosives.

Note the complete lack of explosives.

…and fail to conclude that it is safe.  But fine, assume the English teacher was not reacting out of absurd and prejudiced impulses.  The entire issue could have been settled in less than a minute with the following conversation:

English Teacher: “Hi, Ahmed.  What’s that thing that beeped?”

Ahmed: “Oh, it’s a clock I made at home and brought to show my engineering teacher.”

English Teacher: “You made a clock at home? Yourself?”

Ahmed: “Uh-huh.”

English Teacher: “That’s pretty cool! Can you show us how it works?  Then maybe make sure it doesn’t interrupt class again, please?”

There, done. “Problem” solved. No national story, here.  Just a kid getting an appropriate level of recognition for doing something cool.   Instead, the sequence of events went like this: His English teacher KEPT the clock (despite claiming it looked like a bomb), Mr. Mohamed was pulled out of a later period by the principal and a police officer, he was queried about trying to make a bomb whereupon he repeated that he had made a clock, taken from school to the police station, handcuffed, fingerprinted, questioned without his parents where he said his last name was brought up repeatedly, and accused of bringing a “hoax bomb” to school with three teachers listed as complainants. The police claimed that Mr. Mohamed was being “passive aggressive” with them, and claimed “We attempted to question the juvenile about what it was and he would simply only say it was a clock. He didn’t offer any explanation as to what it was for, why he created this device, why he brought it to school.”

Here’s a little explanation for the officers: It’s a clock. It tells time.  If Mr. Mohamed made a clock and would “only say it was a clock” it is probably because it. is. a. clock.

Look, running a school is a difficult and uncertain business, constantly fraught with circumstances you never expected.  One of my favorite stories illustrating how hard it is to be school principal is from some years back when an elementary school in Montana had to make a new rule for show and tell after a student’s mother brought a dead bat in a shoe box — and 90 kids had to get rabies shots.  Imagine the poor school principal having to revamp the school rules in the wake of that.  The school probably had anticipated various things not appropriate for show and tell, but I am betting nobody had ever thought of a “please do not bring in diseased infested carrion you found in your barn”.  That’s the sort of thing that makes running a school and a classroom so unusual – you can think of every possible circumstance imaginable, but 25 kids and their parents and guardians can almost always confound your imagination.

So schools are charged with keeping everyone safe within their walls, and we live in an age where schools have tried to respond to real and imagined threats with especially harsh rules that have ugly consequences.  But what happened to Ahmed Mohamed had nothing to do with keeping the school safe. His teacher suggested the clock looked like a bomb despite what he told her, but she kept it instead of immediately evacuating the classroom. Mr. Mohamed was questioned by the principal and the police that the administration had summoned without asking for a bomb disposal specialist.  Mr. Mohamed repeatedly said to his teacher, to the administration, and to the police that he had made a clock, and yet he was finally accused of making a “hoax bomb” despite trying to to tell everyone and anyone who would listen that it was a clock – which it is – making the “hoax” accusation laughable.

At every stage of this disaster, the adults who had authority over Ahmed Mohamed and who had professional and ethical obligations to care for his rights and well being could have stepped back and stopped, but they did not.

It is impossible to escape looking at the very real likelihood that he was suspected of mischief because of prejudice against his name and his religion. None of the adults gave him the benefit of the doubt, and even though they had to have quickly concluded that the clock was entirely safe, they still could not entertain the notion that he had made it and brought it to school for the understandable reason that he wanted to show off what he could do for a teacher he hoped to impress.  Instead of backing off, they doubled down on their initial errors, compounding them with new ones.  Instead of acting to keep their students safe, they invented an entirely bogus reason to justify their initial prejudice, and violated the rights and trust of a young man who ought to have impressed them.

Teachers and administrators are not perfect people.  We have prejudices and irrational impulses, and it is impossible to banish all of them from our actions every single day.  But it is absolutely vital to pause and check yourself.  Ahmed Mohamed’s English teacher could have settled this with a simple and quick conversation.  If that teacher insisted on clearing that impression with an administrator, that person should have quickly recognized the innocuous nature of the clock and returned it.  At worst, the principal could have had a simple conversation with the young man and logically understood that when someone keeps calling a clock a clock, it is ridiculous to assume he intends to trick people into thinking it is a bomb.  Ideally, the educators involved should have been embarrassed by their initial assumptions and fears and what spawned them, but at a minimum, they should have recognized their responsibility to Ahmed Mohamed as soon as it was obvious that he had a clock.

Unchecked prejudices lead to unfounded fears, and in this case, they led to far worse.  Every teacher has to be aware of her or his personal flaws and prejudices, and has to constantly check her or his actions against them to strive for fair and ethical treatment of every student.  Nobody did that for Ahmed Mohamed.


Filed under Media, racism, Social Justice, teaching

The New York Times Ponders An Emerging Teacher Shortage

Motoko Rich of The New York Times wrote a feature article for today’s print edition on the looming teacher shortage and the nationwide scramble to fill available teaching positions.  Predictions of a future teacher shortage are hardly new.  Consider this Senate hearing in 1997 where the then frequently made prediction that we would need “2 million new teachers over the next 10 years” was repeated by Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts:

This chart is a good summation as to what the current conditions are. This year, K-12 enrollment reached an all-time high and will continue to rise over the next 7 years. 6,000 new public schools will be needed by the year 2006 just to maintain current class sizes. We will also need to hire 2 million teachers over the next decade to accommodate rising student enrollments and massive teacher requirements. And because of the overcrowding, schools are using trailers for classrooms and teaching students in former hallways, closets, and bathrooms. Overcrowded classrooms undermine discipline and decrease student morale.

The prediction seemed a lot less dire when compared to the fact that, at the time, we credentialed about 200,000 new teachers every year — or roughly 2 million over 10 years. This time, however, it might be different.

Ms. Rich’s article cites that budget cuts following the Great Recession led to dismissals across the country, which may have led to fewer college students willing to accumulate debt for uncertain job prospects.  Further, with the economic recovery showing sustained growth over the past few years, there may be a larger array of more attractive job prospects for the college educated.  Whatever the cause, the result is that school districts are having to dig deeper into the labor barrel to find people people willing to teach or even to find people with the appropriate credential to teach.  Ms. Rich’s article pays special attention to California which had 45,000 teaching candidates seeking credentials as the recession came on in 2008, but since then the number of candidates in programs has dropped more than 50% to barely 20,000 in 2012.  The Golden State used to issue roughly 20,000 credentials a year, but by 2012 that number was 15,000 – there are currently 21,500 spots open this year.  Ms. Rich cites federal data showing a 30% decline nationwide in the number of people seeking to become teachers.

This fact, and the potential reasons behind it, makes this teacher shortage potentially very different and one to which we should pay close attention.  While it may indeed be true that we had a hiccup due to uncertain job prospects during the Great Recession and that competition from growing technology fields could be factors in this shortage, Ms. Rich did not examine another possibility that might make this shortage far harder to overcome with typical labor market responses:

We’ve made teaching suck the past 15 years.

I just wrote about the groundbreaking collaboration between the Badass Teachers Association and the American Federation of teachers on the Quality of Workplace Life survey released this Spring.  While the 30,000 respondents to the 80 question survey were not statistically sampled, their input is an important first step towards understanding the consequences of our current education reform environment.  From physical and mental health to support and respect from policy makers and administrators to workplace bullying and harassment to time and training for new curriculum demands to over testing to their general enthusiasm for their profession, teachers sent loud and clear warnings that there is a crisis in teachers’ working conditions.

It isn’t hard to imagine why.  For two 8 year Presidencies, we have, via legislation and policy, made increasing demands that our schools and school teachers raise their students to overcome inter-generational poverty with practically no additional help whatsoever and under the threat of punitive school and job level sanctions.  We have narrowed the curriculum so that non tested subjects play a smaller role in our children’s education.  We have a counter factual but extremely well funded by dark money campaign to sue away teachers’ modest workplace protections and weaken their unions.  We have state after state in the Union insisting on using value added modeling of student standardized test scores for teacher evaluation and retention despite the long known fundamental flaws with that approach.  We have prominent governors of both major political parties declaring open warfare on teachers and calling public education a “monopoly” that needs to be broken up or going on national cable news to declare that the “national teachers union” needs a “punch in the face.”

Can I say for certain that there is a causal link between these phenomena and the growing claims of a teacher shortage? Not at this time.  But the possibility did not escape journalist David Sirota:

What is especially worrying is how this time, talk of a teacher shortage could potentially become very long term unless we pivot quickly on school policy.  We have had more a full generation of students K-12 who have grown up in schools under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  These students are the most tested and potentially test exhausted students in our nation’s history.  The BAT/AFT survey shows that their teachers may be facing unprecedented workplace expectations and stress at a time when school budgets are only beginning to recover, if at all, from cuts made during the Great Recession.  And no matter how professional and upbeat a manner teachers strive to portray for their students, nobody can keep that up every day without fail.

We know that the decision to become a teacher is historically one that is deeply tied to a student’s experiences in school itself. A prospective teacher learns to appreciate school and develops early, usually very incomplete, ideas and ideals about what it means to be a teacher from over 13,000 hours spent with teachers teaching from Kindergarten until the end of high school.  David Hansen explains teaching as vocational work, deeply rooted the individual seeking to become a teacher:

It implies that he or she knows something about him or herself, something important, valuable, worth acting upon.  One may have been drawn to teaching because of one’s own teachers or as a result of other outside influences. Still, the fact remains that now one has taken an interest oneself.  The idea of teaching “occupies” the person’s thoughts and imagination.  Again, this suggests that one conceives of teaching as more than a job, as more than a way to earn an income, although this consideration is obviously relevant.  Rather, one believes teaching to be potentially meaningful, as a the way to instantiate one’s desire to contribute to and engage with the world.

What kind of positive vocational sense can we expect young people considering teaching to develop in a school system beset by narrowed curricula and diminished teacher autonomy, by calls to eliminate poverty without any assistance whatsoever, by dishonest campaigns to break their unions, and by national politicians insulting them at every turn?

In 2006, David Berliner wrote eloquently on “Our Impoverished View of Education Reform” where he strongly questioned the “one way accountability” system set up via high stakes standardized testing:

All I am saying in this essay is that I am tired of acting like the schools, all alone, can do what is needed to help more people achieve higher levels of academic performance in our society. As Jean Anyon (1997, p. 168) put it “Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”

To clean the air on both sides of the screen door we need to begin thinking about building a two-way system of accountability for contemporary America. The obligation that we educators have accepted to be accountable to our communities must become reciprocal. Our communities must also be accountable to those of us who work in the schools, and they can do this by creating social conditions for our nation that allow us to do our jobs well. Accountability is a two way process, it requires a principal and an agent. For too long schools have thought of themselves only as agents who must meet the demands of the principal, often the local community, state, or federal government. It is time for principals (and other school leaders) to become principals. That is, school people need to see communities as agents as well as principals and hold communities to standards that insure all our children are accorded the opportunities necessary for growing well.

Our consistent failure to heed Dr. Berliner’s warning may now be resulting in a genuine shortage of teachers, not merely of teachers being credentialed but of potential teachers in the pipeline eager to join the ranks.  Things need to change.  Now.


Filed under Chris Christie, Funding, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions

The Teaching Workplace: Missing the Forest for the Bathroom Stalls

In May of this year, the American Federation of Teachers released the results of a survey on teacher workplace stress conducted in collaboration with the Badass Teachers Association (BAT), a grassroots network of teachers across the country dedicated to pushing back “against so-called corporate education reform, or the Educational-Industrial Complex, and the damage it has done to students, schools, teachers, and communities.”  The survey focused on the quality of workplace life for teachers, and was comprised of 80 questions answered by over 30,000 participants. Results, presented in brief in this document, show a wide variety of issues that impact how teachers perceive their working conditions, including respect from politicians, the media, administrators, parents, and colleagues, frequency of workplace stress, major sources of stress, and frequency of bullying and negative health consequences within the workplace.  With so many participants, the survey is a notable first step to gaining major research and policy leverage for issues that have been impacting teachers for years, and it has already led to a meeting between the USDOE and the survey team of AFT and BAT representatives.

So it is somewhat disappointing that The Atlantic magazine decided to reduce the story to a tale of inadequate bathroom breaks.

To be fair, the article does discuss other workplace issues for teachers, and in a section of the survey report that also cites time pressure, disciplinary issues, and student aggression as everyday stressors for teachers, “lack of opportunity to use restroom” does stand out.  Further, the author, Alia Wong, makes very clear note of the health risks associated with inadequate hydration and use of the bathroom and quotes teachers in discussion forums noting the degradation of not being allowed basic sanitary needs.

However, the article missed a massive opportunity to take a substantive look at broader issues of workplace stress for teachers, potential reasons why it has been increasing in recent years, and how it contributes to the real staffing problem in our nation’s schools: the high percentage of teachers across the nation with fewer than 5 years of experience and the greater likelihood of schools with high percentages of students who are poor and ethnic minorities to have beginning teachers.  Research has shown that schools with blended cultures of experienced teachers able to mentor novices are best suited for teacher learning and professional development at all experience levels, and teachers in high poverty schools report that they leave either their schools or the profession entirely because of working conditions above any other factor.  The AFT and BAT collaboration on workplace stress opens the door to an incredibly important discussion that has, in recent years, been entirely shoved aside by anti-union activists who have declared, absent evidence, that experienced teachers protected by tenure are a central cause of school failure.

I was therefore disappointed that Ms. Wong’s article decided that, of all the issues reported in the public release of the survey, bathroom breaks warranted a lengthy treatment without pushing further on how workplace stress contributes to teacher turnover and the costs to students that come from high percentages of novice teachers who are often “on their own and presumed expert“.

Jamy Brice Hyde is a teacher in upstate New York, a member of the Badass Teachers Association, and a participant in the survey team that collaborated with the American Federation of Teachers.  According to Ms. Brice Hyde, The Atlantic “missed a tremendous opportunity to tell an incredible story about the crisis in public education. Because a teacher’s work environment is a student’s learning environment. They missed that.”  She spoke with me directly, and I learned that the survey has 31,342 respondents who answered the 80 questions online over a period of only 10 days at the end of April this year.  Ms. Brice Hyde explained that people had warned the team to only expect a few 1000 respondents given the general reach of such surveys, but the response rate was beyond anyone’s expectations.

Ms. Brice Hyde also confirmed that the survey results are not statistically weighted, and that the survey was solicited by a general call to AFT members rather than by statistical sampling.  As such, the results are only a beginning examination of the issue rather than a finished statistical analysis.  However, she confirmed that the raw data is currently being studied by qualified, university-based, researchers who are determining what can be validly inferred, so the process of learning from the survey will continue.

The survey itself was born from genuine grassroots discussions among members of the BAT group about conditions in the workplace, increase in teacher stress, and the very serious consequences many members have felt personally or seen among their colleagues, including recent suicides.  Contact with the AFT led to a conference call meeting with President Randi Weingarten, who Ms. Brice Hyde described as deeply impacted by the stories brought to the meeting and who immediately offered the teachers support to construct and disseminate the survey. President Weingarten, who spoke to me in a separate call, explained the impact of the phone conversation: “The level of need was so intense, and the level of disenfranchisement (of classroom teachers) was just so intense.”

Once the results were in and clear patterns in the responses were evident, the AFT lobbying team convinced Senator Booker of New Jersey and Senator Bennet of Colorado to author an amendment to Title 2 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to examine workplace stress for teachers.  President Weingarten was enthusiastic about both the collaboration with the BAT group and with its impact. “This time the process was as important as the product,” she said, “Because the process empowered people.”

The published survey results provide some stark highlights of what respondents believe to be the status of their profession and their working conditions.  While 89% strongly agreed that they were enthusiastic about their profession when they began their careers, only 15% could strongly agree now with another 38% somewhat agreeing.  A staggering 79% disagreed or strongly disagreed that they were “treated with respect” by elected officials, and 77% felt similarly about the media.  On the other hand, only 24% of respondents said the same thing about their students and their students’ parents, a result that reflects the annual KDP/Gallup poll which consistently shows that parents with children in public school hold those schools in high regard.

73% of teachers in the survey said they often find their workplace stressful, citing factors such as new initiatives being adopted without adequate support or professional development, negative portrayals of teachers and teaching in the media, uncertain job expectations, salary, and lack of participation in decision making as major sources of that stress.  Further, teachers said that mandated curricula, large class sizes, standardized testing, and lack of support for student discipline were daily sources of stress in the classroom.

Perhaps most alarming is the section reporting workplace bullying and health.  30% of all respondents reported having been bullied in the workplace, and 58% identified an administrator as a bully with 38% saying a coworker was a bully and 34% and 30% respectively identifying a student or a parent as a bully.  While 70% of respondents said their schools had a harassment and bullying in the workplace policy, only 42% said they got regular training on it.  45% of teachers in the survey did say they did not get adequate bathroom breaks, but it is possibly more disturbing to read that only half of teachers said their districts encourage them to use sick days when actually ill, and 26% said that in the past month their mental health was was not good for 9 or more days.

Jamy Brice Hyde informed me that the rest of the data set gave even more nuance to some of these problems.  Of the nearly one third of the respondents who had experienced harassment and bullying in the workplace, 64% believed it was not handled properly, and 38% of them did not report the experience to either a supervisor or a union representative.  84% said that they had not gotten union training on workplace harassment and bullying.  49% of the teachers responding said they had been treated for anxiety or depression at some point during their careers.

From the standpoint of professionalism, many of the responses should raise serious concerns as well.  Ms. Brice Hyde added that 45% of respondents disagreed with the idea that they can count upon support from their supervisor, and 52% disagreed that teaching allows they to make decisions on their own.  43% of the teachers said that they rarely or never have opportunities to make decisions that impact their work, and 45% said that their job interferes with family life. Structured support for new teachers is not the norm with 62% noting that their schools have no mentoring program for novices.

While 86% of survey respondents said that their feelings about teaching have changed in the past 2-3 years, Ms. Brice Hyde is hopeful that the data gathered by the BAT/AFT collaboration will lead to positive changes.  “The biggest thing we came away from this with is how to get local unions to be better as first responders to our teachers in need,” she said, “And to get the federal government to do a scientific study of teacher work conditions.”  I can certainly see her point, and I think she also correct to say that the survey has happened now “because it is relevant.”  Over 30,000 teachers took the opportunity to make their feelings about their workplaces known in only a 10 day period, and the results have already led to legislative change with the ESEA amendment by Senators Booker and Bennet.

This moment is, indeed, crucial. Research supports that working conditions are a central feature in teachers’ decisions to leave either a school or the profession.  Helen Ladd of Duke University found that more than 1 in 4 teachers in America had fewer than five years of experience in 2008, and her research further demonstrates that when it comes to teacher effectiveness, experience counts.  Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers confirmed that working conditions is the number one reason why new teachers leave high poverty schools with no student factor even close in significance.  Recent research from the National Center for Educational Statistics suggests that national new teacher attrition over 5 years may be 17% which is much lower than previous estimates, but there may be flaws in comparing the new data with older research.  While this data does come from actually tracking a cohort of new teachers, it stopped after the fourth year while previous research by Richard Ingersoll of University of Pennsylvania drew estimates through 5 years in the classroom, and his estimates included teachers in private schools as well as public schools.  Also, the NCES study began tracking its cohort of teachers just when the Great Recession hit, so it is possible the attrition of this group of teachers was kept artificially lower than historic averages.

The NCES data, however, also speaks to the need to address the workplace.  First year teachers with mentors were far more likely to be teaching in their second year than those without.  Teachers who are better compensated tended to stay in teaching longer.  Teachers who began teaching in high poverty schools were slightly more likely to leave the profession entirely, but the data did not address the teachers who leave high poverty schools for more affluent schools, a significant source of staff turnover at such schools who pay a high price for such turnover.

The Badass Teachers Association’s collaboration with the American Federation of Teachers’ has provided valuable insights into which workplace conditions most seriously impact teachers and result in high levels of stress.  Our nation’s policymakers have made unprecedented demands on teacher accountability.  It is past time to hold the policymakers accountable for giving teachers the support and environment most conducive to their students’ learning.

That is a real story worth national attention.


Filed under Activism, Media, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions

“The Fierce Urgency Of Now” – Social Justice Must Be Educators’ Mission

On June 17th, 2015, the 21 year-old Dylann Storm Roof, entered the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  The church, led by the Reverend Clementa Pickney who, in addition to his pulpit, was a state senator, is the oldest traditionally Black Church in the South and has long been a fixture of the struggle for emancipation and civil rights during its almost 200 year history.  According to witnesses, Roof sat down with the dozen people participating in weekly Bible study for nearly an hour before he stood up, took out his pistol and began shooting.  Before he was done, he had reloaded multiple times and left 9 people dead, including Reverend Pickney.  Survivors quickly reported that when his victims implored him to stop, Roof told them, “I have to do it.  You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”

Roof’s victims are Tywanza Sanders, 26, who stood between Roof and his elderly aunt to try to convince him to put away his gun, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a school speech therapist and girls track and field coach, Cynthia Hurd, 54, a librarian for over 3 decades, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, admissions coordinator for Southern Wesleyan University, Ethel Lee Lance, 70, a sexton at Emanuel Church who had worked there for over 30 years, Susie Jackson, 87, Mr. Sanders’ aunt and longtime attendee at Emanuel Church, Myra Thompson, 59, a visitor from Holy Trinity Episcopal Church who had joined the evening’s Bible study, Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr., 74, also a visitor to Emanuel Church, and Reverend Clementa Pickney, 41, senior pastor of Emanuel Church and state senator in South Carolina.

The victims of Wednesday's racist terrorist attack.

The victims of Wednesday’s racist terrorist attack.

Dylann Roof, who is white, was captured by police on Thursday. Pieces of his story are emerging, but it was evident early in the case that deeply rooted racial hatred motivated him.  The survivors’ statements make that clear.  His selection of one of the most historic icons of the struggle to abolish slavery and to reach legal equality for African Americans makes it clear.  His own profile picture on Facebook where he is displaying the flags of Apartheid-era South Africa and Colonial Rhodesia, both nations where minority white populations governed to the exclusion of the black majority, makes that clear:

Roof Racist

And yet, the next morning, when enough of the story was directly in our faces to know that racism and a desire to instill racial terror was front and center, a national media outlet and some political figures were attempting to obfuscate that truth.  South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, the first woman elected to the governor’s office in South Carolina, and one of only two women of color elected to a governor’s office in American history, issued a statement stating “we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”


South Carolina Senator and candidate for the Republican nomination for President, Lindsey Graham, when asked if the shooting was a hate crime or an act of mental illness, responded saying “Probably both. There are real people out there that are organized to kill people in religion and based on race. This guy is just whacked out…But it’s 2015, there are people out there looking for Christians to kill them.”  Senator Graham also defended the Confederate Battle Flag which, due to a quirk of South Carolina law, flies over a memorial adjacent to the state capitol and is the only flag not flying at half mast today.

As the story unfolded, more Republican candidates obfuscated Roof’s obvious intentions.  Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush initially danced around the question of whether or not Roof was motivated by racial hatred.  Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum declared the killings an “assault on our religious liberties” without apparently mentioning the racial component of the crime.  Former Texas Governor Rick Perry was more willing to attribute Roof’s murders to psychiatric drugs than to racial hatred.

On Thursday morning, Fox’s morning show, Fox & Friends, went out of its way to portray the murders as an attack on Christianity, deliberately setting aside the nature of the church that was attacked and what the survivors were already reporting.  Co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck even went so far as to comment about how “we’re not safe in our own churches” as if Roof’s intention were not perfectly clear and he could have just as easily murdered people in Hasselbeck’s church.

Is someone confused here?

Is someone confused here?

The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial where they said that Roof’s murders were caused by “a problem that defies explanation” went on to state, categorically, that the institutional racism of the 1950s and 1960s that allowed acts of racist terrorism to go unprosecuted no longer exists.  While it is fair to say that the overt White Supremacy of the past is greatly diminished and the influence the Klan once held over elected officials and judicial proceedings is basically no more, it is a horrendous dismissal of reality to say institutional racism no longer exists, and to claim that Dylann Roof’s professed White Supremacist motivations have no explanation.  The disparate impact of policing policies of the past three decades on African Americans is not disputable, and we know that when individuals bring their racial prejudices into positions of institutional authority, that can lead to serious economic discrimination.  And in a very embarrassing example of the power that racism still holds, Earl Holt, the president of the Conservative Citizens Council, whose website apparently helped to radicalize Dylann Roof until he pledged himself to starting a race war, has been a generous donor to Republican politicians — many of whom are now returning his money or donating it to charity.

To their credit, many of the Presidential candidates who have waffled on Roof’s motivation, have now joined Governor Nikki Haley in stating that it is time for the Confederate Battle Flag to be taken down from the memorial adjacent to the state capitol building.

I wish to be very clear here.  What the hosts and producers at Fox & Friends did, and, to a lesser degree, what Senator Graham and Governor Haley, did is an act of erasure.  There is no doubt about what motivated Dylann Roof’s terrorism.  There was no doubt on Thursday morning even though the production team of a major morning program mightily tried to remove it from their “discussion.”  Hasselbeck said the attack happened at a “historic church” rather than a “historic BLACK church” and that omission could not have been more deliberate or more outrageous.  The 200 year history of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is wrapped inextricably to the struggles and triumphs of the African American community in the South, and they did nothing less than try to erase that entire history out of some perverse desire to not name racist terrorism inspired by the very worst in our national heritage for what it is.

I do not know the true motivation behind those who cannot bring themselves to unequivocally state that racial hatred and White Supremacy is what drove Dylann Roof to his actions.  Perhaps they are racists themselves and sympathize with Roof’s seething hatred and fear of black people.  Perhaps they are cynical and see more political utility to casting this as an unknowable act of barbarity or as part of a larger script about religion being under attack.  Perhaps they know that a minor but potent part of the constituency and audience are sympathetic to Roof’s motives if not his actions and will respond negatively in the polls or ratings if they hear White Supremacy called out in public.  Whatever the reason, there is nothing admirable in failing to call Dylann Roof exactly what he is: a White Supremacist who deliberately chose one of the most iconic symbols of the African American community for an act of terrorism as devastating as any in the 1950s and 1960s.

Jon Stewart, setting aside his normal comedic monologue in favor of more sober reflection perhaps summed up that phenomenon perfectly:

I heard someone on the news say “Tragedy has visited this church.” This wasn’t a tornado. This was a racist. This was a guy with a Rhodesia badge on his sweater. You know, so the idea that — you know, I hate to even use this pun, but this one is black and white. There’s no nuance here.

And we’re going to keep pretending like, “I don’t get it. What happened? This one guy lost his mind.” But we are steeped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it, and I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it. In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s insanity. That’s racial wallpaper. That’s — that’s — you can’t allow that, you know.

Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them, who wanted to start some kind of civil war. The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina, and the roads are named for Confederate generals, and the white guy’s the one who feels like his country is being taken away from him. We’re bringing it on ourselves. And that’s the thing. Al-Qaeda, all those guys, ISIS, they’re not s— compared to the damage that we can apparently do to ourselves on a regular basis.

And this is where the role of educators has to be considered very seriously.  The victims of Dylann Roof are the latest in a long history of attacks against crucial landmarks in the lives of our African American countrymen and women and against their very lives themselves.  The Black Church has been a cornerstone of African American community and activism for centuries, and its role has subjected it to repeated and vicious attacks from the original Klu Klux Klan of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, through the rise of the Second Klan in the 1920s and the waves of riots and violence inflicted upon African American communities across the country, to the waves of violence against the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.  White Supremacy and Apartheid always defended itself through violence and terrorism, and while the struggles of the mid-20th Century may have legislatively defeated those institutions, we did not stamp them out of existence.  Roof’s attack on a historic Black Church was the first deadly attack since the 1963 Alabama bombing and 1964 murder of civil rights workers, but it was by no means the only attack on a Black Church in the past 52 years.

Americans may like to imagine that we left White Supremacy behind with the 1960s, but it is clear that the hatred still seethes within many of our countrymen, and it is very clear that it boiled over in Dylann Roof spurring him to annihilate members of the Charleston black community as they studied the Bible in one of the cornerstone institutions of that community.  And it happened in a state where a sitting United States Senator and Presidential candidate still feels the need to defend the state sponsored flying of a flag that led 100s of 1000s of men into battle to keep blacks in bondage.  There is no ambiguity here.  Roof is a vicious racist inspired to act by the still present legacies of White Supremacy which we refuse to confront boldly and bluntly.  He apparently self radicalized by immersing himself in an online world where White Power advocates work collectively to stir up racial hatred and to advocate for race war — an advocacy that Roof took to its next logical step.

The result is an act of abject terrorism meant to make people feel unsafe in their most precious institutions, which deprives the black community in Charleston of beloved mentors and family members, and which deprives the state of South Carolina of a remarkable, young spiritual and political leader whose potential for good seemed limitless a few days ago:

As a scholar, as an educator, and as a member of a community still seeking racial justice, it is my obligation to passionately denounce not merely Roof’s act of racist terrorism, but also to denounce those who want to strip it of its historical and social contexts and leave it “merely” as the act of one, lone, troubled young man for which none of the rest of us have any responsibility.  That is a lie.  And it can only be confronted by a passionate and genuine commitment to social justice and for speaking out in defense of social justice.  We cannot allow either the media or our leaders to murder both history and the truth when speaking about Charleston without hearing from us.

The martyrs in Charleston — The Honorable Clementa Pickney, 41, Tywanza Sanders, 26, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, Cynthia Hurd, 54, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, Ethel Lee Lance, 70, Susie Jackson, 87,  Myra Thompson, 59, and Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr., 74 — deserve our resolve and our dedication to social justice.


Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, racism, Social Justice

New York Times Fails Education Reform – Again

Two weeks ago the New York Times published a guest editorial by Chad Aldeman defending keeping annual testing as a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as Congress is debating revisions and renewals to the changes made in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  I was not especially impressed.  Today, the editorial board itself has chimed in with what could have been a carbon copy of Mr. Aldeman’s position.  The board implores Congress to maintain annual testing as a key component of federal education law, and, unsurprisingly, I find the arguments less than stellar.

The board covers fairly familiar ground while acknowledging that some aspects of NCLB have been negative, such as the inability of test based accountability to distinguish between so-called “failing” schools and schools that missed certain accountability targets as measured by tests.  The board also acknowledges that testing has expanded to consume too much attention in many states and districts.

However, their recommendation that states “fix this” by “identifying and discarding unnecessary tests and, if necessary, placing explicit limits on how much time can be spent on testing” misses that it is the FEDERAL accountability requirements that spawned excessive testing and test preparation in the first place.  It is an act of fancy rhetorical footwork to blame states and municipalities for an over focus on standardized testing when FEDERAL requirements have incentivized that very focus, first with threats to label schools as failures under NCLB and then with the Obama administration pressuring states to use discredited statistical models to evaluate teachers as part of Race to the Top.  The “wave of over-testing that swept this country’s schools during the last decade” is the responsibility of the federal government, and it is up to the federal government to fix it.

The board repeats claims familiar in reform circles that annual testing is needed because if we do not test every child in every year, “parents would never know how well their children were doing.”  This claim remains staggeringly bereft of imagination every time it is written by another person or organization intent on seeing annual testing maintained.  Set aside the reality that a child whose parents or guardians need a standardized test to know how she is doing in school is a child with much bigger problems than whether or not her state administers an annual test, and consider how many, far more meaningful ways, there are to communicate how a student is doing in school.  Annual tests come late in the year, focus upon content that does not indicate creativity and problem solving, and report results far too late to be used for the benefit of individual students.  Fortunately, we have myriads of ways to help teachers assess students, use that information to improve instruction, AND communicate with parents.  There are teacher designed tests, portfolio assessment systems, project based learning, and computer delivered adaptive assessments that give immediate, formative feedback.  Every single one of these ideas will let parents know how their children are doing, and some of them could readily be pegged to provide comparisons to other students if absolutely deemed necessary (doubtful).  How a mass standardized test EVERY year would remain necessary with a collection of tools like this instead of a carefully sampled exam reported every couple of years is beyond me.  Regardless, the Obama administration invested $330 million to write new, even bigger, standardized exams for the Common Core State Standards.

The Times board also states that “national test data clearly show that since the unpopular No Child Left Behind Act was signed in 2002, academic performance for the country’s students has improved and achievement gaps between white and minority children have narrowed.”  The implication here is that we owe that to NCLB, an assumption that is made problematic by taking a wider view of achievement history as reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  It is true that the gap between white and black 13 year-olds, for example, in mathematics and reading closed from 32 points to 28 points and from 29 points to 23 points respectively in between 1999 and 2012.  However, longer term trends show much more dramatic gains in the 1970s and early 1980s:

13 year old math NAEP

NAEP Reading

In between 1973 and 1986, the gap in mathematics achievement closed by 22 points, and in between 1971 and 1988, the reading gap closed by 21 points.  Modest gains in closing the gap in the early years of NCLB were statistically significant, but no significant gains were made in mathematics and in reading between 2008 and 2012.

The Times is praising an anemic record of “effectiveness” for test based accountability, and it fails to consider what might contribute to the steady and significant improvement in the 1970s and early 1980s and what might account for how those gains leveled off or decreased in the late 1980s and 1990s.  Consider that the 1970s saw the last major effort by politicians and courts to expand desegregation of our schools by placing school districts, including many in northern states, under court orders to integrate their schools systems.  This effort peaked in the 1980s and since then, schools have become re-segregated in no small part because of white flight.  Boston, Massachusetts, which had a particularly contentious relationship with court ordered integration, saw the percentage of white students in public school plummet by more than 40 points between 1970 and 1990, a change that cannot be explained by simple increases in the minority population:


White flight was also a proxy for the middle class abandoning urban communities, and in the 30 years between 1980 and 2010, the percentages of people who live in housing tracts dominated by their own income levels has risen nationwide.  The change in the Residential Income Segregation Index (RISI) is in the double digits for many of our most populated urban areas:

risi increase

So here is what the editorial board of the Times fails to consider:  Achievement gaps on the NAEP narrowed dramatically during the 1970s and early 1980s when the nation was still pursuing policies of deliberate integration.  However, the cumulative impact of white and middle class populations leaving cities in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s led directly to re-segregation of our communities and schools, and the trends since 1980 have been towards greater and greater income segregation.  Today, more than 50% of students attending public school qualify for free or reduced lunch programs which means that, because of the previously mentioned trends, more and more school districts have higher concentrations of poverty.  We also know from analysis of the international PISA exam, that students in United States communities with different levels of poverty scored very differently on standardized exams.

Given this, the fact that during the 90s the gap in achievement measured by NAEP increased only slightly in math and increased in reading but began to narrow again BEFORE NCLB should be celebrated as an achievement of hard working schools facing deteriorating conditions within their communities.

The Editorial Board of the Times fails to make any convincing argument that maintaining standardized testing of every child in every grade each year is necessary to address the root problems our education system faces — concentration of poverty and increased segregation in our communities. Do we need annual testing to tell us that poverty in childhood has lifelong consequences in health, education, and economic opportunity?  Do we need annual testing to tell us that communities with high concentrations of minority students from impoverished households struggle on test based measures?  Do we need annual testing to tell us that income segregation means that constituencies with political power have no personal stakes in the outcomes for disenfranchised constituencies?  Do we need annual testing to tell us that governors and state houses from Albany to Madison have cut state spending for education and maintain patently discriminatory state aid funding formulas?

We do not.  And as Kevin Welner and William Mathis of University of Colorado at Boulder remind us in this policy memo, what we need is “sustained, fair, adequate and equitable investment in all our children sufficient to provide them their educational birthright…”  That will not happen while high stakes testing is driving our education system.


Filed under Media, NCLB, Social Justice, Testing

Asking Hard Questions of Our Privileges After the Ferguson Grand Jury

Last week, the grand jury convened by St. Louis county prosecutor Robert McCulloch declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson who fatally shot 18 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th of this year.  The decision, delivered after nightfall in a lengthy statement by Mr. McCulloch set off immediate, sometimes violent, protests in Ferguson, and has spawned protests in 170 cities across the country.  To many protestors, the grand jury failing to indict Officer Wilson confirmed a belief that our legal system is critically stacked against people of color in general and African American men in particular.  As the grand jury testimony and evidence has become public, a number of commentators and analysts have noted that Prosecutor McCulloch’s presentation to the grand jury, far from the normal conduct of a prosecutor seeking an indictment, appears specifically tailored to relieve Officer Wilson of any charges.  As a matter of record, I find those observations credible.

Prosecutors usually present a case to a grand jury to seek an indictment and tailor the presentation towards that result.  Prosecutor McCulloch instead declared that the case was too contentious, so he intended to present the grand jury with “all of the evidence” and allow them to sift through it on their own.  Such an intent plays well to popular prejudices towards even-handedness, but it is usually in a criminal trial, not a grand jury, where jurors get to hear “both sides” as presented by zealous advocates.  For a grand jury to be presented with “all of the evidence” absent any advocate for an indictment is extremely unusual.  Further, Prosecutor McCulloch’s statement on the grand jury decision raised serious questions about how hands off he actually was, and his apparent decision to let Officer Wilson tell his version of events to the jurors without any cross examination whatsoever characterizes Mr. McCulloch as giving the officer a friendly forum in which to tell his story.  That story, described by CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin as “fanciful and not credible”, is contrasted by many of the witness accounts, but Prosecutor McCulloch’s statement to the press only mentions one witness who has offered contradictory accounts.

A week later, it seems very likely that Prosecutor McCulloch went into the grand jury with no desire to prosecute Darren Wilson, but instead of having the courage to state publicly that he would not seek an indictment, he decided to use the grand jury process to get that result with a veneer of due process.

Prosecutor McCulloch’s conduct of the grand jury fits into a larger pattern of both policing and the criminal justice system being antagonistic to people of color, and especially in communities that are predominantly of color.  The reactions that I have seen outside of the street protests, however, are indicative of a wider spread societal problem.  In a wide variety of fora, including ones that typically host reasonable conversations, responses to reporting, analysis, and personal discussions of the troubles with Michael Brown’s death, the larger phenomena that it represents, and the conduct of the criminal justice system ranged from the shockingly hateful to the naively hopeful but ultimately unhelpful.  The hateful reactions are immediately identifiable, and they seem to take the grand jury decision  as justification for something that they have believed all along: that Michael Brown was a “thug,” that he undeniably provoked the lethal confrontation, and that, ultimately, he is solely culpable for his own death.  Such sentiments frequently arise in cases like Michael Brown’s and Trayvon Martin’s, and it is painfully clear that a segment of our population will not accept anything less than a cartoonishly angelic victim before they will concede the least ground on justifying the death of an unarmed black man.

Naively hopeful but unhelpful is a more difficult nut to crack.  These often take forms of laments that race has to “enter the conversation” at all and express wishes that we could be a “color blind” or “post-racial” society where events like Michael Brown’s death at Darren Wilson’s hands are examined without having to consider what role race and racism may have played in it.  I see this wish in New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s most recent column, where he observes that as the evidence in the Michael Brown case grew more complex that people “retreated” into racial divisions.  He front loaded his column with an assumption that America needs “color blind” politics:

Ultimately, being optimistic about race requires being optimistic about the ability of our political coalitions to offer colorblind visions of the American dream — the left’s vision stressing economics more heavily, the right leaning more on family and community, but both promising gains and goods and benefits that can be shared by Americans of every racial background.

I do not think that Douthat is malicious in this wish, but I do think that his sentiment is harmful, and that, for very good reasons, the question of whether or not we can look at our politics and power systems in America and be “blind” to color is only answerable with a hearty and emphatic, “No, we cannot.”

The wish for politics and policy that are “color blind” is a wish that negates the realities of how many of our citizens live on a very routine basis.  While aspiring to visions of our society where all benefit equally is admirable and desirable, to discuss it without affirming that there are existing social and institutional barriers to how millions can enjoy both equality of opportunity and equity in what they need to thrive is to ignore any possible paths towards that future.  In other words, Douthat’s wish for a “colorblind vision of the American dream” will do little good without a color conscious discussion of what exists today.  Professor Denisha Jones of Howard University offers incredibly salient advice on this and many other issues related to discussions of race and racism that are prompted by Michael Brown’s death.  Her comments on the pitfalls of “color blindness” should be taken very serious by people who mean well, but largely do not understand:

I am not sure when it began but at some point in our history colorblindness was created as the solution for dealing with racism. Some have believed that the best way to deal with racism was to be colorblind. If we were blind to race then we would not judge people based on the color of their skin. If we were blind to race then racism would not exist. As I mentioned before I used to subscribe to this belief and remember I am black (very black). I grew up in predominantly white communities and I thought the best way to fit in was to ignore the fact that I was black. But what I learned is that being black is not something I can ignore, it’s not something others can ignore, and it’s not something we should try to ignore.

Being born or raised in America means that we are acculturated to be aware of race. Young children notice racial differences and make assumptions based on those observations. They are aware that their community might not include any people of color. They are aware that only people who look like them attend their school. They are not colorblind. And neither are most adults in society. We notice the color of someone’s skin the same way we notice their gender. And noticing color, just like noticing gender is not a bad thing. Making judgments (prejudice) about someone based on their skin color is a bad thing but simply being aware that I am black is not something we should be blind to. Because it means something to be black in America. It means that I am a member of a group that has historically been disadvantaged simply because I am black. It means that I inherit a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights simply because I am black. So to be colorblind to my blackness is not the solution, it is the problem.

Trying to look at Darren Wilson’s encounter with Michael Brown absent any consideration of race ignores the daily reality many young men of color live with in their communities where being treated as if they are legitimately suspected of criminal wrongdoing while minding their own business is a common occurrence.  The peak year for “stop and frisk” in New York City was 2011, and according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, police conducted 685,724 stops that year, 87% of those stopped were black or Latino, and 88% of those stopped were entirely innocent of even misdemeanors.  So in 2012,  NYC police stopped mostly black and Latino men 605,328 times, found absolutely no wrong doing at all, but affronted the dignity and rights of citizens obeying the law.  Combine this with the appalling consequences of our increasingly militarized police tactics, and it is clear that our policy makers have long pursued policies that needlessly exacerbate and create tensions between police and the communities they are supposed to serve.  Largely, I believe, to play upon prejudicial fears of constituents who live in communities that are safe from most violent crimes, and who believe being this “tough on crime” is needed to keep them safe.

I suspect there is another reason, also discussed by Professor Jones’ article, that is behind the call to not consider race, and it is a desire to look away from the concept of privilege and the many ways that people possess a variety of advantages that exist, or do not exist, based upon who they are rather than upon what they have done.  Professor Jones notes how defensive many become when asked to consider privilege:

It also does not mean that you cannot be privileged in one area and disadvantaged in others. You can be a rich white male but also be gay. You can be a black woman but also come from a wealthy family. And you can be a poor white person and still experience white privilege.  So when someone tells you to  “check your privilege” what they are saying is to see how your privilege might blind you to the realities of others. I can be told to check my American privilege when I assume that the American point of view is the one only correct point of view. Or I can be told to check my education privilege when I assume that others who do not think like me or not as smart as I am. And when a white person is told to check their privilege they are being asked to remember that their reality is not the reality shared by many people of color.

It can be difficult to come to terms with privilege for many reasons.  As Professor Jones explains one can mistake the idea of having privilege based on race as an attempt to negate a disadvantage based upon economics or gender.  More troubling, recognizing how one exists in a system of privileges means having to increase awareness of how one might, even inadvertently, perpetuate injustice.  I have often heard the idea of racial privilege being countered by the claim that anyone can be racist, regardless of race, and so the idea of racial privilege is not valid.

I’d like to offer a personal anecdote that, I believe, illustrates the problems with that counterpoint.  It was a few days before the Presidential election in 2008, and I was pulling into a gas station on my way to work.  I usually drive through a predominantly African American small city, and the gas station was on a main street in that town.  As I pulled up to the gas pump, I heard a loud car horn, and I looked up to see a car with an African American gentleman in the driver seat gesturing angrily at me from about 20 feet away from the pump.  Apparently, he was preparing to pull up to the pump from the opposite direction, and I had not noticed as I began to pull in. I put my car into reverse and backed out of the space to let him pull his car in and expected that would be the end of the situation. Unfortunately, the gentleman was not satisfied, and he got out of his car and continued to yell at me, making sure that I knew the “We’re getting a new President next week and we’ll take care of people like you.”  His animosity struck me as rooted in something much deeper that the assumption that I was trying to take his space at a gas pump.

Describing the encounter, I have had more than one person opine that the gentleman’s “racism” was unfortunate, but this is where the concept of privilege is salient.  His anger at me was certainly unpleasant, even unsettling.  His apparent assumption that an African American President would “take care of” people like me was problematic.  I did not like the way I felt immediately after that confrontation.  But his anger and potential animosity based upon my race did not and has not cost me anything.  There were no long term consequences to his assumptions about me.  I have been denied no professional or social advantages.  There was no personal or systemic power that gave this man’s anger any ability to do more to me than make my morning unpleasant.

I, on the other hand, have some substantial power within my professional environment.  I am a professor of education.  I am tenured.  I am a program director at my university.  In order for students at our university to become credentialed high school teachers, they have to take at least two courses that I teach.  If I have unexamined prejudices, those can potentially stand in the way of a young person and his or her chosen career because those prejudices would be backstopped by the power of my institution and validated by the state Department of Education and national accrediting bodies that recognize our programs as valid paths towards becoming a teacher.  Now I have worked hard to have the position at a university that I have, but that hard work does not negate the very troubling reality that I am in a position to keep someone from having a career – and that any prejudices that I leave unexamined and unchallenged can transform from biases to injustice.

Further, and this can be difficult to remember and to confront, despite my hard work to be where I am today, various kinds of privilege assisted me along the way, especially in school.  I am white, so I have never had to convince teachers that I am academically capable despite my race, nor have I been subject to unequal application of near zero tolerance for any rule breaking potentially as early as preschool.  I am male, so I have not had people or cultural stereotypes actively or passively discourage me from considering entire fields of study, discouragement that I actually witnessed applied to female classmates of mine in high school.  I grew up in an upper middle class suburb, so the schools I attended were adequately funded with fully maintained facilities and good class sizes, and my family’s position in the middle class means that a multitude of institutional and social barriers children in poverty face simply did not exist in my life.

None of this means that I did not work hard or genuinely achieve in school, but it does mean that I cannot credit my success solely to that work, and, more importantly, it means that as an educator, I cannot do proper justice by my students by being “color blind” or “gender blind” or “poverty blind”.  Doing so would mean ignoring the real challenges to equity and opportunity that exist in every classroom in every community in the country.  Doing so would increase the chance that I leave my own biases and prejudices unexamined and unchallenged.  Educators have a special professional and ethical obligation to recognize and to confront these issues in our own teaching and in the institutions in which we work.  Anything less is an abdication of our responsibilities.

If we learn only one thing from what we have witnessed in the Ferguson case, that would be a good start.


Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Media, politics, schools, Social Justice, Stories

Teachers: They’re Not Piñatas

Another week, another plateful of teacher bashing in the popular press.

First, Time Magazine introduced its November 3rd cover story on the campaign to eliminate teacher tenure via litigation with a provocative cover picturing a judge’s gavel poised to smash an apple and a sub-headline repeating the inaccurate mantra that it is “nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher.”  Teachers across the country were outraged, and strongly written responses to the cover came from Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers and from Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association.  The AFT is gathering signatures for a petition demanding that Time magazine apologize for the cover, but no sooner than responses to the Time cover began than New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his education agenda in a second term in Albany would be to break the “public monopoly” of schooling in the Empire State by even more test based assessments of teacher performance and even greater charter school favoritism from his office.  As the dust settles from that shot across the bow of New York’s 600,000 unionized teachers, Frank Bruni of the New York Times (and personal friend of anti-tenure activist Campbell Brown) dove back into the issue of teacher quality, a topic he has opined on previously with an extraordinarily one-sided perspective. Today, he gave entirely uncritical space to former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein who is hawking his own book claiming that “a great teacher can rescue a child from a life of struggle” and saying that the teacher workforce will improve if we recruit teachers with higher test scores, limit or remove workplace protections, and offer pay for performance, which in Klein’s world is always measured in standardized test scores.  Absent in the “discussion”?  Any mention of the persistence of poverty in our most struggling school systems, and any plan for society taking full responsibility for helping to alleviate it — instead, it all rests on teachers and schools.

Today’s education reformers seem to think that our nation’s teachers are like piñatas.  If you just keep hitting them long enough and hard enough, something wonderful and sweet and that will delight children will come pouring out.

Mr. Bruni thinks teachers are being closed-minded towards the likes of Mr. Klein and Ms. Brown. He dismissively portrays their reaction to the Time Magazine cover as evidence of teachers reacting in a knee-jerk fashion to any criticism, and he actually claims that people like Klein want to partner with teachers — even while advocating taking away their workplace protections.  That teachers are finally speaking up loudly should not be taken by Mr. Bruni as some sudden intransigence on the part of a profession that wants to keep cushy perks, but rather it should be seen as the final straw exasperation of a profession that has been under constant attack since the early 1980s, probably longer.

Teaching has always had the potential to be contentious which is one of the reasons why tenure protections matter.  Teachers are responsible for, as author, scholar, and activist Lisa Delpit puts it, “other people’s children,” a task that comes with enormous professional and moral obligations.  Practicing that responsibility potentially puts teachers at odds with parental, administrative, and community priorities, and it can require that teachers take unpopular stances on behalf of their students.  However, the current wave of reforms had their genesis with the 1983 Reagan administration report, “A Nation at Risk” which declared our current school system so unsuited for the task of educating our children that it would be considered an “act of war” for a foreign power to have imposed it upon us.  The constant refrain of school failure has hardly relented ever since, and it has gone into overdrive in its current iteration of test based accountability since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and its lunatic cousin Race to the Top.  Since 2001, the standards and testing environment have merged to become test-based accountability for teachers, and since the Obama administration announced Race to the Top, states have been heavily incentivized to adopted teacher evaluations based upon standardized testing.

While pressure on teachers has increased, funding and resources have decreased.  State contributions to K-12 education account for roughly 44% of all spending, but most states still fund schools below the levels that they did before the Great Recession.  Because of the housing crisis which prompted the recession, local revenue in the form of property taxes have also declined, putting a further pinch on school budgets.  In New York State, for example, Governor Cuomo and the Assembly have used accounting tricks like the Gap Elimination Adjustment to trim school aid by BILLIONS of dollars while enacting property tax caps that prevent localities from making up any shortfalls.  Meanwhile, teacher pay has lost substantial ground with comparable workers with the wage gap growing by 13.4% between 1979 and 2006 and most of that loss happening between 1996 and 2006 as the age of test-based accountability started cranking up.

And now, after decades of declaring our schools to be failure factories, after a decade and half of warped accountability measures, and after six years of being told to do far more with far less even though their real world wages have declined, along come some technology billionaires who think the thing that is really wrong with school is the fact that tenured teachers have due process rights before they can be fired?  They recruit telegenic personalities to lead litigation against teachers’ workplace protections (likely because their previous media hero is tainted by scandals and failure) and to do the interview rounds making claims that do not stand up to fact checking and research.

Meanwhile, serial misleaders like Joel Klein, whose claims about his record as NYC Schools Chancellor fail to stand up to real scrutiny, are out there claiming that all we need are great teachers and children’s lives can be turned around.  We don’t have to worry that we’ve cut nutrition programs for the neediest even though nutrition in the first three years of life can have profound effects for a person’s entire life.  We don’t have to worry that our economy is losing large portions of its lower middle class to wage insecurity, effectively sawing rungs off of the ladder of opportunity.  We don’t have to worry about the long known impacts of poverty on children or on how it is deeply concentrated in specific communities whose schools serve high poverty populations.

We don’t have to do any of that, say the Kleins, the Rhees, the Browns, and the Brunis of the world.  We just have to keep whacking away at teachers until the great teaching comes spilling out and children can jump up the ladder towards economic security without a single billionaire being asked to pay a cent more in taxes.

Frank Bruni pays about 27 words with of lip service towards supporting teachers and paying them more, but then immediately follows it with saying teachers should see the likes of Joel Klein as someone who wants to “team up” with them.  After so many years of being continuously blamed for failings our society refuses to discuss and absolutely refuses to address, the only thing astonishing about recently voiced teacher frustration is that it has taken so long to hear it.

Teachers are not piñatas.


Filed under Funding, Media, politics, schools

#SupportTheCore: How Not To Do a Social Media Campaign

Michael Petrilli is not happy. The President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and leading supporter of the Common Core State Standards wanted Tuesday, August 12th to be a social media event.  With the standards becoming politically volatile, Petrilli concluded that CCSS backers needed to become “emotional” in order to shore up support:

So, backed with fresh funding from philanthropic supporters, including a $10.3 million grant awarded in May from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, supporters are gearing up for a major reboot of the Common Core campaign. “We’ve been fighting emotion with talking points, and it doesn’t work,” said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, a leading supporter of the standards. “There’s got to be a way to get more emotional with our arguments if we want to win this thing. That means we have a lot more work to do.”

This, of course, implies that the only opposition to CCSS is based upon raw appeals to emotions and that there are no fact based reasons to oppose or question the standards.  To be fair to core supporters, with outfits like Breitbart, Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin agitating their followers against the CCSS, opposition to the core has a strong group of low information and high paranoia types in the fold:

I try to keep people like that at about 1000 arm lengths at all times. On every issue, not just CCSS.

Regardless of the disposition of some CCSS opponents, it is disingenuous to act as if there is no fact-based and legitimate concern about the project.  For example, it is entirely reasonable to be concerned that the project was constructed with a narrow range of interests represented, that the standards were researched, written and disseminated with unprecedented haste, that there is no known mechanism for review and revision of the standards when feedback from the classroom is generated, that the standards are being pushed into classrooms nationwide without having been tested in representative sample sites first, that materials “aligned” with the CCSS have been created so quickly that there is no time to evaluate them for actual usefulness, that the testing consortia producing tests for the CCSS are secretive and the tests themselves are of questionable quality, that the mass of data generated by those tests create privacy and legitimate use concerns that have not been addressed, that the Core aligned testing will be used for questionable teacher evaluation purposes, that — well, you get the idea.  These are legitimate points of debates that require CCSS proponents to actually discuss openly and fairly in the public sphere, a debate this new tactic still eschews.

Mr. Petrilli and supporters hoped that August 12th would be a good day on social media for CCSS proponents using #SupportTheCore in their tweets.  There was even a “social media toolkit” distributed by the group “Educators 4 Excellence” that gave suggested formats for posts on different media.  The kit has recently been taken down from their site, but this post of “top tweets” demonstrates ones that followed their suggested formats.  (Educators 4 Excellence is a Gates Foundation funded group that focuses on recruiting young educators to the “reform” agenda, and which requires all new members to sign a pledge to support, among other ideas, the use of value-added models of teacher evaluation.  These are the same VAMs which the American Statistical Association warns are not valid for the evaluation of teachers, but for which the Gates Foundation funded a major study that concluded they could be used that way.)

August 12th arrived, and as linked above, Twitter had a number of people declaring support for the Core.  And then things changed a bit.  While a fair amount of people declaring that they DO NOT #SupportTheCore came from Breitbart and Malkin’s efforts, a large number of grassroots teacher groups took to Twitter to provide their own take on the issue:

It went on like that, and after a while Mr. Petrilli could not contain his displeasure:

Now my Twitter feed is full of rank and file teachers and researchers, so I do not know exactly what the Breitbart and Malkin set did on Twitter, but Mr. Petrilli needs to understand a basic Law of Social Media: once you put it out there, it is out of your control.  CCSS may have well-funded allegedly “grassroots” groups like Educators 4 Excellence on its side, but genuine grassroots action and activists have an energy that mere funding cannot match.  Taking to Twitter and denouncing all criticism as coming from “bullies” instead of taking their criticism as an invitation to open a dialogue?  Petulant.  And not precisely sincere from someone who has been using millions of dollars and an influential position in society to wedge in “reforms” without a real debate with both teachers and communities.

Twitter, Mr. Petrilli, is not a private retreat in the woods with hedge fund managers and fellow think tankers.  It is a scrum, and everyone with Internet access is invited.  Complaining about that makes you look ill-prepared to have any form of public discussion, as was pointed out by Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, NY:

Mr. Petrilli points out that in polls, a majority of teachers support the Common Core, and based upon 2013 data, he is correct up to a point.  The National Education Association polled teachers and found that 26% support them “whole heartedly” while another 50% support them with “reservations”.  That is solid support, and some of it is no doubt based upon substance.  Deborah Lowenberg Ball of University of Michigan has written positively about the Common Core math standards as has Jo Boaler of Stanford University, and I certainly trust their judgement.  As for the English Language Arts standards?  I have personal concerns that the standards unnecessarily emphasize informational reading for upper grades based upon the framework of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  This flawed on two fronts: first, the NAEP is a no stakes assessment of the national educational landscape, and its targets for assessment are not meant to be translated into curriculum structures.  Second, David Coleman, now of the College Board, claims the 70% target was meant to be across the entire curriculum, but that was made clear nowhere in the standards themselves and since there are currently only math and ELA core standards, there is no guidance about how the task of teaching informational reading will be distributed.  Beyond the upper grade concerns, I am concerned that the early grade ELA standards rely upon an expectation that students’ skill levels will converge far too early, as if the authors wrote graduation standards for 12th grade and worked backwards from there without accounting for how early childhood development is high divergent.

But beyond this discussion (which is not happening among supporters of CCSS that I can tell) is the fact that Mr. Petrilli’s poll numbers get dicier the further down the path of education “reform” related to CCSS you get.  According to the same NEA poll, 55% of teachers say their districts are preparing to use standardized tests to evaluate them, 81% favor at least a 2-5 year long moratorium on those measures, only 26% of the 65% of teachers who have participated in CCSS training found it helpful and 67% have had to look for resources outside of school.  Among other changes teachers believe would assist students?  43% said smaller class sizes, 39% want more parental involvement and 22% said their students need up to date materials.  Reforms addressing those concerns have not been on the radar screen.

And this is the crux of the matter: Mr. Petrilli may be able to cite strong support or support with reservations from three quarters of teachers, but the reservations of 50% of those polled encompass the testing and teacher evaluations that are glued to the Common Core State Standards and have been from the beginning.  The standards were written by a group that heavily represented the testing industry, and they were adopted by states seeking grant money from the federal Race to the Top program – which required states to adopt common standards and tie teacher evaluations to student scores.  The Gates Foundation has spent heavily promoting the standards, and the foundation has a strong interest in evaluating teachers by student test scores as noted above. By now, the standards have been monetized and very well-connected interests have a stake in the testing system remaining in place, both technology entrepreneurs hoping to mine big data pools and the testing companies themselves.  At $24 dollars per student, Pearson looks to make over $20 million from New York City alone each time a Common Core aligned test is deployed.

Big interests both in private and public venues may be vested in the testing and evaluation of teachers tied to Common Core, but those reforms are driving a huge amount of the informed backlash.  While the standards themselves have flaws and controversies, the very teachers Mr. Petrilli has cited as supporting CCSS do not support either the heavy testing regimen coming with them or the flawed VAM evaluations tied to the testing.  Instead of trying to manufacture “emotion” among supporters of the standards, Mr. Petrilli would do better to try to disentangle them from the toxic mix of high stakes testing and evaluations that accompany them.  I have trouble picturing him doing so because both he and his allies are not simply supporting the standards — they are supporting the whole package the standards were designed to promote.

But until that happens, I cannot even consider saying that I #SupportTheCore — and I bet most teachers won’t either.


Filed under Common Core, Gates Foundation, Media, Pearson, politics, VAMs

Interview on NJ Public Television 8/12/2014

I was part of a story on New Jersey Public TV’s News with Mary Alice Williams last night.  The feature report was on the issue of teacher retention and the future of the profession:

The full story with text and user comments can be found here.

From the interview with me:

One longtime South Jersey teacher says we’re losing the art of teaching and putting too much emphasis on the science of teaching. And here at Seton Hall University, Dr. Katz says that’s a result of the push and the urge to reform.

“We are looking for teacher effectiveness in a lot of the wrong places. It’s not that teachers shouldn’t be held accountable for teaching students. Obviously, they should be. But, the impact that a teacher has on a young person goes well beyond what can be measured on standardized tests — academically, socially, emotionally. How do you measure inspiration? And that’s a reallyimportant part of what our best teachers do,” Katz said.

Leave a comment

Filed under teacher learning, teaching