Tag Archives: Poverty

Betsy DeVos’ Planned Remarks – Smoke and Mirrors.

As members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions prepare to question Michigan billionaire, Republican mega-donor, and school choice and voucher zealot Betsy DeVos, her prepared remarks for the committee have already been released to the media. The document is hosted by Politico according to Wall Street Journal education correspondent, Leslie Brody:

The remarks follow what you would typically expect from a controversial nominee trying to tip toe around her record of zealously advocating tearing down traditional public education even in the face of evidence of failure.  It would be unrealistic to expect DeVos to acknowledge the wreckage that her policies have wrought upon Detroit Public Schools or to note that even philanthropists and foundations interested in charter schools and vouchers routinely pass over Detroit because the situation on the ground is too wild west for their tastes.  We never could have expected her opening statement to acknowledge that her efforts have pushed Michigan into sending $1 billion each year into a largely for profit charter sector rife with double dipping and self dealing, or to explain why political operations that she funds oppose even the most basic efforts to exert oversight over charters that are failing.  And it was not likely that her remarks would expand upon her brazen admissions in the past that she wields her family’s vast fortune to specifically get political outcomes that she favors, nor was she ever going to admit to the committee that her major goal in education activism is one part ideology and another heaping part destroying the organized teacher unions who tend to support Democrats.

All of that will have to wait for the questions, we hope.

That said, there are hints of her hopes and goals hidden in and between some of the rhetorical choices of the statement.  Shortly after her opening thank yous, she will say:

“We are blessed beyond measure with educators who pour themselves into students.

“The schools in which they work are as diverse as the students they educate. In fact, all of us here – and all our children – have attended a mix of traditional publicly-funded and private schools.  This is a reflection of the diversity that is today’s American public education.”

This is also a direct contradiction:  Private schools, by definition, are part of the American primary, secondary, and collegiate education environment, but they are not part of “public education.”  The only way one arrives at that spot is by philosophically seeing the over $600 billion spent on PUBLIC K-12 education in the United States as a fungible honey pot that can be shuffled from one provider to another with no problems at all.  In short: Betsy DeVos’ life long passion of tearing down the public part of public education.

DeVos’ remarks then wax poetic about the private and parochial education of her family, and her visit to a parochial school that worked with low income families.  According to DeVos, that visit spurred her to take action because she shares “President-elect Trump’s view that it’s time to shift the debate from what the system thinks is best for kids to what moms and dads want, expect and deserve.”  From there she launches into her core view of school privatization:

“Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child, and they know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, religious, or any combination thereof.  Yet too many parents are denied access to the full range of options….choices that many of us — here in this room — have execised for our own children.

“Why, in 2017, are we still questioning parents’ ability to exercise education choice for their children? I am a firm believer that parents should be empowered to choose the learning environment that’s best for their individual children.”

The vast majority of students in this country will continue to attend public schools. If confirmed, I will be a strong advocate for great public schools.  But, if a school is troubled, or unsafe, or not a good fit for a child – perhaps they have a special need that is going unmet – we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high quality alternative.

It’s really pretty simple.

I am unclear which parents she believes “no longer believe” anything.  Certainly not the actually polled parents of public education students who, despite a relentless narrative claiming school failure for three decades, still rate the schools their children attend highly.  Beyond that, there are the undeniable problems with the solutions that she has consistently advocated for during her tenure as a donor to school “reform.”  The charter sector that she supports avidly does not do better overall than public school, and her favored charter school landscape is a nearly unregulated free for all with for profit operators – which invites in fraud and self dealing.  Voucher programs have been tried in various locations and long term evidence says they do little to improve educational outcomes.  And while she – and other reformers – makes a cogent point that people with means are able to buy their way into desirable education either through moving or through tuition, the school choice solutions offered to urban parents are not remotely comparable to their suburban peers.

Voucher programs for private and religious do not expand school choice because those schools retain the right to screen out students, and voucher plans have yet to be devised that truly offset tuition costs — giving a family a coupon and an application is not the choice granted to wealthy students who have every resource at their disposal from birth.  The urban charter school environment is similarly flawed as a vehicle for parental empowerment.  Jersey Jazzman sums this up brilliantly from a series of posts in 2015:

Charter “choice” is not suburban “choice.” Shuffling children around within the borders of their district into schools that have unequal access to resources and unequal commitments to educating all students is not the “choice” offered in the suburbs. Offering families either underfunded, crumbling, filthy public schools or charters that are not state actors and do not afford students and parents the same due process rights is not the “choice” offered in the suburbs. Requiring students to submit to excessive punishments for trivial infractions is not the “choice” offered in the suburbs.

This is right on the money:  When parents of means seek public education options for their children they are pretty well guaranteed that they will find well resourced schools with experienced professional teachers, a legal obligation to accept and work with all students, and local governance structures that empower them to influence school policy.  When parents in poverty seek public education options for their children they are told to choose between public schools that are falling apart and underfunded and charter schools that have no legal obligations to serve all students, are full of inexperienced teachers using scripted lessons, frequently use excessive discipline to drive away harder to teach students, and which are completely opaque in terms of governance and parental input.

This is the “choice” that Betsy DeVos will wax poetic about later today.  It is a sham.  Not only does it completely discount the actual public reasons why we fund a universal K-12 system – such as citizenship – but also it has never and can never deliver the equality of choices that DeVos and education reformers keep promising.  Far more powerful tools such as progressive funding, housing integration, and alleviating child poverty would do far, far more.

The DeVos statement then goes on to vague statements about how teachers dream “of breaking free from standardization” and the like.  However, I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for relief from judging schools by standardized test scores. She then takes a stab at post-secondary with some critiques which are at least partially on point.  Yes, she is correct that a traditional 4 year degree is too often portrayed as the only means of getting ahead.  I’ve written on this before, and it is a difficult paradox.  Pew Center’s research shows that it is increasingly harder to make a living if you do not go to college, but not because incomes for college graduates have been rising.  Starting incomes have remained largely flat since the 1980s while starting incomes for those without degrees have collapsed:

SDT-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-03

So DeVos would be correct to point out that trades are “noble,” and supporting post-secondary options for students to learn skilled work should be encouraged.    The devil, of course, resides in details not even hinted at here.  Will there be a real effort to connect potential students to technical education and training for good paying jobs that do not require an advanced degree?  Or will the be a flood of online and unregulated providers offering endless “microcredentials” without any effort to connect to employers’ needs?  Hard to say but DeVos’ record in K-12 education suggests she really does not care if choice is effective and efficient so long as it exists and is making someone money.

Perhaps the biggest – and saddest  – laugh out loud passage is one extolling local control and listening:

“President-elect Trump and I know it won’t be Washington, D.C. that unlocks our nation’s potential, nor a bigger bureaucracy, tougher mandates or a federal agency.  The answer is in local control and listening to parents, students and teachers.”

Coming from one of the most dedicated proponents of using vast wealth to undercut democracy, that is a stunning proclamation.  In 2000, Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected a DeVos backed school voucher proposal, and her family’s answer was to use backdoor influence and money to buy desired results legislatively.  After her husband failed in a 2006 run to become Michigan’s governor, their efforts went into overdrive, essentially buying themselves a Republican legislative branch that will never regulate Michigan’s charter schools even in the face of embarrassing fraud.  More and more of Michigan’s poorest students face a confusing web of school “choices” that cause them to bounce from one school to anther even within a single school year, and none of those schools are required to be responsive to their needs or to be accountable with how they spend public money.  Now she will face confirmation in a Senate where she has personally donated $1 million to sitting Republican Senators and $10 million more to PACs supporting Republican candidates.

If DeVos and her family were truly dedicated to listening, they might have responded differently to sound defeats.  Instead, they decided that they could simply buy the results they wanted.  The result of that is that she will probably sail into her first ever job actually connected to public schools on the backs of law makers who owe her.  Some Democrats like Elizabeth Warren will probably grill her on the failed education experiment she has wrought in Michigan and on the overall corruption of her way of doing business – and hopefully extended questioning on whether or not she agrees with some Republicans who are already talking about turning the $15 billion Title I budget into a voucher program.  Savor those questions and get ready to use her entirely inadequate responses in the fights ahead – but that’s about all the pleasure we will get today.

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Filed under Corruption, Funding, politics, School Choice

Repairing Our Civic Discourse – Teachers’ Role

When I woke up on November 9th, I had to explain to my children, aged 7 and 9, that Donald Trump is going to be the next President of the United States.  They cried.  They cried because they know, at most, a fraction of the horrible things he has said in his campaign and that was enough to convince them that he should not be President.  They cried because although they are young, they believe that America is a country for everyone and that Donald Trump has attacked that ideal.  They cried because they have friends and people they care about who are terrified that a Trump administration will break apart their families.  They cried because we have taught them to value kindness and respect and to abhor bullies.

I cried with them and told them that we would always protect them and that our job now is to make certain if our new President tries to hurt anyone that we protect them.  My children are fortunate, though – their fear quickly subsided probably because they have never personally experienced the injustices promised by the incoming administration, and because as children of white, professional parents they are inclined to believe that they have strength in our society.  Friends of mine who teach in schools with minority, immigrant, and Muslim children had much harder work trying to allay their students’ genuine apprehension about what might be coming.  And my friends are not alone in New York City or elsewhere for that matter.  A teacher in Chicago set up this message for students:

As they are almost always called upon to do, teachers this week have been seeking ways to help anxious and shocked students to cope with circumstances that are both beyond their control and threatening to their well being.  I do not need to reiterate the ways in which a Trump Presidency is poised to harm millions of our students – his campaign promises make that crystal clear as does the bigoted and inflammatory rhetoric with which he made those promises.  His enablers assure us that he intends to be the President for “all” Americans, but many of his supporters appear to have very clear ideas of what his victory means, so even if President Trump takes a softer stance than candidate Trump, he has unleashed some of the ugliest elements of our society and putting that back in the bottle will be an arduous and uncertain task:

While America’s teachers are helping students who fear President Trump, there is also another role for them and for our schools: helping to repair a civic discourse badly damaged by bull dozed norms and lack of mutual understanding typified by the President-elect’s campaign.  Something that was already evident became crystal clear on election night:  Americans do not understand each other very well.  As the returns came in, it was obvious that Donald Trump had successfully energized a demographic that wasn’t weighted properly in the polls because they are not part of most pollsters “likely voter” model — rural whites voted for him in unprecedented numbers, erasing Secretary Clinton’s strengths with urban and wealthier suburban voters.  The election was apparently as much an expression of their grievances at a political system that seeks their vote every few years and then fails to deliver very much as it was an expression of support for Mr. Trump’s most vile rhetoric.  While a discernible portion of his vote did come from genuinely horrible people, quite a lot of it came from a demographic that feels forgotten by our political system.

These voters are not exactly wrong (although I would argue that Mr. Trump is entirely the wrong vehicle – even a dangerous vehicle – for their frustration).  The trends on what has happened to the working class in America has been stark for decades.  Pundits love to talk about the “college wage premium” – the gain in lifetime earnings with a college degree, and that phenomenon is real enough.  However, since the 1980s, the “increase” in that premium has not come because of rising wages for college graduates so much as it has come from the collapse of wages for those without degrees:

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While both the rural and urban poor have suffered under these trends, Mr. Trump directly appealed to working class whites by blaming globalization and free trade pacts for their plights, an appeal that resonates far more with lower income Americans than with the middle and upper class.  It would be curious to see if Mr. Trump’s economic populism would have resonated more with the urban poor if he had not wrapped it in so many layers of racism, nativism, and other bigotry.

It is also evident that Americans do not actually see how people in different economic circumstances live.  Residential Income Segregation has been rising for decades, so not only do the urban and rural populations not live together, but also people live separately based upon their income.  Wealthy and middle class city dwellers do not live in similar neighborhoods, and wherever you live, you are increasingly likely to live in an area where most of the other people share your economic circumstances.  The consequences of this are destructive.  It is very difficult for the wealthy and upper middle class, constituencies heavily courted by typical politics, to understand much about the lives of those in urban and rural poverty.  Meanwhile, the urban and rural poor, while separated by geography, history, and a presumed cultural divide, certainly vote very differently but actually may have far more in common with each other than is often assumed.  That point is driven home by Saturday Night Live’s pre-election episode of “Black Jeopardy” where Tom Hanks played Doug, a rural Donald Trump supporter whose sentiments often aligned with the other contestants, up until the sketch ends with a deflected confrontation on “Lives that Matter” and the racism that blinds many white Americans like Doug to African American’s shared concerns about law enforcement and justice in America:

None of this is meant to excuse the willingness of Donald Trump’s voters to overlook and even excuse his abhorrent statements about women and minorities, nor is it meant to excuse the behavior of a disturbing number of his supporters who have taken his victory as a signal to unleash hate at groups singled out by his campaign.  And it certainly does not change the real evidence that Donald Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters are animated by bigotry.  But it does complicate my understanding of this phenomenon – some of our barriers to understanding each other in America are real, created by geography and lack of shared experiences.  But some of those barriers are of our own making, created by policies that reject integration and created by a lack of willingness to consider others’ experiences as valid when we have no similar frame of reference.  The result of which is an inability to see our similarities.  Of course, this is too simple:  our mutual blindness is made far more complex by modern media that allows people to cocoon themselves in information bubbles and never hear opposing views.

What, then, is the proper role for school in these problems?  It is a tricky one to navigate because while it is not proper for school to require certain political views from students, it is absolutely within school’s historic mission to promote civics and civic-mindedness.  Almost 20 years ago, David Tyack put it this way:

Today, some people are talking about the broader democratic purposes of schooling. Deborah Meier (1991) puts the issue well: “While public education may be useful as an industrial policy, it is essential to healthy life in a democracy” (p. 270). Mike Rose (1996) shows in Possible Lives that in communities and schools across the nation, teachers, students, and parents are practicing John Dewey’s dream of democracy in education and education in democracy. Rose finds that there is a far richer sense of educational purpose than we generally hear about in policy talk on the national level.

Education as essential to Democracy and as a form of Democracy itself goes back to the origins of the common school movement.  Consider Horace Mann’s justification of common schools in the life of a democratic society:

If the responsibleness and value of the elective franchise were duly appreciated, the day of our State and National elections would be among the most solemn and religious days in the calendar. Men would approach them, not only with preparation and solicitude, but with the sobriety and solemnity, with which discreet and religious-minded men meet the great crises of life. No man would throw away his vote, through caprice or wantonness, any more than he would throw away his estate, or sell his family into bondage. No man would cast his vote through malice or revenge, any more than a good surgeon would amputate a limb, or a good navigator sail through perilous straits, under the same criminal passions.

Mann promoted education that would inspire all not only to vote, but also to vote in a manner that promoted the common good and which reflected sound judgement.  The long festering divisions in our civic life today stand in the way of that, but schools and teachers have tools at their disposal to help students reach for a higher civic ideal.

The first obvious tool is a renewed commitment to information literacy and critical thinking – far beyond the stultifying confines of “critical thinking” curricula aimed at passing a standardized test.  Our heavy emphasis on tested subjects and on preparing students to demonstrate their competency in the narrow skill bands of standardized testing has already damaged the critical thinking skills of one generation of students.  We need to do a lot better, especially in an age where media consumption in new forms requires the sharp critical literacy skills.  Programs like “Deliberating in a Democracy” provide additional space to engage students in critical thinking around core issues in society and internationally.  We need more spaces like this in our curriculum.

Beyond critical thinking, however, is using our curricula to assist all students’ comprehension of experiences beyond their own.  We have nibbled at the edges of this for a long time.  The English curriculum, for example, is an ideal place for literature that expands students’ understanding of others, although for far too long, we’ve merely supplemented the curriculum with a few representatives of lives outside of the majority — it is past time to bring Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, and Amy Tan some company.  Beyond the book list in English, however, are opportunities to promote contact and dialog among students of many different backgrounds.  Take the premise of the “Black Jeopardy” skit with Tom Hanks and consider what might be different if students with more in common than they know could discuss and listen to each other?  In many locales, it would not be difficult to arrange face to face meetings and discussions among urban, suburban, and rural school students, and technology could facilitate “Sister Schools” arrangements where distances are more difficult.  Research suggests that fairly simple exercises in empathy can reduce racist sentiment – the possibilities of schools promoting genuine contact and discussion among students whose lives are separated by geography and experience seem very hopeful.

We have to think about this.  Promoting civic mindedness is a core function of public education, and it is clearly one that needs our attention.  Too many of our children are watching to see if we adults are interested in making things better.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Drumpf, Media, politics, racism, Social Justice, teaching

No, You Cannot Test My Child

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

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

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

cat on leash

You still can’t test my kid.

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

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

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

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

cart_before_horse

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

The question was rhetorical, by the way.

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

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

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

charter

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

Until then, no, you cannot test my child.

 

 

 

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

What Teachers Owe Tamir Rice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We owe it to the children to try.

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

Hillary Clinton and the School Accountability “Conversation”

When you are a leading candidate for the Presidency of the United States, slight turns of phrase carry more weight than they do for ordinary citizens.  Former Senator and Secretary of State and front runner for the Democratic Party nomination for President Hillary Clinton is no exception.  For example, charter school advocates took multiple turns on the fainting couch when Secretary Clinton made the entirely accurate observation that many of our “high flying” charter schools do not have the same student characteristics as district schools.  For a candidate who has deep and lasting ties to organizations favoring today’s education reform and personal connections to figures like Eli Broad who are advancing plans to rapidly and massively increase charter schools, it was quite an observation which did not go unnoticed by charter advocates – or by supporters of public education.

More recently, Secretary Clinton gave public education advocates pause when, on the campaign trail in Iowa and in the midst of a larger talk about schools, she said,  “Now, I wouldn’t keep any school open that wasn’t doing a better-than-average job. If a school’s not doing a good job, then, you know, that may not be good for the kids.”

Her comment set off a flurry of responses, mostly negative, from numerous sources for several reasons.  First, the question of schools doing “better than average” raised eyebrows as determining average performance means adding all schools’ together and then dividing the by the number of schools — in the case of K-12 public education, that’s well over 98,000 schools, a substantial portion of which would have to be “below average” because that’s how math works. Some have posed that her comment meant half of all schools would be open to being closed, but that would only be fully true if the target was “median.” Further, no matter how well schools do, there will, by definition, always be those who are “below average.”  Conceptually, it is entirely possible for every school in the country to be doing exceptionally well for all children, and there were still be schools that are below the average.

Also of concern is the implication that schools should be closed, which is one of the central tools of today’s education reform that seeks to label, pressure, and ultimately close schools using standardized test based metrics.  Secretary Clinton almost casually mentioned one of the core aspects of education reform as practiced in the United States,  indicative of how normalized the concept is even with the growing understanding that market disruption in education ends up hurting the children it claims to help, especially black and Latino children who bear the brunt of school closure as policy.  While the federal government has only a peripheral role in policy choices like this, it has played a significant role in encouraging, incentivizing, and funding the expansion of charter schools which can establish themselves in closed schools.  Secretary Clinton’s remarks carried the specter of this continuing during a Clinton administration.

So it is hardly surprising that her campaign was treated to swift and pointed remarks:

First, the good news:  The context of Secretary Clinton’s remarks were in a talk about supporting public schools in Iowa, specifically schools widely regarded as doing a good job but in danger because of Iowa’s particular budgeting laws.  Senior Spokesperson Jesse Ferguson explained that Secretary Clinton was speaking against Iowa’s Governor starving rural school districts with shrinking tax bases and that her career was “a commitment to fixing struggling schools, not shutting them down.”  It is undeniable that her short comment about “below average” schools came in the context of remarks that were broadly supportive of public schools struggling in the face of policies that unfairly deny them necessary resources:

And so for the life of me, I don’t understand why your state government — and I know Governor Brandstad vetoed the money that would’ve come to help this school, and it was a bipartisan agreement. Y’know those are hard to come by these days. You had a bipartisan agreement in your legislature for more one-time student funding to help deal with some of the financial challenges that districts like this one have.

And Governor Brandstad vetoed it. Yet at the same time you have these laws which require if you have a deficit you may not be able to be a school district. It doesn’t make sense to me. When you- When you- Something is not broke, don’t break it. Right?

And this school district and these schools throughout Iowa are doing a better-than-average job. Now, I wouldn’t keep any school open that wasn’t doing a better-than-average job.  If a school’s not doing a good job, then, y’know, that may not be good for the kids. But when you have a district that is doing a good job, it seems kinda counterproductive to impose financial burdens on it.

The full talk is longer than an hour if even more context is needed:

For the sake of argument, I can also accept that “below average” was meant as a clumsy proxy for “not good.”  That’s an acceptable colloquial use, and I do not personally believe that Secretary Clinton would mean below the mathematical definition of average; she’s far too intelligent to not know what it means.  Secretary Clinton absolutely did not mean that we should seek to close nearly half the schools in the country, as was almost gleefully reported in a variety of right wing media outlets (who in their normal daily business, it should be noted for irony’s sake, are all too happy to bash public schools full of unionized teachers).

Of course, there is also bad news.  Peter Greene of Curmudgucation very astutely observed that the context does not exactly absolve Secretary Clinton:

Clinton used “below average” as shorthand for low-performing, which indicates a lack of understanding of exactly how schools end up tagged low-performing, and how the stack ranking of schools is pernicious, inaccurate, and guaranteed to always result in schools labeled low-performing (and for that matter, what “below average” really means). The use of false, inaccurate and just-plain-crappy measures to label schools and teachers as successes or failures is central to what’s going on in education reform. If she doesn’t understand that, she doesn’t understand some of the most fundamental problems we’re facing.

Clinton’s glib use of “wouldn’t keep any school open” shows a limited understanding of just what is involved in “closing” a school. What happens to staff? What happens to students? What happens to the community? Clinton shows no awareness of how huge a task she’s glibly suggesting, nor does she suggest that there are other options that should be considered long before this nuclear option, which should be at the bottom of the list.

This is essentially correct in my opinion, and, as mentioned above, it indicates just how normalized the current language of accountability and threats to schools is without our political landscape.  Schools are measured as successes and failures using distant measurements that are absent any locally understood input, and then they are threatened until those measures rise – or the school is closed and frequently turned over to a private operator with absolutely no accountability to local democratic institutions.  Secretary Clinton may have been, to her credit, talking about the insanity of a state government financially starving local schools, but she signaled that the essential framework of No Child Left Behind is still alive and well in our political discourse.  Given that the new Every Student Succeeds Acts simultaneously maintains annual testing and leaves significant aspects of using that data in school accountability to the states, the tone from Washington will still matter for how the states pursue the law’s requirements.

This reflects a lasting concern among scholars and advocates for public education that in the 32 years since A Nation At Risk was published and in the almost 15 years since No Child Left Behind was enacted, the call for accountability in our education system has been entirely unidirectional – with schools and teachers called upon to lift students and communities from poverty and inequality while the rest of society is called upon to do exactly nothing.  David Berliner wrote about this issue a decade ago as NCLB was coming into full force:

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.

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

The severity of this problem in many of our communities cannot be overstated.  Consider Whitney Elementary School in Las Vegas, Nevada.  According to the Nevada DOE, Whitney is a “two star” school out of a possible five stars with only 40 points out of 100 on the state’s accountability scale in the academic year ending in 2012.  Data for subgroups, such as children qualifying for free and reduced price lunch, children with disabilities, and children who are learning English, show lower performance at Whitney than for similar children statewide, and Whitney’s overall test based performance and growth measured by tests is much lower than state averages.

Using these external measures we would have to concede that Whitney Elementary is “below average” for academics both in the mathematical sense and in the colloquial sense.  Is that the bottom line, however?  Is this a school that, in Secretary Clinton’s words, “may not be good for the kids”?

I ask because I learned about this school via a story on Public Radio International’s The Takeaway, where co-host Celeste Headlee investigated the trying circumstances of America’s working poor and homeless families in the run up to the 2012 election.  Her reporting took her to Las Vegas to a family whose children attend Whitney.  I recommend reading this transcript with a box of tissues nearby:

Headlee: Rick’s kids go to the Whitney School where half of the kids are homeless.  At the Whitney, the school provides meals not just for the school day but for the weekend as well.  Kim Butterfield is a teaching assistant at Whitney.  She says her students are clearly hungry and desperate.

Butterfield: I work in the cafeteria for lunch duty, and a lot of times I would see children putting ketchup packets in their pockets, lots of them, to take home for – what they do is put a little water in them to make ketchup soup.  And just noticing the kids were very hungry, all the time.

Headlee: Without those free school meals many of these kids would not have anything to eat.  Instead of talking about TV shows or music or Facebook, these kids talk about food and how it feels to be hungry.

Child: We don’t have any dinner at home. It’s already happened five times.

Headlee: How does that feel?

Child: Well, it felt kind of weird because it felt like I was kind of getting dizzy one time.

Headlee: And like Rick’s kids, the rest of the students at the Whitney also worry about their families. Eight year old Steven says he tries hard in class, but he can’t stop thinking about his pregnant mother.

Steven:  We don’t have enough money to get the food for the baby. I feel really sad for it, so that’s why mother thinks we’re going to give it to adoption.  But I’m not sure if it costs money and the good thing about it is my mother gets to choose who it is.

Headlee: Another student, Leslie, is six but without the bubbling energy we often associate with first graders. In hushed tones, Leslie describes  what appeared on her dinner table one night.

Leslie (whispering): My mom ate rats.

Headlee: Eating rats? Is that something that happens – a lot or it happened just once?

Leslie: Once.

Headlee: Once.  Was that because she ran out of food?  Yeah. How did that make you feel?

Leslie: Sad.

 

Sherrie Gahn, Principal at Whitney, explained what occupies her students’ minds that distracts from their academics:  “The dream here is that these children will be on the same level playing field as any other child in America. We know that doesn’t happen because they are in such survival mode and they can’t possibly learn because they are not thinking about learning. They are thinking about their shoes hurting or where they are going to go to sleep at night or if they are going to have a place to sleep at night or their tummies are grumbling.”

Let’s be frank:  Whitney is obviously an extreme example of the kinds of schools where students come from struggling families and communities.  However, because of our outsized child poverty rate where 45% of children live in families that are either in or near poverty and because of our high rates of income segregation, there are a staggering number of schools classified as “high poverty” by the federal government, meaning that more than 75% of students are eligible for the free and reduced price lunch program.  In the 2007-2008 school year, there were 16,122 such public elementary and secondary schools in America, 18% of all public K-12 public schools.  While the children at Whitney are in exceptionally dire straights, there many thousands of schools whose students’ families are only a few paychecks from joining them.

With that in mind, I dare anyone to look at a school that is literally all that is standing between its children and daily hunger and call it a failure – or even “below average”.  Go on.  Try.

Berliner’s concept of “two-way accountability” is absolutely essential here.  The teachers and administrators at most of our most poverty stricken schools want what is best for their children.  But for decades, they have labored in a policy environment that demands that they lift those children from poverty while the rest of society accepts zero responsibility for the policies that have ravaged their communities.  Our child poverty rate is not natural law.  In many ways it is a choice that could be addressed by policy as other nations have done.

If Secretary Clinton wants to talk about education in terms that evoke accountability, I challenge her to only do so when similarly challenging our society and our economy to be equally accountable for opportunity and for providing the resources needed for equitable opportunity to become our norm.  I challenge her to talk about fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  I challenge her to talk about the estimated $197 billion in capital improvements needed in our school facilities just to get all schools to “good” condition.  I challenge her to call for full wrap around services in all “high poverty” schools and to increase Title I funding available to schools serving poor children in general.  In short, I challenge her to change the conversation on accountability to one reflected in the title of her 1996 book, It Takes a Village.

She was right on that.  She should take up that challenge now.

 

 

 

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Filed under Data, ESSA, Funding, Hillary Clinton, Media, NCLB, politics, Social Justice

Advice For My Students: DON’T “Teach for America”

As Fall semester slides into exams, most of my senior students turn their attention to full time student teaching.  They also begin to think very seriously about how to enter the job market for new teachers beginning their careers in the Fall.  It can be a harrowing time.  In addition to being responsible for teaching a full load of students full time and engaging in deep capstone projects based on that teaching, they have to plan how they will seek out and apply for jobs.  Adulthood and difficult choices lie directly on the other side of the most challenging work they have ever done.  I certainly cannot find fault if any of them approach it all with at least some trepidation mingled with their excitement.

So it is unsurprising that I occasionally have students who apply for and are selected to join Teach For America.  Their reasons are varied.  TFA publicly espouses many values that are congruent with my students’ sense of vocationalism in service of their future students.  TFA offers to take the confusion out of the job application process by helping them find a classroom somewhere they may have never considered on their own.  TFA carries with it an aura of selectivity and prestige, and certainly by this point in its history, the organization has connections and influence among the powerful in education policy.

However, I have advice for my students regarding applying for or accepting a position with Teach For America: Don’t do it.

I don’t come to this advice lightly, and while I respect that my students might be excited to join an organization that says it is dedicated to getting young and talented people into classrooms with our most needy students, there is literally nothing positive that Teach For America offers my students that they cannot do for themselves.  And what they package with those positives is entirely negative for our profession.  There are a number of truths about TFA that my students should consider before seeking an application.

First, Teach For America needs you far more than you need them.  TFA may be influential, and the competitive nature of their system may seem prestigious, but my students do not need Teacher For America anywhere nearly as much as TFA needs them.  Anyone willing to join TFA is making two positive commitments: 1) I will go anywhere and 2) I will teach students from vulnerable families and communities.  Well, if you are willing to do that, and you hold a valid teaching certificate, there are precious few barriers keeping you from doing just that on your own.  Many states practice reciprocal certification with other states, and in other cases, fairly minor additional requirements are all that is necessary.  For already credentialed teachers, TFA is just a middleman that makes the process of finding a job in another state less stressful, but it is hardly necessary.  I know a great many of my students are deeply committed to working with students in poverty, and I applaud them for that.  They don’t need TFA.

On the other hand, TFA does need them, or, perhaps more accurately, TFA looks better every time a fully qualified, licensed teacher joins their corps.  My students who have joined TFA arrived vastly more prepared and ready to teach than most other corps members.  They have studied child psychology, education law, general methods of teaching and content specific methods, evaluation, classroom management, and they have completed full subject majors in the content they intend to teach.  Teachers who graduate from my program also have spent 100s of hours in experienced teachers’ classrooms where they have worked one on one with students, led classroom activities, shadowed teachers’ lesson plans, and planned and taught guest lessons – all before their full time student teaching began.  Our entire program is premised on the belief that learning to teach requires careful and thoughtful entry into the classroom using ideas and skills learned from both college faculty and from practicing teachers, and it is premised on thoughtfully planned experiences in classrooms that are crucial at every stage of learning to teach.  My graduates have also completed capstone projects working closely with our faculty examining the evidence of how their teaching has promoted student learning – and they have done so using substantive evidence rather than standardized test scores.  Further, they have passed difficult examinations of their content knowledge as required by the state of New Jersey, they have maintained GPAs well above their college peers, and all of their programs of study are subject to demanding accreditation requirements.

Compare that to Teach For America’s perspective that all new teachers really need is a great attitude and a summer training institute.  While all first year teachers, even those who are exceptionally well prepared, will find the experience more than the sum of their preparation, it is without question that TFA corps members who have actually studied to become teachers are vastly more ready than their counterparts who have not.

My students also benefit TFA in another manner: they all intend to stay classroom teachers.  This isn’t something they suddenly decided to do.  This isn’t a means for them to “give back” on their way to something else.  This is a career they have been thinking about since they were much younger and to which they have dedicated their entire time in college to entering.  TFA likes to claim that a huge percentage of their corps members “stay in education,” but they use marketing language to paper over the issue.  Consider:

TFA claim 1

TFA also claims that “the most common profession for TFA alumni” is teaching.  These are cleverly stated, but hardly as impressive as TFA wants you to believe.  The first claim is worded to encourage you to believe that up to 80% of TFA alumni are working directly in schools, especially in low-income schools, but it obviously means no such thing and can mean something entirely unexpected if the definition of working “in education” is treated very loosely.  Finish TFA, go to law school, and end up working with education “foundations” or fake grassroots and advocacy organizations pushing various elements of today’s testocracy and that easily slots in with TFA’s claim.  Whether “the most common profession” of former corps members being teaching is impressive or not depends entirely on how many other professions are counted and how large a percentage stay in teaching as a career.  50% teaching out of 20 professions total would be far more impressive than, say, 15% of 20 professions.  The language TFA selects is precisely chosen to obfuscate those distinctions.

Survey research conducted with Dr. Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard University has better news for TFA in this regard than many critics might expect, but hardly great news compared to traditionally prepared and hired teachers.  The study, conducted with TFA cohorts beginning  2000, 2001, and 2002 found that 60.5% taught in K-12 beyond their initial 2 year commitment, and 35.5% taught more than four years with 27.8% still teaching in their fifth year.  43.6% of TFA members continued teaching at their initial school past two years, but that number dropped to 14.8% at the end of four years.  Traditionally prepared education majors made up only 3.34% of corps members surveyed, but 71.3% of them taught longer than four years – well more than double of other corps members.

While not a significant portion of corps members, traditionally prepared teachers placed by TFA help bolster their image by being far more ready to teach than their modal corps members and by staying in teaching for far longer.  So when my students join TFA, they get help finding a job they could have found for themselves, and their preparation and career aspirations help TFA look better.

Second, Teach For America will challenge my students’ beliefs about quality education….but not in a good way.  Teach For America likes to claim that they do not favor charter schools over fully public schools in their placements:

TFA claim 2

This means that basically a third of corps members get placed in charter schools – which doesn’t sound like a preference until you look at the numbers.  There are just over 6000 charter schools in the country, enrolling roughly 2.3 million students.  That’s roughly 4.6% of the public schools in the country, and charter schools are only 10% or more of public schools in Arizona, Colorado, and the District of Columbia.  According to the Alliance for Public Charter Schools, charter schools account for 30% or more of schools in only 12 districts nationwide, and there are 147 districts in the country where charter schools comprise 10% or more of the K-12 enrollment in the district.  There are over 14,000 public school districts in the United States.  The nation’s largest school district, New York City, only enrolls 7% of its students in charters while Los Angeles enrolls 21% and Chicago 14%.

So, sure, Teach For America does not favor charter schools – until you look at how its placements in charters vastly outstrips the percentage of schools that are charters nationwide or the percentage of students in our three largest cities who are enrolled in charters.

And the charter sector as a whole should give my students pause.  I always tell my students to look very closely at the schools that offer them jobs to see if the school climate and leadership align with their own values, and that goes double for charter schools which are privately managed, rarely unionized, and whose leadership remains opaque to any scrutiny.  With 6000 charter schools in the country, I will not categorically tell my students to never work in one, but they have to be on the lookout for schools engaging in outright financial fraud,  schools whose real estate and management arrangements actively harm/steal from the communities that host them, and school chains that boast high test scores but also engage in disciplinary practices that violate everything my students have learned about caring for all children.  In New York City, TFA has a strong relationship with Success Academy, a controversial “no excuses” charter chain that has extremely high test scores, but whose academic culture is high pressure to the point of demeaning children and whose disciplinary practices routinely result in suspension of Kindergarten children.

My students have been taught to fulfill a promise that all children deserve an equitable opportunity to learn, not that the only children who deserve to be in school are the ones who can quickly conform to an exercise in extreme behavior modification.  But TFA has a significant preference for working with schools that do just that and then brag that they are “closing the achievement gap.”  That should worry any professional educator’s sense of ethics.

Teach For America’s own record of helping its own corps members is open to question as well.  A growing number of TFA “alumni” are publicly sharing their stories of how the organization failed them and their students. Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig of California State Sacramento shares the story of his former student who, against his advice, joined Teach For America and was placed in a “Knowledge is Power Program” (KIPP) charter school:

I never thought I would feel so alone in a organization like TFA. I imagined being a part of the Corps would provide me with the support I needed, even though I would be an inexperienced first year teacher. During my first semester, I was visited two times by my TFA manager.  Afterward, we met for coffee, and he would ask questions about my vision for my students, but never offered the type of resources and support that I needed to make my teaching life more bearable. Looking back, I’m not even sure what a two-time visitor could have offered that would have really helped me….
Shame has a terrible place in this organization.  I never believed that shame would become a motivator in my Teach for America experience, but shame holds onto the necks of many Corps members.  Placing young college graduates in some of the toughest teaching situations with 5 weeks of training has negative repercussions on the mind, body, and soul of Corps members.  The message is “If only I were stronger, smarter and more capable, I could handle this. I would be able to save my students.”  Unfortunately, TFA intentionally or unintentionally preys on this shame to push Corps members to their limits to create “incredible” classrooms and “transformative” lesson plans. Would these things be good for our students? Of course.  Is shame a sustainable method for creating and keeping good teachers in the classroom? Absolutely not. It is defeating and draining.

My students understand that having a robust support and collegial system is crucial for good teaching, both for novices and experienced teachers, and this is validated by research demonstrating that schools with “integrated” professional cultures do the best at serving the needs of teachers at all experience levels.  It is unconscionable that TFA would take college graduates with no training in education and leave them with both minimal preparation and entirely inadequate support systems.  Worse, many former corps members explain that TFA substitutes what amounts to a cartoonish version of “grit” for actual professional learning, support, and development.

TFA appears frighteningly unconcerned with the school conditions and philosophies where they place corps members, plainly favoring working with schools engaged in practices that do not affirm educational equity.  Further, TFA fails to provide what is critical for the development of good teaching and expert teachers, preferring shallow mantras over the complex and uncertain work of professional learning.  My students are vastly more qualified than most corps members, but they should know that TFA will not help them grow further in any careful or deliberate manner.

Third, Teach For America denigrates our profession, ultimately harming children in the process.  Recently, the Center For American Progress announced its campaign called “Teach Strong” based on nine principles that are supposed to “modernize and elevate” the profession of teaching.  The campaign so far has some very strange bedfellows.  Both national teacher unions have signed on as well the as the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, an organization of the nation’s  accredited university-based teacher preparation programs.  Teach for America is also a partner as well as the fairly odious “National Council of Teacher Quality,” a self-appointed watchdog of teacher “quality” whose signature “study” of teacher preparation quality was conducted by reading online course catalog materials.  Seated at the table with some allies but also with organizations long connected to the research on learning to teach and tasked with helping to improve and “elevate” teaching as a profession, one might think that TFA would take a good hard look at their own contribution.  Having signed on to a program whose stated principles include “reimagine teacher preparation to make it more rooted in classroom practice and a professional knowledge base, with universal high standards for all candidates” and “provide significantly more time, tools, and support for teachers to succeed, including through planning, collaboration, and development” one might assume that Teacher For America would be willing to reconceptualize their own “preparation” of corps members with nothing more than summer training institute and demonstrably uneven and inadequate support systems once they enter the classroom.

You would think that, but you’d be wrong.

In fact, TFA’s CEO, Elisa Villanueva Beard, told The Washington Post that they see no need to change their training program, saying, “We do great, very rigorous pre-training work.”

It has been clear for some time that TFA is on the side of teacher professionalism that honestly does not care if teaching is a lifelong profession.  Consider their obvious favoritism for urban charter schools, which frequently welcome unlicensed, short term, teachers who are easily molded into the school’s way of operating without any pesky baggage like existing pedagogical knowledge or classroom experience.  TFA’s perspective on this is well summed up by their founder, Wendy Kopp, who opined, “Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers….The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”

What Ms. Kopp is describing is not teacher growth and development as familiar to those who have dedicated their lives to teaching children, and I doubt that even former corps members who remained teachers would agree with her.  She is describing school models that have such narrow behavioral expectations for both students and teachers that “development” is a matter of drilling people into a single, precise, way of going about business, and the preference for barely trained TFA recruits makes absolute sense because they are more easily molded.  This is closely tied to TFA’s continued insistence that its training model is up to the task of preparing young people with no teaching experience and no undergraduate teacher training for work in schools with our nation’s most vulnerable children.  The model is painfully inadequate as career teacher and former TFA corps member Gary Rubinstein has repeatedly noted in his blogging.  More recently, the Network for Public Education has hosted stories from TFA alumni highlighting their lack of preparation for the often complex classroom situations into which they were placed and the lack of continued support needed to help them and their students thrive.  Nothing about the stories host there or in the “preparation” paradigm practiced by TFA does much of anything to “elevate” our profession.

TFA likes to boast about their alumni who are leaders in education, and to be sure, there’s a long list of such alumni who have occupied influential and highly visible positions from which they have wielded power over our public schools.  Sadly, as Gary Rubinstein also observed, a great deal of that influence has been entirely negative:

….these leaders are some of the most destructive forces in public education. They seem to love nothing more than labeling schools as ‘failing,’ shutting them down, and blaming the supposed failure on the veteran teachers. The buildings of the closed schools are taken over by charter networks, often with leaders who were TFA alums and who get salaries of $200,000 or more to run a few schools….

….TFA and the destructive TFA spawned leaders suffer a type of arrogance and overconfidence where they completely ignore any evidence that their beliefs are flawed.  The leaders TFA has spawned are, to say this in the kindest way possible, ‘lacking wisdom.’

TFA’s brand of education “leaders” are at the forefront of closing neighborhood schools in favor of opaque charters, using test scores to evaluate teachers, and breaking teacher unions.  In this school of thought, there are no problems in education of vulnerable children that require increased resources and the dedication of experienced professionals.  Rather, all that are needed are energetic but easily replaceable novices, a “no excuses” attitude, and school management that is relieved of any open and democratic accountability.  This runs counter to everything we know about our most successful schools.  Experienced teachers are more effective than novicesMoney and resources matter in educational opportunity and outcomes.  Wealthier districts have greater rates of teacher retention, significant levels of parental and community involvement and oversight – and higher test scores.  If TFA and its alumni leaders truly cared about righting the inequities in our public education system, they would demand that teachers and students in high poverty districts have equitable situations with their peers in wealthy districts.  Instead of denigrating teachers for failing to be comic book heroes, they could shine a clear light on the insanity of calling on teachers to fix some of the greatest injustices in our society armed with nothing more than youthful energy and attitude.

However, there is no sign that TFA or its enablers in board rooms, school districts, and legislative bodies across the country have the least interest in doing so.  It is past time for young people to stop lining up to “Teach For America,” and there is no reason that my students – who have earned the title of professional teacher through years of hard work – should ever join them.  I work with amazing and talented young people, many of whom are passionate about working with our schools’ most at risk children.  They can do that brilliantly, and more effectively, without Teach For America.

 

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Filed under charter schools, classrooms, Funding, politics, Social Justice, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching

Who Was The Last “Education President”?

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

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

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

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

Gerald Ford.

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

Ford

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

Nixon

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

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

Since then?  Not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Wait, you hated your teachers too?”

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Senator Gillibrand: Public Schools Need Advocates, Not More Punishments

Dear Senator Gillibrand:

I am writing to you today wearing a number of different hats that I hope you will respect.  First, I am a constituent living in New York City who has been pleased to vote for you in the past.  Second, I am a life long educator, having studied education at our mutual alma mater, Dartmouth College and having taught at every level of school from junior high school to graduate school since 1993.  Third, I am a scholar of public education, having earned my doctorate in 2002 and currently serving as the director of secondary education preparation programs at Seton Hall University.  Fourth, and most importantly, I am the father of two public school students whose future education depends heavily upon the incentive systems that you and your fellow lawmakers vote upon in Washington, D.C.

I am writing to you for two reasons in particular.  As Jon Stewart noted on your recent appearance on The Daily Show, you have a reputation for working across the aisle on various issues and an ability to find common ground where few believe it exists.  I am also writing because you recently voted, along with almost all other Democrats, for Amendment 2241 to the “Every Child Achieves Act” introduced by Senators Coons, Murphy, Booker, Warren, and Durbin.  According to Senator Coons’ announcement of the amendment:

Specifically, the amendment would require state accountability systems to provide additional resources and support to local schools identified as any of the following:

  • In the bottom five percent of public schools as according to the state accountability system

  • A public high school where two-thirds or fewer students are graduating on time

  • Any public school where economically disadvantaged, disabled, minority, or English Language Learner students are not meeting state-set goals for achievement.

The sponsors asserted that the amendment was a “serious departure” from the No Child Left Behind accountability system as it mandated no federal consequences and left it to states to determine the interventions and consequences for schools that continue to struggle.  Despite these assurances, there remained significant reasons to oppose the amendment, reasons that nearly every member of the Democratic Caucus appeared to discount.

1. The amendment baked test and punish into the ESEA re-authorization.  While the announcement made a big deal about about states determining their accountability systems and interventions, the language of the amendment continued to emphasize test based systems and even echoed the “college and career readiness” language that is emblematic of the Common Core State Standards and their accompanying tests.  So while the amendment may have been presented as increasing state control of education and accountability, the actual language had significant emphasis on standardized testing, student growth measures, and statewide (standardized) measure(s) “which is consistent with progress toward readiness for postsecondary education or the workforce without the need for postsecondary remediation.”  Informed readers of the amendment recognize a continuation of the Common Core State Standards and annual testing with the state’s required to base their accountability upon such testing.

The emphasis on quantified measures is also present in the language requiring states to create interventions for schools in the “bottom 5 percent”.  While there is little doubt that many states have significant numbers of schools that struggle and which struggle for years at a time, the need to identify the “bottom 5 percent” each and every year is a kind of trap that means no matter how well a state manages to improve its schools, there will always be a portion of them labeled as failures in need of extra interventions.  Further, by emphasizing the quantity, the amendment would have guaranteed the further primacy of testing in accountability.

It may be well-intentioned for you and your Democratic colleagues to insist that states not neglect their most distressed schools and student populations, but it is well past time to move away from annual standardized testing.  We are almost a decade and a half in the No Child Left Behind era, and the data could not be clearer: high stakes testing and consequences do not work to substantively improve schools.  Kevin Welner and William Mathis of University of Colorado at Boulder brilliantly called for a sharp move away from test based accountability:

The ultimate question we should be asking isn’t whether test scores are good measures of learning, whether growth modeling captures what we want it to, or even whether test scores are increasing; it is whether the overall impact of the reform approach can improve or is improving education. Boosting test scores can, as we have all learned, be accomplished in lots of different ways, some of which focus on real learning but many of which do not. An incremental increase in reading or math scores means almost nothing, particularly if children’s engagement is decreased; if test-prep comes at a substantial cost to science, civics, and the arts; and if the focus of schooling as a whole shifts from learning to testing.

The way forward is not to tinker further with failed test-based accountability mechanisms; it is to learn from the best of our knowledge. We should not give up on reaching the Promised Land of equitable educational opportunities through substantially improved schooling, but we must study our maps and plan a wise path. This calls for a fundamental rebalancing —which requires a sustained, fair, adequate and equitable investment in all our children sufficient to provide them their educational birthright, and an evaluation system that focuses on the quality of the educational opportunities we provide to all of our children. As a nation, we made our greatest progress when we invested in all our children and in our society.

2. We don’t need annual testing of all children to find the problems we know are there.  Bruce Baker of Rutgers University makes it very clear that testing for accountability does not need to be a disruptive or annual affair.  Using sampling methods it is entirely possible for states to get a very accurate view of what is going on in their schools, and the insistence that we need to test everyone in every school every year, is based upon false premises of how our students are distributed and about how accurately testing can reflect upon individual classrooms.  Worse, we already know how tightly coupled test results and the demographic characteristics of a community are so that we likely do not need to test in order to know which schools are likely in need of more assistance.  My colleague, Dr. Chris Tienken of Seton Hall University, very neatly demonstrated this recently with a sophisticated regression analysis of different social capital indicators that accurately predicted test scores.

Standardized testing, then, is an endeavor that is best done is the least intrusive ways possible to keep one very broad eye on the community and to use the results to see if further, more detailed, analysis is necessary or not.  By attempting to retain them as a tool of high stakes accountability, Senate Democrats sought to maintain a lever which has failed to create significant results for an entire generation of students.

3. Resources matters — Democrats’ language on that was weak.  Just as we know that schools with high percentages of students in poverty indicate schools likely to struggle, we also know that our communities with poor families tend to have large percentages of them and lack community resources as well.  The language of the amendment called for states to identify struggling schools and to ensure “identified schools have access to resources, such as adequate facilities, funding, and technology” but the federal role in assisting this remains weak even as the federal government makes requirements upon states and municipalities.  While the amendment had references to many grant programs, it lay primary responsibility with the states while leaving one of the core inequalities in American education intact: how we fund schools and distribute resources.

Local funding by property taxation is an inherently unequal form of funding, and we rely upon state aid to provide additional funding, aid that is inadequate to the task.  Consider our home state of New York.  Commissioner Elia has identified 144 schools statewide that are struggling or persistently struggling as measured by state test scores.  These include schools in Albany, Buffalo, Hempstead, Mount Vernon, New York City, Rochester, Utica, and Yonkers.  It should come as no surprise that all of these districts are on the list of our most underfunded high need school districts in the state.  Based on the state’s own, inadequate, foundational aid formula, Hempstead should be getting $6,426 per pupil MORE this year than it is getting, and such accounting trickery has been played on every district in the state for years.

If the federal government were truly interested in helping our schools by holding states accountable, it would do better to focus upon how the different 50 states raise and distribute funds to our highest needs schools.

4. Test based accountability misses the real issues.  We can test and test and test some more.  We can gather as much data from those tests as we like.  But they will never tell us the underlying reasons for the gaps in test performance among our population.  Assuming that the tests are measuring worthwhile skills and knowledge, the existence of a gap in test measured performance tells us nothing about why it exists.  At its best, testing gives us an idea of where to examine more closely, but when raising the test score become a paramount concern for schools and districts, the consequences are not inherently desirable.

Can the federal government assist states and municipalities in the pursuit of an equitable education for all?  Certainly, but it would mean shifting the focus to resources and funding and away from test scores.  For example, the federal government could finally fulfill its promise of providing 40% of the cost to implement the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act which it has never done.  The federal government could listen to its own data that suggests our nation’s schools need $197 billion in capital improvements and that a full quarter of schools with more than half of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch are in either fair or poor condition.  The federal government could focus improvement efforts on questions of teacher retention in our most struggling schools which, contrary to the rhetoric of those opposing teacher tenure, is a much greater problem than teachers staying too long.

The federal government could also learn from history.  After 14 years of testing and punishment, some tiny gains in the National Assessment of Educational Progress can be seen, but those gains are dwarfed by the closing of the student achievement gap measured through the 1970s and into the early 1980s:13 year old math NAEP

As you can see, from 1973 until 1986, the gap between White and Black 13 year-olds in mathematics shrank by 22 percentage points, at which point it began to rise again, slowly over the next decade, then decreased slightly after the passage of NCLB but at nowhere near the rate we saw from 1978 until 1986.  What explains this?  There are, of course, many possible reasons, but one that stands out in policy is that by the early 1980s we largely abandoned efforts to integrate our schools and to integrate our communities via fair housing policies.  Since the 1980s, our communities have become even more segregated by income levels, and our schools have re-segregated as well so that today, a typical African American student in 2007 attended a school where 59% of his peers were low income, up from 43% in 1989.

For almost 4 decades we have increasingly concentrated children with very great needs within communities that struggle to provide basic services and in schools that are consistently deprived to the resources and personnel they need to give the children in their care what they need to thrive. We do not need more federal accountability measures of this.  We require action aimed at the opportunity gap.

You have a deserved reputation for fairness and for finding ways to work with colleagues when others prefer to fight.  I challenge you to research these issues and bring them to your fellow lawmakers in bipartisan fashion.  I challenge to craft a federal education policy that emphasizes support and growth over test and punish. Use federal leverage with states to make sure state aid to local schools is up to their needs.  Propose the full funding of IDEA for the first time in its history.  Challenge colleagues to invest in the capital improvement needed so our children learn in buildings that are well equipped and safe.  Find federal resources that will help urban schools with recruitment, development, and retention of teachers.

And recognize that threatening schools with standardized test results cannot overcome our society-wide abandonment of integrated schools and communities.  Our public schools need advocates in Washington, not an entire caucus ready to reassert policies that distort education’s focus and ignore the real funding needs of our children’s schools.

Sincerely,

Daniel Katz, Ph.D.

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Filed under Common Core, Funding, NCLB, politics, Testing

Chester Finn and the Death of Kindergarten

Chester E. Finn, Jr. has been an influential figure in American education reform for a long time now.  President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank supporting most elements of today’s reform environment, former fellow at the Manhattan and Hudson Institutes, founding partner with the for profit school turned for profit school management organization Edison Project, former Assistant Secretary of Education for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, former Professor of Education at Vanderbilt University, and former chair of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) governing board, Dr. Finn has been a staple of the education reform landscape for decades.  According to his former colleague, Dr. Diane Ravitch of New York University, Dr. Finn has long held a low opinion of the quality of achievement in American education and has long wanted Americans to realize how poorly educated our children are.

And now it is Kindergarten’s turn.

Writing for the Fordham commentary website, Dr. Finn reports on the results of Maryland’s new “Kindergarten readiness” test administered individually by teachers and now available for the general public.  Dr. Finn, recently appointed to the Maryland State Board of Education, describes the results as “revealing and sobering”:

The assessment is individually administered by kindergarten teachers and was given this year to all of the Old Line State’s sixty-seven thousand kindergartners. The results are sorted into three bands, politely labeled “demonstrating readiness,” “developing readiness,” and “emerging readiness.” But only the first of these means actually ready to succeed in kindergarten—and slightly fewer than half of Maryland’s entering kindergartners met that standard.

Which is to say that more than half are not ready. This report candidly displays the results not just for the state as a whole, but also for each of Maryland’s twenty-four local districts—and further disaggregated in all the ways we have come to expect and demand in the NCLB era.

Every which way you look, you see gaps. And often the gaps are alarmingly wide—by district, by race, by income, and more. You may not be surprised, but you ought to be alarmed and energized. Children who enter school without what they need to succeed in kindergarten are destined to have great difficulty catching up, even in schools that do their utmost. It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard.

Allow me to give Dr. Finn half of a loaf here.  Early advantages matter for long term educational outcomes, although many critics have written about whether that is because of specific deficits in certain student populations or because schools systemically valorize  the cultural capital already possessed by society’s elites.  It is curious to me that Dr. Finn calls the results of the Kindergarten readiness test “revealing” because the finding of gaps between subgroups of students is entirely predictable based on what we know about poverty and its long lasting impacts.  Maryland has a total poverty rate under 10%, but 14% of its children live below the poverty line and another 17% live between the Federal Poverty Level and 200% of the Federal Poverty Level ($47,700 for a family of four).  So that is 31% of the children in Maryland living either below the poverty line or within striking distance of it.  The 1997 Princeton Study, The Effects of Poverty on Children, clearly documented how poverty in early childhood has long lasting impacts on physical, cognitive, school achievement, and emotional/behavioral development, so for Dr. Finn to say the results of the new Maryland assessment are “revealing” rather “confirming what we already know” is rhetorically nonsensical.

It is also nonsensical for Dr. Finn to say that HALF of Maryland’s children are not “ready” for Kindergarten (a term that is not actually defined or defended in his article), when the scale as reported is “demonstrating readiness” – “developing readiness” – “emerging readiness”.  According to the actual state report, not provided by Dr. Finn, 47% of Kindergarten students were found to be “demonstrating readiness”, 36% were “developing readiness”, and 17% were only at “emerging readiness”.  These terms are defined in the report as follows:

Demonstrating Readiness – a child demonstrates the foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

Developing Readiness – a child exhibits some of the foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

Emerging Readiness – a child displays minimal foundational skills and behaviors that prepare him/her for curriculum based on the Kindergarten standards.

And how does a teacher giving this assessment determine that?  Maryland provides a vague and unhelpful website for the public, but there are a few sample rubrics. Here is one for an observational item:

K rubric

So, a five year-old child “requires adult guidance to select the best idea and then put it into action” and to Dr. Chester Finn, THAT is evidence that the child is “not ready” for Kindergarten – rather than just normal evidence of a 5 year-old.

Interestingly, just one year ago, 83% of Maryland Kindergarten children were found to be “ready,” the precise sum of this year’s combined “demonstrating readiness” and “developing readiness.”  I’m sure THAT wasn’t deliberate at all.

And that’s the crux of the matter.  It would be one thing to develop high quality individualized assessment instruments that Maryland Kindergarten teachers could use to get snapshots of their incoming students and to fully individualize instruction or to use targeted interventions for some students.  It is an entirely different thing to redefine “Kindergarten readiness” to mean that 5 year-olds must engage in complex problem solving with no adult assistance and select “the best idea” (note the use of a definite article which narrows the number of correct ideas down to one) and then to publicize this as “evidence” that over half of our 5 year-olds are deficient.  In the pursuit of observing “the best idea” to solve a problem, how many entirely appropriate but fanciful ideas were set aside as evidence that a child was “developing readiness” rather than “demonstrating readiness”?  How many teachers will now use the results of this assessment to take the Kindergarten curriculum and try to push children into very narrow boxes of “correct” and “incorrect” ideas that stifle the kind of play based learning and experimentation that is entirely appropriate and healthy for very young children?

Professor of physics at Loyola University Maryland Joseph Ganem took the results of the Kindergarten assessment to task in the pages of The Baltimore Sun, faulting unrealistic and narrow expectations of the Common Core State Standards for the redefinition of readiness:

However, for skills in what Bloom calls the “cognitive domain,” the school curriculum has become blind not only to the progression of normal child development but also to natural variations in the rate that children develop. It is now expected that pre-school children should be able to grasp sophisticated concepts in mathematics and written language. In addition, it is expected that all children should be at the same cognitive level when they enter kindergarten, and proceed through the entire grade-school curriculum in lock step with one another. People, who think that all children can learn in unison, have obviously never worked with special needs children or the gifted and talented.

I agree with Dr. Ganem, and I will add that Dr. Finn’s attempt to portray these results as widely dire, rather than as indicating a specific population of children in poverty may need additional services, risks a deeper erosion of Kindergarten and early childhood education into narrow and unimaginative academics.  In their 1995 history of education reform, Tinkering Toward Utopia, David Tyack and Larry Cuban noted how the ideal of the “Children’s Garden” was quickly subsumed into preparation for the academic curriculum of grade school:

A much more modest bureaucratic rationale became central: that the kindergarten would prepare five year-olds for the first grade in a scientifically determined developmental way. Some of the features that had made the kindergarten exotic were slowly trimmed away or changed to fit the institutional character of the elementary school. (p. 69)

Dr. Finn proposes that we once again double down on this.  His solution to the problem created by rewriting the meaning of Kindergarten is “intensive, targeted early-childhood education for the kids who need it the most” which almost certainly means further pushing academic skills development to children as young as three. While I am a proponent of universal pre-K, I am mindful that “high quality” programs are far more than academic preparation and will often cloak such preparation in a focus upon learning via play.  In communities with high poverty, a focus on the family and whole child requires the existence of robust community-based social services that blunt the negative impacts of poverty on child development.  But if Dr. Finn believes that a 5 year-old who needs some adult guidance to select the ONE “best idea” in problem solving is not “ready” for Kindergarten, then I have little hope that an accompanying push for more early childhood education will preserve learning by play and attend to what we actually know children need.

For fifty years, we have continuously strangled the idea of free time and free play out of childhood in an academic arms race with our neighbors and other nations.  The consequences have been negative.  While we do have children who have needs that require specific interventions and resources, all of our children need time to grow and explore in their earliest education.

Turning pre-K into the new first grade the way we have already done to Kindergarten is not the answer.

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Filed under child development, Common Core, Funding, politics, teaching, Testing