Tag Archives: reporting

New York Times Editorial Board on Annual Testing: “PREECCCIIOOOUUUUSSS!”

The Editorial Board of The New York Times is a reliable source of pro-education reform articles, and yesterday they published their take on the potential new testing environment that will be ushered in if the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA) is passed and signed into law.  The Board was relieved that earlier drafts which “seemed poised to weaken…its protections for impoverished children” were changed in the final legislation and urged its passage by the Senate.  What “protections” for our most vulnerable children were at stake?

Annual standardized testing of all children.

picard

The Board acknowledged flaws with how No Child Left Behind labeled and sanctioned schools, noting that testing well beyond federally required exams proliferated as states and school districts administered diagnostic and practice exams lest they fail to prepare students for the examination with potentially dire consequences.  They also correctly noted that the backlash against testing is justified – even if they only tangentially admit the central role of federal policy across two administrations in getting us to this point.  However, they also celebrated the preservation of annual standardized testing of all students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and they approved of maintaining the requirement that schools must test 95% of all students and called it a discouragement to the opt-out movement.

The Editorial Board treads familiar, almost entirely mythological, ground with their defense of annual testing of all students:  Once upon a time, the federal government “kept doling out education money to the states no matter how abysmally their school systems performed,” and the requirement for mass standardized testing was “to make sure that students in all districts were making progress and that poor and minority students were being educated.”  This mythology is summarized by the Board’s concern that previous ESSA drafts “would have allowed state to end annual testing altogether, which would leave the country no way of knowing whether students are learning anything or not.” (emphasis added)

hermione_eye_roll

This is, as usual, a staggering lack of imagination, and an insistence upon maintaining annual tests because of properties they do not possess.  Only testing every child in every grade level lets us know if children are learning.  Only testing every child in every grade allows us to hold districts and schools and teachers accountable.  If we do not test every child in every grade, then historically disadvantaged populations will be allowed to sink even further and the promise of equal opportunity will be lost.

Such statements might have been viable in 2001 when the NCLB legislation was passed with bipartisan support, but after nearly a decade and a half, there is no evidence to be found that test based accountability is telling us anything we did not already know from other means, nor is there evidence that the children whose plights provided NCLB’s rationale are prospering. To be honest, at this point in our policy cycle, it takes a love of annual standardized testing similar to Smeagol’s love of the One Ring to be blinded as to how thoroughly it has failed to improve our schools.  Consider the latest round of data from the National Assessment of Education Progress.  NAEP, dubbed “The Nation’s Report Card,” is a set of standardized tests given to a representative sample of students in 4th grade, 8th grade, and high school from all states every other year, and it is the only consistent measurement of student knowledge across 4 decades of administration.  The 2015 results were released this Fall, and they do not speak well of test-based accountability and its impact on the “achievement gap” between majority and minority children:

NCLB Era Reading Gap

If we mark the NLCB era from the 2002 test administration, then we have to conclude that, in the 8th grade reading NAEP, the gap in scores between white and black students has closed a grand total of one point.  The 4th grade gap has closed a more generous four points in the same time.  In mathematics, the NCLB era has seen a score gap in both 4th and 8th grade close all of three points.

One might suppose, given the enormous importance of annual testing of all students imagined by The Times and other testing advocates, that we must surely see far worse in data from previous eras, and to be certain, the period from the late 1980s until the mid-1990s saw distressing increases in test measured gaps before they stabilized prior to NCLB.  However, before the late 1980s, there was another picture altogether:

NAEP Reading13 year old math NAEP

In both reading and mathematics for 8th graders, 1973 through 1988 saw sharp decreases in the measured achievement gaps, closing by 21 and 22 points respectively.  While no single factor can wholly account for this, it is hardly surprising that the substantial progress towards educational equality began to erode as our nation abandoned policies of active integration and fair housing during the Reagan administration and as courts with larger conservative majorities released school districts from oversight with integration in mind.  The reality is that integration is a key improvement strategy for our nation’s most at risk students, and national policy has largely abandoned it in favor of first the standards based accountability policies of the late 1980s and the 1990s and then the test and punish policies of the NCLB era.  With soaring inequality impacting the majority of Americans and our communities and with our collective abandonment of integrated, mixed-income housing contributing to the highest levels of income segregation in the post-War period, why do we need to test every child in every grade in every year to learn that the trends which have negatively impacted almost all Americans and their communities have also impacted our schools?

The Times‘ Editorial Board betrays a staggering lack of imagination when they insist that we must test annually to know “whether students (are) learning anything or not.”  Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University argues cogently that if the purpose is to use standardized test data to monitor schools and school systems, you do not need to test every child every year at all; that can be accomplished by testing samples of students every couple of years.  Further, if your goal is to know if individual students are progressing in their learning then there are far more important tools that could be used by teachers in formative assessments without any stakes attached that could inform them and parents far more effectively than a mass standardized test whose results come back well into the following school year.

It is also entirely possible to hold schools and teachers accountable without our mass testing ritual and all of the distortions it causes to genuine learning.  Grade span testing or semi-annual of student samples would give state and federal officials sufficient data to know when a closer look at a district or school is warranted (although, just like with annual testing, it does not remotely explain what will be found when looking).  There are nearly infinite alternative measures of schools such as graduation rates, suspension rates, teacher retention and turnover, teacher qualifications, class sizes, post graduation reports, student engagement, parental engagement, parent satisfaction surveys.  Every one of these items – and many others – is a way of understanding what is happening inside of a school, and while ESSA allows states to design accountability systems that use them, the role of testing data will still remain grossly outsized.  We also have alternative models of accountability that involve both community stakeholders and teachers themselves such as the local accountability and funding formula efforts in California and peer review systems that already have substantial success where they have been employed.  Robust models of teacher accountability exist, and they emphasize the role of teachers as professionals capable of engaging in substantive understanding of their own work and the role of evaluation in supporting teachers as its primary goal.

There is a limited role that standardized test data can play in a comprehensive system of school monitoring, development, and accountability, but it must play a small role at best in coordination with a system that is premised on support and development.  However, no school accountability system, regardless of premise, is capable of turning around a 40 year long, society spanning, trend towards inequality and segregation. That requires far more than clinging to annual, mass, standardized testing as our most vital means of giving every child access to an equitable education, and if The Times and other testing advocates really cannot see past that, then they are not merely shortsighted; they are clinging to damaging and delusional policies.  A bit like our, poor, deluded Smeagol and his final cry of “Precious!”

happygollum_zps35a4611a.gif~c200

The last supporter of annual testing?

5 Comments

Filed under Data, ESSA, Media, NCLB, Opt Out, politics, standards, Testing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 Comments

Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, racism, Social Justice

When is a Pledge to Decrease Testing Not a Pledge to Decrease Testing?

Apparently, when President Obama makes it.

Honestly, at this point in his administration, expecting President Obama to well and truly take action to reverse the damage of the “test and punish” era of school accountability is like expecting the Bush administration to not start unnecessary wars.  That, however, did not prevent the national media from declaring that President Obama’s weekend call for reducing the burden of standardized testing in public schools a major departure from previous policies.  David Dayen of Salon gushed that the President was breaking “with twenty years of precedent,” and Mother Jones’ Julia Lurie wrote that “the announcement represents a significant change in course for the Obama administration.” Nearly every major news outlet declared the announcement a move to limit the time spent on standardized testing in school, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten hopefully declared the announcement a move towards fixing an urgent problem in education today:

People deeply informed on the issue of high stakes testing and its warping impact on our schools are far less hopeful than President Weingarten and not remotely as gushing as the national press.  Peter Greene of Curmudgucation held no punches over the weekend, flatly declaring that the Obama plan “sucks and changes nothing.”  His key points are entirely accurate and properly cut through the smoke and mirrors of the announcement to a purpose more aimed at trying to trick anti-testing advocates into complacency:

The fact that the administration noticed, again, that there’s an issue here is nice. But all they’re doing is laying down a barrage of protective PR cover. This is, once again, worse than nothing because it not only doesn’t really address the problem, but it encourages everyone to throw a victory party, put down their angry signs, and go home. Don’t go to the party, and don’t put down your signs.

Anthony Cody of Living in Dialogue noted, quite correctly, that President Obama has sounded this note before and utterly failed to follow through with anything that would diminish the punishing role of current testing policies.  The administration apparently hopes the announcement and some minor shifts will allow them to bide their time while changing very little:

First, President Obama remains unaware of the very limited educational value of standardized tests, and second, the administration remains absolutely committed to tests playing a key role in America’s classrooms. As some have pointed out, now that the PARCC and SBAC tests are here, and have plainly failed to deliver on Duncan’s 2010 promise that they would measure creativity and critical thinking so much better than any previous test, now we are looking forward to the NEXT generation of tests, which will be “competency-based.” Cue the test vendors for another multi-million dollar development project.

No matter how bad the current tests are, the new and better tests are always just around the corner. And anyone who dares to question this optimistic projection is a Luddite afraid of accountability.

Dr. Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, an expert on value added measures at Arizona State University, was not impressed with the announcement either, noting that the proposed 2% limit on time spent on testing would still mean 18 hours of annual standardized test taking time for most students.  She further observed:

In addition, all of this was also based (at least in part, see also here) on new survey results recently released by the Council of the Great City Schools, in which researchers set out to determine how much time is spent on testing. They found that across their (large) district members, the average time spent testing was “surprisingly low [?!?]” at 2.34%, which study authors calculate to be approximately 4.22 total days spent on just testing (i.e., around 21 hours if one assumes, again, an average day’s instructional time = 5 hours). Again, this does not include time spent preparing for tests, nor does it include other non-standardized tests (e.g., those that teachers develop and use to assess their students’ learning).

So, really, the feds did not decrease the amount of time spent testing really at all, they literally just rounded down, losing 34 hundredths of a whole. For more information about this survey research study, click here.

Interestingly, the 2% idea apparently comes from Secretary Duncan’s slated replacement, former New York Commissioner and current senior adviser, Dr. John King Jr. who puts such a limit in place in New York in order to placate growing concerns over the dominant role of standardized testing in the state.

Well, we all know how that turned out, right?

Perhaps most damning was the scathing response penned by Robert Pondiscio for US News and Word Report.  Mr. Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank that has been highly supportive of the Common Core and associated testing, an adviser to the Democracy Prep chain of no-excuses charter schools, and while he is generally well disposed to the data from standardized testing, he has also been willing to question to impact of the stakes attached to them in the current environment.  That questioning was in overdrive in his commentary:

But one would have to be cynical or naive not to understand that the moment you use tests, which are designed to measure student performance, to trigger various corrective actions and interventions effecting teachers and schools, you are fundamentally shifting tests from providing evidence of student performance to something closer to the very purpose of schooling. This is precisely what has been occurring in our schools for the last decade or more. When parents complain, rightfully so, about over-testing, what they are almost certainly responding to is not the tests themselves, which take up a vanishingly small amount of class time, but the effects of test-and-prep culture, which has fundamentally changed the experience of schooling for our children, and not always for the better.

The Obama talk on testing seeks to curry favor with parents and teachers (and their unions) while doing nearly nothing to change the fundamental role of testing and its effect on schooling. It’s all well and good to “encourage” states, districts and schools to limit testing, but as long as test-driven accountability measures, which are driven substantially by federal law, are used not to provide feedback to parents and other stakeholders but to trigger corrective measures in schools, it won’t matter if children take two tests or 2000; the effects will be the same.

While I question the degree of positives that Mr. Pondiscio lavishes upon standardized testing data (“the life-blood that courses through the arteries” – really?), I am not, myself, against limited standardized testing being part of a comprehensive system of school monitoring and being the very beginning point of school improvement efforts.  What is most striking to me is how clearly, however, that Mr. Pondsicio has identified the problem with the perverse incentives testing has placed upon our schools in the era of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top:  The stakes placed upon the tests have transformed their purpose from being “in the background” monitors of schools, school systems, and state performance into being objects unto themselves.  The tests and “adding value” to student performance on them have become a substantial purpose of education instead of a by product of a rich and meaningful educational program.

That’s a problem, and it is good that someone prominent in education reform circles has noted it for some time now and is willing to go on record in a major publication to call President Obama and his education team to the mat for it.  Mr. Pondiscio, who says test based measures are the most reliable and objective teacher evaluation tool, appears willing to give that up because its side effects have driven teachers away from the Common Core and from any testing whatsoever.  I disagree vigorously with the idea that test based measure are either reliable or objective (and the bulk of the research evidence is on my side on this), but I actually sympathize with Mr. Pondiscio’s predicament and his apparent frustration that the administration steadfastly refuses to get it.  I have written on this before, urging reformers who really want a chance at building support for common standards and who value the use of standardized testing at all to decouple them from high stakes before popular revulsion violently swings the pendulum out of their reach for the next two decades.  Common standards, done thoughtfully and carefully (the Common Core were not) and disseminated by genuine common interest among states entering fully voluntary partnerships (the states in Common Core did not) and offered to teachers with appropriate time for development of their own knowledge and curricula with high quality materials (teachers in Common Core states never got that) is a defensible proposition.  Comprehensive system monitoring that uses standardized test data limited to the purposes for which it can work well is also entirely defensible.

It is also swirling in the drain reserved for ideas that end up flushed out of the education system, and Mr. Pondiscio appears aware that he has many of his own allies to blame for it, and, hence, his frustration.  The problem, however, is one that his allies in Washington and various state capitols also seem unwilling to acknowledge, and unless, they do acknowledge it, they have little incentive to back off of testing policies tied to high stakes.

The problem is that they are lazy.

School accountability and improvement is difficult and often uncertain work.  When used honestly, standardized test score data can tell you where to begin, but it should never be confused with evidence of what needs to happen in a school.  Are there schools with low test scores and low value added that are Dickensian nightmares that should be closed as soon as possible?  Sure.  There are 98,000 public schools in the country.  But there are also schools with low test scores and low value added that are full of devoted teachers, strong school leaders, and committed parents, but who need resources to provide genuine educational opportunities for all learners and to do so in a way that does not cheat them of a well-rounded and holistic education.  For that matter, there are schools that boast of their great test scores and high value added, but they get there by being Victorian work houses worthy of Scrooge where children are basically beaten into submission.

The point is that you do not know until you go to the school and actually investigate.

But the Arne Duncans and the John Kings do not want to do that.  They want to sit in offices in Albany and Washington, look over spreadsheets, and make sweeping judgements about which schools are winners and which schools are losers.  They cannot really give up the high stakes attached to the standardized tests because that would mean they would have to do the hard of work of accountability and renewal, the work that actually can inform smart choices based upon community input.

And we can’t have that, now, can we?

3 Comments

Filed under Arne Duncan, Common Core, John King, Testing, VAMs

The Hunger Strike Ended: The #FightForDyett Continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Comment

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

#FightForDyett Puts Parents’ Actual Bodies on the Line for Fully Public Education

On August 17th, a group of 12 parents and community activists in the historic Bronzeville section of Chicago began a hunger strike to preserve the last open enrollment high school in their community.  Their fast, where they have consumed nothing but water and light liquids such as broth, is now in its third week, and even though they managed to get Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to meet briefly with them after a contentious town hall style budget meeting yesterday, no commitments were made that satisfied their needs.  So they continue their hunger strike, despite the adverse effects on their health, and a public plea from a coalition of health professionals urging the Mayor to taking action on the strikers’ issues to prevent a tragedy.

Despite the insulting tone argument that The Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn recently offered, chiding the Dyett hunger strikers for their tactics, this action is not taken rashly and is the result of a true community coalition being rebuffed at every turn.  The Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago is one of America’s most historic African American communities and was a major destination for African Americans seeking a better life during the Great Migration.  In 2012, Chicago Public Schools announced it would “phase out” and close Dyett High School which is the last open enrollment high school for Bronzeville, and this year the CPS accepted three proposals for a new school in the building, two from outside organizations and a proposal for a “Global Leadership and Green Technology” school submitted by the Coalition to Revitalize Walter H. Dyett High School.  The coalition, which has been advocating all along to keep the school open and to transform it into the leadership and green technology school based in the community, has played by every rule and procedure put in front of it by Mayor Emanuel’s school department, seeking to keep their voices and the voices of their neighbors heard.

The process, however, has been repeatedly delayed, most recently with an August meeting pushed out to September, which precipitated the decision to begin a hunger strike:

And the strikers remain there, outside a shuttered high school that, as Peter Greene rightfully points out, was actually improving before the central office decided to abandon it and where an entirely community based proposal for its future remains ignored and stalled by a city bureaucracy more interested in opportunities to gentrify than in building up communities. They are now in their third week without solid food, waiting for the city to answer them.

Especially significant is for what the Dyett hunger strikers have put their bodies on the line. Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig details a timeline for Dyett High School since 1999 when it was converted from a middle school that seemed almost intentionally to court failure.  Nearby King High School was turned into a selective enrollment school, and CPS converted Dyett into a high school that opened with only 7 books in its library and unequipped science labs.  Community members worked to build up the school which is where students who do not qualify for King go, and then in 2006, CPS closed Englewood High School, sending an additional 125 students to Dyett with no additional resources.  Despite this, the community continued to invest in Dyett and its future and then in 2012, CPS announced plans to phase out and close the school.  At every point, community organizations and parents have worked together to help develop a school community within Dyett, and at every point, authorities outside of Bronzeville have hurled wrenches into those efforts.

If Walter H. Dyett remains closed or if it is replaced with schools that do not have open enrollment, there will be no high school in Bronzeville that is truly the responsibility of the entire community.  While education reform touts parental “choice” as a cure-all for urban education, it is far too often comprised of “any choice but a democratically organized and locally comprised school.”  The ideal of an open enrollment, neighborhood, school is not merely an organizational choice for school departments.  It is a profound expression of the democratic ideal and of communities’ investments in themselves.  A truly public school is open to everyone who lives in its zone with no exceptions, and it is bound by law and by professional morality to do its utmost for every child regardless of race, socioeconomic circumstances, or special needs.  Public schools cannot counsel out or harass students with special needs until they give up and transfer somewhere else, and while it would be incorrect to assert that our urban and predominantly minority public schools have always lived up to these ideals, when properly supported and given investments in facilities, staff development, and surrounding community development, they remain one of the truest expressions of democratic equality in our society and are bedrock for their neighborhoods.  Consider the stunning investment in architecture that was once expressed in Chicago’s public schools for a nice visual understanding of how important these ideals were and wonder at what children must have thought when brought to the doors of these buildings.

The point is not lost to note that as neighborhoods became more and more minority over decades such grand investment vanished.  Organizer and now hunger striker Jitu Brown expressed this eloquently last year as he questioned CPS’ plans for Dyett:

Why can’t we have public schools? Why do low-income minority students need to have their schools run by private contractors? We want this school to anchor the community for the next 75 years. We’re not interested in a short-term contract that can be broken.

And there may be more at stake than the consequences to Bronzeville if Dyett is not allowed to reopen as an open enrollment school.  Chicago teacher and activist Michelle Gunderson notes:

For those of us who have witnessed the privatization of our school systems, we know all too well what is at stake if Dyett High School no longer is in the hands of the community. Once we have one neighborhood without an open enrollment high school it will be all too easy for subsequent parts of our city to fall like dominoes, creating a system of privatized schools.

Perhaps that goal makes sense to people who only envision disruption and competition as vehicles of improvement over investment and cooperation, but to lose all fully public schools is to lose far more than a system of governance.  It is to lose community identity, shared responsibility for community youth, and institutions purposed for democratic equality.  Hunger striker Monique Smith told The Washington Post, ““This is really about the privatization of education, it’s about having sustainable community schools in every neighborhood…This is a much larger struggle.”

That this should happen in Bronzeville — which Eve Ewing reminds us is historically significant for its role in The Great Migration and for the African American intellectual, literary, and political leaders who have called it home — is an even more significant blow in a time when black activists have organized to highlight the violence state sanctioned actions have inflicted against their bodies.  It is not an exaggeration to observe that the deliberate neglect and subsequent closing of Walter H. Dyett High School is an act of state sanctioned violence against the community body of Bronzeville.

And now 12 brave activists have called upon a long tradition of direct action and placed their actual bodies on the line for the sake of their community and whether or not it will be deprived of a core democratic institution.  If you believe that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools are long overdue to respond to that injustice, call (773) 533-1500 to leave a message for CPS CEO Forrest Claypool.  It is week three.  Enough is enough.

Leave a comment

Filed under #blacklivesmatter, #FightForDyett, Activism, charter schools, Social Justice

Welcome Class of 2019: What We Owe Your Future Students and Their Parents

Today, I get to meet the next class of students who have entered my university seeking to become high school teachers.  This is always an exciting time in no small respect because being a part of their journey from student to student of teaching to teacher is some of the most rewarding work of my life, and I am consistently grateful for how their energy and optimism help revive my own year after year.

In recent years, that energy and optimism have been even more impressive because the in public battles over education and active disruption of today’s education “reform” have impacted these young people more than their counterparts in previous times.  The morale of their teachers has been dropping during their time in the classroom, and the inherently busy and often confusing world of the classroom has been increasingly stressful to those with whom we entrust our children.  If we accept what I believe is the very valid premise that the choice to become a teacher actually begins during one’s time as a student in teachers’ classrooms, then the students I meet today are among a remarkable group of young people who remain energized by education’s possibilities rather than discouraged by current circumstances.  Nationwide, it is getting harder to find such young people to enter the teacher preparation pipeline.

And I have good news for them – there are excellent reasons to expect growing and vocal support from the parents whose children they will eventually teach, and those reasons should both encourage and inspire them.

The annual PDK/Gallup poll on the public’s beliefs about education was published recently, and while the results should be the subject of much debate and no small amount of disagreement, two messages ring out clearly: First, the public does not buy high stakes standardized testing as the best measurement of what teachers do, and second, the people who know our schools the best are the most positive about those schools.

Every demographic surveyed said that there is too much emphasis on standardized testing by very wide margins.  64% of the national sample and 67% of public school parents believe so as well as 57% of African Americans, 60% of Hispanics, and 65% of whites in the national sample.  Support for opting out of standardized examinations showed more variation, but considering how test refusal was barely an issue a few years ago, the numbers in the survey may very well be surprising.  Nationally, 41% of those surveyed agreed opting out should be allowed, and 47% of public school parents agreed it should be allowed.  Whites agreed with allowing parents to opt out by 44% while 35% of Hispanics thought it should be allowed and 28% of African Americans thought it should be allowed.  This poses a challenge to opt out advocates, certainly, who have made only modest inroads in urban communities so far.

Parents who say they themselves would opt out was as high as 31% of public school parents with similar differences among different ethnic groups.  However, readers should remember that New York State, a national leader in the parental opt out movement, posted a test refusal rate of 20% for the 2015 examinations (which nearly matches the 21% of African American parents who would personally opt their children out), so there is room, given just this year’s support, to grow test refusal by significant numbers in the next year, complicating plans to evaluate teachers using test scores.

Survey respondents might not mind that, however, as they clearly find standardized tests a poor source of information on how teachers teach and how schools perform.  All demographic groups said that student engagement, students’ hopes for the future, and the percentage of students who graduate and go on to further education are vastly more important measures of school effectiveness than standardized test scores.  Similarly, all groups believed that samples of student work, teachers’ written evaluations, and teacher given grades were vastly more important indications of student progress, and all groups believed that teacher quality, expectations, principal leadership, and increased funding were more important tools for school improvement than measurement via standardized testing.  African American parents were most interested in using standardized test scores to compare students with students in other communities, states, and countries, but that support was only 34% saying it was “very important” and overall support at that level was only 22% of all public school parents.

Parents and others similarly disagreed with using student test scores to evaluate teachers.  Nationally, 43% of all those surveyed agreed with using student test scores that way, down from the slight majority who supported it in 2012 and up 5 points from last year’s survey.  Public school parents were most vocal in opposition with only 37% in support and 63% opposed.

The PDK/Gallup poll reaffirms a long term trend in the survey over the years: people tend to think their local schools and the schools their children attend are better than schools nationwide.  Local support for public schools remains robust in this year’s poll with 51% of the national sample giving their local schools a grade of A or B, and with 57% of public school parents saying the same.  Worryingly, only 23% of African Americans and 31% of Hispanics felt similarly, highlighting known discrepancies in our highly segregated schools.  Nationally, when public school parents were asked what grades they would give to the school attended by their oldest child, 70% said an A or a B.  All respondents noted funding as a key issue for schools and quality as well with all demographics citing it as the most important problem facing schools and citing it as very or somewhat important for school improvement.

With trends like these emerging from the polling data, it is not surprising that direct action movements from parents and students to highlight dilemmas facing their schools and to challenge unpopular policies have emerged.  The Opt Out movement is a large, growing, example of parental activism in communities across the country aimed at relieving schools of over testing.

In other communities, activists have come out to support their public schools via direct action as they’ve come under attack.  In Newark, NJ, students of the Newark Student Union have been leading a movement to demand attention for how school “reforms” have harmed them and their community.  Even more inspiring is the story in Chicago, where a dozen parent activists, having tried every possible means to save the last open enrollment high school in their community of Bronzeville, are beginning the third week of a hunger strike to save Dyett High School.  While the press has been slow to notice the story in Bronzeville, it has caught the interest and support of public school advocates across the country.

So as I welcome my new class of future teachers to their first college education classes today, I also have a message for them:  It is tempting, even easy, to spin a story of public education under attack and of those attacks winning, but you must also remember that you have the confidence and trust of parents in communities across the country, parents who understand the value of the work you have committed yourself to learning and doing.  Year after year in polls, their faith and belief in you is clear.  In the growth of Opt Out, their understanding of why the test and punish era of school accountability needs to be rolled back is evident.

And in communities like Newark and Bronzeville, students and parents are putting their very bodies on the line to support the importance of a fully public education.  You owe them nothing less than full reciprocation and your every effort to justify their trust.  Let’s get to work.

1 Comment

Filed under #FightForDyett, Activism, Newark, Newark Students Union, Opt Out, politics, schools, teacher learning

The Teaching Workplace: Missing the Forest for the Bathroom Stalls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is a real story worth national attention.

11 Comments

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

Andrew Cuomo Makes it Official: He’s at War With Teachers

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently sent some mixed signals on his education platform.  In late September, he declared that the teacher evaluation system in the Empire State needs “refinement” because even using standardized test scores to create value-added measures, too many teachers are found to be effective or highly effective. This month, however, the Cuomo campaign, perhaps responding to criticisms of his embrace of the Common Core State Standards, issued an ad that suggested a softer approach to education.  Featuring Governor Cuomo in a white sweater helping his similarly attired daughter with her homework at a table decorated with white pumpkins and a glass bowl of smooth pebbles, the ad promised “real teacher evaluations” and not using Common Core test scores for “five years.”  That promise, however, simply reflects an existing item in the state budget that delays including test scores in graduating students’ transcripts; it does not promise to not use the test scores to evaluate teachers in any way.  The governor’s softer, rather beige, image is an illusion.

There was no illusion this week, however.

Speaking with the New York Daily News editorial board, Mr. Cuomo emphasized his priorities on education for a second term in Albany:

“I believe these kinds of changes are probably the single best thing that I can do as governor that’s going to matter long-term,” he said, “to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies — and that’s what this is, it’s a public monopoly.”

He said the key is to put “real performance measures with some competition, which is why I like charter schools.”

Cuomo said he will push a plan that includes more incentives — and sanctions — that “make it a more rigorous evaluation system.”

The governor took a direct, insulting, swipe at the 600,000 members of the NYSUT, by saying, “The teachers don’t want to do the evaluations and they don’t want to do rigorous evaluations — I get it.  I feel exactly opposite.”

It is rare to have one person summarize, so succinctly, nearly everything that is wrong with the current education reform environment.  “Break…a public monopoly…competition, which I why I like charter schools…the teachers don’t want to do the evaluations.”  In those short turns of phrase, Andrew Cuomo demonstrates how he utterly fails to understand teachers, the corrupted “competition” environment he promotes, and the entire purpose of having a compulsory, common school system.  I personally cannot think of any statements he could have made that disqualify him more from having any power over how we educate our young people.

The governor, who expects to win Tuesday’s election by a wide margin, faced immediately backlash over his comments, but he has opted to double down and repeat the rhetoric of calling our state’s public schools a monopoly.  He has even gotten harsh criticism from the Working Families Party, whose endorsement he wrestled for this summer when the progressive party looked to ready to endorse Fordham Law School Professor Zephyr Teachout. W.F.P.’s state director, Bill Lipton commented:

“His proposed policies on public education will weaken, not strengthen our public education system, and they would represent a step away from the principle of high quality public education for all students. High stakes testing and competition are not the answer. Investment in the future is the answer, and that means progressive taxation and adequate resources for our schools.”

In return, Governor Cuomo’s campaign spokesman, Peter Kauffmann said, “This is all political blather.”  If anyone in the leadership of W.F.P. still has faith in Mr. Cuomo’s promises to them, I will be astonished.

I am going to address Mr. Cuomo’s statements in reverse order:

1) “The teachers don’t want to do the evaluations and they don’t want to do rigorous evaluations”

Mr. Cuomo bases this upon teacher opposition to the “rigorous” evaluations that include the use of students’ standardized test scores to determine if teachers are highly effective, effective, or not effective.  Not meeting the “effective” range on the evaluations can cost teachers tenure or it can initiate efforts to remove them from the classroom if they already have tenure.  Governor Cuomo is on record as believing that the current system is too lenient on teachers because under the new Common Core aligned examinations, student proficiency in the state has dropped dramatically while, in his view, too many teachers remain rated as effective and highly effective.  Presumably, the Governor wants to change the evaluation system so that administrator input is less important and so that the “rigorous” method of rating teachers by students’ test scores has more of an impact on their effectiveness ratings.  This is a fatally flawed approach, and it is fated to unleash appalling results for several important reasons.

First, as I have written previously, he has egregiously, and probably deliberately, misrepresented what the student proficiency ratings from the Common Core exams mean.  While students reaching proficient and highly proficient on the exams only reached 36% of test takers last year, the cut scores were deliberately set to reflect the percentage of students in the state whose combined SAT scores reflect reasonable first year college performance.  Unsurprisingly, the numbers of students who scored at proficient and above almost exactly mirrored the percentage of students with those SAT scores.  This cannot be construed as students and their teachers under-performing expectations, and, not for nothing, the percentage of New Yorkers over the age of 25 with a bachelor’s degree is 32.8%.

So let’s be perfectly clear: the Governor is saying that teachers in communities where large percentages of students do not attend college are automatically “not effective” teachers.

Second, the entire CONCEPT of tying teacher performance to standardized test scores rests on controversial premises and is not widely accepted by the research community.  The American Statistical Association warns that teacher input can only account for between 1-14% of student variability on standardized test performance, and they also do not believe that any current examination is able to effectively evaluate teacher input on student learning.  Further, advocates of value added models tend to make “heroic assumptions” in order to claim causation in their models, and they tend to ignore the complications for their models that arise when you recognize that students in schools are not assigned to teachers randomly.

I know many teachers who wish to improve their teaching and who would welcome a process that gives them good data on how to go about doing that.  I know no teachers who want to be subjected to evaluations that rely on flawed assumptions of what can be learned via standardized exams.

Finally, value added models tend to be incredibly opaque to the people who are evaluated by them.  For example, this is the Value Added Model that New York City used in the 2010-2011 school year:

NYC VAM

This is also the VAM that found teacher Stacey Issacson to be only in the SEVENTH percentile of teachers despite the fact that in her first year of teaching 65 of 66 students in her class scored “proficient” or above on the state examinations, and more than two dozen of her students in her first years of teaching went on to attend New York City’s selective high schools.  Perhaps worse than having a formula spit back such a negative rating was the inability of anyone to actually explain to her what landed her in such a position, and Ms. Issacson, with two Ivy League degrees to her name and the unconditional praise of her principal, could not understand how the model found her so deficient either.  Perhaps I can help.  In this image I have circled the real number that actually exists prior to value added modeling:

NYC VAMreal

And in this image, I circle everything else:

NYC VAMfake

Consider everything that might impact a student’s test performance that has nothing to do with the teacher.  Perhaps he finally got an IEP and is receiving paraprofessional support that improves his scores.  Perhaps there is a family situation that distracts him from school work for a period of time during the year.  Perhaps he is simply having a burst of cognitive growth because children do not grow in straight lines and is ready for this material at this time, or, subsequently, perhaps he had a developmental burst two years ago and is experiencing a perfectly normal regression to the norm.  Value added model advocates pretend that they can account for all of that statistical noise in single student for a single school year, and then they want to fire teachers on those assumptions.  This is what happens when macroeconomists get bored and try to use their methods on individual students’ test scores.

Governor Cuomo assumes that because teachers do not want to be subjected to statistically invalid, career ending, evaluations that they do not want to be evaluated.

2) “competition, which I why I like charter schools”

Charter schools were never supposed to be “competition” for the public school system.  As originally conceived, they would be schools given temporary charters and be relieved of certain regulations so that they could experiment with ways to teach populations of students who were historically difficult to teach in more traditionally organized schools.  In this vision, originally advocated by AFT President  Albert Shanker, charter schools would feed the lessons they learned back to the traditional school system in a mutually beneficial way.  Governor Cuomo’s idea is as far from that vision as it is possible to be and still be using the same language.

The Governor apparently thinks that charter schools are there to put pressure on fully public schools, and that the “competition” for students will act like a free marketplace to force improvement on the system.  This is a gospel that has deep roots, going as far back as Milton Friedman in 1955, and gaining intellectual heft for the voucher movement in the 1990s with Chubb and Moe’s 1990 volume, “Politics, Markets and America’s Schools.”  While vouchers have rarely been a popular idea, advocates for competition in public education have transformed charter schools into a parallel system that competes with fully public schools.  This has flaws on several levels.  First, it is an odd kind of marketplace when one provider is relieved of labor rules and various state and federal education regulations and the other is still held fully accountable for them.  Charter schools’ freedom from regulations was meant to allow for innovations that would help traditional schools learn, but instead it has become a “competition” where one competitor is participating in a sack race and the other in a 100 yard dash.  A sack race, by the way, is an entirely fine thing to participate in, but no race is legitimate when everyone isn’t required to follow the same rules.

Second, the presence of the charter sector as currently operated and regulated actively makes district schools worse off.  As Dr. Baker of Rutgers demonstrates, charter schools generally compete for demographic advantages over fully public schools.  They draw from a pool of applicants who are both attuned to the process and willing and/or able to participate in it.  Once students are admitted, many prominent charters, especially ones that get high praise from Governor Cuomo, engage in “substantial cream skimming” that results in their student populations being less poor, having fewer students on IEPs, and needing less instruction in English as a Second Language.  While charter operators deny engaging in these practices, well documented cases are available in the media.  Dr. Baker’s research confirms that when charter schools are able to do this, the district schools in the same community are left with student populations that more heavily concentrate the very populations of children that the charter schools are unwilling to accommodate.  Charter advocates then claim that they are getting “better” results with the “same” kids and protest loudly that they deserve a greater share of the finite resources available for schools, even when the costs of their transportation and building expenses are paid by the districts.

This isn’t just a sack racer versus a sprinter, then — the sprinter has slipped a couple of cinder blocks into his opponents’ sacks.  Teachers don’t mind that other schools may do things differently than they do in their own schools; they mind very much being berated for the results of system-wide neglect of their community schools, and they mind being negatively compared to schools that make their own rules and refuse to serve all children.

3) “Break…a public monopoly”

That we are poised to have a two term governor who describes New York’s public education system as “monopoly” is such a breath taking circumstance, that I am saddened beyond belief.  The common schools movement in this country was conceived of as an exercise in promoting the public good not merely in advancing individuals.  We wanted universal, compulsory, free education to serve the individual by promoting academic and economic merit as well by promoting the habits of mind and character that enrich a person’s experience in life.  We also wanted schools to promote the good of society by preparing individuals for the world of work beyond school and by preparing individuals to be thoughtful participants in our democracy who value civic virtues in addition to their own good.  For nearly two centuries, Americans have thought of public schools as the center of community civic life, something to be valued because it provides bedrock principles of democratic equality, and as our concept of democratic participation has expanded, so has our concept of plurality in schools.  From literacy for former slaves to women’s suffrage to incorporation of immigrants to tearing down White Supremacism and promoting civil rights, to inclusion of those with disabilities, to gender equality, to equal protection for LGBT citizens — our schools have helped us to reconceive our ideas of pluralism in every decade.

Schools have also stood as important symbols of our commitment to common aspects of our society that all have access to regardless of race, gender, or economic advantage.  There was a time in our nation’s history when we were dedicated not merely to building economic infrastructure, but also to building community, cultural, and natural infrastructure.  There are libraries, parks, museums, and publicly supported arts across our country that are testament to the belief that the world of knowledge, natural beauty, and the arts cannot be the sole province of the wealthy.  Public schools are part of that commitment, but to call them a “monopoly” reveals a mindset disregarding that heritage and which rejects it as a commitment to the future.  Does Governor Cuomo drive the New York Throughway and see a “public monopoly”?  Does he enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City whose entry fee is a suggested donation and see a “public monopoly”?  Does he want to “break up” the Franklin D. Roosevelt  and Watkins Glen State Parks?

What Governor Cuomo appears to believe is that education exists solely for the social mobility of individuals with no regard for the public purposes of education.  David Labaree of Stanford University posited in this 1997 essay, that the historic balance of purposes in education was already out of balance with current trends favoring education for individual social mobility far outweighing the public purposes of social efficiency and democratic equality.  Labaree was rightly concerned that if people only see education as the accumulation of credentials that can be turned in for economic advantage then not only will the civic purposes of education be swept aside, but also that the effort to accumulate the most valuable credentials for the least effort will diminish actual learning.  Governor Cuomo’s depiction of schools as a “public monopoly” only makes sense if he is mostly concerned with how education “consumers” accumulate valued goods from school, but discounts the essential services schools provide to our democracy.  It is an impoverished view that relegates school to just another mechanism to sort people in and out of economic advantage.

Governor Andrew Cuomo may not only be at war with teachers.  He may be at war with the very concept of public education.  If he does indeed win a second term on Tuesday, he must be opposed at every step of his distorted and dangerous ideas about our public schools.

11 Comments

Filed under charter schools, politics, schools, Social Justice, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

Campbell Brown’s Brings the Anti-Tenure “Argument” to Stephen Colbert

As a former broadcast personality, Campbell Brown has some advantages when appearing on the media to discuss her campaign to end teachers’ workplace protections.  She has experience in interview techniques.  She understands what works well on camera and what does not.  She knows how to pitch her voice and use facial and body language to convey deep sincerity and earnestness regardless of what she really believes.  These served her well on Mr. Colbert’s program last week.

Campbell-Brown

Mr. Colbert is similarly skilled, but he plays a satirical representation of a right wing ideologue in order to lampoon a segment of the media and to keep his guests off balance.  I would argue that he did not level the full weight of his satirical talents upon Ms. Brown, but rather he waited until the end of the interview to present her with some serious challenges that she could not respond to adequately.  More on that later.

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post provides a pretty thorough assessment of Ms. Brown’s many prevarications and reliance on talking points over evidence courtesy of Dr. Alyssa Hadley Dunn of Michigan State University.  Dr. Dunn makes it very clear that there simply isn’t a research base to support any of Ms. Brown’s assertions, and since she had made those assertions in the media prior to her appearance on The Colbert Report, I wish that Mr. Colbert had been more ready to take on some of the more stubborn and egregious talking points.  For example, Ms. Brown repeated her claim that New York State’s teachers cannot possible be as effective as job evaluations say they are because student test scores are too low:

SC: Okay, how’s the crisis in New York? What’s the problem here?

CB: So, if you look at, if you look at the, um, outcomes, student outcomes in New York, okay? So, 91 percent of teachers are around the state of New York are rated either “effective” or “highly effective,” and yet [SC: Sounds good.] 31 percent, [SC: Yep.] 31 percent of our kids are reading, writing, and doing math at grade level. How does that compute? I mean, how can you argue the status quo is okay with numbers like that??

SC: Well, I went to public school in South Carolina and 31 percent sounds like a majority to me.  (transcript is courtesy of Mercedes Schneider, teacher and author)

Mr. Colbert chose to lightly mock his own education, but there is a major, I would argue deliberate, flaw in Ms. Brown’s favored talking point.  First, the 31% figure does not measure students’ grade level performance; it measures the percentage of students who scored “proficient” or above on the new Common Core aligned testing piloted by the Pearson corporation in New York.  Second, the 31% proficiency rate was gamed by the process to determine the cut scores and openly predicted by New York State Education Commissioner John King before the tests were ever deployed.  From the Times-Union in 2013:

State Education Commissioner John King said he expected some push-back. At a Times Unioneditorial board meeting on Tuesday, he said the number of students considered proficient will likely drop by 30 points. He said, while that number is intimidating, it provides a more honest assessment of what New York’s students know. He acknowledged that makes for nervous educators, but said the state can’t afford to roll back the tougher new standards students will be expected to meet because just 35 percent of New York’s high school freshmen leave ready for college or a career four years later.

How could the commissioner so accurately predict the drop in test scores for the new examinations?  According to award-winning Principal Carol Burris, it is because his office deliberately sought to peg the cut scores between proficiency levels to markers that would leave just a third of New York students making the cut.  The condensed version of Burris’ analysis:  NY DOE sought information from the College Board on what SAT scores (widely considered only a loose predictor of college success) correlated to a successful first year in college, and set measures of that “success” that are clearly aimed at that 30% target.  Once in possession of the desired SAT scores in reading, writing and mathematics for a combined 1630 points, the state’s committee went about setting cut scores for each level of performance on the new CCSS aligned tests.  From Principal Burris again:

When the cut scores were set, the overall proficiency rate was 31 percent–close to the commissioner’s prediction.  The proportion of test takers who score 1630 on the SAT is 32 percent.  Coincidence?  Bet your sleeveless pineapple it’s not. Heck, the way I see it, the kids did not even need to show up for the test.

So is it honest for Ms. Brown to keep repeating that only 31% of NY students are at “grade level”? Absolutely not — first, because this is not a “grade level” measure and second, because the result was gamed from the beginning.

This also brings up another question.  If the goal of the “proficient” rating on the exams is “college and career ready” is a 31% proficiency rating actually wrong?  In 2013, 33.6% of the U.S. population aged 25-29 had a bachelors degree, which is up over 11 points from 22.5% in 1980 when the education “crisis” rhetoric began in earnest.  More of our young population is in possession of college degree today than ever before in our history, and the economic data does not suggest we are in a crisis of too few people with such degrees in the economy.  48% of recent college graduates are underemployed, and in 2010, over 5 million college graduates were employed in jobs requiring only a high school diploma.  Moreover, according to Pew Social Trends, today’s wage benefit for obtaining a college degree comes less from rising wages for college graduates than from cratering wages for those without college.

One could argue that more students need to be on path to be “college and career ready” by their third grade exams because college is increasingly necessary to keep from falling behind economically moreso than it is necessary to get ahead.  Something tells me that today’s reform advocates don’t want to emphasize that point.  We would do better to question if the distribution of students who qualify for and are successful at college are concentrated in specific communities and neighborhoods, but discussed honestly, that would require examining America’s rising Residential Income Segregation Index, another topic education reform advocates don’t like to discuss.

Mr. Colbert made a feint at this late in his interview with Ms. Brown:

SC: You can mention. I’ll edit it out, but you can mention it. [CB: Okay.] [Audience laughter.] All right, now, but, here’s, the thing is aren’t you opening a can of worms there, because [4:00] if you say the kids are entitled to e, equal education, if that’s your argument, doesn’t that mean eventually, you’re going to say, “Every child in the state of New York should have the same amount of money spent on their education”—rich community, poor community—pool it all in, split it all up among Bobby and Susie and Billy—everywhere. [Audience applause.] Because the argument is, everyone gets the same opportunity. [Audience applause.]

CB: But, but you, you’re suggesting that mon, that it’s all about the money, and I think it’s not about the money.

SC: Well, you’re suggesting it’s about equality, and money is one of the equations in equality, or have I just schooled you? [Audience laughter.]

Mr. Colbert did not let Ms. Brown duck the question of money and school funding entirely, but she quickly professed how she wants to “pay teachers more” AND treat them like “professionals” through evaluations.  Then she sidestepped to her “safe” territory by claiming it is almost impossible to fire a teacher with tenure.  As previously noted, Dr. Dunn of Michigan State makes it clear that these claims are completely problematic because first, new evaluations using student test scores focus on formulations of teachers’ impact that only accounts for 1-14% of variability between student performance and second, Ms. Brown’s information on the length of time needed to remove a tenured teacher is badly out of date and her assessment of that time is possibly off by more than a factor of four.  This all tied to her previous claims the “least effective” teachers are concentrated in schools with high levels of disadvantaged students, but her argument against tenure is not remotely related to that because measuring effectiveness via test scores automatically makes urban teachers less effective regardless of their experience and skill. Additionally, these school have far fewer tenured teachers because the turnover rate in many urban districts tops 50% in three years, resulting in a dearth of teachers with the skills that come from experience.

If tenure were truly the problem with teacher quality, then wealthy suburban districts with more stable and experienced teacher corps would not be the districts with high test scores and large percentages of college bound graduates.  In this sense, Ms. Brown’s fight against tenure resembles Republican led drives for voter ID laws that threaten to block 100s of 1000s of currently eligible voters in order to stop a “problem,’ voter impersonation, that occurs so rarely it does not statistically exist.

Mr. Colbert then pivoted to what appears to have been his most important question of the interview — what is the money involved in Ms. Brown’s lawsuit?

SC: Just trying to win, Campbell. Just trying to win, all right? Um, your organization, where does it’s money come from? That’s one of the things they asked me to ask you.

CB: I, I saw that on my Twitter feed today. The, the, who’s funding this effort?

SC: Yeah, who’s funding your, your effort, [CB: Kirkland Ellis.] your organization.

CB: The law firm…

SC: The law firm is funding it?

CB: Well, the law firm is doing this for free, so we haven’t gone out…

Ms. Brown’s point here appears to be that despite her fronting the organization that is facilitating the lawsuit, the efforts on behalf of that suit are, in essence, charitable.  This may be true as far as legal fees are concerned, but it is absurd on the face to even hint that there is no monetary value to the assistance Ms. Brown is giving the plaintiffs her organization recruited.  First, her connections and celebrity almost certainly played a role in obtaining the legal services.  Second, Ms. Brown is a media ready spokesperson who has been giving interviews and penning opinion articles on behalf of this cause, and such services would cost dearly if they came from a private consulting firm.  Further, Ms. Brown has managed to sign up the services of Incite Agency, led by former Obama administration alumni Robert Gibbs and Ben LaBolt to do publicity for the cause on a national level.  The plaintiffs in this case are enjoying pro bono legal services, Ms. Brown’s celebrity and public relations services from former White House personnel.  I think it is sufficient to say that those are no small levels of support.

Mr. Colbert pressed on about financial support and finally got Ms. Brown to admit to something which I find astonishing:

SC: So, the Partnership for Educational Justice [7:00] has not raised any money so far?

CB:Yeah, we are raising money.

SC: And who did you raise it from?

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

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

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

SC: Exercising First Amendment rights…

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

 

Ms. Brown is married to Dan Senor, who was the former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq following the fall of the Hussein Regime.  He sits on the board of of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirstNY, and he joined hedge fund Elliot Management before becoming a top adviser to Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  Ms. Brown is on the Board of Directors of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain of charter schools, an organization that boasts massive financial support from Wall Street.  Her ties to people who have been pouring money into education “reform” in the interest of charter schools is not difficult to establish, as blogger Mother Crusader has demonstrated.  Suffice to say that these are incredibly wealthy and politically connected people who are the most likely donors to her organization.

And Ms. Brown wants us to believe that they need to be “protected”.  That if people want to know who is funding lawsuits to challenge laws that were passed by democratically elected governments and job protections that were subject to open and adversarial negotiations between unions and administrators, they cannot know because the donors seeking to overturn such laws could not abide potential criticism of themselves in the public sphere.

Wow.

Let’s be clear.  Who are “the people who are outside today” who Ms. Brown assumes will bully and intimidate her donors?  According to The Daily News:

 

colbert1n-1-web

colbert1n-2-web

I am sure that Eva Moskowitz’s donors are just quaking in their boots…right after they drop another $400,000 into Governor Cuomo’s pockets.

Mr. Colbert did not sneak a camera crew down to the street to make Ms. Brown look as ridiculous as she richly deserved at that moment, but the fact that he led her to make such a ludicrous statement is telling in an of itself.  Today, it is very hard to trust that major media outlets will take the time and effort to research and interview people trying to lead public debate via deception, and on issues that require a genuine understanding of complex social phenomena, that is even less likely.  I have written before how abysmally the New York Times’ editorial staff have failed in that regard, preferring to take the statements of advocates with wealth and connections at face value.

Mr. Colbert is not a journalist, yet he and his fellow comedians Jon Stewart and John Oliver have become almost guardians of truth in recent years.  It is often more likely that Mr. Colbert or Mr. Stewart or Mr. Oliver will highlight the absurd inanities, half truths and contradictions routinely offered by politicians, pundits and advocates.  In the case of Ms. Brown, Mr. Colbert got her to openly confess to a truth that is gaining greater and greater public awareness: American governance is increasingly oligarchical in nature whereby elected officials craft policy more to serve the interests of their very wealthy donors rather than the interests of the actual voters who put them in office.  Ms. Brown’s undisclosed donor list is a perfect example of this, and her refusal to disclose under the fiction that her donors could possibly be intimidated by moms and teachers with home made posters should be mocked loudly and frequently.

I am grateful to Mr. Colbert for organizing his interview to that point, but I am saddened that we rely almost exclusively on satirists to get to the heart of public affairs these days.

3 Comments

Filed under Activism, Funding, Media, politics, schools, Social Justice, Testing, Unions, VAMs