Monday, August 12, 2013

Yohuru Williams Why I Joined the BTA and Why You Should Do the Same


The following article appears in the lastword section of this month’s edition of Diverse Issues in Higher Education. Special thanks to Mark Naison who generously read and commented on an early version. All errors, of course, are mine.


While a graduate student at Howard University, I had the good fortune to land a job teaching in a wonderful private school in Washington, DC. Many of my friends and associates taught in the public schools. While our class sizes and access to resources was quite different, what we shared was a commitment to young people and a belief in the transformative power of education. What we also shared at the time, was a degree of respect and influence in the community due to our chosen profession. Back in the mid-1990s, teaching was still celebrated as a noble occupation if not a vocation of service. How things have changed.

Over the past few years, we witnessed a steady assault on teachers’ abilities. They shoulder the blame for the general failure of American education, including lower rates of student performance on high stakes testing and incredibly high dropout rates. At the same time, the narrative of the incompetent teacher, with its concomitant condemnation of the three T’s, tenure, teachers unions, and too much time off, dominates the national discussion on the failure of American education. Equally, a new abiding faith in technology, in the form of the push for online alternatives to traditional schooling has challenged the notion that large numbers of teachers are even necessary.

This troubling one two punch has been relentless and for the most part successful, perpetuated by a cacophony of interests unwilling to commit the resources or institute the reforms necessary to revitalize and transform our schools. In recent battles in New York, Los Angles, and Philadelphia, teachers have been vilified for supporting the idea that education is a civil right beyond compromise. Such demonization points to a Fahrenheit 451esque future. Before you burn the books, you must first do away with the teachers. Perhaps, this is already the case. In many communities from Wisconsin to New Jersey, monies allocated for corrections dwarf the amount spent on education, with little to no discourse about how to correct this. Philadelphia teachers even appealed to US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, but to no avail.

The press has certainly been complicit. In the last two decades alone, sensationalized stories about improper student teacher relations garnered bigger headlines than shrinking budgets and the demise of music and art in many districts. The vast majority of teachers labor for inadequate pay but are saddled with the tremendous responsibility as vital caretakers of our nation’s most precious commodity, our youth.
Where are the stories about the corporate tax breaks that have helped to compromise the health of our schools, especially in deindustrialized urban centers where the shrinking tax base seriously compromised education along with other basic city services?

This is not a blanket defense of the teaching profession. Long before critics became fixated on the so-called abuses of teachers unions, teachers themselves clamored for greater accountability, more opportunities for professional development, and administrators with practical insight (teaching experience) into the challenges of the field. What they got in exchange was “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” which share an appeal to form over substance, and appearance rather than performance.
Rather than deal with the real issues at the heart of our ailing schools, critics singled out teachers as the primary cause for the decline. All the “smart” people, so the story goes have real jobs in corporate America, leaving education to a mix of the well-intentioned, but incompetent or outright inept. Why would anyone “choose” to be a teacher, they ask unwittingly acknowledging the low pay and hardship associated with the work? The answer, of course, is simple, because we care.

What you may ask does any of this have to do with higher education? Over the past five years, we have also seen the corporatizing influence creeping into higher education with the same narrative applied to the professorate. Employers, we are told have complained that students are graduating from college unprepared for the challenges of 21st century America. They need skills training. Ironically, the response has not been calls for smaller class sizes, or more opportunities for collaboration between college and K-12 educators, but MOOCS massive online classes where the very same students we are told who are unable to read, write, or process information critically can fulfill their core requirements with even less opportunity to address these deficiencies. At the same time such classes, we are told could insure uniformity in instruction and student learning outcomes, contradictory to the evidence coming out of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.
In conjunction with the so-called benefits, proponents have been quick to point out the cost cutting elements of such initiatives without acknowledging the importance of universities as important spaces of human interaction that have produced innovation in every arena from science and technology to literature, philosophy, and medicine not to mention as key centers of political discourse and exchange.

The same forces have branded professors as lazy, technophobes, singularly concerned with their own research and unwilling to make changes that might negatively affect their life of comfort. Calls for post tenure review, and now the abolition of tenure altogether are partly a reflection of this narrative. College professors, like teachers, have also led the charge in educational reform with initiatives like preparing future faculty that date back more than a decade.

It is for all these reasons that I recently joined the Badass Teacher Association (BTA). Founded in June of 2013, BTA is a growing network of educators from Kindergarten to College united by a common desire to bring these concerns back into focus. The fight for quality education, along with respect for those who deliver it, is only one of many fronts in the battle against economic, social, and political inequality in this country. It is, however an important one. BTA recognizes this pushing for sensible reform and enlightened administration that will assist not only in the education of future generations, but also in the restoration of sense of community, in which teachers and professors play a vital role. As a parent and professor, as well as a proponent of social justice, I can find no stronger argument than that.

Dr. Yohuru Williams is Chair and Professor of History at Fairfield University. Follow him on Twitter @yohuruwilliams.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The BATtle for Education

By Jennifer Clarke

Ineffective teachers should be removed from the classroom.  

Let’s play a bit of Mad Libs, shall we?

Ineffective (noun:occupation) ______________ should be removed from the (noun:place)________________.

There are not many nouns that could be placed in that sentence that would make it false. That being said, the question is not whether or not people who are ineffective in their positions should be removed, but rather what is the measure of effectiveness? There are terms being thrown around about what makes an effective teacher and the harms of tenure, etc. But what does all of this really mean?

What does effective teaching look like to the public?

Colton C., Texas High School Senior--“The most influential teacher that I have ever had really opened up my mind to a lot of new ideas. For a long time I had been very closed minded and didn't want to accept new ideas. She showed me that maybe . . .other way[s] could work too. I have grown substantially because of her. I find myself to be a much better person today than I was before and a lot of it is because of her. She's was and still is one of the most influential people I have ever met and I hope to keep learning from her.”

Sheri L., Louisiana Parent--“I am writing this letter to show my appreciation for a 2nd grade teacher from Henning Elementary School in Sulphur, Louisiana. . .I was blessed to have my daughter in the classroom of a teacher that not only was passionate about education but was a sincere person with unbelievable determination to make all those in her classroom excel. My daughter struggled at any early age with Attention Deficit Disorder.  While her case was mild in comparison to others she still faced struggles with her studies.  No matter the encouragement we gave her at home it was not enough to boost her confidence in the classroom.  Her teacher not only gave her the education required but also found a way to make her understand and enjoy learning. . . She graduated in the top percentile of her class and was awarded a small scholarship.  To most people this is average, to me and my daughter it was a blessing.  She received the gift of an educator from her early years in school that would change the course of her future forever. . . As more tests and focus on state testing is required, I find that great educators are no longer able to give this kind of attention to students.  Classrooms are spending more time working to prepare for “The Test” than staying on track with the needs of those that may struggle but still have bright minds waiting and begging to be developed.”

Rachel V., Texas College Student--“Throughout my high school career, I never felt like I fit in with the rest of my age group. I had few friends and many acquaintances, all of which were outcasts. I felt so out of place, I would even dress differently to make myself stand out. While the eyes of my peers were filled with shallow judgment, my teachers saw through my costume. . . Needless to say, I never had a teacher that didn't love me. . .My teachers were the ones who encouraged me and pushed me. Without their guiding hands, I do not believe I would have reached my full potential because I never believed in myself. There was one particular instance I will always remember. I would occasionally hear people say that high school was the best time of their lives. I absolutely despised being in high school and being told the experience would probably be the best time of my life made me feel hopeless. One wonderful English teacher told the class one day, ‘Class, I would like for you all to know that there is much more to life than high school. There are so many great experiences beyond this. Don't believe that this is the greatest time you will ever have in your life. There is so much more.’ And that's exactly what I needed to hear. Teachers are not just there to teach their students how to get high scores on a test. My teachers taught me vision and patience. My teachers brought me a joy through learning. My teachers... I will never forget.”

Brittany L., Texas High School Junior--“The most important thing my English teacher taught me was not the required materials or the district curriculum, but the way she taught it. She educated with such enthusiasm and honest concern for each individual student. Her attitude has stayed with me and inspired me to do tasks and work with a positive demeanor.”

Brandon L., Texas High School Graduate, currently deployed in Afghanistan--“I had two teachers who had very meaningful impacts on my life. My freshman math teacher, from the very first moment she walked into the class, her first time teaching in high school, . . . my classmates and myself knew she was different. She walked in, with a huge smile and the best attitude of any teacher I have seen on our first day of school. Through the year, she made learning fun. Wait actually she made MATH fun, something my classmates and myself thought to be completely impossible. But not only was it math she was teaching us . . .She was always trying to lead us into the right direction as teenagers growing into young adults. She shared life experiences with us, and if you ever needed an adult to talk to, her door was always open to her students. Through my four years of high school, I maintained a very close relationship with this teacher, and even after graduation we still maintain contact. . . I am grateful that I had such a caring person in those early years of me becoming an adult. I also am grateful for my senior English teacher. So by this point I was at that young adult age, getting ready to start pursuing my life outside of school. . .I was very lazy and didn’t feel like applying myself a lot of the time . . . But this teacher saw the potential in me, and always pushed me to strive for my best, even if I found the work to be easy.  And that was something that she did with all her students. There were students in my grade that . . . with her help and her support, they exceeded even their own expectations. Not only was she a motivator, . . . She was also a life lessons teacher. She always wanted what was best for her students and would do what she could to make sure her students were ok.  She is a caring person with a huge heart . . . She truly helped shaped my senior year, and many of her students will say that she has also influenced their life in a big way, and I am one of those students. To this day I can go back to her and talk to her and she will still help me, even if it is just the simplest advice there is. Truly an amazing individual and an amazing teacher.”

Nicole J., Texas Student--“In the 7th grade I was greatly influenced by my science teacher, not because of the lessons she taught me in school, but because of the lessons she taught me in life! She was young and full of love and kindness! One day I had overslept and missed my bus, which left me with no way to school, as this wonderful lady passes by and see's me walking she quickly turns around insisting she give me a ride to school! That day I was so grateful of her! And that day she taught me how much it can mean to someone else to take just a second out of your day to do a kind act for another. Later on during the next year we lost our house to a fire, and when my family and I were left with nothing, she contributed along with the rest of my school to raise money for my family and give me a christmas. This wonderful woman never stops giving! Because of her, I will always take time out of my day to help someone who may need me.”

Why is tenure under attack?

Michelle Rhee told The New York Times: “Tenure is the holy grail of teacher unions but has no educational value for kids; it only benefits adults. If we can put veteran teachers who have tenure in a position where they don’t have it, that would help us to radically increase our teacher quality. And maybe other districts would try it, too.”

Simply put, there is a misconception that tenure means a teacher who is ineffective or harmful cannot be removed from the classroom. Tenure does not mean a teacher’s contract cannot be terminated. Tenure simply guarantees teachers due process in pursuing claims or causes of action related to potential termination of a contract. That is really all it does. If a teacher is in danger of losing his or her job, then he or she is entitled to administrative processes to review the issues before any final decisions are made. Any other degreed, contracted professional is afforded the same right is some form.

Why are unions under attack?

“What she [Michelle Rhee] calls "Plan B" involves a more aggressive use of powers she already has and that are not subject to contract negotiations with the union. These could include strengthening the existing system of annual personnel evaluations that spell out procedures for terminating teachers.”

Unions have been systematically dismantled for decades, and worker’s rights have diminished. We could argue cause and effect, and it is likely a topic worth of discussion, but I mention it because the attacks on teacher unions that have suffered the same loss of power as other professional unions has resulted in essentially silencing teachers in the battles for job security, livable wages, professional protections, and true education reform. The result is that corporate reformers and politicians have bulldozed public education at the expense of educators and the peril of students. Unions function largely as mediators, and so the result is often continued silence of educators.

Why are students under attack?

The corporate and political reformers have decided that students should all conform to a set curriculum and pass a test that is standardized to the goal of the curriculum. The problem with this formula is that it is manufactured like a product and marketed as education. Despite what education is actually doing, the corporate and political reformers would have everyone believe that it is a gross failure. "It's no secret the U.S. education system is failing," Gates said. "We're doing all kinds of experiments that are different. The Race To The Top is going to do many different ones. There's no group-think." 

How will experiments that have no proven results, are formulated by people with little to no educational background, knowledge, or training, and based on a premise of conjecture yield anything reliable? Why are our children being used for this experiment? Are the classrooms really being used as a thinly veiled focus group for the product of corporate reform? This product does not appeal to and would not be effective for everyone. Students come from different backgrounds, have different language barriers, have obstacles to learning, and require varied educational practices and approaches. One product will not fit all. There are countless studies that have shown the largest barrier to student success is poverty. There is absolutely nothing about this product that addresses, adapts, or even acknowledges one of the major inhibitors to student success. It is presumptuous to label children as failures when they are being forced to participate in a system that is not designed for them to succeed.

Why are parents under attack?

Michelle Rhee: “I think if there is one thing I have learned over the last 15 months, it’s that cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building are way overrated.”
September 2008 Aspen Institute’s education summit at the Mayflower Hotel (Washington Post)

Parents have been questioning the state of education for a long time, but have been given conflicting information in an endless tome of advice, documentation, internet articles, research, and countless confusing politically charged speeches on education reform. Parents have been told that teachers are ineffective. Parents have been told that teachers are failing. But parents are beginning to ask questions, research their rights, and pay attention to the legislation and statutes that govern education. Parents are beginning movements to opt-out of testing. Some states have passed parent-backed legislation that supports parent take overs of schools, but this is unlikely to be successful without significant cooperation between teachers and parents. The point is, parents have been under attack for not preparing kids to be educated. They are attacked for not participating in overseeing homework. They are attacked for not disciplining their children. Parents are attacked for not managing their children in the approximately three waking hours families have together on a weekday basis. While parent involvement is vital to student success, poverty and other economic failures plague families. Parents are working more hours to survive. Between feeding, bathing, and bedtime, little time is left for checking homework folders, assignment sheets, discussing grades, reading notes, signing forms, and still taking care of all other domestic family duties. Corporate reformers and politicians lack perspective. American families are struggling to survive. Kids are struggling to meet some arbitrary standard that has no basis in respected peer-reviewed pedagogy or benefit to the children. Until parents can afford to survive, “little Timmy’s” homework folder just doesn’t feel as important. It can’t be.

Why are public schools under attack?

President Obama: “And that’s what my key reform’s been all about, “Race To the Top.” What we’ve said to school districts is, ‘You’ve gotta emphasize high accountability, high standards. Make sure that teachers know that we’re going to be paying attention to the actual outcomes for kids. But we’re also going to give more resources to schools who are doing the right thing: Training teachers providing them the professional development and support that they need.’ Some of the things that we’ve done haven’t been popular with teachers unions. You know, I’m a big proponent of charter schools, for example. I think that pay-for-performance makes sense in some situations.”

Reformers are pushing for vouchers, charters, and private schools. Interestingly, many of these options allow for non-participation in the imposed public school curriculum, alternate rating systems, or exemption from testing requirements. Additionally, many of the supporters of reform send their own children to the alternatives to public school. On the very face of the issue, my question is, if this curriculum and standardized testing will solve all ills in public education, then why would your very own children not be benefitting from this reform? More deeply, I question the intent behind this movement. Public education is the only guaranty for equity in access to education. When parents run to alternatives to escape testing for their children, public schools will be robbed of funding and programs needed for survival. Where will children who cannot participate fully in vouchers, attend private school, are travel to an available charter, go to school? If these schools are not required to participate in testing and curriculum mandates, when the public schools begin to dissolve, where will funding for the testing corporation continue to come from? At some point, this “house of cards” (thank you BATs) will fall.

Why are teachers under attack?

Michelle Rhee: “We will no longer describe failure as the result of vast impersonal forces like poverty or a broken bureaucracy." 
(July 2007 confirmation hearing (Washington Post)

Despite the realities of the problems in education, teachers have become the scapegoat. Teachers want real, effective evaluation based on valuable curriculum standards, educational practices, lesson engagement, and student impact, and they want to be evaluated by people and processes knowledgeable about education. Current evaluative practices include classroom monitoring, student intervention, parent contact, lesson evaluation, self-assessment, administrator evaluation, and teacher mentoring programs, but Gates, apparently misinformed, suggests that: “until recently, over 98% of teachers just got one word of feedback: satisfactory.”

Interestingly, Bill Gates said: “Teachers need the feedback and professional growth opportunities they want to help their students succeed instead of generic, one-size-fits all solutions that don’t help them grow as professionals.”  And yet, it is exactly, this “one-size-fits all solution” that he is backing financially.

There are many factors that impact student success and educators are a part of the equation. But the teachers are only a part. Educator effectiveness cannot be calculated by student success if the student is being judged on a one size fits all criteria. Teachers will teach curriculum and students will learn—this has happened for centuries. Test scores or no test scores, students learn at school. Teachers also educate students on the value of thought, creativity, problem solving, self-reliance, achievement, and work ethic. These are valuable skills that are not quantifiable on a test, but they are necessary for any student to ultimately be successful. Teachers fill roles in students’ lives that are necessary and important for student development.  Teachers act as mentors, counselors, role models, and sometimes family to students in need of guidance. Teachers have placed students as their priority, and in so doing, as the unions dissolved, and administrations became overrun with business professionals, teachers have become silenced in the bureaucratic processes. This has made them an easy target. Additionally, politicians have made it clear that targeting poverty, joblessness, and other social issues is too big a burden to bear. Placing the blame on teachers through quantifiable (though irrelevant) data and statistics, is a much easier “solution” and comes with handy charts and graphs to show constituents. The truth is, teachers aren’t the problem. And when people are ready to allow them speak again without fear of retribution, they will gladly offer helpful ideas and solutions for student success.

Why it is time to defend?

Excerpt from a poem by Kisha Allgood, New Jersey College Student

Tell a story we know too well
A story of love and sacrifice 
A story of joy and pain 
Voices in harmony speak the same 
To all of the soldiers 
Mothers, Fathers, and friends
The battle has just begun , the question is where does it end?

Bill Gates said “U.S. teachers don't get enough feedback or have the opportunities to advance to different levels based on merit that are available in other countries.” Clearly, Gates is not familiar with education. What is teacher advancement? If you become an administrator you are no longer a teacher, but would that be advancement? It is a different job entirely and requires differentiated education. Teachers teach, Gates. Let them do it.

The major players in the corporate and political reform movement have made it clear that teachers, public schools, students, and parents are the problem with public education. Their solution is to build a curriculum and test wherein everyone conforms to the standard or is labeled a failure. As Michelle Rhee stated: “The bottom line is that if you can’t come to agreement then you have to push your agenda in a different way, and we’re absolutely going to do that." (September 2008 Aspen Institute’s education summit at the Mayflower Hotel (Washington Post). She is pretty clear about where her loyalties lie, and students aren’t first.

Arne Duncan has joined forces with corporate reformers hailing this union as paving the way for a brighter educational future, but researching Duncan shows his support of public education is lackluster at best. His sound bites are ludicrous, full of double talk, and really say nothing, so here is my question: You will remove highly qualified, skilled, trained educators with TFA recruits that have 5 weeks of training and plan to only stay for two years, and in your Race to the Top world, this is expected to yield better results? Political and corporate reform is not only bad for education, the reformers have no idea what effective education actually looks like.

President Obama said: “When I meet teachers all across the country, they are so devoted, so dedicated to their kids. And what we’ve tried to do is actually break through this left/right, conservative/liberal gridlock. . .Well, the key is to work with teachers”

Remove the gridlock, Mr. President. We are here, sleeves rolled up, and we are ready to work with you.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Badass Seedling Sprouting

As a sprouting badass
I am like a seed in the rich soil
Who waits for rain to come
Drinking it, I smile and grow strong

Other badass seedlings push me up
Higher,higher...then comes the sun!

No stopping me now

I bloom in the face of a blue sky
My green leaves soak up the rays
My blossom smells fragrant to the masses

I am a badass seedling sprouting
I am a badass seedling sprouting GOOD!!


Terry Preuss
Career Public Educator
Author, Voices in the Hall

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Choose Real Education Over Mind-Numbing Numbers

by Jennifer Clarke

I am angry. I am hurt. But I am not disposable.

I gave up a lot to become an educator. I took on massive student loan debt, took almost a 50% cut in pay, and went back to college with two children, a full time job, and a household to manage. But I sacrificed sleep and worked hard to graduate Summa Cum Laude. I studied to pass the certification exams, and made exceptionally high scores on my first try, and I invested myself wholeheartedly into my training as an educator in order get everything I could from that educational experience so that when I stepped into a classroom I would be prepared.

My students quickly became my kids. I wanted them to learn the material, and we accomplished that goal. I saw them improve as writers, readers, and critics. We opened up discussions, and I saw them think critically and become more aware not only of themselves, but of their global community. I was inspired every single day I spent in the classroom.

I love the time I spent with these kids, and I loved how much they wanted to learn. I coached extra-curricular academic events and spent many weekends and evenings dedicated to helping these kids achieve and gain experience. I also wanted to see my struggling kids in the classroom become successful, and I spent countless hours after school was out working with students to help them master essential skills. Sometimes they showed up, sometimes they didn’t, but if they said they needed me, there I sat (with my own children asking about dinner) and waited until after they finished their athletic and band and dance practices, so that if they decided to come, I would be there to help them.

But with all of the changes occurring over the past few years, testing has eaten away at that time for class discussion, reading of novels and longer works has been replaced by excerpts, writing has been dumbed down to technical and short pieces that provide no real opportunity to build persuasive and fully developed ideas. In short, students are being robbed of the opportunity to think, explore, develop, and achieve.

Additionally, somewhere along the way, someone decided that reports and statistics were a better measure of student progress. But it doesn’t stop there. These same barely relevant measurements are applied when determining if teachers and schools are successful. Lower percentages in DAEP and ISS are a good mark for an administrator, despite what the actual atmosphere of the educational environment is like. Administrators are blaming teachers for lack of classroom management instead of backing them up by applying consequences for behavior issues. How does this impact the students in the room who are trying to learn when another student is willfully disruptive and obtrusive? Why is it acceptable to sacrifice the learning process of students to accommodate an administrator or school ranking by not following through with what is best for the integrity of the educational environment?

Someone also decided that schools would get rewarded for higher graduation numbers, but there is no monitoring to see how these numbers are achieved. The reality is teachers are often forced to pass students when students are refusing to work. Explain this lack of equity to the students who are working hard to earn those passing grades and now have to share the graduation stage with students who got the diploma for nothing. This lack of ethical standards is creating a breeding ground for self-entitled youth with no thirst for knowledge. We must teach these children to be self-reliant, self-assured, and able to think and learn, or we have handicapped them from gaining success in their future.

Students, parents, and teachers have become the unwitting pawns in a political game that will hurt all of them. Parents and teachers have become unwilling adversaries. Many times teachers and parents are truly working in the best interests of the children, but the gap in communication has left them open to becoming easy victims of this broken system. Ultimately, when the breakdown of the teacher-parent relationship occurs, the student is the one to suffer. Teachers and parents must begin openly communicating again. Public schools serve the community, and transparency goes a long way in building trust. When teachers and parents are talking, students will benefit.

Public education is the only guaranteed equity in access for youth in this nation to receive an education. Despite the hype, vouchers and subsidies will rob public schools of the sustenance they need for survival. Privatization means we no longer view something as a right. When we take away the access to education, we are denying knowledge to the citizens of this nation, and in fact, sacrificing our own future. In order to be successful, productive, citizens, our youth must be educated—they must learn to think independently and problem-solve while functioning within the boundaries of society. Starve the institutions that provide this knowledge, and you deny countless opportunity to the youth in our communities.

The testing, the rating, the calculating of scores, all of this has done nothing to improve education. Because the evaluation is not genuine—there is no focus on individual student growth, there is no observation of teacher effectiveness overall, there is no one creating these policies that is educated and experienced in classroom dynamics and student or teacher success—the results are unreliable. The results are reports dependant upon data that is input. How that data is achieved is not questioned. How those results are obtained is not monitored. The equity in evaluation is not defined. Who is evaluating the evaluators for effectiveness and success?

These privatization efforts have done exactly what you would expect competitive, corporate-market style evaluation to do. It is a dog-eat-dog world in education. The classroom is no longer a place for teachers to tune into their unique identities that impact the lives of their students through creative and useful lessons, connections, nurturing, and support. The classroom has become rote and scripted. The teacher must fall in line with set standards and achieve numbers and statistics in line with the latest, “innovative” educational product. Students must conform to these standards in order to be labeled successful. Teachers have watched this happening and have been powerless to stop it.

Because teachers have been relatively docile and silent for so long, they have, in essence, sacrificed themselves in the battle for education. Many teachers stay silent because they are afraid to lose their jobs. Some teachers feel relatively unaffected by all that is happening in education either because of their current position or maybe their district. And some teachers are trapped, despite being beat down, due to retirement and years in the system. But teachers are reclaiming their position in the battle to save education. Teachers face a tough fight: choosing between what is best for their students or conforming to the corporate and political trends in education. To speak up means to go against the corporate ideal, and if you don’t fit the company’s mission, you don’t belong. True teacher effectiveness, that is, student impact, is of no real value in this new education market. The teacher’s role has become to train students to accept and repeat the product. But education is not a product. Children should not be treated as consumers. When we accept the lie, we fail the students.

I stood up for my rights as an educator, and I stood up for the integrity of the educational environment. My administration was not comfortable with my doing so, and many teachers warned me that it would make my life difficult. How sad is that reality? To understand that standing up for what is right will make life hard? Many agreed, but could do nothing but show their support behind closed doors. When we accept that we are powerless, and refuse to fight against the injustice of this trend in education, then what message are we sending? Teachers will lose, but most importantly, students will lose.

While I hope to go back one day, I have wounds that need time to heal. I am no longer teaching, and that is a very difficult reality for me to bear. Practically, I will be paying for the education I received for a very long time. But emotionally, I have lost a part of who I am. Teaching is never just a job. My kids are a part of my life. I learned from them. I connected with them, and I know they learned from me. Because I refused to sit silently and take the abuse, because I refused to be a cog in the machine and allow my rights to be trampled, because I did what I would hope to inspire every single one of my kids to do in the face of intimidation, I lost a lot.

But I have been freed to fight for education. And I would stand up again, and again, and again.
Nothing will change until all of us are willing to do the same.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Charter Schools: The Walmarts of Education

The American educational system is in a crisis. If one listens to the pundits and some of the politicians, he or she hears how American students are failing, teacher unions are keeping bad teachers in the classroom, and classrooms around the country are overcrowded and in schools that are dangerous. The solution some are proposing are privatizing our public schools and creating charter schools in their place. Many hear the term ‘charter school’ and think they know what they are and believe the rhetoric that these are the saviors of education. What is not said, though, is far more sinister and far less educational than the public realizes. Charter schools are businesses run using taxpayer dollars. Their business is to indoctrinate students into learning a set and many times rote set of skills that do not encourage much in the way of creativity or thought. It is education in a box. Another way to think of it is to see charter schools as the WalMarts of education—lower costs, cheaper output. There are many reasons why they are this way, but I will touch on only a few.

First, let us start by naming the primary corporations that run charter schools in the United States. Charter Schools USA and Academica are two of the largest players in the area. Other major charter school management companies are EdisonLearning, Mosaica, Achievement First, and Aspire Public Schools. It needs to be noted that these are companies who are accountable to an extent to school boards, but not to the same extent as public schools are held accountable. They are free to select students based on applications and even lotteries to determine which students may attend school at their managed operations. Public schools do not have the option, as they are required to accept any student zoned for their particular school. Essentially, charter schools are private schools using taxpayer dollars to run them, but can use that money with little say from the taxpayers on how they are run. Again, they are an educational business rather than a school.

The following is taken from a document produced by a group called The Philanthropy Roundtable entitled, “Investing in Charter Schools. A Guide For Donors.” It defines a charter school as the following:
·         is a public school funded with public money.
·         is tuition-free for all students.
·         is non-sectarian, non-religious, and may not discriminate in student admissions.
·         is chosen by families.
·         is semi-autonomous, operating under its own charter—hence the name—and thus exempt from many of the regulations and collective bargaining agreements under which traditional district schools operate.
·         is free to be a unique school designed to meet the needs of the students it intends to serve.
·         is required to meet the same graduation standards as other schools.
·         is responsible for improving student achievement and adhering to its charter contract, or face closure.
·         receives discounted funding (in most, but not all, states), thus making it partially reliant on philanthropic support.
·         can be a stand-alone school or part of a network of charter schools.
·         can be nonprofit or for-profit  (page 11).
Now, while most of this sounds good, note that charter schools are “exempt from many of the regulations and collective bargaining agreements under which traditional district schools operate.” That means that teachers and staff who work there are not allowed in many cases to negotiate their contracts, their working hours or conditions, or other benefits that traditional educators have. This would also include protections from termination without just cause. Therefore, if the administrator comes in and does not like a particular worker, then they can be fired on the spot with no recourse as would occur in the majority of the jobs, especially in states with “Right-to-Work” laws. It would also include situations where students may not be moving along at the pace required by the standards, which could be caused by the fact that children are individuals who learn at different rates and different styles or their socioeconomic conditions, where the teacher would be held at fault for the student not making learning gains and thus subject to disciplinary actions including dismissal.

This document goes on to call for a priority in “Priming the Human Capital Pipeline” in the form of encouraging more people to teach and lead their charter schools. The exact words they use are that donor are an important source in “supporting the development of a well-primed pipeline of talented human capital for charter schools and helping fund the development of innovative technologies that can decrease the dependence of the sector on finding ever more sources of talent” (21). In plainer English, it is up to those donors to bring people in from wherever they can find them to teach and lead students without relying on colleges and universities to educate their “talented human capital” (21). Teachers and administrators are no longer people, but “talented human capital” (21). Sounds like a business rather than a school, doesn’t it?

It does not stop there as they go on to call those who start up charter schools “education entrepreneurs” (24). Even some of the charter schools are praised for having created a “brand” (25) by which they are known. They make a comparison between industry and charter schools by stating that “consumers come to know a brand and what it signifies…Brands have proven very useful in the marketplace….Charter Management Organizations (CMOs” are the ‘brands’ of the charter sector, with quality control and cost efficiencies” (29). One further aspect they state in this document concerns the differences between these CMOs and their counterparts called EMOs or education management organizations. CMOs are non-profit while EMOs are for profit. One particularly damning piece of evidence states:
…it is important to note that many education reformers believe that EMOs hold real potential for revolutionizing public education. If investors in EMOs are able to deliver consistent student achievement and create a profitable investment vehicle, they will have discovered a highly attractive and sustainable model for charter schools specifically and public education generally. (30).
Did you catch what was said as well as what was not said in that statement? These people believe that education needs to be a business with investors and profits. The goal of the charter movement is to see public education be corporate operated and run. There is no mention of students learning aside from their wanting the delivery of “consistent student achievement”. Consistent does not mean improvement. It does not mean creativity. It means a steady keeping of the status quo. It means having the same results over time. If only 55 percent of the students pass on a consistent basis, then they succeed. Consistency not progress is the key for them.

So, just how do charter schools measure student success? One of the largest donors to the charter school movement is The Walton Family Foundation, founded by the family of Walmart founder Sam Walton. The director of the foundation’s K-12 education reform, Jim Blew, stated in this document that the foundation is very straightforward with our grantees that we expect them to dramatically increase student achievement, as measured by standardized tests in math and reading. We understand that there are other ways of measuring quality—attendance rates, graduation rates, etc.—and we want to hear about those, too. But, at the end of the day, we want to know that grantees are actually raising student achievement. (79)

Student achievement is not based on anything but how well students score on a standardized test. That is it. They are not deemed successful if they create something new. They are not deemed successful if they finally master something they worked on. They achieve if they can pass a test. World-class bubble fillers are the key to America’s success according to this supporter of charter schools. If a student can fill-in the correct answer, regardless of whether they actually understand why it is the correct answer, then they have learned. Learned what, you may ask. Well, how to fill in the correct answer because that is all that is needed to succeed in life. That is all that is needed to make America great again in the world. Well, at least really good at working in a Walmart where all that is needed is to follow the rules and do what management tells you to do.

Charter schools are not good for the education of our students. They are standardized test mills. As long as students can pass the test, they are okay. If the student cannot, well, they can currently be tossed back into the public schools. How long that will last is yet to be determined by policy makers and the donors to them. That is unless you who are reading this find the idea of having your child treated like an assembly line worker and their teacher treated like human capital as appalling as many other people do. If that is the case, it is time for you to take a stand as a parent or as a teacher against this movement to privatize our public educational system. Our children are not all the same; therefore, we cannot allow them to be taught or expected to learn the same way.

Here are some ways to combat this growing trend of charter schools and even reliance on high stakes standardized testing. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a small start.
1.      Get active in your local schools. Go to school board meetings. Volunteer in classrooms and/or the school office. It does not matter if you have kids there or not so long as you pass a criminal background check and care about the future of our country.
2.      Stay informed. Do not rely on the media outlets to tell you everything you hear about our public schools or even charter schools.
3.      Attend local public school events. Cheer on the sports teams. Cheer on the non-sports related groups and organizations as well.
4.      If you are a parent, find ways to opt out of standardized testing.
5.      Look into how the state tests are organized. Speak out if they only cover items that are rote memorization based. Multiple-choice tests do not measure thought, only if the right answers were memorized.
6.      If you are a parent, demand more essay tests or tests that allow your child to choose an answer and defend it with logical reasoning skills.
7.      Support your teachers. They work far more than what many believe they do. They do not have summers off as they spend that time planning as they do nights and weekends during the school year.
8.      Teachers, defend your rights to teach. Abide by your negotiated contract, but if need be, do no more than that if you are not being heard.
9.      Administrators, especially those of you who once taught in a classroom, go back into the classroom. Plan a period every day of the year to keep teaching. If you keep teaching, then you stay in touch with the changes that are happening on the front lines. And do not try to teach just the select students, branch out your roster to include all levels of student abilities.
10.  Political leaders, listen to the teachers who teach in your district. They are on the front lines every day. They are experienced professionals who know their job, their subjects and their students. Remember that standardized tests are snapshots rather than the big picture of what is happening in our schools.

If you would like to read the entire document referenced in this essay, please use the following address: