Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Arne Duncan Drops in Unexpectedly on Meeting With BATS at US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights and Gets an Earful! (w/ added reflections by Larry Proffitt and Marla Kilfoyle)

By:  Dr. Mark Naison 

   On July 28, 2014, following the  BAT Rally outside the US Department of Education, a delegation of BATS went up to  the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights to share some of the main issues that BATS had with  Department Policy.  Representing the BATS were Marla Kilfoyle, General Manager of BATS. Dr Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University, Chicago BAM (Badass Moms) leader  Shoneice Reynolds and her son Asean Johnson, Tennessee BAT leader Larry Proffitt, and Dr Mark Naison, co founder of BATS. The meeting had been set up by Marla Kilfoyle through an official of the Department of Education’s Office of Communications.

  Arne Duncan was not originally scheduled to attend the meeting, but dropped in unexpectedly in the middle. What follows  is my  account of the meeting, including the dialogue with Mr. Duncan, along with and some reflections on what it all means.  How much of what transpired will lead to further communication and action, and how much represented a “smoke and mirrors” game by officials of the Department remains to be seen.

   After going through security, we were escorted to a conference room in the
US Ed Department’s Office of Civil Rights, where we were met by 9 people, including a senior staff member of the Office of Civil Rights, James Kim, who chaired the meeting, along with staff members from the Offices of Communications and Community Outreach and several student interns with the Department.  Mr Kim, who chaired the meeting, was very cordial and asked us if we could present our major concerns, saying he hoped we could find areas of agreement as well as areas where we disagreed, and that a dialogue could  develop which would hopefully continue after the meetings.

    When Mr. Kim asked if someone would present the groups major concerns, I stepped forward, I decided to do so in a manner which would focus attention  on Department of Education policies that  maximized educational  inequality and violated the civil rights of students, parents and teachers in inner city and working class communities.   Using my own experiences in the Bronx as a reference point, I said that BATS were deeply concerned with how Race to the Top Policies, which required rating schools and teachers on the basis of student test scores, closing allegedly “failing schools,” and  preferring charter schools over public schools had the following consequences:

    Leading  teachers in vulnerable neighborhoods to “teach to the test” to the detriment of activities which fostered student creativity.
   Leading to the use of recess time, gym time, and after school time to test prep, maximizing health problems in poor and working class neighborhoods
    Leading the mass firing of veteran teachers and a sharp decline in the percentage of teachers of color on many cities.
     Leading to the destabilization of neighborhoods and the smothering of parent, teacher and student voices in the shaping of education policy.
     Leading to the demonization of public school teachers and their being blamed for everything from the achievement gap for the persistence of poverty and inequality.
     Leading to the best young teachers leaving  the profession prematurely

     The irony here, I said, was that these policies, promoted with  Civil Rights rhetoric, were riding roughshod over the Civil Rights of residents of inner city communities.  I asked for a two year moratorium on all these policies- no more school closings, no more VAM, no more charter school creation- and a new effort by the US Department Education to have teachers voices have a primary role in shaping Department policy rather than business leaders.

       My remarks appeared to catch many of the officials there by surprise. Several agreed with what I was saying; others tried to defend Department of Education policies and say states were ultimately responsible for the abuses I was describing
        The points of agreement expressed by Department of Education officials who spoke up were on the following issues:

 Need to reverse the declining percentage of teachers or color
Need to stop best young teachers from leaving the profession
 Need to stop use of recess and gym for test prep
Need to end demonization of teachers by public officials

    However, several of the officials, while agreeing that we needed to address the above problems insisted that school closings, charter school preferences, and the use of test scores to rate teachers and schools were not the sources of those problems

  As this point, Shoneice Reynolds, Asean Johnson, and Larry Proffitt entered the conversation forcefully and eloquently.  Shoneice and Asean talked in depth about how  in Chicago, community schools were first  starved, then closed and charter schools put in their place, smothering and stifling parent voices, depriving children of great neighborhood schools, and making Chicago neighborhoods more dangerous.   They gave example after example of one great program after another being eliminated in public schools, while charter schools were created which were often limited in their programming and abusive in their discipline policies.

Larry Profitt described how rating teachers on the basis of test scores was driving the best teachers out of the profession in almost every school district in Tenneessee and were severely constricting the curriculum.  Both put the blame squarely on the US Department of Education for promoting policies which led to those destructive consequences and for promoting rhetoric which demonized teachers.

       Right in the middle of both of these conversations, Arne Duncan walked in and introduced himself! Needless to say, we were surprised because we were told he would NOT be at the meeting.  Especially since he entered, along with one of his top aides,  just as things were starting to get heated and real disagreements were emerging.

      Secretary Duncan after  introducing himself,  and saying that he could only stay for a few minutes, asked for two things; first if  we could articulate our concerns about the Department’s policies on dealing with Special needs students, and secondly, if Shoneice and Asean could step out with him to talk about what was going on in Chicago.

      In response to his first comment, Marla Kilfoyle started speaking about her concerns about Department from her standpoint of the parent of a special needs student as well as a teacher. She said it appeared that Department policies  were forcing school districts to disregard individual student IEP’s and exposing special needs students to inappropriate and abusive levels of testing.

       Secretary Duncan deflected her remarks by saying that the Department was concerned that too many children of color were being inappropriately diagnosed as being Special Needs children  and that once they were put in that category they were permanently marginalized. He then said “We want to make sure that all student are exposed to a rigorous curriculum.”
        At that point, I interrupted him in a very loud voice and said “ We don’t like the word ‘rigor.” We prefer to talk about creativity and maximizing students potential.”

        Secretary Duncan was someone taken aback by my comments. He said “ we might disagree about the language, but what I want is for all students to be able to take advanced placement courses or be exposed to an IB (International Baccalaureat) curriculum.
 At this point, Larry Proffitt interrupted the Secretary  and said that in Tennessee, Special Needs students were being abused and humiliated by abusive and inappropriate testing and that their teachers knew this, and were afraid to speak out.
       We were clearly at an impasse here, which the Secretary dealt with by saying he had to leave and asking Shoneice and Asean to step into the hall with him and continue the conversation.
        The rest of us in the room were all now  pretty confused and more than a little upset.  However, James Kim spoke up and said that the rest of the DOE staff were ready to spend up to a half an hour more continuing the conversation, and hopefully we could develop some consensus on areas of agreement and ways of continuing the dialogue.
    Now, things started to get really interesting!  The woman from the Communications office who hadn’t previously spoken up, said that she was concerned about how angry teachers were at the Department since because it was her experience that every time Secretary Duncan travelled to a new city, he met with teachers to hear their concerns.   I then said, perhaps impolitely, that the Secretary fueled teacher mistrust  by making statement after statement showing disrespect for teachers, from his support of the firings of Central Falls Rhode Island teachers in 2009, to his comments on Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans public schools, to his support of Cathy Black for NYC school chancellor, to his recent endorsement of the Vergara decision undermining teacher due process.    “Maybe if you can tell him to stop making provocative comments like these,” I said, “maybe teachers will regard the Department more favorably.”
  At this point, Dr Yohuru Williams chimed in with a suggestion for how the Department could genuinely welcome teacher voices- calling a “National Teachers Congress”- where teachers from all over the country could come together to frankly express their concerns about Department of Education policies.  He added “those teachers can’t be handpicked to say what the Department wants to hear, they have to be democratically  selected.”  His suggestion was discussed for several minutes and the Communication directors promised to give it serious consideration. This was one of the few talking points in the meeting from which there might be some serious follow up
    After this the director of Community outreach and one of the interns started critiquing our perspective that federal policies were driving the best teachers out of the profession, stifling creativity in the classroom, and leading to a decline in teachers of color.  In doing so they  started defending school  closings and VAM, asking us whether  there were any circumstances under which schools should be close and whether there was any method of evaluating teachers that did not rely on student test scores.
     At this point, Dr Williams spoke up, saying that in Connecticut, the suppression of community voices in cities like Bridgeport by unelected school boards was being justified by arguments that mayoral control was supported, if not required Race to the Top, and that similar dynamics were at play in Hartford and New London.  “Does the US Department of Education support real democracy in education decision making,” Dr. Williams he asked?”
     They two officials had no real answer to what Dr Wiliams was saying and deflected attention from his critique by insisting that we needed to hold teachers accountable by student test scores because there was no other way of making sure teachers took every student seriously and helped all of them reach their full potential.
     Now things started to get really heated. Larry Proffitt said that teaching to the test is not real teaching and to have students full potential unleashed , you needed teachers to give them individual attention and kinds of in depth instruction and inspiration that no bubble test could measure.  I said VAM was a disaster, along with the rest of  Race to the Top and we need a two year moratorium on test based teacher evaluation.
      James Kim then entered as a peacemaker and said “how can we keep this discussion going?”. We said, call us back. We are glad to continue a discussion about how to best get teacher voices more input into Department policy, how to find forms of assessing teacher quality that do not depend on student test scores, and how to attract and retain more great teachers, especially teachers of color. 
    Mr. King and the two Communications office said they would find ways of keeping the conversation going, and then called an end to the meeting.
     We left the meeting feeling that we had spoken frankly, that we had been heard, that some people agreed with our main points, while others disagreed. 
      However, nothing concrete had been achieved. There were no policy changes that anyone had agreed to and certainly no overall agreement to reverse the directions of Race to the Top.
       There were a few small glimmers of hope at the end of the meeting. Mr Kim, the top Civil Rights official ,  came up to me after the meeting and said that he really liked our group, that he would try to find ways of keeping the conversation going, and that he would like to meet with me the next time he came to New York. I agreed to remain in communications with him.  Through the entire meeting, he had been respectful, helpful and astute.
     Then, after everyone else left, another staff member from the Office of Civil Rights came up to me and said he really liked what we had to say. What could their office do right now to help us?   I thought a second and said to him “ Investigate charter school abuses. All over the nation, unregulated charters are employing disciplinary practices and expelling students in ways which would not be acceptable in a public school. If your office would start investigating such practices as civil rights violations, it would make a huge difference.”
      He smiled at me and said “Thanks for the suggestion. I will look into it.”
      His response gave me a glimmer of hope that some of the ten plus people in that room were on the same page as BATS on a few issues, even though the Secretary was clearly unmoved by anything we said.
     We spoke truth to power, without fear and without compromise.
      Whether we will be called back to continue the conversation only time will tell.


"Another Voice In the Conversation"
By:  Larry Proffitt

My friends, the BATs and especially the TN BATs, have walked this path with me. Even though there are moles within our TN BATs, we do not stop from our mission, nor do we cower from the cause of great public schools as a civil right for every child with quality trained educators leading them towards their dreams! I was inspired by the rally this weekend! I was inspired by Mark's comments in his blog! I was inspired by the parents of BAM, and I was inspired by the performance and speaking abilities of students of all ages! With that being said, I was also inspired by someone I believe to be a new personal ally of this common movement, Yohuru Williams. It was a pleasure to sit along side Mark Naison and Dr. Williams as we diverted the faulty reasoning and arguments surrounding the student scores to evaluation equation. One of the younger employee/interns listed all of his strategies and analogies for bringing success to his students of diversity and strife on their state tests. The formative assessments even showed a correlation for success, but to use a phrase from their comments, we know correlations do not lead to causation. Dr. Williams brilliantly pointed out that he seemed to spend his entire year within the area of test prep, which was one of our major bones of contention. He pointed out the struggle for students to learn without authentic teaching instead of a year filled with preparatory assessments. At his conclusion, I chimed in to agree with the assessment of the situation of Dr. Williams, but I also brought the young man's attention back to a comment he had laid upon the head of his students as he put forth his situation defending their position. His comment: "Now, I still believed within my heart that those students were capable of achieving!"
This is hard to get past someone bent on civil rights for all students and trying to shape education policy. I clearly asked this young man, "Do you mean to tell me that you believe those students spent all year in your classroom and didn't achieve?" It was at this point that his back-pedal began. I asked again. I made sure to use his exact vocabulary. This I fear, is one of our points of contention. Dr. Williams pointed out as we left the building together, that we caused them to change the direction of questioning altogether. 
The discussion of the day also centered around the weakening of the profession by the use of TFA to force out pedagogically solid educators for those of a lesser dedicated value of education. My comments to Secretary Duncan were necessary about the lack of support from the administration in my mind, because there seemed to be some confusion created about the aim of an earlier business item created this year about education policy makers. I introduced the concept of Community Schools used in Knox County, Tennessee as introduced by teacher/legislator, Gloria Johnson, instead of charters. I explained some of the unexpected benefits I've heard Gloria explain over and over. I left with their information in order for Representative Johnson to contact them. They asked for alternate solutions. We offered some. I, too, feel as Dr. Naison. It is wait and see now. I was humbled by the opportunity to be a voice for so many teachers. Aixa Rodriguez, thank you for the school you shared. It was a direct example of situations Dr. Naison started the discussion with yesterday. I really do believe there were at least three individuals in the room with sincere ears yesterday, but will the sound fall from their mouths upon others with strength of decision? Thank you to everyone for all of your commitment in an awesome event this weekend that serves notice, a movement is afoot. To quote Dr. Naison from one statement yesterday when things seemed to be digressing, "You guys have a problem! There are 51,000 of us!" He made it clear, that we weren't just putting on a show. I entitled my post yesterday, Another Voice In the Conversation. I did this because BATs are union and non-union. BATs are parents and grandparents. BATs are retired and active. BATs are legislators and community members. Family, there isn't another group that represents as many groups as the Badass Teachers Association. I chose to go ahead and post because of Yohuru's inspirational post earlier today of an e-mail he received. I was told at one point, "You need to focus on teaching if you get hired and LAY ALL THIS OTHER STUFF DOWN." I still showed up! I showed up because of friends like Marla Kilfoyle, Love Light, Priscilla Sanstead, Lucianna M Sanson and Mark Naison who new my walk this year and the valleys I've been through. I showed up for Dr. Denisha Jones, who guides with her voice and heart. I appreciate the guidance this group has afforded, but the support most of all! I showed up however moreover for our students of Tennessee and our nation and for my Tennessee BATs and the teachers of the nation, including the ones who know not that they need our help. My love goes out to all of the Badassery, especially our delegation of near 20 TN BATs that committed to this weekend!


My Reflections!
By:  Marla Kilfoyle

Mark has given an amazing synopsis so I don't feel that I need to write it all over again but I would like to add, in list form, some of my reflections.

1.  I did speak, prior to Sec. Duncan's entrance, about the marginalization of teacher voices in this country, teacher demonization, and the destruction of the profession of teaching. I spoke about the environment in our schools being one of blame, punish, and fear for children and teachers.  I spoke about the over testing of our children and the fact that if I had NOT refused my son out of testing he would have taken 28 days of testing.  In answering Secreatary Duncan's question about the role of the federal government in education I gave an example of the Site Based Management model of schooling I had experienced in Florida.  Site based management systems allowed schools and communities to make decisions for THEIR schools.  I explained to the Secretary that our schools need to be given back to our communities. Lastly,  as Mark noted, I spoke about our special needs children and how the USDOE policies of over testing are hurting our special needs and ELL children.   
2.  Asean spoke eloquently about how the Chicago Public Schools were being starved of resources and how can they expect Common Core to be taught if you starve the school of resources.  Asean also spoke about how ridiculous the Common Core was.  He shared the outdoor learning projects that he saw being pushed out of the Chicago Schools and brought a tri-fold board to show them these wonderful projects that children need.  Asean spoke about the over testing he experienced and the fact that real learning and resources have been pushed out of our schools for test prep. 
3.  Shoneice spoke about the importance of elected school boards and NOT appointed school boards.  She spoke about community schools that were run and managed by the communities they serve, all of which are gone under the current administration in Chicago. She spoke about the need for teachers of color and that children of color need to see people who reflect THEM in front of the room.  She spoke about Gresham and the turmoil that the Rahm appointed BOE has wrecked on this school.  She also spoke about the Common Core and how can you bring in standards that will cost more money when schools DON'T have the resources they need now. She spoke about how money is funneled to charters yet taken away from public schools.  
4.  Larry as noted above spoke about the fact that teachers elected this administration and they have let us down! He was badass!
5.  Mark, Asean, and Shoneice all spoke about Common Core, the over testing of our children, and the scripting of our teachers. They spoke about the fact that the money used for Common Core is driving out the things that our children need in schools! They spoke about the fact that test prep for the Common Core exams has driven out creativity, joy, and learning from our schools! 

In closing, as Sec. Duncan promised, we will be having a follow-up meeting with Michael Yudin the Secretary of the Office of Special Education.  He has already been in contact with me and we look forward to meeting with him at the end of August or in the Fall.  I am hoping, and I am sure, that now we have our contacts at the USDOE we will be following up on many fronts in the near future.  Stay tuned! 

Written reflections by  Dr. Yohuru Williams, Shoneice Reynolds, and Asean Johnson will be added to this post.  Please check back! 

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