The Original Purpose of Charters

For me, the core of the charter school issue lies in the difference between what charters were originally intended to be, and what they have become. The original model (and I can remember hearing about this when I was a teenager), was a student-centered, educator-designed and delivered, locally controlled endeavor.  Consider the New York Times, looking back to the 80’s with 2014 perspective, on Al Shanker, president of the AFT from the 70’s to the 90’s and one of the original advocates for charter schools:

In a 1988 address, Mr. Shanker outlined an idea for a new kind of public school where teachers could experiment with fresh and innovative ways of reaching students. Mr. Shanker estimated that only one-fifth of American students were well served by traditional classrooms. In charter schools, teachers would be given the opportunity to draw upon their expertise to create high-performing educational laboratories from which the traditional public schools could learn. 

Shanker’s concerns and his concepts for addressing them are echoed today in reform-speak: freedom, flexibility to devise strategies for meeting the needs of diverse students; sharing best practices as they’re discovered; building a community of learners…But The Times article continues:

Over time, however, charter schools morphed into a very different animal as conservatives, allied with some social-justice-minded liberals, began to promote charters as part of a more open marketplace…

Why did this happen? If today’s so-called reformers have and had similar concerns and goals, what’s the  problem with the Shanker vision? Maybe it has something to do with this:

Mr. Shanker believed deeply that unions played a critical role in democratic societies and wanted charter schools to be unionized. But he also wanted to take democratic values to an even higher level: Students would see workplace democracy in action firsthand in charter schools because they would see teachers who were active participants in decision making. Likewise, students in economically and racially integrated schools would learn on a daily basis that we all deserve a seat at democracy’s table.

Unfortunately, for our communities, especially the most needy, a paradigm in which charters serve learners in a democratic fashion would not do for a market-driven government. So it became necessary for those looking to capitalize on the coming waves of education reform to forward their own narrative. In other words, if the charter idea is good, it was theirs and always was. If they do it intheir “new-concept” schools-it’s okay. But if it involves local control, oversight, dedicated career educators, or God forbid…unions (*gasp!*), or if it is done in a traditional school: it is failing; bad or at least not good enough.

As a result, the “free market”, despite the vanishing promises held, became the new golden calf of education reform. Words like “competition” and “innovation” became the driving forces. Even our “hope and change” president was speaking on the importance of “winning the future” and American children being competitive in the global economy with children from India and China-two nations I had never been made to feel warm and fuzzy about in terms of the conditions for children.

But selling to the public that the global economy or free market really cares is a tough row to hoe- especially for those who benefit the most on the backs of those benefiting the least. There’s just too much-accumulating evidence over too much time to substantiate free market trust. So instead, the effort has gradually turned towards undermining traditional schools. The teaching profession and unions became implicitly scapegoated for failures in our socio-economic conditions and privately operated charters began to be empowered at the expense of the democratically run schools. The original concept of charter purpose was pushed aside. Consider the Education Next take on charters and where the idea came from:

But even though it is fashionable enough to credit Shanker for jump-starting the charter movement that even the Wall Street Journal is joining in, there is only a glimmer of truth to that urban legend. In actuality, Shanker did more to block charters than to advance the idea… as they worked on the legislation that was eventually passed in 1991, Nathan and Kolderie fundamentally altered the charter concept.  According to the Budde model, charters were to be authorized by school districts and run by teachers. Central office administrators were to be pushed aside, but charter schools would still operate within collective bargaining arrangements negotiated between districts and unions. Nathan and Kolderie instead proposed that schools be authorized by statewide agencies that were separate and apart from local district control. That opened charter doors not only to teachers but also to outside entrepreneurs. Competition between charters and districts.

Such willingness to be patronizing and dismissive of grass-roots democracy and the institutions that promote it. Such worship of divisive and exploitative market forces. I never wanted or want to be a politician, but this thinly veiled propaganda is why I pay attention. I have met with legislators, spoken with NYSED associates, been in contact with SED regents. I have been at conferences and on conference calls with union leaders. I am currently our union president. I so wish I could set all that crap aside and just be a teacher. Even more than that, a husband and a father with little concern for what education will hold for my girls because I see no threat. But what I read, see and hear has made me afraid that without accountability for those who have truly gone unaccountable-even rewarded for their misdeeds: we are in danger of allowing the pigeons to drive the bus. Not only are my kids on that bus, but so are everyone else’s, and so are my colleagues. It is frustrating and demands an occasional mental and emotional break.

So, down off the soapbox because my head is spinning with the history and the truth, but my heart is filled with pride.

Just this past Wednesday, I was blessed to be present at a Board of Education meeting for the school my daughters attend and the one I work for. This meeting was especially nice because two of my daughters were recognized: the oldest because she has won recognition in this year’s Scholastic Awards-both at the regional (11 North Eastern states) with 4 awards (gold, silver, and two honorable mentions), and the national level: 1 silver. She read an excerpt from the national award winner to the board and many of her past and present teachers who were there. She has a learning disability that has been addressed with an IEP and through some adjustment of her coursework. She has a very high I.Q., but her incredible gifts with words and with art come accompanied by weird quirky challenges with math, foreign languages, attention to technical tasks. The other daughter, only 10, had helped organize a charity drive for the local SPCA along with some classmates who had started a club. When I say organize-I mean it. Without anyone knowing, press had been contacted by one of the cute little ringleaders, a local radio station had announced it, and the adults had to play catch up to be prepared for delivery of supplies, money and whatnot. I had some pictures and was describing the impressive initiative of these students (with them standing next to me), when my daughter sidled up and said quietly:

“Dad, can you stop now, I want to talk.”

Ten years old. While we were seated earlier, she had quickly prepared a script. Those girls spoke, answered questions, and made a huge impression. My pride isn’t just for my girls, or those girls-it’s for what things are allowed to happen when you empower learners, educators, schools and communities. These things are proof of what can happen if you call out the pigeons and keep them from being given the wheel. Reform should be about joining communities, learners, parents & professionals to demand policymaker support- not about empowering free market agents to erode and tear apart zip codes. Charters should free learners, families and communities to re-purpose education to serve them as citizens and citizens-to-be, not a tool for exploiting or subjugating citizens to be ranked and filed

Greatest teaching challenges

As a teacher, my first challenge is spending enough time with my students. Wanting to be with my kids and in my school more than I already am doesn’t make me an exception-I would say it’s the rule with good teachers-which most of us are in one way or another. There is just so much to do when you are charged with moving a wide spectrum of developing personality types, in an orderly fashion, through rigorous curriculum demands. It isn’t just the primary goal of content that drives each day’s schedule; it’s consideration of the needs of individual students. Where are they at academically with this particular subject? How can I work this lesson for them specifically? What other students should I have them work with, and which ones should I absolutely NOT have them work with? What goal can I hope to reach with them today-or down the road (this week, this month, this marking period…this year)? Put with this the actual reflection, grading, feedback and adjustment of instruction that needs to happen and it’s easy to see how the end of the day, as precious as it can feel when it comes, can come too soon. 

The second challenge is the differentiation of instruction that needs to occur to target individual learners. The term “differentiation” has become more popular in teaching practice over the past decade or so because students are so different from each other, and different in general than they were “not that long ago”. When I was in third grade, my class had thirty (plus or minus) kids in it. As many as that seems compared to today’s standards, it was an orderly crew. In part, that was because my teacher was a seasoned, experienced teacher-the kind that the recent “reform” movement often targets because of the pay and pension hard work and time have earned them. It was also orderly in her room because students were different then. In a room of thirty or so, you might expect 3 or 4 kids that could be a challenge behaviorally. Go to a real public school today, especially in an area where families struggle with financial and social challenges the eroding economy has brought and ask a teacher if they think thirty is a good class size. I’m pretty sure of what they would say. Common sense, research, and a teacher would all tell you “no”. Kids are different today.

The third challenge is staying civil and positive despite the criticisms cast in the direction of my profession. Teachers battle every day to help students learn and grow into a culture and society that over time has held promise (“The American Dream”) for fewer of them. The growing gap in wealth between those who have more than they would ever need, and those who don’t have enough, has accompanied a correlative gap in academic achievement. This erosion of economic stability in this country has brought with it instability in the families of students. How can a teacher know for sure that a parent will be available to see notes, check homework, or come in for a conference? How can a teacher make sure that students get plenty of sleep, a decent meal and a home that is safe and nurturing? A teacher can’t stop in to turn off the TV or video game. There are so many things that impact a young mind before it gets to school and once it leaves its hallways and classrooms, but the current reform movement is in denial of those inconvenient truths. The suggestion is that the profession is just missing the miracle worker, a “superman”. Superman is already there, performing miracles. Kids are being saved and inspired every day despite destructive policies teachers and families have no control over. Critics forget or overlook that because it doesn’t support their agenda, and it places responsibility on those unwilling to accept it.

The fourth and maybe greatest challenge for me is to save enough of myself to be the husband and father I want to be at the end of the day. Teaching isn’t just a skill, talent and aptitude (and it is those things and more), it’s a labor of love. I have, at times, fallen short of being that leader and that model for my own family by saving some of that love for them. Some days can sap your well of patience and it is a feat to keep the unflappable teacher face on all day, and then “keep it together” when I finally get home. But I’m not “superman”, superman is make-believe. I’m a teacher, I’m real and there are a whole bunch of us out there saving kids every day.

 

Somewhere near you

Somewhere in a school near you, students are transferring from other schools with services mandated that they won’t receive. They can’t learn the way other kids do. They don’t have the ability to focus and work in large groups. They get frustrated and act out. The services might include a portion of the day in a quieter setting with fewer distractions, to get help getting through the work. For the most challenged, it could mean a person assigned to them-just to help them learn to cope and get through the school day with their peers- getting as much done as possible; doing as many of the same things as possible. School budgets are challenging these days. There are fewer teaching staff, and larger class sizes. The school will delay and avoid the expense related with providing the service, and trust that the teacher will find a way to cope.

Somewhere in a town near you, a family has to move. A job is lost, a parent has made a bad decision, a family is in turmoil… The kids are already experiencing stresses that damage chances of long term success, this is one more. The families that still feel school is a priority hope the school will give their kids what they need. More than that, they hope the new teacher will understand their child.

Somewhere far away, people with a lot of money are trying to figure out how to make more. They have realized that education, like war, offers the chance for private interests to profit from public money. They publish tests and create data. They participate in a campaign of privately backed policy and politicians, and the acquisition of no-bid contracts. They are largely soft-handed, privileged, and far removed from real public schools, the people who do real work, and the very real financial insecurity experienced by most. Step one in their plan to exploit this situation is to target schools. It starts by blaming teachers.

A cut and past of my “Holiday Homework”

Holiday Homework!

Enjoy the holiday break with the one thing every student wants…some extra work! Have parents initial in the box next to each one you complete.  You do not have to do these, but those who can complete them all will be entered into a prize drawingafter we come back to school.

PARENT

INITIAL

YOUR TO DO LIST
 

 

Help with a meal.Either setting the table, cooking, or cleaning up. Write what you did in entry space #1.

 

 

 

Stay in pajamas later than you usually would. What time was it when you finally put on your REAL clothes?

_______  _______ : _______ ______

 

 

Ask mom or dad if you can help with an easy chore. What did you do? Write just a few words here.

 

 

 

Straighten up your bedroom.  Make your bed and pick things up off the floor.

 

 

 

Play a card game or a board game with a family member.  Tell what game it was and how it went in entry space #2.

 

 

 

Write your favorite thing you’ve learned in school so far this year, after you tell mom or dad about it. Use entry space #3

 

 

 

Do something outside for 30 minutes or more.  Dress for the weather and have fun.  Write about what you did on entry space #4.

 

 

 

Eat some kind of vegetable-any kind.  Cooked, raw, steamed, chopped… write what it was here.

 

 

 

Eat some kind of dessert-any kind.  Baked, frozen, bought, homemade…write what it was here.

 

 

 

Sing a song for someone. For bonus holiday points, sing with a family member. For SUPER bonus holiday points, sing in the canned goods aisle of a grocery store. Write about who you sang for, where it was, and what song you sung in entry space #5.

 

 

 

 

Entry spaces. Write at least two CCRF sentences for each.

1) How I helped with a meal   __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

2)Play a game with a family member  __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

3) My favorite thing to learn about so far    __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

4) 30 minutes outside  __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

5) Sing a song! __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

My bio

Raised in disreputable back-road barrooms in the hills of Cortland County, when draft beers were seventy five cents, the pool tables only fifty cents, and the soda pop was free, little Danny McConnell was a dark horse contestant for husband, father, elementary school teacher, and writer. Which one of those he has been able to win at is as debatable as his sanity- but like Donald Trump, he’s sure he must be winning at something, so he continues to give it his best. Now on a country hilltop in Central NY, with a wife and three beautiful daughters, he hopes to earn full redemption through the written word.

 

Common Core Values

Common core VALUES (not standards), please…

Let’s start talking common core values, please. My colleagues, my students, their parents, my own children-they are not “standard”. Of course, this is no surprise to anyone who is serious about education and has done it for any length of time, or to anyone who has children of their own. But despite what professionals in the field know about the job they do and what it can require; despite what parents know about their own children; despite what is sometimes even known by those attempting to turn an education obligation into market opportunities: efforts to standardize rage on.

Full disclosure before I continue: I am a teacher. Also, I belong to a union. In addition, I am president of our local’s association. But beyond that, I am a man-child that grew up wild. I came relatively late to teaching and had a variety of work experiences that started very young, but I ended up where I was meant to be. Enjoyed life and a variety of experiences unafraid, and somehow still: I ended up marrying the prettiest woman in the world and having three incredibly bright girls. Not only do I today take my obligation to my students seriously, I take my obligation to my wife and daughters deadly serious. My wife has promised to visit me in prison should it ever come to that- and she makes damn good cookies. So because of my life experiences and because of how I grew up, I bring to parenting and teaching an approach and a perspective that is not standard, and I proudly defend an endeavor and a profession that can never truly be standardized because “standard” is such a foolish expectation when you talk about individuals, teams, humans in general. Within the endeavor of educating the public there needs to be flexibility and choice- guided by the students’ needs, by parents’ priorities, and by capable professionals from the wide variety of disciplines prepared to serve a wide variety of student types.

So unions, protecting those professionals and the possibilities they bring to learners, promoting that wide variety that will lead to dynamic groups of future citizens, are not the problem. The real problem comes in the awkward education-reform narrative of “standards” combined with “choice”: their standards; their tests; their “choice”. And while the narrative is woven on blogs and in the press that carries the anti-public schools message, it gets a little Orwellian. To paraphrase:

If you oppose the attack on teachers and their unions then you oppose parents and children.

Using high-stakes test is the way to know how much a child has learned, and what value is provided in the education students are receiving.

So, in honor of Orwell, Poe, The Hardy Boys, Alice Walker, Dr. Seuss, Shakespeare, The Big red barn in the great green field, Stephen King, Encyclopedia Brown…and so many many more than I could ever or did ever count: let’s talk about the value of reading with children and for children from day 1 (and before, if possible). Let’s drop the talk of standardized market demands to place value on humans and talk human value. I have more than this one, but this is where it begins:

Common Core Value 1: Encouraging children to read, think, talk and Sing.
1A.1 Read in front of them. Read to them. Watch them read. Ask them about what they read. Listen to them read to you. Read together. Practice reading together passing the book back and forth.

1A.2 When they are tiny, read with them on your lap, reclined in a chair and with your child in the spot between your arm and your side, with your child’s head just under your shoulder and the book where you can both see.

1A.3 When they are tiny, point to the words that sound really familiar-the ones used frequently when you speak. Point to illustrations that go with the words. Point to and name familiar and interesting things in the illustrations and ask them “Where is the …. “, then have them point it out.

1A.4 Have bookshelves full of books- various books. Magazines too-have a magazine subscription or two if you can afford to (Highlights, National Geographic for kids, etc) and if you can’t afford subscriptions-get issues second-hand to keep around… Limit TV. time and video game time.

1A.5 Listen to a wide variety of music. Tell stories, sing songs, and expect “lights out” by 8:30…but stretch it ‘til 9 if they are reading quietly.

Good readers become great thinkers.

Common Core Values

Our public education system is not the source of our state of inequity and outcome-decay, it is a co-victim along with the learners hoping to be more than fuel for the current global economy furnace ( or the gravel under its feet). Still: public school reform has been made a top priority. Why have education reform, failing schools and bad teachers taken the lead position on the “things to do” list? Two possible reasons:

1) There is a lack of will to address the actual problem: economic policy that empowers the greedy and dismisses or covers for failures that result-impacting the economy for everyone else while still enriching the greedy.

2) True education, empowerment, critical thinking, and collaboration in the masses are a threat to the few in power (the greedy mentioned in 1),  so education reform in its current form seeks to control the masses through a standardized education that will merely equip them to serve-not seek to lead.

Despite the rhetoric heard from leaders in policy and reform, there is no reason to believe that they really want a nation of empowered, well educated graduates-even though their language is centered around “college and career readiness” and “competition”. The implication of the former is that college is appropriate for all, careers are there for the taking (or will be when the “jobs of tomorrow” arrive), or both. Our leaders and the politicians they have employed to play leader distract the citizenry by forcing responsibility for student outcomes entirely on public schools and teachers.

But little attention is given to either the massive college debt that already exists among the career un-and underemployed, or the debt awaiting all of those future “college ready” students who take on the challenge within a job market that holds little promise.  The latter, “competition”,  is concerning because it reveals adherence to the cutthroat, me-first philosophy that leads to greed, inequity, market crashes, dishonesty and distrust. I’m not sure many in the forefront of education reform (being politicians, semi-celebrities, coached carefully by PR experts) would claim that economic competition and individual glory are the primary goals of an education, or that we want to compare ourselves and compete globally with countries like India and China (even though those are often given as examples of who our competitors in the global market are). No one who is calling for America to be economically competitive with these other nations also opens a discussion regarding what our core values as a nation are. They certainly don’t discuss whether we really want held up as models either a country where 1 in 6 city dwellers live in conditions unfit for humans or another where child labor is exploited and factory workers sometimes live in filthy dorms working seven day weeks and twelve hour days.

Is reaching for these conditions the education reform plan for making American children (other than the more privileged) more competitive? I can’t believe it, but I’m waiting for it to be proven wrong, namely with healthier models and clearly articulated and shared goals/values- “Common Core Values” (as opposed to standards). But in a world where advancements in technology mean fewer jobs for the majority, and more wealth and power for the minority. conflict is inevitable as inequity increases. Below is a list of five sources, lettered A through D. Each of the technology-related quotes below them can be matched to one of the sources.

Can you match source to quote correctly?

SCOURCES

A) From the “Manifesto” of Ted Kazinski (The “Unibomber”)  (1995)

B)  From  a song by Jimiroquai  (1996)

C)  From Bill Gates (2014)

D)  From the July New Tech Schools Annual Conference Keynote Address by Paul Curtis (2014)

QUOTES

  1. ____  Well, technology in general will make capital more attractive than labor over time. Software substitution, you know, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses… It’s progressing. And that’s going to force us to rethink how these tax structures work in order to maximize employment, you know, given that, you know, capitalism in general, over time, will create more inequality and technology, over time, will reduce demand for jobs particularly at the lower end of the skill set. And so, you know, we have to adjust, and these things are coming fast. Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower, and I don’t think people have that in their mental model.
  1. ____ The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in “advanced” countries.
  1. ____ It takes fewer and fewer people to produce the things that we used to produce. And so the question for us is: where will the people go?…So if computers can access this kind of [massive amounts of] data, and compete against humans in something that we would have expected to be a uniquely human trait…again, what is it that human brings to the table…what’s our “value add” to this economy, to society…?
  1. ____ Futures made of virtual insanity – now
    Always seem to, be govern’d by this love we have
    For useless, twisting, our new technology
    Oh, now there is no sound – for we all live underground

I’m starting to go stream of consciousness here. Let me just say that clearly, the education reform we are entrenched in is closely linked to the future (present?) conditions described above: class division driven by the market, technology, and who controls them. “Common” standards were not called “exceptional” standards for a reason. “Morality”, “equity” and “honesty” aren’t words heard when reformers disparage public schools. What would the global economy do with so many exceptional people raised with those values? Reformers will not target the true dangers, because they are the dangers that keep them in power, and everyone else under control. Public schools hold the potential to create change and reform from the base of society upward (not force it from above). Educators are the ones capable of challenging students to think exceptionally (not commonly).

This is why public education and tenure are being targeted.

(Answers to matching: 1:C ; 2:A ; 3:D; 4:B)