Dear Lane,

Below are a few excerpts from Lane Wright’s August 7th plea for help. Seems he experienced confusion over how teachers feel about standardized tests and school choice. He wrote in the form of an open letter to teachers, with a request for responses at the end, and I posted a few times in the response section of his article, but the more thorough reply disappeared while the short P.S. stuff remained. Here, I’ll try my best to redo my response, which I guess is good-it gives me a chance to flesh it out better than I could do at the crack of dawn in a hotel lobby.

To any reading this, please read Lane’s piece for yourself first.

Now before I begin, let me say that I totally understand Lane’s confusion. He’s not an educator. He just studies schools from the outside. But with his letter he does far more to show some respect for educators than you’d generally find in the test-driven, data fed, well-funded, never taught but somehow become an edu-authority, reform crowd… so kudos to Lane. Curiosity is an important intellectual trait and inquiry is a vital, foundational skill for learners to have.

Here are those excerpts from Lane’s letter:

Dear Teachers,

-I just read some of the results of a survey and I’m confused. The good people over at Educators for Excellence asked a bunch of you how you feel about accountability and school choice and the answers seem to contradict each other.

-Now let me first say that I’m not an educator. I’m more like a professional student of our public school systems. I love getting insights like the kinds found in this E4E survey. So please take this letter in the spirit I’m writing it. Help me understand better what you’re thinking.

-A majority of you said that looking at student growth from the beginning to the end of the school year was the “most valuable” thing when it comes to measuring how effective you are as a teacher. It’s also the most valuable thing for judging the quality of a school…

-But then I had to scratch my head when I noticed, near the bottom of the list, standardized tests. It was second to last with only 10 percent of you thinking it was a good way to measure a teacher’s effectiveness or a school’s quality.

What I know for sure is that teachers have a bigger impact on the success of kids than anything else at school. I also know you’re closest to the problems, and are in a unique position to find ways to solve them. So please, if you have a chance, write me back and let me know what you have in mind.

Sincerely,

Lane

Here is my response. Again, please go and read Lane’s piece yourself. I am only taking excerpts in order to guide my attempt to help him.

Dear Lane,

I responded to your article in the response section, in an attempt to address your confusion. I was wrapping up a short vacation, away from home, on hotel wifi with my first cup of coffee…That response disappeared! The other short follow-ups are still there, but maybe my tech skills have a two-cup fuel requirement . In looking back, though, “write me back” was your request. It may be that I need to do exactly that. I am sometimes a do it first and apologize later rather than ask permission sort.

It seems that “accountability” and “choice” are you areas of confusion, and I will try to get to them both.

You may note the quotes. I do not like waggly finger air quotes, but you can imagine them if you’d like because like “reform”: “accountability” and “choice” often aren’t what they pretend to be. 

On your first source of confusion, you write:

So here’s my question: How do you measure student growth without a standardized test? It kind of feels like you want to eat your accountability cake and have it too.”

Not sure anyone suggests “without a standardized test”, and that is a little like “straw manning” the debate. Far right hero Ben Shapiro (I’m a poet and didn’t know it!) does the same sort of thing when he suggests “So if that’s the case, (i.e. raising taxes on the most wealthy will help the economy) why not tax everybody at 100 percent and we can have massive growth from here to eternity?” That’s intentionally misrepresenting the other side’s position as an unreasonable extreme in order to undermine that position and avoid a better conversation. But I get that you’re just confused and not doing that-it just risks seeming that way with that wording.

But “growth”, now, is a great place to start!

Back in 2015 I responded to a call from Peter Cunningham at Education Post for inspiring hopes for 2016. Coincidentally I sent in this standardized test-related hope:

I hope the focus for student achievement will steer away from the impersonal and generic standardized testing obsession, and turn instead towards a more holistic preparation of citizens. Empowering/enriching education will no longer be limited to those making rules for other people’s children.

But more important part was the story of inspiration that came last on that particular article. It had to do with my daughter and a sudden and alarming illness that… had it happened to some other child?

I can’t tell you how serious it might have been.

If you know or have heard anything about PANS or PANDAS, or saw a recent 20/20 show about it , you might be aware of far less fortunate parents and children who suffer tremendously. I actually have cried reading stories about parents whose little angels change overnight, say the most frightening things about harming themselves or others, go through destructive rages… In one of the parent groups I’m in, I just yesterday saw a post from a mom who was reduced to no other choice but to admit her 11 year old to a psych ward. She was probably up all night, or maybe more than just a night. Her post included a pic of some comfort food in the space between the front seats of her car (hostess cupcakes and a coke) probably eaten while she sat in the parking lot of the hospital.

Ever surrendered one of your children to involuntary inpatient psych treatment, Lane? I have. Now imagine a career filled with hundreds or more children, many whose struggles may not be so severe, but are either evident just through observation or verified through unfortunate and tragic events.

But I won’t get too far into that here. I would bet the world that your children are blessed with great parents, and I am blessed with an amazing wife who was on top of our situation quickly, and by access to medical professionals who believed us and cooperated with a course of treatment (unlike many less fortunate families). But the really inspiring part of my story was about my school and especially my daughter’s teacher, and the most pertinent part of my response that disappeared from your article was about the toolbox this teacher and any great teacher needs to brings to the job.

It goes way beyond a spread sheet, test scores, and a HEDI effectiveness rating.

Boiled down to a concrete concept, think of “growth”, or development,  like a wagon wheel- but one that expands over time. The center, the core or the hub is the primal, innate, reflexive stuff and the spokes are the reaching out from the core of experiences and learning. In the earliest stages it’s hunger, discomfort, human contact and attention, touch, communication…Then it’s conversation, self-determination, curiosity, exploration… Every time those things are experienced or there is a new experience: spokes are sent out or reinforced, and the wheel grows because the learners “world” (capabilities and cognitive understandings) reaches out farther .

In reality the brain is constructing a network or a web, and the conceptual image should be undulating more like a cloud as it expands, but I want to keep it simple for now because part of your confusion has to do with accountability. Schools are being held accountable for helping learners roll as smoothly as they can through their world, into the future and on to the places they want to go.

So if teachers are expected to be the wheelwrights: have the wheelwrights done a quality job when your wheels are like tiny tricycle wheels with two spokes? For the sake of expediency we can even name those two spokes…uhmmm, let’s call them “MATH” and “ELA”, just for kicks. Will your wagon travel well on these? How about if your wagon wheels are even a normal 4 foot-ish size and have just those two spokes? Who is responsible for all those missing spokes, Lane? If teachers are to embrace their responsibility for only the two, and put their reputations and career on the line for standardized, testable outcomes on just those two, how can teachers trust the wheels will come with all those other spokes in place?

Trust me, capable learners and future citizens need those other spokes, and as a parent I want my own children and my students to have them.

We both know the reality, I think. I am not sure any teacher would suggest dropping standardized tests as a vital measure in the growth wheel, any more than any parent wants their child to have voids or weaknesses where the vital spokes of responsibility, empathy, communication skills, creativity, work ethic, collaboration, initiative… should be. Great teachers know this, and so may like the standardized tests, but not the use of them to abuse children or educators.

My daughter’s great teacher, myself as a teacher, most every teacher I know are accountable every day in every way in real time for all of the spokes whenever a need or a weakness is revealed. And it really seems that those comfortably riding around in gated and guarded communities, in fancy wagons rolling around on sweet wheels with lots of sturdy spokes, with children in “high performing” schools… neither want to share those communities or schools, nor admit that “high performing” “success” and “failure” are about far more than teachers, schools, grit, rigor, and standardized test scores.

As an aside:

Before my kids started refusing the tests I loved them for the information they provided. It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about my own children, but it’s nice to see shady test-metrics verify it, and results informed the academic priorities moving forward for my students. But it’s more about how tests became the measure instead of a measure. And it’s more about the demeaning and dismissing of people who actually exemplify the brass ring of critical thought so highly praised in education today (a.k.a. special interests that show up with concerns for short-lived “listening tours” that end because edu-fakers don’t like to be challenged, and white suburban moms who find out their child isn’t brilliant…you know, professionals and parents).

Hopefully that helps clear up the issue of why teachers like the tests but not so much for the brand of accountability being marketed by those who really don’t seem to be putting children first. At the very end I  might either do a “what can we do about that” or link you to part one of a series I am doing on that very topic. First, I need coffee.

Okay, I am back. On to “choice”.

From you:

As I mentioned earlier, accountability isn’t my only conundrum. You also seem to want it both ways when it comes to school choice. You say you support choice, but only when it doesn’t “drain resources” from other schools. Three-quarters of you said that was your biggest condition for accepting school choice.

How might that work, exactly? I’m not asking rhetorically—I really want to know.”

Great questions begging for that “better conversation”! Again, points for not being an educator, but thinking like one.

Unfortunately, “choice” is market speak-representing with words an ideal that is ephemeral at its worst and an inconsistent reality at its best. Like “American Exceptionalism”, which ranges in it’s execution from standing for the anthem to starting ill-conceived and undeclared wars, “choice” can mean a bunch of different things with varying degrees of honesty, although the sales pitch is almost unwavering:

  • Parents are entitled to…
  • Parents have a right to…
  • Your zip code shouldn’t…

These are just three ways the argument for “choice” may begin, but they all largely focus on the rights and entitlements of parents to choose an educational path and approach for their children, while what they really mean is that parents should have access to choose a different, and better school from a market of school options. Here again I feel your confusion, but that might be because you maybe haven’t been exposed much to the original educator-and-social-fabric-driven concept of choice, and have been infused instead with the gigged-economy, piece-it-out-for profit-and-efficiency concept. Like you are a “student of our public school systems”, I am a student of political rhetoric and policy shenanigans and idealistic political B.S. that camouflages hidden agendas.

My fire was lit when, at the age of 13, I saw an actor demean a true public servant in a presidential campaign debate. I don’t mean Trump and Clinton, who neither fit into either category satisfactorily. Reagan was the beginning of the end for both integrity and a real Democrat party. “Trickle down“, “plausible deniability“, “A Nation At Risk“… Don’t get me wrong, I never wanted to be a politician, but accountability starts there, and there is where the “blame schools and the public commons, but empower private enterprise and the rich to make us all better” mindset really took hold in both parties.

Teachers and parents who know better might understand the wagon wheel concept. Or have heard of “choice” and about the rights of parents, but know the stories of children pressured out of the choice school, parents compelled to sign non-disclosure agreements or contracts to participate in political rallies, the promotion to near celebrity status of characters like Michelle “Broomrider” Rhee, Capital Prep’s Steve “Cockroach” Perry, and Eva “The Martyr” Moskowitz…

Trust me, you aren’t the only one confused. It’s the same sort of thing when a hope and change president leaves you with little hope and no appreciable change, or when a non-educator with a lack of respect for critical thought, truth, teachers and parents gets put in charge of the education of an entire nation. Talk about confusion-eh?

But hey, I have what I think is a straight-forward question you might be able to help me with. Whenever I ask it, I am immediately accused of being white, teaching in a white school, having taught very few children of color, not being willing to put my child in a “failing” school, risking aligning myself against parents (sorta like the NAACP supposedly did when they took the position of wanting charters of more verifiable quality) …a bunch of things not even related to the question, but I never get an answer.

Do supposed “choice” schools benefit in performance and reputation by only enrolling the children of actively involved parents who value education enough to effectively seek out a “choice”?

Help me, if you would. I think the closest thing to a response I could respect came from Chris Stewart who said something like:

“I don’t care about the politics of choice I want better schools…”.

(Chris, if you read this and I’m getting it wrong please correct me. Just know that is the kind of honest response and commitment to a real agenda I respect, so I am not trying to use this against your position. “Better schools” is a great position. How that needs to happen and who deserves praise/criticism for what might be where we frequently diverge).

But towards a wrap-up: Where I, as a parent and a teacher start to back away from “choice” is when it becomes clear that not all parents and choices are welcome if they don’t promote/protect the “choice” narrative. I once posted a piece about a parent whose child struggled with the same condition my daughter did, and was being threatened, persecuted, almost prosecuted by the “high-performing” Florida charter her child was in because the school didn’t want to provide that child services.

A champion of parents rights and choice schools asked “Did you contact the school for their side, or just take the parents word on faith?” A fair standard if equitably applied.

But Lane, while you are one of the few who has attempted to do this honest sort of reach out-the stories of parents not served in their public schools, who then fled to a charter that provided the support/programming that helped their children thrive, are used intentionally and ubiquitously. The silence on “choice” inconsistencies, even if unintentional, is the tell.

Teachers, like parents, know that it all starts with the child, the learner, and their needs. And if a student has a need, then their school should be empowered to provide for it. The choices for pathways and programming and resources and equipment should be available, not “accessible” (like the GOP “health care” vision). In their schools, provided by professionals, all supported by the community, all stakeholders held accountable…

It starts with the children and their needs. Any deflection from that is the real “dodge”, not questioning the lame diversionary system of reform through testing and choice being pushed.

I’ve got Dad stuff to do, and might do more later. For now, check this out and consider the facets of that wagon wheel as the framework for honest accountability and the starting point for a better conversation.

Sincerely,

Dan

 

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So… you want to be a teacher.

You need to really, really think about this.

I’m not trying to scare you away; I’m just trying to prepare you. You can’t go thinking that liking kids, that kids liking you, that believing you can make a difference, that wanting to make a difference, that being smart…you can’t think that any of that is enough. It’s prerequisite, sure. But it isn’t nearly enough.

Not even close.

You need to be ready to pretty much give up a chunk of your life.

Once you have been teaching for a while, you’ll find yourself strategizing ways to carve out time for yourself, your family, your own health…because that time will mostly be taken by other people’s children and by other families. Planning, correcting papers, grading, and just decompressing can eat into your home life-the “you being you” for your family.  Challenging days will dry up your well of patience, and then what happens when you get home? What is left for your children? Your spouse?

If you decide to be more involved, in coaching, running clubs or activities, taking a leadership role in your union…be prepared for even more sacrifice. Attending board meetings or participating in the PTA, lending a hand for special events…deciding to be an educator, if you really take it on rather than just going through the motions, means time given to the endeavor and taken out of your life.

You need to prepare to have your heart broken.

Again, and again and again, in a hundred different ways. You will see kids beaten down psychologically and emotionally by the lives they live and the families their losing-life lottery dumped them into. Don’t think I’m being “judgy”, there is not enough time for me to share all the mothers who leave, fathers who return after getting out of jail, live-in boyfriend, custodial non-related “grandmother”, busted for meth and heroine stories I know. What I can tell you is that children come to school bearing this weight and you will have to try and shoulder some of it to help them get through the day and what you are told you have to do. The grit, the rigor, the “raised bars”, the tests and whatnot.

You will likely see girls having babies far too young, boys unable to take responsibility even if they are willing to try, and that custodial grandparent cycle will come back around for another generation. You could very well end up teaching the grandchildren of your former students. You could also see former students die. In war, by overdose, and in the most heartbreaking ways. You may hear of a sweet, funny, freckle-faced boy from your very first real elementary classroom who, for whatever reason, made it through high school but then took his own life.

You need to be prepared to have your profession both revered and reviled.

Despite all you will have dumped onto your lap and into your life, there will be rewards. When children are thrilled to see you, either in school or out in public, when you get notes of appreciation from them or from parents, it lifts a little of that weight and helps to keep the heartbreaks patched together.  Notes that say “[Enter student name here] never liked reading until he had you,” or “[Some other student] wants to come to school now because of you,”  are little pieces of treasure to keep safely tucked away to be pulled out and reread on those days you wonder why the hell you went into teaching.  Your students will know, and their parents will know how important you are, and you’ll see the “aha” moments in the classroom (where students get excited about learning something new);  when their work shows that they grasp a concept and gain some skills…those are the times that make a teacher keep coming back to brave the bad days.

At the same time, you will have to suffer the deliberate attacks on the profession you chose. Education “reformers” will look to reduce your worth to test scores, and the value of education to empty slogans like “college and career ready”. They have been and will continue to campaign to dismiss the parts of the job you have no choice but to do, while they promote schools that avoid those parts. They will paint you as greedy, because you expect a living wage and the deferred pay you contribute to a pension fund once you retire. You will be lumped into the “lazy” category because you get holiday and summer breaks that others don’t get (never admitting that if it were such a wonderful gig, it would pay more and more people would be doing it). You will see these “reformers” look to cheapen and de-professionalize teachers, reducing them to gigged, at will hires to fuel the education market they want to profit from.

They stake proud claim to agendas called “school choice”, and “the rights of parents”, while avoiding the essential truths behind what those slogans mean in practice and why more communities and schools and students are struggling to achieve better outcomes.

Good news is: despite reformer attacks on communities, schools, educators and students: parents overwhelmingly support public education and teachers, and want to see it funded and supported.

You will be confronted with your own old age.

Through the advancing lives of your students, you will see the truth in “Days crawl, but the years fly.” It is exhilarating, scary, and inspirational. One of my early career students is now substitute teaching in my school. She was in the staff room eating lunch and I noticed an engagement ring. Her fiance was a student in my homeroom two years before her. He has been working in the school also. Two of the sweetest kids ever…But holy cow! Where did the time go??? My oldest daughter just went to college, and many students I taught have as well.

I guess that must mean I’m getting older, right? I mean, that’s how time works…if it passes for them, it passes for me too. You don’t really feel it happen, but one day it hits you. After that day the hits keep coming. My god, the time has flown. But I am so happy I chose to do what I do.

Just be prepared to be reminded one day of how old you are getting.

So…do you still want to be a teacher?

If so, you are the type of person I want doing it. The type of teacher I would have wanted for my own, the type I want my someday grand-kids to have, the type I know kids desperately need.

And I hope I get to work with you before I’m done.

Teaching is to Serve Stubbornly (Part II)

In Part I I describe my general intent to stubbornly share about teaching. Certainly non-teachers looking to criticize have much to say about the job, and unfortunately it’s often crazy stuff: blaming teachers for everything from cultural disconnect to poverty to crime and incarceration… But with all of that muddying the tone, intent and potential of “reform”, it’s good idea for everyone to connect with what teachers actually do (instead of create a tiny box for the results to fit in for a non-teacher’s approval). If there’s more understanding of the limitations of the actual job as it is, and some agreement on what others could/should do, we can have some shared accountability for better outcomes for children.

Teachers aren’t entertainers, delivery workers, or just visitors

Teachers can’t just pop-in at lunch time with some Subway food , visit, give lessons in lunchroom etiquette, play “cool dad” for the kids and then leave.

“I will keep visiting and modeling lunchtime behavior for my kids, and for their classmates who can’t get enough of me (I’m the cool Dad, sorry if you’re not) when I join them.” (Chris Stewart, writing about his kids’ school lunch program)

I am not “cool dad” (no apologies necessary, not my aspiration). But one thing Chris Stewart does, in this article, is echo the concerns my wife, I and my daughters have had have about school lunches. It wasn’t that many years ago that Marguerite (Mrs. Lincoln) was the one making the delicious homemade mac-n-cheese-the kind that gets crusty on top and a little burnt around the edges; or those big breasts and thighs of that crispy-skinned chicken; or the moist chocolate cake with the peanut-butter frosting. Sure, the mashed potades were instant, but a butter pat and some warm gravy and blamma-lamma, baby! Mrs. Lincoln is still around, helps out when needed and at special events even though “retired”, and other cafeteria ladies have come and gone. One of her twin grandsons was in my third-grade homeroom and he’s since graduated.

But our pots and pans are also gathering dust, just like the ones Stewart saw in his dismal tour of some “central nutrition center” (how “big brother” is that?). Rarely graced by the purpose of culinary style or allowed the privilege of being put to real use by those who know better, the facilities have been essentially “reformed”. An outside entity tracking and judging food consumption, sales, credits and debts- in real time via nutrition and cost VAM formula type technology. Those pots and pans and spoons and spatulas, dusty or not,  are all present and accounted for- assigned a specific value. The food itself? Doled out in accordance to specific metrics to meet standards, and regulations. So many carbs, this many grains, that many proteins… all defined by gritty and rigorous high expectations.

All that effort and regulation and data…and yet still somehow having absolutely no freakin’ soul, and appearing like cheap, crappy, institutional food meant to meet some minimal standard while making it appear that people above the people who care enough to do the job are doing right by our kids. Way back in that mac-n-cheese when, lunch had real quality and a purpose, and our girls had to be given a limit on buying lunch. Once a week, unless something really special popped onto the menu.

But cafeteria reform sucked the soul out of what the lunch once was, so my kids have “opted out” of school lunch since…well, since about the time it was “reformed”.

That’s “reform” and “accountability”.

Real issues are ignored in the attempt of those atop to push a “proficiency” narrative, a testocracy, on those below. And teachers are being made to comply. So they can’t just drop in with the popular stuff and then leave, you know: r-u-n-n-o-f-t. 

And we shouldn’t want them to.

Good teachers don’t stop, judge, sort and leave. They stay and serve, and we need them to. What teachers do and what we need them for goes way beyond all the test stuff. As much as they want to deny it or sidestep it, the champions of reform admit it when they cry “cultural disconnect!” (regarding teacher perceptions of student behavior in the classroom, hallway…cafeteria?) and “prison pipeline!“. Clearly (and I agree) teachers need to welcome students, nurture students, connect with them on a personal level in order to get them to engage with the academics…and apparently teachers need to keep them out of jail.

I don’t think that means driving the getaway car, and I don’t know the internal mechanisms of the classroom vs criminal choice that happens in the mind, but could community, home and family figure into the formula? In Stewart’s article, there is a brief side-trip to judge the the failures of parents, the unseemly behavior of school children and the intolerable adults they’ll someday be.

“I’ve visited schools where the lunch period was an extension of other learning periods. It wasn’t a free-for-all. Some parents might fight me on this one, I know. I can hear the protests about how kids need to be kids, and how they need free-time to be wild, loud, and childish.Wherever you are working today, look at the co-worker who gets on your last nerve. That person had parents like the ones I just described.

I have waited years for this glimmer of understanding from warriors of reform that parents have power to actively raise children, just as they have a passive right to wait for a “school choice” to be offered.

And yet I feel no pleasure.

Because imagine far worse than some unseemly table manners (My stars, I do indeed believe I shall come down with the vapours!), or having some fun in the cafeteria at lunchtime. Lets talk parents who come into conference reeking of weed and asking how they can get to volunteer to help and come in sometime, because they “might get some learnin'”. Imagine thinking that it really would do them good, but there is absolutely no way you can add two stoned adults to your roster. Their child, whom we were conferencing on (back when lunches were still good) left their home when he got the chance, a few years ago (at 12 or 13, I think). He’s turning out to be a fine young man determined to make good choices.

He says I’m his favorite teacher (a label I’ll take over “cool dad” any day), but I care less about that than him being one of my tentative shared-success stories. “Shared” because many others besides me (teachers, staff members and students) have been there for him and cared, and I’m sure he feels it. But I wouldn’t say he’s out of the woods- I worry about some students as if they were my own kids and in some danger zone or something. Maybe I’ll stop worrying once I know he’s safely reached thirty years old. His older sister who remained in the home just got busted for another parole violation. She’s looking at some serious time.

Teachers never stop caring, and parents make all sorts of choices, every day.

It’s teachers, there in school, dealing with the repercussions of parent choices right along with the students. Now maybe I am disconnected in my low SES, white, rural, tiny district. It could be that poverty, drugs, crime and instability in family and residency are more of a country white thing. You know, not so much an urban issue. It could be that in the big cities (the original target of education reforms) bad teachers and their unions are the biggest problems children face.

I don’t know, and I know that I don’t know. That’s why I reach out and communicate. With school leaders, with teachers, with parents who thought they had “choice” until they were un-chosen, others involved… Anything I learn helps.

“You’re not an authority on my children, my community, or my history. You are an agent of the state and you’re employed by the single greatest threat to free thought and black liberation.” 

The first part is right on. The last part is a bit much but I respect him for the times when he actually comes out with his convictions and willingness to say things others in the reform camp will not:

“I care about the successful education of 8 million black students. Whether or not charter schools are “public” is immaterial.”

Like acknowledging of the influence of parents, there’s some pure honesty in this message. And it identifies the mission. I know that teaching and teachers can improve. I know that I can improve. I know that my union can do far more to activate the troops and press for positive change. I’d bet I’m not the only educator that would admit those things. Tap dancing around, engaging in pretending “choice” is a public construct just makes some reform advocates look silly, and I’ll take Stewart’s honesty over the dance.

 

Stop Whining About Teacher Sick Days

My daughter just told me that one of her teachers had wanted to come in to work today, but a friend of hers (another teacher at our school) stopped her.

The former has just started chemotherapy because of a recent diagnosis. She is a seasoned teacher, a leader, well known and loved. I have had two of her children as students in my classroom. The latter is a very good friend of hers and likely felt compelled to push for a focus on self-care and recovery instead of committing (because of sheer dedication and love for teaching) to “the daily grind”.

I think my daughter’s teacher wanted to be in school, engaging students in excellent thinking, great work and taking her mental focus off of the battling cancer stuff. Also, she knows that the difference a great teacher can make is increased along with the time they are with their students. She knows this, like all great ones do, and despite the haters and all their moaning about how little teachers work, their summers off and banker’s hours: most teachers want to be in school for their students than they want to be away from their students. But people get sick. even teachers, even the great ones. So do the very good ones, the pretty good ones, the fair ones…and yes, even the bad teachers get sick. People get sick. They can’t plan when sick, why sick, how sick, or how long sick. Everybody gets sick at some point. People get sick.

But unlike most people: teachers of all stripes and locations within the artifice of a HEDI scale are exposed daily to pukers, coughers, snot-wipers, close-huggers, every-thing-touchers…Every cold and virus that goes through a family that has children goes into school with those children. Now multiply that by all the families and all the children going into school. And then consider that lots of teachers and children are in buildings that generously share a little of the rain and snow/heat and cold on the outside with some of the places and people on the inside. Drop-ceiling tiles show gross, brown stains and sags where roof-tar water has dripped and pooled. Musty, dusty smells in some places indicate that it is the kind of situation that runs a risk for mold and other air-borne contaminants.

Staff members might describe being chronically sick during the school year (not during summer) and parents describe increases in symptoms (coughing, sneezing, throat-clearing…) during the school year and/or in some specific homerooms. Many, many school buildings and facilities across the country are older buildings in need of continual repair. The roofs leak, the paint chips, the ventilation systems don’t work the way they should. Too hot, too cold, infested with vermin …and so on.

And yet some reformers take a perverse pride in choosing to ignore the conditions the poorest have to live and learn in…

…and that educators have to try to teach them in, and preach school “choice”  instead. That is disrespectful of teachers and neglectful of students who spend entire school years and extended hours daily in those buildings and with all those kids and all those other people. Some of those teachers do this for thirty years or more! Is it any wonder that a teacher gets sick once in a while?

It’s understandable that the drooling human rats looking to nibble away at true public education want to point to things like the “sick-out” in Detroit, as a perfect example of teachers abusing their benefit time. But beyond the fact that the time is theirs, and that something was likely given up in negotiations to get those sick days in their contract (they are not just a gift benevolently given): when teachers act together to advocate for better conditions to teach in, they are also advocating for better conditions for children to learn in. This is why teachers banding together against a lack of political and economic will is a good thing.

“Considering the average teacher salary in DPS is $63,716, this means that funds that could have paid nearly five people’s salaries went towards legal fees to sue teachers who were fighting this winter, when the suit was filed, against deplorable working conditions…” (Allie Gross, July 2016)

Interestingly: the self-righteous, editorialized lamenting over the children whose futures are sacrificed when teachers take sick days is generally not matched with columns of concern for children perpetually sacrificed to unsafe neighborhoods, lead-tainted drinking water, lack of access to sound nutrition and proper health care, absence of stable and gainful employment that sustains families and communities, programs that encourage the conditions and skills within families that prepare children for school success…

It saddens me as a teacher to see a “reform”campaign that proudly advocates driving parents towards the open arms of a market that actively separates, divides…

…and only serves to the extent that the market is served. Civil rights and civics get wrapped into the propaganda with talk of “parent rights” along with publicity stunts and slogans like “don’t steal possible”– the whole time denying the when, where, and how the stealing is actually happening; why so many children are coming to school unprepared and why some of the most high profile “choice” schools unashamedly refuse to serve them. The conditions in their communities, homes and families impacts their readiness to learn,  and we would do better by the children to take the goal off of the market and put it back on the people.

“Learning begins at birth. By the time children turn three, they have already begun laying the foundation for life-long learning and success.”

So why no real concern for communities, children or their families-the foundation of good outcomes?

Because it costs money to address the real systemic and endemic evils policymakers enthusiastically sacrifice our children to daily, and to get that money you may have to spend less on bombs, war, corporate subsidies, etc…But you can save or even make money gutting the middle class, labor protections, teachers’ pensions and benefits (like sick days, remember sick days? This is a piece about sick days. I’m bringin’ it around I swear, but I think and write like Arlo Guthrie doing Alice’s Restaurant), the public commons of schools and taxpayer dollars meant to maintain that commons for the good of all…

This can no longer be pinned to typical Republican evil, because despite the current scary right-wing agenda being driven-the Democrats have helped slow-walk us to where we are today. They might be the “lesser evil” but are complicit in bringing the greater evils. The reformer response to their lack of will in addressing those greater evils is usually the typical dodge: “We are in a crisis! We can’t waste time addressing the decaying communities, destabilized families, crony capitalism, political dishonesty that backs our agenda-we just need to focus  on pumping out propaganda on the evils of unions and the promise of an edu-market of ‘choices’.” Or it may be continued promotion of alternative certification for teachers (de-stabilize, de-professionalize the profession), cheap disposable TFA teachers who’ll work a few years and then move on to some political action, non-profit organizing, charter-school creating, uber-driving…whatever. As long as salaries, unions, benefits and pensions can be reduced, eliminated and/or side-stepped. It’s that exciting new transient, insecure, lack of commitment to people, families and children economy and job market that “choice” proponents seem to crave. Choose-em, use-em and lose em I guess.

But, back to sick days (I told you I’d bring it around).

With so much that really needs reforming how can reformers effectively whine about career teachers, their salaries, their benefits, their sick days? “Most people only get two sick days a year…”, “Most people don’t get a pension…, “The days of careers that last 30 years are in the past…” It’s all language intended to sow resentment and discord among the lower classes and encourage acceptance of on-the-job exploitation by the wealthiest (through the government and economy they own) who themselves enjoy the revolving door of never-ending, high-paying opportunities to fail outward, upward or away. This is the paradigm, by the way, that gives birth to a Trump presidency-where those who enjoy position, privilege, protection and pay believe they have earned it, and that their millions or even billions should entitle them to more respect than your average worker, or family, or child…

So back to here, returning  home after my psychedelic journey of a rant.

It is, about 8PM, and my 16 year old daughter is absorbed in some school work, typing and sending some questions to this very teacher at home, by email, regarding the writing of the constitution. How/why was Madison chosen to do the writing and not Bartlett and Dickinson (the writers of The Articles of Confederation, the predecessor to The Constitution)? Interesting question. Even though I’m an elementary teacher, I’m a history buff and have a feel for the tenor of those times (and love to weave history into stories I tell) when leaders sought to make a more unified and powerful (but clearly defined and “checked”) central government. The Articles empowered states in their own interests while the “founding fathers” looked for a more unifying document the put more power in a central government, I know that much but can’t help my daughter with this one.

That’s my daughter, any of my three girls, really.

…wondering about the people and personalities of revolutionary times, and how they were involved and intertwined, not crying over a boy, complaining about a mean girl…She wants to communicate with her teacher. I almost tell my daughter not to bother her, but then I know (or I think I know) that a serious student who is a serious thinker and has a serious question has some healing value. So she sends this teacher, my colleague, the woman beginning a battle with cancer and staying home, her question.

Within 10 minutes my daughter gets a response. It is a mix of admiration for a “great question from a great writer”, an admission of not knowing too much about the specifics of how the decision to choose Madison to write The Constitution was made, a direction to seek out a real history buff teacher at the high school, and (get this)…some seeming enthusiasm for a homework assignment my daughter inspired for her as a teacher.

And I bet she will actually use her sick days to do that homework.

I get that it bothers those looking to exploit others that groups can organize to resist exploitation. But the whining about the sick days teachers have and take has to stop, okay? The resentment wealthy strategists want to sow for what little is left of job security and respect for workers will not reap the benefits anyone wants, and making comparisons to other disrespected workers is not a license to spread that disrespect.

It’s time for any describing themselves as a “reformer” to reflect on who they serve, what it is they are really trying to reform and what they are and are not willing to push for. Whining about sick days in not helpful.

 

“Soft Skills” Part I : Teachers Go Far Above and Beyond Gates

To reformers, the well-being of children is just not the point.

But it never really was. Early on, the financial crisis was used as an opportunity for a political maneuver, an education-reform launch; an opportunity to pull a bait-and-switch, except this one was a Gates and switch. In 2009Bill Gates, billionaire and default oracle on anything he throws his money at, spoke to the National Conference of State Legislatures and first described the crisis and sets up the problem:

“These are not ordinary times. We’re in a severe economic downturn—and you, as state legislators, may have a more complete picture of the impact of this recession than anyone else in the country. You are forced to balance your budgets, even as the recession increases your expenditures and cuts your revenues.”

On some level, he clearly got what was going on financially-for policymakers anyway. But he avoided the institutionalized avarice of the financial sector and the policies serving to protect it, regardless of the damage to working-class families being done, and instead he skips to describing that damage:

“Your constituents are losing their jobs, their savings, and their homes—and everywhere you go, people are asking you to make it better. This is a painful time.”

Now about here is where a person with a soul and a backbone would say something like:

“This nation is infected with some very powerful, influential and wealthy maggots eager to feed on what little is left of the very people, your constituents, who made this nation great. This has to stop and the way we stop it is with some social, economic and political reforms that will truly make America great again. Whoa- can someone write that down? I may want to put that on a bright red hat or something!”

But Gates didn’t say any of that. Well, maybe he had something to do with the hat, but he definitely didn’t point the finger or give the finger in the direction it was needed. Instead, this is where the switch followed the bait. Like the manufactured “crisis” in education that the Chicken Littles of the post Sputnik year lamented, and the diversion that the alarmist Reagan-era Nation at Risk was going for, Gates decided to make public education the enemy:

“We’ve been in an economic crisis for a year or so. But we’ve been in an education crisis for decades. As a country, our performance at every level—primary and secondary school achievement, high school graduation, college entry, college completion—is dropping against the rest of the world.”

In less than five years after saying this he would be predicting that many jobs would be lost to technology and automation. Today you can see that happening as cashiers disappear only to be replaced by computers that help you do your checking and bagging yourself; touchscreens take your order and your credit card payment at fast food restaurants, so no teenagers saving up for their first cars needed; ATM’s to take and deliver your money from and to your bank-so no teller needed! Rest afraid that it will continue to happen,  and that as time goes by this dehumanization of the labor force and increasing intrusion of technology into our daily existence will have impacts on our students.

But Gates avoided, in his mission to educate the nation, the consistently high correlation between economic stability within communities and families (likely to be eroded with an eroding jobs market) associated with student level of  academic achievement and life outcomes. At the same time, he jumped fully on board with pushing more “products” into schools and a data-driven high expectations, test-and-punish, “common core” mentality that insists all students should perform the way the top 1/3 or so have historically performed. Why would Gates choose to implicate and scapegoat public education, or suggest that more private market philosophy imposed on the public commons was the way to go?

While I can read minds (I do it in classrooms every day- every good teacher does), you don’t really need to in this case. Gates is an open book. Let’s boomerang back to that NCSL speech he gave about how to do a proper rich white-guy gentrification of public education, eviscerate the teaching profession and bend and shape poor children of color to his specifications:

When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better. Imagine having the people who create electrifying video games applying their intelligence to online tools that pull kids in and make algebra fun.

Ohhhhh…so there’s a market! There’s products to be developed and sold and money to be made for some people to come up with things to make other people’s kids do. If you didn’t get the tingles of excitement just reading that, imagine how it has felt being a victim of what that money has bought for the years between then and now. Or a parent watching what was being done to your child and his/her school in the name of “reform”

“But misuse of assessments by politicians isn’t about my kids, really. It’s about the ever-increasing number of those left behind in the economic competition model of public education. More and more kids are coming to school tired, hungry, emotionally and economically insecure, with school and academics low on their list of priorities. Children can’t eat tests and tests can’t hug children.” (Me, April 2015)

Or better yet, imagine if you were a corporation just waiting to crank out some of those “products that can help every kid learn”.

All the PR and promotion you can stand, with little reflection

Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-Gates. I am just anti wealth-backed elitist narrow-minded BS “philanthropy”. Oh-and the ability of a lot of money to pay politicians to force poor people into indentured servitude and  intelligent people to chase that gravy train and continually defend negative PR campaigns and undeservedly hyped reputations and resumes. I almost forgot that last part. Thank God for notes-huh?

“She gleefully assumes the mantle of arch-reformer from a long line of disruptors like Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Arne Duncan, John King, Wendy Kopp, John Deasy, the first generation of charter school founders…” 

That quote was from an article written by Peter Cunningham. In it he describes how Eva Moskowitz descended from the clouds carried on the backs of a dozen winged (say that “wing-ed” like its two syllables) cherubs playing golden harps. Spoiler alert: a heavenly golden aura magically frames her benevolent and at the same time grimly determined and unafraid visage, she sheds a tear of mercy, and then makes a self-sacrificial vow to open the doors of a new school of miracles to all who would come.

Okay, so I’m kidding.

It is a good read, though, primarily as a specimen of the craft of shameless promotion, and for the inclusion of the names in that “long line of destructors”. They are tremendous. Everybody knows it. They do school better than anyone, believe me. Believe me. I’m being wise, so let me dial it back and say A) disruptors not “destructors” (Freudian slip) and B) Peter is one of the more reasonable people in the “reform camp” I’ve communicated with. I just don’t care for the deflections of Moskowitz herself or the lack of honesty in the promotion of her school or others that operate like it.

You see, data, tests, formulas and educator evaluations based on all that are sucking the life, purpose and honesty out education and the debates regarding reform and what “choice” should really mean. Schools that engineer a student body through filtering enrollment and unreasonably strict disciplinary practices in order to manufacture stats should be a “choice” available, but can’t be represented with chin-held-high as “better than” truly public, open-doors schools because of their manufactured better stats. If you really want to, and you manage to get your child into a school like that, then kudos to you. But this is the type of education system, one that ignores what the neediest really need and who can best to define and provide it, that is supported by those disconnected and elite destructors…I mean distractors…no-wait disruptors.

Be patient, I’ll get it eventually

But I don’t want to stretch this out too long. I am going to save some for my next installment where I get to the “soft skills” that employers demand, teachers provide, and reformers so desperately want you to ignore.

 

 

 

 

The “School Choice” Conundrum

“It is best not to straddle ideals,” said FDR in his 1940 letter to the Democratic Convention. The letter was penned hastily as Roosevelt listened to convention proceedings from the Oval Office, understanding that his former vice president, John Garner, along with  a less liberal faction of the party looked to block: 1) his nomination for an unprecedented third term, 2) his pick for a new vice president (the more liberal Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace) and 3) his New Deal for pulling a nation out of The Great Depression. Knowing that the nation was desperate for a government to believe in, FDR was adamant: if you undermine my agenda and my VP nominee- I will not run again.  The letter never needed to be read at the convention because Eleanor, his amazing wife (which wives most often are) saved the day (as wives quite often do) with a direct, on point and hastily constructed message of her own, compelling the party to unite for their cause. You probably know that Roosevelt was nominated (along with his new Vice President), and was in fact nominated for and elected to a fourth term in 1944- the first and last time it ever happened in the United States.

One of my favorite comedians and thinkers on the current political climate is Jimmy Dore. Other than some occasional filthy language my kids might be exposed to, what he has to say bears great value. And in terms of the filthy language: I have trained my kids on how to hear it as well as how, when and why to use it. It doesn’t thrill my wife much, but it does lead to some great George Carlin-esque conversations with my oldest about the versatility of words like motherfucker, and with my daughters in general about “can use”, “try not to use” and “never use” words. Anyways, Jimmy Dore has said this about FDR:

“He brought us Social Security, The New Deal, put money in the pockets of workers, saved capitalism… ‘pie in the sky’. And they elected him president ’til he died. That’s what happens when you legislate with the people in mind, instead of the donor class in mind.” (Jimmy Dore on FDR, “Best of the Left”, 3/31/2017)

The “straddle” FDR feared was between what the party should stand for as a champion of the people and liberal and progressive values, stretched between what it can end up standing for when it sacrifices its values for the priorities of the donor class, some perceived practicality, and/or political gain, or just the weight of moral truths it is simply unwilling to confront. In his letter, FDR wrote:

The party has failed consistently when through political trading and chicanery it has fallen into the control of those interests, personal and financial, which think in terms of dollars instead of in terms of human values.

“School choice” is faced with a similar straddle-dilemma. While the reform roosters crow and the “choice” hens cackle about the evils of unions, teachers, the middle class, the NAACP… anyone they can possibly think of to frame as enemies of the poor and explain why their movement falters-they fail to look down to where their feet are. For all of the bold talk about parent choice and parent rights that education reformers like to engage in, when it comes time for them to really plant their feet and stand for these families in ways that will make deep, systemic change possible and put truly better outcomes within  reach-where are they? They are straddled. One foot on their soaring narratives and the other on the limiting truths.

To explain:

You straddle when you first use “poverty is not an excuse” to shame schools and career educators while at the same time citing the lack of resources and the conditions our poorest are forced to live in as the impetus to “choicing” out to a “better” school to avoid some of the consequences of poverty. One is rhetorical, the other reflects some understanding of truth.

You straddle when you relentlessly beat the gong of high-stakes test accountability and also point the “prison pipeline” finger at schools and teachers, while at the same time defending or avoiding the practice of “choice” schools that manufacture enrollment and test/graduation results and sometimes push students out onto that so-called pipeline. In regards to this particular straddle: the former is specious scapegoating, the latter is convenient avoidance.

You straddle if you insistently defend the right of parents to have choice, and turn around and defend the right of “choice” schools to un-choose parents and children that don’t suit their agenda. I have actually had someone who adamantly claims an intent to protect the rights of parents and protect children respond to me, when I shared an account of a Florida parent being disrespected (and the needs of her child neglected) as the school tried to pressure her out with:

“Did you contact the school or take the parent’s word on faith?”

I had never before seen the priorities of a parent questioned by this person. Other than when parents decide not to surrender their children to the standardized testing and data collection industry, that is.

In the end, there really is no other choice, if the greatest good, true choice, accountability and best outcomes are the goals, than to provide resources and opportunities based on need. Abandoning the need-concept to serve the inequitable status quo (reliance on market principles and the “choice” attached) promotes artificial choice and personal profit. But the market and it’s protectors are entrenched in so-called education reform, and they continually attempt to subvert the greatest good of public education and replace it with individual allotments of “opportunity”.

Because of this, we can no longer completely separate politics from education. Our communities our children and our schools are owed so much more than the non-interventionist, sterile, four-walls and purely academic instruction of days long gone by. That approach simply prepared our youth to fill some awaiting slot in society and eliminated many from slots they might have claimed had a different educational approach been used. We need to think beyond the high-stakes testing blame and shame game that allows our leaders and their reform partners to avoid the true endeavor of public education.

Real reform needs to open the minds and eyes of our communities, empower them to be involved in education and in policy, and we owe it to learners to not be compliant with the status quo that has shown no loyalty to our communities. We owe the public more if we are going to do public education right.

And it isn’t even really about what anyone is owed- it’s what we need. Education is not just a preparation to serve the world that is, it’s casting critical light on the world that was, has been, and considering the world that might be- the world that we want it to be.

Protect the Children

Protect the children from your incremental surrender and ignorance.

Invite them and their families into the schools you love and your children so enjoy as opposed to attacking their schools that are being left undermined and abandoned. Fight to have their neighborhoods safe, their families sheltered, their bellies full and their water clean. Use nonprofit millions- not to fund your agenda but to fund reading programs and become actively involved in a good food, great books and warm beds initiative that will help send more children ready to learn into the schools you are so eager to hold accountable (while you are so unwilling to share your own).

Do more than posture, preen and judge-otherwise you are worse than useless-you are an actual danger and the children need to be protected from you.