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.

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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.

The NAACP Report and the Opposition to Better Schools for All

With the release of the NAACP’s Task Force on Quality Education Hearing Report  came an opportunity to move forward in an honest way to meet our education obligation to all children. This report followed the civil rights organization’s call for a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools last October. The moratorium was not a condemnation of charters, or government action or policy. It was just a “weighing-in” on the issue and an opinion on how we should move forward. Surprisingly, there was backlash to the NAACP’s call for better, and more honest school choice. Where does that come from, and why?

1. The NAACP Calls for Better Schools for All

First off, know that the NAACP has acknowledged the need for better schools to serve the neediest students in the most under-served areas, but felt the expansion of the charter industry should happen under the four conditions outlined in it’s moratorium:

  1. Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools.
  2. Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.
  3. Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate and
  4. Charter schools cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.

Far from refusal to support charter schools, or an undermining of quality education options for parents and children of color, these conditions advocate for the very things school choice proponents demand: transparency, accountability, commitment to the students being served… And since it’s common for pro-charter school and parent choice advocates to decry unacceptable “school to prison pipelines”, exclusion and/or segregation by zip code,  inability or unwillingness of traditional schools to provide services and resources, …I believed these four conditions would be embraced and there would be a united demand that policymakers step up and do right thing by all communities and all schools.

Boy was I in for a surprise.

2. The Opposition to Better Schools for All

There was no unity cry from the reform crowd. The conditions weren’t well-received by outspoken charter school defenders, but the criticisms they’ve mustered have been weak, circular, and unconvincing. To summarize the opposition to better schools for all:

1) You can say these bad things happen at charters, but you can’t really prove these things happen.

2) Okay yes, bad things happen at charters but those things happen at all schools.

3) Where has the NAACP been while parents and poor children of color are stuck in traditional schools that don’t serve them well?

4) Since the NAACP wants more honestly run charter schools, they must oppose poor parents of color and their children.

A closer look at these opposition points:

The “You can’t prove it” maneuver 

Most often this response refers to a supposed lack of evidence that charters are guilty of “creaming”, or the screening out, of lower performing students in order to bolster charter results by bringing in those more likely to perform well. This is a common allegation, and insinuated in the NAACP’s moratorium, but in his reaction to the NAACP Chris Stewart writes:

The NAACP implies that charters are “creaming”—screening out low-performing students in order to boost their overall test scores. Here again there may be anecdotes, but there is no data supporting this claim, and therefore no ability for the charter sector to “meet” this expectation.

The “no data” link is to one paper, which based it’s results partly on information gathered from one “anonymous major urban school district with a large number of charter schools”, and focused on one issue of why schools might pressure out students: because of grades or test scores.

The concern, though, isn’t about looking at a spreadsheet of test scores and selecting or de-selecting-it’s about an intentional design of a more subtle form of filtering up front, with more intentional exclusion/removal as a backup. According to the same “no data” paper:

If students are being pushed out, it is more likely to occur in subtle ways—for example, through counseling students and their families to seek a better fit for their needs or having more stringent disciplinary consequences or requiring certain commitments that are associated with higher student achievement such as family involvement and student attendance requirements.

The Conclusion section states:

Together, the ongoing debate as well as the previous research suggests that an aggregate examination of charter schools as well a more micro analysis of charter schools is warranted to inform whether the “push-out” argument could be a strong argument against charter schools in general and whether there should be greater scrutiny imposed upon individual charter schools, which could occur at the reauthorization of charter schools.

So on “creaming” and “pushing out”: to say that there is “no data” is misleading, and to follow up with “therefore no ability for the charter sector to ‘meet’ this expectation” is not a Perry Mason closing moment deserving the word “therefore” between the premise and conclusion . If we agree that “creaming” is wrong (Do we?), agreeing to not do it isn’t impossible. Imagine me saying “You can’t really prove I’ve ever stabbed a kitten before, so I have no ability to promise to not to do it in the future.” It’s not as if I have “no ability” to meet the no kitten stabbing expectation.

2) The Bad things happen at all schools gambit

“It’s wrong, but you do it so we can do it too,” just sounds bad to begin with. But it is a dishonest argument as well. Traditional schools do suffer from some unintended consequences of self-imposed (to an extent) and externally imposed burdens (both of which I am more than willing to admit and discuss) that limit the ability to serve all students in a way that meets their needs. I have watched as access to needed resources, personnel, and services gets further beyond reach and classroom teachers are expected to be more than just the teacher to students coming to school needing way more than to simply be taught. The economic, social and political forces are beyond the truly public school’s purview, without a loosening of the reins on the mission of public schooling. As is, schools are left to respond to the damage and hope students survive and maybe thrive.

But charters can under-serve or avoid serving some by internal and intentional design. Their model is to enroll students that simply need to be taught, do good work with them, and then wear the (hopefully) better stats as a comparative prize ribbon. Maybe some “See, we told you those schools are failing and we are better!” theater.

In terms of the “intentional design”, on the front “creaming” end where students are taken into a charter school: parents need to sign off/sign up to get their child into a charter school. The traditional, open-enrollment public school is the default compulsory public education option and if there is a child that doesn’t show up to the school he or she is linked to: a parent/guardian risks getting charged with educational neglect for truancy. So to actually remove a student from that option and enroll him/her in another school “choice” really does take some active parent choosing. Hopefully there is some research into the options, maybe there’s a lottery, a waiting list, a qualifying test score or principal recommendation, interviews and/or references… It takes some intent and the will to execute an enrollment plan; it takes awareness and motivation; and it takes parent involvement. It may take prerequisite student success/dedication and it most likely takes ongoing involvement.

Now while one weak-ass study that misses the mark to begin with is definitely no proof that “choice” schools don’t cream or do the choosing themselves to allow only the most likely to succeed, the one thing we definitely do know: Involved parents are likely to have more successful students.  Charter schools know it too, and must know that their selective schools benefit from this type of “creaming” because research  shows that, among many other positive impacts, when parents are involved:

  • Children tend to achieve more, regardless of ethnic or racial background, socioeconomic status, or parents’ education level.
  • Children generally achieve better grades, test scores, and attendance.
  • Children consistently complete their homework.
  • Children have better self-esteem, are more self-disciplined, and show higher aspirations and motivation toward school.
  • Children’s positive attitude about school often results in improved behavior in school and less suspension for disciplinary reasons.

For the pushing out or counseling out of students, it’s the “two wrongs make it right for us” defense. Students get suspended from traditional schools too, sure. But what, really, might get a student suspended or pushed/pressured out of a traditional school versus a charter school?

Success Academy’s code of misconduct is six pages long with 65 infractions ranging from minor or Level 1 violations such as slouching or failing to be in “Ready to Succeed” position, to middle or Level 2 misconduct like forgetting to bring a pencil or pen to school…

As a career teacher in traditional schools I could tell you about kindergartners who come to school and to a general education classroom still pooping and peeing in their pants. They stay in school and for as much as possible in the general education setting because it’s the least restrictive environment. I could share stories about second graders who rage to the point of throwing chairs around and emptying the classroom for everyone’s safety, or about third graders threatening to stab another student, her family- and her cat (just for good measure, I suppose). They stay in the school and in classroom for as long as possible. I could tell you stories about parents who come to conference reeking of dope and asking if they could volunteer to come in to help sometimes because “they could use a little learnin’ too”, or custodial grandmothers who show up in the newspaper’s “police beat” for cooking meth and possession of heroin…I could tell you so much more. If you have never taught, or taught temporarily so you could pretend to understand teaching, you might not get this. If you don’t know what “mandated reporter” means, you might not get it either.

But then again, I am white, and have lived my whole life and taught in a  rural area. It might be that violence, crime and drugs are only a country-white problem that mostly impacts rural families, children and schools and isn’t really a problem for families with children in the cities and their schools. Help me out with this because I don’t know. What I do know is that highly promoted and praised charters have a very low tolerance for behaviors that are hardly even “on the radar” for public schools and  the seasoned teachers in them. As an example, note Alan Singer’s description of what a “violation” is at this “choice” school:

“Success Academy’s code of misconduct is six pages long with 65 infractions ranging from minor or Level 1 violations such as slouching or failing to be in “Ready to Succeed” position, to middle or Level 2 misconduct like forgetting to bring a pencil or pen to school, to more serious Level 3 infractions like play fighting or repeated littering. The most serious Level 4 infractions include continued violation of the lesser misbehaviors, bullying, and “blatant and repeated disrespect for school code.” In-house and home suspension from school starts with Level 2 infractions. Penalties for “scholars” accused of Level 3 or Level 4 infractions include immediate expulsion from school.”

So parent involvement on the way in, strict student compliance- or you’re out. Should our “failing schools” adopt the more successful policies of this charter to be more successful? When choice advocates eagerly attach words like “results” and “high achieving”, why do they sometimes relish critical comparison to traditional schools while avoiding full disclosure of charter mechanisms?

 3) Where has the NAACP been?

I can’t answer this, and wonder why anyone asks. The economic and social crisis of class division and diminishing opportunities and returns has been been ongoing and the those with the least continue to suffer the most. Not coincidentally, it is the wealthiest who benefit the most and try to leverage their political voice and control to define “reform”. Do you think their goal is philanthropic and willing to give up any of their control or share; to empower either economically or politically a massive population waking up to how they have been and are being divided and exploited? To allow the middle class and lower classes to unite and demand real substantive reforms?

While even “school choice” advocates are starting a soft-sell of their own version of segregation (or separation), and while filtering away students with involved parents and the ability to adhere to draconian conduct policies can create some stats that investors like and politicians can ride during campaign season, we have to ask what the overall benefit of separating students based on their personal resources is, and if we shouldn’t be demanding more economic and social support for integration. Not necessarily based on race, because it seems a hard sell and I see little belief that that is an achievable goal in the nearest possible future- but integration based on poverty and economic status. In this Frontline interview, Richard D. Kahlenber explains:

It was always that low-income students of all races do better in an economically mixed environment. … Their classmates had parents with higher education levels, which was related to higher aspirations. In middle-class schools, parents usually have more flexible jobs so they can volunteer in the classrooms. They have cars to get to PTA meetings. … [Meanwhile],  when you integrated low income and working class African-Americans and whites, there were no achievement gains.

We all benefit from having a higher education level among all students, and we want to tap into the talents of low-income students, African-American, Latino, Asian and white students. And we all, as a society, benefit when those investments are made.

 4) Who really opposes the empowerment of poor people of color, The NAACP or the millionaires and billionaires controlling policy and defining the parameters of “reform”?

You have to know that this kind of childish attack gets us nowhere if doing right by children is the goal. So if you want to talk about opposing poor parents of color and their children, there are far deeper, more endemic and systemic harms being done and/or being ignored. As rich white guys make millions and billions steering public policy and weighing in on how exactly how and what the poorest people need to learn and do to be “ready”, they also benefit enormously from:

  1. Taking and sending jobs and resources out and away from our poorest communities and families,
  2. Using their political leverage to segregate populations, isolate resources, gentrify neighborhoods and further limit opportunities,
  3. Numbing the collective mind of our nation with perpetual soul rotting media, junk food, and disposable, consumable technology and goods that keep us perpetually spending, wasting, replacing…
  4. Polluting our air, water, food and souls while ensuring that their corporations are seen as people, their money as speech and our interests and votes mean little in the end.

“God is watching,”  a wise man once said, noting how we have tainted children’s water with lead.

So, with God watching (if you believe he is):

If we are going to do education reform, school choice, accountability, and do them right, there is much more important work to do than helping the wealthy tear down what is left of the middle class, public institutions, a profession, unions… There is a better path than letting millionaires, billionaires point away from their greed and deciding for us what the poor will be allowed. Instead of letting a charter industry protect it’s interests, let’s provide parents with honesty and simple information about charter schools, and create charter schools that serve any child who might attend them.