Teaching to Combat Systemic Injustice

A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic

The concept  behind the proposition is that when a name and a face can be attached to an injustice, oppression, disease, death… the argument against those negative forces becomes more powerful, personal and visceral. A story can be told about the individual. You can find ways to connect to the person and can relate to their suffering. It could be you or someone you love after all. But as teachers, how do we get our students to understand and identify greater injustices, not just the individual ones-whether they be ones weighing on they themselves or those close to them? How do we prepare today’s children and soon-to-be citizens to grapple with today’s notions that are likely be tomorrow’s problems?

When casualties reach into the millions, real understanding tends to disappear. Maybe numbers like that cognitively become labeled as some ephemeral generic mass instead of being understood as revelatory of a significantly greater issue. One child suffering from exposure to lead in their environment can have tragic consequences. But it’s difficult to imagine tens of thousands or more!

Lead causes irreversible damage to a developing brain, so it is especially harmful to children 5 or younger. Symptoms include developmental delays, dyslexia and behavioral problems. Thus lead exposure adds one more serious adversity to the multiple challenges associated with urban poverty, including nutritional deficiencies, reduced access to quality medical care, community violence and poor-performing public schools. (Washington Post, March 7, 2018)

Maybe it’s hard to believe that leaders could perpetrate or allow such things on that scale. I mean, so many people being hurt or killed intentionally or through negligence or apathy. Advanced societies couldn’t allow such things, right? They wouldn’t, would they? You do have to wonder why either a righteously proud pro-life party or a supposedly party-of-the-working class would continue to spend American dollars to fund siege war campaigns, and support rebel groups seeking to overthrow leaders of sovereign nations (with no formal declaration of war and despite both the campaign declarations of pre-president Trump and the unpopularity of endless war).

A sound, basic public education needs to prepare students to grapple with such questions when the world becomes theirs. In addition, as part of an increased focus on civics and civic engagement, educators have a responsibility to help students be fully informed about the condition of the world they will inherit in order for them to make the smartest decisions about how to best preserve both it and their best interests.

But back to the essential question: Today’s leaders would act in such self interested inhumanity as to shirk their obligations to future generations, would they?

Well, do you remember Michelle Wolf’s White House Correspondents Dinner performance-the one that had all the right-wing nancy-boys and Fox News snowflakes rethinking their brave stance on the first amendment (brave at least when it comes to the rights of speed-talking morons like Ben Shapiro to go to college campuses to show off how offensive and smug he’s willing to be). So many people wrongly interpreted Wolf’s comments to be about Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her appearance, when in fact they were aimed at her aversion to the truth. I couldn’t honestly believe there was that much ignorance or hearing impairment in pundit-land, but then I heard a comment on an alternative news source that basically pointed out how no one is even mentioning the last words Wolf spoke as she stepped away from the mic:

Flint still doesn’t have clean water.

So hell yeah, the powerful could, would and do allow atrocities on a massive scale.

Not only do they allow it, they are sometimes supportive and/or complicit and our leaders on both sides of the aisle are exhibit A in that particular shit show. They understand how to perpetuate and brush systemic injustice aside when it  benefits them and their wealthy and powerful allies. Of course individual cases are highlighted for slogans, rallies and all-around exploitation of a political agenda, but mass inequity, injustice and inhumanity are topics to be avoided.

Mainstream media news outlets are no better, allowing for the powerful suctioning away of greater truths to create a vacuum that is then filled with the latest in-the-moment palace intrigue, drama and distraction. The show put on rarely allows for reflection, because just when you lift your head above the waves to snatch a breath, the next wave of bullshit hits.

Our students need to be prepared in a way that only shows bias towards verified truths, not partisan ones.

Being “political” doesn’t have to be the same as being partisan if your continual mission is seeking the truth on any side of an issue and finding a way to engage the issues and others on those issues, putting your thoughts and findings into words. So listening, hearing, analyzing and discussing events and issues all need to be a part of the civic engagement of students. But having them think well means teachers standing in front of them need to also think well. And getting there requires practice.

Think Justice Kavanaugh was simply a hapless and pleasant virgin pray-boy who went to Yale, maybe had a couple beers once in a while, went to church on Sundays and then was suddenly attacked out of the blue by schemers, connivers and rabble-rousers on the left?

Think Chuck Grassley’s sense of justice and decorum was so offended that he just became angered at the behavior coming from the Democrats? Maybe he is just a recent player in politics and is unfamiliar with the game?

Think Lindsey Graham just forgot about defending the sanctity of higher office which he so proudly spoke up for and stood by when hunting down Bill Clinton for an adulterous (but consensual) relationship?

Think that Mitch McConnell repeatedly reaches back to the 1800’s to defend his open obstructionism of Merrick Garland’s appointment to the Supreme Court because he is a purist when it comes to history and tradition in regards to nominations?

Then you have definitely been infected by the right.

Alternatively, do you think that any of the crusty, dusty old establishment leaders on the left really feel bad about tilting the Supreme Court to the right, allowing for a defensive fortification of well-moneyed and corporate influence over policy?

Then you have been infected by the fake left. Probably a more dangerous condition because you’ve been tricked into believing you are “left” when you’re actually just left-ish of where crazy-right is. You might not even be on the side of the activated true-left. Those willing to spend their time speaking truth to power, or even a little time in jail for doing so.

You know, those advocates of “mob rule”

Now the Republicans are running around afraid, talking about the threat of “mob rule”. These rich white men whose pockets get well-lined by other rich white men are shameless hypocrites, not patriots. They have no honor because their political positions  and loyalty are taken out of convenience and to match the agenda of the day. I won’t even comment on morality because elevating their understanding of morals would require a trip to meet them in Bizarro World where they live by some strange code of moral convenience and equivalence.

For example, referring to concerned citizens exercising their first amendment rights as a “mob” intentionally loses the human and familiar face. This makes you forget that Christine Ford could very well have been or be your own daughter, mother, wife, sister… Somebody you care about brushed aside does not inspire you to spontaneously join a “mob”, but instead it lights a fire under you in regards to a specific issue and for a cause near and dear to you. The freedoms of this nation and it’s citizens have been hard won by the masses inspired in this manner, not through the masses obediently complying with the wishes of the fewest and the wealthiest.

The arrogance of Chuck Grassley, the staged bluster of Lindsey Graham, and the desperation of Mitch McConnell begs for this kind of response to these elite, privileged old men. The ineptitude of the leaders on that fake left have only made that mob’s presence and it’s voice that much more necessary.

Once upon a time they were called patriots, and their presence reveals the tyranny and cowardice of leaders.

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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 this 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 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 fled to a charter that provided the support/programming that helped their children thrive), are used intentionally and ubiquitously. It’s the silence on “choice” inconsistencies, even if unintentional, that 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

 

Four steps to better education reform (Introduction to MEGA)

This will be the first installment of several in a “Better Education Reform” series. As I continue, I will be linking to associated definitions and explanations between installments, and at the end will include a glossary for some of the more colloquial-type terms I use. I try to tone it down a little, but hey-I can only water it down so much.

Introduction:

America needs to be better at educating its citizens. I say this for a couple of reasons. Mainly, the disparity in outcomes in our population is concerning-especially when that disparity is linked to race, gender and socioeconomic status.  It suggests either systemic ineffectiveness, intent, and possibly both. Secondly, the political mechanisms that drive this disparity are almost wholly owned and operated by the most privileged class and their nearly as privileged agents. This has led to a situation where the vehicle we call democracy is like some eyesore the losers next door park on the lawn and tear up and down the street in at all hours. We can’t really deny democracy exists, I mean it’s parked right there. But it’s right to wonder if it works, worry about how safe it is and what might happen to us, our property and our children with those losers behind the wheel. Seriously- all they ever do is a crappy touch-up with some spray cans and tint the windows so you can’t see what the $#%& is going on inside of it!

Donald Trump is that eyesore. Who the hell knows what goes on in his head? And our “elected” leaders and the system preserving them are driving him around. But guess what? Trump is the president. That doesn’t happen absent a decline in the character, practical intelligence, and moral commitment in the citizenry and the system. And those things-character, practical intelligence, depend on an effective comprehensive education. A real education.

That’s quite different than schooling, which uses the sterile and dehumanizing language of industry (e.g. standards, tests, achievement, proficiency…) and is focused on the task-mastering of academic skills-an approach that supports control of the masses below by the few above. Real education reform should be an honest effort, and provide much more in terms of a foundation of soft skills and a content of character that allow a person to pursue, communicate, exercise their civic duties and responsibilities, connect effectively with the world, achieve, adapt, cooperate…Basically, education imparts the qualities that shape the person who applies the academic skills acquired through schooling.

By acknowledging, legislating and working through this more comprehensive approach to education, and a more shared accountability for the components that are required, the nation can improve outcomes for traditionally underachieving groups.

Part 1: the four steps

One of the primary roadblocks to better outcomes is the bipartisan cooperation in refusing to do what is right. In other words there is a lack of the political will to do right in our leaders. I will get more deeply into practical intelligence, quality, comprehensive education, and political will in just a bit. I’ll also address the concepts of systemic ineffectiveness and intent-“intent” meaning that some of the ineffectiveness might be purposeful and used by those in power to suppress those with less in order to preserve an inequitable system.

But first things first.

The key to better education reform, more equitable outcomes and reaching for that effective, comprehensive education is informing, preparing and activating the citizenry. Once that happens, education and reform can be freed from the tightly defined box constructed by and for the wealthy and powerful establishment who ironically use it as a tool of suppression. That paradigm of suppression has led to stagnant or unimpressive societal and academic improvements. Changing the paradigm and making education great again (that’s MEGA, folks- I’ll trademark it and begin making the red hats soon) won’t be easy, but here are the four things I suggest to get us moving in the MEGA direction towards improving outcomes:

Four steps to MEGA:

1) Admit that accountability is shared for education outcomes, between policymakers, community, families and schools. Have mechanisms for measurement, evaluation and accountability that are collaboratively created by these stakeholders and keep all stakeholders involved and accountable.

2) Apply electoral and non-electoral leverage strategically to affect policy and distribute resources based  on needs. That means targeting policymakers, communities, families, and schools with transparency, honesty and a purpose that is learner and future-focused.

3) Shift the stale paradigm for how schooling works and how outcomes are defined, and provide real opportunities to pursue both collective priorities (public education should serve the public, the same way public spaces, utilities and services do) and individual goals. This is a shift from the current impersonal demands for a standardized version of “proficiency”.

4) Effectively advocate not just for the literal lives of children, but their quality of life as well. The key word being “effectively”.

Next, “The four steps explained”.

Holding Schools Accountable

While sorting through some old, old stuff, I came across a hard copy of this. I think it predated flash drives, I’m not really sure. Thank god I have a beautiful young typist that will ask for little more than a burger and maybe a few bucks. About 16 years ago, I think it was, and yet it could be today. 

 

National Standards:

Holding Schools Accountable

by

Daniel McConnell, Jr.

State University of New York

Cortland, 2002

 

Introduction

            While on the surface educational standards appear to be merely a logical move to provide cohesive instruction, the forces behind their origin and the pairing of standards with a call for “accountability” reveal other motives. Historically, the United States has taken great efforts to achieve and maintain a dominant world presence, much through advances in military technology (which are closely linked to the math and science fields). Most notably since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, when the former USSR beat the United States into space, policy makers have demanded that schools prepare students to be an active part in the US- led future. When “A Nation At Risk” was published in 1983, warning of pending failure in the competitive world market, the cry for school reform was renewed with a focus on curriculum standards, and accountability for schools not demonstrating student achievement of those standards. While doing this, policy makers ignore their own accountability in helping to nurture capable students and productive future citizens.

Background

            “Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.” (A Nation At Risk, 1983)

After a brief statement of educational philosophy, A Nation At Risk begins with this ominous warning. It does not warn against a pending invasion by a foreign power, or a nuclear attack, or even an anonymous biological threat. The threat, it seems, is economic: based on the ability of the US to compete and profit (to a greater degree than other nations of the world) in the global market. But the insinuation, if it could even be considered as subtle as that, is that the threat is just as dire: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” (p.1). The tone of A Nation demonstrates a shift in perspective regarding the nature of America’s “world leader” role, and the responsibilities of schools to support that role. Once in the business of promoting the rights of citizens by educating those citizens to exercise them in a responsible manner, schools have gradually found their role shifting from responsibility to protect the nation from tyranny to supporting the near-tyrannical forces of a corporate driven system. This system places monetary profit and domination of the world market high on the priority list, while subjugating the needs and desires of present and future citizens (i.e. the students themselves). With current US policy funded, advised and driven largely by leaders in the corporate world, legislation tends to favor the already wealthy and powerful minority at the cost of the less wealthy majority of Americans. This legislation includes the educational standards, and the standards-based reform movement that began largely as a result of A Nation At Risk. While staying competitive in the fields of math and science (which are cornerstones of the tech market and essential in maintaining military dominance) is important for the economic health of the nation, current efforts to impose standards and high-stakes standardized tests should be closely evaluated to determine whose needs they truly serve.

The History of Reform: Sputnik and the Science Scare

“Unless future generations appreciate the role of science in modern society and understand the conditions under which science thrives”, he (Dr. Elmer Hutchisson, Director of the American Institute of Physics) said, “our way of life is, I am certain, doomed to rapid extinction.” (New York Times, Oct. 8, 1957)

America’s public school system has, since its inception, been a source of hope and a focus of criticism. It has been given the responsibility for shaping society at times, blamed for not doing so (or doing so in a misguided fashion) at other times. One time from our not so distant history that many believed revealed a weakness in our education system was in 1957, the year Russia launched the first space vehicle, Sputnik. At a time when the nations of the world were just beginning to consider the possibilities of space exploration, and most believed that the US would lead the way with its Vanguard program, the Soviets caught the world off guard when it launched a satellite weighing eight times that of the one the US intended to launch. The possibility that the Soviets had outmatched the United States in its ability to not only launch a satellite, but to launch a significantly heavier one gave rise to two fears: 1) the capitalist beacon of hope that was the US was technologically inferior to the other world power- the communist threat that was the USSR, and 2) If the Soviets could launch a satellite into space, they could launch a nuclear missile that could reach the United States.

Dr. Elmer Hutchisson, director of the American Institute of Physics at the time Sputnik was launched, gave the statement at the beginning of this section. In addition to the accusations from others that the Eisenhower administration was under-funding satellite research, Dr. Hutchisson added a warning about the science education students were receiving

 ..the United States must distinguish carefully between ‘highly accumulative’             scientific knowledge that can be taught by rigorous discipline and the namby-                pamby kind of learning’ that seeks to protect children against inhibition of their              individuality or their laziness

According to James Rutherford, former director of Project 2061, the American Association for Advancement of Science’s program for revamping K-12 science education, the efforts to improve science curriculum and training throughout the educational system began shortly after Sputnik, but then halted after the United States put the first man on the moon (Harvard Educational Letter: Research Online, Sept/Oct, 1998).

Not surprisingly, this article states, results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS, 1997) showed that US students scored lower than half of the students in other developed countries by the eighth grade, and “dead last” by the final year of secondary school. Despite the call for creation of standards across subject areas by the first President Bush in 1989, America’s schools are still having difficulty meeting the high expectations implicit in the new standardized assessments.

The Confounds Regarding Success in Reaching the Standards

“The average grade for all the standards he [L. Lerner] appraised is C-minus…In fact, we can only be confident from this analysis that six of our fifty states have first-rate science standards.” (The Fordham Foundation, 1998)

While students are apparently not performing as well as those calling for standards and accountability suggest they should, other influences confounding those goals exist. Once source blocking student success is the standards themselves. Vague and/or poorly written for many states, teachers with standards that are not clear are left unsure of what to teach and how best to teach it. Another source of poor student performance is the “baggage” that students bring to school with them. An issue highly stressed in the current reform movement is the “achievement gap” between the high and low socioeconomic groups.

Schools have been called upon to reduce this gap, with the hope that it can be eliminated, but research shows what teachers know: students that come from stable, nurturing and supporting homes are more likely to succeed academically (Pianta, 2002). Instead of pushing policy that would enable lower class families to lead more enriched lives, devoting more time to bestowing the school readiness skills that are associated with future success for students, policy makers choose to make schools the repair shops- charged with fixing the damage done to the family unit by corporate-centered policy.

That the standards themselves need fixing is an ongoing issue. With individual states being responsible for their own, variance in style and quality of those standards is to be expected, and so then is variance in what is taught and how students perform. The Fordham Foundation is one organization involved in the education reform movement, and in 1998 they published a report on the progress states were making in their effort to write science standards. An excerpt from that report reads like a scolding:

            “Among the thirty-six jurisdictions with elementary/secondary science standards fit  for appraisal, he found six that deserve “A” grades and seven that earn “B’s”. Good grades for more than a third of the states! Yet that sounds good mostly because our expectations in such matters have fallen so low. Here’s another way to look at the  results: Dr. Lerner conferred nine failing grades and seven “D’s”: three more than won honors. Seven states earned “C’s.” (New York was among the “C’s”)”

This repost goes through each of the thirty-six states evaluated and thoroughly analyzes the quality and substance of the standards the state has developed for science, as well as the examples of properly achieving them. Without arguing the foundation’s qualifications to do so, one could suggest that the nation’s leaders have given little support for this monumental task, merely directives. If, after all, a standardized result were the expectation, then a more centralized and standard approach would be the best from the beginning. Rather than having fifty different sets of standards and exemplars with the hopes of reaching a similar achievement goal, one set for all to follow would be a more sensible approach.

In addition to standards that provide little help in reaching lofty new goals, administration officials have lumped in a healthy scoop of criticism- as well as a call for “accountability”. Unfortunately, they overlook their own accountability in helping students reach their true potential, and fail to notice that very early in A Nation At Risk, the authors admit as much:

            “That we have compromised this commitment is, upon reflecting, hardly surprising, given the multitude of often conflicting demands we have placed on our nation’s schools and  colleges. They are routinely called on to provide solutions to personal, social, and political problems that the home and other institutions either will not or cannot resolve. We must understand that these demands on our schools and colleges often exact an educational cost as well as a financial one.” (p.6)

Rather  than overhaul policy that has served the desires of the wealthy few (campaign finance, corporate reform, foreign trade initiatives) at the expense of working families, the finger has been pointed in another direction. More recently, the attack has turned ugly: Following in his father’s school reform footsteps, President George W. Bush has lent his straightforward approach to the reform movement. Consider his words as he addresses the audience at the signing of the Education Bill in Hamilton, Ohio (Jan. 8, 2002):

            “If we’ve learned anything over the last generations, money alone doesn’t make a good  school. It certainly helps. But as John mentioned, we’ve spent billions of dollars with lousy results. So now it’s time to spend billions of dollars and get good results.

The message from The White House seems clear (if not unsettling): a lot of money has been wasted, and now it’s time to all the public school system to the carpet and make it do its job. But what does the president mean by “lousy results” and “billions of dollars”? The “No Child Left Behind Act” fact sheet released by The White House on the day of its signing by the President conveniently arranges the reform position in a problem/solution format. In regards to money spent and the results that have gone unrealized, it says:

 -Since the original Elementary and Early Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was                    signed into law in 1965, the federal government has spent more than $130 billion               to improve public schools.

 -Unfortunately, this investment in education has not reduced the achievement                     gap between the well-off and lower-income students or between minority and                     non-minority students (p.2).

The evidence is neatly laid out, but goes unexamined. Although $130 billion sounds like a lot of money, if you do the math and divide it across the years it was spent, it comes to a mere pittance when matched against other national budgeting priorities. Thirty-seven years passed while that $130 billion was spent, which raised two interesting questions: 1) If The White House wants to insist that this amount of money spent on the public school system should have been sufficient to close the achievement gap between the well-off and lower-income students, then why have they failed to consider some other source for failure in closing this gap other than schools- mainly, some function of the inequitable class system which creates “well-off” and “lower-income” students? And 2) With military spending far outpacing any developed country in the world many times greater than the money allocated to public schools (not to mention the hundreds of billions being allocated into new “homeland security” measures) how can the White House justify this indignant attitude of having spent “billions of dollars with lousy results”? If the future of our country was to truly be invested in and protected, it would be reflected in a national budget that better funded schools, and made it possible for struggling families to spend more time at home building the skills and experiences that foster school success.

The Issue Of Accountability

“You know, a huge percentage of children in poverty can’t read at grade level. That’s not right in America.” (George W. Bush)

According to New York University’s Edward Wolff, and expert on the wealth gap, a wealth tax starting at one-twentieth of one percent on net worths of $1 million, and rising to one percent on the super rich, would yield about $50 billion per year. Imagine earmarking this for, say, the education of poor kids.

As a teacher, I can accept that I am responsible for helping my students achieve the educational standards set for my students. It is, after all, my job. I resent, though, the treatment of my profession as if it were some magical machine that can turn the star-bellied sneeches and the ones with no stars upon thars (apologies to Dr. Seuss) into standardized products with equal potential and opportunity. Children come to my classroom from vastly different homes and those differences manifest themselves in all sorts of measures of behavior and achievement. It is a difficult thing to do, and has historically come with its own drawbacks, but I think the best way is to treat children as individuals- helping children meet their own goals to the best of their abilities. True, a sound set of standards that reinforce necessary basic skills is needed. But we have to avoid turning students into numbers within a statistical framework, and expect them to become “standardized”. Human beings, with their wide variety in desires, abilities and learning styles- not to mention home environments, just don’t work that way. Children are coming to school every morning from all sorts of family situations and it is reflected in what they are ready to do. At the end of the day, they go back to that home again. The connections are logical, even without hard evidence. More stable homes generally display stability across economic resources and family configuration. Families with two parents making a decent living wage have more time to be involved and supportive, have some history with and/or appreciation for education, and pass these values on to their children. They often are less stressed by the demands felt by lower income families who may not have the time to spend fostering the “readiness” skills (mostly communication, listening, and language skills). which are valuable to students (and the teachers who have them in their classes). Despite this, teachers must accept the responsibility for helping all children meet tough academic goals, with the expectations and demands continually rising.

Conclusion

While teachers, on the one hand, must accept accountability for their results, there is only avoidance of accountability from those imposing standards upon schools and students. District report cards outlining in detail how schools perform on high-stakes standardized tests appear in huge spreads in local newspapers. How our elected officials are voting on specific legislation and specifically whose agenda is being forwarded on Capitol Hill is information that requires extensive searching and investigation to uncover. Having clearly acknowledged the achievement gap between classes, our elected officials have chosen to avoid the issue of inequity in wealth and resources (including a parents’ ability to spend quality time with their children) between the classes. Instead, “leaders” have chosen to subject the public schools to accountability for making up for this inequity. But if a standardized product is expected, then the materials that go into making that product must be standardized, as well.

The demand for standardization needs to be turned around and slid back across the table to the policy makers of America. If they will spend the time and resources to close the gap between the classes, they may see the achievement gap start to close, as well.

References

Harvard Educational Letter: Research Online (Sept/Oct, 1998). From Sputnik to TIMSS: Reforms in Science Education Make Headway Despite Setbacks. More time is needed for widespread classroom changes, By Naomi Freundlich. (http://www.edletter.org/past/issues/1998-so/sputnik.shtml)

Lawrence S. Lerner (March, 1998) An appraisal of science standards in 36 states. Fordham Report; Vol 2, 4

National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983). A nation at risk: The imperatives for educational reform. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education

Pianta, Robert (2002). School readiness: A focus on children, families, communities and schools. Educational Research Service, Arlington, VA.

Schmeck, Harlold M. (October, 1957). Nation is warned to stress science. Times looks back: Sputnik. The New York Times learning network. (http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/specials/sputnik/sput-15.html)

The White House (January 8, 2002). Remarks by the president at education bill signing. Office of the Press Secretary (Boston, Massachusetts). Hamilton High School Hamilton, OH.

The White House (April 4, 2002). Fact sheet: No child left behind. (On-line). (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/01/20020108.html)

Teaching is to Serve Stubbornly (Part I)

I guess my real resolution is to be stubborn.

Tomorrow begins a new year. That means goals, plans, hopes…etc. Maybe a “resolution” or two -which I had previously sworn off of. Resolutions, that is. Not because I think I’m so great, but because I think change isn’t isolated to starting or stopping on a particular date, and I don’t like being controlled by artifices like time, space, gravity… So when I want to start something I start, when I want to stop I stop. Maybe it’s a control thing. I don’t want some day on the calendar deciding my self-improvement plan for me. Also, I have a “when I think you’re attempting to shape me, I will resist” sort of thing. That’s one of the reasons I made what I think is my first actual New Year Resolution. It’s sorta about being stubborn.

Why would a guy resolve to be stubborn? Is that even a resolution?

Did I do that right? Is it New Years, New Year’s…I know it’s not New Ears, though my wife would swear I need a new pair. Whatever it is, I have resolved to limit myself to 100 characters or less on how twitty I am in 2018. And I have been a big-ass twit from time to time, believe me. I know many already do. But there are some who seriously, seriously have it coming. And believe me, that won’t stop.

You see, Twitter upped it’s character limit, there’s now some new wheelie thing that ticks down your remaining characters; I’m not even sure what the limit is now, but I do know that in the beginning I enjoyed playing Polonius and that more words means time wasted and wit wanting. I suspect twitter is trying to lure more in and keep more on, but I take the offer of more laziness and less rigor of thought as a challenge. So I’ll yang the yin and go in the opposite direction-less than 120 characters.

Is a stubborn teacher a good thing?

With teaching it’s different. I’m stubborn about teaching because I know why it’s important and what it’s like. I do it, and I communicate quite regularly with others that do it; those around me in my school, in schools nearby, in schools far away…It’s important to communicate, mediate, alleviate, try not to hate

Whoa. Sorry, that was a flashback.

Anyways, teaching is one of the roles that lies at an intersection where many roles cross. I was a student once. I am a parent-three times over (though some psychic my wife saw before we were married said I had a secret family, they have yet to reveal themselves), and now I’m a teacher. Being dedicated to a profession and a community can be a little restricting if you believe that history and wisdom are bad things (I don’t), and it can mean less understanding of the communities of others, the people in them, their collective history and the wisdom they can share. That’s why I communicate with avarice. I have and will continue to reach out and find out…and I will continue to point out.

There’s a difference between wisdom and shit you think you know.

I think that policy wonks and politicians, university folk, lobbyists, seed investors, non-profit activists, foundation “think-tank” people, community organizers and activists, town council folk…I could go on and on. They are trying to do right, in most cases. They mean well and know their job(s), I hope. But they don’t know teaching. I see a lot of writing and opinion from them on what they think about the results of what others do, what we should do to schools and to kids, but few have done the job to an extent that should get much respect from the people they target. Yes, we need reform in Education Town, but we need it on a lot of those highways that lead to and cross through as well. Driving by on the overpass and tossing a bag of your shit down on my folks and what we do just ain’t gonna fly. What type of reform and why, what do we hope to get as a result, and who best to shape and drive the endeavor are matters for discussion and the discussion has been sadly dominated by those eager to blame and stake a claim.

So I am resolving to use my stubborn for stubbornly sharing with those who seem to not know teaching, and to defend what teachers and schools do as well as what parents and children need.

In that spirit, I am gearing up for the second part of this post. It’s pretty much ready-this sucker was going well over a couple thousand words.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.