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.

 

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When will that better conversation begin?

Granted, I cannot be allowed to tell anyone what parents of color trapped in under-served, under-resourced urban neighborhoods and schools should choose for their children. My country-white ass can’t cash that check if I try to write it because my account comes up pretty empty in that area.

Also, as I have said time and time again: I am one-hundred-percent behind parent choice.That means parents have the power, and are the first line of defense, and offense. I respect  and expect that power.

But that also means those shouting along with me about parents and their rights can’t suddenly shrivel and flip-flop and/or wail when parents who know better resist “reform” based on high-stakes tests; or when someone points out the downsides to test obsession. The pressure felt in a system that reduces human value to numbers is not something made up. Suicides really have happened because of that pressure. It isn’t “fake news”, and if anyone is disrespecting and demeaning the loss families and friends have felt it’s you if  to try and pull a “switcheroo” and pretend that protecting children from that type of emotional and intellectual assault is an attack on standards, or expectations, or is promoting “lousy education”, or is “dodging accountability”…?

That’s you protecting the pressure cooker, not children.

If you cannot even honestly address a point of view that doesn’t align with your agenda, then you don’t even have a high horse to be scolded off of. You’re not having any “better conversation”, you’re just stomping through that smelly stuff your horse left behind. I am more than willing to admit that there are bad teachers out there. I have known some, and am even willing to admit that I am not as good as I want to be, because my goal is to get better every day. I am more than willing to admit my union comes up short, at times, in effectively making education better for children-but you probably wouldn’t like my version of making my union better. It would me a little less political coffee klatsch and a little more teamsters.

But ask “Do charter schools benefit from their selective enrollment practices?”, or point out that test obsession can come with consequences?

Wow…is that the sound of the sky falling, or just some people crying as if it is?

In the same way that I am not going to tell other parents what to choose and how, or even try to pretend to know their situations and motivations, as a parent and someone who chose teaching as a career, (not a stepping-stone box to check on a resume aimed at business, consultancy and/or politics)  I also am not going to:

  • let entrepreneurs or “seed investors” or non-educators define what people need to know about education and/or teaching.
  • let a school board member with an ax to grind and eager to spout their view that teachers and unions are responsible for a “prison pipeline” go unchallenged.
  • let public relations and communications wrap an evasive horseshit sandwich in a pretty wrapper without pulling some of that paper away to deal with what’s really inside.

So please: I come ready to openly address the downsides of education as is, and if you come willing to address what’s really inside that smelly thing all wrapped up pretty that you’ve been hired to sell? Well then we’ll be ready for that better conversation.

It’s true, I support education reform

Public Education Needs to be Reformed

It’s true, I am in favor of school reform. We need school reform because times have changed and are changing-and it isn’t all good. Changing so much, in fact, that public education needs now to be thought of as more than a mere step-up to opportunities in life but also as the bulwark against the offensive forces depriving us of opportunities to truly thrive. A recent New York Times article describes the economic decay eating our nation from the middle out:

Younger households have borne the brunt of the slowdown. Those headed by people aged 30 through 44 are more likely to be lower income — and less likely to be middle income — than in 2000

These are our parents, our families, our neighborhoods. The jobs, the income, the opportunities waiting for high school graduates, college graduates, and young people looking to start families and lives and join these communities…those things that once strengthened and stabilized our nation and its economy…they just aren’t there the way they once were. The problem is that the public sector, used, abused and abandoned by the buyer-owners of policy, have been scapegoated for the conditions created by financial and political shenanigans of those buyer-owners. The scapegoats aren’t so much “public” as in parents and families (needed as a force to win over and then turn upon their own neighbors, schools, those just under-and-over class compared to them…). The culprit pointed to was the public sector worker with any amount of job security, social and financial stability, or likelihood for advancement.

Those apparently became only for the wealthiest and/or those connected to policy. People who began to revolve in and out of corporate advisement, political appointment, and “non-profit” advocacy regardless of their experience, performance or content/clarity of their message.

So education reform was launched and flown by these forces-less experienced in education or interested in educating citizens; more interested in training future citizens for survival in and compliance with the currently destructive system.

A truer reform effort, different than the current one grounded in a campaign of misdirection and misinformation, will be one that doesn’t just toss about words like “school choice” or “teacher quality” when it plays well in snips and snaps. It will be about more than a collection of arrogant and privileged non-educators playing education expert-partnering with policymakers to avoid the real issues and replace those issues with tests and data. True reform will come after a deepening of the debate regarding what those terms (and others used in current reform’s dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge[i]  style talking points) mean for who-and what efforts need to be made to move us forward on a better path.

Regarding a better path:

First off, let’s be honest: if you fail to get adequately educated your outcomes are less likely to be desirable. Surprised? I hope not, but current education reform narratives are built on this understood truth as if it’s some new epiphany limited to those who are behind the school reform campaign. Their evidence that schools are failing include a long semi-legitimate list (remember, I believe reform needs to happen but we need to replace theater with thought): that so many more young people are struggling in school; that so many are failing in school; that so many leave high school and attempt college unprepared; that so many drop out or are expelled; that test scores aren’t what they should be…it goes on and on.

The reform campaign, while likely to produce improved outcomes (“survival”?) for some, was initiated under an umbrella of blame that is not convincing. Sure we can all be better, should want to be better, but the propaganda can get a little outrageous-and it must be kinda fun too. I’m sorry, but there’s a twisted part of me that wants to travel back in time and be a fly on the wall for the conversations that rocketed Rhee from lousy teacher for a few years to nationally renowned teacher humiliat-er  and education expert. For those who can reach back to the classics and make this connection, I am going to give reform-think a shot:

The only reasons Charlie Bucket made it to the final round was that he was a disconnected white child of privilege, and because Willy Wonka ran a shoddy, narrow vision failure factory (and was himself an overprotected failure…probably a pervert too), and all his products were wrapped in shiny packages but contained little real quality. Actually, Charlie didn’t really earn that factory…he was just given it because Willie didn’t want to hold him to a higher standard!

What many reform advocates avoid is a discussion about the undeniably correlated factors that 1) impact a learner’s ability to take advantage of opportunities and in concentration can place hurdles in the path of a school’s academic mission-turning it towards a more social one; and 2) encourage market forces to undermine the goal of having a truly educated citizenry, turning the goal of public education towards feeding the free-market furnace. It didn’t take long for reform narratives to shift to “the most important in school factor…”

But of course. That’s like an arsonist avoiding responsibility by saying the most important in home factor in preventing fires is a fire extinguisher. The market seeks to undermine, blame and maximize economic and social control.

Under Obama, the privatizers—led by Bill Gates and the Walton family—have opened a huge area of government to an industry led more by entrepreneurs than teaching professionals

While this did come from Alternet, I wouldn’t categorize it as just typical Alternet alarmist-speak. The folks involved in test-based accountability and common standards are pretty much on the record salivating over the opportunities available in the edu-product market-especially those available once citizens are compelled to comply with common standards, becoming a large population of standardized consumers.

What do you suppose education reformers and our leaders intend for the world our children are growing up in to? Is it a “civil right”-is it right at all, for us to demand, test and punish a growing number to ensure that a few more will merely survive?

Can we do better with a refocused brand of reform for all of us?

[i] Patches O’Houlihan, dodgeball legend

Get Past Stale Choice Debate

What things do parents most want for their children? What factors are most closely correlated with better student outcomes? Should charter schools be praised for filtering students in, pressuring students out, and then pointing at test scores and graduation rates inflated by these practices? Should investors,edu-pretenders and politicians be allowed to take critical potshots at the traditional schools they have worked hard to over-mandate, under-fund, and test into failure if their charter darlings are allowed to play by different rules?

Same students, same measures, no filter or exit chute. Let methods/magic be revealed. Unless it’s a separate these kids from those kids plan…then that’s a different conversation.

Let’s keep “choice” honest

Instead of repeating the words choice and accountability as if they are stand alone solutions and suggesting that the most important results are linked to fudge-able stats (test scores, graduation rates…) we should be demanding real educational accountability- for honesty; for integrity; for the good of all children, not just the ones with parents equipped to participate in the “choice” market.

And while those streaking across our public commons with their shiny, well-funded behinds hanging out, waving a banner saying “Me saying ‘accountability’ proves how much I care about the poors” can appear honest-we never really get into HOW the exemplar supposed stellar performing charter schools achieve their results.

This should also be part of the conversation.

Now I am fully in favor of parental right to choose. My wife and I  spent a lot of our time chasing down choices that according to regulations should have been available, and then got told it depends on whether a school can afford to or wants to provide them. When alternative choices or settings exist, parents should be free to choose them but better questions would be:

  1. Why are our traditional schools not empowered to bring Al Shanker’s original vision for locally controlled, professionally driven charters to life within the public school system?
  2. Why all the praise for the opaque, privately controlled, selective charters who are held up for comparisons to disrespected and underfunded traditional schools?

A prime example is Success Academy’s Eva Moskowitz who has been clear and proud about how she keeps some students out, gets rid of others, refused to sign standard preK contracts for funding then claims that holding her to them hurts children.

“If they backfilled older grades, [Moskowitz] said, the incoming students’ lower relative academic preparation would adversely affect the schools’ other students.”

Traditional, truly public schools are not free to operate this way and their doors are open to any student coming to them regardless of their readiness to learn. They don’t filter their enrollments to artificially stroke and protect their testing and graduation stats (ala’ Moskowitz). They plow ahead, underfunded and over-mandated, trying to meet the needs of a mixed group of students that include top students and peers needing maximum support. It’s not just disingenuous to disparage obligation and prop up artifice-it’s shameful.

And yet every time a pro-choicer wants to prove the value of “choice”, Moskowitz’s “high performing” Success Academy is held up like a beacon with little examination of how she and the school is allowed to operate in order to make protecting those results first (putting students second). Not only is she more than willing to defend how the school filters in and pushes out students, she is shameless in her self-promotion, willing to  empty her schools of staff and students to lobby in the streets for her private, selective enterprise during school time! 

AND she had the nerve to call it a civics field trip or something. But who wrote that lesson plan?

“An option was not presented. The schools assigned everyone with a job, so you were either going to be an instructional coach or a bus captain,” one teacher explained. “They weren’t really asking us if that’s what we wanted to do. They were telling us that that’s what we were going to do instead of teaching for the day.”

Can you imagine the Education Post articles that would have been written if local schools had done this in order to push for and end to the ongoing failure of the Governor to meet public school funding obligations?

I do believe high quality choice means honest choice through valid comparison of earned (not manufactured) results that include test scores but go beyond.

Maybe the NAACP has some ideas on how to make this happen. Some way where we can have honest choices and valid comparisons instead of transparent campaigns to undermine schools that belong to the public.