Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Chicago’s Arctic Freeze Brings Up the Question: What is the Purpose of Schools?

An interesting discussion broke out over the recent announcement by the Chicago Public Schools to keep schools open despite a dangerous extreme cold snap hitting the city, a decision which they later reversed thanks in part to pressure from the Chicago Teachers Union.

On social media, many worried that closing schools would be detrimental to the neediest families.  Many claimed, rightfully-so, that school was often the only place where kids could get a hot meal and a warm, safe environment.

And this controversy really hit home for me how much we have come to view schools as the only comprehensive form of poverty alleviation in our society.  This argument regarding schools has become so second-nature to many, that we never stop and think about what this really means.

Here is what I wrote on my facebook page regarding the decision:
Everyone is in an uproar about kids not having a place to be warm, safe, and to get meals, if schools are closed tomorrow. Where is the outrage that these same needy kids don't have those basic services all the other times that school is not in session? We should be filling the streets in protest knowing that any child ever goes hungry or cold in this city, but instead we've been conditioned to conflate this issue with schools. They are not the same thing!
If we as a society truly want schools to be where we combat poverty, then we must take that task seriously. That means funding schools to be places of social services.  And I don’t mean leaving that job up to already over-worked administrators and teachers to write grants or solicit online donations, or for parents and community groups to hold fund-raisers always scrounging and begging.  Schools are public spaces and I have no problem with that space serving multiple functions such as becoming health clinics, food depositories, warming/cooling centers, community centers, and providing mental health supports,.  (Heck, all those "underutilzed" schools would be a great place to implement these programs.  Whoops, already closed most of them down...)  But all of these programs require serious money and staff to operate.

Now, even if we did implement all the wraparound services mentioned above, that is merely addressing the symptoms, not the cause.  The only way to truly make a dent in poverty is to end the growing inequality in this country.  Tax the wealthy, demand a higher minimum wage, rein in Wall St, invest in public services including affordable housing, free and universal health care, and true equitable funding in education.  Can we really not, at the very minimum, protect children from the traumas of poverty?  

Since we seem unable to even conceive of these changes, then we must fund schools to be the band-aids they are constantly asked to be.  Give the neediest schools the most money.  And then do not complain about the costs of education.  Other countries provide for their citizens through social services.  Finland’s schools aren't expected to be anything other than a school.  

Let our schools be schools.  Principals and teachers in low-income schools should not have to be responsible for all the needs of the kids and their families.  Many schools and individuals take on this task because they know that not having access to these basic services makes their job of educating children near impossible.  But frankly, educators are not trained to be doctors or social workers or charity workers.  And they shouldn't have to be.  

It amazes me how normalized poverty is in our country.  We cannot imagine a world which actually takes care of our kids.  The idea that closing down schools in a weather emergency would put kids in danger should be an eye-opener.  The fact that no one blinked an eyelash when private schools and suburban districts across the affected states all immediately decided to close schools, but were outraged that people wanted CPS to have the same consideration for student and staff safety.  Everybody knows the difference between those schools.  Poverty, it always comes down to poverty.

Schools cannot pick up all the burdens of our cruel, racist, unequal country.  And we need to stop expecting them to. 


Sunday, July 7, 2013

Speech for 7/4 Rally: The Fight Against Austerity



Below is the copy of a speech I gave during a rally against Austerity outside Mayor Emanuel's home.  Here are a couple links to news coverage of the event here, here, and here.

Hello! Happy Independence Day! 

My name is Katie Osgood and I am a teacher.  I teach at a psychiatric hospital here in the city, working with students from all over the Chicagoland area and of all ages including hundreds of CPS students.  And in my hospital, I have seen directly the impact of Rahm Emanuel’s terrible school policies.  We are seeing higher rates of depression, suicide attempts, school refusal, family conflict, anxiety, and aggressive behaviors all directly related to current school policies in this city. 

To put it bluntly, CPS’s policies are hurting children.  When you viciously close schools, slash budgets-including taking money for social workers, smaller classes, arts, music, and gym, when you fire trusted teachers and staff, all these things hurt kids.  And in the middle of all this, our mayor has the gall to cut mental health services and close mental health facilities.  But you see, the chaos of our system is intentional.  The people in charge call it “creative disruption,” a business term.  They want to let market forces determine where schools will stand, and maybe make a buck or two in the process (ahem UNO charter schools) -which means throw up a charter here, close down another school there, and they even generously say they will close the underperforming charters too.  Gee, thanks.  

They treat schools like shoe stores in a strip mall-not historic institutions that are grounding communities.  I have met countless children who are lost in this madness, going to 3, 4, even 5 different schools in as many years.  Here is the pattern I keep seeing: Students start in a neighborhood school, the school is closed or the parents are lured to a charter, the charter very quickly pushes out that student due to behavior problems or disabilities-I am hearing frightening horror stories coming from these charters-and they bounce back to another neighborhood school which may be closed itself. Kids learn to hate school, to fear it.  Under this system, children become liabilities, bad assets to be dumped with they are not deemed profitable.  You know what, kids know when they are not wanted.  And it is heartbreaking to watch kids get beaten by school reform.

This is madness.  Children need stability, they need connection, they need strong ties to their neighborhoods and communities.  They need schools that are funded to work and be successful.  They need fully certified, experienced teachers! (Have you heard how our CPS school board just expanded the contract with Teach for America tripling its funds in the middle of a “budget crisis”?  Teach for America is a program which gives non-education majors a short, five week crash course in teaching and then places them in our highest needs classrooms.  After firing hundreds of experienced teachers and staff, our Board is bringing in MORE uncertified, untrained novices. Parents, DEMAND that your child’s teacher is certified and qualified. You have that right!)

And these policies are most damaging to our students with special needs who are the most deeply impacted by the bad policy coming from the 125 Clark and our 1% Mayor.  Mayor Emanuel is deliberately enforcing policies that hurt children.  Do you know what we call people who deliberately hurt kids? (---- )
I have seen my CPS students and colleagues in the schools become weary and be beaten down with exhaustion and demoralization.   The longest school day coupled with the longest school closings process ever, was impossibly tiring.  Hearing after hearing, bad news on the heels of bad news.  Crazy budget cuts on top of everything else.  Rahm and the other bullies at CPS want this.  They want to wear us out, beat us down, keep us too tired to speak up.

But will they succeed?  NO! Because what they will never understand is that we are fighting for flesh and blood children, children that WE know by name. They are OUR precious sons and daughters, OUR students, who fill up OUR schools in OUR communities.  (Who’s schools? OUR schools! Who’s children? OUR children!)
I wish we could say that this was just Rahm and his twisted mind.  But it’s not, this is part of a greater attack on teachers, on schools, on low-income communities of color, on public education.  It’s happening all over the country, the world.  But let me say this, Rahm may not have started all this, and it may not be just him leading these attacks, but you know what? I think he’s a good place to start the offensive!  Take back our city!  Take back our schools! Let’s make Rahm be a One Term Mayor! (One Term Mayor One Term Mayor One Term Mayor!)

Today is Independence Day.  So we declare independence from a mayor-appointed school board made up of millionaires and business elites.  We need an elected, representative and who represents US!  We declare independence from a regime of high-stakes testing that takes away joy and creativity from our classrooms.  We declare independence from a city budgeting system that gives money to private school stadiums to politically connected charter operators but starves our public schools. We declare independence from a 1% Mayor who cares more about the interests of the rich than Chicago’s students.  (When public education is under attack, what do you do? STAND UP, FIGHT BACK!)

So thank you, and Happy Independence Day. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Exhaustion of The Longest School Day

I received this blog post from a special educator currently working in the Chicago Public Schools.   The writer wished to remain anonymous, understandably.  I have heard similar stories from far too many teachers out there.  Rahm and his politically-motivated Longer School Day are going to drive away all our very best educators.  This particular teacher is an absolutely phenomenal teacher and this story absolutely breaks my heart.

Chicago Public Schools defines the "Full School Day" as…
A richer school day… one that provides additional instructional time in both elementary and high schools.  This means more time on task in reading, math, history and science.  In addition, it provides time for a real recess so kids can exercise and refresh.   The Full School Day provides students with the time they need for quality instruction in the classroom with their teachers, as well as new opportunities for creative learning and extracurricular activities that were not available even just last year.  (http://www.cps.edu/programs/districtinitiatives/fullday/pages/schoolday.aspx)
My students don’t spend the “Full School Day” with creative learning, enrichment, or exercise.  Instead, they spend a longer day in a classroom with substitutes, waiting in line to “play” at recess, being bombarded with data, all the while struggling to interact with their peers.  They are spending a longer day in a classroom where the windows don’t open, the heat doesn’t work, paint is falling off the ceiling in dangerous chunks, and where there is not adequate technology.  My students are exhausted, frustrated, and are having more behavior problems, because of the “Full School Day.”
Walking down the hallways of my school used to be one of my favorite things to do.  I would pass by classrooms and see all of the fun and creative things students were doing.  Bulletin boards were filled with colorful and imaginative displays of student mastery.  Since the implementation of Rahms “Full School Day,” the creativity has been sucked out of our classrooms.  Teachers are being forced to become robot while teaching.  We must say key words at certain times and must integrate a teaching strategy into our lessons whether or not it pertains to our teaching or will work for our students.  While new teaching strategies can be good, what is being lost, being sacrificed? 
My students have yet to see any of the enrichment promised to them.  My school has had three FSD positions go unfilled all school year.  These positions were created to give the students enrichment resource classes.  Instead, my students spent all of second quarter with a different substitute every day.  I spent my own time and money planning and creating activities to keep my students occupied.  My students deserve more than busy work to occupy their time!  Now in the third quarter my students have another resource class with another substitute.  I feel like my hands are tied.  I try to provide my students with some meaningful work to do, but I can’t keep spending my time, to plan for another hour of my student’s day when I am not supposed to.
Recess is another thing.  While technically students have 25 minutes of recess, day in and day out my students complain that they don’t get to play at recess.  They spend 1/3 of their recess time in lines.  We have two recess coordinators (who are doing the best they can), but logistically to think about two people supervising nearly 200 students at one time.  It’s no wonder they spend a lot of their recess time in line waiting for instructions!  Recess should be a time when students can enjoy the fresh air outside, and have the freedom to let off some energy.  But without any true planning or thought about recess from CPS, students are not getting all of the benefits they should from recess.
Student morale and attitude is at an all-time low, I have never seen the students at my school struggle to function through the school day before.  What the FSD is not addressing is the social/emotional needs of our students.  We are spending hour after hour throwing information and them and making demands of their reading and writing skills.  We are not being given the time to teach them how to get along with others, solve problems without fights, or even how to advocate for themselves.  I have been sneaking behind the closed door of my classroom, teaching my students character development.  I will pause academic instruction, and address the social/emotional needs of my students.  I have been lucky that I haven’t been “caught” yet by my administration, but I do know if they walk into my room and I am not doing exactly what is on my lesson plan, I will have a lot of explaining to do!
The mandates and expectations are no longer just affecting me; my students are feeling the pressure too.  Earlier this school year my classroom was subject to five different walk throughs and observations in just a couple weeks.  We had visits from our ILT, other school’s ILTs, the network, administration and from central office.  The central office visit really stands out the most to me, because of the experience of two of my students.  My students were working independently on their task, when the central office person came over to ask them questions.  I noticed that the questions kept coming, and my students were becoming more and more frustrated.  Finally one of the student’s starts saying loudly “This is a nonfiction text, and we are taking notes on it,” the student is pointing at the article she is reading with her partners.  The student continues, “That is how I know I am doing what the objective says on the board.”  I always try to prep my students for when we will have visitors, but I know that my students have become frustrated with the process.  They will always ask, “Why are they coming again?”
I am in just my fourth year of teaching, and I am starting to question if teaching is really the place for me.  I know that I am a great teacher, and can really make a difference in the lives of my students.  However, with the way this school year has gone, I know that mentally, and physically I can’t keep up this pace forever.  The Full School Day is not at all what Rahm and CPS promised it to be, things are worse for my students now than they were in years past.

So very sad...

How is the longest school day going in your school?  Please tell your stories.

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Shout-Out to Education Activists

This piece was originally posted at http://atthechalkface.com/2013/02/01/a-shout-out-to-education-activists/

There are times when I feel overwhelmed by my good fortune to know so many powerful parent, teacher, student, and community activists across the country and the globe.  We have come together through the fight against corporate education reform and the call for education justice, equity, and democratically-run schools.  I feel lucky to have met so many amazing people at the many rallies, sit-ins, community meetings, and education events happening across my city of Chicago.  I feel fortunate for being able to witness and take a small part in the inspirational Chicago Teachers Strike.  I feel blessed to know many of the people behind the scenes of that historic event.  I feel privileged to work in solidarity across the nation with activists standing up against excessive testing, fighting for smaller classes, speaking out against corporate influence in education, and lending their expertise and voice to the struggle.   And today I feel honored to share a blog space with many of my education blogging heroes whose words tear down the false rhetoric of the education reform movement and inspire us to a new, equitable, and just vision of schooling.

As yet another School Choice Week comes to a close, I am again hit by the differences between Corporate Education Reformers and Education Justice Activists.  During the week, I took a moment to look through the school choice week hashtag #SCW and saw many of the tweets were from Astroturf organizations like Students First, conservative Think Tanks, or Education wonks and their publications.  Every tweet seemed so intentional, as if vetted by a marketing-expert or a social media manager.  And all the tweets seemed so far removed from the realities of schools.

 
StudentsFirst is the well-known Corporate Ed Reform run by Michelle Rhee.  Illinois Policy is a "free market think tank" while Joy Pullman is "Managing editor of News for " Sally Canfield is "Deputy Chief of Staff to Sen " and Emily Bouck is a "Legislative Aide at Office of US Senator Marco Rubio " That top tweet is from @TexasAFP or Americans for Prosperity Texas. Need I say more?






Meanwhile, as I looked through the corporate, political, carefully-orchestrated tweets, I was also receiving updates via twitter from the school closing hearings being held around my city of Chicago.  They were packed full of parents, teachers, and community members who overwhelmingly were begging to stop school closures and to end charter expansion in the city.  These meetings were overflowing with raw emotion, sometimes turning into rowdy disruption and angry outbursts.  Parents sang praises of their schools, teachers described the magic that happens everyday in their classrooms, and communities demanded real investment in their neighborhood schools.  I am proud to know many of these people.  These are the same people I marched with on the streets of Chicago during the teachers strike.  Together we marched and rallied and sang and danced demanding fully-funded schools, counselors, nurses, social workers, libraries with librarians to staff them, in schools that were well-kept with basic air-conditioning and heat.  We demanded small classes, more special education teachers, and humane discipline policies.  And still the powers that be continue down their destructive path of corporate education reform, ignoring the people.

The next day, it was reported how CPS had used grant money from the Walton Foundation to hire a marketing consultant group to "listen" to the hundreds of upset community members.   Parents and students, teachers and community groups who gave up their evening to come and plead for their schools, who wanted nothing more than to be heard, were given hired corporate consultants to massage the impassioned crowd instead of genuine dialogue. 


More at The Real News
And also this week, one thousand miles away, activists from Chicago joined hundreds of other freedom fighters from 18 different cities to speak directly to Arne Duncan and the leaders of our country about the injustice of school closings and the inherent racism of the Department of Education's policies.  Listen to the amazing Jitu Brown, member of KOCO (Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization) once again speak truth to power.

The people who rode all the way to Washington DC on a Journey for Justice were not slick consultants or public relations gurus.  The people outraged at school closing hearings were not part of any think tank, private foundation, or non-profit.  These are parents and teachers and concerned community members who simply want schools that work for all kids.  They have seen first-hand the destruction caused by corporate education reforms and they bring with them another, alternative, community-based, equitable vision for strong public schools.

These are the two faces of the education "reform" movement.  True, grassroots righteous anger at the status quo of inequality, racism and injustice, up against the guys in the suits. It is the working class and poor who must fight against the wealthy elites.  It is the majority black and brown communities defying the white institutions of power.  It is the largely female teachers fighting the male-dominated business world.  It is the all-volunteer local groups of parents, teachers, and students up against paid corporate consultants with shiny brochures and training in marketing. It is small, independent media outlets and education summits held in community schools fighting media blitzes and billionaire-funded reform extravaganzas held in fancy hotels and broadcast on corporate airwaves.  It is a bunch of union activists meeting in rickety meeting halls serving Cheetos and home-made cookies compared to slick corporate-sponsored events with caterers, fancy technology, complete with a corporate logo mug on your way out.

Ultimately though, this fight has brought me in contact with some of the most passionate, inspirational, justice-fighters I have ever known.  The education activists I have met are beautiful people who are humble and quiet and caring and smart.  And they are willing to fight fiercely for their students, their children, their schools, and their communities.

Thank you for all your hard work.  Thank you for your perseverance up against mountains of money and power.  Thank you for the personal money and time you sacrifice in the effort to do what you know is right.  Thank you for being willing to fight this uphill battle. 

And always remember Margret Mead's famous quote:

"A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
 
Let's change the world, people. Keep fighting. 



Thursday, January 17, 2013

Teaching in the Time of Obedience

Last night on facebook, I lamented about becoming a teacher during the craziness that is corporate education reform.  I wrote: "I am in a foul mood. I feel this way anytime I look around and think about my career prospects. Why couldn't they have destroyed the teaching profession AFTER I spent my years in the classroom? I wish I had never become a teacher. #Selfish #PityParty

My friends were kind and supportive, offering many words of encouragement.  But here is what I said in response:

Thanks guys. It just pisses me off. I did things the right way, got my Masters before entering the classroom, had years of experience teaching already, spent years working with students with special need at the psych hospital. But then the year I graduate (2009) the sh!t really starts to hit the fan. I morally and physically cannot do what the job has become, especially for Sped in the inner city. I can't do it. I can't give those damn tests. I can't divert more time to paperwork than kids. I can't contribute to making kids HATE school. I can't stay silent and wait 3 years until I have tenure to speak out or work openly with the union. I can't stay up every night past midnight and get up at five, working 7 days a week. So now I am in a dead-end job, with no possibility to ever pay off my students loans, and no where left to go. Teaching should have been..different than this.

My anguish was sparked by two events.  One, a dear friend invited me to apply for a new job opening at a CPS school.  It really was a great opportunity, but I found I simply could not hit the send button to turn in my resume.  My one year of being in the Chicago Public Schools has left me with such deep scars, than simply entering a CPS building brings me near panic.  I have no doubt that I have PTSD symptoms from that absolutely horrific year of abuse. Perhaps someday I will be able to write in greater detail about the trauma inflicted on me, my colleagues, and the students at that tiny little school on the southside of Chicago.  But not yet.  I'm not ready even 2 and a half years later.

Another event was the vote on principal retention at the CPS elementary school where I sit as a community representative on the Local School Council.  Last year, the principal used every trick in the book to redefine a number of tenured teachers out of their jobs.  At the time, she claimed it was unavoidable due to the changes inflicted by the longer school day.  But the teachers who just happened to be displaced were also the teachers who had vocally disagreed with the principal at some point in the year or who were most active in the union.  And so there was a purge of staff, some forced out, others left after feeling unheard and unwelcome.  All in all, the school lost 11 good teachers at the end of the year, many parents were upset, and many tears were shed.

You'd never know anything happened if you went back to the school today.

That's the thing about purges. I'm sure life is easier now that no one speaks up about anything...ever.  If you went to the community principal retention forum, you'd think this was the best principal on the face of the earth.  Nothing but glowing praise, especially from her teachers.  Glowing praise for the world to hear while parents and some staff members cried silently in the shadows.

And I understand why those (primarily) teachers worked so hard to kiss some serious principal ass.  That is how things work, and this principal made it more than clear that if you disagree with her, you will be punished.  Nevermind if you are a phenomenal teacher, nevermind if you have legitimate disagreements, nevermind if you have tenure and have a proven track record of excellence.  The only way disagreements are  resolved in CPS is to punish and fire.

Now, I realize not every school and not every principal is as cruel, vindictive, or plays favorites the same way as the two principals I mention here.  But far too many are this way.  I don't know if the system seeks these terrible people out and rewards them with power or if it takes decent people and twists them into these monsters, but either way the result is the same.

And now the precedent has been set.  No one will ever voice their concerns, their disagreements ever again at that school.  Even if it is in children's best interest, who will be willing to risk it?  The lesson has been learned, dissent will be punished, and the dissenter will be destroyed

I can't be part of that again.  Blind, unthinking obedience is what is rewarded in this system.  And it is a symptom of a greater push toward compliant little workers throughout America.  Compliance is the greatest demand of workers from corporate America.  This corporate mindset is why corporate education reformers are so insistent on eliminating tenure and weakening union protections.  Even in a city with a union as strong as the CTU, there was no way to protect good teachers from abuse and from losing their (tenured) jobs.  This is on purpose.  Punish into compliance.

I've only been a special education teacher for a few years.  I have a long way to go before I become a great teacher. But I don't think I'll survive in the system long enough to become great.  I am not courageous to say this, I think I am a coward.  I think I am still a mediocre teacher, although I have potential to grow into something good.  I know I have deep compassion and an ability to connect with marginalized children, but I don't have any confidence that I can raise test scores.  When I taught in CPS, I was constantly torn between doing what I intuitively thought was best and what I was being told to do.  I'm simply not good at filling out the paperwork I am required to do, especially when that takes away from my job preparing for time with children.  I am lazy that way, because unlike all the other teachers in the building, after the first few months of non-stop pain, I refused to work those 12 to 16 hours days.  I said "no" after 9 to 10 hours of work.  But the work doesn't get done that way and now your bosses have evidence to punish you.  So the only way to survive is to take time away from kids.  And that feels awful.  Although I have learned my lesson about what happens to teachers who speak out without tenure, I have no confidence that I can keep my mouth shut if things aren't working for my students or for me.  I just can't do it again.

My current job at the hospital is as corporate as it can get, and I disagree with many of the practices being done there, but at least I am under the radar.  It is difficult and bad, but not to the point of abuse...yet.   But they are trying to get more and more out of us workers, to the point that things are becoming unbearable there too.  Corporate f-ing America.

Why do we all cower in fear and just take this abuse, again and again? Sure, go ahead and increase my workload with no extra pay.  Of course you can tell me to "do more with less". What else am I going to do? Say "no"?

I wasn't prepared for what teaching has become.  I chose this profession, in part, because it was NOT corporate.  I like autonomy and collegiality and debate.  I like the unpredictability that comes with working with children.  I like that everyday is new, unique, and can never be standardized.  But that is no longer what teaching is.  It is now all about compliance, productivity, data, measuring, intimidation, and fear.  This is not what I signed up for.  This is not the kind of teacher I want to be.

So I'll say it again.  I wish I had never become a teacher.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Make No Mistake, Corporate Ed Reform is Hurting Kids

Corporate Education Reform hurts children.  This truth needs to be said a million times over.  No longer can we allow reformers to hide behind the rhetoric of reform and ignore the realities.  Words like "poverty is not destiny" "high expectations" "quality school options" and "choice" all mask the very real impact of these reforms. There are consequences to the disruption of school closings, to purposeful disinvestment in neighborhood schools, to layoffs of experienced educators, to the haphazard expansion of largely low-quality charters. 

As most who read this blog know, I work in a psychiatric hospital in Chicago. Unlike many teachers out there who see only their small window of the reform world, I get to see the cross-section.  Students cycle through my program so quickly (too quickly, thanks to massive cuts in mental health services) that I hear dozens of stories a week from all over the city and surrounding suburbs.  And what's happening out there is beyond heart-breaking, it is wrong.  Kids have come in to the hospital with massive anxiety, depression, and aggression related, in part, to school policies.  I have students who report fear of “getting jumped” on the way to schools across town after their neighborhood school was shut down.  I've had kids with school refusal due to the very real fear of a dangerous bus route through rival neighborhoods. Young people are afraid of the increases in violence and gang activity as kids from all parts of the city are thrust together in schools whose only response to the rage is zero tolerance lockdown.  There is no healing, just ignoring and punishing the problem, pushing the fights off of school grounds.  Almost every child I work with from the neighborhoods targeted for the brunt of school reform has symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.  They have difficulty sitting still, are quick to react to any perceived threat with violence or aggression, cannot concentrate on school work, and have come to hate the experience of school.  And yet all they get from school leadership is school closures, fired teachers, and false choices.

Kids feel abandoned as they lose the ties to trusted teachers and school staff, many drifting off into truancy and drop-out.   My kids have complained about teachers who “don’t get it” speaking about the unfair practice of putting poorly-trained teachers with no education experience and no understanding of their communities’ issues in their classrooms.  As reform sweeps through my city with its massive layoffs, it disproportionally affects teachers of color, the teachers who are most likely to connect with these children.  As a special education teacher, it is especially shocking how many uncertified and inexperienced teachers serve our students with special needs. Why this isn't a national scandal, I will never understand...

My kids with IEPs get shuffled around schools as neighborhood schools shut, charters push them out, and receiving schools must take time to get to know the child anew, delaying services.  I have kids who have been to four different schools in as many years, and must keep changing schools as schools are shut down down or turned-around.  How many children have we lost who slip through the cracks as they bounce around school options?  Is anyone keeping track?

I've met kids who complain "I was in a class of 39 kids with no textbooks.  Why should I stay? They don't care about us."  Kids understand on a deep level that they are being treated like disposable people as their neighborhood schools are being grossly under-resourced and under-staffed in order to justify further school closures. Purposefully starving a school, underutilized or not, to serve your political agenda is criminal.   There are children suffering in those schools. 

And my kids hate school.  When I hear the stories of what they are being asked to do all day I don't blame them.  Any joy and excitement that teachers used to bring to the classroom is being destroyed by pressures from high-stakes standarized tests.  The class project bulletin board is replaced by a data wall.  The music, gym, art, and after-school activities are being exchanged for longer days full of test prep, rote memorization, and disembodied facts, formulas, and vocabulary practice.  Kids in low-income schools no longer read novels, they now do reading comprehension worksheets focused on discreet skills like "compare/contrast" or "main idea".  They don't fall in love with characters or ideas, they answer comprehension questions and write out short essays.  They don't do projects and experiments, go on field trips, or paint, draw, imagine, or question. They take tests.  I know I hate teaching that way just as much as the kids hate to learn that way.  It is boring as hell and you have to choose to either crack down on restrictive discipline or you live in chaos as kids rebel.    

My charter kids are lovely, smart, capable young men and women.  But I worry about all my sicker, poorer kids being left behind.  Negative behaviors are being concentrated in certain schools.  Peer effects matter greatly.  What a joy it is to have the higher-performing kids in my class at the hospital.  They change the whole atmosphere of the room.  They can support the struggling students and raise thoughtful questions.  This is why socioeconomic integration matters.  My charter kids are almost without exception at the higher end of the free/reduced lunch bracket with families better able to support them while the kids who struggle the most are those coming from the deepest, most debilitating poverty.  Racial integration matters, too, for my students of color in the magnet and selective enrollment schools are having better experiences than charters or neighborhood schools thanks to having access to the funding that follows white students. 

[As an aside, google "school integration" and look at "images".  They are ALL in black and white because we stopped talking about this issue decades ago.]

Meanwhile, all this focus on the corporate reforms of school closures, charter expansion, and teacher/school accountability means we are not investing in other types of reform, most notably anti-poverty programs.  The number of kids I have met who are suffereing from trauma, abuse, PTSD, depression, anxiety, anger issues which could have been prevented by working towards eradicating poverty is staggering.  School leaders' "choice" to focus solely on corporate reforms at the expense of all other types of change means more kids must suffer.  I am tired of the tragic stories I hear. 

And I'm thinking ahead to the unknown, but likely large numbers (60? 100? 120?) of schools heading for closure at the end of the year here in Chicago.  I am bracing myself for the repercussions of chaos in the coming months.  Imagine potentially hundreds, maybe thousands of kids with IEPs needing to find new appropriate placements.  How will receiving schools follow children's IEPs in a timely manner?  How will they ensure they have the right amount of staff?  What will happen to my kids with no parents, in the child welfare system, if their school closes?  DCFS tries to meet their needs, but they are not staffed anywhere near the level necessary to manage a mass number of displaced children.  The charters, even if they somehow enroll these kids, will not and do not keep them.  They will bounce back to yet another school, having to start over yet again.

And those proponents of choice brag about closing down "under-performing charters" the same as neighborhood schools as if this were a good thing!  The number one thing my students require is stability and connection.  And those are the very things which are being lost as CPS follows the corporate education reform path. Edreform's goal is a neverending cycle of chaos, with schools being opened and shut down again like shoe stores.  And this model goes against everything we know to be good for children.

Education Reform does not work.  It shuffles kids around, concentrating a few high-achievers in the choosen "miracle schools" in order to be able to market "choice", but does not actually do anything remotely innovative or even new.  And to condemn so many of those bright young charter kids to "no excuses" discipline codes makes me ill.  Why can't they get creative, progressive teaching and learning like the children of the suburbs get?   Edreform is all smoke and mirrors.  And while reformers try to spin their made-up successes, the children being left behind are being hurt, neglected, and abused like never before.

There can be no middle ground or compromise when kids are being hurt.

No more.  All that reform has taught us is that funding matters, peer groups matter, and segregation matters.  So let's tackle the real problems in schools.  What if reform was built around helping our neediest kids first: those in extreme poverty, those with special needs, those with emotional/behavioral problems?  What if education philanthropists were bragging about giving every school a library, instead of donating to a new "no excuses" charter?   What if the Gates Foundation committed to giving every school a full-time social worker instead of their odd fixation with teacher evaluations?  What if the words "integration" and "equitable funding" were as quick to roll off the tongues of the elite and powerful as the words "choice" and "charters"? 

The current education policies hurt kids.  No more discussion.  Even if EdReformers had most beautiful intentions in the world, if the uninteneded consequences cause children pain, then they must be stopped immediately.  FIRST DO NO HARM.  Only a monster would continue a course of action knowing it hurts kids...

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A "Kerfuffle" to Cover Education Reform's Greatest Secret

I am completely baffled by the recent "kerfuffle" on twitter and the blogosphere regarding the remarks of first Diane Ravitch and then later CTU president Karen Lewis discussing the tragedy in Newtown. EdReformers of all kinds are simply "outraged" over, well I'm not exactly sure, since it's not about what both Ravitch and Lewis actually wrote  Honestly, I'm too tired of this silliness to write it out in full here so please see what the great Jersey Jazzman said here and here as well as Peter Hart's piece on this insanity.)

It all started on twitter with David Rosenberg, a TFA vice president, who was absolutely shocked at the "reprehensible" language that Diane Ravitch used by mentioning the words "union" and "tenure" in her tribute to Sandy Hook teachers.

Originally from Kenzo Shibata, found on Jersery Jazzman's blog


As a business school graduate with plenty of experience in education PR and "Online Strategy," Rosenberg likely had a very specific goal in mind with his initial tweet.  He is, after all, an expert in "online strategy".  Like everything else TFA does, being the masters of PR that they are, I'm sure this was a well-planned defense to deflect attention from Ravitch's point.  As others have pointed out, it doesn't look good to have a history of bashing the very people now being lauded as national heroes.

But then things got really interesting when Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers Union chimed in.  Suddenly, we had Andrew Rotherham and others twisting Lewis' words into "Teach for America Kills"

And it is Karen Lewis' words which I would like to examine today, since those seem to be the ones that most offended the delicate reformers' sensibilities. She writes [emphasis mine],
Diane, et. al.
I have read these posts (alas I do not do Twitter), and I am struck by the lack of authenticity by the Rosenberg comment. Diane has been at the forefront of the desire to lift up the beleaguered profession of teaching in each and every post. She has drawn the connections between people who wouldn’t think of sending their children to public schools and their policies that are destroying the common good. Anyone who doesn’t know that in the marrow of their bones, doesn’t read her blog.
On the other, the educrats who do not agree with her, read her posts, too so as to keep abreast of her thoughts and are ready to pounce if they see an opening. There might have been a time where “politicizing” tragic events, especially mass shootings was thought to be in poor taste. That has changed with the 24/7 news cycle that continues to focus far too much time and energy on the perpetrator of the massacre than that of our precious victims. Rosenberg’s “false outrage” needs to be checked. That same false outrage should show itself when policies his colleagues support kill and disenfranchise children from schools across this nation. We in Chicago have been the victims of their experiments on our children since the current secretary of Education “ran” CPS.
The accolades heaped on a group of education missionaries, (hopefully with beautiful intent on the part of the TFA teachers) cannot go unchallenged. Diane does that. Day in and day out, she champions rank and file educators and the hard work they do. She has a special place in heart for those who see the value of the classroom and not as stepping stone to a more lucrative career or the opportunism of self-promoters like Michelle Rhee who, with her lies about her own classroom experience has catapulted herself into the welcoming arms of those who hate unions, tenure and anything else that provides due process and gives teachers real voice.
To David Rosenberg, Shanda! Shame on you for such a paranoid rant. If you had nothing of which to be guilty, those words would have rolled off your back.
To Diane – Keep speaking the truth!
Karen Lewis
As a quick aside, of COURSE, Rosenberg's statement lacked authenticity.  This is his job. He was simply managing the bad PR he felt was coming out indirectly against his organization and his reformer acquaintances.  

But it is this critique of Rosenberg's "false outrage" which does not extend to outrage over children being hurt and communities being disenfranchised due to Ed Reform that seems to be the biggest reformy rallying point.  Andrew Rotherham distorted Lewis' quote by inserting [Teach for America] into a line where it does not belong.  Campbell Brown is shocked that "Teach for America kills" after reading Rotherham's distortions.  When read in full, it is clear that was not the intent of Lewis' remarks.

But why are all these reformy people really so very very upset?  Why have they gone into full-blown attack mode over a few silly words?  It is because Lewis points us to the very real and very dangerous, even deadly, effects of the bad education policy these reformers push.   If the extent of the pain and suffering caused by "reform" were to get out into public consciousness, as it seemed likely to do in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, Corporate Education Reform would crumble to the ground.  Sandy Hook challenged the very foundation of their claims regarding unions, tenured teachers, teacher quality, and the real problems in education.  And their impatient desire to attack the wrong problems has had a very real and negative impact on children.  It turns out Americans don't like stories of children dying due to violence.  Too many people were making the connections to the largely overlooked hundreds of black and brown children dying due to gun violence with the middle class kids who lost their lives in Connecticut.  The public was getting too close to the truth that education reform was contributing to the violence problem in this country.  This truth is education reform's greatest secret.

Those of us in the trenches see the repercussions of Ed Reform daily.  We know how teaching and learning has been compromised in the search for better test scores.  We know the trauma that school closures and mass staff firings inflicts on kids.  We know what happens when ignorant support of "choice" sends a child over gang boundaries or on unsafe bus routes.  We have seen the increasing devastation wrought by growing poverty and how ignoring it is hurting children.  We've talked to our students, heard their fear and their anger.  However, the greater public is still being spoon-fed "miracle school" stories, gushing love for KIPP and their "grit"-my-way-out-of-poverty line, the constant photo ops and Op-Eds praising reform, and the misinformation campaigns occurring around the country.  They do NOT know what we do.

So when Lewis highlighted the deadly repercussions of school reform in Chicago, where we have had these policies for even longer than most places and we know, intimately, the cruelty being inflicted on children and schools, it frightens reformers at the deepest level.  It is not a coincidence that CORE (the progressive caucus which currently runs the Chicago Teachers Union of which Karen Lewis is the head) arose in Chicago.  It is no coincidence that the historic teachers strike happened here.  We have already seen some of the worst of the effects of these policies and have had long enough to get really angry. 

Here was my response to Lewis' remarks:

Lewis was not speaking about TFA specifically, but about the Corporate Ed Reform movement as a whole with which TFA is closely aligned. And yes, the corporate education reforms plaguing Chicago for the past 10+ years have cost precious children their lives. The chaos caused by callous school closings, leading to sending children across the city to “choice” schools crossing gang boundaries has indeed led to increases in youth violence and yes, even deaths. The tragic beating death of Derrion Albert in 2009 is one prime example http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/06/chicago-teen-deaths-viole_n_311877.html

It is the utter ignorance and arrogance of education reformers, including and especially TFA, which allows terrible policies to get passed. Churn in teaching staff after closings and turnarounds is dangerous to kids who need stability. Charter schools do not serve the neediest students and instead these kids are concentrated in schools purposefully underfunded and neglected causing ever more severe behavior issues in schools given fewer resources to help. Our district buys new tests and “data systems” instead of hiring more social workers, counselors, and nurses which my kids desperately need. Ed Reform creates environments of fear and stress with terrible new evaluation systems and sometimes even pay tied to test scores leaving the people who work directly with the children with less emotional energy to devote to them. Ed Reform also pushes more inexperienced, poorly trained teachers-as the war on veteran teachers, tenure, and unions continues-on the children who need experienced, well-trained teachers the most.”
Karen Lewis, as a teacher for decades and herself coming from one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the instability of "reform," knows all this too well.  She, like many of us teachers, parents, students, and community members who fight, have had first-hand experience.  (For more on the damage done by education reform in Chicago, I encourage everyone here to look at the work of Dr. Pauline Lipman out of University of Illinois-Chicago. Here is her latest book and one relevant paper.)

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So I leave you with a message.  Attention all you outraged EdReformers: David Rosenberg, Cambell Brown, Andrew Rotherham, Jonathan Alter, Wendy Kopp, Justin Hamilton and anyone else feigning righteous anger over this kerfuffle, children are dying in Chicago.  Much of the increases in violence in this city have to do with the chaos caused by the education reforms YOU ALL advocate for.  Acknowledge that.  Write your blogs, sends angry tweets, speak out on television for THESE kids, not against made-up distractions like this twitter controversy.

Stop hiding behind your misinformation, your spin, your talking points, your complaints about tone, your phony research.  Come to where the kids are.  Listen to parents beg, plead, cry, yell, and chant to save their schools from closure.  Come to my psych hospital and hear children's actual experience of charter schools, of zero tolerance discipline, of school closures, of disinvestment in neighborhood schools, of poorly trained teachers in their classrooms.  Listen to parents and students who occupy their schools, hold sit-ins, or let themselves be arrested to stop school closures and charter expansion.

Sandy Hook reminded us all of the first thing we must remember about schools.  We must protect children above all else.  Like the Hippocratic Oath in medicine, we must "first do no harm" in our attempts to better education.  And corporate education reform IS HURTING CHILDREN.

It's time for some serious outrage over THIS reprehensible fact.  Then we can talk about the reforms our schools actually need.