Saturday, February 28, 2015

How &*%$ed Up is PARCC!?!

The Chicago Public Schools testing window for the first round of PARCC testing is set to begin in just over one week, from March 9th-April 2nd.  No one yet knows whether we will be forced to administer this exam.  Everyone at my school is on edge, wondering what will happen.  For now, all we know is that we need to prepare for this test as if it is happening, despite no official word from CPS.

Yesterday, we were all forced to sign a "Test Security Agreement and Schedule" and were informed that our whole staff will be required to take a mandatory, paid, after-school PD on PARCC.  Our administrators have also told us that all classes grades 3-8 will need to take the practice tests next week.  Some classes started administering these practice tests this past week, but gave up after an hour or so when students had only progressed through less than seven questions.

The scheduling alone is proving to be a logistical nightmare. The first "round" of PARCC consists of:
  • PBA Language Arts (3 Units): 105 minutes, 120 minutes, and 90 minutes
  • PBA Mathematics (2 units): 120 minutes and 105 minutes
(I thank the people who spoke at the ISBE PARCC hearings, because despite the fact that I'm expected to administer this ridiculous test in a few days, I had no idea how the test was divided up.)   And then there is another round of testing done at the end of the year:
  • EOY Language Arts (2 units): 90 minutes and 90 minutes
  • EOY Mathematics (2 units): 110 minutes and 105 minutes
Now, we just completed our Middle of the Year NWEA testing (the window was 1/5/15-1/29/15) and that in itself was highly disruptive and fraught with technical and logistical problems despite being a less time-consuming and less technologically demanding test compared to PARCC.  For NWEA, classes one by one took the test in the Library making that space unavailable for students or staff for nearly a month.  Our students with special needs were supposed to be tested in a separate locations, but as only our school counselor had access to the administration of the test, we ended up having to walk back and forth multiple times just to get the kids successfully into the program.  A bunch of our computers malfunctioned as well, sometimes kicking students off the test mid-way through causing mad scrambles to search out help during testing sessions.

And scheduling was a mess for students and staff for much of that testing window.  For example, at our school the 7th and 8th grade teachers are departmentalized (one teacher teaches Reading, one Math, one Social Studies to all the 7th and 8th grade students.)  So when one of the four classes was testing the other students could not switch classes as that teacher was with her homeroom class.  That meant, for an entire week, the seventh and eighth grade classes stayed in their homeroom class and did not receive instruction in any other subject but the subject taught by that teacher.  That homeroom teacher also was given the extra burden of figuring out activities for the students which they normally only saw one hour a day.

For special education, the scheduling problems were doubled.  All of our special education teachers teach more than one grade level.  So, when I was forced to administer tests to my students with special needs in one grade, the students in the other grades did not receive their IEP minutes.  For the teachers who teach self-contained classes, it was even worse, as their students who weren't testing had to spend the whole day in their general education classes, classes already burdened with being stuck in their homerooms all day, doing little work of value as a result.

Now that was just the NWEA which requires each class to take two testing sessions (one Reading, one Math).  The PARCC requires FIVE testing sessions this round alone.  And for each of those sessions at every grade level, students with special needs will need accommodations including testing in a separate location-space our school which was recently combined with a closed school after the school closings simply does not have,   These tests will throw off regular scheduling for nearly the entire window-that's almost four weeks of instruction.  Nevermind the large number of students who will need the make-up testing (our school, like many high-poverty schools, has low attendance and high mobility) and will miss instruction even after the regular testing ends.

And the end of the year testing schedule is even worse where PARCC and NWEA will overlap. The EOY schedule for PARCC is 4/27/15-5/22/15 and the NWEA is 5/11/15-6/12/15. Can someone explain to me how it is OK to put our school in utter disarray from April 27th until June 12th??  For the entire year so far, this means we would have the disrupted schedules for 4 weeks in January, 4 weeks in March, and 7 weeks in April, May, and June. That's fifteen weeks of testing!!!!  How many missed IEP minutes? How much lost instruction?  Our kids won't have access to our beautiful Library for months! 

And I haven't even touched upon the many ways these tests completely warp the learning in our school when we aren't actively testing.  PARCC and testing obsessions are destroying the joy of learning.  Nor have I talked about the massive amounts of money on these tests, the online test prep programs, and the technology upgrades being implemented solely to take these monstrous tests.  And the inappropriate and arbitrary raising of the difficulty of these tests guaranteed to fail most students, will cause all kinds of mental health and political repercussions.

There is no excuse for implementing this test  None. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

How the Sorting Game Hurts

Chicago has a long, racist history of sorting kids by race and class, thanks largely to highly-segregated housing patterns.  But the neoliberal push for "school choice" has created a chaotic marketplace of schools in my city which has exacerbated this massive sorting process further by adding new layers of sorting by attributes like test score taking ability and behavior/special needs.

WBEZ's Linda Lutton beautifully documented this new phenomenon in the report The Big Sort:

From WBEZ: 
And I've been thinking a lot of about what this massive sorting mechanism that is the public schools looks like down at the grassroots level, such as the small elementary school where I teach on Chicago's southside.  Seems to me that it ultimately hurts the kids who are "sorted" to the bottom the most.

Kids as "Liabilities"

The idea of shopping around for a school has become second nature for many Chicago parents. Schools spend more and more energy on "recruiting" parents through marketing campaigns and school fairs, but importantly, schools are looking for the "right kind of student".  Charters, Magnets, and Selective Enrollments are screening on the front end (recruiting process) and the back end (pushout, expulsion) for students who will get good test scores, have fewer behavior problems, and raise the prestige of their schools.

However, this mad scramble for the kids schools consider to be assets, begs the question of what to do about the other kids, the kids everyone now considers "liabilities" to their rankings and image.  Even at the micro-neighborhood level, there is a push to stack the deck in your school's favor.  As the number of students enrolling in schools outside their attendance boundary increases, schools may take or refuse kids depending on the principal's discretion. This leads to an even further sorting of students based on ability, test scores, and special education status.  And this sorting has dire implications when your school rating determines the fate of your school to operate autonomously or whether it stays open at all.

According to members of my staff, my elementary school has become the local "catch-all" in the neighborhood.  Teachers with colleagues in nearby schools have overheard parents being told, "Go to Langston Hughes, they'll take you."  Apparently, everyone knows which schools are the--and I hate to use this phrase, but it was what was reported to me--"dumping schools".  Now, I have no idea how accurate these rumors are, but I think the way people discuss schools locally is important.  There is a perception that some schools are "better" than others, and this perception is largely based on how well the school manages to "sort" out the tougher to educate students.

And I have noticed how a disproportionate number of students transferring in to our school have high numbers of IEP minutes leaving us with significantly more students with special needs than surrounding schools.  Our school currently has a special education population of about 24% while the nearby neighborhood schools have between 8%-14%, with the charters and magnet schools serving the least numbers of students with disabilities.  Part of that difference is explained by our pre-school blended program, but that program is not nearly big enough to account for all the difference.  If schools were truly taking students randomly, there should be pretty similar levels of special education students in every school, especially within a specific geographical region.

Choosing Between Good And Bad ClientsA large part of the differences between schools and their school ratings seems to be explained by how well administrators "screen" kids.  In fact, there are teachers at my school who complain that our principal "just lets anybody in."  And given the fact that our school is one of just 26 other elementary schools in the district to be given a "Level 3" status, the lowest school rating possible, this difference matters.  For better or worse, teachers know that the fate of the school is on the line.

And it seems clear to me how the school was already at a disadvantage after being a receiving school and having another local elementary school folded in with our existing one last year after fifty schools were closed causing massive chaos and disruption. According to the residents in the neighborhood,  the kids from the closing school came from the "tougher" part of the community, even though they were just a few blocks away.  The families were just a little worse off, housing was just a little more unstable, and violence was just a little more prevalent.  Again, these micro-level differences matter in a cutthroat competitive environment.

A School Dream Deferred

And then there's the "consequences" of being one the lowest tiered schools which demonstrably worsens the experience of schooling for students and staff alike.  Everything is dictated to us from above, with no autonomy to tailor lessons to our unique students' needs.  There is a testing obsession-absolute obsession-as we desperately try to raise test scores.  Every meeting, award ceremony, assembly, or discussion centers on test scores and test scores alone.  Since we are a "Level 3" school, our Network is constantly in our building mandating bad practice over which we have no control.  We are forced to use multiple computer programs guaranteed to "get those scores up!"  We must teach in the most formulaic way possible.  We must do the exact opposite of what we know our students actually need and deserve.

So our students are subjected to dry, disjointed, test-centric curriculum.  They are told over and over how they are nothing more than a test score and even our student conferences center around these scores.  Our kids with special needs are repeatedly being given inappropriate material and pacing guides all in the name of raising test scores.  "The diverse learners are bringing us down" our special education department is told over and over again.  Projects, field trips, and foreign language programs are being abandoned as they take away from the test prep.  As the curriculum becomes more and more tedious and inappropriately "rigorous," behavior problems worsen causing the school to react with stricter discipline and punishments.  We are forced to do everything wrong in the name of raising test scores.

Being at the bottom of the heap means every bad ed reform out there is fed to us on steroids.  From Common Core, to edtech, to Teach For America, to data-driven obsessions, to oppressive discipline...we have it all.  It's a vicious cycle where our low rating causes the school to be forced to do bad practices which leads to more bad ratings.

So when people complain about my school being the "bad" school, there is truth in that statement.  But that "bad" designation is one manufactured by competitive "choice" policies and solidified by top-down reform.

I try to imagine a world where kids are allowed to be kids.  Where schools that serve needier kids, kids who have experienced more trauma and upheaval than most adults, would be wrapped in love instead of bounced around schools like an unwanted pet.  I imagine a place where a child's negative behavior is seen with understanding instead of the fear of bringing down the entire school.  I imagine a world where kids are welcome no matter where they go and aren't viewed as a "liability" ever.  I imagine a world where we acknowledge the differences among kids and celebrate those different strengths and weaknesses, instead of using them to juke the stats.  I imagine a world where the students who need the most are given the best education we have, instead of the very worst of test-prep, lock-down torture.

But I don't live in that world.  I live in Rahm's Chicago.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

I Don't Know How to Teach Under EdReform

It's formal observation time at my elementary school.  In the Chicago Public Schools, we have a new evaluation system that mandates a lengthy, complicated, and ridiculous process of administrators going into classrooms for formal observations at least three times a year for nontenured teachers like myself.  During those observations, administrators are expected to record every little detail they observe over a forty-five minute period of time and then use these "snapshots" as a large part of our total evaluation.

In order to prepare for this observation, I was forced to create a very specific type of lesson, one carefully aligned to the Common Core State Standards and that follows our mandatory pacing guide dictated by our Network.  I was expected to demonstrate that I used student data to guide my instruction.  I needed to follow a very regimented lesson plan format that left virtually no room for creativity on my part.

I told myself I could make the lesson at least somewhat engaging for my students.  I purposefully picked a high-interest reading passage that was culturally relevant to my students to use as my model and practice guide. I chose a fun, game-like way to introduce the skill as if that could mask the stink of what I was asking my students to actually do.

But it was after delivering this lesson, with a slight gleam of sweat on my brow from the anxiety of such an intense and punitive process, that I realized, I have no idea how to teach this way.

I don't know how to teach without context.  I don't know how to teach reading without centering literature at the heart of it. I don't know how to teach the discreet "skills" of reading according to standards which tell me I must teach how to infer, how to compare/contrast, how to analyze author's technique completely divorced from the content.  I don't know how to teach without inspiration or creativity.  I don't know how to teach to data points.  I have no idea how to go through a whole lesson without acknowledging my students for what they bring to the table instead of simply assessing if they left that table with the meaningless new "skill" lodged momentarily in their brains.

I did not learn to read by filling out a graphic organizer on plot structure.  No one forced the ten-year-old me to repeat back literary terms or dissect a reading comprehension passage as if this was what reading is all about.

I read because I love it.  My earliest memories of reading were of wonder, and curiosity, of staying up too late in bed with a book I couldn't put down.

It's true.  I must be a "bad teacher".  Because I don't know how to teach under edreform.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Forget Winter, PARCC Is Coming...

My school is drowning under the ridiculous Common Core Standards.  Everything I know to do to inspire my students is forbidden.  Instead, we are forced to deliver truly horrible curriculum in developmentally inappropriate ways with pacing charts that move so fast all our heads are spinning.  My students with special needs are shutting down, acting out, or just giving up entirely.  Sometimes I hear them whisper, "I hate school".   And they are right to think that.  All the teachers are upset.  And every time we ask "Why? Why are you making us do this?" the answer is always the same.  PARCC is coming.

Today I read a piece about PARCC on Diane Ravitch's blog called Bob Shepherd: Why PARCC Testing is Meaningless and Useless which hit on something I don't feel like we've been talking about enough.  Mr. Shepherd complains how PARCC and the Common Core are truly warping what reading means.  He says, "...these are tests of literature that for the most part skip over the literature, tests of the reading of informative texts that for the most part skip over the content of those texts."   I haven't heard many people complain about our skill-based reading instruction that has been in vogue since before CCSS, but now under the new standards is bad literacy on speed.  We are teaching reading without enjoying words, or thoughts, or the context that created the stories we read.  Even when we choose beautiful pieces of literature, they become lifeless vehicles to teach a dry, decontextualized skill.

For the past two weeks, my co-teacher and I were teaching off the standard that asks our fifth graders to compare and contrast two pieces of literature from the same genre.   In my inclusion classroom, that looks like reading two myths without any teaching around what myths are, about Ancient Greece, about how the myths point to our own humanity.  No, we are told to have the kids create a Venn diagram of the two texts and then practice writing a constructed response.  The kids have no idea who Zeus or Hera are.  They know nothing about the way myths were used to explain religion and nature to an ancient people.  There is no chance to connect these ancient stories to the kids' own lives.  I hear the kids mutter, "Why are theses such funny names?"  But because we are on a strict pacing guide, and because the teaching of Greek Mythology is not in the standard, we simply moved on.  This week we're on to comparing poems.  In order to practice more constructed responses.  To get ready for PARCC.

I cannot believe how we are warping the experience of reading for these children.  Sometimes we are told to do a "close read"of stirring passages about the Underground Railroad for the sole purpose of pulling out the main idea and supporting details. We don't actually talk about the Underground Railroad-letting the horror of slavery sink in.  No, it's simply about getting the skill, so the kids can demonstrate the same skill on the dreaded test.  What a ridiculous disservice.  I still remember my fourth grade teacher reading us a novel on Harriet Tubman and how that story was one of my first understandings of true injustice.  We were inspired to create art projects, to write poetry, to pull out further texts on slavery from our library.   We had class discussions.  We wrote letters.  We felt the text come alive.  Our kids are not getting anything remotely like that experience.   Because of PARCC.

And to make things worse, I teach at an all African-American school in a high-poverty neighborhood on Chicago's southside.   Killing the love of reading before it starts for my students is nothing short of criminal.  But because of the high-stakes nature of PARCC, knowing that schools just blocks away have been closed for their poor test scores, our school is in a sickening frenzy to raise our test scores by any means necessary.  Everything revolves around this test.  And my students who so desperately need safe, supportive, relevant, and engaging learning environments, instead are given high-pressured, standardized, test-prep CCRAP.

This type of readicide is not new because of PARCC.  Schools under high-stakes accountability have been forced into this twisted form of reading instruction for many years.  But things are getting worse, so much worse.  Thanks to PARCC.

Any chance that kids get to become enthralled in a story, to become spellbound by a fictional world, to be pulled into the past through powerful prose, is done through teachers secretly stealing time for that wonderment.  It is not in the standards.  It won't be on the test.  And it's definitely not in PARCC.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

How Testing is Destroying My School

Testing is out of control in our schools.  I knew this before I stepped back into a public school classroom this past September after teaching for many years in a psychiatric hospital.  But seeing the testing obsession play out in students’ and teachers’ lives…well, I simply was not prepared. 

In just the first six weeks of school, I have administered more pointless, random, unnecessarily difficult tests to my students than I can count.  We have barely had more than two consecutive days to simply teach where we were not interrupted by some ridiculous mandated assessment. There’s the REACH (for teacher evaluation purposes only), On-Demand Writing Tasks, tests that go to our network, tests for the district, tests because our school in on probation, and placement tests to use the TWO online test prep programs our school is forced to use weekly.  These tests are not aligned to the curriculum, they don’t measure what we are actually learning in class, they are not tied to a broader unit of study.  These are tests just to feed the data monsters.

And thanks to Common Core, these tests are PURPOSEFULLY too difficult for the students.  We are told kids should be frustrated and learn to “persevere”.   They need exposure to “complex text”.  And we need to measure what they don’t know so we can measure what they learn.  But the reality is the kids are upset, they are demoralized, they are learning that they are no good at school and that defeat plays out in their behaviors.  The school is in a constant state of unrest and anger-fights breaking out, kids acting out to disrupt class, and the school lives under a veil of surveillance and punishment.  A climate of pressured, high-stakes testing is exactly the opposite of what our kids need.

And it’s not just the tests, it’s also the test prep.   We have not one, but two online test prep programs our school is mandated to use weekly.   45 mins per week, per subject, plus an assessment in one program and completion of 2-3 “lessons” in another used directly for math.  These expensive programs are basically test prep questions presented in a video game format.  Get the “right” answer and earn coins to play games.  In some classes, these programs take up as much as 40% of instructional time each week.  Even our little kindergartners are forced to get on iPads and practice taking tests.  Our Early Childhood teachers know this is wrong.  In fact, all our teachers know this is wrong.  But the answer to every question we ask is…”because this is what they need to know for PARCC (the Common Core aligned test.)”

And I haven’t even gotten into the numerous and constant technical problems with these programs.  “My iPad doesn’t work.” “I can’t remember my password.”  “I’m new to the school and don’t have a password.” “I can’t get on the internet.”  “The program keeps logging me out.” “My iPad is all in Japanese.” We waste probably 20-30 minutes per use just on technical difficulties.  While I love the use of authentic, meaningful  technology in the classroom, I hate, I HATE edtech.  But Silicon Valley is no doubt making a bundle on the backs of my students.

And what’s worse, I am a special education teacher, so my students are the most fragile of all.  And these tests are killing any possibility to motivate my kids.  There are only so many times I can repeat the mantra that “These don’t matter, guys!”  “Just do your best!” These tests are breaking the trust between me and my students.  It feels so unethical to day after day administer tests that are so far beyond their current abilities.  It’s like we’re giving these kids tests in Chinese, just to prove they don’t know any Chinese.  And they leave feeling just…dumb…because they couldn’t answer any of the questions.  I don’t even need the data these tests generate-they are so inappropriately hard, they tell me nothing of use.  Besides, I have a whole Individual Education Plan that tells me exactly what my kids need to work on. 

But still, every single week, here I am giving yet another absolutely disgusting test.  My kids bang their heads on desks, they cry, they whine, they give up and say “I’m done” in front of a blank answer sheet.  They fidget, they act out, they get in trouble just to get out of going to yet another class where they feel stupid. 

I feel dirty when I come home.  I wonder, “Should I start to boycott administering these tests?”  But I don’t have tenure.  Everyone tells me to lay low, to take the bold moves in three years when I've earned tenure.

Three years…how can I do this evil to children for three more years?

My school was already destabilized as a receiving school after Mayor Emanuel’s vicious school closings-undergoing massive changes in enrollment and staffing last year.  The neighborhood around us suffers from disinvestment, foreclosure, unemployment, crime, and poverty deeply impacting our students’ readiness to learn.  And instead of wrapping our kids in love and successes, we batter them with cruel, impossible tests. 

I think about how all this bogus data is going to be used to “prove” our school is failing.  Testing is so wildly out of control in my school because we are “on probation”-like so many other schools in low-income, African-American communities-and somehow this justifies these disgusting interventions.  We have a phenomenal staff and school leadership, but instead of being allowed to create a beautiful place of learning, we are forced to do wrong by these kids.  We are the hammer driving the nail into the coffin of this little school.  We are giving them the very information they may someday use to destroy us.

Anyone who says high-stakes testing and the Common Core don’t matter, you are wrong.  These policies are destroying my school.  They are destroying my profession.  They are destroying the bond between teacher and student.  The testing madness needs to stop.  Now.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Why Teach For America’s Push for “Diversity” Should Not Be Celebrated

Yesterday, I was disappointed to see Teaching Tolerance-a social justice education resource which I have personally used many times-publish a blog post entitled Teach For (a Diverse) America.  It was difficult to see a TFA alum spout this harmful organization's current PR talking points on a site I trust and love.  So,  I’d like to take a few moments to debunk TFA’s deceptive diversity strategy.

But first and foremost, I want to say that getting more teachers of color into our classrooms and keeping them there is of the utmost importance.

But TFA’s overall mission, actions, and impact absolutely negate any benefit from their inauthentic push for diversity. Over the past five years, this darling of the media has come under increasing attacks and criticism even from within their own ranks.  As a result, TFA has used “diversity” as a way to rebrand.  But their core mission which undermines public education and increases inequality remains unchanged.

Here are a few ways TFA actually hurts teachers and students of color:

1)  TFA has a direct tie to the overall reduction in teachers of color in schools.  The black middle class is shrinking, and TFA’s anti-union stance and its attacks on the teaching profession are inextricably linked.  Current education policies-which TFA aggressively promotes-are forcing far more black educators OUT of the classroom than TFA could ever put back in.  Many black educators site the worsening working conditions, the loss of job protections which disproportionately affect African American teachers, and the effects of neoliberal edreform policies around school closings, turnarounds, and charter proliferation as reasons why many are leaving/being forced to leave the profession.  TFA spouts the virtues of teachers of color out of one side of their mouth while they spit on veteran black educators out of the other.  This loss of black educators was perhaps most dramatically seen in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina when TFA helped  illegally displaced thousands of veteran black educators-most from the communities where they teach.

2)  TFA is NOT actually more diverse when compared to the urban districts and urban schools where most of their recruits are placed.  TFA disingenuously uses national statistics when they brag about their diversity saying  “Our public school teachers are 84 percent white, 7 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. Four percent identify with other ethnicities…. half of new TFA teachers identify as people of color”.  But in places like Chicago, only 47% of teachers identify as white with 28% of teachers being African American and 17.9% Latino.   In fact, in many of the privately-run charter schools which are heavily staffed by TFA and TFA alums, their staff is far LESS diverse than nearby neighborhood public schools.

3)  Another point is that TFA does NOT do a good job of creating “teachers,” regardless of color.  From its recruitment process on, TFA’s focus in unabashedly not about creating career teachers.  They are not a teacher pipeline, they create “leaders”-luring recruits in with promises of direct paths to law school, grad school, firms like Goldman Sachs, or lucrative educational leadership/technology gigs.   Less that 20% of their members end up staying in a classroom more than 4 years.  TFA is simply not revolutionizing the teaching force.

4)  TFA exacerbates inequalities for students of color.  TFA novices begin their meager two years with less than 20 hours of practice in front of children, even for students with special needs. Regardless of the racial/socio-economic background of their novices, TFA is offering our neediest kids uncertified, underprepared, short-term novices in lieu of professional educators.  

5) To many TFA corps members of color, the organization has NOT been a safe space.  TFA has been aggressively recruiting more people of color without changing their elitist, white, middle-class normative culture.  In fact, many CMs of color describe feeling used by TFA to the benefit of the white and wealthy.  Here are some rich and fascinating counterstories of TFA corps members of color: A Racio-economic Analysis of Teach for America: Counterstories of TFA Teachers of Color

6)  If getting more teachers of color into the classroom is a priority (which it should be) why is no one doing anything about the rising costs of tuition, the struggle for many teachers to support themselves during a semester to (in some cases) a full year of unpaid student teaching, and the increasingly exclusionary teacher basic skills tests?  For starters, how about instead of giving TFAers those $10,000+ Americorps grants (including the large number of corps members who are NOT people of color or from low-income backgrounds), let’s save those public tax dollars for teachers of color who want to be career teachers.  In countries where education is valued, teacher education is completely free.  And let’s not forget that the TFA/edreform push for “higher standards” in teaching through “more rigorous” entrance exams has resulted in a dramatic drop in the numbers of African Americans and Latinos entering teacher prep programs.  Of those who do get in, the costs of a college degree today--especially one that leads to a career where most will likely never make enough to easily pay back loans—are becoming prohibitively high.

Unfortunately, the author of this blog makes it seem like the shrinking number of teachers of color is the fault of Schools of Education.  Make no mistake, teacher education is under attack just like K-12 education.  Neoliberal education reform is intentionally making it less desirable to become a fully-certified teacher.  And as so many other neoliberal reforms, the greatest negative impact falls on people of color and people from low-income backgrounds.  Pushing more and more people into fast-track alternative certification programs like TFA is intentional and damaging.  A low-skilled, short-term teaching force may be in the best interests of corporations and the elite, but it does not benefit children. 

7) TFA practices disaster capitalism which is devastating communities of color.  Teach For America is supported and funded by the very forces which caused the financial crisis throwing many families of color into foreclosure, bankruptcy, even homelessness, which refuse to pay workers fair wages thereby growing poverty, and are increasing inequality today.  When your largest funders are companies like Walmart, Bank of America, and Goldman Sachs, you do not get to pretend to speak for the oppressed and disenfranchised.  

Ultimately, TFA’s focus on diversity is an attempt to cloak the very real damage this organization does, especially to students, communities, and teachers of color. 

On a personal note, I recently returned to the Chicago Public Schools and now teach in a school on Chicago's southside where over 90% of the teachers are African American women.    These veteran black educators have gone through the chaos of school closings, many grew up in and still live in the community offering a wealth of knowlege, and are some of the most amazing teachers I have ever met.  We also have one TFA teacher.  While a lovely young lady and a person of color, she comes from out of state, is new to Chicago, is not trained for the  special education position she was placed in, and is there because the last TFAer left after his two years were up.  This is not a solution.

I will end on this. There ARE organizations out there doing the work of attracting and supporting more people of color through full teacher preparation programs.  In Illinois, Grow Your Own, is doing amazing work recruiting people from the communities where they hope to someday teach.  And they do so without learning to teach on other people’s children.  GYO helps members pass the Test of Academic Proficiency and helps provide funding to complete a quality teacher prep program offering tutoring as needed.  A GYO graduate completes their teacher preparation before ever stepping foot in a classroom.  And they are there for the long term.  Every tax dollar, Americorps grant, and media story should go to programs like this.

And Teach For America, regardless of their latest diversity PR spin, needs to be gone.  Let's start by taking it off the Teaching Tolerance website.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Parents of Chicago: Questions You Must Ask About Your Child’s School This Year

1)  How many teachers/staff left the year before and why?

Schools all over Chicago are in chaos.  Intentional chaos.  The year after the largest number of school closings in the history of the United States followed by massive budget cuts to many schools left a wake of destruction and pain.  Get the information from teachers and staff at your child’s school about how many teachers left and what’s going on that so many are getting out.  Ask about the school climate, how teachers, staff, and students were treated last year. Ask if teachers are miserable at this school.  Ask why they are miserable.  Many teachers are probably afraid to say anything, but if you ask them about it directly, they might open up.

2) Are there positions left unfilled and why?

It is possible your child will begin the school year with long term subs.  Be angry about this, especially if the position was filled the year before.  That teacher was likely run off by the chaos. 

3)  What is the situation with substitutes?

Speaking of substitutes, CPS has manufactured a severe shortage of day-to-day subs.  Many schools simply have no one to cover classes when teachers are out sick.  Your child may ILLEGALLY be taught by a classroom aide, specialist teachers like the art/music/gym teacher, or special education teachers pulled from their students with special needs.  

4)  Is your child’s teacher on a “provisional certification”?

CPS has many teacher positions filled with Teach For America or Chicago Teaching Fellows novices who do not have certification or experience working in schools.  Ask about your child’s teacher's certification, being specific about whether they are on an “initial” (new, fully-licensed teachers), “standard” (teachers with more than four years working in schools), or “provisional” (little to no training in teaching whatsoever.  And thanks to TFA lobbying efforts in Washington, parents are not even informed when their child’s teacher has not completed a training program).    

These untrained staff are often placed in special education positions despite having no expertise working with students with disabilities.  It is a gross injustice to allow these people to be placed in a classroom, but CPS is increasing the numbers to save on personnel costs.  Make a fuss about the administrator hiring people from these alternative certification programs. 

5)  What kind of discipline is happening at the school?

CPS is implementing a new discipline policy with very little support, planning, or alternatives.   CPS has completely outlawed suspensions in early grades and put quotas on how many days a child can be suspended for.  While it is commendable that CPS wants to cut down on suspensions and move toward more restorative practices, it is apparent that they have not given schools the types of resources to truly improve behavior.  Many schools are turning to oppressive discipline strategies that treat students like inmates in prison to quiet the chaos.  Ask lots of questions about if classrooms are safe spaces and what is being done to meet ALL children’s needs.

6) How much of a focus are standardized test scores?

If you walk into your child’s school and see a wall of data from testing or if schools give out awards to teachers based on this testing, be concerned.  A school which is overly focused on test scores often warps its curriculum to up these numbers…at any cost.  If your child complains about boredom, behavior problems of peers, or seems to be losing a love of learning, a test-focused school culture is often part of the problem.  And know, this push for better test scores often comes from higher-ups, not the school staff or administration.  Partner with them about how to resist the testing mania.  Often parents have a greater ability to push back than teachers.  The anti-excessive testing groups More Than A Score and FairTest have some great resources. 

7) The last, and most important question is “What can I do?”

Fight back.  Parents, we teachers need you.  We are being pummeled out there in the schools.  We will never be the kinds of amazing educators your child deserves if these purposeful policy attacks continue.  And know that this is happening all over CPS-including the charters.  There are no good choices out there as long as this system continues unchecked.

We need you to stand up for us, scream about the injustices we all see as loudly as possible.  Do not let CPS continue to get away with these injustices.  If the sick and twisted truth were out in broad daylight for all to see they could not do these things! 

Find out the whole truth. And then shout it out to winds.  Let’s force something better.

Members of BAM gather at the Neighborhood Schools Picnic in May 2014.   (Crystal Stella Becerril) From  

BAM (Badass Moms) /Neighborhood Schools Fair
Raise Your Hand
Community Groups ie KOCO, Albany Park Association, Brighton Park Association, Pilsen Alliance, etc

More you can do:
Go to CPS board meeting and speak up
Get involved in your school's LSC.

Tell your child's teacher you are on their side.  

And...Help Karen Lewis get elected for mayor so we can FIX these problems!