Saturday, November 12, 2011

Same City, Different Worlds: The PEN Conference and the EWA seminar. The two “camps” of education sounding off in Chi-town

Today in Chicago, two major education events took place.  And the two events could not be more different.  On the north side, a group of dedicated educators gathered from across the country to discuss progressive education practices for the Progressive Education Network (PEN) National conference.  Among some of the distinguished speakers and panelists were Pedro Antonio Noguera, Bill Ayers, and Gloria Ladson-Billings.  On the other side of town at the University of Chicago, a very different event was underway: The Education Writers Association (EWA) Seminar entitled “Evaluating Teachers: Beyond the Rhetoric”.  This group included speakers such as Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project (Michelle Rhee’s brain child), representatives from the Gates Foundation, a panel of teachers none of whom was a current (non-TFA) educator, and Educators for Excellence (cozy friend of the Gates Foundation and DFER).
At PEN, the 600 educators discussed topics like teacher and student voice in public policy, making “child-centered learning” , how to educate the “whole child”, the damage of high-stakes testing to the practice of real informative assessment, sharing ways to incorporate social justice in all subjects,  as well as sharing tricks to engage all learners in a safe, inviting, creative environment.  The three-day event ended this afternoon with a poignant and rousing keynote address by Gloria Ladson-Billings (professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of books like The Dream-Keepers:  Successful Teachers of African American Children)   Dr. Ladson-Billings framed her speech around the disturbing statistics of growing poverty, lack of health care for many families, and the income gap’s exponential growth over the past decade.  She drew a chuckle from the teacher audience when she joked about a new teacher’s complaint about having to teach special education students.  “If you are in education today,” she argued, “then you ARE a special education teacher.   You are an ESL teacher.  Our population is changing.”  She spoke to the complexity of teaching today over and over again saying that “teacher-proof” curricula and “lack of regard for teachers and their work” “can’t improve student learning.”   Her speech ended with a standing ovation.

While Dr. Ladson-Billings was praising the hard work of creative educators, down south, according to the tweetosphere, the day’s talks seemed to center on teacher evaluation including VAM models and how that data is being used in places like Tennessee and Texas.  Thanks to these models, more teachers will be punished and fired (including some simply due to random error).  VAM also represents a significant weakening of union protections for teachers.  These evaluations are being used to systematically destroy the teaching profession as schools become places of fear and compliance.  Teachers will be forced to go against all they know about child development and educating children holistically and instead focus on test prep to increase the all important test score.

At a different point in the conference, panelists from the LA Times divulged that the Times evidently had always planned on publishing teacher’s names with their test score rating.   In fact, “LAUSD's Deasy wanted LAT to "clear the way" by publishing VAM data, says LAT editor D. Smith” (Alexander Russo).  Overall, here’s a link to the day’s schedule:  It seems like an event with an agenda if I ever saw one.

Now, back to the PEN conference, my biggest critique was that a vast majority of the participants were from private schools.  And the few public schools represented were from districts like Winnetka, one of the wealthiest towns in the United States.  There was virtually no one, outside a few lone Chicago Public Schools teachers, who represented high-poverty, urban schools.  One teacher from Gage Park High School on the city’s southwest side, invited some students to attend the conference.  The students spoke of the need for equity in funding, of safety in schools and neighborhoods, about wishing to go directly to Mayor Emanuel or even Arne Duncan with their concerns, social justice, collaborating with parents and community organizations, and their desire for the best education for all.  Although the voices of public schools students like these were under-represented, their valid concerns were echoed in Ladson-Billings concluding speech.

To me, the moral of this tale of one city’s schizophrenic day of education is this:  Sure, we love progressive education practices, but only for the rich white private schools.  When it comes to the vast majority of our children in public schools, we want to standardize and sterilize learning into easy-to-compare test prep factories.  We want to sort and control public school teachers, just the way we sort and control their students.  While the rich children explore, learn, question, dream, try, experience, fail, and enjoy the process of expanding their minds in beautiful schools and small classes with no pressure of grades or homework, all the other people’s children are condemned to mindless, empty recitation of facts.  These children’s teachers are forbidden to explore progressive ways to inspire these young people, except in the spaces “between the cracks”.  While the privileged choose a school for its unique, child-centered curriculum, public school teachers secretly “interrupt” the scheduled dry testing curricula with real authentic discussion and learning while telling their students “When the Feds come, tell them we’re on page 93.” (David Stovall, Associate Professor at University of Illinois-Chicago)

Progressive education and its respect for the teacher and the learner is something every child in this country deserves.  Let's start "interrupting" the education deforms happening now to see this goal come into reality.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

More from the Ravitch/Hanushek Debate

Here's another comment from the debate between Eric Hanushek who argues that firing 5-10% of "ineffective" teachers would dramatically improve American education and Diane Ravitch who says, as Linda Darling-Hammond so aptly put it, "you can't fire your way to Finland".  For the full thread, see:  

All I have heard in this silly debate is the same old tired talking points being thrown around. I know I shouldn’t even bother commenting because everyone has already made up their minds.

But still…I cannot help but think of my students, asleep right now in the psychiatric hospital where I work.

I think about “T” who is in the foster care system, was badly abused until he was 9, and has such extreme behavior problems that he requires a 1:1 staff with him at all times. He can’t read well and still does basic addition and subtraction even though he’s in the 5th grade. But today, he saw some older kids learning square roots and he begged me to try and solve them too. And you know what? He figured it out!! He ran up to me so excited that he had accomplished this work that he gave me a great big hug.

I think about “J”, also a ward of the state, living in a group home, who has gang affiliations and a history of school failure. I think about his astute and powerful comments in my class yesterday when someone brought up life in the inner-city. I sensed an anguish in his voice because he is such an intelligent young man and knows EXACTLY what a rotten hand he’s been dealt.

I think about little “A”, who thinks he is thug-tastic, but is actually a scared little 10 year old boy. I saw the cracks in his armor today when he pulled me into his room to speak with his case worker saying “Ms. Katie, tell her I’m doing 8th grade work! Tell her how smart I am!” The smile on that boy’s face was priceless.

None of Mr. Hanushek’s policies help MY kids. All I want for them is a teacher who CARES about them and gives them the chance to succeed. Test scores are nothing. International comparisons are nothing. What will help these children is not being talked about.

Instead, we debate back and forth about evaluation processes, tenure, firing procedures, and speculations not based on reality.

I’m sick of this. I want to talk about income inequality, lack of health care, and lack of mental health services. Even the best teachers cannot give my kids what they need.

Sure I want good teachers in the classroom, but the classroom itself is broken. The only reason I can reach some of my kids is because I work outside the school system. I have no standardized tests hanging over my head, I have no scripted curriculum to follow, I am supported DIRECTLY in my classroom by 2-3 staff members at all times, I have a multi-disciplinary team of people working on every aspect of these children’s lives including social workers helping families, doctors addressing biological and brain issues, and counselors teaching direct social and coping skills. We even have a recreational therapist who guides kids through art and play, addressing the whole child.

I have to go to bed now because I need rest to do a very very difficult job. At least I, unlike my colleagues in the schools, do not need to worry if tomorrow will be the day the firings begin. But do not expect me to stop fighting for what is right for my students. I will resist Hanushek and all those who take the spotlight off the very real issues at play in my students’ lives for as long as it takes.

John Thompson replied: 


Do you think Hanushek is even aware of the difference between students on IEPs for learning disabilities as opposed to emotional or conduct disorders? Are any of his fellow economists aware of such a difference? Are they aware of what happens when there is a critical mass of traumatized kids in classrooms and schools? If so, have they ever tried to control for that difference? If they are aware of those issues, why haven’t we read about studies trying to take that into account?

And I wrote: 

@johnthompson I don’t think any of the education “reformers” of the day have the slightest idea what our kids in the inner-city actually go through. What you said about “a critical mass of traumatized kids in classrooms and schools” is spot on. Our children are sick because of the conditions we let them grow up in. And the impact of this concentrated poverty and excessive violence is taking its toll on our schools. America should be ashamed.

I recently was on Chicago’s NPR station speaking about the mental health of our kids:

I’m not sure if what I was trying to communicate actually got through in the piece, but I wanted to say that you need a dedicated TEAM of experts to work with kids with mental health problems. Too often, schools are being left to deal with too many kids with too many problems (there’s that critical mass, you speak of…) all alone.

Instead of helping these schools with these children, we overcrowd our classrooms full of kids with significant, and I mean truly debilitating, often undiagnosed problems. To add insult to injury, we understaff and underresource those same schools. Heck, we don’t even train some those teachers properly before giving them some of the hardest to educate students.

So no, I will never agree to an evaluation system that inevitably will be primarily based on faulty test scores. I will not agree with firing 5-10% of my colleagues, because the playing field is too unfair. It is unfair for the kids and the staff alike.

I am absolutely baffled and disgusted by people like Hanushek who clearly have no idea what teachers face from day to day, especially in these inner-city schools.

Teachers have been doing what they can for years. It’s not enough and I want change too. But the rest of society has to step in and do its part.