Friday, December 30, 2011

It’s Not Just Negative, It’s Necessary

Real Education Reformers get a lot of slack for being too “negative”, for being loudly AGIANST policies, but not actively FOR much of anything.  I would like to take a moment and defend that tactic.

Right now, the hospital where I work is undergoing construction.  It is a much needed physical upgrade of our aging building.  In order to improve the nurses’ station, they had to completely tear down the old one to make space for something new.   And that’s the way I look at the education debate.  The corporate reformers fill the airways and newspapers and therefore public opinion with misinformation, propaganda, and lies.  As we career teachers understand about how learning occurs, sometimes you need to go back and correct false information before you can add new ideas to our brain’s schema.

This information correction is necessary to change the debate.  Right now, because of the constant erroneous information purposefully clogging the conversation, there is no room to hear what we real reformers DO believe in.  (I will try to write more on the effort to distract the public with talk of merit pay, teacher evaluation, teacher tenure, LIFO, and other unimportant secondary issues. But that is another post. ) We must clear away the chaff.  And that is the role of the online education warriors who dominate the social networking sites and online forums (um, thanks Alexander Russo?).

Another difficulty in switching the focus solely to positive proactive fights, is that those of us in the trenches of education understand that the kind of change that needs to occur will take real sacrifice and changes in the fundamental ways we do education in America.  (A change in how we fund schools off of local property taxes alone is an uphill battle that politically and financially will be costly. No charter school out in a neighborhood most people never go to is going to change the inequity in our system.  Corporate reform offers cheap, feel-good and completely ineffective fixes. But at least with corporate reform, people and politicos can pretend they are doing…something.  But again, I think these ponderings are best explored in separate posts.  Stay tuned.)

As I’ve said before, I strongly believe that now is the time to fight.  We need to be loud in our opposition of failed policies that hurt children.   And once we have the nation’s ear, then maybe we can tell them what might actually HELP our nation’s schools.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tides Are a-Turnin’

There are some quiet rumblings out there that the tide in education reform is turning.  As the sparkle and noise of Waiting for Superman fades into memory and the propaganda machine that is NBC’s Education Nation’s spotlight is momentarily switched off, the muffled shouts of the newly dubbed “social context reformers” start to slip through the mainstream media’s corporate-reform worshipping blitz.   Our fearless leader, Diane Ravitch has been featured on major news outlets like CNN, NBC, and the Daily Show.  Other untiring activists like Leonie Haimson have made it into the national conversation (see here for Leonie’s interview on CNN.)

Maybe there was, in fact, a “Christmas Miracle” as Paul Thompson writes in the post Is there a Christmas miracle in school reform debate?   Teach for America got some heat in a fantastic piece called Teach for America: Liberal mission helps conservative agenda by Andrew Hartman.  NEA president Van Roekel certainly got some strong pushback from educators around the country for partnering with Wendy Kopp in this USA Today article.  Today, blogger Alexander Russo complimented “Reformer Opponents” (albeit that the word “compliment” is a bit questionable as the tone of the post did not seem complimentary at all.  Probably Alexander was just going for provocative to get more hits on his blog.  So be it.  But I really don’t see how the “real education reformers” or “social context reformers” or what have you are the Goliath in this scenario when the corporate reformers are the ones who control all the money, power, and message.  But I digress…) See the post here.

Russo does bring up a good point.  Those of us who believe in “real reform” do have the power of passion which compels us to be active on blogs, comment sections, and social media sites.  I think Arne Duncan, Education Nation, Michelle Rhee, Teach for America and The Gates Foundation have all become more careful in what they tweet because we have become pretty darn good at flooding twitter when they post some ridiculous, unproven, pro-corporate propaganda.  (Yay tweachers!)

It is no coincidence that the people who side on the “social context” camp are primarily the teachers who do the hard work of education and the parents and community members who understand the true need and meaning of reform.  Education must look very different from the penthouses and ivory towers of the people leading the corporate reform movement.  Those of us on the ground see daily the effect of the failed, racist, neoliberal educational policies that are set to tear down our public education system.

It’s one thing to head a foundation, run a non-profit built on corporate money, or do your “reform” efforts in the few hours when you are not making millions as a hedge fund manager.  It is quite another to actually watch your student have a panic attack during a high-stakes test, hear a parent describe the abusive household they recently left leaving the family homeless, to watch a student tear up describing getting kicked out of a charter school, or see your teacher colleagues fold under the pressure of “accountability” threats.  The policies I am standing against are not theoretical abstractions to me.  I see names and faces of people being hurt and damaged by these disgusting laws.   I see the real impact of poverty on my students' lives every single day. 

Before becoming involved with the real education reform efforts, I had never commented on an online article, called a Congress person, or circulated a petition in my life.  I didn’t even have a Twitter account.  It was seeing the visceral and very real injustices that were occurring before my eyes in my low-income urban elementary school that got me fired up.  Those feelings were compounded by working on an inpatient psychiatry unit for children with significant mental health problems.  Poverty is creating real obstacles to success in my students’ lives.   I will not dismiss that impact.  

And unlike those hedge fund managers and foundation heads, my passion, and the passion of those I fight alongside with, is deep and personal.  This is our power.   No Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Wendy Kopp, Whitney Tilson, or Bill Gates can ever top the strength of our personal cause.

Eventually they will tire of their education reform hobby.  Or better yet, they will tire of having to battle all of us for every destructive step they take away from real reform.   So let’s focus our unending passion and drive to crush this bad thing that is corporate reform.  And maybe, finally, after they are all gone, we can sift through the devastation in order to begin the reforms that might actually help our students.  We will still be here when the tide finally turns. 

No Excuses, No way

Here is a comment I wrote in response to 'No Excuses' Is Not Just for Teachers:  I am sick of hearing the words "no excuses", whether for teachers or in this post's case for the students.  As many have said before, what we real reformers are talking about are not excuses, but reality.  I'm convinced that the only people who can even utter the words "no excuses" are people who have not worked directly with students and families living in poverty.  They are just too out of touch.

There is a huge difference between the "no excuses" crowd and setting limits. A great teacher knows the difference between a student who is making an excuse and one who genuinely cannot meet the expectation.  As a Special Ed teacher, I work hard at getting to know my students well enough to be able to discern whether firm limits are needed or empathy and accommodation.

But there is an even darker side to the "no excuses" philosophy.  I currently work on an inpatient psychiatry unit and I have seen the damage the hardliner "no excuses" schools and teachers have done to children.  I have seen the hopelessness in their faces and the scars on their wrists. They hate school, they fear school, they run away from school, and then they drop out of school.

And there are things that happen in their lives where they simply cannot focus on school.  And that's ok.  There will be time for the schoolwork, I always tell them.  "You need to get well first."  Suicide attempts, abuse, PTSD, living in foster homes, gangs, violence, hunger, homelessness are real traumas.  

Certainly, students do not benefit from a pushover teacher.  But they also are hurt by the rigid, unyielding "no excuses" types.  The art of teaching is finding the balance between the extremes. We must know our students well-enough to read the motivations behind the behaviors (is it avoidance? boredom? attention-seeking?) in order to respond to it appropriately. One student may honestly have had to walk out of the room to calm down while another may truly be avoiding work and getting away with it.  Even the SAME student may use the same behavior with different intentions. 

Still, in order to know our kids this well, teachers need the time and resources to really "get" the young people in their care.  With today's push for standardization, it is hard to truly treat kids as individuals. 

"No excuses" is no way to run a school.  Or a classroom.  And saying "no excuses" is no excuse to ignore the very real circumstances of our kids' lives.

Friday, December 23, 2011

TFA, Brainwashing, and Not Playing Nice

Here is a comment I wrote in response to a blog post written by someone who works directly with first and second year Teach for America interns.  In the last paragraph, the author DG argues:
Finally, TFA isn’t going away. It’s too powerful. We also have to acknowledge that without it, we would have approximately 8,000 fewer teachers where we need them most. We have to try to get them to see how to work together with experienced teachers, their associations and unions, and universities. We need to have them see how better training of their inexperienced teachers will help them achieve their stated goals. Coalition is a better word than confrontation."
Check out the full blog at  And here is my comment:

Interesting perspective on TFA.  Your position as field specialist means you get to see the classroom experiences of these unprepared novice teachers.  It is heart-breaking to hear stories of just how unprepared and even brainwashed these well-meaning kids truly are.  Their young idealism is being abused.

Still, I am concerned when people say we need to work with a group like TFA.  While the young people themselves may have good intentions, the end game for the organization is one I cannot and will not support.  When it began, TFA simply looked to place its members in districts with teacher shortages and was at best a stop gap.  The only claim about the novice teachers' abilities was that "they were better than a string of substitutes".  In the early days, there was talk that TFA hopefully should  someday become unnecessary.

Today, however, the organization has morphed into a powerhouse hotbed for billionaire's money and politician's praise.  TFA now has the audacity to claim their novices are actually "better" than veteran teachers.  As you pointed out, this is simply not true for the vast majority of core members.  But TFA's rhetoric itself has become dangerous.  By claiming "experience doesn't matter", TFA empowers adminstrators and lawmakers to save a buck, fire older teachers, and fill positions with these untrained novices.  And as an extra, these kids do tend to be more compliant, obedient, and almost never stick around long enough to collect a pension.  Heck, they spend so much time with TFA's organization, they don't even have time to become involved in their unions. 

I don't know how it is in New York, but here in Chicago there is NO shortage of teachers.  At the last open job fair they had (more than 3 years ago), there were far more teachers looking for work than schools hiring.  Shrinking budgets mean there are more teachers than ever searching for jobs.  Add to that, school closures and turnaround staff newly looking for work, and you have plenty of highly-qualified teachers wanting to get back in the classroom.

TFA has controlled the media and therefore the message for too long.  But that's all the more reason for career educators to speak up for our profession, and more importantly for the children whose lives are being negatively impacted because of this program.  I am a special education teacher and I believe it is immoral and illegal to put an untrained teacher into a special ed position.  TFA does this all the time.  That is wrong.

I will not stay silent on this.  Putting untrained novices into schools which need the MOST highly-trained and effective teachers is an injustice I will not let slide. 

I have heard many educators talk about "working together" with corporate reformers like TFA's CEO Wendy Kopp.  In fact, I am writing this post just days after NEA's president Dennis Van Roekel partnered with Kopp to write a USA Today article about "improving America's teachers".  (Note the language:  teachERS to be improved not their teachING.  It speaks to a worldview where teachers are good not based on experience or training, but on some sort of innate qualities, probably the same ones which get people into better universities.  That last bit was sarcasm, by the way.  What a classist and racist way to sort and quantify "good people" from "bad".) See the article here:  This odd partnership certainly stirred up the blogosphere and Twitter for a few days.

As I alluded to in my comment, I do not believe this is the time to "cooperate" with organizations that stand for everything I am against.  I will not form coalitions with TFA, with DFER, with Stand for Children or StudentsFirst, with Duncan, with Bloomberg, with Rhee, with Rahm or any other corporate education reformer who is actively pursuing the destruction of public education.

And to throw up our hands and say, "well they're not going anywhere" or "we have no choice, they're too powerful" is ridiculous.  If I see a massive injustice occurring before my eyes, am I to just shake my head and say, "well they're so powerful...guess I'll just play along."  Did Ghandi shake his head and cooperate with the British Empire?  Did Martin Luther King Jr just accept that African Americans would always be treated like second class citizens?

This is not a mere difference in perspectives.  Not even in ideologies.  This is not the old "whole language" versus "phonics" reading debate or even the history curriculum battles of past education wars. This is a fundamental fight between those who would sell our education system to the highest bidder while actively ignoring the poverty and inequalities that infest our nations's schools and those who stand for a quality equitable public education for all.  And it will take a fight, as all social change requires, to actually change the discourse.

Teach for America is a program that damages children, and its damage is being compounded by its influence, money, and power.  Those of us who understand the actual impact of the program NEED to speak out against it.  It is our moral obligation.  For me, I know I can no longer sit back and let schools fill special education positions with these untrained novices without even a word in protest.  So I write my Congressmen to oppose alternative certification programs which do not prepare teachers in advance.  I am vocal on the comments sections in articles, blogs and on twitter.  I WILL fight for the right for EVERY CHILD TO HAVE A FULLY-PREPARED TEACHER for every single day of their school career.

Please, do NOT remain silent and let groups like TFA just take the spotlight.  They don't get it without a fight.  And for God's sake, don't ever, no not ever, partner with them.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Indoctrinating the Students?

Part of my job working as a teacher on an inpatient psychiatric unit for children and adolescents in a psychiatric hospital in Chicago, is that I have to go through my students’ work and pull out any staples from their folders.  (Staples are one of the many contraband items at my work.  For safety reasons, patients may not have paper clips, pencils, belts, sweatpants with a draw string, or any other object that could theoretically be used for self-harm or harm of others.)  The other day, I was going through a new patient’s school folder and I happened across a disturbing assignment.  

This student attends one of Chicago’s many charter schools.  Apparently, this girl’s teacher had been teaching the movie “Waiting for Superman” in class.  The student had a copy of the first chapters of the accompanying book.  I had never read the book before so I skimmed some of the first pages.  The book itself was pretty much the way I’d expect it to be, but what really shocked me was the notes written by my new student in the margins.  She had written things like "The main idea is that the public school system is bad but people like Guggenheim don't stop trying to make things better."

I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was absolutely sickened by how this school was trying to indoctrinate its students.  I guess I’d always understood the charter propaganda directed at corporate donors, politicians, and the parents sold on the idea of “choice”, but I had given little thought to the idea of indoctrinating the kids themselves.

This incident seemed even more striking considering that just last weekend, I had spoken to a teacher who had been chastised for teaching her pre-schoolers the book Click Clack Moo, Cows That Type.   It is a story about a group of barnyard cows who organize and go on strike in order to get Farmer Brown to give them electric blankets. According to Fox News, this teacher and the “thousands” of teachers like her are indoctrinating children with “their own liberal, political agenda”:   And see here for more on that one teacher from Chicago:

As many in the blogosphere correctly noted, it’s interesting that it’s only considered “indoctrination” when the teachers are liberal.  I doubt the indoctrination I saw happening in the charter schools would’ve made it to Fox and Friends. 

Still, I can’t help but notice how the charter school’s version of indoctrination causes students to act and think in a way that disempowers their communities and own voice in the education process, whereas the pre-school teacher’s instruction around the words “negotiation” and “collect bargaining” GIVES voice to the disempowered and disenfranchised.   A charter school parent must pray that their child gets picked in some lottery, that the charter operator actually knows what they are doing, that their child’s teacher has ever taught in a school or has even been adequately prepared to teach, that if their child needs special education services that the school will provide it, and that their child is being treated like a human being rather than a prisoner in a “zero tolerance” setting.  Praying is all that parent can do, because they have no say in the actual happenings of the school.  If they are unhappy for any reason, their only “voice” is the “choice” to take their child out of the school.   

Thankfully, not all of my students are ignorant about the scam that charter schools have become.  Many of my students, especially those with a history of behavior problems, know first-hand how charters will kick them to the curb at the first sign of trouble.  I have met students from across the city of Chicago who have been kicked out of the “miraculous” charter schools Arne Duncan, Mayor Emanuel, and even President Obama so love to toot. 

Just  recently, I spoke with a young man from a very famous, often cited by corporate reformers charter school who reported “They kick kids out for behavior problems ALL THE TIME, and I am next.”  I have met countless students (although I intend to start recording their stories to share with all of you) who have been told to leave their “brand new” turnaround school.  So even after all the extra money that gets dumped into the new school, they still don’t bother to educate the harder to educate kids?  Meanwhile, the local neighborhood school has even less money than before (see,0,1218801.story) with a greater concentration of kids with disabilities, English-Language Learners, and students with behavior problems.  Talk about setting a school up to fail.

No more I say.  We need to find a way to speak the truth over the roar of the charter school/turnaround school lies.  And we need to start with the kids themselves.  Give students a chance to question the practices around them, and the kids will see through the BS.  My students certainly do, and they do it all on their own.  I do not even need to try to “indoctrinate” because these kids ‘experiences speak for themselves.  Now the only question is how do we get them onto the TVs and into the newspapers to be finally be heard…

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Response to Jay Mathew's Post "U.S. school excuses challenged"

I taught in a Japanese high school for many years and am very concerned when I hear people compare US education to the Japanese system, because frankly, people are reporting on it incompletely and incorrectly. 

First of all, in terms of spending and class size, yes it is true that Japanese classes, especially in high school, are significantly higher than the AVERAGE US classroom (Although many poor urban US schools have equivalent or higher numbers).  The average class size at the school where I worked was around 40 or 41 students.   That is far from the whole story, however.  The reason class sizes could be so large is partially due to tracking students into more elite college-prep “academic high schools” or into the non-college bound vocational tracks in “commercial, agricultural, or technical” high schools.  Students are separated by academic ability level and therefore teachers do very little differentiation in lessons. 

In addition, and this is a fact no one ever mentions, there are NO SPECIAL EDUCATION teachers in high schools.  All students with significant disabilities are put into separate Special Education schools and then any students with minor disabilities are not helped in Japanese schools.   (They usually end up in the vocational tracks.)

Between class size and no special education services, there is a lot of money to be saved.  I suspect that other Asian countries share similar stories.  As a special education teacher here in the US, I applaud the US for deciding to give equal educational opportunity to ALL students regardless of ability through IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.)  But that choice is certainly more expensive.

Also, in Japan, many students literally sleep through their (large) high school classes because they know they will learn the material in their exceptionally SMALL classes at a private cram school that night.  So while the government doesn’t pay for small class sizes, all families who are able skimp and save in order to afford these cram schools.  Luckily, Japan has very low income inequality compared to the US and most families can afford these expensive educational experiences.

Lastly, the Japanese system focuses on lecture-style classrooms with little room for debate or discussion.  For decades, Japan has looked to the US for ideas on how to increase creativity and critical thinking in their schools over the traditional rote memorization.  Ironic that the US is now heading down the Asian path of test-prep and thoughtless memorization which Asia has been trying to end.

Some other points brought up in this post that bothered me.
1)  No one is arguing that “suburban kids do fine”, they are arguing that children from economically advantaged backgrounds do fine.  Today, suburbs are incredibility diverse places.  Here in Chicago, the North Shore is a very different story compared to say Cicero or other southern or western suburbs.  To lump all “suburbs” together seems exceptionally misleading.  When income alone is considered, the kids from low poverty schools DO do better in international comparisons.

2)  When are we going to stop comparing ourselves to Chinese CITIES?  Notice how the international tests always look at individual cities and never China as a whole.  I have been to Shanghai.  It is a mecca for the wealthy and elite in China.  What would the scores say if we included the vast peasantry throughout the Chinese countryside?  Perhaps many 15-years-olds would not even take the PISA as they would have already dropped out to work in a factory manufacturing the products we use here in America. I don't know, no one ever talks about those kids. 

3)  I don’t see how the PISA index about “resilient” students answers the question of “If top-performing countries had to educate as many disadvantaged students as we do, they would not perform as well”.  This measure seems to point to the gross inequalities in the US system which cripple low income schools which receive criminally fewer resources.  Within that unequal system, of course the US is below the PISA average.  Isn’t that the point of that index?  To show inequalities?  Students who start with less and then are given less naturally end up with less. 

I do agree, however, that our money should be spent on different priorities including teacher compensation.  I also think we need far fewer consultants, test prep curricula, administrators, and other central office people.

Monday, December 5, 2011

What exactly IS a "high quality" teacher?

I wrote this as a comment to The Shanker Blog:

I am skeptical of defining a "high quality" teaching workforce as those who graduated from elite universities and had high test scores on standardized tests such as SATs/ACTs.  There seems to be a hidden classism and racism in this definition as Ivy League schools continue to accept far too few minority students from low-income backgrounds. Also, aren't test scores highly correlated with family background?  Are these "bottom-third" teachers actually the first person to go to college in their families?  Are they the students who excelled in high school, but were in a struggling school where success in terms of raw score is lower? Did their scores suffer because they did not take the expensive Kaplan courses?  Could they not afford the elite universities?

It seems to me that education "reformer's" complaint about teacher quality is a way of putting more economically and socially advantaged young people, the Teach-for-America types, into classrooms.  Frankly, given the choice, I'd rather have a teacher from the school's neighborhood or at least city, someone who understands the daily lives of their students in a profound way, in that position than some young "top-of-their-class" elite white teacher. The Grow Your Own teacher program comes to mind: .

Also, the current wave of teacher quality reforms has affected a disproportionate number of minority teachers.  What does that tell us?    

I'm not sure that Finland, with its more homogeneous society, greater equal access to top-notch educational opportunities, and lower poverty rates is what we should be comparing ourselves to in terms of teacher quality.

I appreciate that this post challenges the "top-third" argument in terms of the numbers.  I'd like us to go further and redefine the actual definition of what a great teacher is.  Perhaps a "top-notch" teacher in the US looks a whole lot different than the "top-third" of the class type.

Oh, and I scored in the 90% percentiles in both the ACTs and SATs and graduated college and graduate school with honors.  But then again, I am from the affluent North Shore of Chicago, so maybe that's not saying much...

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.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Firing to Finland Farce

As has been said before, I’m sorry, but “you can’t fire your way to Finland.”

I taught for many years in a Japanese high school, one of those “high-performing” countries everyone is so concerned about. What I saw in classrooms was boring lecturing, little discussion, and overall teacher-centered techniques that left students disengaged and often asleep (Japanese teachers rarely woke these students.) The children were so tired because they spent HOURS every night at cram schools with 1:1 tutoring. They could sleep through class because they knew they’d learn it that night. The Japanese don’t succeed because of superman teachers.

In fact, the best teaching I’ve ever seen was from the time when I taught in a “failing” 99% low-income, 100% black elementary school on the south side of Chicago. What I saw in literally EVERY classroom was creative, thoughtful, hard-working teachers trying every possible trick in the book to reach their students. But it was never enough. Behavior problems plagued the school and children had difficulty focusing on learning with all the outside problems that they brought. The poverty that surrounded them created an obstacle that even fantastic teachers could not always overcome (although, there were some exceptions with some students. There are bound to be outliers.)

How do you decide who to fire when everyone is working so hard? Do you fire the fifth grade teacher who took on the inclusion classroom with 10 children with learning or behavior problems? Do you fire the kindergarten teacher whose students had never been to school before? Do you fire the 3rd grade teacher whose students had had a string of subs the entire year before and were completely out of control? Do you fire the special ed teacher whose students do not make progress as quickly as their peers? And what do you do with the 1st year teacher who is still learning her trade, is she to be fired because she hasn’t had time to improve? What about the art teacher? How do you judge her work?

And let’s not forget favoritism. The principal was close friends with one 5th grade teacher. Lo and behold, her classroom had none of the children known to have behavior problems. She had one special education student with a mild disability while the other 5th grade teacher had 10 children with significant disabilities. Classrooms are NOT randomly assigned in schools.

The issue of teacher quality is such a complex and subjective topic. Despite what Bill Gates would have us believe, you cannot easily quantify what “good teaching” is, and people’s definitions vary depending on what you value.

Not only would firing 5-10% of teachers not work, it would damage morale and ultimately the teaching profession. When you have half of all new teachers quit before they have been in the classrooms five years, I think the real question we should be asking is “How do we get teachers to STAY in the classroom long enough to become great?”

Saturday, October 8, 2011

When Are We Going to Talk about MY Kids?

For too long, the conversation about education reform including topics like charter schools, funding, standardized testing, and teacher evaluation has skirted around what to me, is the central issue.  What do we do with the disruptive, most-difficult to educate children?  Any teacher will tell you the adverse effects on the learning environment of having even one highly disruptive child in the classroom.  In many schools, especially--but not limited to-- in the crumbling, violence-filled neighborhoods of the inner-city, schools are often overwhelmed with children exhibiting extreme behaviors.

Let me paint a picture of what types of behaviors I am talking about for all the non-educators out there.  As a teacher on an inpatient psychiatry hospital unit, some typical behaviors I see are children who quickly become aggressive or violent with peers or staff, threats of harm towards self and others, extreme opposition to authority, acute hyperactivity and impulsivity (VERY disruptive in a traditional classroom), and even inappropriate sexually-acting-out behaviors in the classroom.

In the highly restrictive environment of a psychiatric hospital, we have the staff and the training to deal with these intense behaviors.  But here’s the thing, after the kids “stabilize” (translation: when they are not actively trying to hurt themselves or others), we discharge them STRAIGHT BACK INTO THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS.  As funding for mental health facilities dries up around the country, kids more and more often get sent directly back to school.  And due to mental health privacy laws, many many times the teacher has NO IDEA that the child was recently hospitalized for problems like homicidal ideation or other threats of violence.   

So my question is, what do we do with THESE kids?  Are we as a society committed to educating these children despite their outward distain for learning?  And the answer I keep hearing is “no”.

I hear story after story from my students who were asked to leave their charter schools.   It’s not that charter schools do not educate any child with a disability, but that they ask the disruptive ones to leave.  And frankly, my kids DO disrupt the learning environment.  It’s true.   But does that mean they aren’t entitled to an education?  The charters have chosen to throw the burden and the cost of educating these kids back onto the neighborhood schools.  Then, as a slap in the face to public education, they boast about their higher test scores and lower costs.

Now, I’m not saying that given the chance, neighborhood schools wouldn’t get rid of these kids too.  They can be really really hard to work with.   But there are these darn LAWS that say you have to provide “a free and appropriate” education to any child that walks through your door.  The neighborhood schools cannot easily remove the children from the learning environment. 

Let’s talk about the funding of schools.  For the moment, let’s even disregard the ridiculous inequality in our system.  I heard just this morning on CNN (, Christine Romans complain that the U.S. spends more per pupil than nearly any other nation.  Diane Ravitch appropriately replied that a vast majority of the increase in spending over the past 40 years is for special education, and not going into supporting the general education classroom. 

Back in 1975, our country made the decision to educate ALL children regardless of disability by enacting the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  To me, this is a beautiful and powerful idea.  But it also is an expensive one. 

I taught for many years in Japanese public schools.  The Japanese education system is often praised, and for some good reason, but here’s the unspoken dirty little secret:  the Japanese separate their children with severe disability into special schools.  Then, the remaining kids with lesser disabilities are not given support in the classroom.  There was NO SUCH THING as a special education teacher in any of the schools I worked in.  Instead, kids that struggled academically are weeded out after the high school entrance exam.  It is a “merit” system where kids that test well are funneled into the “academic schools” for college prep while everyone else is thrown away in “technical, commercial, and agricultural” vocational schools where few will go on the college.  I taught in both an academic and technical high school.  The technical school kids were being prepared for factory work and most would not dream of college.  Looking back, after now being trained as a special education teacher, I can identify many kids who probably had learning disabilities.   But they were not helped in Japan.

Now I come to standardized tests and teacher evaluations.  If a teacher’s job depends on how students perform on a test, there is now a perverse incentive to get classes with the easier-to-teach students.  This means both individual teachers and whole schools will be incentivized to remove the disruptive kids from the learning environment.  With all the emphasis on test scores, I have felt the push to go back into general education since special education students show progress at a much slower rate.  Instead, I was lucky enough to find a position OUTSIDE the accountability-obsessed public school system.  In my classroom, I have the freedom, the autonomy, and the support of staff in my classroom to actually reach these difficult to teach kids.  My students, despite being in the middle of a crisis in their lives, actually look forward to school.  They ask thoughtful questions, interact with complex ideas and concepts, and are not berated or written-off due to their behavior problems.  Rather, we focus on teaching them better coping skills for anger than acting out violently.  And in that controlled environment, they generally respond positively.

My students with significant behavior problems are just as intelligent, thoughtful, creative, and loving as any other child.  They just have difficulty expressing it.  They have experienced trauma, abuse, bullying, school failure, learning problems, and other experiences which hinder academic ability.   Today’s reforms are purposefully EXCLUDING these children while they simultaneously talk about education as the “civil rights issue of our time”.  The reformers would box in the definition of what “achievement” looks like to reading and math skills.  My kids may often struggle with reading or math, by my god they are amazing actors, singers, rappers, comedians, and leaders!  And they are so very discouraged by their experiences in the schools.  “My charter school kicked me out.  I’m no good.”  “School is so boring.”  “The kids bully me for being different.”  “My school said I should drop out.” 

There is a conversation we need to have as a country.  Are we going to look at the whole child?  Are we willing to look past the negative behaviors to see the essence of these exceptional children?  What happened to progressive ideas of education where we focus on creating learning environments that work for ALL kids instead of boring test-prep factories that actually create and foster negative acting-out behaviors?  Or, will we continue to push these kids out, to make them believe they are worthless, to practically guarantee their entrance into the criminal justice system?  I want to think that we as Americans believe in the dignity of every human being.  But my experience tells me we do not.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Let's make this WORK!

OK, here are my ideas to take all the negative “reforms” happening in education and using those structures for good!

1)  Teach for America:  Instead of throwing these young, talented, driven people off the deep end into their own classrooms immediately, change the program into an internship program.   TFA teachers would be assistants in a certified, veteran teacher's classroom.  Think of the immediate positive impact they could make!   Think of the time and energy they could bring!  Think of how it will help both children and teachers!

2)  Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:  Instead of dictating how teachers should teach or how they should be evaluated, why don’t you focus your significant funds into wraparound services like health clinics, mental health services, pre-natal care, funds for full Pre-K programs, or food and housing programs?  Help combat the poverty which holds too many of our kids back so that teachers can better do what they do best:  teach!!

3) Charter schools:  Stop pushing out children who are difficult to educate and instead focus your time and energy SPECIFICALLY on those kids.  Use the innovation and lack of red tape to be a haven for these kids.  Do not market based on the test scores, but rather the innovative programs that help kids experiencing school failure, behavior problems, or learning difficulties.    How about a charter designed for a full hands-on experience to cater to kids with significant attention problems (Maybe TWO periods of gym a day)?  How about a school dedicated to getting kids out of gangs?  How about special multi-language schools where non-native English speakers are highly valued!?!

I will keep adding to this as I think of ideas….

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

You Can’t Mass Market Passion

After engaging in some light debate on a HuffPo piece by Whitney Tilson (, I came to a new understanding of what exactly bothers me so much about KIPP and TFA type “reforms”. 

For some reason, my thoughts kept coming back to the image of the veteran teacher who inspired Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin to start KIPP.   (Was that on Waiting for Superman?) I’ve heard them interviewed about going to this woman during their time in TFA and learning effective techniques to inspire kids.  They said they were so impressed they decided to start a school based on her style of teaching.

Basically, they took a good teacher’s good idea and mass marketed it.

My understanding is that KIPP teachers are expected to adhere to very strict guidelines including longer hours, being available by phone, and are taught specific teaching techniques to use and phrases to say.  (Kinda reminded me also of that silly binder TFA corp members are given.)   Now the thing that goads me is that many teachers do many of these practices already.  I know many public school teachers who give out their cell numbers and always take a call from a student or a parent.  Most teachers arrive early and stay late anyway.  And nearly all teachers are looking to improve their teaching techniques and may use many of the same ideas.
The problem is that the KIPP model tries to make their schools “teacher proof”.   Perhaps this is why teachers turn over so quickly there, they are expendable.  It doesn’t really matter if they work them too hard, as long as they follow the given rules, teachers are interchangeable. 

I could go on about respect and dignity in the workplace, but I believe there is a more fundamental problem with this type of model.  Great teachers may use many of the techniques that KIPP does, but they may also throw all those ideas out the window IF THEY DON’T WORK.  That’s the thing about teaching unpredictable, creative, impulsive, individual children, there’s no telling what they will do!  Listen to a teacher’s stories someday about the crazy unexpected things that happen on any given day in their classrooms.  It’s all part of the magic.

However, teachers who were never properly trained, who are relying on scripted curriculum and pre-packaged phrases are not ready to capture many of those teachable moments.  Part of being a professional is always adding to your practice.  And a seasoned teacher has a bag of tricks ready for nearly any situation.  

KIPP and TFA negate the autonomy, the creativity, and the passion that real powerful teaching requires.   It cheapens it into something that can be copied quickly.  “Do a chant in class and the kids will learn!”  Fine, that probably does work for some kids.   In fact, I love that idea.  I’ve used that idea.  But depending on the kids in front of me, sometimes that’s not the way to go so I try something different.  No wonder many kids leave charters, the young untrained teaching force is not prepared for their unique learning styles.  And then they blame the child.  I believe it’s called “no excuses”.

A school’s mission should be to give teachers the best possible learning environment and then let them do what they do best.  Figure out the puzzle that is each individual child. We have it backwards in America, we underfund, overcrowd, and stack the deck against even a good teacher, then we tell them what to do and tell them they’d better step in line or risk being held “accountable”.
Did the founders of KIPP forget that veteran teacher who taught them so much?  Do they really not recognize that great teachers like that are great not because of the “right words” or “right strategies” but because of the passion and creativity they bring?  The power to inspire a child cannot be cultivated without serious effort and time as well as encouragement and support.  And they sure can’t be picked up a “Teacher R’Us” and then replaced as needed. 

Let me pull from my bag of teacher tricks now…what is needed for teachers is more encouragement, support, and maybe a gold star wouldn’t hurt.  

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Class Warfare Within the Family

Over the past few months, I have begun to feel some tension within my family.  Just a little background, I grew up in an upper middle class home on the North Shore of Chicago.  My high school is notorious for its upper class snobbery and as a teenager, I spent much of my time at my friends’, well for no better word, mansions.  It was NOT your typical upbringing.

Recently, while spending time with my family I have begun to feel a greater and greater disconnect between myself and them.  I find myself uncomfortable at their fancy galas, awkwardly sharing drinks with my sister’s friends who are doctors, lawyers, and rich business people, and being dragged to various upscale restaurants and bars which I simply cannot afford.

I began to realize that my choice to become a teacher means I have moved to a different social class than my family of doctors and business people.  And the class gap is widening.

Now, I’m not saying I am completely upset by this change.  I find myself proudly joining ranks with union brothers and sisters.  I am impassioned to work side by side with the less fortunate.  I am glad that I am not so far removed from the suffering of people directly impacted by bad economic and educational policies.
But I find I have less and less to say to my family.  In many ways, they just don’t get me and they never will.  My sister works hard as a doctor, and I respect her dedication and drive.  But she is invariably surrounded by people who are of a similar social background, only coming into contact with lower classes through her patients, never as friends.  Her doctor friends complain of those “lazy nurses at Cook County Hospital” who are too protected by their union.  I always challenge them to question, “What bad practices caused the union to fight for those protections to start with?”  But the doctors do not care.  In their mind, the nurses are just plain “bad”.
Time and time again, I have been forced to sit through dinners and nights out with my sister’s friends who literally brag about the new diamond earrings they bought, rave about the condos they have invested in for the bargain price of 500 grand, and show off the latest designer bags or clothes they have purchased.  They complain that after student loans, they will only be making a measly 100 grand in their new job.  Sometimes I want to scream out “Do you realize that I will NEVER have that kind of cash thanks to my career choice?” Making a six figure salary is not in my future.  Nor is owning a home, a car, heck, I’d be hard pressed to keep a dog.   

But I love what I do.  I think I make an important contribution, in my small way, by working with the children and adolescents who have been left behind.  I love advocating for those kids, protesting for their rights, pushing back on systems that only benefit the diamond earring owners and six figure salary types.

Still, I do have regrets.  I find myself really really angry that people who are doing jobs like business or public relations are making so much more than I am.  I feel like what I do is ultimately the more important job.  And there is some jealousy there.  Jealousy, resentment, and the feeling that a deep injustice is occurring. 

I suppose I will need to just get over whatever it is that I am feeling.  I am just scared that if the people who I love and know to be thoughtful, kind, intelligent folks don’t care enough or know enough to be outraged by the growing economic inequality in our nation, what hope is there that change will ever happen?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

What about the Kids? The Useless Battles of Mayor Emanuel, CPS CEO Brizard against the CTU

Currently in Chicago, there is a debate raging about Mayor Emanuel’s plan to lengthen the school day by 90 minutes.  I have watched some nasty comments be slung over the airways and in print for some weeks now.  The Mayor and CPS CEO, Jean Claude Brizard, have framed the debate to say that “courageous teachers” will vote to lengthen the day, regardless of compensation, because “it’s the right thing to do” while the Chicago Teacher’s Union is portrayed as a bunch whining obstructionists.

So I decided to take the debate to a group this new plan would affect directly:  the students.  I teach in a psychiatric hospital on a child and adolescent inpatient unit.  My job allows me the unique ability to interact with kids from all over the city and surrounding suburbs.  When I asked a group of about 15 students ages 13-17, about the plan, I got some very interesting responses.  Here is a sample (I have not changed any of the student’s spelling or grammar mistakes): 

“I do not think the Chicago Public Schools should lengthen the school day…because the school principle laded off alot of teachers because they couldnt afford to pay them but 1 hr and 30 minutes more how are they going to do it?”  --8th grade CPS female student

“No the plan of extend the school is a bad Idea because no child wants to stay more longer and even thought Just to keep teenage/childrens safe to 4:00pm  Still when they get out from school they still get killed. “  --7th grade CPS female student

“I don’t go to school so it doesn’t matter to me” --17 year old male former CPS student (He was held back TWICE, once in the 3rd and then again in the 4th grade.  He thought he was “too dumb” for school, had joined a gang, now was hospitalized for aggressive behavior at home.   Yet another kid pushed out of a system which discriminates against the low achievers.)

“No, I do not think the plan to extend the school day is a good idea because…at 2:45 students are ready to go home and are just thinking about plans for after school.  An extra 90 minutes students won’t have their full attention on school work anymore.”  --8th grade female suburban student

Only one student was in favor of the change, and his response is interesting because he drew from his experience in a charter school:   “Most charter schools such as Noble charter go from 8:00 – 3:55 which a extra hour these stundts often excel in both reading and math and they usually go to a great college” –17 year old male CPS student

Interestingly enough, since this student specifically cited charter schools as an example of how the longer days helps academic achievement, I asked him if he currently went to a charter school.  His response was “I did in 9th grade, but I was told to leave because of my emotional problems.”   Wow.  Yet another example of kids being “pushed out” of charters.  Seriously, this refrain is so common among the kids I work with, it’s really starting to upset me.

The kids got into a lively debate about this issue as I pushed them by saying “but don’t Chicago students need to do better in school?”  Their response was 1) that until teachers had better control of the classes, more time doesn’t matter (quality over quantity!)  2) School is too boring already and they are sick of the “multiple choice” work (a.k.a. test prep) and 3) a very big worry among my students was the possible later release time and the threat of violence.  They were very concerned about having to walk by certain corners or parks after dark.

They also agreed that they needed to “work harder” in school, but most of the kids already hated school so much, the extra time “makes me want to give up.” 

I really believe we have to look at what the actual experience of school is like for kids.  Running little militaristic schools which focus on compliance, obedience, and getting the right answer turn kids off to learning.  One boy described school as a “Chinese finger trap” saying "the harder the adults push us, they more we resist".  
The mayor and Brizard are not listening to the people whom these changes will affect the most.  We need to have a serious discussion about the real impact of this debate.   That doesn’t mean there isn’t some merit to having more time in the classroom, but the teachers’ and students’ concerns are important.  We need a voice in the conversation too.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What the H*LL are We Doing?

I just recently returned from a vacation overseas.  I had a lovely time exploring the Pyramids and lolling down the Nile in Egypt and then drinking beer and hiking in the Bavarian Alps (not necessarily in that order.)

But besides some amazing photos and a significantly depleted bank account, I was left with something else much more profound:  The reminder that America is completely insane.

At one point in my journey, I got into a heated debate with a well-informed Canadian about American policies and lifestyle.  I was fuming by the end of it, not because that Canadian was wrong, but because he was 100% correct in everything that is amuck in America.

As I like to focus on education topics in this blog, I will rein myself in to cover that issue alone here although I could write pages and pages about all the other crazy, unnecessary problems this country faces.

As I told my neighbor to north about the huge student debt I incurred while pursuing my Master’s in Education and then the awful working conditions, the laughably small paycheck I receive, the unending attacks on my newly-chosen profession, the hero-status afforded to 22-years-olds who did not take the time or money to prepare as I did for my calling, and the second and third job I had to take on just to cover my bills and have a little left over for my travel passion, I watched his face twist into pity. 

And all I could think was “Why DO I do this?”  Yes, I love working with children, especially the children most marginalized by our society.  But as I spoke with people from around the globe, I came to the realization…maybe it is not worth it. 

Guys, I’m tired, too tired to fight anymore.  I don’t want to spend my precious time battling media giants and hedge-fund managers for control of the discourse.  I don’t want to have another person call me a “lazy and selfish” teacher when my actual experience of teaching is working harder than I ever have in my life.  I’m tired of the union being labeled as the problem, when they were the only ones who tried to protect me when I stood up for my students.  I’m sick of ridiculous policies by people who have no expertise in the profession being thrust upon us (See Rahm’s current push for longer school days in Chicago and check out my comments,0,3820561.column.)

I’m done.  I’m going to look into teaching overseas, where I will get respect and a workable lifestyle.  I don’t want to live in a country that treats me so badly anymore.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Why I am Marching in the Save Our Schools March in DC on July 30

I have a pretty unique job.  I am a teacher on an inpatient psychiatry unit for children and adolescents in Chicago.  My students come from all over the Chicagoland area, with a majority of them from various inner-city neighborhoods around the city.  I work with kids from neighborhood schools, magnet schools, charter schools, private schools, suburban schools, alternative schools, and some have dropped out and have no school at all.  Every day I have new students in my class.  Most have some sort of significant behavioral or emotional disorder which contributed to their hospitalization.  Basically, you name it, I’ve seen it.

Today, I had an interesting conversation with one of my high school girls. This girl told me she went to a new “turnaround” high school.  Here in Chicago, thanks to Arne Duncan and NCLB’s legacy, many low-performing schools have been closed and then “re-opened” as a brand new school.  Usually this involves firing the entire staff and hiring mostly new teachers and administrators.  As we talked, the girl admitted that the school was much better the year after the turnaround. This comment stopped me in my tracks.  Was I wrong to be against turnarounds? So I asked what the difference was.  “The kids,” she replied.  “They don’t go there no more.”

She went on to explain that any kids that “fight too much” are told to leave.   “Where do they go?” I asked.   She shrugged and said, “Some other school, alternative school, maybe no school.”

Ah.  When they say “turnaround” they don’t just mean the staff.  They “turnaround” the underperforming students too.

I am marching on July 30 because I want to stand up for those kids getting pushed out.  I am standing up for the countless children who are counseled to leave their charter school or their turnaround school, but often have nowhere to go.

I am marching against the incentives that the testing obsession gives schools to throw these kids out.

I am marching to say turnarounds, charters, and other such “miracles” are not real.  Just teaching the kids who are easy to teach is NOT miraculous.

I am marching because my kids have no voice.  I have asked my students to share their stories with me, and so they write essays, draw pictures, brainstorm ideas on what would actually improve their schools.   They have something to say.

I am marching because my students need consistent, caring, experienced teachers and staff to be their role-models and mentors.  Two-year “education tourists” are not enough.

I am marching for my colleagues in the public schools, who work so hard, sacrifice so much, and still get no respect for the amazing and impossibly challenging work they do.

I am marching because I had to LEAVE the school system in order to find the freedom and flexibility to teach in a way that met my students' needs.  Teachers everywhere should have that autonomy.

I am marching because it’s not fair that my students from the suburbs talk about their art, music, sports, and after-school activities, do homework from their brand-new textbooks, and have computers at home to do their assignments, while my inner-city school kids talk about their crumbling buildings and lack basic textbooks or even moderately interesting curriculum.  And it’s not OK that I sometimes can’t tell if the kids are describing a school or a jail.

I am marching because I believe in educating ALL children, even my behaviorally-challenged young people.

Lastly, I am marching because I believe in the goodness of humanity and of us as Americans.  I want desperately to believe that if average people just understood what is actually happening in schools, they would no longer support the ridiculous education “reformers” and their laughable policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

I am marching to finally be heard.  Will America listen?