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...