Sunday, January 22, 2012

What are charter school teachers thinking??

After a discussion with a charter school teacher, I was surprised at her reaction to the anger us public school teachers feel over the education deform movement that would destroy public education. She seemed genuinely shocked and hurt to hear people thought so negatively about charter schools. She even chided me on my tone. But she also seemed to have no knowledge of the moneyed and powerful political forces at work behind charter schools and organizations like Teach for America. Instead she defensively talked about the great work she felt she and her colleagues were doing at her school. I don't deny that. But I can't help but wonder how so many people, charter school teachers, TFA teachers, and even many teachers in neighborhood school choose to remain ignorant. It's like they purposefully screen out all the terrible things happening around them to only see their individual classrooms and students. Is this a coping mechanism? Is it fear? Is it just an environment saturated with the corporate deform propaganda? How can people anywhere ignore the growing evidence about the only partially-hidden motives of corporate reformers like Rahm Emanuel, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and Wendy Kopp? Do they not see how these policies hurt children? And how does anyone ignore the poverty and lack of economic opportunity that holds our students and their families back? People still honestly believe that it is bad teaching causing our students to fail despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Here are some of the questions I posed to her. I did appreciate that she took the time to at least debate these issues, but I'm not really closer to an understanding on how people justify ignoring the destructive education political environment at play in our schools today. Here is her blog where I originally posted this:

Many thoughts have been stewing in my head today. I find I have many questions for charter school teachers like you. I'm realizing that maybe you were so surprised by the anger and vitriol expressed by public school teachers because you are simply not aware of the reality of the political landscape.

Do teachers in the charter schools see the problems we are talking about here? Do they acknowledge that the choice movement (as a whole, not individuals) has too often become more about profit, union-busting, and taking down public education than about children? What do you think about all the school closures and turnarounds happening in Chicago and elsewhere? Have there been students with disruptive behaviors expelled from your school? What types of disabilities do your students with IEPs have and how many are there in the school? What is the average age of teachers at your school? What are the racial and socioeconmic backgrounds of the teachers? How many teachers there came through alternative teaching certification programs? Have many teachers been fired at your school and if so, what were the reasons? What is the turnover rate like in your teaching force? Does your school receive supplemental funds from outside sources? What experts, publications, media, and research do you turn to for information about the education debate? Are charter school teachers talking about education reform in the teacher lounges and after-school? If so, what are they saying?

I mentioned I had a lot of questions, right?

You spoke a lot about your classroom and individuals in the charters. I won't argue with you about personal motivations. I am more curious how much you are aware of in terms of the big picture. Are you aware of how charters and TFA are being used to push neoliberal education policy at the Chicago Board of Ed, in the Illinois statehouse, and in Washington DC?

I honestly have no idea where you are coming from and what exactly you already know. Like I said before, I never had a problem with charters, or even TFA for that matter, until I did my research and learned the sad truth about these organizations. The media masks the truth. And at one point, before I worked in the schools, I believed the lies. In fact, I thought charters and TFA both sounded FANTASTIC! Like I was then, most non-educators certainly don't know what is actually happening in our schools, especially those labeled as "failing". They probably saw the movie "Waiting for Superman" and unquestioningly bought that poisonous narrative that "bad teachers" and their unions are the problem. Do charter school teachers also think this way?

I just cannot reconcile someone talking about working together, acting shocked by the strong response, and invoking "Kingian" language unless they simply do not understand or want to understand the scope of the problem. Dr. King believed in non-violent protest certainly, but he also believed in speaking out when he saw injustice occurring. And when I see the Board of Ed purposefully starving schools, crying "failure", and then using that failure as an excuse to close and privatize, I need to speak out. When I see them target low-income neighborhoods of color, I need to speak out. When I see children with special needs getting tossed around schools, I need to speak out. When I see our mayor hand out multi-million dollar contracts to his buddy Juan Rangel for his UNO charters and to his appointed President of the Board of Ed David Vitale's organization AUSL for turnarounds, I need to speak out. And when I see the ridiculous, gross under-funding of low-income schools, I want to scream.

Dr. King also believed in labor and the dignity of work. He died fighting for workers' rights. Why are almost all charter school proponents also anti-labor? It all comes back to the poisonous narrative. Did you know the NAACP has come out AGAINST charter schools? There's a reason for that pushback. Do you understand why?

Do you see the protests and sit-ins put on by neighborhood organizations and parents against charter schools and turnarounds? Do you ever question why so many community members, teachers, parents, and students out there are so very angry?

Charter schools allow society to ignore poverty, violence, and the growing income gap in this country by presenting an easy-to-do, cheap solution. No one has to change unequal school funding policies, 'cause charters are the answers! That's the line that is being sold out there. And as a result, charters have weakened education and made it worse, not better. As you hear stories of how other children are suffering because of schools like yours, even if you personally are helping the kids in front of you, is it worth it? Is it good enough to help some kids at the expense of others?

I just don't know if you all have even considered these many many questions...

And here are her thoughtful and thorough answers:

I’m not surprised by the anger of teachers. I know the media and politics are slanting information toward charters and TFA, and against unions. I think I’m starting to speak up because I know that’s not helpful. At the same time, going 180 degrees the opposite doesn’t get anyone closer to a solution. I think if progress is to be made, we need to be a bit more positive and see commonalities than just focus on what is wrong about everything.

I read Geoffry Canada’s Whatever It Takes and loved how he created supports for parents early on and hated that he replaced the staff of a school based on one year’s test scores. I personally have never seen Waiting for Superman because I don’t need to drink that Kool-Aid. I repeat, I don’t think charters and TFA are the answers nor are they better than many of their counterparts, but I do believe they can be part of a solution.

My first two years of teaching I was at a neighborhood school on the south side. It did not feel like a school. We don’t need another “ohmygod the school is awful” diatribe so I won’t go into too much detail.There are some amazing adults there that truly care about the children. There are also disenfranchised, unhappy and unhelpful adults. If I had stayed there my position would have been cut. Some teachers actually left that school and began their own charter school, across the street. They, like I, believed these students could be successful if the structure of the school was improved, and that’s how they choose to help that community.

What do you think about all the school closures and turnarounds happening in Chicago and elsewhere?
Fenger, Marshall and Collins are are high schools I’ve followed their turnarounds closely. I worry about the message it sends to a community to just quit a school and replace the teachers. I believe positive relationships are the foundation to a safe, meaningful school. It’s also disheartening to see the money come to a desperate school after it has been closed/turnaround. Finally, I don’t believe you can call a school successful if they expel the trouble makers. All that being said, when I think to my first two years on the south side, I’m amazed that school is not closed.

Have there been students with disruptive behaviors expelled from your school?
Few students (none that I know of, really) have been expelled. Most transfer out. The reason students transfer are 1) they/their parents cannot afford/students don’t have the time to make up all their failing credits 2) they/their parents do not appreciate our structure 3) they/their parents want them to go to school closer to where they live. As a staff we spend a considerable amount of time trying to keep students from failing. We are told by our President and Principals that if a kid’s name is on our list the first day of freshmen year, we want them to walk across our stage in 4 years. They are “our babies”.

What types of disabilities do your students with IEPs have and how many are there in the school?
I don’t know how many IEP students we have at our school, but as a teacher who sees 80% of the sophomore class I have about 15 kids. They range from learning disabled/beginning readers to Emotionaly disturbed to ADHD. We offer support groups for students with anger issues and a separate one for students who have experienced severe trauma. I really love working with our special education teachers, but we don’t have enough personnel for all the work that needs to be done.

What is the average age of teachers at your school?
If I had to guess the average age would be mid to late 30s. We hire very few first year teachers, and most of the first year teachers did their student teaching with us. We still have founding members, teachers who have been there for 12 years. Maybe ⅓ of the staff has been there since I have been there, 4 years or more. (We’ve also grown, doubling in size.) Most of the staff have experience teaching prior to coming here, many in the Chicago Public School system. Out of 70 staff members, I think maybe a little over half of them have children. As someone who struggles with finding balance between my personal/professional lives, I worry about this issue.

What are the racial and socioeconomic backgrounds of the teachers/administrators?
I am told there used to be more black males but we lost them to Urban Prep. We have a math teacher and a principal who were raised in the community. Some of the heritage of our staff includes Korean, Indian, Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Judaism. I don’t want to be incorrect in my guestamation, but about half of the staff is white middle class.

How many teachers there came through alternative teaching certification programs?
We currently have 1 TFA on staff, and I only know of one other alternatively certified teacher beside myself. There may be more but because we hire experienced teachers I don’t know.

Have many teachers been fired at your school and if so, what were the reasons? What is the turnover rate like in your teaching force?
Not many teachers have been fired. However, of those who leave, I believe pay is the biggest issue. When you come here, generally, you are matched at the salary you would expect from the district you come from, but after that it’s an across the board increase. Last year I was paid between 15-20% below what I’d be making in CPS. This issue will deserve it’s own post one day. We loose probably 4 or 5 teachers a year.

Does your school receive supplemental funds from outside sources?
We do fundraising for our summer program where we send our students on internships, college programs for highschoolers, and outward bound type programs. We pay for the students travel and lodging so that’s a big part of spring fundraising. The development office also has a campaign “bridge the gap” between the funding we get from the state vs. regular schools, which is about $1,500 less per student.

What experts, publications, media, and research do you turn to for information about the education debate?
I’ve been reading Diane Ravitch, Gary Rubenstein, The Frustrated Teacher, and many others, including your blog, for about two years. I think Linda Lutton on NPR does an amazing job of education reporting for Chicago. I also follow a ton of teacher blogs about resources and technology integration.

Are charter school teachers talking about education reform in the teacher lounges and after-school? If so, what are they saying?
There are a few staff members who are amazing community organizers I go to for robust conversation. One in particular helped create the Little Village High School center. Another one spoke up when they were fired without due process in CPS. Yes. Many charter school teachers acknowledge the issues. It’s hard for us sometimes not to feel taken advantage of, and exploited. I sometimes wonder if I’m perpetuating a system I know needs improvement, but at the same time I recognize that quitting my job won’t solve anything. However, we have a strong sense of family. I’ve yet to meet a colleague who has experience in CPS not appreciate the vibe of hard work, camaraderie, and support we as a staff offer one another. My charter school is not a major chain, we are a school with a mission tied to the community we serve.

What’s starting to form in my head are 3 major issues regarding education
all schools should be funded equitably. Clearly that is not the case, and we are in survival mode so we don’t have the energy to look at the bigger picture.
schools should have more autonomy. This was a big draw for me moving into a charter setting.
standardized testing is not an accurate way to measure a school’s success.

However, from my experience, while schools are important, it’s the communities that have been ignored and are decimated. An amazing school in a impoverished community alone is not the answer. I, too, get frustrated when a someone (especially middle/upper class) invokes the “well they have the opportunity they choose not to take it” mentality. We need to do a better job of exposing people to the complexities of the issues without being too antagonistic and push them away.

I think I get it. I want to work with you, but I feel like I’m being pitted against you.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Hey Charters and TFA, You Want Me to Join With You? Then Change.

Some argue that we should work together with charter schools and organizations like Teach for America. Recently, a little twitter debate emerged with one charter school teacher arguing (From Ms. Katie Bordner’s blog ):

Positivity = Productivity

On the suggestion of @urbanteachersed , I’ll share something I’ve been thinking about for awhile regarding the national conversation about education reform.

TFA and charters are not the enemy. In my experience, the people who work in these organizations are incredibly motivated, hard working people with huge hearts who want to improve the lives of students.

I say they are not the enemy because I am them. I was a Chicago Teaching Fellow, which is the Chicago-based alternative certification program. I taught two years at a neighborhood school on the south side, and I’m currently teaching my 4th year in a charter school on the West Side.
Everybody wants to see themselves as part of the solution, and when you pick fights against us instead of work with us, it creates a polarized, fragmented mess. It’s really easy to point out the flaws of TFA, charters, standardized testing, unions, and everything else. There are many. I propose, however, we focus on what we can agree on and start there.

I just finished reading How to Win Friends and Influence People, and a few things relate to this ongoing debate. The more antagonistic and bitter you are the harder it will be for people to want to side with you. I struggle with this as well, because when you’re passionate about something it’s really easy to loose sight of common ground.

I’m not saying TFA or charters are the answer. I’m saying they’re just trying to do what they think is best, like everyone else, and we should really be more positive.

I appreciate the desire for dialogue. But I feel this call to “dialogue” often asks the people who strongly believe that charters and TFA are doing real damage to children to simply put those feelings to the side while the charter and TFA-proponents need not veer at all in their trajectory. This is why I won’t do that:

Hey charter schools, you want me to work with you? Stop selling out kids to the gods of profit and power! Tell your CEOs to stop stealing 400 plus grand of public money per year. Stop worshipping tests scores and going to any lengths necessary to raise those scores, like pushing out students with special needs. Stop abusing non-unionized teachers by purposefully overworking them and guaranteeing that teaching will only be a short-term career stop for young people without families. Stop trying to save a buck on your labor force by actually hoping that your teachers burn out thus saving on those pesky pensions or other rightful worker rights. Teaching is already stressful enough: longer hours, less pay, and no job protections make it nearly impossible to do long-term. There are reasons why unions past fought for these rights.

And speaking of testing worship, stop relying on scripted curricula or data walls as if they were somehow innovative. Start using the lack of red-tape to try REAL innovation. Figure out new ways to help the hardest to educate students like you were originally intended to. And no, this is not a call to “zero tolerance” or “no excuses” discipline policies. Those policies push kids (purposefully) out of your schools. Start teaching those kids instead of kicking them out! You are NOT magnet schools! You are NOT selective enrollment schools! You are supposed to teach any child who walks through your doors. Make learning more fun, more relevant to those at-risk students who are struggling. Experiment with class size, learning environments, technology, hands-on learning, staffing ratios, mentoring, etc. Figure out something different that all schools can try.

And to h*ll with the test scores! If a strategy helps a child stay in the school instead of leaving it, then it is a success. Measure your success by qualitative stories of hope and excitement around learning rather than some silly bubbles on a page.

And for god’s sake, STOP this silly competition myth! You were supposed to work WITH neighborhood schools, to supplement and support. So why do you advertise “choice” saying you are better than other schools when all you do is teach (sometimes poorly) easier-to-educate black and brown children? Cut it out.

Charter schools, you have forgotten the very point of your existence and instead have reinforced the status quo of racially and SES segregated schools, skimmed money away from neighborhood schools which desperately need it, and cooked the numbers to “sell” a product rather than serve children and communities.

And you teachers in the charter schools, I understand you needed a job. I myself even interviewed and was offered a position at a charter high school here in Chicago when I was looking for work. But stop putting your heads in the sand and buying the line that charters are somehow better. I just don’t see enough of you out on the streets advocating for your students or their communities. You seem to hide behind the moneyed, politically-influential Michelle Rhee types. While maybe deep down you acknowledge the need for more equitable funding systems, the need for extra support for struggling schools instead of closure, the importance of veteran teachers in a school community, and the true detrimental effects of poverty on students' lives, I just have not met you out there on the front lines. If you are there, please start speaking up! Make your voices heard. I get that you do not have a union to protect you (kinda the point of the charters) but that is no excuse to not fight for what is right. If you are living in fear, if you are too overwhelmed with the workload, that is no excuse, that is the REASON to fight back.

And now to TFA, want me to work with you? Well start by actually training your recruits. Add at least a year or two on to the commitment and have these kids spend the first year as an intern working as an assistant in a veteran teacher’s classroom. Or if TWO is the magic number, as Wendy Kopp always stresses, then why put these poor young things in front of their own class? Why not let them be tutors, helpers, supporters of the hard work that is involved for professional teachers? You have a lot of money. Use it to supplement the corp members salaries as ASSISTANT TEACHERS, not full-time untrained lead teachers. Get rid of that silly Institute where you indoctrinate the young people, and have locally-based night and evening workshops and trainings. You talk all the time about the inequalities in our schools. So stop contributing to those inequalities by placing untrained teachers in high-needs classrooms!

Stop spreading the lie that your recruits are “better” than the veteran teachers they replace. (And yes, as education budgets shrink, these first and second year novices are taking jobs away from more experienced, better-trained career teachers. That is NOT ok.) Your recruits are not better, and you know it. Instead of admitting that truth, you manipulate data and misquote research to make it sound like they are in fact more effective. Stop it. Do not continue to give poor kids untrained young people on emergency certificates when you would not STAND to have those unprepared 20-somethings teach your own children.

And how dare you, how DARE you place many of your novices in special education positions! This is so wrong, I can barely type these words I am so livid. The children MOST in need of expert, highly-trained, specialized, professional teachers instead get some 22-yr old who doesn’t even know what IEP stands for. No. No…

Stop drinking your own Kool-aid. TFA’s ego has grown out of proportion. You do a disservice to children and their communities. So stop acting so smug. TFA serves itself and its members, NOT children. And just for the record, I personally don’t want some soon-to-be lawyer or politician teaching kids. A lot of you “go-getters” would make pretty lousy teachers, in my humble opinion. Start actually listening to the teachers and administrators who are pushing back on the organization. Teachers are generally pretty steady individuals, so if they are riled up about your org, pay attention!

All you current corp members and alums, you also need to pull your heads out of the sand. Look around and see the impact TFA has on the political landscape in education. See how a noble mission statement and idealistic young people are being used to bust unions, weaken tenure rights, deprofessionalize teaching, and save a buck on education budgets to the detriment of children. Acknowledge that you are not (yet) the great teachers TFA is selling. Be humble enough to recognize that the churn from frequent teacher-turnover your organization not only condones, but encourages, is bad for kids. Watch how districts and administrators abuse the enthusiasm of TFA recruits to displace older teachers. Read between the lines to see how people in power would prefer a compliant, short-term, cheap workforce, which TFA provides, while they can simultaneously pretend it's "all about the children". You don't have to look hard to see the truth.

But for both you charter school and Teach for America people out there, as long as your organizations do practices which I believe actively damage children, like deny education to fragile kids with special needs or give them a woefully underprepared novice in lieu of a professional educator, then I will never be on your side. Ever. As far as I am concerned, you are part of something immoral.

Regardless of the personal intentions of the people in the charters and TFA, the organizations you work for are being used as weapons against the public institution of education. They are being used to viciously close neighborhood schools and to break unions, in order to open the flood gates for privatization and profit off the "untapped marketplace" of education. No one should be getting rich off of kids. Education is a right for all. A pillar of democracy. And the manufactured education crisis is being used to tear down public education. And you wonder why teachers are upset? Why isn't EVERYONE upset?

So, hey you (young) charter school and/or TFA teachers, start speaking up. Do it even if it means getting kicked out of the organizations you are in. There are other options. As you begin to advocate for your students, maybe you will realize why union protections matter. You all need to join with veteran, union-teachers, community members, and parents in the fight for equitable funding, the ending of starving and closing schools for profit, and the ridiculous favoritism and cronyism happening among the elites in education politics.

So charter schools and TFA, no, I will not join with you on your misguided and harmful education paths. Why don’t YOU join with US in saving our nation’s schools?

(Part of the crowd protesting the plan to do a so-called "turnaround" at Herzl Elementary School on January 16, 2012. Substance photo by Jean Schwab.)