Sunday, February 26, 2012

My Two-minutes from the CPS Board of Ed Meeting 2-22-12

Here's my speech from the Board of Ed meeting in Chicago on 2-22-12. I ad-libbed a bit during the actual meeting, but you get the idea:

Hello, my name is Katie Osgood. I have a pretty unique job. I work as a teacher on a child/adolescent inpatient unit at a psychiatric hospital here in Chicago and I am here today to speak on behalf of my students with mental health issues.

My students come from all over Chicagoland and are of all ages. In my classroom, I’ve had students from neighborhood schools, charter schools, turnaround schools, private school, selective enrollment schools, suburban schools, alternative schools and sometimes no schools at all. My job allows me a unique birds-eye view of what is happening in our schools.

And I do not like what I see.

Many of my students have pretty significant behavioral and mental health problems. Many also have a history of acting out in class and of academic failure.

And when I hear that CPS is investing in charter schools and turnaround schools as some sort of “solution”, I cringe!

I have heard too many stories from my students on how they “used to” go to charter school. How they “used to” go to a turnaround. I hear their personal stories and it is heart-breaking. They tell me they can’t go to those schools anymore because of behavior issues. These schools are NOT serving our neediest students.

When a charter school or a turnaround school sees my students, they see liabilities. They see lower test scores, they see behavior problems, they see expenses. To them, these kids damage the “brand”.

But when I see my students, I see intelligent, kind, funny, talented, creative, artistic, passionate young people. Yes, they talk back sometimes. Yes, they get in trouble and make bad decisions. But where I work we don’t charge them $5, we don’t kick them out of the program saying “you don’t fit in”. We help them.

In my hospital setting, with intensive interventions like small classes, numerous social workers, nurses, doctors, and a well-trained EXPERIENCED staff, these kids can thrive
But in order to succeed, my kids need the most resources, and instead CPS gives them the least.

CPS invests in charters and turnarounds which push my students out and then grossly underfunds the schools that do take them. My students repeatedly tell me stories of having no books, no libraries, huge classes of 40+ kids, and little art or music in their neighborhood schools. What kind of “choice” is that?

Fully resource every school and you will never have to close a school again.

February 22, 2012 CPS Board Meeting Part 3 from Chicago Public Schools on Vimeo.

(My speech starts around 15:30)

Who is Accountable for Teaching Contexts?

For the past few years, teacher accountability has been all the rage in education reform circles. This past week, New York State introduced a teacher evaluation system which relies heavily on student test scores and has sparked controversy nationwide. Grading teacher effectiveness is the name of the game.

With all this focus on individual teacher performance, I feel like we have missed the major factor in great education, the teaching environment, or context. While complex algorithms supposedly account for differences in student demographics for VAM scores, I am not convinced that these made-up numbers account for the context teachers are placed in and often have very little control over.

For example, there are many urban schools that are so ridiculously under resourced, that there are few books, no curriculum, and few support services. The school I taught in got rid of all but one special education aide, and she was most likely to be found in the school office doing paperwork and making copies for our principal rather that supporting our students with special needs. But no one was held accountable for that injustice. And the students suffered.

Who is held accountable for the context teachers are placed in? In Chicago, the school Board recently voted to close or turnaround 17 more schools next year due to “academic failure”. But teachers from the affected schools reported contexts like “57 kindergartners in one class” and teachers having to buy all their own copy paper.

The people supporting school closures and turnarounds act as if all teachers were being given the same level playing field to work from, and were simply not good enough thus justifying mass firings. We all know this is simply not the case.

Some principals are supportive and helpful, while others are vindictive and cruel. Who is accountable for this? Some schools put special education as a priority while others warehouse students with special needs in the “resource rooms”. Who is accountable? Some schools are given funding for arts, music, and gym class every day, while others can only afford one part-time position music OR art. Who is accountable? Some schools invest in small class sizes while others have huge split classes squeezing 40+ students into one room. Who is accountable? Some schools have a full-time social worker and nurse, while many only have a social worker and nurse one day a week at best. Who is accountable? Some schools rely on far too many untrained and uncertified teachers meaning a cohort of children will not be prepared well. Who is accountable? Many schools have excessive teacher turnover. Who is held accountable for the terrible teaching conditions which drive teachers away?

I believe that a teacher is only as successful as the context they are given to teach in. Someone may be a “great” teacher in one context, but an “ineffective” teacher in another. So who grades the environments? In fact, school environments and resources as well as individual school per-pupil spending would be easier to quantify into comparable numbers than a teacher’s subjective effectiveness. So let’s start measuring!

If we truly started grading school environments, the conversation would necessarily have to shift to school funding issues and resource distribution. These inequalities are much more important to focus on than individual teacher effectiveness or union protections like tenure. All the data points to income inequality and subsequent school funding inequality being the main driver behind struggling schools. NOT bad teachers.

So let’s hold the people who distribute the resources accountable! Let’s grade our politicians and chief financial officers! “Ineffective” does not even begin to describe the rating they should get....

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Epiphanies and Elites: Solidarity with the People

This past week I found myself waking at 3am in order to attend the monthly Chicago Board of Education Meeting where the board voted to close/turnaround/phaseout 17 more schools in Chicago. While waiting in line, I had a bit of an epiphany.

Behind me in line were a group of people I remember thinking looked exceptionally out of place. While most people in line were dressed in casual clothing and union red, this group of about 4-5 people had on suits, and the women wore heavy make-up and heels. I think some of them may have been lawyers and business people. I overheard them mention words like KIPP and Teach for America (yes, I eavesdropped, I admit it.) Even their talk seemed different somehow. It was that 20-something, upper-middle class Lincoln Park sound (I know, right?). I tweeted, rather blurry-eyed in that early morning, “Standing in line for #CPS BOE meeting, people behind me from #TFA& #KIPP. They look like money-starkly diff from other teachers/parents...”

I ended up talking to a few of them, and they spouted the usual talking points. (Someone actually said to me “I don’t believe poverty is destiny” and “I think all children can learn”.) And some of them did go up and speak at the board meeting and unsurprisingly were all for school closings and turnarounds.

These types, these upper-middle class--and I will give them the benefit of the doubt—most likely well-meaning people were unequivocally on the side of the 1%. Their views, their dress, their worldview all aligned perfectly with the mayoral-appointed school board of millionaires and business elites. They were the voices of the moneyed powers that be.

In contrast, while I felt anger and disgust at the people behind me, I remember standing there with my buttons calling for the ending of school closures and support of neighborhood schools and feeling a powerful connection with the vast majority of people in line. The supporters of public education were every race, every background. They were people from every community around the city. And the issue of school closures and privatization had brought us all together.

In truth, I come from the hotseat of the powerful elite. I grew up on the North Shore of Chicago and graduated from one of the most affluent public schools in Illinois: New Trier High School. (Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader recently wrote about New Trier's connections to the elite in Chicago and CPS. He mentions New Trier grad Todd Connor. Todd and I graduated the same year. I remember sitting in French class with him. He's a nice guy.) Still, based on how our highly-segregated society works, I probably should not be where I am today, fighting with union guys and community organizers.

But here is my epiphany. It was my choice of professions, becoming a teacher, which allowed me access into this world. When I chose teaching, many people gave me the tired old speech “But you’re too smart to be a teacher.” Others encouraged me to go into those alternative certification programs like Teach for America with an implied, "at least you’ll be able to do something 'real' after you get this teaching thing out of your system."

Maybe it was because I had already taught for years in Japan, a country which holds teachers in high-esteem, but I refused those alternative options. I believed and still believe today that every child deserves a fully-prepared teacher and thanks to the experience I’d already had in the classroom, I knew I needed to expand my practice before taking a class of my own. And when I made the switch to Special Education, I was sure that preparation was absolutely vital in reaching these fragile children.

But back to that day in line, I cannot tell you the sense of pride and solidarity I felt standing alongside my brothers and sisters fighting against something Rev Jesse Jackson appropriately called “educational apartheid.”

It bothers me that many of my peers from high school have done TFA or support the program so strongly. It bothers me that they believe charter schools with non-unionized young teachers and turnarounds with few tenured teachers are the answer. It bothers me that they see no problem disrupting communities or show little care at the impact on children having to cross gang lines and the violence that ensues thanks to school closings. I don't like how they so easily dismiss the disgusting funding inequalities which are truly to blame for struggling schools, but callously place the blame on teachers and parents. More than anything, it bothers me that all of these "reforms" are things that they would NEVER let happen at New Trier. To them, uncertified teachers in underfunded schools with "zero tolerance" discipline programs are just fine for the poor--for other people's children--but never for the wealthy. It is their worldview, their idea that they need to "save" the poor, that their unproven business-model reforms are somehow what's needed, and that they can swoop in, remain completed isolated from the communities they are "helping", and then go back to their elite world which irks me the most. I certainly have been guilty of some of these assumptions and thoughts in the past. But I am starting to get educated.

Recently, on an internet debate on Gary Rubinstein’s popular post, a Teach for America supporter wrote:
TFA is the corporate sponsor of education. It brings people to the field who could’ve been something else that people are generally impressed by- a doctor, a lawyer, what have you, and in doing that invests people who make it their business to command respect and be successful if only in the most corporate, numbers-based sense of the word. One can debate whether that makes an effective teacher. I tend to believe that being that committed and analytical can’t hurt. But to me it’s doubtless that TFA brings people to the field that get results and, if nothing else, demand the attention and respect that is needed to make education in general and teaching in particular respected enough to command the salaries and esteem that will bring forth real educational reform.

And here is part of my response I wrote citing an event I attended the week before the Board Meeting:

I am always so upset when I hear the argument that TFA recruits are somehow a better kind of person. So let me tell you a story.

This past week, I attended a rally which called for the ending of school closures and turnarounds in Chicago. The rally was held in a Baptist church on the south side near one of the targeted schools in one of Chicago’s many highly segregated African American communities. One by one many of the affected schools’ teachers came to the podium to tell their story. Almost every teacher that spoke had tears in her eyes as she talked about the years and years she had spent helping, supporting, and most importantly educating her “babies”. And every single teacher was African-American. Many of these women had grown up somewhere relatively close to where they now taught and knew the culture of their kids intimately.

I felt such a rush of pride knowing that I got to stand in solidarity with people from all walks of life and every neighborhood thanks to my choice of profession. Unlike my sister who is a doctor–one of those professions which “commands respect”–my profession puts me on equal footing with colleagues that our intensely unequal society says I shouldn’t even know. And I love it. Teaching spans class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in a way few other professions do.

Make no mistake, teaching to this day does not “command respect” because it is a traditionally female dominated profession and employs people of all races and classes. The lack of respect for teaching speaks to a deeply classist, racist, and sexist worldview that still cripples our nation. Which is why the types of qualities which make a great teacher: compassion, empathy, creativity, caring, humility are not valued.

I value those things. Those brilliant, talented, compassionate African-American women who have taught and inspired children for years are the ones being targeted for removal in my city. And districts today use TFA and other alternative certs, as a large pool of cheap, complaint labor. They are staffing the turnarounds and charters that go in the place of these closures.

Recently, Sabrina Stevens Shupe wrote an excellent piece entitled “'Bad' Women, Teachers, and Politics” which expands upon the idea that teaching is being demonized because it is a majority female profession

I would add that teaching is also a profession which allows people from a working-class background to move into the middle class. From the elite’s perspective, these women and minority supposedly "lower-class" people are considered “inferior”. When Teach for America or our politicians talk about bringing “better” people into the profession, I believe these assumptions are what they are (subconsciously or not) referring to. “Better” does not mean what’s best for the children they serve, but speaks to the perceived class and status of the profession. See more on the racist (and age-ist) termination policies being championed by corporate education reformers in this Huffington Post piece by Kenzo Shibata where he writes:
New staff at schools where drastic reform took place tends to be younger, more white, and less experienced. Teachers are also more likely to have provisional certifications... The percentage of African-American teachers at many schools dropped drastically, though the reforms took place in mostly black neighborhoods. The shakeups meant a 30, 40 even 60 percent reduction in African-American teachers at individual schools.

These numbers make me think that "reform" may be coded language for something pretty appalling.
Pretty appalling indeed. In fact, I would argue that too many of the “better” candidates being brought in through TFA and also being asked to staff charters and sometimes turnaround schools, are actually a terrible choice for the children they serve. Some of the best urban teachers I’ve ever seen, the ones who got those children to light up in the act of learning, who inspired kids to behave appropriately, who met the children where they were at, are the same ones being targeted for termination and being replaced by 20-something white women (or at least culturally upper-class, regardless of skin color) who know very little about the communities they are entering.

I truly believe I am on the right side of this debate. I believe it because I know the other side inside and out. I understand how the elite upper-class think in our country because I used to be one. Those TFA and charter proponents at that board meeting must have felt unwelcomed, uncomfortable, and outnumbered...and rightly so! Their elitist views are not what the people want. The people want reform that addresses the inequalities in school funding, housing, policing, and health care. They want reforms that acknowledge the institutional racism and classism holding children back. They want reform that supports the teaching profession as it is one of the few avenues left to the middle class for many families. Ultimately, they want fully-funded schools staffed with experienced professional teachers and all the resources the kids at New Trier get automatically. They want, once and for all, equality in education.

I love teaching. And I also love being a part of this vast people’s movement. I love that I can stand behind giants in civil rights like Jitu Brown of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), Rev Jesse Jackson, and Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union. I would not have it any other way.
(Substance photo by Sharon Schmidt.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Noble Street Charters Not Acting Noble At All

Recently, a new controversy about charter schools has erupted here in Chicago. Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, parent and community advocacy groups uncovered that Noble Street Charter Schools, often hailed as the highest performing charters in the city and a favorite of Mayor Emanuel, have charged nearly $400,000 in students fines over a two-year period. A majority of these fines were for minor infractions like having a shoelace untied or “not looking a teacher in the eye”. And-if you were wondering-we are talking about teenagers here, not kindergartners.

Now, as a teacher, I understand the need to have a controlled and safe teaching environment. Heck, I work as a teacher at a local psychiatric hospital. I appreciate good rules, clear expectations, and structure. Consequences can be effective tools for teaching students appropriate behavior.

But teaching kids better behavior is not what is happening at Noble. These fines are penalties, penalties directed at the students families. Many are families that simply cannot afford too many of these fines. This type of punishment is not going to change behavior and I don't think they ever intended it to. The real consequence of this policy is that students who “misbehave” too often, instead of being taught more appropriate behaviors, are forced to leave the school. This system ensures only the very best-behaved children will remain in the school. And this exclusion is on purpose. The school does not deny it, but rather prides itself on its tough discipline policy.

So whose responsibility is it to help kids who are struggling behaviorally? It seems easy to place the blame for bad behavior on the students or their parents. It’s also in vogue to point the finger at teachers themselves. Unfortunately, behavior is wildly more complicated.

As someone who works in a mental health facility, I see daily the many varied reasons which lead to negative behaviors, including learning disabilities, poor home environments,frequent disruption from multiple foster placements, anxiety, trauma, chemical dependency, food insecurity, homelessness, attachment issues, depression, ADHD, low self-esteem, gang influence, and even conduct disorders. These kids have often not been taught appropriate responses to anger, fear, or sadness. And nowadays many kids are suffering from extreme boredom due to ridiculously uninteresting test-prep curricula aimed solely at pushing up test scores. I'm not saying the kids are completely off the hook in terms of responsibility, but that behavior is a really complicated and environmental-dependent phenomenon. Punishing kids through fines does nothing to address the root causes of the negative behaviors. (I wrote about what my students need to succeed in this edweek post.)

The problem for me, is that charter schools are not magnet schools, they are not selective enrollment schools, and since they receive public funds, they are certainly not private schools. These are public schools with no entry requirement. What’s more, the very idea of charter schools, originally the brain child of former AFT Union president Albert Shanker, and first pinoneered in Minnesota, were supposed to be bastions of innovation designed to help the most at-risk, hardest-to-educate children--The exact kids Noble unapologetically punishes and then pushes out. Charters get to operate outside much of the red tape of traditional schools. They were to use the added flexibility to figure out creative ways to reach these tough kids which could then be replicated in all schools.

Charters are not doing that. Instead, they are competing for the strongest students of color in Chicago. I saw this first-hand when I attended the media bonanza called the CPS New Schools Expo in January. I left with all kinds of glossy brochures, free pens, bags and lots of smiles and assurances that everything was "great" at the schools. (Funny that charters complain of getting less funding, but have money for crazy amounts of marketing. I've certainly never seen an ad for the local neighborhood school. Why is that?) Regardless, this competition to get "better students" leaves those who can't "cut it--as Noble St schools like to say--to be thrown back into the local neighborhood schools. Oh, and let's not forget that the neighborhood schools are getting less and less funding as the money is skimmed away. (Nevermind that the charter school many times gets to keep the money from the kids who get sent back, often conveniently BEFORE the high-staking testing which will decide the school's fate.) And of course, those predictable poor test scores of the neighborhood schools are now a great reason to close the school. In it's place goes yet another charter school. And so the "bad" kids are pushed around yet again. It's a vicious cycle and it's not working.

So is this what choice really is then? The system has only so many selective enrollment seats, so are charters where the next tier of kids go? The "good" "well-behaved" kids from intact, involved families but who can't quite get the scores for Lane Tech or Whitney Young? If that's what they are, then THAT's what they should advertise. Charters should quit claiming that they have overcome the achievement gap. That all it took was a few overworked teachers and a longer day. My experience with charter schools is that they are not doing anything terribly special, they are simply less overwhelmed with major problems and thus their very average teaching and interventions work a little better. (And this only even applies to franchises like Noble which do get better results. A lot of the charters don't even do better, in terms of test scores at least.)

And then I start to think about the class and racial implications of these types of discipline policies. I imagine what ritzy North Shore parents from my alma mater, New Trier, might say about these fines. I think they'd be in an uproar, even when they have plenty of money to pay and even if their kid had in fact acted terribly. I can just see them rallying around "No one treats my child like an inmate in a prison!" Well, chances are, Trevian mother, your child will never have to find out what a prison is like. Wish that were true for all groups of people in this country. Why does urban education insist of treating children of color like criminals?

In all seriousness, what do we, as a society, propose to do with all these young people with behavior problems? So far, the only thing we've thought to do is lock more of them up for longer. A society where schools are starved but prisons thrive is not the kind of place I want America to be. Why does no one ever question WHY these kids are acting this way and address that?

Lastly, I know these kids who are getting pushed out personally. I have met too many of them from charter schools all around the city. These kids honestly believe they are, in fact, "bad kids". And they are not. I have loved every child under my care, and while I dislike some of their behaviors, I see great potential for change. I will not give up hope that these kids can still learn, if only we adults can figure out better, creative ways to make them engaged again and then back our ideas with actual resources. I think we'd better start by first correctly identifying the barriers to learning, and I'll tell you right now, they have little to do with bad teachers or teacher unions.

I haven't given up on these troubled kids. Too bad Noble Street has.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Hey teachers, it's ok, you're not that stupid....

This was a letter on edweek giving advice about changing careers for educators. I thought it was going to be some practical advice about what other fields might be open for teachers who were sick of the ridiculous education policies being inflicted on us. Instead, it was a pep talk to assure teachers that we're not THAT dumb and that with a little confidence we can probably do "real" work. Geez...

Education Majors: Changing Careers
By AAEE on February 8, 2012 1:14 PM | No comments

Before changing careers it is important that you have done the requisite self-analysis and concluded that a career change is the proper course of action. The next logical question is how can you possibly use your education degree in any other career? At this point you are probably poised for a litany of specific job and career options to be listed. I hate to disappoint you but I need for you to start this process with the simple premise that you can do whatever it is you want to do with your education degree!! Yes, it is imperative that you have the self-confidence necessary to pursue any professional area that you deem desirable. Too often those of us in education tend to feel as though everyone in the "real world" is smarter, more driven and more business savvy. If you don't truly believe that you can compete in the non-education world, you will have a very difficult time successfully doing so.

If confidence is the key to success, how do you acquire/improve it? Awareness is the answer to that question and it comes in three steps: awareness of your direction, awareness of your options within your chosen direction and awareness of your transferable skills. Determining your direction is essential and typically requires a very thorough analysis of your interests, personality traits and work values. Any good career decision-making book on the market such as, What Color is Your Parachute?, will have exercises to help you organize your thoughts in this step. It is very important here to dream big and ask how you might be able to accomplish your goals, rather than play the "yes, but" game. We all live with realities in life but we are also all quite capable of stretching our pre-conceived realities!!

After determining a tentative direction, further exploration is required to create your awareness of options available to pursue your next career or job. In some areas these options can be as simple as reading about the field or a particular company, networking with folks in that area and possibly even volunteering in order to get some first-hand experience. With other careers/jobs, the exploration reveals specific credentials that are required to enter the profession. Do not be discouraged from tackling those credentials. You have done it once with your teaching certification and you can do it again, if that is where your heart lies. Remember the points made in the previous two paragraphs about confidence and pre-conceived realities!!

Finally, as you venture forth on a new career/job path you must know that you have gained a tremendous amount of experience and honed some very transferable skills in your years as a teacher. These are experiences and skills that employers will relish, if you only take the time to assess what those might be and highlight them in your job search process. I don't have the space here to adequately elaborate on those transferables, but any good career counselor will gladly help you to determine yours. Also, the book, 101 Career Alternatives for Teachers by Margaret Gisler, spends some time on this topic and has some valuable self-discovery exercises.

In this career/job change process it is always valuable to put yourself in the shoes of a person who might consider hiring you. Do you think that any rational employer wants to take a chance on someone who has no direction, has not made an effort to research the field/credentials/company and worst of all, has no clue how their presence will add value to the organization? It's not good enough to dream about changing careers/jobs, you have to work hard to make your next field a successful fit!!

Curt Schafer
Director of Career Services
Texas State University

Anyway, here was the comment I posted (if they approve it.)
I am in education and I have never thought "everyone in the 'real world' is smarter, more driven and more business savvy". My choice to stay in teaching has nothing to do with confidence. I believe teaching is a far nobler, far more important and meaningful occupation than working in say business or finance. Helping children matters more than helping some shareholder make a profit. However, working as a teacher has become unbearable in past years, but I resist changing fields because I don't want to sell out. This letter offends me.