Thursday, June 14, 2012

Rahm's Longer School Day Tearing an Elementary School Apart

McPherson Elementary school on Chicago's northwest side is in chaos.  Thanks to the unfunded longer school day, massive changes to the school personnel, class schedules, and class sizes are being planned for the next school year.  According to the principal, Carmen Mendoza, at the latest Local School Council meeting, in order to afford the extra supportive staff (4 new classroom aides) needed to monitor the mandated recess 2 teaching positions will be lost.  Due to the reduction in staff, many classrooms will become split classrooms (two grades levels in the same room-much harder to manage and teach effectively).  Also, class sizes will likely be increased.  On top of the lost positions, many teachers are also being displaced as the entire schedule needed to be re-designed.  For example, the 5th grade, which was formerly self-contained (the same teacher teaching all subjects) will now become departmentalized (different teachers teaching math, reading, science, etc.)  These shifts in scheduling require teachers to have certain endorsements, which many do not.  And those teachers are being laid off.

I attended this LSC meeting.  The usually sparsely attended meeting had to be moved into the auditorium due to the outrage of parents when they heard many of their favorite teachers were being lost and lasted nearly five heart-wrenching hours.   Dozens and dozens of parents, many accompanied by their children all dressed in fancy dresses, ribbons, and ties for the graduation ceremonies earlier that day, spoke passionately about how upset they were to lose such beloved teachers.  Many of the teachers being displaced are experienced educators with National Board Certification and 5+ years of teaching at McPherson.  They were some of the founding members of the Friends of McPherson fundraising group and brought in outside after-school clubs and sporting teams.  Parents and teachers alike broke down into tears while they pleaded for a way to keep these teachers in the McPherson community. 

"There just isn't enough money."  This was the resounding refrain from the principal.  Now I don't know how much of this could have been avoided, how much was inter-schools politics or personality issues, but what I do know is that the longer school day mandate caused this insanity.

Losing fantastic dedicated teachers, increasing class sizes, and creating split classrooms...none of these things are good for kids.  Even worse, the morale at the school has plummeted.  Teachers who still have positions are afraid and angry, parents are threatening to remove their children, and the displaced teachers are wondering what the next step in their career will be.  There are heightened tensions around who was displaced and who was kept, regardless of experience or teacher effectiveness.  Everyone is upset.

My take on all of this is that the longer school day is a mess. I have heard that other schools, such as my neighborhood's local high school Amundsen, will also be losing positions as a result of the longer school day mandate. One CPS high school teacher on my facebook page pointed out "CPS wants HS teachers to take on an additional class during the additional time. Rather than teaching 5 classes per day we may be teaching 6 if this goes through. Rather than 150+ students we'll have 180+ students each day. Imagine trying to singlehandedly teach 180 HS students, many of whom don't want to be there, something like the quadratic equation or Shakespeare and make sure that all 180 of them are learning it each step of the way... grading 360 assignments per week. Do the math... if you spend 3 min per paper that's 18 hours per week just in grading... not to mention planning, paperwork, and other obligations. The unfunded longer day is not about improving education." Ultimately, of course, it is Chicago's children who will lose out. Larger classes for longer periods of time in poorer learning conditions is not the answer.  Forcing schools which are already stretched to the breaking point in terms of budgets to play around with the same or less money for more time is a logistical and practical nightmare.

The unfunded longer school day does not work.  Period.  So why are we doing it, Mr. Mayor?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Violence is Fine, But Low Test Scores are Unacceptable?

This morning I read the headlines from the Chicago Suntimes posted on an activist friend's facebook page (the great Matt Farmer--if you haven't watched his recent talk about Penny Pritzker and public schools, watch it here) which read Five dead, 35 wounded — including boy, 16 — in weekend violence.  I think if Matt hadn't posted this piece, I probably would've just skimmed over the headline and moved on.  And I wondered, how is it that I have become so normalized to violence in my city?  How have all of us become so used to the murder and maiming of young people, primarily young men of color, that it doesn't even register as a problem?  

And I think back to my year teaching in a public school on the city's south side.  I remember the two drive-bys that I witnessed during that year, just blocks from Obama's Chicago home, and just outside the affluent Hyde Park neighborhood "bubble".  And it often hits me, while I was there ostensibly to teach my special education students, to get them up to grade-level in reading and math, it was my 9-12 year old students who told me what to do in those crisis situations.  When the toy-like "pop pop" of actual bullet sounds echoed outside my classroom window, it was my little 4th grader who yelled "Ms. O, get down."  He was the one who directed the other students to get away from the window.  Yes, he could barely read, but my god he was prepared for those war-like conditions.

And I have had so many of these experiences where I was simply unequipped for the reality of children's lives.  I remember a time at my current job working as a teacher on an inpatient psychiatric unit.  I was teaching my group of adolescent girls, many of whom had significant emotional/behavior disorders or mental health issues like Bipolar Disorder or Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD is a "disorder" I have some problems with, but that's another story.).  Suddenly, one of my sassier young women looked out the window and yelled, "that man is beating that girl."  Before I knew what was happening, all the girls had rushed to the window and were shouting "we have to do something."  Apparently, my fight or flight response is not nearly as developed, because I stood frozen.  At first I ignored the situation and tried to redirect the girls back to their seats.  I thought about going on with the lesson and pretending that nothing was going on outside.  I even started snapping at the girls, something I never do, because the room was quickly getting out of control.  But finally, after far too long, I realized that I had to act.  I called down to the the nurses' station and told them to call the police to report the brutality.  I ended up apologizing to the girls.  Their instincts were right on.  When a fellow human being was in danger, they knew what to do instantly.

Sometimes things like impulsivity, opposition, and anger are appropriate responses.  But our kids are punished for these behaviors and then punished again for not learning the same way as their peers, especially peers from affluent, low-violence areas.  

The studies have been done about how trauma and a constant heightened state of readiness can be detrimental to learning.  We know that there will be many children who cannot take the anxiety and pain of a never-ending threat, and will end up in psychiatric facilities like mine.  I have met children who have covered their house windows with newspaper because they are terrified of gang retaliation.  I have had to walk students as young as 9 to the bus stop because there were rumors that they were going to "get jumped"  that afternoon.

And this is why I get angry at education reformers who claim that "poverty is not destiny".  Mayor Emanuel, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, Bill Gates...what would you do in a drive-by?  Stop belittling the students, community members, and educators who understand all too well the real obstacles to learning.  How dare you talk about accountability, test scores, teacher evaluation, and merit pay in the face of the warlike conditions poverty and income inequality can create.  And more than anything, how dare you judge the students, their teachers and their schools based on YOUR definition of what is important, by your silly test scores.  My students brought so much to the table besides test scores.  They had a compassion and an ability to act with a clear-head in the most difficult situations.  Where is the test that measures THAT?

As long as reformers ignore reality, nothing will ever change. The status quo of absolutely frightening segregation, income inequality, poverty, and the violence that accompanies those ills will only get worse.  I would like to see people from all neighborhoods rise up to say, "no more".   The fight for schools is the call to end the violence caused by oppression and disenfranchisement.   The fight for schools is the struggle for safe and healthy neighborhoods.  The fight for better schools is the fight for living-wage jobs for all citizens of the globe.

Education reformers, quit whining about America's test scores, and start getting mad about the violence that has taken yet another teenager's life in my city.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

My First Year of Teaching—DATA, DATA EVERYWHERE!

When I think back to my first, and only, year teaching in a public elementary school, one word that comes to mind is “naïve”. Despite having been in classrooms overseas for many years and working with children with disabilities in a hospital setting for quite some time before entering my own classroom, I simply was not ready for what I encountered in my neighborhood Chicago Public Elementary School.

Now, I’m not even talking about what most first year teacher’s experience, which is a decisively difficult year no matter where you are. (I actually think I was fairly well prepared overall, for a beginning teacher.) No, I’m talking about that nagging feeling that something is just…off.

What I saw during that year just never sat right with me. As it all unfolded, I wasn't able to put my finger on what exactly it was, but time and again I kept feeling like something was wrong. It’s funny, because now, after a couple years of getting educated in the corporate education reform agenda, I can discuss in detail every policy decision, the history of reform that led to my experiences, and debate what the flaws and holes of the reforms were with research to back it all up. But at the time, I had no words to put to the feelings I had.

 I thought I’d take a few blog entries to share some of those observations. Some are funny, some are tragic, and some are so personal I haven’t fully decided if I will share them on this blog or not.

Data Lovin’

My inner-city Southside neighborhood school administration must have been one of the first to jump on board the data-worship machine. Nearly every professional development day was devoted to pouring over data sheets and computer screens. I still remember one surreal encounter with my principal where we were to have written out, color-coded, how all of our students did on the Scantron (quarterly computerized benchmark) tests. As a special education teacher, I had personally administered the tests to most of my students. I saw how they did not even bother trying to read the passages and I didn’t force them to. I knew from my own assessments that some of my 3rd-5th grade students were reading below a 1st and some even a Kindergarten level. So when a 5th grade passage popped up on the screen, I was much more concerned with keeping their spirits up than if they correctly answered the silly multiple choice questions correctly.

 As I sat down for my meeting, and my principal asked how my students did, I shared my observations about the tests, and then said jokingly, “I suppose ‘Joe’ guessed a little worse the second time than the first”. I shared how the tests did not provide much meaningful information for me as a special education teacher, but then went on to share some appropriate assessments I’d done in class. I also shared the great breakthroughs I’d had with one student in particular, my little “Joe”. He had been identified very late in having a learning disability and hated reading with a passion. Since he was so embarrassed by his reading ability, I had started to tutor him privately during my prep period and he was starting try! This student was an amazing artist and loved drawing manga-style cartoon characters. So when we worked together 1:1, he and I read quite a few manga together. He was becoming motivated and was asking to take practice words home. His father even commented that he’d never seen “Joe” get so excited about school before.

 But my principal was not satisfied. He asked “but how will you change your teaching practices based on these tests” and repeated the question two, three times. Each time I answered, “well, these particular tests aren’t a valid measurement…” but each time he cut me off and reread his question from his prepared sheet. I finally saw that he needed something to write in the assigned space so I answered “I will work on phonics instruction and vocabulary building” or some other inane blanket statement. He scribbled down the answer and then dismissed me.

It’s funny, because I thought I was there to have a discussion about how my students were actually progressing. I was excited to tell him about my success with “Joe”. But he was there to have a discussion about test scores.

 And those Scantron tests were just the beginning. Our administrators—of course-- also had us put up data walls in the staff rooms. We spent hours and hours writing children’s names and scores on little cards, attaching them to little magnet strips, and creating our data-licious wall of wonder. But it didn't end there.  Each teacher was also forced to put up classroom data walls. The children picked out their own “code name” and then every child’s scores were put up on the walls of the classrooms. I protested this move venomously, but the administration would not budge and up went all the scores on the walls of my students’ inclusion classrooms. As you can imagine, this was quite a shock for my kids. They were already terribly embarrassed about having to go to the “dumb room” (I had actually started to take other non-disabled peers into my room as a reward in order for the students with IEPs to feel it was a privilege going into Ms. Katie’s room. And this was even working for a while.) But nothing could prepare them for seeing their code names grouped down at the bottom of the wall far below all their typically-developing peers.

And my little “Joe” was devastated. He would not pick up a book for weeks. He would not join me during prep time for days. He cried and asked me every single day during this period, “Ms. O, Am I dumb?”

I never quite knew what to tell him.  At the time, I still trusted in my administrators. I believed them when they said it was important to spend hour upon hour looking at data entries. I dismissed my intuition which screamed this was wrong. I tried to convince myself that data-analysis and teaching really were the same thing. I wasn’t trying to be openly insubordinate to my bosses, but was still trying to reframe their pointless questions into conversations that would be useful. I did not yet understand a system which rewards obedience over critical-thinking and compliance over problem-solving.  I actually believed that my questions and suggestions would be perceived as collaborative attempts to create better learning environments.

 I wish I had had all those professional development hours to collaborate and plan with my colleagues instead learning to read endless amounts of data. I wish I could’ve asked for advice on Joe’s troubles and created better inclusive classroom environments for him. I wish my administrators cared more about the flesh-and-blood children in front of us than the endless amounts of paperwork that had to be filled out. I wish my kids were more than data points to be scotched –taped onto some wall somewhere.

My unknowing “insubordination” eventually came back to bite me. But back then, I was still too naïve to know how much that bite would sting.