Monday, October 8, 2012

Letter to Obama

Diane Ravitch is encouraging everyone with an interest in education to write a letter to President Obama and send it to him on October 17th.  Here is my letter:

Dear President Obama,

I am writing to you today as one voice in a chorus of millions of educators, students, parents, and concerned citizens.  I ask that you take a moment to hear our stories.

Mr. President, I worked as a special education teacher at a small elementary school just two blocks from your Chicago home.  Perhaps you and your family have walked by it, Reavis Elementary at 50th and Drexel?  Did you ever wonder what happened inside that small, crumbling, yellow-brick schoolhouse which sits just outside your affluent Hyde Park neighborhood? 

I doubt you let your girls spend much time in the park in front of Reavis, what with the frequent drive-bys and police chases.  But that is where our students played before and after school.  As you may know, our students' families are what's left of the population remaining after the demolition of the Robert Taylor Homes. Nearly all the students come from low-income homes, and every single one was African-American.  Many were homeless, gangs infested the neighborhood, drugs touched far too many lives, and the violence was an ever-present threat.  But everyday, those little babies walked to our school.  And we worked hard for them, spending sixteen hours days and giving up our weekends and money to try and fill the gaps of not having a library, textbooks, support staff, a full-time nurse, supplies or music in our building. We gave our all.

And Mr. Obama, do you remember the friend you wrote about in your book, Dreams From My Father? You called her "Mary".  Did you know that she dedicated more than twenty years of her life to the children of Reavis?  I had the privilege of working with her during my first year of teaching.  She was the most inspirational, kind-hearted, good, hard-working teacher I had ever seen.  She had a way of making the children light up with joy.  She worked endlessly, often losing sleep.  You know her history, you wrote about it, she has not had an easy life.

I'm sorry to report her life has been made worse thanks to you, Mr. President.  The pressure of test after test was all-consuming.  Our administration was cruel, and our principal looked for reasons to belittle us, berate us, and to fire us.  Instead of letting us, as professionals, be free to create relevant, engaging curriculum we were told we must write lessons a certain way, we must configure our board a specific way, we must put up the children's test data on the walls of the classrooms, and above all else, we must obey unquestioningly.  We watched as the principal targeted the older teachers, or anyone who disagreed with him.  No one was safe.  More than one teacher from our small school community ended up at a psychiatric facility.  Marriages failed, tensions were high, and many tears were shed.

I wish I could say that school culture of fear was unique to Reavis.  But it is not.  For too many schools, this is the new normal in education under oppressive top-down mandates.

But "Mary" and I found small pockets of joy with our students.  We secretly planned engaging lessons on all sorts of topics squeezed into the cracks between the mandated tests and while our principal was out of the building.  We co-taught fun lessons that were filled with laughter, creativity, and lively questions.  We had to tell the children not to get too loud in their excitement, in case someone from administration came down the hall and saw that we were not following the boring scripts and mandated paperwork.  I remember one day, in the heart of an active lesson, one of our reluctant readers getting up and reading a whole paragraph which she had written herself in front of the class.  We all danced and hugged and shed tears of joy, all while nervously glancing over our shoulders for fear of being discovered by the bosses.  Mr. President, we shouldn't have to hide those moments.  But you see, that small success won't even matter since that special education student will likely never pass the standardized test.  In the eyes of the Department of Education, she is a "failure".  And thus, so are we, her teachers.

Poor "Mary". She knew as a veteran teacher that no school would ever hire someone her age. So she was stuck in that abusive school.  She reminisced how things had always been hard teaching in an inner-city school, but they had been better years ago.  The past few years had become unbearable, she told me.  The year after I worked there, she was finally forced into early retirement.  She will have to live on a reduced pension for the rest of her life.  According to your administration, her years of dedication, loyalty, and practiced expertise mean nothing.  In fact, I'm sure the Department of Education would be happy to bring in a poorly-trained, inexperienced novice like Teach for America provides.  So Mr. President, your friend "Mary" is now just another selfless soul thrown away in this barrage of teacher-bashing, deprofessionalization, and budget-cutting.

This is the world of Race to the Top.  Of cold competition, deceptive data, test scores, merit pay, unfair teacher evaluations, and a constant fear of school closures or massive layoffs.  I remember trembling as the list of school closures came out, knowing this time it could be our school, our fragile children displaced.  Meanwhile, we would watch as the Chicago Public Schools unfairly gave new money, facilities, marketing, and praise to charter schools and turnarounds, while our neighborhood school was crushed under growing accountability with shrinking resources.

And it's getting worse every year.  This unequal system is why the teachers of Chicago had no choice but to withhold their labor in protest.  They held a strike in defiance of YOUR policies, sir.  You brought us Arne Duncan and his Race to the Top. You helped Rahm Emanuel-whose sole mission seems to be breaking the teachers union-become mayor.  And when the teachers walked the picket line, you did not fulfill your promise to put on your comfortable shoes and join them. 

The world of your "accountability" is cruel.  It hurts teachers and children alike.  But I ask you, who is held accountable for the horrible conditions at that school?  For the savage inequalities of school funding?  Why didn't we have enough money at Reavis to buy soap, much less extra teachers to reduce class sizes, or aides to help in classrooms?  Who is accountable for streets that look like wars zones, for the lack of housing and steady, living-wage jobs in the communities where we teach?  Who is accountable for the racism that still plagues our society and is reflected in our education system?  Why does accountability rest so heavily on the backs of teachers alone?

Mr. Obama, please.  Make these attacks on teachers end. We cannot do the vitally important job of teaching our nation's youth in this toxic environment.  Help us get rid of the constant high-stakes testing.  Stop forcing schools to rely on those meaningless test scores for everything from teacher evaluations, to teacher pay, to the massively disruptive decision to fire the staff or close a school.  End the expansion of privately-run charter schools, which siphon off necessary resources from schools like Reavis and do not even serve the neediest children.  Help us bring joy back into our classrooms.  Help clear away the culture of fear and intimidation.  Look to ways that the Department of Ed can support schools, instead of punishing them.  Make sure that EVERY school gets the resources it needs instead of having to compete in your Race to the Top.  There should never be winners and losers when we are talking about meeting the needs of children.

End Race to the Top now. End No Child Left Behind.  Bring in actual educators to run the Department of Education.

Most of all, trust your teachers.  Trust the people like "Mary."

Katie Osgood
Special Education Teacher
Chicago, IL

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Won't Back Down: The Worst Propaganda Ever?

So the other day I jokingly posted on facebook that I was planning on sneaking in to a screening of Won't Back Down.  A couple education activist friends saw the post and offered to come along.

Shortly thereafter, I received a text from our good friends over at Democrats for Education Reform announcing more FREE screenings of the movie put on by Parent Revolution.  Even better!  So I immediately signed up and received an email saying someone would be in contact.  Well, no one was in contact.  I assume DFER purposely did not post the time or the place of the showings on purpose in order to screen people like me from attending.  (I know I'm already on Stand for Children's hitlist, so being on DFER's is not a surprise.)

OK, back to plan A.

Obviously, we needed drinks before the showing, you know...for morale.

So perhaps we were a little tipsy when we finally arrived at the theater last night.  As planned, I bought us three tickets for another movie. (We were not about to put a dime into the WBD movie coffers. I believe Taken 2 got our money. I like Liam Neeson. He's tall.)  And as we walked into the "wrong theater", we were to surprised to see a completely empty room.  So we immediately began taking pictures, giggling, and having a grand ol' time.

But then a young movie attendant came in and asked to "check our tickets" saying we must be in the wrong theater since that showing had sold no seats.  Crap.  He went to get the manager and we played dumb saying we had purchased the wrong tickets accidentally.  Looking back, I realize I could have just been honest and let them know what we were up to.  A missed opportunity...

But they let us stay.  So, I finally got to see the movie causing such a stir.

Wow, what a bad movie.

I mean, not even talking about the propaganda side of things, the movie was just poorly made.  Terrible dialogue, no character development, predictable, and boring as hell.  One of my movie sneaker-er friends left half-way through.

But of course, the propaganda was part of the problem.  The dialogue was taken straight out of an EdReformers playbook.  It had the "bad" teacher whom you can't get rid of because she's "tenurized".  (Making the parent character mispronounce the word the "tenure" makes it more authentic, get it?)  Teachers complaining about that same teacher saying she gets the "highest salary and has the worse performance."  (What a beautiful setup for a lead in to MERIT PAY!)   The charter school lottery-where people actually care about kids (with only 3 slots for the 6.7 million applicants, or something like that...I think they just superimposed Maggie Gyllehaal with crazy eyes into a Waiting for Superman scene. )  And the Teach for America guy as the only good, enthusiast teacher in the school, who they were very careful to show wasn't "anti-labor" and kept repeating "I just want to teach."  (By the way, since when is it ok for teachers to date parents?) 

But let's get serious for a second here.  There was one piece I haven't heard as much about in the critiques of the movie.  The issue of race and school closings/turnarounds.  Adams Elementary seemed to be a perfectly integrated (roughly 33/33/33 racial breakdown of White/Black/Latino) school.  Here in Chicago segregation is the norm, so it was interesting to see the moviemakers be so careful to show large numbers of white parents at the pro-charter rallies and meetings.  The truth is, in reality, the schools being targeted for turnaround or charterization are overwhelmingly schools with intense racial segregation and isolation.  They are the schools which have been historically disinvested in due to racism, redlining, and savage inequalities in the system.

I imagine the racial make-up of the population at the school was very intentional on the part of the movie-makers.  The idea that a "failing school" has nothing to do with racism or purposeful disinvestment, but is the result solely of poor teaching, tenure, and union contracts is the main message being sold here.   The choice to pick a white single mother and a white teacher to be the "bad teacher" is intended to draw a curtain over the truth that firings have disproportionately affected older African-America women and that the populations being given the worst educational opportunity are in segregated Black and Latino neighborhoods. 

At the end of the day, this movie was about propaganda, albeit really poorly-made propaganda.  It was about scaring people into believing that what ails our schools is completely removed from any conversation about equity or race. 

While I had a good time laughing with other people who "get it" and enjoying the fact that the movie is an embarrassing empty-theater-flop at the box office, I do worry that the intended audience of the movie is not the community at large, but rather all the politicians, policy-makers, and edreform sympathizers who are being shown the film in private screenings.

Whatever, it was a good laugh.  And I think the sequel is going to be a whole lot more enjoyable!