Sunday, November 30, 2014

Forget Winter, PARCC Is Coming...

My school is drowning under the ridiculous Common Core Standards.  Everything I know to do to inspire my students is forbidden.  Instead, we are forced to deliver truly horrible curriculum in developmentally inappropriate ways with pacing charts that move so fast all our heads are spinning.  My students with special needs are shutting down, acting out, or just giving up entirely.  Sometimes I hear them whisper, "I hate school".   And they are right to think that.  All the teachers are upset.  And every time we ask "Why? Why are you making us do this?" the answer is always the same.  PARCC is coming.

Today I read a piece about PARCC on Diane Ravitch's blog called Bob Shepherd: Why PARCC Testing is Meaningless and Useless which hit on something I don't feel like we've been talking about enough.  Mr. Shepherd complains how PARCC and the Common Core are truly warping what reading means.  He says, "...these are tests of literature that for the most part skip over the literature, tests of the reading of informative texts that for the most part skip over the content of those texts."   I haven't heard many people complain about our skill-based reading instruction that has been in vogue since before CCSS, but now under the new standards is bad literacy on speed.  We are teaching reading without enjoying words, or thoughts, or the context that created the stories we read.  Even when we choose beautiful pieces of literature, they become lifeless vehicles to teach a dry, decontextualized skill.

For the past two weeks, my co-teacher and I were teaching off the standard that asks our fifth graders to compare and contrast two pieces of literature from the same genre.   In my inclusion classroom, that looks like reading two myths without any teaching around what myths are, about Ancient Greece, about how the myths point to our own humanity.  No, we are told to have the kids create a Venn diagram of the two texts and then practice writing a constructed response.  The kids have no idea who Zeus or Hera are.  They know nothing about the way myths were used to explain religion and nature to an ancient people.  There is no chance to connect these ancient stories to the kids' own lives.  I hear the kids mutter, "Why are theses such funny names?"  But because we are on a strict pacing guide, and because the teaching of Greek Mythology is not in the standard, we simply moved on.  This week we're on to comparing poems.  In order to practice more constructed responses.  To get ready for PARCC.

I cannot believe how we are warping the experience of reading for these children.  Sometimes we are told to do a "close read"of stirring passages about the Underground Railroad for the sole purpose of pulling out the main idea and supporting details. We don't actually talk about the Underground Railroad-letting the horror of slavery sink in.  No, it's simply about getting the skill, so the kids can demonstrate the same skill on the dreaded test.  What a ridiculous disservice.  I still remember my fourth grade teacher reading us a novel on Harriet Tubman and how that story was one of my first understandings of true injustice.  We were inspired to create art projects, to write poetry, to pull out further texts on slavery from our library.   We had class discussions.  We wrote letters.  We felt the text come alive.  Our kids are not getting anything remotely like that experience.   Because of PARCC.

And to make things worse, I teach at an all African-American school in a high-poverty neighborhood on Chicago's southside.   Killing the love of reading before it starts for my students is nothing short of criminal.  But because of the high-stakes nature of PARCC, knowing that schools just blocks away have been closed for their poor test scores, our school is in a sickening frenzy to raise our test scores by any means necessary.  Everything revolves around this test.  And my students who so desperately need safe, supportive, relevant, and engaging learning environments, instead are given high-pressured, standardized, test-prep CCRAP.

This type of readicide is not new because of PARCC.  Schools under high-stakes accountability have been forced into this twisted form of reading instruction for many years.  But things are getting worse, so much worse.  Thanks to PARCC.

Any chance that kids get to become enthralled in a story, to become spellbound by a fictional world, to be pulled into the past through powerful prose, is done through teachers secretly stealing time for that wonderment.  It is not in the standards.  It won't be on the test.  And it's definitely not in PARCC.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

How Testing is Destroying My School

Testing is out of control in our schools.  I knew this before I stepped back into a public school classroom this past September after teaching for many years in a psychiatric hospital.  But seeing the testing obsession play out in students’ and teachers’ lives…well, I simply was not prepared. 

In just the first six weeks of school, I have administered more pointless, random, unnecessarily difficult tests to my students than I can count.  We have barely had more than two consecutive days to simply teach where we were not interrupted by some ridiculous mandated assessment. There’s the REACH (for teacher evaluation purposes only), On-Demand Writing Tasks, tests that go to our network, tests for the district, tests because our school in on probation, and placement tests to use the TWO online test prep programs our school is forced to use weekly.  These tests are not aligned to the curriculum, they don’t measure what we are actually learning in class, they are not tied to a broader unit of study.  These are tests just to feed the data monsters.

And thanks to Common Core, these tests are PURPOSEFULLY too difficult for the students.  We are told kids should be frustrated and learn to “persevere”.   They need exposure to “complex text”.  And we need to measure what they don’t know so we can measure what they learn.  But the reality is the kids are upset, they are demoralized, they are learning that they are no good at school and that defeat plays out in their behaviors.  The school is in a constant state of unrest and anger-fights breaking out, kids acting out to disrupt class, and the school lives under a veil of surveillance and punishment.  A climate of pressured, high-stakes testing is exactly the opposite of what our kids need.

And it’s not just the tests, it’s also the test prep.   We have not one, but two online test prep programs our school is mandated to use weekly.   45 mins per week, per subject, plus an assessment in one program and completion of 2-3 “lessons” in another used directly for math.  These expensive programs are basically test prep questions presented in a video game format.  Get the “right” answer and earn coins to play games.  In some classes, these programs take up as much as 40% of instructional time each week.  Even our little kindergartners are forced to get on iPads and practice taking tests.  Our Early Childhood teachers know this is wrong.  In fact, all our teachers know this is wrong.  But the answer to every question we ask is…”because this is what they need to know for PARCC (the Common Core aligned test.)”

And I haven’t even gotten into the numerous and constant technical problems with these programs.  “My iPad doesn’t work.” “I can’t remember my password.”  “I’m new to the school and don’t have a password.” “I can’t get on the internet.”  “The program keeps logging me out.” “My iPad is all in Japanese.” We waste probably 20-30 minutes per use just on technical difficulties.  While I love the use of authentic, meaningful  technology in the classroom, I hate, I HATE edtech.  But Silicon Valley is no doubt making a bundle on the backs of my students.

And what’s worse, I am a special education teacher, so my students are the most fragile of all.  And these tests are killing any possibility to motivate my kids.  There are only so many times I can repeat the mantra that “These don’t matter, guys!”  “Just do your best!” These tests are breaking the trust between me and my students.  It feels so unethical to day after day administer tests that are so far beyond their current abilities.  It’s like we’re giving these kids tests in Chinese, just to prove they don’t know any Chinese.  And they leave feeling just…dumb…because they couldn’t answer any of the questions.  I don’t even need the data these tests generate-they are so inappropriately hard, they tell me nothing of use.  Besides, I have a whole Individual Education Plan that tells me exactly what my kids need to work on. 

But still, every single week, here I am giving yet another absolutely disgusting test.  My kids bang their heads on desks, they cry, they whine, they give up and say “I’m done” in front of a blank answer sheet.  They fidget, they act out, they get in trouble just to get out of going to yet another class where they feel stupid. 

I feel dirty when I come home.  I wonder, “Should I start to boycott administering these tests?”  But I don’t have tenure.  Everyone tells me to lay low, to take the bold moves in three years when I've earned tenure.

Three years…how can I do this evil to children for three more years?

My school was already destabilized as a receiving school after Mayor Emanuel’s vicious school closings-undergoing massive changes in enrollment and staffing last year.  The neighborhood around us suffers from disinvestment, foreclosure, unemployment, crime, and poverty deeply impacting our students’ readiness to learn.  And instead of wrapping our kids in love and successes, we batter them with cruel, impossible tests. 

I think about how all this bogus data is going to be used to “prove” our school is failing.  Testing is so wildly out of control in my school because we are “on probation”-like so many other schools in low-income, African-American communities-and somehow this justifies these disgusting interventions.  We have a phenomenal staff and school leadership, but instead of being allowed to create a beautiful place of learning, we are forced to do wrong by these kids.  We are the hammer driving the nail into the coffin of this little school.  We are giving them the very information they may someday use to destroy us.

Anyone who says high-stakes testing and the Common Core don’t matter, you are wrong.  These policies are destroying my school.  They are destroying my profession.  They are destroying the bond between teacher and student.  The testing madness needs to stop.  Now.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Why Teach For America’s Push for “Diversity” Should Not Be Celebrated

Yesterday, I was disappointed to see Teaching Tolerance-a social justice education resource which I have personally used many times-publish a blog post entitled Teach For (a Diverse) America.  It was difficult to see a TFA alum spout this harmful organization's current PR talking points on a site I trust and love.  So,  I’d like to take a few moments to debunk TFA’s deceptive diversity strategy.

But first and foremost, I want to say that getting more teachers of color into our classrooms and keeping them there is of the utmost importance.

But TFA’s overall mission, actions, and impact absolutely negate any benefit from their inauthentic push for diversity. Over the past five years, this darling of the media has come under increasing attacks and criticism even from within their own ranks.  As a result, TFA has used “diversity” as a way to rebrand.  But their core mission which undermines public education and increases inequality remains unchanged.

Here are a few ways TFA actually hurts teachers and students of color:

1)  TFA has a direct tie to the overall reduction in teachers of color in schools.  The black middle class is shrinking, and TFA’s anti-union stance and its attacks on the teaching profession are inextricably linked.  Current education policies-which TFA aggressively promotes-are forcing far more black educators OUT of the classroom than TFA could ever put back in.  Many black educators cite the worsening working conditions, the loss of job protections which disproportionately affect African American teachers, and the effects of neoliberal edreform policies around school closings, turnarounds, and charter proliferation as reasons why many are leaving/being forced to leave the profession.  TFA spouts the virtues of teachers of color out of one side of their mouth while they spit on veteran black educators out of the other.  This loss of black educators was perhaps most dramatically seen in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina when TFA helped  illegally displaced thousands of veteran black educators-most from the communities where they teach.

2)  TFA is NOT actually more diverse when compared to the urban districts and urban schools where most of their recruits are placed.  TFA disingenuously uses national statistics when they brag about their diversity saying  “Our public school teachers are 84 percent white, 7 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. Four percent identify with other ethnicities…. half of new TFA teachers identify as people of color”.  But in places like Chicago, only 47% of teachers identify as white with 28% of teachers being African American and 17.9% Latino.   In fact, in many of the privately-run charter schools which are heavily staffed by TFA and TFA alums, their staff is far LESS diverse than nearby neighborhood public schools.

3)  Another point is that TFA does NOT do a good job of creating “teachers,” regardless of color.  From its recruitment process on, TFA’s focus in unabashedly not about creating career teachers.  They are not a teacher pipeline, they create “leaders”-luring recruits in with promises of direct paths to law school, grad school, firms like Goldman Sachs, or lucrative educational leadership/technology gigs.   Less that 20% of their members end up staying in a classroom more than 4 years.  TFA is simply not revolutionizing the teaching force.

4)  TFA exacerbates inequalities for students of color.  TFA novices begin their meager two years with less than 20 hours of practice in front of children, even for students with special needs. Regardless of the racial/socio-economic background of their novices, TFA is offering our neediest kids uncertified, underprepared, short-term novices in lieu of professional educators.  

5) To many TFA corps members of color, the organization has NOT been a safe space.  TFA has been aggressively recruiting more people of color without changing their elitist, white, middle-class normative culture.  In fact, many CMs of color describe feeling used by TFA to the benefit of the white and wealthy.  Here are some rich and fascinating counterstories of TFA corps members of color: A Racio-economic Analysis of Teach for America: Counterstories of TFA Teachers of Color

6)  If getting more teachers of color into the classroom is a priority (which it should be) why is no one doing anything about the rising costs of tuition, the struggle for many teachers to support themselves during a semester to (in some cases) a full year of unpaid student teaching, and the increasingly exclusionary teacher basic skills tests?  For starters, how about instead of giving TFAers those $10,000+ Americorps grants (including the large number of corps members who are NOT people of color or from low-income backgrounds), let’s save those public tax dollars for teachers of color who want to be career teachers.  In countries where education is valued, teacher education is completely free.  And let’s not forget that the TFA/edreform push for “higher standards” in teaching through “more rigorous” entrance exams has resulted in a dramatic drop in the numbers of African Americans and Latinos entering teacher prep programs.  Of those who do get in, the costs of a college degree today--especially one that leads to a career where most will likely never make enough to easily pay back loans—are becoming prohibitively high.

Unfortunately, the author of this blog makes it seem like the shrinking number of teachers of color is the fault of Schools of Education.  Make no mistake, teacher education is under attack just like K-12 education.  Neoliberal education reform is intentionally making it less desirable to become a fully-certified teacher.  And as so many other neoliberal reforms, the greatest negative impact falls on people of color and people from low-income backgrounds.  Pushing more and more people into fast-track alternative certification programs like TFA is intentional and damaging.  A low-skilled, short-term teaching force may be in the best interests of corporations and the elite, but it does not benefit children. 

7) TFA practices disaster capitalism which is devastating communities of color.  Teach For America is supported and funded by the very forces which caused the financial crisis throwing many families of color into foreclosure, bankruptcy, even homelessness, which refuse to pay workers fair wages thereby growing poverty, and are increasing inequality today.  When your largest funders are companies like Walmart, Bank of America, and Goldman Sachs, you do not get to pretend to speak for the oppressed and disenfranchised.  

Ultimately, TFA’s focus on diversity is an attempt to cloak the very real damage this organization does, especially to students, communities, and teachers of color. 

On a personal note, I recently returned to the Chicago Public Schools and now teach in a school on Chicago's southside where over 90% of the teachers are African American women.    These veteran black educators have gone through the chaos of school closings, many grew up in and still live in the community offering a wealth of knowlege, and are some of the most amazing teachers I have ever met.  We also have one TFA teacher.  While a lovely young lady and a person of color, she comes from out of state, is new to Chicago, is not trained for the  special education position she was placed in, and is there because the last TFAer left after his two years were up.  This is not a solution.

I will end on this. There ARE organizations out there doing the work of attracting and supporting more people of color through full teacher preparation programs.  In Illinois, Grow Your Own, is doing amazing work recruiting people from the communities where they hope to someday teach.  And they do so without learning to teach on other people’s children.  GYO helps members pass the Test of Academic Proficiency and helps provide funding to complete a quality teacher prep program offering tutoring as needed.  A GYO graduate completes their teacher preparation before ever stepping foot in a classroom.  And they are there for the long term.  Every tax dollar, Americorps grant, and media story should go to programs like this.

And Teach For America, regardless of their latest diversity PR spin, needs to be gone.  Let's start by taking it off the Teaching Tolerance website.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Parents of Chicago: Questions You Must Ask About Your Child’s School This Year

1)  How many teachers/staff left the year before and why?

Schools all over Chicago are in chaos.  Intentional chaos.  The year after the largest number of school closings in the history of the United States followed by massive budget cuts to many schools left a wake of destruction and pain.  Get the information from teachers and staff at your child’s school about how many teachers left and what’s going on that so many are getting out.  Ask about the school climate, how teachers, staff, and students were treated last year. Ask if teachers are miserable at this school.  Ask why they are miserable.  Many teachers are probably afraid to say anything, but if you ask them about it directly, they might open up.

2) Are there positions left unfilled and why?

It is possible your child will begin the school year with long term subs.  Be angry about this, especially if the position was filled the year before.  That teacher was likely run off by the chaos. 

3)  What is the situation with substitutes?

Speaking of substitutes, CPS has manufactured a severe shortage of day-to-day subs.  Many schools simply have no one to cover classes when teachers are out sick.  Your child may ILLEGALLY be taught by a classroom aide, specialist teachers like the art/music/gym teacher, or special education teachers pulled from their students with special needs.  

4)  Is your child’s teacher on a “provisional certification”?

CPS has many teacher positions filled with Teach For America or Chicago Teaching Fellows novices who do not have certification or experience working in schools.  Ask about your child’s teacher's certification, being specific about whether they are on an “initial” (new, fully-licensed teachers), “standard” (teachers with more than four years working in schools), or “provisional” (little to no training in teaching whatsoever.  And thanks to TFA lobbying efforts in Washington, parents are not even informed when their child’s teacher has not completed a training program).    

These untrained staff are often placed in special education positions despite having no expertise working with students with disabilities.  It is a gross injustice to allow these people to be placed in a classroom, but CPS is increasing the numbers to save on personnel costs.  Make a fuss about the administrator hiring people from these alternative certification programs. 

5)  What kind of discipline is happening at the school?

CPS is implementing a new discipline policy with very little support, planning, or alternatives.   CPS has completely outlawed suspensions in early grades and put quotas on how many days a child can be suspended for.  While it is commendable that CPS wants to cut down on suspensions and move toward more restorative practices, it is apparent that they have not given schools the types of resources to truly improve behavior.  Many schools are turning to oppressive discipline strategies that treat students like inmates in prison to quiet the chaos.  Ask lots of questions about if classrooms are safe spaces and what is being done to meet ALL children’s needs.

6) How much of a focus are standardized test scores?

If you walk into your child’s school and see a wall of data from testing or if schools give out awards to teachers based on this testing, be concerned.  A school which is overly focused on test scores often warps its curriculum to up these numbers…at any cost.  If your child complains about boredom, behavior problems of peers, or seems to be losing a love of learning, a test-focused school culture is often part of the problem.  And know, this push for better test scores often comes from higher-ups, not the school staff or administration.  Partner with them about how to resist the testing mania.  Often parents have a greater ability to push back than teachers.  The anti-excessive testing groups More Than A Score and FairTest have some great resources. 

7) The last, and most important question is “What can I do?”

Fight back.  Parents, we teachers need you.  We are being pummeled out there in the schools.  We will never be the kinds of amazing educators your child deserves if these purposeful policy attacks continue.  And know that this is happening all over CPS-including the charters.  There are no good choices out there as long as this system continues unchecked.

We need you to stand up for us, scream about the injustices we all see as loudly as possible.  Do not let CPS continue to get away with these injustices.  If the sick and twisted truth were out in broad daylight for all to see they could not do these things! 

Find out the whole truth. And then shout it out to winds.  Let’s force something better.

Members of BAM gather at the Neighborhood Schools Picnic in May 2014.   (Crystal Stella Becerril) From  

BAM (Badass Moms) /Neighborhood Schools Fair
Raise Your Hand
Community Groups ie KOCO, Albany Park Association, Brighton Park Association, Pilsen Alliance, etc

More you can do:
Go to CPS board meeting and speak up
Get involved in your school's LSC.

Tell your child's teacher you are on their side.  

And...Help Karen Lewis get elected for mayor so we can FIX these problems!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Chicago’s Arctic Freeze Brings Up the Question: What is the Purpose of Schools?

An interesting discussion broke out over the recent announcement by the Chicago Public Schools to keep schools open despite a dangerous extreme cold snap hitting the city, a decision which they later reversed thanks in part to pressure from the Chicago Teachers Union.

On social media, many worried that closing schools would be detrimental to the neediest families.  Many claimed, rightfully-so, that school was often the only place where kids could get a hot meal and a warm, safe environment.

And this controversy really hit home for me how much we have come to view schools as the only comprehensive form of poverty alleviation in our society.  This argument regarding schools has become so second-nature to many, that we never stop and think about what this really means.

Here is what I wrote on my facebook page regarding the decision:
Everyone is in an uproar about kids not having a place to be warm, safe, and to get meals, if schools are closed tomorrow. Where is the outrage that these same needy kids don't have those basic services all the other times that school is not in session? We should be filling the streets in protest knowing that any child ever goes hungry or cold in this city, but instead we've been conditioned to conflate this issue with schools. They are not the same thing!
If we as a society truly want schools to be where we combat poverty, then we must take that task seriously. That means funding schools to be places of social services.  And I don’t mean leaving that job up to already over-worked administrators and teachers to write grants or solicit online donations, or for parents and community groups to hold fund-raisers always scrounging and begging.  Schools are public spaces and I have no problem with that space serving multiple functions such as becoming health clinics, food depositories, warming/cooling centers, community centers, and providing mental health supports,.  (Heck, all those "underutilzed" schools would be a great place to implement these programs.  Whoops, already closed most of them down...)  But all of these programs require serious money and staff to operate.

Now, even if we did implement all the wraparound services mentioned above, that is merely addressing the symptoms, not the cause.  The only way to truly make a dent in poverty is to end the growing inequality in this country.  Tax the wealthy, demand a higher minimum wage, rein in Wall St, invest in public services including affordable housing, free and universal health care, and true equitable funding in education.  Can we really not, at the very minimum, protect children from the traumas of poverty?  

Since we seem unable to even conceive of these changes, then we must fund schools to be the band-aids they are constantly asked to be.  Give the neediest schools the most money.  And then do not complain about the costs of education.  Other countries provide for their citizens through social services.  Finland’s schools aren't expected to be anything other than a school.  

Let our schools be schools.  Principals and teachers in low-income schools should not have to be responsible for all the needs of the kids and their families.  Many schools and individuals take on this task because they know that not having access to these basic services makes their job of educating children near impossible.  But frankly, educators are not trained to be doctors or social workers or charity workers.  And they shouldn't have to be.  

It amazes me how normalized poverty is in our country.  We cannot imagine a world which actually takes care of our kids.  The idea that closing down schools in a weather emergency would put kids in danger should be an eye-opener.  The fact that no one blinked an eyelash when private schools and suburban districts across the affected states all immediately decided to close schools, but were outraged that people wanted CPS to have the same consideration for student and staff safety.  Everybody knows the difference between those schools.  Poverty, it always comes down to poverty.

Schools cannot pick up all the burdens of our cruel, racist, unequal country.  And we need to stop expecting them to.