About the Author

Welcome to my education blog! My name is Hannah Nguyen, and I'm an 18 year old sophomore at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. I am the chapter leader of Students United for Public Education - Los Angeles (SUPE-LA) and a national organizer for SUPE with my good friend Stephanie Rivera.

I'm an aspiring teacher who believes in revolutionary ideas over reform, and that's why I'm also passionate activist for educational justice.

I hope my posts bring you enlightenment, provoke your thoughts, and empower you join the fight for educational justice as well!

Read more about my story and why I created this blog…

Matt Damon – Public School Hero Turned Hypocrite?

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Matt Damon giving a riveting speech defending public schools and teachers in 2011 in Washington DC at the Save Our Schools Rally

Recently, A-list actor (and personally one of my favorites) Matt Damon announced in an interview that him and his wife have decided to enroll their daughters in private schools rather than the public schools of LAUSD.

Naturally, the entire ed reform crowd was all over this news like the ed revolutionaries (it’s what I like to call the “anti-reform” crowd) were all over the news about Tony Bennett’s cheating scandal.

In 2011, Matt Damon gave a beautiful speech at the “Save Our Schools” rally in Washington DC. He has been widely known by the education community as a public school advocate that is very much opposed to the ridiculous reforms by corporations and greedy politicians, such as charters, vouchers, and high stakes accountability. A graduate of public schools himself, as well as a son of a public school teacher and professor, he understands the importance of a free, democratic, locally controlled, well-funded, fully-staffed, and well-rounded public education.

So naturally, every reformy immediately scrambled to call out Damon on his hypocrisy… on Twitter. Here are some examples:

I wasn’t really going to say anything about this… but it made me the kind of angry where I really just laugh nonstop because these attacks are so hilarious, desperate, and… hypocritical. But I understand where they’re coming from. Lord knows they’ve needed a break during these past few months of utter failure and embarrassment.

Matt Damon isn’t a hypocrite. If that’s what you’re going to take away from all this, then you’re not looking hard enough.

First of all, his choice, as so eloquently put by blogger @Didymath on Teach For Us, is “more personal than political.” Politicizing people’s personal choices is not only a desperate move, but also pretty hypocritical (Mr. Bush, how would you like it if I brought up where YOUR kids go to school?)

Second of all, the lessons to take from wealthy actor’s and public school supporter’s decision are not that he’s a privileged hypocrite or that school choice is a great thing.

It’s a lesson that maybe we should start making real changes in public education that make public schools resemble the schools that the privileged send their kids to (hint: NO high stakes testing and more teacher respect/autonomy).

It’s a lesson that maybe we should start investing in smaller class sizes, more libraries, better infrastructure, healthy food options, and wrap-around services like counseling and healthcare.

It’s a lesson that if a public school supporter like Damon decides to ultimately send his kids to private schools in the heavily “reformed” city of Los Angeles, public education needs a lot of support, especially against these corporate “ed reform” attacks.

It’s a lesson that the best choice is the choice to not need a choice at all.

Matt Damon advocates for a public school system that does not exist anymore (thanks to the past few years of digression brought to you by education reformies). Who can blame him if he wants to do the best for his kids? What is so wrong with looking out for your kids and then simultaneously fighting for the belief that other people’s kids should have access to the same education as yours? And don’t tell me he doesn’t believe the latter just because he doesn’t support corporate reform. If you opened your eyes at all, you’d know reform policies like school “choice” and “accountability” have hurt more students than it’s helped.

Damon believes in the best idea this country’s ever had: that every student has the right to a great public education. This is exactly why he opposes reform, which turns education into a business with a few winners and many losers.

Third of all, this isn’t even hypocrisy in the slightest. Here’s a beautiful excerpt from a post by Jersey Jazzman about what hypocrisy really is:

What’s hypocritical is for Chris Christie to say that public schools spend too much, and then send his own kids to private schools that spend a fortune.

What’s hypocritical is for Barack Obama to bribe states into using top-down, test-based teacher evaluation systems while sending his own kids to schools that do not engage in that practice.

What’s hypocritical is for Bill Gates or Merryl Tisch to create a culture of test-based accountability when their own children go to schools that eschew that very culture.

What’s hypocritical is for Michelle Rhee and Kevin Huffman to push policies that deprive schools of necessary resources while sending their child to a private school that is more than adequately resourced.

And what’s hypocritical is for champions of “choice” to condemn the choices of people who they will not listen to and work with to create a stronger public school system for all.

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“Corporate Reform” or Failed, Desperate Corporate Management?

Excellent look at the terrible business of corporate education reform. DON’T BUY INTO IT.

School Finance 101

I suspect there are a lot of readers of my blog and twitter followers who frequently use the phrase “corporate reform” to characterize the current heavily privately financed movement to push specific “reforms” to public education systems.  My readers may not have noticed, but I tend not to use this phrase. I have a few reasons for my avoidance of this term.  First, it’s my impression that the term necessarily implies corporate to mean “evil.” That a corporate mindset – meaning private sector for profit business mindset can do no good. I’m cynical, but not that cynical.  I actually do think there are good, for profit corporations out there. Perhaps they are dwindling in their numbers and power base, but I still think they exist.

But here are my main reasons why I don’t roll with the whole “corporate reform” lingo. That the education reforms being pushed – that are…

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An update on my vision for “accountability” and “standardized testing” in education

Today I read a very insightful article by Justin “Juice” Fong, the head of Internal Communications at Teach for America. While I do have my own… often critical opinions of his other pieces about TFA, he published something today that I found very insightful (and you should definitely check it out!) I took the time to write a reply, offering further thoughts on how we can change standardized testing and thought I’d post it here since I have done a bit more research/brainstorming on this matter and should probably update my blog with my ideas 🙂

So here it is!

I like the idea of making tests purely diagnostic. This is something Sir Ken Robinson, an expert on learning and creativity, has always suggested. I agree with all the points that you brought up, especially the point you made about how it will lower the high stakes currently put on testing and the high pressure put on teachers to teach to the test. But what are your thoughts on the tests’ effects on students still? Especially if this is how they are welcomed back to school at the start of the year?

Also, what kind of tests did you have in mind for the diagnostic exams? I would like to suggest that the tests be assessments of deeper learning that assess skill and performance with content rather than narrow assessments of multiple-choice that don’t fully encompass student ability and instead reduce student learning to meaningless metrics. Tests can provide useful data, so shouldn’t we give students the best tests that will provide the most useful data?

If it were up to me there would be none of the standardized tests that we currently have. Tons of research show the negative effects of the current testing model on students and schools (and I’ve seen the effects with my own eyes, even in my own family) and I think that we can do better by our students if we move further away from traditional multiple choice testing towards methods of assessment that are also productive, in that they encourage student learning simultaneously.

My current vision for “accountability” and “assessment” in school is portfolio and project-based, as standardized tests that are merely multiple choice tend to omit a wide range of skills and personal assets that are important to ensure in an education. I actually don’t see portfolios much as assessments, but more like educational tools, as students are able to learn, exercise their creativity, and demonstrate the interconnected mastery of essential skills (reasoning, research, argument, craft, etc…) as they are being evaluated for their progress. Portfolios can also give a more vivid picture of student progress while test scores show more outcomes. They are truly assessments of the deepest learning (see writings of Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond) that encompass student learning in a well-rounded and accurate manner. I think we can get a better picture of a student’s mastery of a skill through the work that student produces rather than his/her answer on question #46 of the state standardized test, right?

What’s even better: these assessments will not only capture student performance in a more holistic manner, but will also allow for teachers to foster student growth through many unrestricted pathways. What I mean by this is that these pathways can involve projects that incorporate skills and concepts across various academic disciplines, especially in higher grade levels, accomplishing a lot more with a lot less. On the other hand, test questions test skills individually and on a shallow level; they don’t allow much room for the application and connection of different skills like student-produced projects do. For instance, a project for a unit on the Civil War can include a research paper on an event/aspect of the war (this helps students develop research/writing/argumentation skills) paired with a creative piece (video, 3D design, poster, diagram, song, etc…) that perhaps connects the Civil War to 21st century society (this helps students sharpen the skills of application, connection, creativity, and critical higher-order thinking). The possibilities are endless! I think there is a unique opportunity here for students to get a layered, interdisciplinary, and multi-faceted education.

Now I’m going to go into the logistics of all this. These are ideas that I’m still developing as well, however, so feel free to comment on or question anything you see!

I’m envisioning that portfolios would consist of the highlights of a student’s work throughout the course of a school year and would be submitted for review at the end of the year. Teachers can be trusted to assess student work in written evaluations and a third-party can intervene every year or every few years to go over student work in schools (as well as observe classrooms like you mentioned… I really like that idea; it was something my own school had and it worked very well). This might take more effort (and perhaps time, although I do think it’s time that’s better-utilized than test-prep or test-scoring), but students are worth the investment and if it happens on a local level, it won’t be too tough.

Standards that portfolios will have to meet will build upon each other rather than be unique to a sole grade level (so perhaps we can improve upon Common Core, this time with more student/teacher/parent input). These standards can serve as sort of a flexible rubric for student work portfolios (flexible in that students can demonstrate mastery of a skill of concept in many different ways, but all will have mastered the skill).

As for the diagnostic part of this, teachers would be able to receive their students’ portfolios from the previous year during the summer so they can be able to look at their incoming class’s abilities. They can also do a diagnostic assignment at the beginning of the year, something perhaps a little more exciting and engaging than a test, and use that data to figure out the best paths to take for their class. (side note on this: I think it’s really important during the first week of school for teachers to not only lay down expectations but also listen to their students intently and figure out what they expect.)

Let me know what you think of this idea, and if I missed anything important! Always eager to hear different perspectives. Thank you for your insightful post!

Something I find a little hilarious about the arguments in defense of high stakes testing

I’ve pretty much heard all the arguments for and against high stakes testing, and feel pretty confident that I wholeheartedly disagree with it and can give a solid counter argument to any arguments for high stakes testing.

But recently I’ve been getting some new arguments that… kind of throw me for a loop.

Whenever I say that test scores shouldn’t be a factor in teacher evaluation or determining school progress (and likewise funding for schools making progress) because they are an unreliable source of data that can’t capture student performance, let alone teacher performance or school performance, I get either or both of these response:

  1. Why do you care so much about teachers/schools? This should be about the kids!
  2. Test scores are only [some percentage] of [something]!

These throw me for a loop because they’re kind of ridiculous. The first one is easy. Caring about kids means also caring for the teachers that are dedicated to educating them and the schools that are their learning communities. That’s how you care about kids. And don’t forget that testing hurts kids (not just teachers and schools) as well. If you don’t believe that, then you aren’t looking closely enough.

Now to the second argument. It’s a phrase that would be a fact without one word. And that word is “only.” 

When I hear that tests ONLY account for a certain percentage of teacher evaluation or school progress reports in various states and districts, I hear a concession. I hear an acknowledgement that a lesser percentage would probably be more beneficial for students and schools. I hear a, “Chill out, Hannah! Yeah, it’s a problem but at least it’s only a percentage of a problem!”

And this is what I don’t understand. If people see the issues with testing, why do they still allow it to factor into pivotal decisions that impact students? 

@unitedoptout Declares Our Independence from Corporate #edreform

Incredible work. Please spread the word! Declare your Independence!

Everyone keeps talking about the Status Quo

I get blamed for accepting it all the time. I get told (usually by education reformers) that if I don’t agree with their methods, I’m accepting the status quo. 

I guess what they mean by status quo is the whole “failing schools epidemic.” Or “bad teachers.” Or “terrible unions.”

To me, the status quo just looks like people in power suppressing the voices of those who don’t agree with them. Kind of like the way critical thinking, balanced discussion, creativity, divergent perspectives, and student voice are suppressed in schools in favor of compliance and testing. Such a system keeps the powerful in power. 

To echo a wonderful piece of wisdom from Daniel Kao:

If we can’t even give our students a voice, how can we expect to give them an education?

I refuse to be silenced, and the students I teach refuse it as well.

 

 

Why It’s Important You Register for the Student Power Convergence

Register today and meet this amazing woman and educational justice advocated!

When This Reader Heard President Obama Discuss Trayvon Martin

Just got back from Hawaii and i just needed to reblog this. So on point.

Diane Ravitch's blog

A reader posted this comment:

“Listening to President Obama’s speech about Trayvon Martin in which he said regarding young black men,”And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?” the thought struck me:

“How about not closing their schools and undermining their neighborhoods; how about providing them with an education like the one you want for your children; how about trying to do something about the poverty that they endure? How about standing with the people who helped to elect you with their votes and their belief in you rather than with the 1% whom you seem now to identify with in deeds if not in words.”

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HUGE step forward for LGBTQ+ students in public schools!

ImageAccording to one of my favorite blogs, which looks at the intersection of education and LGBTQ+ rights, the US Department of Education has agreed to collect “LGBT-related data on three of their data collection systems.” Here are the three systems:

  • Dept of Ed Office of Civil Rights Data Collection: the mandatory questionnaire completed from all school districts about incidents of bullying will now include questions about bullying/harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation (it already includes similar questions about victimization based on race, gender, and specifically including gender stereotyping and gender nonconformity)
  • High School Longitudinal Survey: adding sexual orientation and gender identity/trans status items (note: glad to hear they will be doing their standard testing process to see best ways to ask these items with this population for this survey and the school crime supplement below)
  • School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey: adding sexual orientation and gender identity/trans status items

This is such a huge step forward for LGBTQ+ youth rights (which need to be remembered because “a certificate on paper isn’t gonna solve it all” –Macklemore). Their identities are being recognized and their stories are being brought to light. This is a huge step forward from the “hush-hush” attitude towards LGBTQ+ youth in schools. We will not be silenced!

But once again, this is just a start. We still need to move towards full acceptance of these youth and incorporate LGBTQ+ history into curriculum to teach acceptance. 

Hooray for love! 🙂

 

Update: Got a reply from SFER USC chapter’s President! – Here’s my reply back.

So last night, I decided to do something daring and send an email to my SFER chapter, voicing my opinions about the Vergara vs. California lawsuit. And I got a reply late last night, which I then responded to this morning.

I won’t publish his reply here, for the sake of his privacy but in a nutshell, he found me misinformed, asked ME to question both sides (and trust me I have been doing that before opening this blog which I only did after I took a clear stance), and brought up his personal experiences with teachers’ unions and working for Parent Revolution and how those pushed him to support the corporate education reform movement. He says we “need high stakes testing”, “accountability”, and basically ignored my points about a better more comprehensive solution to getting rid of “teachers” in favor of simply bashing teachers and tearing down unions.

I could go on, but you can glean most of what he said in my reply:

Hi [omitted for privacy],

Thanks for the prompt reply! I was really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on these issues.

Before I respond to individual parts of your argument I want you to know that I have looked into both sides, very carefully. I actually was once a fierce supporter of the corporate education reform movement. I felt change was necessary, and I had hope that ed reform leaders would create change.

It took a LOT of evidence for me to change my mind. After looking at not only the stagnant progress but also the dire consequences this movement has inflicted upon our public education system, I cannot bring myself or my conscience to support such a movement. From Chicago public school closings, to Philadelphia budget cuts, to charter schools “creaming”, to Atlanta cheating scandals, to student opting out of tests all over the country, to teachers having to form a Badass Teachers Association to get the point across that they actually want to teach (more on this later), to my students (who were from charter schools) asking me why the “rich white people” who partly fund their school can’t give them paper towels in the bathroom or a soccer field with grass (this isn’t even the full list). I know injustice when I see it. I’ve only started it voicing my opinions about education after I fully understood both sides’ arguments. I’ve thoroughly questioned both sides, actually questioning my current side much more than the corp ed reform side.

I recognize that you’ve experienced many things throughout your own educational activism journey. I appreciate you bringing those experiences to light and working hard to fight for what you believe in. That is something very noble. I have my story too, and very good reasons that fuel my passion against the education reform movement. I’ve stepped into classrooms, listened to what students are saying, listening to dedicated but frustrated teachers, worked with students and understood how incredibly difficult yet rewarding it is. I was also lucky enough to receive a high quality education, something I want every student in America to experience.

Now let’s start at the top: I know you’ve studied Geoffrey Canada, religiously. I’ve studied him as well (probably not religiously) but I know enough to know that I cannot side with him when it comes to his views on accountability. I only quote him because he is one of the few reformers who gives a damn about bettering the communities around schools, and that is something I can respect. I believe that that has been the key to his success. If it isn’t, then why does the high stakes testing model elsewhere do more harm than good?

High stakes testing and data-driven accountability are something I cannot support. This is one stance in education that I have held since the start of my high school career. High stakes testing puts too much emphasis on test scores, outcomes, stats and far too little emphasis on student growth, learning, and humanity. You can celebrate stats all you want, but I prefer to celebrate humans. Learning (we can talk a whole lot about education but forget to talk about learning… isn’t that the point of this all?) cannot be encompassed by a test number. Anyone who’s ever gone through the education system can tell you that. The corp ed reform movement, which promised change, just takes a broken model that hasn’t worked for 40 years and does it even more, using up more learning time and money for resources and inflicting more harm on the quality of students’ education. It’s ridiculous, terribly poor data analysis, and it needs to have stopped yesterday. Countless evidence shows that high-stakes testing is harmful to students, and if you don’t believe the evidence from professional psychologists and researcher-educators, then at least listen to what students are saying and DOING (walking out of tests, boycotting). Teachers aside, high stakes testing is doing the most harm to students in school.

Instead of reform, I support a learning revolution that builds a solution from the ground up, starting with students. We need to eliminate structural forces that hinder true learning, critical reasoning, creativity, classroom collaboration, active discussion, and a well-rounded education that includes the arts, humanities, and civic engagement. If you really want to put students first, think first about the purpose of education and then the purpose of high stakes testing. Do those purposes line up?

Can something else achieve the purpose of high stakes testing without dulling the quality of our students’ education? The answer is yes. I highlight more in depth my proposed solutions herehere, and here. Short answer: data is useless if it’s not accurate, even if it’s objective. Do we value our kids’ learning and development enough to put in a little extra time to get data that’s meaningful, holistic, and useful? You don’t need numbers to hold people accountable. There’s other kind of data that people collect, other kinds of data that have proven to be much more revealing and valuable than the objective data the corp ed reform movement funds so vigorously.

Now back to what we are discussing, which is teachers. I think you completely misread my point. I am NOT arguing to keep these protections. There is evidence, student, parent, and your testimony, that these protections are harming a number of students. That testimony is valuable and should be honored. What I have a problem with is the current method by which we measure teacher effectiveness.

Removing the protections but still tying teacher performance to test scores is what demeans the profession. Not only does high-stakes testing prevent student learning it inaccurately measures teacher effectiveness. And what really is the point of data that’s inaccurate?

Just as there are better ways to look at student performance, there are better ways to look at teacher performance. Schools are communities in and of themselves. They are not businesses. Corporate privatization never works outside the financial sphere and if you want to think of students as standardized products then I cannot support your goals. Teachers should be given respect and autonomy to teach and foster creative and thoughtful young minds. Students’ work should be valued FULLY, and their growth celebrated, rather than reduced to a chart. I said it before and I’ll say it again: Assessment is not a spreadsheet. It’s a conversation.

Now, I want these terrible teachers out of the system as much as you do. But is targeting the entire teaching profession really the answer? No, that causes way more problems than solutions. With the current implemented methods of evaluating student work, more truly effective teachers would be fired than truly ineffective ones. And students would continue to receive test-centered education. Is that a price we want to pay? Collaboration cannot be forced. You (not you specifically, but the whole reform movement itself) have angered countless people who truly care about children. How do you not expect people to fight back?

Believe it or not, teachers go into teaching to teach students! I know it’s hard to believe but teachers actually don’t go into their profession for a pension (you can get that in many other places), or to test students until their brains are numb, or to kill a child’s love of learning! They have been reduced to being defensive after many threats on their profession and many years of being trapped in a terrible system that works AGAINST the very people they’ve dedicated their lives to working FOR. We need to start with doing the right and smart thing, eliminate a system that harms both students and teachers.

[And if we’re going to talk about teachers and their pensions, how about talk about billionaires that fund the corporate education reform movement and their tax breaks? I’m not saying that every reformer ignores poverty. I’m saying that I’ve never heard a single billionaire who is funding the corp ed reform movement mention tackling the issue of poverty and working on building safer, healthier communities for students. Ask yourself why that is.]

You want accountability and for teachers to become more skilled. You want the terrible “teachers” who are completely unfit for the job to begin with to go. I completely understand that and I want that too. But you want to get rid of a problem without looking at the other problems tied with it. That’s not going to lead to any solutions.

You mention in your second email a process that I think should be implemented. “This is a job, if a worker isnt good at their job, you give their professional development, if that doesnt fix the issue, you fire them.” Sounds like a plan to me! Guess how we can get to this process and still do something that benefits students.

  1. Get rid of the system of high stakes testing and data-driven accountability.
  2. Let teachers teach and let students learn.
  3. Evaluate and hold schools accountable through student voice (testimony), student work (Student project portfolios are a great way to track growth. It’s a win-win because they also encourage and foster rather than prevent learning and student growth), and peer evaluations (teachers will work as teams, collaborating, helping one another)
  4. Work WITH (not against) unions to immediately fire anyone posing a danger to students. Continue to work with them to revise tenure and seniority laws.
  5. With new useful, meaningful, and holistic data, provide valuable profession development for teachers to improve and continue excelling at their job.
  6. If they don’t show improvement, move to fire.

All of this can be done before the Vergara vs. California case goes on trial in 2014. Seriously, it can. And if you don’t believe it can, than you’ve never experienced believing in the nearly impossible. That’s something that teachers do every day for their students.

The solution is not either unions or no unions. It’s looking at the system in which both teachers and students are trapped. If we wait for unions or union opponents to “do the right thing and work for kids, we will be forced to wait idly by as history will crucify us for failing to fight.” Your words ring true and that is why I am fighting. I am fighting against a system that puts everyone in danger.

Now for the other points that you bring up:

  1. Thank you for acknowledging that the corporate education reform movement is funded by billionaires. I don’t care if billionaires want to donate their money to helping education. That is a good thing to do! But what is happening is that they profiting from this system. SFER members, I really encourage you to look into this issue yourselves. Here’s a good place to start (but remember to always check the facts and question everything!)
  2. Finland wasn’t doing so well before. Their country was in economic turmoil and their education system was lackluster for decades until they put their differences aside and worked towards building economic inequity. It’s something everyone on the right and left agree on. Poverty was just as widespread as it was here. As a sociology major and someone who has studied the intersections of race and class tirelessly, I definitely understand the intricacies about how “we got here”. That’s why I understand the importance of working together as a country to eradicate poverty in children’s’ neighborhoods. The reason I bring up Finland is that they don’t have high stakes testing, and the professional educators over there scoff at our system for caring so much about scores and even tying those scores to teacher performance. They aren’t surprised that teachers over here are angry about this.
  3. Your last point about unions preventing fair discussion cannot be brought up until we systematically implement fairer ways of evaluating teachers and students. Once that happens, if unions still fight back, then I am with you that we need to “cut off [their] heads”. But I doubt they will because unions are also fighting for what I am fighting for: ensuring that every child has access to a quality education by eradicating a flawed model of high stakes testing. That is the real civil rights issue.

Thanks for reading! I hope we can continue this discussion.

Hope to hear more from the members soon! And of course to see how the president of SFER USC would reply to me.

Thanks for reading! As always, post your comments and questions below! 🙂

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