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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! 🙂

So many dimensions… so much to consider

As I’m currently out of the country, finding time to really type out my thoughts on one topic has been tough. I’ve mostly been reading an eclectic selection of articles. While I do have several drafts saved on a myriad of topics that all have to do with education, it’s hard to know where to begin. They’re all intertwined and you simply can’t talk about one without bringing up the other.

The complexity of education is definitely overwhelming but also very humbling. It reminds me to take a step back, consider every detail, and always, always, always remember the students.

And it reminds me to keep going. The journey will be challenging, but rewarding. There is much to be learned and much to be taught and much to be done on my part. I’m only barely starting.

This is more of a personal post, I guess, to remind myself of the many things I have to continue to keep in mind as I move forward. Feel free to add any things you feel would be helpful to consider. 

  • Poverty and economic inequality (root cause and/or effect?)
  • Common Core 
  • NCLB & RttT
  • Teacher unions
  • Teacher evaluations
  • Teaching as a profession
  • Ed rheeform/rephorm/deform & corporate, privatized agenda
  • Reinventing education
  • Student voice and power (must be considered throughout all discussion…how is the best way to go about this?)
  • Socioeconomic ramifications of certain policies (budget cuts, funding issues)
  • Involvement of community members, parents, etc…
  • Civic education

When Real Education Changed My Life

To elaborate more on my second educational philosophy:

I guess the biggest reason I have a problem with the dominant culture of standardized testing is that it undermines the importance of social justice/civic education, which is the one thing that made my education magical. 

I didn’t really start learning until sophomore year of high school. Before that I hated history because I thought it was just memorizing facts and I wanted to be a doctor because that’s what my parents wanted and I guess I felt more content memorizing facts about the human body than about humans. But I was never learning, or at least never engaged with my learning. I hated it when my teachers asked me “explain” or “analyze” because I didn’t know what that meant. But hey, I had a 4.0 and was deemed a genius according to my test scores so I must have been educated right? 

Don’t worry, the story gets better because I met my match sophomore year. Her name was Ms. Garcia (more affectionately called Mama G) and she challenged my thinking like no other. She was one of my teachers in a program called “Facing History and Ourselves” (you really should check it out, it’s a lovely program that taught me so much), which basically delves into social justice issues in history and society to foster socially responsible leaders committed to fighting injustice. I clearly remember crying after a lesson because I just couldn’t contain my feelings. And that was the key. For the first time during my education, I was feeling and experiencing what I was learning. I was doing an inherently human thing, and my education was coming alive. 

And this is the most important lesson I learned from Facing History and Mama G:

Learning is felt. It is not the 2 digit percentage on the Calculus test, or the 4 digit score on the SAT, because we cannot attach digits to learning, we cannot measure something so endless and profound. Learning is something that is felt. It’s the ache in my heart when I learn about the Holocaust, the churn in my stomach when I hear about minorities being denied their basic human rights, the refreshing confidence when I make a philosophical point that is uniquely mine, the excitement that shakes me when I connect something in science to something in history, and most of all, that feeling that I can’t quite name, the one that gets my head all hot and my insides queasy and my muscles just aching to get up and go out and do somethingLearning is experiencing what someone teaches me, letting it soak through and change me. 

Through my learning, I was able to become a more socially and politically conscious citizen and an overall better person. My mind and heart were opened and I grew in both intellect and character. I cared, not only about what was going on around me in society, but also about my education as a whole. I wanted to keep learning, keep analyzing, keep thinking, keep exploring, so that I could figure out the best way to contribute to society.

I realized after that year that I am not meant to be a doctor. I am meant to be a teacher. I love learning and I want nothing more than to share that love with my future students. I want them to feel what I felt. I believe that learning can not only be fun, but it can be life-changing, monumental, magical, even electric. My experience of true learning was the spark of electricity that set off a current in me, and education is now the passion that pumps vigorously through these veins.

Where I Stand – Standardized Testing, Civic Education, and the Bottom-Up Approach to Educational Justice

I think it’s important, before I embark on this journey of educating myself, to elaborate on my 3 biggest philosophies on education and educational activism.

—1—

The high emphasis on standardized testing is destroying real education.

Seriously, high stakes testing needs to leave, like, yesterday. I wrote a 10-paged paper on this my sophomore year of high school, and I can still go on and on about it. Simply put, students are more than test scores. There are numerous dimensions to learning and education, and the standards don’t even begin to capture most of them. Test scores simply cannot objectively capture true learning, because education can’t be standardized or forced into a single definition.

These tests, which claim to measure student performance, are destroying our schools, turning them into factories where anything but reading, math, and writing is pushed to the bottom of the priority list. Now don’t get me wrong, math, reading, and writing are important and valuable skills but would you really consider someone educated if all they knew how to do was answer multiple choice questions about those 3 subjects?

  • What about looking at the past and understanding the present?
  • What about understanding society?
  • What about global perspective?
  • What about diversity?
  • What about civic education?
  • What about appreciation for the arts and music?
  • What about exploration and discovery of exciting ideas and topics?
  • What about intellectual freedom?
  • What about critical analysis?
  • What about applying concepts across disciplines?
  • What about problem solving?
  • What about creativity and innovation?
  • What about lively discussion and collaboration?
  • What about experiential learning?

Are any of these questions ever asked? Not on a standardized test, that’s for sure. The machines that grade these tests don’t care about how students came to their answer, if they used critical thinking, or if they can apply their knowledge in practical settings. All it wants is that one right answer. And how many times in life is there only one right answer?

Because of standardized tests, enthusiastic, creative, and dedicated teachers are placed in an impossible paradox where their job is to educate their students, but they have to make sure that their students’ scores are high so that the school can appear “accountable” and they can continue teaching. This leads to teaching to the test, which deprives students of the well-rounded and real education that they deserve. Testing should be used as a tool to support learning, perhaps for diagnostic purposes from some subjects, but unfortunately it has become the core of educational culture (thanks a lot, NCLB and RTTT). It has gotten to the point where learning has been obstructed in classrooms because of the very high emphasis on test scores.

Students deserve better. They deserve an education that fosters creativity, curiosity, critical thinking, an education that civically engages and empowers, an education that says a great big, “YES!” to all those questions above, and most of all, an education that celebrates rather than excludes all kinds of students and styles of learning, whether or not they align with the so-called “standards.”

—2—

Social justice and youth civic engagement are incredibly important components of education.

Students should not only be taught how to become good students, but also good people. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best when he said, “The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”

Education should foster open-minded, civically aware, and caring members of society, not create robots that know how to regurgitate facts. Every aspect of a person’s education needs to be paid attention to, and currently civic education is simply not given enough weight. Civic education is not simply just important anymore, it’s absolutely necessary. The issues of inequality and injustice in our world will only continue to remain unresolved if we don’t have socially and politically conscious people who are equipped with the tools to stand up for themselves and the oppressed in their communities. Students need to understand what happened in the past, how that has affected the present, and how they can contribute to a brighter future for all. Civic education not only builds respect, consideration, and character in students, but it also builds their analytical and problem solving skills.

And it’s not hard! The essence of civic education is all about relating to students, engaging students in dialogue, tapping into what makes them sad, angry, happy, human.  It’s a great tool for motivating students to learn because it reawakens what is natural to them: emotion, experience, creativity. It enriches learning by weaving passion, discovery, critical thinking, and compassion in their education, and tells them, “you have the power to make a difference.” Wouldn’t you care more about your education if you could relate to it? If it was engaging? If you believed in yourself and your own potential? If you knew it could help you do things or act on issues you were passionate about?

Once we realize the importance of social justice education for our students, then our students’ education will become more exciting, applicable, and real for them, and they will be able to learn more than they ever did before.

—3—

Stephanie Rivera (a great advocate for student voice) and other students protesting the Chicago school closings.

Any approach that aims to achieve educational justice must take students’ voices into account.

Okay. Pause. For those of you who don’t know Stephanie Rivera, go look at her blog right now. She is an advocate for student voice and educational equity, and one of my newly discovered heroes. She’s absolutely amazing, courageous, full of passion and drive, and definitely a force to be reckoned with. I hope we get to talk soon because that would be a complete honor.
The reason I’m bringing her up as I discuss my 3rd philosophy, is because she wrote this brave and controversial (but hey, what can you expect when you voice a unpopular opinion) post about how she stands against Students for Education Reform (SFER), a group that I was a member of. Was. As in past tense… I left before I found Stephanie’s post, but reading her post now definitely helped me put words to the discomfort I felt with the group. Basically, my experiences with SFER reinforced my passion for elevating student voice and involvement in the education revolution.
During my freshman year of college, I was definitely that starry-eyed aspiring educator, eager to join any movement I could that had to do with education. When I found out that USC had a club called “Students for Education Reform”, I was ecstatic. I was so excited. At the USC EdMonth conference, I went to the workshop led by SFER and got to talk to the president. He was explaining SFER, basically making a case about why I should join. I didn’t think I need to be persuaded, as I was really eager about education reform, but let’s just say… I didn’t expect to be dissuaded.
After explaining that I wanted to be a teacher and that I believed in a bottom-up approach to education “reform” (because “I don’t think you can truly fight for people unless you know them and fight with them”), he basically didn’t treat me seriously. He said that at SFER, they were taking more of a top-down approach, and while the girls at Whittier College focused on “babies” (yes, he referred to students as “babies”), USC SFER was all about “real policy work” and working with adults to make policy changes that will affect the “babies.” He then turned his attention to the political science major at the table, who he probably felt would not be so typical female aspiring teacher obsessed with “babies.”
Still, he wasn’t able to stamp out my eagerness. I came to a meeting, hoping that maybe after some stimulating discussion my faith would be restored, but lo and behold, teachers and teacher unions were bashed and once again I was made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, and excluded because I just didn’t agree with the top-down approach. The whole atmosphere of the conversation was all so condescending towards the students, and so counterproductive to the change that needs to happen. So I decided to stand by my opinion and leave the group. I said it once above and I will say it again: Any approach that aims to achieve educational justice must take students’ voices into account.
Stephanie Rivera brings to light a lot of issues about SFER (I will link it here again because I urge you to look at her thoroughly researched and very well-articulated post), but one that I will emphasize here is that there is no room for working with and mobilizing high school and middle school students in the fight for their rights. Their stories are ignored and their voices are silenced. Sure, it will be mentioned that hm, maybe we should talk to the students we are essentially fighting for… but no… they’re too young and busy with a school system that fails them to understand or even care about the complex, “big kid” policies at hand. And this is exactly the attitude that makes students never want to speak up in the first place. 
We cannot simply fight for students from the top down. We cannot ignore their experiences. We cannot claim to fight for education and then simultaneously exclude students in a fight for their rights. We must make the effort to involve students in the process. We must collaborate with them, shed light on their experiences, and help them realize their power in the movement. We need to fight with them.
The students have a story to tell. The injustice in the education system is not something they just read about in news articles; it is their every day reality. These issues affect them directlyAny large social or political change movement in this country started when the oppressed spoke up about what they were upset about. It all starts with a voice, a story, a cry for help. Real change begins when the oppressed realize their power and use it to end their oppression.
Yes, education is a very complicated issue, but then why don’t we simplify it for students? Why don’t we equip them with the knowledge they need to fight for what they believe in? Why don’t we at least change our mindset and start believing in students? Why don’t we give them a chance to care about this issue and to take appropriate action?
Believe in the power of student voice and invest in that power. You may will be surprised.
Thank you for reading! I can’t wait to continue writing about what I care about and sharing my thoughts on such an important issue.
Blessings,
Hannah