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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! 🙂

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Vergara vs. California – A Letter to the SFER-USC Chapter

So recently, I unofficially announced that I will be writing an open letter to the members of Students for Education Reform, just like Katie Osgood, wrote an open letter to new Teach for America Recruits.

Strangely, I also recently got an email from a SFER California representative, inviting the members of SFER USC to a meet and greet with SFER’s co-founder Alexis Morin. She also sent this “fact sheet” on Vergara vs. California lawsuit for us to learn about before organizing to support it. In summary, the lawsuit was brought forth by 9 students in California and is funded by StudentsMatter, a corporate education reform organization. Basically, if the plaintiffs win, 5 education due process laws will be eliminated:

  1. One teacher tenure law
  2. Three laws regarding the dismissal process of teachers
  3. One law on seniority (Last In, First Out)

First of all, I was completely shocked by the one-sidedness of the fact sheet and how it failed to take into account so many factors at play. Second of all, I’m not currently in Southern California, so I can’t make the meeting unfortunately. I would have loved to discuss my views in person with SFER members and Ms. Morin.

So instead, I wrote a letter to the members of my university’s SFER chapter, detailing my views on the lawsuit. Good head start on the bigger letter I hope to write I guess. I’m posting it here because I think I sum up most of my main arguments and this could reach other SFER members from other CA chapter potentially. Awareness needs to be spread!

Hopefully, I was able to encourage members to find out more for themselves. Many of them joined when I joined, and were sucked in with the same rhetoric that I was.

I encourage you to read what StudentsMatter (the plaintiffs) have to say about the case, before reading my letter to SFER.

The letter:

Hello USC SFER members,

Sorry to interrupt your summers with this, but I seriously could not believe my eyes when I opened that document. Whoa. Seriously, whoa. 

Let me first say that I really admire the people in SFER. I joined SFER because I want to dedicate my life to inspiring and helping students, and I wanted to start now by being active on key issues within education. Education is an issue I have always been passionate about and I understand that all of you probably share that sentiment as well. We all are here with young, bright minds and empowered hearts, eager to make a positive difference for students everywhere. And as college students, we leverage a unique kind of power to make that change. That’s something very exciting.

Now with that said, as college students just starting to delve into the incredibly complex topic of education, I think that it’s so important to look at ALL sides of any issue and question the information presented to us. There’s so many moving parts, intertwining and working together or against each other. It’s dangerous to blindly accept information thrown at us without viewing it first with a critical lens, because that leads to oversimplification of the issue and an oversimplified, “blanket” solution. I hope you will all agree with me that there is no ONE solution to education. We must target education from all sides.

That’s why the fact sheet that was sent out really alarmed me. It was very one-sided and didn’t take into account the bigger picture. I am afraid some members will blindly support without looking into the case carefully and other alternatives.

So in the spirit of open discussion, I’d like to present my thoughts on the issue for anyone who wants to learn more. Of course, go out and research the exciting world of education yourself! There’s a lot out there 🙂 Also if you have questions, concerns, or rebuttals, feel free to contact me!

In a nutshell, I think this case is a waste of time and money that could be directed towards better solutions rather than setbacks. I came to this conclusion after a lot of research. Here’s what I found:

Vergara vs. California aims to make sure every student has the right to a great education, which the plaintiffs (funded by a corporate education reform organization called StudentsMatter) believe means getting rid of due process laws that affect and protect teachers. There are 5 laws targeted: one tenure law, three dismissal laws, and one seniority law. Getting rid of these laws would result in “ineffective” teachers being fired more quickly and no overall protection for teachers. They say that this will then make teaching become a more respected and prestigious profession.

This sounds all fine and dandy, but I’m ultimately arguing that the solution to “reforming” education does not involve eliminating “ineffective” teachers first. Rather, it begins with eliminating high-stakes testing and devoting additional attention to building better communities around schools. I’m going to take a long path to argue this, but I hope the path is clear.

Whenever looking at education, it’s important to look at both in-school factors and out-of-school factors on a student’s education. Let’s start with the out-of-school factors, which are virtually absent in any discussion about “education reform”. Education reformers (I’m talking about the adults who fund SFER, not SFER members) argue that targeting the in-school factor of teacher quality will make the biggest difference in reforming the education system. You can literally look at the websites of any “Education Reform” organization like StudentsMatter, StudentsFirst, or Teach for America (oh the irony) to find this information. They don’t hide it. Their main goal is to ensure that students are taught by a force of highly skilled and effective teachers.

That is a very noble goal. It is one that we should strive for. Teacher quality is important. As an aspiring teacher, and as someone who’s had amazing teachers who believed in me and helped me tremendously, I understand this. I think that good teachers (along with abundant and skilled school counselors) are the most important in-school factor on a child’s performance.

But it isn’t the most important factor overall. Research shows that no matter how effective a teacher is, they won’t be able to completely undo the effects of poverty and socioeconomic inequity on a child. Countless evidence proves this. You can find that evidence herehereherehereherehere, and most of all, HERE. For a shortcut, just take a look at this wonderful article by Pasi Sahlberg, a world leading expert on school reform.

Salhberg is also from England and if you haven’t already heard, Finland basically kicks every country’s ass when it comes to education, and they do it without standardized testing or without tearing apart unions. Instead, they focus their attention on professionalizing the teaching profession and helping teachers improve, along with building up communities, eradicating poverty, and providing students with comprehensive social services outside of school. To sum up the article, if Finland’s highly skilled and experienced teachers taught in the US, student test scores wouldn’t change. 

It’s often said that once we solve the issue of education, most other societal problems will be solved. That’s probably because if we ever want to give students a better education, we need to also simultaneously tackle other societal problems that put pressure on our students.

I’m not saying that poor kids are incapable of learning as much as their wealthier peers. Quite the opposite actually. Poverty is not personal; it’s structural. If we really cared about our students and if we really believed in their abilities, we would invest in them fully. That means building strong communities and healthy environments along with building great schools. Both are required. If you still don’t believe me, at least listen to a fellow reformer that you might all know. Comprehensive social services and community building programs are the secret ingredient to what makes Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem’s Children Zone so successful. And if you check back at some of the links I listed above regarding studies about poverty’s effect on schools, you’ll see that countries with strong education systems focus on economic equality MOST. They understand that building strong schools starts with building stronger communities.

Ignoring poverty as a large factor in education unfairly shifts blame to teachers, and creates a gross oversimplication of the bigger issue. Now is tackling poverty the only solution needed? Of course not. My argument is that we need to properly and effectively tackle both out-of-school and in-school factors simultaneously.

Now let’s look at the in-school factors. The plaintiffs of the Vergara vs. California case argue that teacher quality needs to be looked at carefully. But I’m going to state this plain and simple, how the hell can we look at it carefully without evaluating it accurately?

Laws currently mandate that teacher effectiveness be measured with student test scores. That is a load of bullshit and any student and educator can tell you that. All that has led to is teachers being fired, teachers being forced to teach to the test, and teachers resigning because it is a completely disrespectful demeaning of their profession. If most of us can agree that a test score does not holistically and accurately capture student performance, and if we know that out-of-school factors affect student performance, why the hell would we attach such high stakes to test scores and put very skilled teachers’ jobs at risk? Learning cannot be quantified, standardized. Neither can teaching. Assessment is not a spreadsheet, it’s a conversation.

The first step is to invest in building a more equitable method of teacher evaluation. Something that is much more holistic, well-rounded. Something that encourages growth, gives constructive advice for improvement, and involves both student voice (project portfolios, class evals) and teacher collaboration (peer evals, third-party educator observations). (This email is getting long so you can look at my ideas more in-depth here and here.

Until that happens, I don’t think we can get rid of laws that protect all of our teachers. With the way teachers are being evaluated now, our schools districts will lose some very good teachers because of factors beyond their control. This is harmful to students as well and if we really want to put students first then we NEED to change the structures in which they learn and in which teachers teach. That means ending high stakes testing AND devoting more attention to bravely confronting structural issues of poverty and economic inequity.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “But this court case came about because students were abused their teachers!” I understand that. I am very glad students spoke up and that these “teachers” are being brought to light. Student voice is very important to consider and it’s something I value A LOT. I think it is a very important aspect of holistic teacher evaluation. We should trust our students to make fair judgments about their teachers.

But instead of using these incidents to shed light on the effectiveness of student voice in teacher evaluation, the court case takes it to the extreme in the wrong direction and aims to destroy due process laws for teachers that protect them against things like… oh I don’t know, terribly inaccurate methods of evaluation and attacks from people who’ve never step foot in a classroom.

Yes, I understand that while teachers’ unions do protect good teachers, we all know they protect bad ones too. I’ve had not-so-great teachers before. I get it. But this is why we need fair methods of evaluations first.

Now I’m just going to quote myself because this is a topic that I’ve written extensively on before, and I think these two paragraphs sum up the point well:

There are a few (and only a few) teachers out there who actually ineffective. Teachers who enter the field reluctantly (or with ulterior motives… cough cough Teach for America recruits) and don’t actually want to be teachers, teachers who abuse and commit unmentionable offenses against students, and teachers who engage in illegal activity with students. These teachers are a disgrace to the teaching profession and I don’t think the other dedicated and passionate teachers in a teachers’ union want to associate themselves with such “teachers”.

I think unions right now are more adamant about protecting their teachers because their profession is being completely disrespected by corporate reformers and their jobs are being threatened by very unfair and incomplete methods (if you can even call it a method) of evaluation. Once we revolutionize the system in which these teachers teach, and we actually let them teach and then evaluate them holistically (once again incorporating student voice and teacher collaboration/peer evaluation… I really cannot stress this enough), then unions can work on refusing job protection to teachers who simply are not teachers and are not willing to improve themselves. Together we can foster a force of revitalized, passionate, and committed educators.

One last word: Getting rid of laws that protect all teachers de-professionalizes the teaching profession. Quantifying teaching, which is an art as much as it is a science, disrespectfully demeans the profession. Implementing robust and fair evaluation systems that foster a strong force of highly skilled, professionally trained teachers brings prestige to the profession.

Thank you for reading 🙂 I hope I’ve offered an enlightening alternative to lobbying for this lawsuit and that some of you will consider looking at the other side of education reform. I encourage you to continue your learning journeys through the field of education. Your passion and commitment to American education is something very beautiful and powerful; please do not allow anyone to use your passion and drive for their corporate agenda. Please continue to learn more and become informed activists!

Miledy, as you know I cannot make it to the meeting. I hope my words reach the discussion somehow, or that some members will consider these points of view in their educational policy learning journeys.

Love and solidarity,

Hannah Nguyen

Questions, comments, and concerns are always welcome!

An Urgent Message to current and future Teach for America recruits

Once upon a time, I planned to graduate college and become a Teach for America corps member, thinking I would be doing the education system a favor. That was until I gave my admiration of this seemingly benevolent organization a second thought. 

Recently, I came across this amazing letter to new TFA recruits written by Katie Osgood, a special education teacher in Chicago, beautifully sums up everything terrible I discovered during my research into Teach for America. I really could not have said it better myself.

I really do encourage everyone to read it, especially if you are thinking of doing Teach for America. I know your intentions are good, but there are many more constructive ways you can contribute to education (like, I don’t know… attending an actual teacher college). Teach for America simply isn’t one of those ways.

Further suggested reading:

Corporate Reform can’t even do business right

I may only be a business minor, but I know the difference between good and bad business. If you’re going to turn education into a business with students as products, at least employ good business practices.

Susan Altman, a teacher and current MBA student at Oxford University, writes a wonderful article on corporate reform’s bad business on my favorite education reform satire blog EduShyster.

Here are some notable quotes:

“First, following standard operations practice, we must establish whether education reformers see education as a service or a product.  (As an educator, every bone in my teacher body screams service to all humanity with a damn it thrown in for good measure).”

“If the reform crowd agrees with me, they should, according to my nifty Pearson textbook, endorse “a high degree of customization, a move away from standardization, and focus on “intangible deeds and processes.”

“Even if we say that students are products and that teaching can be broken down into an assembly line of measurable tasks, old-fashioned Fordism isn’t even how good business operations are done anymore.  That ugly, dehumanizing, and elitist way of thinking about factory work went out of fashion with the poodle skirt.”

Here’s a thought: if education reformers are going to use the language of business to justify their policies, how about they at least use business ideas from this century?

Be sure to check it out for yourself!