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I believe that there are three key things you need to always do when leading a movement for social justice and change.
- Be willing to listen and learn.
- Have the courage to speak out and act in the name of justice.
- Never forget why you do what you do and who you do it for, and make sure everything you do honors that.
As you may know, I recently got back from the National Student Power Convergence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Words can’t even begin to describe how inspired and moved I feel. 5 days of meeting and connecting with student activists (including the wonderful and amazing Stephanie Rivera, Jacob Chaffin, Asean Johnson, and Israel Munoz), exchanging ideas and strategies on how to organize action around key issues affecting youth, and celebrating the power of student voice and action? It was seriously a dream come true. I wish I had the time to delve into every detail of every experience that I had during these 5 days, but I hope you take my word for it that the NSPC was life-changing and groundbreaking.
With all that I’ve learned and all the new friendships I’ve made, I am so excited to take all that I have learned to begin building my very own chapter of Students United for Public Education (SUPE) in Los Angeles and well as working alongside my great friend and mentor Stephanie Rivera as a national organizer for SUPE.
But I’ll be honest: as excited as I am, I’m actually kind of scared. I’ve spent most of my life doing what I love most: learning. And most importantly, I’ve devoted a lot of time to learning about myself, what I really feel passionate about, and how I could to contribute my gifts and talents. I never wanted to really act until I was sure of myself and until I understood the issues fully and deeply. And to be honest, I’m still learning, but since starting this blog, I’ve been starting to speak out and act. When I created this blog, I wanted to use it not only as a place where I could continue to learn and develop my thoughts, but to also speak up about my beliefs, raise awareness, inspire others to think critically about these key issues.
Of course, I will continue to learn, listen, and grow for the rest of my life. It’s my favorite thing to do. But I feel like I’ve finally found my voice and I’m at a good place where I can begin to translate my passions, my thoughts, and my ideas into meaningful action and activism. Making that transition, stepping out of my comfort zone to put myself out there, is scary. But so far, what I’ve learned and how much I’ve grown has been more than worth it.
Attending this convergence was a big first step towards action for me. One of my favorite experiences in this entire world (maybe even more than singing a solo on stage) is meeting people who care. People who have passion coursing through their veins. Who really care about something so much that they go out and do something about it. Who have the courage to stand up and fight for justice and what they believe in. Whose eyes light up and heartbeats speed up at even the slightest mention of something that makes them angry, hopeful, inspired, determined. Who are driven by love: love of compassion, solidarity, justice, freedom, and equality. These people are not only passionate; they’re revolutionary. They are the game-changers and change-makers. These are people who live and breathe that list at the top of the page. These are the people who have fought the fights and walked the talks. These are the people who have taught me what it means to be a part of the student movement, to stand up, speak out, and take action.
I went to this convergence to do the first two things on that list that opened this post. I am here to learn from and listen to these amazing people and their stories. And from learning from those who have walked the talk and fought the fight, I hope to find the courage within myself to become more action-oriented, to continue to speak out against injustice, to immerse myself in my community, and work with and alongside others already doing great work to make a better tomorrow for youth.
But before I continue working on my action plan for SUPE, I want to give attention to the third and most important point on that list. I’m even going to repeat it here because it’s so important:
Never forget why you do what you do and who you do it for, and make sure everything you do honors that.
What I’ve seen happen often times (especially in… yup, you guessed it: the education reform movement), is that intentions start out good but the sword starts to swing the other way when money, power, and statistics are valued over the lives and humanity of students. “Kids first” and “For the kids” becomes merely rhetoric, as people jump to enact radically dangerous and untested policies that do anything but put kids first. It’s even scarier when these policies are put in place by people with power and money, because then they are blinded by their power and money and fail to see all the intricate parts of the matter.
This scares me, because I believe my intentions are good, and the last thing I want to happen is for what I fight for to put students at a greater disadvantage. But I know that won’t happen, as long as I make sure that everything I do for my students stems from why I do what I do. I need my vision to be clear and for that vision, story, and root of my passion to drive me. I need to stay humble and true to my roots.
So why do I fight for educational justice?
Well for starters, I want to be a teacher. Every time I play that “nine lives” game at conferences where in each life you can choose any career you want, high school civics and social studies teacher is written in #1-9. But why do I want to be a teacher? Is it so I can watch people’s face fill with disappointment and bewilderment when I tell them my life’s ambition? Is it so I can work 2 other jobs to pay for my first job? Is it so I can have my impact measured by my students’ test scores? Is it so I can get weekends and summers off?
The answer is simple: I want to devote my life’s work to inspiring and fostering young, bright, creative, and passionate hearts and minds. The thought of crafting creative and engaging lesson plans, bringing them to life in my classroom, sharing my stories and wisdom with young minds, taking my students to places they’ve never been (both intellectually and literally on field trips and such), and watching them grow into conscientious, open-minded, kind-hearted, passionate people excites me like no other. I’ve gotten a taste of it through working with children of all ages during my high school and early college careers, and I really cannot wait until I am finally fully trained and prepared to teach my own classroom.
But why become active in educational policy and activism?
Well the answer to that connects to what I want to teach and how I was taught. Let’s start with the latter.
I am very lucky to have gotten the education that I got. It completely changed my life. As I’ve mentioned before in my other posts, I didn’t realize what learning was until I was exposed to a full, well-rounded curriculum that included the arts, humanities, and social justice education. Before, I depended on my high test scores to know that I was learning. Today, I know that no test score could ever reveal how much I had truly grown and learned through my education.
For the first time, I was experiencing what I was learning, rather than passively regurgitating information that I barely internalized (something I’m really excellent at doing… I could be a professional test taker and that’s something to be ashamed of). I was finally opening my eyes to the intricacies and complexities of our global society and the field of education, and finally understanding concepts like solidarity, inequality, privilege, human rights, justice, and my role in all of these things. Social studies and civics woke my mind and heart and sparked such an immense passion in me that in my spare time, I found myself delving into the issues I studied more and more, as well as becoming more involved in my local community through organizing work and volunteerism.
During this time in my life was when I found my passion in education, partly because realized the magic of education through my own transformational experience, and partly because I decided to write my sophomore year research paper on standardized testing and it shattered my long-held (arrogant) faith in tests as well as everything I thought I knew about education.
As time went on, I slowly developed my biggest belief: that EVERY student should receive a free, quality, democratic, and well-rounded public education, unhindered by huge class sizes, dilapidated infrastructure, terrible working/learning conditions, inadequate funding, child poverty, high stakes testing, or other broken reform policies. I believe that this is a fundamental human right and true justice.
This is why I am fighting for educational justice now. My education helped me find my voice and understand the importance of standing up for justice and equality for my brothers and sisters. When I look at the current attacks on public education, especially by a group of people I used to trust to improve education, I get this intense emotional reaction that mirrors the kind I would get in high school every time I read about or discussed a social injustice. My insides burn, my heart races, and every inch in my body longs to get up and do something because what is happening to students, teachers, and schools today is not reform; it’s destruction.
I cannot possibly stand by while countless students are literally robbed of true education by neoliberals under the guise of “innovation”, “high expectations”, and “accountability.” I cannot possibly stand by while I hear my students’ stories of feeling unheard and powerless in what should be THEIR fight for THEIR education. I cannot possibly stand by while students continue to be silenced and invisible, their humanity reduced to digits and their futures determined by people who ignorantly implement harmful policies without considering student voice. I cannot possibly stand by while people who don’t want to devote a day of their life to educating a child use their money and power to manipulate and profit from a system they destroyed in the first place (Why is there a billionaire boys club? Oh right, because poverty and economic inequity exist and are silently hurting public education).
I realize that I could not care about any of this, live a very easy life, float through grad school, get my teaching credential, and just be a teacher in a high school somewhere. I’m sure the reformies would love that. But I refuse to do that. And that has as much to do with how I was taught as it does with what I want to teach.
I want to teach the things that made me a more open-minded, empowered, and justice-seeking person. I want to be a high school teacher of social justice and civic engagement.
I believe that true education can and should awaken the mind and heart by fostering critical thinking (mind) and a commitment to social justice (heart). Yes, learning about all the terrible injustice and oppression that has marginalized groups of people throughout history is naturally discouraging, but I feel that there is also such beauty in looking at how the marginalized have historically risen up against their oppressors and fought for the justice and freedom from oppression. When students engage with learning material that relates to them and their cultural histories, they are more empowered to think and learn for themselves and take action. This kind of social justice education brings not only knowledge and enlightenment, but also hope for students. Hope that they too can not only live in a better world someday, but also be the reason for that better, more just and equal world.
This is what I hope to bring to students. Hope. Light. A true sense of wonder for the world and love for those living in it. Motivation to learn and turn learning into positive action. A sense of empowerment.
But how can I possibly begin to teach social justice in a system with so much injustice?
I fight for educational justice because I believe that I myself have the power to contribute what I can now so that by the time my future students reach my classroom, the education system will be a more just place. I believe that empowered students like myself can and will stand up for what they believe is right and demand educational rights for all. I believe that education is liberation from oppression.
I know I’m going to get a lot of opposition for fighting for what I believe in. Social justice education is equally liberating and threatening to authorities that pray for compliance. But I will not comply under policies and rules that put students at a disadvantage. I will not comply with people who wish divergent perspectives and beliefs be silenced. I will not comply until there is justice.
Instead, I will continue to hope. Hope that I can not only teach in a better education system one day, but also be the reason for that better, more just and equal system. Hope to live my lessons now and one day have my lessons come alive.
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 here, here, 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.
- Get rid of the system of high stakes testing and data-driven accountability.
- Let teachers teach and let students learn.
- 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)
- 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.
- With new useful, meaningful, and holistic data, provide valuable profession development for teachers to improve and continue excelling at their job.
- 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:
- 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!)
- 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.
- 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 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:
- One teacher tenure law
- Three laws regarding the dismissal process of teachers
- 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.
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 here, here, here, here, here, here, 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,
Questions, comments, and concerns are always welcome!
Here’s my response to the second part of Mariam’s comment. You can find part 1 here.
2) I completely agree with everything you had to say about standardized testing, and I thoroughly disagree with Rhee’s ‘objectivity’ business. Ever since high school, I have been in favor for shifting the emphasis from standardized tests to holistic assessments that tell far more about the student as an individual. However, I hear from many that standardized testing is convenient, and that’s why it will stay. I was wondering how you would respond to those who cite convenience as the reason standardized testing will prevail because I honestly don’t know how to respond to that… I mean, to be completely honest, it’s true. Standardized testing is too convenient and can allow any school administration to compare students with each other, rank them, and use that data to admit students into college/graduate programs. How would admission committees use student work portfolios to compare students ‘objectively’ (ugh there’s that word again)? It’s far easier or convenient to cut off students because they don’t meet a certain GPA or test score, but once standardized testing is out of the equation, how do these institutions select which students should be admitted since the portfolios will be unique to the student and comparing a unique portfolio of one student to another’s would be like comparing apples with oranges?
Hey again Mariam!
I answered most of your questions in my reply to Byron, but I did some more research since then and I’d like to add more to my answer than just referring you to my reply to a previous comment.
As you already know from hearing me talk about it for years now, if it were up to me, there would be no standardized testing. Schools would teach students how to learn, rather than how to take tests. No one would be reduced to numbers and ranked. They would be fully educated, prepared to ace a test if they had to, but never programmed to do so. Teachers would be respected as professionals and would have freedom to do what they’re meant to do: teach creatively and passionately.
This isn’t an out-of-reach dream. It’s happening in other countries. Here’s a great example:
And here’s an excerpt from the article I linked:
There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians.
From the article, there’s a lot of evidence that proves this model works. Lots of positive teacher and student testimony, lots of observation from third parties of very creative classroom lessons that engaging students and helping them learn, lots of evidence of collaboration rather than competition that fosters strong, tight-knit learning communities. Teachers in Finland are guided by the philosophy that they know more about their students than a test score does, and I absolutely commend their efforts.
But this isn’t the first thing most Americans look at. No, Americans are really hung up on is how in the heck Finland’s students can outscore almost every country on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), an exam that tests reading, math, and science literacy in 15-year-olds worldwide. Results on the PISA are hardly a fully accurate indication of the state of education in a country, but test-crazed American educational leaders are putting a lot of weight on these results.
What is Finland’s reaction to all this? Frankly, they don’t give two damns.
“We are not much interested in PISA. It’s not what we are about.”
— Pasi Sahlberg, Finland’s Ministry of Education
“Americans like all these bars and graphs and colored charts.”
–Kari Louhivuori, Principal of Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive School
I guess it is a little baffling to see a country that doesn’t care much for standardized tests, perform so well on them. That’s because they focus on the more important things, like creating creative and captivating lessons, and they know that their students can demonstrate learning better through the work they produce than through the scores they get. Students then acquire skills that are unlimited by what’s on a test. Their education system is definitely something to envy.
Along with the interactive and engaging classrooms, educators and Finland citizens alike understand that poverty and economic inequity plays a large factor in student performance. That’s why “all political parties on the right and left” strongly stress equality and bravely confront the issue of poverty. They support and provide comprehensive social services for students, such as adequate counseling, medical care, free student health care, and even a taxi service. All of this makes a pretty good package, in my opinion. And they did it all without scores.
Now, I can definitely see how difficult it is going to be to revolutionize America’s education system and build a model that’s similar to Finland. You said that it’s unlikely that standardized tests will be eliminated because testing is so convenient. I agree. Testing is very convenient. But more than that, I think that it will be difficult to eliminate testing because we’re so addicted to it. It’s like what Louhivoiri said. We like bars and graphs and colored charts. We like quantifiable data. We like rankings and competition and comparisons. Testing and data have infiltrated every level of our education system, now from kindergarten (yes, there are now tests for kindergarteners) to post-secondary. The minute kids begin their educational careers, they are now statistics and will have numbers attached to them as they move through the system.
But I’m saying that it’s possible. It’s possible to eliminate high-stakes testing and significantly reduce the time we spend to test our students. It will take work, it will take a lot of fighting on the part of parents, students, and educators, but it is possible. We can shake the addiction to the “objective”, where honestly, it’s not really needed. We can stop ridiculously comparing students and schools, and instead work on fostering individual growth through holistic evaluation.
But even if we eliminate standardized tests for grades K-12, shift to well-rounded curricula and portfolio-based evaluations, revitalize our education system, shake the addiction to rankings and charts, and focus on developing each individual student and supporting their individual growth (which is a pretty damn good investment and definitely possible), we still have the issue of what to do when students apply to college. Because you’re right. Unlike the K-12 system, which should provide equal opportunity for all, colleges have admission requirements and rates.
Admittedly, I haven’t thought about this in depth to settle on a solution that I would wholeheartedly endorse. But after doing a little more research, I have a few ideas that might work.
Before I begin I want to stress again that I don’t think college should be treated as the main goal and destination of education, as it is so often treated right now. I think that many other options for students should be made available, viable, and acceptable. This whole “college-bound” attitude is dangerous and excludes many students who might not fit in to the picture of higher education (or who can’t afford it because holy crap what is happening to tuition and student loan rates?!). But there will still be students who want to pursue higher ed, so here’s a way we can still eliminate high-stakes testing at the K-12 level, implement holistic evaluation, and improve the college admissions process all at the same time.
In my reply to Byron, I came up with a way to increase the speed and precision of evaluating student portfolios if they were to be used in the college admissions process (side note: I mostly think of portfolios being used in the context of learning tools and teacher evaluations, not so much college admissions). But then I came to a dilemma when I realized the real problem was comparing two portfolios, which would be, as you suggest, like “comparing apples with oranges”.
So, I’d like to go back to my thought that perhaps we should devote time to developing a very meaningful and useful exam that can potentially be used as the “objective” component of college admissions. To maybe get an idea of how this might work, I decided to check out universities in Finland and look at their admission criteria.
In Finland, college admissions are based mostly on an entrance exam. Some weight is given to high school grades, extracurriculars, and the interview (only for those going into Education), but most weight is on the college-created entrance exam. There are no recommendations, personal statements, Finnish universities have internal autonomy, and so their exams vary. But typically the entrance exam entails open-ended questions and student-produced responses where students write essays, solve problems, and demonstrate their critical reasoning skills. There is no multiple choice.
This might be a good alternative to the SAT, which is not a very good exam anyway. Instead of a nationwide exam used for college admissions, colleges could fashion their own exams that they feel will determine who is best fit to attend their institution. And unlike Finland, American colleges can still consider high school grades, community involvement, personal statements, work portfolios, recommendations, and interviews. Colleges should really only care about how students fare against other students in their applicant pool when making a decision, so why doesn’t every applicant take an assessment created by the college?
But then again this might not be feasible in the US. Finland is a fairly small country with far fewer colleges that America. It’s easier for students of Finland to take an exam for a college on the other side of the country. Representatives from the college would simply set up test centers in other regions of Finland and offer the test on a certain date. With the number of colleges we have, that doesn’t work so well for us. That would actually be complete chaos. (If you have an idea on how this might work… let me know, I think this would be a very good solution).
So perhaps a nationwide exam is necessary for college admission. Personally, I think colleges can make decisions using the current criteria they use now, minus the SAT test score. Some colleges aren’t even looking at SAT scores anymore. But if we really need the aspect of objectivity, perhaps we can work on that developing that one meaningful and useful exam.
Just out of curiosity, I took a look at Finland’s one exam that students are mandated to take throughout their entire education careers. It’s a matriculation exam that is administered at the end of their secondary education, sort of like a high school graduation exam. It’s a very well-constructed exam, in my opinion. You can check it out for yourself. Exams require all student produced responses, come in different levels for students to choose, and provide a variety of subjects beyond the “common core” (native language and math) that students can choose to take. They are required to take at least 4 exams, with the only mandatory one being Finnish (or Swedish if that is their “mother tongue”). The other three exams can be chosen from the following 4 exams:
- Second Language exam (if they speak Finnish, Swedish, or Saami besides their “mother tongue”)
- Foreign Language exam (sounds very similar to an AP Foreign Language exam in the US)
- Mathematics (student-produced responses only)
- General Studies exams (choose at least one from “Evangelical Lutheran religion, Orthodox religion, ethics, philosophy, psychology, history, social studies, physics, chemistry, biology, geography and health education”)
Exams are graded twice, first by teachers and then a national board. Scores are on a scale of 1-7, with the only failing mark being a 1. Failing scores can be compensated with other passing scores and tests may be retaken.
This sounds way better than the SAT to me. The only problem I have with this exam is that it has a lot of weight put on it. I’m against the use of high school exit exams, because the stakes are high and using a score as a condition of graduation can hold back a diploma from people who actually deserve one. Perhaps these people aren’t the best test takers or they learn and express learning in less of a “paper and pencil” way, but they still worked so hard in school and learned a lot of material that can’t be encompassed in a test score. I think completing coursework and building robust portfolios are a good enough graduation requirements.
Thus, I think this kind of exam might be more useful as one of the factors of college admissions. And perhaps educators from American colleges can come together and collaborate and the development of such an exam (rather than a testing corporation).
I’m honestly just throwing ideas out there. Please feel free to comment further and offer your opinions on how we can approach fair and equitable college admissions. Your questions have really challenged me to think deeper and in more detail about these issues, and I’m really thankful for this opportunity to sort through some logistics. Because ideas can be great but they aren’t worth much if they aren’t feasible.
Thank you so much again for your wonderful comment, Mariam! I hope my answer has been enlightening!
Here is the last portion of Mariam’s comment. It wasn’t a question but simply her response to the part of my post on poverty. She says some very wise words that I’d just like to share with y’all:
Overall, I love everything you have written in this post especially the way you describe the effect of socioeconomic factors on public school education. “The achievement gap is simply a euphemism for the wealth gap.” YES. This is entirely accurate. Not only can one’s socioeconomic status affect a student’s performance in school, but it also contributes to the ‘unequal’ public schools of our country. Some public schools are perceived to be ‘better’ than others. No surprise there when public schools are funded by property taxes. Some communities do not have the resources, and their schools naturally reflect that. (This is where race and class intersect too, and we are left with inner-city schools where the student bodies’ makeup is predominantly African American & Hispanic… courtesy of redlining)
If anyone has any questions, comments, or concerns, don’t hesitate to let me know! I’m still in the process of learning as well! Thanks 🙂
Hi everyone! I’ve been reading up on wonderful things I can’t wait to share with y’all (things like Cooperative Catalyst and IDEA and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and “The Common Core” [no link here because there are just too many articles on this topic…]).
Attention will be given to all of the above and more, but first, I wanted to share some thoughts about my post last night.
I’ve been letting myself experience Ken Robinson’s talk again (I like watching/reading/experiencing things over and over again, I get new perspectives every time), and I’ve discovered there is another… dimension, if you will, that is essential to humans’ flourishing, but that is currently stifled by the structure of our education system.
I don’t know about you, but I started asking questions the moment I could talk. I don’t even think my first words were, “Mama” or “Dada”. Legend has it, they were either “What’s that?” or “Where’s my food?”. Probably the latter.
Anyway, I think Questioning deserves it’s own dimension, even though it’s basically the child of Diversity and Curiosity. Questioning entails being curious about diversity. It’s seeking alternatives to the status quo, looking at different and all perspectives, recognizing that there might be more than one right answer, maybe an even better answer than the one that’s widely accepted. Healthy skepticism, critical thinking, and careful analysis are all hallmarks of the human tendency of questioning.
Although this is a very important and natural part of being human, it appears to be missing from most students in America. What’s happening here?
Well, I can’t speak for those students, but I remember the first time I didn’t want to ask a question. It happened about 5 minutes after someone called my previous question stupid. And maybe it was stupid, but I asked it and now I felt stupid.
Now that isn’t the end of the story. One mean kid couldn’t quash the flame of questioning in me. But society could. If I got a quarter for every time someone told me “That’s just the way it is, Hannah” or “Why question it?” I could probably rename a building at USC after myself.
As I got older, it got harder to question and to speak up about my own opinion, or even come up with an individual opinion. For a long period of my life… I stopped thinking. I seriously just thought what anyone told me to think. So basically, I had a bunch of opinions about things, none of which were my own, most of which conflicted with one another.
Thank goodness real education saved my life, or at least my mind. Since then, I’ve valued questions, original ideas, moving discussions, and critical thinking like no other. I try my best to always question what I read or watch or hear about. I always try to find the source, to employ my sociological imagination to really consider all moving parts and factors of any situation. I know that I’ve only been able to arrive at the philosophies I currently hold about education because of a long, arduous process of considering various perspectives, analyzing them, and synthesizing them with ideas of my own while still holding true to my values as a student and aspiring teacher.
I was only able to do this with support from my teachers and school. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to engage in discussions, to question ideas, to voice my opinions, to think outside the box. Many students today in America don’t get that because testing and standardization moves questioning to the bottom of the priority list. Instead of being taught how to think for themselves, students are taught what to think and how to repeat that information for a number. Their tendency to question and doubt and critically analyze begins to fade the minute they are subject to a standardized test. Standardized tests don’t just restrict students and teachers in the process of education; they send a very clear message:
“That’s just the way it is. Why question it?”
“Why?” you ask? Well, that’s a very good question.