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A commentor by the name of “Jack” was kind enough to post details of Terri’s wonderful video, that captures Michelle Rhee’s Teacher Town Hall in Birmingham last Thursday in all its shameful glory. Here is the video once again and Jack’s comment:
Regarding this video from Birmingham,
here are some highlights:
Rhee mocks Hannah Nguyen at about
02:13 – 02:40 — quoting out of context
and distorting what Hannah wrote to her
in her email.
At 05:05, Terri Michal (MIKE-uhl) attempts to
voice her opinion—and others followed suit,
saying, “I did, too,” and watch how she’s
At 06:08, they rip the mic away from
her (though you can see it because
she had to hide the camera, because
cameras were not allowed… resulting
in a bad camera angle).
As the caption indicates, forum participant
Perry then does not answer the Terri’s
question, but instead gives the stock
answer, or rather, non-answer, which the
crowd, stacked with corporate reformers,
The security guards threatens to remove her.
By this point, the visual portion of the video
is black, with just audio.
Rhee brags about firing D.C.’s “ineffective”
teachers, but the truth is that these teachers
were the high-paid veterans that were fired
because of their high pay, and in spite of
their quality. She had fabricated a budget
deficit to do so. Shortly afterwards, she
claimed that the money was there after all.
A city councilman then said that if that’s
the case, hire back the teachers.
Rhee then challenged the city councilman
and those who agreed with him to enroll
their own kids in the public schools where
the fired teachers taught… while Rhee
herself doesn’t send her own kids to public
At 13:15, Terri’s caption talks about Rhee
trying to stare her down… again, because
of the hidden camera, again, caused
by Rhee barring cameras from the event,
you can’t see Rhee doing so… though
you can her screaming.
Rhee then assumes, that because Terri is
white, she must some elitist who “sends her
kids to tony private schools”… without any
proof of this, as it’s not true. Terri tries to set
her straight, but is silenced by the security
Terri then continues refuting this with her
caption and a picture showing her actual
family… the picture speaks for itself.
Then at 14:38, sell-out George Parker talks
about how he and Rhee support improving
public schools side-by-side with charter
and private schools, but Terri’s caption
correctly points out that the Alabama
Accountability Act—that Rhee pumped
millions of Students First dollars into
lobbying and political races in order to get
it passed—drains the public schools of
funding and puts them into private and
Then at 17:14, Steve “unionized-teacher-
are-roaches” Perry talks about all you
need to attend his school are “a pulse
and an address”… and again, Terri’s
caption puts a lie to this in that the make-up
of his students are “more affluent than than
the surrounding public schools, have less
distance to travel, and are more likely to
have a bed to sleep in at night.”
(Bruce Baker, Jon Pelto, and Jersey
Jazzman have posted all the data backing
Terri’s captions then back all of this up
with data from Jon Pelto’s website.
(NOTE how earlier, the moderator
rushed Terri, refusing to let her preface
her question with comments, with the
reasoning that they were already “in
overtime” and had to rush… yet shortly
afterwards, Parker and Perry were allowed
to run their mouths for minutes on end.)
Near the end, Terri’s caption reads:
“Thank you, Ms. Rhee for this ‘teacher
“You have now proven that your words
mean nothing, and you have no interest
“I guarantee that you have won over
no protestors in Birmingham.
“Good luck in Philadelphia!
BAT’s will be flying!”
Terri has also reported that the local news has covered the protest that occurred outside before the event. They did a pretty poor job of it, but that just means they’re afraid of the truth.
In other news, the Philly Teacher Town Hall happened today… From what I could gather one twitter… it got pretty heated. No sign of a large action/protest yet. If you have any info about what happened, I’d love to know! Thanks!
Last Thursday, Michelle Rhee and her cronies, Steve Perry and George Parker, made their next stop on their three-city Teacher Town Hall tour in Birmingham, Alabama. I had a sliver (a minuscule sliver) of hope that this Teacher Town Hall would be less disastrous than the first that I experienced last week in LA. I was proved terribly wrong.
The video above was taped in secret by Terri Michal (@Free_2_B), a wonderful Alabama BAT who is committed to defending public education in her state and who bravely confronted Rhee & Co. last Thursday. She voices her concerns in the video at 3:34 but be sure to watch the whole video; as nauseating as it is to hear the panelists talk mindlessly about issues they know so little about, Terri adds amazingly helpful commentary that exposes the truth behind their propaganda.
I had been in contact with Terri over the past week since she saw the video of my speech, and I had been helping her prepare for the Teacher Town Hall in Alabama, so that she could make sure that her voice was heard. I am very excited to read her full report on the protest both outside and inside the event. She was one of the few outside protestors who attended the event, and I am very glad that she did and that she fought to have her voice heard. I am, however, equally horrified at the panelists’ and moderator’s (who I believe is Rhee’s husband? correct me if I’m wrong) responses.
The bullying and intimidation tactics in this video on the part of the panelists is absolutely revolting. The tactics they used to silence the opposition is ridiculous (though not surprising). Their avoiding to answer the questions is utterly embarrassing. Almost everything the panelists said in this video were the same exact talking points that they used at the last event. Rhee even mentions me at 2:13, and completely twists her encounter with me, not-so-ironically while I am not there to defend myself (Terri’s commentary tells the TRUTH that I reported to Terri over twitter). Typical reformy tactics. They can dish but they can’t take.
This event was just as controlled, manipulative, and oppressive as the last. I can’t say I’m surprised at the reformers, but that doesn’t make me any less disgusted. Thank goodness for the brave people in this video who fought to have the true voices of those in the Birmingham educational community heard!
Tomorrow, Rhee’s next stop will be in Philadelphia. I am way too excited to see what will happen there. I’ve been in contact with the Philly Student Union and they have confirmed their attendance. Diane Ravitch might also attend since the event coincides with her book tour. With the recent state of public education in Philly amid drastic budget cuts… the event should be nothing less than interesting… Stay tuned!
Students, if you will be attending the event, I just want you to remember that NO ONE can tell you what’s best for you. You have the power to think for yourself and have a voice in your education, and you shouldn’t let ANYONE (no matter how much great-sounding propaganda they throw at you) take that away from you.
Everyone else, please spread this Terri’s video like fire! This is SUCH an important piece of the truth, especially with Terri’s amazing added commentary on the video. We cannot let Rhee and her cronies get away with the dangerous propaganda they spread!
This is far overdue but in case you’re wondering, here’s what I would have said if I didn’t get cut off… and if I wasn’t so flustered and upset:
…but my main point is: listen to the students. LISTEN TO THE STUDENTS.
Education belongs to the STUDENTS. It is students who are getting the education and it is the students who should have a say in what that education looks like. My biggest problem with reform is that people like you three, who have all this corporate power and money, get to sit up on these physical and political stages and either implement or support policies that affect classrooms and communities that you’ve never stepped into or even bothered to listen to. You haven’t even bothered to listen to these dedicated teachers in these past two hours! I had to fight for my chance to speak because this so-called “conversation” was just two hours of you all defending your views through a series of straw man arguments.
How dare you speak for people you don’t wish to truly listen to?
How dare you talk about the “students’ interests” when you have not listened to what students all over this country are saying?
How dare you talk about “high expectations” when you obviously don’t expect that students are capable of thinking for and fighting for themselves?
How dare you talk about “choice” when you don’t give students any choices in what and how they learn?
How dare you talk about “every student” when you refuse to acknowledge and honor the complex humanity of our each and every student?
How dare you talk about “accountability” when you can’t even hold yourselves accountable for the disastrous effects your reforms have had on communities everywhere?
Students are not data points on a graph you can talk about but never listen to. They are humans with hearts, minds, and stories of their own. They are resilient and beautiful and insightful. They deserve better than high stakes tests that don’t capture their humanity, better than charters that exclude and criminalize certain youth, better than the poverty that creates an opportunity gap well before they begin school, better than limited curriculum that doesn’t allow them to explore other options, better than policies that instill fear and oppress critical thought, better than budgets that leave their schools and classrooms dilapidated and unbearable, better than decisions that are made without their input. We can do better than current reform. We can do much better because our youth deserve much better.
Educational justice will not be achieved by top-down approaches that deliberately silence the voices of those at the bottom. It will not be achieved by policies that exclude, divide, and oppress. It WILL be achieved by PEOPLE working with and fighting with the students who live this everyday reality. The best way to put “Students First” is by listening to them. So walk your talk and start listening.
Last Thursday, I met Michelle Rhee for the first time. After months of writing about her, researching her, and reading her book (which I couldn’t finish out of boredom), I finally got to see in person the woman I once adored and now completely mistrust. Not only that, but I got to speak directly to her. Needless to say, it was quite an interesting encounter.
Thanks to my network of support on and off line you’ve probably already heard about the speech that I gave to Michelle Rhee, Steve Perry, and George Parker during the Los Angeles Teacher Town Hall. But a lot went on before and after that I would like to bring light to now, especially for the folks who plan to attend the Teacher Town Halls in Birmingham, Alabama on 9/12 or Philadelphia on 9/16.
Please use my experience to help you plan some sort of resistance. We need our voices to be heard.
In summary, the event was a complete disappointment. I came in expecting a vibrant and balanced discussion with equal opportunity for both sides to speak. After all, the word “conversation” was on the screen behind the panelists the entire night. By the end of the night, I seriously wondered if they even understood the concept of a conversation at all.
Here’s a bullet-point breakdown of what happened:
- In my apartment before the event, I made this poster:
- I also bought masking tape that I planned to put over my mouth during the event. I meant to allude to the incident where Michelle Rhee taped the mouths of her 1st grade students.
- When I arrived, I was greeted by members of United Teachers Los Angeles (LA’s teachers’ union) who were passing out flyers and holding up signs outside the library where the event was held. One of them was my friend Noah, who I met a few weeks back and am currently working with on a campaign called Schools LA Students Deserve. I also met the one and only activist teacher Alex Caputo-Pearl, who was recently fired from Crenshaw High for leading an educational program that taught students to *gasp* think for themselves and learn through a social justice/civic engagement lens. His story and the stories of the students who fought to save their school are phenomenal.
- Once inside, I registered at the table and stood in line waiting to enter the auditorium. Everyone was given a question card that looked like this:
- When I asked if the questions would be filtered, the lady told me that the questions would be grouped by topic and they would try to get through as many as they could.
- As I was in line writing my question, my poster was on the ground next to me. A security guard came by and told me I could not bring it into the event. So I folded it up and stuck it in my backpack.
- There were about 200+ people in the room.
- I sat in the second row with tape over my mouth. The tape said, “Listen to STUDENTS!”
- From what I could estimate from the applause after certain talking points, at least 80% of the room was pro-corporate reform.
- Security guards lined the perimeter. I felt highly policed.
- The panelists were welcomed onto the stage. I have my opinions about each… but you can go research them for yourselves.
- The moderator then laid out the ground rules for the event.
- She would say the name of the person whose question card she was holding.
- That person would be given exactly 2 minutes to speak to the panel and ask their question.
- There was absolutely NO touching the microphone. (again… tons of paranoid policing that sent a clear message of, “Your voice is under our control.”)
- The panelists then would be given unlimited time to answer.
- The moderator also gave a very condescending speech about how we needed to “turn down the music of our own radios” and listen to “other people’s music.”
- Later on, I realized that this only applied to people who disagreed with corporate reform because the music of the reform-opponents was barely even allowed to be played.
- Only 16 question cards were in the moderator’s hand to be answered.
- Only 8 questions were answered. My question was not chosen to be answered as I expected.
- TWO of those 8 questions were considered “controversial” (by their standards).
- The rest were in the “policy-related” category but for some reason all went back to the matter of teachers unions.
- Panelists (who were all in general agreement on the issues) spoke for 95% of the time.
- Those who asked questions were not allowed time for rebuttal.
- The first “controversial” question asked what the panelists would say to the UTLA members protesting the event outside. Michelle said she wishes they would have come inside to speak, and then proceeded to speak for them by assuming they did not want to engage in a discussion that’s “good for students.”
- The other controversial question was asked by a Los Angeles teacher who asked about the use of standardized tests in teacher evaluations if poverty is one factor of student performance. The panelists did not answer the question at all and proceeded instead to throw around cute but meaningless slogans about how “poverty is not destiny” or “all kids can learn.”
- Steve Perry even had the nerve to say that battling child poverty “isn’t even necessary!” and brush off a point about English language learners. I guess the only students that matter are those who can take tests.
- The rest of the questions basically gave the panelists the opportunity to elaborate on their points of view.
- Topics covered were: Waiting for Superman (lol), unions, tenure, testing, charters, and vouchers.
- It was mostly a union-bashing party with little productive or balanced discussion of how we move forward or how we can work together.
- Every panelist played victim and responded defensively to a question that was actually asked by someone who agreed with them. How did they do that? Three words:
- The ONLY good point brought up by the panelists was that “bad” charters should be held accountable.
- Absolutely no thorough discussion of concrete topics like Common Core, NCLB waivers, curriculum, teacher prep/training, student-centered learning, critical pedagogy, or alternatives to testing.
- Steve Perry even had the nerve to ask “why don’t people who oppose testing ever provide alternatives?” without giving the audience a chance to speak (I have a great answer for that question) OR proposing any alternatives of his own. What a Grade A “educator”.
- Actually… there was no thorough discussion with substantial data support whatsoever. Everything was vague and shallow (“success”, “all students”, “high expectations”, “accountability”), full of false dichotomies, sweeping generalizations, and logical fallacies. I gave up counting after about an hour of 37 total fallacies.
Now here’s the good part:
- Near the end of the event, Steve Perry was making his last comment in response to an LAUSD teacher who screamed out earlier during the event in rage as the panelists did not answer the second “controversial” question.
- When Perry said that “the students’ interests did not line up with the union’s interests”, I drew the line.
- I pulled the poster out of my backpack and held up high right in the middle of Perry’s speech. It caught all the panelists’ eyes but Perry continued to speak.
- A security guard came over and told me to give him the sign while simultaneously pulling it away from me.
- I tugged back and caused a bit of noise that attracted some attention.
- After Perry finished speaking, the moderator was about to close the event when George Parker interrupted her and insisted that I be given a chance to speak.
- The moderator insisted that no one else would be given a chance to speak.
- The woman next to me (who was shouting curses against unions the whole night and was the cause for my gigantic headache) ironically yelled that I should be given the chance to speak.
- The whole room began to cheer and egg me on, and so the man with the microphone gave me the chance to speak.
- Completely enraged, totally flustered, and quite honestly a little nervous, I gave my two-minute speech and was cut off before I could get to the good part. (Stay tuned for a post about what I WOULD HAVE said if I got more time.)
- After I spoke, the moderator brought the event to a close, with no public response to my speech from the panelists.
- Right after the event ended, as I was ready to cure my headache with a nice grilled cheese sandwich from my favorite food truck, Michelle Rhee approached me and wanted to speak to me personally.
- She gave her response to my speech, only focusing on my point about charters.
- She mainly talked about funding for charters and claimed that students in public schools are funded more than students in charters.
- When I brought up the point about charters being funded by private billionaire donors and corporations, she questioned why public schools don’t ask for grants so they can be funded like charters.
- My response:
- I was then asked by StudentsFirst to do an interview.
- In the interview I basically just expanded on the importance of listening to students.
- The next day, I got an email from Michelle Rhee. Here’s her email and my reply:
That’s basically it! If you’re planning on the future Teacher Town Halls, I hope I’ve given you enough information so things won’t take you too much by surprise. I now am going to echo what I said in my previous post:
If you are going to the Teacher Town Hall in Birmingham on 9/12 or Philadelphia on 9/16, PLEASE invite students to come and tell their stories. Chants work well. Posters work well. Collective actions and gestures are most powerful. This is not the end; we still have a long way to go before education is put back into the hands of educators and students. This event does not have to be as one-sided and manipulated as it was for me. You can demand your right to have your voice heard. You can turn the discussion around. This is an opportunity for a meaningful action that will shine a national light on the opposition to the corporate education deform movement and could spur a discussion on alternatives to this movement that promote true educational justice and equity. Do not let them speak for your students and children. Do not let them play victim and use straw man arguments to promote their views. LET YOUR VOICE BE HEARD! GO AND SPEAK OUT!
Thank you for reading!
Love and solidarity,
- Student Calls Out Michelle Rhee at Teacher Town Hall [VIDEO!] (teacherunderconstruction.com)
- My Speech at the Los Angeles Teacher Town Hall, AND a VERY Important Message (inspireducation.wordpress.com)
- Student Takes on Michelle Rhee (washingtonpost.com)
- Michelle Rhee’s Teacher Town Hall: A Students Stands Up and Disagrees (dianeravitch.net)
- Michelle Rhee’s Teacher Town Hall: A Students Stands Up and Disagrees (bloggerstech.wordpress.com)
- Michelle Rhee Comes to Los Angeles; The City Shrugs (k12newsnetwork.com)
I’m just posting the video here so that people can connect the video to my blog and vice versa. I will be posting a lot of important things on here soon, so please stay tuned.
Here’s the main gist of my very important message (copied from my comments under the youtube video):
Unfortunately, our fight for public education does not end here. The fact that I got a chance to speak was a stroke of luck; there are millions of student voices across the country that are being silenced under corporate reform, most of which will never have the chance to be heard unless we ACT NOW. We cannot continue to let Rhee & Co. exploit and speak FOR students. LET STUDENTS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES!
If you will be in Birmingham on 9/12 or Philadelphia on 9/16, I STRONGLY URGE you to come to the Teacher Town Hall and let your voices be heard. They will make sure you are silenced but you MUST do whatever it takes to speak truth to power. Also, invite students to come and speak. Youth engagement is VITAL if we are ever going to win this fight. Educators, continue to EMPOWER and ENCOURAGE your students to take charge of their education and rights. We are strongest if we fight WITH the students!
A few, well deserved thank you’s:
Thank you to Vincent Precht for taking this video (apologies once again for making you move every time I went in and out of our row) despite the tight security in the room.
Thank you to my sweetheart Alexis Estioko for coming to this event with me, sitting by my side supporting me, and always giving me the strength to do the right thing. I love you more than words can explain.
Thank you to my little brother, who I miss every day and who gives me the strength to fight for him even when it’s hard.
Thank you to Stephanie Rivera for her beautiful friendship and inspiring mentorship. Thank you for teaching me what it means to be a true organizer for educational justice and for giving me the opportunity to pursue my passions through SUPE (Students United for Public Education).
Thank you to EVERYONE who shared my video and sent me words of encouragement and support. Thank you for all that you do to celebrate your students and their humanity, and thank you for your steadfast dedication to justice and educational equity. I want to name you all, but that list would be endless. Expect to be featured on a page on my blog soon. I love you all.
And finally, thank you to my fellow students, whose stories and experiences have made my blood boil with passion to fight, organize, agitate, mobilize and WIN!
I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN!
Recently, A-list actor (and personally one of my favorites) Matt Damon announced in an interview that him and his wife have decided to enroll their daughters in private schools rather than the public schools of LAUSD.
Naturally, the entire ed reform crowd was all over this news like the ed revolutionaries (it’s what I like to call the “anti-reform” crowd) were all over the news about Tony Bennett’s cheating scandal.
In 2011, Matt Damon gave a beautiful speech at the “Save Our Schools” rally in Washington DC. He has been widely known by the education community as a public school advocate that is very much opposed to the ridiculous reforms by corporations and greedy politicians, such as charters, vouchers, and high stakes accountability. A graduate of public schools himself, as well as a son of a public school teacher and professor, he understands the importance of a free, democratic, locally controlled, well-funded, fully-staffed, and well-rounded public education.
So naturally, every reformy immediately scrambled to call out Damon on his hypocrisy… on Twitter. Here are some examples:
I wasn’t really going to say anything about this… but it made me the kind of angry where I really just laugh nonstop because these attacks are so hilarious, desperate, and… hypocritical. But I understand where they’re coming from. Lord knows they’ve needed a break during these past few months of utter failure and embarrassment.
Matt Damon isn’t a hypocrite. If that’s what you’re going to take away from all this, then you’re not looking hard enough.
First of all, his choice, as so eloquently put by blogger @Didymath on Teach For Us, is “more personal than political.” Politicizing people’s personal choices is not only a desperate move, but also pretty hypocritical (Mr. Bush, how would you like it if I brought up where YOUR kids go to school?)
Second of all, the lessons to take from wealthy actor’s and public school supporter’s decision are not that he’s a privileged hypocrite or that school choice is a great thing.
It’s a lesson that maybe we should start making real changes in public education that make public schools resemble the schools that the privileged send their kids to (hint: NO high stakes testing and more teacher respect/autonomy).
It’s a lesson that maybe we should start investing in smaller class sizes, more libraries, better infrastructure, healthy food options, and wrap-around services like counseling and healthcare.
It’s a lesson that if a public school supporter like Damon decides to ultimately send his kids to private schools in the heavily “reformed” city of Los Angeles, public education needs a lot of support, especially against these corporate “ed reform” attacks.
It’s a lesson that the best choice is the choice to not need a choice at all.
Matt Damon advocates for a public school system that does not exist anymore (thanks to the past few years of digression brought to you by education reformies). Who can blame him if he wants to do the best for his kids? What is so wrong with looking out for your kids and then simultaneously fighting for the belief that other people’s kids should have access to the same education as yours? And don’t tell me he doesn’t believe the latter just because he doesn’t support corporate reform. If you opened your eyes at all, you’d know reform policies like school “choice” and “accountability” have hurt more students than it’s helped.
Damon believes in the best idea this country’s ever had: that every student has the right to a great public education. This is exactly why he opposes reform, which turns education into a business with a few winners and many losers.
Third of all, this isn’t even hypocrisy in the slightest. Here’s a beautiful excerpt from a post by Jersey Jazzman about what hypocrisy really is:
What’s hypocritical is for Chris Christie to say that public schools spend too much, and then send his own kids to private schools that spend a fortune.
What’s hypocritical is for Barack Obama to bribe states into using top-down, test-based teacher evaluation systems while sending his own kids to schools that do not engage in that practice.
What’s hypocritical is for Michelle Rhee and Kevin Huffman to push policies that deprive schools of necessary resources while sending their child to a private school that is more than adequately resourced.
And what’s hypocritical is for champions of “choice” to condemn the choices of people who they will not listen to and work with to create a stronger public school system for all.
So first I want to say that I have the best best friend. She doesn’t only support my work and journey through the field of education, but she engages with my work, challenges my thinking, and helps me grow as an educational activist. Oh and did I mention that she’s a total badass advocate herself? She’s totally going places.
Great points, Hannah! Very well-researched and well-written. I wish Michelle Rhee could read this because I would absolutely love to hear her comeback (if she had any, that is…).
Some food for thought below, regarding some questions I’ve mulled over. I would be very interested to read how you address them!
1) As far as teacher unions go, I do agree that teachers themselves are not the problem. Most teachers willingly choose this noble career path to make a difference in the lives of their students. However, as a student myself, I can easily tell you that I had my share of horrible teachers along with the incredible ones. Any student will likely tell you the same. Unfortunately, for some teaching has become the ‘stepping stone’ to a better career later on or a last choice option that they reluctantly had to accept. For these few (emphasis on the FEW, they are the absolute minority) unmotivated teachers, I’m not sure if ‘helping’ them out will honestly benefit students. Why? Because these teachers may become comfortable knowing that they cannot be fired and thus, they may not heed the constructive criticism a passionate teacher would otherwise take into account. However, that being said, teacher unions largely protect the experienced and capable teachers who would do anything to fight for their students. How do we ensure that teacher unions remain intact such that the aforementioned experienced and caring teachers are properly compensated, while those who are clearly unmotivated and careless are removed from teaching altogether?
There are few (again, emphasis on the FEW) teachers out there in classrooms who are unequipped with the skillset and the nurturing mindset to teach… and these individuals do not deserve to be teaching in a classroom in the first place. (Michelle Rhee, based on her TFA stint, is exactly the type of teacher that should NOT be put into a classroom by any means. I don’t want to help ‘teachers’ like Rhee; they should be fired on the spot.)
I hope she read this… but something tells me she didn’t and even if she did, I doubt she’d reply. No one’s got time to reply to a little college student if they’re too busy raising money to destroy public education, right?
Anyway, I really appreciate your comment and I hope my response covers all your questions. If I’m missing anything or if you have any more questions, of course feel free to let me know!
Let’s start at the top with your first question about teacher unions protecting unmotivated, careless teachers.
I completely understand where you’re coming from (having been to the same high school with you). There are a few teachers out there 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”.
Now, there is a difference between teachers who enter the profession unmotivated, and teachers who become unmotivated and feel defeated by the destruction of their profession through high-stakes testing and budget cuts (and now privatization and personal attacks from billionaires who’ve never stepped into a classroom). But it’s hard to distinguish them.
But before I go into my proposal of what we should do about this predicament, I want to go back to something you said in your comment about properly compensating teachers who do their job. Currently, we have something in place that tries to do this.
Merit pay is a product of education reform and it basically gives higher salaries to effective teachers, essentially using incentive to motivate teachers.
This sounds like a great idea right? Incentive is a great motivator, and who wouldn’t want to be rewarded for doing a good job?
Let’s start by defining an “effective teacher”. Here is a great definition from one of my favorite articles on merit pay:
Effective teachers challenge students to pursue activities they never thought they could do—or would be interested in. Effective teachers stimulate their students’ natural curiosity about the world. Effective teachers develop free-thinking, inquisitive minds, eager and able to learn for themselves. Effective teachers inspire kids to succeed in life—to believe that they can succeed in life, and to be prepared to succeed in life.
So does merit pay actually reward effective teachers? The answer is no.
If you go to the article and find the paragraph I quoted above, you’ll see that the last sentence, is the simplest yet perhaps the most powerful of all:
Effective teachers don’t just cram kids’ brains full of information.
The problem with merit pay (as is the problem with most education “reforms”) is that although it has good intentions, it is poorly implemented and has unexpected counterproductive consequences. Merit pay narrowly assumes causation between teacher performance and test scores, and it ignores the many other factors that require attention in order to holistically assess a teacher. Sometimes teachers are evaluated based on the test scores of students that aren’t even theirs! This is an entirely unfair process that consequently quantifies and de-professionalizes the teaching profession and forces teachers to teach to the test. It sends a terrible message that teachers are only as good as the test scores they can produce. Teachers then feel even more disrespected and unmotivated. They also can’t do much about it because they’re trapped in a lose-lose situation.
And so I ask… how can we compensate teachers who do their job, if we don’t let them do it?
Before any judgments can be made on teachers, we need to bring respect and autonomy back into the teaching profession. We can do this through a variety of ways, starting with eliminating high-stakes testing and merit pay. We can then begin to develop an equitable evaluation system that encourages growth and involves student voice, student work, and teacher collaboration. This cannot be dictated by a few people in power (merit pay was the ingenious idea of a select few including Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates). Collaboration is key to create a truly democratic education. It’s time for politicians and bankers and billionaires and corporate reformers to step aside and for the voices they’ve silenced to speak up once again.
I also want to add as a side note that I don’t think we can buy a teacher’s respect. Yes, pay is important, and teachers should be paid more in general, but if we want to ever get to that point we need to tackle systemic attitudes and frameworks that attack and look down on teachers. We should value teachers the way we value doctors and lawyers and let them do their job.
Now, going back to your point about the “teachers” in our education system. I first want to point out that you yourself are a student, and that your voice is valuable and should be heard. Can your test score really indicate that your teacher is doing a poor job? No, you can tell a lot more about your teacher than your test score can, right?
Currently, student input is not valued when it comes to evaluating teachers and I want that to change. If more administrators listened to students about “teachers” working in their schools and worked with teachers union to investigate further and come to a fair and sensible conclusion, we wouldn’t have “teachers” that stay in schools and threaten the well-being and safety of students. So first we need to work on implementing FAIR methods of teacher evaluation that are fully collaborated on, that will justly distinguish teachers from a few “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.
So a while back, I talked to Michelle Rhee (CEO of StudentsFirst) on a Tioki Forum after seeing on Facebook (I follow StudentsFirst just to see what kind of shenanigans they’re up to next) that she would be available from 4:00-4:30 PM to talk to the common folk and discuss any questions we may have. For a forum, there wasn’t much discussion going on. It was mostly question and answer, where some questions were not fully addressed or even answered and rebuttals were not responded to. But half an hour isn’t a long time, so I cut her some slack.
I submitted my question early, because I really did want a response. When I posted it, I received a message saying that my question would be submitted for review before being posted. Well then. It looked like Michelle would be spared from answering questions from her most ardent critics, and the discussion would be less authentic dialogue and more filtered propaganda.
But luckily, my question was posted! Probably because I tried to appear not so threatening.
I couldn’t limit myself to one question, so I chose two things that are two of the biggest flaws and faults of the education reform movement:
- Deliberate disregard of poverty and socioeconomic inequity as factors in the education issue
- Over-reliance on high-stakes testing under the guise of being “data-driven” and valuing “accountability”
Here was her reply to my question about poverty:
Q: Hi Michelle, I’m a student and currently starting my research in education and I’d love to hear your thoughts. I know you talk a lot about accountability, teacher unions, and the structure of public schools as being the causes of our failing public school system, but I recently came across a considerable amount of research that highlights out-of-school factors such as poverty and economic inequality as the root cause. Whether public or charter, a school in a wealthy community almost always outperforms a school in a poverty-stricken environment. What are your thoughts on this? What are you doing to address this issue and ensure a quality public education for all students, regardless of socioeconomic background?
A: Well let’s start at the top. I have repeatedly said teachers’ unions are not the problem. But yes, the governance structure of public schools is a big issue. Antiquated bureaucracies stifle innovation and are bad for kids & teachers. But you bring up a good topic – education policy is so polarized that people seem to think there are only two camps of thought. 1. Poverty is to blame for all public education ills and all tests are bad vs. 2. We need to test everything that moves and teachers are to blame. There’s little room for reasonable dialogue. Poverty does matter and does affect kids, but that shouldn’t stop us from guaranteeing that the minute a child sets foot in school, they are getting the best education possible. Poverty is something which must be accounted for, such as through comprehensive social services, but we cannot allow ourselves to believe that because a child requires these services or is poor, that they are not interested in or capable of learning.
And here’s what I think about her reply. Let’s start at the top:
First, I honestly don’t know when you’ve “repeatedly said that teachers’ unions are not the problem” because I watched you tear down teachers’ unions in Waiting for Superman (which ironically paints you as the hero???), and I know that StudentsFirst is funded by Walton Family Foundation (the one in control of the money controls the org!), who are historically known for being anti-union (Wal-Mart. Enough said.)
And here’s a quote that also makes you look like a complete hypocrite:
“People tell me the unions are an inevitable part of this [school reform]. My thing is, what has that gotten us so far? All the collaboration and holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’?” – Michelle Rhee at the 2008 round table at the Fordham Institute.
Furthermore, I listened to my SFER/USC President spew his brainwashing rhetoric about how if I wanted to be a real reformer, I needed to stand against teachers’ unions (SFER is basically a branch of StudentsFirst, and you can read Stephanie Rivera’s excellent critical analysis of it here). “Teachers no longer care about students and they are the problem!”
And boy was I fooled. Every starry-eyed student just entering the realm of “educational policy and reform” will be fed the whole “teachers unions are the problem” crap. It made sense, didn’t it? Teachers, people who dedicate their lives to helping students, would put their career before students. As if their career wasn’t about the students.
It didn’t take long for me to realize what a load of bullshit that was. No teacher goes into the field wanting to destroy a student’s love of learning. No teacher wants to dull their students down to test scores. No teacher wants to teach to the test and lecture material in order to satisfy standards. Teaching is a noble and creative profession, an art that requires a system where that art can flourish.
But what would a Teach for America corps member who taped her students’ mouths shut and calls herself an education expert after very little classroom experience know about teaching? Probably only that experienced teachers protected by unions are hurting students. Because that totally makes sense. Here’s a thought: Why do we trust experience in every other field BUT teaching?
Of course, some teachers teach better than others. You don’t need to look at data to know that; any student can tell you! You want to help students and save them from “bad” teachers? Help the “bad” teachers. Stop taking the easy way out and tying teacher quality to test scores. Stop busting teachers’ unions and firing teachers. Start implementing some meaningful evaluation (student work portfolios, student surveys, third party holistic observations – preferably by people who have experience teaching). Unions protect good teachers too, and eliminating them would be dangerous not only to the teachers but also the students. Teachers fight for their students. That’s their job.
Bottom line: Teachers’ unions are NOT the problem. They’re a part of the solution.
Now onto the part of Michelle’s reply about
To reiterate, here’s what she said:
Education policy is so polarized that people seem to think there are only two camps of thought:
1. Poverty is to blame for all public education ills and all tests are bad
2. We need to test everything that moves and teachers are to blame.
There’s little room for reasonable dialogue. Poverty does matter and does affect kids, but that shouldn’t stop us from guaranteeing that the minute a child sets foot in school, they are getting the best education possible. Poverty is something which must be accounted for, such as through comprehensive social services, but we cannot allow ourselves to believe that because a child requires these services or is poor, that they are not interested in or capable of learning.
Again, let’s start at the top. I agree, both these ideas are extreme and entirely flawed. I didn’t say that poverty was the root cause of a failing public education system. But it is a contributing factor. And for education reformers to basicaly embody the second camp of thought and tie test scores to teacher performance and ignore other factors that could contribute to low scores is terrible data analysis and quite frankly, very narrow-minded.
Poverty is a large part of the equation. Study, after study, after study proves this. High-poverty environments can cause severe stress and damage in youth brain function. Academic performance correlates with family income and socioeconomic status. The achievement gap is simply a euphemism for the wealth gap. And the “no excuses” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude of the reform movement is ignoring this glaringly obvious STRUCTURAL issue.
Of course, we should believe that students are capable of achieving no matter what ZIP code they come from. This is an attractive, and admittedly genuine idea that Michelle Rhee preaches. But if we truly have faith in students, we should also show them that we do and invest in the communities they live in. If we want to build better schools, we should start by building healthy environments that kids can come home to after school, and the “following up with health and academic and social policy programs at school.” But of course this isn’t what the education reformers want. Because that would mean the tax dollars that they are taking for their own corporate gain would go toward solutions that actually benefit students and their communities!
Once again, I’m not saying that poverty is the sole reason, or excuse, why students from poorer communities don’t do well in school. Far from that actually. I agree with Michelle in that respect: “We cannot allow ourselves to believe that because a child requires these services or is poor, that they are not interested in or capable of learning.” But I’m saying that poverty, along with in-school factors (which I’ll get into later in this post), exacerbates the problem and we need to be brave enough to confront it.
I’ve 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.
Poverty NEEDS to be considered. Yes, I agree with Sir Ken Robinson; teachers are the lifeblood of a classroom, of education. Teachers have magic powers, and they can definitely be sources of inspiration and true learning, but to expect a teacher to undo all the pernicious effects of poverty on a student is a tall order. Collaboration (something Michelle is sorely against) between teachers, students, parents, communities, and government is necessary to ensure that every student gets the education he/she deserves.
To truly invest in kids and do what is best for them, we need to recognize that there are BOTH in-school and out-of-school factors that contribute to the problem. We cannot take an extreme side and focus on one or the other. If any progress is to be made we need to step up and target both ends of the spectrum equally.
Bottom line: Poverty cannot be ignored.
Now, what about those in-school factors that we also need to tackle? Education reformers seem to think that apathetic, low-quality teachers are the source of the problem, but what they fail to look at is the strict system and troubling predicament these teachers are placed in. From Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Obama’s Race to the Top (basically NCLB on steroids) and now, corporate America’s Common Core State Standards, we have turned our public education system into a terribly run business, with meaningless data that only serves to punish students, teachers, and communities, all under the guise of “accountability.”
Let’s see what Michelle had to say in response to my question about
Q: Also, I’d like to hear your thoughts on lessening the unnecessarily tight grip of standardized testing on our students and using that time and money to focus on providing all students with a well-rounded education that helps them become better people, not better test takers. I feel that over-emphasis of standards and test scores limits creativity (for teachers and students), critical thinking, enthusiasm for learning, and attention to the many other dimensions of an education that simply cannot be encompassed in a multiple choice exam and 3 digit number.
A: When it comes to testing, as a parent, I don’t want my daughters’ teachers to only be teaching to a test. I want them to have a well-rounded education & curriculum. However, we must have an objective way to measure whether kids are learning so that schools and educators can use assessment feedback to improve how they educate kids. Accountability for schools, educators, students, & parents is essential.
Okay first off, great appeal to parental emotion there, Michelle. But of course no education reformer is going to directly endorse teaching to the test. However, that has been the unfortunate consequence of what they call “data-driven assessment” and “accountability.” First, No Child Left Behind let the giant claw of standardized testing get a grip on our education system. Now, Race to the Top has tightened that grip as it promises large sums of reward money to districts with the highest scores (because competition is how we ensure equal opportunity, right?). Alongside this, Common Core State Standards, which are corporation-created standards for language arts and math, are being implemented all over the country, and enforced through yet another onslaught of standardized tests.
Oh, and did I mention these tests are produced by corporations, sold to schools, and protected from peer review and public scrutiny? Yes, these are people who have never been teachers, never even step foot in front of a classroom, dictating what students should learn and reaping profits from this added pressure on students and their teachers. Do they care if teachers teach to the test? Not really.
But moving on from that… whenever I bring up my views on standardized testing, I almost ALWAYS get the same retort, even from my parents:
“We need an objective way to measure progress! It can’t just be a free for all!”
Alright. I admit it. We need hard data to know how to improve. But let me quote Timo Heikkinen, a principal of a school in Finland where there are no standardized tests:
“If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”
Right on, Mr. Heikkinen. Yes, we need data to track progress and project growth. But beyond being objective, it needs to be accurate, and by accurate I mean that it should take into account every part of a student. Is such accurate yet still objective data on human beings possible? Probably not.
But then the question becomes: do we care about our kids enough to put in the extra time and money, value their humanity through meaningful assessment, and shift the focus to providing well-rounded educations?
If we do, then we should aim for accurate data. But in order for data to be meaningful and accurate, it needs to be comprehensive. Michelle said in her reply that data from tests is used to improve how kids are educated, but I fail to see how numbers in a data chart (that don’t even take into account a student’s creativity or critical thinking ability) can give effective and constructive criticism to teachers. These numbers only tell part of the story, and are unfairly used to punish teachers for not raising scores. This adds pressure on them to teach to the test in order to fulfill standards and appear “accountable.”
For data to be comprehensive and useful for teacher and student growth, it needs to cover all the bases. Data should try to tell the whole picture of a student, something that standardized testing doesn’t even come close to achieving. To meaningfully assess students, why don’t teachers ask students to compile portfolios of their original pieces of work for evaluation? Work that is able to demonstrate a mix and myriad of skills and understanding, from civic engagement to scientific method to literary analysis. And then, why don’t we give them feedback that shows them that we value their effort enough to write more than one letter grade on it? From there, portfolios can be submitted as a part of the teacher evaluation process, to a third party review team composed of teachers who will then decide how the work meets curriculum standards also created by students and teachers.
Yes, the national standards created by Common Core have good intentions, but poor implementation. It’s yet another get-rich-quick-scheme by the education reformer crew. It’s created even more standardized tests and pulled focus away from funding for and focus on the arts, music, civic ed, the sciences, humanities, physical education, and enrichment programs (all of which are a part of a well-rounded education). The standards were also created and imposed upon schools across the country without teacher or student input.
What we need is a set of standards constructed through collaboration of students and teachers inn various communities, in every subject and area of learning, that are enforced through comprehensive data collection (portfolios and written evaluations).
This will only be one part of improving education, because we should also be evaluating teachers in comprehensive ways that gives them comprehensive feedback from which they can work forward from. Student portfolios are a piece of that puzzle.
Completing the rest of the puzzle takes more emphasis on student voice, rather than numbers. This may come as a shock to reformers, but students can say a lot more about themselves and their learning experiences than a test score. GO FIGURE!
When evaluating teachers for the purposes of accountability, why don’t we ask students:
- What do you want to see in a teacher? What do you feel a teacher should do (not just academic-wise)? This provides a backbone checklist of expectations that teachers should meet.
- What does your teacher do well? How can your teacher improve? What do you wish your teacher did differently/more? This gives a broader look into how teachers are serving their students and provides tangible advice teachers can use to improve.
We can also invite a third-party team of teachers to come observe and evaluate the teacher using an assessment that is, once again, comprehensive and covers all the bases of teaching, as well as provides concrete ways the teacher can improve in the future. The key here is to shift from narrowly test to holistically assess.
We should trust our students and value their voice enough to do all this.
We should also trust our teachers to work together with students, teach them with passion and creativity, and assess them holistically.
We should trust teachers to collaborate with and help one another for the sake of their students.
Once this happens, wonderful things can happen in education. I refuse to believe, Michelle, that objectivity is necessary to improve education. Accuracy and comprehensiveness is what we really need. It shows kids that we care, provides clear steps forward, and leads to providing students with the well-rounded education we always talk about, but never act upon… the same education that is made impossible in the face of the standardized testing monster.
And as for accountability for schools, educators, students, & parents? How about input from and collaboration between schools, educators, students, & parents? There are valuable voices out there in education, and we can no longer afford to silence them.
Bottom line: Standardized testing is not necessary. There are better solutions.
I would have replied on the thread… but by the time I saw her reply to me, I realized it was too late and she would never read my post anyway. And she still might not read it. But at least I can reach more people this way. Hope you enjoyed reading! Please spread the word and awareness! The education reform monster needs to be stopped!
First off, I want to say that I feel really bad for not posting in a while. Things have been really hectic at home, and I could barely find a sizable chunk of time to just write for myself. When I did sit down to write, I was interrupted or had to put it off… and nothing just ever got done.
But, now I have re-balanced my time and plan to start right up again, beginning with a topic that I think needs to be addressed before any others. Before I can establish where I stand, I want to be clear on where I DON’T stand. Before I can get to figuring out solutions, I have to fully understand the problem. Here is a huge chunk of the problem:
The Educorporate Reform/Deform/Rheeform/Rephorm Movement
Gosh, where do I begin? I’m going to do a string of posts on this, but I guess I’ll start with a bullet point list of what the education reform movement is really about.
- Privatization of education
- Expansion of charter schools that destroys the public school system
- Ignoring out-of-school factors such as poverty and socioeconomic inequity
- Higher accountability and high(er) stakes testing
- Discriminatory mass closing of public schools
- Demeaning the teaching profession and busting teacher unions
- “Creaming” students for charter schools (disadvantaging special needs students even more)
[Linked in each bullet point is an article to get you started… of course there are tons of articles and evidence for each one. Also, if you haven’t done so already, I really suggest you check out this handy “Reform-to-English” Dictionary. It’s basically an expanded list of the Ed Reform movement’s bullshit]
My first post on this topic is going to directly address people who are in my position.
A letter to future teachers and present education advocates
All I ask of you is this:
Please, please, please take a second look at the current education reform movement being led by StudentsFirst CEO Michelle Rhee, and championed by big names like Bill Gates, Wendy Kopp (Teach for America CEO), and Arne Duncan (current Secretary of Education appointed by Obama).
Take it from someone who used to be a Students for Education Reform member, used to dream about working for StudentsFirst, joining Teach for America, and running my own charter school.
Usually, I would suggest that two sides of the education debate put aside their differences to put students’ interest first. Usually, I would promote what I support rather than bash what I oppose. But what I oppose is moving education in the wrong direction. What I oppose is making it difficult for me to promote what I support. What I oppose is gaining support from cover-ups and lies, and tricking so many (including myself) into believing their bullshit.
Before, I was under the false impression that this was the change our country needed. I believed that doing all those things I just mentioned would help students and the education system.
Don’t be fooled by fancy, charge rhetoric and the growing presence of their names in the media. Corporate money is fueling this campaign, and the only beneficiaries are those at the top. When the movement started, I joined it because it had good intentions and set clear goals on how to solve the issue of education. Now, actually seeing the disappointing results of this movement and digging deeper into their motives has led me to become completely disillusioned, if not horrified.
All I ask is that you dig underneath all that fancy looking brochures, websites, and appearances and discover what the education reform movement is really doing to our public schools, our students, our teachers, our communities.
After looking at all sides of the situation, if you still stand by the EdReform movement, then by all means, pick up on the past that I abandoned.
But I just want you to know that there is another side to this debate. Another solution that actually listens to students, shows genuine concern for the future of our education system, stands behind teachers, and believes in bettering public education for all.
Education reformers are on the wrong side of history. They are doing nothing to improve education, and they are reaping all the benefits. Real solutions require full collaboration from the bottom up, not the top down (in this case, they don’t even reach the bottom). Advocates for education justice are championing real solutions, real change.
All I ask is that you take a second look.
I’ll end with a quote by Diane Ravitch:
“The future belongs to all the students who understand that public education belongs to them as a democratic right to build their future. [Education] must not become a plaything for Wall Street and billionaires, nor a stepping stone for politicians, nor a profit center for entrepreneurs.”