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Michelle Rhee’s Teacher Town Hall… Through A Student’s Eyes

Michelle and I after the event when she spoke directly to me. Taken by Alexis Estioko.

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:

Before

  • In my apartment before the event, I made this poster:

1305486_10201945743791060_1996270154_n

  • 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:
  • 1242034_10201945743311048_742924142_nWhen 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.

During

  • 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.

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  • 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:
    • Straw
    • Man
    • Arguments
  • 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

  • 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:

reply to michelle rhee

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,

Hannah Nguyen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The letter:

Hello USC SFER members,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love and solidarity,

Hannah Nguyen

Questions, comments, and concerns are always welcome!

My “Conversation” with Michelle Rhee

michelle rhee

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:

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:

Teachers’ Unions

Chicago Teachers Union fighting alongside parents and students to save over 50 public schools from closings mandated by education deformer and Michelle Rhee worshipper Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

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

Poverty

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

Standardized Testing

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!

So many dimensions… so much to consider

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

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

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

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

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