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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:

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  • 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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Why I Do What I Do – A Reflection After Student Power 2013

I believe that there are three key things you need to always do when leading a movement for social justice and change.

  1. Be willing to listen and learn.
  2. Have the courage to speak out and act in the name of justice.
  3. Never forget why you do what you do and who you do it for, and make sure everything you do honors that.

As you may know, I recently got back from the National Student Power Convergence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Words can’t even begin to describe how inspired and moved I feel. 5 days of meeting and connecting with student activists (including the wonderful and amazing Stephanie Rivera, Jacob Chaffin, Asean Johnson, and Israel Munoz), exchanging ideas and strategies on how to organize action around key issues affecting youth, and celebrating the power of student voice and action? It was seriously a dream come true. I wish I had the time to delve into every detail of every experience that I had during these 5 days, but I hope you take my word for it that the NSPC was life-changing and groundbreaking.

With all that I’ve learned and all the new friendships I’ve made, I am so excited to take all that I have learned to begin building my very own chapter of Students United for Public Education (SUPE) in Los Angeles and well as working alongside my great friend and mentor Stephanie Rivera as a national organizer for SUPE.

But I’ll be honest: as excited as I am, I’m actually kind of scared. I’ve spent most of my life doing what I love most: learning. And most importantly, I’ve devoted a lot of time to learning about myself, what I really feel passionate about, and how I could to contribute my gifts and talents. I never wanted to really act until I was sure of myself and until I understood the issues fully and deeply. And to be honest, I’m still learning, but since starting this blog, I’ve been starting to speak out and act. When I created this blog, I wanted to use it not only as a place where I could continue to learn and develop my thoughts, but to also speak up about my beliefs, raise awareness, inspire others to think critically about these key issues.

Of course, I will continue to learn, listen, and grow for the rest of my life. It’s my favorite thing to do. But I feel like I’ve finally found my voice and I’m at a good place where I can begin to translate my passions, my thoughts, and my ideas into meaningful action and activism. Making that transition, stepping out of my comfort zone to put myself out there, is scary. But so far, what I’ve learned and how much I’ve grown has been more than worth it.

Attending this convergence was a big first step towards action for me. One of my favorite experiences in this entire world (maybe even more than singing a solo on stage) is meeting people who care. People who have passion coursing through their veins. Who really care about something so much that they go out and do something about it. Who have the courage to stand up and fight for justice and what they believe in. Whose eyes light up and heartbeats speed up at even the slightest mention of something that makes them angry, hopeful, inspired, determined. Who are driven by love: love of compassion, solidarity, justice, freedom, and equality. These people are not only passionate; they’re revolutionary. They are the game-changers and change-makers. These are people who live and breathe that list at the top of the page. These are the people who have fought the fights and walked the talks. These are the people who have taught me what it means to be a part of the student movement, to stand up, speak out, and take action.

I went to this convergence to do the first two things on that list that opened this post. I am here to learn from and listen to these amazing people and their stories. And from learning from those who have walked the talk and fought the fight, I hope to find the courage within myself to become more action-oriented, to continue to speak out against injustice, to immerse myself in my community, and work with and alongside others already doing great work to make a better tomorrow for youth.

But before I continue working on my action plan for SUPE, I want to give attention to the third and most important point on that list. I’m even going to repeat it here because it’s so important:

Never forget why you do what you do and who you do it for, and make sure everything you do honors that.

What I’ve seen happen often times (especially in… yup, you guessed it: the education reform movement), is that intentions start out good but the sword starts to swing the other way when money, power, and statistics are valued over the lives and humanity of students. “Kids first” and “For the kids” becomes merely rhetoric, as people jump to enact radically dangerous and untested policies that do anything but put kids first. It’s even scarier when these policies are put in place by people with power and money, because then they are blinded by their power and money and fail to see all the intricate parts of the matter.

This scares me, because I believe my intentions are good, and the last thing I want to happen is for what I fight for to put students at a greater disadvantage. But I know that won’t happen, as long as I make sure that everything I do for my students stems from why I do what I do. I need my vision to be clear and for that vision, story, and root of my passion to drive me. I need to stay humble and true to my roots.

So why do I fight for educational justice?

Well for starters, I want to be a teacher. Every time I play that “nine lives” game at conferences where in each life you can choose any career you want, high school civics and social studies teacher is written in #1-9. But why do I want to be a teacher? Is it so I can watch people’s face fill with disappointment and bewilderment when I tell them my life’s ambition? Is it so I can work 2 other jobs to pay for my first job? Is it so I can have my impact measured by my students’ test scores? Is it so I can get weekends and summers off?

The answer is simple: I want to devote my life’s work to inspiring and fostering young, bright, creative, and passionate hearts and minds. The thought of crafting creative and engaging lesson plans, bringing them to life in my classroom, sharing my stories and wisdom with young minds, taking my students to places they’ve never been (both intellectually and literally on field trips and such), and watching them grow into conscientious, open-minded, kind-hearted, passionate people excites me like no other. I’ve gotten a taste of it through working with children of all ages during my high school and early college careers, and I really cannot wait until I am finally fully trained and prepared to teach my own classroom.

But why become active in educational policy and activism?

Well the answer to that connects to what I want to teach and how I was taught. Let’s start with the latter.

I am very lucky to have gotten the education that I got. It completely changed my life. As I’ve mentioned before in my other posts, I didn’t realize what learning was until I was exposed to a full, well-rounded curriculum that included the arts, humanities, and social justice education. Before, I depended on my high test scores to know that I was learning. Today, I know that no test score could ever reveal how much I had truly grown and learned through my education.

For the first time, I was experiencing what I was learning, rather than passively regurgitating information that I barely internalized (something I’m really excellent at doing… I could be a professional test taker and that’s something to be ashamed of). I was finally opening my eyes to the intricacies and complexities of our global society and the field of education, and finally understanding concepts like solidarity, inequality, privilege, human rights, justice, and my role in all of these things. Social studies and civics woke my mind and heart and sparked such an immense passion in me that in my spare time, I found myself delving into the issues I studied more and more, as well as becoming more involved in my local community through organizing work and volunteerism.

During this time in my life was when I found my passion in education, partly because realized the magic of education through my own transformational experience, and partly because I decided to write my sophomore year research paper on standardized testing and it shattered my long-held (arrogant) faith in tests as well as everything I thought I knew about education.

As time went on, I slowly developed my biggest belief: that EVERY student should receive a free, quality, democratic, and well-rounded public education, unhindered by huge class sizes, dilapidated infrastructure, terrible working/learning conditions, inadequate funding, child poverty, high stakes testing, or other broken reform policies. I believe that this is a fundamental human right and true justice.

This is why I am fighting for educational justice now. My education helped me find my voice and understand the importance of standing up for justice and equality for my brothers and sisters. When I look at the current attacks on public education, especially by a group of people I used to trust to improve education, I get this intense emotional reaction that mirrors the kind I would get in high school every time I read about or discussed a social injustice. My insides burn, my heart races, and every inch in my body longs to get up and do something because what is happening to students, teachers, and schools today is not reform; it’s destruction.

I cannot possibly stand by while countless students are literally robbed of true education by neoliberals under the guise of “innovation”, “high expectations”, and “accountability.” I cannot possibly stand by while I hear my students’ stories of feeling unheard and powerless in what should be THEIR fight for THEIR education. I cannot possibly stand by while students continue to be silenced and invisible, their humanity reduced to digits and their futures determined by people who ignorantly implement harmful policies without considering student voice. I cannot possibly stand by while people who don’t want to devote a day of their life to educating a child use their money and power to manipulate and profit from a system they destroyed in the first place (Why is there a billionaire boys club? Oh right, because poverty and economic inequity exist and are silently hurting public education).

I realize that I could not care about any of this, live a very easy life, float through grad school, get my teaching credential, and just be a teacher in a high school somewhere. I’m sure the reformies would love that. But I refuse to do that. And that has as much to do with how I was taught as it does with what I want to teach.

I want to teach the things that made me a more open-minded, empowered, and justice-seeking person. I want to be a high school teacher of social justice and civic engagement.

I believe that true education can and should awaken the mind and heart by fostering critical thinking (mind) and a commitment to social justice (heart). Yes, learning about all the terrible injustice and oppression that has marginalized groups of people throughout history is naturally discouraging, but I feel that there is also such beauty in looking at how the marginalized have historically risen up against their oppressors and fought for the justice and freedom from oppression. When students engage with learning material that relates to them and their cultural histories, they are more empowered to think and learn for themselves and take action. This kind of social justice education brings not only knowledge and enlightenment, but also hope for students. Hope that they too can not only live in a better world someday, but also be the reason for that better, more just and equal world.  

This is what I hope to bring to students. Hope. Light. A true sense of wonder for the world and love for those living in it. Motivation to learn and turn learning into positive action. A sense of empowerment.

But how can I possibly begin to teach social justice in a system with so much injustice?

I fight for educational justice because I believe that I myself have the power to contribute what I can now so that by the time my future students reach my classroom, the education system will be a more just place. I believe that empowered students like myself can and will stand up for what they believe is right and demand educational rights for all. I believe that education is liberation from oppression.

I know I’m going to get a lot of opposition for fighting for what I believe in. Social justice education is equally liberating and threatening to authorities that pray for compliance. But I will not comply under policies and rules that put students at a disadvantage. I will not comply with people who wish divergent perspectives and beliefs be silenced. I will not comply until there is justice.

Instead, I will continue to hope. Hope that I can not only teach in a better education system one day, but also be the reason for that better, more just and equal system. Hope to live my lessons now and one day have my lessons come alive.

Update: Got a reply from SFER USC chapter’s President! – Here’s my reply back.

So last night, I decided to do something daring and send an email to my SFER chapter, voicing my opinions about the Vergara vs. California lawsuit. And I got a reply late last night, which I then responded to this morning.

I won’t publish his reply here, for the sake of his privacy but in a nutshell, he found me misinformed, asked ME to question both sides (and trust me I have been doing that before opening this blog which I only did after I took a clear stance), and brought up his personal experiences with teachers’ unions and working for Parent Revolution and how those pushed him to support the corporate education reform movement. He says we “need high stakes testing”, “accountability”, and basically ignored my points about a better more comprehensive solution to getting rid of “teachers” in favor of simply bashing teachers and tearing down unions.

I could go on, but you can glean most of what he said in my reply:

Hi [omitted for privacy],

Thanks for the prompt reply! I was really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on these issues.

Before I respond to individual parts of your argument I want you to know that I have looked into both sides, very carefully. I actually was once a fierce supporter of the corporate education reform movement. I felt change was necessary, and I had hope that ed reform leaders would create change.

It took a LOT of evidence for me to change my mind. After looking at not only the stagnant progress but also the dire consequences this movement has inflicted upon our public education system, I cannot bring myself or my conscience to support such a movement. From Chicago public school closings, to Philadelphia budget cuts, to charter schools “creaming”, to Atlanta cheating scandals, to student opting out of tests all over the country, to teachers having to form a Badass Teachers Association to get the point across that they actually want to teach (more on this later), to my students (who were from charter schools) asking me why the “rich white people” who partly fund their school can’t give them paper towels in the bathroom or a soccer field with grass (this isn’t even the full list). I know injustice when I see it. I’ve only started it voicing my opinions about education after I fully understood both sides’ arguments. I’ve thoroughly questioned both sides, actually questioning my current side much more than the corp ed reform side.

I recognize that you’ve experienced many things throughout your own educational activism journey. I appreciate you bringing those experiences to light and working hard to fight for what you believe in. That is something very noble. I have my story too, and very good reasons that fuel my passion against the education reform movement. I’ve stepped into classrooms, listened to what students are saying, listening to dedicated but frustrated teachers, worked with students and understood how incredibly difficult yet rewarding it is. I was also lucky enough to receive a high quality education, something I want every student in America to experience.

Now let’s start at the top: I know you’ve studied Geoffrey Canada, religiously. I’ve studied him as well (probably not religiously) but I know enough to know that I cannot side with him when it comes to his views on accountability. I only quote him because he is one of the few reformers who gives a damn about bettering the communities around schools, and that is something I can respect. I believe that that has been the key to his success. If it isn’t, then why does the high stakes testing model elsewhere do more harm than good?

High stakes testing and data-driven accountability are something I cannot support. This is one stance in education that I have held since the start of my high school career. High stakes testing puts too much emphasis on test scores, outcomes, stats and far too little emphasis on student growth, learning, and humanity. You can celebrate stats all you want, but I prefer to celebrate humans. Learning (we can talk a whole lot about education but forget to talk about learning… isn’t that the point of this all?) cannot be encompassed by a test number. Anyone who’s ever gone through the education system can tell you that. The corp ed reform movement, which promised change, just takes a broken model that hasn’t worked for 40 years and does it even more, using up more learning time and money for resources and inflicting more harm on the quality of students’ education. It’s ridiculous, terribly poor data analysis, and it needs to have stopped yesterday. Countless evidence shows that high-stakes testing is harmful to students, and if you don’t believe the evidence from professional psychologists and researcher-educators, then at least listen to what students are saying and DOING (walking out of tests, boycotting). Teachers aside, high stakes testing is doing the most harm to students in school.

Instead of reform, I support a learning revolution that builds a solution from the ground up, starting with students. We need to eliminate structural forces that hinder true learning, critical reasoning, creativity, classroom collaboration, active discussion, and a well-rounded education that includes the arts, humanities, and civic engagement. If you really want to put students first, think first about the purpose of education and then the purpose of high stakes testing. Do those purposes line up?

Can something else achieve the purpose of high stakes testing without dulling the quality of our students’ education? The answer is yes. I highlight more in depth my proposed solutions herehere, and here. Short answer: data is useless if it’s not accurate, even if it’s objective. Do we value our kids’ learning and development enough to put in a little extra time to get data that’s meaningful, holistic, and useful? You don’t need numbers to hold people accountable. There’s other kind of data that people collect, other kinds of data that have proven to be much more revealing and valuable than the objective data the corp ed reform movement funds so vigorously.

Now back to what we are discussing, which is teachers. I think you completely misread my point. I am NOT arguing to keep these protections. There is evidence, student, parent, and your testimony, that these protections are harming a number of students. That testimony is valuable and should be honored. What I have a problem with is the current method by which we measure teacher effectiveness.

Removing the protections but still tying teacher performance to test scores is what demeans the profession. Not only does high-stakes testing prevent student learning it inaccurately measures teacher effectiveness. And what really is the point of data that’s inaccurate?

Just as there are better ways to look at student performance, there are better ways to look at teacher performance. Schools are communities in and of themselves. They are not businesses. Corporate privatization never works outside the financial sphere and if you want to think of students as standardized products then I cannot support your goals. Teachers should be given respect and autonomy to teach and foster creative and thoughtful young minds. Students’ work should be valued FULLY, and their growth celebrated, rather than reduced to a chart. I said it before and I’ll say it again: Assessment is not a spreadsheet. It’s a conversation.

Now, I want these terrible teachers out of the system as much as you do. But is targeting the entire teaching profession really the answer? No, that causes way more problems than solutions. With the current implemented methods of evaluating student work, more truly effective teachers would be fired than truly ineffective ones. And students would continue to receive test-centered education. Is that a price we want to pay? Collaboration cannot be forced. You (not you specifically, but the whole reform movement itself) have angered countless people who truly care about children. How do you not expect people to fight back?

Believe it or not, teachers go into teaching to teach students! I know it’s hard to believe but teachers actually don’t go into their profession for a pension (you can get that in many other places), or to test students until their brains are numb, or to kill a child’s love of learning! They have been reduced to being defensive after many threats on their profession and many years of being trapped in a terrible system that works AGAINST the very people they’ve dedicated their lives to working FOR. We need to start with doing the right and smart thing, eliminate a system that harms both students and teachers.

[And if we’re going to talk about teachers and their pensions, how about talk about billionaires that fund the corporate education reform movement and their tax breaks? I’m not saying that every reformer ignores poverty. I’m saying that I’ve never heard a single billionaire who is funding the corp ed reform movement mention tackling the issue of poverty and working on building safer, healthier communities for students. Ask yourself why that is.]

You want accountability and for teachers to become more skilled. You want the terrible “teachers” who are completely unfit for the job to begin with to go. I completely understand that and I want that too. But you want to get rid of a problem without looking at the other problems tied with it. That’s not going to lead to any solutions.

You mention in your second email a process that I think should be implemented. “This is a job, if a worker isnt good at their job, you give their professional development, if that doesnt fix the issue, you fire them.” Sounds like a plan to me! Guess how we can get to this process and still do something that benefits students.

  1. Get rid of the system of high stakes testing and data-driven accountability.
  2. Let teachers teach and let students learn.
  3. Evaluate and hold schools accountable through student voice (testimony), student work (Student project portfolios are a great way to track growth. It’s a win-win because they also encourage and foster rather than prevent learning and student growth), and peer evaluations (teachers will work as teams, collaborating, helping one another)
  4. Work WITH (not against) unions to immediately fire anyone posing a danger to students. Continue to work with them to revise tenure and seniority laws.
  5. With new useful, meaningful, and holistic data, provide valuable profession development for teachers to improve and continue excelling at their job.
  6. If they don’t show improvement, move to fire.

All of this can be done before the Vergara vs. California case goes on trial in 2014. Seriously, it can. And if you don’t believe it can, than you’ve never experienced believing in the nearly impossible. That’s something that teachers do every day for their students.

The solution is not either unions or no unions. It’s looking at the system in which both teachers and students are trapped. If we wait for unions or union opponents to “do the right thing and work for kids, we will be forced to wait idly by as history will crucify us for failing to fight.” Your words ring true and that is why I am fighting. I am fighting against a system that puts everyone in danger.

Now for the other points that you bring up:

  1. Thank you for acknowledging that the corporate education reform movement is funded by billionaires. I don’t care if billionaires want to donate their money to helping education. That is a good thing to do! But what is happening is that they profiting from this system. SFER members, I really encourage you to look into this issue yourselves. Here’s a good place to start (but remember to always check the facts and question everything!)
  2. Finland wasn’t doing so well before. Their country was in economic turmoil and their education system was lackluster for decades until they put their differences aside and worked towards building economic inequity. It’s something everyone on the right and left agree on. Poverty was just as widespread as it was here. As a sociology major and someone who has studied the intersections of race and class tirelessly, I definitely understand the intricacies about how “we got here”. That’s why I understand the importance of working together as a country to eradicate poverty in children’s’ neighborhoods. The reason I bring up Finland is that they don’t have high stakes testing, and the professional educators over there scoff at our system for caring so much about scores and even tying those scores to teacher performance. They aren’t surprised that teachers over here are angry about this.
  3. Your last point about unions preventing fair discussion cannot be brought up until we systematically implement fairer ways of evaluating teachers and students. Once that happens, if unions still fight back, then I am with you that we need to “cut off [their] heads”. But I doubt they will because unions are also fighting for what I am fighting for: ensuring that every child has access to a quality education by eradicating a flawed model of high stakes testing. That is the real civil rights issue.

Thanks for reading! I hope we can continue this discussion.

Hope to hear more from the members soon! And of course to see how the president of SFER USC would reply to me.

Thanks for reading! As always, post your comments and questions below! 🙂

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!

More Thoughts on Ken Robinson’s TED Talk – Questioning

Hi everyone! I’ve been reading up on wonderful things I can’t wait to share with y’all (things like Cooperative Catalyst and IDEA and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and “The Common Core” [no link here because there are just too many articles on this topic…]). 

Attention will be given to all of the above and more, but first, I wanted to share some thoughts about my post last night.

I’ve been letting myself experience Ken Robinson’s talk again (I like watching/reading/experiencing things over and over again, I get new perspectives every time), and I’ve discovered there is another… dimension, if you will, that is essential to humans’ flourishing, but that is currently stifled by the structure of our education system.

Questioning

I don’t know about you, but I started asking questions the moment I could talk. I don’t even think my first words were, “Mama” or “Dada”. Legend has it, they were either “What’s that?” or “Where’s my food?”. Probably the latter. 

Anyway, I think Questioning deserves it’s own dimension, even though it’s basically the child of Diversity and Curiosity. Questioning entails being curious about diversity. It’s seeking alternatives to the status quo, looking at different and all perspectives, recognizing that there might be more than one right answer, maybe an even better answer than the one that’s widely accepted. Healthy skepticism, critical thinking, and careful analysis are all hallmarks of the human tendency of questioning.

Although this is a very important and natural part of being human, it appears to be missing from most students in America. What’s happening here?

Well, I can’t speak for those students, but I remember the first time I didn’t want to ask a question. It happened about 5 minutes after someone called my previous question stupid. And maybe it was stupid, but I asked it and now I felt stupid.

Now that isn’t the end of the story. One mean kid couldn’t quash the flame of questioning in me. But society could. If I got a quarter for every time someone told me “That’s just the way it is, Hannah” or “Why question it?” I could probably rename a building at USC after myself.

As I got older, it got harder to question and to speak up about my own opinion, or even come up with an individual opinion. For a long period of my life… I stopped thinking. I seriously just thought what anyone told me to think. So basically, I had a bunch of opinions about things, none of which were my own, most of which conflicted with one another.

Thank goodness real education saved my life, or at least my mind. Since then, I’ve valued questions, original ideas, moving discussions, and critical thinking like no other. I try my best to always question what I read or watch or hear about. I always try to find the source, to employ my sociological imagination to really consider all moving parts and factors of any situation. I know that I’ve only been able to arrive at the philosophies I currently hold about education because of a long, arduous process of considering various perspectives, analyzing them, and synthesizing them with ideas of my own while still holding true to my values as a student and aspiring teacher. 

I was only able to do this with support from my teachers and school. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to engage in discussions, to question ideas, to voice my opinions, to think outside the box. Many students today in America don’t get that because testing and standardization moves questioning to the bottom of the priority list. Instead of being taught how to think for themselves, students are taught what to think and how to repeat that information for a number. Their tendency to question and doubt and critically analyze begins to fade the minute they are subject to a standardized test. Standardized tests don’t just restrict students and teachers in the process of education; they send a very clear message:

“That’s just the way it is. Why question it?”

“Why?” you ask? Well, that’s a very good question. 

When Real Education Changed My Life

To elaborate more on my second educational philosophy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—1—

The high emphasis on standardized testing is destroying real education.

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

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

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

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

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

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

—2—

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

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

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

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

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

—3—

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

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

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

And now… introducing… ME!

“I want to teach them how to be not only good students, but also good people. I want to open not only their minds, but also their hearts.” 

Now I won’t tell you who said that… but once you’re done reading this page, you will probably know who it is.

But anyway, greetings! Thanks for visiting my blog! My name is Hannah Nguyen and I am here to pave my own path in this highly complicated but incredibly rewarding and magical field of education. I want to be an educator and educational justice activist because real education changed my life and I think every student, no matter who they are or where they come from, deserves the opportunity to experience this kind of magic

¡Mira! Magic at school! (yes, I am a Harry Potter fan and proud Gryffindor)

But unlike the magic that’s in Harry Potter, the magic I want to share with my students doesn’t make snow fall indoors or turn a frog into a teacup. But it can turn someone into a magician. It can teach them to believe that they have magic in them, that they have potential to do great, that they can work their magic and help the world in their own way.

I call my learning experience magic because it changed my life forever. And that’s what I think education should be. Life-changing. Monumental. Magical. My education has taught me that I am a part of something greater, and to ignore that is essentially criminal. I am an individual, but I live in this world, I am a part of this society, and I want to contribute in the best way that I can.

And this is why I’ve decided to start this blog! My biggest passion is education. As I said, real education changed my life, and I want every single student to get the chance to get a real education.  One that isn’t limited by test scores and standards. One that is well-rounded, enlightening, and stretches beyond regular confines of today’s curriculum. One that isn’t overshadowed by politics and corruption in the system. One that opens the mind and heart. I wholeheartedly believe that really focusing on education and investing in the younger generation will lead to a better future for this country and for all. If we can achieve educational justice and equity, then we move so much closer to creating a more just and peaceful world. 

Although my ultimate goal is to become a social studies teacher in a public school, how can I even begin to teach social justice in a system full of injustice? I want need to fight for educational justice as well. I am so tired of seeing potential go to waste because of inequalities in the system. I am so tired of hearing my students tell me that I’m the only one who will listen to them. I am tired of seeing creativity, critical thought, and innovation squashed by restrictions and “the-way-it’s-always-been”. I am so tired of hearing politicians and authority figures talk about students as if it’s their fault they are failing. I am so tired of decisions being made on behalf of students without anyone consulting their thoughts, ideas, or feelings. I am tired of the lack of student voice in a system that is supposed to be working for and with its students.

This is where this blog comes in.

Each and every day, I am still learning about all the components and factors that contribute to the state of our public education system today. The whole picture is extremely complex, with various moving parts and dimensions. So, this summer especially, I want devote extra time each day to learning, critically analyzing, and writing about these issues so that I can develop a deeper and more holistic understanding of who/what I will be fighting for/with. I will be reading books, articles, watch videos, visiting organizations in my area, and (hopefully) attending conferences, to learn as much as I can. I feel that only once I become more fully aware of the underlying issues and am able to critically analyze them can I truly figure out how to address the entire social justice issue as a whole. 

Although this is mostly a place for me to record inspiration I encounter and ideas I develop on my journey, you are more than welcome to follow along. If you have anything you want to show me that you think would really help me along this journey, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me!

This will be posted under my “Introduction” tab as a future reference if you’re ever reading my posts and wonder why the heck I’m posting so much about education. Thanks for reading!