Sunday, July 31, 2011

SOS March: Finally a voice

I did not cry during Matt Damon's impassioned speech to the teachers just before we stepped off for the march around the White House, although it was touching to see a son speak on behalf of his mother and the teachers who shaped him.

But it was overwhelming to hear, after a year of relentless teacher bashing in the media, that "millions of people have your back" and "We love you.  We support you."

I will say I almost cried.

The emotion rose not from grief but from relief.  It was kind of like hearing a doctor say "You're not crazy.  The symptoms you are describing have a real cause."

If you need this boost now, click over and watch Matt's speech for yourself.  It will recharge you for the hard work to come in behalf of children in the ensuing year.  Damon has frequently credited his public school teachers for his successes.

Yesterday's rally on the ellipse was hot, not only from the temperature but from the speakers.
Probably the biggest rouser of emotion came from John Kuhn, the superintendent of Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District.  He told the crowd to wear their badge of "failure" with dignity and pride because it meant that we were teaching the children nobody else wanted.

Jonothan Kozol also spoke with passion as he lamented the destruction of Martin Luther King's dream to provide opportunity, not test scores, to all our children--and to see them learning, working, and living in the world side-by-side. The past decade of NCLB has done more to segregate schools and kids than Plessy vs. Ferguson.

Those who feel the march is just a call to maintain the status-quo needed to be there to hear the real frustrations in living through a reform which has shifted education farther and farther from good teaching and a rich curriculum for student learning.

We do not want the status-quo.

We want reform that happens in classrooms with real children every day.

Gaining a voice in the process is the first step.  A first step that was taken yesterday.

During the actual march it was empowering to walk with teachers who were speaking with one voice.
Here are chants repeated on the march around the White House.  I was embedded in a delegation of Wisconsin teachers who have learned peaceful protest the hard way this winter.  They modeled for the rest of us:
Show me what democracy looks like.  This is what democracy looks like.
Bankers got bailed out.  Schools got sold out.
Hey, hey.  Ho, ho. Arne Duncan has got to go.
Save our Schools.
Whose schools?  Our Schools.
Whose house? Our house!  (when we were in front of Lafayette Park and the White House)

At least we knew we were heard for one day in the nation's capitol.

The march is just a start.  Please find your voice.

As Diane Ravitch has repeated over and over as she has moved across the nation to engage teachers to rise up against the corporate "billionaire boys' club:"  

"We are many.  They are few."

Begin to follow #sosmovement on your twitter.  Get active.  Speak out.  

The tide is turning.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Soccer, Horatio Alger, and the feds

Lately we've been getting a modern-day equivalent of the Horatio Alger myth in public discourse: if we all just worked a little harder, a little longer, we'd be successful.  It's the "pull yourself up by your bootstrap" view of the world.  In schools this has been ratcheted up.  

The honors student is well aware of how many items must be on the resume (volunteer work, club presidencies, multiple AP classes, etc. etc.) in order to get into the top schools in hopes of securing a fruitful career.  For students who struggle there is more drill-and-kill, longer days, more homework.  Teachers are being told to just work harder, longer in order to see success with students - longer days, larger classes (less pay)--all part of the new reform. 

The Alger story has long been used to victimize the victim: it implies that the American Dream is in within everyone's reach.  You just have to work hard enough--not just two minimum wage jobs but three.  If you haven't succeeded then you have no one to blame but yourself.

But even Alger admitted at the time (our last Gilded Age) that the "modern age did not guarantee success through hard work alone; there had to be some providential assistance as well."

Enter the Women's soccer team. A week ago the American team shocked the world by advancing to the finals of the World Soccer cup.  In an interview with four of the players, Rachel Maddow asked them what advice they would give to countries who haven't fielded successful teams.

Their answer was to invest in their youth programs.  You know, provide some "providential assistance."
Women's teams have been performing at the top of the world in recent years because the promise of Title IX has come into its own.

This federal legislation made sure that women were offered the same opportunities as men on the athletic playing filed.  For every dollar spent on men's programs in public institutions an equal amount should be spent on the women.

The difference between the programs of my childhood and those of today is stark.  We could be cheerleaders and play half-court basketball in gym.  Today a girl can choose from among several sports a season, and the top players compete just as aggressively as the men.  The spillover from athletics shows up in self-confidence, health, access to education, and improved leadership abilities.  

And on the world stage, the American women dominate and we all celebrate: winners again.

The role of the federal government should be to assure that those who have the least are given a leg up to reach their full potential, not a punishment for failing to be born into a privileged class.

We need a public schooling system that does the same: provides the same quality education for all children regardless of their station in life. That is a role the Federal government can fulfill.

We did it for soccer.  We could do it for education.

Save Our Schools March demand number one: Equitable funding for all public school communities.  See you July 30 for the march.

Friday, July 22, 2011

ALEC exposed....on education too.

This is so important, I will let it stand alone. Julie Underwood is the Dean of Education at the University of Wisconsin - Madison
ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council and is the driving force behind the massive attacks on collective bargaining, public schools, access to voting, and other initiatives happening concurrently nationwide.
For access to the legislation the group has written and made available to the state representatives the group supported, visit the website ALEC exposed.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The NYT Disappoints

Today's editorial in The New York Times, "Are They Learning?," comments on the cheating scandal in Atlanta. It is the most disappointing commentary I've read in some time.

It is disappointing because of the simplistic, wrong-headed conclusion the editors express.

It proves just how little the pundits are paying attention to what has been going on in our public schools. And if they aren't paying attention, who is?

It is disappointing because NYT has bought the arguments sold to the public and the media by very powerful special interest groups.

It is disappointing in the extreme because the editors do not blame the testing culture for the rampant cheating that has gone on.  Testing, in their eyes, is OK.  In their words: "It's the cheats who need to go, not the tests."

The editorial underscores that regular classroom teachers have an even smaller voice than ever as we Race to the Top of a Mountain of Testing and Test Scores.  Will no one ever listen to those who live in the landscape?

To answer the paper's question in a word: "No."  Our children are not learning.

Classroom teachers have been decrying the death of learning for the past ten years, and now the NYT and all the rest have come down on the wrong side:  Keep the tests.  Punish the adults.

I can fully understand how teachers can be pressured into changing scores.  We are at the bottom of a very long hierarchy, and doing what we're told is communicated in many, many ways.

Teachers are encouraged to "get along" and "be team players."   If teachers are not fired outright, their professional lives can be made a living hell.  Many good teachers have already been driven from the classroom.

In the current climate the numbers of reports and plans required by administration have multiplied to the point of exhausting teachers outside of the classroom, while demanding ever more in the classroom. We often suffer through the demands with our hands tied, neither controlling district nor school-wide decision making.

In the testing culture, teaching professionals have been systematically de-professionalized.  Districts have scripted instruction, set pacing guides that include regular testing windows, cannabilized instruction time for testing schedules, and pulled students--the well-known "bubble kids"--to remediate, remediate, remediate.

Large scale meetings have routinely focused on the numbers and have often resorted to humiliating whole groups of teachers.  ("Stand up if you are in a school that did not make AYP."   "What are you going to do this year to wipe that 'L' for 'Loser' off your forehead?"  These are sadly real comments heard in real meetings.)

For the thousandth time, yes, we need accountability.  But it needs to be non-invasive, low-stress, and less frequent then the "test every child every year in every subject" being pushed by the current Department of Education.  The NAEP that the Times calls impervious to tampering is a fine example of how we can routinely measure progress in our schools.

Here's a news flash: kids do not progress in a linear fashion.  Sometimes they regress, circle around, and then leap forward.   (Ask your tennis pro.  He'll tell you the same thing about athletes.)  We can't keep pushing kids through an education extruder.  It won't work.  They won't learn that way.  They aren't learning that way.

On the other hand, adults learn very quickly that if we need high pass rates to keep our jobs, then high pass rates will be had--learning be damned.

We need reform, and it needs to look like this: Take all that testing money and invest it in teachers.

While we've pushed tests for the last ten years we have done nothing to ensure that we have well-trained, effective adults in the classroom.  Ironically, we have gone in the opposite direction, letting any and all take a stab at teaching.  (TFA, Troops to Teachers, Career-switchers, long-term subs, etc.)

In the age when we are learning more daily about the brain and how brain-friendly strategies can improve learning for all, we are throwing open the doors and letting those with even less training take on the complex problems of helping our growing numbers of impoverished children succeed.  And, unsurprisingly, the less-trained teacher is fleeing even faster than the career teacher.

The Times is wrong.  We don't need better tests, better accountability, or better laws.

We need an army of well-trained teachers.

If the Times is this far off the mark, good luck convincing the public that better teachers not better tests are what our children need.

Please March.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Why I'm Marching....

I was born and raised in Washington, DC.

In the summer the humidity settles down and the sky turns a sick, pale shade of yellow.  The swamp the city was built on seems to rise up and sit in the air just above the traffic lights.

When I was kid, before the miracle of air-conditioning, we mimicked the dogs that lay panting in the dust under the shade of a tree on the hottest afternoons.  Laying as still as possible in your bed at night while a fan pulled in the night air seemed the only way to escape the oppressive heat.  Our afternoons slowed to a crawl as we moved from shade to shade to popsicles to garden hoses to sitting by an oscillating fan reading a book.

We slowed down.

We drawled our way through the day Southern style.

In Washington, D.C., July is a beast, but August is worse.

So, why return to Washington, DC on July 30 to march from the ellipse to the White House at a time when experience dictates that one should really just be sitting very, very still?

I will be marching because I do not want to lose another thing I bring from my childhood: A public school education.

At the center of our democracy sits an institution that has lead the world in thinking about what nation building really means.  Our invention--education for all-- has been copied all over the world.  The world recognizes that a nation's worth lies in its people.  We invest in our nation by investing in our citizens, and we start with the children.

The school I went to modeled a life I wanted.  I was taught by strong, intelligent women (everyone should be taught by at least one, if not more, people who "look like me" and model the possibilities) Between the serious academic work learning was often fun with breaks for both free and structured play.  We celebrated at regular intervals throughout the year and benefitted from the museums and theaters in the nation's capitol.

The school was embedded in my working class neighborhood where I sat next to the children of refugees from Eastern Europe, escapees from World War II.  I learned about cultures I would have never known had I not been hearing and learning beside all these different voices.  Of course, I didn't know what gift I was being given at the time.  This was just the way it was.  These "different" people were my friends and so they were never really different at all.

A public school opens its arms to the "poor and huddled masses" and America has been innovative, creative, and unique because we have brought all Americans together in the common school.

My entire education--kindergarten to graduate school--occurred in a public school.  Though I had other options for my own children, I believed then--as I do now--in the importance of schooling America's children together.

All three children have been given an excellent education in Virginia's public schools, right on through the university system, and are giving back to their communities in substantive ways because of the investment made in them.  Their friends are white, gay, straight, African- American, wheelchair bound, and the children of Indians, Asians, Quakers, Sudanese--and more.

But now, the system of schooling that has produced innovation, new ideas, new ways of entertaining and communicating with others, is threatened.

After ten years of high stakes testing, the students I now teach are often what I would describe as "tolerantly polite."   Those who have not dropped out by the eleventh grade--often because they have disengaged from schooling long before--are fully aware of the importance of these tests which now cloud the classroom atmosphere as thickly as the humidity in Washington DC.

Remember Marshall McLuhan:  The medium is the message.   Well, the kids have gotten the message: the test is all that matters.  The intrinsic rewards of discovery, creativity, flow, spontaneous celebration, and feeling competent after working through something hard--not emphasized.

How this has perverted the teacher-student relationship is the real threat to our public schooling and Race to the Top--and the test makers themselves--promise to put more, not less, emphasis on testing, testing, and testing.

There are other threats: The division of our students into groups that may never interact with each other often in guise of "school choice."  The emphasis on solving a complicated problem by insisting on standardization rather than individualization. The inequity fostered and amplified by spending our resources on "outputs" rather than "inputs."  Money spent on testing is money not spent on infrastructure, including well-trained teachers as well as functioning, friendly places to come together.  Our promise to our children must include access to safe, engaging places to learn--for everyone.

I will be marching for all these reasons and more.

But I will also be marching for three very important, pressing reasons:

  • Granddaughter Ainsley starts kindergarten in 2013.
  • Grandson Aiden begins in 2014.
  • Grandson Eli--due to arrive July 30--goes to school in 2016.

I surely want these very special people to love school, to love kids of all colors and ethnic stripes, and to love America the way I loved my hot, steamy childhood.

Just a note...

The fellows of the Northern Virginia Writing Project have begun their intensive work in the Summer Institute.  As a leader of the Shenandoah Valley Satellite site I am steeped in the work of practicing teachers.  It is intensive, rejuvenating, enlightening and exhausting work as we teach each other, share theory, and write for ourselves.
The four or five weeks spent by the teachers transforms their practice and stance in the classroom, not just for the following year but for much of their teaching career.  (98% of Teacher Consultants in the National Writing Project stay in the field of education their entire working lives.  That is an amazing statistic.)
Needless to say, this is consuming work and means.....fewer opportunities to blog.