Sunday, August 28, 2011

Playing the game of Life...


On the long drive back from the beach this month, I played Life on the cellphone app my daughter handed to me.

"It's fun.  Try it."

It had been a good 20 years since I played the face-to-face board game when the kids were young. Back then the term "face-to-face" didn't even delineate a choice.  All games were played face-to-face, even the ubiquitous video games.  (My marker for the digital world is 1982, the year my son was born, and we bought an Apple. The first one. With the blinking cursor and the green text.)

The premise of the game is simple: whoever retires with the most money wins.

Though the spinner was fun, even responding to some finesse with touch, and the street level view of the moving pieces was engaging, I found myself more and more angered as I progressed through my "life."

Everything was measured in money.

Birth of a child: receive $5000 in gifts from friends.  ($5000?  Really?  No joy? No fulfillment?  Just $5000 bucks?  A lousy measure of what the birth of my children meant to my husband and I.  It was a hollow reward.)

College earned the player a lot more money right after graduation. The game choice I made - to go into entertainment - didn't pay well at all--but I picked it because it sounded like fun.

In the real game of life, my college years never really resulted in a big pile of money, but they were exciting and fulfilling.  Choosing liberal arts changed me, changed my view of the world, and opened my awareness to a thirst for knowledge that has never abated.  I'm not sure what dollar value I would place on that.

The game went on like that, with the milestones of a rich and varied life reduced to a dollar figure.  I could hardly stand it.  It seemed a little too real, a little too much like our current lives.

Numbers rule our lives here in America.  Rich people are somehow better than poor.  Those with high SAT scores are more valuable than those without.  Wall Street has to hit the numbers. School districts, teachers, students .. all are driven by the numbers.  But for every number, especially the ones my students 'earn', there is a whole story left untold.

Our focus on money and measurement has created a spiritual and cultural wasteland.  Playing "who makes the most, scores the highest" is an unsustainable vision.  It is simplistic, simple-minded and a poor substitute for the richness of human experience. In addition, there can really only be one winner at that game.  It feels as though the piling up of wins would topple over from the sheer pressure to get more, more, more.

But it is something a businessman understands completely. And the business pros are winning at shifting this game into education.

My invisible, virtual opponent won the game.  She retired before me and continued to play the numbers.  She had taken an option out on the number "9" and it paid off several times, earning her well over a million dollars as she basked in retirement while I continued to limp along with my two-year degree. (I went back to school.)

She was divorced (big payout) and ended the game with only one child--no grandchildren.

I imagine her as a bitter, old woman in a toney retirement home sipping martinis, playing backgammon, and yelling at the TV.

As for me, I lived a long, happy life in my log-cabin surrounded by a pile of messy, disorganized grandchildren.

Guess I lose.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Nailing the coffin lid shut

Our district is still in our pre-school week, and for the first time in my professional career we have received an unusual message from our superiors: Please Speak Up.  Specifically about all the good that public educators do for the community.

Historically teachers are reluctant to speak publicly about education issues, especially local issues.  We fear retribution and are also, and rightly so, requested to avoid revealing a political stance since we have a huge influence on shaping minds.

Though the suggestion is a welcome one to me, a trained journalist with a near religious adherence to the right to free speech, it is indicative of just how much of a threat we face in the public education system.

The fact is that we are in the last battle of a long war on a basic pillar of a functioning democracy: our public schooling system.  The foot soldiers are being rallied.

It may be too late.

We should have been marshaled about ten years ago.  Anyone who read the NCLB law could see it as a cleverly disguised method to discredit every school in the country. (For the uninitiated, the goal has always been a 100% pass rate by every student on every test by 2014.  This was never possible.)

Even Senator Edward Kennedy, a long time champion of the disenfranchised, was duped into supporting the law, more evidence for how clever the opposition has been at disguising their true motives.  They have known the ultimate goal from the beginning and have maintained a straight public face while chuckling to themselves in private.

Screaming headlines of "FAILED SCHOOLS" have rolled across every town and community throughout this August.  Couple that with the campaign to silence and discredit teachers that began in earnest in 2010 with the release of Waiting for Superman, that was accelerated by Oprah Winfrey and the media,  and has continued apace with loud arguments against tenure, and the field has been effectively cleared.

Teachers must begin every conversation now by justifying their work, their integrity, their adherence to excellence, an explanation of why we need to retain experienced teachers, how we use our time during the school year, why a summer off is defensible, how many hours are spent grading and receiving additional education, and on and on.

It's a pretty long conversation to have in the check out line.

If you think the fight has been fair, think again.  Using a fair measuring stick has never been the agenda. (See NCLB law for support.)

The goal of providing an excellent education is a canard.  

The real goal has been the privatization of public education.

Another goal is the re-segregation of schools, if not on racial lines then certainly on lines of privilege.

A third goal is to de-professionalize teaching.  When private agencies take over they will not want to have to pay a living wage.  It's more profitable to hire a revolving door of young "teachers" at $10.00 an hour to turn on the computer or recite the scripted lesson plans.  (I ache when young--and naive--teachers defend the loss of due-process by saying something simplistic like "If you do your job well, you should never have to worry about being fired."  Ah, so young and trusting.  You don't have to be fired if you are worked to death, or harassed to death.  You'll just leave and retreat to a job with less stress--like air-traffic controller.)

That will be "teaching" for the masses.

Those who can afford an education that develops critical thinking, creativity, lifelong learning can buy it for their progeny.

Welcome to a return of the feudal system with the new liege lords and serfs in corporate fiefdoms.

Is it too late?  Ask the Florida (Flori-DUH) teacher qutoed below who is now being evaluated by a system that garnerd Race to the Top dollars from our current administration:

50% of ALL high school teachers' ratings will be based on 9th/10th grade FCAT math/reading scores. So even if you teach science to 12th graders, 50% of your rating for "merit pay" a rating that gets published online to the public will be based on something you DON'T EVEN TEACH. And of course, basing pay on these kinds of tests is absurd to begin with.
Even a child can tell you that's not fair.

The camel is entirely inside the tent if our own Secretary of Education thinks this is a worthy way to encourage the best and the brightest to pursue a career in teaching.

But, then again, that's not the point.  And it never was.

The de-formers do not play fair and have consistently written the laws to their own advantage.

Can you hear the hammering?  There is only one nail left to go in.

Better push back, and hard.

Monday, August 15, 2011

I thought I knew TFA but...

Teach for America (TFA) sounded like a good idea the first time I heard about it.  Get the best and brightest into hard-to-staff classrooms and hope their experiences stick and then "the best" will make a career out of helping our neediest children.

It is appealing in the same way the selfless programs of the "Peace Corps" and "Americorps" from the Kennedy era of asking what can we do for our country appealed to my sense of humanity.

But in practice TFA has left much to be desired.  After extensive reading, it's clear the revolving door of TFA recruits damages students in urban areas, destroys the community of a school, and has a 'wolf in sheep's clothing' agenda to change education policy by quickly moving TFA recruits into positions of power (a la Michelle Rhee, the highest profile TFA recruit to date.)

But after attending the TFA workshop "Why Teach For America (TFA) Must Change: Properly Training New Teachers for the Rigors of Teaching" at the SOS Conference on Friday, July 29, I believe that some of what TFA does should be called educational malpractice at best and criminal at worst.

The leaders of the panel were David Green of Fordham University, currently a mentor to TFA recruits in the Bronx; Dr. Barbara Torre Veltri of the College of Ed at Northern Arizona University and author of Learning on Other People's Kids: Becoming a Teach For America Teacher; Janet Grossback Mayer, a Bronx teacher who has taught for an amazing 51 years in the Bronx; Lawrence Mayer, an award winning Biology teacher and New York City principal; and two former TFA recruits John Bilby and John Williamson (in 2010).

Both of the recruits "failed" in TFA, leaving long before their two-year expected stint was up.  Both felt inadequately prepared for the classrooms they entered.  John Williamson, for instance, was trained to teach secondary mathematics but was moved into three different elementary grade level classes in three different schools in his first two months on the job.


In addition to that, Williamson indicated that he was required to meet regularly in the evenings with a donor, who was purportedly mentoring him.  The advice offered by the high-powered businessman had little validity for the work in the urban classroom, but apparently made the donor feel good about his donation.  Williamson found the required meetings a drain on the time needed to prepare for students. By his own admission he was just one page ahead of the students in his class.

Both recruits indicated that the five-week training in the summer was much like boot camp. Absences, even for legitimate illness (Williamson came down with strep throat) were strongly discouraged.

All TFA's were expected to stick to scripted lessons to prepare students for testing as well as scripts for maintaining control in the classroom.  They were to move ahead to polynomials even if the kids couldn't subtract negative numbers.

A favorite classroom management tool "I'm going to count backwards from four and I want you quiet when I get to one" was laughably inadequate with students who are street-smart, having to negotiate bus schedules, gang territory and other hazards just to get to school.

Mentors who worked with TFAers offered engaging alternatives for classroom management that the novices embraced. But when mentors returned to the classroom, the recruits were back to the scripts because "that is what the TFA management wants."

And about that management.  The five-week summer training sessions are often run by other TFAs with as much as, wait for it, an entire year of experience before they begin to train the next group.


But beyond that, TFA seems to also be involved in activities I would call criminal.  Among them:

  • Placing minimally trained young adults with inadequate training in with special needs populations.  (One young woman was beaten severely when left by herself with high-needs students.)
  • Brokering contracts with districts to guarantee that 20% of their workforce will be filled by TFA recruits, even if it means firing experienced teachers to do so.***(See Barbara Torre Veltri's clarification on this point in the Comments.)
  • Getting a waiver from the Dept. of Ed. for the highly qualified stipulation.  Then, when that was challenged in court, slipping in legislation during the budget cuts this spring that changed the law so TFA recruits can continue to wear the highly qualified label.
  • Moving recruits around at will.  Training them for one subject or grade level, then arbitrarily moving the teacher into another area (as was Williamson's experience.) 
As I listened to the litany, I was outraged.  It seemed clear that TFA was interested solely in their own image and did not care a whit for the students subjected to the program. (There was evidence in their own literature about "hitting numbers" that had little to do with instruction.  One of the numbers they are proud of is the number still in Ed.  Unfortunately, the part of education they are in is shaping policy.  Not good.)

All without being held accountable?

The second grade that Williamson took over before December had already had numerous adults at the head of the class before him and was, unsurprisingly, in chaos.  What has happened to those kids?

Many of the panelists argued that TFA needed to be reformed.  But when the floor was opened to discussion, the young man at right (Sorry for pic quality. Snapped with iphone.) made a passionate argument that "TFA is the devil"  and "I say burn it down."

He was a student in New Orleans when the city was hit by Katrina.  Many of his teachers, some who had Ph.Ds according to the young man, were replaced by TFA recruits.

He argued they failed to connect to the inner city minority students and that resulted in confusion among the student body.  The impromptu speaker had earned the nickname of "Grandpa" because he had filled in where the other adults had failed.  He repeated several times that "New Orleans is dying and nobody cares."

Not even those who advertise that they do care.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Matt Damon: A+

Videos are surfacing from the SOS March of interviews with Matt Damon as he awaited his opportunity to speak at the rally held July 30 on the ellipse in humid, 100 degree weather.

Damon is impressive.  Apparently he has been paying close attention to the issue, no doubt in part because his mother is a successful professor of Early Childhood Education.  Regardless, he calls the current reform "punitive" and carrying an "intrinsic paternalism."

In any case, Damon is articulate, informed, concerned, and sometimes angry about what he is witnessing.  He makes it clear that he feels the children are being cheated and won't be prepared to be the problem-solvers and critical thinkers we will need to solve the next generation's problems.

Another video, created by Reason tv, has been making the rounds because of Damon's smack-down of the reporter who posted an SOS March video of a montage of guerilla-warfare interviews with a variety of participants.  In all of the interviews, the 'reporter's' bias was evident in the questioning.  Reason tv is apparently a libertarian outlet created by Drew Carey, the comedian.  I will not reproduce that video here.  It has been seen in multiple venues but drew the ire of Lawrence O'Donnell on his show Tuesday night.

In addition to understanding the issues with 'pay-for-performance' and high-stakes testing, Damon is aware that the participants in the march included the leading thinkers in education.  He argues that they should be included in reform plans and that even he, a successful businessman, has no expertise or right to create education policy.  (In another clip from this interview, not included here, Damon says that he should be paying more in taxes and neither he, nor anyone he knows, created jobs with the tax break they received.)

Thank you Matt Damon for using your star-power to help educators gain a voice in the current debate.  And thank you too, for 'getting it' and taking the risk to stand with those who stand for those who cannot speak: the children of America's tomorrow.