Betsy Devos: New but Same Old Disaster for Public Ed

Betsy Devos, a right wing billionaire from Michigan who has no experience as an educator or even as a parent of public school children, may very well be our new secretary of education. Her platform?  Increasing unregulated, for-profit charters and school voucher programs to send America’s children to private christian schools. AKA: Destroying public education.

Let’s get a few things straight.

Unregulated, for-profit charters should be illegal. They take taxpayer money, provide sub-par education, cherry pick kids leaving the hardest cases for public schools and make money for people who are already rich. How is this ok with anyone?

Children are not commodities.

Quality public education is a right and a service- not a for-profit opportunity.

Teachers are public servants, who work very hard for very little. Without the security provided by unions and retirement benefits teaching is a completely unsustainable career. Hence the insane turnover at charter schools.

There is no evidence that charter schools are better than public schools. There is definitely no evidence that dubious for-profit charters and online schools are better than public schools. But there is evidence that adequately funded public schools and unionized teachers DO provide quality education.

The federal government has no business funding private, unregulated christian schools.

In Michigan, Devos’ home state, public schools have been so neglected that buildings are rotting, students are drinking poisoned water and teachers are making do without any supplies at all. Meanwhile, Betsy Devos gets to be the new Ed Secretary.

But this is nothing new. Amidst all the outrage about Devos’ appointment there is a group of people, mostly teachers and parents, who have been fighting these very same battles for years. John King and Arne Duncan also steered education policy around billionaire interests and the false promise of “choice” all while sending their own children to progressive private schools.  Unqualified, often right-wing billionaires- the Waltons, Gates and Devos families among them- have been calling the shots in education for a very long time and teachers and parents have been sounding the alarm for just as long. We have been protesting school closures, organizing strikes, opting out of test and punish and voting to keep caps on charter schools around the country while Republicans and Democrats alike champion the decimation of public schools and organized labor.

Maybe it’s time for everyone on the left and above all- for educators- whether you work in a public, private or charter school, to wake up and realize that privatization is at best ineffective and at worst perpetuating the plutocracy we are rapidly becoming. It’s time to think critically about an unregulated “reform” movement funded by hedge fund managers, tech billionaires and fundamentalist christian “philanthropists” like Devos. It’s time for a unified Democratic platform that stands up for public schools and public school teachers.

Teachers and leaders like Carol Burris and Diane Ravitch have been speaking out for years. It’s time to listen.

 

 

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Thank You David Denby/ How I Stopped Worrying and Solved the Teacher Shortage

At the start of another school year, in which I am yet again thinking this is my last year in the classroom because I just don’t know if I can keep doing this crazy job, thank you David Denby for writing the article that says everything.

Here’s my favorite part:

If we seriously want to improve the over-all quality of teachers, we have to draw on more than idealism (in some cases) or desperation (in other cases). We have to make teaching the way to a decent middle-class life. And that means treating public-school teachers with the respect offered to good private-school teachers—treating them as distinguished members of the community, or at least as life-on-the-line public servants, like members of the military.

We also have to face the real problem, which, again, is persistent poverty. If we really want to improve scores and high-school-graduation rates and college readiness and the rest, we have to commit resources to helping poor parents raise their children by providing nutrition and health services, parenting support, a supply of books, and so on. We have to commit to universal pre-K and much more. And we have to stop blaming teachers for all of the ills and injustices of American society.

Yes please! Because it is seriously dispiriting to feel the weight of all the ills and injustices of American society on your shoulders when almost everything you’re held responsible for is completely out of your control. And yes, poverty (and inequitably funded schools) is the crisis in education, not teachers.

But there’s just one more thing. Yes, we need and crave respect- and with that increased autonomy in our classrooms and schools. But I think many teachers are craving something else- something that is fast disappearing from too many classrooms. What is it? Well for me its something that captures a healthy deference toward what it means to be a child. Joy. We need to bring joy back into the classroom.

Teaching should be just a little bit fun. It should be just a little bit happy. A little bit silly. And infused with love. And yes, I am an adult and I know jobs are not about fun, or love or happiness, but in the age of tech companies encouraging employees to skateboard through the office and be best friends with everyone how ironic is it that the professionals who actually work with children, children who have an evolutionary drive to play- those professionals are sentenced to mindless hours of punishing, scripted work as we watch recess, PE, art, science, games, and songs disappear more and more each year.

I became a teacher because I love children and I love learning. I’m not in it for the glory or the riches. (I can barely afford my rent)  And no I’m not a union shill just in it for the sweet health benefits (they stink) and pension (not counting on it existing in 20 years).  No, I became a teacher because I love – I mean really love kids. I love how quirky and bizarre they are, I love how hilarious they are, I love how eager they are to learn and explore, how loving they can be, the sense of wonder they bring to any new experience and I love sharing my own awe and delight in learning with them. I love the way that even children who have survived trauma too scary to describe can light up with a smile at the smallest provocation.

More respect and higher pay would be great, don’t get me wrong.  But what makes teaching actually worth it is so much more intangible than that. It’s joy. Love.  It’s seeing children excited and delighted, it’s the kids who invite you to sleep overs at their house because they don’t want to miss you over the weekend, it’s the random stories kids tell you about their imaginary pets, it’s finding out that your students are obsessed with bugs and watching them jump up and down when you release butterflies, it’s hearing kids cheer because today they get to write whatever they want, it’s finally, finally teaching something that isn’t scripted, and, above all, it’s about forging relationships with your most difficult students and then crying in June when you have to say goodbye to them.

Childhood should be happy and full of love, not a sisyphean slog. The same goes for teaching.  If we want people to commit to many years of real teaching- developmentally appropriate, thoughtful, serious teaching, we need to bring joy back into the classroom and into the profession. Let kids be kids and let teachers be people who love kids. Teacher shortage solved.

 

Testing Season and Why Everyone Should Opt Out

Testing season at my elementary school begins after February break and ends with the conclusion of the state math tests in mid-April. Like many schools, our students are subject to test prep “units” at this time of year that include practice tests, stamina building exercises and test taking skill “explorations.” It is the worst time of year for teachers, students and families, yet at my school, inexplicably, no one is speaking out and no one is opting out.

So to parents out there, here’s what really happens in testing season…

  1. No one teaches science or social studies for 3 months. The number of teachers who have told me ” Oh I’m only doing read alouds for science because of test prep” or “we’ll do that activity after testing” is disturbingly high. This time of year, its all about those 3 Rs. This is a reality across the board- whether schools do a test prep “unit” or do test prep all year- science and social studies always get cut. 30 years from now when we are faced with the next global warming like debate, we can thank high stakes testing for our ignorance.
  2. Reading, writing and math become exclusively pencil and paper tasks and last all day. Reading, writing and math can and should be engaging and meaningful, but in test prep season kids often don’t get to choose what they read or write about, and are fed poorly written passage after passage. Kids should be reading books! Not passages followed by short responses and multiple choice questions. Besides, what’s the point of writing if you’re not allowed to write about anything interesting? ( like STORIES! Remember when kids used to write stories?)
  3. No trips, no fun,  no emotional support. There is so much pressure on teachers to get high scores- so not only is the academic curriculum narrowed to ELA and math, but many teachers sacrifice all the things that keep kids motivated and foster social skills- like trips, games and opportunities for play. At my school we’re not allowed to go on trips with 3rd-5th graders for all of testing season. We all know that what children need to learn is uninterrupted practice with reading packets and multiple choice questions… Oh wait, is that it?
  4. Even students who have disabilities, or are English language learners have to test prep. Even if they can’t read. At all. They have to “practice”  too. I had a student cry for over 30 minutes the other day because his classroom teacher was going to make him finish his ELA packet. He is a smart and vivacious kid who is normally super excited to come to my class and always had great ideas. But he cried for the whole period. The whole period.
  5. The homework gets insane. Like packets on top of packets. Plus many schools have Saturday classes for extra test prep! Because every day and night is not enough!
  6. Everyone is grumpy.  This might not seem important, but you try teaching 30 grumpy, jittery, stressed out kids or leading a staff meeting with angry, sleep deprived teachers. Let me know how that goes.
  7. Finally, it trickles down. All this testing frenzy does absolutely trickle down to the younger grades. Especially in testing season. It is around this time of year that the administration “suggests” incorporating testing language and skills for kids as young as pre-k and we are told to plan ways for first graders to be more “test ready.”

I recently had a conversation with a parent about the impending state tests. This is a parent who has told me that she is thinking about withdrawing both her children from our school and sending them to a progressive private school because, as she put it,  “they’re bored.”

She said that she wasn’t planning on opting out her children because they hadn’t expressed any specific anxieties about taking the tests. Then she told me that they don’t like school anymore and that is why she is thinking about transferring to a private school.

Parents out there- if your child is bored at this time of year, it is because of testing. If your child is especially frustrated and emotional at this time of year, it is because of testing. If your child has suddenly stopped going on trips or learning anything in science and social studies, it is because of testing. If your child is coming home with boatloads of homework that make no sense to you, it is because of testing. If your child hates school and finds it all too hard and confusing, that’s probably in some part because of testing too. If any of this sounds all too familiar- you should OPT YOUR KID OUT.

Send a message that a narrowed, autocratic, undifferentiated, and developmentally inappropriate curriculum is not OK for any child!

There are some lucky schools out there where the administration eschews test prep and almost all the students opt out. And you know what they do at those schools?  They teach. And learn. Real stuff. Projects. Science. Social Studies. Critical thinking. Art.

All children deserve real learning. All children deserve differentiated teaching that meets their needs, not the agendas of corporate reformers. All children deserve to be engaged, respected and inspired at school.  Even during testing season. OPT OUT.

 

 

 

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The Myth of College Readiness

Just because children have to do something when they grow up does not mean it is appropriate for elementary school students. 6 year olds are not college students. Not yet.

I am so tired of “college readiness” being used to justify innumerable teaching mandates that are not developmentally appropriate. For instance- the common core shift to non-fiction in writing and reading, or there was that time my principal told us to use testing language with first graders, and then of course, the pages of homework being sent home starting in kindergarten. I don’t care what they have to do in college- 5 and 6 year olds should be writing stories, not essays, using language that makes sense for them and playing, not filling out worksheets after school.

You know what else college students should probably be prepared for? Sex. But no one has mandated that teachers introduce kindergarteners to details of STD prevention. Because it is not appropriate! They are not ready!

One teacher at my school recently told me that she thought taking tests in 3rd grade was important practice for the SATs. Wait. A. Second. So we need to be preparing kids for the SATs almost 10 years before they take them? Taking a 3 hour test might be developmentally appropriate for 17 year olds. But make no mistake, no matter what anyone tells you, any seated task that lasts more than 40 minutes is not developmentally appropriate for a typical 8 year old.

If we really want our elementary school kids to be “college ready”, we can…

a. Make college affordable so they actually have the option of going.

b. Offer them rich, sensory, creative and meaningful learning experiences so that they love school and develop some of the non-academic skills that actually matter in college – self motivation and self control, executive functioning and organization, independence and the ability to problem solve and communicate.

c. Meet kids’ needs in the here and now. Stop worrying about what they need to do when they are 18. You know what they need to do right now? Eat breakfast every day. Button their coats. Make friends. Solve problems. Feel emotionally and physically safe. Read books they love. Write stories. Do experiments. Play outside. Dig in the dirt.

Imagine if doctors started telling parents that their babies should practice walking immediately upon emergence from the womb. We have to prepare them now for the walking they’ll do later in life, they might say. Make sure you stand them up on 2 feet right after they are born so that they get a head start. And then just let go, they’ll be just fine.

That is what we’re doing to our children in far too many schools, all for the sake of college readiness. Enough.

 

Why Teachers and Parents Should Vote for Bernie

K-12 education has not been a topic in the democratic primaries, leaving public school educators and parents wondering who would be most likely to scale down federal and state education “reform.”

So why should public school teachers, opt-out parents and anyone who believes in public education support Bernie Sanders?

Here are 6 reasons.

  1. Sanders voted against No Child Left Behind, the grandfather of Ed reform. .
  2. Sanders is skeptical of “alternative routes” to certification: ex: TFA, Relay, Teacher U= replacing lifetime educators with short lived script followers.
  3. He said this: “Something is very wrong when, last year, the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers. We have to get our priorities right.” He also has talked about investing more $ in public schools and replacing the use of property taxes to raise money for schools because of the inequality that system creates.
  4. Vermont is one of the few states that does not allow charter schools. Rather they allow for school choice within the public school system. This brings a valuable perspective to the table.
  5. Sanders is the only real pro-labor major candidate in recent history. If anyone is going to support unionized teachers- at public schools or unionized charters, it is Bernie.
  6. Neoliberalism has been very bad for education. Hillary is the quintessential neoliberal. Think the punitive test and punish/ test and underfund of Race to the Top, think school closures, think corporate consultants invading schools, think Bill Gates and his campaign for testing and the common core, think the de-professionalization of teaching and the feds buddying up to tech companies and big business to “reform” schools. Think about what has been like to be a teacher for the last 8 years- punishingly demoralizing and frustrating. While Hillary has managed to make statements both for and against public schools, and for and against unions, it is likely she’ll ride the Obama/ Duncan/ King train to fully “reformed” schools.  We don’t want that.
  7. And finally- Reformers would have you believe that education is in crisis because of teachers and their unions, but want to know the real crisis in education today? POVERTY. Bernie Sanders has been fighting for equality and against corporate greed for his entire life, and is the only candidate truly seeking to address the rapidly increasing inequality in this country. If we really want to do what’s right for children, we’ll choose the candidate who is fighting for their futures and their families- free college tuition, a living wage, affordable housing and free healthcare.

Forget the NEA, AFT endorsements. Bernie Sanders is a better bet for teachers.

 

http://prospect.org/article/what-would-sanders-administration-do-k-12-education

http://edexcellence.net/articles/bernie-sanders-quotes-about-education

http://www.aft.org/election2016/candidate-questionnaire-bernie-sanders

 

Notes from the “Uncounted Underground”

“Ask a teacher how they feel — any teacher, every teacher. At first, the responses might shock or surprise you, may even sadden you, and will hopefully lead to outrage.”

This is a must read:   “Uncounted Underground of Teachers” , from Valerie Strauss at the  Washington Post. Teachers are outraged, but the vast majority are afraid to speak up.

This is why I write, and also why I write anonymously. I am afraid too. The climate in education today is not one that encourages dissent.

I know almost all of the teachers at my school share my frustration and heartbreak with each new mandate. We also share a deep love of children and profound joy in those rare moments when we ditch the script and real teaching and learning happens.

Teaching is a political act- we are shaping minds, hearts and the future. The values we communicate matter, and when we’re forced to test and punish, to follow a script, and value data and compliance above all else our work has far reaching political and social implications.

But not only are people afraid to speak up, they don’t have time or energy. Teaching is all consuming, you eat, sleep, dream your kids and their crises.  There are days when I don’t sit down once from 7 am to 6 pm. But with ESSA and a ruthless reform movement, if teachers don’t speak up soon we won’t be teachers for much longer.

 

To the Billionaires Destroying Public Ed

Between Netflix, Facebook, the Koch brothers, a slew of corporate loving politicians and some other billionaires , public education is being systematically destroyed.

Why do all these people care?

Charter schools and “reformed” public schools have a way of funneling money to tech companies with ed products, publishing companies, test prep companies. Companies, companies, companies. Money, Money, Money.

Charter schools have a way of segregating and dehumanizing children of color. Keeps them in their place you might say. Hmm, I wonder why all these white billionaires would want to do that?

Charter schools have a way of de-professionalizing teaching and paying young inexperienced “teachers” – mostly women- to work long hours without any labor protections. Most of these people end up leaving teaching after a few years. I wonder where they end up working?

Charter schools have very little oversight and discriminate against students with disabilities. Billionaires love not having oversight. That’s how people become billionaires!

Charter schools cost the states less money than public schools because they raise so much privately. ( AND SOME OF THEM ARE FOR PROFIT- HOW IS THAT ALLOWED?)  That means millionaires, billionaires and gazillionaires can give tax deductible donations instead of oh, paying a lot more in taxes to help keep public schools open for all students. That makes them feel really good about themselves.

Well, here’s what I want to tell all these CEOs, in a moment of desperation at 6:17 am before I leave for the public school I work at every day.

You are not helping.

In fact, I think you are not good people.

You are motivated by your deepest prejudices and self interest.

Why don’t you go open a library or museum? That’s what rich people used to do. It was cool.

I would totally go to the Koch Brothers Memorial Library. Or the Mark Zuckerberg Museum of Something.

You want to know about some actual good people- I invite you to come to my school. You can arrive with the teachers at 7 am, see the thriving PUBLIC school community we’ve created, see a school that is actually racially and economically diverse ( 1 in a million!), see a public school building that is beautiful and kids are excited to come to every day, see a group of teachers who work 12 hour days partly to compensate for all the bullshit we have to deal with from the politicians in your pockets.

Yes that’s right, in everything you have done you make schools worse and you are WIDENING the achievement gap. You are making it harder to be a teacher and harder to be a learner. With all your obsession over standardization, accountability and school “choice” you are relegating the poor children you presume to help to days of uniformed, segregated, boring, scripted and ultimately useless test prep.

And you know what, I bet you would never send your white, billionaire children to a public school anyway.