Broken Promises! Pennsylvania Republicans Ready to Renege on Pension Deal Even if It Means Breaking the Law

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Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering breaking the law.

In fact, they may have already done it.

The reason? Pension debt.

The Commonwealth owes an estimated $50 million in unpaid pension obligations to state employees.

Instead of doing the responsible thing and paying off the state debt, Republican legislators are trying to rip up the bill and pay whatever they want.

If you or I did that, they’d put us in jail. But I guess the rules are different in Harrisburg.

As a public school employee, I work for the commonwealth. So do the state’s troopers, judges, university staff, etc. When I took this job, I signed a contract. I agreed to certain things (i.e. teaching, keeping up my certification, etc.) if the state agreed to certain things (i.e. pay, benefits, etc.).

But now GOP lawmakers – I don’t mean to be partisan but it is ONLY Republicans – want to renege on that deal.

Let’s say I came into school one day and said, “You know what? I just don’t feel like teaching today. But you still have to pay me.” No reasonable person would expect the state to cut me a check.

I need to live up to my end of the bargain. Otherwise, the state doesn’t have to give me one dollar.

And I have no problem with that. I love teaching. There’s nothing else I’d rather do.

But the state has to live up to its end, too. That goes beyond common sense. It’s one of the key principals of any civilized society. Each party to a contract has to abide by the agreement.

That’s really the issue – breach of contract. Legislators want to reduce benefits for both new employees – which is shortsighted but legal – and current employees – which has NEVER been permissible.

This isn’t just my interpretation. When lawmakers in Oregon and Illinois tried to rip up their state employee pensions, their state Supreme Courts ruled it unconstitutional.

State constitutions in both Oregon and Illinois specifically prohibit violation of contracts. Pennsylvania’s state constitution has an almost identical provision.

1+1=2.

That is not serious lawmaking. It’s theater.

This legislation has already passed the state Senate with all Democrats and one Republican voting against it. If it somehow were to pass the state House (which is by no means a sure thing) and if Gov. Wolf signed it into law (which he has said he would NOT do), it would go straight to court.

There would be no cost savings. In fact, the state would have to spend additional taxpayer money to defend legislators’ disdain for their own laws and 370,000 state workers.

So why do it?

Politics.

Gov. Wolf has proposed a budget that would right the wrongs of the previous Republican administration. Among other things, Wolf would restore $1 billion in annual cuts to public schools.

With this, we could reduce class size by rehiring the 25,000 teachers we unnecessarily sacked four years ago. We could ensure all children get arts, music, science labs, foreign languages, sports and extra-curricular activities. Even amenities like school nurses and guidance counselors could be restored.

But from the moment the governor made this promise, Republicans have vowed to oppose it. They had no problem four years ago voting to cripple our state education system. The result: Pennsylvania has the most inequitable school spending in the nation.

The commonwealth spends only 36.1% of the cost to educate students. That’s far below the national average of 45.5%, and ranks 45th in the country. The remaining cost is absorbed by local property taxes. Not only does this put an enormous tax burden on residents, it ensures schools in richer communities are better funded than those in poorer ones.

In fact, Pennsylvania has the worst disparity in the nation between dollars spent on rich vs. poor children.

But our Republican lawmakers are refusing to do anything about that…

Unless!

Unless the Democrats allow them to pilfer state workers pensions.

Republicans are holding the budget hostage to this criminal pension scheme.

Realistically, they need no help in the House and Senate. They control both bodies and in theory could pass whatever they want. However, this is the first year we have a Democrat in the governor’s mansion, so they need to bargain with him.

Funny when Republicans controlled both the executive and legislative branches, they didn’t have the guts to do this alone. Once it failed, who would they have had to blame?

That’s the reason for this elaborate hoax of a bill. They know it’s illegal. They know it won’t make it through court. They know it won’t save the state a dime because it will never be enacted.

But they are putting on a show for the voters.

Look how hard we tried to save the state money, but the Democrats (i.e. Wolf) wouldn’t let us do it. Look how hard we tried to increase school spending, but the Democrats (i.e. Wolf) wouldn’t pass our pension bill so we just couldn’t do it.

Excuse me while I go vomit all over myself!

How did we get in such a situation?

Basically, the legislature stopped paying the bills for 17 years.

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Both the state government and commonwealth employees are responsible for paying into the pension system. And state workers made all their payments. They put aside 7.5% of their salaries every year to pay for their retirement.

But the legislature didn’t make its payments. It pushed them off to the future, and now that the future’s here, lawmakers have the gall to act like they have no idea where this cost is coming from!?

You ran up the bill! Time to pay! But instead of doing that, you blame the hardworking men and women who do all the state’s actual J.O.B.’s. And you practice Al-Qaeda tactics against labor, teachers and students!

Is that too harsh?

Who else holds people hostage to their demands?

This is terrorism as governmental policy. Our course of action should be the same with guerrilla extremists at home as it is with those on foreign soil: We don’t bargain with fanatics.

Gov. Wolf has a plan to pay off the pension debt. It’s nothing fancy. It’s the same kind of advice you might get from your accountant – or your mom. Refinance, reduce costs elsewhere and pay your bills.

That’s certainly a more sound strategy than holding a knife to workers and kids.


If you live in the commonwealth, please write your Senator and State Representative asking them not to support the GOP pension plan and to pass Gov. Wolf’s budget.

NOTE: This article was also published on the Badass Teachers Association blog. I also talked at length about this subject on the Rick Smith Show.

BONUS VIDEO:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhUPs6SJQMc

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Common Core Does Not Cure Student Mobility

Common-Core

We have real problems.

We need real solutions.

But we get deceptions instead. And if anyone tries to complain, they get blamed for trying to avoid solving the problem!

Take Common Core.

Badly designed, unproven, flying in the face of human psychology. It is all that and more.

However, there’s a good reason for its existence – student mobility.

We have too many children attending our public schools that don’t stay put. They move from district-to-district and therefore miss valuable instruction.

And that’s no deception.

This is a real problem that we need to do something to fix. But before any experts in the field – psychologists, sociologists, or (God forbid!) educators – can speak, billionaire philanthropists chime in with Common Core.

If we just had national standards for each grade level in each core subject, they say, it would greatly reduce the amount of material transient students miss.

If an 8th grade student at School A moves to School B, for instance, Common Core would ensure that he misses virtually nothing. Both schools would be teaching the same thing.

Good try. But it doesn’t work.

Common Core only ensures that the same standards are taught in each school during a single year. If a transfer student’s old teacher hasn’t gotten to something yet and his new teacher has already covered it, he might miss the concept entirely – even with Common Core.

Take it from me.

I am a teacher in a state that has adopted Common Core-look-alike standards. I get many transfer students from Common Core states. There is a definite and often profound gap in their grasp of the material.

Pause for a moment and digest that.

Common Core – as it is now – does not solve the problem of student mobility.

However, if we reinterpret that concept, if we appeal to the spirit of the Core, we may find a “solution” to this problem. And in some places this has already begun.

Our billionaire philanthropist friend might look at this problem and say, we need to further homogenize the curriculum at both schools. Educators at both districts should teach the exact same things at the exact same times. On Sept 12, all 8th grade instructors should teach about figurative language. On Sept 13, there will be a lesson on text structures, and so on.

In fact, having the same curriculum at two schools is not enough. We need to coordinate the curriculum at ALL public schools.

But even if we do that at our public schools, there will be gaps for transient students. A student who left School A after Sept. 12 would have had a lesson on figurative language, but what form did the lesson take? It may have been ineffective. Perhaps the text used by the teacher was subpar. Perhaps the teacher didn’t explain the lesson sufficiently. There is just too much room for human error.

What we need, explains the philanthropist – who incidentally made his billions designing computer systems and is not known for mastery of the human psyche – what we need is uniformity. In short, we need scripted lessons.

Then-and-only-then will transient students miss the least possible curriculum moving from one school to another.

Of course this assumes the move from School A to School B is nearly instantaneous. Day 1 you’re at the old school. Day 2 you’re at the new school. But this rarely happens. Under the best circumstances it can take a week or two. Realistically, I’ve seen students who have been out of school months even a whole academic year between moves.

Yes, Mr. Gate…  – I mean the philanthropist – may admit reluctantly, transient students will still inevitably miss some school work. The transition from School A to School B may take a couple days, maybe months, but scripted lessons will reduce the gap to the absolute minimum.

And here, he may be correct.

Common Core taken to its logical and extreme conclusion – scripted lessons – may solve student mobility.

Or so it seems.

But is the cure worse than the disease?

If all public school students have scripted, uniform, standardized lessons, what will happen to the quality of those lessons?

As the holder of a masters degree in education, as a recipient of a National Board Certification in teaching, as a teacher with over a decade of experience in the classroom, I say this: the quality of education will plummet under these conditions.

Everyone will suffer – transient students, non-transient students, EVERYONE.

The best possible learning environment is NOT one in which teachers read from a script. It is NOT one where teachers stick to the lesson plan come Hell or high water. It is NOT one where the educator has little to no say in what she is teaching.

It is important to have academic standards, just as it’s important to have lesson plans. However, these MUST be created by the teachers, themselves. Otherwise they imprison instructors in straight jackets and make them less – not more – effective.

Anyone who has spent any time in front of a class knows that good instruction necessitates instant changes in the lesson to meet the needs of your students. You can plan – and you should plan – but you have to be free to move beyond it.

For instance, if you’re teaching students how to write a complete sentence and you have some children who do not understand what a subject and a verb are, you need to adapt. Immediately. On the spot. Otherwise, your lesson will fail.

If you’re asking your students to perform a close read of a science text and they cannot read, you must adapt. Immediately. That very second. Or else you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

Rigid academic standards cannot do this. Sacrosanct lesson plans cannot do this. Only teachers can.

This is one of the major areas where Common Core fails.

But what of our transient students? Won’t we fail them if we repeal Common Core?

No. There is a better way. But more on that in a moment.

Say Common Core is the only way. Say scripted curriculum is the only manner in which to meet their needs. It would still be better to get rid of Common Core to meet the needs of the non-transients. Moreover, even transient children will benefit, because the education they receive when they are in a given school will be of a higher quality than the minimally interrupted lessons they’d receive with national academic standards and scripted lessons.

However, let us return to the better solution. Because there is one, and it is easy to see when you aren’t blinded by billionaire’s pet projects.

Instead of homogenizing everyone’s schools to help transient students, reduce the instances of transience.

That’s right. Reduce student mobility.

Stop so many children from moving from school-to-school.

That’s impossible, whines our billionaire savior.

No. It’s not.

You may never be able to stop every student from moving between schools, but you can greatly reduce it.

All it takes is an examination of the root causes.

Why are so many students transient?

It turns out this is a symptom of a larger problem affecting the majority of our public school students. If you can help alleviate this problem – even slightly – you’d greatly increase students’ chances of success.

That problem? Child poverty.

Students don’t move around to see the world. They do it because their parents can’t get a job or can’t afford to live where they are.

If you undertook programs to create more jobs for their parents, you would decrease student mobility. If you provided cheap, safe, stable housing, you would decrease mobility. If you started social programs to bring transients into a community and stop them from being eternal outsiders, many more of them would put down roots.

And if you helped reduce child poverty, you would actually increase the quality of education most children are receiving – even the ones not constantly on the move.

We used to understand that poverty isn’t a defect of character – it’s a product of circumstance. We used to understand that most poor people aren’t to blame for their own poverty. We used to understand that a helping hand is better than a pointed finger.

Common Core is just another great lie told to obscure these simple truths.

Student mobility is just another excuse given to justify this lie.

The time for deceptions and half-truths has passed. Instead, we need to roll up our sleeves and actually do something about poverty.

It’s time to leave Common Core to the pages of history’s failed social engineering experiments.

Because we don’t need national academic standards.

We need a shared morality.


NOTE: Thank you to all my readers who responded to my article “Data Abuse – When Transient Kids Fall Through the Cracks of Crunched Numbers.” Today’s article is the result of your efforts to push me to revisit this subject. Being a blogger isn’t just about writing articles and putting them out there. It’s also about creating a community and entering into a dialogue. I am so grateful to the people who read what I write and engage with it. I can’t do this without you.

-This article also was published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

The Killer in my Classroom

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Some nights sleep just won’t come.

I toss and turn, crumpling the blankets until I have to get up and read or pour myself a glass of water.

Sitting up in the pre-morning gloom, that’s when they come back to me.

A parade of faces. No names. Words are all lost in the haze of time.

But the faces remain.

Kids I’ve taught and wondered about.

What ever happened to Jason? Did Rayvin ever get into dance school? I wonder if the army took Tyler…

But there’s one face that always comes last.

A strong straight lip. Soft nose. Brooding eyes.

Terance… Terrell… TYRELL.

Yes. That’s his name.

One of my first students. One of my biggest failures.

And I don’t have to wonder what happened to him. I know with a dread of certainty.

He never got to play professional basketball like he wanted. He never even made it out of high school.

No, not dead – though I do have I gaggle of ghosts on my class roster.

He’s a murderer. Life in prison.

I was his 8th grade language arts teacher. It was my first year teaching in the district.

I had a reputation for being able to relate with hard to reach kids so they put me in the alternative education classroom.

I had a bunch of students from grades 6-8 who simply couldn’t make it in the regular school setting.

These were kids with undiagnosed learning disabilities, appalling home environments, and/or chips on their shoulders that could cut iron.

But I loved it.

I taught the Read 180 curriculum – a plan designed for students just like mine. We had three stations: silent reading, computer remediation and small group instruction.

The class was divided in three – students rotated through each group. Though I somehow monitored the whole thing, I spent most of my time meeting with kids in small group instruction.

I had an aide who helped the whole thing run smoothly, too. Lots of planning time, support and resources.

Everyday was exhausting. I could barely stay awake on the ride home. But it was worth it, because I felt like I was making a difference.

And there was Tyrell.

Few days went by without at least one of the children having to be disciplined. Sometimes it was just a simple redirection or even standing in close proximity to kids who seemed set to explode. Other times it was a brief one-on-one counseling session to find out why someone was misbehaving. And sometimes it was so bad kids had to be sent to the office. Once we even had a child escorted out of the building in handcuffs because he brought a weapon to class.

If you’d told me one of those children would end up killing someone, I wouldn’t have blinked. If you told me it would be Tyrell, I wouldn’t have believed you.

He was a gentle giant.

Almost always calm and in control. He was well above the others academically. When one of the others lost his cool, Tyrell would help talk him down.

I wondered why he was there. Turns out he was involved in a bloody fight on the way home from school the year before.

But that rarely made its way into the classroom. It was like he was already doing time – serving out his sentence with these misfits until he could be placed back with the rest of the student population.

I remember when Carlos got caught with the knife, Tyrell’s back had stiffened but he hadn’t moved.

The knife had fallen from Carlos’ pocket across the table and slid to the floor.

Tyrell watched it slide across his desk but said nothing.

“Is that a knife, Carlos?” I asked.

“No!” he said picking it up and putting it back in his pocket.

“Why do you have a knife, Carlos?” I asked.

He shrugged and refused to say anything.

Then Tyrell spoke up.

“It’s for the walk home, Mr. Singer.”

“What?” I asked.

“He needs it,” Tyrell said.

And the look in both of their eyes said it was true.

But what could I do? If he used that knife, I’d be liable.

I had to report it, and I did.

Would I still do that? Was it a mistake?

I don’t know.

But I went to the administration and told them the truth – that I BELIEVED the knife was for self-defense. That something had to be done to protect these kids on the walk home.

Nothing changed. Our district saves a ton of money by forgoing buses. Richer kids get a ride to school. Poorer kids walk.

And Carlos got charged.

Tyrell never said anything about it. But I wondered what we’d find if we searched HIM.

We have metal detectors, but they are far from 100% effective.

I remember one day Tyrell stayed after class to talk to me. Talk quickly turned from grades and assignments to what he wanted to do with his life.

Tyrell loved B-ball. Often wore a Kobe jersey to school. And always the cleanest, brightest Jordans on his feet.

He was going to play ball, he said. No doubt about it.

I tried to convince him to have a backup plan, but he just shook his head.

“What kind of options you think there is out there for a guy like me, Mr. Singer?”

I’ll never forget it. Me trying to convince him he could do anything he wanted, and he just smiling.

“Guy like me only do one of two things,” he said, “He plays some ball or he runs out on the streets.”

I asked him to explain, and he told me about his brothers – how they sold drugs, bought fancy cars, took care of the family.

I kept insisting there was another way – a better way. And finally he agreed but said that his way was easier, safer, more of a sure thing.

“Why should I work my ass off on all this?” he said pointing to his books, “I can make a stack on the street.”

Was there anything I could have said to change his mind?

I don’t know. But I tried.

And that was it, really. I never had another chance. They moved him back to regular ed. a few weeks later.

He finished the year with a different teacher in a different part of the building.

I saw him occasionally, and he’d dap me up, but that was about it.

The next year there was an opening for me in regular ed., too.

Eighth grade with the academic track population.

I had to really think about it. My colleagues thought I was crazy not jumping on it at the first opportunity.

But it was no easy decision.

What finally pushed me over the edge was the rumor that alternative ed. was being downsized.

They would no longer pay for the Read 180 curriculum. No more aides. No more resources and extra planning time.

So I put in for the move and have been there ever since.

Of course, with a much reduced alternative ed. most of the students I would have taught had moved up with me to the regular ed. classroom. Now they’re just bunched in with the regular population.

But I don’t regret it. I love these kids. I love being there for them.

And Tyrell? About a year later, I read about him in the newspaper.

Police think it was a drug related hit. Tyrell was in the backseat. He put his gun to the driver’s head and pulled the trigger.

Bam.

No more future for either of them.

Except on restless nights when Tyrell’s face keeps coming back to me.

Is there something I could have done? Do the words exist for me to have convinced him to change his path? Would he have listened if I hadn’t reported Carlos?

And most importantly – why am I the only one who seems to care?


NOTE: A slightly condensed version of this article was published on Nancy Flanagan’s blog “Teacher in a Strange Land” in Education Week. The expanded version seen here also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Data Abuse – When Transient Kids Fall Through the Cracks of Crunched Numbers

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I was teaching my classes.

I was grading assignments.

I was procrastinating.

I should have been working on my class rosters.

My principals wanted me to calculate percentages for every student I had taught that year and submit them to the state.

How long had each student been in my grade book? What percentage of the year was each learner in my class before they took their standardized tests?

If I didn’t accurately calculate this in the next few days, the class list generated by the computer would become final, and my evaluation would be affected.

But there I was standing before my students doing nothing of any real value – teaching.

I was instructing them in the mysteries of subject-verb agreement. We were designing posters about the Civil Rights movement. I was evaluating their work and making phone calls home.

You know – goofing off.

I must not have been the only one. Kids took a half-day and the district let us use in-service time to crunch our numbers.

Don’t get me wrong. We weren’t left to the wolves. Administrators were very helpful gathering data, researching exact dates for students entering the building and/or transferring schools. Just as required by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

But it was in the heat of all this numerological chaos that I saw something in the numbers no one else seemed to be looking for.

Many of my students are transients. An alarming number of my kids haven’t been in my class the entire year. They either transferred in from another school, transferred out, or moved into my class from another one.

A few had moved from my academic level course to the honors level Language Arts class. Many more had transferred in from special education courses.

In total, these students make up 44% of my roster.

“Isn’t that significant?” I wondered.

I poked my head in to another teacher’s room.

“How many transient students are on your roster?” I asked.

She told me. I went around from room-to-room asking the same question and comparing the answers.

A trend emerged.

Most teachers who presided over lower level classes (like me) had about the same percentage of transients – approximately 40%. Teachers who taught the advanced levels had a much lower amount – 10% or below.

Doesn’t that mean something?

Imagine if you were giving someone simple instructions. Let’s say you were trying to tell someone how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But in the middle of your instruction, a student has to leave the room and go right next door where someone is already in the middle of trying to explain how to do the same thing.

Wouldn’t that affect how well a student learned?

If someone was trying to give me directions how to get somewhere under those circumstances, I’m willing to bet I’d get lost.

And this assumes the break between Teacher A and Teacher B is minimal, the instruction is disrupted at the same point and both teachers are even giving instruction on the exact same topics.

None of that is usually true.

I did some more digging. Across the entire building, 20% of our students left the district in the course of this school year. About 17% entered mid-year. So at least 37% of our students were transients. That’s 130 children.

The trend holds district wide. Some schools have more or less transients, but across the board 35% – 40% of our students pop in and out over the year.

Taking an even broader view, student mobility is a national problem. Certainly the percentage of student transience varies from district to district, but it is generally widespread.

Nationally, about 13 percent of students change schools four or more times between kindergarten and eighth grade, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office analysis. One-third of fourth graders, 19 percent of eighth graders, and 10 percent of twelfth graders changed schools at least once over two years, according to the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP).

And it gets worse if we look at it over a student’s entire elementary or secondary career. In fact, more students moved than remained in a single school, according to a national longitudinal study of eighth graders.

This problem is even more widespread among poor and minority students. The type of school is also a factor. Large, predominantly minority, urban school districts attract the most student mobility. In Chicago public schools, for instance, only about 47 percent of students remained in the same school over a four-year period. Fifteen percent of the schools lost at least 30 percent of their students in only one year.

And this has adverse affects on children both academically and psychologically.

Several studies at both the elementary and secondary levels conclude student mobility decreases test scores and increases the drop out rate.

A 1990s Baltimore study found, “each additional move” was associated with a .11 standard deviation in reading achievement. A similar 1990s Chicago study concluded that students with four or more moves had a .39 standard deviation. Highly mobile students were as much as four months behind their peers academically in fourth grade and as much as a full year behind by sixth grade, according to a 1993 Chicago study by David Kerbow.

It just makes sense. These students have to cope with starting over – fitting in to a new environment. They have to adjust to new peers and social requirements.

Moreover, transients have an increased likelihood of misbehaving and participating in violence. After all, it’s easier to act out in front of strangers.

What causes this problem? Most often it is due to parental job insecurity.

Parents can’t keep employment or jobs dry up resulting in the need to move on to greener pastures.

In my own district, one municipality we serve is mostly made up of low-cost housing, apartments and slums. It is a beacon  for mobility. Few people who haven’t lived here their whole lives put down roots. We’re just another stop on a long and winding road.

“We should be doing something about this,” I thought.

Our legislators should help promote job security. We should make it easier to afford quality housing. We should try to encourage new-comers to become part of the community instead of remain eternal outsiders.

At our schools, we need resources to help this population make the necessary adjustments. We should encourage them to participate in extra-curricular activities, provide counseling and wraparound services.

But we don’t do any of that.

Instead, we gather mountains of data.

We sort and sift, enter it into a computer and press “submit.”

And off it goes to the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System (PVAAS).

We don’t use it to help kids.

We use it to blame school teachers for things beyond their control.

Data has value but that doesn’t mean all data is valuable.

We need to know what we’re looking for, what it means and how to use it to make our world a better place.

Otherwise it’s just a waste of precious class time.

And an excuse to continue ignoring all the children who fall through the cracks.


NOTE: This article also was published on the LA School Report and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Public School Takeovers – When Local Control is Marked ‘White Only’

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Do you like Democracy?

Then you’d better not be poor or have brown skin.

Because in America today we only allow self-government to rich white folks.

Sad but true.

American public schools serving large populations of impoverished and minority children are increasingly being taken over by their respective states.

People of color and people living in poverty are losing their right to govern their own schools. They are losing a say in how their own children are educated. They are losing elective governance.

Why? No other reason than that they are poor and brown skinned.

The most recent example is Holyoke Public Schools in Massachusetts.

Just two weeks ago, the state education board moved to place Holyoke schools in receivership.

So later this spring out goes the elected school board and in comes either an individual or non-profit organization to take over running the district.

On what grounds?

Well, Holyoke is a city of about 40,000 residents in the western part of the state. According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau figures, 31.5% of the city’s residents live below the poverty level – nearly three times the state average.

Nearly half of Holyoke students do not speak English as a first language and nearly 30 percent are English-language learners. Eighty-five percent of Holyoke students come from low-income households.

But those aren’t the reasons given for the state takeover. It’s poor test scores and high dropout rates.

The state board can’t just come out and admit it’s waging class and race warfare against its own citizens. Instead, out comes the racist dog whistle of test scores and accountability.

If those kids had just filled in the right bubbles on their standardized tests, freedom would continue to ring in Holyoke. If more kids didn’t become frustrated and drop out, the district would be a haven to rival ancient Athens.

Never mind that poor students almost always score lower on standardized tests than rich kids. Never mind that children trying to learn English don’t score as high as kids who have been speaking it since before preschool.

However, these “alarming trends” are actually improving – just not fast enough for the state.

The graduation rate climbed from 49.5 percent in 2011 to 60.2 percent in 2014. The dropout rate also has improved. However, when compared with richer, whiter districts, this “performance” still leaves much to be desired.

But Holyoke isn’t alone.

In January, the Arkansas Board of Education did the same to the Little Rock district.

The state dissolved the local school board but at first kept Superintendent Dexter Suggs in an interim capacity.

Little Rock – one of the flashpoints of desegregation in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s – is the state’s largest school district, with about 25,000 students.

Once again, African-American and Latino students are about three-fourths of the city’s student body. About 70% of students meet the federal government’s definition of poverty.

Yet the state cited low standardized test scores as the reason for the takeover.

About 45% of Little Rock high school students attend schools designated as “underperforming.” Last year, the Arkansas state board classified six of its 48 schools as being in “academic distress” after fewer than half their students scored at the “proficient” level on achievement tests.

So out with democracy and in with bureaucracy.

Does it work?

Not really.

Across the country, more than half of all states have laws allowing the dissolution of local control for districts that meet certain academic and economic parameters. However, even after decades of receivership, most districts still don’t improve their test scores.

In New Jersey, for instance, the Newark school district has been under state control since 1995 but still registers low test scores and graduation rates. Pennsylvania took over Philadelphia’s public schools in 2001, and test scores have actually dropped while the creation of new charter schools have drained state coffers. In 2013, district officials had to borrow $50 million to avoid delaying the beginning of the new school year.

Nationally, takeovers tend to improve administrative and financial practices but have less of an effect on classroom instruction, according to a 2004 report from the Education Commission of the States.

Academic performance for state-controlled districts is usually mixed, the report concluded, with increases in some areas, and decreases in others. “The bottom line is that state takeovers, for the most part, have yet to produce dramatic and consistent increases in student performance,” the report concluded.

Q: If state-takeovers don’t actually improve academic outcomes, why do we continue to allow them?

A: It’s cheaper than actually fixing the problem – poverty.

Poor students need resources they aren’t getting.

Fact: across the country, we spend more money to educate our rich children than we do our poor ones.

Fact: Poor students need MORE resources to learn than rich ones. They need access to food and nutrition, stability, tutoring and wraparound social services.

In short, we’re ignoring the needs of our impoverished children, because many of them are children of color.

And we’re selling this whole-sale neglect as the impartial product of “accountability” measures. We say that schools and teachers aren’t doing their jobs, so we’re taking over poor districts – where nothing much improves – but at least we made a show of doing something.

The people behind this sham are actually selling it as a Civil Rights issue. And it IS a Civil Rights issue – but not the one they claim. Standardization and privatization of public schools and the blatant government overreach involved in state takeovers are Civil Rights ABUSES.

We should be helping high-poverty schools meet the needs of their students. Instead we put on a show and hope no one peeks behind the curtain.

We liberally dole out blame and conservatively hide our pocketbooks. We point the finger at easy targets – poor and minority parents and children. We demonize the one group devoting their lives to actually helping improve the situation – teachers. And instead of empowering neighborhoods, we steal their vote and call it “help.”

Until we recognize these facts, our public schools will remain “separate but equal.” Ensuring an adequate education for all will remain a privilege of the elite. And the dream of racial and social equality will remain stifled under the boot of false accountability.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association Blog.

It’s Not Nothing: Why I Support the ‘Every Child Achieves Act’

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No more federal intervention.

No more reducing schools to a number.

That’s the promise of the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA).

Sure, it’s not perfect. But this Senate proposed rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) could do a lot of good – even if it includes some bad.

Imagine it.

States would be in control of their own public schools. The U.S. Department of Education and its appointed Secretary would lose much of their power to impose unfunded federal mandates.

For example, the federal government could no longer force states to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores. It could no longer force states to adopt Common Core or Common Core look-a-like standards. It could no longer label high poverty schools “Failing” and then demand they be closed.

That’s not nothing.

But to realize these goals, we may have to compromise.

This federal law (currently known as No Child Left Behind) governs K-12 public schools. It has to be reauthorized.

We tried in 2007, but no one could agree. So the Obama administration took over – offering states a waiver from the worst consequences of the current disastrous law if they just doubled down on those same failing policies.

The result? Seven years of continued educational failure. Policies to privatize, punish the poor and enrich profiteers.

And now we have another chance to reauthorize the law!

We can change course! We can right the ship! We can get our heads out of our collective asses and actually do what’s right for our children!

But this is politics. It’s never that simple.

We have a divided Congress. We have a President who never met a corporate school reform scheme he didn’t like.

But we also have a citizenry who is fed up with all the bullshit. People are demanding change.

We have a real opportunity. If we can seal the deal, a generation of children will be the better for it. If not, the current calamitous law will stay in place for at least 7 more years.

That’s just unacceptable.

The biggest flaw in this proposed act is that it keeps annual testing in place. If approved in its current form, public schools would still have to give standardized tests to children in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

If you’re like me, you just threw up in your mouth a little bit.

However, supporting ECAA doesn’t have to mean supporting testing. There is an amendment proposed by Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) that would replace annual testing with assessments only once at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Yes. It’s not enough. We really should have zero standardized tests in our schools. If we have to accept Grade Span Testing – as Tester’s proposal is called – it should be done by a random sample. Don’t test all kids. Just test some small group and extrapolate their scores to the whole.

But Tester’s amendment is not nothing.

Even if it weren’t approved – even if all schools are mandated to continue annual testing as is – the ECAA requires no minimum length for those tests.

How many questions do we need to have on our exams? How many sections? Right now, most states have three sections in both Reading and Math of around 30-40 questions each.

If I’m reading this correctly, it’s conceivable that states that disagree with standardized testing could give assessments of only one section with only one question.

Talk about opting out!

That’s not nothing.

Moreover, the proposed law does not require states to continue evaluating teachers based on student test scores. States are free to stop using the same junk science evaluations currently championed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan or not. It’s totally up to the states.

That’s not nothing.

If the proposed act were passed, Common Core State Standards (CCSS) would lose much of their backing.

We all know the sad story of how these supposedly “state” standards were pushed on states from the federal government. We know how states were bribed with federal money to enact these standards before many of them had even finished being written. We know how the U.S. Department of Education has required states to either adopt CCSS or come up with their own academic standards. Moreover, any state that decides to go its own way and write its own standards must then have these standards approved by the federal government, thereby ensuring that regardless of the name you slap on them, they are usually Common Core lite.

However, the ACAA removes the requirement that state standards need federal approval. Therefore, it allows states to actually lead their own quest for real, consequential standards. They no longer have to follow in the footsteps of CCSS. They can set their own agenda.

That’s not nothing.

The proposed act also improves the situation for at risk students. It would establish appropriate class size, specifically in low-income areas. It would give clear/expanded rights to homeless children so they could continue attending their original schools. It would allow English Language Learners to appropriately remain in their classes longer. It would continue Head Start and Early Start programs. It would provide adequate support for gifted and talented students. It would add early intervention services and support early childhood programs.

That’s not nothing.

But the ACAA isn’t the only version of the rewrite being considered. The House has it’s own version called HR 5 or the Student Success Act (SSA).

The biggest difference between the two is Title I Portability – the House version allows it, the Senate one does not.

Currently Title I funds are allocated by the federal government to states each year based on the numbers of children living in poverty in each district. The goal is to provide billions of dollars to poor schools to help them meet students’ needs often left neglected because of lack of local tax revenue.

Title I portability found in the SSA would mandate this money follow the students instead of going to districts. That would be a budgetary and economic nightmare. It would decrease money going to poor schools and increase funds going to rich districts. It would pave the way for nefarious and misnamed “school choice” measures.

That’s why the Senate ECAA is better. It doesn’t allow this wrongheaded scheme.

That’s not nothing.

But – I know – you’re still pinning for that one pristine act that would right all the wrongs of the current law.

Me, too.

In dreams, we can get everything we want.

In waking life, we sometimes have to compromise and accept less.

But at least here you get SOMETHING!

Quite a lot actually.

And as we support the general outline of the ACAA, we can push to make it better by adopting the Tester Amendment and other improvements that may come along the way.

We have to be realistic. A perfect law probably wouldn’t get through Congress. Our lawmakers just wouldn’t vote for it. They couldn’t agree.

We’d be where we were in 2007.

And that would mean more of the status quo.

I can accept the problems with the ACAA, but I cannot accept that.


Please consider joining the Badass Teachers Association in writing your Congresspeople to approve the ACAA with the Tester Amendment.

NOTE: This article also has appeared in the La Progressive, the Badass Teachers Association Blog and was written about on Diane Ravich’s blog.

The Longest Lasting Lesson – A Thank You to All the Excellent Teachers I’ve Ever Had

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They say teaching is the one profession that creates all the others.

That teachers affect eternity; no one can tell where their influence stops.

And it’s certainly true in my life.

I wouldn’t be the person I am today without a string of excellent educators.

For better or worse, I am the product of decades of first-rate instruction and inspiration.

There are so many teachers who made a profound impact on my life.

Mr. Mitchell taught me how to express my opinion, listen to others and consider their point of view before responding.

Ms. Robb taught me how to organize my thoughts so they make sense to someone else.

Mr. Geissler taught me how money and politics work together.

Ms. Neuschwander taught me the value of a good story.

And there are so many more. I wish I could remember them all.

If we’re honest, everyone had a plethora of powerful pedagogues in their lives.

Their names are legion – even if we can’t remember most of them.

During this Teacher Appreciation Week, the one that keeps popping into my head is Ms. Zadrel.

She was my third grade teacher.

I don’t remember what she looked like. I don’t remember most of her lessons. I’m not even sure if I’m spelling her name right.

But I do remember how she organized her class.

The room was a separate town called Zadrelville. The rows of desks were streets. Each student had a job and we earned play money.

We could send each other letters, play the lottery, vote for class mayor – almost everything you’d do in a small town. Everyday tasks were jobs – emptying the pencil sharpener, passing out papers, cleaning the blackboard, etc.

And me? I wrote the newspaper. “The News of 201” it was called.

It was a fairly gossipy rag. Headlines included things like who liked whom, if someone got paddled in gym, and which was better – Indiana Jones or Star Wars movies.

I made the paper myself, ran it off on the copier and delivered it to subscribers’ desks.

I published about once a week. Any day a new edition would roll hot off the press (and it actually was warm), everyone in the class had to have one. It was essential reading.

There even may have been a few fights caused by some of my articles.

“You like Beth!? She’s got cuties!”

I never got a chance to see Ms. Zadrel’s lesson plans. I’m not sure exactly what she had in mind for us from this classroom management model. But I learned a lot.

Perhaps the longest lasting lesson was about myself. I learned how much I love being creative and how important it is for me to impact people’s lives.

Would I have become a teacher, myself, if I hadn’t had this experience? Maybe not.

I’d always enjoyed writing, but seeing such a demand for my work probably changed my life.

I wasn’t just writing for ME. I was writing for an audience. I gauged what the class wanted from a newspaper and provided it.

My articles may have caused a stir, but no one ever unsubscribed. By putting all that everyday ephemera in one place, we all learned much more about each other.

I loved it so much that when I went to fourth grade, I kept up the paper. It didn’t have quite the same magic in a class that wasn’t its own self-contained city, but I’d already been bitten by the bug.

You might say that this blog, itself, is really just a continuation of that adolescent newspaper I started in Ms. Zadrel’s class.

I’ve been a professional journalist, a freelancer and now a blogger. But I’m really just writing a classroom newspaper for people who are interested in another edition.

Ms. Zadrel is long retired. I don’t know what happened to her or if she’s even still around somewhere.

I don’t know what she’d say if she could read this blog.

But I know what I’d say to her.

Thank you.

With all my heart – thank you.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.