Big Money Fails to Oust In-Coming Pittsburgh Schools Superintendent

DSC-4973-1

Democracy 1, Oligarchy 0.

That might be the score in the latest contest between corporate education reformers and the Pittsburgh Public School Board.

Special interest groups and the media had stirred up controversy for months over one line in newly hired superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s resume.

Last night the board voted to let the 46-year-old African American start his job as planned Friday morning.

The board voted 7-2 not to cancel his contract. He will be sworn in tomorrow to start a 5-year commitment in the city.

He had been unanimously hired May 18 from the Palm Beach County district in Florida where he had distinguished himself with an excellent record of leadership and enacting authentic reforms.

Though critics cited one line in his resume as too similar to a statement in a Washington Post article, the real reasons for the dispute are ideological.

Put simply, Hamlet favors reforms that have nothing to do with teaching to the test, charter school expansion, closing schools and other market driven policies.

This put him at odds with the usual gang of corporate sycophants:

1) The Campaign for Quality Schools Pittsburgh – a PAC recently formed to Make City Schools Great Again by promoting charter schools and other failed neoliberal reforms.

2) A+ Schools, an advocacy organization that used to champion the same kinds of authentic reforms school directors are trying to enact with Dr. Hamlet’s help. However, after getting a fat check from the Gates Foundation, the group has became a cheerleader for privatization and disaster capitalism.

3) Various foundations who immediately offered to pay for a new superintendent search if the district dismissed Dr. Hamlet – a measure that probably would have meant paying him at least a year’s salary to sit at home.

Why?

In short, they want a superintendent who thinks like them who they can control. They want to undermine our elected school board and community input process. They want to further THEIR agenda – not the education of our children.

Pittsburgh school directors are to be congratulated for not giving in to the monied interests.

Even the two directors who voted to remove Hamlet did so for good reasons. Though I thoroughly disagree with them, I think Terry Kennedy and Lynda Wrenn truly have the best interests of students at heart. They have always voted that way before.

It’s easy to write a blog about a district where you don’t live, as I do. They, however, are accountable to their constituents. I’m just a doofus with a WordPress account. They had a lot of information to process and made a tough decision. Thankfully, the other seven board members didn’t see it their way.

But that’s the beauty of it. This was democracy at work! At so many other urban districts throughout the country – even in similarly troubled Philadelphia – decision making “by and for the people” has become disbarred.

Many schools like Pittsburgh’s with a shrinking tax base, large pockets of crippling poverty and a history of state disinvestment are taken over by the state. Bureaucrats and flunkies make these decisions not members of a duly elected school board held accountable by the voters.

In fact, many calling for Hamlet’s dismissal were surely cheerleading just such a move in Pittsburgh. They were hoping to show that democracy doesn’t work in the Three Rivers community and must be replaced with … THEMSELVES.

The defeat of that position is the biggest victory here.

Now Hamlet and the board will get a chance to enact authentic reforms to help the children of Pittsburgh get the best possible education.

Now Hamlet will get to strengthen the restorative justice project already under way at 20 city schools. Instead of simply assigning detention or suspension for student misbehavior, administrators are encouraged to make students set things right after doing wrong.

In Florida Hamlet made a name for himself partnering with the criminology department at Florida Atlantic University on this same project.

It’s widely acknowledged in education circles that suspensions can have lasting impacts especially on black students making them more likely to enter the school-to-prison pipeline. Finding an approach to increase discipline without adversely affecting students’ prospects is imperative. This is especially true since Pittsburgh Public Schools have been known to suspend black students at a rate four times higher than white students.

Hamlet also will get to enact measures to transform Pittsburgh’s schools into a central part of the community and not apart from it. Like many on the board, he is an advocate for community schools. That means pushing for social services to help students and the community to make the schools the center of the neighborhood.

Hamlet has received support from all over the city including from the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

However, in an unexpected move, some educators came out individually in favor of Dr. Hamlet even though doing so might mean putting targets of their backs from corporate forces.

High School teacher Jon Parker even wrote a blog about the issue where he pulled no punches:

“While the [Pittsburgh] Post-Gazette is complicit in this scheme to defame and destroy Dr. Hamlet, the real enemy here, as always, is A+ Schools. They simply cannot pursue their Gatesian agenda with a superintendent who believes in community schools. They need one who believes in firing teachers. They can’t pursue their agenda if the superintendent believes in collaboration rather than stacked ranking. And they can’t pursue their agenda of closing schools and turning them into charter profit factories if the narrative in our schools shifts away from “achievement” being measured by high stakes tests. Simply put, Anthony Hamlet is not their style, and they can’t stand that Pittsburgh’s community, through real grassroots activism and real community empowerment, elected a school board which genuinely engaged its community in a selection process that produced a once-in-a-lifetime superintendent selection.”

 

Erin P. Breault, a district teacher with three children who graduated from Pittsburgh Public, wrote to the Post Gazette to praise Dr. Hamlet:

“First, he will be a fine superintendent who will work to foster community schools, increase student learning outcomes and graduation rates. He will be an especially welcome breath of fresh air, not beholden to corporate “reformers” agenda. Second, I am especially alarmed about growing calls for his contract to be dissolved and if it is not, that our democratically elected school board be replaced by an appointed system.

This is outrageous. These attacks on Mr. Hamlet and on the process of the search need to be viewed in context. There are powerful interests including the Pittsburgh foundations, A+ Schools and Students First who are upset that their vision of privatization of our public schools has been challenged by our school district.

They have leapt into action, using their money, and political clout to engage into what amounts to character assassination.”

 

Kathy M. Newman, an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote to the Post Gazette to school them on the definition of plagiarism:

“Mr. Hamlet’s resume is not a copyrighted work of art or nonfiction, such as a novel or a work of history. Nor is it a work of journalism. He was not trying to “pass off” (a legal term) the work of another artist or historian or journalist as his own.

…the outrage over Mr. Hamlet’s resume doesn’t acknowledge why it is that we demand citations from students and historians, or why artists might sue those who have appropriated their work. As the scholar Steven Dutch has argued, in an article called “Sense and Nonsense about Plagiarism,” citations “allow readers to check the accuracy of facts, gauge the credibility of the ideas being presented, know whether an idea is solidly established, controversial or hypothetical, and find further information.” When Mr. Hamlet borrowed a sentence from a Washington Post editorial to express his educational philosophy he did not, to use another phrase from Mr. Dutch, diminish the “credibility of the ideas being presented.”

Finally, the furor over Mr. Hamlet’s resume has had a tone of moral outrage so hysterical that I have been concerned about the toxic mixture of sanctimony and glee expressed by many people I otherwise like and respect. Again, according to Mr. Dutch, “the institutional hysteria over plagiarism [can become] a ‘witch-hunt.’ … Charges of plagiarism are fast becoming the blood sport of choice among academic bottom-feeders.”

Ouch. But perhaps the most incendiary remarks came from Churchill resident Lorraine Turner. In the Post Gazette, she accused the paper of outright racism in its criticism of Dr. Hamlet:

“As an African-American, we are taught this particular lesson many moons ago (along with the talk about police) growing up in, “Pittsburgh, Mississippi.” That lesson is: Black people must run twice as fast and jump twice as high as their white competitors. Black people must be exceptional with every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed. The comparison of President Barack Obama and Donald Trump will highlight this lesson…

…The editorial goes on using language to highlight nearly every antiquated, racist stereotype referencing black men: Mr. Hamlet made a “perfunctory apology” (he didn’t bow his head and say, “I’se so sorry), Mr. Hamlet “sounded like a nervous student” (just call him boy), then “a bad superintendent” (black is bad), “a good superintendent” (one approved by someone white), Mr. Hamlet “prefers recalcitrance to transparency’ (recalcitrance is when one is stubbornly resistant to authority or guidance — he thinks he’s actually going to have the power of the superintendent!)…

… I hope the board quotes a line from “The Wizard of Oz,” and tells your good ol’ boy editorial staff what the Good Witch of the East told the Bad Witch of West: “Go away, you have no power here!”

In the end, the power of the monied elites evaporated against the power of good ol’ fashioned democracy.

Because the fight against corporate education reform is a fight for representative government.

And the winners of today’s battle are as always our children, our grandchildren, our posterity.

Advertisements

Without Black Culture There Would Be No American Culture

Screen shot 2016-06-28 at 12.10.37 AM

“We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil – black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.”

With these words, Jesse Williams absolutely floored the crowd at the BET Awards Sunday night.

His acceptance speech for the Humanitarian Award was jaw dropping.

Here was a black actor on “Grey’s Anatomy” just telling it like it is on national TV.

He wasn’t afraid a business dominated by white people would take offense (and some white people did). Or if he was, he wasn’t going to let it stop him.

The activist who recently produced a documentary “Stay Woke: the Black Lives Matter Movement” said, “The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander… If you have a critique for the resistance… then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression.”

No more tone policing. No white fragility. Just if you’re with us, stand up – otherwise, sit down and shut up.

It was beautiful. And it got me thinking.

There are so many obvious truths about our country’s relationship with race that hardly anyone ever gives voice to – especially a white person like me.

So I’m going to add my voice to Jesse’s. I’m just going to say it.

It’s past time we admit it, white people.

American culture would not exist without black culture.

I don’t mean to say that white people are incapable of culture or that if black people had never been kidnapped and brought to our shores as slaves that white people wouldn’t have been able to devise a unique national character.

But if that had happened, it would have been a very different character than what we have today.

It might be America, but it would not be our America. It would be some other thing. I will leave it to speculative fiction to attempt to determine what that might have been like.

However, we need not resort to fantasy to see all the incredible things black people have given us. They’re everywhere, in everything – though usually staring back at us through a white face, heard from a white voice and monetized by a white industry.

The hundreds of years of struggle from slavery through Jim Crow through the modern prison state have given black people plenty of fertile ground with which to build our national culture. Traditionally white people have served as both oppressors and appreciators of the fruits of that oppression.

The most obvious example is music.

There is very little American music not based on black traditions. Even if it is performed by white musicians, even if it is written by white musicians – almost all American music owes an overwhelming debt to black people.

Take rock n’ roll, a style usually associated with white people. The majority of rock musicians are white. The majority of rock stars are white. The majority of rock listeners are white.

But it couldn’t exist without black music – specifically blues and jazz.

Rock n’ roll was invented during the second great migration, when black people from the southern United States came into contact with large groups of whites in big cities such as New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, etc. It was the first time many white people heard black music like blues, work songs, etc. It was also the first time many black people heard European instrumentation. The resulting cultural collision was extremely fruitful.

Rhythm and blues (sometimes called “race music”) evolved into distinct new styles – country, jazz, gospel, folk and rock. In many ways the different styles had less to do with actual differences in the music than in rebranding black music for a white audience. When a black musician became known for a particular kind of music, the fledgling music industry tried to monetize it by finding a white musician who could do something similar and thus reach a larger audience.

They figured if X number of white people will listen to this music played by a black musician, X plus thousands more will listen to it if played by a white one. And they were right.

Black musician Chuck Berry was one of the first to play what we’d recognize as rock n’ roll. He took standard jump blues and played the two-note lead line on his guitar that until then was typically performed on piano. He put guitar at the center of the sound, amplified it, electrified it and rock was born.

The genre developed organically with many black musicians taking the lead – Fats Domino, Sister Rosetta Tharp, Goree Carter, Jimmy Preston, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Joe Hill Louis, Guitar Slim, Howlin’ Wolf and many others.

However, the first certified rock hit “Rock Around the Clock,” was recorded in 1954 by an all white band, Bill Haley and His Comets. With this recording, the die was cast. The music was invented and developed mostly by black musicians, but it wasn’t a major success until it was recorded by white musicians.

The same thing can be seen with Elvis Presley, the so-called “King of Rock n’ Roll.” He wasn’t breaking any new ground. He was just the first white person who could sing like the black blues musicians who came before him. They toiled in obscurity. He cashed in.

This isn’t to say that no black musicians succeeded playing rock n’ roll. But it was predominantly white musicians who popularized the style that their black forebears had created.

To understand this, perhaps it is best to turn to the insight of Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones). In his classic book “Blues People,” he dissects the complex American relationship of race and music through the 1960s.

Baraka writes that white and black America have different value structures. As such it is a very different thing for a black American and a white American to play the same music.

When a black musician like Louis Armstrong played jazz music – another invention of black culture – he was fulfilling the ideals of his culture. By contrast, when a white musician like Bix Beiderbecke played jazz music, he was rebelling against his.

There is something jarring and revolutionary when white musicians play black music, Baraka writes. In doing so, the music becomes devoid of race. It is no longer black music. It is just music.

However, the musicians who created it are not likewise freed from the ghetto. They’re still black even if their music no longer is.

So what are black musicians left to do but create new music that they can call their own?

This may explain why so few black performers play rock music anymore. It was taken from them. They had to move on.

Even so, their fingerprints are all over everything that came after. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, all the way through the White Stripes and Black Keys. Ask any hardcore fan to name the best rock guitarist who ever lived, and the answer is bound to come back – Jimi Hendrix. Yet, Eddie Van Halen made an awful lot more money.

Perhaps the most incredible thing is that black musicians have continued to develop new and more creative music after every appropriation. Funk, Rap, Pop, Hip Hop, modern R&B. One can see all of it as a progression of gentrification and subsequent creation.

It makes me wonder: why do we love black culture so much but not black people?

As Williams said to end his speech this weekend, “…just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”

Black people have achieved amazing things in America. But white people rarely give them their due.

For instance, people generally think of rap as a black thing. But the largest audience for the genre is us, white folks.

There’s something jarring about white teenagers singing along with every n-word in the lyrics of a black rapper’s song as if these kids had the right. We don’t, people.

As Baraka might say, it’s a very different thing when we say it. But it’s more than just rebellion.

Too often white people turn to music that is characterized as black as a way to mock that culture. We demand black culture be commodified in a way that makes sense to our vision of what black people are. And when someone like Williams comes forward to call us out on it, we resent it.

Look around, white folks.

We love our culture, but we’re ignorant of our history.

We enjoy living vicariously through a marketed vision of black struggle but we don’t do anything about the actual struggle before our eyes.

Our black brothers and sisters are crying out in pain. And we’re the cause.

No, we probably didn’t light any crosses afire on anyone’s lawn, but what about our attitudes? What do we say when race comes up? Do we indulge in gut reactions of colorblindness or do we actually listen to what black people have to say? Do we do anything but shrug?

This isn’t about white hate or white guilt. It’s about accepting our responsibilities.

We owe black people much of our very idea of what it is to be an American. Isn’t it time we started paying it back with love and action?

Killed for Being a Teacher – Mexico’s Corporate Education Reform

mexico-protests

In Mexico, you can be killed for being a teacher.

Correction: you can be killed for being a teacher who opens her mouth and speaks her mind.

You can be killed, kidnapped, imprisoned – disappeared.

That’s what happened to approximately six people a week ago at a protest conducted by a teachers union in the southern state of Oaxaca.

The six (some of whom were teachers) were gunned down by police and as many as 100 more people were injured near the town of Nochixtlan, about 50 miles northwest of Oaxaca City.

Conflict between teachers and governments has become commonplace across the globe as austerity and neoliberalism have become the policies du jour. Tax cuts for the rich lead to shrinking public services. And investment in the next generation through public education becomes a thing of the past.

Even here in the United States, educators are taking to the streets to protest a system that refuses to help students – especially poor and minority students – while blaming all deficiencies on one of the only groups that actually show up to help: teachers.

Though in America educators have been ignored, unjustly fired and even arrested for such protests, the Mexican government has resorted to all out murder.

How did it come to this? Follow the trail backwards to its source.

The activists in Oaxaca were protesting because several union officials had been kidnapped by the government and unjustly imprisoned the previous weekend.

Those union officials were asking questions about the 2014 disappearance and alleged murder of 43 protesting student teachers by agents of the government.

These student teachers, in turn, were fighting incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto’s education reforms.

Specifically, Nieto threatened to fire tens of thousands of teachers by using their impoverished, neglected and under-resourced students’ test scores against them.

The government provides next to nothing to educate these kids. And just like officials in the U.S., Nieto wants to blame a situation he created on the people who volunteered to help fix it. It’s like an arsonist blaming a blaze on the fire department.

Why’s he doing it? Power. Pure power.

Poverty in Mexico is more widespread than it is even in its northern neighbor. This is because the most populace Spanish-speaking country in the world also has one of the most corrupt governments on the face of the Earth: A government in bed with the drug cartels. A government that has no interest in serving the people whom it pretends are its constituents.

Since before the Mexican Revolution in 1810, teachers have been the center of communities in impoverished neighborhoods empowering citizens to fight for their rights. These teachers learned how to fight for social justice at national teacher training schools, which Nieto proposes to shut down and allow anyone with a college degree in any subject to be a teacher.

Not only would this drastically reduce the quality of the nation’s educators, it would effectively silence the single largest political force against the President.

In short, this has nothing to do with fixing Mexico’s defunct public education system. It’s all about destroying a political foe.

The government does not have the best interests of the citizens at heart – especially the poor. The teachers do.

Though more violent than the conflict in the United States, the battle in Mexico is emblematic of the same fight teachers face here.

It remains to be seen how this southern conflict will affect us up north.

People have died – literally died – fighting against standardized testing, value added measures, school privatization and the deprofessionalization of teaching. Will this make Bill Gates, John King, Campbell Brown and other U.S. corporate education reformers more squeamish about pushing their own education agenda? After all, they are trying to sell stratagems that look almost exactly alike to Nieto’s. How long can they advocate for clearly fascist practices without acknowledging the blood on their own hands, too?

For our part, U.S. teachers, parents, students, and activists see the similarities. We see them here, in Puerto Rico, in Britain, in much of Europe, in Africa and throughout the world.

We see the violence in Mexico, and we stand with you. From sea to shinning sea, we’re calling for an end to the bloodshed.

The Network for Public Education has issued an urgent appeal to the Mexican government to stop the violence. Members of the Chicago Teachers Union have taken to the streets to protest in solidarity with their brothers and sisters south of the border.

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Ftelesurenglish%2Fvideos%2F864024527074284%2F&show_text=0&width=560

 

We stand with you, Mexico.

We fight with you.

We bleed with you.

We are the same.

Peace and solidarity.

PA House: Online Courses for the Poor. Teachers for the Rich.

Screen shot 2016-06-22 at 3.51.56 PM

Pennsylvania has a long history of under-resourcing its public schools.

State Rep. Jason Ortitay has a solution.

The Republican representing Washington and Allegheny Counties envisions a world where poor kids learn from computers and rich kids learn from flesh-and-blood teachers.

It’s all in his proposed legislation, H.B. 1915, passed by the state House on Monday. It now moves on to the Senate.

The legislation would assign the Department of Education the task of organizing a collection of online courses for use by students in grades 6-12. Some classes might be created by the state and others would be made by third parties with approval for state use. If anyone so desired, the courses could be utilized by anyone in public school, private school, homeschool and beyond. The online learning clearinghouse thus created would be called the “Supplemental Online Course Initiative.”

But what does this have to do with impoverished schools?

According to the bill, itself, state education officials would:

“Upon request, provide assistance to school districts which have been declared to be in financial recovery status or identified for financial watch status under Article VI-A by facilitating the school districts’ search for low-cost or no-cost online course options.”

In other words, this bill provides an alternative for schools where the local tax base isn’t enough to fund traditional classes presided over by living, breathing teachers.

In the distant past, the state used to made up some of the slack to level the playing field for students born into poverty. However, for the last five years, the legislature has forced the poor to make due with almost $1 billion less in annual state education funds. This has resulted in narrowing the curriculum, the loss of extra-curriculars, increased class size, and plummeting academic achievement.

While the majority of voters are crying out for the legislature to fix this blatant inequality and disregard for students’ civil rights, Ortitay’s proposed bill lets lawmakers off the hook. It allows legislators to provide a low quality alternative for the poor without necessitating any substantial influx of funds.

Here, Jaquan and Carlos. You can learn from this YouTube video. Billy and Betty will be in the classroom learning from a trained professional with an advanced degree in the subject.

None of this bodes well for state budget negotiations going on right now to finalize a Commonwealth spending plan by the end of June. Those expecting a proposal to heal the funding cuts most likely will be disappointed – AGAIN.

Nevertheless, the bill still needs to clear the Senate and a signature from Gov. Tom Wolf before it can become law.

In the House, the bill passed 128-66 with 8 abstentions. Though lawmakers on both sides of the aisle supported the measure, it was opposed only by Democrats.

If the clearinghouse becomes a reality, it would be implemented in two phases. In the 2017-18 school year, it would only offer courses on subjects tested by state Keystone Exams at no cost to local districts. Then in the following year, it would expand to include courses not tested on state mandated exams that can be purchased by local districts.

If the Keystone-aligned courses are free to local districts, who pays for them? Certainly these online classes aren’t being constructed, monitored and graded as a public charity.

According to the bill, the Department of Education should:

“Explore the possibility for Federal and private funding to support the clearinghouse.”

However, if the state can’t find someone else to foot the bill, the cost will be born by Pennsylvania taxpayers.

Specifically:

“There is hereby established a restricted revenue account in the General Fund to be known as the Online Course Clearinghouse Restricted Account…”

“The funds in the account are hereby appropriated to the department on a continuing basis for the purposes of paying expenses incurred by the department in carrying out its duties relating to the administration of the clearinghouse under this article.”

How much taxpayer money will be allocated to this initiative? It doesn’t say. Will this money come from an increase in education spending or will it cannibalize other education line items? Again, it doesn’t say. Apparently such decisions would be made while drafting the state budget – presumably not the one being hashed out now, but the 2017-18 spending plan.

“This initiative will give public schools, which might not otherwise be able to afford similar educational opportunities, the flexibility and ability to make use of online learning [for] the betterment of their students,” Ortitay said in a press release.

However, online courses have an infamous history throughout the Commonwealth, and, indeed, the nation.

All courses collected in the clearinghouse would be subject to approval by the state Department of Education. But cyber charter schools fall under the same jurisdiction often with disastrous results.

Internet-based classwork – like that which would be collected in the clearinghouse – makes up the curriculum at cyber charter schools. Moreover, these online schools have a proven track record of failure and fraud.

A recent nationwide study found that cyber charters provide 180 days less of math instruction than traditional public schools and 72 days less of reading instruction.

In addition, researchers found that 88 percent of cyber charter schools have weaker academic growth than similar brick and mortar schools.

They have an “overwhelming negative impact” on students, according to researchers.

And THAT kind of curriculum is what the state House voted to increase using public money!

One of the biggest problem with online courses is the low quality of what’s being offered. Here’s how a cyber charter teacher describes the reading curriculum at his school:

“Most cyber schools get their curriculum from K12, a company started by William Bennett, a former federal Secretary of Education. My school gets the majority of its high school material from a mail order company called Aventa.

When Aventa creates a course it is fairly bare bones. They choose a textbook from one of the major textbook companies, and cut it up into lessons. The lesson will contain a few paragraphs introducing the topic, they will have the students read a section of a chapter, they will ask the student to do a few problems from the book, and lastly, there will be some form of graded assessment, taken from textbook review problems. That is all.”

This is like giving out nothing but worksheets and expecting high academic performance. Here. Read the book, answer the questions at the back, and call it a day.

Another problem is high turnover for students taking online classes. Though learning exclusively through the Internet seems novel at first, few students continue taking these courses more than a year or two.

This is especially true for younger students. It’s hard to imagine many 6th graders with the tenacity to persevere without anything but the most limited human interaction and adult supervision.

Advocates claim this is healthy experimentation. Students are trying out different means to accommodate their learning styles.

However, when students invariably fail at online education and return to their traditional public school hopelessly behind their peers, taxpayers bear the cost of remediating them. And their low academic performance becomes a reflection on the public school system where it is used as an excuse to denigrate teachers and close more brick and mortar buildings.

The online educational clearinghouse is supposed to be monitored and regulated by the state Department of Education – just as it does for state cyber schools.

Unfortunately, state budget cuts in K-12 education have left the department seriously understaffed and unable to do this job effectively.
Just look at the almost weekly news reports of fraud at state cyber schools.

For instance, PA Cyber Charter founder Nicholas Trombetta allegedly stole at least $8 million in public dollars only a few years ago. Federal investigators filed 11 fraud and tax conspiracy charges against him and indicted others in the case.

Another cyber charter founder, June Brown, was also indicted for theft of $6.5 million. Brown and her executives were indicted on 62 counts of wire fraud, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. She ran the Agora Cyber Charter School, which was part of the K12 Inc. empire of virtual charters.

Why would we want to increase the opportunities for such fraud by encouraging students to take more online classes?

This bill is at best a distraction.

It’s a Band Aid for the fiscal irresponsibility of our lawmakers toward our public schools. It’s an excuse so that we’ll let them continue short changing our children for at least another year with yet another budget lacking in education funding.

This does not compute.

Summer Break – the Least Understood and Most Maligned Aspect of a Teacher’s Life

Screen shot 2016-06-20 at 4.18.07 PM

It’s inevitable.

Once the weather gets warm and school lets out, it’s no longer safe for teachers to be out in public.

You’ve got to stay indoors, get off the Internet, hide the cell phone – do whatever you can to stay away from non-educators.

Because if, like me, you happen to be out and about – let’s say standing in line at your favorite neighborhood burger joint waiting for a juicy slab of ground beef to stop sizzling on the grill – you’re bound to hear the kind of willful ignorance that sets a teacher’s nerves permanently on edge.

Imagine just two normal people – they seem nice enough – standing in line having a friendly conversation. It’s hot outside, so you might hear the usual topics discussed: the weather, the best place to buy ice cream, which public pool has the best prices – that an oh I don’t know, how easy teachers have it with their summers off.

Son of a…!

Normal folks, I know you often get the urge to talk about this. You think it’s just another topic of polite conversation. It’s nothing serious. You think it’s just like complaining about the heat or how the price of admission at the local theme park always seems to be on the rise.

But you’re wrong.

Here’s why: first, you aren’t alone in the comfort of your own home. You’re out in public. And I guarantee there’s probably a teacher somewhere within earshot. Second, you have no idea what the heck you’re talking about. You are completely talking out of your ass.

Oh, you think you know. Everyone thinks they know what it’s like to be a teacher. Everyone thinks they can do that job no matter what qualifications they have.

It’s funny. I never presume to assume I could do other people’s jobs without some kind of training or skill. I’d never say, “Police officers have it so easy. I could do that!”

I’d never say that about any public servants. Not firefighters, sanitation workers, social workers, lawyers, doctors – even politicians.

I think most people feel the same way – except when it comes to teaching. That’s the one job where everyone has an opinion and it’s based on next to nothing.

Here’s how it goes: I’ve been a student, therefore I can be a teacher.

Imagine if we applied that logic elsewhere. I’ve been sick, therefore I can be a doctor. I’ve been to court, therefore I can be my own lawyer. I can turn on a light, therefore I can run the electric company.

No one would be so ignorant. Except when it comes to teaching.

But that’s not all.

Not only are most folks comfortable opining about a topic of which they are so ignorant, but they feel themselves to be particular experts about one aspect of the job more than any others – summer break!

Those teachers sure have it easy, they say. They get their summers off! That’s one sweet deal!

Don’t get me wrong. As a public school teacher, I’m grateful for summer break. But it’s not what non-teachers think it is.

First off, summer break is not a vacation.

When you work a regular job you get a vacation day here and there. You get a week or two of paid time off. Teachers don’t get that.

During the summer teachers don’t get salaried like that. Some of us don’t even get a paycheck, and those of us that do aren’t earning money for those days off. We’re getting money that we already earned from August through June. This is money that was withheld from our pay during the fall and winter, money given to us now in the summer.

Wait a minute. Money withheld from our salaries? When someone pays you later for services rendered, don’t they owe you interest? Usually, they do. But not for teachers.

We work for the government. We get paid with tax dollars from the community at large. If the community had to give us our salaries up front – like almost every other job in existence – it would be harder on the taxpayers. So we let the community pay us later – interest free.

Like I said, summer break isn’t a vacation. It’s more like an annual couple months of being laid off.

When I say this to non-educators, though, they often smirk. “It must be pretty sweet getting so much money that you can afford to have it paid out like that.”

Let me just say this – You don’t know me. You don’t know what the heck I can and cannot afford. Teachers aren’t millionaires. We’re barely thousandaires. Many of us CAN’T afford it. We work a second job in the summer – often at little more than minimum wage.

Moreover, during the school year, teaching is not a 9-5 job. We don’t punch a clock working 8 hours with an hour lunch and then punch out.

If I’m not at least working 10 hours a day, I’m not even trying. Those 8 hours on the books barely cover my time in front of a class of students. I get a 30-40 minute lunch, various duties throughout the day and about 40 minutes to plan what I’m going to teach. That’s time to make any materials for my classes, design programs for the students, grade papers and fill out the never-ending and ever-expanding piles of paperwork.

As a language arts teacher, I routinely have my students write essays. You think they grade themselves? I’ve got to read those things, son, each and everyone. I’ve got homework to grade. I’ve got scores to input into the computer. I’ve got parents to call, students to tutor and a stream of detentions to oversee. And that’s just the minimum, not counting any extra-curriculars, clubs, PTA meetings, meet the principal nights, etc.

So the way I see it, I’m owed a little bit of down time during the summer. I need it just to recharge my batteries. During the school year, I’m going at a pace like lightning every day. If I didn’t have some time in the summer to unwind, I wouldn’t be able to keep up that pace for the majority of the year.

Heck. If I’m sick one day, when I come back to school it takes a few days to get back up to speed.

But non-teachers don’t know any of that, because students don’t know. Students just see the teacher in class and they assume that’s all we do. And that’s a forgivable assumption for students. You know why? Because they’re children! But you? You’re an adult human being. You don’t have the right to make such assumptions without any pretext at even trying to find out.

However, this is exactly what most people do. They think there’s nothing wrong with complaining about teachers, especially during the summer.

And here’s the worst part.

When you complain like that, you make my job so much harder.

You’re going to go home with that negativity, you’re going to keep voicing it, you’re going to say it in front of your own impressionable children who might not seem like it, but they listen to every word you say. Not just that, but they listen to HOW you say it. Even more than the words, they hear the disdain.

So when school is back in session, they bring that false impression of how easy their teachers have it, and that becomes disrespect, just another thing I have to overcome in order to help your child succeed.

You hear a lot in the news about foreign countries having better education systems than ours. It’s mostly B.S. propaganda, playing with statistics for political ends, but there is one area where there’s a grain of truth to it – respect.

In many foreign countries especially in Asia, teachers are held in the highest esteem. It wouldn’t even cross parents’ minds to scorn educators, and if their kids did it, the adults would be mortally ashamed!

But not in the U.S.A. We take the one profession most dedicated to helping our children have better lives and we crap all over it.

You know that’s why I’m there in the classroom – to help your child succeed. Sure I get a paycheck, but there are lots of jobs I could do to support my family, many of them paying a whole lot more while requiring less hours a week and providing actual paid vacation days.

Like most educators, I’ve got a masters degree. Every year I take continuing education courses. Heck! I’m even nationally board certified – a distinction of which only about 34% of teachers throughout the country can boast. I’ve been nominated for teachers excellence awards. I travel across the country multiple times a year at my own expense to enrich my field. I write letters, I protest, I lobby my congresspeople to support our national system of public education. I’ve devoted my life to making a difference in young people’s lives.

Isn’t that something worth a little bit of respect? Don’t you want someone like me to be there for your child in the classroom?

It’s funny. When it comes to most public services, you wouldn’t dream of denigrating a helping hand.

You’d never hear anyone say something like this:

Those damn firemen! There would be fewer fires if it weren’t for them! Have you ever seen a building burning without it being surrounded by firemen? If they’d just work a little bit harder, there’d be fewer burning buildings!

Or:

Those damn doctors! All they do is make people sick! You never see a sick person unless he’s surrounded by doctors prescribing him medicines, doing surgeries. If we had fewer doctors, fewer people would get sick! Let’s close more hospitals!

But this is how people talk about teachers. Regular folks have been convinced that far from helping children escape ignorance, teachers actually cause it. They don’t work hard enough. They don’t care enough. They have too many union protections.

I’ve never heard anyone complain that firemen would fight fires better if they didn’t have helmets and fireproof clothing. I’ve never heard anyone say police would work harder to fight crime if they didn’t have Kevlar and service pistols.

But somehow when it comes to teachers, the situation is different.

Normal people, you’ve got to understand something. We live in a world where rich folks want to take away teachers for the poor and middle class. They want your kids to learn from computer programs and YouTube while their kids get… teachers!

For your kids it’s always narrow the curriculum, more standardized tests, more unproven academic standards, more corporate profits, less parental control, fewer regulations, fewer student services.

And do you know who has volunteered to fight against all this craziness to make sure your kids actually get some kind of quality education?

THE TEACHERS!

That’s right – the same people you feel empowered to deride while standing in line waiting for your burgers and fries. The same people who you have no problem denigrating with just as much certainty as ignorance.

So please, think about that next time.

Don’t bitch and moan about your community’s teachers. How about giving them some support?

At very least add teaching to the list of impolite topics to address in public. That’s right – religion, politics AND TEACHING.

Because every time a non-educator vents their spleen about those lazy, no-good teachers, they make it that much easier for the powers that be to continue eroding your child’s educational experience.

Witch Hunt Against Incoming Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Escalates

Screen shot 2016-06-17 at 1.17.51 PM

To be or not to be.

That is the question for incoming Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet.

He is set to takeover the district on July 1, but a well financed public smear campaign is trying to stop him before he even begins.

Big money interests oppose him. The public supports him.

Meanwhile the media helps fuel corporate attacks on the 47-year-old African American because of criticisms leveled by a Political Action Committee (PAC) formed to disband the duly-elected school board.

It’s ironic.

Corporate school reformers criticize Hamlet for allegedly plagiarizing a single statement in his resume. Meanwhile they have plagiarized their entire educational platform!

Mayoral or state takeover of the district? Check!

Close struggling schools? Check!

Open new charter schools to gobble up public tax dollars as profit? Check!

Hamlet represents a new direction away from corporate education reforms. The new school board who hired him has soundly rejected these policies of the old guard. Many of the same members are still on the board who first changed course in 2013 by tearing up a contract with Teach for America.

But the Empire strikes back with allegations of plagiarism and resume padding.

Yes, Hamlet used some of the same words from a Washington Post editorial in his resume. He wrote:

“A successful superintendent has to satisfy many constituencies, keeping high achievers in the system while devoting resources to those who need them most.”

The Post wrote:

“A successful superintendent has to satisfy many constituencies, keeping high achievers in the system even while devoting resources to those who need them most.” (Emphasis added)

These aren’t exactly the same words used by the Post. They don’t rise to the level of plagiarism, but he certainly should have attributed them or reworded the ideas.
On the other hand, his critics want to use the same policies that have failed again-and-again in Philadelphia, Newark, Little Rock, Memphis and elsewhere. They want to steal control of the district and give it to bureaucrats who will do what THEY say. They want to take money set aside to help all students and use it to enrich their friends and associates.

Sure, Hamlet used someone else’s words to describe a good idea of leadership. But his critics are using their own words to describe someone else’s terrible, failing educational platform.

Hamlet made a small forgivable error. His critics are seizing upon it to turn the tide in their favor and take away the community’s right to representative democracy.

Make no mistake. This is a witch hunt.

Critics are splitting hairs, disputing statistics and calling it fact.

Hamlet has a proven record as a principal in Palm Beach, Fl.

He says the schools he administered improved academically for various reasons. Critics point to Florida state records that show those improvements to be less dramatic.

So both sides agree those schools did well under Hamlet. What’s in dispute is the degree.

Hamlet counters that state data is inaccurate. He was there on the ground. He lists several factors not accounted for by the state that fully justify his statements.

For example, when he talks about school improvements, he counts the total number of student suspensions – if a student is suspended twice, he counts that as two suspensions. The state, however, ignores multiple suspensions. In this and other ways, Hamlet shows his data is more accurate than the state’s.

National data backs up Hamlet. Florida is infamous for being backward, regressive and untrustworthy in education circles, often spearheading some of the worst abuses of policy in recent history.

“This has been a hoopla,” said Valerie Allman, a Troy Hill parent and activist interviewed in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “And it’s taken the focus off what’s important: these kids. … We’re expecting him to climb this huge mountain at the same time we cut his legs out from under him.”

One of the reasons the board originally hired Hamlet is his background in “restorative justice.

Instead of simply punishing or suspending students who misbehave, the program calls for making students set things right.

At Palm Beach County Schools, Hamlet implemented this approach with help from Mara Schiff, a criminology professor from Florida Atlantic University. It’s “far tougher than sitting in detention,” Schiff said in the Post Gazette.

“You have to acknowledge what you’ve done … and take responsibility for the harm you’ve caused. It’s not a kumbaya approach.”

It’s widely acknowledged in education circles that suspensions can have lasting impacts especially on black students making them more likely to enter the school-to-prison pipeline. Finding an approach to increase discipline without adversely affecting students’ prospects is imperative. This is especially true since Pittsburgh Public Schools have been known to suspend black students at a rate four times higher than white students.

In fact, the district has already launched a restorative justice program at 20 schools.

“I have nothing but good things to say about Dr. Hamlet,” said Schiff. “He had a [restorative-justice] coordinator who was fabulous, and who Dr. Hamlet completely empowered.”

Another reason for Hamlet’s hire is his advocacy for community schools. Like many on the school board and in the district, he has pushed for social services to help students and the community to make the schools the center of the neighborhood.

“You can have the best teachers, the best curriculum, the best classrooms,” said Rev. Rodney Lyde, a Homewood pastor and president of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network. “But we need a place on-site that can comprehensively address the other impediments — like kids coming hungry, or from abusive situations.”

Despite community support, several well-financed organizations oppose Hamlet and the board’s authentic reforms.

Foremost among them is Campaign for Quality Schools Pittsburgh, a new PAC formed recently to make city schools great again – by doing the same failed crap that didn’t work before.

Also on the side of corporate education reform are the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. Representatives for both organizations have offered to pay for a new superintendent search if the district gives Hamlet his walking papers – a measure that probably would mean paying him at least a years salary without having him on the job.

This would also result in weakening the district’s ability to hire a new superintendent and increasing public mistrust of the electoral process. Such a move would pave the way for disbanding local control.

How generous of these philanthropies! I remember a time when giving meant providing the resources for organizations like public schools to fix themselves – not having the right to set public policy as a precondition for the donation. But in the age of Bill Gates and the philanthro-capitalists, this is what we’ve come to expect.

Even the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette has drunk the Kool-aid. In a June 10 editorial, the paper published the following statement:

“The (school) board’s failure at this essential task calls its leadership into question, and will renew calls for legislation to dissolve the elected school board and move to an appointed system.”

Finally, we have A+ Schools – an advocacy organization that at one time championed the same kinds of reforms school directors are trying to enact. However, after a $1 million grant from the Gates Foundation, the group has become a cheerleader for weakening teachers unions, privatization and standardized testing.

Against these special interests stands a public school board and a community at the crossroads. Will they give in to public pressure and big money? Or will they allow Hamlet to do the job he was hired for and attempt to improve an urban district suffering from crippling poverty and state disinvestment?

This particularly tragedy has yet to find an ending.

To be or not to be?

Stop Treating Public Schools as Society’s Whipping Boy

Screen shot 2016-06-14 at 11.28.03 PM

 

The United States is no stranger to stupidity and ignorance.

A significant portion of the population doesn’t know basic science facts like that the Earth revolves around the sun.

We only learn history and geography by going to war or drone striking countries usually  filled with brown people.

And when it comes to basic math and English, just read the poorly spelled placards at our political conventions calling for more trickle down economics.

Heck! We’re the country that elected C-student George W. Bush President!

Twice!

And lest you think that was a fluke, Donald Trump, a xenophobic reality TV star with zero political experience, is the presumptive Republican candidate for the same office RIGHT NOW!

Yet whenever so-called intelligent people bring up these and countless other examples of American idiocy, they invariably simplify the blame.

We’re a country of more than 320 million people made up of various cultures, nationalities, ideologies, economic brackets and living in a wide range of geographic areas and circumstances. Yet we think the cause of our national ignorance somehow isn’t complex and multifaceted.

No. That would be too much for us to understand. Instead, we take the easy way out and put the blame squarely in one solitary place – public schools.

It’s always the school’s fault. That and those lazy, complacent teachers.

Some folks think the moon landing was a hoax. So apparently the schools aren’t doing their jobs.

Other people can’t tell you the month and year of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Therefore, bad teachers.

Everything from believing you can catch AIDS from a toilet seat to thinking President Barack Obama is a secret Muslim – it all could have been rectified if the schools had just taught us better.

Nonsense.

If you need a legal warning that your McDonald’s coffee is hot, there’s not much your third grade teacher could have done to help.

If you think the solution to gun violence is strapping bullet proof backpacks to kindergarten children while arming their teachers, there’s little that could have been accomplished by further academic study.

Anti-intellectualism is in the very air we breathe in this country.

No one wants to appear smart. We want to be the jocks, not the nerds. But when we feel guilty for our ignorance who do we attack? The smart people! The teachers! The schools!

Sadly, it’s often really intelligent people doing it.

A few weeks ago, famed astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson got into a Twitter battle with rapper B. o. B. over whether the Earth is flat.

Yes, in America that is somehow still debatable.

And Dr. Tyson was understandably upset. “I don’t mind that people don’t know things,” he said in a Huffington Post interview. “But if you don’t know and you have the power of influence over others, that’s dangerous.”

Agreed, but then he became guilty of his own criticism by pointing his finger solely at the schools. “I blame the education system that can graduate someone into adulthood who cannot tell the difference between what is and is not true about this world,” he said.

Maybe this would be a more effective criticism if B. o. B. were an actual high school graduate and hadn’t, in fact, dropped out in 9th grade. Tyson has a masters in astronomy and a doctorate in astrophysics, but he couldn’t tell what is true about this world in relation to one rather famous rapper’s education. Therefore his alma maters of Princeton and Columbia must be pretty shitty schools?

Perhaps the problem isn’t that B. o. B. is ignorant, but that too many people are willing to accept him as an expert on the shape of the Earth instead of someone like Dr. Tyson. But that’s not a fault of the public school system. It’s because of our attitude toward schooling, knowledge and expertise. An attitude that Dr. Tyson perhaps unconsciously helped foster.

I don’t mean to pile on Dr. Tyson. He’s one of my heroes. I’m just disappointed that in this case he’s being so intellectually lazy.

He’s not the only one.

Unfairly blaming schools also came from columnist Andy Borowitz when describing the dangers of Trump’s candidacy.

“Stopping Trump is a short term solution,” he said. “The long term solution, and it will be more difficult, is fixing the education system that has created so many people ignorant enough to vote for Trump.”

To be fair, almost everything Borowitz says publicly is satirical, uttered with tongue buried deeply in cheek. But it still feeds into this scapegoating of public schools. The public schools didn’t create ignorance. They fight it and in some cases fail. I wonder why?

Whatever the reason, Trump, himself, isn’t decrying it. He’s celebrating it.

When he won the Nevada GOP primary, he made a point to thank all the dumb people who voted for him. “We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated,” Trump told a crowd to huge cheers.

Strangely he didn’t then go on to laud what a great job public schools are doing by providing him with so many brain dead supporters.

So what exactly is the problem? Isn’t it troubling that so many American’s hold stupid beliefs? And isn’t this at least partially the fault of our public schools?

The answer is yes and yes.

We live in an anti-intellectual age. And that is troublesome.

And yes, our public schools are struggling to adequately educate everyone.

But when you blame everything on public schools you (1) obscure other factors like our piss poor media, and (2) you aren’t helping improve our schools.

First of all, much of our modern ignorance is fueled by toxic mass media. Most of us aren’t in school anymore. Unless you’re younger than 21 or 18, you probably get most of your facts from the news, TV, movies, video games and/or the Internet – not textbooks or school teachers.

We used to have an independent press that could investigate stories and report the truth. Now almost all of our major news sources are owned by a handful of giant corporations.

We don’t get news anymore. We get corporate public relations. The reason most people believe this crap is because it’s reported as if it were truth.

The rise of Fox News has a lot to do with it, but that is not the only culprit. Even traditionally revered sources such as the Associated Press are guilty of corporate collusion and bad, bad reporting.

They have no problem conflating an anonymous poll of superdelegates with actual votes as if they were the same thing even if doing so unduly influences the election in favor of one candidate. They have no problem broadcasting a Playboy Playmate’s vaccination advice every day of the week while mostly ignoring what research scientists have to say on the subject.

Second, constantly ragging on public schools doesn’t help make them better.

It’s not as if doing so actually resulted in addressing the real problems we have with our school system. Instead it reinforces the idea that they can’t be saved. We should just give up on public schools.

If we actually focused on the real problems with schools instead of constant innuendo, defamation and vitriol, we might be able to enact real solutions. For instance, more than half of our public school students live below the poverty line. They go to schools that aren’t funded adequately. We’ve allowed them to be resegregated based on class so its easier to ensure rich kids get a Cadillac education and poor kids get the scraps.

Moreover, we’ve let corporate interest take precedence over the needs of children. Instead of letting the experts in the field make education policy, we’ve left that up to the businesses that profit off of it. Instead of letting teachers and professors decide what are best academic standards, we’ve let think tanks create and impose shoddy, untested and developmentally inappropriate Common Core Standards. Instead of letting students be evaluated based on data gathered in the classroom by teachers who are there day-in, day-out, we’ve insisted schools be judged based on crappy high-stakes standardized tests. Instead of giving educators respect for the difficulty of their jobs and providing them with the autonomy necessary to help kids, we’ve denigrated the profession and chipped away at union protections, pay and benefits.

These are some of the real problems with public schools. When people throw shade at our education system, they are never so specific. It’s the schools that are “failing.” It’s never that they’re under-resourced. It’s the teachers who aren’t doing their jobs. It’s never that they’re being forced to teach to the tests. In fact, the people responsible for eroding our public schools often do so with the same rallying cry – our public schools are failing so let us enact these terrible policies that will actually make them worse!

It’s time we stop the lazy practice of criticizing public schools without also educating ourselves about what’s actually wrong with them.

Dr. Tyson, I love you, but don’t just blame schools. Blame Common Core and toxic testing. Andy, it’s not our schools that produce ignorant citizens. It’s the unfair funding formulas that don’t provide poor children with new books and a broad curriculum.

Public schools in general – and public school teachers specifically – have become our easy scapegoats, our whipping boys.

It’s about time we realized that such criticisms aren’t helping. In fact, they’re being used by the same people who are destroying our schools as an excuse to destroy them further.

The so-called failure of public schools has been used to justify massive school closures especially in neighborhoods of color. It’s been used to create more privately run charter schools. It’s been used to excuse cutting school funding, and making it even less palatable to be a teacher.

Too many of us believe these are good ideas.

Americans believe a lot of stupid things, but perhaps THESE are the dumbest of them all!