Let’s Hear It For Black Girls!

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“Sisters are more than the sum of their relative disadvantages: they are active agents who craft meaning out of their circumstances and do so in complicated and diverse ways.”

-Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen (2011)

 

 

Let’s hear it for black girls!

 

They are beautiful, bold, irrepressible and – above all – so incredibly strong.

 

Black girls will outlast any struggle, face down any adversary, and – more often than not – triumph in the face of adversity.

 

I know. I’m a public school teacher, and many of my best students are black and female.

 

That doesn’t necessarily mean they get the best grades. Some earn A’s and some don’t. But when it comes to pure willpower and the courage to stand up for themselves, no one beats a black girl.

 

Those are rare qualities nowadays. Sometimes it doesn’t make these girls easy to have in class. But think about how important they are.

 

As a teacher, it sure makes your life easier when students do whatever they’re told. But in life, we don’t want citizens who simply follow orders. We want people who think for themselves, people who question directives and do only what they think is right.

 

In short, we need people who act more like black girls.

 

As a white male, it’s taken me some time to come to an appreciation of black womanhood. But after about 15 years teaching in public schools serving mostly poor, minority students, appreciate them I do.

 

Think of the challenges they face and often overcome. Not only are they subject to the same racism as black males, they also have to function under the burden of male patriarchy and the quiet sexism that pervades American society.

 

According to a study entitled Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls by the NAACP and the National Women’s Law Center, African-American girls suffer from higher rates of sexual violence and intimate partner violence than white women, high rates of sexual harassment in school, and they are more vulnerable to sex trafficking than any other group.

 

In addition, more than one-third of black female students did not graduate on time in 2010, compared to 19 percent of white female students. However, there has been progress. Despite a lingering graduation gap, black girls have actually increased their graduation rate by 63% in the past 50 years, according to the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. Unfortunately, this hasn’t meant they’ve built up more wealth. In 2010, single black women’s median wealth was just $100 compared to single white women’s wealth, which was $41, 500.

 

And it only gets worse the closer we look at it. Black women are the only group whose unemployment rate remained stagnant at 10.6%, while the overall rate for workers in the United States dropped from 7.2% to 6.1% between August 2013 and August 2014, according to a National Women’s Law Center report on jobs data. More than a quarter of black women live in poverty, according to the Center for American Progress, despite making up a larger portion of the workforce than white and Latina women.

 

Despite such problems, black women start businesses at six times the national average, according to the Center for American Progress. And this is even more startling when you realize they are also more likely to be denied small business loans and federal contracts.

 

It’s one of the reasons black girls are so special. Those who somehow survive the incredible pressures society puts them under often become super achievers. They can do almost anything.

 

Perhaps it’s an internalization of the advice black women often get from their mothers. They’re frequently told they have to work harder and do more just to be noticed, and they often do. In my classes, I’ve had more black girls achieve grades over the 100% mark than any other group. And that’s not easy to do. But it’s typical black girl power – they try to be more than perfect.

 

However, it takes a toll.

 

They are more likely to die of breast cancer than any other racial group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The reasons are complex, but include the fact that black women experience delays in diagnosis and treatment. Like many oppressed people, they often internalize that oppression – they don’t take care of themselves and the stress can be a killer.

 

And for those who can’t overcome the unfair pressures we place them under, the results are even worse. In school, I’ve seen precious and valuable girls thrown into a sometimes cruel and uncaring disciplinary system – a system from which it can be hard to extract yourself.

 

Some teachers and schools when faced with the independence and forthrightness of black girls don’t know how to handle them. In such cases, these girls are often disciplined out of all proportion to their population size in school districts. For example, in New York City, black girls made up only 28% of the student body during the 2011-2012 school year, but were 90% of all girls expelled that year from the city’s schools, according to the “Black Girls Matter” report by the African American Policy Forum. Similarly, black girls made up only 35% of the Boston public school population that same year, but accounted for 63% of all girls expelled.

 

In short, we’ve got a lot of work to do to dismantle a national system of racism and white privilege. But even beyond that, as a society we need to recognize and appreciate black girls. A little bit would go a long way.

 

We need to acknowledge the unique talents and skills of these amazing young women. And so much of it starts with a matter of conceptualization in the white adult mind.

 

Instead of seeing them as defiant, we need to recognize their independence. Instead of seeing them as challenging your authority, you need to see them as asserting themselves and standing up for their beliefs.

 

Those are all such positive qualities. How many times do adults complain that kids today don’t care enough about things – their apathy, their entitlement, their indifference. As a group, black girls are nothing like that! They are exactly the opposite! But instead of praising them for it, instead of valuing them, white adults often feel threatened and respond by trying to crush what they perceive as a rebellious and disruptive element in their classrooms or in society.

 

That’s why I love the Black Girl Magic movement.

 

It was created by CaShawn Thompson to celebrate the beauty, power and resilience of black women. It started as a simple social media hashtag – #BlackGirlMagic.

 

It embodies a theme I’ve already touched on – the irrepressible spirit of black women, how they are faced with an overwhelming mountain of challenges but somehow manage to overcome them and become tremendous overachievers! It’s a celebration of everything good and positive about the black female experience.

 

I think it’s just wonderful.

 

How can you not look at someone like Misty Copeland and not appreciate her success? She’s the first ever black principal at the American Ballet Theatre. She has shot to the top of one of the whitest, wealthiest and most elitist arts you can pursue.

 

Or how about Gabby Douglas? You can’t watch videos of the amazing Olympic gymnast, who at only 17, absolutely wowed the world with gold medals despite internet trolls hating on her hair.

 

And if we’re talking undue hate and criticism, no woman in recent memory has suffered as much as Michelle Obama. Whatever you think of her husband’s Presidency, you have to admit Michelle was a model of grace under pressure. How many times did haters pick apart her appearance while she just got on with the business of making school lunches healthier and being a tremendous role model for children of color and women of all races and creeds.

 

Or Ava DuVernay, the amazing director snubbed at the Oscars for her film “Selma.” What did she do? She made another amazing film “13th” about how the 13th Amendment ended slavery but opened the door to the prison industrial complex.

 

That’s Black Girl Magic. And it’s actually pretty common.

 

So come on, fellow white people. Let’s celebrate black girls.

 

Stop trying to touch their hair or compare them with Eurocentric standards of beauty. Stop, pause and actually see them. See them for who and what they are.

 

Black girls are amazing and make the world a better place.

 

Here’s to all the incredible and irreplaceable black girls in my classes and in my life!

 

You go, girls!

Arne Duncan Designed Rahm Emanuel’s Latest Attack on Poor Students of Color

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Sometimes an idea is just too stupid to keep it all to yourself.

Ask Arne Duncan.

Sitting at his lonely desk as managing partner of the Emerson Collective, a limited liability corporation pushing school and immigration policy, he must have missed his days as President Barack Obama’s Education Secretary.

After all, he was the architect of Race to the Top, a federal policy that at best wasted billions of tax dollars without helping students learn – at worst it enriched private charter school operators, standardized test and publishing corporations and private prison operators without helping kids learn.

At the dawn of 2017 with Donald Trump just beginning to flush public education down the toilet in favor of school vouchers, Duncan took to the Internet wondering how he, too, could bring harm to inner city students.

On Jan. 11, he sent an email to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel with a suggestion that was pure Duncan – let’s help poor children of color by making it harder to graduate!

Chicago Public School students have suffered from decades of budget cuts, teacher layoffs and even the closure of 49 schools almost exclusively in poor, black or Latino neighborhoods. A former district CEO even plead guilty to a $23 million kickback scheme.

As a result, the more than 400,000 students, 37.7% of which are black and more than 80% of which are poor, have struggled academically.

How would Arne help them? Make them submit more paperwork in order to get a diploma. They must prove that after 12th grade they’re going to college, trade school, an internship, the military or would otherwise be gainfully employed. OR ELSE they can’t graduate!

“Think about making completing a FAFSA [financial aid application] and applying to two or three colleges or the military a new CPS graduation requirement,” Duncan wrote to Emanuel in emails released to the Chicago Sun-Times through a Freedom of Information Act request. “Graduation rates continue to rise. This would signal the importance of ongoing education/training. A HS diploma is great, but not enough. No other school system I know of has taken this next step.”

Duncan followed up in February, and Emanuel replied, “Thanks. You know we are doing a version of your graduation requirement.”

Duncan responded, “Didn’t know. Good?”

No. Not good, Arne.

Because of your neoliberal meddling, when this year’s 9th graders finish their senior year, they’ll have to jump through yet another hoop to get their diplomas.

The Brookings Institute concluded in 2016 that cities like Chicago with pronounced income inequality are more likely to see higher rates of secondary school drop-outs, and lower graduation rates. An unrelated 2014 study found that Chicago ranked eighth among American cities in an index of income inequality.

None of that is helped by a new graduation requirement.

But Duncan disagrees.

He wrote an op-ed published in the Chicago Tribune praising the plan – his plan.

“Some people worry that raising graduation standards will cause more young people to drop out, but they’re wrong,” he wrote. “Young people don’t drop out because school is too hard. They drop out because it is too easy and they are not engaged. They don’t understand how it’s relevant to their lives.”

Wrong, Arne. It’s not a matter of school being too easy. It’s a matter of life being too hard. Imagine being an impoverished inner city student. You’re malnourished, there are few books in your home, you’re struggling to survive in a world populated by drugs and gangs, you’re suffering from post traumatic stress and your neighborhood school is closed, your teacher is laid off, there’s no tutoring, no arts or humanities classes. And they keep making you take endless high stakes standardized tests. THAT’S what makes students loose interest in school. Not because it’s too easy!

But Emanuel, a former investment banker and Obama’s White House Chief of Staff, only understands business solutions to human challenges.

When proposing this new graduation requirement, he said he got the idea from charter schools.

But of course! Private corporations running schools at public expense always know what is best!

Or is that NEVER know what is best? I guess it depends on whose interest you’re looking out for – businesspeople or students.

Emanuel doesn’t think this new policy is a major change.

“We already have around 62 percent of our kids are already either accepted into college or accepted into community college, and our goal is to make sure nobody spikes the ball at 12th grade,” Emanuel said. “We want to make 14th grade universal. That’s the new goal line.”

Is it, Rahm? It’s interesting that you’re doing this for inner city kids but no one is suggesting it for wealthy kids in the suburbs.

This statement about expectations explains why:

“Just like you do with your children, college, post-high school, that is what’s expected,” Emanuel said. “If you change expectations, it’s not hard for kids to adapt.”

So poor black and Latino kids need YOUR expectations. Is that it? It’s up to YOUR patriarchy to step in and tell them what to do with their lives after high school or else – what? They’ll just sit home on food stamps doing nothing?

This is Chicago – where police brutality is an everyday thing. Gun violence is out of control. And you think these kids and their parents live in crippling, generational poverty because they aren’t trying hard enough to get jobs or better themselves?

Those seem to be the underlying assumptions here. It’s not about giving these 18-year-olds a helping hand. It’s about pushing them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

It only takes a second of thought to realize why this is a bad idea.

The district has been cutting staff positions left and right – especially at schools serving poor students of color. Has any additional funding been budgeted to ensure district guidance counselors are in place to help students meet this goal? NOPE.

Students can graduate if they prove they’ve got a job after high school. Those aren’t exactly growing on trees – especially jobs that pay more than minimum wage. What if students can’t find employment? That’s reason to withhold their diplomas? Your academic fate should be held up because there aren’t enough positions as a fry chef!?

Sure, seniors can apply to a local community college, which according to a spokesperson for City Colleges of Chicago, lets everyone in. But what if this isn’t the path for them? Not everyone is made for college. Why is the city stepping in to demand a post graduate plan from students? Isn’t this really just a recruitment plan for these community colleges and/or the military?

Is this even legal? These kids have passed all their classes. They’ve earned a diploma. You can’t simply withhold it because their post-secondary plans don’t meet with your approval.

When the district withholds its first diploma, look for a legal challenge where taxpayers will be in the uncomfortable position of paying for legal counsel to stop a child from graduating.

This Duncan/Emanuel policy is something you might expect from a certified moron like current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (She wants teachers armed against grizzly bear attacks.)

But it should be noted that both Duncan and Emanuel are Democrats. They’re just not progressives.

You wonder why a fool like Trump won the Presidency? It’s because of neoliberal attitudes like these. Both of these men were part of the Obama administration. And Hillary Clinton was following in the same footsteps – or certainly she didn’t speak out against it.

Emanuel’s political career is backed by the same big money conservatives that back Chris Christie, Mitt Romney and Bruce Rauner. He’s a puppet of charter schools, hedge fund managers and the Koch Brothers.

In fact, his corruption was so bad that during the 2016 primary, he became an issue for Democratic Presidential contenders. Bernie Sanders actually called him out in a tweet saying: “I want to thank Rahm Emanuel for not endorsing me. I don’t want the endorsement of a mayor shutting down schools and firing teachers.”

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Rahm had endorsed Clinton putting her in a bad position. Ann O’Leary, Clinton’s education advisor, said in private emails that Emanuel was “bad for Chicago schools.”
Like Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, O’Leary was a longtime supporter of corporate education reform policies – and so was Clinton. Hillary supported George W. Bush’s terrible No Child Left Behind – the law that changed federal education policy from focusing on equity to holding schools hostage for their standardized test scores.

O’Leary was worried about how Emanuel might hurt Clinton – especially in light of Bernie’s tweet.

In a private email to senior Clinton staff, she wrote:

“Bernie is beating us up over Rahm’s record on schools in Chicago. The Chicago school system is overloaded with debt and likely to run out of cash before the end of the school year. As a result, they are withholding their pension contributions, and laying off teachers and support staff.

I reached out to Randi W[eingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers] and she suggested that she tweet something tomorrow making it clear that Rahm and Rauner have been bad for Chicago schools and then HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] retweets.

That sounds like a toxic idea to me given Rahm’s endorsement, but I don’t think this issue is going away.

We could: (a) have HRC say something more forceful about the state working to help Chicago pay off debt so the schools can focus on teaching and learning; (b) have Randi say something more mild and we could retweet. But I do worry that short of going after Rahm, these options are not going to be satisfactory. So the (c) option is to stay silent for now.

Thoughts?”

O’Leary’s final decision was to do nothing.

And we all know how that turned out.

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The worst part is that the Democrats don’t appear to have learned anything.

Here’s what Duncan had to say just this month about how Democrats should be fighting the Trump administration’s education policies:

“The federal government is disinvesting in public education and withdrawing from accountability, so states and districts have to step up and lead.”

But Arne, your administration disinvested in public schools, too. Emanuel is famous for it!

And we all know what “accountability” means to neoliberals like you. It means endless standardized testing and closing schools catering to poor students of color. It means giving charter schools, book publishers and testing corporations a blank check.

No one is going to vote for that anymore.

That is just not a viable alternative to Republican policies that take all of this to its logical conclusion.

Destroying public schools slowly is not a viable alternative to destroying them quickly. Democrats need to either discover their real progressive roots or else move aside for grassroots groups to take over.

That’s a suggestion worth sending to your buddies Rahm, Hillary and Barack via email.

Dept of Ed Hires Anti-Civil Rights Crusader to Protect Student’s Nonexistent Civil Rights

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Candice Jackson is a victim of oppression.

When she was attending Stanford University in the mid-1990s, a minority calculus tutoring group refused to help her because she was white.

Sure she could probably afford to pay for private tutoring, but it was the point of the  thing.

She came from a family where both parents ran medical practices. Her dad, Dr. Rick Jackson, even unsuccessfully ran for Congress. You know – just like black families redlined into the ghetto and struggling to find work because of their African-sounding names.

Why shouldn’t the limited amount of tutoring spaces serve her as well as people from traditionally less privileged backgrounds? White lives matter, ya’ll.

“I am especially disappointed that the University encourages these and other discriminatory programs,” she wrote in the Stanford Review. “We need to allow each person to define his or her own achievements instead of assuming competence or incompetence based on race.”

With that kind of empathy and innate understanding of social justice, I – for one – am overjoyed that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has hired Jackson to run the department’s Office for Civil Rights.

Well, she’s acting assistant secretary for the office. Technically she was hired as deputy assistant secretary, because that doesn’t require a confirmation hearing. A permanent assistant secretary will have to be approved by Congress – if DeVos ever gets around to nominating one.

I’m sure she’ll do that soon. There’s no way she’d sneak in someone who doesn’t believe in civil rights whose main job is to protect civil rights! That would be like hiring a Secretary of Education who doesn’t believe in the mission of public education tasked with protecting public schools!

That’s unpossible!

And Jackson is all about civil rights. The 39-year-old attorney is anti-women’s rights, anti-distributive justice and possibly even anti-compulsory education and anti-Civil Rights Act of 1964!

Just perfect!

I mean what does the Department of Education have to do with civil rights anyway?

According to the department’s own statistics, black students are at least six times more likely than white students to attend poor schools. These schools have smaller budgets, fewer resources, a crumbling infrastructure, larger classes and higher student needs based on the trauma of living in poverty – worse nutrition, lack of books in the home, exposure to violence and abuse, etc. Meanwhile, white students are three times more likely than blacks to attend rich schools overflowing with resources, pristine infrastructures, small class sizes, and fewer needs.

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Is that fair? Should the government do anything about ensuring all students receive the same opportunities?

Heck no!

That’s up to… I don’t know… somebody else. And what about all those poor white kids trapped in poor schools with a majority of students of color!? Who’s going to help the six percent of white kids in mostly black schools escape?

Betsy DeVos – that’s who! Donald Trump – who is really indistinguishable from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and her are proposing a school voucher program so that these white kids can go to a charter, private or religious school.

The black kids? Maybe the choice schools will accept some of them, I mean if the appointed boards and CEOs who run them want to take these kids, it’s really all up to them. We aren’t going to force them to do anything. We’re all libertarians here in Washington now. You wouldn’t want us to trample on the civil rights of charter and private school operators, would you?

Of course not!

And we’re certainly not going to do anything to help these impoverished public schools succeed. No additional funding. No preferential treatment! The free market will sort things out – it always does.

And people wonder why DeVos needs to be protected by U.S. Marshals at a cost of $1 million a month.

Her department is doing away with services the public has come to rely on: protecting special needs students, protecting college students from predatory loans, and now prosecuting civil rights violations.

The liberal snowflakes! Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps! Why are you demanding the government provide you with actual services in return for your tax dollars? You should be demanding tax cuts. That way you can just buy everything you need, yourselves, like the billionaire DeVos family and even the well to do Jacksons.

It’s a wonder why DeVos doesn’t pay for her own security detail – or why President Trump demands we pay for the extra security for all his trips to Mar-a-Lago.

But in any case, the extra security is clearly necessary for DeVos. Every other Education Secretary in history has been able to make due with protection from the Secret Service – from agents already on the payroll and in fact still on the payroll now. But when you’re striping the public of services and enacting programs like school vouchers that Americans angrily don’t want, you need the extra protections.

It’s like Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Un. They didn’t and don’t have Royal Guards just because they love/loved pageantry. They need/needed protection from the people. That’s how you know you’re best serving the people. You need protected from them.

This is the conservative dream – federal employees appointed by bureaucrats instead of voted on by representatives, public servants who don’t believe in public service, and a military machine protecting them from the taxpayers.

This is the kind of administration that will finally ensure that never again will any white person ever be inconvenienced by people of color and all their needs! Never will the poor or minorities ever receive any federal help that could be perceived by white people as extra help – if we forget about all that we have helping us.

Finally we’ll all be equal. And some of us will be even more equal than others!

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Decolonizing Through Dialogue: Authentic Teaching in the Age of Testing and Common Core

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If you’re not careful, being a public school teacher can become an act of colonization.

 

This is especially true if you’re a white teacher like me with classes of mostly black students. But it’s not the only case. As an educator, no matter who you are or whom you teach, you’re a symbol of authority and you get that power from the dominant structures in our society.

 

Believe it or not, our schools are social institutions, so one of their chief functions is to help recreate the social order. Students enter as malleable lumps of clay and exit mainly in the shapes we decide upon. Therefore, as an educator, it’s hard not to fall into the habit of molding young minds into the shapes society has decided are appropriate.

 

In some ways this is inevitable. In others, it’s even desirable. But it also runs against the best potential of education.

 

In short, this isn’t what a teacher should be. My job in front of the classroom isn’t to make my students into anything. It’s to give them the opportunity, to generate the spark that turns them into their best selves. And the people who ultimately should be the most empowered in this process are the students, themselves.

 

But it’s easier said than done.

 

The danger is best expressed in that essential book for any teacher, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” where Paulo Freire writes:

 

“Worse yet, it turns them (the students) into ‘containers,’ into ‘receptacles’ to be filed by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.”

 

In most cases this means Eurocentrism – a kind of worship of all things white and denigration of all things black, brown and all pigments between.

 

We take the status quo and find every blind justification for it. In fact, this can become the curriculum, itself. Every counter-narrative, every criticism of the power structure then naturally becomes a danger. Revisionist history becomes history. European philosophy becomes the only accepted definition of rationality. Ideologies of empire become obvious and inescapable. White becomes the norm and racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia all become hidden and internalized.

 

You’ve heard the criticism of curriculums focusing exclusively on dead white males. This is why.

 

And not only does it silence minority voices, it reinforces a false view of the world. Folk singer Tom Paxton made that clear in this classic song:

What Did You Learn In School Today?”

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned that Washington never told a lie,
I learned that soldiers seldom die,
I learned that everybody’s free,
And that’s what the teacher said to me,
And that’s what I learned in school today,
that’s what I learned in school.

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned the policemen are my friends,
I learned that justice never ends,
I learned that murderers pay for their crimes,
Even if we make a mistake sometimes,
And that’s what I learned in school today,
That’s what I learned in school

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned that war is not so bad,
I learned about the great ones we’ve had.
We fought in Germany and in France
And some day I might get my chance.
And that’s what I learned in school today,
That’s what I learned in school

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned our government must be strong;
It’s always right and never wrong!
Our leaders are the finest men
And we elect them again and again,
And that’s what I learned in school today,
That’s what I learned in school

 

We can see why this kind of teaching is valued. It reinforces the status quo. But at its core education is essentially subversive. It supports new ways of thinking. It is by definition revolutionary. When you encourage students to think for themselves, some may come to conclusions that differ from the norm. This is entirely healthy and the only way societies can grow and change. But it’s inimical to the people in power who often are in charge of the educational system. They don’t want new ideas if those ideas will challenge their hold on the reigns of power. Socrates wasn’t forced to drink hemlock, after all, because his lessons supported the Athenian elite.

 

So we’re left with a real quandary. How do teachers remain free to inspire while being a part of a system that doesn’t value inspiration?

 

The natural forces of society work against authentic teaching like gravity pulling at a rocket. Unless you’re actively pushing against the ground, the most natural thing in the world is to just go with the flow. The textbook says this is the way. Teacher training programs often agree. Cooperating teachers who have been in the classroom for decades back it up. This is the best method. Just keep it up.

 

But it’s not. And you shouldn’t. There is another way even though it’s hard to see. And THAT’S often what you need to be doing for your students.

 

Let me pause at this point to make one thing clear: I don’t have all the answers.

 

I am no expert in how to do this. I have fallen victim to it, myself, more often than I’d like to admit. It may be next to impossible to avoid the accepted route much of the time. But if we want to be good teachers, we need to try.

 

If we really want to provide the best service to our students, their parents and the community, we have to break out of the mold. We have to allow our students the chance of seeing the world and not just our version of it.

 

The best ways I’ve found to do this are through selection of texts, use of Socratic Seminars and allowing as much choice as possible in assignments.

 

When selecting texts, you want to be as inclusive as possible. Provide students with the widest possible range of authors and opinions. In Language Arts, this means purposeful multiculturalism. It means authors of color being prized equally with the European cannon. It means women and transgender authors. It means authors subscribing to a wide range of beliefs and skepticisms. And it means accepting genres and forms that are often devalued like song lyrics, rap, Manga, graphic novels and anything that can be considered deep, substantial texts.

 

Finding such sources can be exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating. Unfortunately, not all schools permit teachers to do this to the same degree. Some districts mandate teachers only use certain texts already approved by the school board. Others provide a list of approved texts from which teachers can pick.

 

Each educator will have to find ways to navigate the system. It’s best if you can find support from administrators and in the community for what you want to do and go from there. But this can be a challenging road especially in our era of high stakes testing and Common Core which values authentic teaching not at all.

 

Another essential tool is class discussion. You may or may not be able to broaden the texts being discussed, but you can usually provide space for students to discuss those texts in class.

 

My 8th graders and I use the Socratic Seminar method of discussion extensively.

 

With almost every piece of literature, I write guided open-ended questions for the students to consider. The questions come out of the text, but I try to focus on queries that will get students thinking about how the text relates to their lives, gender and economic issues, questions of theme, race and opportunities to make connections of every type. Eventually, I even allow students to begin writing these questions, themselves.

 

The way I see it, my role is essentially an opportunity maker. It isn’t about finding an answer that will please me, the teacher. It’s about exploring the subject. It’s not about what I think. It’s about what students think. And that makes all the difference.

 

Finally, I’ve found it beneficial to allow students choice in their assignments.

 

There are many ways for students to demonstrate knowledge. They can write essays, take a test, create a collage, design a power point presentation, make an iMovie, act out a scene, etc. I try to expose students to multiple formats the first half of the year and then give them increased choice in how they’d like to express themselves in the second half.

 

Not only does this free students to think, it encourages the deepest kind of learning. It makes the lesson vital, important and intrinsic.

 

All of these approaches share a common feature: dialogue. They put the student, teacher and the author in a vital relationship. They take steps to equalize that relationship so that one isn’t more important than the others. It’s not just what the author, teacher or student thinks – it’s the interrelationship of the three.

 

Ultimately, it’s up to the student to decide the relative value of the results. Sure, they get grades. Sure, the system will judge students based on those grades. But the value of those grades isn’t as important as the resultant learning and the value students place on the experience.

 

To me, that’s the best kind of learning. And it’s the result of authentic teaching and dialogue.

 

It is the most inimical thing to colonization. Students are not enslaved to a system. They aren’t in servitude to a prepackaged group of ideas and norms.

 

They are valued and empowered.

 

Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing for them?

The Corporate Coup Destroying Our Schools Has Finally Come For Our Government

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First they came for people of color and I said nothing.

Because I am not a person of color.

 

Then they came for the poor and I said nothing.

For I am not poor.

 

Then they came for our public schools and I said nothing.

Because I do not send my children to public schools.

 

Now they’ve come for our government and who is left to speak for me?

 

This is a paraphrase of Martin Niemöller’s famous lines about the cowardice of German intellectuals during Hitler’s rise to power.

 

The fascists purged group after group while those who could have stood against them did nothing – until it was too late.

 

That’s very nearly the position we find ourselves in today in relation to the Trump administration.

 

The neoliberal and neofascist façade has fallen away. And the naked greed of our runaway capitalist system has been exposed for what it is.

 

Just this week, Trump unveiled a new government office with sweeping authority to overhaul federal bureaucracy on the business model.

 

Led by the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, The White House Office of American Innovation will be an autonomous entity enforcing the president’s will. Described as an internal “SWAT team” of strategic consultants, and staffed with former business executives, the office will cut down democratic rule in favor of top-down authoritarianism.

 

And the excuse is the same one used to deny equity for minorities, the same one used to dismantle protections for the poor and the same one used to unfairly label and close our public schools – we need to run government like a business.

 

But government is not a business.

 

The goal of a business is profit for the few. The goal of government is service to the many.

 

In a private business only the owner or the board of directors reaps the benefits. But our government is not supposed to be set up that way. It’s not supposed to benefit merely all the president’s men. It’s supposed to benefit all of us – the citizens, the taxpayers, the voters.

 

This is exactly the model that has been used against our public schools.

 

We have shifted our concern away from students and parents to investors and corporations. For almost two decades, our education policies have increasingly been to reduce local control – especially at schools serving the poor and minorities – and give that control to private charter school operators. We have removed the duly-elected school boards and replaced them with appointed boards of directors. We have removed or diminished democratic rule and replaced it with an autocracy. And all the while the middle class has cheered.

 

It was a coup in plain site, and no one but parents, students, teachers and intellectuals spoke up.

 

Our voices were undercut or ignored. When we demanded equal treatment for our children, we were labeled welfare queens wanting something for nothing. When we demanded fair treatment, a safe work environment and resources for our students, we were labeled union thugs standing in the way of progress. At every turn we were tone policed into silence and passed over for the voices of self-proclaimed experts who knew nothing but what they were paid to espouse.

 

We were told that the only measure of academic success was a standardized test score. But no mention of the white, middle class standard our non-white, impoverished students were being held to.

 

When our schools were increasingly segregated by race, class and income, we were told that it was only fair. After all, it was based on choice – the choice of the invisible hand of the free market. When our schools were starved of resources, we were told to do more with less. And when our students struggled to survive malnutrition, increased violence and the indentured servitude of their parents to an economic system that barely allowed them to sustain themselves, we blamed them. And their teachers, because how dare anyone actually try to help these untouchables!

 

We allowed this – all of it – perpetrated by Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals, because they’re all really just different dogs to the same masters.

 

We justified it all in the name of the market, in the name of economics, in the name of business. Why should we care? It rarely affected us directly.

 

White, middle class folks could get by. It wasn’t OUR schools being given away to private equity firms. It wasn’t OUR children being educated by temporary employees on the model of the peace corps with little training and no experience.

 

Those were just someone else’s children. We weren’t even sure they were human. They certainly didn’t share the same portion of humanity as we did. They were unwashed and unfed. Even if you washed them, many of them would still have brown skin. We were happy to have them as an underclass, as a cushion to stop us from falling further down the social ladder.

 

Our kids went to either well resourced public schools with fully elected school boards and shiny new facilities or else we sent our children to pristine private schools that offered the best of everything for a price.

 

But now the chickens have come home to roost.

 

Because this same model is being applied to our government.

 

Now it is us who will lose our voices. It will be our services that are stripped away as an unnecessary cost savings. We will lose our healthcare. We will lose our environment. It will be our democracy suspended to make way for the more efficient means of government – fascism and autocracy.

 

Who has time to listen to the people? Much easier to just decide what should be done. And we can justify it with our business model. No more voters and representatives. Now we will be businessmen and consumers. Nothing will stand in the way of the corporate class enriching themselves at public expense. They will be merely providing the rest of us with the goods and services of government, the bits that trickle down on our heads like rain or urine.

 

That is what Trump is attempting. He is turning the United States into a banana republic – even installing his relatives and children in top leadership positions. Our government now resembles the corridors of power in Baghdad under Saddam Hussein with henchmen Uday and Qusay in tow.

 

The question is this: will we allow it?

 

Will we continue to allow it?

 

Will we stand for it as the administration installs Trump loyalty officers in every federal office?

 

Will we say nothing as nepotism and greed become the most prized attributes of governance?

 

Will we remain silent as our public schools continue to be raided, sacked and burned?

 

Because the answer to those questions is the answer to so much more.

 

Are we on the cusp of revolution or is history merely repeating itself?

Congress Frees Public Schools From Federal Test & Punish – Where’s the Catch?

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Let’s say you were kidnapped and kept in a small basement room where you were routinely beaten and starved.

Then after years of this treatment, your captors brought in a massage table and offered you a filet mignon after your spa treatment.

You’d be more than a little bit confused.

That’s the position of parents, students and teachers today.

After almost two decades of punishing public schools and their students for low test scores, Congress suddenly decides to step back and leave it to the states!?

Until now the federal government had mandated increasing high stakes standardized tests and forcing schools that don’t meet a certain threshold to be stripped of their school boards, turned into charters or simply closed. Until now, the federal government coerced states to enact every fly-by-night corporate education reform from Common Core to Teach for America to evaluating teachers based on student test scores.

But now the feds are just walking away!?

First, in 2015 lawmakers passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a reauthorization of federal K-12 education policy that (depending on how you interpret it) limited federal power over public schools. However, the Obama administration offered guidelines that put much of that federal power back in place.

Now both the House and Senate have voted to repeal those Obama administration guidelines in favor of… well… some other interpretation.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee and one of the architects of the ESSA, says states can just follow what’s written in the law. But this is a 1,061 page document full of legalese, meandering bipartisan compromises and – frankly – contradictory language. Even the most simple legislation needs interpretation, and in this case it needs extensive interpretation.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to offer her take on what all this means by Monday. So buckle up for that one. I’m sure the nation’s Grizzlies are so upset they can barely finish their picnic baskets.

As for the rest of us, it’s hard to know what this all will mean.

Alexander offered a detailed explanation that anyone interested in this issue should read.

I’m no fan of the Senator’s. I think he’s a blatant opportunist, an unapologetic partisan and out to protect only one person – numero uno.

But he makes some excellent points about federal overreach in the Department of Education under the previous two administrations.

Moreover, unlike DeVos, the supremely unqualified Education Secretary he helped ram through Congress over bipartisan objections, he knows something about schools. He was Secretary of Education, himself, from 1991-93 under President George H. W. Bush.

First, the ESSA still mandates annual testing. Even without the Obama guidelines, students will still be tested in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

Second, Alexander says the law still requires each state to hold its public schools accountable. Each state must submit a plan detailing how it intends to do that by September of 2017. There is plenty of latitude on exactly how states will do this, but whatever they decide, this new accountability system must be implemented by next school year (2017-2018).

Moreover, he says, states have to identify and provide support to at least the lowest performing 5% of their schools. This must be done by the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year.

They also must use academic and English language proficiency indicators in their accountability systems. Which indicators? Standardized testing? Maybe – maybe not.

Many accountability provisions, such as the requirement that educators measure reading scores, math scores, and graduation rates, are specifically mentioned in the ESSA.

Still, many questions remain.

For instance: if the Department of Education isn’t allowed to tell states what to do, how is it supposed to help them comply with the law?

Alexander cites “Non-regulatory guidance; Dear Colleague letters; Frequently-Asked-Questions documents; Webinars, phone calls, and in-person conferences.”

Alexander stresses that repealing the Obama regulations does not open to door for the Department of Education to mandate a nationwide school voucher plan – unfortunately.

He writes, “A school choice program cannot be unilaterally created by the Department of Education. Only Congress could create a voucher program, and, unfortunately, Congress has rejected doing that.”

However, the Trump administration and DeVos have already made their intentions known about school vouchers. They intend to use Title I dollars – money usually earmarked for the most impoverished students – as federal bribes to enact vouchers. It’s basically the same thing Obama did with Race to the Top – promising federal money to states if their schools do what the feds want them to do.

For all his talk about states rights, Alexander appears to have no problems with this same kind of Obama-style coercion.

But he does appear to be correct about the transfer of power.

Apparently, the states really will regain control over their public schools.

This could be a very positive thing. And it’s not the only one.

In addition to repealing Obama’s accountability regulations, Congress scrapped Obama’s teacher preparation rules.

This change was less controversial. Eight Democrats joined Republicans in voting to repeal the teacher preparation regulations. By comparison, no Democrats voted to dismantle the accountability rules and one Republican joined them in opposition.

The teacher preparation rules were released in October after years of delay.

The main point of contention was the requirement that states develop a rating system aimed at evaluating the success of their teacher preparation programs. This would have included how programs’ teachers perform based on a measure of student academic achievement. Though the final version gained some flexibility with how to determine student academic success beyond just test scores, it remained a hot mess.

Any programs that didn’t perform well on the state’s rating system would have lost access to federal grants aimed at supporting teachers who work in high-need certification areas and in low-income schools (or TEACH grants). In effect, it would have pushed for a new generation of teachers dedicated to test prep and Common Core.

And these repeals of Obama regulations – these seeming improvements just waiting for Donald Trump’s signature – are brought to us by the same people who support removing protections for trans students. These are the same legislators who gave us an unexperienced mega-donor as Education Secretary.

Frankly, I’m having trouble believing it.

I hope I’m wrong, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Perhaps the standardized testing industry has consolidated so much support at the various Republican controlled state legislatures that it no longer needs support in Washington. Perhaps our ridiculously gerrymandered state legislative districts will make any resistance even more difficult. Perhaps a completely toothless Department of Education will embolden the most racist state legislators to dramatically increase segregation and civil rights abuses for the poor and minorities.

Or perhaps Republicans actually got one right?

Koch Bros Funded Publication Criticizes – ME – on School Choice!

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You know you’ve made it when the Koch Brothers are funding a critique of your work.

Most of the time I just toil in obscurity.

I sit behind my computer furiously pounding away at the keys sending my little blog entries out onto the Interwebs never expecting much of a reply.

Sure I get fervent wishes for my death.

And the occasional racist diatribe that only tangentially has anything to do with what I wrote.

But a response from a conservative Web magazine funded by the world’s most famous billionaire brothers!?

I guess this is what the big time feels like!

The article appeared in The Federalist, an Internet publication mostly known for anti-LGBT diatribes and climate change denial. But I had the audacity to write something called “Top 10 Reasons School Choice is No Choice.”

I had to be taken down.

And they had just the person to do it – far right religious author Mary C. Tillotson.

You may remember her from such hard hitting pieces as “How Praying a Novena Helped Me Process This Election,” “Sometimes, Holiness is Boring,” and “Why It’s Idiotic to Blame Christians for the Orlando Attack.”
This week her article is called “Top 10 Reasons HuffPo Doesn’t Get School Choice.”

Which is kinda’ wrong from the get-go.

Yes, I published my article in the Huffington Post, but it is not exactly indicative of the editorial slant of that publication. Sure, HuffPo leans left, but it routinely published articles that are extremely favorable to school choice. Heck! Michelle Rhee is a freakin’ contributor!

So I don’t think it’s fair to blame HuffPo for my ideas on school choice. A better title might have been “Top 10 Reasons Singer Doesn’t Get School Choice,” but who the Heck is Singer and why should anyone care!?

Then she gives a quick summary of how my whole piece is just plain wrong: “Steven Singer of The Huffington Post would have you believe that when parents have more choices, they have fewer choices.”

That’s like writing “Steven Singer of Consumer Reports would have you believe buying a used car means you may not be able to get anywhere.”

I stand by that statement. They’re both scams, Mary. The perpetrators of school choice want to convince you to choose a school that gives you fewer choices than public schools do. Just like a used car salesmen may try to convince you to buy a clunker that won’t get you from point A to B.

Claim 1: ‘Voucher programs almost never provide students with full tuition.’

She says I’m wrong because I’m right. She basically admits most vouchers won’t pay the full tuition but that it’s still a help.

Okay. But parents have already paid for a full K-12 public school education that they will not have to supplement at all. That’s a much better value.

Moreover, Mary, you pretend that the cost of the voucher is going to pay for at least 2/3 of private school tuition. This isn’t true. Most of Donald Trump’s kids went to the Hill School in Pennsylvania for more than $55,000 a year. A thousand or two isn’t going to help much.

But Mary disagrees. Most rich folks aren’t eligible for voucher programs, she says, so the hyper elite academies are off the table.

It’s true that most vouchers are given to poor students, but that’s only temporary. The goal is to increase them to middle and upper class students. It’s the first thing they do after initially limiting vouchers to the poor. And she knows this. She’s read Milton Friedman, the conservative nutjob who thought up this scheme to destroy public schools. “The ideal way would be to abolish the public school system…” he said. How? “Privately conducted schools… can develop exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools and mixed schools,” Friedman wrote.

What a brave new world you’re defending, Mary!

Claim 2: Choice schools don’t have to accept everyone.

She writes, “Singer would have you believe that charter schools and private schools receiving voucher money are cherry-picking the best students to stoke their egos and stats. This isn’t true, and even if it were, it would still provide more choices.”

Um. Okay. So you admit this could be true but it doesn’t matter. Choice is all that matters. Very telling.

Then she goes on to talk about schools that actually do pick their own students, and she argues that it’s okay.

It’s not, Mary. Schools that accept tax dollars should have to accept all students. Otherwise, you’re just guessing that somewhere out there is a school for all kids, but you’re doing nothing to ensure this is true.

Children and families from places destroyed by vouchers and underfunding of public schools such as Detroit have been complaining of this very thing. They go from school to school never able to find one that meets their needs. It’s not that this is a failure of the system either – this IS the system working properly! This IS school choice – a system that only ensures choice but never quality or excellence. It is predicated on the semi-religious belief that the market will take care of everything.

It doesn’t. Ask Dannah Wilson about it.

Claim 3: Charter schools are notorious for kicking out hard-to-teach students.

She acknowledges the point and then changes the subject. She says there are great charters out there like KIPP. Yes, KIPP – a system that does exactly what I just said it does! Look at the huge numbers of students KIPP schools kick out. Look at the very few who make it to graduation. This is a terrible model for your school. I guess Mary lives in a universe of alternative facts where terrible equals great.

I’m kind of embarrassed for you. Let’s just move on, shall we?

Claim 4: Choice schools actually give parents less choice than traditional public schools.

Mary says that every parent should have the right to vote with their feet? Why? I’m not sure. Maybe this explains her position:

“Singer writes, “If you don’t like what your public school is doing, you can organize, vote for new leadership or even take a leadership role, yourself.” But seriously, who has time for that? Some people, yes, but not the single mom working two jobs to make ends meet. It’s a lot easier—and a lot faster, which matters in the life of a child—to enroll a child in a different school than to slog through the political process.”

So it’s a lot easier to have fewer options? Mary, you just argued AGAINST choice. You just said choice is too much work. No one has time for choice? Make up your mind.

That is ridiculous. But moreover it’s untrue. Do you really believe parents have the time to go shopping for new schools every week? That single mom doesn’t have time to go to board meetings but she has the time to enter these charter school lotteries and hope her kids get in? And if they don’t, she has time to trudge across town to another school and when it closes suddenly, she has time to start the process all over again? And again? THIS is the time saving process!? When she could actually be building something as part of her community?

Claim 5: Charter schools don’t perform better than traditional public schools.

She just says both can be good or bad. This sidesteps exactly how bad charter schools can be. Charter operators can take all the money and run. Charters can close without warning. Cyber charters have been found to actually provide less education in math and reading than not going to school at all.

Traditional public schools can struggle, and when they do it’s almost always because they’re underfunded. Yet, they NEVER provide an education that is as bad as the worst charter schools. And most traditional public schools do the best they can with what they have. The problem is strategic disinvestment. We could make almost every traditional public school excellent if we just funded them fairly. But unfortunately billionaires like the Kochs are paying for people like Mary to convince us otherwise.

Claim 6: Charters and vouchers increase segregation.

She basically offers a defense of white parents who want their kids schooled separately from black ones. That’s just choice, baby, and choice is always good.
No, it’s not. We’ve seen that it is better for everyone if children are educated with diverse people. It helps them understand people unlike themselves. It builds a more tolerant and just America.

Yes, our traditional public schools have become more segregated because of the way district lines are drawn. But that doesn’t mean we should double down on segregation. It means we should fight to reverse it.

Then she tells a fairytale about Obama attacking choice schools in Louisiana. He CREATED that system! He was a booster of the all-charter system! He was not an enemy of school choice. Corporate Democrats are not the enemy of school choice! They love it! They are the allies of your own corporate masters, Mary. Do some research.

Claim 7: Charter and voucher schools take away funding from traditional schools.

She basically agrees with me and then says public schools should find a way to deal with it. That’s what private schools do.

But public schools can’t operate like private schools and they shouldn’t for many of the reasons already enumerated here. They accept everyone. They don’t intentionally segregate. Etc.

Moreover, instability is a terrible basis for a school. You want to ensure it will be there for children when they need it. You don’t want schools competing with each other for resources like businesses. Most businesses fail. You don’t want that for schools. You need them to succeed. That means artificially ensuring their success with a steady, reliable stream of funding just like you give to the military. You wouldn’t suggest the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines compete for funding. Why do that to our public schools?

Claim 8: Funding a variety of schools would be wasteful and expensive.

She says I’m thinking “bureaucratically, considering ‘school systems’ instead of the actual children who are the reason schools exist in the first place.”

Uh, these systems serve children. You need to be able to run them FOR THOSE STUDENTS.

Claim 9: School choice distracts from the real problems: poverty and funding equity.

She agrees that poverty is important. Then she pulls the old “throwing money at problems is a terrible idea” card. Public schools just need to find ways to cut costs. They spend too much. Blah, blah, blah.

She ignores the facts. Public schools spend dramatically different sums on students depending on whether they’re rich or poor. We need equitable school funding. That means spending more on poor children and not complaining about “throwing money” at the problem. No one complains about that at the rich schools where they spend so much more than the poor schools. No one calls it “throwing money” when it’s your own child. That’s “investing in children.” It’s only when it’s THOSE kids that it’s “throwing money” at the problem. It betrays a class conscious prejudice against the poor and – most likely – children of color.

She then goes on to complain about the increase in administrative costs at public schools. This is laughable! Charter schools spend so much more on administrative costs than traditional public schools! A study by Michigan State University and the University of Utah found that charter schools spend on average $774 more per student on administration and $1,140 less on instruction than do traditional public schools.

And then she talks about student achievement not increasing at public schools. Actually, it depends on how you measure it. Standardized testing is a poor measure of achievement. And when you adjust for poverty, our schools are some of the best in the world.

Claim 10: School choice is supported by billionaires, not the grassroots.

Here she just talks about all the events planned during school choice week.

Mary, these are attended by private and parochial schools during the school day. The staff is literally paid to be there. The school children are literally forced to be there because their schools are closed and they are bused in to these events.

That’s not grassroots. That’s the definition of astroturf.

Do some people support school choice? Yes. Less than 10 percent of America’s students attend these schools. But the overwhelming majority of Americans support public schools.

Mary goes on about all the people applying for vouchers but she ignores a much more pertinent fact. Whenever school vouchers have been put to a referendum, voters have always turned it down. This despite who-knows-how-many-millions of dollars in advertising and propaganda to influence voters to support it!

No matter what the position, you can find someone to support it. But the majority of school choice proponents are billionaires and corporatists trying to fool regular people into doing what’s not it their own best interests.

Just ask your editors at the Federalist, Mary. You and your article are a case in point.

But thank you so much for critiquing my article. I’m just a public school teacher. I so rarely get corporate employees writing responses to my work.

Frankly, I didn’t find your piece very convincing, but what do I know? I’m a union thug with an advanced degree, a masters and a national certification. I don’t represent Trump’s America like you do.

I just represent the majority who may one day wake up and take it all back.