When You Mistreat Teachers, Beware the Unintended Lessons for Students

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We’ve all seen the shocking video from Vermillion Parish in Louisiana this week where a teacher is tackled to the ground and arrested because she asked a question to the school board.

 

 

 

It’s a gross abuse of power that brings up many issues:

 

  • Public servants responding to the public with violence.

 

  • Elected representatives refusing to hear from their constituents and – in fact – taking action to silence them.

 

  • Leaders who are supposed to oversee children’s educations unconcerned with the lesson local kids will be taking home from the actions of adults who are supposed to set a better example.

 

The case is simple.

 

The eight-member board had been deadlocked 4-4 on whether or not to give Superintendent Jerome Puyau a raise. Then one of the members died. Instead of his wife filling in until a new election could be held, board president Anthony Fontana , who was in favor of the raise, appointed a like-minded replacement and tried to force a vote.

 

So Deyshia Hargrave, a district teacher and parent, asked why the superintendent should get a raise while the teachers haven’t had one in several years.

 

It was a reasonable question, asked at the proper time, in a respectful tone, when comments were directed specifically at her.

 

However, Reggie Hilts, the Abbeville city marshal who also serves as a school resource officer, told her she was being disruptive and asked her to leave – which she did. When she got out in the hall, he forced her to the ground, put her in handcuffs and pushed her out of the building.

 

It was completely unjustified, a horrific violation of Hargrave’s rights and goes counter to the very purpose of public school.

 

Local control is the great strength of our education system.

 

It is the idea that district wide decisions about our children’s learning should be made by duly-elected members of the community in the full light of day. Except where doing so would violate an individual’s personal rights, all school documents are public. They are voted on in public. And they are subject to question and comment by the public.

 

If the taxpayers – the people who foot the bill for the majority of the district costs – don’t approve of what their representatives are doing, they can take steps to replace them.

 

These are the very foundation of public schooling and one of the major reasons the public school system is superior to charter or voucher schools, which typically do not have them. Even when privatized systems retain the vestiges of democratic rule, they are optional and can be stripped away at the whim of the businesses and/or corporations that run them.

 

Vermillion Parish School Board would do well to remember this.

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The actions taken by City Marshall Hilts were either done at the behest of the board or certainly without any public dissent among the members.

 

They stomped on Hargrave’s First Amendment rights and ignored their responsibility to the community they serve.

 

If my description of how a public school is supposed to work sounds like a lecture, that’s intentional. These representatives could do with a lesson in how democracy works.

 

Our actions have consequences and those consequences only become more consequential when we become public servants. The board, the superintendent and certainly Hilts may very well have opened themselves up to legal action.

 

But beyond putting themselves in danger from having to pay punitive damages to Hargrave – that I hope they pay out of the superintendent’s bloated salary – they have betrayed a dangerous attitude toward the very concept of self-rule.

 

Whether they meant to or not, they have given the children of Vermillion Parish a lesson in government and community values.

 

Make no mistake. The children are watching. They get the TV news and status updates on Facebook and Twitter. They have access to YouTube. Doubtless, they have seen this video countless times. They have probably played it over and over again.

 

They saw their teacher brutally manhandled by a supposed law enforcement officer. And they heard the deafening silence from the school board about it.

 

They know now that this kind of behavior is deemed acceptable in Vermillion Parish. Beware the kind of behavior adults can expect from children who are given such a disgraceful example!

 

Moreover, these children are well aware of the matter in dispute.

 

The board is fighting to give the superintendent a $38,000 raise. Yet they refuse to give another penny to teachers – all while class sizes have jumped from 21 to 29 students, according to Hargrave.

 

That is not what leaders do who care about the well-being of students. It is a result of backroom deals and the good ol’ boys network.

 

 

The lesson is that hard work doesn’t matter. The only thing you should worry about is making a deal no matter whom it hurts. Just look out for numero uno.

 

After all, the board could give the teachers something – some token of appreciation to show that they value their continued commitment to the children of the community. But they don’t. Yet they fight tooth and nail to do so for one individual who has in no way proven himself indispensable.

 

It is the teachers who come in every day and give their all to help students learn. Not a superintendent who demands they jump through an increasingly complex set of irrelevant hoops.

 

But there’s always money for the person at the top. Never anything for the people who do the real work.

 

Critics complain that teachers don’t deserve a raise because they already earn more money than the majority of the people who live in the community. (An argument which – by the way – would also apply to the superintendent.)

 

But even beyond basic logic, it’s a bogus line of reasoning!

 

Doctors attend patients in poor communities. They still earn high salaries – maybe not as high as they would serving the wealthy, but they have to be able to survive, to pay back the loans they took out to go through medical school, etc. So do lawyers, accountants and specialists of all kinds. That’s just capitalism. If you want someone to provide a good or service, you have to pay them a competitive wage. Otherwise, they’ll move on to greener pastures.

 

The kids see you pinching pennies. They know what that means – you don’t think they’re worth the investment.

 

The lessons of Vermillion Parish go far beyond Louisiana.

 

Anytime people mistreat teachers, they’re really mistreating the children those educators serve.

 

An attack on teachers is an attack on students.

 

When Hilt wrestled a woman half his size to the ground and placed her under arrest for the crime of exercising her rights, he put the entire community in jail.

 

When the board directed him to act – or at very least neglected to stop him – they made themselves culpable in the crime.

 

It is something we have been guilty of in nearly every state of the union. We have neglected our children, abused our teachers and injured the democratic principles on which our country was founded.

 

Class dismissed.

 

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Public School Teachers Are Absent Too Much, Says Charter School Think Tank

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Have you ever heard of media bias?

I don’t think many so-called journalists have.

At least their editors haven’t or perhaps they just don’t care.

Otherwise, why would self-respecting hard news purveyors publish the results of a study by charter school cheerleaders that pretends to “prove” how public school teachers are worse than charter school teachers?

That’s like publishing a study denigrating apples written by the national pear council.

 
Breaking news: Pepsi says, “Coke sucks!”

In a related story McDonalds has startling evidence against the Burger King!

THIS IS NOT NEWS!

THIS IS PROPAGANDA!

I know it’s become trendy to defend the media when our lame-ass President attacks every factually-based report that puts him in a bad light as “fake news.” But the giant media conglomerates aren’t doing themselves any favors with lazy reporting like this.

And I know what many journalists are thinking when they do it, because I used to be one:

I’ll publish the report and include dissenting opinions and that will be okay because I will have shown both sides and readers can make up their own minds.

But what’s the headline? What’s the spin? Who is David in this story and who is Goliath? When multiple stories like this appear all over the news cycle, what impression is made on your readers?

It’s the same thing with climate science. Ninety seven percent of climate scientists say global climate change is man-made and happening. Yet the news gives us one scientist and one crank climate denier and pretends like that’s fair and balanced.

And here we get one biased neoliberal think tank vs. millions of public school teachers all across the country and since you’ve given us an equal number to represent each side, you pretend THAT’S fair and balanced.

It isn’t.

But who’s paying your advertising revenue?

Who owns the media conglomerates that publish your articles?

Often the same people publishing bullshit reports like this one. That’s who.

No wonder they get so much coverage!

So here’s the deal.

The Fordham Institute wrote a report called “Teacher Absenteeism in Charter and Traditional Public Schools.” They concluded that 28.3 percent of teachers in traditional public schools miss eleven or more days of school versus 10.3 percent of teachers at charter schools.

To come up with these figures they used data from Betsy Devos’ Department of Education.

So let the hand-wringing begin!

Look how bad public school teachers are and how much more dedicated is the charter school variety! Look at how much money is being lost! Look at the damage to student academic outcomes!

Won’t someone think of the children!?

WHY WON’T SOMEONE PLEEEEAAASSSEEE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!??

This report brought to you by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the College Board, Education Reform Now, the Walton Family Foundation and a host of other idle rich philanthrocapitalists who are drooling over the prospect of privatizing public schools and hoovering up public money as private profit.

Oh. If that’s not enough, Fordham actually runs a series of charter schools in Ohio.

Biased much?

So what’s wrong with the report?

First of all, it’s not news.

Neoliberal think tanks have been publishing propaganda like this for at least a decade. Play with the numbers here, look only at this data and we can paint a picture of “failing” schools, “failing” teachers and therefore justify the “need” for school privatization.

Second, look at all the important data Fordham conveniently leaves out.

Look at the number of hours public school teachers work in the United States vs. those in other comparable countries, say those included in The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

In fact, the OECD (which is not biased one way or another about American school privatization) released a mountain of statistics about how many hours teachers work in various countries.

The result: in the United States teachers on average spend more time teaching and receive less pay than those in other countries.

American teachers spend on average 1,080 hours teaching each year. Across the O.E.C.D., the average for most countries is 794 hours on primary education, 709 hours on lower secondary education, and 653 hours on upper secondary education general programs.

 

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Source: OECD

 

 

Yet American teachers start at lower salaries and even after 15 years in the profession, earn less money than their international counterparts.

So – assuming Fordham’s absenteeism statistics are accurate – why do public school teachers miss so much school? They’re exhausted from the hours we demand they keep!

But what about charter school teachers? Aren’t they exhausted, too?

Some certainly are.

Working in a charter school often requires grueling hours and fewer benefits. That’s why charters have a higher turnover than public schools.

Since they’re often not unionized, charter schools usually have younger, less experienced staff who don’t stay in the profession long. In fact, they rely on a constant turnover of staff. At many of the largest charter chains such as Success Academy and the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), teachers average only 4 years before moving on to another career, according to the New York Times. And this is typical of most charter chains.

So why don’t charter school teachers take as many sick days as traditional public school teachers? Maybe because when they check out, they often don’t check back in.

Moreover, there is a significant difference in the student population at both kinds of school – privatized vs. public.

As their marketing departments will tell you, the students in a charter school choose to be there. The charter schools often weed out the students with behavior problems, special needs or those who are otherwise more difficult to teach. As a result, the strain on teachers may not be as severe. When you’re only serving kids who want to be there and who are easy to teach, maybe you don’t need as much downtime.

Public school teachers, on the other hand, face real dangers from burnout.

According to a study by Scholastic (that actually goes counter to its pro-privatization bias), we work 53 hours a week on average. That comes out to 7.5 hours a day in the classroom teaching. In addition, we spend 90 minutes before and/or after school mentoring, tutoring, attending staff meetings and collaborating with peers. Plus 95 additional minutes at home grading papers, preparing classroom activities and other job-related tasks.

And for teachers who oversee extracurricular clubs, that’s even more work – 11-20 additional hours a week, on average.

Add to that the additional trauma public school children have experienced over the last decade. More than half of public school students now live below the poverty line. That means increased behavior issues, increased emotional disturbances, increased special needs, increased malnutrition, increased drug use – you name it.

Public school teachers deal with that every day. And you seriously wonder that some of us need some downtime during the year to deal with it.

Moreover, let’s not forget the issue of disease.

Working in a public school is to immerse yourself in a petri dish of bacteria and viruses. My first year teaching, I got so sick I was out for weeks until I developed immunities to strains of illnesses I had never been exposed to before.

Kids are constantly asking for tissues and blowing their noses and sometimes not even washing their hands. This is why teachers often purchase the tissues and hand sanitizers that school districts can’t or won’t – we’re trying to stop the spread of infection.

When teachers get sick (and often bring these delightful little maladies home to their spouses, children and families) what do you expect them to do? Continue going to work and further spreading the sickness around to healthy children?

And speaking of illness, let’s talk stress.

Stress is a killer. Do you think pushing the responsibility for the entire school system on to teachers while cutting their autonomy has an effect on teachers individual stress levels?

I can tell you from my own personal experience I had two heart attacks last year. And in the 15 years I’ve been a teacher, my health has suffered in innumerable ways. I’m actually on medication for one malady that makes me immunosuppressed and more susceptible to other illnesses.

So, yeah, sometimes I need to take a sick day. But if you ask most teachers, they’d rather stay in the class and work through it.

Having the day off is often more trouble than it’s worth. You have to plan an entire lesson that can be conducted in your absence, you have to give the students an assignment to do and you have to grade it. Even with the day off, you have a mountain of work waiting for you when you return.

So as a practicing public school teacher, I dispute the findings of the Fordham Institute.

They don’t know what they’re talking about.

They have focused in on data to make their chosen targets, public school teachers, look bad while extolling the virtues of those who work in privatized systems.

There is a manufactured shortage of teachers across the country. We’ve got 250,000 fewer teachers in the classroom than we did before the great recession of 08-09. Yet class enrollment has increased by 800,000 students.

So if we wanted today’s students to have the same experience as those of only a decade ago, we’d need to hire at least 400,000 more teachers.

I wonder why college undergraduates aren’t racing to become education majors. I wonder why there aren’t more incentives to get more teachers in the classroom and why there isn’t a boom of more teaching jobs.

And I wonder why reports like this are talked about as if they were anything but what they are – school privatization propaganda.

The Completely Avoidable Teacher Shortage and What To Do About It

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Hello?

Lo-lo-lo-lo…

Is anybody here?

Ere-ere-ere-ere…

Is anyone else left? Am I the only one still employed here?

Somedays it feels like it.

Somedays teaching in a public school is kind of like trying to run a resort hotel – ALL BY YOURSELF.

 
You’ve got to teach the classes and watch the lunch periods and cover the absences and monitor the halls and buy the pencils and tissues and fill out the lesson plans and conduct the staff meetings and…

Wouldn’t it be better if there were more people here?

I mean seriously. Why do we put the entire responsibility for everything – almost everything – involved in public education and put it all on the shoulders of school teachers?

And since we’re asking questions, why do we ALSO challenge their right to a fair wage, decent healthcare, benefits, reasonable hours, overtime, sick leave, training, collective bargaining… just about ANYTHING to encourage them to stay in the profession and to get the next generation interested in replacing them when they retire?

Why?

Well, that’s part of the design.

You see today’s public schools employ 250,000 fewer people than they did before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by 800,000 students.

So if we wanted today’s children to have the same quality of service kids received in this country only a decade ago, we’d need to hire almost 400,000 more teachers!

Instead, our children are packed into classes of 25, 30 even 40 students!

There’s no way a single teacher can give all those children her undivided attention at all times. There’s no way she can provide them with the kind of individualized instruction we know kids need in order to fulfill their potentials.

So why did we let this happen? Why do we continue to let this happen?

First, you have to understand that there are two very different kinds of public school experience. There is the kind provided by the rich schools where the local tax base has enough money to give kids everything they need including small class sizes and hiring enough teachers to get things done efficiently. And there’s the poor schools where the majority of our kids get educated by the most dedicated put upon teachers who give 110% everyday but somehow can’t manage to keep all those plates spinning in the air at the same time so the media swoops in, wags its finger and proclaims them a “failure.”

Bull.

It’s not teachers who are failing. It’s a system that stacks the deck against them and anxiously anticipates them being unable to meet unfair and impossible expectations.

Why do we let THAT happen?

Mainly because the people with money don’t care about poor and middle class children.

But also because they see the supposed failure of public schools as a business opportunity.

This is a chance to open a new market and scoop up buckets of juicy profit all for themselves and their donors.

It’s called privatized education. You know – charter schools and vouchers schools. Educational institutions not run by the public, not beholden to elected officials, but instead by bureaucrats who have the freedom to act in the shadows, cut student services and pocket the savings.

THAT’S why there’s a teacher shortage.

They want to deprofessionalize the job of teaching.

They don’t want it to be a lifelong career for highly trained, creative and caring individuals.

Why?

Those are people they have to pay a living wage. Those are people who know a thing or two and might complain about how the corporate scheme adversely affects the children in their care.

That’s why!

So these business people would rather teaching become a minimum wage stepping stone for young adults before they move on to something that pays them enough to actually support themselves and their families.

And to do that, the powers that be need to get rid of professional teachers.

People like me – folks with national board certification and a masters degree – they need to go.

THAT’S why class sizes are so large. That’s why so few young people are picking teaching as a major in college.

It’s exactly what the super-rich want.

And it doesn’t have to be some half mad Mr. Burns who makes the decisions. In my own district, the school board just decided to save money by cutting middle school math and language arts teachers – the core educators who teach the most important subjects on the standardized tests they pretend to value so much!

I’m under no illusions that my neighborhood school directors are in bed with the privatization industry. Some are clueless and some know the score. But the decision was prompted mostly by need. We’re losing too many kids to the local charter school despite its terrible academic track record, despite that an army of kids slowly trickle back to us each year after they get the boot from the privatizers, our district coffers are suffering because marketing is winning over common sense.

So number crunching administrators had a choice – straighten their backbones and fight, or suggest cutting flesh and bone to make the budget.

They chose the easier path.

As a result, middle school classes are noticeably larger, teachers have been moved to areas where they aren’t necessarily most prepared to teach and administrators actually have the gall to hold out their clipboards, show us the state test scores and cluck their tongues.

I actually heard an administrator this week claim that my subject, language arts, counts for double points on the state achievement rubric. I responded that this information should be presented to the school board as a reason to hire another language arts teacher, reduce class sizes and increase the chances of boosting test scores!

That went over like a lead balloon.

But it demonstrates why we’ve lost so much ground.

Everyone knows larger class sizes are bad – especially in core subjects, especially for younger students, especially for struggling students. Yet no one wants to do anything to cut class sizes.

If the state and federal government were really committed to increasing test scores, that’s the reform they would mandate when scores drop. Your kids aren’t doing as well in math and reading. Here’s some money to hire more teachers.

But NO.

Instead we’re warned that if we don’t somehow pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, they’ll close our school and give it to a private company to run – as if there were any evidence at all that this would help.

But, the school privatization cheerleader rebuts, why should we reward failing schools with more money?

The same reason you reward a starving stomach with more food. So the hungry person will survive!

Right now you’re doing the same thing with the testing corporations. They make the tests and grade the tests. So if students fail, the testing corporations get more money because then students have to take — MORE TESTS! And they are forced to take testing remediation classes that have to buy testing remediation materials produced by – wait for it – the same companies that make and grade the tests!

It’s a scam, ladies and gentlemen! And anyone who looks can see it.

But when you bring this up to administrators, they usually just nod and say that there’s nothing we can do about it. All we can do is keep trying to win the game – a game that’s rigged against us.

That’s exactly the attitude that’s gotten us where we are.

We can’t just keep doing it, keep appeasing the testing and privatization industry and their patsies in the media and government.

We must fight the system, itself, not go along with it.

We need to get on a bus and go to the state capital and Washington, DC, as a staff and protest. We need our school boards to pass resolutions against the unfair system. We need class action lawsuits. We need to tell everyone in the media what we know and repeat it again and again until it becomes a refrain.

And when we get these unfair evaluations of our under-resourced impoverished and multicultural districts, we need to cry foul. “Oh look! Pearson’s tests failed another group of mostly brown and black kids! I wonder what they have against children of color!”

Force them to change. Provide adequate, equitable and sustainable funding so we can hire the number of teachers necessary to actually get the job done. Make the profession attractive to the next generation by increasing teacher pay, autonomy, resources and respect. And stop evaluating educators with unproven, disproven and debunked evaluation schemes like value-added measures and standardized test scores. Judge them on what they do and not a trussed up series of expected outcomes designed by people who either have no idea what they’re talking about or actively work to stack the deck against students and teachers.

But most of all — No more going along.

No more taking the path most traveled.

Because we’ve seen where it leads.

It leads to our destruction.

Stupid Ass School Voucher Bill Back for Pennsylvania Vote Tomorrow

Shake the world to make money

 

Close your eyes and imagine a school like the one where I teach.

 

The public middle school is right next door to a Catholic middle school.

 

Some of the wealthiest families send their kids to the religious school. The rest send their kids to the public school.

 

Now imagine that the state passes a school voucher bill.

 

Those wealthy families can now use public tax dollars to help fund their kids’ Catholic school tuition.

 

A truckload of taxpayer wealth would be redistributed away from the public school and into the religious one.

 

And this is for children who weren’t attending public school in the first place.

 

Imagine what an impact that would have on the two schools. At the Catholic middle school, not much would change. At most a few more kids might enroll. And wealthy parents would get to pay less in tuition.

 

 

At the public middle school, however, the results would be disastrous. It would have to survive on much less funding than it was already receiving. Services for the majority of students in the district would be degraded. Class sizes would balloon. Educational quality would take a nose dive.

 

So why wouldn’t more kids from the public school move to the Catholic one?

 

Well, first of all, few kids in the district are Catholic. Should they be forced to be indoctrinated in a faith in which they don’t believe?

 

Second, tuition at the Catholic school costs more than the price of the voucher. Parents would have to pay above and beyond what they’re paying now to make tuition at the Catholic school. And this is a mostly poor neighborhood. Parents simply can’t afford it.

 

THIS is the situation the Pennsylvania Education Committee will vote on tomorrow.

 

The committee will decide whether State Sen. John DiSanto’s school voucher bill should be voted on by the state Senate and House.

 

School vouchers are not popular at both the national and state level.

 

 

Around 70% of people across the country oppose school vouchers, according to the PDK-Gallup public opinion poll about U.S. education.

 

 

Moreover, Harrisburg wastepaper baskets are lined with school voucher bills that fail to pass despite being introduced every few years.

 

 

DiSanto’s bill is called Education Savings Accounts for Students in Underperforming Schools or SB 2.

 

And guess what!?

 

It’s almost exactly the same as a pile of similar bills offered by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

 

The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, The Foster Child Scholarship Program Act, “Opportunity Scholarships,” The Smart Start Scholarship Program – all ALEC bills that do almost the same thing.

 

They designate some group of at risk students and say, “Hey, you know what they need? School vouchers!”

 

Well, my goodness. I’m sure glad DiSanto didn’t stress himself out writing something new. I’m certain his constituents wanted him to plagiarize someone else’s bill and pretend like it was his own.

 

And how exactly will spending public tax dollars on non-public schools help these kids succeed? That’s never explained.

 

Fools like DiSanto just pretend that it will help as a matter of faith. And since the overwhelming majority of school vouchers go to religious school coffers, this makes sense.

 

It is a blatant violation of the separation of church and state. But privatization supporters don’t give a crap about that. They don’t care about the values on which this country where founded. Their only concern is doing what their rich donors demand.

 

SB 2 would target students living in districts with the most underfunded schools serving the most impoverished populations. You know – “failing schools.”

 

If passed, kids living in these neighborhoods would have whatever the district sets aside for each student put in a savings account to be spent in almost any way parents see fit so long as they could somehow justify it as educational.

 

Send your kids to a private or parochial school?

 

Sure!

 

Homeschool your child?

 

Yep!

 

Go on a trip to the life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark in Williamstown, Kentucky?

 

You betcha!

 

And the best part is there is hardly any accountability built in to the law, so we probably wouldn’t even know how this money was spent.

 

Your tax dollars at work. Somehow. Somewhere. Out of sight.

 

I guess that’s what Pennsylvania Republicans like DiSanto call fiscal conservatism.

 

If passed, the bill would affect 800 schools – the 15% lowest performing in the state – including mine.

 

Take a look at the list.

 

Every school serves mostly poor students. Every school is severely underfunded.

 

Pennsylvania ranks 45th out of 50 for school funding. There are only five states in the country where the state government pays less of the cost of educating students. The Commonwealth relies on local municipalities to make up the difference. That means local property taxes, so the richer an area you live in, the more money it can afford to pay to educate children. The poorer an area where you live, the less it can pay.

 

This is why Pennsylvania has the widest disparity between how much it spends on rich kids vs. poor ones. Wealthy children are cherished and coddled. Poor ones are left to fend for themselves.

 

This voucher bill would only exacerbate the situation.

 

It’s a giveaway to those who don’t need it at the expense of those who can least afford to pay.

 

If you live in the Commonwealth, please call and/or write your state Senator and Representative and ask them to oppose this bill.

There Are Very Few Bad Students, Bad Parents and Bad Teachers

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Maybe the problem with public schools is that people just aren’t trying hard enough.

 

There are too many bad students, bad parents, and bad teachers out there.

 

At least, that’s what the rich folks say.

 

They sit behind their mahogany desks, light a Cuban cigar with a thousand dollar bill and lament the kind of gumption that got them where they are today just isn’t present in the unwashed masses.

 

Never mind that they probably inherited their wealth. Never mind that the people they’re passing judgment on are most often poor and black. And never mind that struggling schools are almost always underfunded compared to those in wealthier neighborhoods and thus receive fewer resources and have larger class sizes.

 

Tax cuts feed the rich and starve the poor, but somehow the wealthy deserve all the breaks while OUR cries are always the fault of our own grumbling stomachs.

 

As a 15-year veteran teacher in the public school classroom, I can tell you I’ve seen very few people who aren’t trying.

 

I’ve seen plenty of struggling students but hardly any I’d simply write off as, “bad.” That’s a term I usually reserve for wilted fruit – not human beings.

 

I’ve seen plenty of parents or guardians striving to do the best with what they have, but few I’d honestly give up on. And I’ve seen lots of teachers endeavoring to do better every day, but hardly any that deserve that negative label.

 

In fact, if anything, I often see people trying their absolute hardest yet convinced that no matter what they do it won’t be enough.

 

“It’s not very good.”

 

That’s what I hear everyday.

 

Ask most students to share their writing and you’ll get that as preamble.

 

“I didn’t do a very good job.”

 

“This sucks.”

 

“It’s butt.”

 

“I can’t do this.”

 

“It’s grimy.”

 

“It’s trifling.”

 

Something to let you know that you should lower your expectations.

 

This piece of writing here is not worth your time as teacher, they imply. Why don’t you just ignore it? Ignore me.

 

But after all this time, I’ve learned a thing or two about student psychology.

 

I know that they’re really just afraid of being judged.

 

School probably always contained some level of labeling and sorting, distinguishing the excellent from the excreble. But that used to be a temporary state. You might not have done well today, but it was a step on the journey toward getting better.

 

However, these days when we allow students to be defined by their standardized test scores, the labels of Advanced, Proficient, Basic or Below are semi-permanent.

 

Students don’t often progress much one way or another. They’re stuck in place with a scarlet letter pinned to their chests, and we’re not even allowed to question what it really means or why we’re forced to assess them this way.

 

So I hear the cries of learned helplessness more often with each passing year.

 

And it’s my job to dispel it.

 

More than teaching new skills, I unteach the million lashes of an uncaring society first.

 

Then, sometimes, we get to grammar, reading comprehension, spelling and all that academic boogaloo.

 

“Mr. Singer, I don’t want you to read it. It’s not my best work.”

 

“Let me ask you something?” I say.

 

“What?”

 

“Did you write it?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Then I’m sure it’s excellent.”

 

And sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes not.

 

It’s all about trust, having an honest and respectful relationship. If you can’t do that, you can’t teach.

 

That’s why all this computer-based learning software crap will never adequately replace real live teachers. An avatar – a simulated person in a learning game package – can pretend to be enthusiastic or caring or a multitude of human emotions. But kids are very good at spotting lies, and that’s exactly what this is.

 

It’s a computer graphic pretending to care.

 

I actually do.

 

Which would you rather learn from?

 

When a student reads a piece of their own writing aloud, I always make sure to find something to praise.

 

Sometimes this is rather challenging. But often it’s not.

 

Most of my kids come to me because they’ve failed the government-mandated test, their grades didn’t set the world on fire, and/or they have special needs.

 

But I’ve been privileged to see and hear some of the most marvelous writing to come out of a middle school. Colorful adventures riding insects through a rainbow world, house parties with personal play-lists and famous friends, political discourses on the relative worth of the Roman Empire vs. African culture, and more real life crime dramas than every episode of every variation of Law and Order.

 

It’s just a matter of showing kids what makes them so special. And giving them the space to discover the exceptional in themselves and each other.

 

There’s a danger in my profession, though, of becoming bitter.

 

We’re under so much pressure to fix everything society has done to our children, and document every course of action, all while being shackled to a test-and-punish education policy handed down from lawmakers who don’t know a thing about education. We’re constantly threatened with being fired if test scores don’t improve – even for courses of study we don’t teach, even for kids we don’t have in our classes!

 

It can make the whole student-teacher relationship adversarial.

 

You didn’t turn in your homework!? Again! Why are you doing this to me!?

 

But it’s the wrong attitude. It’s understandable, but it’s wrong.

 

Every year I have a handful of students who don’t do their work. Or they do very little of it.

 

Sometimes it’s because they only attend school every third or fourth day. Sometimes it’s because when they are here, they’re high. Sometimes they’re too exhausted to stay awake, they can’t focus on anything for more than 30 seconds, they’re traumatized by violence, sickness or malnutrition. And sometimes they just don’t care.

 

But I don’t believe any of them are bad students.

 

Let me define that. They are bad at being students. But they aren’t bad students.

 

They aren’t doing what I’ve set up for them to demonstrate they’re learning.

 

They might do so if they altered behavior A, B or C. However, this isn’t happening.

 

Why?

 

It’s tempting to just blame the student.

 

They aren’t working hard enough. They lack rigor. They don’t care. They’re an active threat to this year’s teaching evaluation. They’re going to make me look bad.

 

But I rarely blame the student. Not in my heart.

 

Let me be clear. I firmly deny the pernicious postulation that teachers are ultimately responsible for their students’ learning.

 

I believe that the most responsible person for any individual student’s education is that student.

 

However, that isn’t to say the student is solely responsible. Their actions are necessary for success, but they aren’t always sufficient.

 

They’re just children, and most of them are dealing with things that would crush weaker people.

 

When I was young, I had a fairly stable household. I lived in a good neighborhood. I never suffered from food insecurity. I never experienced gun violence or drug abuse. And my parents were actively involved.

 

Not to mention the fact that I’m white and didn’t have to deal with all the societal bull crap that gets heaped on students of color. Security never followed my friends and I through the shopping mall. Police never hassled us because of the color of our skin. Moreover, I’m a csis male. Young boys love calling each other gay, but it never really bothered me because I wasn’t. And, as a man, I didn’t really have to worry about someone of an opposite gender twice my size trying to pressure me into sex, double standard gender roles or misogyny – you know, every day life for teenage girls.

 

So, no. I don’t believe in bad students. I believe in students who are struggling to fulfill their role as students. And I think it’s my job to try to help them out.

 

I pride myself in frequent success, but you never really know the result of your efforts because you only have these kids in your charge for about a year or two. And even then I will admit to some obvious failures.

 

If I know I’ve given it my best shot, that’s all I can do.

 

Which brings me to parents.

 

You often hear people criticizing parents for the difficulties their children experience.

 

That kid would do better if her parents cared more about her. She’d have better grades if her parents made sure she did her homework. She’d have less social anxiety if her folks just did A, B or C.

 

It’s one of those difficult things that’s both absolutely true and complete and total bullshit.

 

Yes, when you see a struggling student, it’s usually accompanied by some major disruption at home. In my experience, this is true 90% of the time.

 

However, there are cases where you have stable, committed parents and children who are an absolute mess. But it’s rare.

 

Children are a reflection of their home lives. When things aren’t going well there, it shows.

 

Does that mean parents are completely responsible for their children?

 

Yes and no.

 

They should do everything they can to help their young ones. And I think most do.

 

But who am I to sit in judgment over other human beings whose lives I really know nothing about?

 

Everyone is going through a struggle that no one else is privy to. Often I find my students parents aren’t able to be home as much as they’d like. They’re working two or more minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet. Or they work the night shift. Or they’re grandparents struggling to pick up the slack left by absentee moms and dads. Or they’re foster parents giving all they can to raise a bunch of abused and struggling children. Or they’re dealing with a plethora of their own problems – incarcerations, drugs, crime.

 

They’re trying. I know they are.

 

If you believe that most parents truly love their children – and I do believe that – it means they’re trying their best.

 

That may not be good enough. But it’s not my place to criticize them for that. Nor is it society’s.

 

Instead we should be offering help. We should have more social programs to help parents meet their responsibilities.

 

It may feel good to call parents names, but it does no good for the children.

 

So I don’t believe in bad parents, either. I just believe in parents who are struggling to do their jobs as parents.

 

And what about people like me – the teachers?

 

Are we any different?

 

To a degree – yes.

 

Students can’t help but be students. They have no choice in the matter. We require them to go to school and (hopefully) learn.

 

Parents have more choice. No one forced adults to procreate – but given our condemnation of birth control and abortion, we’ve kind of got our fingers on the scale. It’s hard to deny the siren song of sex and – without precautions or alternatives – that often means children.

 

But becoming a teacher? That’s no accident. It’s purposeful.

 

You have to go out and choose it.

 

And I think that’s significant, because no one freely chooses to do something they don’t want to do.

 

After the first five years, teachers know whether they’re any good at it or not. That’s why so many young teachers leave the profession in that time.

 

What you’re left with is an overwhelming majority of teachers who really want to teach. And if they’ve stayed that long, they’re probably at least halfway decent at it.

 

So, no, I don’t really believe in bad teachers either.

 

Certainly some are better than others. And when it comes to those just entering the profession, all bets are off. But in my experience, anyone who’s lasted is usually pretty okay.

 

All teachers can use improvement. We can benefit from more training, resources, encouragement, and help. Cutting class size would be particularly useful letting us fully engage all of or students on a more one-on-one basis. Wrap around services would be marvelous, too. More school psychologists, special education teachers, counselors, tutors, mentors, aides, after school programs, etc.

 

But bad teachers? No.

 

Most of the time, it’s a fiction, a fantasy.

 

The myths of the bad student, the bad parent and the bad teacher are connected.

 

They’re the stories we tell to level the blame. They’re the propaganda spread by the wealthy to stop us from demanding they pay their fair share.

 

We know something’s wrong with our public school system just as we know something’s wrong with our society.

 

But instead of criticizing our policies and our leaders, we criticize ourselves.

 

We’ve been told for so long to pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps, that when we can’t do it, we blame the boots, the straps and the hands that grab them.

 

We should be blaming the idiots who think you can raise someone up without offering any help.

 

We should be blaming the plutocrats waging class warfare and presenting us with the bill.

 

There may be few bad students, parents and teachers out there, but you don’t have to go far to find plenty of the privileged elite who are miserable failures at sharing the burdens of civil society.

‘Schools of the Future’ And Other Scams to Monetize Your Child

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Do you feel it?

The future is coming.

There it is hovering just over the horizon.

You squint your eyes trying to get a quick peak before it arrives. But that rarely works. By the time it’s here, it’s never quite in the shape you expected.

Yet we always stop and listen to the prophets and prognosticators. Those google eyed figures, wearing trench coats and sandwich boards standing proudly on milk crates and cracking open their mouths to vociferously voice their “visions.”

They smell like B.O. There are insects in their hair. And their mouths spray halitosis as much as haloes.

Under normal circumstances, we wouldn’t trust them to park our cars, to give us directions, to do just about anything. But when it comes to “The Future” somehow we swallow their swill with conviction.

Through sheer force of charisma they convince us that their predictions will come to pass and if we’re smart we’ll invest in their brand of patented polished snake oil.

So we’ll be ready.

Just once I wish people would heed the skepticisms of the doubting Cassandras. But so it goes.

This week it’s “Schools of the Future.”

Everywhere you look it seems you’ll find some slickly produced inducement to “Rethink schools.” Some admonition to completely change public schools. Some empty promise in naked technology to save us all.

They’ll tell you that our public schools haven’t changed in a century. They’re set up for the agricultural past. Or schools are great for creating assembly line workers for the industrial revolution, but times have changed. And education needs to change with them.

Never mind that schools were never designed to supply any workforce. Their goal was – and is – to help the next generation become citizens capable of free thought.

But whatever.

This sales pitch about outmoded schools sounds really nice.

It resonates.

It makes us feel good.

Yes, I KNEW there was something wrong with my public school. That explains my own failures. I mean, I went through 12 plus years of public schooling and look at me! I’m not one of the handful of billionaires who own the world. It MUST have been the school’s fault!

Forget economic inequality, money in politics or any of that progressive crap! I could be sitting on top of the world with my boot firmly planted on the neck of everyone else – if only the public school had taught me right.

PLEASE!

But this is the comforting lie many folks tell themselves and one of the major reasons corporate school reformers get away with raiding public education. Their lies flatter white people’s vanity.

So billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs’ bought a four-network propaganda hour telling us to “rethink” high school while Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ began her “Rethink Schools” publicity tour days later.

As if the thought never occurred to anyone else.

Rethink schools? What do you think classroom teachers do? We rethink every lesson every day!

It’s standard practice. We call it reflection. Some of us even keep reflection journals where we jot down things that worked and things that didn’t.

Haven’t these privileged fools ever logged on to the blogosphere? The Internet is fit to bursting with teacher blogs overflowing with ideas about how to change things up. This very blog has been pushing authentic reform after authentic reform – but the powers that be – people like DeVos and her billionaire philanthrocapitalist peers – aren’t listening.

You want to rethink schools? How about sitting down and shutting up?

Seriously.

Let the experts have a say for once.

Classroom teachers have much more experience than you do. We’re there every single day engaged in the actual practice of teaching children. You learn something about it by doing it for at least 180 days a year, for decades. And that’s not even counting the years of college preparation before even entering the classroom, the pedagogy, debate, and hard won wisdom of generations of teachers before us.

Meanwhile, all you have is a bank account.

You’ve hardly stepped foot in a public school to do more than spit on it. Nor did you likely experience it as a student or parent of students who go there.

You know nothing. And that’s no sin in itself.

Many people are ignorant of a great many things. I, for one, am completely ignorant of how to fly an airplane. That’s why I’d never dream of busting open the cockpit and preceding to tell the captain how to land the plane!

But you are not humble enough to admit your own ignorance. You think your money gives you the ability to do anything. After all, you DESERVE all those billions. It’s not an accident of birth or circumstances. You’re just that good, that special, that much better than the rest of us.

And what kind of brilliance do we get from these pampered prophets?

Here’s DeVos remarks to faculty and students at Woods Learning Center in Casper, Wyoming, from Sept. 12:

“…I’m issuing a bold challenge this week: it’s time to rethink school.

For far too many kids, this year’s first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year’s first day back to school. And the year before that. And the generation before that. And the generation before that!

That means your parent’s parent’s parents!

Most students are starting a new school year that is all too familiar. Desks lined up in rows. Their teacher standing in front of the room, framed by a blackboard. They dive into a curriculum written for the “average” student. They follow the same schedule, the same routine—just waiting to be saved by the bell.”

All that money and the best you can come up with are that we should rearrange the desks!?

It just goes to show that you don’t know what goes on in real public schools.

My middle school classroom doesn’t have desks. We have tables that seat four.

Yes, those seats typically begin the day with students facing the teacher and the board. But you could say the same of seats at any auditorium since Plato’s day. I don’t hear anyone talking about rethinking that!

In any case, seats are mobile. I direct my students to move their seats all around the room. Just yesterday we had them in a circle. The day before, they were in small groups. And many days my students aren’t even in their seats – they’re wandering around the room doing some sort of task or project.

None of this is that revolutionary. Most middle school teachers do the same thing. You have to. Kids that age don’t have the attention span to sit in their seats in the same position for 40 plus minutes at a time.

Seats are often more stationary at the high school level, and they’re probably even less fixed at the elementary.

You would know this if you ever talked to a public school teacher. But, no. You know best because of your net worth.

Let me tell you something. Public schools today are much different than they were in the past.

For example, the way we teach special needs children is light years away from what it was just a few decades ago. We used to send these children to specialized facilities or classrooms in the basement well away from other students. Now, they’re mainstreamed and their educations are dramatically tailored to meet each student’s individual needs.

Schools used to just be about the three R’s – reading, writing and ‘rtithmetic. Today at wealthier districts, students have a wide range of courses to choose from. They have arts, music, foreign languages, vo-tech, extra-curriculars, computer science, robotics, drama, almost anything you can think of! I wish this were true at all schools, but that’s a funding issue, not a lack of innovation.

Many schools are less segregated today than they were before Brown v. Board. The courts have let us down in supporting this Supreme Court decision, instead permitting an awful lot of regression in some districts. But even at the most resegregated schools, they are rarely100% one race or another. We should do something to increase integration, but don’t tell me we haven’t made progress.

Let’s get one thing straight.

People like DeVos and Jobs only care about “rethinking” schools because they have a product to sell.

They’re promoting a problem so they can sell us the solution. They want us to buy more charter and voucher schools, more edutech competency based education B.S., more testing, more publisher and computer boondoggles.

You want real innovative reforms in our public schools?

Here’s what you do.

First step, give the reigns to public school teachers. We’ll tell you what needs to be done.

Here’s a short list:

-Stop privatizing and start supporting public schools.

-Give us equitable funding so that poor and minority students have the funding they need to learn.

Integrate schools again – both racially and economically – no more schools for rich white kids and schools for poor black kids.

Get rid of high stakes testing use funding allocation, spending decisions, principal classroom observations and student projects for accountability purposes, not scores on a limited and biased multiple choice test.

Repeal Common Core and let teachers write their own academic standards instead of being beholden to goals written by corporations to sell their own products and tests.

-Make a national commitment to reducing class size across the board, hire more teachers, increase their autonomy and salary.

Examine very closely every use of technology in the classroom to make sure student data isn’t being stolen by corporations, devices aren’t used for test prep or babysitting, and beware Trojan horse edutech applications like so-called personalized learning and competency based education.

Those are the kinds of reforms that would actually help improve our public schools.

But you can only learn that if you have the humility to listen to the experts – classroom teachers.

And people like DeVos and Jobs have proven they don’t have an ounce of humility.

Perhaps we don’t need to rethink schools. We just need to rethink our standards of expertise.

Small Class Size – A Reform We’re Just Too Cheap To Try

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Taken as a whole, the American people are an awfully cheap bunch.

We’ll spend trillions of dollars on guns and tanks to fight an overseas war, but if someone suggest we build a bridge or conduct a social program or anything that would help people actually live longer, happier lives, well, F- ‘em.

Tax cuts for the rich – WONDERFUL!

Feed the hungry – NOT ON MY DIME!

And it’s true even of our attitude toward little children.

Don’t believe me? Just look at our public schools.

Pristine Taj Mahal-like buildings for rich kids with broad curriculums and plenty of teachers to instruct privileged progeny one-on-one, and then across town on the other side of the tracks you’ll find dilapidated shacks for the poor forced to put up with narrow curriculums focused on standardized test prep and as many underprivileged children as they can fit in the room with one beleaguered teacher.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

We’re one of the richest countries in the world, yet we treat our own children – especially if they’re poor and brown – as if they were refugees from the third world.

Well, perhaps marginally better. To my knowledge no one is suggesting we send the unwashed masses back to Africa, Europe or wherever else they originally came from – at least those who can prove they were born here.

But we certainly aren’t bothering ourselves too much about taking care of them.

What would that look like? Nothing all that radical.

Imagine a classroom where students have the space to be individuals and not nameless cogs in the system.

Imagine ensuring students get consistent, individual feedback from the teacher on a minute-by-minute basis.

Imagine increasing the ability for the teacher to focus on learning and not on policing behaviors.

Imagine allowing students to concentrate on education and not various adolescent social issues?

All of these things are accomplished through reducing class size.

In education circles, small class size is the one universal constant. There is some debate about exactly how small classes should be (at least less than 20, maybe even closer to 10 or 15 students) and for which student groups it is most important, but the consensus in favor of small class size is overwhelming.

Study after study concludes that small class size increases academic performance. When compared with peers in larger classes, those in small settings end up being months ahead. They cover more material, with greater depth and achieve better comprehension in less time.

This is partly due to increased student engagement. Children are more interested in what’s being taught when they have a more personal relationship to it. In smaller classes, students are able to express themselves and participate more. Even children who don’t normally engage in such activities find themselves forced to do so. They can no longer hide behind the greater numbers of their peers. Everyone is visible, seen and heard.

As a result, students have better relationships with their peers and teachers. These better social interactions and trust often results in academic gains. This also can lead to less disruptive behaviors – even for students who typically act out in larger classroom environments. Previously troubled students end up spending less time in detention or suspension and more time in class learning.

As such, teachers are better able to see students as individuals and determine how best to differentiate instruction to meet every child’s needs.

The benefits go far beyond the classroom. Numerous studies concluded that reducing class size has long lasting effects on students throughout their lives. It increases earning potential, and citizenship while decreasing the likelihood students will need welfare assistance as adults or enter the criminal justice system. In short, cutting class size puts a stop to the school-to-prison pipeline.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that those students who benefit the most from this reform are the young, the poor and minorities.

Small class sizes in the elementary grades have long lasting effects even if class sizes increase in middle and high school. However, minority and impoverished students (child groups often experiencing significant overlap) benefit regardless of age. Small class sizes help combat the trauma and deprivations of living below the poverty line. Moreover, while small class size has a varying effect on different disciplines, it invariably helps increase writing instruction – even up to the college level. Schools that put a premium on writing would do best to reduce class sizes in all language arts classes, for instance.

However, students aren’t the only ones positively affected by small class size.

This also has an impact on teachers. Reducing class size increases teacher job satisfaction and retention. This is pretty important in a profession bleeding away practitioners. Fewer college students are entering education programs every year. Salaries are falling even as responsibilities and paperwork are increasing. A reform that helps counteract that while also helping students would appear to be just what the doctor ordered.

Unfortunately, administrators don’t seem to be getting the message. Instead of reducing class size for the most effective teachers, they often increase it. The main reason – test scores. Number crunching administrators think giving the best teachers more students means helping the most students. However, they aren’t taking into account the law of diminishing returns.

The biggest obstacle to reducing class size is financial.

Cutting class size often means hiring more staff. In the absence of state and federal legislators offering to fund such initiatives, district school directors invariably think it’s beyond them. They don’t want to do anything that might result in a tax increase.

However, in today’s dog-eat-dog public school environment, you either pay a little now or a lot later. Right or wrong, competition is our overarching education policy. Public schools have to fight for education dollars with charter and voucher schools. And smaller class size is the number one selling point for so-called choice schools over their traditional public school counterparts.

Sure, it’s expensive to cut class size, but it’s also expensive to continue funding the district when students leave due to smaller classes at the local charter school. Though the media over-reports the value of high test scores, parents rarely decide where to send their children on that basis. Class size is often their number one consideration. They don’t want their children to be lost in the crowd. They want their children to be valued as individuals and their education to be properly personalized.

According to “More Than Scores: An Analysis of How and Why Parents Choose Schools,” two of the top five reasons parents who choose private schools over public institutions specifically reference class size – 48.9% cite class size out right and 39.3% cite “more individual attention for my child.” And the other three reasons – better student discipline, better learning environment, and improved student safety – are all dramatically influenced by class size.

If public schools want to continue to compete, school directors may have to commit to investing in class size reduction.

Yet the trend of the last decade has been in exactly the opposite direction.

Today public schools employ 250,000 fewer people than before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by 800,000 students. Unsurprisingly, class sizes in many schools are at record highs.

Is this something we could really change?

Of course! It really wouldn’t be that hard.

We’ve accomplished much more difficult tasks as a nation. We beat back Hitler, became a global superpower and even put people on the moon!

After all that, we can’t find the will to hire more teachers and properly educate all of our native sons and daughters?

Yes, there are plenty of competing ideas for how to improve our schools. And most of them come from corporate think tanks and big business lobbyists more interested in enriching themselves on the public dime than helping students.
Corporate education reformers want us to pay private companies to educate the poor. They want us to invest in privatized schools and standardized test conglomerates. They want us to subsidize publishers and tech corporations with new, untried, unnecessary academic standards that require us to buy boatloads of crap that don’t help and we don’t need.

But the answer isn’t to hand over boatloads of additional monies to private industry. In large part it’s to hire an increased workforce to actually get in there and do the job of educating.

And before you cry about the cost, imagine the savings of cutting all the corporate education reform garbage! If we weren’t committed to corporate handouts as education reform, we might be able to increase the quality of our public education system and still save some money!

You see the answer to improving education for the poor isn’t corporate welfare. It starts with equitably funding schools dedicated to the poor and minorities. It starts with providing them with the money required to meet student needs. And a large part of that includes cutting class size.

There is a significant consensus behind it. Moreover, it has parental, student and teacher support.

It’s a no brainer.

All it takes is a change in priorities and the will to actually get up off our collective asses and do something to help America’s children.

Let’s cut the crap. Cut class size.