The One Reform We Never Try: Increase Teacher Salary

 

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There are many suggestions for improving America’s public schools:

 

More standardized tests.

 

New academic standards.

 

Increase charter schools and/or allow kids to attend private schools with public money.

 

But one reform you hardly ever hear about is this: pay teachers more.

 

Isn’t that funny?

 

We’re willing to try almost everything else but that.

 

Sure, some folks want to tie teachers’ salaries to test scores, but that’s not increasing pay. That’s just doubling down on standardized testing.

 

Isn’t it shocking that no one is willing to invest more money into the actual act of educating children?

 

Consider this: full-time employees making minimum wage earn between $15,000-$20,000 a year. (Some states have voluntarily raised the minimum wage above the federally mandated $7.25 to as much as $10 an hour.)

 

Compare that to a teacher’s starting salary.

 

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the low end for teachers entering the field is around $30,000. That’s a mere $10,000 above the most generous minimum wage.

 

There are places in this country where going into debt earning a four year degree in education, serving an (often unpaid) internship in the classroom and agreeing to teach the next generation gets you a few notches above fry chefs and WalMart greeters.

 

This isn’t to disparage burger cooks or grocery clerks. I, too, love a crispy French fried potato and a sincere greeting. But which profession is more important to our future as a nation? The quality of our service industries or the education of every single child in the country – all our future doctors, lawyers, politicians and… well… EVERYTHING!

 

Average starting salary for teachers nationwide is only $37,000, according to NACE.

 

Compare that to other professions.

 

Computer programmers start at $65,000. Engineers start at $61,000. Accountants (mathematics and statistics majors) start at $54,000. Even philosophers and priests (philosophy and religious studies majors) start at $45,000.

 

Are they more important than teachers? Do they provide more value for society?

 

I humbly suggest that they do not.

 

Who taught the programmers how to program? Who taught the engineers and accountants how to add and subtract? Who taught the philosophers how to think logically? Who taught the priests how to write their sermons?

 

TEACHERS. That’s who.

 

Yet if we judge purely by starting salary, we certainly don’t value their services much.

 

To be specific, they make 14 percent less than those from professions that require similar levels of education, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

 

Sadly, it only gets worse as time goes on.

 

Teacher salary starts low, and grows even more slowly.

 

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According to a report by the Center for American Progress, the average base salary for a teacher with 10 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree is $45,000. That’s a mere $800 annual raise. No wonder more than 16 percent of teachers have a second or third job outside of the school system. They simply can’t survive on the salary.

 

They can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas. They can’t afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence.

 

What effect does this have on students?

 

Well, for one, it often leaves them with inexperienced or exhausted teachers.

 

Nationwide, 46 percent of educators quit before reaching the five year mark. And it’s worse in urban districts, where 20 percent quit every single year!

 

That translates to more students learning from educators who are, themselves, just learning how to teach. If we took pains to keep them in the profession, think of what a positive impact that would have on the quality of education the nation’s students  receive – Teachers learning from experience and improving their practice every year instead of a continual flux of novices just trying to figure out the basics and survive!

 

But it’s not all intangibles. It costs bookoo bucks to constantly find and train new teachers – roughly $7.34 billion a year, to be exact. Imagine if we could invest that money into salaries instead.

 

This is exactly what they do in many other countries.

 

We’re always comparing ourselves with nations in Europe and Asia where students average higher standardized test scores. Yet we rarely enact the policies that got them these results.

 

Many of these countries recruit the top graduates to become teachers. How? By offering sweeteners and incentives to become a life-long educator.

 

In Singapore and Finland, for example, they actually cover the cost of the college coursework needed to become a teacher. And when it comes to salary, they leave us in the dust. In South Korea, they pay educators an average of 250 percent more than we do!

 

For many people, education is a calling. You feel drawn toward the job because it holds meaning to you. But how many people ignore that calling because of simple economics? There are plenty of things you can do with your life; If you can’t earn a living doing one thing, you may opt for something else.

 

How many more excellent teachers would we have in this country if we prized and rewarded those practitioners we already have?

 

It doesn’t take a deep dive into the news to see how teachers are treated in American society far beyond the low pay.

 

Everything that goes wrong in our public schools is laid at their feet whether they have any control over it or not. Child poverty, inequitable and inadequate resources, regressive and nepotistic policy, backward education legislation – it’s all somehow the teacher’s fault.

 

Imagine if we saw teachers as part of the solution! What effect would that have on teacher turnover?

 

Look no further than our foreign counterparts. In South Korea, turnover is only 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, it’s 3 percent.

 

It’s certainly worth a try.

 

As reforms go, this is one with more evidence behind it than 90 percent of the garbage that comes floating out of partisan think tanks.

 

Pay teachers more.

 

Starting salary should be at least $65,000. End pay after 30 years should be at least $150,000.

 

THAT would boost educational outcomes.

 

And, please, don’t give me any nonsense about summer break, teacher tenure, the power of unions or whatever else you heard on talk radio or the corporate news media. Teachers average 53 hours a week August through June – making up for any downtime in the summer, tenure doesn’t mean a job for life – it means due process, and unions aren’t evil – they just ensure workers more rights than the bosses would like.

 

Moreover, don’t tell me we can’t afford it. We spend more on the military than the next 8 nations combined.

 

Imagine if we put a priority on raising our own children instead of guns and missiles. Imagine if we spent more on life than death.

 

Imagine if we tried the one reform left in the box – increase teacher pay.

 

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You Can’t Be Anti-Opt Out and Pro-Democracy

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Our lawmakers have a problem.

This summer they doubled down on one of the most anti-democratic mandates in the federal repertoire yet they claim they did so to protect states rights.

Here’s the problem.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of public school parents across the country opt their children out of standardized testing.

But Congress voted to keep mandating that 95% of students take the tests.

It all happened with the much celebrated bipartisan passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal law that governs K-12 schools.

While lawmakers made changes here and there to let the states decide various education issues, they kept the mandate that students participate in annual testing.

They didn’t leave that to the states. Whether they were Republican or Democrat, almost all lawmakers thought it was just fine for the federal government to force our children to take standardized tests at least every year in 3-8th grades and once in high school.

If any school district, has more than 5% of students that don’t take the tests – for whatever reason – the federal government can deny that district funding.

Think about that for a moment.

Our lawmakers are supposedly acting in our interests. They’re our representatives. We’re their constituents. They get their power to pass laws because of our consent as the governed. Yet in this instance they chose to put their own judgement ahead of ours.

They could have made an exception for parents refusing the tests on behalf of their children. They just didn’t see the need to do so.

Why? Because they were worried about minority students.

It’s a laughable claim in so many ways.

It goes something like this – without standardized testing, we’ll have no way of knowing if public schools are educating students of color.

Let’s say for a moment that this were true. In that case, we can expect no parent of color would ever refuse standardized testing for his/her child.

First, this is demonstrably untrue. Black and brown parents may not be the most numerous in the opt out movement, but they do take part in it.

Second, in the majority of cases where white parents refuse testing, that would have no bearing on whether testing helps or hurts students of color. If the point is the data testing gives us on black kids, what white kids do on the test is irrelevant.

Third, even if opting out hurt students of color, one would assume that it is the parents prerogative whether they want to take part. If a black parent doesn’t want her black son to take a multiple choice exam, she should have the right to waive that exam and the responsibility would be on her head.

So there is absolutely no reason why lawmakers should have overstepped their bounds in this way and blocked all parents rights about what the schools do to their children.

It is a clear case of governmental overreach. And there are plenty of parents just waiting to bring it to the U.S. Supreme Court for the ultimate Constitutional test.

However, that probably won’t happen for the same reason it never happened through the 15 years of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) which also contained the annual testing rule.

The federal government has never withheld tax dollars based on students not taking standardized tests. officials at the U.S. Department of Education have made threats, but they have never devolved into action.

The bottom line is this: they know how Unconstitutional this mandate is, and they aren’t itching to have it tested in the highest court in the land.

It would open a whole can of worms about standardized testing. What is the federal government allowed to do and not allowed to do about education policy?

The ESSA is an attempt to reduce the federal role, but keeping the annual testing mandate was either a grievous mistake or the last vestiges of federal hubris.

But let’s return to the reasoning behind it – so-called civil rights fears.

Various groups including the NAACP asked for it to be included to protect minority students. Annual testing is the only way, they claimed, to make sure schools are teaching students of color.

It’s nonsense.

There are plenty of ways to determine if schools are meeting the needs of minority students – especially since most students of color go to segregated schools.

Even after Brown v. Board, we have schools that cater to black kids and schools that cater to white kids. We have schools for poor kids and rich kids.

It is obvious which schools get the most resources. Why isn’t that part of this “accountability” scheme? We can audit districts to see how much is spent per pupil on poor black kids vs rich white kids. We can determine which groups go to schools with larger class sizes, which groups have more access to tutoring and social services, which groups have expanded or narrowed curriculums, which groups have access to robust extra-curricular activities, which groups have the most highly trained and experienced teachers, etc.

In fact, THAT would tell us much more about how these two groups are being served by our public schools than standardized test scores. We’ve known for almost a century that these test scores are more highly correlated with parental income than academic knowledge. They’re culturally biased, subjectively scored and poorly put together. But they support a multibillion dollar industry. If we allow a back door for all that money to dry up, it will hurt lawmakers REAL constituents – big business.

So why were civil rights groups asking the testing mandate be kept in the bill? Because the testing industry is comprised of big donors.

Only a few months before passage of the ESSA, many of these same civil rights groups had signed declarations against standardized testing. Then suddenly they saw the light as their biggest donors threatened to drop out.

Make no mistake. Standardized testing doesn’t help poor minority children. It does them real harm. But the testing industry wrapped themselves up in this convenient excuse to give lawmakers a reason to stomp all over parental rights.

The conflict wasn’t between civil rights and parental rights. It was between parental rights and corporate rights. And our lawmakers sided with the corporations.

Let me be clear: legislators cannot be against opt out and in favor of individual rights.

The two are intimately connected.

Our schools have no business telling parents how to raise their kids. But our parents DO have a right to do the opposite. In fact, that’s how the system is supposed to work.

We, parents and citizens, control our schools – not you, our representatives. The principal can’t say you haven’t a right to opt out your kid. He’s just your representative. So is the teacher.

Everyone who works in the school is there to do what you want them to do for your child. Yes, they are well trained and have a world of knowledge and experience that we should draw on. And in most cases, they’re being forced to confront us by lawmakers who are tying their hands and directing them to do the dirty work.

We have common cause. We need to stand with our teachers and principals, our school boards and education professors. We need to stand together against lawmakers who think they know better.

In short, we don’t need lawmakers consent to opt out. They need our consent to stop us.

They get their power from us. They work for us.

And it’s time they get to work and rescind the annual testing mandate.

Former NFL Quarterback Supports Public Schools. That’s Right. PUBLIC Schools!

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So I’m in my classroom today, teaching, when I see something that stops me cold.

The door opens and in comes former Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch.

My mouth falls open. I don’t know what I was talking about. Vocabulary words or something.

The class of 8th graders falls silent, too. All eyes are on the two of us.

Batch looks me right in face with a big smile.

“Here you go,” he says and hands me a shopping bag full to bursting with school supplies and an extra-large tub of hand sanitizer.

By this time I’m probably blushing and grinning like my teeth are about to escape my face.

I hope I was able to mouth a “Thank you,” before he left, but I’m not really sure.

It all kind of happened in a daze.

He came. He gave me supplies. He left.

I guess I shouldn’t have been so taken by surprise.

Batch is a frequent face in my district. After all, he graduated from here, himself, before moving on to college and professional sports.

At the beginning of every year, Batch brings school supplies to every teacher in every building in the district. This was just the first time I was actually in the classroom when he dropped them off. Usually he sneaks in when I’m at lunch duty or in the computer lab. I find them in a neat pile on my desk with a note of thanks – to me!

It’s almost like he doesn’t want to draw attention to it. Almost like he doesn’t want to make us feel like we need to thank him.

It’s his quiet way of giving back to the community that made him.

In some ways it’s the most natural thing in the world. In others it’s truly amazing.

Lots of celebrities make charitable contributions to their communities. Many even put that money into their hometown. But how many invest in the public school system?

Most only seem to have eyes for charter schools. You know – those often cut rate, fly-by-night institutions that are privately managed and publicly funded. Schools that pop up in store fronts or in the mall with a celebrity name on the door and little else.

Rapper Pitbull has opened three of these dubious institutions. Pro-Football Hall-of-Famer Deion Sanders opened two – and closed them both last year. Tennis star Andre Agassi has founded a few and co-founded an organization that rents out properties to other charter schools at a profit. Former NBA players Jalen Rose and Kevin Johnson opened some, too, though Johnson is being investigated for misusing federal funds at his institutions. He likes the industry so much, he even married one of its chief advocates, former D.C. Schools chief Michelle Rhee.

But Charlie Batch? He hasn’t opened a single charter school.

There is no shiny building with his name on it. He hasn’t hired a corporate management team to increase his brand. He isn’t bragging in the newspaper about how he’s “Mr. Education” as Pitbull tried to rename himself.

No. He gives his money to the same public school from which he graduated. And then some!

He did start a charity called the Best of the Batch Foundation, which engages in several initiatives to help underprivileged children in the Pittsburgh region. The organization gives out free backpacks – or Batch Packs – to children in need. More than 7,500 have been distributed to date. About two thirds of my students have them. I can’t imagine what they’d do without them.

Batch also participates in Read Across America Day every March 2. The two-time Superbowl champ visits several western Pennsylvania schools to celebrate Dr. Seuss’ birthday while reading to children his favorite works by the author.

The project is sponsored by the National Education Association (NEA). That’s right. The largest teachers union in the nation. Batch isn’t throwing stones at teachers. He’s out there on the front lines helping us reach children.

In addition, every year Batch partners with the local Rotary Club to help promote literacy. He goes into the schools to read to third graders and give each one a free dictionary. Children also receive lessons how to use them and become word conscious. For some students, this is the only dictionary in their house, and it becomes a tool for all their brothers and sisters up through high school.

Batch also works with local business partners to provide 13 college scholarships to help defer the cost of higher education for needy children. Scholarships range from $1,000 to $8,000 per recipient.

Batch also knows the importance of pre-school. He works with local businesses to provide pre-kindergarten scholarships through the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs.

And those bundles of school supplies that he hands out every year – each one contains more than $250 worth of pencils, paper, tissues, etc.

That’s not just a donation. It’s a pencil in the hand of a student who doesn’t have one. It’s notebook paper for a child whose parents are working three jobs just to make ends meet. It’s tissues and hand sanitizer so kids won’t get sick and miss class.

I can’t tell you how much it means to my students and me that Batch is there for us.

He knows what challenges we face because he’s there with us. He isn’t criticizing. He’s taking action.

If only more celebrities would value deeds more than words. If only more people would put themselves out there for our public schools.

If only more people were like Charlie Batch.


NOTE: Charlie Batch also donates school supplies to teachers at our local Propel Charter School. It’s a fact noted nowhere on the Batch Foundation Website. In fact, nowhere does he boast of all the schools he visits. In an age of philanthrocapitalists more concerned about controlling the fields where they donate, Batch is an anomaly. He is apolitical and pro-child.

Common Core’s New New Math has the Same Problem as the Old New Math

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Bad ideas are like unlucky pennies – they keep coming back again.

Take the New Math. Or maybe I should say the New New Math.

Common Core State Standards suggests we teach children a new way to do arithmetic. We should focus on multiple ways to reach an answer with an emphasis on understanding the concept behind the problem rather than just manipulating numbers.

It sounds fine in theory – until you think about it for five minutes.

When learning a new skill, it’s best to master a single, simple approach before being exposed to other more complex methods. Otherwise, you run the risk of confusion, frustration and ultimately not learning how to solve the problem.

Take directions.

If you’re lost and you ask for directions, you don’t want someone to tell you five ways to reach your destination. You want one, relatively simple way to get there – preferably with the least amount of turns and the highest number of landmarks.

Maybe later if you’re going to be traveling to this place frequently, you may want to learn alternate routes. But the first time, you’re more concerned about finding the destination (i.e. getting the answer) than understanding how the landscape would appear on a map.

This is the problem with Common Core math. It doesn’t merely ALLOW students to pursue alternate methods of solving problems. It REQUIRES them to know all the ways the problem can be solved and to be able to explain each method. Otherwise, it presumes to evaluate the student’s understanding as insufficient.

This is highly unfair to students. No wonder so many are failing.

Sadly there’s some history here that should have warned us about the perils of this approach.

Common Core isn’t the first new math approach to come along. In the 1960s we had a method actually called “The New Math.” And like Common Core, it was a dismal failure.

Like the Core, it proposed to focus more on conceptual understanding, but to do so it needlessly complicated matters at the grade school level.

It introduced set theory, forcing students to think of numbers as groups of objects rather than abstractions to be manipulated. In an advanced undergraduate mathematics course, this makes perfect sense. In first grade, it muddles the learning tremendously.

To make matters even more perplexing, it mandates students look at numbers with bases other than 10. This is incredibly confounding for elementary students who often resort to their fingers to help them understand early math.

Tom Lehrer wrote a very funny song about the new math which shows how confusing it can be. The methods used to solve the problem can be helpful but an emphasis on the conceptual underpinning at early ages perplexes more than it helps:

Popular culture is full of sly references to this old New Math. Charles Schultz wrote about it in several Peanuts comic strips in 1965. In one such strip, kindergartener Sally gets so frustrated trying to solve a New Math problem she cries, “All I want to know is, how much is two and two?” New Math even made an appearance in the 1973 movie “There’s No Time for Love, Charlie Brown,” in which the titular Brown asks “How do you do New Math problems with an old Math mind?”

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In the 1992 episode of the Simpsons, “Dog of Death,” Principal Skinner is elated that an influx of school funding will allow him to purchase school improvements. In particular he wants to buy history books that reveal how the Korean War ended and “math books that don’t have that base six crap in them!”

So where did this idea for New Math come from?

In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik sending Americans into a panic that they were being left behind by these Communist supermen. As a result in 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower passed the National Defense Education Act which dramatically increased school budgets and sent academics racing for ways to reform old practices. One product of this burst of activity was the New Math.
A decade later, it was mostly gone from our public schools. Parents complained they couldn’t help their children with homework. Teachers complained they didn’t understand it and that it needlessly confused their students.

Fast forward to 1983 and President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education. The organization released a report called “A Nation at Risk” that purported to show that public schools were failing. As a result, numerous reforms were recommended such as increased standardization, privatization and competition.

It is hard to overemphasize how influential this report was in education circles. Even today after its claims have systematically and thoroughly been debunked by statisticians like those at Sandia National Laboratories, politicians, pundits and the media persist with this myth of failing public schools.

“A Nation at Risk” birthed our modern era of high stakes testing and, in 2009, Common Core.

In theory, each state would adopt the same set of academic standards thereby improving education nationally. However, they were written by the standardized testing corporations – not working educators and experts in childhood development. So they ignore key factors about how children learn – just like the New Math of old.

In short, we repeated the same mistake – or a very similar one.

Children are not computers. You can’t program their minds like you would a MacBook or iPhone. In many ways, including math instruction, Common Core ignores these facts.

And so we have the same result as the old New Math. Parents all over the country are complaining that they can’t help their children with their homework. Teachers are complaining that the Core unnecessarily confuses students.

In some ways, the Core is worse than the old New Math because of its close connection with high stakes testing. In the ‘60s if a child didn’t understand how to add, he failed math. Today, if a child does that, he fails the standardized test and if that happens to enough students, his school loses funding, his teacher may be fired and his school may be closed. As such, the pressure today’s children undergo is tremendous. They aren’t just responsible for their own learning. They’re responsible for the entire school community.

Those are unfair burdens for school children – especially when the decisions that make it easy or hard for him to learn are not made by the student but by politicians, pundits and policymakers.

But perhaps most telling is this: it doesn’t help children learn.

Isn’t that what this was all supposed to be about in the first place?

Perhaps we don’t need a new math. Perhaps we simply need policymakers willing to listen to education and childhood experts instead of business interests poised to profit off new reforms regardless of whether they actually work.

Shouldn’t Our Schools At Least be as Logical as Dental Floss?

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All my life I assumed flossing was essential to dental health.

 

It was safe, it was sound, it was normal.

 

Every day after brushing, I would stand before the bathroom mirror and carefully thread a mint-flavored filament through my teeth – like a chump.

 

And when I got to the dentist, I’d comfort myself that I had done the best I could to prevent cavities.

 

The hygienist would remove plaque and germs while scraping and sawing at my teeth with a specialized hook, and all the while I’d think, “At least I flossed every day!”

 

Yet now the federal government tells us that flossing is ineffective at best!

 

What!? After all these years!?

 

It turns out, there just is no evidence that flossing actually helps – never has been. So this summer for the first time in decades the good folks who compile federal dietary guidelines decided not to recommend the practice.

 

 

A total of 25 studies have concluded that the evidence for flossing is “weak, very unreliable,” of “very low” quality, and carries “a moderate to large potential for bias,” according to the Associated Press.

 

“The majority of available studies fail to demonstrate that flossing is generally effective in plaque removal,” said one review conducted just last year. Another 2015 review cites “inconsistent/weak evidence” for flossing and a “lack of efficacy.”

 

So flossing is out.

 

It’s not evidence-based.

 

It’s actually kind of shocking to see the federal government acting so logically.

 

Where’s the politics? Why aren’t Republicans taking one side and Democrats the other? Why isn’t the dental floss lobby making massive contributions to our lawmakers to influence the decision?

 

But we get none of that in this instance. Instead, here’s the evidence. It doesn’t support this policy. So let’s discontinue that policy.

 

I wonder what the world would look like if every government stance was as susceptible to argument, cause and effect, and rationality.

 

As a public school teacher, I’ve become inured to our lawmakers doing exactly the opposite. They look at the evidence, see it DOESN’T support an education scheme and then… they proudly give it their full support.

 

As a result, education policy is full of unfounded, fallacious and unproven practices.

 

Our schools are struggling under the burden of illogical laws. Our teachers are pulling out their hair at a series of half-baked mandates that go counter to everything they’ve learned about childhood development. And our students suffer from procedures that don’t help them learn and in fact actually do much to prevent them from doing so.

 

Take standardized testing, Common Core and school choice.

 

Our legislators think standardized testing is the best way to measure learning. Are you freaking kidding me!? In colleges and universities across the country where this has been studied in-depth for centuries, it’s been disproven, ridiculed and considered an antiquated way of thinking about learning. It went out with phrenology and eugenics!

 

Multiple choice tests like these have consistently been shown to correlate more closely with socioeconomic status than intelligence, retention or understanding. Put simply: if you’re rich, you do well. If you’re poor, you don’t.

 

Standardized tests as we know them were developed in the Victorian Age to “prove” that wealthy people were just smarter than poor people. They were created to show the innate inferiority of black and brown people and the natural superiority of the white race.

 

Yet these kinds of assessments still are the backbone of the public school system.

 

Another fallacious policy championed by many lawmakers is Common Core State Standards. But like The Four Temperments, the Geocentric Universe, and the Flat Earth Theory, they aren’t backed up by evidence. In fact, each of these disproven scientific hypotheses has MORE EVIDENCE behind it than Common Core! Each of these ancient models was based on evidence but later refuted. By contrast, Common Core was never empirically based. In fact, it has never even been studied. Someone just pulled it out of their butt!

 

Let me say that again: there has never been any proof that Common Core will help children learn. In fact, far from showing any improvement, since its adoption, student outcomes have plummeted. But in many states it’s the law of the land.

 

In truth, Common Core is a series of academic standards developed by the testing and publishing industry as a way to sell more standardized tests and remediation materials. They were only adopted because state officials were blackmailed to accept them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have enough money to continue running their state schools. In many cases, the standards weren’t even voted on by state legislators but instead by appointed boards of education.

 

Yet today these standards (or very similar ones) are required in public schools across 42 states.

 

 

Finally, we have the political darling, school choice. Many Republicans and Democrats champion some form of choice and competition in our schools. They all think it will help, despite the fact that there’s more evidence for UFOs, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster!

 

Very few countries try to help students by increasing their choices without also trying to increase the quality of those choices. Nowhere has it ever been shown that having more schools to choose from is better than less schools to choose from – if you don’t improve the quality of those schools. Simply having more options and having those options compete doesn’t make them better. As John Oliver pointed out recently, the town with the most pizzerias doesn’t necessarily have the best pizza.

 

In fact, in countries that have initiated school choice policies, they’ve seen educational quality drop – not rise. Yet billionaires all across the US push for us to adopt these policies all the while investing in schemes to enrich themselves if such a policy shift occurred.

 

It makes no sense. These are misguided, unfounded, and downright insidious ideas.

 

Yet everyday pundits, policy-makers and politicians still advocate for them – somehow with a straight face. And when someone who actually works in the schools like me points to the evidence – or lack thereof – I’m ignored.

 

In the words of Frank Zappa, “Modern Americans behave as if intelligence were some sort of hideous deformity.” And our education policies are doing nothing to fix it.

 

The problem is the very banality of corporate school reform. After almost two decades of these strategies pushed on both sides of the aisle, they’ve become the status quo. It’s just the way we do things.

 

They’re as common as… well… dental floss.

 

The federal government saw through the vapidity of that practice. Isn’t it time the administration does the same for corporate school reform?

Do Unions Belong in the Fight Against Corporate School Reform?

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In the fight for public education, the forces of standardization and privatization are running scared.

 

They’ve faced more pushback in the last few years – especially in the last few months – than in a decade.

 

The Opt Out movement increases exponentially every year. Teach for America is having trouble getting recruits. Pearson’s stock is plummeting. The NAACP and Black Lives Matter have both come out strongly against increasing charter schools.

 

So what’s a corporate education reformer to do?

 

Answer: Change the narrative.

 

They can’t control the facts, so instead they try to control the story being told about the facts.

 

It’s a classic propaganda technique. As Malcolm X put it:

 

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

 

Their story goes like this – yes, there is a battle going on over public education. But the two sides fighting aren’t who you think they are.

 

The fight for public schools isn’t between grassroots communities and well-funded AstroTurf organizations, they say. Despite the evidence of your eyes, the fight isn’t between charter school sycophants and standardized test companies, on the one hand, and parents, students and teachers on the other.

 

No. It’s actually between people who really care about children and those nasty, yucky unions.

 

It’s nonsense, of course. Pure spin.

 

They want you to believe that the corporate vultures preying on our public schools are really just misunderstood philanthropists. And those demanding a fair shake for their own children and communities are really just paid shills from a monolithic and uncaring bureaucracy.

 

In essence, they want you to believe two things:

 

1) Despite profiting off the system and zero evidence supporting the efficacy of corporate school policies, they’re motivated purely by empathy.

 

2) Unions are evil by definition and they pervert everything they touch.

 

I’m not going to bother with the first claim here. There is an inherent bias from those who wish to change the laws so they can more easily profit off of schools without actually helping students learn and in fact exist at the expense of that learning. If you can’t see through the propaganda wing of the Walmart corporation, the Broad Foundation and Big Daddy Bill Gates, you probably won’t be very receptive to anything else I have to say.

 

Instead I will focus on the second claim, because it is the more pernicious of the two.

 

Put simply, unions are not perfect, but they are not evil. In fact, they are essential to the health of public education.

 

Many progressives are upset with teachers unions because of the current Presidential election. Both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primary election without what many would consider adequately polling rank and file members. For better or worse, the endorsements were top-down affairs reflecting the preference of union leaders.

 

That’s not how unions are supposed to work. And it’s having consequences for the way both members and non-members view teachers unions.

 

Critics infer from this that unions don’t represent membership. They are de facto arms of the waiting Clinton administration and the neoliberal agenda.

 

There may be some truth to this, but it does not represent the whole picture. Not nearly.

 

Unions are like any other democratic organization. The larger the association, the further from the grassroots the decision making body.

 

In the mammoth national unions, decisions are made by representatives most removed from our schools. They probably were teachers or support staff at some point in the past, but that may be ancient history. Now they are professional leaders and therefore at a remove from the grassroots.

 

By contrast, in our local chapters, leaders are most often working classroom teachers. Decisions are made by those still meeting students’ needs on a day-to-day basis. As such, they retain an authenticity and expertise that may be more cloudy in the large bureaucracies.

 

This isn’t to say the national unions are by definition unconcerned with the needs of teachers and students. I’m sure that most of the NEA and AFT leadership who decided to endorse Clinton did it because they honestly believe doing so will help public education. And – who knows – they may be right. But what they forgot in this case was the democratic process they were tasked with preserving. As such, they may have to pay a price for their hubris when their terms are up.

 

In most cases, the leaders of national teachers unions are at too much of a remove to see what is best for our schools. And they usually know that. It is up to the rank and file to tell them what to do, and that’s what happens every year at representative assemblies through various caucuses made up of work-a-day members. And if leaders overstep their authority it is members’ duty to hold them accountable at election time.

 

So even though the national organizations are most likely to go astray, they often don’t. Usually even these giants are trying to improve the situation in our public schools.

 

However, it can’t be denied that the most intense and passionate activism happens a bit closer to where the rubber hits the road. It’s those local chapters that are there everyday and make the most difference. They are the heart and soul of unionism.

 

So when corporate education reformers sneeringly deprecate their opponents as mere unions, they’re glossing over an important distinction. Opposition to privatization and standardization policies doesn’t come from the leadership of the NEA and AFT. It comes from the grassroots. This is not a top down initiative. It is bottom up.

 

This is how it’s always been. There is no political organization directing the fight to save public education. The Democrats certainly aren’t overly concerned with reigning in charter schools. It was grassroots Democrats – some of whom are also union members – who worked to rewrite the party platform to do so. The Clinton campaign is not directing anyone to opt out of standardized testing. However, voters are demanding that Clinton be receptive to their needs – and some of them are union members.

 

There is no great union conspiracy to fight these policies. It’s called public opinion, and it’s changing.

 

That’s what scares the standardizers and privatizers. They’ve had free run of the store for almost two decades and now the public is waking up.

 

They’re desperately trying to paint this as a union movement when it’s not. Unions are involved, but they aren’t alone. And moreover, their involvement is not necessarily an impediment.

 

The needs of the community and the needs of teachers are the same.

 

Both want excellent public schools.

 

Both want the best for our students.

 

Both want academic policies that will help students learn – not help corporations cash in.

 

And both groups want good teachers in the classroom – not bad ones!

 

The biggest lie to have resonated with the public is this notion that teachers unions are only concerned with shielding bad teachers from justice. This is demonstrably untrue.

 

Unions fight to make sure teachers get due process, but they also fight to make sure bad teachers are shown the door.

 

In fact, in districts with strong unions, MORE bad teachers are fired – not less, according to a new study by economics Prof. Eunice Han from the University of Utah.

 

The study entitled The Myth of Unions’ Overprotection of Bad Teachers concludes that when unions are strong and successfully bargain for higher salaries, they have an incentive to help ensure ineffective teachers don’t receive tenure. In short, it costs too much to keep bad teachers on staff. It is in the interests of the collective bargaining unit to ensure those unfit to teach move along.

 

Moreover, Han also concludes that strong unions actually help reduce the dropout rate. It just makes sense. When you treat people like the professionals they are, when you give them autonomy and respect, they’re free to concentrate more energy into their jobs than fighting to keep those jobs.

 

But unions stand in direct opposition to the efforts of corporate vultures trying to swoop in and profit off of public education. Teachers provide a valuable service to students. If your goal is to reduce the cost of that service no matter how much that reduces its value to students, you need a weak labor force. You need the ability to reduce salary so you can claim the savings as profit.

 

THAT’S why corporate education reformers hate teachers and their unions. We make it nearly impossible to swipe school budgets into their own pockets.

 

So do unions belong in the fight against corporate education reform?

 

Answer: Heck yeah! In fact, they are essential to it.

 

I Teach The Toughest Kids, and I Love It

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It was rarely a good thing when LaRon smiled in school.

It usually meant he was up to something.

He was late to class and wanted to see if I’d notice. He just copied another student’s homework and wondered if he’d get away with it. He was talking crap and hoped someone would take it to the next level.

As his teacher, I became rather familiar with that smile, and it sent shivers down my spine.

But on the last day of school, I couldn’t help but give him a smile back.

A few minutes before the last bell of the year, I stood before my class of 8th graders and gave them each a shout out.

“I just want to say what an honor it’s been to be your teacher,” I said.

They shifted in their seats, immediately silent. They wanted to hear this.

“Some of you have been a huge pain in my butt,” I conceded.

And almost all heads in the room turned to LaRon.

And he smiled.

Not a mischievous smile. Not a warning of wrongdoing yet to come.

He was slightly embarrassed.

So I went on:

“But I’m proud of what you’ve accomplished this year. Each and every one of you. It has been my privilege to be here for you,” and I nodded at LaRon to make sure he knew I included him in what I was saying.

Because I do mean him.

Students like LaRon keep an old man like me on my toes. No doubt. But look at all he did – all he overcame this year.

His writing improved exponentially.

Back in September, he thought a paragraph was a sentence or two loosely connected, badly spelled full of double negatives and verbs badly conjugated. Now he could write a full five-paragraph essay that completely explained his position with a minimum of grammatical errors.

Back in September, the most complex book he had read was “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” Now he had read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” How did I know? Because I had read it with him. We had all read these books together and stopped frequently to talk about them.

Back in September, if he raised his hand to ask a question, it was usually no more complex than “Can I go to the bathroom?” Now he was asking questions about where the Nazis came from, what happened to Mr. Frank after the war, did Harper Lee ever write any other books, and is the fight for civil rights over.

The last day of school is one of the hardest for me, because my classes are doubled. I don’t just have my students – I also have the ghosts of who they were at the beginning of the year.

They all change so much. They’re like different people at the end, people I helped guide into being.

And I must say I absolutely love it!

As hard as it is being a teacher, as much as you’re attacked in the media and the government, as much as you’re expected to do, the supplies and books you buy with your own money, the hours after school while your own children sit at home without you, the late nights grading and the mountains of paperwork you have to fill out to justify being kept on another year – even with all that – I love being a teacher.

And my greatest joy is the tough kids.

Every year that’s usually who I get.

When I started teaching I expected to be more of an advanced placement educator. I have several degrees, experience as a working journalist… I’m really a rather bookish guy, myself. But when I got in the classroom, it was the troubled ones, the ones in trouble whom I really excelled at teaching.

I had only been in the profession for a few years when I stopped my car in a really bad neighborhood. I was looking for an address for a homebound student and couldn’t find it. Up walked a group of tough looking kids that could have been extras from “Boyz N the Hood.” I thought my life was over until I heard, “Mr. Singer! What you doing here?”
“Andre!?” I said incredulously. “Little Andre!?

 

“Not so little anymore,” he smiled.

 

He dapped me up and gave me directions.
I see former students everywhere. Or more accurately, they see me.

The other day I was at the movies with my daughter, when a grown man walks up to me and says, “Hey, Mr. Singer. Hey, little Singer. What movie are you going to see?”

I didn’t recognize him at first because he had a smile on his face. When I taught him more than a decade ago he never smiled. He had serious health issues and always seemed miserable.

But here he was. He had made it. And though it took a while for his name to reach my lips, he knew me like I was a member of his family.

That’s the kind of relationship you get as a teacher. You’re there for the hard times. You’re there for the bad. But you help each other through it.

That’s something non-teachers don’t understand. My students help me as much as I help them.

Sometimes I got to school worried or upset about various concerns in my personal life, but as soon as those kids file into the room, all that noise is gone. In a split second, it’s forgotten. I get a burst of energy, because I’m needed. I’m there for them.

If you’ve never taught, you have no idea how good that feels.

One evening I was sitting at my desk at school, a stack of papers in front of me, feeling frustrated. I wanted to go home but there was so much work left to do. (I don’t like taking work home. When I’m there I’m a full-time husband and dad.)

So I sat in class debating what to do when three huge high school football players appeared in the doorway and came running at me.

I cringed, cowering in my seat about to be tackled.

“Mr. Singer!” they screamed, stopping in unison and giving me, their former teacher, a bear hug.

Moments like that make it all worth it.

The kids know you care. I’ve heard some folks say that none of that matters. You don’t have to care about your students. You don’t have to like them. You just have to teach them.

Nonsense.

I couldn’t do it any other way.

So on that last day when LaRon looked up and smiled, I smiled back.

There was so much meaning in his smile. So much joy behind his eyes.

More than any report card, he knew what I knew.

He knew that despite a challenging home life, despite the call of the streets, and tremendous difficulty of concentrating and believing in himself, he had really achieved something this year.

He knew because I knew. And he smiled because I smiled.

And when that last bell finally rang, he took all of that with him.

I can’t believe I get to do all of that again this year with a new group of children!

Damn! I really love this job!