Why Care About Other People’s Children

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As a vocal critic of charter and voucher schools, one of the most frequent questions I get from readers is this:

“Why should I care about other people’s children?”

One reader put it this way:

“Why should my child’s education and safety have to suffer because of difficult and violent students? …it isn’t my responsibility to pay for a miscreant’s education.”

The question says more than any answer could.

It shows quite clearly that school choice is an essentially selfish position.

That’s why some folks champion privatized education – they only care about their own children. In effect, when a parent sends their children to a charter or voucher school, they are telling the community that they don’t care what happens to any one else’s kids so long as their kids are properly cared for and educated.

It is the root cause of most of our problems in education today and has nothing to do with children. It’s all about adults – adults lacking empathy.

On the one hand, I get it. As a parent, you can’t help but love your child more than anyone else’s. You would beg, cheat and steal to make sure your child has enough to eat, is clothed and sheltered, has everything she needs to succeed in this world.

That’s a position for which few would show any embarrassment. It’s just being human.

But it shouldn’t also mean that you don’t care at all for other children.

I’d like to pose a radical thought – loving my child does not mean I’m indifferent to yours.

Children are innocent. They haven’t done anything to earn the hate or enmity of the world. They see everything with fresh eyes. Many of them haven’t even learned the prejudices and ignorance of their parents. And even where they have, it is so new it can be changed.

When you look at a babe in arms do you feel the same indifference? I don’t.

Perhaps it’s just the way we’re built. I feel an immediate nurturing instinct. I want to protect and provide for children – any children – even if they’re not mine.

If you saw a baby all alone crying on the side of the road, would you stop to help her? I would. I couldn’t help it. I can do no other.

If I saw a toddler in distress, a tween, even an unruly teenager in need, I would try to help. And I think most of us would do the same.

Doing so wouldn’t hurt my child. In fact, it would show her how a decent person acts towards others. It would teach her empathy, kindness, caring. It would demonstrate the values I try to instill in her – that we’re all in this together and we owe certain things to the other beings with which we share this world.

Why would you not want to do that?

We do not live in a world where you have to choose between your child and all others. There is a middle course. We can do for all society’s children without unduly sacrificing our own.

And if we can, why wouldn’t we?

Public school is essentially a community endeavor. It is an attempt to give everyone in your neighborhood the same start, the same opportunity, the same advantages.

It means allowing all children who live in the community the ability to attend the community school. That’s better than selecting the best and brightest and to Hell with the rest.

It means the community pooling its wealth to help all students. That’s better than dividing that pool up and pitting one group against another so that some get what they need and others don’t.

It means having an elected school board who holds public meetings, deliberates in the open and has to offer almost all documents to the light of day. That’s just better than an appointed board of directors who hold private meetings behind closed doors and who aren’t compelled to show any documentation for how they’re spending public tax money.

When you send your child to school – any school – she will have to deal with other students. She will meet children who are mean, unkind, unruly and a bad influence. But this is true at all schools – public and private, voucher or charter, secular or parochial. The biggest difference is racial and economic.

Our educational institutions today have become so segregated by class and race that even our public schools offer white middle class and wealthy students the opportunity to learn in an environment nearly devoid of children of color or children who live in poverty. This divide is drastically widened by charter, private and parochial schools.

So when people complain about the class of children they want to keep separate from their progeny, it is always imbued with a racist and classist subtext.

What they mean is: I don’t want my child to have to put up with all those black students, all those brown children, all those unwashed masses of impoverished humanity.

I proudly send my daughter to public school for the same reasons that many withhold their children from it. I want her to experience a wide variety of humanity. I want her to know people unlike her, and to realize that they aren’t as different as they might first appear. I want her to know the full range of what it means to be human. I want her to be exposed to different cultures, religions, nationalities, world views, thoughts and ideas.

And I want it not just because it’s better for my community – I want it because it’s better for her, too.

I want my daughter and I to both live in a world populated by educated citizens. I want us both to live in a society that treats people fairly, and where people of all types can come together and talk and reason and enjoy each other’s company.

Only under the most extreme circumstances would I ever subject her to charter, private or parochial schooling. And things would have to come to a pretty pass for me to home school her.

Imagine! Thinking I could offer my child all the richness of a public school experience, all the knowledge of a district’s worth of teachers, all the variety of social contact – how vain I would need to be to think I could do all that, myself!

Some people want their children to become little versions of themselves. They want to create a generation of mini-me’s who’ll carry on their way of thinking into the future.

That’s not my goal at all.

I want my daughter to share my core values, I want her to learn from my experiences, but I don’t want her to think like me at all. I want her to be a new person, special and unique.

I want her to be her.

If you stop and think about it, that’s what most of us want for our children.

It’s a common goal that can be achieved with a common mechanism.

So why should we care about other people’s children?

Because it’s better for ours. Because doing so makes us better people. Because all children are ends in themselves. Because they’re beautiful, unique sparks of light in a dark universe.

If those aren’t reasons enough, I can’t help you.

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I May Have Just Been Murdered By House Republicans

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I may be dead already.

 

And House Republicans may be the ones who killed me.

 

With the passage of a healthcare bill they, themselves, haven’t read – haven’t studied – haven’t thoughtfully considered in any way – it seems they’ve opened the door for insurance companies to deny people coverage due to pre-existing conditions.

 

I have one.

 

I’ve had two small heart attacks this year.

 

So I sit here stunned at the news on my computer feeling very much at a loss.

 

People have legitimate political differences, but this… it’s just beyond anything I’ve ever experienced personally.

 

There are people who count on me – my daughter, my wife, my students. I’m not so vain as to imagine that they can’t get along without me, but my loss will hurt them. I think at the very least they’ll miss me.

 

I’m 43-years-old. I’ve lived a good life. I just never expected to be abandoned in such a way by a society I’d always thought was more humane.

 

But if this legislation becomes the law of the land, what will I do?

 

I take six or seven pills a day to control my cholesterol, keep the stints in my heart clean, control my blood pressure, slow my heartbeat, etc. Without them, I almost certainly will have another heart attack. Yet I have no idea how I could possibly afford to take them without insurance.

 

And if I get sick, I won’t be able to work. I’ll bring in even less money. I won’t be able to help support my family. I’ll end up being a liability, a burden.

 

House Republicans have to know there are people out there like me. There have to be a lot of people in even worse shape than I am.

 

Are they really going to just let all of us die?

 

I had hoped to see my daughter grow up. She’s only 8-years-old, the most precious person in my life. No one is more full of energy, more vivacious and joyful. She loves to draw and write short stories. She pretends to be a teacher just like her father and gives her stuffed animals assignments.

 

I guess I’ll never get to see the person she becomes. I’ll never find out if she goes to college, if she finds love, if she has children of her own.

 

Can it really all come down to this?

 

My wife and I have been through a lot together. We met back in high school. Before I became a public school teacher, we worked together at various local newspapers. She supports me when I can’t go on. I hope I am able to give her back even a fraction of the strength she lends me.

 

Does this mean we’ll have to say goodbye, and so much sooner than I ever imagined?

 

My middle school students and I just finished reading “The Diary of Anne Frank.” When we closed the book, there were some tears shed. I passed around the tissues, and we discussed how we felt. Many of them expressed anger that some people could hold others’ lives so cheaply as the Nazis did Anne and her family. Are House Republicans guilty of a similar crime? They aren’t rounding anyone up to send to death camps, but they’re apparently content to let many of us just die.

 

The pundits tell me I have nothing to worry about. The bill won’t pass the Senate, they say. And even if it does, the President would be breaking every campaign promise he ever made, if he signs it.

 

So what else is new?

 

This is the world we live in now.

 

It’s not the country I was born into. It’s a cold place. A heartless reality.

 

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll gather the strength to resist, to call my Congressperson again, to protest, to organize.

 

But as for today…

 

I can’t even.

 

So I’ll head home, and give my family a big hug, spend whatever time I can with them.

 

Because if my life now depends on the compassion of Republican lawmakers, I may not have much of it left.

 

 

 

 

 

The Joy of Opting Out of Standardized Testing

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Testing season is a gray period in my classroom.

 

But it’s a joy in my house.

 

As a classroom teacher with a daughter in the public school system, I’m always struck by the difference.

 

In school I have to proctor the federally mandated standardized tests. But I’ve opted my own daughter out. She doesn’t take them.

 

So at home, I get to see all the imaginative projects she’s created in her class while the other kids had to trudge away at the exam.

 

“Daddy, daddy, look!” she squeals.

 

And I’m bombarded by an entire Picasso blue period.

 

Or “Daddy, will you staple these?”

 

And I’m besieged by a series of her creative writing.

 

My daughter is only in second grade and she loves standardized test time.

 

It’s when she gets to engage in whatever self-directed study strikes her fancy.

 

Back in kindergarten I missed the boat.

 

Even as an educator, myself, I had no idea the district would be subjecting her to standardized tests at an age when she should be doing nothing more strenuous than learning how to share and stack blocks.

 

But when I found out she had taken the GRADE Test, a Pearson assessment not mandated by the state but required by my home district in order the receive state grant funding, I hit the roof.

 

I know the GRADE test. I’m forced to give a version of it to my own 8th grade students at a nearby district where I work. It stinks.

 

Ask any classroom teacher and they’ll tell you how useless it is. Giving it is at best a waste of class time. At worst it demoralizes children and teaches them that the right answer is arbitrary – like trying to guess what the teacher is thinking.

 

Then I found out my daughter was also taking the DIBELS, a test where she reads a passage aloud and is given a score based on how quickly she reads without regard to its meaning. In fact, some of the passages test takers are forced to read are pure nonsense. It’s all about how readers pronounce words and whether they persevere through the passage. It’s not so much about reading. It’s about grit.

 

No. My precious little one won’t be doing that.

 

I talked candidly to her kindergarten teacher about it. I trust her judgment, so I wanted to know what she thought. And she agreed that these tests were far from necessary. So I set up a meeting with the principal.

 

The meeting lasted about an hour. Sure, it was a little scary. No one wants to rock the boat. But even he agreed with most of what I had to say. He didn’t feel as strongly about it as I did, but he respected my wishes and that was that.

 

Ever since, my daughter hasn’t taken a single standardized test.

 

For me, it was a political statement as well as a parental one. I wanted to do my part to chip away at the corporate school reform movement. I know how much they rely on these test scores to justify closing poor schools like mine. I don’t want to give them a chance.

 

But little did I know what bliss I would be providing for my little one.

 

Beyond politics, I thought I was just protecting her from a prolonged period of boredom, unfair assessments and cognitively invalid measurements.

 

I wanted to shield her from adult woes. What I didn’t realize was I was opening a door for her creativity.

 

It’s amazing. All the other poor children sit there dutifully filling in bubbles while she pours her heart out onto the page.

 

She loves creating these illustrated books telling the wildest narratives: Colorful superheroes blast bad guys into oblivion. Game show hosts get lost in other dimensions. Even her Mommy and Daddy get in on the action riding Yoshi through Super Mario land.

 

Often she adds text to these adventures. Her spelling could use some work, but I’m impressed that an 8-year-old even attempts some of these words. Sometimes she writes more in her adventure books than my 8th graders do on their assigned homework.

 

I’ve even noticed a marked improvement in her abilities during this time. Her handwriting, sentence construction, word choice and spelling have taken a leap to the next level. While her classmates are wasting time on the assessments, she’s actually learning something!

 

I wish I could provide the same opportunities for my students that I have for my daughter.

 

It’s strange.

 

As a parent, I have the power to make educational decisions on behalf of my child. But as a trained education professional, I’m not allowed the same privilege.

 

Don’t teachers stand in loco parentis? Well this is loco, so let me parent this. Let me at least talk to their parents about it – but if I do that on school time, in my professional capacity, I’m liable to be reprimanded.

 

I have studied standardized testing. It was part of my training to become a teacher. And the evidence is in. The academic world knows all this stuff is bunk, but the huge corporations that profit off of these tests and the associated test-prep material have silenced them.

 

I have a masters in my field. I’m a nationally board certified teacher. I have more than a decade of successful experience in the classroom. But I am not trusted enough to decide whether my students should take these tests.

 

It’s not like we’re even asking the parents. We start from the assumption that children will take the tests, but if the parents complain about it, we’ll give in to their wishes.

 

It’s insanity.

 

We should start from the assumption the kids won’t take the test. If parents want their kids to be cogs in the corporate machine, they should have to opt IN.

 

As a teacher, I can try to inform my students’ parents about all this, but at my own peril. If the administration found me talking about this with parents, I could be subject to a reprimand. Giving my honest educational opinion could result in me losing my job.

 

As you can see, it hasn’t stopped me. But I teach in a high poverty, mostly minority district. My kids’ parents often don’t have the time to come up to the school or even return phone calls. They’re working two or three jobs. They’re struggling just to put food on the table. They don’t have time for standardized tests!

 

So every test season I sadly watch my students trudge away at their federally mandated bubbles. I see their anxiety, their frustration, their sad, sad faces.

 

And it breaks my heart.

 

But then I come home to my daughter’s exuberant creations!

 

You would not believe the joy of opting out!

Should Teachers Have Strong Opinions?

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I am an opinionated person. I am also a public school teacher.

 

Those two things should not be mutually exclusive.

 

You should not have to give up the one to be able to do the other.

 

Teachers should not have to relinquish their judgment in order to run an effective classroom. In fact, you might expect good judgment to be a prerequisite to doing the job well.

 

Yet it seems many people disagree. They like their teachers tame, docile and opinion-free.

 

That’s just not me.

 

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying teachers should instruct their students to think just like them. I’m not saying they should indoctrinate or unduly influence the young people in their care.

 

Just the opposite. They should spur their students to think for themselves. They should teach the young how to entertain an idea without immediately accepting it.

 

But they have no business telling students, “This is what I believe.” They have no business misusing their authority to make their views seem normative.

 

So I agree that teachers should be careful about expressing their opinions in the classroom. The problem comes after the school day is through.

 

When a teacher goes home, all bets are off. When a teacher is not in front of a class of impressionable children, he or she should be afforded the same rights and privileges of any other citizen – and that includes the right to form an opinion and express it publicly.

 

I am an educator. Hear me roar.

 

That’s why – like many people in my field – I write an education blog.

 

I’m sick of the media reporting on K-12 schools but never asking classroom teachers their opinions.

 

Almost all major education policy in our country is made with little-to-no input from teachers: Common Core, high-stakes testing, value added measures, charter schools, Teach for America, school funding – the list goes on and on.

 

No one asks us what we think so many teachers scribble down their private musings and send them adrift on the Nile of the Internet.

 

This makes some people very angry.

 

These folks often respond: How dare they!? No one asked their opinion!

 

EXACTLY.

 

Some of us, teachers, even dare to address issues that don’t directly affect the classroom: racism, sexism, police brutality, the prison system, parenting – Heaven forbid – POLITICS!

 

Those who criticize us for commenting on such disparate matters have a very narrow view of relevance. Just because a subject doesn’t include the word “school” doesn’t make it irrelevant to the classroom. Most of my students are impoverished and minorities. You think racism doesn’t impact their lives? You think I see nothing of the effects of poverty? You think I have nothing to say about my children’s relationship with the police?

 

Still, few things upset some readers as much as the knowledge that I both teach and think.

 

“I’m glad my child doesn’t have a teacher like you,” some of them say. Or “No one who feels the way you do should be allowed in a classroom.” Or “This is why I homeschool.”

 

It’s funny. You never hear people speak this way of any other profession. Only teachers. We are demanded to pass a purity test from which even the priesthood is exempt.

 

The clergy are rarely instructed to keep their noses out of politics. They’re even invited to do so from the pulpit. But teachers? No way! Not even on our off hours.

 

It’s almost as if some folks think teachers are incapable of forming an opinion and not blurting it out in class. “Stop coloring, children! I must regale you with the inadequacies of former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia!”

 

It’s ridiculous. But it makes me wonder. How much of this restraint do these critics practice in their own homes?

 

Do these same people who fear a teacher’s opinion stop themselves from influencing the views of their own children? Do they let their little ones make up their own minds about the world or do they tell them what to think?

 

It’s not surprising that most people hold the same religion as their parents. Do we all start with an unbiased view of faith and just magically find the beliefs of our fathers the most suited to our own lives? Or do most parents stack the deck? Don’t most of us actively teach our children THIS is the way to believe?

 

I wonder if these critics of teachers are really just afraid educators will disrupt their own work. How many parents want their own children to believe the same way they do? How many are afraid the schools will allow children to come to different conclusions? How many are afraid of being alienated from their own progeny?

 

I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’m a parent, too.

 

And, yes, I say things to my own child that I would not tell my students. If she asks a question, I give her a full answer including what I think about it. That’s a parent’s prerogative.

 

However, I don’t insist she believe as I do. My daughter knows I want her to make up her own mind. I appreciate our differences and love her even more because of them.

 

I don’t want her to be a carbon copy of me. Nor do I want that of my students or my readers.

 

I just want a fair hearing.

 

Hello, World! This is what I think! This is why I think it!

 

And I wait for the world to answer back.
I send my little message in a bottle onto the waves of the Interwebs.

 

I just wish it sometimes didn’t return with a note telling me to shut up because I’m a teacher.


NOTE: This article was also discussed on Diane Ravitch’s blog.

 

Parents and Children Occupy Puerto Rican School Refusing to Let Corporate Vultures Raid Its Contents

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For more than 80 days, about 35 parents and children have been camping out in front of their neighborhood school in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

The Commonwealth government closed the Jose Melendez de Manati school along with more than 150 others over the last 5 years.

But the community is refusing to let them loot it.

They hope to force lawmakers to reopen the facility.

Department of Education officials have been repeatedly turned away by protesters holding placards with slogans like “This is my school and I want to defend it,” and “There is no triumph without struggle, there is no struggle without sacrifice!”

Officials haven’t even been able to shut off the water or electricity or even set foot inside the building.

The teachers union – the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR) – has called for a mass demonstration of parents, students and teachers on Sunday, Aug. 23. Protesters in the capital of San Juan will begin a march at 1 p.m. from Plaza Colón to La Fortaleza (the Governor’s residence).

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The schools being closed are all in low income areas, said union president Mercedes Martinez. “This is detrimental to education, because the necessities of the community, the investment in infrastructure in recent years, the technology, have not been taken into consideration, and neither the parents nor the teachers have been consulted.”

The Jose Melendez de Manati school, for instance, served students 92% of whom live in poverty.

Now that the building has been closed, parents say they can’t afford the cost to transport their children to a new school miles away. And those schools that remain open have been forced to make drastic cuts to remain functional. Class sizes have ballooned to 35 students or more. Amenities like arts, music, health and physical education have typically been slashed.

Why?

The island territory is besieged by vulture capitalists encouraging damaging rewrites to the tax code while buying and selling Puerto Rican debt.

Hundreds of American private equity moguls and entrepreneurs are using the Commonwealth as a tax haven.

Since 2012, U.S. citizens who live on the island for at least 183 days a year pay minimal or no taxes, and unlike those living in Singapore or Bermuda, they get to keep their U.S. passports. After all, they’re still living in the territorial U.S. These individuals pay no local or federal capital gains taxes and no local taxes on dividend interest for 20 years. Even someone working for a mainland company who resides on the island is exempt from paying U.S. federal taxes on his salary.

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Big corporations are taking advantage of the situation, too.

Worldwide, American companies keep 60 percent of their cash overseas and untaxed. That’s about $1.7 trillion annually.

Microsoft, for instance, routes its domestic operations through Puerto Rican holdings to reduce taxes on its profits to 1.02 percent – a huge savings from the U.S. corporate tax rate of 35 percent! Over three years, Microsoft saved $4.5 billion in taxes on goods sold in the U.S. alone. That’s a savings of $4 million a day!

Meanwhile, these corporate tax savings equal much less revenue for government entities – both inside and outside of Puerto Rico – to use for public goods such as schooling.

Public schools get their funding from tax revenues. Less tax money means less money to pay for children’s educations. As the Puerto Rican government borrowed in an attempt to shore up budget deficits, the economy tanked.

But have no fear! In swooped Hedge Funds to buy up that debt and sell it for a profit.

When this still wasn’t enough to prop up a system suffering from years of neglect, the Hedge Fund managers demanded more school closures, firing more teachers, etc.

Of course, this is only one interpretation of events.

If you ask Wall Street moguls, they’ll blame the situation on declining student enrollment. And they have a point.

Some 450,000 people have left the island in the last decade as the economy suffered an 8-year depression.

There were 423,000 students in the Puerto Rican school system in 2013. That’s expected to drop to 317,000 by 2020.

But is this the cause of the island’s problems or a symptom?

Unfortunately, things look to get much worse before they’ll get any better.

The government warns it may be out of money to pay its bills by as early as 2016. Over the next five years, it may have to close nearly 600 more schools – almost half of the remaining facilities!

Right on cue, Senate President Eduardo Bhatia is proposing corporate education reform methods to justify these draconian measures. This includes privatizing the school system, tying teacher evaluations to standardized test scores and increasing test-based accountability.

“Our interest is to promote transparency and flow of data through the implementation of a standardized measurement and accountability system for all agencies,” Bhatia said, adding that the methodology has been successful in such cities as Chicago.

Despite such overwhelming opposition, protesters are taking the fight to the capitol. “Tax the Rich!” is a popular slogan on signs for Sunday’s march.

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“It’s unacceptable that the rich and powerful that created our crisis are the ones asking the working class for more sacrifices,” said Martinez.

“The foreign companies that pay no taxes or a less amount to evade paying their due in contributions – impose a tax on them now!”

This is just a beginning, she adds. Stronger actions will be coming.

In the meantime, those brave parents and children still refuse to give up their shuttered school.

They dream of a day when that empty building once again rings with the laughter of students and the instruction of teachers.

In a country being used by the wealthy to increase their already swollen bank statements, is that really so much to ask?


You can show your solidarity with these Puerto Rican protestors by spreading the word through social media. Post a picture of yourself with a sign saying you’re with them in their fight. Tweet the Commonwealth Secretary of Education @Rafaelroman6. Use the hashtags #EducacionEnPR #SOSdocente.

NOTE: This article was mentioned on Diane Ravich’s blog and was also published on CommonDreams.org and the Badass Teachers Association blog.