I Am Not A Hero Teacher

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I’m sorry.

 

I am not a hero teacher.

 

I am not stronger than a locomotive.

 

I cannot jump tall ignorance in a single bound.

 

I am not faster than a tax-cutting zealot.

 

Up in the air – it’s a bird, it’s a plane, but it’s certainly not a teacher because we can’t fly.

 

I am not bullet proof.

 

If a gunman storms the building and shoots me, I will be wounded and may die.

 

Giving me a gun doesn’t help, either, because I am not a marksman.

 

I am just a man.

 

I cannot stand in front of a class of thirty and give them each my undivided attention. Not all at once.

 

When students ask a question, I need time to answer it.

 

When students hand in a paper, I need time to grade it.

 

During the workday, I need time to plan my lessons. I need time to call parents. I need time to read all the individual education plans, fill out all the weekly monitoring forms, finish all the administrative paperwork.

 

At the end of a long day, I get tired and need rest.

 

At the end of a long week, I need time to spend with my family.

 

At the end of a long year, I need time to myself – to get a summer job, to take continuing education courses, to plan for next year, to heal.

 

I need a middle class income – not because I’m trying to get rich, but because I’m human. I need food and shelter. I have a family for whom I need to provide. If you can’t give me that, I’ll need to move on.

 

Sorry, but it’s true.

 

I’ll tell you one thing I don’t need. I don’t need the state, federal or local government telling me how to do my job. When I plan my lessons, I need the freedom to teach children in the way that seems most effective to me – the professional in the room.

 

I also don’t need some bureaucrat telling me how to assess my students. I don’t need some standardized test to tell me what kids have learned, if they can read or write. I’ve spent an average of 80 minutes a day with these children for five days a week. If I can’t tell, I don’t deserve to be in the classroom.

 

And I don’t need my principal or superintendent setting my colleagues and me against each other. We’re not competing to see who can do a better job. We should be collaborating to make sure everyone succeeds.

 

What do I need? My union, for one.

 

I need my right to collective bargaining. I need the power to gather with my colleagues and co-workers so we can create the best possible work environment for myself and my students. I need due process, tenure, so I can’t be fired at the whim of the school board or administrators without having them prove my inequities.

 

I need my work to be evaluated fairly. Judge me on what I do – not on what my students do with what I’ve given them.

 

And when it comes to the racial proficiency gap, don’t look to me to exert some kind of supernatural teacher magic. I am not a white savior who can make school segregation, racism and prejudice disappear. I try to treat every student fairly, but my actions can’t undo a system that’s set up to privilege some and disadvantage others.

 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re expecting a superhero, I’m bound to disappoint.

 

And that DOES seem to be what many of you expect us to be.

 

Seven years ago, Davis Guggenheim characterized the public schools as if we were Waiting for Superman.

 

Things are so screwed up, he alleged back then, that we need someone with superpowers to swoop in and fix it all.

 

But there is no superman. There’s just Clark Kent.

 

That’s me – a bespectacled shlub who shows up everyday in the naive hope that he can make a difference.

 

According to landmark research by Dan Goldhaber and James Coleman, only about 9 percent of student achievement is attributable to teachers.

 

That’s right – 9 percent.

 

If you add in everything in the entire school environment – class size, curriculum, instructional time, availability of specialists and tutors, and resources for learning (books, computers, science labs, etc.), all that only accounts for 20 percent.

 

There’s another 20 percent they can’t explain. But the largest variable by far is out of school factors. This means parents, home life, health, poverty, nutrition, geographic location, stress, etc. Researchers estimate those count for 60 percent of student success.

 

Yet we somehow expect teachers (9%) to do it all.

 

I’m sorry, America. I can’t.

 

More than half of all public school students live in poverty. No matter how hard I try, I cannot solve that all by myself.

 

I try to teach children how to read though many are hungry and traumatized by their home lives.

 

I try to teach children how to write though many haven’t slept the night before, haven’t taken their ADD medication and – to be honest – many haven’t even shown up to school yet.

 

I most certainly try to get them to pass culturally biased, developmentally inappropriate standardized tests without sucking away every bit of creativity from the classroom.

 

But much of this is beyond my control.

 

I can’t help that the federal, state and local government are cutting school funding. I can’t help that my impoverished district has few school supplies, the students enter the building without them because their parents are too poor to buy them. But I can – and do – spend out of my own pocket to make sure all of my students have pencil, paper, whatever they need.

 

I can’t help that officials at every step of the way want me to narrow my teaching to only things that will appear on the yearly standardized test, that they want me to present it as a multiple choice look-a-like item, that they want me to teach by pointing at a Common Core standard as if that held any meaning in a child’s life. But I can make the lesson as creative as possible and offer kids a chance to engage with the material in a way that connects to their real lives, desires and interests.

 

I can’t help that kids don’t read like they used to and instead experience the bulk of text on the Internet, Facebook or Twitter. I can’t help that most of their real world writing experience is limited to thumbing social media updates, comments on YouTube videos or communicating through a string of colorful emojis. But I can try to offer them meaningful journal topics that make them think and offer them the chance to share their thoughts in a public forum with their peers.

 

There’s nothing super about any of it.

 

But it’s the kind of things teachers do everyday without anyone noticing. It’s the kind of thing that rarely gets noted on an evaluation, rarely earns you a Thank You card or even an apple to put on your desk.

 

However, when the day is done, students often are reluctant to leave. They cluster about in the hall or linger in the classroom asking questions, voicing concerns, just relieved that there’s someone there they can talk to.

 

And that’s reason enough for me to stay.

 

The odds are stacked against me. Help isn’t coming from any corner of our society. But sometimes despite all of that, I’m actually able to get things done.

 

Everyday it seems I help students understand something they never knew before. I’ve become accustomed to that look of wonder, the aha moment. And I helped it happen!

 

I get to see students grow. I get to nurture that growth. I get to be there for young ones who have nobody else.

 

It’s a wonderful feeling.

 

I know I’m making a difference.

 

So, yes, I’m no superman.

 

I have no special powers, no superhuman abilities. I can’t fix all of our social problems all by myself.

 

But I help to make the future.

 

That’s why I do what I do.

 

Thank you for letting me do it.

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School Voucher Industry Strikes Back: We’re Segregated!? No, You’re Segregated!

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In what must count as another new low in American discourse, the school voucher industry is striking back against claims that their products lead to greater segregation of students.

 

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), had the audacity to voice the truth:

 

“Make no mistake: This use of privatization, coupled with disinvestment are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation,” she said a week ago during a speech at the AFT’s yearly convention.

 

To which school privatization mouthpieces quickly countered with the truth:

 

“If vouchers are the polite cousins of segregation, then most urban school districts are segregation’s direct descendants. The vast majority of our urban public school districts are segregated because of white flight and neighborhood neglect.”

 

This was from a statement by Kevin Chavous, founding board member of the American Federation for Children, the school privatization advocacy group that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos used to lead.

 

So there you have it.

 

A nation of more than 325 million people, with a more than 241-year history reduced to – I Know You Are But What Am I?

 

The sad fact is that they’re both right.

 

School vouchers do lead to increased segregation (and so do charter schools, by the way, the method preferred by corporate Democrats). But many traditional public schools are, in fact, deeply segregated both racially and economically.

 

Does that mean that both systems – privatized and public – are equally at fault? Does it mean that both somehow get a pass for reprehensible behavior?

 

No and no.

 

First, we must explain why segregation is bad.

 

Peter Cunningham, former assistant secretary for communications and outreach at the Education Department under Obama, wagged his finger at Weingarten on the privatization propaganda Website, the 74.

 

He called out Weingarten’s hypocrisy, which takes some cojones for a man who only last year pondered aloud and in public whether segregation was really such a bad thing.

 

He had this to say last September:

 

“Maybe the fight’s not worth it. It’s a good thing; we all think integration is good. But it’s been a long fight, we’ve had middling success. At the same time, we have lots and lots of schools filled with kids of one race, one background, that are doing great. It’s a good question.”

 

Funny, isn’t it?

 

He calls out Weingarten because of public school segregation but defends charter schools because their segregation is somehow just swell.

 

Keep in mind. Cunningham is the executive director of the Education Post, a well-funded charter school public relations firm that packages its advertisements, propaganda and apologias as journalism. And he’s not about to poop where he eats.

 

So, yes, Mr. Cunningham, segregation is worth fighting.

 

When you have schools made up mostly of minority and/or economically disadvantaged students, it makes it easier to provide fewer resources and less funding to those children while sending the lion’s share to the white and wealthy.

 

That’s why in Brown v. Board the U.S. Supreme Court struck down “Separate but Equal” – because when races are kept separate, their schools are rarely equal.

 

This game of excusing one system based on the deficiencies of the other is pure sophistry.

 

You can’t defend voucher and charter schools from being segregated by reference to public school segregation. Nor can you ignore public school segregation by reference to the same at privatized schools.

 

They’re both bad, and they both need fixing.

 

To be fair, Weingarten seems to tacitly admit this about public schools.

 

She acknowledges the disinvestment in public education, how public schools have been systemically undermined by politicians and lobbyists, many of them advocating for privatized schools, so that they could use this disinvestment as an excuse for their own for-profit education schemes.

 

“…no amount of facts or evidence will sway voucher proponents from their agenda to starve public schools to the breaking point, then criticize their deficiencies and let the market handle the rest, all in the name of choice,” she said in a statement.

 

The fact of the matter is this: public schools have become more segregated not because teachers or administrators want it, but because of local, state and federal law; a series of subsequent Supreme Court decisions allowing it within district boundaries; the continuation of racist redlining in the loan and insurance industry; and the xenophobia of wealthy and middle class whites who prefer their kids be educated separately from those they consider undesirable.

 

These policies could be changed. The system could be fixed. All it would take is the will to do it.

 

Charter and vouchers schools, on the other hand, will never solve the problem of segregation, because they have turned that problem into a “solution.”

 

Schools serving poor and minority students aren’t getting the proper resources. So they propose further segregating them.

 

That’s a terrible idea. It’s like escaping from a leaky cruise ship by jumping into a leaky lifeboat. You’ll sink in both, but the lifeboat will sink quicker.

 

Yes, our public schools are segregated by race and class and therefore poor and minority students receive inequitable funding and resources. Charters and vouchers cannot possibly remedy that. They will always make it worse. Only a robust and integrated public school system can be truly equitable. A system that deifies choice cannot combat racism if it is freely chosen.

 

What Weingarten is getting at is this: if we want to help the nation’s children – all of the nation’s children – we must support and reform public schools.

 

We must also acknowledge that many of the problems of systemic disinvestment are caused by those who want to privatize in the first place.

 

We have let the wolf write our education policy. It should be no shock that his solution isn’t to build more houses of bricks but to process our little piggies into bacon.

 

Full disclosure: I am no fan of Weingarten.

 

I recently called for both her and National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen Garcia to voluntarily step down because of undemocratic practices and mismanagement in both teachers unions.

 

However, I’ll stand up for her when she’s right, and in this instance, she is.

 

If anything, maybe she should have included charter schools in her criticism. I laid into her in June for writing an op-ed with Jonah Edelman, an anti-union activist, specifically praising charter schools over vouchers.

 

But I get it. Now that some charter school teachers have unionized and joined the AFT, she’s stuck between a rock and a hard place.

 

Frankly, it makes her ineffective in speaking out on this matter. I have nothing against charter school teachers. I know, personally, several very good educators who work at charter schools. In this job market, sometimes you have to take what you can get. However, the sad fact of the matter is that by their very structure, charter schools are inferior to public schools. They are less democratic, less transparent, less accountable and more easily subject to fraud and abuse of children. That’s not to say all charters are guilty of this, but just by being a charter school and being subject to the deregulated rules governing them, they are more susceptible to these errors than their traditional public school brethren.

 

But, of course, the same can be said of voucher schools. It’s just that you can’t criticize one privatization scheme without also criticizing the other.

 

Perhaps the biggest mistake Weingarten made was in glossing over the worst abuses of public schools. If she was going to call out the segregation at voucher schools, she also should have explicitly called it out at public schools.

 

But that’s something even our first black President Barack Obama refused to do. You’d think he’d make that a priority for his administration, but instead he favored the same school privatization schemes that just made it worse.

 

Currently, you’ll find no political party that actively champions integration. Democrats will give it more lip service than Republicans, but both parties either ignore it in practice or actively work against it.

 

The only use they have for it is as a club with which to hit the other side when issues like this come up.

 

You’re segregated!

 

No, YOU’RE segregated!

 

And so we are all lead over the cliff by partisans and fools.

The Problem With Public Schools Isn’t Low Test Scores. It’s Strategic Disinvestment

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Imagine you’re settling in to enjoy an article on-line or in your favorite print newspaper and you come across this headline:

 

U.S. Schools Ranked Low Internationally!

 

Or

 

Out of X Countries, U.S. Places Far From the Top in Math!

 

You feel embarrassed.

 

Soon that embarrassment turns to anger.

 

Sweat starts to break out on your brow.

 

And then you start to grasp for a solution to the problem – something major, something to disrupt the current system and bring us back to our proper place in the lead.

 

TWEEEEEEEET!

 

That was me blowing a gym teacher’s whistle. I’ll do it again:

 

TWWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEET!

 

Hold it right there, consumer of corporate media. You’ve just been had by one of the oldest tricks in the book.

 

It’s the old manipulate-the-data-to-make-it-look-like-there’s-a-crisis-that-can-only-be-solved-by-drastic-measures-that-you-would-never-approve-of-normally.

 

We also call it disaster capitalism or the shock doctrine.

 

It’s been used to get people to agree to terrible solutions like preemptive wars of choice, warrantless wiretapping of civilians, torturing prisoners, defunding public health programs and scientific research – just about everything the Koch Brothers, the Waltons, the Broads, Gateses and other billionaire hegemonists have on their fire sale wish list.

 

In the case of the American educational system, it’s the impetus behind high stakes standardized testing, Common Core, Teach for America, and charter and voucher schools.

 

And they’re all justified by misinformation about student test scores.

 

The argument goes like this: Our Kids Are Failing!? Quick! Standardize and Privatize Their Schools!

 

First, education isn’t a race.

 

There is no best education system followed by a second best, etc. There are only countries that meet their students needs better than others.

 

And if you really wanted to determine if our country was meeting student needs, you wouldn’t appeal to test scores. You’d look at specific needs and assess them individually.

 

But you rarely see that. You rarely see an article with the headline:

 

U.S. Schools More Segregated Than Any In The Industrialized World!

 

Or

 

Out of X Countries, U.S. Spends Most on Rich Students and Least on Poor Ones!

 

Second, we need to ask ourselves if standardized test scores are really the best way to assess (1) student learning and (2) the education system as a whole.

 

Multiple choice tests are written by large corporations that profit more off of student failure than success. That’s not exactly an objective measure.

Students are considered passing or failing based on an arbitrary cut score that changes every year. That’s not exactly unbiased.

 

Moreover, standardized tests are always graded on a curve. That means no matter how well students do, some will always be considered failing. We cannot have No Child Left Behind when our assessments are designed to do just the opposite – it’s logically impossible.

 

But whenever the media turns to these international rankings, they ignore these facts.

 

They pretend it’s a horse race and we’re losing.

 

I kind of expect this from the corporate media. But when so-called progressive writers fall into this trap, I have to wonder if they’re just lazy or ignorant.

 

At best, these test scores are a second hand indication of structural inequalities in our public education system. It’s no accident that student from wealthy families generally score higher than those from poor ones. Nor is it pure misadventure that minority children also tend to score lower than their white counterparts.

 

These tests are economically, racially and culturally biased. They are completely unhelpful in determining root causes.

 

Thankfully, they’re unnecessary. It doesn’t take a standardized test to determine which students are receiving the least funding. Nor does it take a corporate intermediary to show us which schools have the largest class sizes and lowest resources.

 

The sad fact is that there are an awful lot of poor children attending public school. The U.S. has one of the highest child poverty rates in the industrialized world. And despite spending a lot on our middle class and wealthy students, we’re doing next to nothing to actually help our neediest children.

 

A large portion of U.S. public schools have been left to their own devices for decades. What’s worse, when they struggle to meet students’ needs, we don’t swoop in with help. We level blame. We fire teachers, close buildings and privatize.

 

There’s absolutely zero proof that changing a public school to a charter school will help, but we do it anyway. There’s not a scrap of evidence that sending poor kids to a low end private school with a tax-funded voucher will help, but we do it anyway.

 

Think about it: why would getting rid of duly-elected school boards help kids learn? Why would allowing schools to spend money behind close doors with zero public accountability boost children’s ability to learn?

 

Yet our policymakers continue to push for these measures because they have no intention of helping poor and minority public school students. They just want to enrich their friends in the school privatization industry. They just want to divert public money to testing corporations and book publishers.

 

THAT is the problem with America’s education system.

 

Not test scores.

 

It’s time our nation’s journalists give up this old canard.

 

We must be honest about why our public schools struggle. That’s the only way to find real solutions.

 

We must acknowledge the increasing segregation – both racially and economically. We must acknowledge the blatant funding disparities. And we must acknowledge how the majority of education policy at the federal, state and local level has done little to help alleviate these problems – in fact it has exacerbated them.

 

We need to stop testing and start investing in our schools. We need to stop privatizing and start participating in our neighborhood schools.

 

And most of all, we need to stop the lies and disinformation.

Where Did All The Integrated Schools Go? Why Segregation is Still Bad

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School segregation is bad.

 

Still.

 

It is shocking to me that in 2017 making this argument remains necessary.

 

But everywhere you look in the education debate you’ll find people clinging to their segregated charter schools, pushing for more segregated school vouchers, and lobbying to increase segregation at our traditional public schools.

 

You might be forgiven for thinking that the issue was resolved way back in 1954 when the US Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case.

 

Justices decided that it was unconstitutional to have substandard schools for black and minority students while also maintaining pristine schools for white children, as was the practice in most parts of the country at the time.

 

They struck down the previous justification of “separate but equal” because when you have separate schools, they are rarely equal.

 

You might think that’s just common sense. When you have schools just for blacks and schools just for whites, the resources aren’t going to be divided fairly or evenly. One group will always get the upper hand. Better to mix the two groups so it’s harder to select against one or the other.

 

And this is true of almost every cultural division you can think of: race, gender, class, religion, etc. The only way to protect everyone is to make it harder to hurt one group without hurting them all.

 

Everyone should already know that. But it still strikes some as news.

 

What may be less well known is the long, racist history of resistance to this ruling. In fact, what we now call “school choice” was invented during this time as an explicit attempt to avoid desegregation. “Charter Schools” and “School Vouchers” are modern terms that could almost as easily be used to describe the multifarious discriminatory attempts to stop racial mixing by reference to “choice.”

 

Take vouchers – allocating tax dollars to parents so they could “choose” to send their kids to private schools that won’t accept minorities – they tried it.

 

Or charters – setting up schools that are privately run but publicly funded so parents can “choose” to send their kids to schools allowed to discriminate against minorities during enrollment – they tried it.

 

And they’re still trying it and getting away with it.

 

It took decades for Brown v. Board to truly be enforced nationwide, and even after it became unavoidable, the fight to undermine it never truly died.

 

Betsy DeVos probably doesn’t consider herself a segregationist. Barack Obama probably doesn’t consider himself an advocate of “apartheid education”. But that’s what the policies each of them support actually accomplish. Both major political parties have been complicit – and are still complicit – in keeping our public schools separated by race and class.

 

There’s big bucks in it. Privatization means reducing accountability and transparency for how tax dollars are spent, which means unscrupulous corporations can pocket public money with no questions asked.

 

But it’s not just the charter and voucher industry that increase segregation. Our traditional public schools have also become separate and unequal.

 

After initial progress, our traditional public schools have been allowed to slip back into segregation. In many parts of the country, they are actually more segregated today than they were at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

 

According to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, from 2000 to 2014, school segregation has more than doubled nationwide. That’s twice the number of schools comprised almost entirely of students living in high poverty and/or students of color.

 

The number went from 7,009 to 15,089 schools. And that’s just the worst offenders – schools with more than three quarters of students from only one race or class. Throughout the country there are thousands more schools not as extreme but still serving mostly poor and/or minority students, and thus receiving fewer resources, more teacher layoffs, dealing with larger classes and crumbling infrastructure.

 

It wasn’t always like this.

 

Classrooms were the most diverse from the 1970s through the early 1990s. At peak integration, four out of 10 black southern students attended a white school, while less than a third of all black students attended majority black schools.

 

What went wrong? The Supreme Court.

 

The highest court in the land laid down a series of decisions, starting with Milliken vs. Bradley in 1974, that effectively put the breaks on school integration. In fact, that first case is often criticized as “one of the worst Supreme Court decisions” ever.

 

It dealt with Detroit’s plan to integrate students by busing them from the inner city to the suburbs. The court ruled that such a plan was unconstitutional, because black students only had the right to attend integrated schools WITHIN THEIR OWN SCHOOL DISTRICT. If few white people lived there, well oh well.

 

And thus, de facto segregation was born.

 

If black and white people didn’t live together in the same neighborhoods – and they rarely do – then they wouldn’t be forced to go to school together. Forget that banks and insurance companies often refuse or limit loans, mortgages, and insurance to people of color for properties within specific geographical areas – a practice known as red lining. There was nothing municipal or school officials from minority jurisdictions could do to force integration across these artificial borders.

 

Between 1991 and 1995, the Court made matters even worse in three additional rulings. Justices decided that integration was merely a temporary federal policy and once the imbalance was righted, school districts should be released from any desegregation orders.

 

The results can be seen in almost every traditional public school in the country. There are rich schools and poor schools. There are black schools and white schools. And our federal and state education policies take advantage of the separation making sure that privileged schools get the lions share of resources while the others have to make do with less.

 

It is the key issue holding back our system of public education. Almost every school where students have low test scores has a disproportionately high level of poverty and students of color. If our schools were truly integrated, there would be none labeled “failing.” There would only be students who need extra help though they would be equally distributed throughout and thus not stigmatized. Unfortunately, re-segregation has allowed an easy scapegoat, and this, in turn, has been an excuse to build more charter schools and pass more school vouchers that drastically increase that same segregation.

 

Some people look at this situation and claim that it means we should abandon traditional public schools. If they’re already segregated, they argue, we should just invest in the choice schools.

 

However, doing so would not solve any of our problems. It would only exacerbate them. The solution to smoking is not more cigarettes. It’s quitting.

 

School segregation is terrible. That’s true at charter, voucher and traditional public schools.

 

The presence of segregation is no reason to abandon public education. It just means we need to fix it.

 

We need to overturn these destructive and short-sighted Supreme Court decisions. We need federal and state policies that recommit us to integration. At very least, we need a moratorium on new charter and voucher programs.

 

We need to value all children, not just those who resemble us racially, socially and/or economically.

 

That’s why school segregation is so bad.

 

It divides our children into discrete groups. It sets up the social structure and ensures the privileged will continue to be prized and the underprivileged will continue to be devalued. It teaches children to trust those like themselves and to distrust those who are different.

 

School segregation is the mother of racism and prejudice. And until we, adults, have the courage to tackle it, the next generation will grow up just like us – selfish, racist and blind.

 


John Oliver recently reported on the same issue (Warning: vulgarity):