Here’s an Idea: Guarantee Every Child an Excellent Education

Little African Girl At Wooden Fence With Thumbs Up.

Let’s get one thing straight: there are plenty of things wrong with America’s school system. But they almost all stem from one major error.

We don’t guarantee every child an excellent education.

Instead, we strive to guarantee every child THE CHANCE at an excellent education. In other words, we’ll provide a bunch of different options that parents and children can choose from – public schools, charter schools, cyber schools, voucher schools, etc.

Some of these options will be great. Some will be terrible. It’s up to the consumer (i.e. parents and children) to decide which one to bet on.

In many places this results in children bouncing from school-to-school. One school is woefully deficient, they enroll in another one. One school closes suddenly, they start over again at another.

It’s terribly inefficient and does very little good for most children.

But that’s because it’s not designed with them in mind. It does not put the child first. It puts the education provider first.

It is a distinctly privatized system. As such, the most important element in this system is the corporation, business, administrator or entrepreneurial entity that provides an education.

We guarantee the businessperson a potential client. We guarantee the investor a market. We guarantee the hedge fund manager a path to increased equity. We guarantee the entrepreneur a chance to exploit the system for a profit.

What we do NOT guarantee is anything for the students. Caveat emptor – “Let the buyer beware.”

Imagine if, instead, we started from this proposition: every child in America will be provided with an excellent education.

Sound impossible? Maybe. But it’s certainly a better goal than the one we’re using.

And even if we somehow managed to do it – even if every school was excellent – that doesn’t mean every child would become a genius. You can only provide the basis for an excellent education; it is up to the individual learner – with help from parents, teachers, and other stakeholders – to take advantage of what is put before him or her.

That is not a crazy goal to have. Nor does it mean that education would necessarily become stagnated.

It doesn’t matter what kind of school students go to – it matters that each and every school that receives public funding must be excellent.

That doesn’t mean they each must be excellent in the same ways. One wouldn’t expect them to be carbon copies of each other. Students have different needs. One would expect each classroom and each teacher to be doing different things at different times.

However, there are some things that are universal. There are some principles that are just better than others. Here are four:

First, it is better for schools receiving public funding to have to spend that money openly. They shouldn’t be able to spend that money behind closed doors without any public scrutiny or accountability.

Second, it’s better that the majority of the decisions made about how the school is run are made in public by duly-elected school board members drawn from the community, itself. That is much more preferable to political appointees who are not accountable to the parents and community.

Third, it is better if a school cannot deny a student enrollment based on that student’s special needs, race, religion, creed, sexual orientation, academic record or other factors. If the school receives public funds, it should not be allowed to turn anyone away.

Finally, it is better if a school teaches material that is academically appropriate, generally accepted as mainstream core concepts of the subject and Constitutional. Schools funded with tax money should not teach religious concepts like Creationism. They should not teach history and science from a Biblical point of view. They should not teach racial, sexual and religious discrimination.

None of these four principles should really be controversial. But each of them is violated by our current education system.

Some voucher schools violate the latter proposition. The other three are often violated by charter, cyber and voucher schools.

The only type of school that does not routinely violate these propositions is traditional public schools. Yet that is also the type of school being consistently undermined by most of our current educational policies.

So if we start from the idea that every student should get an excellent education, we start with the proposition to support and renew our public schools.

In doing so, we would need a national commitment to bringing every public school up to snuff.

Many of them already are – Hint: they’re found in rich neighborhoods. The ones that struggle are almost always found in poorer neighborhoods, and that’s no accident. It’s the result of savage funding inequalities.

What we’d need to do is ensure schools serving impoverished students receive equitable funding compared with schools serving the middle class and wealthy kids. Impoverished students must by necessity receive as much funding as the privileged ones. In fact, given the deprivations and increased needs of impoverished students, they should actually receive more funding. Middle class and rich kids have academic advantages over poor kids before they even enter kindergarten. They have more books in the home, more educated parents, better nutrition, better neonatal care, and often more stable home environments. If we really committed ourselves to making sure even these kids got the best possible education, we’d need to start spending more money on them.

Next, we’d need to do something about school segregation. Our public school system is now almost as segregated – and in some places even more segregated – than it was before the landmark Brown vs. Board decision 50 years ago. The only way to guarantee everyone an excellent education is to make it increasingly difficult to hurt some students without hurting all. There is no separate but equal. When we keep students apart by race or class, we ensure inequality among them.

And perhaps most important is this: we must remove the profit principle from education. We cannot allow decisions to be made based on what is best for corporations. Academic decisions about how to teach, how to assess student learning and how to assess teaching should be made by professional classroom educators.

This means no more high stakes standardized testing. No more Common Core. No more depersonalized computer-based learning. No more value added measures used to evaluated teachers. No more union busting. No more Teach for America.

We need to start valuing teachers and teaching again. And we need to pay and treat them as one of the most valuable parts of our society.

These measures would not be easy to accomplish, but they would have an immense impact on our schools.

This would require a substantial outlay of additional funding. We could save money by discontinuing costly practices that don’t benefit children (i.e. testing, charter and voucher funding, etc.). But make no mistake, it would cost money. However, we’re one of the richest countries in the world. We spend a ridiculous amount already on the military. You’re telling me we can’t find the money to spend on our children? If we’re not willing to spend on our future, we don’t deserve to have one.

It requires only a change in focus, a reevaluation of our priorities and goals.

Education should not be market driven. It should be student driven.

We should no longer guarantee business a class of consumers.

Instead, every student in this country no matter if they are rich or poor, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, religious or not – every student should be guaranteed an excellent education.

It’s really that simple.

Puerto Rico Teachers Plan One-Day Strike to Protest Corporate Education Reform

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Welcome to sunny Puerto Rico.

The ocean is a gorgeous cerulean blue. Palm trees wave gently in the salty breeze. And in the distance you can hear percussion, horns and singing.

The protest has begun.

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Residents of this United States territory have been fighting freshman Governor Alejandro García Padilla’s efforts to close public schools, privatize those left and shackle teachers to the same corporate education reform schemes that are crippling schools on the mainland.

This Tuesday island educators are asking parents not to send their children to school. Teachers plan to conduct a one-day strike to protest legislation that could be passed the same day to further cripple the Commonwealth’s public education system.

“On November 17th we’ll be giving our lesson’s outside our classrooms,” says Mercedes Martinez, president of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the teachers union.

“We’ll be in front of our schools early in the morning and at 10:00 a.m. will march from Congress to the Governor’s Mansion in San Juan. This is one of many activities that we’ll perform in defense of public education. We will not accept these precarious impositions and will fight back.”

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The protest is in response to Project 1456 which would close more than 380 public schools. The government has already closed 150 schools in the past 5 years.

This would force many students into even more overcrowded classrooms. Thousands of children would have to be relocated to schools far from their homes.

But that’s not all.

The proposed legislation would also privatize 15% of those schools left standing. Unlike the mainland, Puerto Rico has no charter schools. Teachers went on a 10-day strike in 2008 which only ended after the island Secretary of Education Rafael Aragunde signed an agreement promising not to open any charters.

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If privatized schools opened on the island, parents might have to pay an additional fee for services they now enjoy for free. Amenities like lunches and even tuition may have to be subsidized by parents out of pocket.

Moreover, it would collapse the teachers retirement system, Martinez says. Charter schools would not deduct employees payments to the pension system so it might not be able to remain solvent.

Project 1456 would harm teachers in another way, too. It would enact a punitive evaluation system where 20% of educators value would be based on students standardized test scores. Any teacher with a 79% or less would have two years to improve or be fired.

“Teachers will have no rights,” Martinez says.

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The proposed legislation has already been approved by the Commonwealth Senate. It’s main author Sen. Eduardo Bhatia is pushing for the House to fast track it for approval.

Discussions began in the House last week.

Protesters were there on Wednesday. They stood up in the government chamber and walked out en mass when it was brought up for discussion. Eighteen of them wore white T-shirts spelling out the message “Our Schools Are Not For Sale.”

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Inside the House, presidents of private universities testified in favor of the measure.

“Obviously they want to become administrators of charter schools on our island,” Martinez says.

Outside the building, protesters held their own emblematic hearing on the matter. Community members, teachers and parents testified in the open air about how this legislation would hurt children. They ended with a symbolic vote against it.

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Puerto Ricans are not alone in this fight.

Jitu Brown, a community organizer from Chicago and Director of Journey for Justice Alliance traveled there to stand in solidarity with those fighting for their schools. Brown participated in a 34-day hunger strike in his hometown a month ago to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to close the last open enrollment school in his neighborhood.

“This beautiful, breathtaking place is marred by ugly U.S colonialism and privatization of public services on steroids!” says Brown of Puerto Rico.

“I was blessed to spend time with powerful people fighting for a better world. Big ups to your warrior spirit, discipline and hospitality! Where we struggle, we can win! If we don’t struggle, we are guaranteed to lose.”

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The plight of Puerto Rican communities also inspired support from the Badass Teachers Association, a group of more than 56,000 educators, parents, students and activists.

“The Badass Teachers Association stands in strong solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico who are fighting for the very foundation of their democracy – the survival of their public school system which is under assault by the 1% who seek to close it up and deny Puerto Rican children a right to an education,” says Executive Director Marla Kilfoyle.

Protesters are getting the word out. They’ve already handed out thousands of fliers. Today they plan to drive in a large caravan across the island.

“We’ve got a bunch of cars with sound equipment,” Martinez says.

“We will go to all the communities near our schools in different regions asking parents to support the strike on the 17th.”

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Much of the the island’s financial woes are imported from the mainland. Puerto Rico is besieged by vulture capitalists encouraging damaging rewrites to the tax code while buying and selling the territory’s debt.

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

As a result, tax revenues to fund public goods like education are drying up while the super rich rake in profits.

Officials warn the government 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!

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“That’s why the Teacher’s Federation and other teacher unions allied together to fight back against the attack on our education system,” Martinez says.

“As you can see, we’ve been busy.”

If Project 1456 is passed by the House, the union is considering a general strike.

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Of the 135 schools closed in just the last two years, Commonwealth Secretary of Education Rafael Román had originally proposed shuttering 200. The remaining 65 were only kept alive because communities occupied the buildings and refused to let the government step in.

Protesters stormed the Senate in October when Bhatia first introduced Project 1456.

“Senators decided to approve it without discussion because they did not want to listen to teachers chants and indignation,” says Martinez.

“Senator Bhatia has become the symbol for privatization under this administration. He has never been in a public School. He has no bond with it. He’s a demagogue.”


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

 

Rick Smith – Smuggling Teachers Voices Through the Media Embargo

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I met Rick Smith for the first time in person this summer in Washington, D.C.

He had traveled to our nation’s capital to cover the Badass Teachers Association (BATs) Congress of which I was a member. Though I’d seen pictures and videos of him and even been on his daily radio show a handful of times, I was surprised to see him standing there in the lobby. He looked exactly like his pictures.

Often when you meet someone like that in the flesh, you get a glimpse behind the mask at how much the persona differs from the person. For example, when I was a journalist and interviewed Marvin Hamlisch, he was much more the cranky old man than the consummate showman.

But Rick was just… Rick. Faded denim, golf shirt, tousled hair under a ball cap.

He treated me to breakfast in the hotel restaurant and we talked about politics, activism and education. In a way it was like being on his show except there was no audience. Maybe he didn’t speak as loud and didn’t feel the need to explain the background of a subject for listeners at home, no station identification, but other than that it was pretty much the same.

He’s the real deal. What you see – or usually hear – is what you get.

I remember thanking him for trucking all the way from northern Pennsylvania to be here with us. He wasn’t getting anything extra for this. We certainly didn’t have any money to pay him. Rick was actually interested in hearing what teachers like me had to say.

We had congregated here in the capital to lobby our lawmakers and discuss among ourselves how to change our national education policy into something more student centered and less privatized, corporatized and standardized. And Rick wanted to showcase it on his show. He wanted to be there, to see what we were doing, ask us questions and put it all on the air for listeners across the country.

And – of course – he bought me breakfast.

As I was making my way through a waffle, Rick dropped the bomb on me.

He wanted to know if there was more to this story – if there was enough information for a weekly radio segment.

I carefully swallowed and told him that there was.

We’re living at a time when what’s best for school children isn’t decided by parents or educators. It’s decided by lawmakers, policy wonks, billionaire philanthropists and corporate CEOs with oodles of cash to bribe others to see things their way. Teachers, parents and students are taking to the streets to protest high stakes standardized tests, Common Core, value-added evaluations, charter schools, Teach for America and a host of other corporate education reform policies.

But few in the media seem to be listening.

In the last year, only nine percent of guests discussing education on evening cable news were educators. Yet tech millionaires attempts to dismantle teacher tenure are championed by the likes of Time Magazine. Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown creates a so-called “non-partisan” news site to cheerlead privatization and demonize teachers. At the Republican Presidential debates, candidates fall over each other for the chance to “punch teachers in the face,” while the Democratic Presidential candidates have zero to say about K-12 schools.

And here’s a guy with his own radio show and podcast who is actually interested in what educators think!

We shook hands, made plans and another trip to the buffet.

Now it’s been a little more than two months since the “BATs Radio – This Week in Education” segment premiered. Every week – usually airing Mondays at 5 p.m. Eastern – Rick has two guests chosen by the BATs. And wow! Have we had some amazing interviews!

When the National Education Association (NEA) made the controversial move to endorse Hillary Clinton despite a lack of member outreach, we had history teacher and NEA Board of Directors member Tripp Jeffers on the show. Before the vote, Tripp asked Clinton about her ties to corporate education reformers.

We had New York teacher and Co-Director of BATs Action Committee Michael Flanagan on to talk first hand about what a dismal job our new US Secretary of Education John King had done as Chancellor of New York State Education.

New Orleans parent Karran Harper Royal explained how the Obama administration’s privatization scheme has systematically destroyed public schools in the Big Easy. Wayne Au talked about what it was like to be one of the appellants in the Washington State Supreme Court Case that found charter schools to be unconstitutional. New York parent Karen Sprowal described how the Success Academy charter school had trampled her child’s rights. Jeanette Taylor-Ramann explained what pushed her and several other Chicago parents and teachers to go on a hunger strike to save their last neighborhood school. Puerto Rican teachers union president Mercedes Martinez informed us of the massive island revolt against privatizers in our US territory.

And more and more and more! And it’s only been 8 weeks!

I am so thankful to Rick for making this a reality. Teacher, parent and student voices are getting through the media embargo. We’re being heard. It’s unfiltered news! It’s what’s happening at street level.

This wouldn’t be getting out there so prominently if Rick weren’t interested, if he didn’t think it was something his listeners were interested in hearing. He gives up a significant chunk of his weekends to do it. He gives up time with his family, his children, to bring this to the public.

I can’t express how much that means to me and the more than 56,000 members of BATs.

I remember thanking Rick at the end of that first breakfast meeting and I’ll never forget what he said.

“This is what we do, Steven,” he said. “We’re activists first.”

That’s why Rick Smith is a true progressive hero.


NOTE:

You can hear the BATs Radio – This Week in Education segment most Mondays at 5 p.m. Eastern on the Rick Smith Show. The entire progressive talk show airs weekdays from 3 – 6 p.m. on several radio stations and on-line.

All BATs Radio interviews are archived here in case you missed them.

There are also a plethora of fascinating interviews from the BAT Congress on the Rick Smith Show Website.

This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Did AFT Rank and File REALLY Endorse Hillary Clinton for President? If So, Release the Raw Data

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I have nothing against Hillary Clinton.

Heck! I might even vote for her in the coming Presidential race. Maybe…

But the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) endorsement of the former First Lady is strange in many ways.

First, it’s awfully early. The initial Democratic primaries aren’t scheduled for half a year yet – February of 2016 to be exact. And the general election isn’t until Nov. 8, 2016 – more than a year away.

Second, the manner in which this endorsement was reached is somewhat mysterious.

This much seems certain:

1) The AFT executive board invited all of the candidates to meet with them and submit to an interview. No Republican candidates responded.

2) Democrats including Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and Clinton were interviewed in private.

3) The executive committee voted to endorse Clinton.

4) NOW the interviews are scheduled to be released to the public.

This is a perplexing timetable. Why would the AFT endorse BEFORE releasing the interviews? Ostensibly, the executive council used these interviews to help make its decision. Shouldn’t that same information have been available to rank and file members of the union before an endorsement was made?

Which brings up another question: were AFT members asked AT ALL about who to endorse before the executive council made the final decision?

According to the AFT press release, they were:

The AFT has conducted a long, deliberative process to assess which candidate would best champion the issues of importance to our members, their families and communities. Members have been engaged online, through the “You Decide” website, through several telephone town halls, and through multiple surveys—reaching more than 1 million members.

Additionally, over the past few weeks, the AFT has conducted a scientific poll of our membership on the candidates and key issues. The top issues members raised were jobs and the economy and public education. Seventy-nine percent of our members who vote in Democratic primaries said we should endorse a candidate. And by more than a 3-to-1 margin, these members said the AFT should endorse Clinton.

So the AFT claims union members said to endorse Clinton on-line, on telephone town halls, surveys and a scientific poll of membership.

But did they really?

Clinton may be the Democratic frontrunner, but she isn’t a favorite for a lot of teachers. Chiefly this is because her education positions are not that great. Sure, she’s better than every Republican running so far. But she has stiff competition in the Democratic field – especially from Sanders.

If Clinton had come out against Common Core, standardized testing and using student test scores to evaluate teachers effectiveness, I wouldn’t question the AFT’s endorsement at all. But she has been rather supportive of these issues – just like our current President, Barack Obama.

Teachers are fed up with Obama’s education policies. Why would they overwhelmingly endorse someone for President who seems bound and determined to continue them?

So I hope I’ll be excused if I ask for a bit more proof than a press release.

Where exactly are the polls, surveys, etc. that show the Clinton support AFT leadership claims?

For instance, which polls produced which results? The press release says AFT members prefer Clinton 3-1. But even if Clinton came out on top consistently, surely the results weren’t identical on every poll. Maybe she got 75% on one and 65% on another.

The AFT hasn’t released everything, but the organization’s website gives us a memo about ONE of these phone surveys. This national survey of membership planning to vote in Democratic primaries found 67% picked Clinton. However, only 1,150 members participated! That’s a far cry from the more than 1 million cited in the press release.

Moreover, there is no mention of what questions were asked. For instance, there is a world of difference between “Who would make the best President?” and “Who is most electable?” Is it possible there was selection bias present in the questions used to make this determination?

But that’s only one survey. Where is the rest of the data? Where is the raw information from this survey? Where is the data from all these other outreach attempts and on-line activities? How many took phone surveys? How many took on-line surveys? And what were the results in each case?

If union members really did endorse Clinton, that’s fine. But many of us would like to see the proof.

I’m not a member of the AFT, but I’m on the mailing list. I never received any survey.

A lot of my friends are AFT members, but none of them recall any survey.

As a member of numerous education and teaching groups, I know of no one else who admits to being polled either. In fact, I haven’t been able to find ANYONE who was polled on this issue!

I admit that’s not exactly scientific. But that’s why I want to see the data! Blind me with science, AFT!

I believe in teachers. I believe in Unions. I believe in Democracy.

Please release the raw data, AFT, so I can believe in this endorsement, too.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Pennsylvania GOP Lawmakers Demand Seniority For Themselves But Deny It For Teachers

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Seniority.

Somehow it’s great for legislators, but really bad for people like public school teachers.

At least that was the decision made by Republican lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House Tuesday. They voted along party lines to allow schools to furlough educators without considering seniority.

But the House’s own leadership structure is largely based on seniority!

Hypocrisy much?

Most legislative bodies in the United States from the federal government on down to the state level give extra power to lawmakers based on how long they’ve been there.

Everything from preferential treatment for committee assignments to better office space and even seating closer to the front of the assembly is often based on seniority. Leadership positions are usually voted on, but both Republicans and Democrats traditionally give these positions to the most senior members.

And these same folks have the audacity to look down their noses at public school teachers for valuing the same thing!?

As Philadelphia Representative James Roebuck, ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, said, “If it’s wrong for teachers, why is it right for us?”

If passed by the state Senate and signed by the Governor, the law would allow public schools to lay off teachers based on the state’s new and highly controversial teacher evaluation system.

Teachers with a “failing” ranking would go first, then those with a “needs Improvement,” label.

This system is largely untested and relies heavily on student standardized test scores. There is no evidence it fairly evaluates teachers, and lawsuits certainly would be in the wings if furloughs were made based on such a flimsy excuse.

Value-Added Measures such as these have routinely been criticized by statisticians as “junk science.”

It’s kind of like giving legal favor to the management practices of Darth Vader. In “The Empire Strikes Back,” when one of his minions displeased him, he choked them to death with the Force.

No second chances. No retraining. No due process. One misplaced foot and you’re gone.

Pennsylvania’s proposed method isn’t quite so harsh, but it’s essentially the same. You’re fired because of this flimsy teaching evaluation that has no validity and can really say whatever management wants it to say.

Technically, things like salary are not allowed to be considered, but given the unscientific and unproven nature of this evaluation system, management could massage evaluations to say anything. Administrators didn’t mean to fire the teachers with the highest salaries but those voodoo teaching evaluations said they were “failing.” What are you gonna’ do? OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!

While seniority is not a perfect means of selecting who gets laid off, at least it’s impartial. Moreover, teachers who have lasted in the classroom longest almost always are highly skilled. You don’t last in the classroom if you can’t hack it.

Being a public school teacher is a highly political job. Your boss is the school board and members are elected by the community. While many school directors have the best interests of their districts at heart, favoritism, nepotism and political agendas are not unknown. Teachers need protections from the ill-winds of politics so they can be treated fairly and best serve their students. Otherwise, it would be impossible – for instance – to fairly grade a school director’s child in your class without fear of reprisal.

As it stands, state school code specifically mandates layoffs to be made in reverse seniority order, also known as “first in, last out.” Pennsylvania is one of six states that calls for this to be the sole factor in school layoff decisions.

It’s unclear how the legislature could pass a law that contradicts the school code without specifically voting to alter the code which governs the Commonwealth’s public schools.

Moreover, it may be illegal on several additional counts. Public school districts have work contracts with their teachers unions. The state can’t jump in and void those contracts between two independent parties when both agreed to the terms of those contracts. Not unless there was some legal precedent or unconstitutionality or violation of human rights or SOMETHING!

Get our your pocketbooks, Pennsylvanians. If this law is somehow enacted, you’re going to be paying for years of court challenges.

And speaking of flushing money down the toilet, the law also allows school districts to furlough employees for financial reasons. At present, layoffs are allowed only when enrollment drops or by cutting programs wholesale.

This is especially troubling given the legislature’s failure the past four years to fairly fund its public schools. Ninety percent of school districts have had to cut staff in recent years, either through attrition or furlough, according to the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

So this law makes it easier to rob poorer schools of funding. If it were enacted, districts could fire teachers and reduce programs to pinch pennies. Now they are constrained to keep the highest possible level of quality for students regardless of funding shortfalls. This puts them at odds with the legislature and forces them to demand fair funding for their districts. Under this new law, school boards could more easily ensure that some students get a higher quality education than others in the same district!

Oh! We increased class size for the struggling students (most of whom are poor and minorities) but decreased it for the advanced classes (most of whom are rich and white).

Finally, we get to the issue of viability. Will the state Senate pass this bill?

Maybe.

The House passed it without a single Democrat voting in favor. The Senate is likewise controlled by the GOP. However, Gov. Tom Wolf is a Democrat and has said he’s against it. Seniority issues, he said, should be negotiated through the local collective bargaining process.

So once again we have partisan politics reigning over our public schools – Republicans actively trying to sabotage our public schools and fire their way to the top! Democrats vainly trying to hold the line.

Couldn’t we all just agree to value our public schools and public school teachers?

Or at very least couldn’t we all agree to give others the same benefits we demand for ourselves?

You know. Things like seniority!

The Only Teaching Evaluation That Matters

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“Yes, my writing got a lot better than what I was, and I love writing now. And you pushed me to do better. Not a lot of teachers push their students, some teachers don’t care about their students.”

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One of my 8th graders wrote that to me on the last day of school.

I had asked her class to fill out an anonymous survey about my teaching. I said that all year I get to grade THEM, but this was their chance to grade ME.

I made sure to explain that they didn’t need to put their names on it. This would not be graded. Spelling and grammar didn’t count. The only thing I wanted was honesty.

I told them I wouldn’t personally collect the surveys. They should NOT hand them to me; they should put them in a pile on the desk by the door when they leave. I promised I wouldn’t even look at what they’d written until class was over. That way they could feel free to write whatever they wanted. If I did something bad or there was some way I could improve, I wanted them to tell me. If I did something exceptionally well, they should tell me that, too.

“Please help me become a better teacher,” I said.

As an 8th grade public school educator, I get evaluated a lot. I’ve spent countless hours gathering evidence that I’m “proficient” at my job.

I’ve had to endure formal observations, informal observations, H.E.A.T. observations, Student Learning Objectives (SLOs), written explanations of specific lessons with appeals to which Common Core standards I would be teaching – and there always seems to be a new one added to this list next year.

But I’ve been giving a version of this simple student survey to my classes on the last day of school for over a decade.

It’s not something I’m required to do. I don’t share the results with administration. The responses don’t go on file, increase my pay or get recorded in the newspaper. They don’t become part of the district’s ranking in the Business Times. No one is going to withhold funding from my district or close my building and convert it into a charter school based on these results. No one ever will be on television decrying the state of public education referencing these surveys. They are low stakes, class-based, teacher-centered and personal.

But I do this because I think it actually gives me useful information. I really want to know what my students think. That’s one of the things that truly drives my instruction. Not politically motivated standards monetarily incentivized and adopted before they were even completely written. Not standardized tests that measure little more than parental income. Not the latest fad handed down by the superintendent. Not a threat shouted at us through an email or at a faculty meeting.

No. I’m motivated by my kids in the classroom and the answer to the question, “Have I helped you learn?”

The survey is quite simple really. It’s two-sided.

On the front page are 5 multiple choice questions:

1) The amount of written homework I had in this class was                             in my other classes.

A) much more than
B) Somewhat more than
C) The same as
D) Somewhat less than
E) Much less than

2) The amount of reading I had in this class was                                in my other classes.

A) much more than
B) Somewhat more than
C) The same as
D) Somewhat less than
E) Much less than

3) The amount of studying I did for this class was                                 in my other classes.

A) much more than
B) Somewhat more than
C) The same as
D) Somewhat less than
E) Much less than

4) I received                                    instruction and comments on my written work.

A) much more than enough
B) Somewhat more than enough
C) Just enough
D) Somewhat less than enough
E) Much less than enough

5) In this class, I learned                                         in my other classes.

A) much more than
B) Somewhat more than
C) The same as
D) Somewhat less than
E) Much less than

When it comes to homework, students almost always say I give too much. The majority (68%) gave me an A or B.

I only require about an hour of extra-class work a week. I don’t think that’s too bad. However, many teachers give less or none. I go back and forth on the value of homework, myself, but I know that once my students get to 9th grade, they’ll have a tremendous load of it. I figure if I don’t prepare them for that, I’m doing them a disservice. So an avalanche of (one hour a week) homework it remains.

Likewise, kids often say I give a lot of reading. A language arts class should give a substantial amount of reading. So I’m glad most kids (69%) give me an A or B. I require my students to read one self-selected book a month. I don’t think that’s too burdensome. If the book is too tough or boring – hey! You picked it! Pick another one. I also provide them with 15 minutes per day to read in class.

Studying is not something I emphasize. But students are almost evenly divided whether I require too much, just enough or too little. I’m not big on having kids memorize something and then regurgitate that on a test. I’d rather spend time getting them to take good notes that they can use on the test. I’m a big fan of open notes or open book tests. But I hardly ever use the word “Test.” I give frequent short quizzes. I think tests (and even quizzes) are limited evaluation tools. I’d much rather assign a multi-day project. That tells me much more than a brief snapshot of what students were thinking at any one given point in time.

I do assign a lot of essays so I’m always anxious to know if I’ve given enough written feedback. The research seems to show that if you mark every error on an essay, you get diminishing returns. You discourage students. So instead I try to focus on a few trouble areas we’ve already discussed per essay. And students seem to appreciate it. Most of my kids (85%) gave me an A or B or C in this area.

Then comes the cumulative question. How much did you learn? I used to have my classes assign me a letter grade A-E. However, answers were all over the place. When I compared the results with surveys from students who had revealed their identities, I found that kids usually gave me the same grade they received in my class. A-students gave me As. C-students gave me Cs, and so on.

When I changed the question to “how much have you learned?” the results changed drastically. Most students (84%) gave me an A or B. Yes, that’s the result I’m aiming for, but I think it’s a more honest answer, too. It doesn’t focus on grades. It focuses on each child’s assessment of his or her own progress. That’s really what I want to know.

But this side of the survey still provides very limited answers. It is multiple choice, after all. It’s useful for a brief overview but not very deep.

The second side of my questionnaire only has two open-ended queries. Students can write as much or as little as they want to the following questions:

6) What did your teacher do especially well this year to help you succeed?

7) In what areas can your teacher improve his/her instruction?

To be honest, when looking at the surveys, I usually skip right to these questions. This is what I want to see – not a bunch of alphabet soup. I want to know what they really think.

What have I done well? Here are some answers from this year’s kids:

-He understood the learning abilities of certain students and helped them to the best of his ability.

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-You made it hard so that we would have to work for the grade.

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-Before we could ask him for help, he asked us if we needed help. He’d help everyone, even the person who didn’t ask for it.

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-He was really good at explaining and pushed me to never give up. Therefore, Mr. Singer is one of my favorite teachers.

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-Well, I didn’t like as much work as he was giving us, but then I understood he was trying to help us with our grades and trying to make our grades higher.

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-Always explained stuff good in class. He was always giving good instructions.

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-He helped me as much as I needed and made things easier to prepare for high school.

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-He helped me understand the concept of simile and metaphor (which I understand now)

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-What my teacher especially helped me do to succeed is writing essays.

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I was just floored by these responses. Talk about data I can use! But there was one answer that stood out above even these:

-He helped me learn what I needed to do and he helped me by being a mockingbird because I think he tried his best to teach me what I needed to be taught.

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No, she wasn’t literally calling me a bird. She was relating me to our last novel – To Kill a Mockingbird. In the text, some characters are innocent victims. They try to help others but come under fire because of it. The author, Harper Lee, symbolizes them as “mockingbirds.” These include: Tom Robinson, the black man wrongly accused of rape; Atticus Finch, the lawyer standing up for a fair trial despite social criticism; Arthur “Boo” Radely, the recluse who saved lives at the expense of his privacy.

And here my sweet little student was including ME in this venerable list!

That choked me up a bit I can tell you.

When it comes to areas for improvement, my students aren’t the most forthcoming. Answers include:

-I don’t think he needs to because he already does his best to teach us kids what we need to be taught and his instruction is easy to understand.

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-None. He was the best teacher! 🙂

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I appreciate the approbation but I wouldn’t mind constructive criticism. I do get complaints about the amount of homework and writing I assign. I also get requests for more free time.

I think if I wasn’t in the room when students took the survey, I might get more criticism. Ideally, I would leave the room for the last 15 minutes of the class, and kids could fill out their surveys. However, this is impractical. I don’t see how I could arrange it given the current climate, lack of subs and skeleton crew staff.

These surveys have given me much to think about over the summer. Maybe I should try to include more group work in next year’s class. Maybe I should revisit the homework situation.

But as June turns to July and then August, I know I’ll be thinking about all that happened this school year.

Some kids came in and out of shelters and juvenile detention. Some were present at a shooting at the local mall. Parents and I had to fight administration over valuing standardized test scores over classroom grades for student placement. The School board enacted a pointless student uniform policy. Students were demoralized and angry over national racial tensions involving Michael Brown, Eric Garner and the Baltimore uprising. Teachers had an active shooter drill for the first time as part of our professional development.

But most of all I’ll think about my students – well, no longer mine – off to the high school and bigger, better things.

For a brief moment I was an important part of their lives and they were an important part of mine. I’ll forget their names. (It’s like my mind is making space for the new ones I’ll have to learn.) But I’ll never forget their struggles and triumphs.

It’s easy to lose sight with all the privatizers and standardizers trying to dismantle our public schools. But even with all the political nonsense, selfishness and small-mindedness, teaching is the best job in the world.

Yes, it really is!

Every day I get a chance to positively impact dozens of lives!

I am truly blessed.

That’s what these surveys tell me.

And that’s why they’re the only evaluation that really matters.


NOTE: Here is a copy of the survey I use in class.

Student Survey

-This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Data Abuse – When Transient Kids Fall Through the Cracks of Crunched Numbers

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I was teaching my classes.

I was grading assignments.

I was procrastinating.

I should have been working on my class rosters.

My principals wanted me to calculate percentages for every student I had taught that year and submit them to the state.

How long had each student been in my grade book? What percentage of the year was each learner in my class before they took their standardized tests?

If I didn’t accurately calculate this in the next few days, the class list generated by the computer would become final, and my evaluation would be affected.

But there I was standing before my students doing nothing of any real value – teaching.

I was instructing them in the mysteries of subject-verb agreement. We were designing posters about the Civil Rights movement. I was evaluating their work and making phone calls home.

You know – goofing off.

I must not have been the only one. Kids took a half-day and the district let us use in-service time to crunch our numbers.

Don’t get me wrong. We weren’t left to the wolves. Administrators were very helpful gathering data, researching exact dates for students entering the building and/or transferring schools. Just as required by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

But it was in the heat of all this numerological chaos that I saw something in the numbers no one else seemed to be looking for.

Many of my students are transients. An alarming number of my kids haven’t been in my class the entire year. They either transferred in from another school, transferred out, or moved into my class from another one.

A few had moved from my academic level course to the honors level Language Arts class. Many more had transferred in from special education courses.

In total, these students make up 44% of my roster.

“Isn’t that significant?” I wondered.

I poked my head in to another teacher’s room.

“How many transient students are on your roster?” I asked.

She told me. I went around from room-to-room asking the same question and comparing the answers.

A trend emerged.

Most teachers who presided over lower level classes (like me) had about the same percentage of transients – approximately 40%. Teachers who taught the advanced levels had a much lower amount – 10% or below.

Doesn’t that mean something?

Imagine if you were giving someone simple instructions. Let’s say you were trying to tell someone how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But in the middle of your instruction, a student has to leave the room and go right next door where someone is already in the middle of trying to explain how to do the same thing.

Wouldn’t that affect how well a student learned?

If someone was trying to give me directions how to get somewhere under those circumstances, I’m willing to bet I’d get lost.

And this assumes the break between Teacher A and Teacher B is minimal, the instruction is disrupted at the same point and both teachers are even giving instruction on the exact same topics.

None of that is usually true.

I did some more digging. Across the entire building, 20% of our students left the district in the course of this school year. About 17% entered mid-year. So at least 37% of our students were transients. That’s 130 children.

The trend holds district wide. Some schools have more or less transients, but across the board 35% – 40% of our students pop in and out over the year.

Taking an even broader view, student mobility is a national problem. Certainly the percentage of student transience varies from district to district, but it is generally widespread.

Nationally, about 13 percent of students change schools four or more times between kindergarten and eighth grade, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office analysis. One-third of fourth graders, 19 percent of eighth graders, and 10 percent of twelfth graders changed schools at least once over two years, according to the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP).

And it gets worse if we look at it over a student’s entire elementary or secondary career. In fact, more students moved than remained in a single school, according to a national longitudinal study of eighth graders.

This problem is even more widespread among poor and minority students. The type of school is also a factor. Large, predominantly minority, urban school districts attract the most student mobility. In Chicago public schools, for instance, only about 47 percent of students remained in the same school over a four-year period. Fifteen percent of the schools lost at least 30 percent of their students in only one year.

And this has adverse affects on children both academically and psychologically.

Several studies at both the elementary and secondary levels conclude student mobility decreases test scores and increases the drop out rate.

A 1990s Baltimore study found, “each additional move” was associated with a .11 standard deviation in reading achievement. A similar 1990s Chicago study concluded that students with four or more moves had a .39 standard deviation. Highly mobile students were as much as four months behind their peers academically in fourth grade and as much as a full year behind by sixth grade, according to a 1993 Chicago study by David Kerbow.

It just makes sense. These students have to cope with starting over – fitting in to a new environment. They have to adjust to new peers and social requirements.

Moreover, transients have an increased likelihood of misbehaving and participating in violence. After all, it’s easier to act out in front of strangers.

What causes this problem? Most often it is due to parental job insecurity.

Parents can’t keep employment or jobs dry up resulting in the need to move on to greener pastures.

In my own district, one municipality we serve is mostly made up of low-cost housing, apartments and slums. It is a beacon  for mobility. Few people who haven’t lived here their whole lives put down roots. We’re just another stop on a long and winding road.

“We should be doing something about this,” I thought.

Our legislators should help promote job security. We should make it easier to afford quality housing. We should try to encourage new-comers to become part of the community instead of remain eternal outsiders.

At our schools, we need resources to help this population make the necessary adjustments. We should encourage them to participate in extra-curricular activities, provide counseling and wraparound services.

But we don’t do any of that.

Instead, we gather mountains of data.

We sort and sift, enter it into a computer and press “submit.”

And off it goes to the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System (PVAAS).

We don’t use it to help kids.

We use it to blame school teachers for things beyond their control.

Data has value but that doesn’t mean all data is valuable.

We need to know what we’re looking for, what it means and how to use it to make our world a better place.

Otherwise it’s just a waste of precious class time.

And an excuse to continue ignoring all the children who fall through the cracks.


NOTE: This article also was published on the LA School Report and the Badass Teachers Association blog.