Thursday, July 31, 2014

Two Bronx Students Talk About Their Schools and the School To Prison Pipeline


  Yesterday, I met with more than an hour with two Bronx high school students in a great Fordham program called "The History Makers" to answer their questions about the School to Prison Pipeline.  After I answered several questions they posed about drug policies, school discipline, race and class biases in law enforcement,  and Michell Alexander's book "The New Jim Crow" the conversation turned to their own school experiences.  What they said left me deeply depressed about what inner city students and students of color experience in all too many New York City public schools and charter schools.
 Each of these young people attend a high school that is co-located in a building with many other schools, and their description of school conditions was a telling indictment of the "small schools movement" that was one key component of Gates financed school reform several years ago ( the young woman's school was in the Northeast Bronx; the young man's school was in the South Bronx near Yankee Stadium).  They described schools which lacked access to gyms, theaters, art rooms and music facilities, thereby making it impossible to have quality arts programs as part of regularly daily activities and which had teams that met after school, but provided no daily or even weekly physical activity. Their school days consisted of a cycle classes and tests unbroken by anything which was enjoyable or made room for student creativity. They asked me "Do you think conditions like this encourage students to drop out of school and support the school to prison pipeline?"  I could only answer "Yes."
  They then described a stifling atmosphere of zero toleranace discipline policies. The young woman's school had metal detectors ( which she described as humiliaing every student in her building); the young man's did not  but both schools appeared to literally suspend students at the drop of a hat.  You could get suspended at the young womans school for having highlights in your hair or wearing hoop earings; in both schools, talking back to a teacher was a suspendable offense. The young man had been suspended, the young woman hadn't, but each had friends who been suspended so many times that they dropped out of school.  They were enraged at how students in their schools were treated on a daily basis and I suggested they read a great book a former student ( Kathleen Nolan) had written called "Police in the Schools," set in a North Bronx high school that had been subdivided into several schools.
  They then went on to complain that that anything enjoyable in their schools, from after school programs, to school trips, required students to put out their own money to participate in, thereby limiting participation.  They described their schools as obsessed with academics, test scores and graduation rates to the exclusion of the things that might make students feel comfortable or actually enjoy their school experience.  They were grateful for the opportunity to be prepared for college, but the price they were paying seemed very high, and they were appalled at how many of their classmates had rebelled against the stifling atmosphere ad had dropped out.
  When the conversation ended, i felt tremendous admiration for these two young people and also a profound disappointment that they had been deprived of so many of the things that should be part of any child's school experience- arts, music, exercise,  respectful treatment and freedom from institutionalized harassment by teachers, administrators, and school security.
  "What you describe should be called 'The Prison to Prison Pipeline'"   I told them as they prepared to leave. They agreed.
   We hugged and promised to stay in touch
   I am still angry at what they have to endure.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Arne Duncan Drops in Unexpectedly on Meeting With BATS at US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights and Gets an Earful!

   On July 28, 2014, following the  BAT Rally outside the US Department of Education, a delegation of BATS went up to  the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights to share some of the main issues that BATS had with  Department Policy.  Representing the BATS were Marla Kilfoyle, General Manager of BATS. Dr Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University, Chicago BAM (Badass Moms) leader  Shoneice Reynolds and her son Asean Johnson, Tennessee BAT leader Larry Proffitt, and Dr Mark Naison, co founder of BATS. The meeting had been set up by Marla Kilfoyle through an official of the Department of Education’s Office of Communications.

  Arne Duncan was not originally scheduled to attend the meeting, but dropped in unexpectedly in the middle. What follows  is my  account of the meeting, including the dialogue with Mr. Duncan, along with and some reflections on what it all means.  How much of what transpired will lead to further communication and action, and how much represented a “smoke and mirrors” game by officials of the Department remains to be seen.

   After going through security, we were escorted to a conference room in the
US Ed Department’s Office of Civil Rights, where we were met by 9 people, including a senior staff member of the Office of Civil Rights, Robert Kim, who chaired the meeting, along with staff members from the Offices of Communications and Community Outreach and several student interns with the Department.  Mr Kim, who chaired the meeting, was very cordial and asked us if we could present our major concerns, saying he hoped we could find areas of agreement as well as areas where we disagreed, and that a dialogue could  develop which would hopefully continue after the meetings.

    When Mr. Kim asked if someone would present the groups major concerns, I stepped forward, I decided to do so in a manner which would focus attention  on Department of Education policies that  maximized educational  inequality and violated the civil rights of students, parents and teachers in inner city and working class communities.   Using my own experiences in the Bronx as a reference point, I said that BATS were deeply concerned with how Race to the Top Policies, which required rating schools and teachers on the basis of student test scores, closing allegedly “failing schools,” and  preferring charter schools over public schools had the following consequences:

    Leading  teachers in vulnerable neighborhoods to “teach to the test” to the detriment of activities which fostered student creativity.
   Leading to the use of recess time, gym time, and after school time to test prep, maximizing health problems in poor and working class neighborhoods
    Leading the mass firing of veteran teachers and a sharp decline in the percentage of teachers of color on many cities.
     Leading to the destabilization of neighborhoods and the smothering of parent, teacher and student voices in the shaping of education policy.
     Leading to the demonization of public school teachers and their being blamed for everything from the achievement gap for the persistence of poverty and inequality.
     Leading to the best young teachers leaving  the profession prematurely

     The irony here, I said, was that these policies, promoted with  Civil Rights rhetoric, were riding roughshod over the Civil Rights of residents of inner city communities.  I asked for a two year moratorium on all these policies- no more school closings, no more VAM, no more charter school creation- and a new effort by the US Department Education to have teachers voices have a primary role in shaping Department policy rather than business leaders.

       My remarks appeared to catch many of the officials there by surprise. Several agreed with what I was saying; others tried to defend Department of Education policies and say states were ultimately responsible for the abuses I was describing
        The points of agreement expressed by Department of Education officials who spoke up were on the following issues:

 Need to reverse the declining percentage of teachers or color
Need to stop best young teachers from leaving the profession
 Need to stop use of recess and gym for test prep
Need to end demonization of teachers by public officials

    However, several of the officials, while agreeing that we needed to address the above problems insisted that school closings, charter school preferences, and the use of test scores to rate teachers and schools were not the sources of those problems

  As this point, Shoneice Reynolds, Asean Johnson, and Larry Proffitt entered the conversation forcefully and eloquently.  Shoneice and Asean talked in depth about how  in Chicago, community schools were first  starved, then closed and charter schools put in their place, smothering and stifling parent voices, depriving children of great neighborhood schools, and making Chicago neighborhoods more dangerous.   They gave example after example of one great program after another being eliminated in public schools, while charter schools were created which were often limited in their programming and abusive in their discipline policies.
Larry Profitt described how rating teachers on the basis of test scores was driving the best teachers out of the profession in almost every school district in Tenneessee and were severely constricting the curriculum.  Both put the blame squarely on the US Department of Education for promoting policies which led to those destructive consequences and for promoting rhetoric which demonized teachers.
       Right in the middle of both of these conversations, Arne Duncan walked in and introduced himself! Needless to say, we were surprised because we were told he would NOT be at the meeting.  Especially since he entered, along with one of his top aides,  just as things were starting to get heated and real disagreements were emerging.
      Secretary Duncan after  introducing himself,  and saying that he could only stay for a few minutes, asked for two things; first if  we could articulate our concerns about the Department’s policies on dealing with Special needs students, and secondly, if Shoneice and Asean could step out with him to talk about what was going on in Chicago.
      In response to his first comment, Marla Kilfoyle started speaking about her concerns about Department from her standpoint of the parent of a special needs student as well as a teacher. She said it appeared that Department policies  were forcing school districts to disregard individual student IEP’s and exposing special needs students to inappropriate and abusive levels of testing.
       Secretary Duncan deflected her remarks by saying that the Department was concerned that too many children of color were being inappropriately diagnosed as being Special Needs children  and that once they were put in that category they were permanently marginalized. He then said “We want to make sure that all student are exposed to a rigorous curriculum.”
        At that point, I interrupted him in a very loud voice and said “ We don’t like the word ‘rigor.” We prefer to talk about creativity and maximizing students potential.”
        Secretary Duncan was someone taken aback by my comments. He said “ we might disagree about the language, but what I want is for all students to be able to take advanced placement courses or be exposed to an IB (International Baccalaureat) curriculum
       At this point, Larry Proffitt interrupted the Secretary  and said that in Tennessee, Special Needs students were being abused and humiliated by abusive and inappropriate testing and that their teachers knew this, and were afraid to speak out.
       We were clearly at an impasse here, which the Secretary dealt with by saying he had to leave and asking Shoneice and Asean to step into the hall with him and continue the conversation.
        The rest of us in the room were all now  pretty confused and more than a little upset.  However, Robert Kim spoke up and said that the rest of the DOE staff were ready to spend up to a half an hour more continuing the conversation, and hopefully we could develop some consensus on areas of agreement and ways of continuing the dialogue.
    Now, things started to get really interesting!  The woman from the Communications office who hadn’t previously spoken up, said that she was concerned about how angry teachers were at the Department since because it was her experience that every time Secretary Duncan travelled to a new city, he met with teachers to hear their concerns.   I then said, perhaps impolitely, that the Secretary fueled teacher mistrust  by making statement after statement showing disrespect for teachers, from his support of the firings of Central Falls Rhode Island teachers in 2009, to his comments on Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans public schools, to his support of Cathy Black for NYC school chancellor, to his recent endorsement of the Vergara decision undermining teacher due process.    “Maybe if you can tell him to stop making provocative comments like these,” I said, “maybe teachers will regard the Department more favorably.”
  At this point, Dr Yohuru Williams chimed in with a suggestion for how the Department could genuinely welcome teacher voices- calling a “National Teachers Congress”- where teachers from all over the country could come together to frankly express their concerns about Department of Education policies.  He added “those teachers can’t be handpicked to say what the Department wants to hear, they have to be democratically  selected.”  His suggestion was discussed for several minutes and the Communication directors promised to give it serious consideration. This was one of the few talking points in the meeting from which there might be some serious follow up
    After this the director of Community outreach and one of the interns started critiquing our perspective that federal policies were driving the best teachers out of the profession, stifling creativity in the classroom, and leading to a decline in teachers of color.  In doing so they  started defending school  closings and VAM, asking us whether  there were any circumstances under which schools should be close and whether there was any method of evaluating teachers that did not rely on student test scores.
     At this point, Dr Williams spoke up, saying that in Connecticut, the suppression of community voices in cities like Bridgeport by unelected school boards was being justified by arguments that mayoral control was supported, if not required Race to the Top, and that similar dynamics were at play in Hartford and New London.  “Does the US Department of Education support real democracy in education decision making,” Dr. Williams he asked?”
     They two officials had no real answer to what Dr Wiliams was saying and deflected attention from his critique by insisting that we needed to hold teachers accountable by student test scores because there was no other way of making sure teachers took every student seriously and helped all of them reach their full potential.
     Now things started to get really heated. Larry Proffitt said that teaching to the test is not real teaching and to have students full potential unleashed , you needed teachers to give them individual attention and kinds of in depth instruction and inspiration that no bubble test could measure.  I said VAM was a disaster, along with the rest of  Race to the Top and we need a two year moratorium on test based teacher evaluation.
      Robert Kim then entered as a peacemaker and said “how can we keep this discussion going?”. We said, call us back. We are glad to continue a discussion about how to best get teacher voices more input into Department policy, how to find forms of assessing teacher quality that do not depend on student test scores, and how to attract and retain more great teachers, especially teachers of color. 
    Mr. Kim and the two Communications office said they would find ways of keeping the conversation going, and then called an end to the meeting.
     We left the meeting feeling that we had spoken frankly, that we had been heard, that some people agreed with our main points, while others disagreed. 
      However, nothing concrete had been achieved. There were no policy changes that anyone had agreed to and certainly no overall agreement to reverse the directions of Race to the Top.
       There were a few small glimmers of hope at the end of the meeting. Mr Kim, the top Civil Rights official ,  came up to me after the meeting and said that he really liked our group, that he would try to find ways of keeping the conversation going, and that he would like to meet with me the next time he came to New York. I agreed to remain in communications with him.  Through the entire meeting, he had been respectful, helpful and astute.
     Then, after everyone else left, another staff member from the Office of Civil Rights came up to me and said he really liked what we had to say. What could their office do right now to help us?   I thought a second and said to him “ Investigate charter school abuses. All over the nation, unregulated charters are employing disciplinary practices and expelling students in ways which would not be acceptable in a public school. If your office would start investigating such practices as civil rights violations, it would make a huge difference.”
      He smiled at me and said “Thanks for the suggestion. I will look into it.”
      His response gave me a glimmer of hope that some of the ten plus people in that room were on the same page as BATS on a few issues, even though the Secretary was clearly unmoved by anything we said.
     We spoke truth to power, without fear and without compromise.
      Whether we will be called back to continue the conversation only time will tell.



Friday, July 25, 2014

BATS- Finding a Teacher Voice

If there is a single contribution that BATS has made in the one year of its existence, it is to show the powers that be that public school teachers- in all their diversity and variety-- are not a silent, compliant group who can be demonized, standardized, scripted, deprived of due process, and forced to commit professional malpractice at the expense of the students and families they serve without speaking up, fighting back and ultimately organizing to replace the people responsible for these soul destroying policies. Together, we have found a teacher voice that is loud, but also compassionate and prophetic. Thank you all, for making this possible. It has truly been a collective effort and a labor of love ^0^0^0^

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Four Reasons Why I Am Pumped Up About the BATS March on Washington

1. It is a celebration of the creativity of public school teachers, parents and students as well as a protest with songs, plays, flash mobs, banners, poems and chants. What it is NOT, is a litany of boring speeches.
2. It is a multiracial event which show cases our movement's growing strength in the inner city, with speakers highlighting protests against corporate school reform in Chicago, Newark, Philadelphia and Washington DC. We have speakers from the Badass Moms of Chicago, from the Newark Student Union, from parents groups in Philadelphia along choruses and theater groups from Akron and Washington DC.
3. We have a full day of leadership training the day before the March which includes workshops on blogging, on labor history, on how to run for union and public office, on how to deal with issues of race, and privilege within our movement.
4. This is an entirely self funded event, with all money raised through a Go-Fund Me site, We have not accepted grants from any foundation, publisher, business or union.
If you like what you hear, come join us at the US Department of Education in Washington on Monday, July 28, from 10 AM to 5 PM!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Five Ways to Tell Whether the Charter School Near You Sucks

There are some excellent charter schools in NY and around the nation. I am not attacking them. However, all too many charter schools have the following characteristics

1. Over paid "CEO's" who take pride in their dictatorial management style.
2. Terrorized teacher temps who have no union protection 
3. Student disciplinary policies which draw heavily upon shame and humiliation
4, Systematic weeding out of students who test poorly, especially ELL and Special Needs students.
5. Politically connected boards of directors who tolerate fiscal abuse, and in some cases benefit from it directly.

Poor and working class communities throughout the nation have been deluged with these schools in the last ten years, in part because favoritism towards them has been national policy under the Obama Administration, with the enthusiastic support of Republican elected officials. 

The results in terms of test scores, college entrance, or any other so called objective measure, do not justify the investment, much less the collateral damage that charter school favoritism has brought with it.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

New York Now Leads the Way in the Movement Against Common Core- At The Polls

  Something truly extraordinary has happened in the New York State Gubernatorial race-something with broad national implications.  A big money Democratic Governor, Andrew Cuomo, who thought he was going to make himself a front runner in the 2016 Presidential Race by ramming through legislation requiring teacher evaluations based on Common Core aligned tests, has generated so much opposition among teachers and parents that there are now three different Gubernatorial candidates who oppose Common Core- the Republican candidate, Rob Astorino, the Green Party candidate, Howie Hawkins, and the new and quite formidable challenger in the Democratic Primary, Zephyr Teachout.

   There are two reasons this situation is "game changer"

   First, it shows how much opposition to Common Core is emerging  across the political spectrum.  For the last year, Common Core supporters in the media, the corporate world, and the US Department of Education have tried to portray Common Core opponents as extremists whose views should be rejected out of hand, but the what we have in New York is a mainstream Republican, a strong candidate on the left, and a liberal Democrat all saying that Common Core is untested, undemocratic and a threat to strong, locally controlled public schools.  And this position is going to be put forward strongly from now until election day. Even if Andrew Cuomo wins the Democratic primary, he will be facing two strong anti-Common Core voices in the general election.

   Secondly, Zephyr Teachout's primary challenge to Andrew Cuomo shows that powerful, Wall Street financed Democratic politicians pushing Corporate School reform no longer can no longer be sure that their positions will go unchallenged and their jobs will be secure.  Anti-testing activism is now moving into the heart of the Democratic Party, and Democratic politicians like Rahm Emmanuel, Andrew Cuomo, and Dannel Malloy can no longer be sure their big money donors assure their political future.   Even the leaders of the national teachers unions have finally, thanks to their enraged membership, gotten the courage to challenge the Obama administration's education policies.  Ras Baraka's election as Mayor of Newark over a Wall Street financed Democrat was a first sign of Corporate Reform Democrats losing their vice grip on the party; Teachout's primary challenge is a second, and if Karen Jennings Lewis decides to challenge Rahm Emmanuel in Chicago, maybe, just maybe, the national Democratic party will get the message that its education policies are a disaster.

   What does all this mean?

   That anti-Common Core voters in New York, now have candidates reflecting their views in the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and in third party movements, and do not have to vote against their conscience on other issues to oppose Common Core and the top down, elite financed, coercive approach to School Reform it represents.

   And that bodes well for the future of public education in the United States

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Teacher Temps and Computer Tenders Can't Move Children Out of Poverty

One of the things I am most worried about in the rush to on line learning and disposable teacher temps is the elimination of relationship building and mentoring, which in my experience, is key in having education move people out of poverty and promote upward mobility.

When you grow up poor, there are many skills other than strictly academic ones you have to learn to bring resources into your family and community, or if you choose, to move into the middle class. Teachers and coaches who go the extra mile for their students- especially those who remain in their jobs for a long time- play a critical role in imparting these skills

One of the best examples of comes from a great Brooklyn based baseball organization called Youth Service League, which my son Eric played for, and produced many major league players. The head of the league Mel Zitter, realized early on that the vast majority of his players came from working class Latino families who had little experience with the world their children would enter if they went to college or played professional baseball. So one of the things that Mel raised money to do was have his older teams stay in hotels and eat in sit down restaurants when they were travelling to other cities. He also had them meet with major league players who had come out of Youth Service to talk about what off the field adjustments they had to make. That way, when his players went off to college or were drafted ( Mel got junior college scholarships for almost all his players) they would be prepared to interact with people who came from much wealthier families, would not be intimidated, and could concentrate on what they needed to do in the classroom and on the field.

If we are going to do something to unfreeze upward mobility in this country and have public schools help lift young people out of poverty, we need teachers and coaches who can do the kind of things Mel Zitter did for his players, Teacher temps and computer tenders can't do that.

A Comment Which Reinforces the Argument in the Post

Pamela Lewis Even inside a real live classroom, that mentorship is becoming lost. We are timed down to the minute for each section of the lesson. Even our "mini lesson," a term I always found to be funny, is being shortened. At most, during the 11 years I have been teaching, we couldn't teach for more than 10-15 minutes. Now teaching 10 minutes is too long if u don't break and have the kids talk or answer questions during that time. I understand the push for discussion and student autonomy but the teacher in the room is supposed to be invisible these days. So many kids I have taught need me in the room, need my love, my wit, my face. We all know how much more we are than instructors. I've often been told that I'm the mother someone's never had, so how smart is it to make such a person invisible?