The Stink of Segregation Needs to End in Steel Valley Schools

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I am a teacher at Steel Valley Schools.

 

I am also an education blogger.

 

In order to belong to both worlds, I’ve had to abide by one ironclad rule that I’m about to break:

 

Never write about my home district.

 

Oh, I write about issues affecting my district. I write about charter schools, standardized testing, child poverty, etc. But I rarely mention how these things directly impact my school, my classroom, or my students.

 

I change the names to protect the innocent or gloss over the specifics with ambiguity.

 

In six years, it’s a maxim I’ve disregarded maybe once before – when writing specifically about how charter schools are gobbling up Steel Valley.

 

Today I’ll set it aside once more – specifically to talk about the insidious school segregation at work in Steel Valley elementary schools.

 
But let me be clear about one thing – I do this not because I want to needlessly agitate school board members, administrators or community members.

 

I do it because the district has specifically asked for input from stakeholders – and for the first time in years, teachers (even those living outside district boundaries) have been included in that designation.

 

School directors held a town hall meeting in October where 246 people crowded into the high school auditorium to present their views.

 

Last week there was a meeting with teachers and administrators to discuss the same matter.

 

I didn’t say anything at either gathering though I had many thoughts circling my head.

 

Instead I have decided to commit them here to my blog.

 

Maybe no one will read them.

 

Maybe that would even be best. I know that no matter what invitations are publicly presented, in private what I write could be used against me.

 

Yet I feel compelled to say it anyway.

 

So here goes.

 

Something stinks in Steel Valley School District.

 

It’s not the smell of excrement or body odor.

 

It’s a metaphysical stink like crime or poverty.

 

But it’s neither of those.

 

It’s school segregation.

 

To put it bluntly, we have two elementary schools – one mostly for white kids and one mostly for black kids.

 

Our district is located on a steep hill with Barrett Elementary at the bottom and the other schools – Park Elementary, the middle and high school – at the top.

 

The student population at Barrett Elementary in Homestead is 78% black. The student population at Park Elementary in Munhall is 84% white.

 

These schools serve students from K-4th grade. By 5th grade they are integrated once again when they all come to the middle school and then the high school. There the mix is about 40% black to 60% white.

 

But having each group start their education in distinctly segregated fashion has long lasting effects.

 

By and large, black students don’t do as well academically as white students. This is due partially to how we assess academic achievement – through flawed and biased standardized tests. But even if we look solely at classroom grades and graduation rates, black kids don’t do as well as the white ones.

 

Maybe it has something to do with the differences in services we provide at each elementary school. Maybe it has to do with the resources we allocate to each school. Maybe it has something to do with how modern each building is, how new the textbooks, the prevalence of extracurricular activities, tutoring and support each school provides.

 

But it also has to do with the communities these kids come from and the needs they bring with them to school. It has something to do with the increasing need for special education services especially for children growing up in poverty. It has something to do with the need for structure lacking in home environments, the need for safety, for counseling, for proper nutrition and medical services.

 

No one group has a monopoly on need. But one group has greater numbers in need and deeper hurts that require healing. And that group is the poor.

 

According to 2017 Census data, around 27% of our Steel Valley children live in poverty – much more than the Allegheny County average of 17% or the Pennsylvania average of 18%.

 

And of those poor children, many more are children of color.

 

Integrating our schools, alone, won’t solve this problem.

 

Putting children under one roof is an important step, but we have to ensure they get what they need under that roof. Money and resources that flow to white schools can almost as easily be diverted to white classes in the same building. Equity and need must be addressed together.

 

However, we must recognize that one of those things our children need is each other.

 

Integration isn’t good just because it raises test scores. It’s good because it teaches our children from an early age what the world really looks like. It teaches them that we’re all human. It teaches tolerance, acceptance and love of all people – and that’s a lesson the white kids need perhaps more than the black kids need help with academics.

 

I say this from experience.

 

I grew up in nearby McKeesport – a district very similar to Steel Valley economically, racially and culturally.

 

I am the product of integrated schools and have benefited greatly from that experience. My daughter goes to McKeesport and likewise benefits from growing up in that inclusive environment.

 

I could have enrolled her elsewhere. But I didn’t because I value integration.

 

So when Mary Niederberger wrote her bombshell article in Public Source about the segregated Steel Valley elementary schools, I was embarrassed like everyone else.

 

But I wasn’t shocked.

 
To be frank, none of us were shocked.

 

We all knew about the segregation problem at the elementaries. Anyone who had been to them and can see knew about it.

 

In fact, to the district’s credit, Steel Valley had already tried a partial remedy. The elementaries used to house K-5th grade. We moved the 5th grade students from each elementary up to the middle school thereby at least reducing the years in which our students were segregated.

 

The result was state penalty.

 

Moving Barrett kids who got low test scores up to the middle school – which had some of the best test scores in the district – tipped the scales. The state penalized both Barrett and the middle school for low test scores and required that students in each school be allowed to take their per pupil funding as a tax voucher and use it toward tuition at a private or parochial schoolas if there was any evidence doing so would help them academically.

 

Not exactly an encouragement to increase the program.

 

But school segregation has a certain smell that’s hard to ignore.

 

If you’ll allow me a brief diversion, it reminds me of a historical analogue of which you’ve probably never heard – the Great Stink of 1858.

 

Let me take you back to London, England, in Victorian times.

 

The British had been using the Thames River to wash away their garbage and sewage for centuries, but the river being a tidal body wasn’t able to keep up with the mess.

 

Moreover, getting your drinking water from the same place you use to wash away your sewage isn’t exactly a healthy way to live.

 

But people ignored it and went on with their lives as they always did (if they didn’t die of periodic cholera outbreaks) until 1858.

 

That year was a particularly dry and hot one and the Thames nearly evaporated into a dung-colored slime.

 

It stunk.

 

People from miles away could smell it.

 

There’s a funny story of Queen Victoria traveling by barge down the river with a bouquet of flowers shoved in her face so she could breathe. Charles Dickens and others made humorous remarks.

 

But the politicians of the time refused to do anything to fix the problem. They sprayed lime on the curtains. They even sprayed it onto the fecal water – all to no avail.

 

Finally, when they had exhausted every other option, they did what needed to be done. They spent 4.2 million pounds to build a more than 1,000 mile modern sewage system under London.

 

It took two decades but they did it right and almost immediately the cholera outbreaks stopped.

 

They calculated how big a sewage system would have to be constructed for the contemporary population and then made it twice as big. And the result is still working today!

 

Scientists estimate if they hadn’t doubled the size it would have given out by the 1950s.

 

This seems to be an especially important bit of history – even for Americans more than a continent and a century distant.

 

It seems to me an apt metaphor for what we’re experiencing here in Steel Valley.

 

Everyone knows what’s causing the stink in our district – school segregation.

 

Likewise, we know what needs to be done to fix it.

 

We need a new elementary complex for all students K-4. (I’d actually like to see 5th grade there, too.) And we need busing to get these kids to school regardless of where they live.

 

The excuse for having two segregated elementary schools has typically been our segregated communities and lack of adequate public transportation.

 

We’re just a school district. We can’t fix the complex web of economic, social and racial issues behind where people live (though these are matters our local, state and federal governments can and should address). However, we can take steps to minimize their impact at least so far as education is concerned.

 

But this requires busing – something leaders decades ago decided against in favor of additional funding in the classroom.

 

In short, our kids have always walked to school. Kids at the bottom of the hill in Homestead and West Homestead walk to Barrett. Kids at the top in Munhall walk to Park. But we never required elementary kids to traverse that hill up to the middle and high school until they were at least 10 years old.

 

We didn’t think it fair to ask young kids to walk all the way up the hill. Neighborhood schools reduced the distance – but kept the races mostly separate.

 

We need busing to remove this excuse.

 

I’ve heard many people deny both propositions. They say we can jury rig a solution where certain grades go to certain schools that already exist just not on a segregated basis. Maybe K-2 could go to Park and 3-4 could go to Barrett.

 

It wouldn’t work. The existent buildings will not accommodate all the children we have. Frankly, the facilities at Barrett just aren’t up to standard. Even Park has seen better days.

 

We could renovate and build new wings onto existing schools, but it just makes more sense to build a new school.

 

After all, we want a solution that will last for years to come. We don’t want a Band-Aid that only lasts for a few years.

 

Some complain that this is impossible – that there just isn’t enough money to get this done.

 

And I do sympathize with this position. After all, as Superintendent Ed Wehrer said, the district is still paying off construction of the high school, which was built in the 1970s.

 

But solutions do exist – even for financial problems.

 

My home district of McKeesport is very similar to Steel Valley and in the last decade has built a new 6th grade wing to Founders Hall Middle School and Twin Rivers, a new K-4 school on the old Cornell site.

 

I’m sure McKeesport administrators and school board members along with those at other neighboring districts could provide Steel Valley with the expertise we need to get this done. I’m sure we could find the political will to help us get this done.

 

And that’s really my point: our problem is less about what needs to happen than how to do it.

 

We should at least try to do this right!

 

We can’t just give up before we’ve even begun.

 

Debates can and should be had about where to build the new school, how extensive to have the busing and other details. But the main plan is obvious.

 

I truly believe this is doable.

 

I believe we can integrate Steel Valley elementary schools. And I believe we can – and MUST – do so without any staff furloughs.

 

We’re already running our classes with a skeleton crew. We can ensure the help and participation of teachers by making them this promise.

 

That’s what true leaders would do.

 

Sure, some fools will complain about sending their little white kids to class with black kids. We heard similar comments at the town hall meeting. But – frankly – who cares what people like that think? The best thing we could do for their children would be to integrate the schools so that parental prejudices come smack into conflict with the realities of life.

 

 

And if doing so makes them pull out of Steel Valley, good riddance. You never need to justify doing the right thing.

 

 
Again this will not solve all of our problems. We will still need to work to meet all student needs in their buildings. We will have to continue to fight the charter school parasites sucking at our district tax revenues.

 

But this is the right thing to do.

 

It is the only way to clear the air and remove the stink of decades of segregation.

 

 
So let’s do it.

 

 
Let’s join together and get it done.

 

Who’s with me?

 

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Are Teachers Allowed to Think for Themselves?

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As a public school teacher, I am often told what to do and how to do it.

 

Go teach this class.

 

Report to lunch duty at this time.

 

Monitor this student’s progress in this way, that student’s progress in another way, differentiate the following, document this medical condition, write up this behavior, check for that kind of hall pass, post and teach these academic standards, etc., etc., etc.

 

Some of these directives I agree with and others I do not. But that is treated as an irrelevance because the one thing I’m never told to do is to think for myself.  The one thing that seems to be expressly forbidden – is that I think for myself.

 

 

 

In fact, it’s such a glaring omission, I often wonder if it’s actually prohibited or so obviously necessary that it goes without saying.

 

 

 

Am I expected to think or just follow directions?

 

 

 

Does society want me to be a fully conscious co-conspirator of student curiosity or a mindless drone forcing kids to follow a predetermined path to work-a-day conformity?

 

Most days, it feels like the later.

 

Every last detail of my job is micromanaged and made “foolproof” to the degree that one wonders if the powers that be really consider teachers to be fools in need of proofing.

 

Teaching may be the only profession where you are required to get an advanced degree including a rigorous internship only to be treated like you have no idea what you’re doing.

 

And the pay is entirely uncompetitive considering how much you had to do to qualify for the position and how much you’re responsible for doing once you get hired.

 

It makes me wonder – why did I take all those courses on the history of education if I was never supposed to have the autonomy to apply them? Why did I have to learn about specific pedagogies if I was never to have the opportunity to create my own curriculum? Why was I instructed how to assess student learning if I was never meant to trust my own judgment and rely instead solely on prepackaged, canned standardized tests?

 

And now after 16 years in the classroom, I’m routinely told by my principal to use student testing data to drive my instruction. And, moreover, to document how I am doing so in writing.

 

But what if I don’t trust the student testing data in the first place?

 

What if – in my professional opinion – I don’t agree that the state should have purchased this standardized assessment from some corporate subsidiary? What if I don’t think it does a good job evaluating a child’s aptitude as a prediction of subsequent achievement on the next test? What if I don’t think the test provides valuable data for actual, authentic learning? What if I want to do more than just improve test scores from one standardized assessment to another? What if I want to actually teach something that will affect students’ whole lives? What if I want to empower them to think for themselves? What if my goals are higher for them than the expectations thrown on me as shackles on an educator’s waist, hands and feet?

 

Because it seems to me that there is a bit of a mixed message here.

 

On the one hand, teachers are given so many directives there’s no room for thought. On the other, teachers can’t do their jobs without it.

 

So what exactly do they want from me?

 

The principal can’t educate classes from his desk in the administrative office. The school board director can’t do it from his seat in council chambers. Lawmakers can’t do it from Washington, DC, or the state capital. Only the teacher can do it from her place in the classroom, itself.

 

You have to see, know and interact with your students to be able to tell what their needs are. No standardized test can tell you that – it requires human interaction, knowledge and – dare I say it – discernment.

 

You need to gauge student interest, background knowledge, life skills, special needs, psychology and motivation. And you need to design a curriculum that will work for these particular students at this particular time and place.

 

That can’t be done at a distance through any top-down directive. It must be accomplished in the moment using skill, empiricism and experience.

 

The fact that so many lawmakers, pundits, and administrators don’t know this, itself, has a devastating impact on the education kids actually receive.

 

Instead of helping teachers do their jobs, policymakers are accomplishing just the opposite. They are standing in the way and stopping us from getting things done.

 

We’re given impossible tasks and then impeded from doing them. At least get out of the way and leave us to it.

 

It’s ironic. The act of removing teacher autonomy results in dampening our effectiveness.

 

So as many of these same bureaucrats complain about “failing schools” and “ineffective teachers,” it is these very same complaints and the efforts taken in their name that result in ineffectiveness.

 

If we trusted teachers to do their jobs, they would be empowered to accomplish more. And I don’t mean blind trust. I don’t mean closing our eyes and letting teachers do whatever they want unimpeded, unadvised and unappraised. I mean letting teachers do the work in the full light of day with observation by trained professionals that know the same pedagogy, history and psychology we do – trained administrators who are or were recently teachers, themselves.

 

That would be both accountable and effective instead of the present situation, which is neither.

 

Moreover, it might incentivize policymakers to realize teachers can’t do everything themselves. Hold us accountable for what we do – not what you’d like us to do but over which we have no control.

 

After all, home life has a greater impact on students than anything that happens in class. And helping students to self-actualize into mature, productive members of society requires we equip them with the ability to work things out independently.

 

However, that does not seem to be the goal.

 

We don’t want free thinking students just as we don’t want free thinking teachers.

 

We don’t want a school system that produces independent thinkers. We want it to simply recreate the status quo. We want the lower classes to stay put. We want social mobility and new ideas to be tightly controlled and kept only within certain boundaries.

 

And that is why our school system keeps teachers so tightly constrained – because we want status quo students.

 

Educators have always been the enemy of standardization, privatization and conformity. We are on the side of liberty, emancipation and release.

 

Which side are you on?

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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NAEP Test Scores Show How Stupid We Are… To Pay Attention to NAEP Test Scores

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Brace yourselves!

 

America’s NAEP test scores in 2019 stayed pretty much the same as they were in 2018!

 

And the media typically set its collective hair on fire trying to interpret the data.

 

Sometimes called the Nations Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test is given to a random sampling of elementary, middle and high school students in member countries to compare the education systems of nations.

 

And this year there was one particular area where US kids did worse than usual!

 

Our scores went down in 8th grade reading!

 

To be honest, scores usually go up or down by about one or two points every year averaging out to about the same range.

 

But this year! Gulp! They went down four points!

 

FOUR POINTS!

 

What does that mean?

 

Absolutely nothing.

 

They’re standardized test scores. They’re terrible assessments of student learning.

 

You might as well compare the relative body temperatures of randomly selected students and wonder why we aren’t bridging the body warmth gap with the somber hummingbird! I mean it has an average  temperature of 114 F! And the best we can do is a measly 98.6 F! Why won’t enough kids get a fever for America!?

 

If test scores have any meaning at all – it’s parental wealth. Rich kids tend to score higher than poor kids. That’s partially because of the inequality of resources each receive, but also because of racial, cultural and economic bias embedded in the questions.

 

So the NAEP shows us what any study of parental income would show. America has a lot of poor kids and underfunded schools.

 

Thanks, NAEP! There’s no way we could ever have figured that out without you!

 

But having this information come to us via test scores allows us to deflect from the real problem and instead continually blame the victim.

 

Why can’t these poor kids from impoverished schools score as well as kids from richer countries with more well-funded schools?

 

I can’t imagine!

 

Typically politicians used the results to push their pet policies.

 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos used the scores to wash her hands of the entire public education system. I know – isn’t her job to safeguard public schools? It’s like a zoo keeper complaining that the penguins aren’t bringing in enough visitors and then refusing to feed them.

 

DeVos proposed we improve test scores by cutting $4.8 billion from public schools in 2020 and instead pumping $5 billion to a tax credit school voucher scheme that props up private schools.

 

I know that sounds dumb, but before you judge her, realize she also proposed cutting federal funding for afterschool programs, teacher professional development, student support and enrichment programs.

 

So there.

 

Education Blogger Peter Greene claims that this move is based on a reading comprehension problem the Education Secretary is having, herself.

 

She says that the NAEP results mean that 2/3 of American students read below grade level. However, Greene points out that she is conflating two different things – grade level proficiency and NAEP proficiency.

 

Here’s what the NAEP wrote:

 

“The NAEP Proficient achievement level does not represent grade-level proficiency, but rather competency over challenging subject matter. NAEP Achievement levels are to be used on a trial basis and should be interpreted and used with caution.”

 
Which kind of begs the question of why we need these scores in the first place.

 

There is much clearer data out there.

 

A study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded that 29 states spent less per student in 2015 than they had before the Great Recession.

 

And the federal government has done little to help. Since 2011, spending on major K-12 programs – including Title I grants for underprivileged students and special education – has been basically flat.

 

According to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, today’s public schools employ at least 250,000 fewer people than they did before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by at least 800,000 students.

 

So to ensure our students had the same quality of service children received only a decade ago, we’d need to hire almost 400,000 more teachers!

 

That’s how you cut class size down from the 20, 30, even 40 students packed into a room that you can routinely find in some districts today.

 

If we looked at realities like these instead of test scores – which at best provide us data at several removes – we might actually be motivated to reach solutions.

 

For instance, the U.S. is one of the only countries in the world – if not probably the ONLY country – that funds schools based largely on local taxes. Other developed nations either equalize funding or provide extra money for kids in need. In the Netherlands, for example, national funding is provided to all schools based on the number of pupils enrolled. But for every guilder allocated to a middle-class Dutch child, 1.25 guilders are allocated for a lower-class child and 1.9 guilders for a minority child – exactly the opposite of the situation in the U.S.

 

If we want to compare the US to other countries, this is a perfect place to start.

 

But a focus on test scores obscures the differences.

 

Virtually all of the top scoring countries taking these exams have much less child poverty than the U.S. If they had the same percentage of poor students that we do, their scores would be lower than ours. Likewise, if we had the same percentage of poor students that they do, our scores would go through the roof! We would have the best scores in the world!

 

These scores just mirror back to us our child poverty rate – that more than 1/3 of our students live below the poverty line and more than half of public school students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

 

But this myopic focus on standardized tests also blinds us to the ways our system is superior to that of many other countries.

 

We do something that many international systems do not. We educate everyone! Foreign systems often weed children out by high school. They don’t let every child get 13 years of grade school (counting kindergarten). They only school their highest achievers.

 

So when we compare ourselves to these countries, we’re comparing ALL of our students to only SOME of theirs – their best academic pupils, to be exact. Yet we still hold our own given these handicaps!

 
This suggests that the majority of problems with our public schools are monetary. Pure and simple.

 

At least House Democrats passed a Labor-HHS-Education funding bill to increase public school funding by $3.5 billion. Even if it were somehow passed by the Republican controlled Senate, that’s a drop in the bucket after decades of neglect – but it’s something!

 

It’s certainly better than DeVos who claims that funding somehow doesn’t matter for public schools – only for her pet charter and voucher schools.

 

A 2018 review by Northwestern University found that in 12 out of 13 studies increased spending had a positive effect on student outcomes. And that result has been verified by studies since then in California, Texas, Wisconsin and other states.

 
Money makes a difference.

 

Money spent on students – not more testing.

 

So why the drop in this year’s 8th grade reading scores?

 

Who knows? It could be a spike in the rate or effect of child poverty in the middle school years.

 

It could be the impact of decades of high stakes testing on middle school curriculum – narrowing what is taught and muscling out authentic instruction.

 

Frankly it doesn’t matter because the data is suspect.

 

Standardized testing will never give us an accurate picture of what is going on with our students or our schools.

 

And until we, as a society, finally realize that and focus on things that actually matter, we will continue to fail the only test that matters – how well we provide for our children.

 

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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