Here Comes Everyone – a Day of Inspiration and Advocacy at the Network for Public Education Conference

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Let me ask you a hypothetical question:

If you could have dinner with any five people in the world, who would they be?

You don’t have to ask me that question. I not only had dinner with them, I spent the whole freaking day with them at the Network for Public Education Conference!

And there were more like 500 of those folks!

Imagine everyone you’ve ever read about in the resistance to corporate education reform.

Imagine them all in one place, standing in line all around you waiting to select a Danish.

Yeah. That was breakfast.

I invited the amazing Pennsylvania blogger Russ Walsh to my table to chat over bagels and coffee.

I told him that I’d been so inspired by his criticism of the Dibels test that I refused to allow my own daughter to take it. He laughed and said it was a mighty responsibility.

We hung out. No big deal.

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And then I saw Peter Greene of the Curmudgucation blog. We sat together during a break out session and talked shop. He told me how it was frustrating sometimes to feed the beast – to keep writing articles after one of yours had made an impression. I laughed because I knew exactly what he was talking about.

We’re best friends now.

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I was walking down a hallway and there was Diane Ravich right behind me.

Yes! Right. Behind. Me.

I tried to collect myself before walking up to her.

Don’t blow this, Singer! I warned myself, but I kinda’ did anyway.

I introduced myself and shook her hand. She knew exactly who I was and said, “I love your blog.”

SIGH.

She loves my blog.

But then I opened my mouth to respond, and all that came out were unrelated syllables. Something like, “blllurgghh.”

But there were more people waiting to talk to her. She probably didn’t notice. Right?

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And really I could go on like this for days.

However, it wasn’t just the opportunity to meet and talk with education heroes. The breakout sessions were amazing:

The Opening Symposium

Brother Jitu Brown of NPE and Tanasia Brown from the Newark Student Union were inspiration personified. Though she’s only a student, Tanasia lead the assembly like a seasoned preacher on Sunday. And Jitu’s words just made you want to rush out of those doors and renew the fight.

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Debunking Myths:

It may not be the zombie apocalypse yet, but some decaying half-dead arguments continue to shamble across the scene. They’ve been disproven repeatedly but some people refused to accept it. Media Matters Hilary Tone and People for the American Way’s Diallo Brooks gave some excellent tips for putting these zombie arguments to rest:

Six Tips For Debunking Myths

1) Familiarize facts – minimize falsity. Start with the truth, not what’s wrong.

2) People believe what they hear. Warn them about it. “You’ll probably hear the Koch Bros. say…”

3) Don’t just debunk – retell. After dispelling a lie, make sure to give a new narrative to replace it.

4) Use graphics. People love visuals.

5) Make things easy to understand. Don’t use jargon. Expect no prior knowledge.

6) Messengers matter. Credible and unexpected sources can be very convincing. When someone you’d expect to disagree with you actually agrees, it makes people think, “Even THIS guy gets it.”

Other tidbits include:

-Call out false progressives. If they don’t understand the real problems, they can’t come up with real solutions.

-The media only talks about education policy with actual education experts 9% of the time.

 

America’s Suicidal Quest for Educational Excellence:

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Author Yong Zhao brought down the house with an amazing and hilarious presentation. He argued that America’s corporate educational reform movement is destroying the very things about our education system that makes it great.

The goal of increased standardized test scores is ill conceived. Countries with high test scores produce graduates who are less creative and interested in education. Why is this something we want to emulate?

Other tidbits:

-Standardization isn’t a reform. China’s been doing it since 600 AD.

-Our schools aren’t getting worse on standardized tests. They’ve always been bad at them. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

-We’re working to weed out and select kids. If children do what some few people want, they’re gifted. If not, they’re special ed. But does that mean our requirements are any good?

-Societies aren’t murdered. They commit suicide. Focusing on standardization instead of creativity and difference, is suicide. We’re destroying our most cherished virtues.

-One of the amazing things about US education is we accept everyone for 12 years. This doesn’t happen everywhere in the world.

-If you spend 10,000 hours working at something you’re already good at, you’ll become great. If you force kids to spend that amount of time on something they don’t like, they’ll only become mediocre.

-WARNING: Common Core may increase standardized test scores but it will make your child hate reading for life.

-We do not instill creativity in our students better than Asian systems. We just kill it less successfully.

-Standardization is preparing kids for jobs being replaced by machines and outsourced. We should not compete with China. We should create new opportunities.

-Do not fit your kids in to the future. Let them create it.

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And so much more!

This has easily been one of the best days of my life. Top 10 for sure.

And there’s still a half day to look forward to tomorrow.

So many burning questions:

-Which education luminary will I eat breakfast with in the morning?

-Will my BFFs Walsh and Greene sign my program book?

-Will I get a chance to express a meaningful sentence to Diane?

Find out in our next exciting episode!

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

When Kids Teach Adults – Lessons from the Newark Student Union Sit-in

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If ISIS extremists flew in from the Middle East and took over our public schools, we wouldn’t stand for it.

But if those extremists are from our own state or federal government, we just yawn and change the channel.

Though not for the last three nights.

A handful of plucky Newark school students have demanded our attention, and, Brother, do they have it!

At least six Newark students have staged a sit-in at the offices of Superintendent Cami Anderson demanding she step down and the district be returned to the voters. The district has been under state control for the last two decades.

This could have been handled easily. Anderson could have met with the students to talk about their concerns. After all, she is a public servant and even school kids are members of the public.

But instead she’s abandoned her office, sent threatening letters to the children’s parents and blocked or held up shipments of food to the young protestors.

Undeterred, the youngsters have set up a live feed on youtube to broadcast their action to the world, tweeting with the hashtags #OccupyNPS and #OurNewark. And the world has been paying attention. Local officials including Mayor Ras Baracka are calling for Anderson’s resignation. The teachers union is discussing holding an illegal strike if the students are forcibly removed.

But more importantly, people all over the country are talking about something they haven’t talked about – maybe – ever: local control.

What gives the state or federal government the right to come in and take over your public school?

Sure if there’s some kind of malfeasance going on, it makes sense to oust a particular school director. If the entire board is working in collusion against the public interest, maybe then it makes sense to get rid of all of them. A temporary acting school board might be necessary in such an unlikely case.

But why not then just hold another election and be done with it? Why would the state keep control over a public school for years or decades after a crisis?

The answer: many of our state and federal government officials don’t believe in local control.

Don’t worry. They’re not against it for everyone.

They don’t come in and take over just any school. If you live in a rich neighborhood, you can breathe easy. No state has ever taken over a posh district.

However, if you live in a poor community with a school that struggles to get by on the contributions of the impoverished local tax base, then the state may be gunning for you.

In my home state of Pennsylvania this has happened numerous times: Duquesne, Chester Upland and Philadelphia spring immediately to mind. In fact, Philly schools have been under control of the State Recovery Commission almost as long as Newark. At the same time Newark students were settling in for their second night in Anderson’s office, the Philadelphia SRC was having citizens arrested for protesting the state-appointed directors decision to expand charter schools.

What gives these people the right to take over our schools?

Poverty.

The excuse is always that the democratically-elected school board didn’t manage the district’s finances well enough. That’s why there were dwindling services for students.

However, the truth is more simple. School directors weren’t able to get blood from a stone. While rich districts rely heavily on a fat tax base that could support whatever services their children need, poor ones limp by. The state and federal government – seeing the trouble our poor districts are in – have a responsibility to come forward and provide financial assistance. After all, every child in this country has the right to a free and appropriate public school education. This doesn’t change just because your folks are poor.

But instead of facing up to their responsibilities, the state and federal government have used this monetary crisis to steal control of the poorest public schools.

And what’s worse, they haven’t improved the quality of services for students under their care! Instead they make sure any moderate increase in funding gets siphoned off to the corporate education reform movement before it ever reaches kids.

The standardized testing industry has increased 57% in the last three years alone to a $2.5 billion a year market. And that doesn’t even count the billions more being raked in by textbook companies (many of them are the same ones producing and grading the tests) with test prep materials and Common Core.

So why does the state and federal government unconstitutionally swipe away local control from people living in poor districts?

Because they can make money off of it!

This is exactly the abomination that the Newark Student Union is shinning light on.

Five years ago, Newark Schools received a $100 million gift from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to turn around the district. The project is called One Newark. The director is Anderson.

However, instead of turning the district around, it has been responsible for closing or relocating schools, opening new charter schools and displacing staff. And no improvement to district services!

Where’s the money going? Here’s a hint: Anderson has been sharply criticized for spending $37 million on consulting fees to prominent factory school reformers.

It’s time to end the practice of public school takeovers. There is no good reason for the state or federal government to snatch away our local schools. This is clearly a violation of the almost every state constitution (including New Jersey and Pennsylvania’s) and the rights of citizens and students. Public schools should remain public.

This is what our children are trying to tell us there in Cami Anderson’s office.

As they continue for a third night, I find myself with two distinct opposite emotions.

I feel an overwhelming shame for my generation. We have let greed get the better of us. How dare we trample the future of countless generations of children for financial gain! When I think of people like Anderson and ex-Mayor Cory Booker, people like my own ex-Governor Tom Corbett, I want to throw up.

However, at the same time I’m also filled with such immense hope! These children have shown us that we can be so much more than the sum of our base natures! We can overcome our menial immediate needs and put the suffering of others over that of ourselves!

I can’t express enough the joy and admiration I have for the members of the Newark Student Union! They represent the future we might attain – if only us adults will let them shine!


UPDATE: The sit-in ended after three days when Anderson met with students. They continue to call for her resignation.

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