Dear Lawmakers, Please Hire Teachers as Education Aides – Not TFA Alumni

thumbnail_IMG_8375

 

Dear freshmen lawmakers,

 

We did it!

 

After a fiercely contested election, we have finally begun to turn the tide back toward progressive politics.

 

Midterms usually are sparsely attended, but this year we had an unprecedented turnout.  A total of 23 states had double-digit percentage-point increases compared with their 1982-2014 midterm election averages.

 

And the result is one of the largest and most diverse groups of freshman Congresspeople ever!

 

We got rid of a ton of incumbents – 104 lawmakers won’t be returning to Washington, DC, in January, making this the third-highest turnover since 1974.

 

 

And those taking their place will be largely female. Out of 256 women who ran for U.S. House or Senate seats, 114 have won so far (Some races are still too close to call), according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. That makes the 116th Congress the largest class of female lawmakers ever.

 

Moreover, this incoming group will be incredibly diverse.

 

We have Jahana Hayes, a nationally-recognized teacher, who will be the first Black Congresswoman from Connecticut. Ayanna Presley, the first black Congresswoman from Massachusetts.

 

Angie Craig will be the first out LGBTQ Congresswoman from Minnesota. Chris Pappas, the first openly gay Congressman from New Hampshire.

 

Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland from Kansas and New Mexico will be the first Native American women elected to Congress – ever. And Davids will also be the first openly LGBTQ Congresswoman from the Sunflower State.

 

Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib will be the first-ever Muslim women in Congress. Omar, a former refugee, will also be the first Somali-American and Tlaib will be the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress. This is especially noteworthy because there have only been two other Muslims to serve in the legislative branch, both men: Rep. Keith Ellison and Rep. André Carson.

 

And let’s not forget New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Not only is she a Democratic Socialist, but the 29-year-old will be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress!

 

With so many new faces and so much more representation, is it too much to ask for a change in the way things are done in Washington?

 

Many progressives are hoping not.

 

After all, it was people power that propelled these new lawmakers into government.

 

We marched in the rain, licked envelopes, made phone calls, wrote letters, and knocked on doors. We went to rallies and bake sales and stood by the polls with our little signs and fliers.

 

And we did it, because we wanted a change.

 

So, incoming lawmakers, that’s why I’m writing to you.

 

As a public school teacher, a father of a school-age child, an education activist and a concerned citizen, it really matters to me what happens to our schools.

 

Yet so many politicians – Republicans and Democrats – have turned a blind eye to our concerns for years.

 

No matter their party affiliation, they’ve pushed for increasing school privatization – charter and voucher schools. They’ve hammered us with biased and unscientific standardized tests and used the results to justify any number of atrocities including school closures, withholding funding and even stealing the democratic process from taxpayers. Instead of listening to the concerns of teachers and parents, they’ve followed the caprice of every bored billionaire who thinks they know how to better our schools with halfcocked schemes that cost us billions in taxpayer dollars while wasting children’s time and depriving them of an authentic education.

 

They’ve chased every new technological fad without regard to how it affects students or their privacy. They’ve let our schools become increasingly more segregated and made deals with private prison companies and unscrupulous security and business interests that made our schools a gateway to incarceration as much as they are to college or careers. They’ve actively engaged or silently stood by as classroom teachers lost autonomy, rights and professionalism. And finally, though many of them talk a good game, they haven’t done nearly enough to ensure that every student gets the same opportunities, resources and equitable funding.

 

Why?

 

Often the answer is ignorance.

 

They don’t properly understand the issues facing our schools. They don’t hear from parents, teachers and students – the rank and file. They only hear from the wealthy businesses and philanthrocapitalists preying on our schools like vultures over road kill.

 

In many cases this is because of the poor quality of education aides on Capital Hill.

 

Several years ago, I went to DC with other education advocates to ask our representatives to change course. Though we made reservations to speak with our duly-elected lawmakers months in advance, very few of them had the guts to see us face-to-face. We were almost always sent to education aides – well meaning and fresh faced kids only a few years out of college – who wrote down our concerns and sent us on our way with rarely any follow up from the people we’d come to see.

 

And more often than not, these eager young go-getters were Teach for America (TFA) alumni.

 

I’m not sure if you know what that means.

 

TFA is a nefarious neoliberal organization more interested in busting unions and influencing policy than helping kids learn.

 

They recruit people in college who didn’t major in education to become teachers for a few years before moving on to bigger and better things.

 

Often these rookies have only a few weeks training and just hours of experience before taking over their own classrooms. And unlike education majors, they only need to commit to the job for two years.

 

This not only does our children a disservice, it does very little to make these former teaching temps into education experts.

 

But that’s how they’re treated on Capital Hill.

 

Through programs like TFA’s Capitol Hill Fellows Program, alumni are placed in full-time, paid staff positions with legislators so they can “gain insights into the legislative process by working in a Congressional office” and work “on projects that impact education and opportunities for youth.”

 

Why do so many lawmakers hire them? Because they don’t cost anything.

 

Their salaries are paid in full by TFA through a fund established by Arthur Rock, a California tech billionaire who hands the organization bags of cash to pay these educational aides’ salaries. From 2006 to 2008, alone, Rock – who also sits on TFA’s board – contributed $16.5 million for this purpose.

 

This isn’t about helping lawmakers understand the issues. It’s about framing the issues to meet the policy initiatives of the elite and wealthy donors.

 

It’s about selling school privatization, high stakes testing and ed-tech solutions.

 

As Ocasio-Cortez said on a recent call with Justice Democrats, “I don’t think people who are taking money from pharmaceutical companies should be drafting health care legislation. I don’t think people who are taking money from oil and gas companies should be drafting our climate legislation.”

 

I’d like to add the following: people taking money from the testing and school privatization industry shouldn’t be drafting education policy. People who worked as temps in order to give themselves a veneer of credibility should not be treated the same as bona fide experts who dedicate their lives to kids in the classroom.

 

But that’s what many lawmakers of both parties have been enabling.

 

It’s not hard to find authentic experts on education.

 

There are 3.2 million public school teachers working in this country.

 

There are still 116,000 fewer public education jobs than there were before the recession of 2007, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive nonprofit think tank.

 

If we add the number of teaching jobs needed to keep up with growing enrollment, we’re missing 389,000 educators.

 

So that’s hundreds of thousands of laid off and retired teachers out there – a huge brain trust, a plethora of professionals who know – really know – what goes on in our schools, what they need to succeed and what policies could fix them.

 

THAT’S where you should go to find your educational aides – not TFA.

 

And these experts are not hard to find. You can contact the teachers unions – the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers. Or, better yet, contact the various education activist groups focused on policy – the Badass Teachers Association or the Network for Public Education. And if you want experts at the crossroads of education and equity, you can contact civil rights groups who focus on our schools like Journey for Justice, a nationwide collective of more than 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in several cities.

 

Or you can give education bloggers (many of whom are teachers or former teachers) a call – people like Peter Greene, Mercedes Schneider, Nancy Flanagan, Jose Luis Vilson, Julian Vasquez-Helig, and others.

 

Heck! You can give me a shout out.

 

We’re here.

 

We want to help.

 

So congratulations on your election victories. Let’s work together to transform them into intelligent policies for all our children everywhere.


 

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!

book-3

Grades and Test Scores Don’t Matter. A Love of Learning Does.

Screen Shot 2018-05-04 at 8.28.42 AM

 

My daughter probably would be shocked to discover what I truly think about grades.

 

They don’t matter all that much.

 

The other day she brought home a pop quiz on sloths from her third grade class. It had a 40% F emblazoned on the top in red ink.

 

I grabbed the paper from her book bag and asked her to explain what had happened.

 

She smiled nervously and admitted that she had rushed through the assignment.

 

I told her I knew she could do better and was very disappointed.

 

Then we reread the article in her weekly reader and found the right answers to the questions she’d missed.

 

But if my little girl would be stunned, my students would probably be even more gobsmacked!

 

As a 7th grade Language Arts teacher, it’s my job to hand out grades. And I don’t give my students too much slack.

 

Just this morning, I turned to one of my kiddos placidly drawing a Spider-Man doodle in homeroom and asked if he had given me yesterday’s homework.

 

He wasn’t sure, so I pulled up the gradebook and surprise, surprise, surprise – no homework.

 

So he took out the half-completed packet, promised to get it done by the end of the day and promptly began working on it.

 

Don’t get me wrong. No one would ever confuse me for a teacher obsessed with grades and test scores.

 

I’m way too laid back for that. But my students know I will penalize them if they don’t hand in their assignments. And if it isn’t their best work, I’ll call them out on it.

 

The way I see it, grades and test scores offer an approximation of how well a student tries to achieve academic goals.

 

In Language Arts classes like mine, that’s reading, writing and communicating.

 

After a year of study, I want my students to leave me with an increased ability to read and understand what they’ve read. I want them to form a thoughtful opinion on it and be able to communicate that in multiple ways including verbally and in writing.

 

An overreliance on testing and grading can actually get in the way of achieving that goal.

 

According to a University of Michigan study from 2002, a total of 80% of students base their self worth on grades. The lower the grades, the lower their self-esteem.

 

Common Core fanatics like Bill Gates and David Coleman probably would say that’s a good thing. It provides incentive for children to take school seriously.

 

However, I think it transforms a self-directed, authentic pursuit of knowledge into grade grubbing. It makes an intrinsic activity purely extrinsic.

 

Learning no longer becomes about satisfying your curiosity. It becomes a chase after approval and acceptance.

 

We already know that measuring a phenomena fundamentally changes that phenomena. With a constant emphasis on measurement, children become less creative and less willing to take risks on having a wrong answer.

 

That’s one of the reasons I prefer teaching the academic track students to the honors kids. They aren’t used to getting all A’s, so they are free to answer a question based on their actual thoughts and feelings. If they get a question wrong, it’s not the end of the world. It hasn’t ruined a perfect GPA and put valedictorian forever out of reach.

 

Too much rigor (God! I hate that word!) creates academic robots who have lost the will to learn. Their only concern is the grade or the test score.

 

It also increases the motivation to cheat.

 

According to a national survey of 24,000 students from 70 high schools, 64% admitted to cheating on a test.

 

But if the goal is authentic learning, cheating doesn’t help. You can’t cheat to understand better. You can only fool the teacher or the test. You can’t fool your own comprehension.

 

If you find a novel way of realizing something, that’s not cheating – it’s a learning strategy.

 

I know this is heresy to some people.

 

Even some of my colleagues believe that grading, in general, and standardized testing, in particular, are essential to a quality education.

 

After all, without an objective measure of learning, how can we predict whether students will do well once they move on to college or careers?

 

Of course, some of us realize standardized testing doesn’t provide an objective measurement. It’s culturally and racially biased. Those test scores don’t just correlate with race and class. They are BASED on factors inextricably linked with those characteristics.

 

When the standard is wealth and whiteness, it should come as no surprise that poor students of color don’t make the grade. It’s no accident, for example, that American standardized testing sprung out of the eugenics movement.

 

Yet you don’t need to crack open a book on history or pedagogy to see the uselessness of testing.

 

High stakes assessments like the SAT do NOT accurately predict future academic success.

 

Kids with perfect scores on the SAT or ACT tests don’t do better than kids who got lower scores or never took the tests in the first place.

 

Numerous studies have shown this to be true. The most recent one I’ve seen was from 2014.

 

Researchers followed more than 123,000 students who attended universities that don’t require applicants to take these tests as a prerequisite for admission. They concluded that SAT and ACT test scores do not correlate with how well a student does in college.

 

However, classroom grades do have predictive value – especially when compared to standardized tests. Students with high grades in high school but middling test scores do better in college than students with higher test scores and lower grades.

 

Why? Because grades are based on something other than the ability to take one test. They demonstrate a daily commitment to work hard. They are based on 180 days (in Pennsylvania) of classroom endeavors, whereas standardized tests are based on the labor of an afternoon or a few days.

 

Yet even classroom grades have their limits.

 

I remember my high school graduation – sitting on the bleachers in my cap and gown listening to our valedictorian and salutatorian give speeches about the glorious future ahead of us.

 

Yet for each of those individuals, the future wasn’t quite so bright. Oh, neither of them burned out, but they didn’t exactly set the world on fire, either.

 

In fact, when I went to college, I found a lot of the highest achievers in high school struggled or had to drop out because they couldn’t adjust. The new freedom of college was too much – they partied and passed out. Yet a middle-of-the-road student like me (Okay, I was really good in English) did much better. I ended up in the honors college with a double major, a masters degree and graduating magna cum laude.

 

And it’s not just my own experience. The research backs this up.

 

A Boston College study tracked more than 80 valedictorians over 14 years. These high school high achievers all became well-adjusted professional adults. But none of them made major discoveries, lead their fields or were trailblazers.

 

For that, you need someone willing to take risks.

 

The folks the researchers followed admitted that this wasn’t them. Many confessed that they weren’t the smartest people in their classes. They just worked really hard and gave teachers exactly what they thought they wanted.

 

So what’s the point?

 

Some people will read this and think I’m against all testing and grading.

 

Wrong.

 

I give tests. I calculate grades. And I would do this even if I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. (Though I would throw every standardized test right in the garbage.)

 

I think grades and testing have their place. But they aren’t the end, they are a means to an end.

 

They are crude estimations of learning. They’re an educated guess. That’s all.

 

We need to move beyond them if we are to modernize our public schools.

 

Don’t get rid of grades and testing, just change the emphasis. Put a premium on curiosity and creativity. Reward academic risk taking, innovation and imagination. And recognize that most of the time there may be several right answers to the same question.

 

Heck other countries like Finland already do this.

 

For the first six years of school, Finnish children are subjected to zero measurement of their abilities. The only standardized test is a final given at the end of senior year in high school.

 

As a result, their kids have some of the highest test scores in the world. By not focusing on standards and assessments, they counterintuitively top the charts with these very things.

 

There’s a lesson here for American education policy analysts.

 

And that lesson is the title of this article.

 


 

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!

book-3

 

Study Suggests Bringing “No Excuses” Discipline Policies from Charter to Public Schools

no_excuses_charter

 

The teacher begins class by taking out her Glock.

 

She casually walks to the front of the room and shoots a misbehaving student in the head.

 

All the others immediately begin working on their assignment.

 

It sounds like something from a horror movie. But it’s actually not all that far away from what real researchers at the Brookings Institution and Princeton University are suggesting we do.

 

Sarah Cohodes has written a new report called “Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap” that praises “No Excuses” discipline policies at urban charter schools and suggests they be more widely implemented at traditional public schools serving the poor and students of color.

 

I wish I were kidding.

 

Let’s return to the hyperbolic situation with which I began this article.

 

The noise of a gunshot brings the principal racing to the classroom.

 

She notices the slumped bleeding body of the shot child and walks up to the teacher ready to physically disarm and arrest her. But then she notices all the rows of neatly placed desks and the children diligently doing their work.

 

She glances down at a paper here and there and notices that the children are getting most of their work correct.

 

So she turns to the teacher and says, “Carry on, Ms. C. You seem to have everything under control here.”

 

That’s perhaps the most immediate concern brought by Cohodes research – it proposes to evaluate a discipline model based solely on its academic results and completely ignores other aspects of the student experience. For instance, how does the model affect students’ social and emotional development? Is it harmful to students’ curiosity, self-motivation and psychological well-being?

 

Pardon me, but these are important issues.

 

I don’t care if my fictional teacher’s shoot first discipline policy gets students to do exceptional classwork. My daughter will not be enrolled in that class – nor do I expect anyone would want their child to learn in such an environment regardless of how well it maximized test scores.

 

Let me be clear. This is hyperbole, but with a point.

 

“No Excuses” discipline policies don’t result in any gunshot wounds or deaths (to my knowledge), but they do create environments that are not conducive to the flourishing of children.

 

 

For instance, at a New Orleans charter school, students were punished for not standing straight, not sitting up straight, for putting their heads down, for closing their eyes for too long, for not tracking speakers correctly with their eyes! Between classes students had to walk single file between the wall and a line marked with orange tape. And they had strict dress codes.

 

This is not school. It is prison.

 

And it’s unsurprising that these sorts of discipline policies are found at urban charter schools like the KIPP network serving mostly poor and minority students.

 

Cohodes champions them because – in her view – they get results.

 

I say that she is missing the point.

 

Her view of what is important in school is far too narrow.

 

Moreover, it’s based on a misconception of what constitutes academic success.

 

Cohodes concludes “No Excuses” policies work solely because schools with such policies tend to have students who get higher test scores.

 

This is to make a few assumptions.

 

First, it assumes that the number of students weeded out by such discipline policies isn’t significant enough to wipe out the apparent increase in scores. The punishment for breaking the rules at these schools is often detention, suspension or expulsion. Every child who is enrolled at the beginning of the year isn’t there by testing time. How do we know that the school hasn’t lost so many students who couldn’t obey the rules that they wipe out any gains in testing?

 

Second, she is assuming standardized testing provide accurate assessments of knowledge and skills. This is far from an accepted premise. These tests have repeatedly been shown to be both economically and racially biased. Cohodes is assuming that since the students scoring better on the assessments are still poor and predominantly black, what they’re being tested on is fair.

 

Standardized tests are poor assessments. Multiple choice exams do not possess the flexibility to allow for creativity and depth of knowledge. They simply expect a “standard” student to think a certain way and reward dissimilar students for conforming to that standard.

 

“No Excuses” charter schools may be better at getting different children to act and think alike, but that is not necessarily an endorsement.

 

Cohodes concludes that these gains in test scores are ultimately beneficial because they will lead to success at college. However, numerous studies have shown that charter school students end up dropping out of college at higher rates than traditional public school students. They simply haven’t learned how to motivate themselves to learn without the rigid, military structures of the charter school environment. One can imagine similar outcomes for charter students (successful charter students) who immediately enter the workforce.

 

None of these considerations make it into Cohodes research.

 

She jumps from the brilliant standardized success of “No Excuses” charter schools to the need to include these policies in traditional public schools.

 

Cohodes worries that the charter school sector can never fully compete with traditional public schools, so we need to make traditional public schools more like charter schools.

 

However, I cannot imagine many parents would jump at the chance to have their children treated like prison inmates for the chance of higher test scores.

 

Unlike charter schools, public schools have school boards. They have to make their decisions in public and are accountable to voters who can come to the public meeting, protest and even run for a seat on the board themselves.

 

In short, this is a terrible idea.

 

It is somewhat staggering that a grown adult could look exclusively at the data and come to such a conclusion without considering what it means for flesh-and-blood students.

 

Not only that, but we’re talking about predominantly black and brown students. Is it somehow more acceptable because we’re talking about turning schools serving darker skinned students into Guantanamo Bay? Would it be as acceptable for rosy cheeked affluent white kids?

 

This is what happens when you let economists set public policy.

 

It is essential that we include parents, teachers, psychologist and even students in the processes. Otherwise, we’ll continue to get heartless number crunching offered as sincere solutions to our problems.