The Stink of Segregation Needs to End in Steel Valley Schools

ygateau_npred_borders1-c4f22c33fac1a9806e5df963b8b11ae67e707927-s800-c85

 
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!

thumbnail_IMG_8249

Teachers Are More Stressed Out Than You Probably Think

18636260 - young woman in classroom.

 
When I was just a new teacher, I remember my doctor asking me if I had a high stress job.

 

I said that I taught middle school, as if that answered his question. But he took it to mean that I had it easy. After all – as he put it – I just played with children all day.

 

Now after 16 years in the classroom and a series of chronic medical conditions including heart disease, Crohn’s Disease and a recent battle with shingles though I’m only in my 40s, he knows better.

 

Teaching is one of the most stressful jobs you can have.

 

You don’t put your life on the line in the same way the police or a soldier does. You don’t risk having a finger chopped off like someone working in a machine shop. You don’t even have to worry like a truck driver about falling asleep and drifting off the road.

 

But you do work a ridiculous amount of hours per day. You lose time with family, children and friends. And no matter how hard you work, you’re given next to no resources to get it done with, your autonomy is stripped away, you’re given mountains of unnecessary bureaucratic paperwork, you’re told how to do your job by people who know nothing about education, and you’re scapegoated for all of society’s ills.

 

Not to mention that you’re expected to buy supplies for your students out of your own pocket, somehow magically raise student test scores but still authentically teach, convince parents not to send their children to the local fly-by-night charter or voucher school and prepare for an unlikely but possible school shooter!

 

Oh! And the pay isn’t competitive given the years of schooling you need just to qualify to do the work!!

 

 

That causes a mighty amount of stress.

 

 
One in five teachers (20%) feels tense about their job most or all of the time, according to an analysis by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) in England. In similar professions, only one in eight feel this way (13%).

 

 

But those are conservative estimates.

 

 

A representative survey of more than 4,000 educators conducted in 2017 by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Badass Teachers Association (BATs) found even more stark results.

 

Educators and school staff find their work “always” or “often” stressful 61 percent of the time. Workers in similar professions say that their job is “always” or “often” stressful only 30 percent of the time.

 

That kind of tension among teachers has consequences. More than half of educators reported that they have less enthusiasm now than at the beginning of their careers.

 

One respondent commented:

 

“This job is stressful, overwhelming and hard. I am overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, questioned and blamed for things that are out of my control.”

WORK LOAD

 

 

The most obvious cause of teacher stress is the workload.

 

 

Though the details vary slightly from study to study, the vast majority highlight this as the number one factor.

 

 

The NFER study concluded that teachers work longer hours than people in other professions though a less number of official days. This is because of the school year – classes meet for about 9-10 months but require far more than 40 hours a week to get everything done. In fact, teachers are putting in a full years work or more in those limited days.

 

 

For instance, an average American puts in about 260 days at work a year. Teachers average 70 less days but do the same (or more) hours that other employees put in during the full 260 days. But teachers are only paid for 190 days. So they do roughly the same amount of work in a shorter time span and are paid less for it. The result is a poor work-life balance and higher stress levels.

 

 

But exactly how many hours do teachers routinely work? It depends on who you ask.

 

 

The University College London Institute of Education estimates that one in four teachers works 60 hours a week or more – a figure that has remained consistent for the past 25 years.

 

 
According to NFER, teachers work an average of 47 hours a week, with a quarter working 60 hours a week or more and one in 10 working more than 65 hours a week.

 

 

Four in 10 teachers said they usually worked in the evenings, and one in 10 work on weekends.

 

 

Both of these studies refer to British teachers but estimates are similar for teachers in the United States.

 

 

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that teachers in both countries are among those who work the most hours annually. The average secondary teacher in England teaches 1,225 hours a year. The average secondary teacher in the United States teaches 1,080 hours a year. Across the OECD, the average for most countries is 709 hours.

 

Finally, a study focusing just on US teachers by Scholastic, found that educators usually work 53 hours a week. That comes out to 7.5 hours a day in the classroom teaching. In addition, teachers spend 90 minutes before and/or after school mentoring, tutoring, attending staff meetings and collaborating with peers. Plus 95 additional minutes at home grading papers, preparing classroom activities and other job-related tasks.

 

And teachers who oversee extracurricular clubs put in an additional 11-20 hours a week.

 

 

No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of extra hours.

 

 

According to the NFER study, two out of five teachers (41%) are dissatisfied with their amount of leisure time, compared to 32% of people in similar professionals.

 

This is a prime factor in the exodus of trained professionals leaving the field in droves, sometimes miscalled a teacher “shortage.”

 

 

It’s why one in six new teachers leave the profession after just a year in the classroom.

 

 

 

SALARY

 

 

Another contributing factor is salary.

 

 

Teacher pay in the United States (and many other countries) is not competitive for the amount of training required and responsibilities put on employees.

 

 

According to the Economic Policy Institute, teachers in the United States make 14 percent less than people from professions that require similar levels of education.

 

Sadly, it only gets worse as time goes on.

 

Teacher salary starts low, and grows even more slowly.

 

 

original

 

According to a report by the Center for American Progress, on average teachers with 10 years experience only get a roughly $800 raise per year. No wonder more than 16 percent of teachers have a second or third job outside of the school system. They simply can’t survive on the salary.

 

They can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas. They can’t afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence.

 

 

BACK TO WORKLOAD

 

 

This mixture of refusing to pay teachers what they’re worth and expecting them to do more-and-more with less-and-less is unsustainable.

 

 
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 if we wanted our kids to have the same quality of service children received in this country 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.

 

 

The fact that we refuse to invest in our schools only increases the workload of the teachers who are still there. They look around and see students in desperate need and have to choose between what’s good for them, personally, and what’s good for their students.

 

 

THAT’S why teachers are working so many unpaid hours. They’re giving all they have to help their students despite a society that refuses to provide the necessary time and resources.

 

 

And make no mistake, one of those resources is having enough teachers to get the job done.

 

 

RESPECT

 

 

For a lot of teachers, the issue boils down to respect – lack of it.

 

 

Teachers are expected to do everything and then denigrated when they can’t accomplish miracles every single day.

 

 

The fact is teachers are extremely important – the most important in-school factor for student success.

 

 

However, that doesn’t make them the most important factor in the entire learning process.

 

 
Roughly 60% of academic achievement can be explained by family background – things like income and poverty level. School factors only account for 20% – and of that, teachers account for 15%. (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

 

Estimates vary somewhat from study to study, but the basic structure holds. The vast majority of impact on learning comes from the home and out-of-school factors. Teachers are a small part of the picture. They are the largest single factor in the school building, but the school, itself, is only one of many components.

 

 

The people who know teachers the best—parents, co-workers and students—show much more respect for teachers than elected officials and media pundits, many of whom rarely set foot in a classroom, according to the 2017 BATs and AFT Quality of Work Life Survey.

 

 
While educators feel most respected by their colleagues, they also indicated that their direct supervisors showed them much more respect than their school boards, the media, elected officials and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. A total of 86 percent of respondents did not feel respected by DeVos.

 

 
Most educators said they felt like they had moderate to high control over basic decisions within their own classrooms, but their level of influence and control dropped significantly on policy decisions that directly impact their classroom – such as setting discipline policy, performance standards and deciding how resources are spent.

 

 

“This lack of voice over important instructional decisions is a tangible example of the limited respect policymakers have for educators,” the report concluded.

 

 

Sometimes this lack of respect leads to outright bullying.

 

A total of 43 percent of respondents in the public survey group reported having been bullied, harassed or threatened at work in the last year. Of these reports, 35% included claims of having been bullied by administrators, principals or supervisors, 23% by co-workers, 50% by students, 31% by students’ parents. Many claimed to have been bullied by multiple sources.

 

 

This is a much higher rate of bullying, harassment and threats than workers in the general population.

 

 

I, myself, have experienced this even to the point of being physically injured by students multiple times – nothing so serious that it put me in the hospital, but enough to require a doctor’s visit.

 

 

And to make matters worse, one-third of respondents said that teachers and faculty at their schools did not felt safe bringing up problems and addressing issues.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

 

Teacher stress is a real problem in our schools.

 

 

If we want to provide our children with a world class education, we need to look out for the educators who do the actual work.

 

 

We need to drastically reduce the workload expected of them. We need to hire more teachers so the burden can be more adequately sustained. We need to increase teacher salary to retain those already on the job and to attract the most qualified applicants in the future. We need to stop blaming teachers for every problem in society and give them the respect and autonomy they deserve for having volunteered to do one of the most important jobs in any society. And we have to stop bullying and harassing them.

 

 

As a nation, our children are our most valuable resource. If we want to do what’s best for the generations to come, we need to stop stressing out those brave people who step up to guide our kids into a brighter tomorrow.

 

 

devolution-of-the-teacher-e1415308983284


 

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!

thumbnail_IMG_8249

Teacher Autonomy – An Often Ignored Victim of High Stakes Testing

 

Screen Shot 2018-10-12 at 12.12.38 PM

 

When I think of the modern day public school teacher, I think of Gulliver’s Travels.

 

Not because I’ve ever taught the Jonathan Swift classic to my students, but because of its most indelible image.

 

Gulliver is shipwrecked on the island of the Lilliputans – tiny people who have tied the full sized sailor to the ground with thousands of itty bitty strings.

 

If that is not the picture of a public school teacher, I don’t know what is!

 

We are constantly restrained – even hogtied – from doing what we know is right.

 

And the people putting us in bondage – test obsessed lawmakers, number crunching administrators and small-minded government flunkies.

 

You see, teachers are in the classroom with students day in, day out. We are in the best position to make informed decisions about student learning. The more autonomy you give us, the better we’ll be able to help our students succeed.

 

But in an age of high stakes testing, Common Core and school privatization run amuck, teacher autonomy has been trampled into the dirt.

 

Instead, we have a militia of armchair policy hacks who know nothing about pedagogy, psychology or education but who want to tell us how to do our jobs.

 

It’s almost like we’ve forgotten that educator self-determination ever was a value people thought worth preserving in the first place.

 

Whereas in generations past it was considered anywhere from merely advisable to absolutely essential that instructors could make up their own minds about how best to practice their craft, today we’d rather they just follow the script written by our allegedly more competent corporate masters.

 

 

The way I see it, the reason for this is fivefold:

 

 

  1. Testing

    School used to be about curriculum and pedagogy. It was focused on student learning – not how we assess that learning. Now that standardized tests have been mandated in all 50 states as a means of judging whether our schools are doing a good job (and assorted punishments and rewards put in place), it’s changed the entire academic landscape. In short, when you make school all about standardized tests, you force educators to teach with that as their main concern.

  2. Common Core

    Deciding what students should learn used to be the job of educators, students and the community. Teachers used their extensive training and experience, students appeal to their own curiosity, and the community tailored its expectations based on its needs. However, we’ve given up on our own judgment and delegated the job to publishing companies, technology firms and corporations. We’ve let them decide what students should learn based on which pre-packed products they can most profitably sell us. The problem is when you force all academic programs to follow canned academic standards written by functionaries, not educators, you put teachers in a straight jacket constraining them from meeting their students’ individual needs.

 

3. Grade Promotion Formulas

It used to be that teachers decided which students passed or failed their classes. And when it came to which academic course students took next, educators at least had a voice in the process. However, we’ve standardized grade promotion and/or graduation policies around high stakes test scores and limited or excluded classroom grades. When you’re forced to rely on a formula which cannot take into account the infinite variables present while excluding the judgment of experienced experts in the classroom, you are essentially forbidding educators from one of the most vital parts of the academic process – having a say in what their own courses mean in the scheme of students educational journeys.

 

4. Scripted Curriculum

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this whole process has been the attempted erasure of the teacher – as a thinking human being – from the classroom, itself. Instead of letting us be people who observe and adapt to the realities in front of us, many of us have been forced to read from a script. It should go without saying that when you constrain educators to abide by scripted curriculum – what we used to call “teacher proof curriculum” – or pacing guides, you remove their ability to be teachers, at all.

 

5. Value Added Evaluations

 

We used to trust local principals and administrators to decide which of their employees where doing a good job. Now even that decision has been taken away and replaced by junk science formulas that claim to evaluate a teacher’s entire impact on a student’s life with no regard to validity, fairness or efficiency. However, local principals and administrators are there in the school building every day. They know what’s happening, what challenges staff face and even the personalities, skills and deficiencies of the students, themselves. As such, they are in a better position to evaluate teachers’ performance than these blanket policies applied to all teachers in a district or state – things like valued-added measures or other faith based formulas used to estimate or quantify an educator’s positive or negative impact.

 

It’s no wonder then that teachers are leaving the profession in droves.

 

You can’t freeze someone’s salary, stifle their rights to fair treatment while choking back their autonomy and still expect them to show up to work everyday eager and willing to do the job.

 

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducted a representative sample of more than 37,000 American public school elementary and secondary teachers showing widespread dissatisfaction with the job in general and a lack of autonomy in particular.

In fact, they cited this lack of self-determination as a leading contributor to the nationwide teacher shortage. Having control over how you do your job is essential to being fully satisfied with your work.

Teacher-Autonomy

 

If you’re just following orders, your accomplishments aren’t really yours. It’s the difference between composing a melody and simply recreating the sounds of an amateur musician with perfect fidelity.

Today’s teachers rarely get to pick the textbooks they use, which content or skills to focus on, which techniques will be most effective in their classrooms, how to discipline students, how much homework to give – and they have next to zero say about how they will be evaluated.

And to make matters worse, sometimes it isn’t that educators are forbidden from exercising autonomy, but that they are given such a huge laundry list of things they’re responsible for that they don’t have the time to actually be creative or original. Once teachers meet the demands of all the things they have to cram into a single day, there is little room for reflection, revision or renewal.

School policy is created at several removes from the classroom. We rarely even ask workaday teachers for input less than allowing them to participate in the decision making process.

We imagine that policy is above their pay grade. They are menial labor. It’s up to us, important people, to make the big decisions – even though most of us have little to no knowledge of how to teach!

Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg says that this is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing if we really cared about improving both the teaching profession and the quality of education we provide students.

In the United States, autonomy usually stops at the district or administrative level and results in decision-making that ignores the voices of educators and the community, he says.

Sahlberg continues:

“School autonomy has often led to lessening teacher professionalism and autonomy for the benefit of greater profits for those who manage or own private schools, charter schools or other independent schools. This is perhaps the most powerful lesson the US can learn from better-performing education systems: teachers need greater collective professional autonomy and more support to work with one another. In other words, more freedom from bureaucracy, but less from one another.”

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to increased autonomy is political.

Lawmakers and pundits conflate teacher professionalism and increased decision making with union membership.

And they do have a point. Having a seat at the bargaining table is vital to educators’ self-determination.

In some states, local teachers unions negotiate annual contracts with their districts. However, most states have statewide teacher contracts that are negotiated only by state teachers unions.

These contracts can directly affect exactly how much independence teachers can exercise in the classroom since they can determine things like the specific number of hours that teachers can work each week or limit the roles that teachers can play in a school or district.

There are even some tantalizing schools that are entirely led and managed by teachers. The school does not have formal administrators – teachers assume administrative roles, usually on a revolving basis. But such experiments are rare.

In most places, teacher autonomy is like the last dinosaur.

It represents a bygone age when we envisioned education completely differently.

We could try to regain that vision and go in a different direction.

But if things remain as they are, the dinosaur will go extinct.

Autonomy is a hint at what we COULD be and what we COULD provide students…

…if we only had the courage to stop standardizing and privatizing our country to death.


 

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!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

book-1

The Lone Voice of Dissent Against Standardized Testing

Businesswoman shouting through the megaphone in the open air.

 

Everybody wants to fight the good fight.

 

Until the battle begins.

 

Then many of us are all too ready to give in to what was intolerable just a moment before.

 

To paraphrase Thomas Paine:

 

 

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in times of crisis, shrink from service, but those who stand up in time of need deserve the love and thanks of every man and woman.

 

I see this almost every day in our schools.

 

Ask nearly any teacher what they think about high stakes standardized testing, and they’ll complain until they’re blue in the face.

 

They’ll give you gripes and grievances galore.

 

The tests take too long. They’re not valid assessments. They narrow the curriculum. They’re dumbing down the teaching profession and ripping away our autonomy.

 

To which I say – Amen, Sister!

 

Standardized tests more accurately measure economics than academics – poor kids generally fail and rich kids pass. They’re culturally biased, poorly put together, unscientifically graded and demonstrate a gobbsmacking conflict of interest.

 

Two conflicts of interest, actually.

 

First, the people who make the tests, grade the tests and thus have a financial interest in failing the most students possible because that means we have to buy more remediation material which they also conveniently sell.

 

Second, these test scores are used by the school privatization industry to unfairly label public schools failures so they can more easily sell fly-by-night charter and voucher schools.

 

So, yeah. Almost all of us agree standardized testing sucks.

 

But when there’s an administrator present, I too often find I’m the only one willing to speak that truth. My colleagues, who are pleased as punch to gripe in private, suddenly go quiet in the presence of their superiors.

 

What’s worse, some of them don’t just stay quiet – they offer arguments to support whatever nonsensical test-based solution our boss has in mind today.

 

Let’s say an administrator suggests we do something about the handful of students who opt out of standardized tests.

 

We could just respect the rights of parents who have handed in their written intention to opt their children out under a religious exemption – the only option in Pennsylvania. Or we could do as the administrator suggests and force kids who’ve been opted out to take a standardized look-a-like assessment.

 

I hear something like that, and I’m on my feet ready to fight.

 

But I find myself standing there alone.

 

“You can’t do that,” I say.

 

“It violates state law. In particular, Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4.

 

(Okay, I had to look up the particulars later, but I made sure the administrator got them.)

 

Consider subsection (d) (4). And I quote:

 

If upon inspection of a State assessment parents or guardians find the assessment to be in conflict with their religious belief and wish their students to be excused from the assessment, the right of the parents or guardians will not be denied…”

 

Or how about subsection (d) (3):

 

“School entities shall adopt policies to assure that parents or guardians [have]… (3) The right to have their children excused from specific instruction that conflicts with their religious beliefs, upon receipt by the school entity of a written request from the parent or guardians.” (Emphasis mine)

 

In other words, parents have a right to excuse their children from the tests and/or instruction such as test look-a-likes.

 

If we go forward with requiring students who are opted out to take tests that are just like the ones their parents instructed us NOT to give, we will be violating parents’ rights under state law.”

 

That seems pretty airtight to me.

 

But the administrator disagrees.

 

And I look around at the assembled mass of workaday teachers for support.

 

Not a peep.

 

Instead I get this:

 

-We’re being evaluated on these standardized tests, we have to make sure kids take them seriously.

 

-I see where you’re coming from but we have to do something about these kids who are opting out just to get out of doing the work. They don’t have any real intellectual objection. They’re just lazy.

 

-We’ve got to do something about grade inflation.

 

Oh. Em. Gee.

 

Yet after the meeting, some of them cautiously walk up to me asking my opinion of what went down.

 

YOU DON’T WANT TO HEAR MY OPINION RIGHT NOW!

 

Take my word for it.

 

Tomorrow or the next day or the next week, they’ll be complaining again.

 

I’ve seen some of these people reduced to tears by administrators unfairly manipulating them based on their students’ test scores.

 

Yet none of them have the guts to stand up and be counted when the moment comes.

 

I say again – everyone wants to fight. But no one wants to do the fighting.

 

They want someone else to do it for them.

 

Does that make you angry?

 

It makes me furious.

 

But if you feel that way, you’ve got to do something about it.

 

You think teachers are too cowardly? What have YOU done to fight corporate education reform today?

 

You think too many administrators are quislings. You think the lawmakers are bought and sold. You think the public schools are under attack.

 

Well, get off your ass and do something.

 

I am tired of being the lone voice of dissent here.

 

All across the country there are people like me – people willing to stand up and fight.

 

But it’s a big country, and we’re usually spread pretty thin.

 

We need people willing to put their money where their mouths are – right here, in our hometowns.

 

Put up or shut up, America.

 

Do you want a school system that serves the needs of children?

 

You’ve got to make it happen.

 

I can’t do this all by myself.

The One Reform We Never Try: Increase Teacher Salary

 

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 4.10.21 PM

 

There are many suggestions for improving America’s public schools:

 

More standardized tests.

 

New academic standards.

 

Increase charter schools and/or allow kids to attend private schools with public money.

 

But one reform you hardly ever hear about is this: pay teachers more.

 

Isn’t that funny?

 

We’re willing to try almost everything else but that.

 

Sure, some folks want to tie teachers’ salaries to test scores, but that’s not increasing pay. That’s just doubling down on standardized testing.

 

Isn’t it shocking that no one is willing to invest more money into the actual act of educating children?

 

Consider this: full-time employees making minimum wage earn between $15,000-$20,000 a year. (Some states have voluntarily raised the minimum wage above the federally mandated $7.25 to as much as $10 an hour.)

 

Compare that to a teacher’s starting salary.

 

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the low end for teachers entering the field is around $30,000. That’s a mere $10,000 above the most generous minimum wage.

 

There are places in this country where going into debt earning a four year degree in education, serving an (often unpaid) internship in the classroom and agreeing to teach the next generation gets you a few notches above fry chefs and WalMart greeters.

 

This isn’t to disparage burger cooks or grocery clerks. I, too, love a crispy French fried potato and a sincere greeting. But which profession is more important to our future as a nation? The quality of our service industries or the education of every single child in the country – all our future doctors, lawyers, politicians and… well… EVERYTHING!

 

Average starting salary for teachers nationwide is only $37,000, according to NACE.

 

Compare that to other professions.

 

Computer programmers start at $65,000. Engineers start at $61,000. Accountants (mathematics and statistics majors) start at $54,000. Even philosophers and priests (philosophy and religious studies majors) start at $45,000.

 

Are they more important than teachers? Do they provide more value for society?

 

I humbly suggest that they do not.

 

Who taught the programmers how to program? Who taught the engineers and accountants how to add and subtract? Who taught the philosophers how to think logically? Who taught the priests how to write their sermons?

 

TEACHERS. That’s who.

 

Yet if we judge purely by starting salary, we certainly don’t value their services much.

 

To be specific, they make 14 percent less than those from professions that require similar levels of education, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

 

Sadly, it only gets worse as time goes on.

 

Teacher salary starts low, and grows even more slowly.

 

original

 

According to a report by the Center for American Progress, the average base salary for a teacher with 10 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree is $45,000. That’s a mere $800 annual raise. No wonder more than 16 percent of teachers have a second or third job outside of the school system. They simply can’t survive on the salary.

 

They can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas. They can’t afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence.

 

What effect does this have on students?

 

Well, for one, it often leaves them with inexperienced or exhausted teachers.

 

Nationwide, 46 percent of educators quit before reaching the five year mark. And it’s worse in urban districts, where 20 percent quit every single year!

 

That translates to more students learning from educators who are, themselves, just learning how to teach. If we took pains to keep them in the profession, think of what a positive impact that would have on the quality of education the nation’s students  receive – Teachers learning from experience and improving their practice every year instead of a continual flux of novices just trying to figure out the basics and survive!

 

But it’s not all intangibles. It costs bookoo bucks to constantly find and train new teachers – roughly $7.34 billion a year, to be exact. Imagine if we could invest that money into salaries instead.

 

This is exactly what they do in many other countries.

 

We’re always comparing ourselves with nations in Europe and Asia where students average higher standardized test scores. Yet we rarely enact the policies that got them these results.

 

Many of these countries recruit the top graduates to become teachers. How? By offering sweeteners and incentives to become a life-long educator.

 

In Singapore and Finland, for example, they actually cover the cost of the college coursework needed to become a teacher. And when it comes to salary, they leave us in the dust. In South Korea, they pay educators an average of 250 percent more than we do!

 

For many people, education is a calling. You feel drawn toward the job because it holds meaning to you. But how many people ignore that calling because of simple economics? There are plenty of things you can do with your life; If you can’t earn a living doing one thing, you may opt for something else.

 

How many more excellent teachers would we have in this country if we prized and rewarded those practitioners we already have?

 

It doesn’t take a deep dive into the news to see how teachers are treated in American society far beyond the low pay.

 

Everything that goes wrong in our public schools is laid at their feet whether they have any control over it or not. Child poverty, inequitable and inadequate resources, regressive and nepotistic policy, backward education legislation – it’s all somehow the teacher’s fault.

 

Imagine if we saw teachers as part of the solution! What effect would that have on teacher turnover?

 

Look no further than our foreign counterparts. In South Korea, turnover is only 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, it’s 3 percent.

 

It’s certainly worth a try.

 

As reforms go, this is one with more evidence behind it than 90 percent of the garbage that comes floating out of partisan think tanks.

 

Pay teachers more.

 

Starting salary should be at least $65,000. End pay after 30 years should be at least $150,000.

 

THAT would boost educational outcomes.

 

And, please, don’t give me any nonsense about summer break, teacher tenure, the power of unions or whatever else you heard on talk radio or the corporate news media. Teachers average 53 hours a week August through June – making up for any downtime in the summer, tenure doesn’t mean a job for life – it means due process, and unions aren’t evil – they just ensure workers more rights than the bosses would like.

 

Moreover, don’t tell me we can’t afford it. We spend more on the military than the next 8 nations combined.

 

Imagine if we put a priority on raising our own children instead of guns and missiles. Imagine if we spent more on life than death.

 

Imagine if we tried the one reform left in the box – increase teacher pay.

 

Personalized Learning Without People – An Education Scam from the 1980s Returns

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 1.12.10 AM

 

Sometimes it seems that education policy is nothing but a series of scams and frauds that becomes untenable in one generation only to pop up again 10 or 20 years later with a new name.

 

Take Personalized Learning, the latest digital product from the ed-tech industry to invade your local public school.

 

It’s cutting edge stuff.

 

Except that it isn’t.

 

It’s just the same old correspondence school nonsense of the 1980s thrown onto an iPad or a laptop.

 

It was crap back then, and it’s crap today.

 

But it sounds nice.

 

Personalized Learning.

 

I like that.

 

That’s exactly the kind of educational experience I want for my own daughter.

 

I’d like her schooling to be tailor-made for her. Teach her in a way she can best understand and that will best engage her mind and build upon her competencies.

 

However, that’s not what Personalized Learning means.

 

It’s a euphemism for Competency Based Education or Outcome Based Education.

 

It means plopping a child in front of a computer screen for hours on end while she takes standardized tests and standardized test look-alikes on-line.

 

Cartoon avatars lecture students how to answer multiple-choice questions in mind numbing detail before making them go through endless drill-and-kill practice. If kids don’t get a question right, they do it again-and-again until they do.

 

And somehow this is personalized?

 

I’ll give you a little tip. You can’t have personal learning without people.

 

This is personalized the same way Angry Birds and Candy Crush is personalized. Except it’s way less fun – and much higher stakes.

 

Imagine if all of your classes were taught at the end of an automated help line. That’s really what this is:

 

“If you don’t understand because you need me to define a word, press 1.

 

If you don’t understand because you need me to explain punctuation, press 2.

 

If you don’t understand because you need the question repeated…”

 

What if your question isn’t on the menu? You have no recourse other than to just keep pushing buttons until you hit the one that’s supposedly “correct”.

 

Forget for a moment how ineffective that is. Just imagine how boring it is for a growing child.

 

Nothing stifles a young person’s natural curiosity more than being forced to suffer through hours of tedium.

 

And what’s worse, we already know this.

 

We’ve tried this kind of garbage before with similar results.

 

Back in the 1980s, the Reagan administration deregulated everything it could get its hands on, especially education.

 

This opened the floodgates to for-profit corporations to offer mail order correspondence courses with little to no accountability but funded by the federal government.

For nearly a decade, student aide systems were systemically pillaged and looted by unscrupulous vendors offering correspondence schools as a trendy alternative for trade schools and credit recovery programs. They charged hefty tuition and fees for nothing more than sending students boilerplate instructional materials, multiple choice tests, and worthless diplomas in the mail.

 

The blatant fraud was documented by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in the hearings held by then-Chairman Sam Nunn of Georgia. This lead to eliminating correspondence schools from participation in federal aide programs.

 

Congress realized that sending students a book wasn’t the same as actually teaching them.

 

But by the late 1990s and early 2000s, things began to change. With the popularization of the Internet, the defunct business model could rebrand itself simply by offering similar materials on-line. And after significant lobbying efforts over the subsequent decades, Congress conveniently forgot its objections to almost the same kind of fraud.

 

However, this kind of malfeasance was at first mostly confined to credit recovery programs and on-line colleges. In K-12 this was primarily a way for students who had already failed a grade to pass the required core courses over the summer on-line. It was a way to boost graduation rates or even provide resources for students to get a G.E.D.

 

The poor quality of these programs has been demonstrated time and again.

 

But instead of limiting, fixing or eliminating them, we’re pushing them into the public school system.

 

This is seen as a way to save money by teaching without teachers. Sure, you still need a certified educator in the class room (for now) but you can stuff even more children into the seats when the teacher is only a proctor and not responsible for actually presenting the material.

 

The teacher becomes more of a policeman. It’s his job to make sure students are dutifully pressing buttons, paying attention and not falling asleep.

 

Moreover, this is sold as a way to boost test scores and meet the requirements of the Common Core. You can easily point to exactly which standards are being assessed on a given day and then extrapolate to how much that will increase struggling students’ scores on the federally mandated standardized test when they take it later in the year.

 

In fact, students’ answers on these programs are kept and recorded. They are, in effect, stealth assessments that can be used to judge and sort students into remediation classes or academic tracks.

 

In effect, the year-end high stakes test can be entirely forgotten. Students are given a standardized test every day. Even those whose parents opt them out of the federal assessment have no escape because the tests have become the curriculum, itself.

 

And all the while tech companies are raking in the cash.

 

Education policy is not concerned with how best to teach children. It is about how best to open the trough of tax dollars to education corporations – book publishers, test manufacturers and now tech companies.

 

Meanwhile, the public has almost no idea what’s going on.

 

Educators are sounding the alarm, but well-paid corporate shills are trying to silence them as being anti-progress.

 

Calling out bad educational practices conducted on a computer is not Ludditism. Certainly there are better ways to use the technology to help students learn than THIS.

 

Moreover, there are plenty of things from the ‘80s that deserve being revisited – new wave music, romantic comedies, even the old Rubik’s cube.

 

But putting crappy correspondence colleges on-line!?

 

No, thank you.

Should Teachers Have Strong Opinions?

istock_000013919699_490x356

 

I am an opinionated person. I am also a public school teacher.

 

Those two things should not be mutually exclusive.

 

You should not have to give up the one to be able to do the other.

 

Teachers should not have to relinquish their judgment in order to run an effective classroom. In fact, you might expect good judgment to be a prerequisite to doing the job well.

 

Yet it seems many people disagree. They like their teachers tame, docile and opinion-free.

 

That’s just not me.

 

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying teachers should instruct their students to think just like them. I’m not saying they should indoctrinate or unduly influence the young people in their care.

 

Just the opposite. They should spur their students to think for themselves. They should teach the young how to entertain an idea without immediately accepting it.

 

But they have no business telling students, “This is what I believe.” They have no business misusing their authority to make their views seem normative.

 

So I agree that teachers should be careful about expressing their opinions in the classroom. The problem comes after the school day is through.

 

When a teacher goes home, all bets are off. When a teacher is not in front of a class of impressionable children, he or she should be afforded the same rights and privileges of any other citizen – and that includes the right to form an opinion and express it publicly.

 

I am an educator. Hear me roar.

 

That’s why – like many people in my field – I write an education blog.

 

I’m sick of the media reporting on K-12 schools but never asking classroom teachers their opinions.

 

Almost all major education policy in our country is made with little-to-no input from teachers: Common Core, high-stakes testing, value added measures, charter schools, Teach for America, school funding – the list goes on and on.

 

No one asks us what we think so many teachers scribble down their private musings and send them adrift on the Nile of the Internet.

 

This makes some people very angry.

 

These folks often respond: How dare they!? No one asked their opinion!

 

EXACTLY.

 

Some of us, teachers, even dare to address issues that don’t directly affect the classroom: racism, sexism, police brutality, the prison system, parenting – Heaven forbid – POLITICS!

 

Those who criticize us for commenting on such disparate matters have a very narrow view of relevance. Just because a subject doesn’t include the word “school” doesn’t make it irrelevant to the classroom. Most of my students are impoverished and minorities. You think racism doesn’t impact their lives? You think I see nothing of the effects of poverty? You think I have nothing to say about my children’s relationship with the police?

 

Still, few things upset some readers as much as the knowledge that I both teach and think.

 

“I’m glad my child doesn’t have a teacher like you,” some of them say. Or “No one who feels the way you do should be allowed in a classroom.” Or “This is why I homeschool.”

 

It’s funny. You never hear people speak this way of any other profession. Only teachers. We are demanded to pass a purity test from which even the priesthood is exempt.

 

The clergy are rarely instructed to keep their noses out of politics. They’re even invited to do so from the pulpit. But teachers? No way! Not even on our off hours.

 

It’s almost as if some folks think teachers are incapable of forming an opinion and not blurting it out in class. “Stop coloring, children! I must regale you with the inadequacies of former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia!”

 

It’s ridiculous. But it makes me wonder. How much of this restraint do these critics practice in their own homes?

 

Do these same people who fear a teacher’s opinion stop themselves from influencing the views of their own children? Do they let their little ones make up their own minds about the world or do they tell them what to think?

 

It’s not surprising that most people hold the same religion as their parents. Do we all start with an unbiased view of faith and just magically find the beliefs of our fathers the most suited to our own lives? Or do most parents stack the deck? Don’t most of us actively teach our children THIS is the way to believe?

 

I wonder if these critics of teachers are really just afraid educators will disrupt their own work. How many parents want their own children to believe the same way they do? How many are afraid the schools will allow children to come to different conclusions? How many are afraid of being alienated from their own progeny?

 

I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’m a parent, too.

 

And, yes, I say things to my own child that I would not tell my students. If she asks a question, I give her a full answer including what I think about it. That’s a parent’s prerogative.

 

However, I don’t insist she believe as I do. My daughter knows I want her to make up her own mind. I appreciate our differences and love her even more because of them.

 

I don’t want her to be a carbon copy of me. Nor do I want that of my students or my readers.

 

I just want a fair hearing.

 

Hello, World! This is what I think! This is why I think it!

 

And I wait for the world to answer back.
I send my little message in a bottle onto the waves of the Interwebs.

 

I just wish it sometimes didn’t return with a note telling me to shut up because I’m a teacher.


NOTE: This article was also discussed on Diane Ravitch’s blog.