Tuesday, June 28, 2016

It's all still the same reformy bubble

I followed the whole "social justice warrior" conversation that took place about a month ago from afar. I pretty much gave up being active in the national ed reform/ed reform skeptic community when I became more active locally. And then I kind of gave up social media activity and writing for pleasure--especially blogging, and tweeting--for my PhD program (as a compromise, I maintain a facebook page called "All Things Education"--you can "like" it without being my facebook friend). But, back to the topic at hand, I couldn't resist jumping into the fray on this one, even if the fray even if everyone else has already moved on.

I read (and cringed at) Robert's Robert Pondiscio's  piece, The Left's drive to push conservatives out of education reform piece the day it came out. When he was with the Core Knowledge Foundation, Robert was one of my favorite education thinkers and writers. We chatted online quite a bit and he even invited me to guest post at the Core Knowledge blog. We agreed especially about the importance of content knowledge, especially in literacy and the mis-guidedness of excessive teaching of "reading skills" at the expense of teaching literature, writing, the humanities, sciences, the arts, PE, math, foreign languages. I still read some of his work with great interest and will share it and recommend it accordingly. But this piece was really alienating and just utterly clueless.

Although there is much to rebut in the piece, I will only point out the problem with using the free market as a means to "take people out of poverty."
a) The free market, essentially where there's a profit motive, should never be used in the following service sectors (and no, I am not including the vending of clocks and what not to schools and to say that I am is just silly): education, military, healthcare, criminal justice, and social services.

b) The free market is dominated by the already powerful: white males and is designed to keep  (poor choice of words there) currently functions in a way that keeps those folks on top. The free market is not a neutral tool, it's not an equitable tool, and it's not a magical tool that you just sit back and let work its magic. It doesn't replace the hard, painstaking work that is obligated in democracy.

I am heartened that The New Schools Teachers Project Teach Plus for America Democrats for Education Reform 50CAN Stand for Children Students First Venture Project Fund are talking about and including voices from Black Lives Matters.

But when it comes down to it, I still fail to see much difference between conservative and centrist (really, centrist is a better term--most of these people aren't true liberals. If they were, they wouldn't be so cavalier about dismantling public democratic institutions) ed reformers. It's all still one bubble. I mean, I guess maybe vouchers separates them but not always. Okay, gay marriage, for sure. But that's about it.

So the centrist reformers are ready to listen and include more of those voices, but ultimately, that doesn't really matter. What matters is: power and on whose terms acts of education reform are committed.

In our society, people who aren't white males, and to a lesser extent white females, and an even lesser extent queer white folks, don't have power. Black people and Native Americans have the least power of all.

So the real questions for these ed reformers become:
1. What are you going to give up? What are you going to relinquish? (And I don't mean the reformy "edu-visionary" version of relinquish as in give up your power and kid to the free market and shut up kind of relinquishment. I mean actually giving up power because you have a unhealthily disproportionate amount of it.)

2. On whose terms are you going to enact and implement education reform policies? Will this be an actual democratic process? Or will you just seek the "buy in" of those folks and wear the titles of their movements as bumper stickers as you drive off and leave them in the dust.

Are you going to listen to actual teachers, parents, and students who don't agree with the policies you push?  To the black teachers who got fired en masse in New Orleans and DC? How about to the parents living in poverty who don't want their schools closed? To the students who don't want to go to schools that are run like prisons ? You gonna have those folks at your conferences? Running your organizations? Helping to make policies? You gonna refer those people to journalists instead of talking to them yourself? Are you going to power share? Are you going to step down from your positions of power? Or are you gonna wait until you're all done? Or will you stay in your bubble and just have representatives from powerless groups who are with The New Schools Teachers Project Teach Plus for America Democrats for Education Reform 50CAN Stand for Children Students First Venture Project Fund? Will you continue to buy journalism or will you let journalists do their jobs? Will you continue to buy educational research that supports your policies or will let the educational researchers do their work?

I know many of you are nice people who mean well, but when you actually become of a part of the communities you like to have so much say over and when you actually step down and aside so those folks can step in and have control over their own communities and schools, when you give up your power and embrace true democracy, then that will be true change.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Charter schools in Virginia whether we want them or not

Charter schools may soon be coming to Virginia communities whether those communities want them or not. This is not about whether or not to have charter schools or whether or not charter schools work. This is about power and democracy.

In Virginia, what's known as the "charter school bill," HB 3 in the Virginia House of Delegates and SB 588 in the Virginia Senate, establishes a resolution (HJ 1 and SJ R6) that will trigger a referendum on a constitutional amendment giving the Virginia State Board of Education ( a 9-member body appointed by the Governor) the power to go over the heads of local school boards and establish charter schools in local communities.  This resolution will likely be heard in the Virginia House of Delegates today (Monday, February 1st, 2016) or tomorrow, so you must contact your Delegate ASAP.

This resolution and accompanying legislation is before the General Assembly for the second year in a row. (I wrote about this last year here and before that I wrote about the concept, when it was the Opportunity Educational Institution, here.) Last year, it passed both chambers and, hence, if it passes this year—and as of this writing the House Privileges and Election Committee has sent it on to the House floor on a 10-9 vote—it will go onto the ballot this November. (Or maybe not this November if the Virginia GOP doesn't think it will pass then, but I digress.) 

“Work” is not the right way of looking at this, in any case. Like any model, some charter schools are successful and some aren’t. Some charter schools are true institutions of education, created by parents and educators, while some are real estate scams, developed by hucksters and charlatans. But given that all students are not served as they should be in public schools, I agree that conversations about the merits and disadvantages of charter schools are worth having.

But it is a conversation worth having among parents, citizens, educators, and educational leaders in the communities where charter schools are potentially to be located. Setting up schools in local communities is not a state matter. While many of its members are knowledgeable and passionate about K-12 education in Virginia and the Virginia State Board of Education may do a good job with the work they are tasked with, this is not their job.

Virginia currently has a rigorous, democratic process to establish charter schools, a process with built-in oversight, checks and balances, and accountability. Charter school proposals go before the locally, democratically elected (and in some cases, locally appointed) school boards where the charter schools are to be established. Charter schools in Virginia are overseen by these school boards and the schools are hence accountable to the public like all other public schools. Some local communities in Virginia have decided to set up charter schools. Groups in other communities have tried to set up charter schools but have not made a strong enough case to other members of their communities or to their school boards.

A school board failing to act on a matter or acting in a way that we citizens don’t agree with is not sufficient reason to put the Commonwealth through the referendum process, to amend the constitution, or to do so in a way that will disenfranchise citizens of local communities. Shall we threaten to amend the Constitution of Virginia every time our school boards do something we don’t agree with? Is that reasonable? Because I have got, like, ten amendments (don't tell my school board I said that). No, that’s not reasonable and it trivializes the amendment process.

I don’t always agree with my school board, but it is my school board, answerable to me and the members of the public it serves. Let's keep it that way. Please contact your state Senator and Delegate and tell them to VOTE NO on HB3/SB588.

Friday, January 8, 2016

From Duncan to King

Most regular readers of the blog know that for the most part I have not been a fan of the policies of (recently) former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, even if I think his intentions were good. Too much emphasis on testing, too much arbitrariness, too punitive, too much over-reach, too little thought given to the impacts of privatization, and too little respect for democratic processes.

But he has used his bully pulpit to speak up about some issues that matter, and it is my hope that he will be one of those officials who turns out to do better things out of office than s/he did while in office. The content of his final speech in office, as reported in the Washington Post, leads me to believe he will do some work towards reducing gun violence. I hope so.
Arne Duncan used his last speech as U.S. Education Secretary to draw attention to violence that claims the lives of thousands of children each year, saying that the “greatest frustration” of his seven-year tenure has been Washington’s failure to pass gun control legislation. 
Fighting off tears, Duncan said that 16,000 young people were killed during his first six years in office. “We have to get guns out of the wrong people’s hands. We have to make sure our babies are safe,” said Duncan, who plans to step down on Thursday. 
He went on to draw connections between street violence and high school dropout rates in America’s poorest communities, saying that both are the result of hopelessness that children feel when they grow up believing that they have a better chance of dying young than going to college or getting a job.
Meanwhile, the record of his successor, Acting Education Secretary John King, while serving as New York State's Education Commissioner gives me. . . pause:
King was just as embattled, if not more, in New York as education commissioner for some of the same reasons as Duncan — and there were numerous calls for his resignation as well. By the time he resigned, he had lost the confidence of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) (although King was appointed by the New York State Regents). 
King led a series of school reforms that included a new teacher evaluation system using student standardized test scores that critics say is nonsensical  (for example, art teachers are evaluated by student math test scores) and the implementation of the Common Core standards, and aligned Pearson-designed standardized tests. King’s oversight of all of this was considered such a disaster that Cuomo last year wrote in a letter to top state education officials that “Common Core’s implementation in New York has been flawed and mismanaged from the start.”
But just as some public officials do very different things once out of office, they sometimes take a different tack once they change positions, and show evidence of, you know, growth. In addition, King has spoken about the importance of school integration as an education reform lever, which is hopeful:
At a recent National Coalition on School Diversity conference, King emphasized the importance of integrated, racially diverse schools, according to Chalkbeat New York.  
“Schools that are integrated better reflect our values as a country,” King said.  
Under Duncan, the Education Department did not take action to desegregate the nation's increasingly racially segregated schools. But King told Chalkbeat that integration “has a long history and substantial evidence” of success.
Even so, I am not a resident of New York State and do not begrudge the skepticism among those who are King detractors.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Yes, please, to more recess

We are lucky that the elementary schools that my children attend still have a full half an hour of lunch and a full half an hour of recess each day. Other kids are not so lucky--recess is becoming a luxury. Though my middle schoolers don't get any recess. Do any middle schoolers get recess any more? So two things of note here:

1) Recess is really important and even half an hour is not enough, especially not for younger children.

2) Secondary students also need some form of recess.

In North Texas, a handful of schools are experimenting with more (not less) recess. Their students go out four times per day, for 15 minutes each, and the results have been very promising so far:
First grade teachers Donna McBride and Cathy Wells say they’ve seen a transformation in their kids. 
They’re less distracted, they make more eye contact, and they tattle less. 
Wells has noticed another difference: She spends less time sharpening pencils. 
“You know why I was sharpening them?” Wells says. “Because they were grinding on them, they were breaking them, they were chewing on them. They’re not doing that now. They’re actually using their pencils for the way that they were designed – to write things!”
I want to say that I've never understood withholding recess, either as a consequence for poor choices or as a way to increase achievement. But it's possible I didn't fully understand that until I had children of my own and then spent two years teaching preschool. As far as I can tell, taking away recess will result in more poor choices being made and in lower achievement and productivity. To me, withholding recess is tantamount to withholding sleep--everyone needs a certain amount of it. And recess is a tremendous opportunity for social learning.

One of my children's teachers (in addition to recess) actually used to take her class outside to walk or run laps when they started to get too wacky. She got it, and she had the autonomy to make that decision. Not all teachers have that, either. I remember dreading the days when my kids and students couldn't go outside or didn't have a suitable place for indoor recess.

Secondary students also need breaks and "recess." This school in Vermont has what they term "MHS unplugged" every day (h/t Joanne Jacobs who got it from edutopia):

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Back to blogging (but with more humility and brevity)

Happy New Year!

As I noted about this time last year, I really haven't blogged or tweeted much in the past few years. I have spoken up when an issue really, really mattered to me, but otherwise, I have been less active on social media for three reasons: 1) a year and a half ago, I started a full-time PhD program and part-time graduate assistantship in education (educational leadership and policy specifically); 2) A little over a year ago, one of my children was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes; and, 3) for the past three to four years, I have been very active in local education matters and in local politics.

This has all been. . . humbling:

My doctoral studies have opened a world of education to me that has served to show me how much I don't know and how much I don't know how to do. I might have been a medium to big fish in the education blogging world, but when I walked through the doors of VCU's School of Education, I was a little baby fish once again. This is what I wanted, but it has meant a lot of hard work. I am learning a ton and am mastering at least the basic of areas (like statistics) that I had no fluency in at all previously. I am older than most of my classmates, which means at times that I know a bit more about some things, and I came in a decent writer. However, at the same time, that mantra about teaching an old dog new tricks. . . Well, yeah, I'm swimming against the current there. Plus I have three children at home, and there is no way I am going to give them up the way I gave up blogging and social media, so sometimes I do not get to do some things that might put me in a better position career-wise.

Which leads me to humbling experience number two. You can be the perfect parent (and I am far from that) but there are always things that you can not protect your child from, like chronic, genetic auto-immune diseases. And in the face of those things, as a parent, you can do everything in your power to put your child in best position to lead the healthiest, fullest life possible, but you are still at the mercy of the limits of the human body and of medical science, and of what happens when you are not around. This experience has aged me a great deal and taught me a lot, and it's also made me nicer, more forgiving, and less likely to spend time judging--I don't have the time and I don't find it productive and you never know what people are going through.

Which leads me to humbling experience number three. Three or four years ago, local conditions were such that I decided to get involved. And you know what? I discovered that local is more important and that it also takes much more face-to-face engagement, much more listening and compromise, and greater understanding for and empathy with those with whom I might disagree. Outrage and anger won't get you very far--at least not where I live. And, while you must hold decision-makers accountable for what they say and do publicly, it's important to find out as much as you can about what has actually happened before taking action. The situation is often more complex than you realize. This work is immensely satisfying and interesting, but it goes slowly and requires dedication, humility, genuine kindness, and patience.

These are three qualities I am not sure I had in such great supply when I started this blog, but that was a different phase in my life. And I have missed it--the blogging, the tweeting, the thinking out loud and publicly, the dialogue, the conversation. So, I've decided that the way I can still do this is to leave the big investigations, solution-suggesting, and "hard-hitting" analysis for my academic work and to use the blog to share bits and pieces of the educational puzzle, as I have been doing on the All Things Education facebook page but with a little commentary. Stay tuned.

Monday, June 29, 2015

On the need for more educators of color & why affirmative action is not the issue

I have read and written a lot recently about racism and the intersection of racism and public education, and the need for more teachers of color and more diverse curricula in our schools. I have also had conversations with local leaders and decision makers here where I live in Hanover, Virginia, about the lack of educators and educational leaders of color and have participated in deep conversations on this topic in the course of my doctoral studies in Educational Leadership at VCU.

All of this has caused me to feel a need to articulate why it is important for ALL children in this country to be taught by people of color and to articulate responses to the arguments I have heard as to why the problem of a lack of teachers of color can't be helped or even as to why it's not a problem or how it will cause other problems.

So here goes:

Why is this important?
Leaders, decision-makers, educators, and teachers are in positions of influence and power. Due to a legacy of racism in our country, the majority of those positions are held by white people. This is unhealthy, unjust, and bad for our society. We need more people of color in those positions, to right power imbalances but also because those perspectives are sorely lacking in positions of power and influence throughout this country. Those perspectives are important not just to represent people of color but to make our institutions and white people less racist over time.

But many people of color just aren't as qualified for those positions.
Research has shown that many qualified people of color are routinely passed over for positions of influence and power due to institutional racism. Additionally, due to institutional racism, people of color haven't had the same opportunities as white people. I have yet to be convinced that people of color aren't just as qualified as white people for positions of power and influence, but if someone is convinced of this then my answer is: a) experience is a way to get qualifications and b) if it means getting to a proper balance of power and equal opportunity for all people, I am fine with putting people of color who might not seem as qualified on paper into more positions of power and influence. As far as I'm concerned, white supremacy is the greatest problem here. Nothing else even comes close.

But affirmative action isn't fair!
White people routinely get hired for jobs or accepted into more prestigious schools due to their family background, their connections, or wealth and not because any superior qualifications--they have benefited from a system of white supremacy for hundreds of years. Affirmative action is a drop in the bucket next to that. Furthermore, affirmative action happens at the end of things, after opportunities have already been denied. By the time "affirmative action" college admissions and hiring take place, those candidates of color that would benefit from affirmative action are just as well qualified if not better than white candidates, especially when you take legacy admissions and connections and wealthy into account. Furthermore, think of how many people of color have been denied opportunities for every one "affirmative action" hire or acceptance. If you really want to end affirmative action, then work to make it so everyone has the same opportunities starting before and at birth. If you want to end affirmative action, you have to end institutional racism.

How can you change this? Isn't it hopeless?
I don't know the answer to that. There are many different ways to change things. There are also many ways to bang your head against the wall. The best route to change is via groups that are local, organic, and led by the people the most impacted.

For me, it also helps first to consistently be aware of, learn about, and reflect upon my own position in society and upon my own implicit biases. I recognize that there is no escaping racism--it's everywhere in this country, whether you live in the North or South, East or West, and whether the racism is explicit or implicit. Second, it helps me to have hope that people can change, and to try to be non-judgmental (given that we all have work to do). This is going to sound corny, but I try hard to love the sinner and hate the sin. 

Some people probably are hopeless, like the ones who call Obama a socialist or who called for the dogs in Baltimore. I know I can't win with those people. I just don't want those people to win and so that's why I can't give in to hopelessness.

My thinking has been influenced by my upbringing but also by the writers in the #educolor collective, and the writer and blogger Ta-nehisi Coates, all exceptional thinkers that I highly recommend you read.

Friday, May 8, 2015


Recently, my representative in the Virginia House of Delegates, Hyland "Buddy" F. Fowler (R-Hanover, Spotsylvania, and Caroline Counties) posted on facebook that police in Baltimore should deal with protests by unleashing attack dogs on protesters:

This has made some rounds in the media. It was broken on Blue Virginia, and then was featured in Raw Story, Talking Points Memo, the Richmond Times-DispatchWashington Post, and in Michael Paul Williams' column in the RTD. An editorial  in the normally very conservative RTD called for Delegate Fowler to step down:
Fowler disgraces his party and his constituency. He is not a gentleman and ought not to be a delegate.

When his post was first publicized, Buddy deleted the posting and then issued an apology:

He later sent out an "explanation" in his constituent newsletter, stating that, "While I may not have used my best judgement in a recent Facebook post, my motives were sincere." He goes on to say, "It saddens me that there is a member of the Democratic leadership serving in the General Assembly who wrongly assumes my motives and attacks me publicly, all to advance his own agenda and worse, to raise money" and that Democrats and those who called him out "are focused on the wrong thing. This is not a black/white race issue, this about criminals taking advantage of a tragedy to commit crimes against innocent victims, most of whom are minorities."

Needless to say, the apology is not a real apology, not even close; it's a dodge and the explanation only explains that he has not come to grips with his own racism or with the racism that exists in our public democratic institutions. Are we taking advantage of this Buddy's being a racist to get him out of office because he's a racist? You bet we are.
This is not the first time that Buddy has posted something racist on his facebook page. About two years ago, he referred to President Obama as "Obammy," which is a racist play on words referencing "Mammy," a derogatory slavery-era term for older Black women.

The Hanover Democratic Committee's Black Caucus wrote him a letter explaining to him why the term was offensive and asking him to take it down, but the post is still there.

When things like this happen where I live, I fantasize about moving. After all, this is the person who represents me in the VA House--I have even met him and talked with him a few times. Furthermore, a majority of the people in my district voted for him!

But the thing is, this is my community, too. I live here, too. I contribute to the community, too. I pay taxes here, too. Big city liberals may look down on southern, conservative, rural areas, but communities like mine are also home to people of color and their allies. People in the south are trying to change systemic racism, too, and have been since the advent of slavery. And despite presumptions to the contrary, there is no shortage of racism in supposedly liberal meccas like California and New York City--I have lived in both places. So instead of looking down on and writing off rural, southern areas, support the people of color and anti-racism efforts in those areas. Help us get the resources we need to organize and get out the vote. Getting out the vote and winning local elections matters tremendously. And, speaking of what and who matters, Black Lives don't just Matter in urban, more liberal areas; they matter everywhere.

Here's how you can help:

1. VOTE. (Especially in local and state-wide elections. Register here.)

2. Especially if you are a Virginian, please contact Delegate Fowler and share your thoughts. (Here is the letter I wrote.) He votes on bills that impact all Virginians. His contact information is:

Capitol Office:
General Assembly Building
PO Box 406
Richmond, Virginia 23218
Office: 804-698-1055

District Office:
10321 Washington Highway
Glen Allen, VA 23059
Office: 804-305-8867

Email Address: DelBFowler@house.virginia.gov

3. Donate to the Hanover County chapter of the NAACP, the Caroline County chapter of the NAACP, or the Spotsylvania County chapter of the NAACP. (I think it's always better to contribute directly to local groups, but if you're having too much trouble, here is a quick way to donate to the NAACP.)

4. Donate to the NAACP Youth & College Division which includes more than 700 youth councils, high school and college chapters involved in civil rights advocacy and organizing.

5. Donate to or volunteer with Buddy's opponent's campaign! Help get out the vote in Virginia's 55th district. Toni Radler is running against Buddy Fowler in the next VA-55 elections. She won a good percentage of the vote during the last cycle and she has a good chance of capturing more of it this cycle. She has spoken up about Buddy's racism and about institutional racism and she is also pro-women's rights, pro-gun safety, pro-universal healthcare access, and pro-public education.

6. Make a contribution to the Hanover Democratic CommitteeCaroline County Democratic Committee, or the Spotsylvania Democratic Committee (you could indicate that you want your donation to be directed to funding activities of the Committee's Black Caucus--I know that Hanover has one). These committees raise money to distribute to local candidates, such as Toni, and focus on getting out the vote.

7. VOTE.