Wednesday, April 2, 2014

In truth, there is hope

My last two posts have been attempts to address matters of race in (largely progressive) public education advocacy circles. Michael Lopez had a very thoughtful response to my post and Sabrina Joy Stevens wrote a powerful post related to the topic.

In the meantime, I have been following the recent conversation between Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates, especially the references to "middle class" norms. I had a brief blog-based conversation with Matt Ygelsias surrounding this topic about three years ago as it has to do with education reform. Though we only talked about poverty and not about race. I remember making a conscious choice not to refer to race in those posts. Yglesias hadn't mentioned race and I guess I felt that my criticisms of his point of view were strong enough without pointing to race. I also wasn't sure that I as a white woman in conversation with a white man should say, your argument is lacking because race. I didn't want to use race as a rhetorical device.

Then commenter @MDS said, "we can not continue this conversation without confronting race." I didn't disagree but I didn't utter any regrets about it either. Now in retrospect I wonder if I was cowardly to not bring up race or if I "failed" to bring up race. I am certain that it was a neglected and necessary part of the conversation.

In any case, I have been drinking up every post that Coates has written lately and especially the posts he has written in response to Jonathan Chait about culture, poverty, and race. I have been so disappointed with Chait's responses and with other posts from white men. But then again, I have always found Chait's writing, especially on education, to be disappointing, so much so that I can hardly stand to read him. Nor do I find that he is particularly progressive or liberal, though I am starting to grow tired of such labels and am finding them more and more to be of limited use. So I started out biased.

What I find especially irksome was the idea that Coates has somehow "given up" (presumably on America or on America for African-Americans) or that he has become "profoundly pessimistic." Another more conservative friend recently told me he found Coates to be increasingly "shrill."


I don't find that at all. While Coates' writing can be emotional, he's fair, and nuanced when it's called for. Coates is incredibly well read and informed on race and the history of race in America. Each piece he writes on race in America brings something new--a new intellectual, a new quote, a deeper look, even if the topic is the same. He never fails to acknowledge that human beings are complex; he never fails to acknowledge the humanity of all people, even slaveholders. This is not someone who has given up.

And just the very fact of his engaging in such conversations is hopeful. Just the act of putting pen to paper in search of truth is hopeful. Just the act of studying, the act of seeking to understand is hopeful. And the constant work of sharing his understanding is hopeful work. It's the people who don't feel it's worth it to engage, to seek to understand, to help others to understand, who have given up, who are hopeless.

Furthermore, when white people stop trying to listen and to understand why Coates and other African-Americans feel and think the way they do, then that is giving up. Time and time again, Coates and his brothers and sisters of color return to the table to talk, to learn, to share their perspectives and what is fundamental to their experiences. They have so much more to lose than to gain from this, especially when their time is wasted by those who can't seem to hear them because they are too busy, as Tressie McMillan Cottom masterfully says here, "requiring hope."

Speaking the truth, as Coates has done, even when it reveals dark or ugly aspects of our society, brings understanding and knowledge. There is light in that and in that light there is so much hope. It's the continuing to believe in a lie and expecting people like Ta-Nehisi Coates to do the same that is so damn depressing and not progressive at all.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Thoughts & questions on race and grassroots education reform

Riffing off of my last post, I have been thinking a lot lately about the intersection of race and the grassroots education reform movement. Here are some thoughts/questions I have come up with:

1.  What a person knows about race dynamics constantly evolves, no matter how long or how much one has been involved in struggles against racism, or how involved one has been in communities of color. Once we understand once, we will continue to learn and to struggle to understand the next time. Dynamics change, laws change, circumstances change, younger people come in with their own unique perspectives, perspectives that have been influenced by current times, not the past (even if they have studied the past).

White people may know people of color personally--they may be members of our families, friends, co-workers, co-activists, neighbors, students, or teachers, but those are personal relationships which may not manifest the same shifts that take place in society.

Furthermore, what was once considered an acceptable compromise or alliance may not be so in a different context or era. If we claim that progress has been made, then we can not expect people of color to make the same compromises and alliances that their predecessors made. Why should they?

2. Some white progressive  (or other) public education activists seem to think that their first priority is to preserve public education and that those efforts will inevitably help to address structural racism. Are those efforts enough? I don't know, but it seems too simplistic to me. Too often, white public education activists seem to say, "You are hurting our common cause by bringing internal issues of race up" rather than "I am hurting the cause by not addressing issues of race."

3. Some white educators who teach a majority of students of color seem to think that because of that, they are engaged in social justice work, or in anti-racism work. But even if you serve students of color and serve them well as an educator, does that mean you're engaged in social justice or anti-racism work? I'm not so sure. It seems to me that there has to be something more to such work. Also, you can teach mostly or all white students and be engaged in anti-racism or pro-social justice work, as well.

4. Speaking of social justice, I hear that phrase batted about so much so that I wonder if it has lost its meaning somewhat. Or, maybe people just don't seem to know what they mean when they say it. How does one define social justice? Well, here's the definition of "social justice" from John Rawls and Aristotle via wikipedia:
Social justice is the ability people have to realize their potential in the society where they live.[1] Classically, "justice" (especially corrective justice or distributive justice) referred to ensuring that individuals both fulfilled their societal roles,[2] and received what was due from society. "Social justice" is generally used to refer to a set of institutions which will enable people to lead a fulfilling life and be active contributors to their community.[3] The goal of social justice is generally the same as human development, and the relevant institutions are usually taken to include educationhealth caresocial securitylabour rights, as well as a broader system of public servicesprogressive taxation and regulation of markets, to ensure fair distribution of wealthequality of opportunity, and no gross inequality of outcome.
Sounds good to me. But do all stakeholders agree on this? In any case, just because you call something "social justice" doesn't mean that it is.

5. I'm wondering if there's a disconnect between public education activists who are anti-charter and parents of color who send their children to charter schools. I see a certain amount of judgement of people of color who send their kids to charter schools, especially the for-profits and "no excuses" chains. While I am troubled by the proliferation of charter schools, and especially of those of for-profits and no excuses variety, and have problems seeing them as public democratic institutions, I am also loathe to judge people who send their children to them. I'm not seeing where most people of color are gung-ho about sending their children to such charters, but rather that they see it as the least bad option. Or maybe, it's matter of values matching up. Even as I acknowledge that the "market" is rigged in well-endowed charter chains' favors, I find it problematic to assume that people whose children go to them are simply pawns of that system. We need to find out why people of color send their children to charter schools when they do. Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that the traditional public school system has not served students of color as well as it has white students. I don't think that that means we should destroy the traditional public schools system--I think we should make it better for all students, but "rigged market" aside, we need to explore what might cause people who would otherwise support public schools to leave them.

6. When people say "we need to reach out to communities of color" and the group they are addressing includes people of color, there is something wrong. That "we" is excluding and sounds like the people of color already in the group are invisible. Furthermore, whose movement is it? Who owns it? If said policies are affecting mostly communities of color, should white people put themselves in charge of the movement?

7. Sometimes, I see or read about injustices that happen to people of color in the education sector and I am outraged or troubled and I want to write about them. I can use any megaphone I have to try to get others thinking about these things, to try to effect change, and I can use my white privilege to try to get through to those who don't see a problem. But in doing that, am I co-opting the outrage? Am I associating the problem with me, a white woman, rather than "making space for people of color to share their experiences directly," as a friend of color recently spoke of? By listening to and talking to someone who might not listen as easily to my black, native American, Asian or Latina equivalent, am I perpetuating their racism?

Where's the line between being an ally and an activist and being patronizing or speaking for people of color? I mean, I know where the line is in some cases. I am not Trayvon Martin, for example, and it made me cringe to see white women saying #iamtrayvonmartin. I remember thinking, No , you're not. If you were Trayvon Martin, he wouldn't be dead. That's the whole point. Maybe I shouldn't have published this piece, for example. But the guy was making all of these racist assumptions (based on inaccuracies to boot!) and it made me mad. But was it my place to rant about it? Was I co-opting?

8. Even in 2014, inequality is not just "about class, not race." It's seductive to think so, and I went through a phase of thinking this, but espousing such a point of view means ignoring the role of history on conditions today and it means telling a person of color that the prejudice they experience does not exist. Even if it is more about class now than race, race very much determined class, and still does at least to a certain extent. I refer you to Ta-Nehisi Coates:
When you hear people claiming that "class" can somehow account for the damage of white supremacy, or making spurious comparisons between Appalachia and Harlem,  you should be skeptical. I have made those comparisons. But learning is the entire point of researching, writing, and reporting. I am learning that you can not simply wish the past away. 
White-supremacist policy is older than this country. It begins with the slave codes in mid-17th-century colonial Virginia. It proceeds through the the 18th century, inscribing itself into our Constitution. It moves into the 19th century with such force that slaves alone were worth more than all the productive capacity of the country put together. War was waged to assure slavery's continuance. The war was lost. We had a chance to do the right thing. We didn't. So white supremacist policy endured. Even American liberalism's proudest moment -- the New Deal -- would be unimaginable without its aid. This era of policy did not close until the late 1960s, well within the living memory of many Americans. 
In the face of this, liberals today are arguing that 300 years of immoral policy can be undone by changing the subject. If only we can fool white racists by helping black people under the guise of "class," maybe we can get out from under this. But the math says that black people are a class unto themselves. There is no "black and white" elite, no "black and white" middle class, no colorless poor. And when you consider that white supremacy is a dominant strain in our history, how could there be? 

On strange bedfellows in ed reform skepticism

Lately there has been some debate over whether progressives align themselves with the Tea Party to defeat the Common Core. I would argue that progressives should be skeptical of aligning ourselves with Tea Party at all because it is an affront to anti-racism and it may lead us to win the battle but lose the war for public education.

Within the progressive white education reform movement, there seems to be a troubling double standard, among some members. Why is it an unacceptable violation take Gates money, find common ground with Gates, or consider any potential merits of the Common Core, while working with the Tea Party (many members of which don't think public education should exist) on one issue is acceptable because it's "pragmatic"?

 Nancy Flanagan brought it up a couple of months ago and concluded:
Agreeing with the folks who see the Common Core as tearing children from the arms of their parents is a dangerous business. Let's have a rational conversation about the uses and misuses of content standards.
I agree: Public education advocacy work should be about policies and not about aligning ourselves with individuals or groups--in this case policies about standards and discussions about their use. If individuals or groups endorse the same policies I do, so be it. If your elected official happens to be a Tea Partier, you should still call them to express your views. Just because members of the Tea Party are in power doesn't mean we should abdicate our rights and powers as citizens, or that we should give up hope that people can change their opinions. I will never surrender my rightful role in the political process or give up give up efforts, if I think they might be fruitful, to change someone's point of view.

Jose Vilson addressed the issue on his blog and at the NPE:
There’s a big difference between having a difference of opinion, as so many do with our union representatives, for example, and a difference of vision. The difference is in how we view others in the same tent. Do we see each other as equal, capable of leading this movement, or as subordinate, a step towards a goal that eventually excludes? Inclusion along race, gender, and class lines matters. Examining the ways in which we hinder ourselves is so crucial to this work.

Some have responded to this by saying that saving public education is the bigger picture. But whose bigger picture? Don't they understand that for people of color, the bigger picture includes one where they are not considered as less than others because of the color of their skin? Asking people in the public education advocacy community to compartmentalize racism and "balance it" with other concerns is not reasonable. None of us should be doing that, none of us should lose sight of the components of the bigger picture. Part of white privilege is having the luxury to compartmentalize issues, i.e., saying this is about race and this isn't, or even though this is about race, I can see past that to the bigger picture. And in that case we're also, as white people, controlling the conversation, i.e., "This is/isn't about race because I say it is." or "Race doesn't matter here as much as preserving public education because that's the issue that is most important to me." Of course it wouldn't matter as much to a white person because it doesn't have to. No one is going to shoot one of us for walking down the street or stopping in a gas station while being white. Furthermore, what if the Tea Party's bigger picture includes the end of public education?

Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates on supporting Ron Paul and Rand Paul is instructive here. The War on Drugs and War on Terror/ NSA over-reach are awful policies that Ron and Rand Paul are against. But both have also promoted all kinds of racist bile. (And also think public education should not exist). I agree that the War on Drugs needs to end but I can not see getting it to end by propping up men such as Ron or Rand Paul even if temporarily. If you read some of TNC's thoughts about his peers' embracing of the Pauls you can get an idea of the position that any alliance with the Tea Party regarding Common Core puts a person of color from our public education community in:
To those who dimly perceived something wrong, something that could not be put on a placard, or could not move the party machine, men such as this become something more than political operators, they become symbols. Substantive charges against them, no matter the reasons, are dismissed. The movement they represent means more. But as sure as the followers of Farrakhan deserved more than UFOs, anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories, those of us who oppose the drug-war, who oppose the Patriot Act deserve better than Ron Paul. 
It is not enough to simply proffer Paul as a protest candidate.One must fully imagine the import of a Paul presidency. How, precisely, would Paul end the drug war? What, exactly, would he do about the Middle East? How, specifically,would the world look for women under a Ron Paul presidency?  
And then the dispatches must be honestly grappled with: It must be argued that a man who could not manage a newsletter should be promoted to managing a nuclear arsenal. Failing that, it must be asserted that a man who once claimedthat black people were knowingly injecting white people with HIV, who fund-raised by predicting a race-war, who handsomely profited from it all, should lead the free world. If that line falls too, we are forced to confess that  Ron Paul regularly summoned up the specters of racism for his own politically gain, and thus stands convicted of moral cowardice.

It's a no-brainer and it should be. I, Rachel, might protest Big Data or the Common Core but I protest far more any person or group who thinks people of color as less than white people or who thinks the Civil Rights movement is bogus. I'm willing to talk and listen to them but I'm not willing to prop up people of such political views even temporarily.

I have written a few times about the shortcomings of single-issue advocacy. Michelle Rhee and StudentsFirst defend their support of anti-gay, anti-poor people, and otherwise right-wing legislators by saying that their issue is education reform and not GLTB rights or poverty. And our community is always criticizing TFA for taking Walton money. Well, this is not dissimilar. To quote myself:
When reformers see fit to hand over the reigns of a sacred, public, democratic institution to people who hate the government, how is that supposed to work out? How can these education "reformers" imagine that anti-intellectuals can have anything of substance to offer to the intellectual pursuit of education? Is getting your questionable education reforms passed really worth empowering people who don't value knowledge-based education, public or otherwise? At some point, being anti-science and anti-intellectual means you're anti-education. If you have disdain for the creation of knowledge, or for knowledge itself even, you can't really be trusted to oversee the reform of one of our society's principal mechanisms for generating and transferring knowledge. 
The problem with a single-issue approach to education reform is that students don't lead single-issue lives. Democrats and neo-liberals who support decision-makers who would use their power to crush the Democratic party (through a war on unions of all stripes), who hate gay people, who deny climate change science, who support the disastrous Wars on Drugs and Terror, who don't even have the support of the saner members of their own party, who sell their states off to the highest bidders are acting irresponsibly and short-sightedly. 
Do we really want to employ a pyromaniac to fix our fireplaces if it means giving him the opportunity soon thereafter to burn down our homes? When I do the calculus, I don't see children or students, public or knowledge-rich and meaningful education winning. I see homo-phobic, poverty-criminalizing, anti-intellectual, knowledge-agnostic, right-wing ideology winning and I have yet to understand why any self-described liberal or education reformer would support that.

To read some thoughts and questions I posted as a follow-up to this post, go here.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

My Yeas, Nays, and Maybes: 2014 Virginia Education Legislation

The Virginia legislature is, once again, in session. Here is my take on various education-related bills.

1. SOL (Standards of Learning) Testing Reform Bill: Unfortunately, I can't locate the legislation for this bill, but I couldn't be happier that this legislation is in the works and that it has such wide and bi-partisan support. It's not the end of what should be done to fix Virginia's accountability structure but it's a start. Among other changes, the bill would reduce the number of SOL tests from 34 to 26 and call for more authentic and higher quality assessments. Two caveats:

a. The Virginia Board of Education and some folks at Virginia's Department of Education are claiming that Virginia's newer SOL tests, for example the math ones, are already of higher quality:
Virginia’s Board of Education has revised its tests so they are more reflective of what students need to know to attend college or begin an entry-level job, said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Education Department. 
Many of the state’s new online tests include “technology-enhanced items” that require students to think critically and solve problems. The more rigorous tests caused scores to drop around the state. 
Greason applauded the work the state has been doing and said the legislature would build on those reforms and codify them.
From what I can tell, the new tests are the same old stuff with some added bells and whistles. The reading test is still a disaster, "technology-enhanced" test items does not a critical thinker make, and these tests are not more rigorous, but are rather more tricky. Merely having twenty-six SOL tests akin to the newer ones is not progress in my book.

b. While there are efforts being made to ensure that non-tested subjects continue to be taught, some legislators are pushing to eliminate some tests in order to "focus on math and reading:"
“In the early years of elementary school we want to spend the majority of our time on reading and math,” said Del. Thomas “Tag” Greason, R-Loudoun County. “If a student cannot read, or do math, then the science SOL is really going to be a waste of everybody’s time.”
Oh, brother. Not this again. If a student can't read or do math, they're certainly not going to get any better at either by being denied instruction in science, social studies, or the arts. If students haven't learned anything about or any vocabulary words from those subjects, once they try to read about them, they won't be able to understand what they're reading with any success.

I hope legislators do not deny elementary students rich and varied curricula in the name of testing reform. Including the two caveats, I would support this bill.

2. HB 113: This bill would abolish the Opportunity Education Institution. The Opportunity Education Institution will undermine democracy and local control and will add another costly layer of bureaucracy. In case you missed it, I wrote about the OEI here. Among other Virginia public education stakeholder groups, one hundred or 75% of Virginia School Boards also oppose the OEI. I couldn't locate it but there is also a budget amendment to de-fund the OEI.

I completely support this bill and the accompanying budget amendment. Death to the OEI!

3. HB 318: This bill would repeal the School Grading Bill passed last year. I do not think school grading is a sound practice. See what I wrote here about school grading (hint: Virginia's school grading bill is also linked to the OEI, so double yuck.) There is also a bill to delay implementation of the School Grading Bill , HB 618/SB 324, and a bill to alter it, ostensibly to make it better, HB 553.

I heartily support the repeal bill. However, if delay and/or modification is the best that can be done, I'd support those, too.

4. SB 236: This bill would give public school students the right to pray, participate in religious activities, and wear faith-themed clothing on school property. I normally say to err on the side of free-er speech. I, for one, support the moment of silence that begins the school day in Virginia public schools, because it's silent and you can think anything you want to during that time. However, the problem with this particular bill as stated in this article is precisely this:
Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, the head of the Virginia chapter of the ACLU, said the proposed law is unnecessary and could lead to government-sponsored religious speech at public schools that would draw litigation. 
“Students’ rights to express and practice their faith in the public schools are already well-protected in existing federal and state laws,” she said in a statement. 
Gastañaga said the ACLU of Virginia and other groups actively remind schools about their constitutional obligation to treat religious speech equally. But she said the bill could be interpreted in a way that would result in religious coercion of students. 
“The right to engage in voluntary prayer or religious discussion free from discrimination does not include the right to have a captive audience listen, or to compel other students to participate,” she said.
I would oppose this bill. There's enough religion and praying in Virginia public schools.

5. House Bill 207: The bill to "encourage students to explore scientific questions" is actually a bill that encourages students to disregard science. It gives science teachers "the freedom" to teach that climate change and evolution are scientifically controversial theories. There are many theories in science that are controversial within scientific communities, however evolution and climate change aren't two of them. At all.

I totally oppose this bill.

6. HB 63: This bill would allow home-schooled students to be eligible to play public school sports. It was defeated last year. I actually was indifferent to leaning to supporting this bill, but Chris Pace, one of my local education advocacy pals and a high school social studies teacher, has convinced me to oppose it. Here is some of his reasoning:
First, extra-curricular programs exist for students who attend the school. Their entire purpose is to get kids thinking about their school in a positive way, while connecting students to teachers in an out-of-class setting. This fosters more personal relationships and that has been proven to lead to more academic success. 
Second, there is no way to hold home schooled athletes academically accountable. Home schooled students do not take SOLs or have GPAs. Their grades are assigned by the child’s parents. We assume that home schooling is done by people who have their child’s best academic interests at heart, but that is sometimes far from the truth. as a nine year GED instructor, I can tell you that I had many students who were “home schooled” who hadn’t done much in their time away from public school. Sometimes “home schooled” means not schooled. Imagine the shooting guard who flunks the 1st semester but shows up for baseball tryouts as a “home schooled athlete”. You would also have people pull their kids out of school before the school year begins to avoid academic standards. 
Third, there are only so many jerseys to give out. Cutting a student who attends the school to give a jersey to someone who doesn’t is plain wrong. The “carrot and stick” game linking behavior and academics to athletic participation works well and it can only be realistically used for students at the school. For example, a suspended student cannot play on the day of the suspension. What if that academically struggling student athlete were cut in favor of a home schooled athlete? Who will be there to help that child? Many coaches link behavior and academic performance to playing time – this motivates students and sets a good example of priorities. I know of several examples where a coach helped make the difference between passing and failing for a student athlete.   
Finally, serious athletes are almost always recruited OUTSIDE of their high school seasons in AAU or “Travel Teams." With the exception of football, all scholarship recipients are recruited during their travel seasons. This is where college coaches make evaluations and offers. Any home schooled athlete can participate in these programs – so they aren’t missing out on anything that they aren’t already skipping voluntarily by not attending public school.

I'd add that I believe that each school receives a per-pupil allotment which goes towards athletics, too. If this is true then when the student doesn't attend their home school then the school doesn't receive funding for them, for athletics or otherwise. If we wanted to re-invent our local public schools as community centers, then I might support this bill but with the way high school sports and funding mechanisms are currently structured here, I don't think it would be a good idea. I oppose this bill.

7. HB 720: This bill would require that each public school in Virginia set aside a non-restroom room, shielded from public view to pump breast milk. As a teacher and mom who was able to lock her small, windowless classroom once per school day to pump breast milk (I could produce 24 ounces in like 15 minutes but that's another story) for her beautiful twin baby boys, I must fully support this bill. It meant I could work as a teacher while another caretaker fed my little ones my breast milk.

8. HB 514/ SB 385: This is an awful bill and h/t to the VEA blog or I never would have gotten wind of it. The VEA is calling it the "Dead Peasant" bill:
The concept behind these bills is that an entity created by a Virginia locality or by the Virginia Retirement System would borrow money and use the money to purchase life insurance on employees.  The example provided to me by a lobbyist supporting the concept is that the employer would take out a $250,000 policy.  When the employee died, the entity would get $200,000 and the employee’s heirs would get $50,000.  The collective value of the policies held by the entities would offset the unfunded pension liability on the books of the state and localities.
Pardon my French, but that is some f%^ed up sh&!.  WalMart has done this in the past, albeit secretly and purely for profit, but any way you slice it, it is unbelievably disturbing. We really don't want to fund our pension obligations this way, by gambling on the prospects of Virginia state's employees dying. It can not have come to this.

I oppose this bill out of disgust alone.

9. HB 1156: This bill would require lower class sizes in early elementary school, requiring kindergarten, first, second, and third grades classes to have an average of 21 students with a maximum of 26. I am in full agreement that smaller class sizes are beneficial and preferred especially at younger ages, however, this sounds like an unfunded mandate and I'm not convinced that legislating this is the way to go. Such mandates can undermine control and flexibility at the local level and can cause greater problems than they solve.

Before I oppose or support this bill, I need to learn more about it, but for now I am skeptical. If Virginia actually funded public education as it should be, class sizes would get smaller quickly.

10. Medicaid Expansion: I can not locate a bill for this, but Medicaid Expansion would mean a billion or so dollars for Virginia's general fund which means more money for public education, more jobs for Virginians, and health insurance for the thousands of Virginians currently without.

I support Medicaid Expansion for Virginia.

If there any bills you think I missed, please mention them in the comments. Otherwise, please contact your legislators! To track bills, find out who your legislator is, and get their contact information, please go to the Virginia General Assembly website.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Public education for me but not for thee

Although he has since quasi-apologized, Arne Duncan put his foot in his mouth, saying that,
It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary,” Duncan said. “You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.” 
Overcoming that will require communicating to parents that competition is now global, not local, he said.

This was a wrong (as in incorrect) and stupid (as in politically dense) thing to say. As Sabrina Joy Stevens explains here, the low-poverty, suburban demographic does fairly well on international comparisons. Suburban moms were a key constituency for Obama in 2012 and telling them that some Common Core aligned test being promoted by the feds knows their child better than they do is a huge political mistake (this is why people hate Democrats). Finally, it's unfair to boil down public school parents' objections to the Common Core to, "you think your kids are brilliant, but they're not." Duncan reinforced the hubris so endemic in so many modern school reformers: if you are critical of our policies, you're deluded or lying to your kids and yourselves, you're a status quo defender or you don't like children or you think poor children can't learn.

Certainly, more affluent school districts coast on their reputations and are probably not doing as good a job as they should be, but I would hardly chalk this up to delusional suburban moms. I would chalk it up to the same things everyone else is suffering from: a broken accountability structure, too much emphasis on (too many and poorly designed) standardized tests and not enough rich and meaningful curriculum, plus the same budget cuts everyone else is experiencing. In short, more affluent school districts are suffering from what less affluent ones are: modern education reform.

Unlike Secretary Duncan, I don't agree that the Common Core and its accompanying tests will cure public education's ills. To the contrary, it will be more of the same. I've said over and over again that the substance of the Common Core standards are not worth debating when the way they were made and and the rigid accountability structure they will be filtered through are so problematic and will result in more of the same.

Another important piece in this is what Sherman Dorn brings up here: That maybe more people in whose favor the current system works, including suburban white families, would support more shifts, say in curriculum or assessment, if they didn't have to sacrifice their children's success to them. This goes back to the idea that slow and steady (with plenty of time for reflection and tweaking and input from all stakeholders) wins the race. 

Current hullabaloo aside, it's taken an awfully long while for ed reform fatigue to trickle up to the more affluent. It's upsetting to consider that only now that they have been offended, that suburban white moms might pay attention to what's going on with school reform. I won't repeat what Jose Vilson has written already about this or what Paul Thomas said but I can vouch for it given my current access to white suburbanites. I've heard plenty of parents of students in low-poverty schools say things like, Isn't Michelle Rhee wonderful? I like what she's doing. Um, would you want someone steamrolling through your school district talking about "collaboration and consensus-building are overrated? Oh, that doesn't work for you? I didn't think so. I've also heard, TFA. What a fabulous organization. Um, do you want TFAers teaching in your district? Because I've noticed that when one of your child's teachers goes on maternity leave you demand an actual licensed and vetted teacher just to sub in their long-term absence. Another example: when I tried to alert other Virginians to the dangers of the Opportunity Education Institution in Virginia, I heard so things like, Well, in Petersburg, they need that help or Well, that's because Richmond is a mess. Richmond and Petersburg are majority black cities with high levels of poverty, so yes, such comments are code for those poor black people just can't get it together.

My response is usually some or all of: a) There are historical conditions and policies that have contributed to the poverty of those communities; it's not endemic; b) No, democracy and local control is not just for the affluent; and c) It's a slippery slope, or as Jose Vilson said, "First, they came for the Urban Black and Latina moms." With the SOL tests getting more tricky rigorous, some schools in more affluent districts may find themselves under OEI's control (should OEI be found constitutional) and whatcha gonna do then? Are you going to want to be disenfranchised? I didn't think so.

Some reactions to Duncan's comments haven't been much different. Now that kids who don't usually fail standardized tests are failing, then it matters--it's okay for kids that are supposed to fail but not my kids. While he definitely misspoke, I wince at the Now, I'm mad. Now you've pissed off the wrong people comments. Why were you not mad before? "The wrong people"? What's that supposed to mean? That just reinforces the idea that non-suburban white moms don't care as much about their kids' education and reinforces Duncan's implication that non-suburban-white moms support his policies.

The reformers have decided that they speak for poor people of color, that they should be happy that they're there to fix their dysfunctional systems, that the answer to dysfunction is disempowerment. White suburban folks have seemed largely to accept that. Remember that Michelle Rhee's supporters (and Arne Duncan is certainly among them--he all but endorsed her and Fenty in DC's mayoral election) have claimed that one reason Adrian Fenty lost in DC is because Rhee is Korean-American and that black people in DC were too full of race pride and too busy shielding their incompetence to admit that she was right. And who's been buying copies of the Bee Eater and Radical? My guess is: yes, suburban white people.

As I've learned in the activism work I have been doing locally, the truth of the matter is that, indeed, many parents only start to get worked up when something affects their kids. And while I wish that were different, maybe we should go with the better-late-than-never attitude and hope that suburban white moms' political muscle trickles down. Maybe this will open the eyes of parents of children in more affluent schools to the reformy fiasco their peers in many U.S. cities have already been subjected to. Maybe they'll realize that there's no "I' in public education, that the attitude of democracy and public education for me but not for thee may cost all of us both.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

TFA comes to RVA

With a vote of 5-2 (with two members absent) the Richmond School Board has decided to contract with Teach for America to hire up to 30 teachers. I've already written in great detail about how the Teach for America model is problematic here and then here and about why TFA is not right for the K-12 public school students of Virginia here, so I won't repeat what I said there.

In the meantime, here is the reporting out of RPS leadership:

“It’s another tool in our recruitment tool box,” said Kristen Larson, 4th District, who voted in favor of the program during a School Board work session Monday. “We know we have a hard time hiring, and we need to look at all paths.” 
In Richmond, they will fill as-yet-determined hard-to-staff positions. 
The school system typically has to fill 200 to 300 teacher positions a year, but in recent years it has had a hard time finding enough qualified candidates. This school year began with about three dozen positions open. Some have been filled by long-term substitutes while others remain unfilled. 
“We have a lot of work to do in how we attract and retain teachers,” said School Board Chairman Jeffrey Bourne, 3rd District. “Teach for America is injecting some creativity and some new thinking into the hiring process. 
“I don’t think this is an ‘either/or’ situation. It’s an all of the above. There’s room here for different approaches.”

This is very disappointing, especially after the RPS School Board has seemed to be on the right track in so many other ways. They are trying to strengthen and diversify opportunities for Richmond children while staying under the umbrella of the public, democratic system and while involving leaders with expertise in education. Unfortunately, in this case a majority of the School Board has decided come out from under the umbrella and fork over $150,000 ($5,000 per corps member = $150,000) to TFA to hire inexperienced and untrained people to be teachers.

However, this is not surprising since TFA's chief lobbyist in Richmond has been diligently working the RPS School Board as well as Governor McDonnell's administration for quite a while. Furthermore, at least one School Board member in particular has been eager to hire TFA. And I don't live in Richmond proper and can't say how many residents have protested the idea of having TFA corps members teaching in Richmond. Perhaps parents have stood up and asked for them.

I do question, however, the nature of their recruitment problem and the extent to which TFA can aid that or ameliorate their retention problems. RPS should really find out how and why they have a recruitment and retention problem first and then propose solutions. If your car is not working for some reason, bringing in a rental car for a few weeks is not going to fix it. If the School Board  wants help with retention, TFA is not the organization to turn to. TFA leadership states unabashedly that they are fine with their corps members only staying two or three years, that getting them exposure to challenging classrooms is step one on a ladder to working in the education reform industry. And according to TFA watchdog and former corps member Gary Rubinstein, about 10% of TFAers don't even make it through their very first year of teaching

There also have been questions raised about the process by which this decision has been made. According to RPS parent and Alliance for Progressive Values member Kirsten Gray, there was no public hearing on the matter, almost no effort to publicize the matter, no review of research on TFA's effectiveness or lack thereof, and no evidence that there is a shortage and no positions open on the website. However also according to Gray, TFA was voted in with an amendment that caps the TFAers to 10% of the hard to staff schools and the amendment also requires the Richmond School Board to come up with a policy on how to use and place corps members. The way I see it, that's at least one way to pilot TFA and to minimize potential damage at least. But two School Board members, Kristen Larson and Glen Sturtevant, voted against the amendment and perhaps they'll work to remove it.

Finally, I also have my own personal experience to share which makes me question if there's a true shortage and how TFA will help with RPS's human resources issues. In Spring 2011, I was at a social function and I happened to be seated at the same table with a very high ranking RPS administrator. When I mentioned that I was a Social Studies and ESOL teacher and that I would be applying to area school systems including RPS, they told me the market was fairly tight and that my best bet, if anything, was to apply for an ESOL positions. I did, in fact, apply to RPS later that spring. However, I never heard anything back, not even to receive an e-mail confirming my application had been received, until September 19th when I got an e-mail letting me know they might need an ESOL teacher. Well, by then, I had already taken another job (and I had been contacted by two other area school systems with no shortages)--it was nearly a month after school had started. 

Now, I'm no super star of a teacher but I do have a B.A. from a highly-ranked liberal arts college, I have a master's degree in education, and a current Virginia license. I am dual-certified including in a hard-to-staff area, I have strong references, and several years of teaching experience, including five in ESOL in Virginia. I wonder how many other people with qualifications such as mine have applied to RPS in recent years. The problem there is not lack of "creativity" or lack of qualified applicants; it's lack of competence, disorder, and a lack of, um, hiring. TFA's presence won't change that. 

Those concerned about the impending contract between TFA and RPS should ask for information and for more transparency about the contracting process. They should also ask that citizens get the same access to public officials that TFA has had. They should also ask for a hearing where evidence both of the shortage and rationale behind hiring TFA would be presented. Finally, they should sign this petition which states opposition RPS's contracting with TFA (and make sure you read the comments there, too).

UPDATE I: This post has been cross-posted chez Diane Ravitch.

UPDATE II: Style Weekly, a Richmond publication just published an article on TFA in Richmond. Apparently there have been other well-qualified candidates who haven't been hired by RPS during the "shortage."

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Testing & School Grading in Virginia: The Time to Act is Now

There are some major happenings at the state level with public education in Virginia and if you're a supporter of public education in Virginia, there's a few things you can do about them right now.

1. What's happening: Almost every Virginia parent and every Virginia educator I talk to is concerned about the amount of SOL testing, what its results are used for, and how it negatively impacts curriculum and instruction. Communities across the Commonwealth are starting to come together to publicly question and discuss the role of high-stakes testing. They are in the Virginia legislature, they are in Roanokethey are in Chesterfield County, and they are in Richmond

What you can do: Please urge your County Council of PTAs, your school board members, your state and local elected officials, and your school district administration to facilitate public conversations about testing. 

2. What's happening: Apparently, some school boards in Virginia are listening to those citizens concerned about testing. "Resolution Concerning High Stakes, Standardized Testing of Virginia Public School Students" is making its way through the Virginia School Boards Association. So far, thirty school boards from all over the state have signed it. I have urged my school board to sign it (as of yet, they have not but I am told they will discuss it). 

What you can do: Contact your school board and either thank them for signing it if they have already done so or urge them to if they haven't done so yet.

3. What's happening: The Virginia Board of Education is going to do a final review on Thursday, October 24th of the criteria for grading schools. I've already explained that grading schools in this way is an awful idea and will likely end up rewarding affluent schools and punishing low-income schools. Since I wrote my school grading post, Oklahoma's school grading system has been put under the microscope and has been found to be majorly flawed. The Virginia Board of Ed should not do any final review now. First of all, they don't have to. Second of all, in light of flaws and misuse in other states, this process, this concept needs to be examined more thoroughly. This is not in best interest of Virginia--as I noted above, thirty school boards (and more will sign in the near future) have already passed a resolution in opposition to the state testing program upon which the school grades will be based. 

What you can do: Contact the Virginia Board of Education (e-mail: and ask them to postpone making any final decisions about the school grading criteria until the legitimacy of school grading schemes have been established and until after changes are made to our state testing program. Do this ASAP as the final review of A-F criteria is set for Thursday, October 24th. Then contact your state delegate and senator and let them know you'd like the school grading bill to be taken off the books.

If we want our public democratic institutions to work for us, we must engage as members of the public in the democratic process.