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."