Monday, June 30, 2014

On seeking out in summer what should happen all year

My third guest post chez Joanne Jacobs riffs off of a lovely Jessica Lahey piece (she's such a great writer) about unstructured time for kids in the summer. I think this is a wonderful routine (hahaha) to get into, though I first felt I had to acknowledge that:

  • For many reasons, many kids in America do not have the luxury of a having a healthy free-range, unstructured summer.
  • With so much emphasis on testing and test prep in K-12 public schools, many structured and less structured activities that should take place during the school year, like in schools as part of the curriculum, don't. Hence, they get pushed to the summer.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Reading aloud to my babies

My second guest post over at Joanne Jacobs' blog riffs off of one of Diana Senechal's guest posts about reading to babies from birth:

First of all, I found this rather surprising as I didn’t realize the policy was new. I think I remember being told by University of Virginia (of all places) pediatricians shortly after the birth of each of my children (I have fraternal twin boys and a younger daughter) that I should be reading to them. . . .
My husband and I generally have found reading books to our children to be pleasurable–it’s a nice way to spend quiet time close to them, and our family and friends enjoy it for the same reason. I also love many children’s books, especially the artful ones.

Please go read my thoughts in full here.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Tell Governor McAuliffe: no OEI, no way, no how.

About two weeks ago, Virginians got this great news about the state's new anti-democratic education bureaucracy, the Opportunity Educational Institution:
A judge has ruled that the state's plan to take over failing schools violates the Virginia constitution. 
The idea had been to establish Opportunity Educational Institution to take control of six schools, including three in Norfolk, that were denied accreditation by the state Board of Education. Tuesday's ruling by Norfolk Circuit Court Judge Charles Poston strikes down the plan. 
The state can appeal.

In case you missed it, I wrote about my misgivings about the OEI in this post a little over a year ago:
According to this post, the OEI would take over schools that were denied accreditation, which is done in accordance with "federal accountability data," also known as standardized test scores. The Institution will be run by a board of gubernatorial appointees, which includes the executive director. There is no guarantee that the board would include any people who know anything about education. The board would contract with non-profits, corporations, or education organizations to operate the schools. Funding for the new bureaucracy would be provided by federal, state, and local taxpayers. The "failing" schools' local governing bodies would be represented on the board in some way, but they would lose decision-making power and would not be able to vote or, from what I can tell, have much meaningful input, besides providing the same share of local funding and being responsible for maintenance of the school building. As for staffing, current faculty at the schools being taken over could apply for a position as a new employee with the OEI or apply for a transfer.
First of all, the following Virginia education stakeholder organizations are all opposed to these measures: Virginia Association of Counties, Virginia Municipal League, Virginia School Boards Association, Virginia Association of School Superintendents, Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals, Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals, Virginia PTA, Virginia First Cities, and Virginia Education Association. 
Second, although there are under ten schools currently slated to be part of the OEI, with the new more "rigorous" (read: more tricky) SOL tests, and no end in sight to unreasonable federal accountability mandates, many more schools, such as one in your community, could find themselves getting swallowed up by the OEI. 
Third, there's no evidence that state takeover of struggling schools and districts helps. In fact, the evidence is at bestmixed. The Governor and his policy allies are basing this approach on the system in New Orleans, which thus far has not proven successful. That Virginia would use as a model a city that hasn't had much educational success doesn't make sense. Michigan has also turned many public services over to the private sector, including the schools of Muskegon Heights. So far, that approach has been a disaster. 
Finally, eliminating democratic institution and processes in a democratic society is not a cure for dysfunction or low test scores. Certainly, mass failure on the SOL tests signals a problem, but before the state blames and disenfranchises school communities, it really needs to figure out what that problem is and then target its resources accordingly. While many majority poor schools do just fine on standardized tests, I think we all know that the schools with low standardized test scores are often majority poor. Last I checked, being poor isn't a reason to disenfranchise communities and hand their schools over to outsiders.

Now, the pro-OEI folks are urging the current Governor, McAuliffe to appeal this ruling:
Members of the Opportunity Educational Institution’s board voted Wednesday to recommend to McAuliffe that he appeal the Norfolk Circuit Court judge’s decision to the Virginia Supreme Court, a move also supported by former Gov. Bob McDonnell, who championed the OEI during his term.
I am urging you to contact Governor McAuliffe's administration (804-786-2211) to tell him to let the court's ruling stand. The OEI is bad for democracy, it's bad for local control, it's bad for public education, and it will add another layer of expensive and superfluous bureaucracy. If people want charter schools in their local communities, let them work that out among members of their local community, via a democratic process and under the umbrella of the local school division; charter schools and privatization should not be imposed from up high by the state.

Although it is likely that the OEI would takeover only schools with a majority of students from families struggling with poverty, which is grossly unjust all by itself, if any community's school happens to do poorly for a spell on our low-quality SOL tests, that school could be ripe for OEI takeover and that community ripe for disenfranchisement and loss of local control. In other words, it's a slippery slope. I appreciate that Virginia education decision makers want more "tools" to help struggling schools, but they need to find tools that don't disenfranchise local education stakeholders.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Are standardized testing and absence of oversight civil rights?

During the next several days, when I am taking breaks from my budding career as a statistics wonderkid, I will be guest posting along with Diana Senechal and Michael Lopez over at Joanne Jacobs' blog.

My first post is in response to Politico education reporter Stephanie Simon's article about the tensions in Louisiana between Bobby Jindal and John White:
Now, this isn’t a post about the merits of the Common Core Standards or their associated assessments, though that is fodder for many long and complex conversations (to see what I have said about the Common Core, go here), nor is it about the politics behind Jindal’s about-face. Rather, it is about John White’s hysteria and perversion of the term “civil rights.”
Please head over and read the whole thing.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A DCPS Teacher Resigns

A few summers ago at the SOS March & National Call to Action, I met a young and enthusiastic, but independent-minded and healthily-skeptical DC Public School elementary teacher, named Olivia Chapman (on twitter: formerly @sedcteacher, now @NGCoachLiv). Olivia has done two guest posts for this blog thus far, one about lessons learned during her first year with DCPS and one about testing season in the same system. This is what I said about her in October 2011:
I was so impressed with Olivia (plus I'm always looking to feature the voices of teachers and education professionals who are on the ground) that I solicited a guest post from her. If she is symbolic of the young, smart, dedicated, and energetic teachers that neo-liberal reformers so often talk of attracting and keeping in the teaching profession, from Olivia's account below, they're not doing a very good job. Who, especially with all those qualities, lasts long in a stifling and absurd environment such as Olivia describes? For our nation's sake, I pray that Olivia and so many of the discouraged newer teachers I've talked to in recent years stick it out. We need you!
I am sad to announce that after five years of teaching in DC Public schools, Olivia has resigned and to start her own business with a like-minded friend and former teacher. Olivia received her Professional Coaching Certification and now coaches adults and teens to reach their personal, wellness and career goals. Still passionate about teaching, Olivia's company, Natural Greatness Coaching offers a character education workshop for young ladies in grades 5-10. 

Olivia wrote the following in response to DCPS's question on the "Declaration of Intent to Not Return Form for Resigning or Retiring Teachers" :

What could DCPS have done to retain you in the district?

I truly don't think that there is anything that you could have done to retain me in the district. Our educational philosophies do not align, specifically what those philosophies look like in action, not necessarily how they are written and presented. Although it would seem that your will and proclaimed dedication to educating all students and improving struggling schools are aligned to my own beliefs; stating your beliefs and acting on them can be extremely different.

In my opinion and based on five years of experience in a struggling school (which I believe you now call a "40-40" school), the actions that you have imposed that are supposed to be helping to educate all students and improve the education of underprivileged students are backfiring. I know some of your test scores are going up, but that means so little when morale decreases and discontent from the community, teachers and students increase. Additionally, student behavior continues to worsen as their teachers are "impacted out", the students are over-tested and the constant change in leadership causes students to lose faith in anyone sticking around long enough to invest in their successes. Your standards are higher while our resources are lower and the teachers are less effective because of constant turnover and poor training programs (Yes, I am referring to Teach for America and DC Teaching Fellows).

IMPACT and high stakes standardized testing are deteriorating education. I have enjoyed working with each and every one of my students, as challenging as some of them may be, but I can no longer participate in a system that is tearing them down, wasting their time and breaking their spirits. I can no longer participate in the rigid guidelines of IMPACT/Common Core/Standardized testing; it is not what my kids need or ever needed to be successful. Yes, they need quality teachers, learning standards and assessments-but the manner in which you have delivered these three essential components of education are not effective. I have been witness to this for five years. You can throw data and numbers at me all you want, but it is not working for my students nor my school, and I know I am not alone in stating this, especially in Ward 8. You have poured enormous amounts of money into IMPACT and testing and not nearly enough into professional development, technology or character education programs for students. We have lacked the supplies and trainings to properly implement Common Core for the last three years. Honestly, you can call the standards whatever you want, revise them, increase their "rigor", do whatever you please; but until communities, families, parents and students are held accountable for their participation in education, none of this matters.

I believe that every child can learn and has potential to do something great with their lives. Unfortunately, I do not believe that the testing regimen implemented by DCPS is a positive way to show off their potential, their greatness or even their basic intelligence. Also, I do not believe that all of them are cut out for college. I don't believe all children should go or need to go to college to be successful. I believe that what they need are supportive communities of people that help them to maximize their potential and turn their interests and passions into careers (which may or may not require a college degree).

DCPS' commitment to turning children from reds and yellows to greens and blues in reading and math, while simultaneously cutting extracurricular activities and special subjects are 100% contradictory to my moral and educational philosophies. A positive outcome for me at the end of the year is a student who has improved in all subject areas, including the arts, a sport, a hobby or a special interest. Of course, I also want them to improve their reading, as I believe that if a child can read they can do and learn ANYTHING, which is empowering in itself. I truly hope that they understand that as well.

More imperatively, my goal is that each student leaves my class with an increased desire to learn and a more directed focus in regards to what they are interested in, and how they can turn these subjects or passion-based interests into careers. To be honest, whether students score high on a standardized assessment means almost nothing to me. If I cared a little in the past, it was for selfish reasons like trying to stay in the district and not have myself be "impacted out". It wasn't because I actually thought it meant something for the child or their future.

I have battled with guilt over not caring more about test scores, as well as for disappointing my colleagues and school leaders because I refuse to buy into the hype of testing. I refuse to buy into spending hours on test-prep and practice sheets as well as the spirit week and the pep rally the week before DC-CAS begins. I have felt guilty that I may be a liability to my school because I believe that children should be allowed to go to the bathroom during testing, as well as be told that they are on the wrong page of the test booklet, or told to look over their work before they hand it in, or god-forbid, read a book when they have finished their test. I'm sure that by me not falling victim to the intended fear that they try to instill in teachers in regards to cheating and overall testing procedures have been a pain in the butt for my administrators. I just cannot take the whole testing mentality seriously. When I know what my students' real issues are and what the world that they actually face is like when they walk out of our school's doors it is just a reminder of why what you are doing is not really working for these kids.

At this point, I think you have a clear understanding of why I must leave DCPS; it would be a disservice for me to stay any longer pretending that I believe in what you are doing. I believe that the contradictory philosophies are confusing to my students, a pain for my administrators and a burden that I can no longer bear. I will miss the students because their potential has energized me. Their will to learn meaningful content as well as learn about themselves is what brought me back every year. This was a difficult choice to make, because I have really loved watching my students make progress and grow each year. I hope that I will see many of them again.

Thank you for employing me for the past five years, and for giving me the opportunity to educate hundreds of students in DC. Although we do not see eye to eye on what a quality and meaningful education looks like, I do hope that DCPS will one day find success in implementing a program that genuinely improves the education of all district students, especially the struggling schools in Ward 8, who deserve so much more than what they are given.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A few thoughts on the VA-07 and Cantor's primary defeat

Yesterday, David Brat defeated Eric Cantor in the Republican primary election for the congressional seat in Virginia's 7th district. I live in the 7th district. I happen to also be married to a Randolph-Macon college professor--that is where Dave Brat is a college professor and also where Jack Trammell--the Democratic candidate.

Because I have statistics homework to finish, I don't have time to put my thoughts together in any sort of cohesive manner. So here they are in all of their in-cohesive glory:

  • First of all, a bit of an I told you so. Many of our national pundits keep saying that "No one saw this coming." While this is certainly unexpected, I wouldn't say "no one say it coming." Instead I would say that the national media, like Eric Cantor's campaign, did not see it coming. Many locals did see it coming. Even I wrote a post two years ago that summarized Cantor's vulnerability (though I published the post several months later.) And a month ago  local bloggers were still emphasizing Cantor's unpopularity. And so was I:

  • Second, while certainly, Brat's victory is somewhat about immigration (and let's face it, bigotry)--a component of Brat's campaign platform is anti-immigrant, that was not the beginning or the end of why Brat won.
  • As I said here, Eric Cantor is notoriously unpopular in his district. He's not accessible to his constituents and he doesn't much care about them. He takes them for granted, treating them like a rich uncle you have to have dinner with occasionally if you want to keep receiving the checks, only in this case it's votes. He's a Republican in a very conservative district which up until now had no challengers. That's all.
  • Say what you will about his political and economic views, and I think we all know that I don't agree with the vast majority of them, but Dave Brat is accessible and he hit the pavement during this campaign. He is happy to sit and explain his views to you, no matter who you are, in great detail. He will talk to anyone who will listen--whether at Estes, the Randolph Macon dining hall, at lunch time or on a campaign stop. He met with any group that asked and entertained any question that was asked. And remember, he is a teacher; it's his job to explain.
  • Furthermore, driving around the area of the 7th district where I live in recent months, I have seen clusters of Brat supporters waving signs and chanting--I've seen them in Hanover where I live, in the city of Richmond, and in Chesterfield. All of the kids on my sons' soccer team know who David Brat is because they have driven past these clusters and asked their parents, "Who is Dave Brat and why does he want to fire Cantor?" I know I have had this conversation several times with my own children. At this point, they probably know more about this primary than the national media did.
  • While Dave Brat actually talked to the constituents he was courting, Eric Cantor's campaign was sending out glossy mailers and putting up posters and lawn signs. That's it: mailers and lawn signs. Otherwise, he kept his distance from the little people. When you actually talk to and listen the people you are hoping to represent, it makes a difference. As political science professor and Associate Dean Lauren Bell said, "to borrow from Roll Call's assessment of Oklahoma Democrat Mike Synar's 1994 loss in the primary, Eric Cantor's loss tonight demonstrates that 'there's a limit to the number of times you can tell your constituents to go screw themselves' "
  • The national media seems to be conducting themselves a lot like, well, the Cantor campaign. They don't do any research or talk to people who actually write about or live or vote in the places their covering. This is a problem that applies not just to this topic but to so many others (ahem, education reform).
  • Eric Cantor vastly outspent David Brat. Organizations such as like the Bold Progressives are right to see this as a sign that Big Money is not necessarily destined to win. Leftist and populist progressive Democrats did very well in recent primaries.
  • While David Brat is more accessible, and is anti-elitist, anti-NSA, and anti-Wall Street corruption, he is also anti-government. In other words, he is no Elizabeth Warren. At the root, he is a true believer in the magic of the free market. He was especially against Cantor because Cantor is a crony capitalist and crony capitalism impedes a truly free market.
  • Progressives, rather than getting stuck on complaining about how awful the Tea Party is and how depressing it is a candidate to the right of Cantor won, support and give money to the progressive candidate in this election, Jack Trammel.
  • How great is it that the race in the VA-07 is between two liberal arts college professors, teachers, who read and write books. Think about that for a minute.
  • ONE MORE THOUGHT (added later): I don't have numbers on this but Virginia has open primaries and I know a few Democrats and Independents who voted for Brat simply in protest of Cantor. As I said, no one in the 7th likes Cantor.
This has been cross-posted at Blue Virginia.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


Two years ago, I decided to blog much less frequently for various reasons, including a desire to listen and reflect more, get back on the real (as opposed to writers) job market, and engage more in-person in local education matters.

Well, two years later of teaching preschool and of being more active locally (in fact, just before writing this post, I was crafting a letter about the problem of teacher attrition in my school district), I am going to retain my practice of better listening and reflection and of local activism, but I will be edu-blogging more frequently (so get ready!). And, here's the big news:  I am (sadly) leaving my preschool teaching position to (happily) start a full-time PhD program (the hints of this are here in the start of this unrealized series about taking the GREs) in Educational Leadership: Research & Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University. I will take a full load of courses and will be working for a professor in the School of Education for twenty hours per week.

People have asked me, what do you hope to do with that? And my answer is simple: I hope to take full advantage of this opportunity to be sponsored to study, read, and write about topics about which I am immensely interested, education research and policy. When I got my masters degree, it was mostly in conjunction with teacher licensure, to become a teacher. With this PhD, I hope to become more knowledgeable and to contribute knowledge to the field. If I get a PhD-level job I like when I finish, great. But I would gladly return to teaching in the public K-12 classroom, too.

To all of my readers: thanks for sticking with this blog for almost four years thus far, thanks for your support and for your push-back, and wish me luck.