Sunday, October 31, 2010

Down With Testing

Letter to Editor sent to the S.F. Chronicle on 10/31/10 (Published on 11/2/10)

It’s time the Chronicle publishes a full length editorial by a real classroom teacher who opposes more testing,  instead of the usual teacher bashing by CEOs, foundation heads and former teachers who’ve fled the classroom for more lucrative business degrees. 

Miki Litmanovitz (Sunday Insight) claims we need tests and that they are best assessment method we have. Both claims are false. There are many forms of assessment that yield far better data. As a science teacher, I learn far more about what my students have learned from their lab reports. I assess their understanding of lab techniques by observing them do labs. The questions they ask in class are often much more telling than their answers on multiple choice exams. Unfortunately, you’ll have to trust my professional judgment; it’s exceedingly time consuming and expensive to have outsiders do this for the entire state.

A single test is not a good measure of how much students have learned. A student may have complete mastery of science, but fail a multiple choice exam because she has test anxiety, poor literacy, a tooth ache, dyslexia, insomnia, or hasn’t eaten all day. More rigorous tests will not erase these problems.

The Fallacy of Novelty

One day we were cleaning the biology store room and found a big bucket covered with trefoil radiation warning stickers. Back in the day, it was not uncommon to use radioactive materials in chemistry classes. I even remember using a Geiger counter in my own high school chemistry class. Nowadays there is really no need to possess actual radioactive materials at school, as it is just too dangerous and all relevant content standards can be taught through simulations, reading and lecture.  

I alerted my department head about the radioactive bucket, who alerted the assistant principal, who completely disregarded it. The next morning, the principal passed by the science wing and remarked, “My, you all have a healthy glow today!”

We convened a departmental meeting. Should we go to OSHA? The school board? Alert parents? What was actually in the bucket? We had no radiation safety equipment to don for an investigation. Even if it was harmless, it would still need to be disposed and not by simply chucking it in the garbage. In the end, I believe the district brought in a haz. mat. specialist to remove the item.

One science teacher, who had been around for 30 years, told us how common it was in the old days to let kids handle radioactive materials. Then he brought out a horrifying ancient device called The Radium Ore Revigator, a pseudoscientific piece of quackery from the 1920s that was supposed to prevent arthritis, rheumatism and flatulence. Water flowed over radium in the device, one of the most radioactive substances known to science, and was then drunk for its salubrious properties.

Back around the turn of the century doctors touted radiation as a panacea for many ills. In 1903, Alexander Gram Bell proposed using radium to treat tumors. This later became a common practice. Henrietta Lacks, whose prolific cervical cancer gave rise to the ubiquitous and famous HeLa cell line, was initially treated with radium blocks inserted into her uterus, causing terrible burns and internal injury. (See The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, a wonderful biography that not only makes the science very understandable, but also clearly lays out the complex ethical issues around the patenting of human tissues and the history of racism by the medical establishment).

A common fallacy is the Appeal to Novelty: if something is new, then it necessary must be better than its predecessor. Early excitement over radiation’s medical benefits certainly fell into this category, even if scientists have since learned how to use it effectively for certain medical procedures. In our society, novelty is equated with progress. In science, new data often helps provide a better explanation for phenomena, better treatments, and more sophisticated machines, but not always (e.g., thalidomide, DES, Vioxx, Fen-Phen). Manufacturers love to put the word “new” in front of an old product name, perhaps change the labeling and modify the formulation slightly, because we are so quick to accept that newer is necessarily better.

Teachers are no better than others at seeing through this bunkum. In fact, we may even be more susceptible. Consider that most teachers truly want to do a better job, inspire and reach more of their students, help more of them to graduate and become successful in life. Also, consider that we have so many students slipping through the cracks, dropping out, reading below grade level. We are hungry for tools that mitigate these problems and that give us a leg up in our desire to help kids. Enter the snake oil peddlers. Some are CEOs, pundits, politicians who claim business models work for them, so they should work in schools, too. Others are academicians, with scholarly literature to back their claims.

In my fourteen years of teaching I’ve been compelled to try dozens of the “newest,” “best,” and “evidence-based” remedies: Smaller Learning Communities, Differentiated Instruction, Service Learning, Project-Based Learning, Complex Instruction, Constructivism, Professional Learning Communities, ad nauseum. Most of these have their merits, theoretically, but they also require a phenomenal amount of training, planning, preparation and resources. There is no compelling data that any of these techniques can erase the achievement gap or solve the problems of underperforming schools (although some, like Smaller Learning Communities, attract more high achieving students, thus changing the demographics and, subsequently, test scores).

Many argue that they’re still worth doing because they are pedagogically sound and will certainly benefit some students. Perhaps this is true, especially if funding was sufficient. As educators, whenever presented with a new technique, structure or system, we must carefully analyze the costs, and not just accept that the benefits will be worth the trouble. Ultimately, though, we have to address the 500 pound gorilla in the room, class, an issue that cannot be remedied through new and improved curriculum, school restructuring, privatization or union busting.

Educators are not sharks. We will not die if we stop moving forward (nor will our students).

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Let Them Eat Jelly Bellies

It’s Halloween, the greatest holiday of the year. Kids get to be monsters and super heroes, eat lots of junk, go to parties, play pranks, and blow up the cranky neighbor’s Jack O Lantern. Yet again, the media has been bringing us down hyping horrors like poison and razor blades in those gooey, teeth rotting candy apples. There are no documented cases of strangers murdering children with Halloween treats. See Snopes, yet this mass hysteria will no doubt result in some poor kids being locked down for the evening for their own safety. Parents will be dissuaded from handing out home cooked confections or fresh fruit because, if they won’t let their own children eat such treats offered by strangers, they sure as hell shouldn’t be handing them out to other people’s kids. What’s good for Hershey and Jelly Belly is good for America’s children.

It’s easy to scare parents these days. The dangers are everywhere: deadly cribs and car seats, balloons and plastic bags, unattended baths and bisphenol A. Are vaccines a big conspiracy by Big Pharma to profit off your baby and make him autistic in the process, or is the anti-vaccine movement just creating an Epidemic of Fear? The evidence against a link with autism is overwhelming. Vaccines have eradicated smallpox and eliminated polio from most of the world. The growing paranoia about vaccines, on the other hand, has resulted in increasing rates of whooping cough, mumps, measles and other preventable diseases. This, in turn, increases school absences. I had one student who was earning a B until he came down with whooping cough and missed the next 6 weeks. He never was able to catch up and failed the semester.

Scare people enough and they’ll accept all sorts of ludicrous pseudo-solutions. Fear of autism leads some parents to risk their children’s lives by forgoing vaccinations. Fear of terrorists caused many American’s to accept wars that have killed thousands and inspired a new generation of terrorists. Fear of incompetent, uncaring teachers has led many to buy into the notion that letting Wall Street take over the schools will somehow result in better educational outcomes for their kids. See the Fear Moderation Spectrum and the Keep Fear Alive rally in DC. 

An Injury to One is An Injury to All

Friday, October 29, 2010

Labor News: Retire Later and Pay for Your Own Health Care

2 million marched in France yesterday to oppose the new pension “reform.” According to a Le Parisien poll, the demonstration had 65% approval by the French people, while Sarkozy’s approval has fallen to 29%. The U.S. media has focused on the fact that the minimum retirement age will go up from 60 to 62, making it seem like the French workers are crying over spilt milk. However, the new law also increases the age at which French workers can receive full benefits from 65 to 67. In the U.S., that age is still 65, for those born before 1959. For those born after 1959, the full retirement age is 67.

French workers continue to strike and blockade many ports and refineries, despite the fact that the changes have been already been voted into law and in spite of attempts by their union leadership to quash the protests. As a result, ongoing fuel shortages are still crippling the French economy.

Meanwhile in the U.S., rather than increasing full health coverage for all, Obama Care has created incentives for U.S. employers to drop employee health coverage, which will force workers to purchase insurance on the open market at inflated prices beginning in 2014.. The penalty for not covering employees is only $2000 per employee. With insurance costs averaging $9000 per employee per year (and expected to rise sharply in the coming years), the most profitable choice is clearly to drop employee coverage entirely.

While this is not yet occurring on a large scale, many employers are putting artificial caps on their  contributions, forcing workers to pay for the balance of any rate hikes. They are also increasing deductibles and copayments and reducing benefits. Each of these moves causes a decrease in compensation for employees and a decline in income.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Who Pays for Education

Who Pays for Education is an interesting article, reposted from the Shanker Institute blog, on school finance and how the poor pay a disproportionately larger share of their income toward education than the rich.

In education debates, especially these days, there is endless talk about spending – how to spend money, what programs to cut, and how to increase the bang-to-buck ratio. This is not surprising: In 2007-08 (the last year for which national U.S. Census data are available), we spent almost $600 billion. That’s quite a figure, and we all have an interest in spending that money wisely.

What is sometimes surprising is how little we hear about how we get that money. Of course, we all know that our tax dollars fund our public schools, and most of us know that state and local revenue is the primary source of this funding (about 90 percent; on average, about half state and half local). Less commonly-known, however, is who pays these bills – who bears the largest share of the tax burden, relative to their income? At the federal level, taxation is largely progressive, which means that, on the whole, higher-income families pay a larger percentage of their earned income to the federal government than lower-income families. This is, very simply, due to the fact that higher income brackets are taxed at higher rates.

But when it comes to state and local taxes, the picture is different. The poorest families pay far more of their income than the richest (i.e., taxes are regressive). In other words, the money that funds public education is a burden disproportionately borne by poor and middle-income Americans. And the lower your income, the more of it you pay. Given this situation, combined with a fiscal crisis that threatens to linger for several years, the best solution – raising revenue through a more equitable system – may be the only one not on the table.

Let’s take a very quick and easy look at how much families at different income levels are taxed, and what it means for education. Every few years, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy releases a wonderful report that breaks down these “tax burdens” for every state (and overall). States (and localities) vary widely in their tax policies and rates, but most generate the same structure of burden.

The graph below (which I recreated using data from the report) shows the percentage of family income that is paid to the three major types of state/local taxes – income, property, and sales – by how much families earn.

As you can see, the bottom 20 percent of earners (with an average income of $10,700) pays almost 12 percent of that income to state and local taxes, while the top one percent (average income $1.8 million) pays around seven percent – just over half the burden of the poorest. Of course, high-income families provide most of the total revenue – one person paying 6 percent of a million dollars generates more revenue than 20 people paying 12 percent of a very low income. But in terms of proportional burden – taxes as a percent of income – the structure favors the richest families. As you move across the groups, the pattern is clear and stable: The less you make, the more of that money you pay.

If you break it down by the type of tax, you can see why.

Like federal income taxes, state/local income taxes are progressive – the poorest families pay almost nothing, while the richest pay about five percent. In stark contrast, sales taxes are incredibly regressive – the poorest pay almost eight percent and the richest about one percent. The biggest reason for this is that lower-income families must spend most of their paychecks for living expenses (rather than save it), and so more of their money is “subject” to sales tax. Finally, property taxes are moderately regressive (though the rate is pretty stable until you get to the top one percent).

So, what does this mean? We’ve all heard the complaints about increases in education spending over the past 20-30 years. But over the past 2-3 years, the increases have been in federal spending (e.g., Race to the Top). Because of the recession, state and local spending on education has taken a hit in most places, and this is going to continue, perhaps get worse, over the next few years (K-12 education is usually among the last areas to be cut).

Should we increase efficiency in how we spend our public education money? Sure. Should we pour money into programs that aren’t working? Of course not. But look around. States all over the nation are cutting back in ways that hurt achievement, such as slashing pre-K programs. Troubled districts like Kansas City are closing schools in large numbers because they can’t afford them, thereby crowding more students into already-overcrowded schools. Skilled teachers, paraprofessionals, and other staff are being laid off because funds are short. And beyond education, the cuts to other programs and services have often been even more devastating. And all this despite billions in stimulus aid to states.

Think about this situation, and then consider how the top one percent, earning $2 million, pay state/local taxes at half the clip of the poorest, who earn $10,000. One might wonder why, in the midst of massive budget cuts, everybody talks about cutting programs or “streamlining” education spending, but almost nobody even mentions the possibility of increasing revenue by altering the fundamentally unfair system by which we fund our public services.

Changes to state and local tax structures – making them more equitable – would go a long way towards averting massive cuts in the future (which will inevitably cause disproportionate harm to the low-income families that bear the largest burden, recession or not). And in the longer-term, no matter what you think about education spending trends, the way we fund public education and other services is unfair and should change. The political environment may be hostile to this approach, but it has a friend in fairness and efficacy, and should at least be part of the discussion.

Pension Myth Buster-"Teachers Retire Too Early with Extravagant Pension Benefits"‏

This was sent to me by our CTA state representative:

CalSTRS has approximately 850,000 members.

71% of the CalSTRS members are women.

2009 data from CalSTRS currently reports 224,000 benefit recipients.

Only 1.8% or 3,800 CalSTRS benefit recipients receive a pension of $100,000 or more, known as the "$100,000 Club"
*These are usually administrators and superintendents.
*These recipients have worked an average of 38 years.
*Average salary at time of retirement was $125,000.

Realities of everyday retirees(non administrative):

-Average age of reitree is 71.
-Average retiree receives a pension of about $3,100.
-Life expectancy of retiree is 18 years beyond retirement.
-He or she retires at age 61 after 28 years in the system.
-Retirees receive 62% replacemtn of pre-retirement income.
-Retirees do not receive Social Security.
-60% of all retirees receive no financial support for health care after age 65.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

'The Simpsons' Finally Exposes Its Sweat Shop Production Conditions

'The Simpsons' Controversial Opening Credit by Banksy Pulled Down

Teacher Unions Improve Student Achievement?

According to anti-teacher pundits and demagogues, teachers unions are bad for students because collective bargaining agreements protect bad teachers and reward teachers for seniority rather than competence. However, ten states do not have contracts with their teachers (AL, AZ, AR, GA, LA, MS, NC, SC, TX, and VA). If the claims are true, we should expect these states to have better educational outcomes. In a recent blog posting from the Shankar Institute (reposted on Valerie Strauss’ WaPo blog, Answer Sheet), the evidence just isn’t there.
Average 2009 NAEP Score By State Teacher Contract Laws

States with binding teacher contracts
4th grade: Math 240.0 Reading 220.7
8th grade: Math 282.1 Reading 263.7

States without binding teacher contracts
4th grade: Math 237.7 Reading 217.5
8th grade: Math 281.2 Reading 259.5


Some possible explanations: contracts, tenure, collective bargaining all contribute toward retaining more experienced teachers. Job security and due process rights encourage more open and honest discourse during meetings and collaboration which help foster more effective reform and school improvement.

The results of the Shankar study should, of course, be taken with a grain of salt. There were lots of variables there weren't controlled or at least disaggregated from their data. Most of the non-unionized states were from the South, with higher degrees of poverty and in many (but not all) cases lower levels of per pupil spending.

Nevertheless, if unions were the only problem, as many critics assert in their reductionist claims, then non-unionized states should have higher test scores, and they clearly do not.

Data Driven Nonsense Video

A funny, scary 'education' conversation, posted by Valerie Strauss, at WaPo.

Massachusetts Teachers Illegal Strike?

Massachusetts teachers in the King Phillip Regional School District, Norfolk County, are protesting a contract dispute with their district over pay, class size and a faulty grading system, by declining to write college recommendations. The district has filed a petition with the state’s Department of Labor, claiming that the action constitutes an illegal strike. In Massachusetts, it is illegal for teachers to strike.

The strike is one of the most powerful weapons workers have in their ongoing struggle with bosses. Without this weapon, workers are significantly limited in the effectiveness of their actions. On the other hand, workers must also recognize that the legality of their actions should not limit their use. Unions themselves were once illegal. Thousands of workers have been jailed, deported, beaten or killed in this country taking illegal job actions in the fight for better pay, working conditions and respect.

If their action is ruled illegal, it would imply that few, if any job actions are legal for teachers under Massachusetts law. This would completely eviscerate their union. Collective bargaining is only as effective as the tactics of protest. If a bargaining team makes a demand and the bosses say no, the members must take a job action powerful enough to force the bosses to give in. If all job actions are considered illegal strikes, Massachusetts teachers will have no choice but to break the law in defense of their wages, working conditions and dignity.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What's Wrong With Reform

Here's an interesting piece from the WaPo by Mike Rose breaking down some of the fallacies and logical inconsistencies with the current educational reform models.

Bill Gates SaysTeachers Don't Improve

Letter submitted to the S.F. Chron. and Parade

No wonder people buy into the current anti-teacher mass hysteria! On Sunday, Parade uncritically quoted Bill Gates saying that everyone improves over time except teachers. Gates has become an education “expert” by virtue of donating billions to promote charter schools, not through education, research or any real experience in the field.

In reality, most teachers learn their subject matter better through experience. They grow and improve through professional development, collaboration and self-reflection. Teaching standards have become more rigorous and teachers must undergo more university training than in the past.

High dropout rates among black and Latino students and a persistent class-based achievement gap are serious problems. However, there is little evidence that these problems are getting significantly worse, and even less that it is the fault of bad teachers. There is considerable evidence that student achievement improves with family income. Researchers have even found class-based differences in cognitive and language skills among children as young as three.

Instead of bashing teachers, let’s address the real problem with schools: poverty and funding. Rather than giving away billions in tax revenues to billionaire education entrepreneurs for more charter schools, why not redirect those resources toward helping struggling families?

Housing Policy is School Policy: Economically Integrative Housing Promotes Academic Success in Montgomery County, Maryland

Here are the results of an 8-year study of housing and educational outcomes that show benefits from both subsidized housing and attendance in low poverty schools. Integrate low income families in subsidized housing units together with higher income families and put their children in low poverty schools and the kids do better in school. This should come as no surprise.

Daniela Fairchild's review of the study, however, has a misleading conclusion, suggesting that "Peers matter, and money does not."

The study's results indicate that placement in a low poverty school has greater benefits than placement in subsidized housing integrated in a low poverty neighborhood, but that both lead to academic gains for low income students.

Even this conclusion should be taken with a grain of salt. The study was done in a small, wealthy suburban setting, so it remains to be seen if the result are reproducible in other settings. Also, while the families studied were well below the poverty line, they earned considerably more than public housing families nationally.

Additionally, there was only a 14 day window once every 2 years to get on the waiting list for the integrated, subsidized housing and then families had to pass income eligibility and criminal background checks. This would reduce the chances for the most economical marginalized families who lack the time, resources, knowledge, self-confidence or perseverance to play the system and excluded them from the study.

Housing Policy is School Policy: Economically Integrative Housing Promotes Academic Success in Montgomery County, Maryland

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Comments & Responses are Now Easy

Dear Readers,

I have made it much easier to post responses and comments. Simply scroll down to the end of a post, click the comments link, and type in your comments. I've changed it so you don't have to open an account to comment; just plug in your name using the "Comment As" window.

An Injury to One is An Injury to All

The ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) shut down the Ports of Oakland and San Francisco yesterday in solidarity with the family of Oscar Grant, who was killed by BART police officer, Johannes Mehserle. Grant was unarmed and laying face down when Mehserle stood over him and opened fire. In a typical travesty of justice, Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, arguing that he had meant to fire his Taser. Mehserle is white. Grant was black.

ILWU members were joined by teachers, nurses, city workers and other unionists. Teachers, you ask? What does this have to do with education?

Everyone has an interest in justice.

As times get tougher economically and our civil liberties and freedoms grow thinner and weaker, it becomes more important than ever to support our brothers and sisters, neighbors and fellow workers in shows of solidarity. After all, just because it wasn’t me this time, doesn’t mean it won’t be me next time.

Protesters carried picket signs that said, “An Injury to One is an Injury to All.” The implications of this fundamental principle of solidarity should be obvious to teachers.

When pay or benefits are cut, it becomes harder to recruit and retain the best teachers. This is harmful to our students. When budgets are balanced by firing teachers, class sizes go up, programs are cut, and students suffer. When the feds force schools to convert to charter schools, cut funding, or impose curriculum, teachers are forced to do more with less resources and time. This causes both teachers and students to feel overworked and stressed.

Cuts to welfare, drug rehab, mental health services and housing all have profound effects on families. They increase uncertainty and anxiety, and cause children to come to school hungry, tired, sick, ill-prepared, and sometimes ill-behaved. Test scores and graduation rates correlate more closely with wealth than any other variable. Therefore, poverty and the disintegrating safety net are education issues.

Militarism causes some parents to go abroad and not be at home for their children. War increases the anxiety and stress some children bring to school. However, all children are affected by the trillions of dollars wasted on murdering civilians in other countries, money that would be much better spent providing housing, healthcare and better equipped schools for our own children. Therefore, militarism and war are education issues.

The foreclosure crisis has thrown families and children into the streets, shelters, floors and couches of friends and family. Bailing out Wall Street bankers allows the top 1% to continue to earn more than the bottom 120 million of us combined, but it comes at a price we will all have to pay. The wealthy are demanding a reduction to the deficit and they are unwilling to pay for it themselves, which means more cuts to social services and increased taxes for the rest of us. Therefore, the foreclosure crisis and bailouts of the filthy rich are education issues.

How can educators join together with other unions and movements to fight for their collective interests when we are all so overworked?

The solution is to do less at school. Just because someone says a new reform or curriculum will help students, doesn’t mean it will. We don’t have to pile more on our plates because our schools are in program improvement, under the NCLB gun, low income or low performing. When we try to be everything to everyone we become more stressed and burned out, and less effective as teachers. If a reform seems sound and worth undertaking, we need to sacrifice something else and not just add more to our already overloaded schedules. We need to carefully assess new reforms and not just accept them uncritically. Consider costs versus benefits. Analyze the data, if any exist, and consider whether it really stands a chance. How many students will benefit? How much will they benefit? We need to stop buying into the bogus argument that even if test scores don’t improve, it is good pedagogy and still worth implementing, or that even if it is designed to help one small subset of our students it will really benefit them all. Maybe it will, but enough so that it justifies the extra time and labor?

No martyrs. No oppressors.

An Injury to One is an Injury to All

Friday, October 22, 2010

Rotten Unions Protecting Rotten Apples

Most teachers are not bad, but the constant harping about bad teachers has created a mass hysteria that our schools are filled with incompetent teachers who are crushing our children’s enthusiasm and causing them to fail or drop out. It has become so pervasive that I’m even hearing teachers echo it now.

The delusion that unions protect bad teachers is based on a gross mischaracterization and misunderstanding of tenure. While tenure does provide some job security, it does not guarantee job protection for life, especially not for really rotten teachers. The worst, of course, are the teachers who abuse children. Thankfully, these are rare and they are easily fired. Teachers who are lazy, incompetent, or who simply don’t care, are also relatively uncommon. The pay just isn’t that good and the demands are too high for most self-respecting shirkers. The job is so demanding, in fact, that most young teachers don’t last more than five years.

Tenured teachers can be fired for a number of reasons. Many districts are firing tenured teachers because of budget cuts and NCLB allows schools to fire their entire staffs if they fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress for four years in a row.

The main purpose of tenure is not to guarantee a job, but to protect academic freedom and free speech. Good schools foster ongoing collaboration between teachers, staff and administrators. True collaboration only works when people feel comfortable speaking freely and honestly. Tenure makes it much more difficult for administrators to fire teachers arbitrarily, vindictively, or because they disagree with them. Without this protection, teachers would be less likely to speak openly at faculty meetings and during collaboration.

What about teachers who are well-meaning, but just aren’t that good? Aren’t they a dead weight holding back schools that are trying to improve?

The short answer is that bad teachers can be fired, but it is the job of their bosses, the administrators, to collect the evidence and make a compelling case through the evaluation process, like in most jobs. Like other unionized jobs, the union provides legal and grievance support for members who believe they are being wrongly punished. Not surprisingly, in the highly contentious arena of education, there are often disagreements between teachers and administrators, personality conflicts, prejudices and power struggles. Occasionally an administrator attempts to subvert the evaluation process to get rid of teachers who are good at their jobs, but who annoy the administrator. Having union support under these circumstances is not only good for the teacher, but for students, too, as it helps keep a good teacher at the school. A bigger problem is that administrators rarely have the time to adequately observe and evaluate teachers. Thus, a teacher who truly isn’t doing a good job can easily slip through the cracks.

A more nuanced answer should take into account that a well-meaning teacher might benefit from and desire professional development opportunities to help him improve. With shrinking budgets and growing demands on administrators and teachers, this is seldom happening. One should also ask what we mean by “bad” teacher. I have worked with teachers who were unreliable, disorganized and annoying as colleagues, and not particularly effective with their classroom instruction, but who were fantastic mentors and advocates for their students. I would argue that a teacher like this should not be tossed away like a broken appliance, but respected for the good they bring to the school and supported in the development of those skills they are lacking.

Those Crazy French Workers

Strikes continue in France, despite violent attacks by the police. Workers and students have set up blockades in the oil sector, creating fuel shortages throughout the country. The current protests are in response to Sarkozy’s pension cuts.

To Americans, French workers may seem like spoiled brats with their regular large scale strikes and protests. After all, they get to retire much earlier than we do (even with the proposed changes to retirement). They get free healthcare and longer vacations. Mothers get paid maternity leave and the government provides domestic help for new mothers.

What we tend to forget is that French workers have all those great benefits because they have been so willing to strike. Work stoppages, work to rule, sabotage and other types of concerted and well-organized direct action hurt the bosses’ bottom line. When well-planned and executed, direct action can also win public support. Currently, the French workers do have public support, as the public generally opposes the cuts. Most importantly, though, the action must hurt the boss enough that he is willing to back down or negotiate with the workers.

We also tend not to hear that the strikes and protests in France are often wild cat, without the full support of the mainstream unions. In the current case, the unions have mounted little or no protest to the extreme violence that the French government has meted out to protesting workers and students, particularly at the oil blockades.

The media tend to portray what’s happening in France as an aberration in an otherwise peaceful series of take-backs and austerity measures being imposed on citizens throughout Europe. In reality, the strikes in France are just the most developed and overt examples of growing worker opposition throughout the continent.

In the U.S., austerity is being imposed without much resistance. We have been told that times are tough and we all must tighten our belts and most Americans seem to accept that. Yet the richest 1% are still the richest 1%, and they always will be because they use situations like this to further consolidate their wealth. They have been tightening other people’s belts by firing workers, closing shop, resisting tax increases for themselves, demanding cuts in services for the poor while preserving their subsidies and demanding government bailouts.

Because police repression in France has failed to quash the protests, Sarkozy is relying more than ever on collaborationist unions to help him suppress the unrest. Union representatives are publicly declaring that opposition to the cuts is futile and they are attempting to undermine the strikes. This is not unlike America, where both the NEA and AFT spend more time and resources finding ways to make NCLB, RTTT, Common Core Standards and Charter Schools palatable to their members than they do organizing members and the public to resist them.

Unions, in general, have been under attack lately. Instead of fighting back, educating the public, demonstrating their usefulness, they have essentially gone into hiding, damage control, or buried their heads in the sand. While our unions may be collaborationist, our right to collective bargaining has ensured that we have relatively good pay and benefits, tenure and free speech protections, and job security. To the unemployed and marginally employed, we seem like the spoiled French workers and make an easy target for their frustration and anger.

We should not allow the ruling elite to control this discourse. They are the ones responsible for the economic crisis, not teachers or other unionized workers. We cannot allow them to put the blame on us. If our unions are too lame to mount an effective campaign against this, then we, as workers, need to do it.

Direct Action gets the goods.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Waiting For Super Bucks

“Waiting for Superman,” (WFS) the new education documentary by Davis Guggenheim, the director of “An Inconvenient Truth,” claims that public education is in crisis and can only be saved through charter schools. Such claims should immediately make one suspicious. Who is really behind this movie? After all, numerous studies have shown that charter schools are no better (and often far worse) than traditional public schools. They tend to be much more segregated. They generally hire non-unionized teachers at scab wages. They lack the accountability and community oversight of traditional schools. Most significantly, they tend to be run or managed by private, for-profit businesses that turn profits by underpaying employees and scrimping on educational supplies and a safety.

One would expect that the people behind the charter school movement would be wealthy entrepreneurs looking for the next big buck, and they are. A recent article by Barbara Miner, “Ultimate $uperpower,” identifies the financial backers of WFS and the big players behind the charter school movement. It’s a rogues’ galley of media moguls, high tech billionaires, hedge fund gamblers and Wall Street bankers, combined with a few Christian billionaires.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Collaborationist Union Leader Backs Selling Out

“Despite Image, Collaborationist Union Leader Backs Selling Out,” should be the title of the recent NYT piece on AFT leader, Randi Weingarten. The article says, “She has shrewdly recognized that teachers’ unions need to be part of the reform,” and suggests that “. . .Randi has to know that teacher unionism itself is in jeopardy, perhaps even in mortal jeopardy.”
As president of the AFT, she has embraced tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. In Washington, DC, she helped negotiate a contract that made it easier to fire teachers. She supported a Colorado law that stripped tenure rights from teachers.

Backpedaling and giving in will not make the assault on public education go away. Organizing, education, and public outreach might.

Teacher unionism may be moribund. If it goes, we will have only ourselves to blame for not fighting back.

The Bowl Curve

Another disturbing trend I discovered during my first year of teaching was that most of my classes had more students earning Ds and Fs than As, Bs, or Cs. When graphed, my grade distributions looked almost like upside down bell curves. I dubbed this syndrome, The Bowl Curve.

The D and F students were often bright, but they did not do homework. They often came to class without books, binders, pens and pencils. Many were reading far below grade level and had trouble paying attention. Most had clearly experienced social promotion in the past.

I checked their school records out of concern that maybe I was grading to harshly. In most cases, these same students were failing 2, 3, even 4 other classes. Their other teachers and I had met on several occasions to discuss the matter. In general, they were not doing their assignments, or they were chronically absent or tardy, or they come to class unprepared.

I met with one parent who was upset about her daughter’s D in my honors biology class. Her daughter was a bright kid who had terrible test anxiety. I explained that her daughter had earned only 65 out of 270 on the midterm exam and had failed to turn several assignments. Furthermore, her lab reports were poorly written and incomplete. We discussed test-taking strategies and ways to combat the anxieties. By the end of the meeting, both mother and daughter appeared satisfied. The mother thanked me and said she would help her daughter try some of my suggestions.

The next day I was called into the principal’s office. “Mrs. Jones is really upset! She can’t understand your grading policy. She says her daughter has turned in all her work, yet she still earned only a D?!”

After repeating to him what I had discussed with Mrs. Jones, I asserted that the grade was more than fair. “I don’t agree,” he argued. “She worked really hard. She deserves more than a D. After all, 65 out of 270 is a pretty good score for biology.”

“65 out of 270,” I reminded him, “is only 24%. To earn a D- she would need 60%. Keep in mind, this is an honors biology course. Considering the missing assignments and weak lab reports, I consider a D to be very generous.”

“Generous?!!” he screamed. “You’re so old-fashioned, Mr. Dunn. No one uses that old percentage system! Get with the program! And it’s not just the Jones girl. You have too many Ds and Fs.”

He suggested that I make missing assignments worth 25% instead of 0%. “An F is an F, after all.” So I tried his Enron style of grading and found that in most cases it made no difference. These students were missing so many assignments and had such low test scores that they still had Fs overall.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Abolish Public Education!

I have made the point that much of the assault on public education has been funded by proponents of privatization. At the risk of sounding paranoid, there is a tea party candidate, David Harmer, running for California's 11th congressional district who has called for public education to be abolished completely. "Only private schools can provide the diverse opportunities children need to succeed." According to some analysts, this nut job may actually win.

Love Teachers and Hate Their Unions?

Here's another take on the current war against teachers: "It's Not the Teachers Unions," by Richard Kahlenberg, American Prospect, Oct 13.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

How To Fix Our Schools

Here's a thoughtful response by Richard Rothstein to the Joel Klein/Michelle Rhee manifesto attacking bad teachers: "How to Fix Our Schools."

Classroom Confidential

I returned home from my trip to Mexico just a week before school started, having heard that San Francisco Unified School District really didn’t start hiring until the last few days before classes began. I put on my only suit and headed out to the school of my dreams, walked in with a portfolio of my best lesson plans and letters of recommendation, and asked the secretary if they were in need of a science teacher. She said they could interview me in twenty minutes, if I didn’t mind waiting. I was called back that afternoon with a job offer.

On the morning of my first day, I arrived early to give myself time to pick up my rosters and get my room in order. The most obvious problem was that there weren’t enough chairs and desks for the 36 students I was expecting. I was excited and really looking forward to meeting my first students, not just because they were my first students, but also because it was an ESL biology class, an opportunity to really apply what I had learned over the summer. So I scrambled and scrounged to get my room in order, to make a good impression, and with the help of one of my colleagues, I managed to find just enough extra chairs. However, when I received my rosters I was horrified to see that my first period class had 38 students on it, two more than the contractual limit and two more than the number of chairs I had worked so hard to acquire.

My ESL biology class had students from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Macao, China, Viet Nam, Cambodia and Burma, and one from Mexico. Half the kids had names that were so new to me that I had no idea what their genders were, let alone how to pronounce them, names like Haripreet, Bao Yu, Cheng-gong, Dao-Ming, Enlai, Hui-Fang, An-Tuan, Huynh, Ngoc, Dalisay, Diwata, Htai, Kyaw, Bounthieng, and Mrinmayee. And then they arrived, not 38, but 45. I had students sitting on milk crates and lab benches, standing in the back, leaning against walls. I apologized profusely and they thanked me profusely and, despite the logistical problems on day one, we developed the most wonderful classroom culture.

I remember one Vietnamese student who had just arrived in the country. He could not speak a word of English. When I asked him his name, he looked up at me with such confusion and fear that I felt terrible for having asked him such a thing. Students such as he were supposed to be sent to Newcomer High School, where they received intensive English language development. Eventually they would trickle into the mainstream schools where they took ESL classes until they knew enough English to be in mainstream classes. Fortunately there was another Vietnamese student who helped translate for him.

While my first period ESL students were polite, on time, and eager to do well, my second period class was a conceptual chemistry course for native born students. Most of these students had flunked at least one previous science class. And many came to school only because it was better than being at home or on the streets, or because it was a requirement of their probation. Half of my second period students sauntered in late, some by as much as 30 minutes, as if their being in class at all was sufficient. And this was not just a problem on opening day. Throughout the year it was rare to see more than 50% of these students in their seats by the time the tardy bell rang.

That first week I tried to call the parents of every one of my 170 students. I hoped that I could temper the unpleasant interactions with some nice words for those who were doing well. I spent four hours per day on the phone that first week, most of which was spent talking to answering machines or listening to the operator telling me that the number had been disconnected. I think I managed to reach the parents of only 30 of my students, and most of these were kids who were doing well.

I also encountered a few parents who were hostile to me. Some screamed that I should be glad their child showed up at all, or argued that being on time wasn’t important. There were others who broke down sobbing that their child was out of control and wasn’t there something I could do to reign them in? One parent told me that the next time I should call her and she would come right over and sock him in front of his friends. Another told me that I had his permission to hit his son. In many cases the parents simply weren’t available to monitor their child’s homework or behavior because they were working two or three jobs or because they were in and out of jail or on drugs. This was just the tip of the iceberg.

During my first few years I got a real serious lesson from the school of hard knocks. I had an epileptic student whose seizures grew in quantity and intensity whenever her mother was on a crack binge. I’ve had numerous pregnant students, most of whom stopped coming to school. One student had post traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks so severe she couldn’t be at school. I’ve had students who stopped coming to school because they had been raped or molested or harassed over their sexual orientation. I’ve had several students who couldn’t do their homework because they were turning tricks all night, including a male-to-female transgender youth. There have been others who continued to come to school but sat in class sobbing, incapable of participating.

I’ve had students miss class to attend drug rehab, physical therapy or counseling. Others stopped attending because they had been arrested. Several have stopped coming because they run away from home. Many stopped attending because of threats by gangs or bullies. One of my students watched his father murder his mother in front of him.

I’ve had students with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and anti-social personality disorder. I’ve had others with such severe emotional disorders that they couldn’t communicate with me, stay seated for more than a minute, or comprehend why other students looked at them so strangely. There was one boy who had such acute anorexia that he was hospitalized twice in one school year and another, with sickle cell, who was absent far more often than he was present.

I’ve had students who were homeless, living on the streets. Many students shift between two homes as a result of divorce, complicating the problems of where and when to do homework and where or how to store text books and other educational resources. Many live in crowded, noisy homes, with no quiet space for doing homework. Some are required to work to help the family meet its financial needs or to care for siblings or elderly family members, either of which may take priority over homework. Some are treated like indentured servants by extended “family” members or sponsors.

The Real Enemies of Education

Teachers have become the latest political bogey man. We are now officially responsible for everything wrong with public education, even delusional, nonexistent wrongs. We are even blamed for corrupting the political process. However, the real enemies of public education are the Duncans, Gates, Buffets, Waltons and Broads who are attempting to give the school house away to educational profiteers like Pearson and McGraw-Hill, Platform Learning, Imagine Schools, Edison, White Hat, Reed Elsevier and Neil Bush. As far as they’re concerned, the real problem is that public education is locally controlled, unionized and nonprofit, thereby limiting their access and control of this huge potential market. Public education is mandatory. Consumption is required. The funding stream is secure, so long as the anti-tax movement doesn’t succeed in abolishing taxes entirely. If only they ran the schools instead of local school boards.

Arne Duncan had a solution: as CEO of Chicago schools he privatized many of its schools. When he called “Katrina the best thing to happen to the education system of New Orleans,” it was because it allowed the government to privatize it. Within two years of the disaster, 107 out of 128 New Orleans schools had been converted to charter schools and the number of unionized teachers dropped from 4700 to 500. They also fired 7500 school employees, many of whom had school age children who would now be attending New Orleans public schools hungry, homeless or stressed out by the economic uncertainty at home, or simply fleeing the city entirely, like so many of New Orleans’ lower income residents. The “reforms” have been hailed as a success since New Orleans test scores have improved since Katrina. However, the relative wealth of city residents also rose after Katrina and affluent students generally do much better on standardized tests than lower income students.

Waiting for Superman,” which blames teachers for the problems with public education is essentially just an expensive piece of advertising for charter schools. It was largely funded by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, two proponents of school privatization. Almost immediately after the film was aired, the donations to charter schools started to pour in. The venture capital Charter School Growth Fund recently secured $100 million from sources including the Walton Family Foundation. Oprah just coughed up $6 million for six charter schools.

Neil Bush, Reed Elsevier and McGraw-Hill were all well-connected with President Bush and all were beneficiaries of NCLB give-aways. While schools were forced to buy their products, money and time for real teaching and learning were diverted to test preparation and testing. As NCLB declared increasing numbers of schools to be failing, teachers were forced to work harder and longer, usually without extra compensation, to implement “reforms” that had no possibility of solving the problem. They couldn’t solve the problem because NCLB was designed to increase failure, not increase student achievement.

Even banks and investment firms can be seen as the enemies of education. They are largely responsible for the current financial crisis that has bankrupted cities, lowered property values and school funding, and made millions of people unemployed, homeless and angry. In all likelihood, we shall see test scores and graduation rates decline, as more and more families become impoverished. Meanwhile, they blame teachers for hindering real educational improvements and bemoan the lack of sufficiently educated workers to fill their nonexistent job openings, implying that teachers are the cause of high unemployment rates and the persistence of the recession.

The Myth of the Bad Teacher

Check out, "The Myth of the Bad Teacher," By Adam Bessie, in Truth Out.

This op ed discusses how teachers have become the latest political bogey man. When education secretary Rod Paige called the NEA a terrorist organization, back in 2004, he set the tone for today's wave of teacher bashing.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Rural Education in Mexico

Prior to my first teaching job I spent the summer in Mexico, in Zinacantan, a Tzotzil village in the Chiapan highlands. I was there to study bilingual education among Mayan middle school children as part of a course I was taking through San Francisco State and the Autonomous University of Chiapas. In reality, the teachers at this school were monolingual Spanish speakers and the majority of students had limited Spanish proficiency. Teachers used the standard lecture format, with no modifications for the Mayan children. There were no visual aids, videos, computers, or even books in the room. The school library had exactly three books that had been translated into Tzotzil.

The classrooms were minute, filled with rows of broken down wooden desks, with a chalkboard in the front. On several of the days I was there, the principal asked if I would teach the class because the regular teacher had not shown up. Like their regular teacher, I was unable to communicate with students in their native language. Like the students, Spanish was my second language and I was not fluent. This put us all on more equal footing.

Zinacantan, like many villages in the area, maintains a strong traditional culture. Most of the men, women and children wore the traditional bright red clothing of their village. Most of the men farmed corn. There was also a small ornamental flower industry that gave Zinacantan a modest economic edge over its neighbors. Nevertheless, it was not uncommon for boys to drop out before they had reached middle school to help their fathers in the fields. In many villages, it was also typical for the girls to quit school at this age to start families or to help at home. Perhaps because of their relative “prosperity,” girls in Zinacantan were marrying later and staying in school longer. In my school, girls were in the majority, and many aspired to get out of the village and become doctors or go into business.

I did not teach these students anything new. I had not come prepared to teach and the school had no resources on hand to help me. Instead, I spent a lot of time getting to know the kids and reviewing basic biology with them. Despite the fact that their regular teachers seemed to take a lot of mid-week vacations, these students knew more biology than many of the students I encountered on my first teaching job in San Francisco. This was probably due, in part, to the fact that the Mayan students were at school because they wanted to be there. Anyone who didn’t want to be there was at home or in the fields. But it was also a small, tight-knit community with rigid mores. It was not a place that tolerated laziness, arrogance or selfishness, nor a place where students could develop bad academic or behavior pattern.

It was several years after the Zapatista uprising had begun. Zinacantan village had not been particularly affected by the uprising. Nevertheless, there was considerable graffiti throughout the area, around San Cristobal, Chamula, and Zinacantan, on walls and fences, not only in support of the Zapatistas, but in support of teachers, students and unions. A common slogan was, “Books and Scholarships, Not Repression.” I had been in Chiapas a few years earlier, just prior to the uprising, and don’t remember any graffiti in support of popular causes. The movement had inspired and emboldened people, even the majority who had not taken up arms. In 1995, the Zinacantan region kicked out the corrupt bosses of the PRI who had ruled the country since the revolution. They voted in the PRD who later violently attacked a peaceful rally of 4000 Zapatista supporters in 2004.

One reason why the Zapatistas were so popular among the Maya was that they were primarily Tzotzil and Tzeltal Maya themselves. There was probably a sense of ethnic pride. There had been a long history of institutionalized racism against the Maya and profound economic and political marginalization. The racism and marginalization continue to this day, not only by other Mexicans, but by foreign tourists, too. People visit from all over the world, eager to see the beautiful textiles, pottery and other handicrafts. They romanticize Mayan resistance and rebellion and indigenous “harmony” with the Earth. Yet, in my experience, many tourists treat local people like living museum pieces, taking snapshots without permission, or invading their villages in tour buses during festivals or rituals.

One day I traveled by horseback from San Cristobal to Chamula, a nearby Mayan village, along with a group of eight other gringos and a mestizo guide. Because I had been living in San Cristobal all summer, some U.S. ex-patriot neighbors asked if I would chaperone their two tween-age boys. The guide was a local language instructor who I knew. We had visited Chamula together the week before. He drank too much in their cantina and had to get off the bus on the way back to puke. The others in the group were strangers.

The ride up the mountain was rugged, scenic and lovely in every way imaginable, much of it through dense pine forest. Once we arrived in Chamula, however, I realized we were in trouble. Our guide immediately disappeared into a cantina. It was the end of a village festival. There were a lot of extremely inebriated local people. Many were unconscious. A group of men gathered around us as we rode into the central square. They started to stare and point. There was a tall, blond-haired woman in our group. The locals were clearly interested in her and started to touch her hair. This, of course, terrified her, and she started to scream. This, in turn, either scared or angered the men, and they became more aggressive.

The situation was extremely volatile. We need to leave quickly, but the others were catatonic. I suggested we head out. They didn’t want to leave without our guide. “Forget our guide,” I said. “He’s in the cantina getting drunk. He’s no help to us now. When I say go, follow me.”

I have no experience with horses whatsoever. I suspect none of us did. It didn’t matter. We had to act quickly and decisively or things would get dangerous. I shouted at the men to let go of her and told everyone to ride. I pushed the men’s hands away from her and screamed at her to ride away. The rest of us followed.

Amazingly, it worked. We escaped Chamula without further incident. The trip back was much slower. It was raining. The horses were more cautious and tentative as they made their way down the steep mountain trail, but they knew the way back. My saddle was the wrong size and the dampness was causing me to slip and slide. By the end of the three hour trip, I felt like a Hollywood cowboy, with my legs bowed out, and the worst saddle rash imaginable. But we survived. The boys’ parents were very appreciative. I took a long nap, on my belly.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Lord of the Flies (Or Adults Behaving Badly, Again)

In the U.S., we have a plethora of philosophies and methods for educating and raising children, but when things go wrong, particularly for teenagers, we tend to blame them. By the time they have reached puberty, we assume they know the difference between right and wrong. This lets the adults off far too easy. What we teach and enforce at an early age helps set the tone for a lifetime. We do this by clearly explaining rules and expectations and consistently following through with consequences.

While this may seem simple, it is surprising how often it is absent. When I was student teaching, my master teacher allowed her students to walk all over her, yet she still gave them sweets at the end of each period. The class was chaotic, with students talking, listening to music, or wandering around the room while she talked. She was terrified of conflict and refused to set boundaries with them. If they weren’t listening, she would just talk louder. She desperately wanted to be liked and tried to buy her students’ respect with treats.

One of my students at that school, Catarina, was failing miserably. She only showed up two to three times a week and never turned in homework. Her average in the class was 16%. I arranged for a conference with her mother. During the meeting, her mother told me how out-of-control Catarina was at home, that she was hanging out with the wrong crowd, and that she didn’t know what to do. Catarina got angry and told her mother to f-off. The mother did nothing. She just continued talking to me as if nothing had happened.

While it was difficult at first, and certainly not in my nature, I quickly learned how to maintain a safe and respectful learning environment. Rule of thumb: Don’t become a student door mat. I also quickly learned that my success sometimes depended on how much support I got from deans and administrators. I taught at one school where the entire administrative team and dean behaved like my master teacher. As a result, much of the campus was out of control. Students wandered the campus during class time. Fights were common. Harassment of special education students was routine. The bathrooms were filled with racist graffiti, including sketches of students being lynched. One student came to school drunk and was back the next day with a only verbal warning.

The most egregious lapse of authority, however, occurred during lunch, when a group of students started to taunt two lesbian students, first verbally, and then by throwing bottles and cans. By the time campus security arrived, it was verging on a melee involving dozens of students. That afternoon, the principal sent out a global email to the staff, asking us to encourage our students to come to a voluntary debriefing on the incident to be facilitated by student government. The only other consequences were two-day suspensions for two of the attackers and, shockingly, for the two lesbian students, despite the fact that dozens of students were involved. The situation could have very easily resulted in hospitalizations or lawsuits. Tensions remained high on campus for weeks after the incident. Yet the administration chose to pass responsibility for reestablishing a safe and supportive campus to students.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

8 Delusions About Education

Like most parents, I want my child to get the best education possible. Like many parents, I am scared, but not for the usual, reasons like bad teachers, low standards, lack of accountability, greedy unions, or a system broken beyond repair. These are gross exaggerations. What I fear is that the fun and innocence of childhood is being traded in for the false promises of rigor and accountability. Many kindergartens have replaced story-time and recess with rote test-taking drills. Elementary schools are eliminating science to make room for more test prep. Middle schools have eliminated shop classes because they aren’t academically rigorous. Over the past 30 years, we have fundamentally altered public education because we were told it wasn’t working. We were told that testing would improve school accountability and student achievement, yet increasing numbers of schools are failing. If we want to see real improvements in education, we need to first cut through the lies and delusions that dominate the debate.

Delusion #1: Schools today are in crisis—Public Education is Broken:
Teaching standards today are more rigorous than ever. Teachers are much better prepared for working with diverse populations. The consensus in education has shifted from one that supported tracking students into advanced or remedial courses based on socioeconomic status (SES) and race to one that promotes equity for all students. So where did we get the idea that public education is so terribly broken?

In 1983, President Reagan’s Commission on Excellence in Education published “A Nation at Risk,” which falsely claimed that our schools were so terrible that it threatened national security. This myth, that the education system is broken, has been perpetuated ever since by politicians of both persuasions and their corporate supporters, terrifying parents, who worry that their children will languish intellectually, and taxpayers, who fear that today’s poorly educated students will be tomorrow’s incompetent doctors and police. Education bashing has become the baby-kissing of the new millennium. Everyone wants to be the “education” candidate, the hero who saves our children.

The problem with “A Nation at Risk” is that it wasn’t true. In 1990, Sandia National Laboratory wrote “Perspectives on education in America,” which concluded there was no crisis. Bush Sr. immediately suppressed the report, as it conflicted with his education agenda. According to the report, average SAT scores went up or held steady for every student subgroup from 1975 to 1988. Reading held steady or improved among all groups from 1971 to 1988. Every year from 1970 to 1988, the number of 22 year-olds with bachelor degrees increased. In 1988, the U.S. led all developed nations in bachelor degrees earned. Students scoring 3 or higher on AP tests rose from 10.2% in 2000 to 14.8% in 2006, while the number attempting AP tests rose from 15.9% in 2000 to 24.2% in 2006.
Delusion #2: Bad Schools and Teachers Cause the Achievement Gap
Public education is not in crisis, but a class-based achievement gap does persist. Middle class students consistently outscore lower income students on standardized tests and graduate at higher rates. However, the achievement gap is already firmly in place before children have even started school. Burkam and Lee examined average cognitive scores of children entering kindergarten and found that kids in the highest income group scored 60% higher than those in the lowest income group. Hart and Risely found similar class-based differences in language development and IQ among children as young as three.

Class can have an enormous impact on how we raise our children and influence school readiness. Hart and Risely found dramatic class differences in the number and complexity of words spoken to young children. By the time they have reached kindergarten, children from families on welfare may have heard 32 million fewer words than children from professional families.

Poverty contributes to a host of physical and cognitive problems that can diminish academic achievement. Poor children are more likely to suffer low birth weights and malnutrition, which can lead to disabilities. Iron-deficiency anemia, which impairs cognitive ability, is twice as common among poor children. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 10% of poor students have dangerous levels of lead in their blood, which can lead to decreased intelligence. Lack of healthcare causes poor children to be absent as much as 40% more often than middle class kids, according to education researcher Richard Rothstein. In a study of Baltimore school children, high school drop-outs averaged 27.6 absences per year, while graduates averaged only 11.8. Poor children move more due to financial insecurity. According to the Educational Testing Service, 41% of students who changed schools frequently were below grade level in reading and 33% were below grade level in math, compared to 26% and 17%, respectively, for those who remained at the same schools.

Delusion #3: No Child Left behind will ensure that all children are succeeding by 2014
This slogan sounds great, but it is impossible to deliver. Instead of improving schools, NCLB is having the opposite effect: increasing numbers of schools are failing. The state of California projected that by the 2013-2014 school year, when all students are supposed to be proficient, 99% of California schools will be failing. The reasons for this paradox are built into the rules of NCLB which require that all subgroups (e.g., ethnicity, socio-economic status, special education, English Language Learners) must meet their Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) each year. If any one group fails, the entire school fails.

Delusion #4: Obama is dismantling NCLB
Obama wants to modify NCLB, not end it. He wants to include graduation rates, attendance and learning climate when judging schools. He also wants to replace the provision that every child must reach proficiency with the goal that all students graduate from high school “prepared” for college. Schools and students will still compete with each other. There will continue to be winners, losers and high stakes exams. “Proficiency” and “progress” will be just as elusive. Nothing will be put into place to help low income families. In addition to keeping NCLB, he has introduced Race to the Top (RTTT), which provides $4.3 billion in competitive grants to states that facilitate the creation of charter and for-profit schools and that evaluate teachers based on their students’ test scores.

Delusion #5: Testing & Standards Improve Schools & Make Teachers Accountable
Accountability is a red herring, a distraction from the most serious problems affecting public education: underfunding and poverty. It also a big giveaway to test publishers. While testing makes these companies a lot of money, it does nothing to improve accountability or quality. At best, a good test tells us what a student knows, not how she learned it. More importantly, test scores correlate more strongly with social class than any other variable, including teacher quality, curriculum or school structure. 76% of schools with low pass rates on the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) had at least 50% of their students receiving free or reduced lunches. Similarly, 66% of California high schools with low graduation rates had at least 40% of their students on free or reduced lunch, while 80% of high schools with high graduation rates had less than 20% of their students on free or reduced lunch. A more effective means of improving test scores and student achievement would be to improve familial financial security.

Teachers are already held accountable. They are evaluated regularly by administrators and, if judged poorly, can be fired or required to undergo professional development. In California, these evaluations are based on state standards that are among the toughest in the U.S. They assess much more than student achievement, like how well teachers communicate with parents and students, create safe and effective learning environments, and meet the needs of diverse students. A good teacher does all these things, but may still have high failure rates on standardized exams if working with economically disadvantaged students.

Delusion #6: The problem with Public Education is that it is run by the government
This statement is the most honest criticism made by opponents of public education. Public schools are free and one of the few areas of the economy under direct community control. Parents and employees have considerably more influence over how their schools are run than they do over their local Walmart or McDonalds, at least they did before NCLB. By bashing public education, critics hope to weaken unions and divert public funds to private, for-profit education businesses. Multibillion dollar foundations like Gates, Broad and Walton Family Foundations have pumped millions into the creation of charter schools. Gates even provided funding to states to hire consultants to write RTTT grants to help them to create more charter schools. Charter school organizers make $400,000 per year (compared with teachers, who make $30-80,000 per year).

Big Government is a compelling target, particularly when accused of trampling individual rights and freedom. However, for the wealthy, every attack on big government is an opportunity to lower their tax liability and increase their personal wealth. Tax cuts for the wealthy often lead to education cuts. However, even without tax cuts, the wealthy benefit when money is diverted from social programs like education, that benefit everyone, to entitlements like farm or oil subsidies, that benefit a small, elite group. Furthermore, when government programs are made to seem inept and wasteful, the corporate alternative starts to look appealing, facilitating the transfer of wealth from tax payers to private business.

Delusion 7: Charter Schools are More Effective Than Traditional Public Schools
Charter schools perform no better than traditional public schools and often do much worse. In 2004, the U.S. department of education found that 4th graders in charter schools did significantly worse in reading and math than those in public school. Charter schools also tend to be much more segregated. Nearly 80% of Latino and 70% of black charter school students are in schools that are over 90% minority, nearly double the rate in traditional public schools. In 2007, public school enrollment was 47% white, 22% black, 21% Hispanic and 3% Asian. Private, religious school enrollment was 73% white, 9% black, 12% Hispanic, 3% Asian, while private, secular school enrollment was: 69% white, 11% black, 9% Hispanic, and 6% Asian. Poor students make up 40% of public schools, but only 17% of private religious and 10% of private secular schools.

Delusion #8: Teachers unions protect bad teachers and block parental choice.
This delusion implies that there are great numbers of rotten teachers in need of discipline or dismissal, which is simply untrue. Unions do provide legal services for members accused of misconduct. It is important to note that in the contentious school environment, there are often frivolous accusations made against teachers, who are entitled to representation and defense. Most unions provide peer evaluation and support to help struggling teachers grow professionally. Unions also support beginning teacher mentor programs and professional development, both of which have declined dramatically due to budget cuts, not union obstructionism. Unions support tenure because it is a necessary prerequisite for authentic collaboration between teachers and administrators. Schools cannot function without open, honest input and criticism by those who work with children. Without tenure, teachers can be fired because administrators do not agree with their comments or criticism.

A second problem with this delusion is the assumption that parents get to choose how their taxes are used. Teachers are highly trained professionals who know how to do their job. Can you imagine if people demanded “choice” for their police, fire and public health protection? Parents do have the choice to have their children excused from NCLB testing, and SHOULD, as a form of civil disobedience. If enough parents do this, the charade will have to end.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Organizing Gets the Goods

The National Education Association (NEA) is spending $15 million to get pro-education candidates elected in November, while the California Teachers Association (CTA) routinely outspends all other state lobbyists. Figures like these make good fodder for anti-teacher rants by conservatives, but they also anger teachers. As an organizer for a local that is affiliated with both the CTA and NEA, I often find myself talking to irate members who are frustrated with the top down paternalism of our state and national organizations, particularly with respect to how our dues are spent. For all the money CTA funneled into political campaigns, the California legislature still cut $17 billion from education over the past two years, fired teachers and increased class sizes. Politics is a losing game for unions. Candidates are fickle, unreliable allies of working Americans. They are wealthier than us, with substantially different financial interests. When forced to make tough budget decisions, they side with business, not labor.

Take Jerry Brown, who the CTA is lavishly supporting for governor in California. His billionaire opponent, Meg Whitman, is clearly an enemy of public education and unions, but can teachers and parents count on Brown? The answer is no. As Mayor of Oakland he appointed three additional members to the Oakland school board and tried to impose his own hand-picked superintendent in a power grab that angered teachers and parents alike. He created two charter schools, the Oakland Military Academy (OMI), and the Oakland School of the Arts (OSA), neither of which performed better than Oakland’s traditional public high schools despite the fact that he personally raised $12 million for the schools, allowing them to spend almost twice as much per student as Oakland’s traditional schools. Not surprisingly, the military school serves predominantly lower income students, while the art school serves a mostly middle class clientele. In general, Brown has been a strong supporter of charter schools, while giving little indication he has the stomach for helping traditional public schools. Indeed, as mayor, he diverted city staff members to charter school duty, even moving the City Manager’s office from City Hall to OMI headquarters at the Oakland Army base.

I’m not interested in telling anyone how (or if) to vote. If you want to vote for the lesser evil, more power to you. My argument is that my union’s vast resources should not be given to a lesser evil who may or may not make some favorable decisions. A union’s strength does not come from buying politicians. It comes from mobilizing its members to fight for better working conditions and a better society. They accomplish this most effectively through organizing and educating their members and the public around critical issues of common interest. One example is health care. With insurance rates increasing 25-40% annually, workers are being forced to pay more out of pocket, a de facto pay cut that worsens each year. Lack of healthcare causes poor children to be absent as much as 40% more often than middle class kids. This can have a profound impact on academic success. In one study of Baltimore teenagers, high school drop-outs averaged 27.6 absences per year, while graduates averaged only 11.8. A single payer system should improve attendance and graduation rates by ensuring that everyone has health coverage. It reduces uncertainty in school budgeting and prevents insurance companies from holding employee pay hostage. Countries with universal coverage have higher life expectancies, lower infant mortality and healthier citizens at a fraction of what we spend. Yet insurance giants have spent millions to convince us the opposite is true. Instead of buying politicians who might vote for single payer, unions should educate members and organize them to fight for it.

There is power in a union, but it comes from its members, not politicians. Lobbyists may be effective for corporate America, but for the rest of us, organizing gets the goods.