Thursday, July 3, 2014

The things they say, the things they don't

 "StudentsFirst has taken the feedback from our membership and dozens of education policy experts and crafted a policy roadmap for lawmakers to consider as the new legislative year begins."
 (Read: "The inner circle of StudentsFirst and some high-powered and wealthy insiders who shall go unnamed have pre-written some strategy, policy, and talking points for those who appear to be "elected" into decision-making positions.")

"Great teachers make a difference for children of all backgrounds. All children deserve great teachers."
(Read: "By saying something simplistic and universally agreeable, we can then hopefully fool you into accepting some of our more ridiculous's the Trojan horse logic offensive!)

These quotes come from a website describing the studentsfirst policy agenda, and they echo the type of quotes commonly heard from ed-reform leaders. The problem with this "our schools  are failing and bad teachers need to be hunted like vampires" focus is not that schools shouldn't be re-tooled to an extent. If freed from state no-bid contract strangle-holds of canned curriculum and standardized cradle-to-grave test-shackles, real dedicated educators could do great things. The problem is who's defining the problem, what their agenda is, and what the likely consequences are. In addition, the refusal of this crop of non-educator education reformers (who are so far removed from the actual profession) to admit that the very real classrooms and the very real students involved are all very different from their rhetorical fantasy land...well, you have to wonder why they've been allowed a platform at all. The fantasy they are selling is one where great teachers and "choice" heal all failing schools and lift all students to achievement-nirvana.

But these reformers avoid inconvenient truths like the plague.

There are elementary school students who don't know for sure whether they will see their fathers or not that day-or that week. Visiting hours at the jail can be unpredictable, and mothers may or may not enforce the orders of protection that are supposed to keep some fathers away. Sometimes Dad might send a child off to live with the very Mom he openly disrespects because he wants some responsibility-free time to move his new girlfriend in (only to move her out and bring the child back a couple weeks later).

Sometimes it isn't even mothers or fathers that are the issue. Many times, grandparents and/or aunts and uncles are the primary caregivers in situations where the actual parents have either given up their rights or had them taken away by family courts. It's hard to imagine what goes through the mind of a young child who entered this life with the natural inclination to view their mother and father as the most important connections they could have: the source of love and information; the model of how to feel about themselves and relate to others; how to relate to and find their way in the world... It's even harder to imagine what goes through that same mind when those things we take for granted are absent or warped.

While it's hard to imagine some of this stuff, those in a growing number of public schools and classrooms don't have to imagine it. It's their reality, or the reality for others in that school or in their classrooms. Peers see it, teachers see it, principals see it, other members of those communities see it.

But "reformers" don't see it. They seem to be able to buy time, buy the conversation, even buy teachers unions to an extent. Maybe even buy policy and court rulings. No, they don't see it, but do they know it? I think so, but it doesn't seem to matter.

It isn't likely that their own children will ever sit in classrooms being more and more filled with classmates that bring those burdens into school from outside the school. It isn't likely that they will see neighbors, parents, children who want for what are considered the basics: running water, electricity, heat, decent meals. Their time outside of the school day and school year is likely spent in a way that seamlessly ushers their own young along the expected paths towards achievement: connecting more exclusive schooling experiences with lifelong social connections and later college and professional connections.

So when they promote "choice": is it really "choice" to separate the students and families with the resources from the students without-or is that "segregation"?

When they attack "tenure", are they really looking to weaken the defenses before the attack?

"Intentional" is the kindest way to describe it. "Calculated" is more truthful. The language of the public school/tenure attack includes insinuations of pedophiles and "bad" teachers lurking in classrooms protected by insurmountable union nepotism and red tape. "The most important IN SCHOOL factor..." is repeated often, with such stress placed on "in school" that this truth becomes clear:

The greatest, most pressing opponent is the greed and inequity that fund policies and fuel exploitation and PR smear campaigns OUTSIDE of the school. And guess which side the "reformers" are on? 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Two barriers to true education reform

There are many more, and these could be "unpacked" to delve more deeply-which I may do. 

1) The purpose of education seems most recently to be a concept imposed upon us, not conceived/created/decided by us.

Education is not a machine, it's an endeavor. The end result is intended to be a capable American citizen. Yes- enabled with the skills needed to pursue a career path they choose, but more importantly: an understanding of their civic responsibilities and how to contribute to society or "the greater good". An even more important (and related) outcome should be the ability to discern shit from shinola and join with others endowed with the expected products of a sound basic education to drive our democracy and resist the tyranny of the privileged. This is not some Socialist concept, it is in line with the thinking of one of the most respected Founding Father-thinkers! What could be more FOX-Newsy or in line with GOP/capitalist thinking?

In 1786, Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Wythe:

"I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness...Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [tyranny, oppression, etc.] and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance."

Education of late has started to become money-making for entrepreneurs and policymakers unwilling to meet their own obligation to the greater good-opting instead to  protect and promote the system of inequities that serves them best.

2) Kids have, I mean really changed

It isn't just that "kids have changed". Yes, they most certainly have, but this is almost so accepted that it hasn't even entered into the school reform debate when reformers themselves begin talking about the apparent education pandemics: failing schools, under-achieving students, and overpaid/overprotected teachers. 

They aren't about their schools, students and teachers, of course. The fact that their own kids have a consistent track record of success easing into a continuation of the socio-economic stability and security they enjoyed all through childhood is all the proof they need that the schools for the struggling many must be "failure factories" that are too costly, represent another investment opportunity, and need to be reformed.

The cold, hard truth is that many of those at the front of the reform movement have no connection to the real-life struggles of a growing number of people, or their children. Nor do they have a willingness to acknowledge the consequences of social policy failures taken on by educators in a building full of children who come with much more pressing concerns and needs.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Resisting the move to de-value educators

What will happen if teaching continues to be treated as a workforce instead a profession?

This came to mind when thinking about whether or not teaching is "a calling", something a little more than just a chosen profession; or if it is a mechanized skill that can be scripted, planned, then executed by anyone capable of doing as they are told.

Certainly, money can be made by devaluing educators or educators in the making-first by weakening and cheapening the process and then by owning and selling the methods and measures in the execution of education for the masses.

But to what end?

Would the wealthy stand for simple politicians and policy makers telling them "This is what your children will learn, and how they will learn it."?

Not likely. In fact, we are seeing the movement towards a more segregated system, where a shrinking number of those with resources will have or be provided options for real learning that will promote access to economic and social mobility, while a growing number are subjected to federally mandated sustenance curriculum and educators confined to prescribed curriculum.

Education is meant to promote knowledge, freedom and a citizenry capable of not simply finding employment but resisting tyranny through participation in their government. Educators need to be capable of maintaining the processes that serve those purposes for all learners-not just a pre-chosen few.

Do you know the classic?

An excerpt from a book that was a marker of the beginning of realistic fiction as a genre.

When I had considered this a little, it followed necessarily that I was certainly in the wrong in it; that these people were not murderers in the sense that I had before condemned them in my thoughts; any more than those Christians were murderers who often put to death the prisoners taken in battle; or, more frequently, upon many occasions put whole troops of men to the sword, without giving quarter, though they threw down their arms and submitted.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Bring back the joy

Re: the concept of joyless schools for the already joy-deprived (read “common core”, “rigor”, “grit”, “standardization”, “raising the bar”…you know, the things those with death grips on obscene wealth do when they refuse to acknowledge the power of equity in building a nation strong in moral fiber and character-not just equipped with data warehouses, drones, and nuclear powered aircraft carriers)...
This is the one thing that has me questioning the value of “hanging in there” as a teacher.
Joy is already so lacking in the lives of a growing number of children coming into public school classrooms-and it is more and more evident in the youngest kids. Once upon a time you had to wait for the jaded adolescent to maybe give up and grow distrustful of adults and distance themselves from peers. But the failure of trickle down economics policy to work, and the refusal of those in power (on BOTH sides of “the aisle”) to admit this failure and their own reasons for sticking with it, has led to a deteriorating morale and deteriorating economic and emotional security that DOES trickle down…right into and onto the hearts and heads of our youngest students
The privileged and pompous who would offer themselves as fit to reform the rest of us need to have their power and privilege taken away.
When true equity in opportunity becomes the goal; when we stop revering “investors and job creators” that have done little more the raze the public commons; when bankers, lobbyists and politicians are as accountable as the rest of us; when the middle class families that made this country great are employed and empowered to be at home to model, guide, love and tuck their children in at night…
Well then, our nation will truly thrive and joy will return to our schools-not just those cushy charters and private schools-but ones like the one I teach at and my girls attend as well!
I hope they live to see it.

Monday, April 28, 2014

My Letter to NYT regarding space for "Success Academy"

     The April 26th New York Times included this article by Daniel Slotnik.

     Below, is the letter I sent this morning

      I am pleased that space is being found for the students in any one of Eva Moskowitz's academies. All students deserve equal access to a good public education. But I'm not sure that this is a "feel good" story, or that the treatment of public school choice has gotten the thorough examination needed. 
     The Times, in 2011, featured an article about Katherin Sprowal, a mother who was initially thrilled that her son had won a "lottery" to attend one of Moskowitz's academies. Very quickly it became clear to Ms.Sprowal that this high performing academy was either unable to or unwilling to educate her son, who presented the everyday kind of challenges real public schools and the educators in them handle daily. Ms. Sprowal's son went from poster boy for advertising purposes to being counseled out by academy officials and referred to a public school that was willing to meet his needs. Is preventing access of challenging students to the success miracle still the practice at Success Academy schools, and if so-can we truly say that this promotes school "choice"? Should this be called "high performing"? 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Regent Tallon helps me track down the truth

      Below, is my most recent letter to Regent Tallon. He responded to my first contact with him, letting me know that he would be seeing Deputy Commissioner Wagner and would discuss my issue(s). Regent Tallon also acknowledged that district resources can impact what is provided, especially on the heels of the 2008 financial crisis. 
     Mr. Tallon was suggested as a contact by a long time friend and his wife, two people who I have known for decades. They have always had the integrity of heart and mind that make me both proud to have known them for this long (and still have them in my life), and believe them when they say Regent Tallon is someone who cares about student opportunities-someone I should get in touch with when other NYSED contacts have been confusing or less than satisfactory.

    This has been altered somewhat to protect the innocent.

Mr. Tallon,

Thank you for your response. I was prompted to get in touch following a conversation with a long time friend and his wife, who I have known for more than thirty years. They described you as a person concerned with ensuring opportunity for students and someone I should contact. 

My daughter attends (and I also teach in) the ******** Central School District, one of several tiny rural schools in the County. While lack of resources have historically been an issue (even prior to 2008), my district does offer students a "business sequence" as a path to an advanced regents diploma. But this approach ignores students like my daughter who excel in and intend to pursue careers that would be supported by opportunities in the arts, or the reality that an arts sequence is necessary for students pursuing this path in order to compile a portfolio and set of experiences to be competitive college candidates.

If you get a chance to talk with Deputy Commissioner Wagner, please relay:

1) Gratitude to Leslie Yolen, NYSED associate in the arts who advocated repeatedly for the need for access to the arts sequence described in the regulations. During the conversations we had, and in messages she has left for me, I can tell Leslie understands that all students should be respected and supported through the regulations coming out of NYSED, not just the easiest or least expensive students. It would be my tendency to defer to the person with years of experience in the arts and Leslie appears to have loyalty to the students in our public schools as priority one.

2) Gratitude as well to Marybeth Casey. While I don't agree with her, and I wonder what network of contacts and supports empowered her to become involved and override an associate in the arts regarding an issue in the arts, I think Marybeth is doing what she was told/asked to do and is also loyal. I admire that.

3) My continued curiosity regarding the language "all public school districts" and "all student populations". If NYSED's official position is that opportunities are inequitable, then it needs to be acknowledged and we need to alter and/or soften the "accountability" and "achievement gap" rhetoric. It would be shameful to create and allow ed policy that would more or less ensure further divisions based on social/economic class while pretending that accountability is for the victims. Deputy Commissioner Wagner may be able to shed some light on this matter.

I invite any contact to help clarify this, and am very grateful for any effort you make to track down a bottom line for me. 

Dan McConnell