Saturday, May 17, 2014

I am a Teacher

A couple of weeks ago we at ICPE-Monroe County hosted a wonderful forum, "Let's Hear Teacher Voices: A Community Conversation," where seven local teachers spoke passionately and eloquently about what their profession means to them and how the current climate of educational corporate "reform" is affecting them.  In the spirit of that event, we want to share this eloquent piece from a friend and teacher in Texas, Heidi Vance:

 I am a Teacher

Today, there is a war against education. Men in offices are actively making decisions that will affect the way we teach. Today, there is a war against children. Men in offices are actively making decisions that will affect the way children learn. Today, we are their foot soldiers. Every day we march into our classrooms and do the work of these men in offices. These men who know nothing of children, or teaching, or education. These men who believe they have found the answer: accountability.

I am so blessed. I have an amazing administration that allows me to do what is best for my students. The great Sir Ken Robinson gave an interview and in it explained, that for the children we teach, we are their educational system. The children know nothing of policy or politics, all they know is what we do in our classrooms. And I took great solace in that. I decided to make sure that I always did right by the children in my class. But recently I started thinking of all the children in other schools, other cities, and other states. What about those children? And I realized it is not enough. I cannot say I hate what is happening in education and continue to passively support bad policies every day in my classroom.

A few weekends ago I went to the Network for Public Education National Conference. I met educators, parents, activists, and journalist from all over the country. We all shared a common goal – to take back public education. Public education is paid for by the people and belongs to the people. It belongs to us. And I had forgotten that. I lost my voice, but there, in Austin I found it. It is loud, and it is great. It is my teaching voice. You know the voice I am talking about. The other day my daughter came into my classroom while I was teaching. Later she told me “Mama, you sound weird when you teach.” I joked and told her that when you are a teacher you can have no fear. Children can smell fear. So today, I am using my teaching voice.

I am not afraid.

When I was at the conference, I felt so empowered. My mind raced with ideas. My body vibrated with excitement. I returned from the conference and all the joy and energy drained from my body, and I thought “now what?” How do I take all my ideas and turn them into action? So that is what I am doing today. I do believe in accountability for teachers and today I am holding myself accountable.

I am accountable to the children I teach. On Monday, I will walk into my classroom and remember that every child is different. Just like every child walks when he is ready, every child learns he is ready. I will not shame children for not following the time table set forth by politicians. Instead, I will cheer and encourage because I know that every child starts at a different point and that as long as they are moving forward, all the great teachers at my school will help each child to reach their full potential.

I will make sure that I only have the highest of expectations for my students. But I will remind myself that the burden of high expectations falls on me. It is my job to make sure that everything I ask of my students is developmentally appropriate, and I will speak up when it is not. It is up to me to support and scaffold the learning of my students. I will make sure everything I say and do in my classroom is supported by research. I will realize that high expectations, without the research to back it up, is the mantra of politicians who support high stakes testing.

I will set individual goals for each of my students. I will realize that by setting inappropriate goals, I will only discourage my children who need encouragement the most. I will demand that every day my students smile, laugh, play, and learn.

I am accountable to myself. I will continue to educate myself. I will read books by great educators and historians like John Kuhn, Alfie Kohn and Diane Ravitch. I will scrutinize the policy decisions of our state legislators and our Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. I will be outraged when he bullies our state into tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
I will support organizations like Network for Public Education, Fair Test, Defending the Early Years, and Texas Children Can’t Wait. I will spend my weekends writing letters to the editor, letters to my congressman, and letters to the president.

I am accountable to the public. I will speak up when people make false statements about public schools and education. I will explain to them that the dialogue about public schools has been hijacked by people who intend to dismantle and profit off of it. I will tell them that our schools are not failing. Instead, movies like Waiting for Superman are propaganda used to promote an agenda that will only hurt our minority and special needs students.

I will speak out when people reference our schools’ international ranking. I will inform them that when we account for children living in poverty, our students are ranked among the highest in the world. I will point out that 23% percent of children in the United States live in poverty. The second highest of any industrialized nation. Our schools are not failing; our society is failing.

I will educate people about the failures of high stakes tests, merit pay, VAM, and retention. I will explain to them why charters and vouchers are not the answer. Every child deserves a high quality, neighborhood school. No child should have to put his hopes and dreams into a lottery. I will inform them that researchers already have the answers to help low performing schools. They include preschool for all children living in poverty. The earlier, the better. Prenatal care for mothers. Safe homes and safe neighborhoods. Wrap around services like school libraries, school nurses and school counselors, smaller classes, and a well-rounded curriculum rich in the humanities and the arts. I will remind people that our country has only been successful because we are a country of innovators and that standardized tests stand to crush every ounce of creativity our children have. I quote Robert Schaffer who said “Believing we can improve schooling with more tests is like believing you can make yourself grow taller by measuring your height."

I am accountable to my fellow teachers. We must allow our teachers to collaborate, not compete. It does not benefit children to have teachers competing for bonuses or the highest test scores. We cannot set up a system where teachers are afraid to work with the neediest students for fear of losing their jobs. High risk students should not equal high risk employment.

I am accountable to my students’ parents. I will support and educate the parents who are unable to help their children. I will provide them with materials and compassion because they are not the enemy. Inequality and inequity in schools is the enemy. Segregation is the enemy. Years of bad bilingual education policy is the enemy.

I will even have compassion for the so called helicopter parent. I will realize that my silence has allowed for them to lose all faith in public education. The media has fed them a steady diet of failing schools, failing children, and failing teachers. With our unstable economy and a shrinking middle class, it is not surprising that parents are fighting tooth and nail to help their children succeed. Every time we are silent we allow for the continued distrust of educators and for the deprofessionalization of teachers.

I am accountable. I am accountable to myself, the public, my colleagues, my parents, and my students. But even more I am accountable to all the students in classrooms across this vast and diverse country. But I am not afraid. I am a teacher.

I stand before children every day and I teach them. I teach them things they need to know and things they never dreamed of knowing. I teach them to believe in themselves and each other. I teach them to question, and push, and explore. I teach children with no parents and no home, and children with 4 parents and 2 homes. I teach children that they are the difference this world needs. They are amazing, and creative, and on the verge of excellence, all while being only a small piece of the puzzle that is humanity. I am a teacher.
And so on Monday I will go into my classroom, and I will teach. I will use my teaching voice with my students, and when I leave I will use my teaching voice with anyone willing to listen, and even those who refuse to listen, because I am not afraid.

I am a teacher.

Heidi Nance 
El Paso, TX

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Future of Public Education in Indiana: A Vital Primary Race

Today is primary day and voters in house district 91 in Indiana have a very important choice in candidates.  Our state's House Education committee chairman, Robert Behning is being challenge by a man, Michael Scott, who is pro-union and pro-public education.  Here is a letter from a parent (who happens to be our ICPE-Monroe County chairperson), Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer, explaining the issues surrounding this race:

"As a mother of four, I see how decisions made by non-educators at the statehouse are directly affecting my children in their public school classrooms. My third-grader just took a test that will determine whether or not he is to go on to fourth grade, regardless of his teacher’s opinion. He is about to take the ISTEP and the stigma of a failing school grade rests on his small shoulders. His teacher knows that developmentally appropriate practice is the best way to reach him, but she also knows that her job is tied to his test scores and she needs her income. How did we get here? Take a look at the legislative record of Rep. Bob Behning and then follow the money from his campaign contributors

If you have wiped your child’s tears over the stress of testing, I hope you will go to the voting booth this May.

If you had concerns about new standards and were happy that they were being reviewed, I hope you remember this quote: “Frankly, most of the time the public would not have a very easy time even understanding what standards are, let alone trying to help form them.” 

If you voted for Glenda Ritz, I hope you remember who said that her win indicated that the “public didn’t really know the issues.”  and don’t forget how he introduced the bills that would undermine her control. 

If you have raised money for your schools at bake sales, I hope you remember that last year alone, $81 million dollars of our taxes was redirected to private schools through the vouchers that Behning’s authored bills made possible. They sold those to us as a way of giving poor children an opportunity for better schools. Now Behning says it’s not about quality, it’s about giving families a choice regardless .

Accountability? How about a $91 million bailout for charters’ loans while some of our public schools can’t even afford buses to transport kids safely? Why must I buy my kids’ textbooks while the homeschool and private schools parents get tax credits? Public schools accept all learners, vouchers don’t.

Bob Behning’s website declares him “a champion for smaller government and free market principles.” Yet he has taken away our local control through his policies. Last year he even introduced a bill that would take away our local school boards and hand control over to the governor-appointed state board (HB1337). And when glowing teacher evaluations came back this year he responded: “We may have let there be too much local control”.

Schools should be for kids, not for profit in a free-market experiment. Your kids and mine are not data points on a graph for investors, they are children who deserve a fully-funded, high quality education."

Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer"

Our fingers are crossed that voters in District 91 will make the choice that supports our public schools as the cornerstone for our democracy.  Here's hoping they exercise that democratic right.. and vote.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

First They Came for Our Local Control: A Parent's Call to Action

First the corporate education reformers came for our local control through tax caps, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't paying attention.  I didn't know that changing the funding from property tax to state sales/income tax would harm my schools.  I was running carpool.

Next they gutted the funding through "school choice," and I didn't speak up because I thought, "Sure. This is a free country. Everyone should be able to find the school that best suits their children." I didn't know that the vouchers would take tens of millions away from my kids' schools and make it impossible to fully fund the rich educational programs and extra-curricular activities for all children.

Then they took over and privatized some schools, and I didn't speak up because I thought, "That's an inner-city problem.  Why should I worry about that?" I didn't know that once these for-profit charter companies and special interest charter sponsors smelled money and a market demand, they would come to my town. I didn't know that when they wooed the families from my public schools, they would take with them the money for my kids' art teachers and librarians, the PTO volunteers, and divide us as a community.

Then they went after the curriculum, and I didn't speak up because I thought "Sure, we should have high, consistent standards. Kids should be 'ready' for college and career."  I didn't know that this was a money-making scheme unlike all others and that the testing involved would destroy teacher autonomy and the joy in learning.  I didn't know that laws like a grading system of schools based on one test score or laws tying test scores to teacher salaries and security in the name of "accountability" were designed to destroy public schools.  I didn't know that the maligning of schools through low letter grades (on a curve!) opened the market to charters and privates and further hemorrhaging of public school funding. I didn't know that kids would lose art, music, gym and library.  I just didn't know.  Did I mention I was running carpool?

And they came for the teachers, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a teacher.  I didn't know that the destruction of teacher unions, collective bargaining and morale would effectively silence my teacher and keep her from advocating for my kids. I didn't know that the culture of fear would make teachers unable to say: "Hey! This initiative is absolutely developmentally inappropriate for these kids!"

Then they came for my children and my school, and I found my voice.

Other voices joined in...and I did speak up.  With one local "fire" put out, we can't rest.  There is an inferno surrounding us! In other schools and other towns they are fighting as desperately as we are to keep the data mania from infiltrating our schools, to retain the child focus, to have parent (and teacher) voices be heard. But in other districts, unlike our own, they didn't pass a referendum, and they have no music programs left to save.  They have no librarians at all.  They can't even afford buses.

As I type, the legislators in the statehouse are considering a law which will allow anyone with a degree in anything to be a teacher in the classroom. Consider a teacher who has no idea how a child learns, how to spot dyslexia, what methods work best for a hands-on learner, classroom management techniques, etc.  The mind boggles. But this de-professionalizing of our teachers, of the people we trust to care for our kids every day, continues unabated. 

It’s up to us to stop this legislative destruction aimed at our public schools and our public school teachers. Raise your voice.  Please joinus at ICPE and other grassroots organizations around the state and country.  Advocate for all children as the community just did here in Bloomington.  If we showed that kind of cooperative effort on a state and national level, we could stop these "reformers" who use our children to promote their own agenda of greed.  They are making money off of our babies... and in their name.  Speak up.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Who Put the Politics in Education? On George Orwell, Grading Schools and the State Board of Education

Today's state board meeting was much more civil than the one I watched online last month and the one I attended and spoke at the time before.  Tensions were certainly high, but it wasn't too crazy.  I have to admit, I left it for a little while after I testified, but I came back in time to listen to some of the presentation for the proposal for a new A-F system.

Since the last time I wrote on this blog, Glenda Ritz filed a lawsuit against the board members for breaking the Open Door Law and going around her back to ask the Legislative Services Agency to begin the grading of schools. (Her suit, unfortunately, was thrown out today).  While there really has been a lot of support for Glenda Ritz and this suit in the press all across the state, there has also been the predictable response from her naysayers. 

Governor Pence claims to want to "take politics out of our schools; take politics out of education" and he supports the board and their desire to bring the grades to the children, teachers and families in schools.  (Um.. how about bringing something else, Governor? Funding, perhaps?) Board member Tony Walker called her lawsuit a "political ploy."   Dan Elsener claimed that Ritz and her department were not moving fast enough to get the grades out, saying: “There’s either a problem with the competence of the department to get it out, or they don’t agree with accountability and so they’re just dragging it out so we can’t do it.”  And then four board members, B.J. Watts, Dan Elsener, Sarah O'Brien and Troy Albert, signed a letter that shockingly (if you watch any board meetings or follow any of the past interactions between the board, the governor, and his newly created department folks who now get to sit at the meetings and add to the agenda) ask Ritz "If you truly want to work in a collaborative manner, then we ask that you drop this lawsuit, put politics aside, and come to the table ready to put the interests of students, teachers and schools first." 

It boggles the mind.

Incredulous at the perspective of these folks who are in such a hurry to get these stigmatizing, hurtful labels of letter grades out to our schools, I decided that I would like to make a public comment on behalf of so many of my friends who are parents trying to buffer our kids from this incredible pressure and stress of testing, as well as on the behalf of my teacher friends who amaze me with their ability to get up every day in this atmosphere and greet their students with energy and inspiration.  I also wanted to call out some of these people (and hopefully word will get to the governor and the state legislature's supermajority!)  regarding who put "politics in education". 

Here is my testimony:

" Good morning.  My name is Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer.  As a mother of four, I want to address a theme I keep reading about in the newspapers recently.  I've seen many people, even some of you, quoted as saying that we need to “keep politics out of education.”   And I thought, “How ORWELLIAN!” 

What could be more political than what is going on in education right now? 

What could be more political than the state legislature deciding that higher test scores are the goal of education and that the sole measure of “success” will be the skill of taking that test?  As a parent, I want my child to be able to delve deep into all kinds of subjects and find his passions.  But when POLITICIANS tie test scores into the future of teachers and schools, that is the inevitable focus.

I have a third grader this year.  What could be more political than the fact that his teacher, the person I entrust his care to every single day, the person who knows BEST, is unable to determine whether or not he is ready to move on to 4th grade? Instead, politicians have decided that their 40 question test is a more accurate measure of his “success,” more than the professional opinion of his teacher.

Politics is behind the drive for data and the fixation on dots on a graph instead of the human experience of learning and growing.  And politics is the reason why I as a mother voted for our superintendent.  We were hoping for the things that she supported and supports: more teaching and less testing.   Focus on the whole child.

And what could be more political than the fact that our head politician, Governor Pence, created this other department and new positions?

I want you to know that there are thousands of us who had hoped that Glenda Ritz would be able to lead us away from the fixation on testing and allow our teachers the autonomy to teach.  As you make decisions about this new grading system (that will exist because politics has so determined that that is what accountability looks like)… bear in mind that true accountability would take into context that children don’t learn in a vacuum, they learn on a developmental continuum.  True accountability would see that all children have the broad curriculum and the arts.  It would take into account how experienced and educated their teachers are and so on.  And true accountability would also hold these politicians responsible for ensuring that funding is in place for lower class sizes, professional development, and the arts.  

As a mother, I know darn well that politics is everywhere in education.  As I try to convey to my little boy who still believes in Santa Claus, that there is more to learning than can be found on a test, I am also buffering him from the fact Big Brother is watching his test scores, ready to label him as a failure.  That is what makes me angry and that is why I (and thousands of other parents) support our superintendent’s assertion of her authority.  These politics are VERY personal."

And then when I saw that I had a minute left, I felt compelled to address the fact that the board was taking credit for the recent rise in test scores in our state as success for their "reforms" (David Freitas said that, I believe).  Here is what I added:

" The fact that you are citing statistical "success" tells us little about whether or not these kids have a love of learning and are learning the interpersonal skills to be adult citizens of tomorrow.  They filled in the correct bubbles; they didn't necessarily create or think outside of the box. Or maybe it shows that teachers, despite the dire circumstances and efforts to tie their hands in the classroom, continue to perform miracles every day!" 

Another parent, Jenny Stevens, spoke also about the grading system and asked what the goals of A-F grades were and what we might assume teachers would consider as the focus? She also asked how, if testing is the behavior that is rewarded, what does it do to help kids? She said that parents want encouragement and engagement for their kids and resources and remedies for their schools and that she couldn't see how a focus on testing does that.

Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education  members Phyllis Bush and Donna Roof drove all the way down from Fort Wayne to testify.  After bringing a much-needed laugh to the room with a crack about whether it was much cooler up by the board and the podium because, perhaps, the hot air was being blown back to the rear of the room, Phyllis went on to speak about the harm of this grading system.  She pointed out that it punishes demographics (amen!) and that perhaps the answer would be to pause on this for a while.

Donna Roof gave an amazing and moving testimony on the parallels between her fight with breast cancer and her fight as a teacher against the damage being done by "reform" right now in the schools.  I am going to post it in its entirety when she gives me the written version.  It was so moving.

Since I split for some lunch after the public comment section, I missed the little fireworks between board members and Glenda Ritz as they tried to decide the next procedure or something (?).  But when I came back I heard the presentation of the A-F committee and their recommendations.  Board member David Freitas asked if something could be added to the accountability formula for school culture or parent involvement, but there is no data on that.  Then later Tony Walker asked if there could be some kind of accounting for parental involvement like the statistics on how many parent-teacher conferences they have. Steve Yager (Southwest Allen County Schools), the co-chair of this A-F panel making the recommendation, said something like, "Why would we punish the teachers for parents who don't show up to conferences?" (hear, hear).

Although I do appreciate the fact that these board members are recognizing that there is more to a school than test scores and more to accountability, also... the very suggestion that we might give points or anything to those schools with more parental involvement is worrisome.  I can tell you where they won't get those points: at schools with high concentrations of poverty. We can predict that the lowest test scores will also be at these schools. Why are these board members, the governor, and the state legislature in such a hurry to dole out these grades? Why do they want these labels slapped on the schools, kids and teachers within? What is the purpose of these grades? How will they help my children get better educational opportunities? How will it help the teachers improve instruction? These are questions they should answer. 

I suspect that this grading system has more to do with fear, punishment and control than actual help.  I suspect that it has everything to do with creating an environment of proving public education is "failing" in order to offer up solutions to that problem in the form of vouchers, charters and turnaround schools.  And I know that the A-F grading system has everything to do with politics in education with absolutely no intention of turning that around.  Don't let them call Ritz's actions, her attempts to assert her authority, "political." Join me in exposing this hypocrisy on the part of Governor Pence and the state's super majority in the legislature in particular. 

Speak up.

"Note to Parents: The new A-F scale is designed to scare you into thinking that our schools are failing, or are not doing as well as you think. This is so you will be more accepting of the corporate privatization of our public schools. Tell me the last time a corporate entity cared about your kids...that's right...they don't, unless they can make money off of them. Open your eyes. And remember first-hand experiences create real knowledge...not a simple scale."
-Jacob Rosecrants

"People will never fully trust grades doled out by politicians for political purposes. The grades are for rewarding friends and punishing the weak." 

From Indiana's House Democratic Leader, Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Ray Golarz's Testimony: Restore Teachers' Authority for Healthier Communities

ICPE member, retired superintendent Dr. Ray Golarz was asked to serve on the Legislature's Interim Study Committee on Economic Development and share what he sees happening with education on our economic situation in Indiana.  He gave a fabulous testimony covering social problems and disparities affecting our public schools and some of the harmful impact that "reform" has had on the economic health of our communities.  We are thankful that his compassionate voice was allowed this spot on the committee to champion for teachers and children and their communities!

Here is Dr. Golarz's  testimony in full:

October 2013                                          

                       Study Committee on Economic Development
                        Conditions and Recommendations

Dr. Raymond J. Golarz
Former Indiana Teacher and Superintendent
Co-Author of  The Problem Isn’t Teachers  2012

Several months ago I was called and asked if I would represent K-12 interests on the Indiana General Assembly’s Study Committee on Economic Development.  I understood my task to be to consider how the effects of current legislation or recommended future legislation might enhance or diminish the contribution of K-12 Indiana Schools to the economic health and vitality of the state.  On July 18, 2013    I received a letter from Brian Bosma, Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, confirming my appointment to the committee.

Though I have spent over 40 years in education serving in a multitude of roles, I felt that my ultimate recommendations and value to the State should be based on more than my experiences.  So, I dedicated the past three months to visiting and consulting with an array of persons and organizations familiar with current Indiana public education and those things that impact on such education.  These groups included various school boards, university personnel, superintendents, school administrators and teachers.  They also included past and current school evaluators, school attorneys, parents of both private and public school children, and students themselves.  Also, time was graciously extended to me by Indiana police officers, the Indiana Coalition for Public Education, and a former Director of Indiana’s North Central Association of Schools and Colleges.

In order to ensure their confidence in speaking to me I promised them that I would not reveal any of their names nor the names of their communities in any of my written or verbal reporting unless I secured specific approval from them first.  I secured this permission only twice.

Following is a set of five conditions brought to my attention in multiple locations in the State by various members of the groups and individuals noted above.  I believe that each of these conditions needs immediate attention. In each case I describe the condition, tie it to the economic health or potential economic health of the State, and make recommendations.

I.   Teacher Authority

Many, many of today’s public school teachers daily confront classroom challenges that are beyond any reasonable person’s control.  These teachers  are highly competent and experienced professionals but the hand we have dealt them is inexcusable.   The degrees of freedom they must tolerate, the classroom indignations they must endure, the countless hours that they must permit to fall prey to disruptions, cause them endless depression, dejection, and crush the potential of the students who have come prepared to learn. These conditions have been going on uninterrupted throughout our state for no less than the last 40 years. In 1983 I came to this same statehouse and reported on this condition.  It was a crisis then and continues to be so today.

If you were to ask most parents today to tell you why they are seeking a voucher for their child, the response would be resoundingly the same.  “I want a safe and orderly environment for my child to learn.”  This is the same environment that all Indiana public school teachers need in order to effectively teach. The time is long past when this should have been dealt with, yet it’s not too late.

Restore teacher authority and thus allow them the time to shape and develop the civility, appropriate attitudes, and interpersonal skills that are vital to successfully engaging in life, the democracy,  and the workplace.  Employers call these the soft skills and understand them to be the most essential qualities of good and productive employees.
The following is a true story from my own past.  I was at the Chamber of Commerce for a meeting with some business associates. Entering late was a businessman I liked and admired. He entered the room and appeared quite dejected.

“What’s wrong Jack?”

“Just frustrated I guess.  These young kids we have to pick from to hire today don’t seem to get it.  They mouth off to their bosses, see no problem in missing a day of work, don’t seem to take pride in their work, they’re  a different breed. No problem with their skills-just their attitudes. I’m employing additional workers because of this—it’ll eventually break me.”

My first recommendation is that General Assembly members sit with public school teachers and small business persons from across the state. They are the persons who daily must attempt to teach these youngsters and persons who will eventually seek to employ them, and  with these teachers and business persons fashion some legislative relief to this lack of teacher authority so critical to the economic health of this State and the capacity of all Indiana public school teachers to effectively teach.

II. The Crushing Impact of Meth, Spice, Prescription Drugs, Cocaine, Heroin, and Alcohol.

At one of the meetings in which I participated there were school board members, teachers, school administrators, parents, district support staff, community citizens, and  senior  level  community economic advisors in attendance.   About midway through the meeting, one of the long term professional business community persons reported regarding on-going negotiations he was part of.  The negotiations were with a new prospective high tech company that was considering locating in that area of the State. He concluded his story by saying, “Our problem is that we can’t find viable persons to work there.”

When he concluded, all in the room assumed he meant that there were no persons in the community with the academic skill levels needed in this high tech company.  In order to gain clarity on what he meant a question was directed to him and he responded, “No.  No.  I didn’t mean we couldn’t find sufficient local people with the necessary skill sets.  What I meant was that we couldn’t find a sufficient number who could pass the drug test.”

Virtually  no persons, nor groups that I have talked to in the last three months are unaware of this elephant in the room.  I heard from everywhere that Indiana has an epidemic drug problem and this drug problem, particularly in rural Indiana is called Meth, and in more urban areas it’s Meth, Spice,  prescription drugs such as hydrocodone,  cocaine, and heroin.  A statement that I often heard in various forms was that the major and thriving industry in rural and some urban pockets of Indiana is the sale of drugs and production of Meth. The negative impact is devastatingly two-fold, first on the employ-ability of work-age Indiana citizens and second on the education of large numbers of children, particularly of lower class who must live with the impact of addicted parents and adults who are living a life of addiction  to a multitude of drugs  while they manufacture their own meth  24 hours a day.

Recently, the Indiana General Assembly was approached by a non-partisan coalition of Indiana mayors and police units who pleaded with the assembly to act aggressively against Meth  to toughen laws dealing with access to methamphetamine ingredients found in over the counter drugs.  The specific request from these mayors and law enforcement personnel was to make such drugs only accessible by prescription.  The plea of the Indiana mayors and law enforcement persons went unheeded.   However, during a conversation I recently had with law enforcement narcotics officers, I was advised that Oregon and Mississippi had successfully implemented such legislation despite vigorous lobbying effort waged by the American pharmaceutical industry and retail giants to block such legislation.  In the end, only after brutal fights, both states are now controlling their meth problems and experiencing crime reductions in a multitude of areas including home break-ins.  

My second recommendation is that the General Assembly be advised to call back the Indiana Coalition of Mayors and the police they work with to revisit the reasons for this and other legislative needs. The police brought in to testify should be Indiana police (both State and local) who deal daily with the drug problem and these police personnel should be encouraged to bring with them emergency room personnel from our Indiana hospitals.  If further testimony is needed, call upon working Indiana public school  teachers  and administrators who from their trenches on the front line will affirm such testimony and such need.

A very astute veteran law enforcement officer, Captain Joe Qualters of the Bloomington Police Department,  in southern Indiana recently gave me the following  insight that I would like to share as the closing statement to this section:  ”Drug dealers need to be the focus of criminal legislation but  treatment resources  need to be directed to the addict. Sadly, time and again, we in law enforcement must incarcerate people who throughout their lives would have had no contact at all with the criminal justice system if they had not been addicts.”


III.   Possible Increase of Economic and Racial Segregation and also the Loss of Diverse Experiences

My first teaching experience was at Hammond Technical Vocational High School.  My students came from an array of ethnic and racial backgrounds. They  were white, Hispanic, Black, Asian, Native American or a combination of some of the above. The coursework ranged from physics, math for the workplace, machine shop, auto repair, honors calculus, foreign languages, all of the histories, an endless number of English courses and all of the arts,  both appreciation and apprenticeships.  For any student in Indiana, either then or today, to walk away from that experience to an experience less diverse with a voucher afforded to him or her by the State, would be for that student a personal loss.  If many walked away with State supported vouchers, again to less diverse experiences,   the loss would be for the future economy of the State itself.
Several years ago one of our children was applying to medical schools.  The universal question asked by each school was “Explain your personal  history with diversity and explore in an essay the diversity of yourself.”

A caution to those issuing vouchers:  Study carefully the consequences of your vouchers.

In my earlier years, while a senior central office administrator in the Hammond Public Schools, the NAACP brought suit alleging a possible condition of de facto segregation.  Dr. Willard Congreve, then Superintendent, appointed me and two other central office administrators to chair the district’s defense and to put into place immediate mechanisms to ensure a cease to such on-going segregation.  The next three years were a nightmare of meetings, 10-12 hour work days, appeals, waiver requests, and a detailed analysis of each and every student transfer request while responding to a myriad of continuous interrogatories.  The cost to the district over this time exceeded hundreds of thousands of dollars.  The carnage only ended when the Superintendent from his hospital bed fashioned a long-term desegregation plan that met federal court stipulations and then had this plan placed on the school board’s agenda.  Its passage ended the siege and bleeding.

These last three months as I traveled to different parts of the State and also conferred with persons everywhere, the issue of school  vouchers and their impact came up continuously.  One late afternoon, in one of those meetings, a school board member spoke up in the group setting and with his opinion he labeled the condition and stated, “Ray, what we are supporting and sanctioning is, ‘White Flight.’”   My  contacts with other persons throughout the State affirmed this board member’s feeling and belief. Many added that this condition resulting from the approved voucher transfers was not only racial but even more so  was causing increasing economic isolation of large numbers of students.

I no longer sit behind a senior level administrative desk with access to all student transfer requests, records of all approvals and denials, and the knowledge of  the  impact of each approval  upon the limitations of “Brown vs. Board of Education.”  But from testimony I have received coupled with my own first-hand  knowledge of such conditions, it appears that the State through its voucher program may be creating throughout the state pockets of such segregation.

My third recommendation to the General Assembly is that they immediately consider assigning staff and/or recognized and reputable consulting firms to investigate and assess these approved transfers, particularly since some of them  may conflict with “Brown” and as they may also  be causal to increasing economic isolation  of children.     

If this is not done and some group such as the NAACP or ACLU decides to secure a federal court order, the immediate economic  costs to the State might be overwhelming.  It  will matter not how many individual children benefit from this State policy of vouchers , for if only one child  is harmed, be it intended or accidental (de facto), the State could be considered  in violation and the State directed and supported voucher mechanism would be shut down. An additional caution—it takes only one  parent of a Black American child  who believes that the State’s practice of vouchers  has resulted in further  racial isolation of their child  to file suit in federal court on behalf of that child.

Finally, if more and more schools increase in percentages of poor and minorities, history shows us that these schools will inevitably spawn new waves of the unemployable and future unemployed—a group that John Kenneth Galbraith describes as “The Underclass.”

 IV.   Adverse Economic Impact Resulting From Perceived Negative Attitudes and  Attempts by the State to Grade Public Schools

As reported by the Center for Public Education and based upon Phi Delta Kappan/Gallop, United Press NORC, and American Federation of Teachers/Hart Research Associates, parents in America  say that schools are the most vital institution for the future of the nation and for the future of their community.  In this regard, their expressed opinions are consistent with the Founding Fathers of this country who established schools in order to provide this American democracy with an enlightened and engaged citizenry.  Preparation for the world of work was always intended to be left primarily to technical preparatory institutions and the American business community itself.

In  addition, the Center for Public Education found,  using these same sources noted above, that American public school parents and communities at large consistently over the years and up through today give their local schools a resounding vote of confidence.

Finally, polls find that Americans generally mistrust standardized tests and lack confidence and an understanding of new educational standards.

What most Indiana legislators as well as most citizens don’t seem to understand is that some sort of A-F, 1-5, or modification of some mechanism used to grade schools correlates highly only with the poverty of a community.  And if poverty is what we are interested in alleviating then we all know that what we need to be looking at are legislative directions such as living wage.

Our schools, as reported by the sources listed above, have already received their exemplary evaluations from their constituencies. Finally, research shows that Americans believe in their local schools and teachers and believe that these teachers and their local schools are and have been the most vital institution for the future of the nation and of their children.  A message I heard consistently was to tell our Indiana legislators to quit wasting tax-payer money on mechanisms to grade our schools and, as an aside,  I heard frequently  if they give large amounts of money to charter schools as was done recently (+$90,000,000.00) require that these charter schools pay such money back the same way that neighborhood public schools are required to do so when they get a loan.

What I heard most often everywhere I traveled and when talking to persons across the state was that they believed that the actions of our  governor and legislature over nearly the last ten years have been negative regarding Indiana public education, and further, that attempts at grading schools are causal to grave economic harm to the state. They advised me that this grading system is causing large portions of neighborhoods to be red-lined.   Consequently,  prospective  new companies, businesses  and potential home buyers, often young couples with small children,  are avoiding these areas of Indiana because of what they are being erroneously told. In addition, Indiana homeowners, primarily senior citizens and the working poor, residing in these areas and businesses there located, are finding that the dollar values of their properties are plummeting.

Consider, in addition, the following hypothetical.  A young upwardly mobile couple,  with a young child have just been transferred to a central location in Indiana by their company.  They are looking for a home in a community adjoining Indianapolis.  Following is the hypothetical conversation with the real estate agent.
 “We really don’t know Indiana so you’ll have to guide us.  We are looking for a home in a substantial neighborhood that has good schools for our child—hopefully children.  We anticipate being here for quite a few years so we want some assurances that where we buy is an area where our home’s value will be preserved, possibly enhanced.”

“Well, you said preserved, enhanced?”

“Yes… why?”

“Well… this community we are in right now is quite close to Indianapolis and many of the schools there have been given failing grades from the state?”

 “Yes, so?”

“Well you said you would be living here for quite a few years and you were looking for property value enhancement.  Well, over the years there’s always seepage, you know, from one city to its neighbor, so if you want enhancement and preservation of your property value, why don’t we look out just a bit farther? You may have to drive an additional 10 minutes or so, but these communities, their schools and their properties are, shall we say—economically safer.  Let’s get into my car now and go take a look.  I don’t think you will be disappointed.”

Real  estate agencies in parts of the state are even now doing television commercials where they are assuring prospective home buyers that their agency will incorporate such information as school grading to them as they consider prospective properties.

My fourth recommendation is that the General  Assembly bring  together real estate agents, senior citizens, small business owners in these affected areas, school board members, superintendents and teachers from across the state to analyze and discuss this economic harm and then create strategies to immediately change the causal factors bringing it about.  

                                       V. Our Future Demands More

This final piece is written often  in the first person plural as it represents the feeling I heard from any number of persons I encountered across the state. It is directed to the General Assembly.

If it is your belief that good teaching is only the capacity to explain and disseminate information to a group of students who do not know or understand this information,  then you might not be inclined to see the wisdom in requiring students in college to take an array of education courses before they are licensed  as  teachers. You might also be inclined to see any of an array of tools that do a good job disseminating information as also “good teachers.”  If you are of this opinion, then it is unlikely that we can persuade you as to the wisdom of extended teacher preparation.

Yet, if we were to attempt to persuade you, what might we say?

First, consider the issue of obligatory core courses required by Indiana schools of education.  If a college student, say at Indiana University, decided that she wanted to teach mathematics in an Indiana high school or middle school, she would find that she would be required to take more math courses than if she simply opted to secure a math degree from Arts and Sciences. For the school of education must insure for her that she has the broad background for all of the math courses these schools might offer.

Second, we might suggest that the goal of educating children is somehow more than having them acquire knowledge so that they can become  productive workers for the industrial state. We might suggest that part of an essential  education  is to prepare our youth to be capable of  meaningfully  participating  in and assisting  with the perpetuation of the democracy. This might, however, require of our teacher preparation programs that they contain a bit more of coursework.  Coursework  that  extends even further  beyond  the already enriched content areas such as math or physics.

Third, we might further suggest that children everywhere enter classrooms with a plethora of learning styles—even some learning difficulties.  These learning difficulties unless noticed and compensated for, might result in progressive damage to the young learner.  Of course, to be equipped to notice these often rather  subtle  learning problems   will again require of our teacher preparation programs a bit more of coursework.  Again, coursework that extends beyond our already enriched program.

Fourth , we might suggest that you  reread with us portions of the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS report).  Though published by the Department of Labor in 1991, it was a letter of assurance to the American people that our democracy would not tolerate a narrow definition of education for our children:

“We, your Secretary of Labor and members of the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS), write as concerned representatives of the nation’s schools…
We understand that schools do more than simply prepare people to make a living. They prepare young people to live full lives—to participate in their communities, to raise families, and then enjoy the leisure that is the fruit of their labor.  A solid education is its own reward.
We are not calling for a narrow work-focused education.  Our future demands more.”

Good teachers prepare the whole child so that they can meaningfully participate in and perpetuate the Democracy while living full lives.  Such teaching requires coursework beyond the content areas, for  good teaching has always had the implied understanding  that  “Our Future Demands More”.

The Indiana General Assembly is currently studying Senate Bill 409, a bill designed to drive accountability at Indiana Schools of Education. These Schools of Education have no fear of accountability as they are,  in Indiana, beyond normal or expected standards.  A study committee has been established and is meeting.  Yet the study committee has not even  one Dean of an Indiana School of Education as a part of its permanent membership.  It would be as if a committee were meeting on the issue of surgical accountability and not have at minimum of at least a handful of practicing surgeons. Little true wisdom exists at the moment on this study committee.

Finally, under no circumstances should you consider some kind of grading system for your schools of Education teacher preparation programs. Each is a flagship unto itself and has its own unique and complex areas of expertise. There is no individual or group who has the capability to rank order that which defies such ranking. At best, if you venture into this area, you will do harm.  Some of life simply defies a single measure and occasionally as we get older we often begin  to see and value that. There is a beauty in diversity but then, isn’t that really what seeing diversity is all about?

My fifth recommendation to the General Assembly is, if for whatever reason, you feel you must pursue this direction then at least restructure the membership of your study committee.  Add to the committee several Indiana Deans of Schools of Education.  Bring some first-hand wisdom to your deliberations.  

Some Additional  Thoughts Gathered from Citizens, Parents,  Teachers, and Administrators

I would like to conclude with a listing of relevant and  meaningful  observations, suggestions, and comments  which came from persons who participated in the meetings and dialogues I have reported on.  They reflect their intense  concerns and their  hopes for ways  to have appropriate opportunities to use their expertise in shaping the whole  educational environment  so that all their  students, communities, and the State of Indiana experience the best possible economic growth and well-being.

*Create consistent and frequent opportunities for business people to talk and interact directly with teachers and teacher representatives about school reform in their communities.  We need child-based programs closest to the communities, not politically-driven reforms from afar.

*Encourage creativity and wonder in students.  Putting them and keeping them “inside the box” thwarts creativity and wonder, the very kind of thinking that fosters innovation, entrepreneurship,  and invention.  The need for this is evident as we know that other countries still look to the United States of America for this kind of productivity.   We don’t want to lose this unique edge.  Teachers cannot have their time strictly restricted to a narrow test-driven curriculum. This alone could crush  our economy.

*It would be very productive if the business community  could find ways to offer internships  so that students with their  teachers  can  explore  career options and be kept informed about  the current and necessary training and skills needed to pursue careers? Business personnel  should be given time off on a consistent basis  to relate to school personnel  and students by actually visiting classrooms.

*It is also necessary for students at an early age be given the opportunity to see the connection between how what goes on in school relates to their capacity to obtain gainful employment in the work place.  Again, this is especially true for disadvantaged students.  Students and their families need to be made aware of the financial aspects of pursuing an education beyond high school.  They need to know not just the cost, but how financial planning should occur, what kind of loans and grants are available and what is necessary to obtain such.  We cannot wait until students are in their last years of high school to start investigating such knowledge.

                                                       They Just Do It 

I would like to point  out the truth about how  Indiana schools and Indiana school teachers  are continuing to build positive assets among our students in an attempt to prepare them to be productive citizens.  I report here on only three examples of that truth, but I assure you that there are many, many more examples throughout the State in every school, school district and county.

Richmond, Indiana has an early childhood program starting at age 3 and moving to full-day kindergarten. The program services the entire community.  The program is not state- funded.  The funds for the program came from a total community of public school teachers who gave up most of their modest wage increases over the years to allow the program to exist.

Further, throughout the State of Indiana there exists a network, school-by- school and district-by-district of co and extra- curricular activities being provided by the teachers for the children of our state.  When I was a teacher, when I was a superintendent, and even now today, the pay to teachers for these extra -curricular and co-curricular activities has always been sorely underfunded.  Often the hours spent by teachers divided by  the  monetary  compensation  results  in less than minimum wage for these services rendered.  Rarely, however, do we hear complaints.  Doing these after school, before school and weekend activities is a gift given daily by thousands of Indiana teachers in every corner of our state—a gift given to the communities they serve.

Finally, as poverty has increased these last years in our Indiana communities, the extra sandwiches that teachers bring from home, the  number of  pencils, paper, and other supplies teachers have purchased,   and the individual and organized efforts to provide  clothing and other necessities  for  needy children  have also increased.  We don’t hear of it because they don’t tell us.  They just do it.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Giving All Children an Excellent Choice

What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.  Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.  -John Dewey

It's ironic that the new charter school about to be approved by Ball State University to open in our town is doing so in the name of "social justice." Here is their vision statement:
"At Green Meadows Charter School, students, teachers, and parents foster respect, reverence and love for people and the natural world.  At our school, all relationships are grounded in respect and reciprocity.  Our students are infused with a sense of social justice and environmental sustainability.  Every person at Green Meadows is loved and respected and shares his/her gifts, talents, and interests with the larger community.  Everyone at our school experiences freedom and security to safely explore and question.  Igniting and stoking our students', teachers', and parents' passion for learning is imbued in our school's culture."  
It sounds amazing.  Who wouldn't want this for their children? And are we to infer or juxtapose this vision with our neighborhood public schools and assume that our public school doesn't foster respect or love for people?  This is, after all, presumably one of the reasons parents are seeking this choice. They are selecting the community that matches their values and needs.

I know that these are thoughtful and loving parents who choose charter schools.  That is the whole reason why they are seeking the best possible placement for their children.  That is why they are going to the trouble of applying, getting them on a waitlist for the lottery to get in, finding transportation and care for them when their schedules/breaks are different from the public schools, etc.   I am not saying that they are terrible people.   I understand that parents have their reasons for seeking alternatives.  We should not get bogged down in the fighting of my-school-is-better-than-your-school.  It’s unproductive.  

The frustration for me, however, is that many of the reasons that they give for leaving public schools are the direct result of the top-down "reforms” many of us have been actively fighting:.  For example, they want smaller class sizes and more individual attention for their children.  They want less emphasis on test results and, thus, less test prep.  They want freedom within the curriculum for their children to find and follow their passions.  But you know what?  These are the same things that parents in the public schools want for their children.

And here is the problem.   Every kid that leaves our public school system now takes with him or her the per-pupil funding.  This, in turn, leaves our public schools with fewer resources and holes to be patched. Choices have to be made for where to cut and, because the vast majority of the budget goes toward salaries, it will likely be teachers.  In attempts to keep class sizes down, it will probably be a teacher seen as more expendable (defined: teaching something not on the state-mandated tests). And this will likely mean art, music, gym, or librarians. This might mean our extracurricular activities: band, Science Olympiad and other programs will have to go by the wayside. 

Before another charter school is established, siphoning more money and engaged families from our public schools in the name of social justice, let’s ponder that meaning.  Let us pause and think about this before we continue to spread our limited resources on yet another charter school.  

A “socially just” society is usually thought to be based on the principles of equality and solidarity.  What kind of solidarity does taking away more funding and engaged parents from the public schools show the children in poverty, children of single mothers holding down two jobs or even my own privileged, well-cared-for, comfortable children, when their art teachers are taken away so that a few kids can have the opportunity for smaller class sizes and individual music instruction?  

To be sure, this is not a new debate.  There has always been choice in education:  between public schools, private schools and even home schooling.  We have also struggled to bring equity to public education.  The segregation of neighborhoods and districts, the abandonment or "white flight" of our urban areas, have always been a struggle within a system purporting to offer equal opportunity.  Vouchers began with Brown v. Board of Education when parents did not want their children attending school with those kids.  They “chose” something else.  But now, thanks to the system of funding, the debate has shifted in difficult and more troubling ways.  That is because our schooling choices, those effectively opting out of public schools, will directly hurt the choice for the kids remaining in public education.  And that is where our democracy suffers. 

It's a danger to our democracy that we abandon the public school system under the guise of choice. Public charters, regardless of their label "public", play by different rules (like setting limits for class size/enrollment), are not under the authority of the local school board, and take funding and engaged families from the public school system.   If those of us who are engaged as parents and citizens continue to abandon public schools for charters, home school or private schools, what kind of public school system will remain?  Have we strayed so far from democracy as an ideal that we are willing to abandon our "commons" completely?
Liberty (or choice, I would say) within a democracy is usually qualified to be okay as long as you are not infringing on the rights of another.  Do all children have the right to a high quality education?  Liberty in a democracy also involves responsibility.  Is it only individual responsibility (I need only take care of my own) or is there a collective responsibility, too? 

I am with John Dewey on this one:  every child should have free, excellent schools.  We owe it to all children to support public education and to see to it that all kids have the "freedom and security to safely explore and question" and to find and share their gifts with the community as Green Meadows Charter School promises to do. The choice of another charter school, however, takes away the choice from a child in public school. It is how this competition works. Someone loses.  In this case, children will lose.  The community loses.  And we as democratic citizens will definitely lose.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Does Democracy Not Count When Your Candidate Loses?

The last time we posted on this blog, it was to report back about the state board meeting in August.  The time before that, it was to report on the July board meeting and what we called "a coup d'etat" naming Dan Elsener the ghost superintendent or education czar.  Today we have an excellent post on yesterday's board meeting and the theme of power grabs, with Dan Elsener at the center, continues.

Indiana Coalition for Public Education- Monroe County's very own Jenny Robinson made the trip up to Indianapolis to testify.  ( Note: ICPE member Bonnie Fisher also testified! Yea for civic engagement!)

Here is her summary of that event:

Mike Pence doesn't get it.

The arrogance and contempt that the appointed members of the State Board of Education are showing toward the elected state superintendent are well on their way to becoming a political liability.  In the meeting on September 4, board of education member Dan Elsener sprang a proposal on Ritz in the board comment period--a proposal to give a committee headed by himself the power to do strategic planning for the Department of Education.  He presented it in an aristocratic mumble, without making eye contact, as if he couldn't be bother to enunciate clearly.  He nested it inside generic accolades for Indiana's academic achievements and couched it in terms of giving the state superintendent the support she deserves.  Right.  That's support like a dagger in the back.  Should we give Elsener some credit for not pretending too hard, or was the thinly veiled insolence part of his strategy? He brushed away Ritz's objection that the rushed motion violated protocol.  Board members promptly passed it.

Dan Elsener was appointed to the state board of education by Mitch Daniels to support the Daniels/Bennett reform agenda, and reappointed by Pence.  He used to be executive director of the Christel DeHaan Family Foundation (yes, that's the Christel of Christel House that Tony Bennett altered the state grading system in order to protect).  He's now the president of Marian University, and his biography on that college's web site states that he "has dedicated his professional life to the mission of Catholic education." His position of influence on the state board is serving that purpose well as Catholic schools constitute an overwhelming majority of voucher recipients.  How did he get the authority to set the agenda for public K-12 education in the state of Indiana, instead of the superintendent of public instruction elected by 1.3 million Hoosiers? He's committed to all the reforms that Ritz ran against--the A-F system, IREAD3, the sanctity of ISTEP and testing regimens in general.  Republicans need to think about how to explain this to their constituents, because it doesn't look good.  What it looks like, frankly, is spitting in voter's faces.

New board member Andrea Neal provided some much-needed comic relief when she discussed problems she sees with revised social studies standards.  She said she detected bias creeping in, and gave as examples standards that suggested students should understand 1) that entrepreneurs seek profit, and 2) the problematic nature of manifest destiny.  Her suggested correction for this "bias" was to submit the standards to the Fordham Institute, a right-wing think tank, to review line-by-line.  I guess that would be a good way to get an A+ from Fordham--a goal Neal stated that Indiana should pursue.  Ritz replied that Indiana's standards are developed by Hoosiers for Hoosiers, not outsourced, and that the DOE follows a careful protocol for standards development.  She stated this strongly yet respectfully.

As board members power-grabbed, Ritz consistently showed thorough understanding of the DOE's work and processes; she also showed grace under fire.  As an Indiana voter and public school parent, I felt proud of our selection for state-level education leadership.  In sidelining Ritz, the Republican leadership seems to be wishfully thinking away the results of the last election.  Does democracy not count when your guy goes down? Pence needs to explain how this works to Ritz voters.  There are lots of us--100,000 more than voted for him."

It's not enough for us to sit in anger and let it turn inward to depression. We must act.  Please talk to your neighbors and friends. Write to Pence and the state board members to express your outrage and articulate your concerns. Write to newspapers to help the general public understand this power grab.  But know this: someone said once that you can't change politicians' minds; therefore, you must change politicians. We need to vet real pro-public education candidates for 2014 and rally around those who have already thrown their hats in the ring.  This is political and this is personal.  Join Indiana Coalition for Public Education (in Monroe County, download this form to be a local and state member).  Advocate and speak up. Despite what Mike Pence and the board may think, this is still a democracy.  Your strongest voice will be your vote.