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.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

"For the Children"-- A Parent and Grandparent Speak Up At The State Board Meeting

Yesterday was my children's first day back to school.  Instead of my annual tradition of hosting a "Back to School" coffee for all of my fellow moms where we enjoy the peace and quiet by making loud conversation and interrupting each other, I went up to the state board meeting to testify on my friends' and our children's behalf. In return, my friends cheered me and toasted their coffee for me.  It takes a village.

Someone needs to speak up as the true parents because these "reformers" are doing plenty of it for us and that just makes me hopping mad. If there's any commonality among all of the things that these politicians keep saying, it's that these changes/ "reforms"  are occurring because they are "for the children".  When our teachers speak out against this, they are accused of trying to "defend the status quo." So it really is up to us parents to tell our stories and explain how the laws at the state level are negatively affecting our kids' educational experiences.  We need to explain what we want in our schools. The problem is that many parents don't really know how to connect these dots between our supermajority and high-stakes testing, for example.  That's why many of us across the state are advocating and making noise.

Yesterday's board meeting was standing room only.  On the heels of the Tony Bennett email-gate, the press was very interested to hear what Glenda Ritz and the D.O.E. were going to do with the A-F grading system of schools.  Right before I got up to speak, I was told that I had to limit myself to 2 minutes. UGH! My whole speech (which I will paste down below) was about 4.  You can see and hear what I got to say, if you go to the website and click on Part 2 of the August 7th meeting and go to minute 60:24.  Right after I spoke, came my "BFF" (best Facebook friend) Phyllis.

Phyllis Bush, public education advocate extraordinaire and founder of the NEIFPE group, drove the two and a half hours to Indy on her birthday with several other devoted members of her Fort Wayne lime-green brigade.  Phyllis did an excellent job, saying that she is really bothered by this "faux accountability" that we are going for in our state.  She asked the board to put a "pause" on this system and first talk to the teachers, parents and kids who are impacted by these grades.

In the end, Ritz said that there was definitely manipulation of the formula last year (hell-o Tony)  and that there were investigations that needed to continue.

I was really bummed not to give my whole speech.  Ah well.  I'm sure there will be another time. You readers can support our kids by being sure to write to these board members.  And the governor.  And your state legislators.  Join my organization, ICPE-Monroe County. Get active.  These reformers who demean and marginalize Glenda Ritz, who continue Tony Bennett's agenda despite our votes, and who continue to tote "let parents choose for their child," are failing to get our message: WE CHOSE GLENDA RITZ TO LEAD.   We must vote OUT these obstructionists to Ritz's policy in 2014 and 2016.  Here's what I was going to say in its entirety:

"Good morning.  My name is Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer.  I'm here today instead of getting my kids off to school on their first day back because, after watching the last board meeting online and reading the newspapers lately, I decided that it was important for you all to hear back from parents. 

I have 4 children and the youngest one is in 3rd grade this year.  It is become of this, the fact that he will begin the massive testing of IREAD3, ISTEP and so on, that I felt compelled to come today.

There's a drastic difference between what school was like for my oldest, who is 19, as compared to what it's like for my youngest, who is nine.  When oldest was in third grade, there was time for hands-on projects, science experiments, and recess. His day was an hour shorter and after school we had time to play in the creek behind his school with friends before we returned home to snack and homework.

My nine year-old is in school from 8:30 until almost 4 o'clock and he gets one recess of about 22 minutes a day.  He brings home fill-in-the-bubble sheets every week.  There is very little sign that he is doing any science and social studies because so much time is devoted to assessing and benchmarking his progress to show growth for the ISTEP.  When he gets home, it is time for homework and then I am making dinner.  He has no down time to explore a leaf floating in a creek. And this is a direct result of testing.  More than that, it is a result of the high stakes attached to them.

If our schools weren't afraid of failing test scores, and the fear of repercussions from the state, we might not have had our school day extended so that they can fit 90 minutes straight of instructional time on reading that is demanded by the state and test prep to ensure results.  Any educator can tell you that test scores are not the end-all, be-all of learning.  Any parent can tell you that her child is so much more than a test score. 

I want my children to learn to think outside the box, not fill in the bubbles.  I want them to be able to discover their passions and be creative--those things cannot be found on a test.  I want them to respect differences of opinion and resolve conflicts peacefully and other traits of good citizenship...but without playtime and recess, how will these skills be learned? I want my teacher to be free to follow children's interests and create her own assessments.  I want my teacher to not be afraid to go off script but to be able to meet my child where he is in his development and go from there.  Instead, our state has enacted the IREAD3 which determines my little boy's future.  Why should a 40 question test from the state decide if he goes on to the fourth grade instead of his teacher.. who has been evaluating his progress and knows his level best? 

I voted for Superintendent Ritz because she understands that kids (including my own) are losing the joy of learning because of the emphasis and overkill of testing.  I fear we are raising a generation of children who think if it's not on the test, it's not important.  Also, we are raising kids in a pressure cooker of testing.

I heard about a child who told his teacher before the ISTEP, "Don't worry, teacher! I've got your back! I'm going to do well on this test so you don't lose your job!"   This is unacceptable for a kid to feel that so much is riding on his testing performance.  Another friend's child was paralyzed with fear that the NWEA was going to determine whether or not she would on to the next grade.  Why should kids feel this much pressure?  And THIS is why so many parents voted for Glenda Ritz: we want educators who know what is developmentally appropriate to be guiding our children's education.

We don't need an A-F system to show us the magic that is going on in schools.  Parents did NOT ask for this system.   We already knew the test scores.  It's not a surprise that the schools with the highest concentration of poverty are the ones with the lowest scores. My kids eat a well-rounded breakfast every morning.  Many kids go hungry.   My kids have been read to every night since they were infants.  Many kids are not.  Do we honestly believe that doesn't make a difference? Do we honestly believe than an F describes the magic of how teachers take kids from hunger and chaotic backgrounds.. and inspire them and teach them self-regulation AND to read??!  Regardless of the speed with which it happens!

If we are going to grade our schools, we parents prefer that they be graded on something other than test scores.  Someone decides that cut score.  Let's grade our schools on whether or not they are offering a broad curriculum.  Do they have enough funding to have small class sizes? Do our schools all have art, music and P.E.?  There's not enough money for that in many districts.  Do our schools have a certified librarian in a library? Do our kids have free time that is child-directed? Is there recess? Does the teacher have a degree in education is able to understand different developmental levels and learning abilities and how to bring them all to their full potential?  Because it is not just content; it's how to get it across to that unique little boy or girl.  $46 million spent on testing could be way better spent on ensure these other things.

At the last meeting, I saw you [look right at Dan Elsener] stopped Superintendent Ritz in mid-sentence.  I wanted to hear her proposal to tweak the IREAD3.  So did my friends.  We want an end to this testing as punishment.  My son who has started 3rd grade today only has one shot at childhood.  And the policies that many of you have supported are threatening the quality of that. I'm here asking you to let our Superintendent, a professional who is the expert here in literacy and who knows how to assess that progress, lead us...with YOUR FULL COOPERATION.

Thank you"

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Tony Bennett's Agenda Lives On: Power Grabs, Education Czars and the July State Board Meeting-- A Drama in Two Acts

[This post was written prior to the news that Tony Bennett rigged the grading system for the benefit of charter school operator and GOP donor Christel DeHaan.  He is said to be resigning today. Read the blog post prior to this one for more on that scandal] 


When Hoosiers voted for Glenda Ritz last fall, we didn't just vote against Tony Bennett. We voted for an expert educator to lead us in the field of education. Our votes showed that we supported her vision as well as her platform. Of the many things that resonated with voters, one of the most appealing for parents and teachers alike might have been the idea that more time should be spent on education and less time on testing.  In addition, we were asserting our desire to have more local control over what goes on in the classroom.

Parents want teachers, not politicians (let alone the corporate leaders who fund them) to give them information about how their children are doing in school.  Teachers want to be trusted to assess this information in the myriad of ways in which they have been trained to do so-- not to be undermined by state-mandated tests removed from the context of the individual classrooms and children's lives.

Immediately following Glenda Ritz's surprise win, our newly-elected governor, Mike Pence, responded to this show of support for educational change (he, having received a paltry 554,412 total votes as compared to her 1,332,755 total) by saying that his own election and that of the supermajority in the state house showed "a strong affirmation on the progress of education reform in this state."

Over a million of us (including, of course, thousands of Republican voters) know this to be false. But Pence, the legislature, and the state board of education (appointed by the governor) continue to show a complete disregard for what Hoosier voters intended and a determination to continue the agenda of Tony Bennett and Mitch (the Censor) Daniels. This was evidenced by the last state board meeting on July 19th.


The massive changes that have taken place as a result of educational "reform" in Indiana during the Bennett/Daniels years have had a noticeably negative impact on the everyday lives of children and teachers. With the legislation and high-stakes testing firmly in place, alongside the gutting of public education funding through vouchers and charter schools,  Bennett and company's influence continues.

For my little soon-to-be third-grader, school has been a drastically different experience than it was for his oldest brother (now in the Honors College at Indiana University).  When my oldest was in school, there was more time spent on recess, playing, hands-on activities, science projects, creative writing, etc.  Now my little guy comes home every week with fill-in-the-blank bubble sheets of test prep.  He has a longer school day (by one hour) than his brother did and he only gets about 25 minutes of recess a day.  I want him to have a childhood.  I want his teacher to be the ultimate authority, creating a developmentally appropriate school experience.  How can she help but "drill and kill" the bubble sheets when she knows that the Indiana state legislature, in all their wisdom, will decide whether or not my baby receives the label of "failure" in third grade through this IREAD3?

I know that my child's teacher knows exactly where he is in his development as a reader.  She assesses and works with him every single day.  But our Indiana state legislators and our governor don't trust teachers.  By demanding that all children pass the IREAD3 or be retained, they have gone against all research that shows that retention is damaging to children's educational future.  Instead, they have opted to punish children for not being able to pass a 40-question reading test, regardless of the professional opinion of their teachers.

Glenda Ritz has said that the IREAD3 was the line in the sand for her in her decision of whether or not to run for office.  She openly criticized the emphasis of money and time on testing-- tests which don't give us information about how the child's knowledge is developing. Ritz acknowledged: " gets down to little ones and we're teaching to test, and [you] can't get that joy of learning..." To her credit, she has done what she can by starting a literacy campaign called Hoosier Family of Readers , using her tremendous background in reading and reading instruction to attempt to make real changes in our literacy success in the state. However, in the last board meeting,  the state board, and Dan Elsener in particular, did not even allow Glenda Ritz to finish her proposal for making improvements on the third-grade reading rule.

ACT ONE:    THE STATE BOARD MEETING, JULY 19TH: In which Dan Elsener claims that a lot of reading teachers are passionate about the IREAD3

In the midst of her proposal for changing the rules (changes within the law, not outside of it), board member Dan Elsener interrupted and asked Glenda to table her discussion. Although ultimately they decided to table it for next meeting (August 7th), it was clear from his attitude and words that he has no intention of allowing any changes in the IREAD3 rule.  I wrote his words down, too, but you can watch for yourself if you click on the third part of that July 19th meeting and skip ahead to minute 35:15.

From Elsener:

"We put a lot of time into IREAD3 and... we need to stick with some things. Seems like we're riding horses and changin' riders too often here...And all this is important especially lookin' K12 and advancing literacy.  I'm wondering if we oughta NOT start rule-making.  If we oughta follow through what we have, and then possibly the next meeting, if it would be your pleasure, say: "I have some additional items I would like the board to explore, and research, and study, about doing even more than we're doing now" and I'm not against improving and building on what we've done and..but, I feel like we're opening up quite a topic. I was ready to discuss it... I see it's approaching one [o'clock] and I would say we oughta be fresh. This is...I respect your career and reading is so important. Given its importance, and given the time we already put in IREAD3, let's leave it as is for now and then come back and open the discussion about, opening up in the field for new discussions, or additions to it or improvements.. I just don't know if we're in a position right now to do this well." 

[Glenda asks how to do that without actually starting a rule-making process.] Dan responds:

"I would just wait on the rule-making process..till we agree what kind of topics we want to open up as a board. We put a lot of time in this.  We have a IREAD3, we worked on it, it's fairly new in the field.  I know people are dedicated to it.. a lot of reading teachers, I know teachers have worked hard.. What if we stay within this rubric for now? And then we open this up about .. to the board.. have a discussion.. what we might wanna consider and expand. So not start on it without a good basis for starting and getting a lot of involvement and maybe send signals out that IREAD3, we're backing away from.  I'm just a little nervous we haven't vetted this together yet. " [then adds as an afterthought..some lip service: ] "I'm open to other suggestions. I'll do whatever. [the board does not respond.]

Glenda then responds: "Well, I would like to continue with the presentation...if you don't mind.  The staff put a lot of work into this and we've had a study session on growth models already. And we've also had a discussion item and I presented a powerpoint and talked to the board about changes that I would be coming forth with... And, again, Dan, I would ask for guidance from the board on how to have dialogue and meaningful dialogue on improving...I don't think that's possible without going through a formal process with the state board of ed."

[Elsener responds but I can't hear it.] 

Glenda asks: "Are you suggesting that we bring it to you in August?" 

[He says something to the effect of "That's what I'm suggesting.. we will work on framing this up..."] 

Then Glenda responds again asking the board: "... in the meantime, what is it that the board needs from me to do a couple of things?... Because we have timelines and assessment pieces we are going to have to consider. We have contracts that are ending.. We have only one year's time.. and it was my hope that not only would we open up the dialogue, because all language can change in the rule-making process..." She goes on to say that "we don't have access to literacy information" that will give us the support to help turnarounds and low performing schools.  And she says" There is a great need that we have the correct type of data that's going to follow the child" [because different schools do different assessments] "in order to have meaningful, systemic change." 

Tony Walker (apparently the yes-man of Dan) asks for a motion. Silence from the board.

Glenda: "The motion is really just to begin the process. Or to table it until the August meeting if you feel we need some more intense dialogue. But when we do that, I want to know from you, what do you need from me? You know, how can I engage you in the dialogue so that we can move forward with a commitment to student accountability in reading..?"

Troy Albert then speaks up saying that he would want to know "what are our current principals thinking? We've only been in this process two years.  We only have a small amount of data to really even go on.  I ... would like to hear from the experts across the state, not only in my building, but all across the state that are dealing with this right now.  What are some of the issues that they have and some of the concerns." 

Glenda assures him that she's heard from a lot of elementary principals who want meaningful data that they can "utilize".  She says: "Superintendents want to know when they are going to get a growth model like the NWEA that they don't have to pay (the) school district level because (they say)" we need this type of information.. WE can't afford it now.  State money, IREAD3 budget would be used..." She points out that we don't know the reading levels of our students at teh state level and, until we have that information, we can't give support like it needs to happen. "We (need to) have a system in which we actually know where our students are performing and know where they're headed..." 

Then David Freitas makes a motion to table it for the next study session.

So much for our expert in literacy leading the way on what that will look like and how to help our Hoosier children become a family of readers. They wouldn't even give her the dignity of finishing her presentation.

But wait-- there's more:

ACT TWO: In which a school board coup d'etat occurs and Dan Elsener becomes Board of Education Czar or Ghost Superintendent

In the Tribune-Star a few days ago, Maureen Hayden had an excellent article on the board's complete disregard for Glenda Ritz and the way that the governor has now undermined her by creating a new special assistant for "education innovation and reform" to his office, Claire Fiddian-Green ( who is the former director of the Indiana Charter School Board).  The state legislature has also appropriated nearly 3 million dollars a year for a budget to the state board over which Glenda Ritz will have no say as the state superintendent.  The board will hire their own staff and they will be answerable to the governor, not to superintendent Ritz.    I saw them vote Dan Elsener in as "secretary". Elsener (a board member who drips with disdain every time he speaks to Glenda Ritz) explain this new situation in the meeting like this (I wrote down his words):

Dan Elsener: "There is a budget now for the state board.  We can hire an executive director and have some resource for strategic planning, prioritization,...assistance in developing plans.. also help us in legal reviews and how we consolidate resources behind our strategic priorities and where we're going forward.  So, with your permission [looks at Glenda] we will interact with you on these various hires, etc.  We'll work through the governor's office and Claire can be..for now.. the interlocker to help us move along with that.  [looks to other members of the board:] I'll be calling on some of you to help with the process, and the resourcing, and the prioritization and the use of that budget. So, um, as your only elected official secretary, I'll work with all of you to put this budget to use and put it to our behalf so we can be a more effective board in helping lead in the K-12 policy and rules of the state of Indiana, okay?" 

 [No one really says anything and Glenda is basically instructed on what kind of formal action to make, with Elsener telling her to say: " give the authority to the secretary to work with.. Claire.. the special assistant to the governor for education innovation to outline what we're going to do with the resources applied in the budget. And put resources to use to help the board do its role and I'll interact and engage the board members where appropriate." ]  

Tony Walker then pipes up with (presumably) an explanation for all of this: "There are areas where the responsibilities of the state board aren't always consistent with the responsibilities and duties of the department.  So we need to be at least mindful of potential conflicts as relates to having staff look at things that we may need have reviewed..that may not be necessarily the same thing that the department's doing." 

Umm... so we will establish our own board and bypass the DOE and Glenda Ritz's authority? Democracy anyone?


Did you think that your vote for Glenda Ritz would mean that Glenda Ritz could lead us away from the drastic and damaging changes happening in our schools? Did you hope that your children would become central to any changes occurring in future reforms? You have to be aware that Tony Bennett has many friends and supporters in our statehouse, on the board, and in the governor's mansion.

Governor Pence has just taken away as much control as he can from her.  This past legislative session has shown that the supermajority has NO intention of allowing local control to occur and Glenda Ritz to lead at the state level.

Last fall we sent a strong message not just to Tony Bennett, but to all of the "deformers" of public education: we want to change direction. We want educators to lead us. We voted for Ritz because our children are not numbers in a data graph and their education is not a commodity to be bought and sold.  We voted for Glenda Ritz because, ultimately, we trust teachers to do what is right for our kids and we know that they, not the Dan Elseners, Mike Pences, Mitch Daniels, Bob Behnings, Brian Bosmas,nor, above all, the Tony Bennetts of this state, are the experts on what works and what doesn't in education. But clearly, we need to send another message! Here are some ways that you can send that message:









Don't let this be the final CURTAIN CALL for Glenda Ritz's authority and for public education's future. It is entirely possible that during the next legislative session, they may try to change her position from being elected to being appointed.  We need you to get involved. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Flunking the "Accountability" Mongers

Yesterday I was about to publish a new blog post about the state board of education, their last meeting on July 19th, the way that Glenda Ritz was marginalized and much of her power usurped, when the story about Tony Bennett rigging the system of the grading schools in order to appease a major donor and charter school operator broke. Darn.  I'll publish it tomorrow.

If you haven't read the emails that were obtained by an AP reporter through FOIA (Freedom of Information Act), you should.  It's shocking to me that Bennett and his staff would put this stuff in writing.  My public education advocate friends and I were nearly giddy at first with this news of his wrongdoing and cheating.  Bennett was a bully and a zealot. He was deaf to the cries of protest from teachers and parents alike about his "reforms" and the effects that they were having on the classroom experience.  And he got his comeuppance last November when he lost to Glenda Ritz. Badly.  Now I hope that his new job as Florida's education commissioner will be in jeopardy, too.  

The beauty of this story is that it exposes what so many of us have been saying all along.  These "reforms" (grading schools, taking away teacher voices through the loss of collective bargaining, tenure, evaluations based on test scores, corporate takeover over failing schools, charters, vouchers, etc.) were and are not about improving the educational experience for children..  They are about destroying public education and putting in place a model of private schools and letting "free markets" work their magic.  It is about profit.

As I've said many times, the bottom line for a business is the dollar.  The bottom line for public schools is the child.  No parent wants his or her child's education to be a commodity to be bought and sold.  We don't want our children to be points on a graph of data, the purpose of which is to show that public schools are failing.  We want our kids to have a rich educational experience led by a professional teacher, not some Teach for America kid who has no background in child development, methods, student teaching and the myriad of ways that teacher education programs create those experts in the field who work their magic with our kids every single day.

And speaking of magic... We always knew that no letter grade issued from politicians in the statehouse could sum up the magical things that our teacher and children accomplish every day in the classroom.  We've been frustrated that many of our school districts have advertised their high grades on banners across administration buildings, on stationery, on telephone voice mails at schools.  Enough already.  If you celebrate your "A" status, you are validating a system that is, by its very design, punishing children in poverty and the teachers who positively affect their lives everyday.  The A-F metric system of grading schools is an ALEC law put in place by our state legislators. It is a grade on a curve.  Why, you ask, would they set up a curve where nearly a third don't make the cut every year? Well, if you're looking to show that schools are failing, there's nothing like ensuring it.  And if the schools you care about (Tony Bennett) don't receive the grade you hoped they would, just cheat.  Rig the system again.

I hope that you are outraged.  I hope that the schools across Indiana will stop announcing their grades and begin an era of non-compliance with regard to a system of grading that is designed to fail public schools. This is no accountability system. This is just another tool in the box of reformers to privatize public education and make a buck.

How should we evaluate our schools, then? There was a great article recently, ironically about the grading system in Florida, before their commish Tony Bennett got in hot water this week.  In the article, a PTA mother, Rosemarie Jensen, makes the suggestion that we evaluate our schools on several things:

*the degrees and experience of the staff
*is there a library and librarian?
*do they have gym, music and art teachers?
*do they have foreign languages and a science lab?
*are there many guidance counselors?
*what are the class sizes?
*is there a broad curriculum and range of electives?

And she says: " These are all the things that parents look for in private schools. Public school children deserve all these things regardless of the neighborhood they live in. Every child deserves a fully funded, well rounded safe neighborhood school, staffed by professional educators with education degrees."

She's right.  These are the things that parents care about. And this is why we must demand from our state legislators that they stop gutting the funding of our public schools through vouchers and entitlements to charter schools (paying their loans).  We must demand that they stop spending our precious dollars on tests and testing companies, wasting valuable classroom time and sucking the joy out of learning.   We must demand that they see to it that we have all of the above characteristics of schools given to all of our children, regardless of zip code. We must also demand that our local school districts not be accomplices to their own demise.  Downplay the role of ISTEP and IREAD3 in our kids' experiences.  Don't validate an "A" grade from the state. This is enabling the reformers.  If you are co-dependent, find a 12 step program.  "Hello, I'm a school board member and I'm addicted to competition in education... I've bought into the Race to the Top."  Any and all school board members, state legislators, the governor, who have supported these reforms should be voted out at the next opportunity. 2014 is around the corner.

As the saying goes, "Childhood is not a race. It's a journey." Demand true accountability from your state legislature and state board of ed.  Tell them what your school should be evaluated on and ask them how they are helping to ensure it.  It's time to get active. Be informed. And vote. Give those legislators a failing grade in the next election.

Truthiness: Tony Bennett believes in "accountability." As in: 
"Despite their outcomes, that school's performance doesn't seem like a 'C'--We know in our gut that they deserve an 'A'.   Otherwise, our accountability work is compromised." Truthiness.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Teachers: Protective Saviors or Overpaid Babysitters--You Can't Have It Both Ways

I want to quote a friend of mine, Kharon Grommet, who, in response to the amazing stories of teachers protecting children from the tornado in Oklahoma, posted this as her Facebook status : 

 "Teachers ARE Heroes EVERYDAY!! Why is it that we only recognize this after a tragedy? Believe it or not, teachers PROTECT and IMPACT the lives of children and their families on a DAILY BASIS!  It's a little annoying to be celebrated after a tragedy and then disrespected and suppressed in the classroom!"


In the past few days, I've been gratified to read that there were some articles in the mainstream press that pointed out the irony in our talk of teachers as saviors and heroes.   From MSNBC there was a great piece entitled " Teachers: Heroes in a crisis-- but otherwise under fire".  CNN Opinion's LZ Granderson also wrote in defense of teachers: "So yes, it is fiscally responsible for a community to talk about loss of tax revenue and budget deficits. But we ought to be careful not to vilify this profession while doing so.Teachers are not glorified babysitters with summers off. Their profession fuels all others, and on a normal day that is amazing enough in and of itself."

As parents, we watch the news coverage of these events in horror.  It is a shocking reminder that we entrust the care of our children to these professionals every single day.  There are so many expectations of teachers.  We expect teachers to not only keep our kids physically and emotionally safe from harm, but we expect them to instill a love of learning, curiosity, good citizenship, social skills, creativity and, yes, good test scores… all of which we hope will enable our kids to grow up to be valuable and productive members of society.   I would argue that this is likely what all citizens of this country expect, regardless of whether or not they have children of their own.  Kids are, after all, our hope for the future.

Yet how do we repay these teachers? How do we show this great care and respect for them?

Teachers have the lowest morale in decades.  Throngs of teachers are fleeing their jobs, either to early retirement or to another, more respected, less stressful, (and likely better-paying) career. 

Despite the laudatory remarks by politicians and business people who create and fund educational “reforms”, the clear message from policymakers and the media is that teachers are not to be trusted.  We must breathe down the necks of every single professional working with our children to ensure that they are all teaching the same thing at the same time in the same way.  We even have a billionaire willing to fund surveillance cameras in each classroom to be sure that teachers are on task and, in the vernacular of today’s educationspeak: "accountable" and "efficient". 

In our state of Indiana, we Hoosiers respect teachers so much (read sarcasm.  It’s my first language) that we now allow anyone to become a teacher who has a degree in any subject, no experience in the classroom with a mentor teacher necessary.  We respect educators so much that we now allow anyone with a Master’s degree in any subject to become a superintendent of a school district, no education background necessary in order to evaluate principals and run a school system.  We value teachers so much that we have silenced their collective voices through the unions so that the only thing that they can bargain for is pay; not, for example, their working conditions that are simultaneously the learning conditions for children.  We Hoosiers respect teachers so much that we have tied their pay to test scores, despite the evidence that this is no way to evaluate good teaching.  We have tied their job security to these scores and even the security of their place of work: the school, to these scores. We treat everything they do to carrots and sticks, and call this reform “data driven.”

“Data driven” policy is driving teachers right out of the profession.  The message from the politicians/policymakers and the public who elect them is: PROVE your worth and dignity as a teacher.  Prove that you are making a difference in kids’ lives.  And so teachers have been forced to be data-collectors.  This creates the choice for teachers between doing what is right for children (focusing on that which is NOT on the test, that which is playful and fun and creative) and keeping their jobs (test scores).  This is very, very wrong.

You cannot quantify all that a teacher does.  Yes, we should have evaluation.  Yes, we should have accountability.  But we must first recognize that these people who care for our children for the pittance we pay them and the disrespect we show them are doing so because they want to make a difference in our kids’ lives.  Can Bill Gates come up with a bracelet that will monitor how loved a child feels? Will Pearson ever create a test that will reflect the "ah-ha" moment when a kid has finally understood a concept she’s been trying to grasp for months? (And which a teacher has been trying to get across in a myriad of methods and efforts for the same amount of time?)

Allowing children to play and explore is developmentally appropriate practice, not babysitting.  If politicians want to see “proof” of its efficacy, there are reams of educational research that validate what good teachers know and do.  Teachers do not go into teaching for the money.  They also don’t go into teaching to collect data on children.  They go into teaching to make a difference in kids’ lives.  They love learning and they love children.

It is not enough that we commend teachers for their heroism in the face of tragedy when they throw their bodies in front of bullets or flying debris from tornadoes.  Those events are symbolic of what teachers do for our kids and our society every single day.  The smaller acts of heroism: connecting to a hard-to-reach child and giving him a feeling of self-worth, helping a kid to find her passion, discovering what the special key is to how these children learn, these are just some of the ways that teachers change lives. 

The truth is that there are good teachers and there are bad teachers, but it is those educators who know best how to effectively teach.  They know best how to determine “success” in the classroom.  They are trained and educated to understand the process of learning and teaching.  And it is exactly these professionals who are NOT determining the direction of education in our current climate of “school reform.” If we truly respected our teachers, we would vote for legislators who defer to their expertise and authority and stop meddling in the classroom.  It is not enough to praise our teachers only in the face of tragedy and share a Facebook meme in their honor.  We must trust teachers to do their jobs every day and encourage their voices to be at the center of any reforms.