A Good Day

Dec 16 2011

I hate all the wasted motion in the classroom these days, doing things that are not particularly productive or rewarding for the sake of jumping through regulatory hoops. Jeff Bryant blames it on what he calls the Edu-Bubble, which seems right on target:

Then education reform advocates — either unwittingly or intentionally (does it matter?) –gave the venture crowd a huge gift by decreeing that student scores on standardized tests would define the learning “output” that schools would be accountable for. And all of a sudden everything monetarily related to schools — operations budgets, teacher salaries, classroom costs, government funds, grant money — could be related to a test score output.

This in effect turned student learning — and by extension, the students themselves — into a commodity that could be speculated on. Now that edu-venturists had something they could put on the other side of the balance sheet, they could now “flip” student test scores into a speculative market. And all sorts of “reform” schemes and start-ups — from starting charter schools to lowering teacher salaries to closing schools — could be rationalized on the basis of test scores. (via TFT.)

So my focus in the classroom has lately shifted from teaching practice to thinking about more interesting things, like human consciousness (my own, mainly) as I ask myself all day long, day after day, What the hell am I doing now? And why? This is not really such a bad thing. The upside of it is that I spend way less energy worrying about curriculum and method, and more time watching my own interactions with the kids, trying to be as helpful and even-handed as I can be. It occurs to me that if a person was looking for a working model of resistance to reform, they really ought to spend a few weeks managing a sixth-grade classroom. It’s a test. Every day.

I was touched by the message in this video which begins, “You think this is just another day in your life,” narrated by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who is also a social and environmental justice advocate. He calls upon us, as teachers, to become more child-like ourselves, and to be open to the meaning in our lives which gets overshadowed by our preoccupation with purposefulness. What are we here for, really?

This video says it all, quite eloquently, I think.

You think this is just another day in your life. It"™s not just another day; it"™s the one day that is given to you today. It"™s given to you. It"™s a gift. It"™s the only gift that you have right now, and the only appropriate response is gratefulness. If you do nothing else but to cultivate that response to the great gift that this unique day is, if you learn to respond as if it were the first day of your life, and the very last day, then you will have spent this day very well.
"“ Brother David Steindl-Rast

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One Love – Playing for Change

Dec 10 2011

We had our school Christmas concert yesterday, featuring each grade-level singing something in the spirit of the season. My students performed One Love, originally recorded by Bob Marley and the Wailers. The kids had a ukulele section and a pair of solo vocalists for accompaniment, and they did a fine job with it. Curious to see if there was a recording online, I found this version produced by the inspirational Playing for Change organization.

Believing that music is a universal language with the power to bring people from around the world together, the production crew travels with a mobile recording studio to wherever the music takes them. Pure genius.

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Changing the Subject

Oct 30 2011

The war on education that was declared with the passage of No Child Left Behind has been a class war all along. Teachers assumed that the stupidity of trying to reach 100% proficiency by 2014 would eventually become obvious, and the law would change. But alas, even as the deadline draws near, we don’t see that happening. Instead, we see waivers being offered in exchange for toxic policy changes that include more rigorous testing and linking student test scores to teacher evaluations. We are watching the life being sucked out of public schools by what amounts to a giant vampire squid, a reference taken from David Blacker who sees what’s happening to schools as a part of a larger neoliberal project aimed at privatizing everything:

What we are left with now is an all-out assault on anything in the system that might still have a little exchange value. Monster movie-like, we are now witnessing the full unleashing, to borrow Matt Taibbi’s famous image, of the neoliberal banking vampire squid, using its “blood funnel” to sniff out money in previously less accessible precincts such as schools, pensions, infrastructure, public health and safety — anywhere, really. All that is solid is liquefied and sucked up into the blood funnel, to be consumed by the megabanks, who perform no function whatever except a kind of super rent collection, a permanent life-destroying tax on all forms of human activity.

Blacker points out that the effort is framed as something that is positive, progressive, and natural. Given these benign qualities, who could object?

This process of redistribution upward — one-sided class warfare from above — operates of course in a vast scale and is hardly limited to education. It includes the sale of public lands and resources; persistent privatization schemes involving pensions and, ultimately, social security; health care; and even formerly sacrosanct public preserves such as prisons, the post office, and the military. This is the neoliberal period of capital in all its fetid glory: the ruthless marketization of everything existing — including itself, in the sense that the marketization is itself marketed as, among other things, “natural,” “fair,” “win-win,” “progress,” and other empty signifiers.

Frank Rich wrote a great column last week about the Class War that has been engaged by the #occupy movement. He criticizes the clueless establishment for not seeing it coming, and which seems either unwilling or unable to admit what it’s now looking at. He compares what’s happening now with an event that took place in 1932, when a throng of WWI veterans converged on Washington D.C. and set up camp seeking the passage of a bill for a bonus that had been promised them for their service in the war. They became known as the Bonus Army. As with the violence in Oakland, things did not go well with the Bonus Army, as MacArthur’s troops razed the encampment and killed innocent people.

You can read or listen to find out more about it. It is believed to have contributed to FDR’s victory in the presidential election that year.

Rachel Maddow notes that the #occupy movement has gone mainstream now. And Dahlia Lithwick eulogizes the demise of our uncomprehending corporate media that remains apparently ignorant to what is obvious to everyone else:

Mark your calendars: The corporate media died when it announced it was too sophisticated to understand simple declarative sentences. While the mainstream media expresses puzzlement and fear at these incomprehensible "œprotesters" with their oddly well-worded "œsigns," the rest of us see our own concerns reflected back at us and understand perfectly. Turning off mindless programming might be the best thing that ever happens to this polity. Hey, occupiers: You"™re the new news. And even better, by refusing to explain yourselves, you"™re actually changing what"™s reported as news. Because it takes a tremendous mental effort to refuse to see that the rich are getting richer in America while the rest of us are struggling. Maybe the days of explaining the patently obvious to the transparently compromised are finally behind us.

By refusing to take a ragtag, complicated, and leaderless movement seriously, the mainstream media has succeeded only in ensuring its own irrelevance. The rest of America has little trouble understanding that these are ragtag, complicated, and leaderless times. This may not make for great television, but any movement that acknowledges that fact deserves enormous credit.

I see that giant squid is on the menu. Where’s the ink?

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And corrupting our children every day

Oct 29 2011

Republican consultant and strategist, Noelle Nikpour: “Scientists are scamming the American people right and left for their own ‘finansual’ gain.”

It’s all too obvious:


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This is what FUBAR looks like

Oct 24 2011

Our school finally made it to AYP level 5, the bottom step on the down escalator to reconstitution hell, but the superintendent, parents, and even the newspaper all say we’re doing a good job. So now, to stay clear of consequences for working with lots of poor kids, we’ve got to develop a plan to improve, which means wasting time in useless meetings discussing standards and “best practices” instead of planning actual lessons.

Our contract negotiations failed last spring, and we’ve been working without a contract since the start of school this year. Teachers are attending school board meetings now, and testifying during their non-agenda items time. This was my contribution last Tuesday evening:

I’m a sixth-grade teacher at Denali Elementary, and this is my 27th year working in the District. I’m here to talk about respect.

When Supt. Lewis was hired, Mrs. Hajdukovitch (then Board President) told the newspaper that a salary increase for his position was designed to help the District compete for the best leaders.

Last month, the administration successfully lobbied for the passage of two bond propositions (for $20.3 million) for renovations and upgrades to some of the District’s school buildings.

Supt. Lewis tells us that we’re doing a good job. He points out that our ACT, SAT, and AP scores are higher than the state and national averages. Yet, the District’s bargaining team made no salary offer during our contract negotiations prior to our contract’s June 30 expiration. Consequently, since the start of school this year, teachers have been working without a contract. We believe our proposal for a 2.5% increase to the base pay rate is reasonable and in line with other recent public sector contract settlements.

My question – What message is being sent when the District lobbies for building upgrades and salary increases for leadership personnel, but fails to similarly advocate for its teachers? Please think about that.

I didn’t stick around to hear the Board comments at the end of the night. No telling what’s going to happen. Hope for an amicable settlement is fading. What I didn’t say (yet) is that when the superintendent tells people about those above average test scores, who gets to take the credit for that? Because here’s the thing – teachers have been taking all of the blame and none of the credit for the broad range of student outcomes for too long now. And we are tired of it.

The Occupy movement has even hit Alaska, as many people may have already seen. It’s the best thing going on now. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the most fun things to read about on the internet. Down with Tyranny posted this short video this evening.

Occupy (We the 99).

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Nobody Can Predict The Moment of Revolution

Sep 25 2011

Saw this on Adbusters.

Amy Goodman observes: “While the bankers remained secure in their bailed-out banks, outside, the police began arresting protesters. In a just world, with a just economy, we have to wonder, who would be out in the cold? Who would be getting arrested?”

Damn right.

Visit https://occupywallst.org/ for more.

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The Doom Loop

Aug 08 2011

With a slight adjustment, Paul Krugman’s analysis of the S&P downgrade works for education reform as well.


1. US debt is downgraded, sparking demands for more ill-advised fiscal austerity

2. Fears that austerity will depress the economy send stocks down

3. Politicians and pundits declare that worries about US solvency are the culprit, even though interest rates have actually plunged

4. This leads to calls for even more ill-advised austerity, which sends us back to #2

Applied to education reform:

1. US schools are criticized, sparking demands for ill-advised standardized testing

2. Fears that testing is dominating the curriculum send confidence in schools down

3. Politicians and pundits declare that teacher effectiveness is the culprit, even though instruction is focused on tested material

4. This leads to calls for even more ill-advised testing, which sends us back to #2

And back to Krugman for the zinger, “Behold the power of a stupid narrative, which seems impervious to evidence.”

Really, how much of an appetite for this shit do we have? I’m starting back to work this week and I dread every moment we will spend discussing the “data” that these tests excrete. More broadly speaking, when stupid narratives are the norm, we should expect more of the same. For teachers, this problem needs to be addressed directly because it isn’t going away on its own. Take a look at Michael Martin’s post on EDDRA2, explaining why high-stakes testing is a counter-productive fraud.

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But then you read

Jul 27 2011

You think your pain, and your heartbreak, are unprecedented in the history of the world. But then you read. It was books that taught me, the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive – who had ever been alive. I went into the 130th St. Library at least three or four times a week, and I read everything there, and every single book in that library. In some blind and instinctive way, I knew that what was happening in those books was also happening all around me, and I was trying to make a connection between the books and the life I saw, and the life I lived….I knew I was Black, of course, and I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind or even if I could, but that was the only thing that I had to use. And I was going to get whatever I wanted that way, and I was going to get my revenge that way. So I watched school the way I watched the streets, because part of the answer was there.

- James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket

I’ve been out and about this summer, not doing much writing. But I’ve been reading and watching the insanity that public policy continues to embrace. I can’t make it to Washington DC for the Save our Schools March this week, but I want to acknowledge it here as an event that helps me to know that I’m not alone in my dismay at the looting of our public sphere. To the organizers, and to all those who will be participating, thank you.

In particular, I want to express my wholehearted support for its Guiding Principles :

Equitable funding for all public school communities

Equitable funding across all public schools and school systems
Full public funding of family and community support services
Full funding for 21st century school and neighborhood libraries
An end to economically and racially re-segregated schools

An end to high stakes testing used for the purpose of student, teacher, and school evaluation

The use of multiple and varied assessments to evaluate students, teachers, and schools
An end to pay per test performance for teachers and administrators
An end to public school closures based upon test performance

Teacher, family and community leadership in forming public education policies

Educator and civic community leadership in drafting new ESEA legislation
Federal support for local school programs free of punitive and competitive funding
An end to political and corporate control of curriculum, instruction and assessment decisions for teachers and administrators

Curriculum developed for and by local school communities

Support for teacher and student access to a wide-range of instructional programs and technologies
Well-rounded education that develops every student"™s intellectual, creative, and physical potential
Opportunities for multicultural/multilingual curriculum for all students
Small class sizes that foster caring, democratic learning communities

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Mission Statement

Jun 15 2011

Chris Lehmann’s Graduation Speech has the ring of a mission statement for all of us working in schools and struggling to keep our eyes on the prize:

And after you have forgotten the granular details of the periodic table of elements, continue to honor the scientific spirit of inquiry, always asking powerful questions and seeking out complex answers.

That is, we hope, what you have learned from us. That inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are not just words in a mission statement but an iterative process of learning that can and will serve you the rest of your life if you let it. And perhaps above all else, remember that throughout that process, there are those in your life who have been there, who have cared about you, who have mentored you, and in doing so, hope that you will pay that forward. That you will care for those around you. That you will understand that the intersection of that ethic of care and that spirit of inquiry starts with asking the question, "œWhat do you think?" caring about the answer, and then taking action.

Congratulations, Chris, and to SLA’s class of 2011 as well. I agree; it’s more than just words. Take care.

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Hearts and Minds

Jun 04 2011

Going NowhereIn this end-of-year reflection, I’m tackling the “no excuses” dictum. Based on this year’s test scores, it appears we may at last have reached terminal status as a Level 5 (failing) school. Officially this means,

The district is required to prepare a plan to carry out one of the following alternative governance arrangements:

  • reopen the school as a public charter school,
  • replace all or most of the staff who are relevant to the school not demonstrating AYP,
  • enter into a contract with a private management company,
  • transfer operation of the school to the department, if agreed to by the department,
  • or any other major restructuring of the school"™s governance arrangement.

It sounds bad. Yet…

  • Our principal was chosen by the Alaska Association of Elementary Schoool Principals as the National Distinguished Principal for 2011;
  • We have a strong school community, with a significant number of students coming from outside our attendance area boundary because they appreciate the work we do with their kids;
  • Parent input surveys were 99.9% supportive of our efforts this year;
  • Our average rate of proficient-level test scores for sixth grade consistently exceeds the district and statewide rates;
  • We passed our Title I audit and site inspection last year, with a complement from one of the monitors who said, “When I return to teaching, this is the type of school I want to become a part of.”

So, unofficially at this point, we may be nothing more than just another example of school policy roadkill, a perhaps-unintended casualty of what amounts to little more than a numbers game, and we’re left to wonder what will happen to us under our new special status – a status that nearly all schools will eventually attain as the demand for 100% passing rates by 2014 draws ever nearer. Hoping that none of those mandated “alternative governance” measures will kick in, we know that sentiment in Alaska runs from cool to openly hostile toward federal interventions in just about any area you look at. So we’ll wait and see.

As for me, I am done caring about reformist nonsense. At a staff meeting earlier this year we were discussing our AimsWeb Data Boards put up around the room to show how many students in each grade level are below proficient, at risk, or proficient based on how well they handled an oral one-minute timed reading. To me, this was a disgusting display of a brain-dead method to evaluate reading. We were asked to say what we planned to do to improve our students’ scores. Since the data showed lots of kids scoring “below proficient” in first and second grade and very few in that category by the time they got to sixth, I observed that the trend was positive, and that at least as far as word-calling skills go, we seem to be doing all right. Teachers at each grade level announced what they planned to do, like focus on comprehension, vocabulary, decoding – the usual. When it was my turn, I said I’d be going with the happiness plan. What’s that? It’s getting the kids to enjoy reading so that they do it on their own. How does it work? Easy. Give them choices and time to read every day, and then celebrate their accomplishments. I got a round of applause. Kind of sad, really, when I think about what that might mean.

People say that testing narrows the curriculum. Pressure to make the cut does worse than that; kids with the greatest needs tend to get trampled. Diane Ravitch points out that the one sure way to succeed in this environment is to stop enrolling poor kids, or kids with language limitations, homeless kids, or those with learning disabilities:

Educators know that 100 percent proficiency is impossible, given the enormous variation among students and the impact of family income on academic performance. Nevertheless, some politicians believe that the right combination of incentives and punishments will produce dramatic improvement. Anyone who objects to this utopian mandate, they maintain, is just making an excuse for low expectations and bad teachers.

To prove that poverty doesn"™t matter, political leaders point to schools that have achieved stunning results in only a few years despite the poverty around them. But the accounts of miracle schools demand closer scrutiny. Usually, they are the result of statistical legerdemain.

Being scapegoated for not being miracle workers, teachers and teacher unions should remind these critics that there is no excuse for child poverty, now running close to 21% in the U.S. If poor kids don’t do well in school, then let’s address the real problem and take care of them. Knowing that sick kids don’t do well in athletics do we blame coaches for not making them winners? People would ridicule the idea.

Ignoring what we know about the effects of poverty on families and children creates the impression that schools are somehow the cause of a social condition rooted in economic policy. William Mathis, director of the National Education Policy Center, explains the harm done to kids and to all of us when reformers “shine the light only on schools and leave the greater void in darkness”:

There is great harm in this myth, that schools can do it all. It provides the excuse for politicians, vested interests and advocates to wrongly declare schools "œfailures." It gives a false justification for firing the principals and teachers who work with our neediest. It tells us a complex society does not need to invest in its skills or its children. It serves as a moral cloak for actions that are technically unjustified — as well as just plain wrong.

I’ve seen enough “data”. Next year my classroom is going to be about creativity, projects, and having fun with ideas. The way I look at it now, every year may be my last, and I don’t want to go out playing a numbers game that was rigged against me and my students from the start. Rigidly applied standards will fail the kids; that’s not my job.

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