Thursday, September 25, 2014

NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia has no time to be patient – Part III

'Absurd' 'Idiotic' 'Toxic' 'Voodoo' 'Abusive'
These are all words NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia used to describe education 'reform'—particularly standardized testing—in her recent 90-minute meeting with NJ ed bloggers, and quite frankly, they were music to my ears. I've been waiting for the NEA leadership to draw a hard line in the sand. 

Part I of this series focused on the devastating effects of high-stakes testing on special needs children, and how edu-preneurs—21st century carpetbaggers—are profiting from the testing boom. 

Part II focused on the ways billionaires and their 'charities' are controlling the media to push out their messaging to an uninformed public.

Part III's focus is on Lily's visits to two very different New Jersey schools, and how NEA—and all its members—must fight back against destructive education 'reform'.

As with the two previous posts, unless otherwise indicated, Lily's quotes are in red.



A tale of two cities

Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Photo courtesy of actionplusrealty.com
In her tour of New Jersey, Lily stopped at two schools: Pyne Poynt Middle School in Camden, which shares a building with the co-located Mastery Charter School, and West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional High School. The median household income in West Windsor is $147,234, with only 2.5% of its residents living below the poverty level, while Camden's median household income is $25,681 (no, that's not a typo), and 45% of its residents live below the poverty level. Two years ago the state swooped in, took over the school district, and appointed as superintendent in the 'Most Dangerous City in America' Paymon Rouhanifard, a 32-year-old former New York City school system bureaucrat/former Wall Street analyst/Teach for America alumnus who spent a grand total of two years and one month in front of a classroom. Makes perfect sense, right?

For more on Paymon's track record, read Jersey Jazzman's post here. For more on the state takeover of Camden's schools and the push back by parents see here, here, here, here and here


In both schools she spoke with students, staff, parents and administrators. 


On the city of Camden:  
"Look at all the shut down, abandoned buildings."
Credit: www.racelies.com
About a dozen Camden parents found out she was there and wanted to meet with her. They wanted to talk about the co-location of Mastery Charter School in their building. They wanted her to know that they felt like their kids weren't important anymore, that they were being pushed out. They felt like too many doors had been closed on them. They wanted desperately for someone to hear them because the local school board won't listen. They're all appointed and part of the local political machine. The parents have no say in how the district is run.  

Phil Dunn of the Courier Post reported on their conversation. Each one of them expressed how angry, frustrated and disheartened they felt. Dunn reports:


Parents told Eskelsen Garcia they also felt the traditional public school district was taking a back seat to the three Renaissance schools that opened this fall. Many students reported to public schools last week only to find substitute teachers, they claimed.
"We are dealing with understaffed schools, and our students are losing," said Camden parent Byheijja Sabree.
"We are not getting the resources our children deserve in public schools."
School officials said vacancies are up because more than 100 staffers retired or resigned from the district in late July and August, including some who failed to show up to work on the first day or give notice.
As of Thursday, the district had 40 teacher vacancies, down from 88 on the first day of school. School officials said 96 percent of classrooms have permanent teachers.

Save Our Schools NJ reports:  
"What's going on in this school is an insult to African-Americans and Latinos in this community. We're talking about coming together ... You cannot divide this school .... You cannot put a charter school inside a public school like this and then try to create a feeling within the school that we're all one." 
These words were spoken by a Camden parent in reference to the Pyne Poynt school in Camden, which is being used by the Christie Administration for a forcible co-location with the Mastery charter chain.
[...] 
The story told by Phil Dunn's article is in sharp contrast with the article that the Philadelphia Inquirer ran on the forced Pyne Point/Mastery co-location.
The Inquirer's happy coverage of the forced co-location may have been shaped by the fact that the newspaper's new owner and his son are both long-term supporters of the Mastery charter chain, which has co-located in the Pyne Poynt. In fact, one of the Mastery campuses is named after the Inquirer's owner. (emphasis mine)

Despite a lawsuit filed by some Camden parents, the NJ State Senate recently passed a bill that would give greater power to the Renaissance charters to expand. On September 29th the NJ State Assembly is voting on the same bill. If it passes, Gov. Christie will almost surely sign it into law. 


On West Windsor-Plainsboro:
"It was wonderful! I wanted to go there!"
Lily spoke to a female student about testing. The girl's comments were, unfortunately, not surprising:
"Pretty much in this school, you better be making a 4.0. Your safety school is Yale. Everybody wants to know how you did on your SATs. 
"Last year I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder. But I'm on medication this year and I think it will be so much better."
"In Camden they fire teachers for not meeting their test score quota, but it's just as bad to say 'You got an A-, and [that's not good enough].' It's no less harmful to those students than these students."
"This complete waste of time is supposed to mean that a child is 'college and career ready'? Seriously? I think a nine-year-old could figure this out. It's abuse, plain and simple.(emphasis mine)


Dis-'Education Nation': the false invitation to educators

"Educators no longer have individual control over and participation in how and what they teach."


Photo courtesy NBC
Four years ago, educators around the country quickly tuned into—then just as quickly tuned out from—NBC's 'Education Nation' when we saw that real K-12 educators were relegated to the audience while talking heads with no teaching experience were on the stage controlling the message. It was a huge slap in the face. While I did stick around for the second year if only to commiserate on social media with other equally furious educators, I haven't watched since. Quite frankly, I have better things to do with my time, and I'd like to keep my normally low blood pressure right where it is. If the brand has changed to be more inclusive and educator-driven, great, I'll give another look. But based on what I saw, it was more about talking to educators than with them.

As I wrote in Part II, Bill Gates spends enormous sums of money lulling the unsuspecting general public into believing everything they see and hear about 'bad teachers' and 'failing schools'. Gates and his buddies love to call this craziness an 'experiment' and call for 'conversation' between people in his camp and educators. The problem is, as Anthony Cody writes, that we never asked to have this grand experiment performed on us, and the conversation is always one-sided. The experiment was never piloted. Instead, it was forced on the nation, rammed down our throats so hard that our voices have been choked off by the mainstream media and many teachers' own fears of recrimination. Gates demands that educators and voters let this experiment continue, so we'll see what's good for us (insert condescending pat on the head). 



Gates says:
There's a lot of issues about governance, whether its school boards or unions, where you want to allow for experimentation, in terms of pay procedures, management procedures, to really prove out new things. As those things start working on behalf of the students, then I believe the majority of teachers and voters will be open-minded to these new approaches. And so we have to take it a step at a time. They have to give us the opportunity for this experimentation. (emphasis Cody's)
"They have to give us the opportunity." Why? What if we say no?
Cody explains why 'No' is a pretty good answer:
A report released last year by the nonprofit advocacy group Broader, Bolder Approach to Education took a close look at the big cities—the very ones cited by Bill Gates in his 2008 remarks quoted above as being models of reform, and found that rather than being showcases of success, they have yielded poor results overall.
Be sure to read the entire post.

The real problem

"It's not about closing the achievement gap; it's about closing the equity gap.
"All of the research, facts and evidence is on the side of common sense: that you use tests for what they were meant to be used for. That you empower people at the building level. All of this ['reform'] is an excuse to move the conversation away from the gaps in resources. To move the conversation away from what the 'haves' have and the 'have nots' don't because that costs money."

I've said this here far too many times, so if you don't believe me, look it up for yourself: the US has the second highest child poverty rate in the industrialized world, and the highest infant mortality rate. This is deplorable, unacceptable, and why many students struggle to learn. It requires an enormous investment of public resources to fix, but it doesn't turn a profit, so that's why nothing is being done.

When 
parents and rank and file educators don't stand up to those charged with writing and implementing education policy—from Arne Duncan right on down to building principals—we are just as guilty of the destruction of public education and young minds as they are.

"None of the evidence for corporate reform is on their side. Not with charters or vouchers or de-professionalization with TFA. And by the way, since we're guaranteed to hire a bunch of bad teachers, let's make it really easy to fire them."

Where do we go from here?

"The laws on the state level that were influenced by federal policy are so absurd and idiotic that they're indefensible. Governors are backing away from them. Nobody wants to own them."
Toward the end of our discussion, Lily told a story about a young special education teacher who wanted to quit because she teaches students in wheelchairs with drool bibs and she now has to put a No. 2 pencil in their hand and manipulate it to get them to fill in the bubbles on a test so her district can make their quota. The teacher was in tears as she related the story: "These kids will cry, they'll wet their pants, and I don't want to do this anymore." 

Credit: www.scpie.org
Too many educators are quitting because they refuse to be complicit in damaging their students. Too many are taking early retirement because they just can't take it anymore. How many of those Camden 'no-shows' simply decided the night before school started that they had had enough and just walked away? New teachers entering the profession have no idea what it's like to teach before No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top, and that's the way many 'reformers' want it. What's better than a highly skilled, low wage workforce that can be turned over every few years or so? It's a great fix for the pension system!

Then, someone in our group asked if civil disobedience is what educators need to do. Her answer was a pleasant surprise (emphasis mine).
"I think that's the right road to go down, but here's how I think we hit this:  
"Here's what I find out when I go into a school and talk to educators. What do you love about this school? I love the kids. What would you improve? The damned testing—make it stop; it's gotta stop. It makes me feel like I'm not a professional.'
[...]   
"We are sitting on something here. We are at more than a crossroads. This is gonna blow. We can harness that passion that the educator has [because] this touches your soul.
[...]  
"When you're a union the greatest power is numbers. We can't beat the Kochs' money. The only way we're going to beat this is collective action. We have to organize what's already happening. It can't be 'isn't this a shame, it's hurting kids'. It has to lead to some collective action.
[...]  
"I don't want anyone to get fired or lose their job. What we want is to have those politicians going, 'Oh my God, we gotta fix this'. And as long as they can shoot at individuals, they won't fix this. When they're the ones that are being hurt, when they're the ones being the joke on The Daily Show, then they're going to start saying, 'Ok, who do we talk to?'
[...] 
"We have to influence the President of the United States."

How do we get there?

The road to change isn't paved with hand-wringing; it's paved by putting one foot in front of the other, one step at a time, every day. We will empower ourselves when we empower parents to fight standardized testing, too. 

"But Marie," you say, "I can't do that. I don't have time, and besides, I don't like politics." Oh no? How do you not? How do you not have time to advocate for those in your charge who cannot advocate for themselves? How do you not have time to advocate for the protection of a basic civil right? How do you not have time to fight for your profession? 

This is what happened when one Florida educator just said, 'No!'
Education Commissioner Pam Stewart ended the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading, known as the FAIR test, in kindergarten through second grade. In its place, teachers will observe children's reading abilities in a more informal setting than the online exam, which recently experienced glitches. 
Stewart announced the change in a memo to superintendents. 
"It's amazing," said Susan Bowles, the Alachua County kindergarten teacher whose widely publicized refusal to administer FAIR this fall sparked the state's move. "I am very grateful that they have seen that the test was not a good thing for children."
Not every educator can do what Susan Bowles did, but every educator can start educating parents on the toxicity of standardized testing. Every educator can attend board of education meetings and start making their concerns heard. Every educator can start calling their elected officials and holding them accountable. And every educator can vote! 


Final thoughts...

I was inspired and energized by what Lily shared, by her passion and her commitment to end the toxic effects of testing. Now, here's what I want to say to Lily:

Don't fail us. Millions of educators and parents are ready and waiting for a massive push back against standardized testing. We need more national leaders to walk the walk—not just talk the talk. We have seen far too many good leaders be swayed by the money and power education 'reform' brings, or fall victim to political correctness. Stand firm in your beliefs and it will be easier for more of us to do the same.

"They have to deal with it when it's massive and it will only be massive if it's organized.  And that is what NEA is committed to."

Light the match, spark the flame, Lily. Let's get going and stop this madness now!