Friday, August 10, 2012

What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success

The original post can be found at:

DEC 29 2011, 3:00 PM ET 1794
The Scandinavian country is an education superpower because it values equality more than excellence.
Sergey Ivanov/Flickr
Everyone agrees the United States needs to improve its education system dramatically, but how? One of the hottest trends in education reform lately is looking at the stunning success of the West's reigning education superpower, Finland. Trouble is, when it comes to the lessons that Finnish schools have to offer, most of the discussion seems to be missing the point.
The small Nordic country of Finland used to be known -- if it was known for anything at all -- as the home of Nokia, the mobile phone giant. But lately Finland has been attracting attention on global surveys of quality of life -- Newsweekranked it number one last year -- and Finland's national education system has been receiving particular praise, because in recent years Finnish students have been turning in some of the highest test scores in the world.
Finland's schools owe their newfound fame primarily to one study: the PISA survey, conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The survey compares 15-year-olds in different countries in reading, math, and science. Finland has ranked at or near the top in all three competencies on every survey since 2000, neck and neck with superachievers such as South Korea and Singapore. In the most recent survey in 2009 Finland slipped slightly, with students in Shanghai, China, taking the best scores, but the Finns are still near the very top. Throughout the same period, the PISA performance of the United States has been middling, at best.
Compared with the stereotype of the East Asian model -- long hours of exhaustive cramming and rote memorization -- Finland's success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play. All this has led to a continuous stream of foreign delegations making the pilgrimage to Finland to visit schools and talk with the nation's education experts, and constant coverage in the worldwide media marveling at the Finnish miracle.
So there was considerable interest in a recent visit to the U.S. by one of the leading Finnish authorities on education reform, Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Center for International Mobility and author of the new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Earlier this month, Sahlberg stopped by the Dwight School in New York City to speak with educators and students, and his visit received national media attention and generated much discussion.
And yet it wasn't clear that Sahlberg's message was actually getting through. As Sahlberg put it to me later, there are certain things nobody in America really wants to talk about.
* * *
During the afternoon that Sahlberg spent at the Dwight School, a photographer from the New York Timesjockeyed for position with Dan Rather's TV crew as Sahlberg participated in a roundtable chat with students. The subsequent article in the Times about the event would focus on Finland as an "intriguing school-reform model."
Yet one of the most significant things Sahlberg said passed practically unnoticed. "Oh," he mentioned at one point, "and there are no private schools in Finland."
This notion may seem difficult for an American to digest, but it's true. Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.
The irony of Sahlberg's making this comment during a talk at the Dwight School seemed obvious. Like many of America's best schools, Dwight is a private institution that costs high-school students upward of $35,000 a year to attend -- not to mention that Dwight, in particular, is run for profit, an increasing trend in the U.S. Yet no one in the room commented on Sahlberg's statement. I found this surprising. Sahlberg himself did not.
Sahlberg knows what Americans like to talk about when it comes to education, because he's become their go-to guy in Finland. The son of two teachers, he grew up in a Finnish school. He taught mathematics and physics in a junior high school in Helsinki, worked his way through a variety of positions in the Finnish Ministry of Education, and spent years as an education expert at the OECD, the World Bank, and other international organizations.
Now, in addition to his other duties, Sahlberg hosts about a hundred visits a year by foreign educators, including many Americans, who want to know the secret of Finland's success. Sahlberg's new book is partly an attempt to help answer the questions he always gets asked.

From his point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: How can you keep track of students' performance if you don't test them constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice?
The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America's school reformers are trying to do.
For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what's called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.
Instead, the public school system's teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.
As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. "There's no word for accountability in Finnish," he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. "Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."
For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master's degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal's responsibility to notice and deal with it.
And while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Paronen: "Real winners do not compete." It's hard to think of a more un-American idea, but when it comes to education, Finland's success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.
Finally, in Finland, school choice is noticeably not a priority, nor is engaging the private sector at all. Which brings us back to the silence after Sahlberg's comment at the Dwight School that schools like Dwight don't exist in Finland.
"Here in America," Sahlberg said at the Teachers College, "parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It's the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same."
Herein lay the real shocker. As Sahlberg continued, his core message emerged, whether or not anyone in his American audience heard it.
Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.
* * *
Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.
In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.
In fact, since academic excellence wasn't a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland's students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland -- unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway -- was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.
That this point is almost always ignored or brushed aside in the U.S. seems especially poignant at the moment, after the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street movement have brought the problems of inequality in America into such sharp focus. The chasm between those who can afford $35,000 in tuition per child per year -- or even just the price of a house in a good public school district -- and the other "99 percent" is painfully plain to see.
* * *
Pasi Sahlberg goes out of his way to emphasize that his book Finnish Lessons is not meant as a how-to guide for fixing the education systems of other countries. All countries are different, and as many Americans point out, Finland is a small nation with a much more homogeneous population than the United States. 
Yet Sahlberg doesn't think that questions of size or homogeneity should give Americans reason to dismiss the Finnish example. Finland is a relatively homogeneous country -- as of 2010, just 4.6 percent of Finnish residents had been born in another country, compared with 12.7 percent in the United States. But the number of foreign-born residents in Finland doubled during the decade leading up to 2010, and the country didn't lose its edge in education. Immigrants tended to concentrate in certain areas, causing some schools to become much more mixed than others, yet there has not been much change in the remarkable lack of variation between Finnish schools in the PISA surveys across the same period.
Samuel Abrams, a visiting scholar at Columbia University's Teachers College, has addressed the effects of size and homogeneity on a nation's education performance by comparing Finland with another Nordic country: Norway. Like Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish. The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy, Abrams suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country's school system than the nation's size or ethnic makeup.
Indeed, Finland's population of 5.4 million can be compared to many an American state -- after all, most American education is managed at the state level. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization in Washington, there were 18 states in the U.S. in 2010 with an identical or significantly smaller percentage of foreign-born residents than Finland.
What's more, despite their many differences, Finland and the U.S. have an educational goal in common. When Finnish policymakers decided to reform the country's education system in the 1970s, they did so because they realized that to be competitive, Finland couldn't rely on manufacturing or its scant natural resources and instead had to invest in a knowledge-based economy. 
With America's manufacturing industries now in decline, the goal of educational policy in the U.S. -- as articulated by most everyone from President Obama on down -- is to preserve American competitiveness by doing the same thing. Finland's experience suggests that to win at that game, a country has to prepare not just some of its population well, but all of its population well, for the new economy. To possess some of the best schools in the world might still not be good enough if there are children being left behind.
Is that an impossible goal? Sahlberg says that while his book isn't meant to be a how-to manual, it is meant to be a "pamphlet of hope."
"When President Kennedy was making his appeal for advancing American science and technology by putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960's, many said it couldn't be done," Sahlberg said during his visit to New York. "But he had a dream. Just like Martin Luther King a few years later had a dream. Those dreams came true. Finland's dream was that we want to have a good public education for every child regardless of where they go to school or what kind of families they come from, and many even in Finland said it couldn't be done."
Clearly, many were wrong. It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important -- as a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform -- Finland's experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.
The problem facing education in America isn't the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.

New school year: doubling down on failed ed policy - Valerie Strauss

This was written by Lisa Guisbond, a policy analyst for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest, a Boston-based organization that aims to improve standardized testing practices and evaluations of students, teachers and schools.
By Lisa Guisbond
Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt credited his teammate, Jamaican runner Yohan “The Beast,” Blake, with helping him improve by beating him in earlier races. The defeats forced Bolt to reflect on what he needed to do differently to improve. Bolt’s victory modeled a powerful lesson: Always try to learn from your mistakes, rather than repeat them.

President Obama and Arne Duncan (AP)
As children head back to school after a decade of No Child Left Behind, will they benefit from lessons learned from this sweeping and expensive failure? Will schools do anything differently to avoid NCLB’s narrowed curriculum, teaching to the test and stagnant achievement? Sadly, instead of learning from the beastly NCLB, the Obama administration is doubling down on a failed policy.
Here are two examples of NCLB’s mistakes and how coming “reforms” will continue or intensify the damage, not correct it.
First, pressure to meet NCLB’s test score targets led schools to focus attention on the limited skills standardized tests measure and to narrow their curriculum. These negative effects fell most severely on classrooms serving low-income and minority children. Teachers there were under the most pressure to raise test scores by concentrating on narrow test preparation instead of providing a rich and engaging curriculum. Many districts administered large numbers of additional tests supposedly to prepare students for end-of-year exams. Despite the focus on tested subjects, results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, showed NCLB failed to significantly increase academic performance or narrow achievement gaps.
Sadly, the next wave of so-called “reforms,” such as the Common Core State Standards and new exams to measure them, show little promise of reversing these failures. Rather, they threaten to increase time and other resources spent on testing instead of unleashing teachers’ and students’ creative potential.
More grades will be tested, and students will face multiple tests during the year. These “new, improved” tests promise to do a better job of measuring “critical thinking” and other higher-order learning. However, grant applications from the two multi-state testing consortia reveal that the bulk of the testing will be multiple-choice and short answer. Examples of possible test questions are, at best, marginally superior to current exams. Already, major publishers, such as Pearson, are pasting new covers on the same old products and marketing them as “Common Core.”
Second, NCLB demonstrated many ways that high-stakes standardized testing damages and corrupts education. In addition to narrowing curriculum and encouraging teaching to the test, the NCLB era has produced waves of cheating. In the past four years alone, there have been confirmed reports of cheating in 36 states and the District of Columbia. Teaching to state tests has caused score inflation, resulting in misleading results that are not reflected on other measures of learning. Struggling students have been pushed out of school to raise the test score bottom line, with far too many youth entering the prison pipeline. School climate has suffered as fear of failure is passed down from administrators to teachers to students. Many good teachers have chosen to leave rather than comply with drill-and-kill requirements and corrupt their students’ education.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan acknowledges that NCLB narrowed curriculum and caused teaching to the test. However, his “reforms” don’t address the underlying problems. Instead, Duncan’s NCLB waiver scheme and the Race to the Top programs raise the stakes even higher by requiring states to link teacher evaluations to student test results. If teachers were not already under tremendous pressure to boost scores, they will be now with their jobs on the line.
Author and lecturer Sir Ken Robinson often speaks about the importance of making mistakes, to learn from them and try again. He says educational standardization and pressure for conformity stunt our children’s growth by teaching them to fear and avoid mistakes. “Conformity and standardization and sitting still and doing multiple-choice questions and being tested at the end — these features of education are inimical to the kind of original thinking and confident imaginations that underpin real innovation,” Robinson says. What we need, he adds, is not “reform” but “revolution.”
To unleash our children’s potential, we need to unleash the full capacity of teachers and schools. That means acknowledging the mistakes of NCLB, learning from them and fundamentally changing course. People across the nation understand that need, as shown by strong support for the national and Texas resolutions on high-stakes testing.
Too few policymakers have learned the lesson, so we must educate or replace them. Then parents can look forward to our children returning to schools that stir their imaginations and creativity.
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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Principals: Our struggle to be heard on reform- by Valerie Strauss

This was written by Carol Burris and Harry Leonadartos. Burris is the principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York.  Leonadartos is the principal of Clarkstown High School North in Rockland County, New York. Carol is the co-author and Harry is an active supporter of the New York Principals letter of concern regarding the evaluation of teachers by student scores. Over 1,500 New York principals and more than 5,400 teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens have signed the letter which can be found here.

By Carol Burris and Harry Leonardatos 
Several weeks ago, on Meet the Press, Michelle Rhee unveiled her new ad, designed to hammer away at how bad she believes American schools to be.  The ad likened public schools to an unfit male athlete competing unsuccessfully in a women’s sport.  Many found the ad to be offensive in its stereotypical portrayal of an overweight and effete man. But the true offense was that it took a moment of national pride, the Olympic Games, and used it to give American educators a kick in the pants. 
It is reasonable to wonder why it is so important for Michelle Rhee and other “reformers” to constantly deride and disparage American public schools.  Although we should always seek to improve, why should those efforts be expected to follow from derision?  In truth, while we and others see daunting and unfilled needs in many schools, there has not been a sharp and sudden decline in student performance as is being implied, and in fact scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — sometimes referred to as the nation’s educational report card — are higher than ever before. 
The answer is simple. School reform has generated a marketplace, and a profitable one at that.  Michelle Rhee’s standard fee is $50,000 an appearance, plus expenses. In Michigan, Clark Durrant is paid over half a million dollars a year to run five charter schools. Eva Moskowitz, Geoffrey Canada and Deborah Kenney all make between four and five hundred thousand a year running their New York City charter school organizations.
And these are the minor players. The real money is corporate.
StudentsFirst video
Rupert Murdoch announced that public education is a $500 billion market waiting desperately to be transformed. He is creating the data systems and hiring the people to help him make that profitable transformation happen. All the while, the editorial departments of his newspapers hammer away at New York City’s schools and teachers.
 Reformers’ financial successes, their careers and their celebrity rest on their ability to convince the public of the failures — real, perceived, and generated — of our nation’s public schools.  Yet in national polls the vast majority of Americans have continually awarded high marks to their own schools, even while giving substantially lower marks to public schools across the board. The poll results represent the disconnect between the judgment  that the public makes based on  day to day experience with their own neighborhood schools, and the perception the reformers and the press have created.
 And this is all before the upcoming Parent Trigger advocacy movie, “Won’t Back Down.” There is now so much money and power backing market-driven reforms that it is nearly impossible for alternative views to break through.
 We recently had our personal experience with how difficult it is to be heard. On July 26th, New York Governor Cuomo’s Education Commission held its only meeting in New York City. The purpose of the commission is to travel around the state in order to hear from stakeholders regarding suggestions for New York State school improvements.
Prior to the time and place of the meeting being posted, both of us sent a request to testify on the topic of teacher and principal quality. As high school principals, we are deeply concerned about the direction of the Regents reform agenda, especially in regard to evaluating teachers using test scores. We were joined by an outstanding New York City high school principal and two teachers from South Side High School. Both teachers had submitted requests to speak, one sending that request and her remarks weeks in advance. 
We were not allowed to speak. That was certainly troubling, but even more troubling was the overall staging of the event to ensure that the weight of testimony would support the predetermined, favored policy agenda. The selected panelists on teacher and principal quality were not practicing educators. The first speaker, former CNN reporter Campbell Brown, spoke about sex abuse and arbitrators’ decisions.  Brown has no experience as an educator or public school parent, andshe has been inconsistent in disclosing that her husband is on the board of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst.
The other panelists were Jermima Bernard, the New York executive director of Teach for America; Lesley Guggenheim from The New Teacher Project; and Evan Stone, an 18-month sixth grade teacher who described himself as the CEO of Educators 4 Excellence, another group aligned with the favored policy agenda.
So, with the exception of Campbell Brown, they all represented organizations that embraced the governor’s policies, and they all advocated for the following three policies: state imposition of teacher evaluation systems if local negotiations are not successful, elimination of contractually guaranteed pay increases, and the use of test scores in educator evaluations.
 We patiently waited through the testimony because the directions on the website stated that the final 30 minutes would be reserved for those who wished to speak, determined via a sign-in, first-come basis. Because we were among the first five to sign up, we believed we would have time to make brief remarks. We were stunned when the list in the lobby was not used. Instead, additional speakers were hand-picked. The speakers selected to comment on teacher and principal quality were a teacher who told the committee how she looked forward to being evaluated by test scores, and Anna Hall, the new head of StudentsFirst NY. Hall is a former principal from the Bronx, and she argued that teacher tenure should be abolished. 
After one of us (Harry) confronted the governor’s representative, he promised us that we would be allowed to speak at later hearings. We are hopeful that he will keep his word. The rules on the website regarding public comment have changed to now say that the speakers chosen would be the first to email rather than the first to sign in. You’ll excuse us for worrying that this might be one more attempt to control testimony at what is supposed to be an opportunity for the public to speak.
 None of us who came to the Bronx on that sweltering July day believed that we would change the direction of the Governor’s reform agenda by our testimony. We were there to give testimony and witness to the teachers and principals across our state who know that the barrage of negative press and misguided solutions generated by the young “CEOs” of hundreds of Gates-, Broad- and Walton-sponsored reform centers is wrong. We were there to give testimony that by setting teachers up on a bell curve, you are creating the contrived headline — “Half of all New York teachers not effective when judged by test scores,” thus cynically undermining the faith of parents in their public school teachers and principals.
 We hoped to speak for the teachers and principals who know that our students are being over-tested and that this is happening for purposes other than the assessment of their learning. We were there to represent the views of the 1,508 New York principals and the 5,400 teachers, parents, school board members, professors and administrators who have signed on to the principals letter in opposition to using student test scores in teachers evaluation. South Side High School teachers, Katie Burke and Debbie Tanklow were there to say how the evaluation system would undermine their relationship with their students. We also went to present our own ideas on how New York State schools can serve students better.
 Ironically, across town on that same day, venture capitalists were eagerly searching to invest in companies that will sell the products to ‘fix the crisis.’ They were huddled in a private club in Manhattan to scope investment opportunities. As reported by Stephanie Simon of Reuters, the venture capitalists were told to “Think about the upcoming rollout of new national academic standards for public schools… If they’re as rigorous as advertised, a huge number of schools will suddenly look really bad, their students testing way behind in reading and math. They’ll want help, quick. And private, for-profit vendors selling lesson plans, educational software and student assessments will be right there to provide it.”
  These venture capitalists could stay in the club. They had no need to worry about their concerns being heard, and they had no need to attend the Governor’s hearing. They were well represented.
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Monday, August 6, 2012

Seeing Teach for America Through Different Eyes by

Original post found at Ms. Katie's Ramblings July 15, 2012 at
by Katie Osgood
I started this post with something much different in mind, but it veered into a very personal story of why it matters to me what happens in Teach for America and other corporate education reforms.  It's long, but please read to the end and give me your feedback.   

My last post was admittedly controversial.  I mused about TFA's rather unsettling similarities to a cult, acknowledging that it was an imperfect analogy.  But the conversation that followed really got me thinking.  As expected, some supporters of TFA responded with personal attacks and calling me "ignorant".  Others insisted that we "all need to work together" insinuating that my post was just "mean".

It seems my message didn't get through....

So let's step into each others' shoes for a moment.  I imagine myself as a TFA recruit.  If I had joined right out of college, the 22-year old me would have been extremely moved by the TFA rhetoric of educational equality and closing the achievement gap.  I imagine myself immersed in the TFA culture, eating up every word at Institute, working my butt off in whatever placement I was in, and making life-long connections and friends through the people I met along the way.  I see myself, naive with little experience outside my affluent upper-middle class world, getting culture shock in a place very unlike the one in which I grew up.  In college, I was heavily involved in a campus christian group and I feel like TFA would have been a similar experience of camaraderie, sacrifice, risk, and life-changing emotional moments only centered around the mission of educational equity instead of religion.  And I get how attached I would feel to the work I did and the close friends I made.  I get why my posts on TFA would cause people to feel defensive and upset.

But let's turn to the other side and pretend to be one of those TFA critics for a moment.  I invite you all to imagine you are me.  Imagine you had lived abroad teaching English in Japan for many years after college and understood all too well the amount of expertise it takes to be an effective teacher.  You learned so much from watching your highly-respected Japanese colleagues, but also acknowledge that you have a long way yet to go to improve your practice.  So you return to America, enroll in a Dual Certification (Special and Elementary Education) Masters Degree Program at a Chicago university with a focus on urban education.  You put yourself through grad school by working as a mental health counselor on a child/adolescent psychiatric unit at a local children's hospital.  You work nights, weekends and do whatever it takes stay afloat financially.  Through this job, you begin to learn about the enormous barriers that prevent too many children from reaching their potential.  You meet kids who are abused, homeless, neglected, traumatized, aggressive, suffer from debilitating mental health conditions like depression or even psychosis, or have cognitive disabilities.  You begin to see the system-wide societal failures affecting these kids' lives.

Thanks to your degree program, you are able to observe in many inner-city schools, in many classrooms of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities.   You meet hard-working teachers across the city sharing the same stories over and over about terrible working conditions and little support.   You go into classrooms full of gang members and then go to work that night to meet kids from that very same class in the hospital.  You even meet one boy who had newspapered his windows over and refused to leave his house because he was terrified of the violence.  Every day, you meet kids with stories of violence and abuse, things we as a society should have protected the kids from.  Those years in grad school were tough, you lived in a shoebox and went deep into debt, but you believe your future students are worth that.

Once you finally get your degree (with honors), you get yourself hired into an elementary school on Chicago's highly-segregated southside, 99% low-income and 100% African-American.  You work as a special education teacher but you find yourself under a cruel, vindictive principal who you later learn has targeted the veteran teachers and smashed countless careers.  You and your colleagues work 16 hour days, give up all your free time, your social life, your money, all for your students because there just aren't enough staff or resources to get it done if you didn't.   You administer test after test to your special education students and think, "this is wrong, this is cruel".  You watch powerful, amazing experienced educators perform their craft, but it is never enough. You whisper with colleagues in corners out of fear that the administration is listening, and quietly plan amazing unscripted units which you give to your students in secret.  But still your kids struggle, and you feel the shame of failure in a broken system.

You learn firsthand about the need for tenure when you, a first year teacher, speak out about the unacceptable, unjust conditions for special education students in the school.  And you feel the wrath that a principal can inflict on his staff as he comes into your classroom and escorts you from the building with a letter saying you must report the next day for psychiatric evaluation.  You are forced to jump through hoop after hoop all because an evil man wanted to get even.  You come back to the school after all has been cleared, but you never speak directly to your principal again.  You continue to work hard, day in and day out, for your students.  But you end the year beaten, abused, and demoralized.

Still, teaching is your calling.  So you pick yourself up, and find a position outside the school system as a teacher at a psychiatric hospital.  And you start to hear murmurs fromfriends and colleagues still in the schools about a fight taking place to make the schools better. You learn the truth that your school struggled so grotesquely because it was located in a part of the city which had been targeted for gentrification.  You finally understand that your school was starved of resources on purpose long before you ever got there. Schools are not "failing", they are being sabotaged.  You learn that many nearby schools had already succumbed to closure and had been callously handed over to private management like charters or turnarounds.  You see that the district had discovered a much faster way to rid schools of those dreaded veteran teachers--who had been your lifeline at your school--by firing the whole staff in one, quick chop.  You watch in horror a video of a brutal beating and murder of a boy at a Chicago school which was directly connected to these school actions.   You look around and see your district decide to ONLY invest in those new schools and openly admits it won't put money in a school which may close down in a few years.  And you learn that there are many who stand to profit from these policies.

In your new job at the hospital, you meet students who had known the young man who died, and hear other multiple examples of how the violence directly impacts these kids' lives.  You hear how school closures and the charters that replaced them created chaos at many schools as children from all parts of the city were forced to cross gang boundaries and attend schools together causing the massive spikes in youth violence.  You hear countless tales from your colleagues in the neighborhood schools of 60+ students in a class, old, tattered textbooks, leaky roofs, and an increase in police presence in the schools.  Your students at the hospital confirm all these stories with new horror stories of their own. They tell you how sad and angry they are.  They say things like "there weren't even enough desks or books, why would I stay?" when you ask why they dropped out of school after 8th grade.  They tell you about the violence on the streets, "it was too hard to concentrate in class."  One young woman in the hospital for aggressive behavior tells you that "the kids that fight" were all removed after a school turnaround and that "I'm probably next."  You see the hopelessness in the eyes of the young people in your classroom who clearly understand our society's message to these amazing kids is that "you don't matter."

Meanwhile, your profession gets an onslaught in the media like never before.  You seeWaiting for Superman and want to cry because they got it so ridiculously wrong.  They blame all the problems on "bad teachers" with "low expectations"and their unions who "protect them", when you have seen directly that that rhetoric is bald-faced lie.  In fact, the fighting union in your city is one of the greatest engines of social justice demanding the types of reforms your students need.  The airwaves are filled with people with no knowledge of what actually happens in our schools.   And you finally understand that a large part of what is happening to education is intentional--that there are influential powerful people who want public schools to fail.

And so you join organizations that fight the racist, unequal policies undermining whole communities.  You see the connections to the labor movement, the fight for strong unions and a strong middle class, that could pull people of struggling communities out of the poverty which cripples them.  You start to fight on multiple fronts going to rallies, marches, and talks about inequalities in the prison system, about police brutality, about unfair housing practices.  It is all the same fight.  You fight alongside union brothers and sisters, even though you had never once thought about the need for unions before entering teaching.  You connect the dots, and no matter what nonsense politicians or education reformers say, you understand on a deep, basic level that poverty, inequality, and straight-out racism are at the heart of your fight.


And then--somewhere in all this--you notice Teach for America.  You always knew it was there, but had never paid it much attention.  But then you start to realize that many of the powers that be, which you are fighting tooth and nail, had beginnings in this organization.  Members of Stand for Children, Congressional aides, charter school leaders, state/district superintendents, and of course the big names like Rhee, White, and Andersen all hail from TFA.  And so you begin to research this puzzling program.

You wonder how they make claims like "poverty is not destiny" as you look over at the kids you work with everyday.  And you think, "most of my students wouldn't be sick and in the hospital if it weren't for poverty and its effects.  How dare they!"  Then you remember how much your little criminally under-resourced school struggled and how they received far less money for a population of kids which required far more.  Poverty will always be destiny if we don't put in a vast amount of resources to counter it.

You cannot comprehend how TFA justifies putting these untrained workers in our nation's most struggling schools in the name of "educational equality".  One of the greatest inequalities in education IS the disporportionate numbers of uncertified, untrained, and inexperienced teachers in low-income schools.  Another is the amount of churn in schools, the high teacher turnover rate, which contributes to a poor, uneven school culture with little social capital built up over the years.  TFA does little more than exacerbate an already existing problem in the inequity of our schools.

You shake your head as you hear TFA's claim that their untrained workforce is better than the veteran teachers you know have been sacrificing their very souls for their kids.  You read blog posts which say things like "how can these kids' teachers sleep at night knowing how they've failed the kids".  You hear people who don't even know enough about your city to know where it is safe to walk at night, claim they are there to make "transformational change".  You look through that binder they get at Institute and are shocked by how regimented and testing-oriented the training is.  And you can't believe that's all they get.  Your friends in summer school programs who have had TFA trainees thrown into their class tell you horror stories of ignorance and arrogance. "Why do they get to use my summer school students as guinea pigs?' one teacher laments.

You already know that the struggles our kids experience have nothing to do with "expectations" or "believing".  No, it never was the "soft bigotry of low expectations", but rather the hard bigotry of racism and inequality.  Who do these people think they are?  They say they never bash teachers, and yet every claim they make belittles the hard work you put into your preparation and all you and your colleagues do in your classrooms.  But TFAers hide behind empty words like "I never bashed teachers" when their very presence in a school is a slap in the face to every experienced educator there.  Veteran teachers give up their time and energy, often unpaid, in order to help these poor, struggling teachers year after year.  Then TFA turns around and says, "look at the success of our teachers!"--success built off the hard work of the educators who have dedicated their lives to their profession.  You know that TFA's "success" is all a huge marketing lie.

You continue your research and see the strong connection of TFA with the charter school movement.  You listen to person after person in TFA rave about how wonderful charters are--and how their teachers are "closing the achievement gap"--all the while thinking that your school was being strangled in order to make room for more of them.  And in your job on the psych unit, it was ridiculous how many kids you'd met who had been kicked out of those schools.  Any child with significant behavioral problems or mental health issues was being thrown to the curb by the charters.  How can they claim success while wounding so many kids?  And part of your job was to pick those kids up and remind them they were worth something. Did these charter school teachers really not know the impact of their schools on the surrounding schools?  Did they not care that their brand-new fancy charter, with glossy advertising campaigns, and catchy names like"Chicago Bulls Charter" were of course going to entice students away from the withering neighborhood school down the street?  Do they not see how the district stacks the deck in favor of charters?  How can they not see that non-unionized charters are being used to weaken and ultimately destroy teachers unions everywhere? Do they really claim they don't push kids out despite the obvious facts which show they do? Do they not understand how pushing kids out hurts?  It is not miraculous to work with an easier population of kids with more resources.  And when those "better" learning environments come at the expense of other children's educational opportunity, then it is not only not a success, but a resounding failure in equity.

And you cannot believe how TFA can claim they are not taking jobs from veteran teachers.  In your city, you see the dozens of schools being closed or turned around each year.  You meet a number of veteran teachers displaced from closures or turnarounds who say they will retire early, because who would ever hire someone their age?  You see reports which show Chicago's teaching force is becoming overwhelmingly younger (and whiter.)Your district stopped even holding open jobs fairs and only opens fairs to the hundreds of displaced teachers.  But even at those fairs, TFA novices get hiring priority over the experienced quality educators looking for work.  Meanwhile, new charters are going up left and right, and TFA is helping staff them.

When you hear TFA say, "principals like TFA", you shake your head thinking, "I'm sure they do."  You are sure your principal thought he was hiring an ignorant newbie in you.  But because you had worked for years with children with disabilities and learned the legal requirements for students with IEPs in your degree program, you knew exactly what types of services they were entitled to by law.  And tenure be damned, you were not going to stand there and contribute to the injustices. You can be sure your principal wished he'd hired someone who would work hard and never knew to question him. 

And then the TFA folks boast about that hard-work, never understanding that their willingness to be exploited, short-term labor is part of why every teacher today struggles like never before.  All those hard-won rights from labor struggles past are being eroded by these naive young people.  If the system worked, no one would HAVE to work 16 hour days. Instead, the district would hire more staff and get more resources to share the workload.  But what does that matter for anyone in TFA?  For a majority of the TFA folks, those 2-3 years of intense labor give them the reward of boomeranging them to a prestigious administrative, policy-making, or other professional career.  And they can feel good about their "volunteer" service to the poor, without ever having to invest in the communities or their long-term struggles for justice.  Meanwhile, all the career teachers are left with the expectation to also work 16 hours days--a feat impossible to do long-term, especially if they have families--with no boomerang in sight.  You cry for your colleagues as they are being forced to do more with less--with larger class sizes, more paperwork, less support than ever before all with the shadow of new "accountability" requirements and evaluations tied to test scores.  Teachers' marriages are failing, their health is suffering, and many are throwing in the towel and leaving their beloved profession.  Many are feeling as demoralized and tired as you did.  And this is terrible for kids who already are being denied so much.

Lastly, you look at your own journey of enlightenment, coming to understand the complex history, politics, and legacies of racism and injustice as well as the long history of struggle and activism in the affected communities.  And you wonder, "why can't the people in TFA see what I do?  Don't they see the people in the communities where they work taking to the streets to fight these educational policies?  Don't they notice the massive battle against the corporate interests taking place from Wall Street, to Oakland, to Egypt, Greece, and beyond?"  But still TFA partners with Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and Bank of Americawith no acknowledgement of the massive contradictions of joining a "social justice" program with the 1%.  And they continue to push the neoliberal, Milton Friedman-style free-market ideologies, which are playing out in cities across the country and the world.

Now imagine all those TFA people attacking you, calling you names, chiding your tone, saying you are ridiculous when you push back on an organization you believe is doing so much harm.  You shake your head one last time and whisper, "hubris".


I cannot fathom how TFA can continue to justify what it does.  And the only explanation I have is that something must happen in the TFA training process which blinds people to the real struggle.  And then it makes sense to me that so many from TFA join the education reform movement.  Then in that context, I understand why I have yet to meet even one person from TFA fighting out there with me on the streets.  Why they are much more likely to be the ones I fight against in groups like Stand for Children or Democrats for Education Reform.  Then the robotic arguments TFAers makes over and over again which minimize the effects of poverty and glorify the effects of individual teachers and leaders start to make sense.  I think to myself, it must be some sort of brainwashing because those conclusions do not even come close to what I experienced out there in the schools and working with the kids.  I would rather believe that most TFA people just didn't know any better rather than the more nefarious alternative that they understand all too well the negative impact of corporate reform and just don't care.

I wish you all could see TFA, charters, and education reform through my eyes.  Maybe the education debate would look much different if you did.

The Secret Trick Behind Merit Pay- Diane Ravitch

August 6, 2012

Hardly a day goes by without another politician or businessman calling for merit pay, performance pay, incentivize those lazy teachers to produce higher scores!
The Obama administration put $1 billion into merit pay, without a shred of evidence that it would make a difference.
Merit pay schemes have recently failed in New York City, Chicago, and Nashville, but who cares?
The Florida legislature passed legislation mandating merit pay but didn’t appropriate any money to pay for it. That was left to cash-strapped districts.
So here is the secret trick.
There is no money to pay for merit pay!
In a time of fiscal austerity, the money appropriated for merit pay (when it is appropriated) is money that should have been spent on reducing class size, preserving libraries or school nurses, or maintaining arts programs or other school-based services.
Instead, districts will lay off some teachers so that other teachers get bonuses. That leads to larger classes for the remaining teachers.
That is ridiculous, but that is the way of thinking that is now prevalent among our nation’s policymakers.
A reader knows this:
 I find the whole premise behind merit pay insulting.  If the districts have extra money, let’s use it to improve teaching conditions such as providing class sets of reading books, pencil sharpeners, science materials, or any of the hundreds of items teachers end up paying for out of pocket.

A Hill to Die On! by Tim Slekar

Original post found on The Chalk Face, HEREby Tim Slekar 8/6/12
The SOS convention was a great opportunity to see old friends and make some new ones.  A lot happened and I am not going to summarize the conference.  My intent is to portray what I believe is the single biggest issue facing public education that emerged and describe the only solution.

The WAR we are fighting (and it is a war) is against the mistaken belief that private interests would run public schools best.  And the weapon being used–very successfully– is punitive high stakes testing.  The tests and the “data” perpetuate the mythology of failing schools, failing teachers, and failing students.  This mythological mass failure has convinced our neighbors that “doing anything” is acceptable and even preferable as long as we “fix” failing schools.

However, “doing anything” only occurs because of the false narrative that is supported by data from high stakes tests.  The use of high stakes tests must end.
There is nothing to compromise on this issue–nothing!.  We know (and we better start helping our neighbors know) that the only thing high stakes tests tell us reliably and validly is the socio-economic condition of the test takers—that’s it.
Even if we cared about achievement (I don’t because I care about learning) the test scores provided by high stakes tests don’t tell us about achievement.  Therefore a massive “Opt Out” of high stakes testing must be used to destroy the entire reform movement!  We cannot negotiate some % of acceptable use of high stakes test data in calculating student achievement, teacher effectiveness, principal effectiveness, and school achievement.  There is NO acceptable use of high stakes test data–None!
Opting out and subverting any use of high stakes tests is the only solution.  This is war and this is a hill we must be willing to die on!
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