Recent Readings: What Teachers Make by Taylor Mali and Handing One Another Along by Robert Coles

In these dark times, when teachers are treated as expendable, interchangeable incompetents, it is important to seek sustenance where it can be found. I was given, recently, as a gift, Taylor Mali’s slim but nourishing book What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World.  I am always surprised when a teacher tells me that they don’t know Mali or his poem and then I find myself with the pleasure of introducing that teacher to both. I am grateful that Mali has the YouTube video available to all, if you have never seen it performed this is a great starting point.

What Teachers Make is a history or provenance of many of the poem’s lines but it is also a testament to what makes teaching such a worthwhile, rewarding profession.  Mali’s style is unadorned and very easy-going. He very simply, but effectively, points out the heart of what teaching is: nurturing and developing future citizens of our world – not a bunch of proficient bubble fillers, but people who may actually make a difference for the society they live in.

Mali taught for 10 years in a private school setting. Therefore, from what I have gleaned from this book, he was freed from the burden of “teaching to the test.” The lessons he devised for his students were engaging, thought provoking, real world related, and a bit nutty. I could see Michelle Rhee saying: “Great, you taught them to make Medieval shields but could they pass a citywide test?” But, then, this is what reformers often miss and don’t seem to understand – the job of a teacher is to engage a student in learning, to get them to awaken their own desire to learn. Because what every teacher understands is that learning comes from within. In telling about how he learned to correctly spell the words “beautiful” and “definitely”, Mali sums up the essence of that aspect of teaching that cannot be quantified or tested. It is a matter of spirit. Here is what he says:

But there is a larger point about these two backstories that I really wish I had managed to work into the poem somehow: the exhilaration that comes with all epiphanies, those unforgettable bursts of new understanding. We tend to think of learning in the same way that we imagine a child grows taller: as a gradual, steady process marked by occasional spurts of accelerated progress. But the process of learning is more like a series of minor and major lightning bolts that strike the brain constantly. And if you have ever witnessed one of these moments occurring in someone else, then you know why teachers say it’s one of the secret joys of the profession. Especially if they helped make it happen.  Teachers make lightning strike over and over again.”

Another excellent example is in the chapter titled “My Best Day as a Teacher.” Mali tells the story of a student named Lilly Wilson who wants to write an essay arguing in favor of making gay marriage illegal. Instead of dissuading her he simply reminds her of the requirement of the paper that it be well researched. After doing her research the student comes back to him and asks if she can switch sides on the argument. Mali wrote a poem called “Like Lilly Like Wilson” in which he says:

And I want to tell her…

[that] changing your mind is one of the best ways

of finding out whether or not you still have one.

Or even that minds are like parachutes,

that it doesn’t matter what you pack

them with so long as they open

at the right time.

Mali goes on to say: “The takeaway lesson for me was that I will never be able to teach anything to anyone as well as they will be able to teach it to themselves if given the opportunity. So maybe that’s what the definition of teacher should be: someone who makes learning possible, which often means simply preparing the ground for you to teach yourself.”

His book, as is his poem, is a testament to what teachers do every day – making a difference.

Robert Coles: Handing One Another Along: Literature and Social Reflection

Robert Coles is the author, most notably, of “The Moral Intelligence of Children.” He is the Emeritus James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University and Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at the Harvard Medical School. If you teach you should read Robert Coles. Among the many books he has written are “The Call to Service: A Witness to Idealism” and “Teaching Stories: an Anthology on the Power of Learning and Literature.”

Coles has had, to say the least, a very interesting career. He did his field work on children and the stress they encountered during the civil rights movement of the 1960s – most notably working with Ruby Bridges. He has known, and written about, some of the most amazing figures of the 20th century – everyone from Dorothy Day, the Catholic activist and social worker, to William Carlos Williams. What he brings to everything he writes is an acute sense of what it means to be a human being, of what it means to be a compassionate and caring person, and what it means to make an active choice to be a force for good in the world.

“Handing One Another Along: Literature and Social Reflection” is based on Coles’s “Literature of Social Reflection” course at Harvard. This was a course that explored the ideas expressed above. As Coles says:

“Through stories, we are given the opportunity to search deeper into an understanding of what we make of our own stories, and of this world in which we live every day. What do we notice and why? What does that say about us, or others? How do we think about the stories of others, and about our own stories?”

The book is broken into five parts and Coles covers a wide swath of writers and historical figures. His list includes: James Agee, George Orwell, William Carlos Williams, Raymond Carver, Edward Hopper, Tillie Olsen, Ruby Bridges, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Conner, Dorothy Day, Ignazio Silone, Elie Wiesel, John Cheever, Walker Percy, Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Gauguin, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and a potato chip truck. It is that eclectic and wide-ranging.

What he does is bring you, gently, to an understanding of how literature and our social fabric are necessary to each other, how each are influenced by the other, and how we can use literature to come to a better understanding of ourselves. At a time when the Common Core Standards are saying toss out the novels and teach more non-fiction, here is a heady   argument for the necessity of retaining a good balance of both.

Here are some excerpts from various parts of the book that will give you a good idea of its argument.

“Writers such as Agee and Orwell become part of the world they describe–they bring us to those worlds.  This companionship, this gesture of affiliation, of understanding, is itself “noble”–as noble as the description of the coal miner’s body; as noble as Agee’s wonderful elevation of sharecroppers trying to survive against great odds. Isn’t it “noble” for you and me to be encouraged to regard others with respect, consideration?”

“With what attitude, what movements of the heart, mind, and soul, if any, do we respond to various human beings, under the various circumstances of our privilege, our competence, our professional training—-summoned or not? How do we evaluate one another?… What do we do with the thoughts that cross our minds, our own memories or experiences that are brought to play by the particular people we meet, our students in the classroom, our patients, or our clients if we are in a courtroom? These are the struggles we all wage with ourselves. And can they be fairly or adequately resolved by multiple-choice exams, even when the issue is a matter of information or factuality, or intellectual capacity? This is the way so many are judged today: the numbers pinned on them, courtesy of those exams. What we are dealing with is human subjectivity in all its variations, in your life and in mine.”

“Does one gain knowledge of oneself, of others? How do we find, as Dr. King put it, the “beloved community”? Where and with whom? We must ask ourselves that as we meet an invisible man, as he journeys through corridors of power and discovers hypocrisy and phoniness and duplicity, all masked with righteousness — no, self-righteousness parading as righteousness.”

“It can be painful and illuminating to go through these novels because these literary figures enter our pantheon, our company, our consciousness, initially, as outsiders who are often taking aim at us. But then they became an integral part of our own lives, as we absorb them, take in their summoning moral fire, aimed so adroitly: there for us to behold in our reading, and respect and reflect on and, most of all, respond to in our reading and in our lives.”

I hope these excerpts give a sense of the incredible passion and fierceness of thought that Robert Coles brings both to life and literature. I think the word reflection is the key ingredient here. Reflection is considered a necessary part of a teacher’s make-up. After all, an important aspect of what we do is teach our own students how to reflect, how to ask questions, how to change or improve on the qualities of their character. What I came away from, over and over again, in the many pages of this book, was a better sense on how to reflect on myself and, hopefully, make of myself a better person and better teacher.

One theme that is presented throughout the book that I think strikes hard at certain educational notions of today is this: the idea that a test determines both the value and quality of a person. Again and again, Coles points out that many of the world’s greatest people got where they did without taking a test. William Carlos Williams, who worked his entire life as a doctor serving the poor and working class (writing in the evenings his poetry  and stories), went straight to the University of Pennsylvania Medical School – “he didn’t go to college; he didn’t have to take any premed courses; and he didn’t take the MCAT test, but went right to medical school.” Or Raymond Carver, the great short story writer, who “was able to attend the Iowa Writer’s Workshop without a college degree or the test scores that now figure so prominently in the admissions process, alas. How ironic it is, given the life histories of some of our best writers, that multiple-choice tests bear such consequences for young, aspiring storytellers.”

In other words, or to play on a favorite phrase of the reformers of today, what good is being able to take a test if you do not learn how to live and reflect on life and understand how complex and difficult our world can be, at times, and how you can help make that journey a better one for yourself and others. This is the heart and soul of what Robert Coles writes about. As with many of the people he writes about, Coles is addressing the moral issues that, as teachers, we must wrestle with daily. Teachers are a big part of handing one another along – we are doing just that with our charges. Robert Coles helps guide the way for us.

Irrefutable Proof and the Cost of Willful Ignorance

I have not posted for quite some time. I have two false starts in my drafts and a number of false starts in my head but nothing that I could finish. A large part of the reason for this has been an overwhelming sense of ennui about what teaching in a public school has become. One of the other reasons has been the feeling that this game is rigged and teachers will lose as surely as the “bad guy” used to always lose in John Wayne movies and “professional” wrestling.

The hoop jumping that has become teaching is a wearing, grind-you-down kind of existence. It seems almost deliberately aimed at exhausting any desire to stay in teaching for more than a few years. I cannot think of another profession that is treated the way teaching in America is treated and I cannot think of any group of professionals who would stand for this treatment. Our union, nationally and locally, has acted like a group of sheep without a shepherd. Even an Australian Sheepdog would be preferable right now to what we have called leadership. They have done little to nothing (despite their own claims) to really fight back at what is becoming a growing national disgrace. This disgrace, the running of our public schools by shills for corporations and individuals who have a  monetary interest in the privatizing of the public school system, and the demonizing of teachers to facilitate that end, is leading us to disaster.

We all know the arguments and the players in the debates. This old ground has been covered time and again by this blog and number of other blogs extant and extinct. What is beginning to be made more and more clear is that, as argued by such bloggers as Jim Boutin on An Urban Teacher’s Education, Rachel Levy at All Things Education, Candi Peterson at the Washington Teacher, Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier at Bridging Differences (as well as their individual blogs), the current direction of school reform in America is leading us toward disastrous consequences. Is this direction the most beneficial to future citizens of our country or is it more beneficial to the select, higher economically advantaged citizens of our country?

Several articles have come out recently stressing that the latter may be the case. At Reuters, Stephanie Simon wrote a piece called Private firms eyeing profits from public schoolsIn the beginning of the article, Education Consultant Rob Lytle states: “You start to see entire ecosystems of investment opportunity lining up… it could get really, really big.”  He is addressing a group of investors at a “tony” private club in Manhattan. Stating that the U.S. spends more than 500 billion a year educating students from 5 to 18 the article states that “investors are beginning to sense big profit potential in public education.”  In other words, the sharks have smelled blood.  Here is another quote that amply backs this up: “Now investors are signaling optimism that a golden moment has arrived. They’re pouring private equity and venture capital into scores of companies that aim to profit by taking over broad swaths of public education.”  The “golden moment has arrived”.  Perhaps these investors will do for public education what NAFTA did for shoe factory workers in New England.

According to Simon, venture capitalist transactions in education hit a record $389 million last year, in 2005 it was only $13 million, barely an entire city’s school budget.  What is the goal, you may ask? Well, listen to Michael Moe of GSV Advisors, a Chicago investment firm that specializes in education:

The goal: an education revolution in which public schools outsource to private vendors such critical tasks as teaching math, educating disabled students, even writing report cards, said Michael Moe, the founder of GSV.

“It’s time,” Moe said. “Everybody’s excited about it.”

Outsourcing the “critical tasks” such as TEACHING!! He’s even talking about outsourcing the writing of the report cards – to heck with the teacher’s knowledge of the individual child. Do you see where this is going?  Haven’t many of us been saying for some time that this is the direction that Rhee and Duncan, the two main pied pipers of reform, have been leading us?  The money is bet on their vision and the money is backing their vision.

Case in point, Won’t Back Down, yet another in a long line of movies designed to show that the majority of teachers are incompetent and that “super heroes” (in this case one parent and one teacher) can save their local school.  Viola Davis plays the teacher, Maggie Gyllenhaal the single mom parent and Holly Hunter the villainous head of the teachers union.  In Reality and Film, a Battle for Schools, The New York Times article about the film, even describes her as such: ” Holly Hunter, the union rep, loves her teachers and so she fights the takeover with a ploy you might expect from a corporate villain.” In the next paragraph Michael Cieply, the Times reporter, quotes Hunter’s character as saying “When did Norma Rae get to be the bad guy?”  When? The minute that corporate America understood what a threat unions are to their bottom line, profit potential.

If you think this is not so I ask you to look at the history of the common worker in America vis-a-vis the history of the CEO.  In the last 30 years CEO pay spiked 725% against only a 5.7 increase in worker pay. This was from a study done by the Economic Policy Institute and reported on The Huffington Post, CEO Pay Grew 127 Times Faster Than Worker Pay Over Last 30 Years: Study.  You can find similar articles in USA Today, The Washington Post, and CNN.  All of these articles, by the way, are from the business section – not the education section – and few were front page or top story reports.  If you want to see what most of these same news organizations think of unions and workers you need to go their opinion section or certain articles that do make it to the front page. Articles in which the union shill is often described not to different from Holly Hunter’s character in Won’t Back Down. If you think these CEO’s want their primary workforce educated enough that they (the workforce) are knowledgeable about labor history then why are so many factories now in places like Vietnam (38 cents an hour) or Bangladesh (22 cents an hour)?

In an excellent article in The Nation, How Online Companies Bought America’s Schools by Lee Fang, we hear how, after the failure of a bill to allow private virtual school charters, Patricia Levesque, Jeb Bush’s top adviser and a former lobbyist, recommended using a strategy that would “spread the union thin by using decoy legislation that would tie them up.” She states that even if these bills don’t pass it will tie the unions up on the front lines. Levesque is a lobbyist for, drum roll please, educational technology companies. According to Fang, “She is a leader of a coalition of government officials, academics and virtual school sector companies pushing new education laws that could benefit them.”  Benefit them, not the children (they do it for the children – no, I’m sorry, they do it to the children).  Who was she giving this advice to? Why, of all people, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.  Here is a key quotation from the article that pretty much sums up what I’ve been saying all along:

 Lobbyists like Levesque have made 2011 the year of virtual education reform, at last achieving sweeping legislative success by combining the financial firepower of their corporate clients with the seeming legitimacy of privatization-minded school-reform think tanks and foundations. Thanks to this synergistic pairing, policies designed to boost the bottom lines of education-technology companies are cast as mere attempts to improve education through technological enhancements, prompting little public debate or opposition. In addition to Florida, twelve states have expanded virtual school programs or online course requirements this year. This legislative juggernaut has coincided with a gold rush of investors clamoring to get a piece of the K-12 education market. It’s big business, and getting bigger: One study estimated that revenues from the K-12 online learning industry will grow by 43 percent between 2010 and 2015, with revenues reaching $24.4 billion.

There you have it, a gold rush of investors. Big business. Revenues of $24.4 billion!! Children? I’m sorry, did someone say something about children. I know they are here somewhere.

We had a major cheating scandal that was given a short-shrift investigation designed to negate any possibility that there was a major cheating scandal (See: Jay Matthews). We lost another 98 teachers to an evaluation system that has been described as flawed by almost everyone who is not directly linked to its creation and implementation. We continue to have programs forced upon us and a lack of trust in regards to what we do best – teach.  We have had the pay-for-performance model now for the last 3 years. Has anyone significantly and consistently seen their pay raise to the level that Rhee promised when she first promoted this system.  Have the majority of us seen a change in our base pay to any significant extent that it makes us feel “highly paid?”  If I were you I wouldn’t expect it anytime soon.

Despite the talk from reformists about Finland and other countries where teachers are highly paid and treated on par with other white collar professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, they really do not want that happening here. Why? Well, in those countries the teachers’ unions are strong and play a powerful role in the shaping of education.  That’s a deal breaker right there.  Instead, the reformers will use these countries to demonstrate how American public education is failing. They will use data and numbers the way David Copperfield uses jumbo jets.  Diane Ravitch says it really well in her article on CNN, My View: Rhee is Wrong and Misinformed. Ravitch remarks how Rhee likes to cite how poorly the U.S. does on international test scores.  But, Ravitch points out, we have always done poorly on those tests, from 1964 on, while still maintaining the top economy in the world, consistently.  What doesn’t Rhee cite? Well, listen to Diane:

Why are our international rankings low? Our test scores are dragged down by poverty. On the latest international test, called PISA, our schools with low poverty had scores higher than those of Japan, Finland, and other high-scoring nations. American schools in which as many as 25% of the students are poor had scoresequivalent to the top-scoring nations.  As the poverty level in the school rises, the scores fall.

Rhee ignores the one statistic where the United States is number one. We have the highest child poverty rate of any advanced nation in the world. Nearly 25% of our children live in poverty.

Ravitch goes on to point out that, despite what Rhee and Company insist, poverty does matter.  She eloquently states what we, as teachers, have known and said all along – that there if we do not address the problem of poverty in this nation we cannot adequately address the problem of education of the poor.

Reformers practice a form of willful ignorance. They choose the facts that best fit what they want to see achieved. Some are motivated by money, some by power and some by a true belief that what they are doing is right.  This year the test scores came out and, once again, reformers were crowing success on the basis of a .5% increase in scores. There is a cost to this kind of delusion. The cost will be in the kind of citizen our schools help educate. Or tries to educate. I say that because I do not believe that cookie cutters work when it comes to children. If that were so then education would be so much easier than it is.

I am more worried now than I have been in a long time. I believe in the fight to make our schools be the best that they can be, to help our children be the best possible students they can be and to, ultimately, help turn out not just good citizens for our country but for our world.  The problem is this gold rush mentality that is taking over the thing that I love, teaching. Please read the articles I have cited above – The Nation and the Reuters article. I’m sure you can find others that will demonstrate that education has become anything but being about education. Put them all together and see how many times they really talk about educating our young versus how often they speak of investment opportunities and profits. The writing is clearly on the wall.

Update 8/15

Here is a a quite informative piece about the people behind Won’t Back Down:

Walmart, Right-Wing Media Company Hold Star-Studded Benefit Promoting Education Reform Film

Update 8/17

Another day and one more offer of proof, this time via Valerie Strauss and the Answer Sheet:

The big business of charter schools


Finland vs. The U.S. – No Competition

I have been missing, I know. Just, simply, too busy. Like most of the teachers in my school (and probably all around DCPS) I feel as if I can barely keep my nose above the rising flood of meetings and meetings and meetings. I saw this clip on the School of Fail Blog and simply had to repost it. It is a 5 minute or so episode from the show The Young Turks. Cenk  Uygur gives a great run-down, in 5 minutes, of the pros of the Finland system and the fallacy of the arguments about why Finland’s system would not work in the U.S. I hope to be back when break hits and I can do a more detailed post on just about everything that has been going through my head. Anyway, enjoy for now.

Finland You’re Doing it Right

Steve Jobs 1955-2011: Faith, Heart, Fortitude, and Perseverance

It is hard not to feel affected by the death of  Steve Jobs  this week. After all, we were all so affected by his life.  Of the many articles The New York Times ran on Job’s death, the one called Steve Jobs’ Patents was the most eye-opening. You come away with the breadth of the man’s creativity and ingenuity.  From the desktop, to the variety of media devices, from adapters to Apple TV, to the iPad and beyond, he seemed to have no limits to his vision. And all of this from a college drop-out.

The other day, I read to my students Jobs’ commencement speech given at Stanford University in 2005 . The speech is incredible on a number of levels: it is a truly inspirational speech told in a concise, simple language that makes it easy to follow.  It is an ideal speech for school-age children and speaks to a number of things that they need to hear: working hard, believing in yourself and learning how the things you do now will matter later in life, even when you can’t always make that connection. Here is what he says about taking a course on calligraphy – not exactly the subject choice of great business icons:

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Not the most auspicious beginning for the man who became the major innovator of the last 50 years.  A college dropout, taking courses in calligraphy and other courses that he simply had an interest in, as opposed to those classes that he “needed” according to the university, Jobs’ life path looked more like that of the ne’er-do-well child who wanders the globe seeking his life’s calling than one of the visionary who revolutionized technology in the 20th and 21st centuries.

No one could have guaranteed that Jobs would have the success that he did, least of all Jobs.  He admits himself that he took chances, that he went with his gut. A lot of people do this and end up with nothing. Following one’s instincts lead as many people to jail, or to stints on reality TV, as it does to entrepreneurial success.  But, along with his gut instincts, Jobs had so much else – he had supportive parents, who were there for him (after all, he had to use someone’s garage to build the first Macintosh, right?), who demonstrated faith in him and who instilled in him those intangible qualities that contribute so much to anyone’s success –  faith, heart, fortitude, perseverance.

Jobs certainly needed all of these things during his career.  A millionaire by 30 and jobless. My students were shocked to learn how he lost control of his own company and how he found himself, in his own words, devastated. An excellent lesson in getting back up when you are knocked down, of not letting bad events determine the outcome of the rest of your life (or in my charges’ case, the rest of the school year). For a bit there he lost a little faith in himself and he lost a little heart, but he still had fortitude and he had the perseverance to move forward – instead of fading away and becoming a trivia question. He bounced back, adding to his resumé the creation of the first digitally-animated film and the renaissance of Apple.

You can’t find the intangibles in the Common Core Standards. There is no list of skill sets or sub-skill sets that can help a teacher foster these qualities in their students. These qualities are qualities that need to be coached, coaxed, nurtured and reinforced continuously throughout the year. You hope that your students are listening to you, that what you are teaching them  is sinking in and may one day take hold, but you don’t really know when your work in this area will come to fruition.

What I hope my students learned from listening to Steve Jobs’ speech, and to the story of his life, is that life has no certainties for us. It holds possibilities which are not always what we want them to be nor think they should be. No one chooses to lose their job, or the company that they started in their parents’ garage. No one can plan for disappointment or failure. What you want, however, is to have the ability to bounce back from both disappointment and failure, to have the fortitude, the perseverance, the faith and the heart to get yourself up off the floor and get back in the game, to not quit.  If there is one thing that teachers do that is more important than anything else, it is teaching children to finish what they start and not quit. There is no test to measure this quality; there is no way to evaluate the effectiveness of this lesson. It takes years to see the final result. It often takes a lifetime.


Vito Perrone Sr: A Light Goes Out

“What if our children and young people learn to read and write but don’t like to and don’t?” he said. “What if they don’t read the newspapers and magazines, or can’t find beauty in a poem or love story? What if they don’t go as adults to artistic events, don’t listen to a broad range of music, aren’t optimistic about the world and their place in it, don’t notice the trees and the sunset, are indifferent to older citizens, don’t participate in politics or community life?”

With a teacher’s rhetorical urgency, he added, “Should any of this worry us?”


Vito Perrone, Sr. died last month of congestive heart failure in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  His heart and his belief in what education should be, however, is something that will always remain with us, in the writings of Jonathan Kozol and Deborah Meier, among others.  Vito Perrone, Sr. was what the reform movement should have been. He was always for the children, without all the bombast and self-congratulatory chest thumping that accompanies so many who make that claim today. Read his obituary in the New York Times. His fight is our fight and one we should all keep alive.

Thar’s Gold In Them Thar Hills!

I recently came across this post on the Concerned4DCPS listserve.  The points raised by this poster deserve investigation (hello Washington Post, anybody there?).  We have entered into our 5th year of reform and, for all the talk about being “for the children” and behind good teaching, the people running this circus have spent money everywhere but on the actual materials used in the classroom.  According to the downtown oracles, the teacher is the most important component of student success. It seems this success is to come through the use of textbooks not aligned to the standards – not the old standards and not the Common Core standards. Nor are these textbooks aligned to the tests the students are given. These books were purchased before 2007, making them at least  5 years out of date (the Social Studies book ends around the first term of George Bush).
Now technically, we teachers are able to look at what standards we should cover, find the appropriate place in these textbooks to use for that lesson, and teach. In other words, cull what we need to serve the standards that will be on the upcoming periodic assessment (I can’t think of what they are calling these things right now). But you would think that an organization in such dire need as success as DCPS would make damn sure to support the possibility of that success in every way possible.  I could say a whole lot more but, instead, I give you the words of this anonymous poster. All of us deserve answers to these questions (do you hear that,  Kwami Brown? Vince Gray? Are you listening?).
Textbooks:If you are concerned about DCPS, one really big concern is:  Where are the Textbooks?

— Nothing has been spent on textbooks for 5 years now.  That’s 2007 through 2011.

— Usually the textbook replenishment/adoption budget is between $40 to $50 million per year.  So that’s $200 to $250 million over the last 5 years that has been “re-purposed”.  I doubt seriously that it’s “in the bank” somewhere.  For confirmation, just ask Mary Levy.

— The very expensive outside expert, Mr. Moody, has said multiple times that teachers are to just take the standards and the DC-CAS questions and teach to the test.  Make up your own material.

— Indeed, the ONLY priority over the last 5 years has been “What does teaching look like?” (TLF) and “How are you measured against what teaching looks like? (IMPACT).– There has been NO thought given to WHAT TO TEACH (textbooks). Or HOW TO TEACH IT (subject specific professional development).

— As an example of this effort, just look at howthe DC Educational Fund has spent their charitable donations:  $68 million on IMPACT and teacher evaluation and $8 million on curriculum related activities.

— The Common Core standards have been out and around for over 4 years!  There is a lot of good curriculum related material available keyed to the CC standards.  What has DCPS purchased?  How has DCPS supported their teachers?  There is a rumor that DCPS initially planned to internally develop their own CC materials but that now they have hired outside consultants to do this for them.  If there is a plan, what is the timeline for deliverables?  What is it costing?  Is it a good investment?  Or is DCPS too proud to adopt some one else’s validated and proven textbooks and materials?

— Where did the $200+ million go over the last 5 years?  What is the budget for textbooks and supporting materials for FY2011-2012 and for next year?

— Where is the promised subject specific professional development that is supposed to be part of IMPACT, RttT and the WTU contract?  Where is the curricular materials to go with that PD?

— Are there competent people working on this issue?  What is their accountability?

— Why don’t our parents and other stakeholders seem to care about this central teaching and learning issue?  Am I whistling in the wind?  Is this really a non-issue?

…Just Wondering…

When I read this I come away with one thought only: that money is being spent but not where it really needs to go. Once again consultants are being brought in. Mike Moody, the one consultant named here, has done very well by DCPS.  Since the DC Council has yet to do a true audit of DCPS there is no way to say, right now, how much money Moody and other consultants have made off of our school system.  One thing is sure, it is a lucrative business and someone is doing quite well by it.  Education is the modern day Gold Rush and the prospectors of education are doing quite well.
This past summer, as I was coming home on Amtrak from vacation, I overheard a woman talking business on the phone.  She was talking about her “product” and the “excellent opportunities” to be had and not missed.  Then I heard her use the words “education,” “teaching,” and “teachers” and realized that she was speaking about schools.  She talked about her teams and how she would award them points for pushing and successfully selling the product. At one point she said “I don’t care about the best guestimate, you can sell a projector.”  She talked about selling the product and how much money there was to be made. And then she said something that made me want to throw her off the train. She said, and I quote (because I had my notebook with me and I wrote it down): “It doesn’t matter if the district is hit by a scandal, if some ESS person (I assume she meant ESL or ELL) were to sue, we would still get paid.”  Because that is all that matters to these people, not if their “product” actually helps or works, but that they get their lucre.
I don’t know if this woman does business with DC or Philadelphia or New York. It doesn’t really matter. What I do know is that she is one of the many who have decided that there is money to be made at the expense of children. Like many of the expensively-clothed consultants we teachers have seen haunting the halls of our schools.  They had a word for this kind of person during World War II:  war profiteers.  I keep hoping someone will investigate what is going on in DC, but no one does. The money must be that good.

The Hard Racism of Inequity

I was reminded of this amazing speech by John Kuhn, the Superintendent of The Perrin-Whitt School District in Texas that was given this summer at the SOS March & National Call To Action on July 30th. Reading the transcript of the speech, I am even more astounded. Mr. Kuhn gave the speech with passion and evident indignation at the policies of the Obama/Duncan administration. Reading the speech now, two months later, I am struck by the quiet sensibility that Kuhn’s speech possesses.  This passage, especially, I find moving:

I will not race to the top. I will stop like the Good Samaritan and lift hurting children out of the dirt. Let me lose your race, because I’m not in this for the accolades. I’m not in it for the money. I’m in it because it’s right. I am in it because the children of Perrin, Texas need somebody like me in their lives.

So, here is the text of the speech. If you would like to view the video of Kuhn giving the speech just click here.

Let me speak for all public school educators when I say unequivocally: We will. We say send us your poor, send us your homeless, the children of your afflicted and addicted. Send us your kids who don’t speak English. Send us you special-needs children, we will not turn them away.

But I tell you today, public school teacher, you will fail to take the shattered children of poverty and turn them into the polished products of the private schools. You will be unacceptable, public school teacher. And I say that is your badge of honor. I stand before you today bearing proudly the label of unacceptable because I educate the children they will not educate.

Day after day I take children broken by the poverty our leaders are afraid to confront and I glue their pieces back together. I am unacceptable and proud of it.

The poorest Americans need equity, but our nation offers them accountability instead. They need bread, but we give them a stone. We address the soft bigotry of low expectations so that we may ignore the hard racism of inequity.

Standardized tests are a poor substitute for justice.

So I say to Arne Duncan and President Obama, go ahead and label me. I will march headlong into the teeth of your horrific blame machine and I will teach these kids. You give me my scarlet letter and I will wear it proudly, because I will never cull the children who need education the most so that my precious scores will rise.

I will not race to the top. I will stop like the Good Samaritan and lift hurting children out of the dirt. Let me lose your race, because I’m not in this for the accolades. I’m not in it for the money. I’m in it because it’s right. I am in it because the children of Perrin, Texas need somebody like me in their lives.

Our achievement gap is an opportunity gap. Our education problem is a poverty problem. Test scores don’t scream bad teaching. They scream about our nation’s systematic neglect of children who live in the wrong zip codes.

Listen to me, Arne Duncan: It’s poverty, stupid. And that’s not an excuse, that’s not an excuse, it’s a diagnosis. We must as a nation stop assuaging the symptoms and start treating the disease.

Let me ask you a simple question: Where is adequate yearly progress for the politician? Will we have 100% employment by 2014? Will all the children have decent health care and roofs over their heads by their deadline? But wait. They don’t have a deadline. They aren’t racing anywhere, are they?

When will our leaders ensure that every American community offers children libraries and little leagues instead of drugs and delinquency? Lawmakers sent you into congressional districts that are rife with poverty, rife with crime, drug abuse and poor health care, but lawmakers will never take on the label of “legislatively unacceptable” because they do not share the courage of a common school teacher. I say let us label our lawmakers like they label teachers. Let us have a hard look at their data. Let us have merit pay in Congress.

Congressmen, politicians, if you want children that are lush, stop firing the gardeners and start paying the water bill. Politicians, your fingerprints are on these children. What have you done to help them pass their tests?

A Quake We Can Believe In

Today we had an earthquake.  My building shook as if a convoy of trucks were driving through the halls. Our principal and school staff handled it well, as did our students, evacuating the building with all the coolness of a routine fire drill.  So begins our new year, an unexpected shakeup that sends us all onto the playground. DCPS, from what I understand, has no procedures for earthquakes in place, which is understandable given that earthquakes are quite rare on this coast.  But given other events that have occurred here – the anthrax scare last year, for one – I guess we are ready for just about anything.

I feel like DCPS could use a shakeup right now.  The cheating scandal seems to have been swept under the rug, or is at least being kept on a very low burn.  More exposure would not do Kaya Henderson and Company any good as it would expose the complete farce that cheating made of IMPACT for last year.  After all, scores for Value-added teachers are based on comparison of like schools as well as schools across the District (this arcane aspect of the scoring has me fairly confused, quite frankly, and I would appreciate an explanation I can understand). I’m sure teachers whose scores were compared with schools such as Noyes feel a little more than cheated. It matters greatly that there was cheating on the CAS, and it is a joke to hand out bonuses and Highly Effective status to teachers under such a cloud. Perhaps DCPS should use an asterisk for this year. We can be like Major League Baseball.

The only people who seem to be interested in investigating the scandal are reporters. Thank God there are still some around who actually think their job is to investigate and report the news and not to act as shills for education corporations (such as Kaplan Testing Services, formerly The Washington Post). The New York Times had a very good article the other day about Michelle Rhee’s continual avoidance of USA Today reporters (Eager for Spotlight, but Not If It is on a Testing Scandal). As the reporter, Michael Winerip, pointed out, Rhee has been willingly interviewed by almost everybody except Field and Stream and Soldier of Fortune (although, given the fact that she thinks she is on a crusade, I fully expect to see her interviewed there as well, sandwiched between ads for World War I Trench Knives and AK47’s).  The Washington Post‘s Mike Debonis (one of the few reporters besides Valerie Strauss who seems willing to openly criticize Rhee) considers the highly critical Times article to be “The end of Michelle Rhee’s media honeymoon.”  This is an end that is way past due.

Meanwhile, District teachers have to continue to operate with a system that claims IMPACT as a nationally recognized evaluation tool, despite the fact that this very evaluation tool is still being crafted and built by its creators.  They are building the plane while in flight, adjusting and changing rules as they go, shrugging off their own mistakes while making teachers pay the price.  That the gross inequity of this has been allowed to go unchallenged, especially by our union, is the biggest farce in DCPS right now.

And that brings me to our union.  What exactly is happening with the Washington Teachers Union?  It seems as if they are walking hand-in-hand with Kaya Henderson and Vince Gray. I expected more fight from Nathan, to be quite frank, a little more than what I am seeing. About the only fight I am seeing is between Nathan and Candi Peterson and I think I am not alone in asking: what is up with that?  Just how does Nathan think it looks when he engages in what seems, at least from the outside, as the same petty kind of snit-fight that his predecessor did with him.  Once again, we have the vice president of our union suing the president of our union and calling for the AFT to step in and mediate.  Do we really need this right now? It simply makes the case for our detractors when our union behaves in this manner.

Our union should be demanding intelligent changes to IMPACT – to make IMPACT more of a practical tool for helping teachers in their practice, instead of the punitive tool for ridding the system of teachers that it currently serves.  Our union should be demanding a full-scale investigation into the cheating scandal, a scandal that affects every teacher in our system in so many different ways.  Our union should be offering strong alternatives to the tired ideas of reform that were proven ineffective long before Michelle Rhee stepped through our doors. Instead, our union is involved in another bickering mess.

I don’t know what Nathan’s fight with Candi is about. I do not know who is right or wrong. I only know that right now we, as members, are not being served, nor can we be served, to the best of our elected representatives’ ability, if they are suing one another and involving themselves in gossip and innuendo.  After the inept leadership of George Parker, we needed much more than this.  Our union needs to change. Perhaps it is time for our members to take matters in hand the way it was done in Chicago when the teachers there created CORE – the Caucus for the Rank and File Educator.  For God’s sake, we need someone to shake things up.

Update:  This morning I saw that the Daily Kos has a piece on Michelle Rhee’s silence:  Michelle Rhee still refuses to answer questions about the cheating scandal.  It seems after trying, unsuccessfully, to get an interview with Rhee, USA today reporter Marisol Bello was told to submit questions that she wanted Rhee to answer. Bello submitted 21 and Rhee answered 11, not a single one about the cheating scandal.  Similarly, The Root has an interview with Michelle Rhee, Michelle Rhee Would Do It Again (personally, I don’t think I want her doing that to me again, however…) in which Rhee again avoids any discussion of the scandal.  On the idea of investing in teachers, and developing teachers, who may be deemed ineffective Rhee says: “Would you allow your children to be in that person’s classroom while we try to professionally develop them?”  I found this interesting considering that Rhee and her team, for the most part (there were a few exceptions), were inexperienced at running a school system and were professionally developing themselves daily at the expense of parents, teachers and students. Once again, what is ok for Michelle is not ok for everyone else.

Don’t Mess With Matt Damon or That’s My Mom You’ve Been Slapping Around

Although the initial news reception of the Save Our Schools March has been slow there were a few bright spots recently, thanks to Matt Damon.  After being introduced by his mom, teacher and Stanford Education Professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Damon gave the final speech at the rally.  What I wish had been up on the Jumbotron screen after his speech, however, was his interview with the journalist from ReasonTV that occurred in the tent behind the stage.  ReasonTV is where the Drew Carey Project creates videos on medical marijuana, school choice, private highway ownership and other grand ideas of the Libertarian cause the comedian and game show host supports.  In a way it was one celebrity against another. Drew Carey lost.  What would be good to watch is the entire ReasonTV clip of the march that aired on YouTube. The reporter asks very leading questions along the lines of  “Do you think it’s good for the students or bad for the students that teachers are guaranteed their jobs for life?” and seems to be expecting some kind of answer to either back up her/ReasonTV’s views or to make the interviewee seem like  the stereotypical, wanting -the-status-quo kind of person who “opposes” school reform image that reformers attack so often.  What she gets instead are very strong, well-made arguments from teachers, parents and Matt Damon that very coherently demonstrate why we were all there on the ellipse that day.  Here is the actual transcript of her interview with Damon:

ReasonTV:  In acting there isn’t job security, right? There’s an incentive to work hard and be a better actor because you want to have a job so why is isn’t it like that for teachers?

Damon:  You think job insecurity is what makes me work hard?

ReasonTV: Well, you have an incentive to work harder but if there’s job security…

Damon (partially overriding her question): I want to be an actor, it’s not an incentive, that’s the thing. You see you take this MBA style thinking, right, that’s the problem with Ed Policy right now is this intrinsically paternalistic view of problems that are much more complex than that.  It’s like saying a teacher is going to get lazy when they have tenure. A teacher wants to teach. I mean, why else would you take a shitty salary and really long hours and… and do that job… unless you really love to do it?

At this point ReasonTV inserts a completely gratuitous cut of the crying scene from Good Will Hunting. I think this was to somehow try to diminish the strength of Damon’s statement but it simply seems as if ReasonTV were embarrassed for their reporter. The interview continues with the cameraman getting involved.

Cameraman: Aren’t 10% bad though. Ten percent of the teachers are bad.

Nancy Carlsson Paige (Damon’s mom): Where did you get that number?

Cameraman: I don’t know. Ten percent of people in any profession should maybe think of something else.

Damon: Well, ok, but maybe you’re a shitty cameraman, I don’t know.

This interview received notice on Anderson Cooper’s 360 and on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell – O’Donnell’s Rewrite was especially pointed and intelligent in its response to the attack on teachers, I would recommend anyone to listen to it and pass along his comments.  I printed out the transcription of the interview because while I think viewing the clip is important, reading what they say, seeing the words in front of your eyes, is quite illuminating as well.  Look at the view or our intrepid reporter, or at least the view she is purporting to advocate by her question: she seems to believe that achievement occurs only because of incentives. That without incentives we would tend to be lazy and unproductive – regardless of whether we are teachers, actors, cab drivers, the President of the United States or reporters.  There is a view out there that if teachers were simply paid well and given tenure they would stop working.

Jonathan Chaitt on his New Republic blog (in which he called Damon’s defense of teachers “bad”) said if he were guaranteed a fixed salary that was tied to his tenure he would work less hard. Well Jonathan, that is you, it is not me nor many of the people I know. I have always worked hard at what I do, regardless of what that job was or the pay, because I have a thing called a work ethic.  People who possess a strong work ethic work hard regardless of the reward, when they are finished their work they don’t say “where’s my money?” instead they feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction at what they have done. That is not to say that I don’t want to be paid for my work as a teacher, of course I do, but I didn’t go into teaching to become rich. It was never with that expectation. And unlike many of the jobs I have had in the past, no matter how bad a day I have, I do not find myself saying these words “they don’t pay me enough to put up with this”, words I have heard uttered at almost every other job I have ever held.

Chaitt echoes the cameraman that there are “bad” teachers out there. Yes, there are. There are bad teachers, bad policemen and women, bad doctors, bad politicians (kind of a redundancy, that one) bad bookies and bad chimney sweeps.  There always will be a percentage of poorly performing workers in ANY field.  The truth of the matter, though, is that all this talk of quality is a diversion, it is a subterfuge, misdirection. The reformers want to paint the Save Our Schools March and its participants as “defenders of the status quo” fighting to keep things as they are. They do not listen, nor do they want to listen, to what was said. Linda Darling Hammond said it in the first speech and it was echoed later by several others, including Diane Ravitch and Jonathan Kozol.  It is not a question of teacher quality, it is a question of poverty. Chaitt, ReasonTV, Michelle Rhee, the Tea Party and other conservatives do not want to hear this because that means equitable funding and they do not want equitable funding. Here is what Darling Hammond said:

And while many politicians talk of international test score comparisons, they rarely talk about what high-performing countries like Finland, Singapore, and Canada actually do: They ensure that all children have housing, health care, and food security. They fund their schools equitably. They invest in the highest-quality preparation, mentoring and professional development for teachers and school leaders, completely at government expense. They organize their curriculum around problem-solving and critical thinking skills. And they test students rarely (in Finland, not at all) – and almost never with multiple-choice tests.

Many of the top-performing nations rely increasingly on assessments that include research projects, scientific investigation, and other intellectually challenging work – developed and scored by teachers – just as progressive educators here have been urging for years.

There is a rabid fight on the reformer’s side to discredit everything the SOS march stands for.  Arne Duncan and his DOE are using every ally they have in order to paint Diane Ravitch (especially) and others as robotic slaves to unions and the so-called “status quo”.  Mike Klonsky has done a great job of chronicling  all this on his blog.  But the fact remains that those who have money tied to the reform effort are going to use every penny to try and have their way. And while their money goes deep, it is not without end. And it is always good to remind oneself of the number of times in this country when those with money were not able to buy the results they wanted thanks in large part to the strong efforts of others and to the inherent intelligence of the public once they have the facts set before them in a straightforward and honest way.

The speeches of the SOS rally on July 30th are now available on YouTube. News organizations are beginning to report more and more on the arguments made at the rally. Not just that teachers are marching and that we are in opposition to reform but actually asking what it is we want and reporting, intelligently, the ideas and thoughts that we have. I think that anyone who actually reads or listens to what was said can quickly understand that, not only do we oppose the policies of the Obama/Bush Departments of Education, but that we have real and substantial ideas for what should be done.  These ideas have been put forth in such publications as Rethinking Schools and Education Week; they have been promoted by many teachers who have outstanding credentials – just look at this list  from the Save our Schools website or listen to these teachers in Sam Chaltain’s piece on CNN.  But instead of debating our ideas, of debating the statistics, the advocates for reform attack us with the same statements and accusations – lazy teachers, union drones, only wanting to maintain the status quo, yadayadaya, on and on. Their tactic has been to attack the teacher and, ultimately, this is where they fail. The teacher is not the enemy of education. We are the teachers, the sons, daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, friends and neighbors, all that make up the teaching force of this country.  Matt Damon saw his mom getting trashed and he stepped forward and said “hey, wait a minute.”  Anyone who knows anything about schools knows that you should never say anything about another person’s mom unless you want a fight.



This Is Not a Test!

Yesterday was the Save Our Schools March in Washington, D.C.  I brought along my daughter and son for their first experience in democratic protest.  I was happy to see that they were impressed and enjoyed witnessing so many people brought together to voice their concerns.  I was impressed as well. While the turnout, according to some sources, was smaller than expected but more than those deriding this march claimed would show up, I still wish more had been there.  They missed an amazing day.

The heat was awful, the sun felt like it was literally toasting my skin and yet I stood through two hours of speakers, performers, advocates, singers and others without hardly realizing it.  I won’t do a play-by-play and I can’t give you the names of every speaker and singer there as I didn’t take notes – I wanted to be immersed in the event, not standing off to the side observing.  If you were there and would like to add to the commentary please do so, I appreciate the views of others who were there.  So, along with some pictures I took, here are my overall impressions.

There is Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford Professor of Education, who should have been chosen by Mr. Obama to be Secretary of Education, carefully explaining, with data to back up her statements, what high achieving nations do that we don’t in order to have their students perform well. For example, almost none of these nations use standardized tests as part of their regular curriculum. In Finland they don’t test at all.  Eat that bee, Michelle Rhee.

There were great slogans on T-shirts and posters all over the ellipse.  An entire contingent of Wisconsin teachers were there. In fact, I think there were more teachers from other parts of the country than from D.C. – at least, when they did a call and response to see where teachers came from, that is what it sounded like. I would love to be wrong on that one, however, given the voter turnout in our last election, and the total lack of concern that seems to be happening with the current fight between our Union President and Vice-President, I somehow think I am not. What we need is solidarity, and that sorely seems to be lacking in D.C.



  Taylor Mali gave a rendition of his poem What Teachers Make, which if you have never heard before (hard to believe) then you better hit the link. It isn’t him at the march but it is not much different than the rendition he gave on the podium. I listen to Mali’s poem now and again to sort of fire myself up, especially when I am feeling discouraged about what is happening to my profession.  You could hear the ripple through the audience when he took the stage because everyone knew what was coming and there were appropriate cheers and hoots throughout his poem.



  Pedro Noguera, Professor of Education at NYU (in the background) and Jose Vilson, teacher, advocate and poet (in the foreground) were both eloquent in their speech and poem, respectively.  Vilson’s poem This Isn’t a Test was wonderful.


 For me, things really livened up when Jonathan Kozol took the stage.  It is hard not to be a fan of Kozol if you are a teacher. He speaks with compassion and understanding, with insightful knowledge and sharp edged humor about the things that teachers face every day and, especially, the plight of our educational system today.  He was as passionate and forceful as I’ve ever seen him. His voice strong and clear belying his slight frame and his age.  Kozol speaks truth to power and is often derided for it by the pundidiots on Fox News.  I wish, as I always wish after hearing him, that I had the full text of his speech. I would still like the full text of the speech he gave at the International Readers Convention in Chicago in 2005.


  It was great to see both Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch on the same stage. I follow their Bridging Differences Blog and enjoy their exchanges about education. On stage this day they both were in agreement about the false direction reformers (or deformers) are leading education towards and how we must not give up the fight to make our public education be what it should be – an opportunity for every child, regardless of income, to learn and be educated and to, hopefully, improve on their lives.




    The last two speakers to take the stage were Carlsson Paige and her quite famous son, Matt Damon.  Damon gave what Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post called a clear headed speech. It was filled with common sense that all teachers and anyone who understands what education should be about could appreciate.  I think it was this part that touched me the most and made me shout out in agreement:

I had incredible teachers. As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself — my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity — all come from how I was parented and taught.

And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned — none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success — none of these qualities that make me who I am … can be tested.

That is the God’s honest truth, none of these qualities can be tested.  The reformers want to claim that there is a number that can be pasted on everything.  By believing this poor myth they miss so many things.  Faith has no number.

Below are more pics of the event. Enjoy! Solidarity!