Tall tales students will tell their grandchildren.
Adolescents today have Snapchat, Google Chromebooks, Instagram, and group texts, but many lack air conditioning in their 21st-century classrooms. It is like the students in the high school where I teach, and in the elementary and middle schools where my children learn in, are living in two eras, a dichotomy of technology.
Today, on the day of the administration of the New York State United States History Regents Exam, the custodians lined up desks in neat rows in the gymnasium with 100% humidity. The test, like its sister assessment, the Global History Regents exam, are part trivial pursuit, and Russian roulette, combine with the moist air create the “ultimate” testing environment.
Students were seated with a view of their peer’s head directly in front of them, anxious teachers took deep breaths while opening the thick, white test packets — both groups wondering if their essay predictions had come true. While the students struggled to remain focused in their uncomfortable positions, the teachers offered tissues, black pens, and water. The teachers adhered to the “proctor code,” which includes the ability to pace and speak to colleagues in whispers.
This hot testing dance repeats every morning and afternoon for another six days.
Yesterday, I attended my youngest daughter’s third-grade picnic. It was very nice, the teachers more than gracious when serving the large, assembled group celebration fare. The sweat was dripping off these saintly teachers. The assembled parents fully appreciated the seasonal struggle facing both teachers and students. Later that day, on social media, a few parents agreed that they would be willing to pay a few more tax dollars to pay for the luxury of better conditions.
I know that air conditioning is a” first-world problem”. I know that in the United States we have so much to be grateful, but is it too much to ask that all schools have appropriate HVAC? Why do we allow some schools to have all the comforts and others to struggle? (Sometimes schools in the same school district have air conditioning while others do not have the blessed cool air.) And why, no matter the budget, are the offices always the appropriate temperature?
Maybe, in the future, the current students will lament to their grandchildren how bad they had it: when they had to go to school without reliable Wi-Fi in overheated classrooms?
An annual challenge to my senior-level A.P. European History students.
“What will we do after the test?”
“Yeah, what do we do after we are done, Mrs. Brown?”
Ah! The perennial question: what meaningful task can I give a group of hardworking seniors who have finished their Advanced Placement European History requirements, but are still stuck in the purgatory that is the final quarter of a high school that continues for an additional six weeks after the exam?
For the past five school years, I have answered my students’ inquiry with a challenge: “So, you think you can teach?”
This year, my small, but mighty group of thirteen students lets out a collective groan as I unveiled my plan. There were many raised hands, with the following questions:
“Will our grade be tied to the grade the student earns on the Regents exam?”
“What if the student is resistant? What if they act like a punk?”
“What materials we will have? Will you give us review tools?
These were insightful questions. These were telling questions. I laughed sarcastically and told them, no, their grade, unlike my APPR score, would not be tied to how well their students performed on the Regents exam. I assured them that I would help discipline any unruly students, and I reduced their anxiety by showing them the many review materials that they would have at their disposal.
The four-week challenge commenced.
Each senior was assigned two sophomores: one motivated and another, let’s say, less eager for the tutoring experience. The sophomores earned extra credit, the seniors completed their final exam project. Every available academic advisement period was utilized for four weeks. (Academic advisement is a forty minute block of time when the entire high school stops, every day.) There were constant hurdles: sophomores did not always show up for the forty-minute block of time, the seniors had fun senior activities to attend during that time period, academic advisement was canceled due to scheduling conflicts, and both the sophomores and seniors had other academic obligations to meet. My room was chaos — loud, messy, and disorganized. Some tutors successfully convinced their students to meet at alternative times and places, often the incentive of food was offered.
Slowly, I began to notice cohesion. The sophomores began to claim the seniors as “their” tutors, proclaiming in class that: “Oh, I went over that topic with my tutor.” As the seniors helped me grade review assessments, they became deeply invested in the success of their sophomores. Rapport and trust were established. The tutoring sessions were more frequent, the previous hurdles were trampled.
And then, I looked up from the pile of grading on my desk and saw this:
The students were engaged. The seniors were telling the sophomores useful test taking strategies. The sophomores were organizing essay details. The seniors were discussing historical events and figures with mastery. The room was filled with the music of teaching and learning. It was all fleeting, and I was exhausted, but as a public school teacher, I will always embrace what positives I can get!
On the last day of class, the seniors handed in their reflections. I passed out candy as we sat in a circle. We chatted about the positives, the challenges, and their takeaways from the previous month.
One young man smiled as he recalled how his student began with a defeated attitude, but by the end of the four weeks was actually trying to complete his work and was willing to participate. Another senior stated that he was happy that he could explain the historical events in a manner that the sophomore could more easily comprehend. I commented that the seniors showed the sophomores that there was light at the end of the tunnel; the seniors modeled for the sophomores that they too would survive Mrs. Brown and global history class!
Most of the seniors cited time and motivation as their biggest challenges. One female student lamented her frustration over being asked to explain content repeatedly. Another female student commented that the many interruptions to the schedule broke the “flow” of the process. Overall, the students all agreed that teaching takes considerable knowledge, patience, and skill.
I asked the students to reflect on what they learned about public school teachers from this experience. One male student said that he felt it was very difficult to teach such diverse learners. He had learned that teachers need to meet the needs of many types of people. Another female student said: “I realized how important public school teachers are. Without you all, we might as well go back to living in caves.” We all chuckled at that image of suburban caves, but I told her that I sensed that she meant that public school teachers provide structure and guidance in an uncertain world during an often confusing time in a person’s life: childhood. Many of the students expressed that they felt proud of their school. They commented on how they have been nurtured, supported and well educated by our public school system.
To conclude the class and the year, I polled each student as to their future career plans. One student emphatically said he would never teach. He found it very boring. Three of the thirteen said they planned on being social studies teachers. The rest were a mix of business, communication, and undecided majors. All, however, will be taxpayers. Many of them will have children of their own.
Hopefully, this challenge will help them appreciate the value of public education.
Colleagues huddle over white sheets, names neatly typed, organized in order of appearance. We, the teachers, wearing our “better” clothes, with makeup freshly applied, smile. We are happy tonight as we celebrate both the foreign and the familiar names. These names belong to students who have excelled in subjects like Business, Science, History, Foreign Language, English, Geometry, and Algebra — the subjects in which we attempt to breathe life into every academic day. These names represent our collective efforts and fulfill our aspirations we hold every September — that our students will learn, grow, and flourish.
The audience is filled with parents who proudly rushed home from work, prepared dinner, and helped sons with their ties and daughters with their outfits. One son on the stage was born in Nepal, and now awaits his certificate of excellence in his freshly pressed suit. As I gaze out at the audience I see smiling faces of parents supporting their children. Some are holding flowers. Many families include parents, siblings, and grandparents. The applause is constant and sincere.
On the stage are many white kids born and raised in suburbia who have utilized the available resources to the best of their abilities. Many of these white suburban students have overcome obstacles and have benefitted from a standardized, stable system. Many of these white kid’s names include Italian, German, and Irish surnames — descendants from the immigrants who came to Syracuse to work in the salt works and dig the Erie Canal. I see black kids, some of whom transferred from local city schools, one of which will be graduating in three years — one year short of the norm. She will attend Spelman College. I see brown kids, some wearing hijabs and one donning Sikh headwear. Many of their parents are immigrants and have instilled in them a work ethic that strives for excellence. I see Latino students (often a mixture of white, brown, and black), with names like Gonzales, proudly receiving their awards. These Latino students are part of the fastest-growing population in the country. That stage contained every race and creed — the embodiment of the American dream.
I saw America tonight on a stage in an auditorium housed in a PUBLIC SCHOOL, which is located north of a city that is rusted and worn out but not defeated. It is a city, and a region, that has weathered economic blight and has suffered its children fleeing to other states for job opportunities. It is an area, however, that has remained committed to funding public education. As I look out on the diversity and the collective achievements of the crowd, I am so astonished and proud to be a public school teacher. I am so honored to see America at its best.
In one of the Facebook groups that I follow, a member posed this question: “Just out of curiosity: what’s the best state to teach in, and why?” A flurry of comments came in — 347 comments were generated from that one question! I found the responses to be both enlightening and disturbing.
Some of the comments were humorous:
“A state of bliss.”
“A state of denial.”
“A state of sobriety.”
“A state of intoxication.”
Some comments looked outside of the United States:
“Finland” (This country was written many times.)
While a few teachers commented:
“None, get out of teaching.”
“Don’t go into any state of teaching.”
Most respondents answered very strongly concerning the state they taught in. The “best” states characteristics tended to be geographically north-eastern, union-supported, secure in teacher tenure rights and included average to above-average teacher pay, including pensions.
The top state responses: Massachusetts, New York (but not always NYC), New Jersey (but there was much discussion over Governor Christie), Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, and northern Virginia (not southern), Minnesota, and California.
The meh states included Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The characteristics of states to avoid included: hostile governors, anti-union sentiment, right-to-work laws, lacked teacher tenure rights, lacked pension benefits, and paid teachers unlivable wages. These “bad” states were listed as: Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Texas, Wisconsin, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico.
I was happy to see New York (my home state) cited favorably frequently among the comments. Although Governor Cuomo and the Board of Regents have caused havoc to the teacher evaluation process and continue to over-test our children, it was a bit encouraging to hear from NY teachers that they still believed in our public schools. I am sure all the New York teachers posting could easily point out huge issues in New York schools, but the negative comments are nothing close to what teachers from the “bad” states were saying.
Florida was touted as the worst of the worst.
Why is this stark inequality so significant? Because inequity is the fuel for the fire of corporate education reform. Inequity ignites the narrative of “those failing public schools” and the “need” for more choices. Inequity attracts residents and teachers to flock to certain “good” schools in certain “desirable” areas. Inequity promotes corporation’s profits recruits corporate charter school investment. Inequity increases segregation along both racial and socio-economic divides.
The “state” of public education is so disparate and the inequity in funding is so varied that we can no longer define “American Education.” Instead, each state’s education has its own meaning — creating savage inequalities in the United States.
So which schools has Betsy DeVos visited in her short tenure as the United States Secretary of Education?
Jefferson Middle School Academy, Washington, D.C. on February 10, 2017.
St. Andrew Catholic School, Orlando, Florida, on March 3, 2017 (accompanied by Trump).
Carderock Springs Elementary School, Bethesda, Maryland on March 23, 2017, where she read from Dr. Suess’ Oh The Places You Will Go.
Kimberly Hampton Primary School, Fort Bragg, North Carolina on April 3, 2017 — a school run by the Department of Defense.
Excel Academy Public Charter School, Washington, D.C., on April 5, 2017, (accompanied by the First Lady and the Queen of Jordan).
Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence (CARE) Elementary School, Miami Florida on April 6, 2017.
SLAM Charter School, Miami, Florida on April 6, 2017 (the school is supported by the rapper, Pitbull).
Royal Palm Elementary School, Miami, Florida on April 7, 2017 (this is a traditional public school).
Van Wert Elementary and Van Wert High School, Van Wert, Ohio on April 20, 2017 (accompanied by Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT).
Ashland Elementary School, Manassas, Virginia, on April 25, 2017 (student population is largely from military families).
North Park Elementary School, Los Angelos, California, on April 28, 2017 (after a teacher and her student were killed by a gunman).
Cornerstone Christian School, Washington, D.C., on May 4, 2017 (as the name suggests, this school is Christian school).
Center City Charter School, Washington, D.C., on May 5, 2017 (first Catholic-to-charter school conversion).
Granite Technical Institute, Salt Lake City, Utah on May 9, 2017.
Overwhelmingly Betsy DeVos has visited schools that fit her perspective of “good” schools. These schools tend to be located in regions of the United States where funding for public education is abysmal and where school vouchers, educational scholarships, and white flight from public schools is typical. And, with the exception of a few schools listed above, most of these schools are located in states where professionals are urging their fellow teachers to avoid.
In war, a great strategy is divide and conquer. Public schools in the United States are already horribly divided — divided by curriculum, funding, facilities, teacher preparation, race, and socio-economic factors. The public’s opinion of schools is at all time low. Make no mistake, the war on public education is raging. Betsy DeVos and the forces of privatization and corporatization are closing in. Their victory would be a tremendous loss for the children of the United States.
It is time for battle. It is time for public school advocates to lead. It is time for teachers to find their voices, collectively. How does the resistance begin? The first step comes in sensible shoes during the upcoming March For Public Education in our nation’s capital on July 22, 2017, or in sister-city marches across the country.
Since the 2012–2013 school year, I have earned a score for my teaching — the craft of teaching reduced to a number. This score translates into the rating of highly effective, effective, developing, or ineffective. Why have I, and my colleagues, been reduced to a score? Because, in 2012, the Democrats started acting like Republicans. Thanks, Obama! Thanks, Cuomo!
If you are not a teacher in New York State, you might not understand the teacher rating system. Heck, teachers in New York don’t understand the rating system. Basically, since 2012, school districts in New York State adopted an evaluation rubric (many use Charlotte Danielson’s) to evaluate teachers pedagogy and professionalism. Sixty percent of a teacher’s total score is based on administrative observation and teacher’s self-reporting of Domain 4 evidence — professional activities, etc. The remaining forty percent is based on the meeting of school goals and student achievement on state tests. If a teacher’s subject or grade level does not have a state test, they are evaluated by a “cocktail” of tests that their students take. Elementary teachers are also given a student growth score. Beginning with the 2015 Education Law S3012–d, secondary teachers are judged fifty percent by the four domains, and fifty percent by student test scores. Many teachers k-12, also are mandated to write an SLO (Student Learning Objective) that predicts in September how a cohort of students will perform on high-stake tests (both Common Core aligned and state made). If my three faithful readers are still with me, thank you.
In 2012, teachers were presented with the image on the left. I remember being told that we would “visit” highly effective, but we would “live” in the effective zone. Essentially telling over-achieving professionals (like me) to calm down and accept that our HEDI score would probably be in the effective range. It was like the revenge of the Bell curve!
In my previous school, I worked with an assistant principal who entered education after the local Miller Brewery closed. At my end of the year evaluation, he told me that not everyone could get the highest rating, stating: “Not everyone can be the teacher of the year.” (Ironically, the next year the yearbook was dedicated to me.) The HEDI scale is based on this philosophy — there can only be a few top performers.
Why were teacher’s evaluations in states like New York so dramatically changed from local building control to state mandates? The answer begins with the underfunding of public schools, the Race To the Top Initiative, and the rhetoric surrounding “those” teachers — teachers who should not be teaching. You know who “they” are. 2012 was a mixture of an economic downturn, political posturing, and social dissatisfaction with all levels of government — in essence, a perfect storm.
Two years in the Great Recession, The Race to the Top Initiative under the leadership Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, dangled money in front of governors with beleaguered state budgets. Forty states applied for the first phase of Race to the Top, according to the National Council for State Legislature’s website, the criteria for state involvement in the program included:
Development of high-quality standards; — Common Core Standards.
Equitable distribution of effective teachers; — the HEDI evaluation process.
Linking statewide data systems with instruction; — DATA is king!
Turning around low-achieving schools; — -Closing, revamping, renaming schools.
Allowing charter schools to flourish — company run schools in urban areas.
Development of high-quality standards — Common Core Standards.
The Common Core of Professional Standards has their critics. Although I can appreciate the issues that arise from any curriculum, as an educator I see the merit in all students encountering similar content. Education is the great socio-economic equalizer and the Common Core Standards is an attempt to define “good” curriculum standards. I have seen the Common Core impact my own instruction positively — my students actively engage with texts now, they annotate their reading, and their close reading skills have grown immensely. The problem, from my perspective as a parent of school-aged children, is that my children will be tested almost every year of their school careers. These tests often require teachers to teach only the content needed for the test, require lost instructional time to take the tests, and additional forfeited time when teachers are pulled out to grade the tests.
Equitable distribution of effective teachers— the HEDI evaluation process.
The New York State Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) is a farce. In a 2015 piece for Chalkbeat, author Sarah Darville reported that: “In New York City, 10.8 percent of teachers earned a top rating of ‘highly effective’ for the 2014–15 school year, up from about 9 percent last year. Most teachers, more than 81 percent, earned an “effective” rating, while 6.5 percent were rated “developing” and 1 percent earned the lowest rating, ‘“ineffective.’”
Furthermore, great teaching is not easily quantified. Teaching is a life-long craft. The term “master teacher” comes to mind when thinking of a truly dynamic teacher. The journey to a master teacher cannot be boiled down to a score. David Greene writes about this topic beautifully in his piece: “You Can’t Pick Great Teachers From A Tree.” Greene writes:
Great teachers get it; they understand that when you get into teaching you are in it for the long haul. They understand that teaching is a “long time “ proposition, not a layover or a pit stop until you get your chance to go to med school or law school, or get your MBA.
Linking statewide data systems with instruction; — DATA is king!
DATA is a four letter word. Data. My students are not a set of scores. They are people. They are developing people who are shaped by biology, community, and family resources.
I don’t need DATA to drive my instruction. I don’t need to look at my student’s eighth grade ELA exams to know if they are struggling with reading and written expression. I know my students as individuals. I respect them as human beings with diverse issues, challenges, and gifts. It is my job and my responsibility to learn my students. Socrates said: “Know thyself,” I say, “Know thy students!”
Furthermore, how my students perform on a state exam, given in a humid gymnasium in June, is only one snapshot of their potential and is not indicative of intelligence. Stop telling teachers that DATA is king.
Turning around low-achieving schools; — Closing, revamping, renaming schools.
Annual yearly progress. Failing schools. These are reasons schools are closed. It’s another version of the carrot and the stick approach — schools need to perform to remain funded. Not surprisingly the schools that have remained open are in predominantly white, suburban areas and the closed schools are located in poor, predominantly non-white communities. A question has always nagged me about these failing schools: Are these schools low performing, or are they performing the best that they can be given the obstacles the children and teachers face?
I don’t have an answer. I am privileged. I work in a well-funded, suburban school. I attended well-funded suburban schools. My children attend a high-quality rural school (which needs more funding). My life is charmed in comparison to teachers and students in the Syracuse, NY schools neighboring where I teach and live. I am also confident that there are excellent teachers and thriving students in the Syracuse City Public Schools, but I can’t speak to that experience. No, I just “hear” about the urban plight, the white flight, and read about the occasional reports of school violence. I also have students in my sophomore classes who have transferred from the urban schools — these students often struggle to fit in academically and socially in my prosperous school district.
Allowing charter schools to flourish — company schools in urban areas.
So what is the solution to failing schools, ineffective teachers, and low performing students? The solution can’t be found in the existing system. No, to teach in the 21st Century, we must have 21st Century solutions and market-based institutions. Hence, the company run charter schools. There are quality charter schools that are also public schools that adhere to the same standards of teaching and learning as the public schools. One example of a quality charter school that serves the need of many non-traditional students is Allison Berkowitz Read’s account of her teaching in a virtual school. In her piece, entitled “Rules of Engagement: Teaching in a Virtual World,” Read points out:
Charter schools are not all private schools. My school is a public charter school. About 70% of our population qualifies for free and reduced lunch, and more than 20% are special needs. My school does not shop for students in the priciest districts. Many of our students come to my school out of desperation: a student with an IEP that is not being honored; a student from an inner city school district where guns and violence take precedence over learning; a student who was bullied mercilessly because he or she is obese, or shy, or is LGBTQ+.
However, for every “good” charter school, there are many privately funded schools. The proponents of school choice claim that choice increases quality — that parents being able to “shop” for schools is the wave of the future, and we, the outdated, public school teachers need to get on board. Brandilyn Dixon writes about the fallacy of charter schools in her piece: “Competition Increases Quality: The Biggest Myth of School Choice.” In her piece, Dixon points out three important truths concerning market-based schools:
1. They open in former school buildings, renovated health clubs, abandoned warehouses, or shopping centers.
2. They don’t produce results.
3. They close, leaving hundreds of families to go out shopping for a new school.
These five components of educational reform have met their original objectives — education has changed, just not in a positive manner. Education has been transformed, but not rehabilitated. What has changed is that high stake testing of children as young as third grade has become the new normal. These corporate produced tests and student results continue to be tied to teacher evaluations. Fantastic teachers have left the profession and intelligent young adults have stayed away from university education departments, causing huge decreases in teacher preparatory enrollment. The United States is facing an incredible teaching shortage. This shortage has even led to a few states abandoning the need for teaching credentials altogether.
So where does American education go from here? If a state like New York, that still continues to value public education is struggling with the definition of educational reform, where do states that have already abandoned publicly funded education go with the leadership of an Amway saleswoman?
May 16, 2017, has passed and so have the school budgets across the region of America that I call home — central New York. Central New York is known for its wicked snow squalls, allegiance to Syracuse University’s sports, Heid’s hot dogs, and its support of publicly funded education. Very few people send their children to private, parochial, or charter schools. A small minority home-school their kids. The vast majority of residents send their children to public schools because they too attended a public school — the proof shown in the t-shirt with their high school colors stuck in the back a dresser.
Central New York might not be a very exciting place, but it has Wegmans, medical centers, colleges, and public schools. This mix of fresh produce, access to health care, and standardized education creates a standard of living that is part of the American dream. It is also very expensive. Central New Yorkers pay high property and school taxes. A gallon of milk is under two dollars (I am sorry for my dairy farming friends), but residents pay more for gas, housing, cigarettes, and booze compared with other areas.
What do central New Yorkers gain from paying higher taxes than say, residents of South Carolina, where my mother recently moved into a nice home with the total tax bill of under $500 a year? What exactly does the American dream cost, and what do communities get for their money?
Central New Yorkers get many hospitals, with specialists and research.
Central New Yorkers get snow plowing and road maintenance.
Central New Yorkers get state subsidized colleges and universities.
Central New Yorkers get a foundation built on universal pre-kindergarten (in many school districts) and community-based schools that offer breakfasts and lunch to many students.
Central New Yorkers get teachers with Master’s Degrees.
Central New Yorkers get an educated workforce.
So, why are there so many “no” votes listed in the results from May 16, 2017?
I am sure there are many reasons for the negative votes. Some people believe that school spending is out of control. Some people are facing financial hardships and see their school tax bill as exorbitant. Some people had terrible school experiences as a student themselves, or as a parent. Some people are upset at their local school’s decisions. These are all understandable reasons.
Other people who vote “no” claim that they do not want to pay for other people’s children to attend school. For the same reasons that these people do not support universal health care — these voters only want to pay for themselves; they do not want to help “other” people anymore. They are sick of hand-outs and entitlements.
I wonder what would happen if public education was no longer an option? Would these “no” voters be upset? Would they eventually long for the publicly funded system? Would they lament corporate greed that would inevitably infiltrate our schools? Would they proudly wear their school colors, or would they wonder which school to offer their allegiance?
I also wonder about the low voter turn-out. Why do so few people decide that voting on the school budget does not fit into their schedule? What is more important than children and finances? Is the low turn-out due to complacency? Do residents simply believe that public schools were available for them, so, therefore, they will always be present in the future? Do they not see that the grass grows greener where you water it and that public education is bone dry? So dry that people seek to “fix” it with their own brand of fertilizer so that “choice” can be offered to parents who might not recognize that public schools are the Kentucky Blue Grass seed and privatization is contractor grade?
Ultimately, the residents of the many school districts in central New York have approved funding for the 2017–2018 school year, and I thank them. I appreciate their “yes” vote because it is a vote of confidence in a system that, like my yard, is riddled with bare spots and filled with weeds, but looks beautiful when well watered and cared for.