Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Big, Bad Roommate: Why the Department of Education is Overreaching its Powers

by Rainiel Guzmán

On average, federal spending accounts for 10 percent of public school funding.  Yet somehow the U.S. Department of Education continues to dominate policy.                 

Imagine the following scenario: two roommates agree to rent an apartment.  One roommate is named Local and the other State. They cosign the lease agreement and make regular rent payments on time. However, unforeseen fees, inflation and other miscellaneous costs burden their monthly budget. They start to fall behind on their rent payments and are unsuccessful in obtaining modifications on their lease. Desperate they try to cut back from other expenditures yet are unable to cover their deficit. As a last resort they agree to find a third roommate, but whom?

One night Federal, a large, opinionated and manipulative guy knocks on their apartment door.  Local and State answer the door. Federal introduces himself and asks if he could come in to talk about possibly rooming with them. They agree and invite him in. They begin to converse and eventually arrive upon matters of money. Local and State propose that everyone pay a third of the rent. Federal informs them that he is unable to afford that percentage. Local and State are surprised by his statement then ask, “What percentage can you afford to pay?”

“About ten percent,” he answers. Local and State are insulted but find themselves in such dire straits that they entertain Federal’s insane proposition with the hope that he would later change his mind. However, Federal stands firm on his offer. Local and State become angry. Nonetheless they agree to Federal’s terms. This is when things get surreal. Federal proceeds to share some terms and conditions he would like everyone to meet. Federal begins by voicing his concerns about Local and State’s financial mismanagement. He proposes to oversee the payment of bills—to make sure that no bills are left behind. “We need to be more accountable in order to prevent these situations from ever happening again,” he asserts. Local and State begrudgingly agree again. Additional terms and conditions follow.

This account may seem too fantastic to resemble any plausible reality. Nonetheless, this story serves as an allegory of current K-12 public education funding formulae.  Nationwide, local and state governments account on average for 83 percent of K-12 funding. The federal government contributes roughly 10 percent. Private sources account for the remaining contributions. Given this imbalance of funding, one may ask, How can the federal government dominate K-12 public education policy?

The answer is that the federal government is overreaching its powers. The Constitution of the United States enumerates under the Tenth Amendment that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people.”

This is why in matters of public education the responsibility for K-12 school policy rests with the states as outlined in the Constitution. The reality we face today is a funding formula unaligned with proportional powers. Would you share an apartment with such a roommate? You probably would not. I certainly would not. Others are expressing their growing reluctance as well.

Discontent over the federal government’s increasing Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements under the No Child Left behind law has pitted several state superintendents—such as Montana’s Denise Juneau—against Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education.  In near open rebellion, Juneau announced her decision to forgo raising Montana’s scheduled annual AYP objectives. Undeterred by the threat of losing federal funds and counting on Congress’ prolonged inaction to rewrite NCLB, Juneau reiterated her stated intentions. The Department of Education’s response was swift—Secretary Duncan backed-off and announced he would unilaterally override provisions of NCLB and “grant” waivers to states seeking redress.

Despite the announcement of waivers Juneau nearly pulled out of NCLB altogether in August. In an earlier letter addressed to Secretary Duncan dated April 25th, 2011, Juneau wrote “In the absence of a new bill, the Department continues to hold states and schools accountable under the current law although the [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] accountability system does not conform to the Department’s new priorities, particularly around growth models for student learning. The split in priorities, established under your leadership and those established in the current ESEA has Montana reeling from additional data collection and uncertain about the path to continuous improvement.”

Ms. Juneau, a Native American and Democrat, along with other state superintendents such as Idaho’s Tom Luna, a Hispanic and Republican, and South Dakota’s Melody Schopp, a veteran classroom teacher and a nonpartisan, represent an interesting challenge to detractors of politicians who appeal to states’ rights as a constitutional imperative. These superintendents who seek to assert the Tenth Amendment defy the moniker of rabid racist secessionists often associated with reactionary rural politicians.

In fear of being evicted from the “Montana Apartment,” the Department of Education found a clause in NCLB allowing Montana to waive the increment of AYP for 2012 free of penalty.  Montana, along with a growing number of states, is asserting its authority over K-12 public education. The Department of Education is reluctantly acquiescing.

Conversely, the Department continues to manipulate the reform conversation through its swollen purse. It continues to pursue prominence in the implementation of education policies with programs such as Race to the Top.  As expected, the “granting” of waivers has been accompanied by additional terms and conditions which, surprise-surprise, accentuate the leading role of the federal government.  

Old habits die hard—if ever.

The moral of this story is this: Be weary of a cheap, bossy, Johnny-come-lately knocking on your door in the middle of the night.  He might turn out to be the worst roommate you will ever have.   

Rainiel Guzman is a 2011 Lindback Distinguished Teacher Award winner.  He is an adjunct professor at Eastern University, and teaches art at Swenson Arts and Technology High School in Northeast Philadelphia.

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For good schools, it takes a village

I recently attended a community screening of the education documentary American Teacherat School of the Future in West Philadelphia.

The film, narrated by Matt Damon, chronicles the stories of four teachers from rural and urban areas of the country, and examines how these dedicated educators, despite loving their students and jobs, were often forced to rethink their careers because of low pay. After the screening, a panel of local education leaders, including Philadelphia School District Superintendent Leroy Nunery and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan, reflected on the film and the state of education in America. . . .

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “For good schools, it takes a village.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

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Daily News Covers Chalk and Talk Blog

“BY DAY, Christopher Paslay teaches The Crucible and Thoreau’s Walden to juniors at Swenson Arts and Technology High School.

By night, the 39-year-old teacher-turned-blogger maintains a website, Chalk and Talk, that gives public-school teachers a voice.

For Paslay, it was the advent of the No Child Left Behind reform model – the idea of holding schools to standards judged by test scores – that triggered his advocacy on behalf of his fellow teachers. . . .”

This is an excerpt from yesterday’s Philadelphia Daily News story, “He gives teachers a voice outside the classroom” by reporter Morgan Zalot, which highlights Chalk and Talk–this very blog!–as a platform for the voices of public school teachers.  Click here to read the article in its entirety. 

 

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Public School Notebook Advocates Compromising Rights of Many for Rights of Few

by Christopher Paslay

The Notebook continues to lobby to keep violent and unruly students in classrooms, suggesting that America’s discipline policies are racist and culturally insensitive.  

Despite recent accolades from the New York Times and the Philadelphia City Paper for their investigative reporting, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook remains committed to its roots: lobbying for the disenfranchised on the fringes of the educational system.  As a result, they often compromise the rights of the many to stand up for the rights of the few.         

This was the case when the Notebook supported the conclusions drawn by Youth United for Change’s two controversial reports—“Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia” and “Pushed Out”—both of which rely heavily on the testimonies of disgruntled youth to paint dropouts and chronic rule breakers as victims of an intolerant and racist school system.  Both lobby for keeping incorrigible students in classrooms where they consistently rob other children of their right to learn; the Notebook’s Winter 2009 article “A growing expulsion pipeline” did much of the same.       

Most recently, in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, the Notebook ran the story “Expulsion epidemic draws national attention,” which also lobbies to keep problem students in schools, calling for alternative forms of remediation that are often unrealistic or achieve limited success.  The story, like the YUC reports, portrays students expelled from schools across the country as victims caught in an oppressive and racist system, despite the findings of reports such as the Inquirer’sAssault on Learning,” which reveals how disruptive student behavior in Philadelphia schools negatively impacts achievement and learning. 

To protect the rights of the hardworking 90 percent of America’s children struggling to learn in environments tainted by the violent and unruly, I wrote a comment on the Notebook’s website trying to shed some light on the issue:   

“Expulsions in America’s public schools do not happen willy-nilly.  Students are given due process and granted a hearing before they are removed from the system.  In addition, IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) protects students with anger management issues and the emotionally disturbed (many minorities are diagnosed as such) from being removed from a school, and the “Stay-Put Provision” law allows such students to remain in school even during the actual hearings.  In Philadelphia from 2002 – 2008, not a single student was expelled from the District.  Not that the District is free from violence, or those who perpetrate violence against other students; just read the Inquirer’s “Assault on Learning” series and look at the numbers.  It is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to expel a student from a district (in Philadelphia, even the “permanently expelled” can reapply for admission after their punishment is served), and this is in light of the fact that many serious discipline incidents go unreported.    

[Your article] bills expulsion as an unfair “epidemic” gaining “national attention,” but it ignores the everyday offenses of troubled youth and focuses on the outliers.  The real victims in this situation are the 85-90 percent of America’s public school children who are being held hostage by the violent and unruly few.  Yet somehow the Notebook consistently fails to address THIS issue.  They campaign against a discipline system that is already lacking real teeth, which is counterproductive to establishing a culture of learning in all schools.  If we want to save the education of the masses, we should advocate for better parenting, call for a return of traditional values in our schools and communities, and demand that ALL children respect each other, as well as their teachers, parents, and other authority figures. . . .”

Paul Socolar, the Notebook’s editor, responded to my post by writing the following:

“Some quick comments from the editor to explain the Notebook’s continued interest in this topic of high rates of expulsion as an issue of educational quality and equity.

Philadelphians ought to be considering what approaches to discipline and to curtailing school violence are effective. We know that what many schools are doing now is not effective. There is a growing body of evidence in support of less punitive approaches to school discipline such as restorative justice. We are open to other topics for our reporting. We haven’t seen a similar body of evidence that more systematic implementation of the traditional approach of suspensions and transfers to disciplinary schools advocated here by commenters is effective.

In a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world (that hasn’t alleviated high crime rates), the issue of whether harsh school disciplinary policies not only mirror our ineffective criminal justice policies but also create a school-to-prison pipeline is a real concern to many in Philadelphia.

Study after study provides evidence that harsh disciplinary actions are not meted out in a color-blind fashion. This article points to the finding from North Carolina that Black students were more than twice as likely to be suspended for a first-time cell phone offense compared to White students. . . .”

I followed-up Socolar’s comments with the following post on the Notebook (Socolar never did address the fact that the Notebook compromises the rights of the many for the rights of the few):

“. . . Schools must do what they can to address and remediate the behavioral and psychological problems of their students, but there will come a time when a line must be drawn.  There IS a protocol that public schools follow, and by law, a series of interventions in most cases DOES take place before an expulsion.  But when these interventions meet with limited success (including Positive Behavior Supports and Restorative Justice, both of which can only be done effectively in small, one-on-one situations), there will need to be a policy in place to keep the learning environment safe and organized, a policy that allows the majority of hard working students to get an education, and that policy is expulsion. 

As for The Notebook’s obsession with race and their need to keep reminding everyone that expulsions “are not meted out in a color-blind fashion,” I’d like to ask what they are insinuating by this?  It seems clear that they are suggesting that teachers and administrators in public schools are either racist, or culturally ignorant or insensitive.  As an urban schoolteacher of 15 years, as a coach, as a mentor, and as a citizen of Philadelphia, I would have to beg to differ.  Although this may have been the case 30 years ago (or in very limited situations today), I think the disparity in disciplinary measures by race has more to do with environmental factors such as poverty, education and employment; it’s documented that a higher number of minorities are impoverished, have a higher incidence of out-of-wedlock births, have poor nutrition, etc.  These factors all impact a student’s behavior.  Likewise, these factors impact a student’s ATTITUDE when responding to authority, which may explain why a cooperative student, who surrenders his cellphone with little resistance, may not get suspended for the infraction, while another student, who has a difficult home life and has not learned to deal with authority in a positive manner, might get hit with a suspension for a simple cellphone violation. 

The hardworking motivated students should have a right to learn.  Generally speaking, expulsions are the only reasonable way to accomplish this, in light of the tragic condition of American families, poor parenting, society’s attitude of entitlement, and the overall decline in respect for authority.”

This comment was not rebutted by the editor.

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Filed under Alternative Schools, Cell Phones, Drop-Out Rates, Eye on The Notebook, Holistic Education

Former Teach For America Recruiter Tells College Grads to ‘Teach for Someone Else’

by Christopher Paslay   

Gary Rubinstein, a TFA corps member and former recruiter, explains how TFA spawned leaders are ‘destructive’ to public education, and how current TFA teachers are ‘mostly harmful’ to students. 

Michelle Rhee, former D.C. schools chancellor who is on a political crusade to save America’s “best teachers” by ending seniority and “last in, first out” laws, needs to have talk with Gary Rubinstein, a Teach for America corps member and former recruiter.  Rubinstein, like Rhee, was part of TFA in the early 1990s when the organization was still in its beginning stages.  But unlike Rhee, Rubinstein has come to terms with the fact that TFA has become a public relations machine responsible for spawning a number of destructive leaders, and acknowledges the fact that the majority of TFA teachers are a far cry from America’s “best”. 

Here are some highlights from Rubinstein’s powerful blog post titled “Why I did TFA, and why you shouldn’t.”  (Click here to read it in its entirety.)          

. . . When I joined TFA twenty years ago, I did it because I believed that poor kids deserved to have someone like me helping battle education inequity in this country. At the time, there were massive teacher shortages in high need areas. . . . If not for us, our students, most likely, would be taught by a different substitute each day. Even if we were bad permanent teachers, we WERE permanent teachers and for kids who had little in life they can call permanent, it was something. The motto for TFA back then could have been ‘Hey, we’re better than nothing.’

. . . Unfortunately, the landscape in education has changed a lot in the past twenty years. Instead of facing teacher shortages, we have teacher surpluses. There are regions where experienced teachers are being laid off to make room for incoming TFA corps members because the district has signed a contract with TFA, promising to hire their new people. In situations like this, it is hard to say with confidence that these under trained new teachers are really doing less harm than good.

As TFA tried to grow and gain private and federal money, they had to develop a public relations machine. . . . TFA has highlighted their few successes so much that many politicians actually believe that first year TFA teachers are effective. They believe that there are lazy veteran teachers who are not ‘accountable’ to their students and who are making a lot of money so we’re better off firing those older teachers and replacing them with these young go-getters.

Some TFA alums have become leaders of school systems in various cities and states. In New York City, several of the deputy chancellors are from TFA. I already mentioned ex-chancellor Michelle Rhee who now runs StudentsFirst. . . . TFA and the destructive TFA spawned leaders suffer a type of arrogance and overconfidence where they completely ignore any evidence that their beliefs are flawed.  The leaders TFA has spawned are, to say this in the kindest way possible, ‘lacking wisdom.’

. . . And the very worst thing that the TFA alum turned into education ‘reformers’ advocate is strong ‘accountability’ by measuring a teacher’s ‘value added’ through standardized test scores. It might be hard for someone who is not a teacher yet to believe that this is not a cop out by lazy teachers. The fact is that even the companies that do the measurements say that these calculations are very inaccurate. Over a third of the time, they misidentify effective teachers as ineffective and vice versa, in certain models. ‘Value added’ is in its infancy, and certainly not ready to be rolled out yet. But ALL the TFA reformers I’ve followed are strong supporters of this kind of evaluation.

So TFA has participated in building a group of ‘leaders’ who, in my opinion, are assisting in the destruction of public education. If this continues, there will soon be, again, a large shortage of teachers as nobody in their right mind would enter this profession for the long haul knowing they can be fired because of an inaccurate evaluation process. And then, of course, TFA can grow more since they will be needed to fill those shortages that the leaders they supported caused.

So if you’re about to graduate college and you want to ‘make a positive difference’ the way I wanted to twenty years ago, you should not do what I did and join TFA. . . . I know that this was not the idea of TFA, but I do think that when people teach for two years and then leave, it contributes to the instability of the schools that need the most stability.

. . . But if you truly feel that TFA is really the ONLY way that you have a chance to ‘give back’ to the society that has provided you such opportunities, I suppose that you can apply, but there are some things you should demand before accepting their offer.

First, you should refuse to be placed in a region that is currently suffering teacher layoffs. In those places, you will be replacing someone who, most likely, would have done a better job than you. Why would you want to live with that guilt?  I was horrible my first year, but I was better than the rotating group of subs I replaced.

Second, you should refuse to go to a charter school. Though there are some charter schools that are not corrupt, I believe that most are. They NEED those test scores and they do anything they can to get them. This often means ‘counseling out’ the kids that TFA was created to serve.

Third, you need to demand that you get an authentic training experience. TFA signs contracts with districts where they promise to train you properly. But team teaching with three other teachers for twelve days with classes with as few as 4 kids is not fair to you and it is really not fair to the kids that you will teach. They deserve someone who is trained properly. 

Fourth, you should commit to teaching for four years instead of two.  America let you practice on their kids for your first year — you’ve got to give back three good years to make up it.

. . . . I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able, again, to sing the praises of TFA and advise people who want to make a positive difference for kids to become a member.  For this to happen, though, TFA will have to make some changes.  Primarily, they will have to break the alliance they currently have with the so-called reform movement.  It’s not working and it never will work.  Pretending it is, like pretending that all the first year corps members are succeeding because a few outliers are, or that all alumni run charter schools are succeeding because a few outliers are.  All this proves is that in a large enough data set there will, inevitably,  be outliers.

If I were ‘America’ I would have this to say to TFA:  While I appreciate your offer to ‘teach’ for me, I’ve already got enough untrained teachers for my poorest kids.  And if teaching is just a stepping stone, for you, on the path to becoming an influential education ‘leader,’ thanks, but no thanks to that too.  I don’t need the kind of leaders you spawn — leaders who think education ‘reform’ is done by threats of school closings and teacher firings.  These leaders celebrate school closings rather than see them as their own failures to help them.  These leaders deny any proof that their reforms are failing and instead continue to use P.R. to inflate their own claims of success.  We’re having enough trouble swatting the number of that type of leader you’ve already given us.  If you want to think of a new way to harness the brain power and energy of the ‘best and brightest,’ please do, but if you’re just going to give us a scaled up version of the program that tries to fill a need that no longer exists, please go and teach for someone else.

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SRC Rushes to Pass ‘Great Schools Compact,’ Despite Questionable Track Record of City Charters

by Lisa Haver

Hungry for Bill Gates’ money, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission passes a compact that agrees to turn up to 25 percent of its schools into charters by 2017.   

On November 23rd, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission passed the “Great School Compact,” an initiative sponsored by Bill Gates to help ease resistance to building new charters in the city.  The SRC did so, at least in part, to be eligible to receive money from Gates.  The compact signed by the SRC calls for an overhaul of the poorest performing quartile in the system (approximately 50,000 seats) with “high quality alternatives” by 2016-17.

In the subsection of the Compact titled Facilities, it reads, “We will coordinate planning and policies to ensure that vacant or underutilized building facilities are made available to facilitate growth of high quality schools consistent with the principles of the Compact, while ensuring that facility transactions support the need of the District to right-size its facilities inventory.”

Allow me to translate this for you: After we underfund and understaff the already struggling schools in poor neighborhoods, we will make the buildings of the schools we will close available to charter operators.  Of course, the students who are not admitted to these replacement schools will have to travel out of their neighborhoods to attend another public school. 

Although announced verbally at the end of the previous week’s SRC meeting, the press release confirming the November 23rd meeting was dated November 22nd. It stated that one purpose of the meeting was “to consider the Great Schools Compact.”  There was no indication that there would be a vote; in fact, the SRC votes only at Action Meetings, not Planning Meetings. 

But a vote was taken and the Compact was approved, despite the fact that only three of the four appointed SRC members were present and the room was only half full.  There was no opportunity for any serious community discussion.  There was not even any substantive SRC discussion of the issue. 

For these reasons, I asked the commissioners to table the vote until the next meeting, which would not be held the day before a major holiday (Thanksgiving) and would give the community time to read this compact, discuss it, and weigh the many issues presented in it before taking what amounted to a drive-by voting. 

What was the rush to get the Compact passed?  Philadelphia’s district schools have been struggling under the weight of funding cuts, overcrowded classrooms, failed experimental curricula, incompetent superintendents with their own personal and political agendas, and rising poverty in the communities they serve.  Was passing this compact going to rectify all of this overnight?

The SRC maintains that this vote is only the first of many concerning the Compact and that this action had to be taken in order to apply for the Gates funding (ironically, as of 12/7/11, the district’s current version of the Compact was rejected by Gates because it lacked “detail and rigor”).

Those affiliated with charter schools, including representatives from Boys Latin and Nueva Espreanza, had no problem with the SRC’s liberal attitude regarding school choice, however.  They took advantage of the SRC’s new policy of entertaining questions from the audience in order to put forth a number of requests. One asked that the cap on student attendance in his school be lifted.  Another asked that charters not be restricted by “bureaucratic” procedures presently imposed by the district.

These requests were made despite that fact that charters are in many cases a poor alternative to failing schools, especially when they are failing themselves.  The data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education website shows that only 54.7 percent of charters in the city reached AYP last year; several have failed to achieve AYP in the last five years, including Nueva Esperanza Academy; interestingly, GreatSchools.org assigned Nueva Esperanza a rating of only 3 out of 10.  Is this school’s leadership asking to expand its enrollment so that the district can send more students to a failing school?  

Obviously, the SRC needs to read the data from the PA Dept. of Ed. before it passes any proposal to increase the number of Philadelphia charter schools or expand enrollment.  The commissioners must make more time available for students, parents, teachers and community members to read and comment on any compact which closes neighborhood schools. They must take seriously the testimony of the families whose children would be forced to go elsewhere.

In other words, they must demonstrate that their promises of more transparency and community involvement are not empty ones.

Lisa Haver is an education activist and retired teacher.

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‘American Teacher’ Shows the Other Side of ‘Superman’

by Christopher Paslay

“American Teacher,” the new education documentary narrated by Matt Damon, dares to portray schoolteachers as competent professionals.    

In an age of school reform, in an age where the phrase failing schools has become boilerplate, the film “American Teacher” arrives at a surprising conclusion: schoolteachers aren’t the bums they’re made out to be.  In fact, many of them are extremely dedicated, and work really long hours.  They write lessons, and grade stacks of essays, and bond with their students.  They counsel, and mentor, and spend up to $3,000 of their own money to buy supplies.  Many do this while holding a second job.  And raising children.  And managing a home.  And maintaining a relationship with a spouse. 

As Neil Genzlinger wrote in his review of the film for the New York Times, “It quickly knocks down the idiocy often voiced by right-wing television commentators that teachers are goof-offs who work six-hour days and take three months off every year. The director, Vanessa Roth, follows several teachers through their long days at school and into their personal lives, where low pay is a constant worry that affects marriages and contributes to an alarming turnover rate.”

“American Teacher” is for the most part refreshingly free from underlying politics and agendas.  It does suggest the teaching profession should be made more attractive by increasing pay, but it never advocates performance pay.  It stays away from the subject of unions, school choice, and the achievement gap; unlike “Waiting for Superman,” this lack of controversy may very well keep it from receiving the attention it deserves. 

Its wholesomeness and respect for America’s schoolteachers goes against the grain of the message being promoted by education reformers such as Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee, whose organizations have tens of millions of dollars at their disposal to paint educators in an unflattering light; Bill Gates donated $2 million to promote “Waiting for Superman,” the documentary that noted education scholar Diane Ravitch called “propagandistic” for cherry-picking statistics and test data in order to help further expand charter schools and privatize education.   

“American Teacher” shows the other side of “Superman,” which is probably enough to sink it like a stone.  This isn’t to say those interested in the real lives and careers of our nation’s schoolteachers should pass on it.  On the contrary, it’s a film the American public needs to see.

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