Category Archives: Current Affairs

Charter Schools

My sister asked me why teachers objected to charter schools. Why shouldn’t the money just follow the kids to whatever school the parents choose?

I said that back in the 1970s, when I first started teaching, my first couple of jobs were in little Christian schools. We got paid about a third of what public school teachers made. Almost no benefits. I remember being handed a ream of paper before school started—that was my supply of copy paper for my class for the year. We had no specialists and no support staff.

At that time the parents sometimes talked about how frustrating it was that they paid taxes for public schools and then paid tuition for private school. Why couldn’t they have their own tax money to pay for their tuition?

My sister said, “Exactly.”

I told her the voucher movement started with already existing private schools. Even with that small beginning, the public schools were highly suspicious. I remember a great story from New York City where the public school union reps confronted the Catholic school nuns, accusing them of wanting to take only the best and the brightest of the students and turning away the trouble makers. The nuns said, “You pick who you send to our schools. We’ll take whoever you send.” That shut up the union, as far as those schools were concerned.

The ironic thing was, most of the private religious schools that I knew about quickly turned away from the voucher movement. They decided that money from the government in any form—even in the form of vouchers—would come with government strings attached. And they wanted to preserve their autonomy.

However, the voucher movement continued. Individuals, institutions, organizations—people created charter schools specifically to take advantage of voucher programs. And some charter schools are businesses, designed to make a profit.

I told my sister, I have a hard time reconciling the idea of taking money from public schools to give to private schools that are for-profit institutions.

She said, “Well, that’s ridiculous. That would be wrong.”

On the other hand, I’d like my coworkers who damn all charters with the same brush to take a look at Breakthrough Schools in Cleveland. Breakthrough Schools are a network of charter schools in Cleveland.

  • They are NONPROFIT.
  • They target some of the city’s neediest areas.
  • And they are remarkably successful.

“Nearly all Breakthrough students are students of color, and eight of 10 are low-income.”

 “Its schools are in the top third of all schools in the city for academic performance.”

And by the way, Breakthrough Charter Schools joined 20 other high scoring charter schools in opposing President Trump’s education budget, even though the new budget proposes $168 million more for charter schools. They united to oppose the cuts to traditional public schools, saying,

“We need federal support for all schools, for all kids, not just kids in ‘choice’ schools.”

Budgets are statements of priorities, and this one sends a clear message that public education is not a top priority.”

The group specifically objected to cuts in Pell grants, teacher training, and afterschool programs.

And they reiterated the value of public education as an “essential pillar of our democracy.”

Personally, I can’t reduce the charter school debate to a sound bite. I think for-profit schools should operate with no public money at all. But as far as I am concerned, if Cleveland or Ohio wants to give vouchers to families with children attending Breakthrough Schools, I’d be fine with that. Breakthrough Schools are bringing new people, new energy, and new ideas to a place that desperately needs them—not to make money, but to make a difference.

Addressing the Teacher Shortage Without Sacrificing Quality

 

There’s a place on the Washington coast called Taholah. I’ve been there a few times on my bicycle, riding up Highway 109 from Ocean Shores. The scenery is staggering. There’s huge trees everywhere, a river on the north end of town and an ocean to the west.

Also staggering is the obvious poverty. There’s run-down homes, stray dogs and abandoned cars. I didn’t see any stores or restaurants.

Taholah looks like a tough place to find work.

It also looks exactly like what you’d expect to see if you went there after reading the data. Per capita income is half that of the rest of the state. Housing values are about a third. About 5% of their 11th graders met standard in math; about a fourth met standard in ELA.

Twenty-three percent of their seniors graduate on time.

The other thing you should know about Taholah is that their population is 80% Native American. It’s the headquarters for the Quinault Reservation.

One more thing. According to the Seattle Times, 22.5% of their teachers are “Emergency Teachers,” teachers who are not certified and may or may not have a college degree. School districts are only allowed to hire emergency teachers when they’re unable to find anyone qualified to teach. According to my math, that means four of the seventeen teachers in Taholah are emergency status.

My district, on the other hand, attracts dozens of qualified applicants for every open position. Two summers ago I spent most of a sunny weekend wading through application packets, meeting with the rest of the hiring committee, and interviewing the five finalists before hiring the competent teacher who works next door.

That’s the thing about this teacher shortage. It’s like a large, complicated lake in the process of drying up. The shallow inlets are the first to empty out, while the deep water in the middle is safe for a long time. Taholah, with its poverty and lack of amenities will suffer the teacher shortage a lot sooner and a lot more severely than Edmonds, where I work.

So what do we do about it? One answer is to loosen the requirements to teach in Washington, a place well-known for having tough hurdles for prospective teachers, particularly those coming from out-of-state.

But is that really what we want? Do we really want to make it easier for people to teach in this state? Those requirements, after all, weren’t written out of spite; they were written to ensure that the kids in Taholah, as well as Edmonds, have a competent, qualified teacher in front of them.

We’ve got a problem. We’ve got a teacher shortage that hits small, rural – and frequently poor – communities much harder than it will ever hit more affluent communities. How do we make it attractive to teach in Taholah without sacrificing teacher quality?

I wish I knew.

Anyone Can Teach… Except Teachers

The popular narrative is that unionized teachers are destroying public education because of our supposed low standards for performance, laziness, and constant cries for more pay and less work.

States across the country, including Washington, buckled down on teacher performance by reforming the teacher evaluation system to be more rigorous and standards-based. New academic standards were adopted and new tests were designed to measure just how bad we teachers are at teaching, in many cases with the stated purpose of those tests to be to identify and remove bad teachers.

We’re so bad at teaching despite our degrees and training in this complex work, in fact, that the current fashion in education policy is that anyone…ANYONE has to be better at teaching than teachers are.

As you might have seen, states like Arizona are launching policy referred to as the “warm body” approach for teacher recruitment: The main qualification for earning a teaching credential being that you are a carbon-based life form capable of sustaining metabolism.

Even here in Washington, “alternative routes to certification” are gaining traction as more and more classrooms are being staffed by teachers with an emergency credential because of the dearth of capable applicants.

Let’s break this down: Because so few people are choosing to become teachers on purpose, we’re satisfied with taking whomever we can get…and we think this is a solution to our problem?

Maybe, just maybe, it isn’t the unionized teachers demanding better policy and pay who are the problem here. I wonder what will it take for our policymakers…or as importantly, us as a society…to recognize that effective teaching involves a set of complex skills and behaviors which, even in the best of conditions, involves countless variables that must all be managed and responded to on a moment-by-moment basis. It is not something random folks off the street can do well, particularly if those random folks can get paid better to do other, perhaps easier, work. Clearly, we’re not dealing with “the best of conditions” in our schools, so putting a warm body in front of kids is not going to be the solution to our problem, no matter what evaluation system we use or what rigorous standards we demand be taught.

The solutions are the same solutions they have always been: It isn’t about stricter evaluations, higher standards, or better tests. We have to invest money, and more than we think, in order to turn this ship around. We can’t spend a dime and expect a dollar’s return…and then complain because we actually got what we paid for and not more.

If we aren’t willing to make schools as workplaces into the kinds of places where the very best and brightest are not only drawn but want to stay, then we don’t actually care about improving educational outcomes for kids. The latter will never happen without the former.


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Summative Rating: UNSAT

After one year of unsatisfactory ratings on his or her job performance, a teacher may be placed on a directed plan of improvement. If that plan is not satisfied, that teacher may be terminated and replaced with someone else who can do the job.

This is what the legislature codified into law with our new teacher evaluation model, and I’m all for it.

And the premise ought to apply to the legislature as well.

The Supreme Court put them on a plan of improvement long ago. They have failed to meet the terms of that plan.

They were granted an extended special session, during which time non-policymakers spent more time in Olympia talking ed policy than the elected officials did. Still, no performance.

In the evaluation framework that judges my work as a teacher, action…nearly any kind of action…is enough to get me rated “Basic.” To be rated “Unsatisfactory,” my performance must demonstrate “no action when action is called for.”

There is no better phrase to describe our legislature right now than that.

I’m with the Seattle Times Editorial Board. No more special sessions. No more probationary periods to turn it around. Let the Supreme Court make the decisions if the Legislature won’t.

Let’s Talk About Tax

I just spent the day at Occupy Olympia. I carpooled down with three other teachers from North Kitsap, and we joined a group of teachers from around the state.

Before I left home, I read articles about Washington’s regressive tax system from newspapers in Seattle and Everett and Spokane. The key point they all make is that the top one percent of Washington wage earners pay only 2.4% of their income in taxes. In stark contrast, the poorest residents of the state pay 16.8%.

Honestly, there is a discrepancy between wealthy and poor across the nation, and it’s time to shine a spotlight on that fact nationwide. Meanwhile, though, the discrepancy in Washington is the worst. Washington has the most regressive tax system in the entire United States. (Not only is it a regressive tax system, it is also an oppressive tax system, especially to society’s most vulnerable.)

According to the Washington Department of Revenue website, Washington makes more than half its income from sales tax of one kind or another, which makes the state income especially vulnerable to fluctuations in the market. If the economy is tight, people don’t buy as much.

Face it, our sales taxes are high. Our gas taxes are high. Our B&O taxes are high.

No wonder whenever anyone raises the idea of any new tax—income tax, anyone?—people in Washington freak out. They panic.

I totally understand. If I had to continue paying the taxes I have to pay now AND I had to pay income taxes on top of that, my husband and I couldn’t afford to live in our three bedroom two bath house with our one car and a motorcycle and no pets. (Who can afford a dog anymore???)

It’s time to get creative.

So in Olympia I looked for people to talk to. I talked to the aide for one of my representatives. I spoke with representatives from other districts.

I said we needed more revenue in order to fully fund schools. But we couldn’t just add a new tax. In our state, that’s a non-starter.

What we need is a complete tax overhaul from the ground up.

We need the legislature to come to the taxpayers and say, “Look, you will have lower sales taxes. Lower gas taxes. Lower B&O taxes. Lower taxes in general.

“At the same time we are going to implement an income tax for the most wealthy in the state.

“We are going to make taxes more equitable.

“And we will fully fund high-quality education throughout the state.”

One representative cheered. Another waved me off with “we can’t talk about that!”

One person asked how I would ever get the legislature to agree. I said it might take putting them all in seclusion—locking the doors and taking away their electronic devices until they had reached an agreement. Preferably unanimity. I said they could model the process on the US Constitutional Convention of 1787.

I also suggested watching the movie Separate But Equal to see how a sharply divided Supreme Court gradually moved to a unanimous decision on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954.

So what happens if the legislature does it? What if they actually come up with a restructured tax plan that not only fully funds education but is equitable too?

I said obviously they would need to sell it to the public. We should go out in teams, legislators and teachers side by side, to educate and explain to the rest of the voters why this new plan makes sense.

Thank a Woman of Color in Education

Note: this blog was originally posted on hope.teague.com under the title “Women of Color In Education Should Be the Norm”

Ate Josie (pronounced a-taay, meaning “big sister” in Tagalog) had a stern face. She was no-nonsense when it came to Children’s Church at TayTay New Life Christian Fellowship. It was 1987 and we were going to learn about Jesus, come hell or high water. It didn’t matter that we were sweating buckets because the ceiling fan had stopped working.

Ann Chau spent every Saturday night at Harvesters Youth Group actively listening to awkward and dramatic teenagers, her eyes simultaneously empathetic and judging. She always listened.  Trustworthy and loyal, she taught us that compassion for others was more important than popularity. She encouraged our crew of misfit, tri-culture kids from around the world. Ann made me feel valued and through our relationship I realized I wanted to do that for other teens.

Christina Tsu was my youth pastor and the “boss” of my senior year internship at a local church (I was still living in Hong Kong). She counseled me as I decided who my closest friends were and what college I would attend. It was under her leadership that I became self-disciplined, learning how to passionately serve others, and how to listen to God through prayer. She shaped my notions of self-worth and my belief in God. This is the year I realized I wanted to teach high school and not become a nurse (plus body fluids are nasty!).

These women left a fingerprint on my life. While my exposure to women of color in leadership and education roles is a little nontraditional (I didn’t attend school in the United States),  it has shaped how I viewed women in power. I grew up thinking that women of all colors could be in positions of power and authority while leading their respective communities. This was my norm.

My experience is not the case for many students of color in the United States today. There are systemic reasons for this exclusion that are embedded in our history of institutional racism. Often, educators of color serve in auxiliary roles such as paraeducators, office personnel, or career counselors.  While this is important and without a doubt these educators change lives, only 18% of certificated teachers are of color. With such a low percentage, it is likely that most students will never encounter a teacher of color in their K-12 career.

Disclaimer: I want to acknowledge that women–particularly women of color–have always been marginalized teachers in society. As mothers, grandmothers, aunties, and sisters, they instill the most important life lessons about the world in their children, grandchildren, and siblings.

Just a couple of weeks ago I lurked in the background of an #EduColor chat titled “Her Struggle, Her Power: Women of Color as Educators.” I felt this chat was one of the most important conversations I’ve joined–not because I actually had anything to say, but because I had everything to learn. A few things stood out to me:

Women in teaching deal with a lot of the same crap from a system that doesn’t value them enough. Teaching was one of the first professions open to women in a society that didn’t view us as intelligent or capable (ironic considering we’re the ones educating future generations *Kanye shrug). So now we’ve “proven” ourselves, but we’ve also proven that we will tolerate poor working conditions and mediocre compensation packages.

Women of color have it even worse than white women. In addition to being poorly paid, teachers of color aren’t treated the same way their white counterparts are. Often they are disproportionately subject to working with “hard” cases and seen only as disciplinarians rather than instructional experts. Furthermore, in addition to gender discrimination, they face straight up racism from students, parents, colleagues, and the system as a whole!

Women of color in education reach students in a way that interchangeable white ladies need to learn from. I’d argue this is probably my most important takeaway from that Twitter chat. But it’s also the most challenging. I’m still grappling with what this looks like. I don’t think this means you awkwardly pretend you understand the WOC experience or say anything weird about how their race must help them connect with all kids from ____ racial background. Maybe start by reading this article by Christina Torres Under Pressure: Being a Woman of Color in Education. Then, go read the transcript of that Twitter chat and comment here with your own reflection.

I am the white woman I am today because of women of color.

Things You Should Know About: The Washington Teacher Advisory Council

Back in 2008 I was honored to be a regional “Teacher of the Year” for ESD 112. I had the chance to sit in a room with “TOYs” from each ESD, and it was humbling, astonishing, and inspiring to hear all the great work we each were championing in our section of the state.

Then, after the interviews and celebrations and receptions, we sped back to our respective classrooms and put our respective noses back to our respective grindstones.

Lyon Terry, 2015 Washington State Teacher of the Year, likely had a similar experience. The difference was what he chose to do next. He saw highly accomplished educators be selected and celebrated each year, and in that he saw an opportunity: While you might teach down the hall from a TOY and never know it (we teachers are often reticent to share our accolades), titles such as “Teacher of the Year” carry potentially powerful ethos when we enter into policy conversations with non-educators.

Lyon formed WATAC, the Washington Teacher Advisory Council, aimed at pulling together the expertise and ethos of alumni regional teachers of the year. Each year, the number of regional TOYs grows by nine (one for each ESD), so though the group may be small, it is certainly mighty.

This last weekend at Cedarbrook was the 2017 WATAC Spring Conference, where alumni of the TOY program gathered to learn about policy, advocacy, and the importance of teachers telling their stories. It was a powerful and inspiring experience, and I now feel like I am part of an even deeper network of teachers likewise committed to improving public education in Washington.

A big take-away and a good reminder: Everything we do as teachers is somehow impacted by a policy that someone, somewhere has written. Whether it is law from the legislature or rules put forth by a state-level group like the Board of Ed, Standards Board, or innumerable others, people are making decisions that directly impact every move we make as a teacher. Simply put: the people making those decisions ought to be teachers themselves. That’s one mission of WATAC (and CSTP, for that matter), that teachers are not just present at the policy table, but that they are the ones whose hands, hearts, and minds are creating the policy.

For more information about WATAC, here is the website and here is the overview of the program on OSPI’s homepage.

Fakes, Facts, and the Hardest Lessons to Teach

I was numbly scrolling through Facebook a recent morning when one of those infographic-ish memes appeared. Of course, since it was in my feed, it aligned with the political leanings that my clicks and likes had already communicated to the Facebook algorithms, and in my pre-coffee state I found myself hovering over the “share” button.

I had to pause, though. Even though I wanted (desperately) to believe that the political statement being made in the meme was true (hint: it had to do with golf trips and certain federal budget items), I wasn’t sure. I didn’t see any sources linked, I didn’t know who the creator of the meme was, and I didn’t want to spend a ton of time researching its veracity. I did anyway, and after about three minutes of research it turned out that this particular meme had its number off by about 100 times and misrepresented the nature of the budget in question. Darn those pesky alternative facts.

While I didn’t click “share,” that nugget of information, despite being proven false, is now lodged in the schema that I bring to political conversations in the near future. I will have to very intentionally not use it as I form my arguments to support my political positions. That will be hard, because meme-depth facts are what it seems most political conversations resort to anymore.

We hear plenty about Fake News nowadays. Fake News is to critical thinking what super-sized fast food is to our diet: It is convenient, appears to look more or less like it’s authentic counterpart, and satisfies a need. Yes, a flawed analogy if extended completely, but there are valid parallels about the long term health of both individuals and the community. In particular, a good parallel is that the amount of comparable effort it takes to systematically deconstruct and discount Fake News is as seemingly insurmountable as making seismic shifts to unhealthy diet habits. If the latter were easy, we’d all be fit and healthy; if the former were easy, Fake News would be a nonissue.

How do we teach “quick” critical thinking? How do we teach students to resist the temptation of our confirmation biases? How do we teach that facts aren’t established by clicks, shares, or re-tweets…and that our own opinions don’t trump facts just because our opinions are our own?

Forget Common Core. This is the great pedagogical challenge of the next phase of my career.


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Brave New World: Choice Among Alphas

In Aldous Huxley’s early-mid 20th century novel Brave New World, society is medically engineered into five rigid castes. At the top are the Alphas, the genetically and socially gifted; at the other end are the Epsilons, those beings human in form but relegated to work in service to the higher castes.

I used this novel in my Senior Lit and Comp class as one of the works we’d explore while understanding the basics of literary criticism. Brave New World was an excellent study in how to apply a Marxist literary perspective when examining a work of literature. This literary perspective involves looking both within and beyond the world of literature: through the “external” perspective, considering the novel (the physical book itself) as a product within a socio-economic system; through the “internal” perspective, considering the social and economic hierarchies within the story, highlighting the conflict between those who have economic or social power and those who lack it.

We currently seem to live in a world of hyperbole-turned-reality, so I’ll dip my toe in that water: The proposed repeal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (HR 610) is a systematic move to cement social castes maintained not by physical engineering as in Brave New World, but rather, by culling and sorting who is bestowed access to education. Where in the novel it benefits the higher castes to keep the lower castes physically controlled, in our world that control becomes control over access to information and education.

The purpose isn’t even hidden. HR 610 isn’t about serving all students: It states from the outset that it is only serving “eligible students,” which is openly defined in the bill as students whose parents elect to homeschool or send their child to a private school.

Further, under the guise of providing this “choice,” this bill undoes protections for disabled students as established in ESEA. It takes steps toward eliminating school lunch programs for low income students. It pretends that it is creating “choices in education.” When we look at who ends up with the power to choose, it is quite clear that this bill has zero interest in providing a free, quality education to all. If it did, the solution would be invest heavily in improving outcomes for all participants in the system, not just for those who want to get away from “those failing schools” through the power to choose one supposed option over another (even though there is growing evidence that non-public schools in the the choice model being proposed don’t actually serve kids better than traditional public schools).

Public education should be focused less on choices privileged adults are offered and more on equipping every young person with full access to ample choices upon becoming an adult. I want every graduate from my school to have the foundation from which he or she can choose virtually any path: university, work, trade school, family…and not feel locked out of any choice because of some action their guardian did or didn’t take when it came time to seek a supposed golden ticket (hollow promise).

Public education should be about empowering those who are born into situations which, for reasons beyond that little child’s control, place that child at a disadvantage in the face of societal systems constructed for the majority race, majority gender, and majority culture. The vision of the American Dream (a Dream never yet realized), with America as a place of opportunity, once included that those in the majority would use their collective power to ensure that those in the minority progress toward freedom from personal and institutional oppression…so that all those American promises remain possibilities.

Whether this bill dies a quick death or not, it is beyond clear that the potential for public education as a societal equalizer is a threat to those in power. HR 610 is not about helping all kids. Period.

Funding Gifted Education

I am one of three teachers in my school who teach in a self-contained Highly Capable (HC) classroom. We have a common math period, and when math class starts it’s a moment or two of scramble. Some of my students go to Mrs. Taylor’s. Some of Mrs. Taylor’s and Mrs. Fairchild’s come to me. Some of mine go to computers in the hall to work independently.

The three of us share one hour of paraeducator time that we use during math wherever we deem we most need the help. This year our paraeducator is working with the younger students.

A couple weeks ago I met with our program director and mentioned that next year our paraeducator would have at least six students in seventh grade math. No worries—she has worked with a small group of advanced students in seventh grade math before, and she actually prefers that assignment.

My administrator told me not to count on having any paraeducator time next year.

Now I’ve taught in the HC program in our district since 1989. We’ve always had help for math. After all, we have three teachers working with students on levels from grade three to grade seven or eight. Having one extra adult makes the groups manageable.

But next year there might not be enough money to make that possible. For the first time ever.

Trust me, I’m concerned about state funding for Highly Capable programs.

Eight years ago only 49% of the districts in the state of Washington had any programs at all for their gifted students, their Highly Capable programs. In those districts that actually had programs, most provided services just for students in grades three to five. Why those grades? Most districts didn’t do the testing to identify students until the end of second grade, so schools didn’t start services until third grade. And most districts (or the secondary schools in the districts) felt they offered enough variety at the secondary level that they didn’t need HC services past fifth grade.

During the 2008-2009 school year the legislature passed the Basic Education Act, and everything changed for HC education in Washington. HB 2261 stated that “for highly capable students, access to accelerated learning and enhanced instruction is access to a basic education”—and it said “the program for highly capable students … shall be categorical funding” (HB 2261, page 63, lines 21-23, and page 64, lines 2-4).

The legislature decreed that having an appropriate HC education was Basic Education for HC students! And the funding for HC students was to be treated the same way as the funding for ELL and LAP students. Hallelujah! All roads were now smooth!

Of course, we all know what an unfunded mandate is. Welcome to the world of gifted education.

Running the programs for half the districts in the state, and just a handful of grade levels at that, cost $43,471,005 in 2008-2009. The state allocation that year—before Highly Capable was required—was   $8,367,000. That means the state paid 19.2% of the cost of HC education that year.

By last year, 2015-16, the state allocated $10,001,000. The funds for HC have gone up about 19.5% since 2000-2009. But, remember, the number of grades served has more than quadrupled. And the number of districts receiving funds has doubled. The state increase in HC funds is laughably low.

Districts have started solving the lack of state funding by identifying fewer HC students. What’s wrong with identifying fewer students? The insidious problem is, the students who are less likely to get identified are students from low income groups, minorities, ELL students, dual-identified or twice-exceptional students (gifted and another identification—think HC with a 504 or IEP). Narrowing the focus, limiting the pool, becomes an equity issue, an issue addressed last week at the Equity Summit on Gifted Equity at the Robinson Center at the University of Washington. And we are back to making HC education look like an elitist program.

Sigh.

Every proposal, from the governor, the House, and the Senate, offers some improvement in HC allocation. The question is, do any of the proposals actually fully fund the costs of HC in the st
ate?

Trust me, my students desperately need the help they get. Not just in math. They deserve materials appropriate for their level in every subject, just like any other special needs group. They require teachers who are trained to meet not only their academic but their unique social and emotional needs. And their number one need must be met on a regular basis—quality time with their intellectual peers.

The state requires districts to treat HC students like they matter. Now the state has to provide the money for their education.