Tuesday, June 20, 2017

How Can We Stand By?  
By:  Josh Hickey, NY Teacher  

The day after the announcement that I won my first unopposed election for building representative almost ten years ago, a colleague approached me in the main office just outside of the mail room and said they saw the election results and were happy with the outcome, and how they voted for me.  A lot of different things to say raced through my head but in the end, all I said was “Thanks.”  I felt weird about the election being uncontested, and on top of that, I have a tendency to be terrible at small talk.  On the other hand, if I’m asked a direct question, particularly about something about which I have a strong opinion, I can talk at length.  Since I seem to have plenty of strong opinions, I can be a real hit at parties if you don’t mind skipping past the part where I’m awkwardly fumbling for something to say.

A situation similar to the scenario I described above happened over Memorial Day weekend; and I’ll skip past all the awkward parts, and paraphrase the real substance of the conversation I had.  We were talking about an article that had been shared over Twitter, and someone asked me if the increasing percentage of students in “low-income households” in public schools in the United States today was due to the expansion of voucher programs, knowing as we do that the majority of the students taking advantage of these programs are suburban children, or if these alarming conditions were the result of a greater percentage of the population experiencing poverty overall. I felt that the conversation that followed was an important one because the path it took intersects so intimately with many different aspects of our modern and professional lives as teachers; including socio-economic status and its impact on student achievement, attacks on education and education policy in general, state tax codes and their impact on schools and society in general, the role of unions in terms of class, and also the parallel decline of unions and the middle class in the United States.

Yes, it is true that since 2013, the majority (51%) of students attending public schools in this country experience the condition we call poverty.  Just in case you think that our state is an exception to this trend, New York stood at 48% in the study conducted by the Southern Education Foundation in 2015, and higher than surrounding states by a significant margin.    Many of the states with the highest levels of low income students attending public schools have no state tax, and therefore no mechanism to support local funding of public education.  In New York’s case, while we do have state taxes to help shoulder the cost of public education, we have instituted tax cap limits on local communities funding their schools.  Simply put, our society is slowly strangling public education to death by depriving it of the economic resources it needs to develop and educate the next generation.  Imagine if you had less and less money each year to run your household.  Eventually, it becomes unsustainable.   http://www.southerneducation.org/getattachment/4ac62e27-5260-47a5-9d02-14896ec3a531/A-New-Majority-2015-Update-Low-Income-Students-Now.aspx.

It is also true that the middle class has been disappearing in the United States, and that this loss mirrors what has been happening to unions for nearly thirty years: namely, that when unions began to decline, the middle class went along with it.  If you are like New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff in 2011, you might have said that the decline of  unions in the United States was a good thing, as they raise the cost of production and bring corruption with them wherever they go.  But when unions went, rising inequality began to fill the void.  According to a 2011 study by Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0003122411414817):
From 1973 to 2007, private sector union membership in the United States declined from 34 to 8 percent for men and from 16 to 6 percent for women. During this period, inequality in hourly wages increased by over 40 percent. We report a decomposition, relating rising inequality to the union wage distribution’s shrinking weight. We argue that unions helped institutionalize norms of equity, reducing the dispersion of nonunion wages in highly unionized regions and industries. Accounting for unions’ effect on union and nonunion wages suggests that the decline of organized labor explains a fifth to a third of the growth in inequality—an effect comparable to the growing stratification of wages by education

You probably don’t need quotes or statistics to prove that your income hasn’t kept pace with the rising cost of living, even during a so-called economic recovery, but I’ll provide some anyway.  The middle 60 percent of households earned 53.2 percent of national income in 1968. That number has fallen to just 45.7 percent. During that same period, nationwide union membership fell from 28.3 percent to a record-low 11.3 percent of all workers. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/18/union-membership-middle-class-income_n_3948543.html)

In the past, I have identified Teacher’s Unions as one of the last bastions of union membership and engagement left in this country, it is clear that the decline of unions mirrors declining incomes in terms of purchasing power and how there is a clear link between socio-economic status and educational attainment.  When our communities are impoverished and deprived of resources, education and schools suffer.   (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/04/29/upshot/money-race-and-success-how-your-school-district-compares.html)  During the course of the conversation that served as the impetus for this article, I was forced to ask: If what we see here is the outcome of decreasing union membership leading to a disappearing middle class, how can we, as union members, stand by and allow the kinds of decisions to be made over and over again that will not only harm our students, our communities, and our profession?   We cannot be silent victims of a system that is so clearly geared to a single outcome: shrinking the  middle class, where many of us belong, and in essence, perpetuating poverty.

There are many ways to change the circumstances described above, and not all tactics are going to work for everyone.  One viable route might be to run for office and try to make the government apparatus work in our favor, and while there are numerous avenues and ways to exercise your personal power, not everyone is going to run for office.  I’m no fan of party politics and I don’t live in New York State’s 9th assembly district like some of you do, but I was proud to work to get Christine Pellegrino, a teacher in the Baldwin School District elected to the State Assembly.  Assemblywoman-elect Pellegrino takes a stand against standardization efforts in Albany, against corruption, the unequal distribution of public tax dollars and many more issues that are important to us, locally.  A union member, in Albany, fighting for the issues that are of concern to us- this is the kind of thing we can replicate with our collective power.  With guidance and support from NYSUT, and help from volunteers around the state, we were able to mobilize and effectively place a teacher in Albany.  This alone is no silver bullet, and won’t solve our problems instantly, but it is a start and a sign that there is more that can be done, and that we are capable of doing it together.  Maybe this effective campaign will be the springboard for many other union members to engage in politics, or consider some other form of activism that can enhance the communities where we live and the education of the children we teach.

We recently held our own district-wide elections, and I see a lot of intersectionality there too.  For the first time in as long as anyone could remember, there were a series of choices for members to make.  Candidates visited schools, and spoke to members, talked about goals, visions for the future and plans about how to make those things a reality.  Membership was being courted and engaged in a way they had not experienced in their careers, and then were asked to choose the path they thought would lead to the best outcome.  I think it is also worth noting a few points about the election.  In less than one month’s time, there were several open-invitation meet-ups, telephone town halls, and listening tours that touched each building and gave membership a chance to interact and speak with the candidates about issues important to their professional careers and how  union leadership plays a  role in it.  What is more, while one “slate’s” candidates lost contested elections, a third of the membership indicated they were interested in making a change.  One third, and after less than one month of making their case to the membership.  Challenging a leadership position in a democratic election isn’t divisive and neither is disagreement about tactics.  That is how our processes are supposed to work, and we are stronger for having gone through the process.  It is even more important that our organization recognize the indispensability of all members, and that we work hard at keeping the lines of communication open so that all members can engage and make our union great.

While several positions went uncontested, membership entrusts leadership to guide them through what will prove to be some very trying times.  I hope that the kind of reaching out and engagement we saw during the campaigning will continue, and that we can all work together to fend off some of the challenges coming our way.    The election speaks clearly to me about the effectiveness of the work to engage membership that I have been a part of at the High School.   In five short months, attendance at the High School’s chapter meeting has doubled because of the hard work of union leadership at the High School working on educating and engaging the membership.  The building elections held two weeks after district elections, had 14 people run for 9 Faculty Council seats and 5 people run for 11/2 Building Representative positions. Membership wants to be engaged, they want to be informed and they are essential and integral to our continued success.

We are working together to build strength and unity into everything that we do as an organization.  Solidarity is the glue that binds the qualities of strength and unity together.  By working together as a professional organization, we can make changes internally, we can make positive changes in our communities, in our state and across the country.   It starts locally- in half of one school year, the High School union leadership has membership engaged and looking for more, we have members tapping into sources of information that relate to our professional lives and then looking to share that knowledge, brothers and sisters trying to pitch in by putting their names on the ballot and volunteering for service within our organization.  At the state level, we have brothers and sisters looking to organize around regional concerns like storm preparedness, protecting our environment and shorelines, dealing with the opioid epidemic, and stepping up into elected positions to be the change they want to see in the world.  When we see what we can accomplish together; when we assert our collective voices and project our collective power together, then we will be able to finally address broader societal problems.  These societal problems include the continued inequity in public school funding which impacts impoverished communities the most, the shrinking middle class, the cycle of poverty that cripples the chances of the disadvantaged from extricating themselves from a sub-standard socio-economic  status, low-paying jobs, and a social inequality that seeks to entrench the very few, and oppress the growing majority.

You can follow Josh on twitter @Socia1Studies   (that is the number one in the twitter handle)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Role of a School Board Member by Gregory Sampson

Stone Eggs: Thoughts about world events, education, and theology

Originally Posted at: http://stoneeggs.blogspot.com/2017/06/the-role-of-school-board-member.html

The Role of a School Board Member

This morning brings news from California that a school board member is surveying students via Google docs to ask them which of their teachers should be fired.

I'm not making this up: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfuEAArKudshXvC2_OocgWDfj-cVnd0OKr7DtecaJudQzk1IA/viewform?c=0&w=1

Check the survey out for yourself.

School board members are elected officials. As such, there are no requirements, no qualifications, no certifications they have to hold to enter office other than receiving a majority of the vote in the election in which they ran.

Thus, it is not surprising that too many don't understand their role.

School board members are the representatives elected to oversee the public school system that is taxpayer funded. As such, they set policy, hire and supervise a superintendent who leads and manages the schools on a daily basis, and fulfill legal responsibilities to approve contracts that legally bind the institution to debt and payments of tax dollars, that govern the employees of the school system, and that fulfill the laws of their state. They work with the superintendent on strategic plans to increase student achievement, meet the growing need for seats in rapidly developing areas, and funding the capital (building, furniture, and equipment) needs of the system.

They are a strategic and important link for constituents, that is, voters and parents, who voice their praise and concerns about their schools.

They have a responsibility to advocate for and defend the community's schools against the forces that would decimate them, often for private profit.

Lastly, school board members serve as the guiding force for the democratic institution that the public schools of America have been and should always be.

School board members are not elected to micromanage schools. They have no say in who is appointed principal, who teaches at the school, and what discipline they think an individual teacher should receive other than to approve sanctions recommended by the superintendent as their legal responsibility.

School board members are not elected to hand over taxpayer-bought assets to private corporations.

School board members are not elected to implement policy hostile to the schools, parents, students, and employees that they represent. They should not be advocating via voice or print that public schools should be closed in favor of 'choice', a buzz word that means privatization. They were not elected to destroy the institution. If that's what they believe in and have any integrity at all, they would resign.

If not, they will find themselves voting to rob taxpayers of their tax dollars. First the taxpayers paid to construct the school, then they have to pay a third party to buy the school, then when the school fails, they can watch the third party sell the property but they won't see the dollars return to the school system. In that event, the word 'thief' is not too harsh to describe those who give their approval.

School board members advocate for their schools. They don't ask students what teachers should be fired. That reveals an ignorance of what takes place in their schools that can only be remedied by actual experience.

They understand and work against the idea that they can run parallel school systems (public, charter, and voucher) on the resources sufficient for only one school system.

They understand that a grading system of schools that relies upon one measure--testing--is insufficient to evaluate the excellence of a school that must also provide meals, counseling, and other support systems to students in desperate need of help.

They are vocal in expressing their appreciation for all their hard-working employees, not only once a year when the calendar arrives in the first week of May, but throughout the year.

It's not easy being a school board member, but these days, no job in education is easy.

School board members are pivotal in easing that burden or making it harder.

On this Sunday in June, I ask every school board member to reflect and consider, then answer the question: am I making it easier or harder?

My BAT Anniversary by Cheryl Binkley

Four years ago today, I joined the Badass Teachers Association, June 17, 2013.

I was coming off being department chair which put me smack in the middle of remediating students for the graduation barrier exam in English, and struggling with my soul as we all– teachers, parents, and students-- slept poorly and cried over repeated attempts as the few remaining young people who were new to the state, new to the country, and/or learning challenged tried repeatedly to pass a stacked deck Pearson multiple choice test in order to graduate.

The year had been fraught with extreme administrative bullying of several highly effective colleagues that included outright fabrication of meetings that never happened, and as their building rep, I was wondering how long I might last in a school I loved, but whose management had crossed the line when it came to ethical conduct.

I don’t remember how or why I came across BATs and their mission on facebook. I was, I think, just browsing.
BATs was three days old, and still, compared to today, a tiny rag-tag group of resistors. They were 3 days old, I felt 100 years.
The thought that there were others struggling to remain teachers, remain ethical, and fighting for their students, schools, and colleagues was like a miracle reaching out from my computer.

I was not alone.
My heart soared.
Between us we would find ways to figure out why and how malevolent forces were strangling our students, schools, and profession– and together fight back.

At that time the narrative in the public square was that schools were failing, and that teachers were not just failures, but were unintelligent slackers incapable of teaching or leading anyone or anything, and it was being broadcast on all channels every morning on the way to work.

Takeovers, followed by charter schools were supposed to be the silver bullet for “school improvement.” The Republican coalition- ALEC was pushing up to 60 anti-education bills a year through state legislatures with only a peep of notice here and there, and Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and Alice Walton were just the top tier of billionaires pouring hundreds of billions into dismantling public schools as we had known them. The US Department of Ed, while run by the Obama Administration, was firmly in the camp of Democrats for Education Reform, a group that had no understanding of schools, and would even pair with ALEC to push takeovers and profitizing of schools in poor neighborhoods.

Those first days of BATs were daunting as we began to realize the staggering size of the Tsunami we were facing. The anti-schools forces had at least a 10 year head start on us! They had established astro-turf groups, hired lobbyists, and their money and power both intimidated and attracted policy makers and managers at every level.

But Marla Kilfoyle, Priscilla Sanstead, and Mark Naison who had the idea for BATs were not daunted, and neither were the hundreds and soon thousands flocking to BATs daily. The numbers of new BATs that first year were amazing, and each one was calling out thank you, thank you for the lifelines they/we needed.

In what has to be among the most successful grassroots efforts of this time, BATs grew and teachers across the country spoke out, in their schools, in their communities, and in their legislatures. We challenged poor management, federal mandates, state regulations and bills, and the public propaganda about our schools. We were scrupulous with the truth, and with telling it far and wide.

Soon there were annual gatherings, and quickly Union Caucuses were established (thank you Becca Ritchie and the Washington BATS who established an NEA BAT caucus). The Union caucuses began to push back against infiltration of our Unions by Gates and the billionaires and the failure narrative that was being taught even to our colleagues.

In state houses such as Virginia, New York, Ohio, California, and virtually the whole nation we worked to inform our legislators, and ALEC began to be handed defeats of their once smoothly passed anti-schools legislation. We challenged Reform governors and mayors on both sides of the aisle who were syphoning funds from schools to cronies.

BATS began to run for union positions, school boards, and public offices.

The Quality of Worklife team ran a Worklife survey that attracted 30,000 participants, and reframed some of the conversation at the Department of Ed.

Today, I am retired from teaching. I retired a year ago, about 3 years earlier than I planned, not because I had to, but because I needed to go upstream. Being downstream, trying to save the drowning was not the work I was called to do. I needed to intervene before parents and students were crying and haggard from lack of sleep over testing– to stop the bullying of teachers at the policy level and to declare to the whole world, not just my administrators that students are so much more than test scores, and it is growth, not measuring stature that is the mark of learning.

I needed to intervene further back in the process, before the reformers could flood our schools with destruction and dysfunction. It would mean less retirement money, but with some management I could make it work, and so far have.

And to be honest, I could no longer practice the kind of teaching that was best for my students in the atmosphere of standardization that has continued to eat away at our schools. You see, we have not “won” yet, the battle still rages. That 10 years head start the Reformers got still threatens, and Gates, Broad, and Walton have been joined by the big 5 tech companies whose coffers are bottomless.

We still have much work to do, and we do it only with our own time and resources. The first 4 years of BATs has been entirely run by volunteers, self funded by teachers for teachers with only minor grants from other grassroots groups who share our cause.

I am on the blog team, admin. for my state BATs page, and help with assorted other BAT groups. In addition I work with a Coalition of County employees in my home county and my state teachers groups, and I am working on a book that includes changing the metaphor for education away from the business and competition model that reformers have pushed so hard.

Today, I’d like to thank all my BATs friends and colleagues– The Founding BATs and the current Board and Steering Groups, our guiding lights Marla, Priscilla, and Melissa, the Artist BATs on Meme Team whose work is so important to the success of our movement and I expect will someday be collected and lauded for posterity, The Bloggers, and Twitter and Action BATs who watch and counter those nasty propaganda pieces, The Virginia BATs and other state BATs groups who advocate so strongly in their local communities and state legislatures, the BATs who have joined and fostered Opt-Out Movements, and the BATs who have stood up for civil rights of our children.

There are over 63,000 of us now on the main BAT page, and almost 1000 on the Virginia state page.

And here’s the thing I know– BATs are saving children and schools.

We have changed the narrative, and continue to pass the truth of our lives and our lifes’ works on to those in the public square, our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and policy makers.

BATs are truth tellers, and nurturers, intellectuals, and activists. They are, to put it bluntly, saviors. I know because you all saved me.

So today, as I start my 5th year as a BAT– Thank you all for making sure when I needed a compatriot and friend that I would have many, and more every day.

In Solidarity,
to the Ramparts,

Cheryl Binkley

Saturday, June 17, 2017

From the Trenches of Public Education by Christine Gill

This is in response to someone trying to lecture us on how we in public ed sound greedy and like we do not care about our students, just ourselves. Feel free to grab a cup of covfefe before you read my rant:

You have bought the propaganda people like the current Michigan GOP, the Mackinac Center, and The Great Lakes Education Project (all three highly funded by Betsy DeVos and her family, by the way) have offered up to the good people of Michigan for YEARS. We do not think we are more important, it is our students who are the MOST important otherwise none of us could stay working in these often toxic work environments because yes the pay and total compensation package is just not worth it.

Imagine being a highly motivated, master teacher in a work environment where you cannot take your act down the road for a higher rate of pay, more prestige, and better working conditions. Yes that is what public educators face every day. So is individual merit pay the solution? No, it is not for a variety of reasons. Do I think I am more important than my son the Funeral Director? No. People need his knowledgeable, calm caring presence when they are saying goodbye to a loved one. Am I more important than any one of my six cousins who are nurses or nurses to be? No. Without them we would not have good care when we are ill. We also need my law enforcement officer nephew, an officer of the year in his home state of Florida. Without him and his brothers and sisters in blue we would not be safe on the streets and sleep well at night.

What is the difference you may ask? There is NO ORGANIZED POLITICAL ATTACK aimed at them, their profession, their professionalism, and the people they serve. The attack on us is not just an attack on the employees of public education, they are attacks on all of our children who attend a public school. Ever since Wall Street and these so called ed reformers (I like to call them ed deformers) got a whiff of the profit to be made in education they have been on the attack backing efforts to de-fund and destabilize public education and then turning around and blaming us.

When did teachers become public enemy #1? When has a single profession with its roots in caring for and educating the least among us become so maligned that education schools in America have seen a huge decrease in enrollment? Ask yourself this - why is there a shortage of highly qualified teachers and a shortage of highly qualified substitute teachers? Once you truly examine these questions and research the answers I trust that you will have a completely different view point of the crisis in public education and why we are complaining. It is not just our compensation, it is the defunding of necessary services, infrastructure, and curricular needs, like art, music, and physical education that all children need and deserve and why the United States used to have the best educational system in the world.

Teachers are public servants, but they are not public slaves. They should be paid for their efforts which goes on for many hours after their duty day of 7.5 hours. They write curriculum, grade papers and projects, join committees and participate in continuing education all year long. Do not think for one minute they work 186 (or more) 7.5 hour days. They work as hard and put in the unpaid time like any other professional. You would not be who you are today without a teacher(s).

Interview With Keith Benson, Camden Education Association President by Melissa Tomlinson

Recently I had the honor of interviewing Keith Benson, newly elected president of the Camden Education Association. Camden has become the hotbed of education reform in New Jersey and community pushback has been steadily growing. The election of Keith as the association president signals a new sign of solidarity among educators in fighting for what is best for the communities and residents of Camden.

1 - Give us a little bit of a background of yourself
I am a teacher in Camden, have been for 13 years. I live in the city. My daughter attends our schools. My family, my grandparents, aunts and uncles have all worked here in the school district. My parents and a lot of folks in my family went to Camden schools and here I am thankfully, in a position to lead our teacher’s union.

2 - Prior to the election, what role did you play in the Camden Education Association?
I was the Public Relations chair from 2014-2015. But other than that, it was in a very limited capacity in terms of actually having roles and official duties. Most of the advocacy I was doing was on behalf of our schools through community groups.

3 - How about in the state union, did you have any kind of a role?

4 - Why did you choose to run at this time?
After I was able to complete my dissertation and I was able to understand the lay of the land as to why a lot of the reforms that were taking place in Camden were taking place in ways that had very little to do with improving education, but had to do with city-wide development and a desire to see demographic change. Our schools and our community members are just collateral damage in that broad pursuit. With that knowledge I wanted to operationalize what I knew and fight back on a broader scale. Fighting for just school-based things will not save our schools and save this community. Saving our public schools is an effective way of saving this Camden community. That is ultimately what is driving me. It happened that elections came up so I threw my hat in the ring. I had been active for our schools and for our educators long before this election so this is another avenue to increase my advocacy.

5 - Tell me more about your dissertation.
It called “Better for Whom - Camden Resident Perspectives on Recent Camden Redevelopment and State-Imposed Renaissance Schools”. It puts the microphone in front of the residents because a lot of the time when decisions are made they are made from the perspective of folks with power, folks with agency, and folks with a platform. So they’re missing. Typically when you are dealing with privatization of specifically low income minorities they are more dictated to. So what I wanted to do with my dissertation was actually highlight what our residents are seeing, what they’re feeling about all these things that are going on. But their views are often ignored, disregarded and not asked for at all. So with my dissertation I wanted to flush all of that out.

6 - You mentioned something about the role of saving school in saving the community. How would you see the role of schools in creating change?Can we create change in the future by changing the way we see the education of our youth?

What we see happening in Camden is what we see happening in urban areas across our country. This has a lot to do with where housing is now desirable, where millennials now want to live, millennials with greater affluence choose to live. The suburbs that generations before ours found so attractive and found to be an oasis have have largely become less functional and less advantageous to stay in. One common excuse that middle class avoided living in urban areas was because the school system was so bad. People move where the “good schools” are. So largely we see across the country a blaming and shaming of our urban schools and these schools are largely the schools where their serving primarily and impoverished minority piversation. With this continued demonization that really has very little to do with what is actually going on inside of the schools it’s been very easy for education reformers to come in and impose a fake solution. They are able to kill a lot of birds with one stone, like union busting. Corporations have greater access to these huge pots of money in our education budgets and at the same time strip local control of our urban public schools and rebrand what urban public schools look like to make them more amenable to be middle class millennials that might have been scared away from areas with poor schools and poor students. Middle class  millennials are willing to move near charter schools and move near schools that are viewed as better. I think that is what is happening in Camden and in other areas urban around the country. I view this as a broader housing issues. Our schools and our profession are collateral damage. Our kids are collateral damage.

7 - How do you temper the gentrification vs push-out vs what could be really good for the community?

One thing that really drives me as the central part of my advocacy - what happens when one of the last few affordable places in NJ ceases to become affordable for folks. Camden is an area where people aren’t making a whole lot of money. In fact it is one of the poorest areas of the country. What happens when you have a sort of mass demographic change and with it, development and things that coincide with this change. What happens to people’s taxes and rental rates for folks that don’t have this money? Eventually they are not going to stay here any more. One thing that has been really applicable in keeping Camden affordable for folks is the underlying perception that our schools are not performing. That our schools are terrible places to learn when really they're not. There are a lot of great things going on inside our schools and we’re dealing with overall the most challenging circumstances where people are against you. Where our educators and schools should be celebrated and given a pat on the back and more encouragement for doing what we have been doing for so long under dire circumstances we’re now blamed and targeted for closure and that is devastating.

6 - Based on all of these broader issue topics, how did you narrow this down and create topics for your campaign platform?

I don’t think it was really narrowing down as much as it was explaining the broader context of what it is we are dealing with. If you go in there and focus on school-side stuff, contract issues and professional development, those issues aren’t going to keep our schools open. The fight to maintain our profession and to grow our imprint in the community can’t happen absent of connections and authentic relations with the community. What my campaign sought to do was to actually make those connections of where we are at, what we need to fight for, and how we have to go about fighting for it. Linking with the community is paramount. It has to happen. We need the community alongside of us just like the community needs it’s public schools right alongside of them. The things that are going on inside the Renaissance, the takeover schools - and I call them takeover schools because that is what they are. In other cities, like Philadelphia, that is what they are actually called and I refuse to use the fluffy name of Renaissance schools - that are horrible if you care about education, individual growth, creativity and self esteem in children. Our public schools are a place that can continue to grow a student's creativity and sense of individuality in a way that the takeover schools can not and will not and not interested in doing that stuff at all. it is in the community’s best interest to have our public schools here to serve their children as well.

6 - Why do you think were successful in winning the election as opposed to your candidates?

I think a large part was because of the advocacy that I was doing alongside of the union, as really a part of the union, but long before I decided to get into the election. This was not on my radar four months ago, this election. I was going to try to continue to do the fighting that I could with the community groups that I was in. But I was approached with the idea that this might be a good way to forward my activism and benefit the community and benefit our schools and that influenced me to run. Those are the connections of people seeing me at board meetings and op-eds I have written. I have been posting some of the presentations that I have been giving at national conferences to professors and others. So the work was already there. I think that resonated with voters. The community also worked with me a lot to get out the vote, to convince the educators.

7 - Long term - as a whole, we are looking at some supreme court decisions that may affect how we deal with unions in this country. At this moment we seem to have a higher rate of member apathy - what are your thoughts and suggestions on dealing with that?

Honestly, I would like to be able to strategize about how to deal with that possible eventuality but the concerns I have are so current and so right in front of my face. How do I keep our schools open and keep our educational providers in our schools and keep our schools in our community? I can’t necessarily look that far down the road, which is unfortunate. I hope somebody else is strategizing and developing a contingency plan. But my main mission is to work with any entity that is willing to keep our schools here, to keep our school open, to keep our schools serving our children. It is in the best interest of our community is the best interest of our kids and they attend our schools. I can’t say enough that the things are going on inside these takeover schools are not what you would subject your child to if you cared about their development, if you cared about what is best for them. These folks that are touting them, these are not the type of schools that they would not send their children to. I went to private school from 10th to 12th grade. This is nothing like what I experienced. There was much more creativity, individuality and freedom of expression. These schools are just test factories, no excuses focus on discipline, what color sneakers your kids are wearing, how they walk down the hallways. I think it is focused in racism and classism as well. I have very little interest in seeing those schools serve our kids here - any kid, any where for that matter. Anyone who cares about children and their educational experience, you don’t treat a child the way these children are treated. In the best interest for our kids here, in the best interest of our community, our public schools have to stay. It is my goal to try to find a way to do whatever I can possibly do to make sure our profession lasts and our schools last here as public schools.

8 - The way that your discussion continued from union, right back to the community - I think that’s important. People don’t always make that connection. If we start winning victories that the communities want to see, the communities will support the unions and that will make the member feel good in the long run.

You see instances where the community and the union are working together like in New York, Chicago, and Newark. They are out there in the streets. The communities are right there alongside of the teachers because there has been very strong, lasting relationships that have been built through what Dr. Lois Weiner calls social justice unionism. That approach of not only being concerned with our members, but we are actually concerned about what goes on inside of a community; that resonates and showing the community that when they need us we’re there and when we will need you that you will be there for us. That sort of partnership is strong and it needs to be fostered and grown.  

9 - Do you have any plans to educate your member about the bigger picture of national ed reform?

Maybe informally. It might look like a workshop at a rep council meeting. I might take some time to show how all of these things are connected, but nothing formal. We have a lot of members that are really good at a lot of different things that will benefit our union, in terms of messaging, in terms of their perspective, in terms of their willingness to work on behalf of moving our membership forward. My goal is to empower them. I want them to feel free - if they have an idea that they want to move, if they have something to offer - do it. Let’s make it happen. I think then we will have more engagement and depth. We will have more people willing to come to meetings and creatively find ways to bring us together once you activate their different skill sets. There are people that know a lot more about union mechanisms than me. There are folks that know a lot more about public relations than me. We have a lot of very talented members. It’s a matter of simply just giving them the freedom to go ahead. Let’s try this and see if it works.

Friday, June 16, 2017

PA: Want to Get Rid of Keystone Exams? Then Let Us Evaluate Teachers More Unfairly by Steven Singer

Originally posted at: https://gadflyonthewallblog.wordpress.com/2017/06/14/pa-want-to-get-rid-of-keystone-exams-then-let-us-evaluate-teachers-more-unfairly/

It’s the classic Harrisburg switch.

Want something good passed by the legislature? Then let us pass something terrible – something you would never even consider unless something you cared about was on the table.

That appears to be the game being played by the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee today as they consider SB 756.

On the one hand, the proposed bill would eliminate the state’s terrible Keystone Exams. On the other, it would force a new teacher evaluation system that is tremendously unfair.

Which one is more important?

The answer: both.

If lawmakers had any moral courage – and most don’t because they’re lawmakers after all – they would consider each of these measures one at a time on their own merits.

But if they did that, conservatives wouldn’t vote to help students by getting rid of unfair tests, and progressives wouldn’t vote to help corporations by installing unfair teacher evaluations. So they’ve apparently decided to compromise behind closed doors by putting both together in a huge omnibus bill.

Who knows what other treasures lurk in its pages!? Well if you have a limitless amount of time and energy, go ahead and read it!


The bill would put an end to our costly, cruel and dishonest Keystone Exams. Not only would we no longer threaten to require these tests in Literature, Algebra and Biology as graduation requirements, but we would stop giving them altogether.

In their place to meet federal accountability regulations, the state would substitute the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT), Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), armed forces exam, competency assessment or certificate for technical students, or Pennsylvania Alternative Assessment for students with special needs.

But perhaps the best part is that the bill makes explicit and generous provisions for parents to opt their children out of high school standardized tests altogether. In this case, students would NOT be required to take a substitute assessment.

Here is the exact language from the bill:

“A school entity’s governing board shall adopt a policy that provides that the parent or guardian of a student may request that the student be exempt from taking an assessment that is required for the purpose of Federal accountability as permitted under ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act]. The policy shall provide that parents and guardians of students receive written notice of the option for a student to be exempt from taking the assessment and that the exemption shall be permitted upon the school entity’s receipt of a written request from the parent or guardian of the student. A substitute assessment or an alternative assessment, course or program may not be required of a student exempted under this section. Grounds for exemption in the school entity’s policy shall include, but not be limited to:
(1) Religious grounds.
(2) The basis of a strong moral or ethical conviction
similar to a religious belief.
(3) Philosophical grounds.
(4) Privacy concerns.
(5) Health concerns for the child, which may include stress and anxiety in preparation for the assessment.”

This is a huge improvement over our current opt out policy. At present, parents can opt out their children from the Keystone Exams but students must take an alternate assessment. This could include a project based assessment and not merely a standardized test. Also, it only allows these exemptions based on religious convictions. Parents needn’t explain these convictions in any detail, but this is the only option they are given with which to opt out.

The proposed legislation would go into effect during the 2018-19 school year, when the Keystone Exams would otherwise become a graduation requirement. Students would take the SAT or other assessment in 10th grade.

However, students in 3-8th grade would still be subjected to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) tests. I assume parents could still opt out their children from these exams, but the wording is a bit murky there.

In addition, the law would require the state to establish a task force to reevaluate whether the Commonwealth should use the PSSA in the future and how to reduce the time it takes to give the assessment. If the task force concludes the PSSA is inappropriate, they must look for an alternative exam. They are required to issue a report in 6 months from passage of the bill.

This is particularly important since the PSSA has been rewritten to be closer to the Keystone Exam. It is Keystone Exam-lite. If the legislature is against the high school test, one would imagine they should be against a very similar test being given in elementary and middle school.


Despite all the good this proposed bill would do for our school children, it would drastically worsen the situation for our classroom teachers.

Half of a teacher’s current evaluation is based on classroom observations by district administrators. That just makes sense. The best way to tell if an educator is doing a good job is to observe what he/she is actually doing in the classroom.

This new system would reduce classroom observations to only 30% of a teacher’s annual score.

This would allow 10% to come from a “parental” score and 10% to come from “peer evaluation.” In a non-high stakes environment, input from both of these stakeholders is vital to a teacher’s success. But when you add that high stakes component, you pervert both relationships.

Having parents evaluate teachers puts them in kind of a touchy place. Teachers are required to push students to do their best. This requires them to often make calls home and ask for help from parents. If parents control a portion of a teacher’s evaluation, it incentivizes educators not to bother them with student misbehavior or failing grades. Instead teachers could be pressured to unfairly increase students grades or ignore misbehavior so as to better parental evaluations.

Moreover, peer observations can be extremely subjective when tied to teacher assessment. Administrators are discouraged from giving out distinguished evaluations to more than a handful of teachers. This incentivizes peers who are forced to compete for these few plum scores to unfairly suppress positive evaluations from their fellows.

But the worst is still to come.
The new evaluations require 50% of teachers’ evaluations to come from student growth and achievement measures. For math and English teachers, this largely means using standardized test scores to assess educators.

It’s a terrible practice that has been shown to be ineffective and downright damaging to student learning time and again. But it does help testing corporations by discouraging opt outs. Just imagine. If you have students who you think will score well on the tests but who may opt out, you are incentivized to discourage them from doing so. Otherwise, your teacher evaluation will drop.

This makes teachers the testing policemen. Learning doesn’t matter, only how well your students do on the tests. It dramatically tips the scale away from things the teacher has any control over. As such, it would cause serious harm to the quality of education students receive across the state.


We cannot support this bill in its present form. It should not go on to consideration by the full House and/or Senate. And if it somehow is passed by these Republican-controlled bodies, our Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf should not sign it.

This is unfortunate because there is much to like about it. However, you can’t save students from unfair assessments by forcing teachers to be evaluated by – drum roll please – unfair assessments.

This sets up an unsustainable and unfair relationship between students and teachers. It puts educators in the position of having to look out for their own interests and not those of their students. The interests of both should be interlinked, not separated. Teachers get into the profession to help kids learn – not to have to look out for an arbitrary score from their administrators that may require them to act against their students needs.

If legislators had any ethical fortitude, they would propose both of these measures in separate bills where they could be examined on merit. But I long ago gave up expecting such qualities from our politicians.

In my book, they almost all deserve a failing grade.