Monday, September 19, 2011

Changing the Narrative. Ending the Fear. Saving our Public Schools.

September is almost over.  Teaching to the test is in full swing. When talking to people in your community, it's a great time to pop the question,  "What do you think about students opting out of the state test?”

Often, the "opt out" question elicits a look of fear.  There is concern that schools, students or communities will be punished by opting out.  Many are fearful of letting people down.  Some tell me we need accountability. Parents in suburbs are afraid that opting out will cause their schools to receive less funding. Parents in low socioeconomic areas want to raise their children's test scores in the hopes of avoiding school closure and corporate takeover. Teachers are afraid they may lose their job or get punished in other ways.  Many of these fears are founded on fact; many are founded on fiction.

We are ruled by fear in our current education system.

One of the first things I learned as a teacher was the importance of helping children feel safe in the classroom.  It was important to ask children questions in a way that allowed them time to think, converse or research before responding.  If they were fearful, they would not engage.  Also, if they weren’t equipped with tools to support engagement, they could not engage to their full potential. 

Some fears are based on fact.  We know teachers who have been transferred or “let go” after speaking up about the negative effects of corporate education reform. We know children who have been punished after the parent opted the child out of the state test.  We know some parents are benefiting from the state test because their children are good at taking tests, and the test scores are helping their children get in to the best magnet schools.  Sometimes we are in survival mode, and fear based on fact requires us to make decisions to protect our jobs and our children’s well-being.

Some fear is based on fiction.  Some states say that you cannot opt out of the test, when actually you can.  Some schools say that you will lose funding, when in actuality you won’t.  Some teachers remain silent, when in reality, they can speak up, given the appropriate tools and support to do so. 

It is difficult to make decisions when the narrative we are told is full of untruths and fear is used to keep us silent.

We are told that the accountability system is raising up our schools, when in reality, it is this exact accountability that is destroying our schools.  How do we change the narrative? 

Last week Arne and Karen Duncan wrote a letter to their children as they headed back to public school.  It told me a narrative – better yet – a fantasy for many - about Claire and Ryan’s school.

They said, “We also want you to enjoy so many other enriching experiences that are so important to a complete education. We know you have great music, art, and physical education teachers at your school, and we believe that these subjects are essential for a well-rounded curriculum. And so is recess. We want you to have fun!”

The story I know, that permeates our nation’s schools goes like this – the test is important, more important than anything in the classroom including the teachers or students.  PE, fine arts, science and other enriching activities will be cut if necessary in order to find money and time to prepare for the test.  There is no time for recess.  There is no time for fun.  And, if you are a child in a charter school, understand quite clearly that you have a dollar sign on your head – and this dollar sign is more essential than a well-rounded curriculum.

Arne and Karen say, “Our hope for you this year is that you will be challenged academically. You have some terrific teachers to support you.”

The conversation I hear from Washington is that the main challenge is increasing scores on the test so that we can Race to the Top. This challenge is even greater in the low socioeconomic areas where school closure is looming in the event that scores remain low.  I haven’t heard anything about good teachers; I hear that young college graduates with no teaching degrees will save the day, but actual credentialed teachers with master’s degrees are typically bad and do nothing to improve student achievement.

Arne and Karen's story and my story do not match.  When I read their letter for the first time, I thought it was a joke – I thought that someone had created it in an effort to demonstrate what Arne ought to be doing for our public schools.

Will he let us eat cake too?

How can two narratives co-exist?  They will co-exist as long as fear continues to exert power by creating silence and thwarting our ability to make effective decisions in order to change the narrative. 

Does it feel like Arne is rubbing salt in our wound by publicly displaying this letter to his children, while other parents are observing their children squeezed into co-locations (public school and charter school existing in same building)? 

Is he unaware of the schools in which test rally calls permeate the buildings and test prep started the second week of school, with four days of pretests to determine how to plan to teach to the test all year long?

As Arne’s children head out to explore (he states, “we will continue to explore the natural world at nature centers, museums, and many of the other great resources in the Washington area”) does he not recognize that almost 1 in 4 children live in poverty here, and that the concept of exploring is a fantasy for many? 

Does he not recognize that many children do not even have transportation to get to the charter schools he currently promotes?

Arne’s narrative is insulated from the fear, poverty and the punitive consequences which are arriving top-down to schools in our country.  Schools in suburbia are also relatively insulated from the drastic consequences of NCLB and RTTT.  Those who are not insulated, typically schools in low socioeconomic areas, are attempting to fight back, yet many have not yet found their voices or their tools to do so.

How do we change the mantra: high stakes testing is necessary to improve student achievement in our schools?  How do we make Arne’s story about his own children’s school, the narrative for all schools?  Do we wait until high stakes testing affects our children, our neighborhood, and our community in drastic ways, such as shutting down schools or co-locating schools?  Do we wait until PE and fine arts finally disappear from the schools in the suburbs?  Do we wait until our child’s teacher is required to sweep and clean at the end of the day (due to custodian cuts) rather than be available to children for extra academic support? When do we say ENOUGH?  We have choices which can halt the destruction of our public schools and our democracy. Are we willing to help America's children who are already suffering today, under corporate education reform mandates?

We can step up now, together, and organize and share our resources and make our demands  heard.

Or, we can sit back, watch, and wait, until they come for us. 

They are coming.  Whether you are living in the city, the country or the suburbs.  They are coming to take our schools.  This fear is real.  It is founded on fact and the narrative is true. Public schools are disappearing all over our country as schools are privatized methodically and strategically. Corporate education reformers are anxious to make money and profit from your neighborhood school. We are the Big Enchilada

The narrative they are telling us, high stakes testing is necessary in order to improve achievement in our schools and allow our children to Race to the Top, is not true.  The test is set up to fail our schools. The corporate education reformers have put a dollar sign on every child’s head in America and they are waiting for their chance to take it. If we understand this, we can fight back with our own narrative and protect America’s children.

We must fill our tool belts.

Question Arne and Karen’s letter to their children and the hypocrisy of his top-down policies.  Beware of Rhee’s belief that mayoral control will save your schools.  Examine RTTT waivers for NCLB – which is worse?  Beware of Teach for America, The New Teacher Project and any other newfangled teacher program that comes your way and does not involve teachers with actual teaching degrees. Don’t take charter schools at face value – dig deep – they are typically filled with  unqualified and overworked teachers. Beware of test pep rallies and candy dangled in front of your child in order to encourage your child to do well on the state test. Look up the definition of child abuse.

Determine your story.  Determine your method for opting out of the current narrative.  Has your school lost funding for art?  PE?  Is your child having severe anxiety over the test?  Has your child’s class size increased?  Is your child bringing home test prep samples?  Are you being asked to participate in a school fundraiser to raise money for teacher’s salaries, while your state spends millions on the state test?  Does your child get adequate recess and lunch time? Does your charter school have  teachers with teaching degrees? Why do you think the charter school allowed your child entry and turned your neighbor’s child away? Who is your superintendent and where did s/he come from? Why are teacher bonuses and teacher evaluation tied to state testing and how does this affect teachers' interactions with their students? Is your school unable to purchase basic supplies

Get empowered. Begin to question.  Talk to your neighbors, educators and your community.  Create your narrative based on what you have questioned, researched and know to be true.

We are at the tipping point.  If the narrative changes, the big bad wolf will become less powerful.  We are many.  They are few.  Fill your tool belt, join hands with your neighbors and act now.


  1. Thank you. Your words are timely and encourage us to become political as well as professional.

  2. Thank you for writing this and your courage. I ask myself this question all the time. It is a question of radically changing the narrative so that uniqueness, compassion, play and authentic learning are self-evident and testing is not. Part of the challenge is also that corporate interests control congress and the airwaves. It is terrifying that the one thing on which both parties agree is the dismantling of public education. We are gathering our message. Now we need to find a platform. When I find one, I'll let you know.