Friday, March 25, 2011

Child Abuse In Corporate Education Reform: I Cannot Feed You, But I Will Test You

Dear President Obama, Mr. Duncan and The Billionaires' Club:

I recently looked up the definition of child abuse and found that neglect is a component of it.  We are neglecting children if we do not provide them with food, adequate clothing, and an environment which allows their health to thrive. I would take this a step further by saying we neglect a child if we starve them intellectually by depriving them of books and other reading material. 

Let’s keep this simple.  I know you like statistics, but we don’t need to throw a ton of numbers into this conversation and measure them, fling them in the air, regroup them, eyeball them and spit them back out in a way that makes me want to throw dishes.  Let’s just call a spade a spade.

We have almost 25% of our children living in poverty. The United States government is neglecting them; this is child abuse. We have a national crisis that cannot be measured. We have an almost 10% unemployment rate. During this crisis, you are planning to increase student testing under Race to the Top.  We will be investing 4.5 billion dollars in this new testing extravaganza.  I say “we” because if we continue to be silent, this will indeed happen and we will all be responsible for it.  My voice, and the voices of all Americans, matter, and we need to speak up. Children will be tested at the beginning of the year, the end of the year, during the year (could be monthly, daily, this remains to be seen) and they will be tested in many subjects – not just reading and math. We plan to Race to the Top, quantifying our students' achievements as we go.

Talk to a hungry child and try to quantify how the child feels.  Talk to a sick child and try to measure the short and long term effects of untreated illness as they trudge to and from school.  Visit a child in a school without books and you just try to tell me how you’re going to measure those spiritless, vacant eyes. 

You wanna measure those eyes at the beginning of the year, during the year and at the end of the year? 

Do you have the stomach for it Corporate Ed. Reformers?  I’m trying to stay calm, but it’s hard.

As a teacher, I never found a standardized test to be useful in telling me about the needs and strengths of my students.  I already knew these things. I am a teacher, I am a professional.  I knew these things because I observed my students every single day.  I listened to them, asked them questions, read their work and evaluated their work. I talked to them, watched them, and saw how my students changed from day to day.

I also noticed how poverty effects student learning.  I worked in very wealthy schools and very poor schools, so I have been able to watch how wealth and poverty play a part in a child’s education.

Let’s look at poverty first. When a child came to school hungry, I noticed that they couldn’t pay attention.  When a child came in dirty and smelled bad, I noticed that they turned inward and avoided their classmates and avoided my eyes.  When a child came in tired because he had been babysitting his younger siblings while his mom worked the night shift, I noticed that he fell asleep at his desk. I noticed that when a child spent the previous night hooking up a long extension cord from the neighbor’s trailer to their family’s trailer, in order to have electricity, the child was filled with anger, unable to concentrate and had an impulse to lash out at others.  I noticed that when children were poorly clothed, they were uncomfortable; often cold, sick and lacked confidence and the ability to even consider their own potential.  I noticed that a child who browsed a school library that was filled with only old, tattered books was less likely to read, and more likely to get involved in gangs. 

I noticed that the standardized test did absolutely nothing to support the child, nor did it do anything to support my ability to meet the needs of the child.  I already knew what the child needed. And I knew that the standardized test was the least of my students’ worries.

I have also watched the children in the wealthier schools.  I have seen their clean clothes, their well-packed lunches, their light skip as they enter my classroom.  I have seen their independent reading books fall out of their desks due to lack of room to store the surplus books that the parents keep buying.  I have seen their keen, excited glances as they talk, share and brainstorm new ideas and creative thinking.  I have heard their laughter fill my classroom and spill into the hallways and the playground.  I have seen their parents go off to work where they make money to provide food and shelter for their children.  I have heard the parents discuss the child’s college fund and the unlimited opportunities in the child’s future. The standardized test was completely useless in improving achievement in these schools as well. I already knew what these students needed, because once again, I am a teacher and I am a professional.

I can tell you my students’ strengths, their needs and their attempts without looking at the results of a standardized test. I evaluate my students during the school day, at home and in my sleep.  I assess them as they read, write, talk, move and breathe.  Krashen states, “The repeated judgments of professionals who are with children every day is more valid than a test created by distant strangers.”

I am highly offended, President Obama, Mr. Duncan and the Billionaires' Club, by your lack of respect for me, and your audacity in assuming that you can help me evaluate my students. You don’t know my students and you don’t know what I know about teaching, learning and children. You see, I studied education and actually did extensive teacher training, as well as completing my master’s in English as a Second Language and pursuing additional doctoral work in Multicultural Education.  I am a teacher and I am a professional. 

I have read Stephen Krashen’s article entitled “Children need food, health care, and books.  Not new standards and tests.” It is crystal clear, in this article, that we do not need state standardized tests to tell us how America’s children are doing within the public school system. In addition to the teachers’ observations, we also have the NAEP, (The National Assessment of Educational Progress), which “is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas. Assessments are conducted periodically in mathematics, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography, and U.S. history.” The NAEP is given to a sampling of children across our country and is then used to show how the results would look within larger groups.  As Krashen says, “If we are interested in a general picture of how children are doing, this is the way to do it.  If we are interested in finding out about a patient’s health, we only need to look at a small sample of their blood, not all of it.”

I would also add that if the child is hungry, sick, tired or mentally deprived of intellectual stimulation  - therefore abused – therefore neglected - that blood sample won’t look too good. And….I can dance, laugh, sing and do somersaults in my classroom as I teach, in an attempt to help the child pay attention and do well on the state test.  But, if a child is hungry, tired or sick, I doubt that the resulting test score will reflect and enhance what my student really needs and really knows. But I will tell you, the wealth of knowledge they have about life leaves me speechless.  You should read one of their reading logs.  Now that, President Obama, Duncan, and Gates, is an evaluation that would be useful.

I am standing up for these children, almost 25% in our country to be exact, who live in poverty and know how to problem solve and maneuver through life in ways that would leave me crying alone in a corner if I attempted to do the same.  They are brave children and how dare anyone neglect them and punish them with a standardized test, which labels them a failure.  How dare America do that to our children, to our schools and to the teachers who are spending their own money feeding and clothing our students, while filling their classrooms with books they personally bought. 

As Krashen states, we can protect our children from poverty by feeding them, providing them with health care, a clean environment and school classrooms and libraries filled with books. Studies state very clearly that fewer books mean lower reading scores.  Since scores are what you’re looking for, why not take that test money and buy books instead?  The books would remain in the library for years to come and be read numerous times – not held under lock and key and placed on students’ desks at designated times each year. And imagine how much time our children would have to read if teachers could quit teaching to the test.

Our children not living in poverty score extremely well on international tests.  We score at the top internationally when you look at the scores of children not receiving free or reduced lunch.  Our children living in poverty are the children scoring poorly on the tests.  Poverty is the problem.

If America would quit neglecting its children, by providing our poorest children with healthy food, school nurses, clean school environments and books, we could easily score at the top of the world.  We wouldn’t need to race to get there - such a foolish notion.  We could confidently and easily find ourselves at the top by providing our students with the basic needs necessary for any human being to move forward in this world.

Krashen suggests a way to protect our children from poverty.  We aren’t able to provide all of the parents with jobs overnight, but we can provide students with basic needs simply by ditching the standardized state test.  That’s right.  Ditch it.  Admit the mistake.  Let it go, move on, and remove the effects of poverty for 25% of America’s children.

The test is not necessary.  We already have the NAEP.  We have our teachers, who are professionals and are able to assess and evaluate their students on a daily basis.  If we took the 4.5 billion and invested it in healthy school breakfasts, lunches, nurses and books, we could improve student achievement faster than I can hand off the relay stick in this race to the top.

We would no longer be neglecting America’s children.  We would achieve the greatest achievement of all.  No more vacant eyes, but rather, eyes filled with ideas, dreams and possibilities.  I cannot quantify this achievement either.  Maybe you should talk to America’s children to find out how that would feel; that’s what our teachers would do.

Peggy Robertson

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My Post for EduSolidarity: Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

I am blogging today for EduSolidarity.  Teachers have been asked to do the following: In this piece, please explain your own reasons for being a proud union member and/or supporter. Including personal stories can make this a very powerful piece. It would be great to also explain how being a union member supports and enables you to be the kind of teacher that you are. We want these posts to focus not only on our rights, but also on what it takes to be a great teacher for students, and how unions support that.

I have always supported unions.  My mother was a music teacher and my father was a political reporter.  They both believed that all Americans have a voice and that our voices can be found and heard through our unions.  When I became a teacher I immediately joined NEA.  I joined NEA because I knew that I would need a support base. It became very clear to me from day one that the support base for teachers honestly was not found within the government or the administrative building.  Mandates, state and federal, often took precedence over what we, as teachers, knew was best for our students. Teachers have never been respected, at least during my teaching career, and I knew that the union was my base – my support – my go-to-group when I needed someone to advocate for the needs of my students.

I still believe this.  I do believe however that the union’s ability to support us has been weakened over the years.  I don’t pretend to know a lot about the inner workings of NEA, but I will say that I felt as though they began to spend more time soothing the needs of the higher ups than the needs of the teachers.

However, I believe that this is our opportunity to have unions step it up.  We need to think radically – we need to transform the public education system.  Unions can help us do this.  They can make our voices louder.

One of the districts I worked in was extremely anti-union.  I was a new teacher and I had to hide the fact that I belonged to the union.  I was scared of the consequences should they find out, and I was actually bullied a bit as certain anti-union teachers attempted to discover where my alliance was.  The bullying only made me dig my heels in further – if anything, the bullying made me realize how incredibly important it was that I have my union backing me up.

During this time I also embraced methods which were considered radical in my community – whole language.  I had to hide my beliefs about whole language and eventually it was discovered that I did not use the basal.  They discovered that I wanted my students to read for meaning using actual books  - radical idea, huh?  The federal mandates right now are so constraining that I can imagine “hiding best practices” is very difficult.  There are many teachers right now, shutting doors, trying to utilize best practices in the solitude of their classrooms and in the face of Race to the Top.  This is why we need unions.

We need unions to advocate for our children by recognizing teachers as professionals. In Finland, teachers are trusted to choose best practices.  We should not have to hide best practices behind closed doors  - all of this makes collaboration impossible!  It pits one teacher against another.  Teachers must talk, share, and grow.  One teacher’s learning should enhance and provoke thinking for all teachers in the building.   

I need my union to stand by teachers and recognize that we do indeed possess the skills, the spirit, the creativity, the experience and the background education necessary to discover what is needed for each individual student in our classroom.

Our unions must stand by us and support, promote and make America believe the true reality that exists.  And the reality looks like this…

We are professionals.  We have prepared ourselves for teaching by building knowledge of human development, human learning, pedagogy, curriculum, language, and cognition.  We know the history of education.  We know the competing philosophies of education. We have carefully built personal philosophies that provide us with criteria for making teaching decisions in the best interests of our pupils.  We have a broad liberal education and an in-depth knowledge of the content areas in which we teach.  – Paragraph 7, A Declaration of Professional Conscience for Teachers by Kenneth S. Goodman 1990.

I  believe President Obama thinks he has the union’s vote no matter what he does.  I think our unions need to examine this and proceed carefully.  Obama obviously supports the corporate education reform movement.  I would ask that our unions take a closer look at this and help educators move forward with some decisions which will require us to get louder.  I demand that our country begin to respect educators and I believe that our unions can help create this shift by speaking more loudly than we each can speak alone.  I demand that our president listen to us.  Unions can make this happen.  Unions can help save our public school system on behalf of America’s children.

In Solidarity,
Peggy Robertson

Saturday, March 19, 2011

30 Day Challenge: The New Normal, I Won't Accept It, Will You?

Deborah Meier recently wrote the following, Democracy simply will not, even in its present rather shallow form, survive such disparities, and the absurd mindset of those who excuse it, ignore it, or feel sure it cannot ever happen to them and theirs must be changed.” 

Needless to say, her statement overwhelmed me.  There are so many problems in our world right now, and it becomes difficult to know where to place your focus.  However, I do know this.  I know that the children in our schools are the decision-makers of our future.  I would like my own children to grow up in a world that is better and brighter than mine, yet it seems as though it will be anything but that.  So, I place my focus on education and creating a cultural shift in America.  A shift that respects educators enough to allow them to teach, mentor one another and give children the opportunity to breathe, imagine and be.

In order for this shift to occur, we need to listen to educators. True educators, with degrees in education and teaching experience.  I know I am preaching to the choir.  The majority of the people reading this blog are educators – and this is the problem. 

There is a fraction of our community that I believe is indeed gathering their information from sources that are alternative, credible and not run by mainstream media; I think this community is growing.  And then, there are members of our community who are watching CNN, Oprah, NBC and more.  Perhaps some might think it harsh for me to say that most mainstream media is worthless.  Perhaps many people working in mainstream media have good intentions.  Perhaps the billionaires funding them have good intentions.  Perhaps they are all terribly confused.  Perhaps.  But the truth is this.  I don’t care. I don’t have time to analyze or debate why CNN chose to ignore Wisconsin. I don’t care if Oprah thought she was doing a good thing when she promoted Waiting for Superman. Mainstream media has left me, and America’s children, hanging too many times, so I moved on.

I am listening to alternative sources.  I am listening to people who experienced what they are telling and are sharing news from their communities.  I find them on blogs, alternative news sites, Twitter and more.  When I find something worth sharing, I post it on my Facebook or Twitter.  I have been told that my comments on Facebook are a bit aggressive and perhaps inflammatory. I still don’t care. The truth can be shocking.  I spent many years as an educator, keeping my mouth shut in the face of education reform.  I watched eyes glaze over when I told people my profession was teaching.  I know the score.  And I don’t care if I sound a bit loud.

However, I do care about figuring out how to make our message bigger and brighter and move it past the baseball game of educators where it mainly resides.  I want the messages of our experienced educators to hit out of the ballpark.  I want somebody to catch the ball and know that this is their day – they hold the ball – they hold the power. They recognize what is happening as the ball bounces from hand to hand – and suddenly, there is a shift, and you can see it in their eyes. 

Didn’t you see it in the eyes of the protestors in Wisconsin?

Each of us holds the power to shift our culture.  We hold the power to shift our thinking to support things that are real.  America is crumbling around us yet Charlie Sheen is arriving in Denver to do his thing - whatever that is.  I cringe to think that any Denverites will waste their money to watch his train wreck.

We already have our train wreck.  It is all around us.  Yet, as Deborah said, it is excused, ignored, or not believed.  Here in Denver, the corporate education reform agenda is aggressive.  When I open the Denver Post I am actually frightened by what I see.  My heart starts pounding and I break out in a sweat.  This past week the opinion page was filled with the promise of vouchers, Arne Duncan commenting on March Madness and Dictator Walker promoting his bill.  Diane Ravitch’s visit here last month was ignored. So, I only bother with the Denver Post simply to know the competing reality and express my alternative view. It is not a valid source of information for me.  We are making our own news, but it isn’t reaching out as far as needed.

I challenge all of us to hit it out of the ballpark. I’d like to see my relatives and my friends take part in this.  I challenge all Americans to share the message of a true educator every day.  We have the tools at our fingertips.  We need to be louder.  Let’s try a 30 Day Challenge.  Quote a true educator every day or share a blog/article from a true educator every day – through email, Twitter, Facebook, verbally, written, whatever works. 

I am tired of seeing Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Gates or Obama quoted.  They are not educators and they are misled. I already know that America’s educators are sharing the news from other educators – but what if we could encourage our family and friends to do the same? 

I have a few brave friends who are reposting my education posts on Facebook.  They have told me that they previously believed everything they had heard regarding the agenda of corporate education reform.  Yet, as I continued to post on Facebook, they began to take notice and their thoughts have shifted.  When I call friends or family out of state, they tell me they had no idea that teachers were being fired or testing was going to increase.  They tell me they didn’t know that the Wisconsin capitol was filled with protestors.  They didn’t know that teachers with five weeks training were in our schools.  They didn’t know about Detroit’s anticipated classroom size of 60 or Providence, Rhode Island’s entire pink-slipped teaching staff.  They didn’t know some administrators and superintendents had never taught.  And I can proudly say that my friends and family are brilliant, passionate Americans.  Yet, mainstream media is not sharing this information with them. Also, it is hard to see this reality if it is not in your backyard.

So, what if our friends and family began to encourage others to listen to an educator every day?  If we offered it as a 30 Day Challenge, rather than simply saying – share this – perhaps that might create unity and a greater cause for action?  One of my friends recently picked up my Save our Schools link and posted it on her Facebook page.  What if all of our friends posted it?

I told my husband this idea and he said, “Peg, most Americans don’t know any educators to read or quote.”  He may be right.  This is not a criticism of the public, it’s a cultural problem; the media doesn’t share ideas from educators because we are not respected.  The main quotes I hear from my personal community are quotes from Waiting for Superman, Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee – none of these quotes come from actual educators.

So, in order for this to happen we have to encourage our friends to share our posts on Facebook, Twitter and more.  We have to ask them to take this 30 Day Challenge on behalf of America’s children.  We then need to ask them to encourage their friends to take this challenge.  If we are going to debate and improve our public school system, we need to listen to the educators who are in the system.  It will be interesting to see what happens.  Perhaps my family and friends will find a true educator’s message that I don’t agree with; that is a debate I welcome.  Here’s my first day of the challenge. Feel free to copy/paste it!

The 30 Day Challenge – Please join me in taking this challenge on behalf of America’s children.  Let’s listen to true educators and see what they are saying about the state of our country’s public school system.  Currently, non-educators are leading the majority of education talk in our country.  I will not accept The New Normal.  Join me today and share links, posts and quotes by experienced educators – let’s try if for 30 days and see where it takes us.  Post a quote under your signature on your email or share a link on Facebook or Twitter – feel free to share mine!  Encourage your friends and family to do the same. Copy and share this Challenge!  Are you in?

March 19, 2011 Day 1 – On Behalf of America’s Children, Have You Listened to an Educator Today?

Try Stephen Krashen here as he talks about standardized testing – we do not need to waste 4.5 billion on new standards and tests.  

Maybe I’m an optimist. Maybe this is a little cheesy. Maybe I’m a little scared to post this because I’m a product of my profession; deep down maybe I am afraid that people will read it and laugh because people do not respect educators.  But I see this sort of thing going on everywhere else; our TV is filled with reality shows asking people to step up to a challenge; the internet abounds with 30 day challenges.  I’m trying to be brave and think out of the box.  I’m trying to lift up my profession and lift up the children who are being used in this cold and calculated experiment mainstream media calls education reform.

Maybe we can change the reality of education in America so that it helps all of our children – including the 25% living in poverty. It is sexy enough?  Glamorous enough to get people on board?  Exciting enough for them to click on the education link?  I think it’s what we make of it.  It’s exciting to me so I’m going to try it.   Maybe our supermarkets will always be filled with People Magazine, but maybe not.  Maybe there will be more for our children.  Maybe more of us will speak up and say no to corporate education reform.  We’ll never know unless we try to hit it out of the ballpark. Are you in?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

How America Got Suckered: Teach for America, The Inferior Product

We’ve all heard the saying – it takes seven times to hear something before you remember it.  Corporate education reformers are making sure we hear their messages multiple times in multiple ways. They are handing our communities inferior products on a silver platter.  And the reformers, who keep the platter, are saying, “Eat it. And like it.” 

Many Americans believe it’s lobster, when in truth, it is imitation crabmeat. The media is marketing these inferior products with gusto.  The politicians and billionaires stand and smile with Obama, while sharing an education reform business model that uses cut throat methods to slice and dice education in ways that fill the billionaires’ plates and leave our children with the scraps.  

We, as Americans, need to examine what they are dishing out and review these products with objectivity and common sense.  And, if we don’t like them, by all means don’t buy them.  We need to encourage others to step up and take a stand.  The American public is no longer complacent.  Madison, Wisconsin is leading the way and we are going to keep the drumbeat going.  Time is of the essence. 

So, I will say it again. Americans are buying an inferior product.  Corporate reformers are terribly concerned about getting a return on their investments.  Well, so are we.  Our tax dollars are now paying for the salaries of teachers who have had five weeks teacher training.  There is a lot of talk about the shortage of teachers in the urban areas and how Teach for America is a necessary band-aid during this crisis.  This reeks of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine – we have a crisis and the wealthy elite have arrived to fix it -  the TFAs are the only way! 

During this supposed crisis, which proclaims that our public education system is worthless, it seems we’ve forgotten to think calmly and use our common sense. I’ve been asking myself a few questions as I try to wrap my head around this anomaly that is The New Normal.  The inferior product during this induced crisis that I am currently questioning is the Teach for America program. I like to compare products and services, view the pros and cons, and see where I’m willing to bend or sacrifice, when it comes to my children and my community.

As I read about the Teach for America program my first red flag flew up when I read that the teachers within the TFA program are trained for a mere five weeks.  Here are a few questions I considered, as a taxpayer, while examining the value of the TFA program. After all, my tax dollars are funding the salaries of the final products of the TFA program.  Here are the questions, using comparisons, for my personal reflection:

Would I take my child to a medical doctor with five weeks training or a dentist with five weeks training?

Would I take my family car to a mechanic with five weeks training?

Would I allow my family’s house to be built by a homebuilder with five weeks training?

Would I take my child to a heart surgeon with five weeks training?

Would I hire a CEO to run my company if she had only had five weeks training?

Many Americans today are taking their children to a public school, where the child will spend his or her day receiving instruction from a teacher with five weeks training.  I find this incredulous.

The media, owned by the corporate education reformers, has convinced us that this is a good idea. They have called these teachers the cream of the crop. Young college graduates are joining the Teach for America program.  These individuals are well educated in other degrees and have a desire to work in our public schools for a two-year term. From what I have read, some are very excited about the prospect of teaching.

But I must ask, if you had to take your child to a doctor, would you prefer the enthusiasm of a doctor trained for five weeks or the enthusiasm of a doctor with eight years of training?

And let’s take it a step further.  Would you choose a family doctor who was only sticking around for two years?  I don’t know about you, but I really like to have a doctor who is going to stay in my community for the long term. I want my doctor to know my children’s history.  It’s also nice to have teachers who know a student’s history.  They can share the history with other teachers as a child grows; therefore, saving time and providing additional insight into a student’s needs.  When teachers stay at a school, it creates trust within the community.  Children living in poverty typically have seen many people come and go.  It is difficult to let your guard down and form bonds with people who might leave you in a lurch. 

So let’s talk about trust. How would you feel if you chose a doctor, and they told you she was highly qualified, when in truth, she only participated in a five-week training course? I think I might have to file a lawsuit if that happened to me.  Well, guess what? Teach for America teachers are labeled “highly qualified” and the schools are not required to tell you that the teacher has only had five weeks training.  Savvy marketing at its best. The corporate reformers love this. An inferior product labeled highly qualified, at a low cost. 

Denver, my home, is one of the cities in which the TFA program is running rampant.   TFAs are placed in our neediest schools.  George Will, Op-Ed columnist for the Washington Post states, “Until recently - until, among other things, TFA - it seemed that we simply did not know how to teach children handicapped by poverty and its accompaniments - family disintegration and destructive community cultures. Now we know exactly what to do.”
When I read his statement, I was speechless.  The condescension and the backdoor racism astounded me.  The educated elite, with five weeks training, is swooping into our poverty stricken areas of America and they, single-handedly, are solving the problems of our poor and our needy.  However, before you get too excited, don’t forget, these elite may also choose to leave in two years, if they wish to return to their former lives, among the elite, of course.  They can spend two years experimenting on our poor and needy, wearing the label of highly qualified, and then they may choose to leave these schools in poverty stricken areas, where routine and relationships are paramount to the well-being of the children. And according to George Will, no one knew how to help our neediest schools until now.  That’s right, all of those teachers, with experience and teaching degrees, in the high poverty schools knew nothing. Really? I’m supposed to believe that?  I’m one of those teachers.
James E. Causey for the Sentinel states, “ appears that some of these Ivy Leaguers are using the program to help build a resume because many don’t stay in teaching.”  So, our children are being using as stepping stones as well? They are padding their resumes?  I’m not okay with that.  Are you?

More than 50% of TFAs leave after two years, and more than 80% leave after three years according to the Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice.  I applaud those TFAs who stay and teach in the classrooms.  However, because many TFAs leave, schools have additional costs needed for recruitment and training.  Read the study by the Great Lakes Center for more statistics; there are plenty of them.  Regarding testing, I have seen pros and cons on test results with TFAs.  TFAs are very focused on teaching to the test; they need test scores to go up to prove the success of the TFA program.  More teaching to the test to prove corporate reform success - not for the good of the student - but for the good of the business.  The children are sacrificial lambs. 

TFAs are increasing in number.  They are spreading everywhere as charter schools pop up like McDonalds across our country.  Most TFAs have no previous experience as teachers, therefore, they can be paid less than the teacher with twenty years in the field.  They are highly desirable to corporate reformers starting charter schools. I have no malice for the young men and women who have joined the TFA program.  I am sure some of them have good intentions.  However, we cannot pretend that a graduate of a five-week training program is a quality product.

The TFA program produces an inferior product, and it is marketed with gold and glitter by the corporate reformers who can afford to spread the word.  Google “cream of the crop and TFA” and just see what comes up.

Teachers, with experience, are crucial to our country’s education system. It is the teachers with experience who are able to assess, evaluate and plan for the needs of every individual student, just as a surgeon who has experience with a particular operation, can assess, evaluate and plan the best strategy for each individual patient.

Experience creates effective teachers.  A teacher’s first three years of teaching are typically the least effective years of their teaching.  Moreover, if the teacher leaves when the two-year contract has ended, it appears we have sacrificed students' lives in an attempt to try out a well-marketed, cost effective product.  If we want to get cold and calculated, it sounds likes a poor investment of tax dollars to me.  You would think we would know better by now.  We’ve all stood in a department store aisle and asked ourselves, “Do I want to invest in the product that lasts ten years or buy the cheap product that will be broken in six months?” 

However, there is a big difference here.  When I’m pricing out a dishwasher or a washing machine, a child’s life is not at stake. 

A child bombarded by teachers with no training and teachers that come and go - well, simply put, this child may get lost along the way.  If the light goes out in a child’s eyes early on, it can be very difficult to find it again.  If this child is living in poverty, which is now reaching almost 25% of America’s children, this child needs the consistency of experienced teachers who plan to stick around. They do not need to be guinea pigs for an experiment by the elite.  I, for one, am not willing to sell these children an inferior product.  They already have too much on their plate, and it is not lobster.

The corporate reform marketing for Teach for America is glossy and is repeated in every form of media available. I don’t rely on glitz and glamour.  I rely on my common sense during this supposed education crisis.  Nationwide, teachers are being fired due to poor student test scores in poverty-ridden communities.  Nationwide, these experienced teachers, who had relationships and understandings of the culture and the school community, are then replaced with young college graduates from elite communities.  The more the media promotes teacher bashing, the more our experienced teachers will leave the public school system, either by choice or by dismissal. When I criticize the TFA program I find that people respond as though I just insulted their mother; the media is doing a bang up job of causing the public to forget common sense.

However, everything changes when I ask people questions regarding products and services that might affect their own children.  When I ask if they would send their child to take piano lessons from a teacher that had only played the piano for five weeks, they look at me, laugh and say, “Of course not.  Are you crazy?” 

If I ask them if they would take their child to a swimming lesson with a teacher who had been swimming for five weeks they roll their eyes and say, “Peggy, of course not - that would be dangerous, and why would I pay for my child to take lessons from someone who just learned how to swim?  What could they possibly teach my child?  They have no experience!”  I respond with an extra enticement, “Okay, but, what if the teacher went to Harvard?  Would that help?”  The response is laughter.

If I ask them if they would pay to have their child taught ballet by a ballet teacher who had only five weeks of training they say “No!  That is idiotic. Why would anyone waste their money and their child’s time doing that?”

I don’t know

I don’t know why experience seems to count in every profession except teaching in the public schools. 

I don’t know why we are okay with spending our tax dollars on the salaries of teachers who have not gone through extensive teacher training programs.

Why would we pay tax dollars to have our children take instruction from someone who doesn’t know what they are doing? 

Even if the teacher was kind and passionate, I simply would not choose to have my child take any instruction from anyone with only five weeks training in any field.  I care about my children, and my community's children, too much to allow that. Does the American public really believe that these billionaires care about our children?  Where is our common sense?

Contrary to what appears to be popular belief in this country, experienced teachers with teaching degrees actually know a lot about teaching and children.  I want my tax dollars to support teachers with experience, teachers with teaching degrees and teachers who are in it for the long haul. We must start listening to teachers, not billionaires, and quit buying inferior products from corporate reformers who buy labor for cheap and profit from our schools under the guise of foundations.  Corporate reformers are keeping their message in front of the media, but our voices are getting louder.  Cheap labor has no seniority, therefore, TFAs are less likely to speak up; the corporate reformers like this.  The more TFAs they can get in the system the more power the corporate reformers have.

However, there is good news. There are more of us voicing our opinions in multiple ways and multiple times. Join Saving our Schools March and Parents Across America to hear these voices. Many Americans see the K-12 market that has become the billionaire’s playground for profit.  And play they will, with a nod from our President. We are shaking our fist in return.  I will say it again, corporate reform style, the Teach for America program produces an inferior product.  I came to that conclusion using my common sense.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Which is More Important? Wisconsin or Charlie Sheen?

I have watched Madison, Wisconsin, day and night, over the last two weeks.  I naively wrote a letter to President Obama hoping that he might hear me.  I know words are powerful.  Diane Ravitch used hers to keep Waiting for Superman from getting an Oscar.  I listen to the voices of the protesters singing and chanting in Madison, Wisconsin via , since mainstream media has blocked the majority of all information the American people should be hearing.  The words of the protesters in Madison are so filled with passion and power that they bring me to tears on a daily basis.  They share powerful messages.  And afterwards, I want to spit nails when I find that so few Americans heard their voices.  Where are you CNN?  NBC?  CBS?  You are pathetic.  Disgraceful.  In addition, without cable, where one might hear the true story on MSNBC, the internet is essential to knowing any truths.  Every morning I jump up with my coffee and head to the internet and  hope...did their voices make a difference?  Was the true story shared?  Did Obama react?  Did Walker finally negotiate?  Still, silence. Or untrue stories of greedy and slovenly people destroying the marble floors of the palace.

I wonder about the children living in poverty in America, over 22% of them to be exact - and I wonder - do their parents, if they have any, know what's going on in Madison?  Many of those families have no internet, cable or even libraries where they might use the internet. This is a fight for survival, and I sit, incredulous, angry, as I watch the world go on around me as though nothing were wrong.  If we all really knew what truly was going on, well then, what might happen?  If ALL parents really knew that their child might have a teacher with no teaching degree, and an administrator with no teaching experience and a superintendent whose background was in the military, in a class size of sixty, would they care?  Would they care if they knew that their child would be tested more and their school might be closed?  Would they care if they knew the federal and state governments were quietly taking away services for the children, the poor and the needy? Would they care if they knew that the voices of the American people were being silenced?  I believe they would care. I see the nervous beads of sweat pour from the faces of the wealthy as they consider this idea.  Yes, dear noblemen, you are most definitely outnumbered; a fact that I relish.

Yet our leaders continue to follow the lead of the wealthy.  Obama is in Florida this week schmoozing with Jeb Bush and promoting his ludicrous education agenda.  Another disgrace.  My heart is with those teachers. I am truly embarrassed by our President. Gates addresses our governors at a conference this past week and they all nod and smile at his uneducated findings.

Call me crazy, but I thought America was the land of the free.  I know it's the home of the brave.  I see them in Wisconsin.  I thought Obama was a man of his word.  Remember 2007?  You said you would stand with the union workers if their collective bargaining rights were attacked?  I am shocked that so many of us in the middle class do not see the destruction of the middle class in progress.  We must win this fight in Madison, Wisconsin. If we do not, I fear the worst.  I still have hope, but I watch the Pied Piper leading so many Americans astray as they listen to mainstream media and join the witch hunt for the bad teachers.  I feel the rise of the Lord of the Flies and the devilish depths found in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as I read about the gluttony found in the paychecks of our public workers.  I watch the royalty smile silently as they see us turn on one another. 

Who are these Americans who spit on those who teach their children, take care of their sick and protect their cities?  Who has led you astray?  Sadly, I know they are around me.

I listen to the crazy ramblings about teachers and their sky rocketing salaries and their three months off a year.  Do you really believe that teachers sit on their laurels for three months each year?  First, it is not three months.  And second, most teachers are in school, inservice, second jobs or simply preparing for the next year during the summer.  As for myself, I believe I had one summer in fifteen years of teaching in which I was home without a second job or in school.  And during this time I was caring for my son, rather than placing him in an expensive daycare.  And of course, we are indulgent if we get to stay home with our children in this country.

Call me crazy, but I would have expected the media to step up by now.  The silence has gone on too long.  Who is purring in your ear and stroking your ego?  Have you been promised the Queen's child in return for your silence?  The gold is overflowing for the wealthy and the public workers are asking if they can keep their voice. They will not be silenced.

And goodness, dear mainstream media, you have a wealth of stories at hand.  Who has caused you to stay in your seat when you must want to jump up and tell these delicious tales of good and evil? There is the story of the congressmen who pushed their desks out the windows of the palace, in order to meet with their constituents, simply in a desire to hear the voices of the American people who were barred from entering the palace gates.  Did you hear the story of the Republicans walking in the dark, damp tunnels underground, as they flee the palace with their tails between their legs, while the people are heard drumming and chanting into the night?  Did you miss the story about the King? It is especially full of intrigue and deceit.  He fled the palace on a horse paid for by the wealthy noblemen, and he now travels the country trying to enforce his law. What about the lovely story of the patrons at the restaurant who booed King Walker out the door?  That one may be my favorite as I flip through the pages of the story book.  I think I like it because it has a happy ending.  I'm like a child who says, read that part again.  I want to hear good prevail as the King rushes out the door as the chanting and booing grows louder, ending with the final sound of the King's horse galloping away to a distant land to live alone in misery.  There are so many more tales. Stories of a congressman tackled by guards as he attempts to enter the palace. The tale of how the palace was fortified with fences, cement barricades and bolted windows, while the common man slept on the palace steps in the cold of the night. The tale of the King being met by a man in disguise who tricks the King into revealing his deepest and darkest secrets.  And, there are the thousands of stories of beautiful people singing This Land Is Our Land as they sit on a hard marble floor, representing the American people and our dreams.  Their stories are the stories that I want to hear. 

Call me crazy, but I would have thought you had enough smarts about you to realize that the story of Madison, Wisconsin beats Charlie Sheen any day.  Which noblemen are lining your pockets in return for your silence? 

Here I sit, watching the clock tick, waiting ever so patiently, for the American people to realize they've been had.  And, sadly, a new character has appeared in my book.  The green monster.  So many have fallen under his spell as he spreads lies about the greed of the public workers.  Fellow neighbors throw stones.  They kick the workers while they are down.  And the king smiles on his people.  The workers, stand up, brush themselves off, and sing again.  The workers grow in numbers.  The king is nervous. My story book has no ending yet.  Mainstream media, if you would tell them the truth, amazing things would happen.

I am waiting, ever so patiently, for the true story to be on the six o'clock news.  Everywhere.  With honesty.  Integrity. And with heart. I am waiting for a happy ending.  The American Dream stays strong in the hearts of the protesters chanting across our country, like a tree that falls in the forest with no one around.  How much louder the chanting would be, if only everyone knew the tree was ever so close to home.

Are You There, Mr. President? Madison is Calling

When I was twelve I read a book that changed my life. It was titled Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. I read it again and again. In that book, I finally saw that someone out there understood me. Ultimately, we all desperately desire to be heard and understood. Expert teachers know this; they spend every waking moment trying to figure out what makes their students tick. We watch, we observe, we truly listen and we make changes based on our students' needs.

When I was in my twenties, and a new teacher, I read another book, The Dreamkeepers, by Gloria Ladson-Billings. It rocked my world. It made me cry. The book came at a crucial time in my career as a teacher. I worked at a school "across the tracks," in a town in southern Missouri. My students were mainly African-American and many were very poor. I, like many new teachers today, got placed in a school with high need, high poverty students. It was the best job I ever had. Gloria was the voice in my head helping me along the way. She was my mentor but never knew it. She understood.

On February 17th, I attended a presentation by Diane Ravitch here in Denver, Colorado. I wanted to have her sign my copy of her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, but I honestly couldn't do it. I was feeling so emotional and I knew I might unravel. Diane hears me; my experience is simply an echo of the voices of many educators out there today. She knows what today's teachers are going through. If Diane and I did talk, she would understand what was beautiful about my fifteen years in the education field as well as what was haunting. She would know why I am debating whether I should return to the education field or not. She reports the facts accurately. She is our collective voice. She listens.

Are you there, President Obama? It's me, Peggy Robertson, the voice of a former teacher. Are you truly listening? I must say, with respect, that it does not feel as though you are. I have felt hopeless during your presidency. This week, for the first time, I have hope. Watching the public workers of Madison, Wisconsin protest and ask to be heard made me sit up a bit straighter. The American people have a voice! I saw democracy in action. But are you listening? I now hear that they are asking you to join them. I hope you do.

But this is about more than Madison, Wisconsin. Madison is the first snowball. Once it starts rolling, it may be unstoppable. We've got a lot of mountains here in Colorado and I hope that snowball heads our way. The corporate education reform going on here is devastating.

My fifteen years as an educator were spent teaching in the elementary grades as well as supporting teachers and administrators in developing and refining effective instructional practices. During my five final years I suddenly became jaded. NCLB destroyed my spirit. I watched it's evil hand touch children, teachers, schools and districts.

I saw the strangle hold NCLB had on everyone. I tried to support teachers with all of the obstacles NCLB placed in our way. I watched Reading First fail. I saw principals come and go and schools get closed. I saw students caught in the crossfire. I saw the light go out in children's eyes when they were drilled continually for the state test. I worked with teachers who told me we needed to hurry up and help that child read (in kindergarten mind you) before a negative label was placed on that child; we were in a pressure cooker. I supported administrators in knowing what to look for when they observed and evaluated teachers; many of them did not know what they were seeing because they had not actually spent much time teaching. Or, they had spent time teaching subjects, such as Spanish, in a high school classroom and they were now being asked to evaluate elementary school teachers who were focusing on developing readers and writers. Such an irony - teachers evaluated by administrators who haven't taught what the teachers are teaching. The administrators were under immense pressure as they are today. The scores simply had to be good.

When I left the education profession I left angry.
My beliefs about education had been trampled on. I didn't believe in what I was being required to do. Too much testing. Too many young children not being allowed to be children. Too much data being shoved down everybody's throats. I have stayed home the last four years with my youngest son, and I have watched the destruction of our American school system continue. My youngest child is ready to start school, and I wonder if I should re-enter the education profession. But, do I really want to enter the lion's den? I want to work in the education field again, but I also want to be heard and respected.

The current corporate reform taking over our public schools is handing us many more teachers, administrators and superintendents who will need immense support to do their jobs well. If the new administrators haven't taught, then how in the world can you expect them to evaluate teachers? How is a former army sergeant, now made superintendent, supposed to evaluate and support administrators? How is a teacher with five weeks training expected to support our neediest students? And, (lucky us) we have the Bush Institute training principals, in cooperation with Teach for America of course! It's insulting. All of it - it's a slap in the face to students, educators and parents.

It appears there is no point in getting a degree in education with the TFA program leading the way. And then we are told that our master's degrees are pointless too? I think about that every month when I pay my student loan bill. And this week, my eyes rolled back in my head when I heard that the U.S. Department of Education just gave fifty million dollars to the TFA program. The TFA program is a band-aid. And it hurts the neediest children when those teachers leave after their two-year contract has ended.

In your State of the Union Address you asked for more college students to go in to education. I'm sorry, but I seriously laughed when you said that. I would pay both my children money to stay out of the education field right now. It's a hostile environment. Teachers have to teach to the test. The new common core standards are developmentally inappropriate. Children get labeled as failures before they've even finished kindergarten thanks to the pressures of NCLB. And let's not forget that those five year olds don't get a nap or a recess or time for imaginative play. RTTT is punishing to teachers and to schools. Encourage my children to enter the lion's den to teach? No thank you. Your administration has shown no respect for educators, parents or students.

Are you listening Obama? The strangle hold of RTTT may result in the death of public education. Have you read Ravitch's book? Have you followed any of the research being shared on expert educator blogs across the country? What do you really know about TFAs? Merit pay? Value-added assessment? Standardized Testing?

News Flash - it's all bad. Why are you listening to Gates? What educational credentials does he have? It is so difficult to have a voice as a teacher. We don't have a lot of money so we can't buy the media, such as the new Media Bullpen, like Gates can. But we can march. And march we will. July 28th to July 31st concerned citizens will find their way to Washington D.C. to take part in the Save our Schools March and National Call to Action. Will you join us? Will you listen?

When I voted for you I voted with my heart and soul.
I believed everything you said. I thought you heard me. I thought we had found a president that truly understood the needs of the American people. I don't believe that anymore. There has been too much damage done. We now have Arne Duncan (a non-educator) leading the way with the corporate reformers whispering in his ear. We have more testing, more teacher bashing and more children being hurt at the hands of corporate reform.

Are you there President Obama? Did you hear Stephen Krashen talk about poverty? Again and again? Did you hear that our international test scores are actually excellent when we look at the scores of the children not living in poverty? Do you really believe poverty has nothing to do with the woes of our public schools? Have you read the research? I could provide all the links but it doesn't seem necessary considering they are all over the internet on every single education blog I read. I don't think you are listening. I think it's going to take an uprising for you to hear us. Madison, Wisconsin, is speaking.

I am placing my faith in the American people. I am listening Madison, Wisconsin. I signed the letter. You are speaking for all of us. President Obama, please listen. Please renew the hope we all had when we elected you.

Peggy Robertson
Former Educator
Centennial, Colorado