Category Archives: Education News

Busting Out of the Box

For 11 years, I taught students at this time of year one thing: “The Box.” I emphasized the words, repeated the phrase several times in class, and made a running joke of the whole thing. Why? Well, for one thing, my English, reading, and language arts students needed to be able to answer open-ended (written response) questions in a way that pleased the almighty state scorers. When you’re completing the formulaic writing that these high-stakes tests require, you have to meet the three criteria points: restate the prompt, use evidence from the text, and explain. The prompt and writing space just so happen to appear in an ever-important box. Typically, each reading passage also is preceded by a short blurb written – you guessed it – in a box, and some students skip right over the box on practice tests because they want to get through the stupid things. (Who could blame them?) So, I emphasized “The Box” for both reading and writing during the couple of weeks prior to the testing days.

I, being the diligent teacher whose evaluations were tied to these precious high-stakes standardized assessments, actually gave my students all sorts of tricks for the test. If the federal and state governments and school district were going to require us to jump through the hoops, I was going to make damn sure my kids had all of the necessary training. I knew the one thing that could generally assure even my lowest students a single precious point was to read “The Box.” Plus, the prompt that they had to regurgitate like trained monkeys was in “The Box.” And, we were told time and again by testing officials that anything a student wrote outside of “The Box” would not be scored. “The Box, The Box, The Box…”

Joey in the box by Louish PixelLiterally, we are forcing kids to live, breathe, and think inside “The Box” with state and national high-stakes standardized assessments. Are these the types of tests that result in academic achievement? Certainly not. Can you imagine trying to tell Monet, Van Gogh, or Jackson Pollock to paint inside a box? Can you imagine telling Mozart that he had to compose neatly on a single sheet? We may not be stifling the next great artist or musician. But, we absolutely are stifling our kids’ creativity and critical thinking, reading, and writing abilities when we shove these poorly designed assessments at them and limit their thinking on such a grand scale.

Simply put, we are boxing in our kids. We have limited curricula to the narrowest scope in the name of the tests. Whether we like to admit it or not, we teach to the tests and then wonder why our kids are not prepared for writing research papers, analytical papers, or anything that requires them to draw their own conclusions. After all, the standards and their associated tests often draw the conclusions for the students and then ask them how they got there in a neat little A, B, C, or D format. We prohibit kids who aren’t proficient from taking electives, such as art, music, foreign language, vocational and technical classes, and the like because they need more remediation on thinking inside the box.

Then, we see companies like Google and Apple that require their employees to think outside the box, collaborate, design, and dream. We hear about professors bemoaning the fact that our students cannot think on their feet, participate in debates, or complete papers without an immense amount of handholding. We see more college graduates taking five or more years to complete a typical four-year track, just so they can move back in with mom and dad when nobody will hire them.

Where is the light at the end of this very dark tunnel? Who will let our kids out of the boxes that we have been putting them into for far too long?

Through Rose coloured glasses by pangalactic garglebblasterThere are some rays of light appearing. One is that Pennsylvania’s new governor said that school ratings should be less dependent on standardized test scores. Governor Wolf has been touring the state and visiting schools, and I am encouraged by his statement. I don’t know what he saw in terms of authentic learning, but I hope he saw enough word walls and test prep materials to make him wonder what we are doing in the name of education in this great state of ours. I also hope that some teachers, students, or parents were able to get close enough to tell him about the tests without their messages being filtered through the rose-colored glasses so many administrators are wearing these days.

The opt-out movement is in full swing, and the numbers are growing daily nationwide. In Pennsylvania, the numbers are growing, too. The latest Pearson spying scandal dealt a blow to the PARCC tests. Finally, droves of parents are starting to question the tests, the standards, and the curricula at their students’  schools.

Will high-stakes testing end tomorrow? No. But, we have parents who are questioning the entire system. We have kids who are refusing the tests. We have teachers who are refusing to give the tests. And, we have some lawmakers and leaders who are beginning to truly take a look at the current state of education.

We still have a long way to go. But, we finally are seeing steps in the right direction. Teachers are notorious for saying that the tide has to turn and that the pendulum eventually has to swing the other way. After all, education reform and initiatives seem to go on a cycle and teachers have to ride out the waves or completely bail out, as I did.

The one thing that hasn’t changed after all these years, though, is the fact that students remain at the center of education. These kids need to be prepared for the next step in their journey. If we continue to box them in, if we continue to narrow the scope and follow curricula that follows the tests, we are doing our students an injustice that we cannot easily correct. If Governor Wolf has his eye on testing, if the opt-out movement continues to grow, if people push back against Pearson long enough, things will change.

That means districts need to be ready and willing to view their curricula and programs with a critical eye and get back to the business of educating kids and preparing them for life beyond the boxes. Is your district ready?

Images via Flickr by Louish Pixel and panhgalactic gargle blaster and the heart of gold

It’s Time

It’s that time of year again. Everyone is counting down to the tests or counting down the days until the tests are over. Administrators can tell you how many days until the tests begin without even thinking about it. Teachers have countdowns in their lesson plans and on their boards. egg_timer by openDemocracyParents think about which days they need to be sure to get their children to bed on time and which mornings they need to eat a good breakfast, per the directives they’ve been receiving from the schools once a week since classes resumed after Christmas break. The nurses will tell you that their offices are busier with requests for Tums and Tylenol, from students who have upset stomachs and headaches from the stress of the tests. The secretaries at the secondary level will tell you about the questions they’re already getting from kids who are planning to come to school late on testing days and what their excuses need to say.

But, what about the kids? In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve taken a much longer break than anticipated from this blog (and newsletter – sorry, loyal subscribers) precisely because I’ve been listening to the kids and their parents. I’ve been following opt-out channels to see how the parents are wording their opt out letters and how they are handling pushback from district administrators. I’ve been having Facebook message sessions with parents asking questions about how to opt out, and I’ve been sharing links to resources and information. I have been quiet so that I could listen to the people who are so desperately fighting this fight for wider curriculum, more opportunities for learning and understanding, and fewer tests and test prep lessons.

Yes, the parents are upset about what their kids are missing out on, as they should be. One mother in particular was in tears because her son’s schedule is full of remedial courses because he can’t pass the high-stakes tests; in turn, he cannot take the art class or vocational class that interests him. Other parents at the secondary level worry about what their advanced students are missing out on in the name of test prep and testing. Things like analytical writing, independent reading projects, in-depth research papers and projects, and midterms and finals – the things they worry their children need to be able to do to truly be prepared for college – are put off until AP courses or are not offered at all They, too, have every right to be upset.

But, what about the kids? When you really listen to the students, they are begging for more. Elementary students watch their parents sign checks and ask if they will teach them “how to write like that.” Kids are watching science experiment clips on their tablets and asking teachers when they get to learn “that kind of fun stuff.” Other kids want to know why school is so boring and how long their teachers have to stand at the copier making all of those testing worksheets. Similarly, secondary students ask teachers to stay after class to teach them cursive because they are worried about not being able to write the required SAT paragraph or sign their names. They ask math teachers about creating personal budgets and balancing checkbooks. And, they ask when they will have to take a midterm or a final because they don’t know how to study for “big exams like they will have to do in college.”

Growing by  Strep72This is what happens when you try to standardize the art of teaching and learning. Kids do not come in a one-size-fits-all package. Young students want to explore and learn and talk and share. They want to get their hands dirty and create. Others want to read that book from cover to cover because it sounds like a funny story, not because it’s on someone’s recommended reading list. Still others want to do math in a way that makes sense, and not in the one way that is best for the test because it will get them the  most points. They are sick to death of hearing the word “test,” and they are frustrated that school seems like a months-long marathon to prepare for a test that determines their worth when they’re still dreaming of becoming a superhero, a princess, a chef, or a combination of the three. One thing they don’t want to become is a teacher. Who can blame them?

And, those are just the elementary kids. The secondary students are finding themselves and realizing what their values, beliefs, and interests are. They want to take electives so they have opportunities to learn about various cultures and languages, vocations, art and music, and other programs while they are still students and have time to figure out what they really want to do after those four yeas of high school. Unfortunately, they are told they cannot take those classes until junior or senior year, if at all, because of the testing requirements of the freshman and sophomore years or because those programs have been sacrificed due to the testing requirements and lack of funds.

It’s time to opt out.

It’s time to listen to the teachers, who have been warning of the adverse effects of too many standards and high-stakes tests for years.

It’s time to listen to the kids.

It’s time to listen to the parents.

It’s time to take back public education while we still can.

It’s time.

For further information regarding what the true public education stakeholders – the students, parents, and teachers – have to say about high-stakes testing and opting out, check out these resources:

For more information on how to opt out your child, visit:

Images via Flickr by openDemocracy and Strep72

The Double-Edged Sword of College and Career Readiness

Let’s get one thing clear immediately. District and state officials always have a choice when it comes to testing and education. Florida is rolling back assessments in grade K-2, while other districts require more practice assessments. Some school districts support teachers who refuse to administer the high-stakes tests, while others threaten and suspend teachers who do so. Some of the more courageous states and districts are opting out of high-stakes testing, while others are swallowing PARCC and the Smarter Balanced assessments, among others, hook, line, and sinker.

Bad Grade by Robert HruzekThat’s why I had to chuckle when Glen Ridge High School, in New Jersey, recently made the news for cutting midterms and finals to prepare for the new PARCC test. Our school district revamped its secondary grading policy and did away with midterms and finals nearly ten years ago and adopted a retest policy to mirror that of the Pennsylvania Keystone Exams. The grading policy still is a point of contention in the district, as is the elimination of midterms and finals.

The problem with high schools moving in this direction is the mixed message that it sends. On one hand, we have schools adopting the Common Core State Standards that assert the “college and career readiness” mantra. If students are to be ready for college and a career, so the thinking goes, they need to demonstrate proficiency on a slew of standards. Yet, the first round of Smarter Balanced cut scores shows that a mere 11% of students will score at a Level 4 in either ELA or math and be ready for college. The very tests that are supposed to prepare students for college project that the vast majority won’t be ready.

Along with the Common Core come the high-stakes assessments – PARCC, Smarter Balanced, MAP, and so on. Schools lose weeks of instruction in the name of test preparation and administration. Teachers lose the ability to teach curriculum ripe with collaboration, meaningful activities, and real-world application as they are handed packaged materials from big-money companies like Pearson or their own district officials. Secondary students lose out on electives and vocational/technical classes as they are scheduled for more math and ELA classes to get them ready for the test. Let’s be honest: the standards and tests do nothing other than prepare students for the test, not for college and their career.

On the other hand, college is synonymous with midterms and finals. Students from our local high schools, Glen Ridge High School, and other schools that have eliminated midterms and finals will enter these institutions of higher learning unprepared to tackle midterms and finals. One argument is that high schools should not follow what colleges do, just because colleges do it. Admittedly, there is some validity to that argument. But, until colleges make a drastic change and overhaul their own assessment systems (which doesn’t seem likely in the near future), school districts are doing a disservice to their students when they say they are taking part in “college and career readiness” but are not providing the study skills and experience necessary to prepare students for midterms and finals.

School districts cannot have it both ways. They cannot adopt the Common Core State Standards and claim to be moving students toward “college and career readiness” when the standards and tests aimed at doing just that are failing students. Districts also cannot tout “college and career readiness” when they eliminate midterms and finals.

Glen Ridge board member Michael de Leeuw was wrong when he said, “We don’t have a choice – that’s just the way it is.” Districts always have a choice. They need to choose to do what’s right for students.

Image via Flickr by Robert Hruz

TRUTHful Parent-Teacher Conferences

‘Tis the season for parent-teacher conferences. I always looked forward to meeting parents that I only had communicated with over the phone or through email, to sharing students’ progress, and to determining ways in which to support students at school and at home. But, I always dreaded the part where I had to share information about students’ standardized test scores, diagnostic test scores, and predicted test scores.

When Pennsylvania decided to include the Keystone Exams as part of the state’s graduation requirements, I told parents that I would do everything I could to help their students meet benchmarks, make progress, and “beat the test.” I never gave up on any of my kids, but I knew that some of them just wouldn’t make it, regardless of the extra time we spent working before and after school, the time they spent in tutoring sessions with other teachers, and the time they spent on extra practice activities at home. These were kids who hadn’t “grown up” with the Common Core State Standards; they had been in classes covering the CCSS for only one or two years, but the state decided they had to pass the Keystone Exams in order to graduate. It was unfair, and I knew that.

Parent teacher conference by Innovation SchoolAnd so, I had to look parents in the eye and tell them that even though I saw their students working unbelievably hard in my class and making growth in their reading and writing skills, they were not on track to score in the proficient range on the tests. Parents worried. Sometimes, students cried. And every conference night, I went home feeling happy about seeing so many parents but incredibly defeated because of the news I had just shared with them. I felt even more disgusted by the fact that the tests and the scores became the focal point of the conferences, when I knew that they should not have been.

Now, there is news about students opting out in record numbers in Colorado and Florida. There also is news about PA superintendents, school boards, and legislators who want to cut the cord between the tests and graduation status. Finally, people other than teachers are beginning to realize that one test should not determine a student’s future, especially when that test is grounded in standards that are under such scrutiny.

If I were still in the classroom, my parent-teacher conferences this year would be so much simpler. I’d share information on how to opt out. I’d tell parents about students’ rights and their own rights. I’d tell them that the scores really don’t mean much of anything for their students’ actual life goals or chances of getting into college or a branch of the armed services. I’d tell them the TRUTH about the standardized tests.

Wouldn’t it be something if Pennsylvania would make the news, like Colorado and Florida, for the numbers of students opting out? Wouldn’t it send quite a message if not one of the state’s districts met the participation rate for taking the tests?

But, it’s going to take effort and courage on the part of the teachers to communicate with parents. Parents may not have access to the information they need to opt out their children. They also may be getting the wrong message from administration or central offices when they ask about opting out. Parent-teacher conferences are the prime time for teachers to share information with parents. Who better to have the students’ best interests at heart?

For more information on opting out, visit http://unitedoptout.com and http://nopacommoncore.com/opt-info/, or follow Pennsylvanians Against Common Core on Facebook and Twitter.

Image via Flickr by Innovation School

On Meeting Tom Wolf, Surviving Corbett’s Cuts, and Voting

I met Tom Wolf Wednesday, Oct. 29. He was running late, so I couldn’t stay for the entire campaign trail event, but I made sure to shake hands with him, look him in the eye, and tell him that I am a teacher and that we need him. He responded by saying, “We need you, too.” I continued by telling him we need him to keep his promises.

I am not naïve. I know that politicians are politicians. I know that Mr. Wolf has made promises and plans to cut some taxes and raise others. I know that he needs to do all that he can to remedy the path of destruction left by Tom Corbett. I also know that he has no idea what lies ahead until he takes office and that some surprises may come up to prevent him from doing all that he has said he will do. He’s human, and he will inherit a state that’s been left in shambles.

Education Protest March 4 2010-27 by Patrick GiblinBut, I also have firsthand knowledge of what Tom Corbett has done to my state and our public education system. As proponents and opponents throw their truths about education cuts back and forth, I only can speak about what I know to be true. I was in a classroom for eleven years. None of those years was perfect, as far as statewide high-stakes assessments, new regulations, new evaluations, new budget changes, and new technology initiatives took hold. But, the four years during which Corbett held the reins were the worst.

In those four years, we lost positions to attrition. Thank goodness nobody was furloughed (at least to the best of my knowledge), but the lost positions helped to account for the increased class sizes and the loss of itinerants, so that teachers now travel between buildings at a dizzying rate. We also lost principal positions to attrition. Some buildings do not have a principal on site during the day. Schools are left without leaders in an age of school violence, bullying, and increased time needed for evaluations.

In those four years, teachers took a pay freeze. Teachers retiring at the end of the year lost money, teachers who spent time earning extra credits for advancement on the pay scale lost money, and teachers who were counting on raises to help cover the money spent out of pocket on classroom supplies lost money. I was one of the teachers who spent more of my own money during those four years. Tissues, pencils, erasers, novels, hand sanitizer, paper, glue sticks, markers, and other supplies we used on a daily basis came out of my checking account. As my classroom budget was cut, and I worked under a pay freeze, I spent more and more of my own money to keep my classroom going the way that I wanted it to, in order to have an engaging learning environment.

In those four years, classrooms lost assistants, libraries lost assistants, and buildings lost assistants. Even more damaging was the fact that students lost services they desperately needed as wrap-arounds and personal aides were slashed. Students who relied on those paraprofessionals and support staff suddenly were left to navigate through the school year on their own. Discipline issues became a problem and students spent more time with guidance counselors and principals after they lost their support in the classrooms.

In those four years, my class sizes grew from an average of 22 to an average of 30. My largest class was 38 students, and I did not have enough desks in my room to accommodate all of them the first week of school. When I managed to borrow desks from fellow teachers, we worked in close quarters until two desks broke and I was told there were no replacements. I again relied on my colleagues for help and found enough desks to squeak by until the end of the school year. I worked with students and changed my lessons and daily activities to accommodate the large numbers, but those kids definitely would have been better off in smaller classes.

In those four years, we lost our after-school tutoring and mentoring programs. Students lost a program that included activities, tutoring, and snacks. We also lost a program dedicated solely to tutoring. When everyone was so concerned about test scores and student achievement, the two programs that were in place to help students academically were lost.

VOTE by Theresa ThompsonI don’t need studies or campaign ads telling me what a disaster Tom Corbett has been for my profession or my state. I have seen it and lived it. Tuesday, teachers MUST vote their job, not their party. Teachers MUST vote, period. I can’t imagine what will be left of our state or our schools if we have to endure another four years of Tom Corbett.

For more, follow the #Vote4ED posts on Twitter and visit http://educationvotes.nea.org.

Images via Flickr by Patrick Giblin and Teresa Thompson

Weekly Roundup 10/25

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This week in education, we see more bad news for educators and students. Much of the bad news is because politicians and organizations are pushing their own agendas, rather than focusing on the real problems at hand.

Monday, October 27, the Philadelphia School District will give schools access to $15 million. On the surface, this sounds positive. The problem is, the money is part of the $44 million the district expects to save from canceling the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. This is the same money that is tied up in the court system after the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas granted the union’s request for an injunction; the injunction should have halted the district’s plans to begin forcing teachers to contribute more toward their health care premiums. The district effectively will hand out money that legally is not theirs, a move that PFT president Jerry Jordan says is a “public relations campaign to try to make it appear that it’s the PFT’s fault that the schools don’t have what they should have.” Read the full article to see how teachers are being victimized and villainized once again.

Arne Duncan reportedly wants to raise the stakes for schools of education, driving “bad” schools out of business with new federal regulations governing those schools. This seems like the same old tune from Duncan, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how he will determine which schools of education are “bad.” Diane Ravitch gives a quick response to the Politico.com report and wonders whether Duncan will “grade these colleges by the test scores of students taught by graduates of schools of education,” which “will certainly make the stakes even higher for high-stakes testing.”

Both Arne Duncan and President Obama are supporting efforts to study the use of standardized tests and to weed out the “bad” ones. Their official statements followed announcements by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools stating that too many tests are poorly designed, take too much time, and can be eliminated. Patrick O’Donnell’s article offers both Duncan and Obama’s statements in their entirety, and teachers should read them. Then, teachers should think about what the statements do not say. They never mention the Common Core. How can we have a conversation about testing and not mention the driving force behind the latest round of testing insanity? Our leaders still don’t get it, as evidenced by their own words.

Would you believe, after reading the previous articles, that there is a steep decline in the number of enrollments in teacher prep programs? Teachers have been predicting the decreasing numbers of new teachers for quite some time; it’s difficult to imagine why anyone would want to enter this profession, with all of the bureaucracy, bashing, and blame flying around these days. A report in Education Week details the decline and points to “supply concerns” in California and other large states. The article fails to mention one thing: practicing teachers are leaving the profession in droves, too.

The real issues in education should focus on the students. Poverty and hunger are two critical components in student performance, but politicians, mainstream media, and education reformers don’t talk about it. An article in the New York Daily News reports on the heartbreaking number of homeless students. While the fights rage on over public schools and charter schools in the city, as the governor’s race heats up, and as teachers come under fire for failing schools, the homeless students are being overlooked in the discussion. We cannot fix education until we fix the problems of our students.

2013 Philly School Rally by peoplesworld

The TRUE Meaning of Solidarity

Most of us have seen it at the bottom of correspondence from our union leaders (those of us who have unions, that is): “In solidarity…” I don’t know that we really think about those words and the importance of them, though. I especially don’t think that those of us who have been in the union from the beginning of our career have stopped to think about what it would mean if we didn’t have a union or a group with which to display our solidarity.

Yet, we don’t always stand in solidarity. Often, we divide ourselves into “regular ed. and special ed.” or “content teachers and itinerants” or “elementary and secondary.” We need to stop. We are educators. We are under attack from what seems like a million different directions, and we are losing ground to charters, corporations, education reformers, and spin machines that have millions of dollars to discount all that we say and do. If we allow the situation and the circumstances to divide us, they will conquer us.

2013 Philly School Rally by peoplesworldThe latest developments in Philadelphia must be a lesson to all public educators, everywhere. I don’t know that any of us truly believed that a contract could be canceled. I think some of us still believe that someone will step in and make this situation right. The problem is, there isn’t anyone standing up for the teachers, other than the union and the parents and students. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted down the proposal to give the governor the power to abolish the School Reform Commission (SRC), and they also failed to pass a measure to force the SRC to advertise meetings 48 hours in advance.

This is why our unions speak to us in terms of “solidarity.” The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers needs us. They need us to write letters and emails to the members of the Senate Committee. They need us to boost their morale through solidarity events as simple as wearing red and sharing the picture on their Facebook page. They need to know that other teachers care about what they are going through and that we know it’s not right. They need to hear from us, when they are not hearing from anyone else. They need us to sign and share the petition urging the SRC to negotiate in good faith. The Philadelphia teachers need our solidarity NOW.

To get more about the story in Philadelphia and what you can do to help, read my blog post, “Solidarity Now.” Stay up to date by “Liking” the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools Facebook page and following them on Twitter. Read the articles that share the TRUTH about the situation, like “Letters: A plea for R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” “Real Life ‘Dr. Evil’ latest to take on Philly teachers with front group,” and “Thousands join street protest before raucous SRC meeting.”

Image via Flickr by peoplesworld

Weekly Roundup 10/17

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Another week, and another round of attacks on public education. Surprises in the news include lawmakers targeting remedial and developmental education and Massachusetts halting new charter schools. We are happy to report some good news out of New York and Philadelphia, even as teachers in those states are embroiled in conflicts and protests. One thing became clear this week: we need to stand in solidarity as more stories about the war on teachers and public education emerge.

There’s a new war waging in education, and this time it’s affecting students and educators at all levels, even post-secondary. In Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, Connecticut, and other states, lawmakers believe the answer to students needing extra time and support in college is taking it away from them. For these lawmakers, it makes perfect sense that remedial education is failing and the best way to make lower-achieving students more successful is to remove their access to remedial classes. States are implementing their own solutions to the “remediation problem,” from making remedial or development courses optional to restricting students to a single semester of non-credit remedial coursework. It’s probably not a surprise that the opponents of remedial or developmental education are a political advocacy group called College Completion America, despite the fact that a 2006 study showed students taking remediation are more likely to graduate than equivalent students who don’t. Read the NEA Today article to get the whole story.

Oh, New Jersey. We feel for you, too. One Newark seemed to have fallen off the education news radar for awhile, but it came back on the scene in a big way this week, when Superintendent Cami Anderson stated the district plans to expand some of the changes made under the plan. As reported by Naomi Nix, one of the changes includes instituting private pre-K providers as part of its universal enrollment system. Anderson talks a good game, but parents, teachers, and Newark residents have been protesting One Newark since its inception. The opponents include Newark mayor Ras Baraka, who has been speaking out against the reorganization of schools and who now is appealing to President Barack Obama to intervene in the “‘disruptive and illegal education reforms'” taking place in the school district. Read the article about Baraka’s stance, plus his entire letter to President Obama here.

In the aftermath of the State University of New York’s (SUNY) board of directors approving the creation of 17 new charter schools last week, angry parents demanded an audit of SUNY and their charter schools, Success Academy. In an interview with City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Jess Berry of the Brooklyn Downtown Star reports that Stringer is planning to come up with a protocol for the audits and then audit the charter schools. This is big news, as more and more parents, teachers, union leaders, and others concerned about the lack of oversight in charters are calling for more regulations. In New York, this is particularly promising news for outraged parents who say that the Success Academy schools already in existence are “grossly under-enrolled.” Read Berry’s article that also gives a history of the conflicts between charters, parents, and other citizens of NY.

While New York seems to be adding charters as fast as they can, an October 14 report in the Boston Globe states that new charter schools are unlikely in Massachusetts, as the state halted plans for new charter schools in Brockton and Fitchburg. This decision came on the heels of the Massachusetts Senate “overwhelmingly” rejecting an increase in the number of charters that may operate in low-performing districts. One thing is for sure, with the private groups pushing for the charters in Massachusetts, this debate is far from over. Read the Boston Globe article and decide for yourself.

Pennsylvania education secretary Carolyn Dumaresq petitioned the Commonwealth Court to dismiss a case filed by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia on behalf of 7 parents and the advocacy group Parents United for Public Education pushing for the PA Department of Education to investigate the more than 800 complaints filed by parents in the Philadelphia school district last year. Dumaresq claims that a state investigation is not required because the complaints are not curricular, but the attorney representing the parents argues that many of the complaints focus on insufficient offerings in state mandates regarding foreign language, physical education, and programs for gifted students. This feels like one more way that the state is tying the hands of public school students, parents, and teachers in Philadelphia. Read the NewsWorks article to get the full story.

If you’ve been following our blog and Facebook page this week, you’ve seen quite a lot of content about the atrocities being carried out against the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) by the School Reform Commission (SRC). The SRC’s action to cancel teacher contracts has far-reaching implications, and it is important to stay up-to-date with everything that is happening. Last night (10/16), nearly 3,000 people showed up prior to the SRC meeting and shut down Broad Street to protest the SRC and stand up for the PFT. This report from The Examiner details the events of the meeting, including speakers’ comments and the ways in which various attendees called for an apology and resignation from Sylvia Simms, the SRC member who lashed out at Philadelphia Student Union members when they effectively protested the viewing of the anti-union film We Won’t Back Down during Parent/Family Appreciation Month. Simms reportedly mentioned “failing schools” and “jail” in her comments to students.

It’s very interesting that this week brought about two statements, one from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and one from NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, regarding the amount of time students spend taking and preparing for standardized assessments, yet neither mentions the Common Core. Not once. At first glance, educators and parents may be encouraged by these statements; let’s face it, they both essentially admit that the sheer volume of testing needs to decrease. But, it is impossible in this day and age to call for less testing and never mention the monster behind it all. Is this a maneuver to placate teachers and parents for awhile? Be careful of wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Solidarity NOW

Let me be clear: If we do not stand together as a group millions strong as public education comes under attack, there won’t be anyone who will speak for us. This fight to protect our schools and our students and our profession from government officials, corporate charter school leaders, education reformers, Pearson, data mining, big money, and all of the other forces that are systematically taking over districts must be OUR fight.

It was easy to look at Chicago and lament the closing of 49 elementary schools and 1 high school if you don’t live and work in Chicago. It was easy to look at Philadelphia and feel bad 20120725CTURally-2 by sarah-jifor the kids as the latest batch of schools closed if you don’t live and work in Philadelphia. It was easy to watch the teachers of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, strike as they fought for class size caps, planning time, and the withdrawal of the merit pay proposal based on students’ standardized test performance if you don’t live and work in Reynoldsburg. It’s easy to watch the teachers, parents, and students currently holding rallies and protests in York City, PA, to protest the corporate takeover of all of the public schools in that district if you don’t live and work in York City. It’s easy to watch the students in Jefferson County, Colorado, currently protesting the school board’s potential changes to the A.P. U.S. history curriculum and the teachers taking part in sick-outs if you don’t live in Jefferson County. The list goes on and on.

But, in some states, government officials already have succeeded in abolishing unions. In some states, teachers already are forced to give hundreds of assessments and work for merit pay. In some states, teachers already have to pay nearly or all of their health care premiums. In some states, public schools are being pushed out as public education spaces and dollars go to charter schools. As district officials, state officials, and federal officials hand down decisions, teachers everywhere are beginning to be affected. But, as of October 8, 2014, this is no longer THEIR problem. If you are a public education teacher, this is now OUR problem, thanks to the School Reform Commission (SRC) in Philadelphia.

We officially no longer can sit back and watch what is unfolding in Philadelphia now. We need to sit up, pay attention, stay informed, and stand in solidarity with our public education brothers and sisters. If you need a little bit of history on the state takeover of the Philly School District, click here. And, if you don’t know what the SRC is, you need to know NOW, because they are the group that is working to take away retired teachers’ benefits – as much as $10,000 per year, according to Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) President Jerry Jordan in a Philadelphia Inquirer article. They are offering a health care plan that will force teachers to pay premiums as high as $626 per month and then meet astronomical deductibles and co-pays. They failed to negotiate with teachers after being ordered to do so by a PA Supreme Court and decided instead to cancel the existing contract and enact the contract with these new terms. The SRC did not advertise the meeting properly. All of this occurred without any negotiations having taken place since July 2014.

Protests have been occurring in Philadelphia since the SRC acted, including students going on “strike” to show their support for their teachers. Parents and public school advocates also Proud Marchers by Light Brigadingannounced their solidarity with Philly teachers Wednesday by standing on the steps of the district’s headquarters. All of this was happening at nearly the same moment that a PA Senate committee failed to approve a proposal to give the governor the authority to abolish the SRC, by a vote of 14-9, with no Republicans supporting the proposal. Solomon Leach’s Inquirer article also points out that the Senate Appropriations Committee “rejected a second amendment that would have required the SRC to provide 48 hours’ notice before holding a meeting.” The result? Only the SRC can vote to dissolve itself, with the permission of the secretary of education. Heard enough yet?

There’s more. The PFT is holding a protest outside the School District headquarters today (Oct. 16, 2014), but the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives confirmed it hired a team to appear at the event. Let that sink in for a minute. This group has enough money to pay people to show up to counter the teachers’ protest. In fact, according to a Philadelphia magazine article, this “free-market think tank” would be “informing people about how Jerry Jordan and the PFT leadership are standing in the way of tens of millions of dollars gong back into Philadelphia classrooms.” FYI – the Commonwealth Foundation registered two other websites this week, to put out their agenda and spread their false messages. They claim the teachers have a “selfish agenda” and fail children, teachers, and the poor, and that their group hired workers to pass out information and hold banners “to inform” the public. “The Notebook” noted that Cindy Hamill-Dahlgren, spokeswoman for the Commonwealth Foundation, would not specify how much money the Foundation spent to counter the PFT, Greeed by liz westbut an email showed some “brand ambassadors” were being offered anywhere from $100 to $120 to assist.

If this is the first time you’ve heard about the Commonwealth Foundation, you should know that in April 2013, it was reported that the right-wing think tank out of Harrisburg has plans to attack pubic sector employee unions. According to an article from “The Nation,” Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) wrote a letter on behalf of the Foundation, announcing “Project Goliath,” a “new effort to make Pennsylvania the next Wisconsin or Michigan.” Toomey wrote, “‘I firmly believe the future is in our hands – it’s up to you and me – and it all depends on the level of urgency we give this new campaign of ours, Project Goliath: Conquering Pennsylvania’s Political Giant. Now is the time to fight back. Like David of the Bible, now is the time to come forward and slay Pennsylvania’s Big Labor Goliath! …. First, we are forming an alliance with other successful free-market groups to actively discredit the Big Government Party (a tactic borrowed directly from Wisconsin). Like our friends in Wisconsin and Michigan, many elements of our plan involve a cooperative effort among our allied, but still independent, organizations…. But the overriding key to our whole plan will be our ability to starve the giant.’” The Commonwealth Foundation is reportedly “one of a 59-state network of similar think tanks that have vastly expanded since 2009.” They have raised millions of dollars, they have a stronghold in Pennsylvania, and clearly they are gunning for public education.

Now, several stories on Facebook are starting to emerge as the situation in Philadelphia worsens, from an SRC member telling student protestors, “You belong in jail,” to Pittsburgh teachers wearing red in solidarity with the Philly teachers.

So, what can you do? Share the stories on your social media pages. If you’re sharing recipes TRUTH Twitterand Halloween pictures on Facebook, you need to bite the bullet and start sharing the stories out of Philadelphia and the rest of the country. “Like” the pages of these unions, parent groups, and teacher groups on Facebook so you can easily follow their news. If you don’t have a Twitter account, create one and start following organizations and education warriors like @TruthInTeaching, @PublicEdNation, , @APPSphilly, @NYSAPE, @PegwithPen, @UnitedOptOut, @DianeRavitch, @palan57, @CTULocal1, @BadassTeachersA, @MindyRosier and others who understand the urgent need to save public education and get out the TRUTH.

You need to talk to your local union leaders, if you’re in a state that still has a union, about organizing solidarity campaigns. You need to read the articles (there are three below that are a good place to start) and understand the implications for you, your position, and your district. You need to get involved. Or, the next canceled contract, the next corporate takeover, the next shuttered school, could be yours.

For further reading:
‘Dear America, We Give Our Schools Third-World Level Resources… With love, Philadelphia XOXO’
Philadelphia Teachers Hit by Latest Cuts
PFT pushes back: livetweeting the SRC meeting

Images via Flickr by sarah-ji, Light Brigading, and Liz West

Occupy the Schools Feb 1, 2012 by Michael Fleshman

The Abysmal State of Education

It’s been a bad week for education in Pennsylvania. Well, in all honesty, it’s been a bad few years for education in Pennsylvania since Tom Corbett was elected Greeed by liz westgovernor in 2010, but things have come to a head this week. From the new report that PA charter schools “have engaged in fraud and abuse amounting to about $30 million,” to the School Reform Commission (SRC) unilaterally canceling teacherscontracts in Philadelphia, we are in trouble. Add that to the impending November York City vote on a corporate takeover of public schools, and the state of education in Pennsylvania is in dire straits.

In the Education Votes article, “New report alleges $30 million in fraud and abuse connected to PA charter schools,” Brian Washington explains that “Fraud and Financial Mismanagement in Pennsylvania’s Charter Schools” was released by several non-profit groups including the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), Integrity in Education, and ACTION United October 1. The report states that within the past 17 years, “charter school operators in Pennsylvania have abused the system of at least $30 million. It also asserts that state agencies, charged with overseeing charter schools, are not up to the job of weeding out fraud and abuse.” The reports of mismanagement and lack of oversight in charters is nothing new, but this report comes at a time when charters and corporate takeovers are taking center stage in PA education news as well as national education news.

Washington points to the May whistleblowing report from CPD and Integrity in Education, “Charter School Vulnerabilities to Waste, Fraud, and Abuse” that claims charter school waste and abuse has cost American taxpayers an estimated $100 million. Additionally, Joshua Holland reports in “Charter Schools Gone Wild: Study Finds Widespread Fraud, Mismanagement and Waste,” that “the actual amount of fraud and abuse the report uncovered totaled $136 million, and that was just in the 15 states they studied.”

Regardless of which numbers you use, PA is responsible for a large portion of the charter school fraud. In light of these reports, anyone with common sense would think that for-profit charter schools should be turned away by districts and states. However, Corbett and his appointee in York City are doing all that they can to turn every public school in that part of PA into for-profit charter schools. The good news is the community and various education leaders are rallying around York City teachers, parents, and students in an attempt to get the school board to strike down the corporate takeover.

In her statement, NEA president Eskelsen Garcia makes her position clear: “We’re referring to the same politicians who call for ‘public school accountability’ by piling toxic tests on our students, yet seem to look the other way when it’s time to hold all charter schools responsible for their use of public funds.”

Eskelsen Garcia continued, “It’s ironic and disturbing that Governor Corbett continues to push for the privatization of Pennsylvania’s public schools – handing over entire underfunded school districts like that of York City to charter operations with less-than-stellar records.”

In truth, the two charters vying for position in York are Mosaica Education Inc. and Charter Schools USA, neither of which has a good track record. In a September 24 article, Washington points out the flaws with both corporations: Occupy the Schools Feb 1, 2012 by Michael Fleshman“In 2012, Mosaica had a five year contract to run the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy in Muskegon Heights, Michigan, but quit after two years because it couldn’t turn a profit. Charter Schools USA began operating three schools in Indianapolis during the 2012-2013 school year. So far, all three schools have earned an ‘F’ from Indiana education officials.” Students and parents are left wondering where their children can go to school when the charters fail, pull out, or both.

This is why, on a national level, the Annenberg Institute at Brown University is “calling for higher standards for charter schools regarding accountability, transparency, and equity” in their September 2014 report, and Eskelsen Garcia is pushing lawmakers to demand oversight and accountability from charters. Some election hopefuls are calling for more accountability and transparency for charter schools, as is the case with Ohio state auditor candidate John Patrick Carney.

But, oversight is not enough. When charter schools that once were supposed to be a choice for innovation and better educational opportunities (did anyone really believe that all those years ago?) are forced upon districts in an effort by education reformers to privatize education, where are the teachers, students, and parents left? Charters have proven themselves to be ineffective, incapable, and in some cases, illegal. Fixing public education with charters is not the answer. It never was, and it never will be. Rather, we need to be electing officials who truly understand the value of public education and listening to true education experts – the teachers – when it comes to education reform that is in the best interests of students.

FYI – Pennsylvania isn’t the only state wrestling with charter school issues. The debate over charter schools and their effects on public schools is heating up daily, especially in New York City. The following links offer more information about the Philadelphia schools mess, the NYC charter debacle, and the questions surrounding NYC’s charter schools leader, Eva Moskowitz:

Images via Flickr by liz west and Michael Fleshman