I Hate When You Put on the God Costume

Omnipotence – an agency or force of unlimited power

George Sr. - Arrested Development - Wearing the God Costume

I was told at a forum that I went to on education reform by a man who had a PHD in Education Policy that, “teachers are the most important factor in aiding whether or not a student succeeds.” I was struck by this comment. Not because I haven’t heard it before, but because someone with a PHD in education policy would ever utter those words. I thought to myself, Me? The most important factor in student success? I must be God.

Rhetoric regarding education reform is full of this level of unrealistic omnipotence. There is an alarming level of complacency in the idea that the teacher is the centre of education and the answer to failing schools is centred on addressing the inadequacies in the teachers across the country. Moreover, the omnipotent rhetoric doesn’t end with just attacking teacher “ineffectiveness;” it also exists in discussing the solutions to fixing failing schools.

Education reform will not come to past if there is a continued filter of omnipotence that guides rhetoric and policy. Rhee argued in her Student’s First Mission Statement that “[o]nce inside the school, a great teacher is the single most important factor in a child’s education. While there are many factors that influence a student’s ability to learn, a great teacher can help any student overcome those barriers and realize their full potential.” Can Michelle Rhee explain to a teacher how they are supposed to help a student “overcome” living in a home with lead paint and being subjected to lead poisoning through their developmental years? Can Michelle explain to a teacher how to help a student “overcome” the barrier of a father who is sexually abusing her, and the local child protective services say, “There is no evidence to prove that this child has been abused, because she is sexually active?” Can Michelle Rhee explain to a teacher how to help a student overcome the “barrier” that is in place for a student who is so exhausted when he comes to school because his parents get in physical altercations that keep him up nightly? These are all examples of students that I’ve had in the past, whose “barriers” stifled their “full potential.” The student with lead poisoning had to be placed a severe learning-disabled self-contained classroom, because he only read at the second grade level (he was in 10th grade). The student, whom was being abused by her father, killed herself because despite my (and other teachers) best efforts, she felt that no one could save her. The student, who witnessed daily domestic violence, watched his mother being killed and went into a deep depression because he was essentially an orphan. As much as these situations pained me, and still do to this day, I know that I did my best to help these students. It is my awareness that I am not omnipotent that keeps me going to help the students who have a lesser degree of personal circumstances. However, to Michelle Rhee, I am an ineffective teacher because each of those students was failing my class when their lives changed forever.

I wish I could say that these are unique problems that many teachers, who work in the toughest schools in this country, deal with. The problems that plague our schools are so much deeper than any one inadequate teacher, the bureaucracy of the teachers unions, the layout the teacher evaluation system, and the rigour of the state standardized tests. The problems that plague schools are historic, economic, racial, and societal. This is why I am confident that Michelle’s “RHEEforms” aren’t omnipotent, regardless of the number of billionaires, media outlets, and filmmakers that are on her side. There is no simple solution, and the mere fact that the Student First’s mission statement is nonchalant in “the factors that influence a student’s ability to learn” implies that solutions are omnipotent.

Principals? Administrators? the Federal Government? Angels?

The Student’s First blog featured a video that was a compilation of teachers, who were concerned about school reform, and one teacher’s comments gave me pause.

“When we have to contract out how many hours a teacher spends, how many hours they get paid after school…how many hours they have to be on school premises…that is not putting kids first.” – Barbara, Learning Specialist

Additionally, in an interview with nj.com, Michelle Rhee argues:

“I don’t think we need to reform tenure. I don’t think there is a need for tenure. Teachers need to understand they are not going to be discriminated against. If they feel they’ve been unfairly terminated, they need to have a process by which they can address that issue. School districts need to ensure firings are not happening in an unfair manner. But all of those things can happen without tenure being in place. [T]here are federal protections in place against discriminatory firings.”

In both the statements by Barbara and Michelle Rhee there is an “air of omnipotence” that seasons their rhetoric. The “air of omnipotence” is demonstrated here in three forms:

• Teachers are not human; therefore they should give all of their time, effort, and energy towards educating students with little to no compensation.
• Principals and other administrators are infallible; therefore they will not subject teachers to any practices that may be deemed discriminatory.
• If a non-infallible principal happen to slip through, then the omnipotent anti-discrimination laws by the federal government (you know…the law that makes sure that women and men are paid the same) will protect them and their reputation while they go through the courts.

I am sure most of you reading this are thinking that these statements are ludicrous. Nevertheless, this is the nature of their rhetoric. This is what happens when you scapegoat one group of people in a system with a lot of players. There is an unrealistic precedent created that will not lead to the reforms needed. This is why the Due Process (pejoratively known as “Tenure”) and teacher’s unions are important. These two elements of the educational landscape do their best to level the playing field for the people who work with STUDENTS day in and day out. While I will never assert that teacher’s unions are infallible and omnipotent, stripping the landscape of these two entities only serve to leave unrealistic expectations for all players. When I was unfairly fired from a charter school a couple of years ago, I created/adopted a mantra that I will always believe: “As long as schools are run by people, we will always need unions.”

Advertisements

Truce Mr. Obama? Hardly!:Race to the Top = Slap in the Face

Message from State Superintendent Christopher A. Koch

We have just been informed by the U.S. Department of Education that Illinois has not been selected to receive a Race to the Top grant. While this is disappointing news, I am proud of the effort that our state has made to put together such an ambitious plan, which I believe should serve as our blueprint for where we need to take education through the next decade.

I thank you for your support of Illinois students and look forward to working with you as we implement many of the elements that comprised our application. As you know, the Illinois education community worked collaboratively to form our Race to Top application, so many of the proposed changes are in statute and will occur anyway.
We still intend to develop new rigorous teacher and principal evaluation systems, as required by state law, as well as continuing our work to improve teacher and principal preparation programs.

We are still committed to developing a comprehensive longitudinal data system to assist us in better preparing students for college and careers and we are already on our way to implementing the new Illinois Learning Standards, incorporating the Common Core.
Nothing more is needed with regard to the Race to the Top at this time, however, we will be working with you as we move forward with the goals we’ve outlined for driving educational progress in Illinois.

I appreciate your passion for students and your commitment to excellence.

Chris

The second phase of “Bribery to the Top” winners were announced today, and to the dismay to many, Illinois just didn’t make it to the top. I am curious to view Illinois’ application and will be doing so soon. Chris Koch, the Illinois Superintendent, released the “warm and fuzzy” letter above after the announcement from the U.S. Department of Education.

Mr. Koch is insistent on “developing a comprehensive longitudinal data system to assist [Illinois] in better preparing students for college and careers and…implementing the new Illinois Learning Standards, incorporating the Common Core. So is Mr. Koch’s insistence based on his own personal beliefs, the advice of teachers, and the support of community members, or is it based on the potential prospect of the money from Race to the Top (RTTP). In other words, was it the chicken or the egg?

The losers of RTTP were more than just the states. Photo Courtesy: tripadvisor.com

This is an important question and has many implications for all the states that lost [and won] the Race to the Top Funds. It is the impetus for me calling Race to the Top, Bribery to the Top. Many states rushed to develop the “reforms” necessary to win Race to the Top funds only to come up short at the end. While they rushed to develop these reforms many members of the education landscapes’ voices were silenced including teachers, parents, and the infamous union leaders. How are people like Chris Koch going to mitigate the concerns from all of these people now that the prospect for the money is gone? Who is going to champion these reforms now that prospect for the money is gone? Will there be political will in place to implement the reforms now that prospect for the money is gone? For the states that won, will the money continue to be there next year and/or after Mr. Obama leaves office, or will the program be added to one of those failed “good/popular” ideas like Supplemental Education from the NCLB days? Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan have essentially threw many educational leaders “under the bus” to fend off the obviously unpopular reforms that were adopted to “win” RTTP funds. It is leaving states to fend for themselves to MAINTAIN these systems, while playing on the desperation from the recession and the historical disinvestment in public education.

Where is the Money Going to come from?

Illinois is one of many states across the country that has cut education jobs to balance their budget for the next year. This is a clear sign that there is a cash-flow problem. However, Mr. Koch is still “committed” to the heralded longitudinal data system and the creation and implementation of new standards (which include training). Where is this money supposed to come from? I assume you could probably take it from the Edujobs money.

RTTT is largely reminiscent of No Child Behind. The implementation of the requirements of NCLB came as a great cost to the states. As Diane Ravitch discusses in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, “some states complained that the federal government did not even give them enough money to do what the law required. Federal funding for elementary and secondary programs were increased by 60 percent in the early years of NCLB, but Democrats complained that it was way below what was needed and what Congress had authorized.” (Page 98)

Now that only eleven states and the District of Columbia is privy to the $4.35 billion from the RTTT funds, what are the other 39 states going to do to implement the RTTP reforms? Are they going to have to have their arm twisted in applying for the “School Improvement Fund” or the “Charter Schools Program?” Having cash strapped states create unfunded or under funded “reforms” is wrong and definitely from the Bush/Spellings playbook.

When Mr. Duncan and Mr. Obama are gone, the states are still going to be left to try to figure out how to add these “reforms” to their budget year after year. The amount of money that the USDOE had to work with was unprecedented for any Secretary of the Department of Education. It doesn’t hurt to mention also that the money is borrowed. Is Obama and his predecessors going to make education a principal priority with two wars, a stagnant economy, and a soon to be deficit-hawk Congress? If no, is the blame for the states inability to maintain the reforms going to be placed on states; therefore continuing the cycle of blame from the teachers to the states/districts? I believe that these questions (among others) need to be answered before I stand up and applaud for Obama/Duncan’s leadership on improving education in our country.

This is was not about Education Reform, this was about Politics

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other day about Race to the Top. He asked me to explain what the programme is and its purpose. After explaining to him what the ins and outs of the program were he asked me, why did the Obama Administration have to have a separate Edujobs bill to save teacher jobs? Why couldn’t he just use some of the money from Race to the Top to help save teacher jobs? My answer to him was the Edujobs bill is not about education it’s about politics. In other words, getting back in good graces with teachers and union leaders (one of Democrats’ core constituencies) leading up to the election and subsequently declaring a “truce.”

Why would I make that claim? What does the Edujobs bill tell you about RTTT? It became clear around January of this year that many of the teacher-related and education support personnel positions that were saved by Obama’s first round of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds would dry up and states would be strapped. However, the Edujobs bill was passed in August. Why did it take so long? The Department of Education and Obama had no interest in saving or helping anyone part of the “status quo” without stipulations. This was evident in his threat to veto the bill if it included taking money from RTTT. Barack Obama’s attempt to be “everyone’s president” has influenced his decisions the last eighteen months as president. Think about it. He can placate parents, civil rights leaders, and desperate states by creating “reforms,” while placating the economists and conservative (and some liberal) think tanks in the advancement of market tactics in education. With Duncan’s announcement today of the RTTT winners he emphasized his commitment to asking Congress for more money for RTTT, while many states are hoarding their EduJobs money under fear that it won’t cover through the next school year. Why is he not committed to saving teacher jobs? It has become the politically popular viewpoint to place teachers (especially the unions) in the group of bureaucrats that are hostile to any reform. There is no way that the current pseudo deficit-hawkish Congress is going to give any money to educators without stipulations especially when they are sold to be members of the “status quo.”

The second indication that it is political is the lack of stipulations placed on the EduJobs bill. While Mr. Obama has praised the bill for saving teacher jobs, many states are not doing the immediate re-hiring and the reduction in classroom sizes that was supposed to occur under the fear of being back in dire-straights again next year. Mr. President, how can you give one sum of money with an inordinate number of stipulations, but not make a fairly clean-cut stipulation like re-hire teachers part of an EduJOBS bill? It was not about education it was about politics. Selling the message of “saving teacher jobs” seems to be the politically prudent thing to do leading up to a tough election with Republicans in the midterm elections. In my opinion, there aren’t enough press conferences or supposed “truces” that would make me feel otherwise. Almost everything that President Obama has made a priority (health care, AARA, financial reform, CARD Act, etc.) has passed fairly quickly (with the exception of the health care bill.) Edujobs were not Mr. Obama’s priority; the Obama/Duncan agenda is the priority.

In any race there are going to be winners and losers. While, I don’t support many of the reforms that were required by the Obama Administration, I do believe that what has happened in this program is going to set a precedent. It is setting a precedent for twisting the arms of desperate states to adopt “reform” measures that negate all of the stakeholders in an effort to circumvent bureaucracies. It sets a precedent that similarily in the free market that there are going to be winners and losers, and that the losers just need to “try harder and do more.” It sets a precedent that education leaders not only need to be savvy in pedagogy and management, but in politics. It sets a precedent of a dangerous road for public education that is unsustainable and has many unintended but very REAL consequences.

Truce Mr. Obama? Hardly.

Battle Lines: Edujobs v Teacher Job Leverage

Rick Hess Straight Up Blog on Education Week

Today, as I did my usual morning reading of the education news of the day I ran across this blog on the EdWeek blog site by Rick Hess called “Straight Talk”. Mr. Hess used this blog piece to discuss how the Edujobs bill was harmful and wasteful. I was enraged at large parts of this post, which prompted my to draw some Battle Lines.

Mr. Hess began his piece by claming that “for more than a half century, we’ve spent more dollars on K-12 schooling each year than we did the year before. The problem with this is that no one makes tough choices in flush times.” There are a couple of issues with his claim whether or not it is empirically correct. During the time period that Mr. Hess mentioned that there has been an increase in spending on K-12 schooling there has also been an increase in the amount of students being educated. The increase in student spending comes from the obvious increase in population, but it also comes from federal mandates to educate students of colour, students with disabilities, and students who speak English as a second language. A federal mandate was only necessary due to the fact that these groups had not been given the education investments in the past. The addition of these populations on the educational landscape prompted research for intervention methods and tools to help accommodate these new population groups. Even after all of these years, educators still struggle with English Language Learners, Special Education students, and students of colour. Using the empirical “[spending] more dollars on K-12 schooling each year than we did the year before” is a disingenuous argument even for Rick Hess, which is void of an historical conceptualization of why there has been the increase in K-12 spending.

I agree with Mr. Hess in his argument that K-12 school districts and superintendents need to reassess the programs and the money being devoted to it. Additionally, I believe he was correct in his assertion that “[even] if you’re a tough-minded for-profit CEO or a cuddly koala of a non-profit executive; nobody is eager to squeeze salaries, shut down inefficient programs, seek out savings, or trim employees when they can avoid it [and] a manager who tries when times are good is just a mean-spirited S.O.B. who alienates staff and creates disruptions.” However trying to align K-12 schools on the same playing field as a for-profit or even a non-profit organization is misguided, and it is that type of thinking that has led to the privatization of public schools, the adoption of corporate tactics, and the view that schools are businesses. The Edujobs wasn’t a bill for a particular district, a particular state, or particular school. The Edujobs bill was developed to address an INDUSTRY problem. Using the recession as leverage for advancing any agenda is just plain wrong. Education administrators should not be trying to use the “path of least resistance” to make changes that affects teachers, parents, students, and the community. This is what makes Race to the Top problematic. Race to the Top is using state deficits as leverage to push an agenda. Whether or not someone agrees or disagrees with the agenda, it should be left to the stakeholders in conjunction with the superintendents to make that decision and not just be labelled as perpetuators of the “status quo.”

Barney Frank clearly articulates my issue with the notion of “efficiency-hungry organizations.” “But it is clear that left entirely untouched by public policy, the capitalist system will produce more inequality than is socially healthy or than is necessary for maximum efficiency.” Mr. Hess’ unfounded argument that schools have taken part in a “lethargy that takes root in bloated bureaucracies” is the same tired rhetoric that many people who favour privatization or the adoption of business or “market” tactics in education. While the “market” has garnered many successes and failures in the past (in booms and busts –including the most recent recession) “the market purports to possess divine attributes that are not always completely evident to mortals but must be trusted and affirmed by faith.” (Ideology and Education, Smith, pg. 1). In that vein, Mr. Hess argues “the series of edu-bailouts has made it harder for state chiefs or superintendents inclined to stand up and try to address this trend (lethargy). Visions of free money–especially free money targeted for “job preservation”–makes anyone looking to squeeze payrolls look like a surly killjoy.” Again, I do believe that district expenses need to be re-examined but most superintendents are elected. Therefore the superintendent is accountable to the people they serve and not just the balance sheets, the city, or the federal government. It is only in the most “martketized” school districts do the mayor appoint the superintendent to make those decisions that Mr. Hess is purporting is being stifled by this bill. “If a supe knows that plumping the payroll is going to make things worse next year [and] lock in new benefit commitments” is just plain irresponsible and that supe needs to held accountable.

I am glad that Barack Obama finally showed the leadership on education that he campaigned on during his election (e.g. on the sides of the teacher, community members, parents, students, and UNIONS). Many may read my response and disagree with my arguments. I hope we can all agree on the fact that it would be contradictory for the Obama Administration to want to make us number one on the globe for education, but use its teachers as leverage.

So TEACHERS enjoy your jobs, enjoy your work, and in the words of Richard Hess “Gee, I hope [you[ really enjoy that $10 billion.”