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Empathy for teachers won’t stop us from demanding systemic changes in public education


It would take you a few minutes of scanning my years of writing about education to conclude I’m pretty tough on teachers. Because of that, you might be surprised about what I write next.

Watching teachers in Oklahoma and other states protest for their right to reasonable pay, and adequate school funding isn’t driving me to be reactionary, or to denounce their walking out on children. In these cases, the evidence is clear: the pay and supports they receive is an insult.

This thing that I’m feeling is called empathy. Given what I write you might believe I have never encountered it, at least for teachers, but that’s not true.

Here’s what I know: every morning America’s 3 million teachers wake up before you and me, and they get themselves to our schools in time to be mentally, physically, and professionally ready for our children.

They are the people who prepare each generation to run the world.

Teachers can’t be doing it for the money because — as Oklahoma proves — pay in public schools is the surest sign our government dislikes children.

Teachers evidently don’t teach for the prestige because teaching has none. Telling people you’re a teacher more often draws pity or fake reverence than sincere appreciation.

And, they aren’t in education for the high levels of respect because — although every poll ever taken shows the public adores its teachers — educators certainly don’t feel the love when people like me belabor the many ways public schools must improve.

I can see how they feel targeted, misunderstood, and scapegoated for not reversing what they say are more massive societal problems better addressed by social services, health care, and economic reforms.

They have other news for us, too. Our kids aren’t the angels we think them to be.

Classrooms and schools are a hot breath away from devolving into Lord of The Flies at all times. There are hazards galore. Sick kids. Bullies. Inattentive and disrespectful students who know their parents won’t reprimand them if school staff call home with reports of bad behavior.

As dedicated educators, many of you work very hard. The task of teaching our children who come from incredibly diverse backgrounds requires you to be an expert strategist, an adept caregiver, and a pedagogical wizard.

Who can do all that while serving the gods of data and bureaucratization in a hyper-hierarchical system that leaves you more punch drunk than energized?

Real talk, I couldn’t.

I empathize. So, you may ask, why does this empathy rarely finds its way into much of what I write about teachers in blogs and social media?

Imagine for a moment that we ask activists for criminal justice reform “why don’t you write more about the positive things law enforcement does?”

In light of a “stop killing us” era that would sound like Pollyanna dipped in cold milk.

Apply that to teaching. Though I have empathy for many teachers — especially those teaching my kids today — that doesn’t preclude activism against the ways that teachers contribute to the oppression cycles we see in other systems (welfare, prison, unemployment, etc.).

Maybe your heart is in the right place, but your unions fight relentlessly for more money and less accountability but are mostly silent about widespread implicit bias in teaching and racialized low standards held by teachers for low-income students in far too many classrooms.

And then there is that terrible narrative teachers broadcast about our kids. People, the awfulizing must stop.

Maybe it sounds like compassion in your ears to go on and on about how traumatized, starving, poor, and broken down black kids are, but it’s racist and gross. I wonder if you ever consider the possibility that our children are brilliant and human and capable of a full range of attributes that defy the labeling you do of them in public?

Sure, not all of you do it, but consider the 50,000 plus member Badass Teachers Association’s mission statement that sums it up well:

“This is for every educator who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality, and refuses to accept assessments, tests and evaluations imposed by those who have contempt for real teaching and learning.”

That Badass message is all wrong. If you can’t see why ask a friend to help. If they can’t see the problem either, reconsider your friendships.

Parents of marginalized children are right to distrust government institutions, such as schools, and to demand measurement of the deep inequities in student outcomes. You can’t intervene in problems you have no proof exist.

When we ask teachers to focus intently on improving instruction; and ask principals to evaluate teachers, and ask districts to use data to improve students outcomes, that is very different than blaming teachers for the failures of society. It’s asking them to be responsible for their part of the problem, the part we pay them to solve.

f you want an honest exchange of ideas, you can’t label all inquiries into classroom practices an “attack” that is meant to “destroy public education.”

Instead of deflecting, you should fess up to a few critical problems in the “profession.”

Please admit the bar for entering teaching is too low and that when teacher candidates fail basic skill tests, the response from the “profession” is to lower the bar again or scrap the tests?

Consider the research that says the majority (58%) of college students with high GPAs said they would be more likely to consider education as a major if standards were higher.

Focus on the empirical evidence suggesting teacher bias criminalizes black girls and lowers expectations for black boys.

Yes, people like me need to admit that teachers labor beneath dummy-proofed policies that may unduly assume they are poor educators.

We need to admit that although everyone agrees on the importance of great principals, almost no one has figured out how to produce those great principals at scale.

And, we must be honest about the fact that too many superintendents report to elected or appointed school boards made up of well-meaning people who couldn’t competently govern a book club if Kindles were free.

As people who push for better schools and better teaching we can admit all of that, but, we need a profession of teachers to meet us where we are.

We need teachers who refuse to blame our children for the problems of the inequitable education systems that put the worst teachers before kids who need the best.

We need teachers who are capable of calling out bad teaching in the way we expect good police officers to call out their own when injustices are done even if that bad teacher is the one that looks back at you in the mirror every morning.

We need teachers who want to be accountable — not for miracles — but for seeing the potential in our children and moving them quickly toward it.

And, we need teachers to stop pretending our only motive for pushing so hard to reform public schools is not because we love our children and our people and we’re determined to change the game for our communities, but because we’ve joined some weird global neoliberal plot to trade our schools on Wall Street.

After all, empathy is a two-way street paved with reciprocity and respect.

Pursuing the power of self-sovereignty and personalized learning to create secure citizens and abundant communities. #TheOppositeOfSchool #AllPowerToThePupil

Charter Schools

Why aren’t teachers freaking out about Biden and Bernie’s education task force?

New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, put together an advisory council to help his state “reimagine” public education. Fearing Cuomo and his partner, the Gates Foundation, will produce a plan that creates accountability and expectations in their public school pension farm, the NYC teacher types pounced.

“There’s no current classroom teacher on this list of advisors” they whined.

For the record, here is Cuomo’s list of advisors:

  • Kaweeda Adams, Superintendent, Albany City School District
  • Jaime Alicea, Superintendent, Syracuse City School District
  • Jody Gottfried Arnhold, Founder, Dance Educator Laboratory (DEL) 92Y
  • Melodie Baker, Director of Education, United Way of Buffalo & Erie County
  • Kyle Belokopitsky, Executive Director, New York State PTA
  • Meg Benke, Provost, SUNY Empire State College
  • Jackie Burbridge, Parent, Suffolk County
  • Katie Campos, Partner, Strategic Collective
  • Anthony Collins, President, Clarkson University
  • Stephanie Conklin, Master Teacher, South Colonie Central School District
  • George Dermody, CEO, The Children’s Home of Wyoming Conference
  • Karol Mason, President, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
  • Austin Ostro, President, SUNY Student Assembly
  • Martin Palermo, Master Teacher, William Floyd School District
  • Roger Ramsammy, President, Hudson Valley Community College
  • Seema Rivera, President, Guilderland Central School District School Board
  • Shannon Tahoe, Interim Commissioner, New York State Education Department
  • Dennis Walcott, Former Chancellor, New York City Department of Education
  • Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers

As you can see, teachers, parents, students, higher education, nonprofits, superintendents, and other education officials are represented.

Now, contrast that with the farcical “unity” education task force assembled by current and failed presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

Per Vox Media, here’s their list:

Sanders’s picks:

Biden’s picks:

  • Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), task force co-chair and former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus
  • Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association
  • Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers
  • Maggie Thompson, executive director of Generation Progress
  • Christie Vilsack, literacy advocate

Hmmm. This feels a little paltry.

Let’s start with the fact that Sanders seems to continue his trend of giving zero effs about honest Black representation or truly addressing K-12 education’s pedagogical and social issues beyond what political neosocialist agenda setters tell him works best.

Looking at his picks tells me his post-racial disaster socialism once again proves him an unserious candidate for any post responsible for educational progress.

Now, Mr. Biden, what gives?

Two national teachers’ union bosses, a political consultant, and the former first lady of Iowa?

Together, these picks reveal why the Democrats’ education agenda is useless to America’s most marginalized students:

Their list includes:

  • No school leaders who are successfully educating children deemed “hard-to-teach” by an out-of-touch education establishment;
  • No classroom teachers with a track record of success;
  • No parents of color desperate for improved educational options;
  • No one with direct pedagogical insights into what will improve education for those who are poorly served in today’s public schools;

In short, both Biden and Bernie, when given the chance to show how genuine their interest is in educational improvement, fail the test by stacking the deck with political advisors in place of accomplished educators.

The funny thing is, none of the Badass Miseducators so abundant in social media grievance groups have come for Biden and Bernie, even as they have indignant seizures about the fact that Cuomo dare work with Bill Gates for his “reimagine” counsel in New York.

I guess that’s the surest sigh it’s all politics folks.

If you care about fixing education so it works equally well for everyone, there’s nothing to see here.

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Teachers Unions

Don’t expect teachers to reimagine public education

School reform gets teachers hot

If you listen to the ceaselessly grieving employees of public schools, education is just fine and needs few changes.

Teachers are beyond effective, the technology they use is on the vanguard, schools can divine student achievement without assessments, and that student achievement is so high there is no need for objective academic standards.

They want you, the reformers or reformsters or deformers or disrupters or political busybodies, to know it’s all good homie. Keep it moving.

They tell a single simple story about the supposedly baseless push for rethinking schooling: it’s that technocrats and facile politicians lack a heart and mind for the glorious pure purpose of education, which is clearly to accept uncritically whatever public employees and their unions tell us that purpose is.

Today, they say that purpose is to raise money, fund teachers, reduce class sizes, and hire increasing numbers of non-teaching staff to support teachers in their quest to do whatever they please behind classroom doors.

Your job as a citizen, taxpayer, parent, and capable thinker is to sit down, shut up, speak when spoken to, provide baked goods for fundraisers, and squeeze any elected official you come into contact with for greater levels of funding.

If you don’t do that you’re a bad person. You hate teachers and children, and you can’t be trusted with an opinion about education. Heretics be warned. Their mobs are deep and their torches hot.

So, when the governor of New York proclaims an attempt to “reimagine” public education it can’t be good.

Annie Abrams, a NYC teacher writing for the New Republic says it’s yet another misguided “privatization” conspiracy (which is her profession’s code for “any agenda teachers’ unions did not create”), and basically one more attempt of plutocrats to destroy public education their money and ignorance.

She says:

[New York Governor Andrew] Cuomo’s question about whether we need physical classrooms anymore indicates an impulse to redefine not only the shape but the purpose of education. Historically, for the Gates Foundation, notions like growth, agency, and connection have come second to producing data.

This is Gates Foundation that invested big time in smaller, more personalized schools that were panned after not returning immediate results, but were vindicated later by studies showing these schools boosted college enrollment and persistence, high school graduation, and English test scores.

(this is also the evil Gates Foundation that has ponied up $250 million to fast track science trials in search of a vaccine to address COVID-19 pandemic Bill Gates predicted five years ago).

She continues:

The Gates Foundation’s role [Cuomo’s state council to “reimagine” public education], while still ambiguously defined, raised alarm among many public school teachers because of the organization’s aggressive, mechanical approach to reform, especially its history of pushing Common Core standards, developed for use in every public school classroom across the nation. The goal for these standards is purportedly college and career readiness, but it’s really test prep.

That characterization should worry us about who teaches our children. Not that its points are closed for fair debate, but because its points are too reductionist and facile to enable fair debate. A factual accounting of Gates’s support for Common Core would say it started with educators and democratically elected state officials, not in some remote philanthropic laboratory where capitalists cook up bewitching spells to kill public institutions.

Here’s how the common orginators describe their efforts to develop coherent standards and address the issue of states gaming the system by lowering standards to hide low proficiency levels:

The state-led effort to develop the Common Core State Standards was launched in 2009 by state leaders, including governors and state commissioners of education from 48 states, two territories and the District of Columbia, through their membership in the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). State school chiefs and governors recognized the value of consistent, real-world learning goals and launched this effort to ensure all students, regardless of where they live, are graduating high school prepared for college, career, and life.

I think any real educator would want to point your attention to original sources so that you might think critically, and they would ask you to look at the actual framework of the standards (click here).

Yet, like many “educators,” Abrams sails past thoughtful reason and plain dealing on her way to self-satisfying proselytism. There is one way to see the issue and your worth hangs on a pass/fail system of whether you agree or not.

And, she continues:

…just as implementing these standards risks turning students into mechanical recipients of knowledge, the Gates Foundation model seeks to turn teachers into much the same thing: The organization has supported linking teacher evaluation to standardized test scores, a practice since debunked as a misuse of the data. (Cuomo was an ardent supporter.)

Abrams is accurate in saying research hasn’t been kind to test-driven teacher evaluation, but what’s the counterfactual?

That classroom teaching is unrelated to student achievement?

That when students don’t meet academic goals the only explanations exist outside of schools?

Isn’t it better to study, try, fail, and repeat until workable solutions come into view?

As long as teachers like Abrams are experts on what non-teachers get wrong about teaching, but novices in explaining what teachers get wrong in the classroom every day, reform, reformers, and their funders will be essential to forward progress, even when their efforts, reputations, and motives are slimed by those in the education establishment who profit most from keeping everything as it is.

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Teachers Unions

In the rush to beat Trump, we can’t let Biden cave on ed policy

In a rush to find any presidential candidate that isn’t Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, I may have been too quick to drop my commitment to important education policies and to jump on the Joe Biden express. Since it has been clear he would become the Democratic nominee I’ve assumed the role of tentative supporter as a matter of pragmatism.

But, as much as I am a voting citizen desperate for a “normal” president who Tweets less than I do and can speak in complete sentences that don’t include “tremendous,” “Fabulous,” “never seen before,” or “the previous administration,” I am also something else that puts me in conflict with Biden nearly as much as Trump.

I am an education voter determined to shut down every education desert in America.

Biden’s education platform vaguely sings some of my favorite songs and some evergreen tunes I don’t mind.

His campaign site says “[a]s president, Biden will”:

  • Support our educators by giving them the pay and dignity they deserve.
  • Invest in resources for our schools so students grow into physically and emotionally healthy adults, and educators can focus on teaching.
  • Ensure that no child’s future is determined by their zip code, parents’ income, race, or disability.
  • Provide every middle and high school student a path to a successful career.
  • Start investing in our children at birth.

Yet, last December when asked by a teachers’ union activist about standardized testing he gave an unforgivably unscientific and pandering response. She asked: “Given that standardized testing is rooted in a history of racism and eugenics, if you are elected president, will you commit to ending the use of standardized testing in public schools?”

Biden responded simply: “yes…you’re preaching to the choir kid.”

“I’m not saying every teacher’s a great teacher. What I am saying is, you know what it takes to communicate to a child what in fact they need to know.”

He could have just as easily said: “research tells us teachers are poorly prepared, don’t know how to teach reading, hold impactful biases against nonwhite students, often overlook gifted children of color while also overcommitting them to low-tracks or discipline rooms.

He also could have said “well, if it’s important to point out the tenuous relationship between today’s educational testing and yesterday’s racism, then it’s also important to point out the same connection between today’s teachers’ unions, teachers, and school boards to yesterday’s racist versions of the same.

I doubt the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers could override the wishes of their rank-and-file members and rig their endorsement for him if he told that much truth.

I understand if you see that as short sighted and say “damnit Chris, there are more important things in the world than winning the ed wars! Don’t be so myopic!”

Educated people with good salaries, operable vehicles, and an above average number of bedrooms like to say dumb shit like that.

(full disclosure: I’m happy to say that I fit that description, so, glass houses noted).

I won’t apologize for sticking to my values. I truly believe that when large groups of the public leave K-12 without all the need to earn a living it becomes the fountainhead of expensive and cruel societal problems. So many of the big economic issues we fight downstream grow because educational injustice is real. That tells me a candidate for president who wants my vote as much as she or he wants campaign donations from public employees should have a well-considered vision for advancing education.

Unfortunately, Biden appears to have traded his years presumably supporting Clinton-Bush-Obama school reforms for a pandering and muddled retreat courtesy of national teachers unions who in recent years have done a bang up job of becoming education’s Tea Party within the DNC.

Here’s what I see he’s promising: attacks on school choice, charters, accountability, and testing; a shower of cash on public employees and their unions; and, abso-fricken-lutely ZERO focus on improving teacher preparation or induction, classroom instruction, evidence-based practice, or expectation of for better outcomes – especially for the most marginalized populations in schools.

Is there anything good in there? Sure, I admit he offers a laudable lifeline to HBCUs that I support, yet, putting caramel on a turd doesn’t make it a sundae.

Now, don’t let me make too much of this point. Maybe I’m misreading him. Perhaps he’s planning a Machiavellian reversal once in office and school choice will rain from the heavens like a justice hurricane. But, I doubt it.

Look at this chart comparing Biden’s and Sanders’ education proposals created by Brooke LePage at FutureEd, and find the lie.

I’m afraid to say that when it comes to voting for Biden I have buyers remorse already and I haven’t even paid yet. That can’t be good.

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