Iowa (not so) Nice

My son is currently a freshman at a university in Iowa studying to be a teacher. He spent his winter break working with junior high choir students each morning at 7 a.m. and it made him more committed than ever to want to teach. He would ultimately like to teach right here in Iowa. It is becoming harder and harder to encourage him to stay in our home state to teach. Iowa has long had a tradition of caring about public education. Iowans also pride themselves on a certain civility (sometimes masking a thinly hidden stubbornness, made famous in the musical The Music Man)…but always doing our best to be Iowa Nice.

That dedication to public education and civility is being sorely tested this week. Without any warning last week, Republican legislators unveiled a legislative attack on collective bargaining rights for public employees. If passed, it will not allow public employees to bargain for health care, for due process, and retirement benefits. Republicans say that it isn’t “union busting” because we will still have the right to bargain for compensation. Of course, we will be bargaining over the tiny amount of money that they have approved for us, because Iowa is giving away hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate tax breaks that don’t seem to be finding their way into the pockets of middle-class Iowans (I wonder whose pockets those hundreds of millions of dollars end up in?).

 

Republican legislators in Iowa didn’t campaign on this issue. There were no rallies, stream of phone calls and letters, or organized campaign by Iowans that they wanted public workers to lose collective bargaining rights. The only “outcry” is a commercial running on local stations that is funded by out-of-state money. Republican legislators are doing this to punish unions. It really is that simple. They won’t say that in public, because that’s not Iowa Nice. I’ll say it for them. So, while Republican legislators punish those of us who have dedicated our careers to public education, what will happen to our schools? If only we knew? Oh yeah, Wisconsin did this 5 years ago. The result is that rural schools are struggling to find teachers, fewer young people are entering the teaching profession, and there is no evidence that student achievement has increased (except the occasional cherry-picked statistic the governor trots out). Of course, Iowa is a state where we have watched Kansas plunge into economic crisis with massive corporate tax cuts and said, “hey, why don’t we try that?” A case could be made that our Iowa legislators don’t pay a lot of attention to the obvious consequences to their actions, even when those consequences are taking place in states all around us.

 

It is all about consequences. Elections have consequences. Iowans elected a Republican legislature and a Republican governor, and those politicians are going to do what the out-of-state conservative political cash cows tell them to do. We elected these people and we should have known that this was the agenda they would pursue (although not a one of them campaigned on destroying collective bargaining during November’s election). But, actions have consequences and legislation has consequences. Much like the massive corporate tax breaks enacted since 2013 have created an artificial budget crisis, forcing us to cut millions of dollars from the state budget, busting up pubic sector unions will also have a consequence. Rural schools will find it hard to get teachers, fewer smart young people will want to enter public service, teachers will be forced to fight among themselves for salary dollars (won’t it be fun to know that if your colleague gets a bonus of $10,000, the rest of the staff makes $10,000 less…yeah, that’s how this will work), and teacher morale will be at an all-time low. Some of this seems to stem from the idea that our Republican legislators think we have had it too good for too long in education. They must believe that there is an army of people in our communities who would make better teachers and do the work for less money and fewer benefits? If so, where are they?

Here is the thing. Teachers aren’t going to be Iowa Nice for long. We’ll continue to teach young people with all of our hearts because that is what we love to do, but our legislators better be ready. I’ve never seen teachers so demoralized, angry, and ready to take action. We teach, and we teach in Iowa, because we believed our state respected our work. We still believe our communities respect us, but our legislators don’t. We get that. Our anger that this legislation has been thrust on us behind closed doors and is being rushed into law won’t be without consequences. We’re nice, but we’re also Iowa Stubborn when it comes to doing what is best for the young people of Iowa. There are those that think that this is about protecting bad teachers or protecting our fantabulous lifestyles…as a famous politician regularly says, “WRONG.” This is about what is good for our schools and good for our young people. If Iowa’s Republican legislators want to have a conversation with Iowans about collective bargaining, this isn’t the way to do it, and that’s not what Iowans want. Iowa’s Republican legislators want to punish unions and in doing so will hurt public education in Iowa. Do it, but remember: consequences.

Money Wins

I have spent my career as a teacher.  I think in lesson plans, data, and outcomes.  Today the United States Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as Secretary of the Department of Education and I’m trying to figure out what lesson has been learned.  Money wins.  It really is that simple.  Ms. DeVos has no real experience in the field of education, unless spending millions of dollars to advocate for unregulated for-profit charter schools counts as experience in education.  It is also worth noting that the DeVos family has given over $950,000 to the senators who confirmed her today and that the DeVos family gave over $8.3 million to various conservation Super PACs over the last two election cycles.  Those of us who don’t find Ms. DeVos qualified had just our voices.  It is estimated that our senators were receiving as many of 1.5 million calls each day regarding Ms. DeVos’s nomination. Our senators received a massive amount of emails and tweets sharing our legitimate concerns about the answers she gave in her confirmation hearings, her conflicts of interest, her agenda to divert resources from public schools to private interests, and her lack of experience with public education.

We have been told that our legislators appreciate hearing from their constituents.  Never before has the public gone to such lengths to share legitimate concerns about a cabinet nominee.  So, again I ask, what is the lesson that we have learned?  Money wins.  I have been shocked at how many of the senators who voted in favor of Ms. DeVos today went to great lengths to point out the limited scope of the Secretary of Education’s responsibilities, as if to say that it doesn’t really matter who we put in charge.  Rather than trumpeting her qualifications, many of them bent over backwards to say that she is committed to enforcing federal law, as though that somehow makes her exceptional.

I try to be a glass half full guy, so here’s what I’ve got; education made the front page for a few days.  Public educators (who despite our reputation for being in lockstep, often agree on very little…ever been to a faculty meeting?) have come together united in our concerns about this choice to lead the Department of Education.  People who would never have considered calling a legislator’s office have made repeated calls in order for their voices to be heard.

Despite the best efforts of some to make it so, education isn’t a game of winners and losers.  There were no winners today and those of us who are concerned about Ms. DeVos didn’t lose.  I wrote a letter to Ms. DeVos a month ago in which I told her that those of us in public education are a little freaked out by her nomination.  We’re still a little freaked out, but it would be silly to wish her anything but the best.  It is important to recognize that all of us are here to serve ALL of the young people who show up every day needing a safe place to be challenged, nurtured, and supported.  Our legislators didn’t listen to our voices today, but let’s hope that Ms. DeVos does.

 

 

Education Advocacy 101

When I began my career as a teacher 25 years ago, it didn’t occur to me that there was much of a need to advocate for our schools. I took it for granted that everyone understood that strong public schools were the foundation of our country. It was also understood that teachers became teachers to help young people. Support for public education wasn’t a particularly partisan issue at that time.

 

Well, for better or for worse (OK…for worse), education has become a partisan issue. Education, for better or for worse (OK…for worse) is also a huge industry with billions of dollars attached to it. No one becomes a teacher because they want to have to advocate for resources or compete with other schools, other teachers, and politicians for programs and budgets, yet here we are. We are living in a time when those who have our boots on the ground of public education have to speak up to those in power. The narrative of public schools in our country is largely being told by those who haven’t spent much time in them. The tales of “carnage” in our schools and communities doesn’t match up with the heroic work that is happening in our schoolhouses. The idea that our schools are “failing” doesn’t match up with record graduation rates and record high parent satisfaction with schools; the idea that our schools are failing doesn’t account for increased diversity, poverty, and emphasis on standardized testing. The notion that teachers stand in the way of changing our schools for the better is laughable. There can be no doubt that the future of our schools is in the hands of the teachers who are willing to dedicate their lives to supporting the students they serve.

 

While we may not want to, we are in a time and place when those who care about public education must become advocates for this thing that we care about. Recently, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley opined that he thought the nominee for Secretary of Agriculture should have some dirt under his fingernails. I agree. I also believe that those in charge of our nation’s schools should have some chalk dust on their pants. Those of us who have experienced a little chalk dust on our pants need to tell our story. I began blogging over two years ago. Roughly 50 people read my first blog and it wasn’t meant to be particularly political (https://patrickjkearney.wordpress.com/). Smart people suggested that putting my thoughts down in writing was a good way to process my teaching philosophy. Those smart people were right; it has been a great outlet to express myself. Below are a few suggestions to those who are ready to start sharing their thoughts about education.

 

1) Tell YOUR Story.

I believe that it is important that the stories we tell about our schools are personal. Talk about schools through your lens. Share your passion with those who will listen.

2) Facts Do Matter

In an era when people seem to disagree about what a fact is, it is important that we use good data to inform our advocacy for schools. Much of the premise of those who want to upend public education rely on a “feeling” that creating a market of competitive schools will improve education. We have to answer those “feelings” with real data.

3) Show Empathy

We should recognize that not everyone is going to agree with our viewpoint and that’s OK. As we advocate for what we believe to be best for kids, we have to understand that everyone’s experience with schools is unique.

4) Go Straight to the Source

The most effective advocacy is a phone call to those in power. Call federal and state officials and tell them what you think; it is surprisingly easy and satisfying. When you email you legislator, be sure to tell them where you are from. If you are using Twitter, be sure to connect to their Twitter handle. All of these different communications to our legislators add up.

5) Be Strong

It can be hard to be an educator advocating for education. We are often accused of only looking out for our own interests. School administrators don’t always love educators who stick their necks out on political issues. Our issues aren’t always at the top of everyone’s agenda. With that being said, the issue of public education is too important for us to remain silent. Our voices have to part of this conversation at the local and national level. The reason we care about public education is because we care about young people. In many ways we represent their voices.

 

These are challenging times for public schools. Those of us who care about our local schools can’t afford to be silent. We have to tell our story. In the words of the musical Hamilton, we have to put ourselves “In the Room Where it Happens.” Be confident, be brave, and tell our story.

Chasing Imaginary Problems Instead of Facing Real Challenges

Let’s start with the premise that we all want American schools to be better. In an era when the left and the right are constantly presuming the worst of each other, I really hope that we can all agree that we all want what is best for the school children of our country. The problem is with the question of how we do it.

There are many who come to the conversation of education reform from the premise that American schools are failing.   That’s what the results of standardized tests tell us right? Well, not really. Let’s compare ourselves to Finland for instance, the country often considered the gold standard of educating their young people. When you simply look at the surface results of these tests you would see that Finland outperforms the United States by a considerable amount. But, that’s not the whole story. Finland is a country where there are essentially three languages spoken, as opposed to more than 300 in the United States. Child poverty in Finland hovers around 4 percent, while it is around 21 percent in the United States. As you look at the testing data you find that in school districts across the country where child poverty is less than 10 percent, American schools outperform the rest of the world, and not just by a little, but by a lot.

Those statistics tell us that when you compare apples to apples, American schools can stand toe to toe with any system in the world, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges. As a matter of fact it points us to the real challenge, which is that American schools aren’t teaching a homogeneous population. Our students are coming to us with more diverse backgrounds than ever before. Our students are coming to us with more personal challenges than ever before. Our students need more from our schools than ever before. We have to rise to that challenge.

And yet, knowing that the problem isn’t that our schools aren’t able to teach, there are legislators and “reformers” who want to blame our schools and blame our teachers for the challenges that our students are facing. There are those who believe that the silver bullet to better schools lies in beating down teacher unions or creating for-profit charter schools to “compete” for dollars with public schools. Betsy DeVos, the current candidate to become Secretary of the Department of Education, has spent millions of dollars to promote those silver bullets. The problem is that that those aren’t the real problems facing American schools.

In Iowa this week a single legislator introduced bills to encourage school uniforms, eliminate the Common Core (in Iowa it is known as the Iowa Core), make it harder for teacher associations to meet in their own buildings, to eliminate teacher tenure at our public universities, and to eliminate the state Department of Education and create “education savings accounts” in order for more public dollars to go to private schools. In addition, Iowa’s Republican controlled legislature is ready to blow up collective bargaining rights for public employees. The problem is that these bills aren’t getting at the real challenges that Iowa’s schools face. Steering more money to private schools (in Iowa most are religious) by taking money away from public schools isn’t going to make education in Iowa better. Taking away tenure from Iowa’s college professors isn’t going to make our public universities better. Taking rights away from Iowa’s public employees isn’t going to make our schools better.

This is all happening as Iowa is facing $110 million in self-inflicted budget cuts. In recent years Iowa’s legislators have been handing out massive tax breaks for big business while underfunding Iowa’s schools, public safety institutions, mental health institutions, human services and much more. As a matter of fact, Iowa gave almost exactly $110 million dollars in tax breaks to a single Egypt-based company to build a fertilizer plant in our state.

If our priorities are truly on solving the real challenges facing America’s schools we have to stop chasing imaginary problems. Teachers are not the problem. Collective bargaining is not the problem. Moving public tax dollars to for-profit private and charter schools is not the solution. Finding ways to lift up all students is the challenge.   Finding ways to prevent the pending teacher shortage is the challenge. Helping better support teachers new to the profession is the challenge. Providing access to early childhood education is the challenge. Maybe most importantly, helping families escape poverty is the challenge.

We need to work together to tackle these challenges. We have to honestly assess the issues that face us and work together to find solutions that benefit ALL kids, not just those who already have a leg up. Things won’t improve if we continue to chase problems that don’t exist. The task ahead of us is too important to waste time on those things.   What is good for our schools is good for our communities. We need to work together to address the REAL challenges that are facing us.

Adams and Jefferson Would Vote NO on DeVos

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams agreed on very little, but one thing that they did agree upon was the importance of public education.  It was Adams who said, “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.  There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”  Jefferson said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people…They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

 

I don’t think it would have ever occurred to either Adams or Jefferson that it would be in the best interest of our nation to hand over the duty of educating our young people to those interested in making a profit.  Yet, that is what the current nominee to be the Secretary of Education has spent the last 25 years advocating for.  Betsy DeVos has spent millions of her own dollars with the sole purpose of diverting taxpayer dollars to those who seek to turn a profit off of the education of our young people.

 

Reading the words of Jefferson and Adams should remind us of a time when public education wasn’t politicized.  It wasn’t that long ago that politicians of every stripe recognized that public education was the great equalizer.  President George H.W. Bush said, “Think about every problem, every challenge, we face. The solution to each starts with education.”  Providing the best possible opportunities for every young person shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

 

Ms. DeVos’s advocacy in support of for-profit schools seems to be rooted in the idea that creating competition for resources will make all schools better.  When talking about schools in September, Donald Trump said, “Competition always does it.  The weak fall out and the strong get better.  It is an amazing thing.”  The amazing thing is that there is no evidence that this is true.  Christopher and Sarah Lubienski have written a book entitled “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools” that uses considerable data to demonstrate that public schools tend to actually be more innovative and more successful than private and charter schools.  Study after study in the state of Michigan have demonstrated that the unregulated for-profit charter schools that are Ms. DeVos’s legacy in that state are less successful than their public counterparts.  Ms. DeVos has put millions of dollars into the campaigns of legislators at the state and national level (some of whom will vote on her confirmation) to “persuade” them to support her agenda.  Those of us who have our boots on the ground doing the work of educating young people don’t have billions of dollars to spend to lobby the senate, all we have are our voices.

 

There is no way to interpret the words of our founding fathers that would support unregulated for-profit schools.   Public education can be better.  The solution to better schools doesn’t lie in “winning” and “losing”, the answer lies in creating opportunities for ALL students.  Adams and Jefferson understood that.  Jefferson said, “The tax which will be paid for this purpose (education) is not more than the thousandth part of which will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”  Are our current legislators willing to rise up in support of what is best for ALL young people and against the kings and nobles who wish to profit off of them?

A Note to my Teacher Colleagues: “They” are On to Us

Dear Teacher Colleagues,

I hope that you are all enjoying a relaxing break before heading back to school next week.  A little tip, if you want to stay relaxed, avoid the comments sections of news sites and blogs (particularly when it comes to education).  I spent part of my break reading news stories about our schools and about education policy. I also made the mistake of reading the comments under some of these articles and stories. I have some bad news based on reading those comments.  There is a whole section of the American population who are on to us.  This segment of the population has figured out that it is teachers who are holding back American schools from being great again.  They have figured out that we are becoming rich with our outrageous salaries, benefits that include health insurance, and our very cushy schedules.   They have had it with our 24 minute lunches and the fact that our fat cat salaries make it possible to donate (on the average) between $500-$1000 in school supplies to our students each year.  These people in the comment sections know that teachers just care about protecting our jobs.  They have figured out that we became teachers to brainwash young people to become adults who are unable to think for themselves.  This is what a lot of people believe, if you don’t believe me, get into these comment sections and read up.

OK, so I need to stop reading the comment sections, but it is important that we recognize that these people are out there.  If we’re honest, these are the people who got out and voted in the 2016 election.  Somehow they got out of their mother’s basements and they voted.  No matter how wrong they are, the narrative that we, as public school teachers, are failing our kids is out there.

How do we change the narrative?  I wish there was a simple answer, but there isn’t.  People like Betsy DeVos have spent Billions of dollars to tell a narrative that argues that by simply providing unregulated for-profit charter schools throughout a state that it will elevate student achievement.  Her billions of dollars have only served to line the pockets of those opening schools that are not performing better than their public counterparts.  Less money is getting to young people and more money is going into corporate pockets with no evidence of real replicable results.

The narrative of ineffective teachers, wasteful use of school resources, and an unwillingness to change is being sold by people like Ms. DeVos, and the Koch Brothers through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  They are pumping millions of dollars into propaganda and candidates willing to do their bidding.

So, how do we change the narrative?  My bank account (and mine is pretty similar to all of yours I would guess) has a few less zeroes than Ms. DeVos or the Koch boys, so simply buying legislators is out of the question.  What do we have in our power to change the narrative?  What we have are our stories.  Historically teachers have not had to “fight” for public schools.  Historically Americans have understood that public schools represent the best opportunity for young people to achieve the American Dream.  For whatever reason, Billionaires have decided that only “free-market” competition among schools will “restore” American education.  Interestingly, the research doesn’t back that up.  Christoper and Sarah Lubienski wrote a very interesting book entitled “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools.”  (https://www.amazon.com/Public-School-Advantage-Schools-Outperform/dp/022608891X)

From the Amazon synopsis of the book:  “For decades research showing that students at private schools perform better than students at public ones has been used to promote the benefits of the private sector in education, including vouchers and charter schools—but much of these data are now nearly half a century old. Drawing on two recent, large-scale, and nationally representative databases, the Lubienskis show that any benefit seen in private school performance now is more than explained by demographics. Private schools have higher scores not because they are better institutions but because their students largely come from more privileged backgrounds that offer greater educational support. After correcting for demographics, the Lubienskis go on to show that gains in student achievement at public schools are at least as great and often greater than those at private ones. Even more surprising, they show that the very mechanism that market-based reformers champion—autonomy—may be the crucial factor that prevents private schools from performing better. Alternatively, those practices that these reformers castigate, such as teacher certification and professional reforms of curriculum and instruction, turn out to have a significant effect on school improvement.”

We have to use our collective voices to share this type of data.  We also have to tell the more personal stories that inhabit each of our schools.  There are those who don’t want to talk about the fact that 22% of the students who walk in our doors each day live in poverty.  There are those who don’t want to talk about how the rapidly changing demographics in our schools impact learning.  They don’t understand that by acknowledging these very real statistics that we aren’t making excuses.  We are simply recognizing that our students come to us very differently than they did 20 years ago.  We are adapting every single day with finite resources.  Teachers don’t typically like to blow their own horns.  We know that in reality the successes in our classrooms are the kid’s successes, but we have to recognize that it takes a great teacher to make magic happen in a classroom.  I am saying that we have to blog, give speeches, send letters, and tweet (#ITeach) our stories so that our narrative gets told.  As a Twitter example “In the school where #ITeach many kids get their only full meal at lunch.”  Another example, “In the classroom where #ITeach, kids are studying fractions in collaborative teams.”  Let’s tell our story by telling people about why #ITeach.

Lastly, I believe it is important for teachers to be subject to one another.  We need to be there for each other.  We need to lift each other up.  None of us got into teaching because it was easy.  We got into it because we cared about young people.  We got into it because we care about the future.   We got into it because it is in our blood.  Public education advocates don’t support more pay for teachers because we want to see anyone (ourselves included) get rich.  We recognize that the only way we are going to get the best young people to consider teaching, is to pay them a professional wage.  To those who think that teachers underperform and are overpaid, where is the army of those who are better who will do the work for less money?  Bring them on.  See, the problem is that those people don’t exist.  Our classrooms are filled with great teachers.  Are there bad teachers?  Sure, and they by and large leave the profession.  We, as teachers, need to be subject to one another. My favorite president of all time is President Josiah Bartlet from the “West Wing.”  President Bartlet had this to say: “Be subject to one another …  In this day and age of 24-hour cable crap devoted to feeding the voyeuristic gluttony of an American public hooked on a bad soap opera that’s passing itself off as important, don’t you think you might be able to find some relevance in verse 21 (of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians)? How do we end the cycle? Be subject to one another.”

The American public is hooked on this voyeuristic gluttony without a doubt.  As teachers, our only hope is to tell our story.  We must be truthful when those with an alternative narrative lie.  We must be humble when others are self-righteous.  We must be willing to be proud of the work we do.  We must proclaim loudly that public education is how our young people will change their lives for the better.  Politicians will talk about making people’s lives better, but teachers will actually do it.  We will do it with the families we serve, with the communities we live in, and we will do it by being subject to one another.

Have a great 2017.  Speak up!  #ITeach

Your Colleague,

Pat Kearney

Why Public Schools Matter

Clarke Community Schools in Osceola, Iowa is a pretty typical Iowa school district.  Osceola is a town of about 5,000 people about 40 miles south of Des Moines.  Like many schools around the country their student population is becoming increasingly diverse.  Like schools throughout the country they are being asked to provide more services for all types of learners with finite resources.

 

I have had the privilege of knowing several teachers from the Clarke Schools during my career.  In the best possible way, they represent the kind of teachers whose feet are on the ground in our public schools every day.  As the needs of their students are changing, they have adapted instruction to meet those needs.

 

The narrative of some who wish to “reform” education is that our schools are filled with ineffective teachers who stand in the way of change.   It’s just not true.  America’s public schools are staffed by people like the teachers in the Clarke Schools, teachers whose primary interest is on ALL of the young people in their community.   The teachers at Clarke don’t pick and choose who gets to attend; they open their doors every morning to EVERY kid in their community.

 

The teachers at Clarke did a little project recently. They asked their teachers to tell their students why they came to work each day.   I don’t know the young people in the below video, but they look like kids from schools all around our country.  These teachers wanted to make sure they knew that they weren’t ordinary.  In doing so, these teachers showed why they are extraordinary.   The teachers of the Clarke Schools would probably tell you that they are a lot like public school teachers everywhere; that’s why they are extraordinary.  Take 10 minutes to see why these public school teachers are inspired to come to work every day.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uP6eKtdphtY