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

I Found My Teacher Voice

I spent 25 years as a high school band director. For several months of the year my classroom was the football field where I directed a 200 person marching band. I have numerous strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, but being heard by my students wasn’t ever really a problem for me. My students might even say that my “teacher voice” was a little over the top, but it was pretty effective.
When I started my career my only “teacher voice” concern was that my students could hear me. As I have gotten older I have come to recognize that it is important that teacher’s voices aren’t only heard in their classrooms, but that they are heard in their school districts, in their communities, and as part of our nation’s political discourse.
I remember a time when education didn’t seem like a partisan issue. As a young teacher, it didn’t occur to me that there was much that was political about my profession. I became a teacher because the people I respected most as a young person were my teachers. I wanted to do my part to make the world a better place by supporting young people. All of that is still true. Yet, at some point much of what we do in our schools became politicized.
It would be easy for teachers to simply close the doors to our classrooms and do our best to keep up with all of the initiatives and mandates that are part of our day-to-day reality. The problem with that is that teachers are the ones what are rolling up our sleeves and doing the work. It is urgent that teachers insist that we have a place at the table when politicians get together to discuss what is best for America’s schools.
A study by the Quaglia Institute for School Voice and Aspirations found in 2015 that only 53% of more than 10,000 teachers surveyed felt that they had a voice when it came to school decision-making. That statistic is alarming to me. There is data (via John Hattie) that shows that teachers who are confident that their teaching has a direct impact on student achievement have an effect size that is nearly 4-times the hinge point that shows a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input. All of this is to say that teachers who believe in the power of their “teacher voice” demonstrate a much greater impact on student learning that those who don’t. It is important that more than 53% of teachers believe that their voice matters.
There is a segment of the population who are quick to place the challenges that our public schools face squarely on those of us who have chosen to dedicate our careers to public education. They believe that teacher’s primary interests are in protecting struggling teachers or maintaining the status quo. Public education in America faces challenges, but to say that teachers are the problem is a false narrative. Is there a belief that we are somehow keeping highly qualified people from joining the teaching profession? Is there an army of better-qualified people eager to take these jobs for less money and fewer benefits? Of course there isn’t. Schools are hiring the best people available to do this work. There is nothing stopping those who believe they could do better to join us.
It has become clear to me that the voice I used to teach thousands of young people over 25 years now must be used to advocate for my profession and more importantly to advocate that EVERY young person has access to the best possible education. Teachers know that our schools must continue to change and teachers must be willing and able to have their voices heard. I have found my teacher voice and I encourage my colleagues to find theirs as well.

Let Us Introduce Ourselves Ms. DeVos

Dear Ms. DeVos,

I don’t think we’ve really met yet, we are America’s public school teachers.  There are about 3.1 million of us.  We teach in large urban areas, we teach in the suburbs, we teach in small rural communities, and we teach in some really remote parts of our country.   The most important thing to recognize is that we teach every kid who shows up.  We don’t pick and choose the types of kids that we will teach, we teach ALL of them.

Because we haven’t really had much interaction, we thought it might be nice to share a little bit about the public schools we teach in.  First of all, we are very proud of our schools.  Public schools today have the highest graduation rate in American history.  The Gallup Poll says that the rate of parents who are satisfied with their public school is the highest in American history.  We are also very proud that our public schools offer more services to students with low socioeconomic backgrounds and special education needs than ever before.  Not to be redundant, but we are proud that we serve ALL of the students in our communities.

Our communities are very important to us.  We are taxpayers in our local communities and many of us have students who attend the public schools that we teach in.  We care deeply that our schools are safe and that they are providing a rigorous and relevant curriculum to EVERY student who walks in the door.  We recognize that each of our communities have different needs and sometimes get frustrated with a “one size fits all” mentality.

We also know that our public schools face real challenges.  22% of U.S. public school students live in poverty, 50% more than the next highest industrialized nation.  English is a second language to almost 10% of the students we serve.  Enrollment in teacher preparation programs has fallen more than 10% in the last 10 years.  We are challenged to keep up with increasing state and federal mandates regarding standardized testing.

So, I suppose we also need to address the elephant in the room.  We are a little freaked out by your nomination to be Secretary of Education.  You aren’t an educator.  You haven’t ever attended or sent your children to a public school, yet you seem to have some pretty strong opinions about them.  You don’t seem to have been involved in the study of curriculum or school standards.  What you have done is lobby (and spend millions of dollars of your own money in advocacy) for taxpayer dollars to go to unregulated for-profit charter schools.  As teachers we like to look at data.  Interestingly, the data from Michigan (where you have been able to use your wealth to influence a lot of education policy) would suggest that the charter schools you lobby for aren’t really achieving any better than their public counterparts.

If you are confirmed by the Senate to become Secretary of Education (and we hope it doesn’t hurt your feelings that many of us will work to oppose your nomination), we hope that you will work to get to know us.  It seems that anecdotes of ineffective teachers who get to hold on to jobs without accountability are popular these days.  Those anecdotes really don’t match up with what we see in our schools.  No one is going into education to get wealthy.  We go into teaching because we care about young people.  We go into teaching because a teacher in our lives inspired us.  When you get to know us we think you will find that we desperately continue to work to improve our schools.  If you were to meet us and find that you don’t think much of the work we are doing, we will be curious if you can find an army of better qualified people who want to do this work for less money, fewer benefits, and with more regulation.

The education of America’s young people is important.  The challenges in front of us are real.  Giving families “choice” in their education options is a worthy conversation, but let us not presume that using tax dollars to support those interested in turning a profit to open unregulated schools with no record of success will improve education in our country. How we use our resources is a reflection of what we value.  The most unpopular thing a teacher can say is that there is a cost to providing the best possible education to our students, and yet like most things, you often get what you pay for.  Many for-profit charter schools have gone out of business because they quickly discovered that the public schools they replaced weren’t the inefficient operations they assumed them to be.

America’s public schools are here to serve EVERY kid.  As the teachers who keep those schools ticking, all that we ask is that you listen to us.  You are new to all of this and we are here to help.  Once we introduce you to the young Bosnian kid who translates letters home to his parents, the kid living out of the family car who does homework with only a street light to illuminate his textbook, the kid who wants to be sure their school offers great music courses, a world language program, and some advanced courses, and the special education student who loves spending part of their day with their peers, we think that you will fall in love with our public schools.

Sincerely,

America’s Teachers

Dear Senator Grassley

Dear Senator Grassley,

I’m a public school teacher in Iowa.  I have even voted for you a couple of times (although in honesty I didn’t vote for you this time around).  There was a time when you were considered a moderate.  There was a time when Iowa was a state that took some pride in being governed by moderates from both parties; the name Robert Ray comes to mind.  Those days seem like a distant memory.

While much has changed in Iowa over the last 36 years, one of the things that I think has remained constant is that Iowans take pride in our public education system.  My parents had the option to move anywhere in the Midwest (in the country really) in 1973.  They did a lot of research and decided that Ames, Iowa was the best place in the country to raise a family, based primarily on the quality of the public schools.  Although my father had numerous opportunities to make more money in other places, he kept our family in Ames through his children’s graduation because he recognized that he had made the right decision in 1973.  Great public school education is what Iowa should offer to young families.

I am writing you to respectfully ask that you do not vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.  Ms. DeVos has no practical experience in education.  She has spent the last several years actively opposing public education in her home state of Michigan.  She has not attended a public school, she has not studied education, been a public school parent, or ever worked in a school.  Ms. DeVos has spent the last several years as the architect of a largely unsuccessful private and for-profit charter school system in Detriot that has diverted millions of public dollars from underfunded public schools.

Her lack of experience in the field of education should be enough to disqualify her to be Secretary of Education, but her complete disdain for public schools should make the decision to deny her confirmation very easy.  The system she devised for Detroit’s schools operates like the Wild West.  Her solution for a struggling school system was to invite those seeking to make a profit to take over schools with essentially no oversight.  Her solution has failed.  After more than a decade of getting her way on a host of educational policies (by filling the swamp with millions of dollars in contributions), Michigan is one of five states with declining reading scores.

There was a day when you represented Iowa as a moderate voice of reason in the Senate.  It is undeniable that you have become more partisan and less moderate over the years.  Regardless, I assume that you take the job of representing Iowa values seriously.  There is no way to argue that Betsy DeVos represents what is best for the public schools of Iowa.  There are reasonable arguments to be made for creating more school choice, but Ms. DeVos’s track record demonstrates that her agenda is not to create conditions for all schools to have equal opportunities to provide the best education for students.  Her agenda is to take taxpayer dollars and put them into unregulated for-profit businesses whose primary interest is not what is good for kids.

Do what is right; vote against the nomination of Ms. DeVos.  It would remind Iowans that you are not just a puppet of your party or of special interests.  It would demonstrate that you recognize the importance of public schools.  It is the right thing to do.

Sincerely,

Patrick J. Kearney