What’s Tough about Teaching in a Juvenile Detention Center?

What’s Really Tough about Teaching at a County Juvenile Detention Center…

     Work obligations plus the generosity of family and friends gave me the opportunity to travel to various regions of America this summer. Frequently, the kind and interesting folks that I meet ask me what I “do.” When I respond that I’m an educator at a county juvenile detention facility, the response is either verbatim, “that must be tough,” or something equivalent. When I worked at other high schools in our urban district over a span of sixteen years, I would get a similar response. Then, I used to reply that kids are just kids everywhere. I would elaborate in an attempt to expand the person’s viewpoint with stories of my students’ brilliance and accomplishments against unimaginable obstacles. The past two years I have had a different reply:

Actually, no. It isn’t tough being a teacher there. I love it. I love the boys I work with. They’re just kids.

I have to explain that these young men, the majority of whom are black and brown, and from environments designed by society to perpetuate poverty and oppression, are not the monsters that the corporate mainstream media and those dominant in our society would like us all to believe. They are kids. When I look at them, I see my own sons.

But let me tell you what really keeps me up at night…

  • A country that has promoted and allowed for mass incarceration; a modern Jim Crow
  • Prosecutors who care more about putting people in jail than keeping them out
  • A system of injustice that treats a guilty, old, wealthy, white male much better than an innocent brown and poor young man
  • A city that spends $50 million on the security of visitors for the RNC, but can’t find the money to protect our city’s children from violence in their neighborhoods or a policeman’s bullet
  • A city that spends $50 million to renovate a public space downtown, but can’t find money to prevent 2,000 children from being poisoned by lead each year in their homes, or money to provide children with nutritious meals free from processed foods and full of fresh ingredients 
  • The criminalization of addiction or other health issues & the lack of services available to assist people in need
  • Tertiary prison-for-profit businesses like “Jpay” who exploit the already desperate and disadvantaged families and their loved ones who are incarcerated
  • Schools, districts and politicians who care more about scores and data than the humanity and potential that every child deserves to have recognized and valued
  • Policies from politicians that have forced schools to become pipelines to prison, rather than conduits of knowledge and discovery
  • A system that magically transforms juveniles into adults in order to bind them out of the juvenile system, and into an adult county system that doesn’t even provide students with special needs access to their federally mandated civil rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

It isn’t tough being an educator at a county juvenile detention center. It is tough to regain the trust of kids who have been hurt by dumb adults too many times. It is tough to plop spoonfuls of self esteem on boys who are used to having it scooped away, and to hope that they embrace their own worth. It is tough knowing their stories of tragedy and childhood trauma, or to read how they can’t stop seeing the violence they’ve witnessed replaying in their minds. It is tough when they tell me they’re afraid because I know they need more than what they’ll get from me. It is tough when I push them to graduate, and they tell me that they never thought they would.

Caring about the boys I teach isn’t tough.

Greedy corporations and plundering profiteers that value money more than people, and capitalism more than children, in addition to our corrupt political system, are a burden ON ALL OF US, which makes things tougher for ALL OF US.

Kids belong in school, not jails. More funding should go to education, not incarceration. The liberty of people’s bodies, minds, and souls should never be exploited for profit.

 

How Can I Make My Students Republicans?

    “I know a lot of guys here hold anger against their fathers. I don’t blame my dad for not being around,” the articulate and thoughtful young man asserted, “he wasn’t given the opportunities that other people have had.”

It is not always easy to smolder the swell of tears, that initiates in my gut and rises with a heat quickly to just below my nostrils, when I hear the compassion and maturity my students express. Working as an educator in our city’s juvenile detention center, the 16-17 year old young men in my classroom in Cleveland, Ohio, bring me on emotional roller coaster rides unintentionally and unknowingly almost daily. I smile and laugh when they reveal glimpses of the childhoods they could have, and should have had, as they earnestly work to earn a treat or certificate in class. I send silent screams of rage out into an unresponsive universe, proclaiming unfairness and injustice as the culprits that are too often the cause of my students’ circumstances. Although I never let my students see a tear fall from my usually sleep-deprived eyes, a persistent heavy sorrow weighs on my shoulders.

    Another student chimed in, explaining that an elder provided him with his gun because he thought it would help keep him safe in his neighborhood. “It’s either shoot or get shot,” he stated as a matter-of-fact. An uncertainty about their health and safety is a reality that our CHILDREN, who are often not even given a chance to grow up in our city, confront every day. Over two-thousand children are poisoned with elevated lead levels every year in Cleveland; a completely preventable toxic attack on their health and lives that we keep allowing to happen. The website Neighborhood Scout rates Cleveland as safer than only 2% of other cities in the United States. Would my students approach the police to protect them, or their rights in our city? Can my students rely on our city leaders to protect and serve them?  A 2015 Department of Justice report about the Cleveland Police Department and the Tamir Rice story are enough to understand why my kids feel like they are in occupied territory. They often feel contained and neglected, not protected.      

    As Cleveland celebrates its historic championship basketball team, Calder Cup winning hockey team, and currently winning baseball team, officials are also preparing to showcase the city to the 50,000 visitors expected for the Republican National Convention, which is less than a few weeks away. The fruits of successful collaborative efforts between government, business and nonprofit entities are evident as long-time residents travel throughout Cleveland’s neighborhoods. Colorful art murals have appeared on the sides of buildings, walls, highway bridge supports, and utility boxes. New hotels have opened in time for the convention. Additional gardens and greenery-filled planters have been placed around the city for added beauty, and extra lighting has been strategically placed to keep visitors safe and so that the city can shine. Sidewalks and roads have been repaired and paved, and new trees have been planted. A redesigned public square was recently revealed for a $50 million dollar price tag. Outside of the aesthetic appeal of the multiple improvements around the city, $50 million dollars of an NSSE grant was allocated for security in a 2015 fiscal appropriations bill “to ensure the safety of convention goers,” according to Senator Portman (R) from Ohio.

    Recently, Cleveland has been given accolades by media sources throughout the country as a “revitalized city” ready for the national stage when the potentially boisterous Republican National Convention arrives July 18th. While Cleveland is putting its best foot forward for the worldwide media attention it is likely to receive, there are questions that should be asked about the amount being spent on the downtown area to impress and keep the RNC visitors safe.

     Where is the money to keep Cleveland’s children safe? Where is the money to revitalize neighborhood centers with mentors for Cleveland’s children? Where is the money to create jobs and job training for our young people and their families? Where is the money to turn our city schools into community resource centers for students and their families? Where is the money to eradicate lead poisoning and to keep testing children for lead? Where is the money to get guns off of the city’s streets? Why aren’t our city’s children as valuable as the 50,000 visitors who will descend upon our city, then leave? Where are the children’s $50 million dollar grants and allocations?

    Some people may respond with lines about generating business, marketing Cleveland to the world, and income generated for the city. The promises of capitalist investment abound for the already affluent, in a city that has no qualms about leaving its most vulnerable citizens in segregated, impoverished, isolated neighborhoods. Others may assert that the convention hosting is about business and not about messy human issues embedded in systemic and historical racism. To both assertions I reply “Correct!” Capitalist principles should not be applied when we are discussing human beings. Capitalism shouldn’t be integrated into healthcare, education, unions, or the judicial system. Profits or marketing shouldn’t be considered when leaders are aware of children being poisoned by lead, or when children need saved from violence. If it helps though, consider what a significant investment in our city’s children right now would do for the future of Cleveland. There is a tremendous waste of human potential created by the purposeful neglect of other people’s children.

   Clearly, the safety of visitors during the RNC is important to city, state, and national leaders. How can we make the children of Cleveland as valuable as these 50,000 temporary residents to those same leaders? How can I make my students, who have tremendous insight, resilience, and brilliance, as important as the republicans?

 

    

 

    

      

 

     

Hope & the Means for Justice

Speaking Points for May 12th GCC Listen. Act. Win. at FDR School in Cleveland, Ohio

Good evening. My name is Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith. Thank you to everyone for the opportunity to speak this evening.

I’ve been a high school teacher in Cleveland Public Schools for 18 years. The past two years I have been working in a classroom with young men being held at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC).

Yes. CMSD has a school at the juvenile county jail. It is called the Downtown Education Center, or “the DEC.”

I could stand here today and share the stories of tragedy, despair, and trauma that I am frequently privy to, but those stories are not mine to tell. I could also speak to the many ways that we, as a community and society, miserably fail our city’s children, which often results in their placement at CCJDC. However, tonight I am here to present some of our academic challenges, which I believe can be eradicated.

Think for a brief moment… what is the difference between a young person that has plans to attend college soon, and a young person who decides to rob a store or steal a car? (pause)

I contend, that at the most basic levels of our understanding, one young person has hope and believes they have access to a means for justice. The other young person does not see a means for justice and lacks that hope.

Working in classrooms with groups of less than 20 students, the teachers at the DEC work hard to rebuild, or create, a sense of hope in our young people.

In March, a young man who started in my classroom last school year, graduated from our school. Over the course of one year, this young man was in and out of our juvenile facility, at 2 residential facilities in 2 different counties, and he attended one of our traditional CMSD High Schools. I knew in order for him to graduate, I needed to follow him through all of his placements. Without that follow up, he would not have had an accurate transcript, would not have been placed in the correct classes, and would not have been able to earn that diploma. However, this student is only one of over 1000 children each year at the DEC that need this exhaustive follow through.

There is a disconnect between our school, residential facilities, and CMSD.

Just this week I had a student return to me who had worked hard and earned credits while he was with me the first time. He was even  promoted to his proper grade level. He told me that the CMSD school that he was enrolled at, in between his times with me at the DEC, placed him back in 9th grade classes that he had already passed and earned credits for. When he protested, he was told that “it was hard to get transcripts from the jail.” It isn’t difficult at all. We use the SAME data system. His credits and grades are in that system. Plus, we issue exit reports within a week of a student leaving us to return to their last known high school of record. He also had Fs on his report card in addition to the grades we gave him, because teachers are told that they cannot leave any blanks when report card grades are due. Can you imagine how difficult and frustrating it is for this young man? How are we, in CMSD, securing hope and justice for our young people?

There is no clear policy or explanation in place that is being communicated to regional superintendents, principals, teachers, guidance counselors, or administrative assistants, as to how to make sure that grades and credits are following students and being properly shared with the appropriate personnel.

The success that a great majority of our students experience while with us, often all seems like a lie to the families and students when CMSD issues report cards, and they see a bunch of Fs incorrectly listed on them, or they are missing credits that students have earned. This lack of communication consumes a tremendous amount of time and produces an unnecessary amount of frustration.

Mr. Gordon, you have an opportunity to set a local, state, and even national precedent for how education within the juvenile justice system can be done correctly.

Through a collaborative process that includes our staff, we ask for 3 things on behalf of students at the DEC:

  1. Ensure that a clear policy and explanation are in place with regard to record keeping for students at the DEC and other residential facilities. Make this policy available and all CMSD staff, faculty, and administrators aware of it.  
  2. Designate a CMSD key liaison responsible for receiving, requesting, sharing, and following up on academic records for kids being detained or placed in residential facilities to ensure accountability.
  3. Finally, we ask that you allow us to welcome you to the DEC for a conversation with our young people and GCC during the 2016-2017 school year, and become one of the champions of education for the young people in the juvenile justice system who need opportunity, hope, and justice just as much, if not more, than anyone else.

I believe that a conversation with the boys in my classroom will reveal that our young people do not want charity, or pity, or sympathy, but that the most important thing to them during these crucially important developmental years, is hope. They hope that if they do the right thing, the adults responsible for cultivating their future will be pushing doors open for them, so that they can enter into a realm of what is possible, and a means to true justice for all.

 

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Now is Not the Time to do What is Convenient

     Cleveland Public Schools have been under mayoral control with an unelected, mayor-appointed school board since 1998. Under the Cleveland Plan three years ago, test scores became the driving factor for all decisions, and a tedious, subjective, punitive teacher evaluation system, as well as merit pay for teachers, was implemented. The Cleveland Teachers’ Union and the District began negotiations for a new contract this school year. Recently, representatives of  the District announced that they were walking away from the negotiating table, and instead began preparing for a fact finding.

My speaking points for the Cleveland, Ohio, Board of Education Meeting 2-23-2016

Good evening, my name is Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith. I am an educator in Cleveland, CTU member, and an advocate for children.

Rather than leave the profession entirely two years ago, I switched positions in the District for a 20% pay cut, because I feel that the current data-obsessed system (even when the data produced is not valid) is harmful to students. Of course, all of us working in schools deserve to be paid fairly for our education, work, and experience, but being a teacher has never been about money.  

As others have already alluded to this evening – members of multiple unions work in this district because we care about students. We want the children of Cleveland to have a quality, sustainable, public education system.

Those of us who serve students in a variety of capacities in our district, experience firsthand every day the challenges that confront many of our young people in the city. I would like to use my time (3 minutes) to bring awareness to some of these issues, and I hope you consider the multiple factors that influence a child’s educational experience as we move forward this school year and for school years to come.

For example:

We know that the Plain Dealer reported this past October that 2000 children are poisoned with elevated lead levels every year in our city, and that this exposure causes learning disabilities and behavior issues in children that could have been prevented, but now require special interventions; interventions that more “rigor” in school classrooms will not address.

We know that venture capitalists and for-profit firms are salivating over the exploding $788.7 billion market in K-12 education, and are already enjoying making money off of our city’s children. Breaking up unions is not going to stop them, even though Governor Kasich has tried his best to destroy them.

We know that invalid and made-up test scores are repeatedly used to shame and harm students, teachers, and schools so that those with their eyes on dollar signs can run in with the next latest and greatest scam-of-a-solution to save us all; when really it is politicians and society who have repeatedly failed to address or profited from the social injustices that perpetuate around us.

We know that students may show up to school traumatized at varying degrees, and schools do not have an adequate amount of access to mental health professionals or social workers, and that piling more paperwork on teachers is not going to solve that.

We know that structural inequalities, an unequal distribution of resources, and institutional racism still exist in our city and schools, and that hiring more expensive outside consultants will not eliminate that reality.

We know that highly trained, experienced, and committed teachers are what research shows us will benefit our most vulnerable and needy students, and that punishing educators for wanting to work with those students with a subjective and invalid evaluation system is not a solid retainment strategy.

We know that research shows us that children need time for free play and movement, and access to art, music, physical education, and fully-staffed libraries to maximize their learning and development, and that the excessive amount of tests that our young people endure is making those important opportunities less accessible or non-existent.

We know that students who end up in our justice system, foster care system, residential programs, or homeless are often neglected or poorly tracked because of systemic neglect and failures.

We know that access to healthcare can be a challenge for some of our students. We need full time school nurses all day, every day and access to other physical therapy and medical professionals. More unfunded mandates from Columbus, Washington, or City Hall are not going to make access to that healthcare a reality either.  

We know that if our parents and community stakeholders are qualified enough to pass a school levy through the democratic process of voting, then they are qualified enough to participate in the process of voting for a democratically elected school board.

We know that every child has the ability to learn and excel, and we want the best schools for all of our students. We want money to be spent on classrooms and kids. We want our students to be ready for our diverse 21st century world, and not forced into the role of testing robots or drones.

None of us have a problem with being accountable for the things that we can and should control, but the system better be fair and hold every stakeholder accountable, including all of us here this evening.

Now is not the time to do what is convenient. Now is ALWAYS the time to do what is right.

Thank you for your time this evening.

PS – As an RIP to Jeb’s campaign… Please Clap

Suggestions and a Request of the Ohio Department of Education

Emailed to statetests@education.ohio.gov

Dear Ohio Department of Education (ODE),

Please stop misleading and lying to parents about state tests.

In addition to the corruption surrounding charter schools that forced Governor Kasich’s buddy, Dave Hansen, to resign from his position as school choice director at the ODE, and the sinister and deceitful attack on urban school districts in the state (in partnership with business leaders and many in Ohio’s legislature), the unscrupulous and blatant disregard for honesty or truth also permeates the department’s testing “informational” literature.

In opposition to multiple misleading or blatantly false claims in the ODE’s Information on Student Participation in State Tests, I prepared some truth to share.

  1. States are required under the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to maintain annual testing in grades 3-8 in reading and math and once in high school, and three science tests are to be given between grades 3 and 12. Any additional testing is completely at the discretion of state lawmakers and the ODE. Furthermore, state lawmakers decide how much test scores count within state-created accountability frameworks. Thus, elected representatives, who are supposed to represent the people – not test-makers profiting off of the system, or charter school operators looking to use children as cash cows – can decide to continue the climate of test and punish, or they can approach education as a right that all children should have equitable access to, under the guidance of credible research-based instructional approaches. This would be a fresh approach not guided by corporate and unethical profiteers, and instead focuses on children’s best interests.
  2. Although thus far Ohio is continuing the pattern of harmful high stakes testing, under ESSA, lawmakers have discretion to determine how to address schools or districts with parent opt-out or refusal rates which result in less than 95% of the student population being tested. In a democracy, when the government secretly plans then implements policies that are in opposition to the people’s wants or needs, then the people should revolt. The more people that join the revolution or resistance, the sooner the Ohio Department of Education, Governor, and Legislature will get the message.
  3. Testing is not educating. Stop saying that teachers need the results of these tests to inform instruction. It is absolutely FALSE. By the time teachers in Ohio get results back (if they ever get the results), their students are already in another grade, in another classroom, and the scores are meaningless. If teachers were waiting for scores to be returned from last year’s tests to inform their instruction, they wouldn’t have been able to teach anything up until last month. There are still teachers and students in our state who have not received any results from last year’s tests. Have they been teaching students since August, or have they just been sitting around waiting for test score results to inform their instruction? Added to this absurdity is the fact that Ohio is an embarrassing national example, once again, of the manipulation and inflation of scores, which renders those scores to a level of indescribable uselessness.
  4. High stakes standardized test scores are completely INVALID when held to psychometric or statistical standards for validity. The ONLY reliable result of the tests has been a correlation between test scores and socio-economic status. The exact same teachers can teach the exact same way in two different school districts in Ohio, and have very different results based on factors that influence the children and families in their school that are beyond the teacher’s control. In fact, 70-90% of how students perform on tests is a result of influences outside of school. Results from state tests do not result in an accurate accountability system for schools, teachers, students, or communities.
  5. State report cards that use results from state tests, like Ohio has chosen to implement, do NOT provide an “apples to apples” comparison between schools or districts. Instead, report cards for districts creates a hierarchical system of labels and harsh consequences in order to continue the mission of an unending plunder of public education at the expense of taxpayers, while contributing to the already wealthy friends of Kasich and some Ohio legislators.  
  6. State tests have nothing to do with providing every child a high-quality education in Ohio, or anywhere else. There is not a single high-performing nation in the world that tests all of their children annually. Furthermore, studies show that the emphasis on testing in our country has actually harmed education, and it has been especially punitive for traditionally underrepresented groups, and for groups protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act(IDEA).
  7. The tests are not “checkpoints” that ensure readiness. In fact, decades of credible research suggests that laws like the “Third Grade Reading Guarantee” only serve to increase the chances of deleterious long-term effects on children subjected to mandated retention.

It is my hope that by bringing to light these discrepancies between the truth and the false claims in your literature, that a more candid and sincere informational message could be shared with parents and stakeholders in Ohio.

Here is a sample. Feel free to borrow any parts for future publications.

Information on Student Participation in State Testing in Ohio (Adapted for the Ohio Department of Education by Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith)

    All schools in our state should be equipped with the resources and funding necessary to ensure that every child has equal access to a quality educational experience. It is important to acknowledge that historic and systemic racism and oppression, as well as economic inequities, have negatively impacted obtaining this goal. Furthermore, the majority of factors that influence a child’s experience in school begin long before a child enters kindergarten or even preschool. For example, the first 2000 days of a child’s life has the potential to negatively or positively impact that child’s future academic attainment. Additionally, twenty-two percent of children in the United States are living in poverty. Poverty can have long-term negative effects on a child’s learning.

    Utilizing the credible and valid research at our disposal, the Ohio Department of Education will fully comply with federal mandates under the Every Student Succeeds Act, yet will not pretend that the annual testing of students has in any way improved education in our state or country. Some schools, districts, organizations, and private entities have been given sums of money to promote testing, or hope to profit from testing children, even when it is detrimental to students. However, with the best interest of students and a healthy democracy in mind, we will limit testing to federal mandates, and advocate for policies that do not emphasize high stakes testing. Results of tests should not be used to label or shame districts, schools, teachers, or students. Misusing test data could result in harm to students and education in general.

   POSSIBLE CONSEQUENCES OF HIGH STAKES TESTING

  1. A nine-year study by the National Research Council (2011) concluded that the emphasis on testing yielded little learning progress but caused significant harm.
  2. High stakes testing drives teachers away, especially from schools that need them the most. They also eliminate or reduce time for other subjects that are not tested like music, art, and physical education. Research shows that access to those classes improves academics.
  3. According to statisticians, standardized testing does not meet the criteria for validity. Even score gains do not mean improved learning. It could just mean more teaching to the test. They also fail to accurately assess gifted students or the progress of students with special needs.
  4. High stakes standardized tests do not measure non-content skills children develop at school, or take into account the individuality of students’ learning needs. There is no teamwork, creativity, or work ethic being learned while sitting in silence and taking a test.
  5. High stakes standardized testing does not help students who arrive at school with disadvantages. Instead, students from low-income households, traditionally underserved students, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners are more likely to not earn a diploma, and are more likely to be pushed out of school into the school-to-prison pipeline.

    WHY STUDENTS ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN STATE TESTS

  1. Children should not have to attend a school labeled “failing,” or labeled anything at all. Schools should be resources for children, families, and the community.
  2. The word FAILURE should never hover over a school building, and make children afraid of how they will do on a test.
  3. Children should not have to be afraid of how their teacher will be hurt by their performance on a test, or how their school, community, or city will be labeled because of how they do on a test.
  4. Children’s privacy should not be violated, and test companies should not profit from harming children or data mining in schools.
  5. Subjects like art, music, gym, and recess have been shown by research to increase academic success, and shouldn’t be reduced or eliminated because kids need to take, or prepare for more standardized tests
  6. The emotional and social growth of children in school is not measured on a standardized test.
  7. The teacher who delivers groceries to a family in need, advocates for a student, or becomes a student’s confidant, counselor, or role model will never have that data show up in test results, and children’s teachers should be trusted to assess their progress.
  8. The long term consequences of labeling and retention on children is profound.
  9. There are more effective and research proven methods to educate our children and to evaluate teachers and schools.

I will continue refusing to allow my children to be subjected to a system designed to attack and destroy public schools. It isn’t because I am afraid of how they will perform on standardized tests, but because I am afraid that children who do not have the advantages and opportunities that they have, will be unfairly labeled and punished. I will never be convinced that children in other schools, in other cities or neighborhoods, are getting a better education because of mandated high stakes standardized tests.

I hope my sons grow up to be happy, healthy, empathetic human beings who never forget that their humanity is bound up in others. I will never look back on their childhoods and regret that they did not get to take more standardized tests. I will never wonder if I need standardized test scores to tell me what my children are worth. It will not occur to me that by not taking standardized tests, my children somehow missed out on obtaining the best education that they could.

However, I may wonder how and why so many adults who were supposed to advocate for children failed, and chose deception and harm instead of protection and resistance.

Thank you for your attention to my concerns.

Sincerely,

Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith

 

Hillary, Politicians, Education Reformers, & Education Profiteers: You Are Cowards & Failures

You say my school is failing. You label my students as failing. You call me a failure. Then you shake hands with profiteers who wear fancy suits and promote edperialism and a testocracy. These profiteers and elitists you embrace send their kids to expensive private schools, so their children don’t have to endure the policies stuffed full of educational malpractice you collaborated to create. They sit cozy in offices and devise untested business theories for application to the humanity that is education. You let them steal our tax dollars, and you praise them as philanthropists for their astronomical failures in education. It’s time you change your narrative. It’s time you change your proximity.

Do you really want to know what it’s like to be a public school teacher in an economically devastated & segregated neighborhood in one of our nation’s cities? Neither you nor the profiteers and policy makers really want to know. People like you want to keep judging and labeling, but you don’t want to admit that you helped create the suffering and disadvantage. You don’t want to claim the role and responsibility that you bear for the disasters you’ve created for other people’s children. Come take a look at my joyful, sad, sweet, angry, helpless, and hopeful students and tell them they’re failures to their faces. Come see me and my colleagues in our classrooms working 10-12 hour days and look us in the eyes and tell us we’re failures. Tell the families who rely on the existing public neighborhood schools we have left that they’re failures raising failures.

Does that seem harsh? It should.

But you have no problem preaching about “failing schools” full of “failing students” while you’re perched in expensive offices in skyscrapers, or as you muse about education in affluent and gated neighborhoods. Change your proximity and see if your narrative still feels all cozy, warm and righteous. See if you still possess the courage or ignorance to make bold declarations about failure when you’re looking into the eyes of hungry six-year-olds who suffered through childhood traumas and lead-filled homes in one of our nation’s cities. Can you look into those sweet, helpless faces and tell a little girl that she’s a failure?

Yet, that is what you do every time you or your education reformer/deformer friends and contributors suggest competition and privatization or closuresinstead of addressing the poverty, historic and systemic racism, and epic failure of our society to care about other people’s children.  The real failures among us fill boardrooms, legislatures, executive offices, non-profits, and cabinets all over this country. They aren’t in my classroom. They aren’t in my school. And they aren’t the families in my city.  They’re people like you.  And I have the courage to state that directly.  Now, I challenge you to stand in front of us and tell us we are failures while you are looking straight into the eyes of my children, my students, our school staff, and my colleagues. OR you can finally gain the courage to change your narrative, examine the research, and acknowledge the role that our nation has played in making sure that some people’s children start out with less than others, and to admit that we don’t do enough to change that, or do enough to help our fellow citizens catch up.  

Maybe once you have the courage to admit to policy and approach failures, you and those who believe that having money makes them authorities about EVERYTHING, will actually ASK educators, healthcare providers, social workers, mental health providers, safety and security providers, nutritionists, and the people we serve what is really needed to improve our cities and education.  I am pretty certain the response won’t be that we need more politicians and reformers threatening us and calling us failures. You won’t know though until you change your proximity, and then change your narrative. Meanwhile, I’ll keep working under your failed policies and egregious labels while making sure that my students, their families, and my colleagues remain reminded that YOU FAIL US then label us. Yet, until you make an initiative for change, it is YOU who should wear the label of failure and shame.

Not us.

*Changing proximity and changing the narrative were ideas presented by justice advocate and lawyer Bryan Stevenson at a Boston Community Conversation on December 9th, 2015 at Emerson University’s Paramount Theater in partnership with Facing History.    

Evaluate What?!?!

“I’m staying because I haven’t finished reminding our country that students are people not products, and that teachers are people too.”

You can tell Pat your story also! pat.bruns@education.ohio.gov

Hello,

I was told that you are gathering stories from Ohio teachers about their frustrations with legislation, certification, and how they are treated. Thanks for your interest. I’ve been asked more than once while I’m advocating or working for my students and the future of our city: “Are you just a teacher?”

Yep. I’m just a teacher.

If you’re willing to read on, I’m relieved to share what life is like for “just teachers” like me in one Ohio city.

I’ve been teaching in Cleveland for 18 years. I have an extensive resumé. I’ve only wanted to teach in urban schools. I hold an Ohio 5-year Senior Professional license. I am a Master Teacher, an OTES certified evaluator, a certified RE Mentor,  New Tech Certified,  and a certified Class Meetings Trainer. I hold a BA with a triple major and a double minor. I earned an MA in English Lit. I have 50+ hours towards an EdD. In addition to all of my training and education, I love working with kids, especially “those” kids, which is a label pregnant with all of the challenges, obstacles, and disadvantages that your imagination can conjure.

My passion and spirit started to dissipate when the state began to label schools and overwhelm us with testing and absurd mandates. It hurts your soul when you care deeply about kids, but are forced to become an accomplice to their ruin and part of a system that shames. Soon,the state and district threats “if the numbers don’t get higher” began menacingly hovering over our staff at the school I taught at for 13 years. The instability of many different administrators, constantly changing models, and repurposing everything, every year, was too head-spinning for me. So, I left that high school for another one in the same city that didn’t follow a traditional model. It had a consistent national model and innovative approach to education, although the staff and students moved buildings three times in five years. The experience reignited my passion, partly because I joined a staff that had been exclusively selected and were amazing to work alongside.

After completing two years at a New Tech school, the new collective bargaining agreement under The Cleveland Plan took effect. Voters had repealed the signing of Ohio Senate Bill 5, but that did not stop Governor Kasich or the legislature from continuing the attack on public schools. Even though decades of research has indicated that poverty and socioeconomic status far outweigh the impact of anything else on student success, the facts and truth do not stop ed-deformers, corporate profiteers, legislators, or edperialists from continuing to encourage legislation according to whatever whims they fancy. Amid a cluster of chaos and unknowns, the pseudo accountability of tying student test scores to educators and their compensation (salary) began with the year 2013-2014 in Cleveland for some teachers, and the rest would experience the turmoil eventually.

During the 2012-2013 school year, 80% of my students passed the social studies part of the Ohio Graduation Test. It is a test that covers ninth and tenth grade curriculum, but I only taught 10th grade. During the 2013-2014 school year, the new 10th grade class arrived, but they had a different 9th grade teacher than the students before them. There were also more challenging issues that the 2013-2014 10th grade students possessed that the prior year’s class had not. A little over 60% of my students passed the social studies OGT that school year, which was about ten percent higher than the district average. The district assigned predicted scores that my students were supposed to earn on the social studies OGT test, based on reading scores from NWEA tests that the students previously took. Apparently they had examined the numbers and there was a correlation between students’ reading and social studies scores. They didn’t consider other factors when creating predicted scores, such as the fact that some of my students were English Language Learners. There was no causal evidence of a link between reading and social studies scores, and the district only looked at scores from one year, so statistically speaking, the approach was completely flawed. I submitted this statistical analysis to the district as part of the grievance process: Statistical Analysis of the Validity of Using NWEA Reading Scores to Predict Social Studies OGT Results. My students’ scores didn’t match the district’s predictions, and were within a wide range above and below. I thought that the students’ OGT results would count towards half of my overall teacher rating as test scores are required by the state for 50% of teachers’ overall effectiveness ratings. I was incorrect.

Soon after students finished their week of March OGT testing in 2014, which drastically reduced instructional time not just during test week, but during weeks of test prep as well, the test coordinator and principal surprised me with another social studies test that students were to take by April 9th. The student results of this test were to be 35% of my evaluation, and students’ invalidly predicted performance scores on the OGT were the other 15% of my evaluation. The remaining 50% of my evaluation was based on my principal’s subjective placement of my performance on an extensive rubric.

When I was emailed the blueprint for the test chosen, I noted that it did not align with our district’s scope and sequence. I wrote the final version of the American History portion of the scope and sequence for the district that school year, so I was very aware of what was to be taught. There were also topics on the blueprint that we hadn’t been able to cover yet in class, because testing and test prep took up so much time that could have been used for instruction. Plus, the school year didn’t end until June, but the students had to take the test before April 9th, 2014. There was seven weeks of learning left, but they had to take a test on things that they were GOING to learn over the next seven weeks, and on content that was not even on our scope and sequence. I decided that I didn’t choose to be a teacher to make students feel stupid, and intended to resign. I started applying for non-teaching jobs.

In May, even though I had 29 “accomplished” and 13 “skilled” marks on my teacher evaluations throughout the school year, and was chosen as the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association Teacher of the Year, and earned Master Teacher status that year, and was interviewed by a national blog about a happiness project that February, and presented at national conferences, the principal stated at my composite conference that my students’ test scores just weren’t high enough for her to give me an overall “Accomplished” rating. That was the chalk that broke the teacher’s back. My salary is tied to my rating in Cleveland, which meant that I would not be getting a raise. Meanwhile, teachers of electives earned “Accomplished” ratings in the same building because not only are they “accomplished,” but they also did not have any tests tied to their composite ratings.

Neither I, nor my students, nor their families, have ever received the student performance results of the April 2014 test. Someone in our district mysteriously assigned me a “3” or “average” rating for the April 2014 student test scores. I have no idea how they concluded that I was average because I have never seen my students’ test results. This year, my former students from spring 2014 are high school seniors.

In May 2014, when discussing the torment that the students and I were experiencing because of test anxiety, a colleague mentioned a job opening for a teacher at the county juvenile detention center. Only state or federally mandated tests are required there, and current student test scores are not tied to educators’ evaluations (yet) because the population literally changes every day. I interviewed and accepted a position at our juvenile detention facility for significantly less pay than my previous position provided.

My first year at the county detention center (2014-2015) revived my teaching soul, and reminded me why I became a teacher: to facilitate and inspire learning. At the end of the year, my principal reviewed the 3 walk throughs that he completed, and the two formal observations (one announced and one unannounced) he conducted, as required by the teacher evaluation system. I earned an overwhelmingly “accomplished” composite rating. I felt vindicated. Then, in June 2015, I received an email from our Student Learning Outcome email account. It stated that my final rating for the 2014-2015 school year was going to be “skilled.” With shock and anger, I asked them how that was possible. The response has been that our legislature and collective bargaining agreement both allowed for the district to use those student test score results from the spring of 2014, from the school that I no longer taught at, from students that I no longer taught, from a test that I never received student results from, for three years. Regardless of how “accomplished” I am as an educator, scores that have nothing to do with my performance as a teacher, and scores that I never received results for, will hold me to a “skilled” rating for three years. This means that I will not receive an annual raise because an “accomplished” rating is what equals that raise. Educator ratings are also considered when reviewing applications for stipend positions that could supplement a teacher’s salary, so additional monetary losses accumulate.

If this sort of evaluation system is supposed to reward “great teachers,” then the system has epically failed. It certainly hasn’t made me feel appreciated, respected, or inspired either. I would give the teacher evaluation system an overall rating of “ineffective.” It is not even “developing.” (Those are two other ratings in the teacher evaluation system that can be assigned to educators.)

One may wonder…

Why then do I continue to stay late at work, continue to advocate, blog, network, and organize? Continue to monitor and communicate with my students and their families once they are released from me? Why do I continue to collaborate with staff, mentor other teachers, participate in national conferences, and attend additional professional development? Why do I plan engaging, meaningful lessons connected to students’ lives and provide them with effective feedback? And why do I differentiate, assess, and develop empathy and self advocacy in my students every day, if all I am ever going to be, according to the district and state, is “skilled?” If I know that I am not going to be paid more for doing more, then why am I always doing more?

I do what I do because I want what is best for my students. I treat my students the way I want my sons to be treated: with care, respect, compassion, confidence, and integrity. I didn’t decide to become a teacher because I wanted to be rich. However, it becomes increasingly difficult to not want to curse and attack the unfairness that surrounds public education, or to not be compelled to run away from it all. The string of teacher-resignation letters being published around the country is not without cause.

I’m not going anywhere, but obviously it isn’t the rewards I’ve received from the state or district for working hard that keep me around. I stay because I’m naive enough to hope that one day the oligarchy will wake up from their dreams of profiteering, deforming, and controlling, and restore control of public education to the professionals: educators. I’m staying because I know that money and greed have given rise to an opposition force of revolutionaries who want to reclaim the profession and our democracy. I want to bear witness as the resistance continues to swell. I want to remain in the fight until all public schools are equipped with the resources to provide equal access and opportunity to all citizens; because democracy is the people. The right to educational equity should also belong to the people. I’m staying because I haven’t finished reminding our country that students are people not products, and that teachers are people too.

If you’re reading this… thank a teacher.

Skilled I remain,

Melissa

Now is Always the Time to Do What is Right

    Recently, the Ohio Department of Education(ODE) held a phone propaganda conference to inform Ohioans about the state tests that they want students to take this school year (2015-2016). The new (but not really new) tests from AIR will replace the PARCC tests, but will still incorporate PARCC-like questions and possibly even the exact same questions used on tests that AIR created for purchasers in other states. AIR tests in the states of Utah and Florida this past year received less than positive accolades. Recruited for part of the ODE’s propaganda effort was Ohio’s 2015 Teacher of the Year, a high school teacher from Tallmadge, Ohio, and ODE Associate Superintendent, Lonny Rivera, who will soon be replacing retiring State Superintendent, Richard Ross. The following is my sincere plea to those educators who may not recognize the damage that high stakes standardized testing wreaks upon public education as a whole, but particularly on the schooling of underprivileged children.

Dear 2015 Teacher of the Year (and Any Other Educators Who Have Yet to Join The Force),

    I applaud the efforts and dedication that earned you the recognition bestowed upon you. Obviously, like the vast majority of educators I know, you care deeply about your subject, position and students. You have recognized and harnessed the power that teachers possess to impact lives. This ability, that only certain people can master, requires a combination of intellect, heart, endurance, passion, patience, dedication, and crafting. Knowing that, the entire profession should be held in high regard and well respected by politicians, leaders, and society in general. Being a “Teacher of the Year,” provides you with a potentially stronger voice to influence others. Listeners may even offer you a certain level of respect that they will not afford to the profession in general.

    With this great respect, comes great responsibility.

    When you convey to an audience of listeners that standardized high stakes testing is not punitive, or does not require you to teach to a test, you not only misinform that audience, but you forget that while you are lovingly nurturing and nourishing the minds of your students in a supportive community, with a democratically elected and locally controlled school board, there are other students and educators in the state who are enduring the dismantling of democracy, and the enforcement of harmful, non-researched based approaches designed to punish and label children and schools, even if those students and teachers are working just as hard, if not harder, than the staff and student body in Tallmadge.

Below is a comparison of Tallmadge, Ohio, to Cleveland, Ohio.

The cities are 37 miles apart.

2013 Tallmadge, Ohio Cleveland, Ohio
Unemployment Rate 1.8% 15.2%
Median Household Income $53,748 $26,096
Estimated Median House or Condo Value $154,170 $66,600
Average Monthly Rent $655 $631
Foreign Born Residents 2.7% 4.6%

http://www.city-data.com/

    The implications of the data should not need explanation, but it may be necessary to highlight that even when students are from families with a parent working full-time, year-round, they can still be living in a low-income household because wages are so low that many families cannot survive solely on what they earn.

     Growing up in poverty, or in a low-income household, can have significant effects on learning and brain development that have been known about for over a decade. According to the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education, “Biological factors include toxin exposure (e.g., lead paint in older buildings), malnourishment, premature birth from prenatal drug and alcohol use, and vitamin deficiencies in the mother (e.g., folic acid). The NRC identified time between parents and their children to be the most important factor in early child development, and parents in low-income households often do not have the time to devote to their children. Less time with parents means less verbal discussion, less vocabulary development, and less social skill development — all contributing to a tougher time in school.”

    The organization  Zero to Three notes, “Research shows that major adversity, such as extreme poverty, can weaken  developing brain architecture and permanently set the body’s stress response system on  high alert.” Children from low-income families are  “at greater risk than middle‐ or  high‐income infants and toddlers for a variety of poorer outcomes and vulnerabilities, such as later school failure, learning disabilities, behavior problems, mental retardation, developmental delay, and health impairments.” None of this research reveals an actual deficit for the potential to learn, but it does reveal that standardization of learning is inappropriate and abusive to the mindsets of children who already have considerable odds to confront. Massive testing that has never been appropriately vetted to eliminate cultural biases, in addition to the dozens of other reasons high stakes testing lacks validity, has been punitive to our most vulnerable citizens, and has neglected the needs of our most gifted learners.

    Before even considering the disparities in access to resources and opportunities for students in Cleveland compared to those in Tallmadge, there is already an established pattern of risk for students that has nothing to do with the school systems, and everything to do with factors related to family backgrounds and socioeconomic status. Testing is not going to change that. An historical account of housing segregation and job discrimination in Cleveland, and other northern urban areas, reveals that the U.S. government contributed to segregated poverty when returning World War II white GI’s could get low-cost federal home loans to move to the suburbs, while black veterans could not. Then, there is the history of “sun-down towns”  and sun-down suburbs in Ohio and other northern parts of the U.S.  These areas still remain purposefully all white, or nearly all-white today, because they were intentionally designed to exclude other groups, particularly African Americans (3.4% of Tallmadge residents are African American). Testing does not promote integration or support equity. 

    There are adversities for Cleveland students that the majority of the population in Tallmadge and other suburbs may never encounter. Being a teacher anywhere means being a member of an important and necessary profession. We have the power to impact individuals and a collective future. However, when a teacher states from a perspective of privilege, that test scores are not punitive or that teachers do not have to teach to the test, then that someone is either lying or sorely lacks knowledge. If anyone believes that testing does not castigate, then they should go teach in one of the most economically devastated neighborhoods in a city, at a public school that cannot turn away students deemed as “less desirable,” and compare that experience to wherever they are coming from. Were the students retained because of a test, even when the professional educators who worked with the student all year saw growth?

     Take all of the teachers from a school rated “A” by the Ohio Department of Education in a suburb like Tallmadge, and swap them with the teachers at a school labeled “F” by the Ohio Department of Education for a year. Will the grades of the schools automatically be reversed the next school year after a year with new staffs? The odds are in strong favor of the state grades for both schools remaining the same, regardless of a staff swap. Does going to a school with despicable overhead labels hovering every day motivate students or teachers, or does that feel punitive? Teachers work hard wherever we are, but we can’t solve systemic poverty that was cast upon marginalized groups in our society, through generations of discriminatory and oppressive practices, all by ourselves. Educators need society to finally decide that rectifying past wrongs and caring for other people is worth the effort. We do not need another member of the profession touting false information to an audience of listeners or proclaiming that testing is not punitive. 

    We cannot change our country’s history or mistakes made in the past, and we should not regret wanting what is best for our children and working for that aim. Yet, we should also not be a society that continues to ignore the fact that the time to do what is right, is always NOW.

    NOW is the time to reject the high stakes test and punish system that has been discredited and exposed as producing little, but costing much. 

    NOW is the time to stand against punitive labels and inequities.

    NOW is the time to proclaim that our children are not products, and that they do not come standardized.

    NOW is the time to say that access to a quality education should not be a competition. It is a right.

    NOW is the time to decide that our children deserve much better.

    And to decide that other people’s children deserve better also.

    A better time than NOW will not arrive. The time to do what is right is always NOW.

Please join us.

Sincerely,

Just A Teacher

    

    

   

    

 

    

An Ode to Public Education Privateers in Contemporary Times

What’s scarier than ghouls and goblins this Halloween?

Privateers (during the American Revolution) achieved the best results if they could bluff an opponent into believing opposition was futile. When this failed the result was often vicious combat with unpredictable results. Many privateers were captured or sunk when the odds were against them. In spite of all the risks and hazards, the overall effort to cripple Britain’s commercial fleet was highly effective, and fortunes destined to finance the new republic were made. It is estimated that the total damage to British shipping by American privateers was about $18 million by the end of the war, or just over $302 million in today’s dollars.”  ~The National Park Service

An Ode to Education Privateers in Contemporary Times

To you so bold and brazen

So Walton, so Gates, so Broad

Armed with wealth and power

Charity and benevolence are your facade

Fortunes you all have made

Yet more influence is what you desire

Purge, plunder, cripple, damage

Place public education under fire

Our government sanctions your mission

To destroy all love for learning

So full throttle you press forward

With plans for more money churning

You want to create a workforce

Full of clones, ready to obey

Standardize, test, standardize, test

No time for kids to play

You write the false media narrative

Declaring “Public schools are failing!”

You stake claims to dictate policy

And chart a course for smooth sailing

You prepare for vicious combat

When resistance begins to rise

How dare those agitators defy you!

And refuse your toxic lies

Praise to you, education privateer!

Proud lover of edperialism & the testocracy

After all, public schools are only necessary

If you actually care about a democracy

*Inspirational credit goes to Christopher Chase