Women’s March in Cleveland,Ohio,1-20-18

I made the following remarks at the Women’s March in Cleveland, Ohio, on January 20th, 2018. I was honored to be part of an amazing series of speakers. 

A video link to the speech is available on youtube thanks to Toni Jones.

Before I begin, I’d like to take a moment to honor the Erie Indians who lived on this land long before any of us arrived. They were an Iroquoian tribe of the northeastern woodlands, who spoke an Iroquoian language similar to Huron and Seneca. As we continue to confront those who oppress, may we never forget those who have been embroiled in a struggle to exist for centuries.

I am honored to have this time here with you today, and honored to be representing Ohio’s Badass Teachers Association (BATs), and thousands of educators who are fighting for the public schools ALL our children deserve.

When government officials and the business community attack teachers and the public schools that over 90% of school-age children attend, you can believe that it is an attack on women, who make up over 75% of the teaching profession. It is an attack on our children. It is an attack on our democracy.

As a mother, as an educator and as a woman, I recognize that it is this alliance among women and our friends that is the worst fear of those holding power in (what I like to refer to as) our system of “electile” dysfunction.

And how can those in power who oppress and disenfranchise maintain their power?

Part of their plan includes an attack on and the starvation of the foundation of our democracy: our public schools.

They defund education and steal tax dollars to promote a for-profit education system, particularly in the urban neighborhoods of our most vulnerable citizens.

Those governing Ohio are still out of compliance with a twenty-year-old state supreme court decision mandating that they fix the way we fund our public schools.

We must hold public officials accountable. Budget bills must equitably and fully fund education –  not mass incarceration or deportation.

As we gather here today, there are young people whose civil rights are being violated right now at our county jail, not too far from here. These young people have been identified as individuals with learning disabilities. And even though federal law demands that these young people be offered services for their specific educational needs, the county and city that detains them continues to violate federal law by not offering these already disadvantaged young people access to education.

Perhaps those in power restrict access to education because education is essential to human liberation. An uneducated or poorly educated populace is much easier to manipulate and control.

In the spirit of liberation, we must all continue to fight to dismantle oppressive practices like high stakes standardized testing in schools; practices placed upon us by legislators and corporate interests without any regard for what is best for our children.

Ohio is one of only 14 states in the country that still requires students to pass tests not created by their classroom teachers in order to graduate or be promoted.

We must continue to fight for curriculums and classroom practices that are culturally relevant to every child.

We must support local democratically elected school boards. Because if you can vote to have your taxes raised to support a school district, then you should be able to vote for the board controlling the money used in those schools.

We call for an end to harsh zero tolerance policies and the policing of our children, and instead call for the implementation of restorative practices that do not disproportionately put children of color on a school-to-prison pipeline.

You can’t say you’re a pro-lifer and then refuse to fight for every living human being to have an equitable opportunity to enjoy safe quality schools, safe communities, safe water, safe housing, safe neighborhoods, and to have police forces who protect and serve.

When I became pregnant with my eldest son at the age of 17, it was education that helped remove me from a life otherwise destined for dependence on public assistance. There probably isn’t anyone who understands and relates to my passion for justice and equity in education more than my sons. Thus, it is with tremendous pride that I am able to share with all of you that my oldest son here today, Cassimir Svigelj, is running for the 16th district house seat in the Ohio legislature, which includes Bay Village, Rocky River, Fairview Park, North Olmsted & Westlake, with my full support.

Not only do education activists take their power to the polls, but sometimes their kids are inspired to actually get their names on the ballot.

Before I go, I plead with all of you to remain vigilant and diligent in the fight for our public schools. Liberty and justice for all depend upon it. Thank you.

 

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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

It’s Time to End the Age of Edperialism

It’s Time to End the Age of Edperialism

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith

Edperialism – when individuals with more resources and power invade a system that belongs to people who live in the system, exploit those people and their resources, and structure a system to benefit the eduperial power and their interests without regard for the inhabitants of the system.

    Not too long ago, Ohio Governor John Kasich stated that if he were king, he would abolish teachers’ lounges. His statement seemed outlandish not only because most educators do not even know what a teachers’ lounge looks like, but also because he seemed to be aspiring to a tyrannical empire that British colonists considered so unfavorable – they would rather die than surrender to it. However, his words are actually a revealing admission of the fragmentation and privatization of public schools, and of what some have referred to as the testocracy. The combination of attacks on public education from multiple political, wealthy, and privileged factions in our society, who perhaps wish they were an absolute monarchy, is akin to imperialism, or what I refer to as edperialism.

    An honest historical outrospection of any nation’s imperial past calls for contemporary global citizens to denounce imperialist policies as racist, classist, elitist, sexist, and yet still very profitable for the nations doing the exploiting. For the people who lived in the colonies, or for those who remain affected by the remnants of imperialism, the cultural and economic effects have been brutal. Similarly, eduperial powers also called “education reformers”—often people who are extremely wealthy billionaires, hedge fund managers, and bankers—have gazed upon the 99% in this country through their possibly racist, classist, sexist, and elitist telescopes, to totally reshape American education for their own interests. With the goal of controlling resources to scratch the nagging itch for wealth and power, dominant members of America’s elite project a facade of benevolence. Unfortunately, most often their motives have been anything except altruistic or beneficial for the masses. Instead, their obsession with forcing all students to learn a similar curriculum at a similar pace has ruined true learning, and has ignored the very basic notion that all students learn through different modalities at different paces. Just as imperial powers failed to value the cultures of those they wished to exploit, or to recognize the humanity of those they subjugated, ed-reformers fail to acknowledge the credible, substantial amount of research and data that proves not only the failure of their test-based, standardized reforms, but also the harmful negative consequences thrust upon our cities, schools, students, and teachers.

    Recently, it wasn’t King John Kasich who was anointed to rule over American edperialism, so he could finally abolish those pesky teachers’ lounges. Instead, John King Jr. was appointed by President Obama to be the acting Secretary of Education once the current U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, steps down from the post in December. Acting Secretary King may have learned something from the failed edperialism policies he began as Education Commissioner in the state of New York, and he may even  possess characteristics of empathy. Surely, not every general or governor appointed to rule over colonized people during the height of global imperialism lacked superficial empathy. However, true empathy goes beyond simply understanding someone else’s viewpoint, or another person’s perspective. True empathy produces heroes that none of us will ever know the names of. These empathic heroes not only understand other people’s perspectives, but they value them and care about them.  They are grassroots organizers, activists, and agitators, and they are part of the resistance. If Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Secretary Arne Duncan, or Deputy Secretary John King were truly empathic people, brave residents under eduperial rule in Chicago would not have to go on a hunger strike for 34 days to try to save and revitalize a neighborhood public high school. Gandhi only had to be on a hunger strike for six days to change the minds of the British.

    More of the same edperialist approaches or policies from (acting) Secretary King is unacceptable. Our children, our public schools, and the future of our country as a democracy, are at stake under eduperial rule supported by an oligarchy. In the spirit of resistance to unjust, inhumane, and incogitable ignorance, it is time for those with true empathy to demand “insistence on truth,” or Satyagraha. This truth-force, or “the force that is generated through adherence to Truth,” must compel all students, educators, families, and communities to refuse to cooperate with the eduperial powers. We must refuse to submit to the injustices and inequities in education that we are fighting. This means we must refuse high stakes standardized tests for our children and students, and demand that truth and true empathy guide education policy. Power is only held through obedience. We allow the tyranny that we consent to. Our children can’t wait for an eduperial king at the U.S. Department of education to develop true empathy. If Gandhi’s Satyagraha can profoundly shake a vast empire, then imagine what the power of mass-mobilization in our country could do to begin to address the injustices and inequities in public education. Step one of the resistance is deposing the test-and-punish system. It will take strength, persistence, courage, and action. Join the non-cooperation movement. Refuse the tests. Help end the Age of Edperialism. 

What if they gave a test and nobody came?

Let’s find out.

For more information visit http://unitedoptout.com/,

http://www.networkforpubliceducation.org/,

http://www.badassteacher.org/, http://www.fairtest.org/, or

http://parentsacrossamerica.org/

In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, please visit http://refuseofcuyahogacounty.webstarts.com/

   

    

 

What if the executive council of the AFT lived my teacher-life? A (now open) email to Randi Weingarten

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith <@gmail.com>

Jul 2 (9 days ago)

to rweingarten, bcc: me

President Weingarten, 

 
Thank you for including me on the conference call this evening. It is a relief to hear that many of my brothers and sisters in union have the same concerns that afflict me as a mother, educator, and citizen (except that guy asking about road infrastructure – that was a little out in left field for me). 
 
I will try to be brief so that your staff isn’t deliriously angry about you extending this offer to email you with unanswered questions, but brevity is not my strong suit. I guess if I wasn’t a teacher; I should’ve been a politician. 
 
I’m the daughter of a Longshoreman who raised me in Ashtabula, Ohio, and the grandaughter of a man who told me he went to DC in the 1950s to testify about unions. I’ve been a member of Local CTU 279 in Cleveland, Ohio since August of 1998. I don’t think it would surprise you to read that the culture of education in our city, state, and country is vastly different than what it was when I began.
 
With the Republican National Convention being held in our city next summer, I believe we have a prime opportunity to take action on a national level that will begin to remedy the atrocities that have been occurring in our state with regard to education. The Ohio budget bill is being used to mandate absurdities in education. Ohio got rid of PARCC due to grassroots efforts that encompassed parents, community stakeholders, and educators, but then replaced it within 24 hours with another assessment from AIR that will prove to be equally horrific. Changing the name of the test, or the entity that produces it, does not eliminate the over testing, nor does it pacify our principles. The legislators and governor demolished democracy in Youngstown last week as they took over the city schools in a late night, backdoor deal that included banning any debate on the issue in chambers. Our state teacher evaluation system ties test scores to 50% of a teacher’s annual rating. We have TFA propaganda in abundance as well as a steady stream of TFA candidates not only teaching, but now in administrative positions at building and board levels. We have an unregulated charter system that is the laughing stock of 99% of the nation. The other 1% is rejoicing over the billions that they are gathering in profits while they fail our children. In our district, we have the “Cleveland Transformation Alliance” and “Cleveland Foundation” spitting out propaganda reports, with practically zero credibility, claiming that our schools are failing, our students are failing, and that the teachers are ineffective. The high stakes testing culture has ruined our traditional schools that don’t offer, or barely offer, music, phys ed, art, or vocational and trade subjects that our students are craving. We fuel the school-to-prison pipeline which fills detention centers with a wealth of human capital the system seems intent on disregarding. In Cleveland, my pay is now tied to an evaluation system that has no statistical or mathematical validity, and has been implemented with complete incompetence. All of this has left many of my colleagues in fear or apathetic from the defeat they sense. We had one teacher described as a “gentle soul” who “loved her students” placed in “teacher jail” after being bullied by an aggressive, unkind principal all year. CMSD had this teacher removed from a K-8 school in front of her special needs students. Already fragile from other personal issues, Dr. ***** (name omitted in public version) ended her own life because teaching was her life. The callous principal is now working downtown at the board office. 
 
We need our brothers and sisters in union on the largest scale that I have known in my career. The Cleveland Plan is a farce. We all know that by 2018-19, the overarching goal is to have all of our city schools turned into charters. They have been slowly and steadily dismantling us. Unfortunately, our union is viewed like a criminal defense lawyer instead of as a defender of the people. This view is not only held by the public, but by its own members as well. When I’ve been approached about running for office, I scoff at the idea. I don’t want to be an “executive” at a downtown union office, posting pictures of myself at a table at Democratic fundraisers, maintaining a state of oblivion to the daily realities of teaching in a classroom; who will eventually ask the CEO for a job at the board and fight the very union I was once elected to (2 names omitted in public version). If someone like me, who came from generations of union workers, who understands and teaches the history of labor in our country, is scoffing at being part of the governing body of the local union, can I be angry at young members for feeling disconnected and disenfranchised? My teacher effectiveness state rating was dropped from “accomplished” to “skilled” 2 years in a row because my union signed off on a test for 10th grade US History for the “data” part of my evaluation that no one told me about until 2 weeks before it had to be given, and that wasn’t aligned to the curriculum that is in our district’s scope and sequence. It is on public record that I am a “skilled” teacher instead of an “accomplished” teacher, even though I have extensive evidence to fit the “accomplished” rubric requirements, and even though I am a “Master Teacher” and was named the “2013-2014 Cleveland Bar Association Teacher of the Year.” The results of this test from April of 2014 that have been used to supposedly prove that I am an “average” teacher this school year (2015) and last school year (2014) even though I am not even teaching at the same 2014 school any more, have never been given to me, to students, published in our district database, or revealed to anyone. Due to the merit pay negotiations in our CBA, that means I didn’t get a raise 2 years in a row based on a union decision; the same union that is supposed to be protecting the wages of families. Sadly, I’m not alone in the rank and file with my disappointments.  
 
I file grievances. I email. I speak at school board meetings. I’m interviewed by local and national news organizations. I whistle blow. I blog. I create petitions. I sometimes get a response from the union, just like I sometimes get a response from the district. 
 
It became so frustrating, that I formed a group (Refuse of Cuyahoga County) with colleagues to accomplish the things that my union should be doing. We solicit parent input and support. We hold forums and events to inform. We build relationships with families, colleagues, and community stakeholders. We launch counter assaults on our legislators and governor when they don’t do what’s best for kids. We meet with local leaders. We talk to state leaders. We set up meetings with national legislators. We use social media to promote our cause and to inform. We make sure that people know that we care about kids first because once we build that trust, they understand that if we say “teachers need smaller class sizes” it isn’t because we’re lazy leeches sucking the taxpayer’s money away. It is because we care about kids and we know research shows that significantly smaller classes make a positive difference for kids. They know that when we say it is time to stop this testocracy, it isn’t because we don’t think kids can achieve, or because we are afraid of losing our jobs or our money, it is because we know from the research that it is harming, not helping, kids. When we build these family relationships, we can say to the district that it isn’t just teachers who want these things, but families of students want them also. It is a lot more difficult to use that leverage in negotiations when the state has already disenfranchised the families in Cleveland and Youngstown with CEOs, mayoral control, and appointed boards, but it is worth something in public opinion polls which leads me back to my questions that couldn’t be answered this evening on the conference call:
 
What can the AFT do on a national level to help our city and state reclaim the culture of education so that teachers are once again valued and respected as competent professionals? So that charters are held accountable? So that schools and students are never labeled as “failing” because they can’t pass tests that aren’t even a valid indicator of their talents or intellect? So that states can’t annihilate a city’s right to democratic processes? So that teachers can’t be punished through public humiliation and loss of pay because they want to work with students who live in high poverty areas? So that teachers feel like being part of the union is contributing to the greater good of society? So that being in the union will feel like being part of a movement for social justice because that is what it was intended to be? 
 
There was a massive campaign in NY, supported by AFT, because of Cuomo’s suggestion to tie teacher evaluations to testing. Our PAY and state evaluations have been tied to test scores for 2 YEARS in Cleveland. We need national attention and outrage while we simultaneously build grassroots support for what we achieve and accomplish with children every day as members in our union of professionals. 
 
As Ohio goes… so goes the nation. It works in presidential elections. Let’s make it work to change the national culture that surrounds education.   
 
In Solidarity, 

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith
 
PS. I’ll be in DC July 24th-29th. I’d be happy to stop by and say “hello.” Of course, you can probably tell from this email that I may have a little more to add to the “hello.”