Apr 052010

Every day I seem to come across another story of a school district, a school or a teacher on the brink of calamity. Whether it be the sweeping ‘reforms’ in New Jersey, the Renaissance School Initiative in my own Philadelphia or budget cuts in Chicago , a disgruntled teacher in Florida or a Newsweek article blasting teachers, it seems everyone in education (or those with no hand in it) have something to say or do about education.

It’s scary as hell.

The day before Spring Break my district announced that all 14 of its schools slated for complete overhauls were being restructured in some way. Mine will become a charter school next year, which means that all of the staff will have to apply for a new job.

But it’s not about us.

I sincerely hope that the new management coming in can do more for our students than we every could. I sincerely hope that they keep our students and don’t try to weed them out as many charters do.  I hope that our students are given the chance to explore their own interests and are challenged beyond The Test. I hope their new teachers will listen to them, teach them how to listen and build a community in the classroom. I hope they will be given the opportunity to use 21st Century tools in authentic and meaningful ways.

I won’t be there to see it.  Neither will many of my colleagues.

As a stipulation of the Renaissance School Initiative, all Renaissance Schools will run up to 22 days in July (with students) an extra hour a day as well as up to two Saturdays a month. If I wanted to work at  KIPP school, I would already be there.

They also are not in market, it seems, for a Computer teacher.

What’s sad is that many teachers will be either leaving the district, retiring early or being forced to choose schools off a list just to stay employed.  Many don’t want to leave the union and many have worked at the school for 20+ years and find it silly to try to work somewhere else for 2-3 years until retirement.

The other sad thing? Many of these teachers have been forced over the past few years to teach formulaic lessons or scripted programs. When they do apply to work elsewhere,  this will not help them get a job. It has also, for many, made them lose sight of why they got into teaching in the first place.

These kinds of overhauls are happening all over the country, though perhaps with different names or different models (i.e. the Rhode Island teacher layoffs).  It seems to be the fad these days to point the finger at the teachers (and teachers unions) for all of the problems in education. Easy enough. It’s far simpler to replace a teaching staff than fix a broken system (one that often lets incompetent teachers stay in the classroom).

Who would honestly WANT to be a teacher these days?

I do.

I know, however, what I am willing to accept, what I refuse to accept, what kind of school I want to work in, and what I am not willing to ‘take’ when it comes to being treated as a professional. I know this because I know what conditions I need to best serve my students.

When it comes down to it, it’s not about us.

It’s about the kids.

Which is why I get up every morning.

Sorry, Superintendent Ackerman.

Sorry, Jerry Jordan.

You are Bantha fodder in my book.

Mar 102010

I have been subscribing to Newsweek magazine for almost 5 years now.  I look forward to each week’s thought provoking articles and commentary by smart, educated and well-informed journalists. This doesn’t mean I always agree with everything I read, but I enjoy the discourse nonetheless.

I was appalled, however, to unfold this week’s cover as I pulled it out of my mailbox.  The Key to Saving American Education with We must fire bad teachers written over and over on a blackboard like the intro to a Simpsons episode. (When was the last time a teacher actually used this method of punishment, I wonder?)

I turned to page 25 and began reading.

Much of the ability to teach is innate–an ability to inspire young minds as well as control unruly classrooms that some people instinctively possess (and some people definitely do not). Teaching can be taught, to some degree, but not the way many graduate schools of education do it, with a lot of insipid or marginally relevant theorizing and pedagogy.

These two statements back to back make absolutely no sense. In one sentence, the authors state that the ability to teach is innate and then proceed to blame schools of education for poor teaching skills.

The article is rank with these kinds of non sequitur statements. The sentence following the quote above states, “…within about five years, you can generally tell who is a good teacher and who is not.”  What they don’t mention is the fact that many young teachers, who graduate from these programs with ‘insipid or marginally relevant theorizing and pedagogy,” don’t receive any kind of support within their first years of teaching to help them become successful teachers.

The article should state: “….within about five years, you can generally tell who can teach themselves how to teach and survive their first few years alone to become a good teacher.”  I say this from experience as a teacher in one of the schools the authors keep referring to.

Over time, inner-city schools, in particular, succumbed to a defeatist mindset. The problem is not the teachers, went the thinking–it’s the parents (or absence of parents); it’s society with all of its distractions and pathologies; it’s the kids themselves. Not much can be done, really, except to keep the assembly line moving through “social promotion,” regardless of academic performance, and hope the students graduate….

How is this an issue with teachers? How does this statement justify the authors’ viewpoint that we need to fire bad teachers?  To me, it’s a perfect description of how the problem is NOT the teachers.  First of all, letting parents off the hook is the worst thing a school can do. Second, did they mention that this ‘society’ often comes with hunger, violence and hopelessness? Did they mention that most teachers don’t WANT to push kids through an assembly line, but are forced to by district constraints on what to teach and how to teach it?  Did they mention that the poorer performing a school is, the less freedom teachers have in what they teach and how they teach it?

In my school, teachers only ‘teach’ for about 2 hours a day. Students spend over 2 hours a day receiving scripted Direct Instruction programs mandated by the regional superintendent. So is it REALLY the teacher’s fault if these programs don’t work?

Then, of course comes the school model of Biblical proportions: KIPP.

KIPP schools don’t cherry-pick–they take anyone who will sign a contract to play by the rules, which require some parental involvement.

Another non sequitur.  Isn’t that the definition of cherry-picking? Being able to only include people who ‘play by the rules?’  Which require some parental involvement. Translation: If you aren’t involved in your child’s education, you’re not welcome here.

Translation: regular public schools get overwhelmed with all of the students and families who don’t play by the rules.

One more. This one is about Teach for America.

Her idea was to hire them for just a couple of years, and then let them move on to Wall Street or whatever.

How does this help make a point for how wonderful the TFA program is? This is followed by, “Some (about 8 percent) can’t hack it, but most (about 61 percent) stay in teaching after their demanding two-year tours.”  What the authors fail to mention is how long this 61 percent stay in teaching as well as what kinds of supports are in place to support these teachers. (“We provide the training and ongoing support necessary to ensure their success as teachers in low-income communities.”–from TFA’s website)

In addition, the authors state:

It is difficult to dislodge the educational establishment. In New Orleans, a hurricane was required: since Katrina, New Orleans has made more educational progress than any other city, largely because the public-school system was wiped out.

In Philadelphia, we are experiencing our own hurricane: the Renaissance School Initiative.  What the authors don’t state is what “educational progress” means. Does it refer to test scores? Filling classrooms with highly-qualified teachers? School climate? Improved buildings and improved school environments? No one knows what these schools will look like in ten years.

Granted, there are some statements in the article with which I agree.

For one: “Many principals don’t even try to weed out the poor performers…”  I also agree that unions need to stop protecting bad teachers. For their own sake. It’s those ‘poor performers’ that make the rest of us have to work harder.

I also agree that we need to ensure that we have highly qualified teachers in every classroom. However, it’s not the teachers’ fault that there are ineffective teachers in the classroom. The hiring process in Philadelphia is ridiculous.  Principals cannot always choose all of their staff and are stuck with whoever shows up in August.

In addition, teachers enter the classroom after taking classes, passing some tests and spending about 6 weeks in a real classroom.  Often, student teaching is done in a suburban school, but the new teacher finds him or herself in an inner-city school, completely unprepared for what he or she faces on a daily basis.

When it comes down to it, I am disappointed that Newsweek’s cover story was so poorly written, poorly argued and contained such generic cliches.  I look forward to reading the comments on the article as well as any letters printed in next week’s edition.  I hope someone can explain to me how this article ended up in the magazine.

For more reflections on this article, check out Larry Ferlazzo’s post: Did You Know That THE Key to Saving Public Education is Firing Bad Teachers? There are some great comments there, too.

Jan 232010

Those of you who work in unionized districts are probably dealing with a variety of looming changes and ‘reforms’ due to Arnie Duncan and President Obama‘s new Race to the Top Program.  In case you’ve been in a cave for the last month, the RTTT Program (so quaintly referred to on Twitter as “Race to the Toilet” by a colleague of mine) has created a mad dash for federal cash among the 41 states who successfully completed the application by the January 19th deadline.  With that dash has come a need for unions and districts to come to the table to discuss the language of the program’s requirements to bring the federal money into the state.

My Union (Philadelphia Federation of Teachers) went to the table this month and sent out an email to its members explaining how this new program application would affect contract negotiations.  Did I mention that we had been working under an extended contract for over 2 years?  The final extension to January 15th gave the Union and the District enough time to sign the required paperwork in time for the deadline.  I don’t think there was ever a question of whether the Union would sign the paperwork. With 2 years of negotiations, we had less and less ground to stand on. A sinking economy, a national health care plan in hot debate, and a new educational reform program worth millions of dollars to the winning bidders.

To make matters worse, in 2001 the State of Pennsylvania used the power of Act 46, which allows the State to take over Philadelphia schools and to complete a State takeover of the entire District. The results: an appointed School Reform Commission (SRC) instead of a School Board, the elimination of teachers’ right to strike, and the limitation of the Union to negotiate basic things like staffing patterns and assignments, pupil assessment and teacher prep time.  So if we didn’t come to an agreement, the SRC would make one for us. It was a no-brainer. If the Union signed the RTTT paperwork, thereby agreeing to put the needed verbiage in the contract to support the State’s needs for the program application, then we would be able to maintain certain parts of the contract we wanted.

We were lucky enough to maintain 100% employer-paid benefits, receive both step (annual) raises and two bonuses over the course of the 3 year contract and avoid an extended school year and day.  That I cannot complain about. Unfortunately, in order to keep these things in the contract, there was the addition of two articles that will have a huge impact on myself and many other teachers in the district.

The first: “Value Added Compensation.” In short, in 25% of schools defined as “High-Needs” (probably about 4 schools total) will receive across the board, whole-school bonuses for showing marked improvement in student achievement and 10% of schools defined as “non-High-Needs” will also receive the bonus. I am not sure how that translates into a number, but it’s not many.  The best part of the language?  “….based on availability of funds.”  It’s obvious that the language was placed in the contract to satisfy the RTTT application requirements. According to the Executive Summary, States would have to show that they are:

(you can find the executive summary here)

The second: “Renaissance Schools.”  These are schools destined for complete restructuring.  According to the new contract, should a school be designated a Renaissance School (RS), 100% of its staff will be force transferred (forced to choose a different school) or be given the option to re-apply through site-selection to work at the newly formed school.  However, only 50% of the original staff may be re-hired.  RS’s are schools that have been in Corrective Action II for 6 or more years (along with other criteria).  These schools will be closed and re-opened under new management.  Organizations began applying to take over schools on January 20th. Technically, the list of RS was supposed to come out too, but in my opinion they held out until the new contract was ratified.  Should you decide to work in a RS, you will be required to work an extra hour every day, 2 Saturdays a month and up to 22 days in July (paid). Not for the weak of heart and VERY similar to the KIPP Charter School model that Duncan has lauded as a solution to closing the achievement gap for low-income, minority students (we have 2 in Philadelphia).  Side note: my school will most likely be designated as one of these schools.
Here is the wording in the Executive Summary to support the RS article in the contract:

So what’s the deal with the ‘pee on my leg’ stuff, you ask?

I walked up to the contract ratification meeting at the Temple Liacourus Center to meet up with my friend Ann Leaness, and I already had a feeling of “it’s a done deal.”  As we sat, watching people file in, all I could think was how pitiful a turnout we had. It was the night before high school grades were due.  I had seen more people show up to ratify our contract extension earlier in the school year.  As some of my fellow staff members arrived and sat in the seats I had saved for them, I fingered my paper ballot, thankful for my tiny chance of being heard.  I had experienced many “aye/nay” votes in the past and was glad this vote would be (at least a little more) fair.

Union President Jerry Jordan took the podium, explaining, along with bulleted PowerPoint slides, the changes and additions to the contract.  We had all received an email around noon describing these changes in detail, and they were available in print form at the meeting.  Many of my fellow staff members had not read the changes yet. (I had read it online and took notes–I have issues.)  After reviewing the changes, as with all Union meetings, they opened up the floor to the 6 mics available for asking questions and commenting.  Each mic had a long line of people behind it. Some thanked Jerry and the negotiating team, some voiced concerns about Renaissance Schools and the scripted programs that they were being forced to teach that insulted them and stifled their creativity as professionals. From the responses that Jerry gave it was obvious that this thing was going to pass whether we wanted it to or not.

At least I had my ballot.

There was a motion to close the discussion, which passed.  Suddenly, Jerry says, “All in favor of ratifying the contract say ‘aye.’ Against, say ‘nay.'”  Then, “The aye’s have it, the contract passes.”

I was shocked. Disgusted. Annoyed. Sad. Dumbfounded. Someone yelled out “This is bullsh*t!” I kind of agreed. I mean, what the hell?  Why did we have ballots?  I shook my head and walked toward the exit. As I passed the ballot box, I figured, “what the hay” and cast my ballot (I voted against it.)  I saw people tossing out their ballots or putting them empty into the boxes. “What’s the point,” they were saying, “It’s already been passed.”  I couldn’t believe that around 2,000 attendees made a verbal vote to represent 16,000 teachers or that we had to vote on something that we had only had a few minutes (or hours if we were lucky) to read.

The next morning I found out that the ballots HAD been counted.  The count had been 1,831 to 885 according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But did we ever really have a choice? How many people threw away their ballots or didn’t vote? What about the 14,000 people who didn’t attend or couldn’t attend because they were busy putting in grades?  I pay Union dues, but what am I really getting out of it?  Hence the title of this post.

This is a really scary time to be an educator. Perhaps, even, to be a student. Imagine finding out that all of the teachers in your school have been let go, that the school you’ve been attending for the last 4 or 5 years will no longer exist as it has.  This could be scarier than NCLB ever was.

Grab your umbrellas everyone!

Arne Duncan photo courtesy of Dept. of Education
Baby crying photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/mccord/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

My Lesson in "Us vs. Them"

 School District of Philadelpia, SDP  Comments Off on My Lesson in "Us vs. Them"
Dec 012009

It was 9pm on Thanksgiving night.  My belly was bursting and my eyelids were heavy.  I was sitting on an Amtrak train back to Philadelphia after a wonderful evening in NYC with my family.  I sat in the window seat, and was joined shortly by a man with a laptop bag.

The train began moving, and he opened up his laptop.  Immediately, I noticed the School District of Philadelphia desktop background and I looked up from my book and said, “School District of Philadelphia?”  He said, “Yes.”  I offered, “I teach at Bluford Elementary in West Philadelphia.”  He replied, “How’s the move going?”  I was immediately taken aback.  I rarely meet someone who has heard of my school, and no one ever knows anything about our temporary relocation.  He followed with, “I helped plan that move.”  I was intrigued.

It turned out that the man sitting next to me was none other than the Chief Business Officer for the School District.  We proceeded to spend the next hour and a half discussing the School District’s history over the last 8 years, starting with the State takeover, dissolution of the School Board and the leadership of Paul Vallas.  We discussed pay for performance and teacher pay in general. Stemming from my statement that in any other neighborhood with any other parents, our old building would have been a lawsuit waiting to happen, he even showed me a graph on his laptop showing how much the district spent on its facilities up until the last few years (let me tell you, it was pretty measly!).  He explained that the district had decided to pump more money into its buildings in the last few years since the money was there.  (For more on our former building, you can read my posts here and here.)

As the conversation unfolded, I began to realize that this man with an all-important job, who had worked for the Rendell and Street administrations in Philadelphia as well as in Harrisburg was acting with the students and teachers in mind along with protecting the fiscal health of the District.  Why wouldn’t he?  Why is it that ‘us’ teachers in the classroom look to blame the leadership ‘downtown’ at the School District (‘them’) for all of our problems?  We teachers always talk about how ‘they’ forget the children, that decisions are never made with the students and teachers in mind.  We talk about initiatives that are poorly thought out and even more poorly executed by ‘them.’  Why should we believe that ‘they’ don’t want teachers to succeed or that they don’t want children to learn?  Similarly, why should  the top of the administration chain (‘us’) look at the teachers (‘them’) as being incompetent in the classroom or in need of more supervision and mandatory support due to dropping test scores.

Most people don’t get into education without good intentions.  What is it about this convoluted, huge and disorganized system that turns us against each other?  Even those who work in the upper echelons understand that disorganization reaches down the rungs and affects the teachers and students in the classrooms.  It’s kind of like a hugely expensive and paramount game of telephone.

This brought up more questions.  Why does the state still run our school district?  Why don’t the taxpayers and parents seem to have a say?  Why are my union negotiations behind closed doors while issues are negotiated for my best interest without my interests being voiced to anyone?  Are teachers and parents’ voices being heard when it comes to budgetary concerns?

When Ackerman came in as Superintendent, she started an initiative called “Imagine 2014.” I attended one of the community meetings to discuss and give input into the new initiative.  We were shown a PowerPoint explaining the initiative and then broke out into discussion rooms based around parts of the initiative.  When the final initiative came out, it was as if they used the fact that these ‘listening sessions’ occurred as a reason that the initiative was supported and created by Philadelphia constituents.  The intentions were good, but the result lackluster.  This feeds into the “Us v. Them” mentality, which I have been guilty of harboring for years.  I felt that my input into the meeting was wasted breath.

In addition, as an ‘Empowerment School‘ (aka failing school) my school has completely lost control over all of its academic functions.  We teach scripted programs over 45 minutes to an hour a day, 5 days a week and we are told what we are to teach, when we are to teach it, and how to teach it.  We are told what needs to be hanging on our walls, outside our classroom as well as what page we’re supposed to be on in our Teachers’ Guides.  Talk about feeding the ‘Us v. Them’ mentality.  However, when looked at through the eyes of the implementers, they are helping us meet our students’ needs since we have been failing to do so for so many years (disclaimer: we have made AYP once, so at some point we were heading down the right road without all of these ‘supports’).  No one has bad intentions, but initiatives that come down from above get caught in that game of telephone and end up a garbled mess.

All of this has made me rethink the ‘Us v. Them’ mentality.  It gets us nowhere.  The problem is not in the intentions, but rather in how people (don’t) work together to achieve a common goal.  And yes, in the end, it is the people we serve (the children of Philadelphia and their families) who lose out.  I can no longer blame only the individuals, but I must blame the system in which we are all caught.

The first step in fixing this systemic problem is making the system smaller.  In Philadelphia, we used to have SLCs (Small Learning Communities) made up of regional schools to put more power back in the hands of schools, who know best what their students and communities need.  Of course, these were part of the previous initiative, Children Achieving (see Part III), which went out when Paul Vallas came in.  While new initiatives are hard to avoid, the idea of a smaller system in place to handle such initiatives can help appease the ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality.

What are your experiences and thoughts?

This post is part of the MAT@USC Hope for the holidays event. Did you have an experience or witness something in 2009 which gave you hope for the future of American education? If so, please see this post for more information on how to share it.

Jul 252009

After talking about if for months, I finally took the first step and started a Ning for Philadelphia Teachers!

A Little Background

In a district as large as Philadelphia (over 270 schools & about 180,000 students), it easy to feel isolated. I know it sounds crazy, but the larger the system, the more out of touch people become with the system. I have been teaching computers for 2 years now, and I have managed to survive thanks to an email listserv called the “PTRN” list (Philadelphia Technology Resource Network). It is a community of teachers that share information and help each other with technology problems on a daily basis. I have, on many occasions, sent out an email and received a response within minutes.

This resource is invaluable, but it is a difficult place to really share resources since you must go through your email to find past conversations or answers to questions that you may have forgotten. I have been asking for months about the possibility for setting up a Ning or some kind of network for us to use that is more permanent and allows for more in-depth conversation. The listserv is also very impersonal-I have discussed resources or emailed back and forth with people for 2 years without knowing anything about them! I’m sure many of these people have a wealth of knowledge to share were we able to connect in a different way.
With no response from above, but a few positive responses from fellow members, I decided to take things into my own hands…..
Starting the Ning

Step 1
Think of a name. It must be:
  • easy to remember
  • easy to recognize (based in Philadelphia, a network for teachers & technology)
  • would not deter non-technology teachers from joining
I chose the name Philly Teacher Techs.

I felt it important to include the technology aspect, but I wanted to put ‘teacher’ first so that people who did not teach technology would feel included. The only thing I regret is how similar the name is to the name of my blog.
Step 2
Decide the purpose.
  • What need will this Ning fill that is different from the listserv?
  • What are my goals (high level of participation? Information dissemination? Social networking?)
I decided that the Ning fulfulled the human element that the listserv was missing. It also allowed for public dialogue without filling up people’s inboxes and providing a kind of archive for these discussions since they can be accessed easily over and over.

My goal was for people to get something out of it. I spent time putting up resources and giving discussion starters to get the conversation started. Kind of like a warm up activity at a meeting or conference.

Step 3
Choose content. What should I put on the Main Page?
  • Are there Nings that I find easy to navigate?–what are they doing right?
  • Are there things I don’t like about other Nings?
  • How do I keep from having an information overload on the first page?
  • How to I use the Main Page to make my Ning inviting?
I am a member of a bunch of Nings, so I took a look at them.

I like the way I Education Apps Review put the Forum at the top so people could easily see the conversations that were going on.

I like the Classroom 2.0 idea of having ‘hosts’ or ‘greeter’ to help new members out. I hope to have a few more people help out soon.
I also like the purpose of One Comment Project that has a focus that fits a particular need/interest in the education community. It also works as a support group as well.

I also like the way both Nings use a text box to add original content.
I do not like when the Forum is below the Latest Activity. I think the Latest Activity is too busy, and that discussion should be easy to find.
To make my Ning more inviting, I explained every aspect of it for people who might not be familiar with this kind of community. I also referred to the Ning as a community as much as possible to reinforce the idea of it belonging to its members, not me!

Here is my Main Page:
Step 4
Invite members. I had to think:
  • Will the Ning be public or private?
  • Will I allow anyone to join, or should I accept people who apply?
  • How will I spread the word?

Since I knew that some people were interested, I contacted them first to let them know the Ning was up and running.

I decided to make it public to allow for people to peruse the site before joining, or use the information there without being a member.

I decided to require authorization of members so I could keep track of who was joining and welcome them individually.

I used the PTRN list (how ironic!) to spread the word about the Ning community. Since I used my district email, I made sure to note that the Ning is not endorsed by the School District of Philadelphia (though I added ‘yet?’ to the statement!)
I also used the tool in the Ning to send out a welcome message to new members and remind them of the Ning’s purpose and how to use it.

Step 5
Keeping the conversation going.

The biggest challenge I think I will face is making sure that people are visiting the Ning, contributing to it and getting something useful out of it. I started a bunch of discussions to get people started, and a few members have already started their own discussion threads.

I hope that I will be able to watch the Ning have its own momentum led by its users. To me, that is a sign of a successful Ning.
Final Thoughts

I need to remember that this community is only a few days old and many teachers are on vacation and don’t check their District email over the summer. I am heartened to hear that people are as excited as I am about the possibilities this community offers!

Feel free to visit: