Monthly Archives: October 2013

“Out, damned spot; out, I say.” — Melinda Gates, we call your power into account.

Melinda Gates: don’t be the Lady Macbeth of education reform

Teachers' Letters to Bill Gates

Melinda Gates Behind Every Great Man

“What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?”

–Lady Macbeth

Mrs. Gates:

At the National Conference of State Legislatures on July 21st, 2009, your husband spoke about our country’s economic crisis and offered an unlikely solution: the Common Core State Standards and the tests that go with them. He asked his audience to “accelerate [school] reform” and came to the following conclusion:

“When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better.” (Emphasis mine)

Our ongoing obsession with standardized testing, which your initiatives have intensified, has served to narrow curricula all over the country, stigmatize children and their…

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The PTA forum’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of John King

On October 12th, two days after a contentious NY PTA-sponsored forum during which parents and educators questioned the implementation and ethics of the Common Core State Standards and the testing and data-sharing that accompany them, NY Education Commissioner John King decided to cancel the rest of his Common Core promotion tour, blaming “special interests whose stated goal is to ‘dominate’ the questions and manipulate the forum.”

He lamented that “The disruptions caused by the special interests have deprived parents of the opportunity to listen, ask questions and offer comments. Essentially, dialogue has been denied. In light of the clear intention of these special interest groups to continue to manipulate the forum, the PTA-sponsored events scheduled have been suspended.”

Indeed, “dialogue has been denied”– but by Commissioner King himself.  And these cancellations beg the questions: Why the paranoia?  Why the certainty that the questions and challenges directed at him in Poughkeepsie would be repeated in the four remaining forums?  Is it because King realizes that parents and educators understand the extent to which his harmful policies have hurt children and damaged the landscape of public education in the state of New York–and that they’re not going to keep quite anymore?  Parents and educators are not “special interest” groups, but the millionaires and corporations who profit from King‘s damaging reforms are. And from King’s recent behavior, it’s clear that he’s feeling the heat.

The degree to which King was rattled at the Poughkeepsie meeting, coupled with his abrupt cancellation of the remaining events, is glaringly Shakespearean-and speaks volumes about what must either be King‘s troublesome inner conflict or a brazen display of dictatorial arrogance.  Though his outward attitude suggests the latter, a cursory review of a scene from  Hamlet might lead some to suspect the former.

Those familiar with Hamlet will no doubt see parallels between Shakespeare’s play and the current (rotten) state of educational affairs in New York.  In order to confirm his belief that his uncle (Claudius, the reigning King–how ironic) has killed Hamlet’s father, Hamlet plots to stage a public play that employs actors who dramatize Claudius’s offense. During the performance, Hamlet observes the King‘s behavior to determine whether he’s rattled–a sure sign, Hamlet insists, of a guilty conscience:

I have heard

That guilty creatures sitting at a play

Have, by the very cunning of the scene,

Been struck so to the soul that presently

They have proclaimed their malefactions (2.2.617-621).

And Hamlet’s instinct is correct; when King Claudius realizes that the play mimics his murder of Hamlet’s father, the guilt he feels (because he is, indeed, guilty) proves to be too much for him. He stands up, says,”Give me some light. Away!”–and the play is cut short.

And then Claudius leaves–and refuses to negotiate any further with Hamlet, since he knows that Hamlet recognizes him to be a fraud.  In essence, Hamlet is a very real threat to Claudius’s power.

You know, sort of like concerned parents and educators, when they’re loud enough, are a threat to Commissioner King’s power.  Like Claudius, Commissioner King bailed–and declared that he refuses to engage in further dialogue about the Common Core–when parents and educators challenged him in Poughkeepsie.

Give it up, Commissioner King.  You’ve been exposed, and it’s time to resign.

Your offense is rank; it smells to heaven.

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Philadelphia’s Solomon Charter School bites the dust

On August 23rd, 2012, Jewish Exponent reported on what it described as a “Cyber Experiment” in Philadelphia: the Solomon Charter School, an “experimental, publicly funded cyber charter school that will focus on Asian culture and history as well as provide an immersion approach to language instruction.” Though the school welcomed a secular student population, the Exponent questioned “whether Jewish families [would] be enticed by the prospect of a free, state-funded Hebrew immersion program with a kosher kitchen and the teaching of some Israeli culture and history.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Education approved Solomon’s charter in May of 2012, just six months after it initially rejected the school’s application, and the school’s officials and staff prepared for a fall of 2012 opening.  Led by CEO Steven Crane, a “semi-retired businessman” who had failed to open a Hebrew charter two years earlier, Solomon vowed to serve as a multi-cultural cyber school that would be open to students from across the state:

Fellow Pennsylvanians:

Welcome to Solomon Charter School, where we begin by building relationships. Solomon Charter School provides a rich and comprehensive education to every student we serve by embracing, and teaching to all unique learning styles and cultural backgrounds. We believe that a quality public charter school education is the foundation for a good quality life. Solomon Charter School will strive every day in welcoming our students to learn in a safe and comfortable environment—Solomon students will be challenged and supported to flourish academically, socially, physically, and emotionally.

Our teachers, administrators, and support staff members are proud to serve the residents of Pennsylvania, and their children as they grow and learn. Solomon Charter School will strive to give them a vast array of excellent academic, artistic, athletic, and leadership opportunities. We believe our schools are the cornerstones of these communities, and our school will work hard to foster communication and collaboration with students, parents, community and members. Together we will celebrate shared world culture and improve daily to enhance the present, so that we can build a bright future for Pennsylvania, its schools, and its students.

I thank you for visiting our website, and as Chief Executive Officer of this outstanding school, I encourage you to contact us, and support our many events and activities. It will take all of us working together to continue achieving at the highest level and giving our children the best opportunities to succeed. Solomon Charter School provides a sound education program available throughout Pennsylvania.

I look forward to working with our communities in supporting the state of Pennsylvania as a wonderful place to live and learn.

Sincerely,

Steven Crane

Chief Executive Officer

Solomon Charter School

But just a few short months after Solomon opened its doors (or purported cyber-courses) to students, the DOE discovered that the “cyber” school was operating as a “traditional brick-and-mortar school” in Philadelphia and threatened to revoke its charter:

“Cyber charters are supposed to provide their curriculum online, but education department spokesman Tim Eller says inspectors found teachers and students in a school at 1209 Vine Street: ‘Students had lockers, the school had a dress code for students. Students were provided tokens by the school to get to the facility on Vine Street. And that’s a clear difference of the way a cyber charter school should run.'”

Solomon’s officials responded by filing a complaint with PA’s Commonwealth Court, countering that the state was “using a more restrictive definition of a cyber charter than state law” and insisting the school would remain open to its students. And in August of 2013, as the School District of Philadelphia was unsure about whether or not the city’s traditional public schools would even be able to open on time because of the School Reform Commission’s “doomsday budget,” Solomon posted the following letter:

Dear Parents, Guardians and Students,

On behalf of the Solomon Charter School faculty and staff, I would like to welcome you to the 2013-2014 school year! Solomon Charter School continues our mission of focusing on East Asian and Hebrew languages & cultures via a comprehensive educational program. Solomon places great emphasis on creating a civil society where students are empowered to become productive members of our global society. In preparation for a career or college education upon graduation from Solomon Charter School, we educate our students in a highly integrated Cyber-Blended Educational Program.

Solomon is excited about beginning the school year with the expansion of our educational programs from grades K through 6. Solomon immerses our K-6 students to a rigorous Common Core State Standards aligned curriculum, along with a social skills program involving a school-wide Positive Behavior Support program.

Solomon Charter School places great emphasis on ensuring students are educated in a safe, secure, and healthy environment. As a result, Solomon Charter School’s Strategic Plan addresses the following areas:

  • Anti-Harassment, Intimidation, & Anti-Bullying
  • Wellness
  • Discipline

I am excited to begin our journey together and celebrate our achievements in the upcoming school year. Please take the time to familiarize yourself with the Student Handbook and ongoing activities at the school, which will be posted on our website. We are proud to have established a Parent Teacher Association, which will involve several training modules on curriculum, social skills, special education, and community resources.

New this upcoming school year is our comprehensive Course Catalog, which is available to parents and students on our website. Also, Solomon’s Career to Work Program has been created giving students the opportunity to practice what they are learning in their cyber-blended program into real world work experiences.

I look forward to meeting you during the school year!

Sincerely,

David Weathington

Principal

Solomon Charter School

To students and parents concerned about Philadelphia’s underfunded, overcrowded, and understaffed traditional public schools, Crane’s and Weatherington’s enthusiastic descriptions of Solomon’s program likely served to cast the charter as a good alternative to what proponents of “choice” like to label as “failing schools.” But on October 11th, Solomon’s students and parents were notified without warning–via a letter posted on the school’s website–that they would have to collect their records, turn in their computers, and find another place to go to school—because Solomon would be closing its doors permanently:

October 11, 2013

Dear Parent/Guardians,

It is with regret that I announce the closing of Solomon Charter on October 11, 2013. The Solomon Charter Inc. Board of Education has decided to close for the remainder of the 2013-2014 school year.The Board spent many hours deliberating about how to keep the school open despite safety concerns and financial instability.

In order for us to have an orderly transition during the closing process, the following procedures will be in effect:

1)Beginning Monday, October 15, 2013, you will be able to pick-up your child’s records between the hours of 9:00 am and 3:00 pm

2)Your primary contact person for enrollment, transcripts and report cards is Vincent Williamson, Assistant Director of Student Services 215-825-7691

3)You must also bring all computer equipment back to the school

4)Your contact person for computer return is Josh Block, Technology Specialist at 215-825-7691

5)For other school related issues, your contact person is David Weathington at 267-210-9488.

Yours Truly in Education,

David Weathington

Acting CEO/Principal

Solomon Charter School

Solomon’s sudden closure is the most recent in a string of similar scandals, all of which have deprived traditional public schools of funds they so desperately need and have left children seeking emergency alternatives to the educations of which they were suddenly robbed.

And while this sudden closure was no doubt a shock to many, some Solomon parents said they had concerns about their children’s safety before the announced closure; the building had evidence of mold and water damage, crumbling ceiling tiles, and exposed wires. Oh, and “one portion of the school is in the same building as a clinic that treats sex offenders.”

This type of event is just one consequence of “school choice” that its proponents don’t want anyone to hear about, and it’s symptomatic of a much larger problem: that diverting public funds to charters, many of which have questionable financial, admissions, and ethical practices, hurts traditional public schools–and, in many cases, turns children’s educations into failed taxpayer-funded “experiments.”

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For the millionth time: the conditions poverty creates affect academic achievement

Is it true that great teachers can inspire even the most troubled students?  Absolutely. Is it true that great teachers can help such students achieve academic success?  Certainly.  Is it important that all students have great teachers?  Of courseNobody argues these things.

But what people do argue is the extent to which poverty affects student performance in school (even though there’s much research which documents the correlation between socioeconomic status and test scores)—and, perhaps more importantly, the extent to which teachers themselves can overcome the devastating affects poverty has on the children in their classrooms.

In the current climate of education reform, where the most sweeping changes to education policy are dictated by billionaires, corporations, and other non-educators who know nothing of the actual children who populate America’s classrooms, one thing is for sure: something needs to change—because education policy based on blind ignorance and political and financial agendas hurts children.

So maybe the problem here is semantics, because there’s something so obvious that corporate reformers are failing to acknowledge—mostly because acknowledging it would ruin the foundation of the case for “reform” they make–and it’s this. Children aren’t always concerned with poverty itself, per se; at a young age, they don’t balance checkbooks, they don’t earn paychecks, they don’t pay bills, and generally, they don’t have a mature, comprehensive understanding of finance.  But they are very aware of the conditions that accompany poverty—even from a very young age–and it has been proven again and again that these conditions impact students’ academic achievement. (For an extensively-researched explanation of this reality, read Chapter 10–“How Poverty Affects Academic Achievement”–in Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error.)

What about the child who has a toothache that’s so painful he can’t concentrate in school—yet nobody will take him to the dentist?

What about the child who needs glasses but has nobody to take him to the optometrist—so he can’t see properly and has perpetual headaches as a result?

What about the child who comes to school having been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused the night before—and who knows that he’ll be abused again when he gets home later?

What about the child who comes to school hungry—and is used to doing so because it’s a way of life for him?

What about the child who comes to school dirty—and wearing dirty clothes—because he has nobody to take care of him?

What about the child who was taken out of his house by child protective services—and who will be placed in a foster home to be raised by strangers?

What about the child whose family just faced foreclosure and is not sure that he’ll have a place to live in the near future?

What about the child who comes to school tired because he’s forced to work late hours to help support his family?

What about the child who lives on a street where a fatal shooting happened the night before?

What about the child who is afraid to leave his house because of rampant gang activity in his neighborhood?

What about the child who has a parent suffering from mental illness? Or the child himself who is suffering from mental illness—but isn’t getting the help he needs?

What about these children?  Simple. Suck it up, kids, and take a bunch of standardized tests–because they’re the most important singular measure of your intelligence and worth.  If that’s not incentive to come to school, I don’t know what is.

And what about the teachers who are tasked with educating, without support staff or services, roomfuls of children like the ones described above?  Fire them if they’re unable to get those kids to perform well on flawed standardized tests.

And there you have it. “Reform.” Brilliant.

How dare anyone claim that teachers use poverty as an “excuse” for some students’ poor academic performance—when too often, those very teachers are functioning all at once as teachers, counselors, first-aid administrators, and surrogate parent figures within the four walls of one classroom.

One of the most frustrating aspects of many teachers’ jobs is that as much as they desperately want to, teachers can’t take children to the dentist or give them medicine to take away the pain of a toothache.  Teachers can’t take kids for eye exams or get them the glasses they need to be able to see clearly. Teachers can’t ensure all their students are fed after the school day is over.  Teachers can’t pay their students’ families’ mortgages to make sure those students have a place to live. Teachers can’t keep parents or caretakers from abusing their children.  Teachers can’t keep students safe on crime-ridden streets—nor can they always convince students not to be afraid of the violence that is all too familiar to hundreds of thousands of children who live in dangerous neighborhoods all across the country.

And one of the biggest tragedies presenting itself in urban schools across the country is that children like the ones described above, who need the most support, are systematically being denied access to it.  In major cities all over America, at-risk children are being shuffled carelessly around because their public schools are closing—largely because of governmental fiscal mismanagement. They’re being forced to travel through unsafe neighborhoods of which they’re frightened to make it to school each day. They’re being denied access to guidance counselors—who in schools are essential first-responders in crisis situations—because some school reform commissions like the one in Philadelphia have determined that counselors are expendable and unnecessary.  Where the highest populations of children without adequate medical care exist, schools are without nurses.  Where the highest populations of at-risk children exist, districts are being forced to cut art, music, vocational, technical, and athletic programs—which for some students were the only truly enjoyable part of a school day—in the name of standardized test preparation.

THIS is the way to improve education for our nation’s most at-risk children?

Unconscionable.

It is ignorant, unreasonable, and supremely arrogant to sit in a position of privilege and power and ignore the correlation between the conditions of poverty and poor academic performance.  It is insulting to students who face such conditions every day—for many of whom it’s an accomplishment simply to show up at school on a regular basis—to promote reforms that strip away the things that make school the only safe and enjoyable environment some children have.  It is insulting to students to suggest that the way to improve their academic experience, which is already volatile, is to test them incessantly.

Students who suffer the effects of poverty are never “lost causes” who cannot be successful because of their circumstances—and reformers who manipulate teachers’ concerns about poverty to suggest that teachers believe as much should be ashamed of themselves.  As a teacher, I would never underestimate the impact great teachers have on their students—but as a human being, I know that a teacher’s power and influence have limits.

Experiencing and understanding life’s hardships is what makes us human, as struggle and sadness are universal, and these conditions are by no means exclusive to people of a particular race, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.  But more often than not, such conditions of life disproportionately affect–and are disproportionally more difficult for–those who live in areas of the country with a high concentration of impoverished citizens.  And until we start reintroducing meaningful community, social, and child-centered educational support programs in these areas (wraparound services, early childhood education for all children, accessible community programs, adequately-funded and staffed schools, small class sizes, etc.), children in poverty will continue to suffer on our watch–despite overextended educators’ best efforts.

In a depersonalized, top-down educational system that strips struggling children of basic necessities and then blames teachers for not doing enough to raise test scores and reform “failing schools,” the achievement gap (which is really an opportunity gap), will widen. It is no coincidence that as poverty rates increase, so too do problems in society—and public schools are a part of the society for which all of us share a common responsibility.  This is not a difficult concept to understand—but apparently it’s an easy one to manipulate to promote a political and financial agenda.

And that is incomprehensibly shameful.

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