Archive for the ‘Education Reform’ Category

Most teachers are curious about what school is like for a student. Meet a kindergarten tyke encountering the classroom for the first time; a middle schooler trying to balance body chemistry, a developing mind and new ways of learning; a high school teenager looking beyond the classroom into the world and most teachers want to hear how he or she is experiencing one of the most important parts of their lives.

So when I saw my 11 year old niece recently I asked her how school was going. I was prepared for the standard kid response—“fine.” What I wasn’t prepared for was the sudden sound of defeat in her answer.

Kim’s a pretty bouncy young girl. Just before I asked my question she had given me a tour of her newly decorated room. No more pink princess motif. Now it was retro 60s décor—lava lamp, peace symbol shades, shiny bead curtain across the closet door. She proudly twirled a baton as she announced, “I’m on the cheerleader squad.” She showed me her laptop, her school books, the age old array of glittery pens.

“So, how’s school, fifth grade this year, right?” I asked. Kim’s face fell, all the bounce—and light—went out of her. “I’m not an A student,” she whispered and looked down at the floor. If you knew Kim, her evident shame and embarrassment would surprise you as much as it did me. It took a lot to extinguish her usual enthusiasm about life, including school.

I couldn’t let that stand. “Yeah, well that’s just grades. What about the rest of it? Do you like your school? How about your teacher?” It didn’t take much to turn the light back on. She loved her teacher, the school, the interesting projects they had been doing.

“It’s that damn Common Core Curriculum,” her mother told me after Kim went off to play. “It’s killing her. It’s killing a lot of the other kids too. She’s working hard and I’m getting her extra help but she’s so down on herself.” We talked about the frustration she and other parents were having with the new imposed standards, standards that baffled them. I told her that they weren’t the only ones angry and mystified about what was happening in their children’s schools. Many teachers shared the same frustration with the curriculum changes imposed on schools by Federal standards, including the lack of implementation funds and clear direction on how to make it all work—and not hurt kids in the process.

I left that family gathering not feeling very exuberant myself. As much as I could sympathize with Kim’s mother and the other parents, I was haunted, disturbed and saddened by that young girl’s answer, “I’m not an A student.”
It was painful enough to see the shame on Kim’s face. But when I thought about it further I realized that her experience wasn’t an isolated one. Kids across the country are faced with that same sense of personal failure. They know the stakes are high these days. They learn in an environment that aims to “Race to the Top.” They live at a time when education pundits claim that “data is the great equalizer,” and schools, instead of having “walls of fame” celebrating student achievement in all walks of life, now have “data walls” displaying each student’s rank based on test performance. Today’s kids know that their personal academic performance affects not only themselves but also their teachers, their principals and ultimately the fate of their schools. What other generation has grown up with that kind of pressure, that kind of fear?

A growing of number of parents and school districts are raising objections to the Common Core curriculum. Some parents are actively resisting high stakes testing, refusing to have their children participate in standardized tests. In response to these “opt out” decisions some districts have taken punitive measures and penalized the students for their parents’ actions by denying them the right to participate in team sports and after school activities; while others have implemented “sit and stare” policies in which the students not taking the test must sit in the testing room and do nothing for hours.

While parents and school boards fight these battles at the local, state and Federal levels, I’m afraid that we are losing kids by the day. Kids are giving up, are being made to feel like failures because they can’t jump through the shape-shifting hoops of the latest educational reform. If we don’t do something soon we are allowing the love of learning with which children are born and which will flourish with proper nurturing to be trampled as America races to the top—of what?

Originally posted on Huffington Post

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When it comes to education reform I’m a struggling optimist. The news is rarely good, with a steady diet from the media of school failures, lukewarm test scores, the self-serving demands of teacher unions, and even threats to our national security.

So what to make of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools? The title itself seems to promise nothing but more bad news.

But this book is not a lament. Instead, in lean, measured prose Diane Ravitch addresses the many erroneous claims made by the “education reform” movement and then presents a realistic and humane plan for true educational improvement.

Ravitch doesn’t, however, just say that the reformers’ claims are wrong. That’s too easy, and Ravitch refuses the easy way out. She recognizes that the public is confused. For over a decade, it has been told by the government that our children’s schools are in a dangerously sorry state. The Bush Administration’s major tactic in presenting education reform (among other issues) was to repeatedly insist that something was “fact” despite solid contrary evidence until the public believed it. Unfortunately the Obama Administration has continued this same tactic in its education agenda.

In an effort to clear up some of the public’s confusion and to address the reformers’ accusations and claims, Reign of Error examines a wide variety of topics such as who constitutes what Ravitch calls “the corporate reformers,” the validity of high-stakes testing, the expanding achievement gap, charter schools and vouchers, and local school control. For each topic the book presents an exhaustive overview of studies, graphs and statistics that demonstrates why the reformers’ statements are false, oversimplified and in some cases, downright wrong thinking.

Yet behind all the statistics and the arguments laid out point by counterpoint, demonstrating the best of academic writing—no point left unsubstantiated—is a passionate and compassionate advocate for teachers, students and our public school system. Although the tone of Ravitch’s writing is professional, it is refreshing to see her own exasperation occasionally break through her usual cool demeanor when, for example, in writing about value-added assessment of schools and teachers she comments, “Stated as politely as possible, value-added assessment is bad science. It may even be junk science.” Having worked with at risk students my whole teaching career I couldn’t help but cheer that “dukes up,” “let’s take it to the parking lot” slam, and wonder if “bad science” was as close to “bullshit” as she (or her editor) could allow.

But Ravitch doesn’t stop at confronting the misinformation put out by the government and its corporate backers. She systemically exposes the motive behind many of these corporate reforms: the dismantling of our public school system itself and its replacement by entrepreneurial ventures.

For the more naïve reader (for example, me) it was continually jarring, almost painful at times, to confront the forces, one is tempted to say the sinister forces, that are shaping our educational polices. It was disturbing to read about for-profit charter schools and the educational schemes of equity investors and corporations; to see quantified the amount of money that is pulled away from public schools by charters and the use of vouchers. Reign of Error demonstrates over and over the power of greed in shaping educational policy.

All this profit is in stark contrast to the dire poverty in which many of our most vulnerable students—the supposed beneficiaries of NCLB and Race to the Top—live, a poverty that permeates their schools, which are unsafe, undersupplied, understaffed and as a result underrated.

As a teacher of disenfranchised high school kids, I appreciated Reign of Error’s in-depth investigation into the relationship between poverty and academic performance since policy makers and pundits consistently refuse to acknowledge the link. The impact of poverty and racism (conditions that go hand in hand) on the achievement gap seems too obvious to ignore. But ignore, the corporate reformers do. They maintain that schools alone can close the gap.

But a great deal of research proves the opposite, and Reign of Error documents not only the damage these conditions have on a child’s development but also shows how these unaddressed societal problems impact the entire field of education. It matters in how and why charter schools are established or vouchers are paid out. It matters in how teachers are evaluated, in whether neighborhood schools are closed, school staffs fired, and children labeled as failures.

Ravitch is a realist. She does not insist that poverty be eradicated before we improve our schools. That is a false choice, she assures us. The solution is clear, the way so much of what she recommends throughout Reign of Error is clear: Fix both at the same time. But there is little political will to address these conditions—there’s no money to be made. As Ravitch writes, “It is easy for people who enjoy lives of economic ease to say that poverty doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to them…For them, it is a hurdle to be overcome, like having a bad day or a headache or an ill-fitting jacket.” Another zinger!

So, after reading Reign of Error do I remain an optimist? Yes. Perhaps even more so. Diane Ravitch has written the primer for anyone who wants to understand the education debate and who cares about kids and their schools. She doesn’t just tell us what is “wrong” in today’s schools, she lauds what is good (and there is more than you’d think given the reformers’ propaganda) and lays out what we—parents, teachers, administrators, school boards, citizens—can do to improve what we have. Reign of Error sounds an optimistic note, “Across the nation…parents and community leaders are beginning to realize that education policy has been hijacked. They are starting to organize against high-stakes testing and privatization.” This book just might be the wedge that finally cracks open corporate education reform and helps it crumble.

You can read an excerpt from Reign of Error at Salon

 

 

This isn’t about teachers being afraid that they’ll be knifed in class, or have their cars stolen in the bad neighborhoods where they teach. Nor are they worried that a disruptive student will threaten them, or that a disturbed gunman will invade their school. It’s not about being berated by an angry parent, or accused of being unfair—or something far worse—by a student.

It’s a different kind of fear. I only began to understand this fear after I started the series “Teachers in Their Own Words” that I’ve been running here on “Kids in The System.”

I follow the education reform debate closely. Over time I realized that most of the voices raised in this debate were those of people who had nothing to do with the classroom. The obvious question was, “What do politicians, business executives, clergy, academic researchers know about teaching?” The people who would know best—teachers—were rarely heard. Yet the ones I knew and came in contact with were eager to talk about what they did. It was a decidedly different conversation from the ones the pundits and critics were having. Yes, most teachers lamented mandated testing, the loss of classroom autonomy and a one-size-fits-all curriculum shaped by test results. But most were happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do, given the day).

So I decided to invite teachers from a variety of educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom.

Over the nine months that the series ran, I learned a lot. About what it was like teaching high school on a New Mexico reservation. About the challenges of teaching young offenders either still in prison or in a release program.  The Monday after the Sandy Hook shootings, a kindergarten teacher shared the joy she felt talking and singing and having an ordinary day with her very much alive little people.  Another teacher wrote about the difficulties of teaching English Language Learners and the burden that Common Core put on her and her students. I heard about the importance of community college as a stepping stone to success for new citizens, older learners and younger students making their way. One teacher told readers why she planned on spending a weekend in Washington DC for an “Occupy Education” event, while another explored the weaknesses of the Common Core curriculum and its far-reaching impact. There was the poignant “resignation letter” from a young teacher who had “had enough,” deciding to leave public education for a private school because she felt disloyal to all she believed teaching should be. And then there was the teacher who felt that the only way she could stay in education was to leave it, immersing herself in a student self-directed learning program.

In approaching teachers to write for the series I was surprised how many at first hesitated. It wasn’t because they were too busy or didn’t have anything to say. Some had even written drafts and then gotten cold feet about going public. None of the articles were vindictive or critical of their school administrations. None were personal attacks or a fault finding feast. If anything the pieces were warmhearted, funny, and insightful. What criticism there was was directed toward our national education policy and its harmful effect on students.  Still, in the end, a few teachers backed out altogether while others asked that their full name not be used or that their schools’ location be purposely vague.

And there’s the fear. Teachers were worried that somehow they would get in trouble with their school administrators. From what many teachers report there’s a strong message being given to teaching staffs: Don’t rock the boat.  Don’t ask questions. Don’t bring up the inconvenient truth, say, of a school policy implemented to meet a national mandate that contradicts current research or best practices.  In such an atmosphere of distrust, powerlessness, and alienation from what should be a culture of collegiality and collaboration what choices do teachers have but to hunker down and try to survive? After all, these days, teacher evaluations have become just as high stakes as student testing.

According to a MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, teacher satisfaction has slipped from 65% in 2008 to only 39% in 2012. Perhaps this fear of speaking out is contributing to that dissatisfaction. The sample of teachers that I encountered may seem small and therefore inconclusive. And maybe it’s just a coincidence that teachers from different schools and different parts of the country felt this fear, this need for caution. But it’s enough to make me wonder what is going on in our schools when teachers are afraid to engage in sincere democratic discourse, a process that we have always valued and that we teach our students is an essential ingredient of a healthy country.

Originally posted on Huffington Post

More and more I worry about young teachers new to the classroom. Will they simply be data-gatherers and test-givers? Is that how they will define their role as teacher since that seems to be the prevalent, official take on the profession these days? More importantly, will they settle for that definition? Many veteran teachers are giving up, but what about new teachers? “Why One Public School Teacher Has Had Enough” is the last article for the season in the series, “Teachers in Their Own Words.” In it Natalie, a prekindergarten teacher in a New England public school, shares her struggles to hold on to her ideals and her love for her students while trying to be a team player on a team that she’s not sure can work for the best interests of kids.” She writes, “We see a tension faced by teachers who want to teach but realize they are asked to do something quite different.” It’s clear that Natalie feels conflicted and somewhat inadequate to the task, but even more powerfully she feels disloyal to her basic philosophy of education, to her students and to the profession she clearly loves. It’s a clear-eyed, courageous, and poignant piece, leaving you no choice but to cheer her on and wish her well.

Why One Young Public School Teacher Has Had Enough

This season, I’ve read a number of resignation letters from teachers. There was the career teacher whose letter titled “My profession no longer exists” went viral. There was the school principal lamenting that it is “so much harder to be kind to children” these days. Or the the award-winning teacher resigning just four years before full retirement because he “can no longer cooperate with the high stakes testing regime.”  In each of these, we see a tension faced by teachers who want to teach but realize they are asked to do something quite different.   While reading these letters, I’ve written my own resignation letter.  It is a short and sweet note written with some embarrassment after just two years of teaching in an urban public school.  I did not participate in Teach for America and considered myself kind of a conscientious objector to that deployment, but there you have it.  Two years.

We’re dropping like flies, it seems.  Some of my friends, also young teachers in public schools, are courageously soldiering on.   In the process of applying for jobs at progressive private schools, I kept using their example to motivate me to instead stay one more year in an urban public school.  That’s what they’ve promised themselves.  They tell me they’re giving it one more year, or trying to squeeze out two more years before deciding what to do next.   I admire them tremendously, but while I have regret and disappointment that public school teaching did not work out for me at this time, I’ve accepted that it’s time to say goodbye for now.

Here’s the puzzle.  I’m a few years out of college, and my professional commitment is to democratic and progressive education.  I want to treat children with kindness and respect each day, I want to know their hopes and their families’ hopes, and I want most of my interactions with them to focus on learning—“Hmm…pet store.  How can we sound out that word?” or “Which container do you think will fit more? How do you know?” or “Why is your friend feeling sad? What could you do to help him?”  While I am able to have those kinds of interactions in the public prekindergarten where I teach, it’s usually also while holding a tissue tight around someone’s bloody nose, or wiping a table while simultaneously carrying a cot.  It’s a circus, with so many children and not enough hands, not enough space.  I’ve tried every possible daily schedule and every possible furniture arrangement and consulted any colleague who made the mistake of looking like they had a free moment, all in order to try to make it work.

Yet, even in this high-functioning public school with fantastic leadership, I’ve found it enormously difficult to provide my students with their basic entitlements.  I want to give them the sense that I like them and have time to listen to them, that their ideas matter and will work their way into what we explore as a group, and that they are known well.

Unfortunately, in the midst of this, I am expected to collect and analyze rigorous fine-grained data about student progress in all domains.  Even though we know that children develop at an uneven rate, I am expected to lead all students through linear progress. For example, a child who uses scissors to cut lines must be able to cut curves 12 weeks later.  We are told there is some wiggle room, but nonetheless these benchmarks feel like marching orders.  So we march.  I believe that my first principle must be to do no harm, and yet I feel complicit in a system that asks young children to do too much too fast.   And I’ve had to figure out how to manage all of these priorities largely on my own.

I know that it takes many years to develop one’s teaching practice, but in talking to colleagues at my school, not a single person has told me “give it time.”  I kept waiting for those words.  If the problem was me, that I was too much a novice, then the solution would be simple.  Stick it out, give it more time.  Instead the feedback from administrators has been enormously positive, and I’ve been encouraged not be so hard on myself and to just accept their assurance that I am a great teacher and there isn’t a big problem.  This administrative response came at a time when I felt myself beginning to punish students when I meant to support them, and beginning to forgo vigorous lesson planning in favor of accepting that maybe the day would just be one rush of meals, toileting, and behavior management because our large group size, staffing arrangement and cramped room made each of those things so difficult.

So next year, I’ll work at a small, progressive, private school, where I will have a full-time co-teacher, paid planning time, and weekly professional development.   There teachers get time and support to pursue collaborative projects to improve their own practice. “Basically, what we provide our students, we want to provide our faculty as well,” I was told again and again when I visited.

It is not lost on me that this wonderful place where progressive education thrives is a boutique. But I have come to a point where I refuse to feel guilty about wanting to use in my teaching what we know about child development and how kids learn best.  I refuse to feel guilty about wanting a window, a lunch break, and to know my colleagues’ names.  Teaching, wherever one does it, is enormously challenging work, and I will be much better at it there.

My friends have been tremendously supportive.  The ones who have stood with me in learning about and pursuing public education, sharing articles, debates, and reflections, have said “I have no talk back” when I told them my career move.   Some people, who are not teachers, have said things like “It’s a shame, because it’s in those schools that we need the best teachers.”  However, I’ve learned that the best teachers do not exist in isolation.  The best teachers, like the best students, are wherever there are people encouraging them to be just that.

 

 

Although teachers spend their days surrounded by people— albeit little, and younger people—it’s still an isolating job. For many of us in the classroom, the vitality and the support to do our jobs comes from colleagues. Ideas exchanged, “problem students” talked over, “try this” suggestions for lessons are what keep teachers professional, motivated and, frankly, human. In the latest contribution to the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series, “The Coffee Crisis: Do Teachers Have to Feel Alone?” which originally appeared in Education Week, Hillary Greene writes in what at first appears to be a lighthearted way about the isolation and lack of collegiality that is taking over our schools.  What is missing, she writes, is not just free, decent coffee in the staff room but the space, time and freedom to share with each other. The current standardized curriculum leaves little room for children to be creative and to learn the art of community. This limited, locked-step model holds true for teachers as well, leading people like Hillary to worry, “that I’m losing my voice.” Hillary, who has taught middle school for three years in independent, public, and public charter settings in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, need not worry. As you’ll see, her voice is strong, courageous, and wise.

The Coffee Crisis: Do Teachers Have to Feel Alone?

Everybody knows that a good house party, no matter how enticing the dining room, ends up in the kitchen. Surrounded by the comfort of food and drink, we relax and bond. We say things we wouldn’t say in the dining room.

Yet, in this nation that “runs on Dunkin’,” some schools appear to be cutting back on staff-room provisions as a budgetary precaution. So while Google generously—and shrewdly—provides copious amounts of first-class nourishment to its employees, teachers often can’t get a free cup of coffee.

And while a cut like this may seem relatively insignificant, I’m convinced it harms teaching and learning.

Without coffee to induce them to linger in the staff room, teachers have lost their kitchen space. And gone are the conversations that used to occur there, where the most productive (and completely unscheduled) meetings would often occur. Somehow, encounters in front of vending machines tucked in some tiny, darkened room do not produce the same effect.

But this isn’t really about coffee. This is about teacher voice and collaboration.

An Isolating Profession

I decided to become a teacher four years ago, due to some combination of a desire to have an impact on others and indecision about what else to do. Also involved on some level were the collapse of the economy and an interest in heeding President Obama’s call for top students to pursue public service and teaching.

I learned to teach middle school humanities in an alternative-licensure program at an independent school in Cambridge, Mass. Around the seminar table, we soon-to-be teachers grappled with questions of equal access to great education while we swapped tales from teaching that day. Between classes and after school, the teachers’ staff room provided not only free coffee, but also free peanut butter and crackers, so people congregated. In that cozy space, I practiced an important aspect of teaching: bonding with colleagues. Another teacher’s “Patrick” sounded like “James” in my class, so we talked and shared experiences. We all laughed together when a stressed teacher ran in to get a coffee and exclaimed, “I have to remember I’m not running the Pentagon!”

I stepped into my first teaching job filled to the brim with ideas about teaching and learning. But I completely underestimated all it takes to be an effective teacher (and how infrequently bathroom breaks occur). Making matters worse, my school offered none of the opportunities for collaboration and informal conversation among teachers that I had experienced in my training program. I tried to figure out my next social studies unit during 30-second conversations in the copy room. A 20-minute conversation with a social worker seemed like a rare treat. I spent most hours at my computer, drowning alone.

Still hopeful, I stepped into my second dream job this past fall at a first-year public charter school, but it has proven to be no different. I find myself reflecting relentlessly: Does public school teaching really have to be this isolating?

Losing My Voice

The greatest disappointment for me as a teacher has been how little intellectual exchange there is among educators. On the way to a staff meeting, I still catch myself running through my dream agenda: First, we’ll reflect on the prevalence of ADHD and the implications for us, after which we’ll all step back and think about whether more—not fewer—music classes could improve our math scores and students’ experiences. Then we’ll think about the rapidly growing use of iPads in the classroom and what that might mean for instruction. Instead, in reality, I quietly enter the meeting room, sip my tea, and chime in when I must because perhaps my professional opinion matters on where recycling bins could be stored or maybe the department head just got to my students on her list of numbers—that is, students—not meeting assessment proficiency.

At these get-togethers, the party never moves out of the dining room.

I have occasionally worked up the nerve to ask kitchen questions in the dining room, but the results have not been good. During an IEP meeting, I brought up the issue of racial identity for a struggling African-American boy in a predominantly white, affluent school. For that, I was called a “loose cannon.” At another meeting, I divulged that I felt more like a proctor than a literature teacher due to the frequency of assessments. For that, I was made to feel as though I misunderstood the whole purpose of assessment. I have questioned many aspects of the way my school operates, and I have stated my views more directly as my experience as a teacher has grown. For that, I have been urged to be more “politically correct.”

It’s hard not to feel that I’m losing my voice. Or perhaps I’m saving it for something else.

We frequently hear the statistic that nearly half of teachers leave teaching within five years. I’m inclined to believe that politically incorrect loose cannons leave schools at a higher rate. Yet this is precisely the type of person you want teaching because he or she can inspire children to find their own voices.

Teachers are getting the message: Quiet down and behave. We need you, but we don’t value you.

If we want our public schools to create the next generation of thoughtful, engaged Americans, we need to support the people whose job it is to make an impact, and we need to work especially hard to retain the types of teachers who question the status quo and speak up even at the risk of being politically incorrect.

We could start by giving teachers free coffee—and how about decent coffee?—so that the party can move back to the kitchen. Otherwise, doors will close and the great ideas in education will be spoken separately and silently in lonely classrooms.

 

When I was recently asked if I thought teachers today needed to be activists I didn’t hesitate in my answer. “Being a teacher, almost by definition, means being an activist.”

That might come as a surprise to those teachers who have never wrote a letter to the editor, marched in a rally, retweeted a Diane Ravitch tweet, or “Occupied” anything but their classrooms. But I’m holding to my belief, as firmly as some teachers hold their protests signs declaring things like, “Let Teachers Teach” and “Protect Our Students”: being an activist is an essential part of being a teacher.

For most teachers activism is an everyday thing because students and their needs are every day. There’s a lot to watch out for in a classroom—even on good days they are a moil of energy—aside from whether a lesson is hitting home. A student who can’t read the board because her family can’t afford glasses. A cough that doesn’t go away. A young boy who refuses to go to rec. because he gets picked on. A nasty bruise on the arm of the girl who doesn’t meet your eye. The immigrant student struggling with a new culture and a new language. The issues are real—poverty, neglect, abuse, poor health and nutrition, bullying, depression, low self-esteem—and they are all a part of an average school day.

Good teachers don’t complain, they just act, doing what needs doing to help their students learn. It may be a home visit, a talk with a school counselor, an offer to tutor after school, a walk around the playground at lunchtime, or a spare change collection in the teachers’ room for eyeglasses. Some teachers (and it’s a growing number) feel the need to address these concerns in a broader context, “taking to the streets” to confront such issues as health care, drugs, physical and sexual abuse, bullying, immigration, the current educational policy itself. But whatever teachers do, they take action, becoming activists for their students.

It wasn’t any different for me, teaching teens incarcerated in an adult prison. It was just as important that I be aware of the health and safety of my locked up students as it was that I have appropriate materials and a clear goal for the day’s lessons because, as every teacher knows (but few policymakers),  students’ living conditions have a profound impact on their school success. For me that meant paying attention to who came to class with a cut forehead or bruised cheek, who hadn’t showered for a few days, who acted frightened or paranoid, or who didn’t show up at all. Locked up kids have few to no advocates. My role as their teacher required that I be that advocate and take action where and when I could. Many times that action meant carefully, diplomatically negotiating the volatile power structure that makes up prison culture. But how could I do otherwise? How could any teacher do otherwise?

There is another aspect of teacher activism, however, that is even more profound, and that teachers can’t sidestep no matter where they stand on the activism spectrum: Students learn how to act by observing how we act in the everyday world.

It was something that my jailhouse students made me conscious of. Prison has lots of rules. Some rules make sense; others make no sense at all. Even though they knew it was against the rules my students would ask me to do things like sneak in some candy or to let them take colored markers back to the block.  Pretty innocent things, but I refused. “Why not? It’s no big deal,” they’d complain. “Nobody will find out.”  I knew they weren’t interested in my sermon on honesty and integrity. That was okay, though. My words were beside the point. What was the point was that I would not break the rules. I acted in a way that they didn’t like but that they knew was right. The same lessons go on whatever the school setting. Students learn how to act by simply watching how their teachers act, whether it’s following rules, treating others with respect, or just showing up day after day and doing their job.

Unfortunately today’s education reformers not teachers are the ones who are defining—and limiting—what it means to be a teacher, and there’s not much about activism in their definition.  According to these pundits, a teacher’s job comes down to one thing: Get kids to pass the mandated tests. It is a shortsighted definition that is harmful not only to students but also to the teaching profession itself. But any teacher will tell you that we are much more than test-preparers. To be a teacher is to be an activist in ways that are familiar and unfamiliar, that are comfortable and uncomfortable, and that are mundane and at times, as we have seen throughout our history, heroic.

Originally appeared on Huffington Post

As Common Core curriculum moves closer to full implementation the discussion about its impact on students and teachers heats up. As you’ll read in today’s guest essay, “A Plain Little Thing” by Jeff Nguyen, the latest in the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series, there’s a “collision coming down the tracks.” The effects of these standards are far reaching and go beyond the obvious concerns of limiting teachers’ ability to tailor curriculum to the needs and interests of their current students. Some states are beginning to question the wisdom and feasibility of such a national course of studies. While Indiana has taken an even braver step and has “paused” its implementation of Common Core until those involved can fully study it. Jeff has long been involved in teaching. He has extensive experience working with a variety of K-12 students with special learning needs. Currently he is a kindergarten teacher in Florida and next year will be moving to first grade. Jeff is not only a practitioner but also a critical thinker when it comes to educational and social justice issues. Sounds pretty heavy, doesn’t it. But when you read Jeff’s piece you’ll see that he has a great blend of fact, insight, humor and Dr. Seuss wisdom—useful qualities for any teacher facing today’s crazy educational world. You can read more of Jeff’s writings at his blog http://deconstructingmyths.com .

“A Plain Little Thing”

I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,

But down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”

Dr. Seuss

As another school year draws to a close in the land of milk and Honey Boo Boo, students across the land are looking forward to enjoying their summer break, whether it be learning to dance Gangnam Style, playing video games until their thumbs fall off or avoiding the outdoors like the cooties. For teachers, this stretch is looked forward to with equal anticipation. It is a time to catch one’s breath, eat a leisurely lunch with actual grown-ups and go to the bathroom whenever they gosh darned feel like it. However, when they return to school in the fall both students and teachers, alike, will have one thing to look forward to…the Common Core curriculum.

Just as the professional judgment and expertise of the teacher has been minimized through the widespread reliance on standardized testing scores as a measure of student achievement and teacher effectiveness, the Common Core takes matters to its logical conclusion by replacing state and locally developed educational standards with a national curriculum that all states who sought “Race to the Top” funding are expected to follow in lockstep fashion. By 2014, students in Kindergarten and up will take end-of-year assessments called PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers) because, well, all 5 and 6 year-olds should be ready for college and careers before they can go to first grade.

Let me take just a minute to break down what life is like in a typical Kindergarten classroom, or at least in mine. Our day starts with 18 boys and girls, of varying backgrounds and abilities, who are all inclined to decide that they need to blow their noses, show me their loose tooth or new sneakers at the exact same time upon their arrival to the classroom. Invariably, before the morning announcements are over, half the students will need to use the bathroom or need a new pencil/eraser. Guaranteed, that by the end of the morning read-aloud, at least five students will inform me that a) they have a microscopic boo-boo, b) they’re hungry and/or c) they have to go to the bathroom again. As the day progresses and the stamina of the students begins to diminish, I remind them that they just need to pull themselves up by their untied bootstraps and finish their math problems or so help me, Bill Gates, himself, will descend from the heavens to reform their pint-sized, wayward selves.

In the past year, I have learned many things from my students. I have discovered that applesauce and ketchup mixed together are not gross but milk and peas are really yucky. I have found that 5 and 6 year-olds do not like to sit still for more than 1 minute and 43 seconds at a time but they do love to clap, sing and dance. I have ascertained that my students do not always like to talk about why Hansel felt conflicted when he was fed by the witch while Gretel was left to starve but they will gladly talk about their lunch, their baby sister, their pet hamster and pretty much anything else under the sun except how Hansel and Gretel can be compared to similar protagonists in the folk tale genre. I have also realized that children do love to learn, play and talk but it has to be within a context of authentic experiences that are carefully constructed so as to shape their thoughts and ideas in a meaningful way.

In my finite wisdom, I do foresee a collision coming down the tracks between the locomotive of Common Core and the caboose of poverty. I think special education students will feel the impact most heavily, a historically overrepresented population in the juvenile justice system who will find themselves increasingly alienated from the mainstream of school life. Eventually, though, all students and teachers are going to feel the burn. My lingering fear is that this is another “set the pins up to knock them down” initiative to widen the net of privatization and standardization of the curriculum at the expense of creativity, experiential and aesthetic learning as well as the minimizing of children’s literature as an agent of change and diversity.

I admit that I’m not too sure which Common Core standard was covered when my students learned in Social Studies one day about a brave turtle named Mack who was tired of being stepped on. One day he had had enough and he challenged Yertle, king of the turtles, who had built his kingdom on the backs of the unwashed turtles. When King Yertle refused to hear his plea and show compassion, Mack let loose the burp heard around the world. Mack’s burp caused Yertle to fall from his throne built high upon the backs of the other turtles and into the mud. It was a plain, little turtle doing a plain, little thing that brought liberation to the turtle citizenry. If only there were more Macks among us willing to make whatever burps, farts and sneezes are needed to bring the Yertles of the world back down to the mud with the rest of us so that our fellow turtles can be free to forage in peace.