xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' Don't Forget South Central: January 2010

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Arne Duncan's Hurtful, Twisted Reasoning

Can a deadly, wretched hurricane which cost thousands of people their homes, lives, and livelihoods be considered "the best thing that ever happened to New Orleans schools?" NO. For the life of me, I cannot understand the penchant for using inflammatory words and thoughts that seems to have afflicted so called ed-reform leaders in the past week.

First, Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of D.C. Schools paints laid-off teachers in in her district in broad strokes by saying they were a bunch of child molesters and abusers anyway.


Then, on Friday, Arne Duncan, excited to have found a new way to appeal to the conservative right stated that "Hurricane Katrina was the best thing to happen to public schools in New Orleans."

Stupefying and irresponsible.

Last week, here at DFSC, we promised not to let this brave new world propaganda go unchallenged, and to fight lies and exaggerations with the truth. Below are some photos from my mother in law's house in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. After witnessing the trials and tribulations of family members losing a home, trying to rebuild, the degradation and humiliation of working with FEMA, I can assuredly tell you that New Orleans folks do not view this catastrophic event in the same light as Arne Duncan. My mother-in-law is a retired educator from New Orleans Public Schools. Many of my nieces and nephews are currently attending both charter schools and public schools in the Recovery District.

Below are some photos of her house in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina.

This is her kitchen, with an American flag tablecloth, representing her background as a social studies teacher. We used to have lots of conversations on education and politics over chickory coffee and beignets.

This used to be her office and where she kept her sorority memorabilia.

This was her storage room where she still kept her son's encyclopedia that he read from cover to cover as a child.

This was her guest room, where you can clearly see the watermark of where the flood waters reached after the levees broke.

This was her living room media console, and that's my daughter, her grand-daughter, in the photo frame.

Watching the teacher's union be destroyed in what many New Orleans educators perceived to be in the most underhanded way (voting to convert to charter schools was done while the citizens of New Orleans had been evacuated to cities throughout the country and were not there for the vote), was a double-blow to African American educators who have long had to deal with insidious policies meant to disempower them (Jim Crow, poll taxes, etc.)

The state of new charter schools is still in its infancy to be able to say they are worth the devastation of a hurricane. The New Orleans Times-Picayune did a thorough series on how these new schools are supposed to offer choice to families, but in fact, the families who had the most "choice" were those who had flexible work schedules, a car, and the know-how to find out about school openings and admissions policies. Living under these circumstances in New Orleans is the luxury of a very few.

Finally, from the teacher side, I have friends teaching in New Orleans charter schools, and it is mind-boggling what some of them have had to put up with as a unprotected, at-will employees. One of them had to supervise students during lunch and recess and did not have a conference period until after lunch. This meant no bathroom break or meal until 1:00 p.m. Can Arne hold it for that long? My friend had deep concerns about management who had business backgrounds and frequently made education decisions that made little sense to educators with any length of experience. The teacher turnover was sky-high.

When Naomi Klein wrote about the rise of "disaster capitalism" in her book the Shock Doctrine, New Orleans was a case study. People shouldn't have to lose their lives in order to improve education. Arne Duncan and the like want to lambast public schools without acknowledging that this country has forsaken them in terms of funding. Real reform would involve a significant, long-term investment in teachers, students, and schools, not a single "race" that will result in many losers (Arne's words, not mine.) So Arne, this teacher gives you a Fail for lack of clarity and cohesion in your statement, and lack of evidence to support your claims.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Where Were You?

It hasn’t been easy being a teacher. In my 15 years working in Los Angeles public schools I have encountered scenes of heartbreak and devastation that would break a saner person.

Maybe I’m not sane. I’ve always thought that you have to be just a little “off” to be successful in the hard to staff schools like those in which I’ve worked. You have to be able not to blink in the face of questionable management, politically bankrupt school boards, and parents and students who sometimes hone in on you as the enemy for trying to hold them accountable.

But my 15 years as a teacher pale in comparison the 30, 35, or even 40 years some of my colleagues have worked to serve students and their communities. I cannot fathom how they must feel, getting ready to retire during a time when their contributions, efforts and sacrifices as educators are being devalued and besmirched by the media, corporate vultures, and politicians. At a time when we should be honoring the service they have provided to children, loud voices are painting them in broad strokes as an ineffective, malignant force that should be replaced with younger, “idealistic” robo-teachers who can “turn schools around.”
Which leads me to wonder: loud voices, where were you?

You, the corporate vulture, who all of a sudden realized that “fixing schools” is a good
way to earn social cachet while at the same time filling your pocket with the vast earnings potential of the privatization of the school system. Where were you? Where were you when the teachers had to take home lab equipment daily for fear of evening or weekend vandalism break-ins that were so regular and predictable you could set your watch to them? When our students couldn’t play on the field because of shots fired in the neighborhood? Why didn’t you come fix my school then?

You, the philanthropist, where were you? Where were you when my students came to school hungry and angry? When mold and asbestos was infesting our campus? When my students lacked textbooks and computers? When 100 teachers had to share two LCD projectors? When teachers had to pay out of their pockets for snacks for children, supplies for the classroom, and sometimes even paint jobs for their old, decrepit rooms?

photo from imageshack.com

You, the politician, where were you? Where were you when our school was plagued with drive-by’s that resulted in frequent lock-downs and drop and cover commands? Not drills; but actual crises and emergencies? When California’s education spending kept getting cut, cut, and cut, until the moment we became 47th in per pupil spending?

Photo from solidaridad.blogspost.com

You, the school board, where were you? Where were you when blatantly incompetent administrators were praised and promoted to positions in the district in spite of the well-known fact that some preyed on young, new, female teachers, were stealing from schools, or were making bare minimum efforts to actually perform work? When they hired their relatives and friends, and gave vast power to unqualified cronies? When teachers and administrators who were truly doing a good job and fighting against these ills were fired, harassed or transferred for speaking out?

You, the intrepid newspaper reporter, where were you? Why did you fail to report the neglect and abandonment afforded to South Central schools in the 80’s and 90’s and 00’s? You weren’t with us, the teachers. We banded together when the L.A. Riots occurred in 1992, and our students’ communities were burned down and destabilized. We were there for the rise of gangs who preyed on our innocent students who were robbed or assaulted on the way home from school. We were there when the child came to school like a zombie the day after his brother, mother, or father died. We were there when they were IN school the day they received the news and collapsed to the floor in grief.

Where were you? The silence was deafening.

Now, everyone says they know what is wrong with schools and how they should be fixed. But I must ask why now? What is happening today that wasn’t happening 10, 15, 20 years ago? Financial opportunities? A chance to usher in the voucher system under a new guise? A time to destroy the strength of unions and replace veteran teachers with cheap labor? All of the above?

Arenas photo from Getty images

Or perhaps it’s something deeper than that. At a time when corporate greed rises to unfathomable levels of egregiousness, when celebrities and athletes live like they know no bounds, when politicians feel they can preach one way and act another, perhaps the symbolic figure of a teacher is a nagging, uncomfortable reminder of what it means to be employed in an honorable profession. Maybe they hear the voices of their second grade teacher telling them it’s not okay to steal, to say unkind words to their neighbor, or to tell lies. Or the middle school teacher who tells them that not putting forth their best effort is unacceptable. Or the high school teacher who encourages students to be true to themselves and follow their dreams.

photo from Time magazine

Maybe, when people spread demeaning propaganda and people fall for it, the Ben Austins, the Jason Songs, the Michelle Rhees are disturbed that the teachers don’t. They get frustrated that we point out the fallacies in their logic; that we know how to connect the dots and make predictions. In short, that we are the critical thinkers, and they want us to stop, to silence us before we continue passing this skill onto the children.
But this noble profession will not stop. We will not go quietly into the night. We will continue speaking the truth, we will continue challenging the false information spread by these loud voices. We will continue serving our students, and we will have the parents behind us because no one knows more than they who truly has the best interest of their child in mind. They know we were there for them when the others weren’t. The loud voices should consider whether they really want to take on this fight. Because the small percentage of vocal teachers seen at union rallies are a pittance compared to the massive numbers of our colleagues around this nation that will unite and fight to keep education free from those who would distort it to fulfill their own interests. We will fight for the right of the public to know the truth about what is being said about teachers and schools, and who stands to benefit the most from the privatization of public schools. And we will win the fight.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Test Scores: What Do They Really Mean?

Don't Forget South Central (DFSC, as christened by K. Libby) has a love/hate relationship with the L.A. Times. On the one hand, its reporting is vastly slanted (the puff piece on charters last week is a primo example). However, many times it is our only source of information on the district we work in. So, reluctantly, we must refer to it for "information."

Below is a graphic from the so-called Times Special Report on Charter Schools. Although it can be interpreted in many ways, I see that Green Dot's schools (Charter Management Organizations) have the lowest proficiency averages of all the types of charter schools. The charters most closely affiliated with the District have the highest scores.

It seems that having some flexibility from District red tape may result in the highest test scores. The more you venture away into Green Dot territory, whose leaders have no background in education, the lower your test scores will be.

One thing to consider is that these scores are not growth scores. They do not show how a particular students scored after a year of instruction. In other words, if a charter enrolled lots of Advanced and Proficient students, then it is not a huge achievement to have the kids continue scoring that way. A better analysis would focus on average growth: after a year of instruction at a charter (or traditional school, or affiliated charter, etc) what was the average growth per student? That would maybe give the public a better idea of which system produces higher scores.

However, higher scores could be a reflection of the narrowing of the curriculum, a dynamic that occurs when schools choose to focus on the English and Math disciplines, because these are the ones measured by NCLB. Science and Social Studies and the Arts get...left behind.

Either way, the scores of Charter Management Organizations like Green Dot don't support the Times conclusion that they outperform traditional public schools by a gigantic margin, especially considering they are beneficiaries of a more motivated population of students and families.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

What Happened to the $200,000,000? Will the School Board Be Denied Tenure Over This?

Teachers in South Central are shocked and aghast at hearing that the school district cannot account for $200,000,000 in money spent on salaries, the Los Angeles Times reported today.

"The Los Angeles school district paid $200 million more in salaries than it budgeted last year even as it laid off 2,000 teachers and hundreds of other employees, according to an internal audit" writes Howard Blume, a Times education reporter who sometimes gets things right.

Two. Hundred. Million. Dollars.

How many jobs could that have saved? At the average new teacher salary of about $40,000, that could have saved 5,000 jobs. At our school, it could have easily preserved our young teaching force, 23 teachers, who were fired and let go in order to "right-size" the district. Over 1,000 students have been affected by having a substitute teacher this year. This could have been avoided.

Let's see where this went wrong. Someone was crunching the numbers. Theoretically, LAUSD had enough credentialed teachers to man all posts throughout the district, and the surplus pool of teachers that was created when elementary class sizes went from 20:1 to 24:1 was deemed expendable, and teachers in this group were consequently terminated.

But schools like mine DID NOT receive the credentialed teachers we were promised. Why? Because its scary to work in South Central. Imagine a kindergarten teacher who has never set foot into a middle school campus, suddenly gets reassigned to primo inner-city territory. Some kids like to play the "give the new teacher a nervous breakdown" game and do not give these teachers a nice reception, especially when they are angry at having lost teachers such as Ms. Sanlin and Ms. Umber, whom they were looking forward to having this year.

So the displaced/reassigned teachers don't show. Now, you are not only paying them their salary while AWOL, but you are paying another teacher to substitute in that very class. Are you getting this? TWO ENTIRE SALARIES PAID FOR ONE SINGLE POSITION. This situation may offer a clue to where the $200,000,000 went.

At our school, substitutes have manned almost all 23 of these positions as the displaced teachers finally began trickling in. Although our school year started July 1, 2009, we did not receive teachers until late August, September, even some in December. Then, just when we thought things were settling down, some reassigned teachers were given their old jobs back and left the school, once again, with unfilled positions. Clearly, this situation is not good for students, and it surely doesn't make sense financially either.

Further, if this expensive error adds to the current deficit, this means even more teachers will be laid-off to make up for it. Since we continue to have a large amount of teachers with low seniority, we stand to lose even more personnel next school year. There is no end to how many ways South Central is bearing the impact of budget cuts and BUDGET ERRORS.

And one last thought: its easy to focus attention on the sketchy teacher who was fired for his scurrilous acts towards others..."Bad teacher! Get rid of him!" But to comprehend the actual amount of $200,000,000 is more abstract. Who do you get angry at? Deloitte Consulting, which continues to give us a poor payroll product that is costing people their livelihoods? The school board, for allowing this to happen? The AWOL teachers who took advantage of the district's dysfunction to take an extra-long summer vacation? The Superintendent?

In December, Superintendent Cortines made the following statement about the consequences for new teachers who aren't making the cut:

“The days of coddling ineffective teachers, or allowing them to be moved to another school, are over,” Cortines said. “So are the years of brief—if any—observations of teachers in the classroom and a refusal to provide either the support needed to help struggling teachers improve or the documentation needed to usher those who don’t belong in a classroom out of this District. Mediocrity is no longer acceptable. No more excuses. Yes, it takes time—time our students don’t have to waste.”

I wonder if this new evaluation policy only applies to the single, classroom teacher, whose firing would go unnoticed by anyone, or if it will apply to leadership at Beaudry as well. I wonder whether anyone will take responsibility for this vastly, damaging error whose repercussions will be felt by an entire generation of students.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Teacher's Opinion on the Governor's Proposals

photo by Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times / January 7, 2010

The new year ushered in even more rapid change in California education, with Governor Schwarzenegger passing new legislation that allows parents to transfer their children from low to high performing schools. It also authorizes a parent trigger at 75 schools statewide, that will begin the process for a change in administration, or possible transfer of management to outside entities, like charter management organizations.

The Governor also reintroduced proposed legislation on revising the criteria to fire teachers, to make it easier to do so.


It seems the Governor's focus is on making it easier for families to flee the public school system. This is, basically, a vote of no-confidence in public ed. Instead of focusing efforts on how to improve the public schools that exist now, the efforts are geared to how best to convert schools to charters, which have not been proven to be more effective instruments of instruction for California's students.

Is public education dead? Has it truly been a failure?

The focus continues to be on the symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself. Allowing for a parent trigger, revising the criteria for firing teachers WILL NOT improve public education. In fact, it will create an even wider chasm between higher performing and lower performing schools.

Take Bethune Middle school, for instance. This was the site of the Governors photo op as he signed the legislation allowing for triggers and transfers. The article written by Howard Blume in the L.A. Times stated:

The signing ceremony occurred at Bethune Middle School in Florence, which officials cited as successfully serving the low-income minority students who stand to benefit most from the new laws

Bethune Middle, as well as many other schools in South Central have suffered from decades of neglect, not just from LAUSD, but from society in general. Staffing at this schools has been haphazard, with extremely high teacher turnover rates, and administrators who do a short stint on their way to bigger and better places. How do I know this? I worked there for 12 years, as the new teacher adviser. It also seems to be an elephant dying ground for wayward teachers who know they can fly under the radar with little to no supervision from transient administrators and Local District staff. This is, for example, the part of town that allowed Steve Rooney to molest children, brandish firearms at parents, and instead of firing him, promoted him to Assistant Principal.

I have many fond memories of Bethune. But some are not so fond. Like...

*being punched in the chest
*car scratched 6 times, included twice on the first day of bringing my brand new car to work
*theft of cell phone
*being cursed at profanely countless of times
*being told by a higher-up that I should be grateful for sexual harassment because when I get older it won't happen as much
*consoling a new, pregnant teacher who was kicked in the stomach during a fight

Bethune has a core staff that has fought relentlessly in the face of abandonment, but to say it has "successfully served low-income students" is a stretch of the imagination. With an API of 607, it barely escaped being a focus school by a hair, and had the Superintendent not made a final revision of the criteria, it would have been on the list of schools available for takeover. So why was it chosen as the location for the photo-op? Let's just say, in my opinion, leadership at the school is willing to do anything to play along with the politics du jour. A good many administrators are in prime Beaudry positions because they have followed edicts unquestioningly, whether they were good for students or not. Bethune is rewarded for all this with a fun visit from the Governor.

The photo-op concerns me because children are being used as pawns in this movement to transfer public schools to private entities. The children in the photo don't know what they are clapping for. This legislation means that there will be a further segregation at Bethune, where families that can flee will, and those that can't will remain.

Families in LAUSD already have many choices in schools:

Schools for Advanced Studies
Open Enrollment
Permits Without Transportation
No Child Left Behind Public School Choice
Charter Schools

Schwarzenegger's new legislation will now allow them to transfer to other districts. But what about the homebound parent with diabetes? The single mother working two jobs who will be fired if she misses work? The troubled parent with an addiction whose last concern is her child's education? The mother in a homeless shelter who is trying to escape domestic violence? Will that person be able to drive their child to Birmingham High School, a 60 mile round-trip from South Central? No.

What Bethune Middle and other high-priority schools need is not new protocols that will "set the students free". The students are already free, for all intents and purposes. How about legislation that reflects a true investment in the inner-city, like:

*incentives for teachers to commit to such a school for a minimum of five years
*recruitment of top administrators to high priority schools
*a web of social services that mitigate the effects of poverty, family dysfunction, and gangs
*parent education classes that start at birth for low-income neighborhoods
*a reduction in class size to 20:1 from kindergarten to 12th grade
*counselor positions at 200:1 maximum
*security protection by well-trained personnel until schools such as these are in control by the adults, not the student

A twitter reader commented to me, "A nearly impossible process to fire teachers for even the most blatant offenses casts a dark cloud over the credibility of all." I responded, "so does a nonstop, concerted effort by LA Times, school board, politicos, and corporations to besmirch the teaching profession." The fixation on firing teachers and the portrayal of the charter school movement of being one of unions being reluctant to lose control completely misses the mark. The problem isn't the teachers. It is about priorities. When you are 47th in the U.S. in pupil spending, education is not a priority.

I guess what is frustrating is that again, no one is bothering to ask the professionals what should be done to fix the system. Decisions are being made by everyone BUT the teachers. Would people want medical advice from politicians and philanthropists instead of doctors? No. But when you are working hard to de-professionalize the teaching profession, you portray teachers as incompetent, greedy, power-hungry individuals who care more about their paycheck than their students.
As a history teacher, I cannot help but make comparisons to the dehumanization of Jews during Nazi Germany.

As for LAAMS, this first week of our spring semester was spent working with the many new teachers who have BARELY ARRIVED on our campus due to red tape and politics imposed on us by the Personnel office. The students, understandably angry and acting out at having yet ANOTHER teacher (for some, as many as 5 teachers in 4 months) come to their classroom, have been giving the newbies a run for their money. Massive support has been needed to make sure these new teachers don't crash and burn. Let me add that to the list of legislation needed from the governor.