Former Stand activists speak out on ballot initiative

Rethinking Schools supporter and education activist Alain Jehlen is involved in an organized effort to halt the corporate-driven reform agenda of Stand for Children.  Here’s the latest from Alain, including a call to action.

by Alain Jehlen

In the fall 2011 issue of Rethinking Schools, Ken Libby and Adam Sanchez described how Stand for Children abandoned its grassroots and started promoting the corporate, anti-union agenda of the Gates and Walton Family foundations at the same time that the foundations began pouring millions of dollars into Stand’s coffers.

My sidebar article on Massachusetts told the stories of local leaders who quit the organization in disgust when Stand pushed aside their priorities to get with the new national program.

But these activists didn’t go away. Now, many of them are fighting against Stand’s latest Massachusetts effort, a ballot initiative that would restrict collective bargaining and have the effect of handing more power to school administrators. At last count, 55 former Stand activists had signed an open letter blasting Stand for doing the corporations’ dirty work.

“The proposed ballot measure . . . does nothing to improve teaching in our schools,” they wrote. “What it does is put the careers of our teachers at the mercy of an untested rating system, violating the recommendations of the people who designed that system.

“We fear the result would be to drive some of our best teachers away from the schools that need them most.

“This ballot measure fits the ideology of its corporate sponsors, but it is not what we want for those who teach our children. Most of all, it is not what we want for our children.”

Among the biggest contributors to Stand for Children in Massachusetts are principals in Bain Capital, the private equity company co-founded by Mitt Romney.

Read the letter—and sign on if you’re a former Stand member.

Shock Doctrine Comes to Philly Schools

by Jody Sokolower

Philadelphia teachers and parents—and educators throughout the country—were horrified a few weeks ago when Thomas Knudsen, the School District of Philadelphia’s chief recovery officer, unveiled a five-year plan to close 64 schools (25 percent of the system), move 40 percent of students into charters, slash the central office to 20 percent of its former capacity, and divide the rest of the district into “achievement networks” run by third-party operators.

Mayor Michael Nutter said the district faced near “collapse” and that the plan was something Philadelphians needed to “grow up and deal with.” Can you believe that city officials later admitted that the charters and achievement networks wouldn’t actually save the district any money?

We are proud that one of the voices of sanity and resistance came from Helen Gym, a Rethinking Schools editorial associate and longtime parent activist in Philly. We are reposting her open letter to Knudsen here—not only because it analyzes so articulately what is happening and what is at stake in Philly—but also because Philly is not alone. Similar “saving the district from collapse” scenarios have already played out or are in progress in cities as widespread as New Orleans, Detroit, and Chicago.

Commentary: You’re not speaking to me, Mr. Knudsen

by Helen Gym

I am the mother of three children in District and charter schools in this city. I have been actively involved in stopping good schools from decline and helping low-performing, violent schools turn around. I believe in the essential role that a high-quality public school system plays and have fought for that vision. My 7th grade son will soon have outlasted four superintendencies, including yours. And I’m here to tell you that you’re not speaking to me.

You’re not speaking to me with this brand of disaster capitalism that tries to shock a besieged public with unproven, untested, and drastic action couched as “solutions.” You’re not speaking to me when you invoke language like “achievement networks,” “portfolio management,” and “rightsizing” our schools – and say not a word about lower class sizes or increasing the presence of loving support personnel or enriching our curriculum.

You’re not speaking to me when you plan to close 25 percent of our schools before my son graduates high school. You’re not speaking to me when you equate closing down 64 schools – many of them community anchors – as “streamlining operations,” yet you’ll expand charter populations willy-nilly despite a national study showing two-thirds of Philly charters are no better or worse than District-managed schools.

You’re not talking to me when your promises of autonomy come minus any resources, and when the best you have to offer parents is “seat expansion” – which just means larger class sizes without extra funds.

You’re not talking to me when you say all schools are public schools. They are not.

You’re not talking to me when you’ll go out of your way to spend $1.4 million for six-week consultants with whom you’ll boast of an “intimate, hand-in-glove” relationship, yet exclude community and public voices till you’re ready to drop the bomb.

You’re not speaking to me when you’ll go to any extreme to radically transform “education delivery,” yet the most basic things parents and staff and students have called for – more teachers in our schools, bilingual counselors, nurses, art and music, librarians, fresh food in the cafeteria, new buildings, and playgrounds – are completely and utterly absent from your “plan.”

In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve been around the block a few times.

We’ve seen how promises of an 85 percent proficiency rate fall flat when all they’re based on is rhetoric and no concrete plan on how to achieve it; James Nevels’ School Reform Commission tried that. Contracts will do that? Sorry, we’ve been around that block, too. Ask yourself where the 2002 purported savior of Philly and Chester education, Edison Schools Inc., is today. Ask the Truebright Science Academy parents how it felt when their five-year contract didn’t work out, or the Martin Luther King High School community — after 10 years of Foundations Inc., they ended up with a school arguably worse off than when it started.

We’ve seen how privatization and charters have done little to radically impact systemic achievement and improve education. There are some great charters out there, but no more than there are great public schools.

We’re tired of the ridiculous labeling of schools as high-performing and low-performing. The label mentality assumes schools are in permanent stasis rather than in varying stages of evolution and devolution highly dependent on resources and institutional priority. By simply expanding high-performing seat capacity and closing down low-performing schools, you fail to understand or even seek to understand the very elements that make a level of performance possible. You don’t understand schools, you don’t understand success and failure, and you don’t understand how change happens.

I believe in something.

I actually believe in the value of institutions, despite having been burned by them plenty of times. I believe that professional educators can do a better job than the majority of the hucksters and hustlers and ideologues scoring off of public education’s demise.

I believe in the possibility of school transformation and the role that community and parent voices play in concert with schools and districts. I believe in the value of the public sphere and the responsibilities it owes to the most marginalized of communities — our immigrant students, special needs populations, and young people struggling with disciplinary issues.

I believe in choice options that co-exist to supplement, not destroy, a public school system. I believe in real, creative innovation in our classrooms, not the “drill-and-kill” test prep replicated in too many of these “high-performing” charters you tout. I believe in a vision of schools that is aspirationally led rather than deficit-based. Your focus on the bottom brings everyone down.

I believe our communities have always been there to pick up the pieces after administrations of hubris pass on. And I believe our public schools are worth fighting for.

Mr. Knudsen, these are the things that speak to me. So if you’re not speaking to me, who are you speaking to?

Helen’s letter was originally published at The Notebook: An Independent Voice for Parents, Educators, and Friends of Philadelphia’s Public Schools.

Related Resources

Rethinking School Reform offers a primer on a broad range of pressing issues, including school vouchers and funding, multiculturalism, standards and testing, teacher unions, bilingual education, and federal education policy.

Keeping the Promise? the debate over charter schools examines the charter school movement’s founding visions, on-the-ground realities, and untapped potential-within the context of an unswerving commitment to democratic, equitable public schools.

What is Childhood For?

What is childhood for? That’s the question that Rethinking Early Childhood Education editor Ann Pelo raises in this blog post, a previously unpublished piece that Ann wrote for the book celebration we held in Portland back in December 2008. Ann was to be our guest of honor, along with Portland-area contributors to the book, Laura Linda Negri-Pool, Katie Kissinger, Melanie Quinn, and Peter Campbell. Unfortunately, freak storms flooded I-5, and she was unable to get from her home in Seattle to Portland for the event. We read Ann’s comments, below, in lieu of having her with us in person.

I recently found Ann’s piece while preparing for the celebration we’ll have here in Portland for Rethinking Schools’ latest book, Rethinking Elementary Education (coming up at King Elementary, May 18—RSVP at our Facebook page).

And I have a more personal reason for revisiting Ann Pelo’s writing, and Rethinking Early Childhood Education. My grandson, Xavier, turns 3 years old this month, and he will begin attending an early childhood center a few mornings a week beginning in June. All of us who have young children in our lives need to be concerned with what’s happening to our society and to our planet, and specifically, how early childhood education (which some incorrectly see merely as “preschool”) has become a battleground in the corporate school reform agenda.

At the risk of sounding like a Rethinking Schools book salesman, if you don’t yet have Rethinking Early Childhood Education, I encourage you to buy a copy; and if you have the book and know how wonderful it is, I encourage you to buy copies for all the parents and teachers of young children you know. In this moment of social, ecological, and educational crisis, Ann’s poignant words below remind us that childhood is at stake. Nurturing young children always involves trying to answer the question: What kind of world do we want to live in?

Bill Bigelow
Curriculum editor

What Is Childhood For?

By Ann Pelo

Rethinking Early Childhood Education is graced by writing that stirs both emotion and intellect, and the chapters by the four contributors here today exemplify that. Laura Linda Negri-Pool, Katie Kissinger, Melanie Quinn, and Peter Campbell raise significant questions in their chapters, asking:

  • How do we ensure that children’s lives are visible and honored in our classrooms?
  • What is authentic inclusion, and how does it change us?
  • How can we invite children to engage with ideas, with story, with language?
  • What’s the harm in scripted curricula?

An underlying question links their four chapters: What is childhood for?

Laura Linda Negri-Pool reminds us that childhood is about living into a strong individual, family, and cultural identity. She writes, “I knew from my own experience what it was like not to be seen, to be treated with a question mark.” And she traces her experience as a teacher to learn about a child’s family and cultural identity, working closely with her student Kalenna’s Marshall Islander family to strategize ways to bring their culture into the classroom. Laura Linda’s story brings to life the principle of “learning from and standing with children’s families” as a way to support children’s social-emotional and dispositional learning and to bring anti-bias teaching to life.

Katie Kissinger writes about anti-bias learning, not as an abstraction, but as a result of relationship. She tells the story of consciously dismantling her own fear of and ignorance about disability so that she could enter into a real relationship with Nyla, a child with cerebral palsy, and so she could invite the other children in the class into relationship with Nyla. Her chapter illustrates the meaning of solidarity in its best sense, and locates the principle of anti-bias teaching and learning in the context of community. What is childhood for? Developing empathy and experiencing the joy and responsibility of life in community.

Melanie Quinn shares her experience as a mom and as an educator, witnessing her son’s dismay when he’s given skill-focused literacy worksheets and nonsensical little books to read in kindergarten, drawn from the Houghton-Mifflin Reading curriculum. “Stories need to be complete, not exercises in phonetics,” she writes; stories need to be engaging, resonant, lyrical, emotionally evocative, intellectually stimulating. What is childhood for? Cultivating the dispositions to think critically, to linger with story, to embrace language as rich communication.

Peter Campbell writes about his 4-year-old daughter’s first encounter with preschool, which was a test that launched her into a preschool program heavy on academics and skill drills. Her teacher says that academics and drills “won’t do any harm.” But Peter argues that “it’s not the addition of academics” that’s problematic so much as “the subtraction of everything else,” including play, and art, and recess. What’s childhood for? Play, and the social and emotional learning and critical thinking that it nurtures.

Each of these chapters asks “What is at stake when early education programs narrow their scope to packaged curriculum that tells teachers what images to put on the walls, what to read to the children, what to talk about with the children?” The answer resonates across the chapters: Childhood is at stake.

Children’s work is bigger than academics; children’s work is the development of:

  • self-awareness
  • empathy
  • collaboration
  • curiosity
  • critical thinking
  • connection to the earth

Our work as educators must be about these dispositions, no matter the age of the children we teach.

Related Resources:

Rethinking Elementary Education collects the finest writing about elementary school life and learning from 25 years of Rethinking Schools magazine.

The results are in! There’s too much testing.

by Stan Karp

Maybe we’re finally reaching the tipping point.

After more than a decade of accelerating damage fueled by NCLB, the standardized testing regime that is the engine of corporate school reform is running into growing opposition from all directions.

Last week Rethinking Schools joined nearly 200 other organizations and thousands of individuals who, in less than a week, signed on to this National Resolution on High Stakes Testing.

This national campaign seeks to build on state and local efforts across the country, including:

These are all signs of growing resistance to the use of highly flawed standardized tests to sort and label students, close schools and fire teachers—purposes for which they were never designed and have no validity. Instead of producing useful information for better instruction, the tests are producing junk data for bad policy. Test scores are being used to move control over schools away from educators and classrooms to political bureaucracies and corporate test-makers. It’s way past time to take them back.

Pencils Down, Rethinking Schools’ new collection about “rethinking high stakes testing and accountability in public schools,” is another useful tool in this growing campaign. Pick one up today and sign on today to the nationwide effort to reclaim our schools for our students and ourselves.