Tuesday, August 30, 2005

First Daze

Yesterday was the first official school day in Riverside Unified. I checked with my mother in the evening to see how things went. She'd spent hours of unpaid overtime in the weeks prior organizing, cleaning, and decorating her room to make it welcoming for new students.

"No AC," she said. "All day." I doubt her school's situation was unique.

Some rooms had it, some didn't. (Divide and conquer? Gaslighting? "You must have done something to deserve the lack of air"?) No windows in the bunker, of course. Not everyone had fans. Ironically, the district had shelled out big bucks to replace the air conditioning system two years ago. Part of "modernization" grant projects.

This is another vividly depressing example of how individual teacher efforts to make the best of things can be smashed and demoralized.

Anonymous OSHA hotline, anyone?

Monday, August 29, 2005

The S(H)MO Model

The annual AYP and API rankings were published mid-August--the annual treat--complete with aggregate and disaggregated test results for individual schools, districts and grade levels. If you teach, on day one or two of buy-back meetings you no doubt received giant packets of score results for grade levels, individual classes, individual items. Someone tries to read aloud the same reports on an overhead or using powerpoint. It can be migraine inducing. I used to imagine some poor schlub down at the district office having to make these thousands of packets and constantly running out of toner. There are so many pages now, though, we know these copies have to be hired out in district copy centers, sparing no expense, even in districts where teachers may still labor day-to-day under a paper ration.

Like the NYSE and NASDAQ reports, the bombardment of data can be impenetrable and intimidating. Those numbers suggest "authority," a final antidote for the unreliable "hysteria" of language, ambiguities, social contexts. (I'm sorry, was your observation research-based?)

But unless you've had a psychometric implant surgically installed, what you may be looking for as a teacher, parent, or student, is something more elusive than a number. Something a bit more desperate. Something we've been trained in the past ten years (at least) to be unsure that we deserve. We're looking for validation, any reason to let the air out of our lungs. To trust that the curriculum police won't come knocking at the classroom door, the house. To whisk our kids off to some brave new data-topia.

Sorry to say, the police are already here: kinder, gentler and comfortably inside. Corporate influence isn't relegated to Coke machines and Channel One anymore. It's implicit in the relationship between test publishers and textbook makers. It's been secured in the business move of financial and information giants to purchase textbook and testing companies in the past twenty years.

Just a few connections:
McGraw Hill--publisher of the CAT-6: Publishes the S&P Indexes.
Pearson--publisher of Prentice Hall/Globe Fearon: Publishes The Financial Times.
Reed-Elsevier--publisher of Harcourt/Holt & Stanfords 9, 10 et al: Owns Seisint Technologies, inventor of MATRIX software to track citizens for Homeland Security.

These people don't dress like surveillance experts or police. They aren't mean, either. When their marketers and salespeople come to districts and meet with teachers, they woo us with bags, free books, sometimes wine-and-dine evenings with prizes and lots of attention. At one meeting I attended as Department Chair, a district liaison with pink cheeks gushed, "These people really know how to treat teachers."

On the surface, yes. But corporate practices (including lobbying efforts) clarify two implicit convictions: 1. schools must serve as delivery mechanisms for products that sell political results; 2. public schools themselves can be a lucrative market, held captive by compulsory student attendance. Even a product that seems to fail can be marketed to justify the need for yet another product--another test, a new textbook series, a revised curriculum map, a revamped data management system. All at taxpayer expense.

A teacher's own knowledge, experience and questions get pitted as objects "in the way." Just as health maintenance organizations and insurance companies now tell the average doctor how and when to practice medicine, test and data management corporations have created a priority system that says teachers need to be told--by someone not a teacher, not interested in teaching--what will and won't work with students.

This model in policy and practice, which we could call an SMO model ("School Maintenance Organization" model), repeats one concept again and again--namely, that the teacher herself never knows what's really happening in her classroom. Despite the pretty or soft-sounding words, the candlelit dinners and other treats. Despite popular Orwellian euphemisms like Professional Learning Community or Collaboration or No Child Left Behind.

Last spring, I attended an industry conference for the Association of Test Publishers (ATP) in Scottsdale, Arizona. I attended as a grad student, and had to cough up the full $650 attendance fee--covered for many attendees by the test corporations they came to represent. God knows I couldn't exactly afford the expense, but I wouldn't trade what I learned there for anything.
[to be continued...]

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Thanks, But No Thanks

As a veteran public school teacher for 38 years, it's really laughable to read last week's Column Right in the Los Cerritos Community News when the writer, who is the President of the Cerritos Republican Club, is feeling sad for us poor teachers because "so many teachers who give themselves to our nation's youth are being distracted from their mission by having to fight their own unions."


He says that "many" teachers are expressing their opposition to recent actions by their unions to raise fees for political purposes. He mentions the California Teachers Association as one of the major culprits. I would like to know how many is "many."

First of all, teaching is a very difficult job, and that's why 50 percent of us leave the teaching profession after the first five years. If it were not for our teacher associations--unions as the writer calls them--the percentage of teachers leaving would probably be higher.

I can assure the writer that we are not being distracted by our "unions." We know that if it were not for those professional organizations, who work day after day to protect our rights, we would have a difficult time indeed just to survive. As it is now, most new teachers are unable to afford a home or raise a family. And that's after five years of college!

If it were not for the "unions," we teachers would not be able to afford decent health care for our families or be eligible for liability insurance in case we are accused of some alleged wrong doing. If it were not for the "unions," I doubt any teacher would be able to retire with the hope of living a decent life.

Thank you, but no thanks to the writer who is so interested in our welfare. As a member of the California Teachers Association state council that represents 345,000 teachers, I can also assure the writer that we were more than happy to pay a few dollars more a year to have our professional rights protected by a governor who call us "special interests."

I guess I shouldn't complain since the last Secretary of Education called teachers "terrorists."

Since the writer seems to care so much about us, perhaps he should be writing to the governor to ask him to repay the two billion dollars he took away from us after promising to give it back to the schools this year. The writer is correct--we are expressing our opposition as never before, but it's not against our "unions," it's against the governor who lied to the schools and the children of this state.

And now he wants the voters to support Proposition 74 that would extend the period before teachers are eligible for due process under the law. Proposition 75 would require loads of paperwork in order to make it more difficult for employee unions to make political contributions that would benefit their employees, and Proposition 76 would give the governor the power to cut the budget on his own without discussion with the state legislature. What a guy.

As for the writer, don't be so worried about us being distracted by the "unions." We know who is out there caring for the needs of parents, teachers, and students, and it's not he, the governor, or some bogus legal defense organization.