I don’t teach at Iroquois. I will not pretend that I know everything that is going on in that school. But I cannot sit idly by and watch spectators on social media try and dismantle a school with their constant negativity, their hatred for the “system” as a whole, and their armchair willingness to fix things “if they let me run that school!”
I am a teacher. And if this recent election has proven anything, the world can be changed when teachers stand together.
Now we all need to stand with Iroquois.
After several high-profile incidents that have attracted a media frenzy, it is clear that things inside the school seem to be falling apart. The recent post that appeared on the Dear JCPS Facebook page indicates that teachers are not only disenfranchised by their students’ behavior, but are being torn apart by the very district leaders who are assigned to fix problems, not create more drama for those trying to teach there everyday.
This anonymous post has attracted well over 200 comments and as many shares since it was published on Monday. If the post is entirely true, then it should serve as a clear cry for help. But so much of social media is fueled by hyperbole and half-truths. And no post ever seems to focus on the good things going on in a school. The good news always seems to float by under the radar, with only the negative making waves.
This is where I must admit that I teach at a high-performing high school. I’ve spent my entire career there. Of course we have our problems. Drugs. Cell phones. Some misbehavior. That’s true in any high school. But our problems seem microscopic compared to what is going on daily at Iroquois.
We’ve heard rumors that the superintendent himself has been there as a sub, due to the fact that there are never enough substitutes for the many teachers that are absent. But rumors are a far cry from the truth.
The Dear JCPS article mentioned earlier also names two assistant superintendents who reportedly “stood around” and acted like they were helping with their mere presence in the building. If this is true, then district leadership needs to question their knowledge and abilities, as well as their willingness to enact change, rather than commanding it from Van Hoose.
The blame turns on the teachers next. The article (and a lot of the comments) say that they are terrible and don’t care. Most of them don’t show up. That kind of thing.
I’m not sure that I believe all of it.
The teachers that I know at Iroquois are some of the most caring, creative, engaging, and motivated professionals in this district. And many of them have been there for several years, even their whole career.
It takes a special person to teach in a chronically low-achieving school. Add in lots of additional social and cultural problems, and I can only begin to imagine the heartache that those teachers must have daily. To know that an entire city, even people out in the state, think that you are a failure, and still go to work everyday, that takes real strength. Strength and commitment to students that deserve to learn and be loved just as much as every other student in this district.
Which brings me back to my thesis: we all need to stand with Iroquois right now.
We need to speak against the haters, the naysayers, those who only seek their own agendas, and actually ask those who teach there what they need.
We need to speak to Dr. Polio and his entire team, and demand that they go and see things for themselves, and that they use their expertise to address the issues that are present.
We need Louisville media to stop criticizing schools without knowing the full story of what is going on inside a building.
Just last week, this blog posted a heartfelt letter from an Iroquois teacher, whose letter to members of the Board of Education was obtained through an open records request from a local reporter. This letter speaks honestly about what is going on, without any of the sensationalism that proliferates on social media. I highly recommend you read it and see things for yourself.
And after you do, could you do all of us teachers a favor: save your criticism for something else. Unless you’ve been a teacher yourself, you have no idea what goes on in public schools. The highs and lows. The myriad of emotions that pass through our buildings on a daily basis.
Rather than being a critic and pretending that you have the answers to all the problems, do us all a favor and put your money where your mouth is.
The teacher shortage is rapidly approaching a crisis level. It will take years or decades to undo the damage caused to public education and our profession. While teachers have known about the impending crisis for years, others outside the profession are starting to notice. When we look at the teacher attrition crisis, there is more to it that non-educators won’t realize.
We know the immediate symptoms of the crisis. Empty classrooms that need to be filled with substitutes. There’s also a substitute shortage, so sometimes the classes are watched by other teachers in the building. In some schools this looks like “collapsed” classes where students from one class are spread out to surrounding classrooms. Some classes are over the legal cap size. Some elementary students will spend the majority of their day with a substitute while the vacancies persist. The lasting educational damage of this will be catastrophic for some children.
What else does the teacher shortage look like?
It looks like a lack of supervision that precipitates disruptive, sometimes violent behavior. While some members of the media are quick to lambaste public school classrooms as “war zones,” no one is pointing out how the teacher shortage is causing this. In a building with multiple vacancies and a shortage of substitutes, students lack the stability and supervision necessary to support good educational outcomes. In the Iroquois Incident, everyone was quick to point at the parents, the child in question, and a number of other factors. Educators know that schools with a high teacher turnover rate struggle with school climate and culture. The teacher shortage causes these issues, and consequently these issues contribute to teachers leaving the profession.
It looks like a lack of extracurricular activities. Coaching is hard and time consuming. In schools with a higher amount of early career educators, it can be difficult to find anyone to coach various teams. Being a beginning teacher is already difficult and time-exhaustive. Adding into the mix an extracurricular can be impossible, or worse, lead to a faster burnout and another young teacher leaving the profession.
It looks like a lack of traditions. When your school is constantly losing its staff, the staff memory for traditions leaves with them. Can you imagine Manual and Male without their prolific spirit weeks as they prepare for their football showdowns? Of course not. They don’t have the high staff turnover that other schools in JCPS have. There is at least one high school that didn’t have a pep rally purely because there wasn’t a teacher there to lead it. Can you imagine being a senior at that school?
It looks like a lack of mentors. Teaching is a sharing profession. It does not occur to us to be competitive against each other. It does not occur to us to be cutthroat and vicious. Teachers are, by nature, altruistic. We thrive on helping others. When I first began teaching, other teachers helped with classroom furniture and supplies. They helped me build lesson plans and resource banks. They helped me know when to leave the building and when it was okay to not take that stack of essays with me. In schools with high turnover, these mentors don’t exist. Or they do, but instead of a team helping a singular new teacher, it’s a singular veteran helping a mass of young teachers.
It looks like a lack of advocates. Teaching is hard. Being a political advocate for teaching makes it immensely harder. As we continue to hemorrhage teachers from our profession, we will continue to lose the best advocates our children have. Being active in our union can be time-consuming, but it is necessary for our survival. In buildings with a high turnover, it can be difficult to find someone to take up the task of representing members in the building.
The causes of the teacher shortage are many and varied. It wasn’t one policy or person who did this. The effects are vast and difficult to counteract. It will take a concerted effort on the part of policymakers to listen to educators and work with us for the future of public education. Our children need public education. Kentucky needs public education.
The below was originally an email sent to board members. After the email was Open Records Requested by a local reporter, the decision was made for Austin to have their voice heard first.
I am certain that you are all aware of the fights that have occurred at Iroquois High School in the past several weeks.
Last Monday, at our principal’s request, several resource teachers and administrators from the district came to visit our school. If you blinked, you might have missed them. They were barely in our building long enough to check the boxes on their forms before they left, back to Van Hoose to let us in the classroom know what it is we are doing wrong from their cubicles on high.
The observers came after students had arrived for the day, and left before the second lunch block even began. Not deigning to stay long enough to observe upper classmen leave lunch. They did not observe behaviors during the last two periods of the day, when all veteran educators know behaviors are worst, nor did they stay to observe dismissal. If the district observers had stayed, perhaps they would have observed the miserable failure that is the district’s cell phone policy.
Teachers have been told that we are not allowed to take students phones away, and students know this and act accordingly. Without very strict classroom management skills, many teachers are struggling to keep their students engaged in their lessons and off of their phones.
Last year, a few classrooms at Iroquois piloted the use of Yondr pouches. These cut-proof pouches use magnetic locks, like those used in clothing stores, to secure student phones. Students get to keep their phones on their person, but since they are in the pouches they cannot use them. Although data shows that schools that use these pouches have increases in learning and decreases in suspensions, for some reason these were not implemented school wide this year.
Without the ability to ban cell phones, we are losing control of our students. Young teachers are especially struggling to cope with this epidemic.
When I ask my students what is causing fights, nine times out of ten, they are beginning online. Students are using social media to cyber bully each other and instigate fights. Moreover, the ability to record and share these fights online only increases their popularity. The unbelievable amount of views, shares, and likes that fights garner online is encouraging students to instigate and engage in fights. The fight that occurred yesterday has already gained over 100,000 views on Facebook. Students are emboldened by this, hoping to gain as many likes, shares, and views as possible, knowing that it will increase their reputation.
Students have always engaged in fighting, but the frequency with which it is occurring this year is something that I have not yet witnessed in my four years of teaching and my three years at Iroquois. I truly believe that absent a true phone policy with real consequences, students will continue to plan, record, and share fights online, all the while missing out on valuable instruction time and endangering themselves and others.
Those of us who are passionate about public education have been heavily invested in this election for many months now. We’ve spent countless hours knocking on doors and volunteering for our endorsed candidates, and we’ve had innumerable conversations with everyone we come in contact with about why public education should be their number one voting issue on election day. I know it can be exhilarating when the candidate that we have worked so hard to support wins, but this is specifically not the time for us to gloat or rest on our laurels. While we now have a pro-public education governor, we lost every other statewide race. We are in a precarious position and must move forward together. Read on to find out what we can do that will help us continue to win the battles in the War on Public Education.
We must continue to fight on the issues.
Teachers remain one of the most trusted professional groups. The annual Gallup poll on the nation’s most honest and ethical professions (Gallup.com, 2017) shows that two-thirds of Americans have a high degree of trust and confidence in public school teachers. We are the people who know every child by name, and who love them and care for them as our own. When we speak with passion and conviction about our students, the public takes notice and stands behind us. We can make a difference by continuing to fight on the issues. We can fight and win on school funding, we can fight and win on class size, we can fight and win on equity, we can fight and win universal pre-K, we can fight and win the wrap around and support services that our students need, and we can fight and win on the working conditions, including salaries, benefits, and high-quality professional training, that help us attract and retain excellent educators to the profession. The key to all of this is to make sure that we are always advocating first and foremost for our students. Our work environment is our students’ learning environment, and our students deserve no less than the best.
We must continue building relationships with legislators.
Regardless of which side of the aisle they are on, most legislators care about education and are interested in your opinions as a constituent and especially as an educator. If you have never had a personal one on one conversation with your legislators, now is the perfect time to start. Once the legislative session begins on January 7, your legislators will be occupied with their responsibilities in Frankfort, but between now and then you’ll be able to find them at home in their communities. There’s no time like the present to make an appointment with them to talk about what they can do to support students and public school employees. Bipartisan support is crucial to moving our issues. Even if your legislator is not someone who has been a reliable vote for public education in the past, it’s important to reach out to them for a conversation. Make a list of the issues that you want to talk about, and remember to frame the conversation in terms of how we can work together to support students.
Before you meet with your legislator, you should take the time to look over the pre-filed bill summaries on the Legislative Research Commission website. Searching the bills by heading allows you to see which bills are related to education and public schools. If you take the time to read over bill summaries before you talk to your legislator, you can arm yourself with information and help shape their opinion on the issues before the session begins. Be aware that not every bill that is pre-filed will move during the session. If you have a proactive conversation with your legislator before the session begins, your conversation could make a difference in whether or not good bills progress and bad bills die.
We must frame our discourse to bridge the urban-rural divide in Kentucky.
Whether to cheer for red or blue isn’t the only issue that divides us as Kentuckians. Many of us have found ourselves at odds with friends or family over this election. It’s time to engage in civil discourse with our neighbors across the state about the things that we all agree on: We need to shift our focus to investing in our infrastructure, career and technical training, real solutions to the opioid epidemic, and expanding our citizens’ access to healthcare and mental health resources. Let’s put our differences aside and work with our neighbors across the state to make a better future. Today’s a new beginning with new opportunities. Let’s work together and make the most of it.
We must hold the line
We must keep the seats currently occupied by pro-public education legislators and work to add more elected officials who value public education. If legislators won’t value public education, we need to find a way to find others who will. Endorsed candidates who value public education need the full support of public educators and our advocates.
While Andy’s win was sweet, we cannot let this become a time when we lose focus. We have shown that we will Remember in November. We have to keep remembering every November. We have to keep showing up for our students. We have to keep voting like our kids’ lives depend on it. Because they do.
Four years ago, 16% of Kentuckians cast their vote for Matt Bevin, 13% voted for the Democratic nominee, and 1% voted for an independent candidate. However, 70% of registered voters in Kentucky (2,228,155 people) did not vote.
70% of registered Kentucky voters did not vote for Bevin.
16% of voters elected a man who is taking healthcare away from our most vulnerable and young populations. A man who has a well-documented history of trying to gut protections for pre-existing conditions. A man who threw Kentuckians’ health coverage into chaos by cutting dental and vision coverage for nearly 500,000 Kentuckians without warning.
16% of voters elected a man who has scapegoated public education to make way for for-profit charter schools as he’s labeled teachers as “selfish,” “ignorant” “thugs” that are “snowflakes” and need to be “knocked out and dragged to shore.” A man who lies about fixing state pensions that drastically impact teachers, police officers, and fire fighters.
For the sake of our health, our public education system, and the future of Kentucky- we need the 70% of voters who were missing in action in 2015 to show up on Nov. 5th. We need engaged voters to reach out to all of their circles across the state and take people to the polls. The less the turnout, the greater odds Bevin will continue to occupy and weaponize the governor’s seat against teachers, schools, police officers, firefighters, and taxpayers.
Thomas Olges, a high school teacher in Louisville, Kentucky is concerned, “The Commonwealth currently has the second least popular governor in the country, and we’re in serious danger of seeing him re-elected. Surely there can be no clearer indicator- and indictment – of modern day voter apathy.”
Literally, millions of Kentuckians have been hurt by Bevin. A few testimonials from Kentuckians below, give us a window into what we can expect from a Bevin administration that is not worried about reelection in 2023. These voices give us a window into why it is so important to vote for a candidate who recognizes how we need accessible healthcare, appropriately funded public schools, and is a leader who brings us together and doesn’t divide us against each other.
Diane Burgin, a Kentucky grandmother, shares, “Bevin caused me to not be able to afford to follow up with my oncologist this year. I’m still paying off last year because he got rid of my Kentucky medical plan.”
Cherie Carter Carr, a grandmother and elementary school teacher in Greenup, Kentucky confesses, “Matt Bevin makes me worry about my older years. Due to his attack on teachers and pensions. A vote for Bevin is like spitting in the face of every teacher you’ve ever had. A vote for him is a vote for higher taxes, lower pay, poor health care for seniors, and less safety nets for workers! ”
Kim Ison Carden explains, “Bevin caused me a great deal of stress regarding health insurance. As a retired teacher who is under 65, Bevin proposed nearly tripling my insurance premium. As a widow on a pension, I could not afford it. As a cancer survivor, I can’t risk losing coverage.”
Larry Wilson shares, “Bevin caused me many night of anguish worrying where my family’s financial future will stand. My wife and I are both teachers; thus, the state does not allow us to draw social security even though we both worked in the private sector most of our years- including while teaching.”
Bailey Reed, a 2012 graduate of Oldham County High School, explains, “Bevin caused me to lose essential healthcare. As a current student working on my doctorate in veterinary medicine, I’m not allowed to concurrently have a full-time job that would otherwise provide me health insurance. On a student loan budget, I have to account for every dollar spent; our budget doesn’t accommodate for out of pocket insurance policies. I am not a fortunate person whose parents are able to carry me on their insurance. Because of this, the only health insurance I’m able to have is Kentucky Humana CareSource (a Medicaid program in Kentucky). Matt Bevin cutting Medicaid is not him cutting luxury healthcare, nor him cutting Medicaid for people who are undeserving or don’t need it; Matt Bevin cutting Medicaid is him stripping crucial healthcare for doctors in the making, a classmate you grew up with, and everyday people around you who otherwise have nothing else.”
Cortnee Gray, a U of L student, admits, “Bevin causes me to question a career path I’ve been passionate about since a young age. Teaching is something I’ve always wanted to do. But under leadership like Bevin, I have to wonder if that career choice will help me to survive and take care of my loved ones. A vote for Bevin is a vote against education. Kentucky needs a governor who will put education as one of its top priorities because with a solid education comes a solid foundation for the future of our state.”
Julia Elizabeth, a Kentuckian, shares, “Bevin caused my mother, an ‘ignorant’ JCPS teacher, to resort to using a GoFundMe to pay her cancer expenses, since he doesn’t believe healthcare is a human right. Kentuckians need a governor that cares for real Kentuckians, not just dollar signs.”
Career educators, Mariann Lawrence and Angie Davis Fox admit they’ve both “considered changing careers after almost 20 years in teaching” because of the hostile work environment Bevin is creating in public education.
An instructional coach in JCPS, Renee Butler Shumate, shares, “Bevin has caused me to question who will teach our future children because his actions are deterring people from entering the profession.”
Laura Mitchell Parker, a graduate of Moorehead State University and Oldham County teacher, call us all to action, “If Kentuckians don’t do more than vote, then we will have four more years of Bevin.”
Gabriel Savage, a graduate of Moore High School and student at UK, is adamant, “A vote for Bevin is a vote for keeping Kentucky behind. A quality education is the foundation for any adaptive and growing society. Kentucky needs a governor who’s willing to fight for the people, WITH the people. Not carrying out his personal agenda.”
Laura Hartke, a graduate of NKU and current elementary school teacher, shares, “Bevin is a threat to the working class people of Kentucky. He’s proven, without a doubt, that he despises teachers, unions, working class families, miners, police officers, firefighters, higher education, people who can’t afford health insurance, and basically anyone who’s not in his inner circle. A conservative is (or should be) someone who believes in being fiscally responsible and treating others as Jesus would, but Bevin is neither of these things. He is divisive and a bully. Beshear is a champion of the rights of all Kentuckians. He’s a unifier, a servant leader, a true public servant.”
Erin Morris, a 2009 graduate of UK and mother, knows, “Beshear is committed to advancing state-level legislation in the best interest of the Commonwealth. Bevin is simply a pawn in the national political mess and has no sense of responsibility for the welfare of Kentuckians.”
Lynne Ward, an environmentalist and social worker, sees, “A conservative is supposed to be fiscally responsible, but Bevin uses our resources and won’t say what he used them for. Beshear is a vote for education, compassion, and science based decisions.”
Benjamin Bush, a father and veteran teacher in JCPS, explains, “This election is about the kind of state I want my children to grow up in. It’s a chance to reject the distrustful bitterness of Bevin that seeks to reward his friends and punish his enemies, strip thousands of their healthcare, deny potential new streams of revenue, and generally seek to divide the people of Kentucky whenever possible. We can instead choose a leader in Beshear who will make a sincere effort to listen to and work with all regardless of affiliation. (He will have no choice in such a red state). Mychildren deserve a commonwealth where healthcare, education, and human decency are available for all. I choose Beshear because he provides the only possibility in this election of a hopeful future for our state, of restoring public education and healthcare, of providing new revenue from gaming, and of the restoration of human decency and empathy that Bevin so sorely lacks.”
Jessica Elfers, a Head Start Teacher in Kentucky, has a message for the current governor. “Mr. Bevin, I believe that my wonderful and beautiful state needs a leader who actually gives a damn about ALL of its people. Not just our private school families but our lower class families and younger people. As a preschool teacher who works with the people who struggle the most, it is hard to watch as my Governor takes away pieces of their healthcare, as well as the healthcare and pensions of the people who help them the most. There is a shortage of state workers and teachers because instead of fixing a problem that you came into, you tried to actually make it worse. I hope that this next election gives our state someone who actually cares about its people from top to bottom.”
We need more than a 30% turnout of registered voters to win this election.
Here is where you can sign up to help get us closer to 100% of Kentucky voters voting in this election.
We must work for our Democracy for it to work for us…
Jason Starr Nelson (a graduate of Bellarmine University, journalist, and JCPS teacher) says, “It’s simple. Vote. The higher the turnout, the more it will favor Beshear. Don’t stand on the sidelines hoping it will all work out in the end.”
Vote, but do more than vote! Please, click this link!
Jeanie Smith, a graduate of WKU and middle school educator in Bowling Green, warns us, “Bevin is hurting you personally. 4 more years means we will all be worse off than we are now, especially our kids.”
On the morning after Trump was elected, I was told I couldn’t teach about the election. Correction: I was given a directive to not teach about, or even discuss the election unless it was part of a pre-planned lesson.
In my 14 years of teaching, this remains one of the only times I’ve felt censored, helpless, and hung out to dry for the sake of political correctness. The story of that day is worth telling, not just because it speaks to how important curricular freedom is to teachers, but also because those feelings of censorship and despair may come around again on November 5th, if Andy Beshear is not elected the next governor of this state.
That November morning, I cried all the way to school. I listened to one of my favorite bands, Hot Water Music, so loud that the car windows rattled. I must have been quite a sight. A grown man sobbing on the way to work, trying not to lose control of the Camry.
The teachers in our hall gathered together as the first bell rang, some fighting back tears before we were to spend the day trying to teach. In the midst of our adult conversations, one of my Honors Freshman students came up and joined our circle. Sue, who was adopted from China, was sobbing, having just heard from one of her classmates that she might get sent home.
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“It’s the boys in class, Tucker. They said I’d have to go back because of Trump!” She burst into a full-on ugly cry and my colleagues and I blocked her from being seen in the hall. We took turns giving her hugs, trying to calm her down.
The final bell rang, and I convinced her to come to class and confront the boys who had made the remarks. After announcements, I tried to start the class, but I looked at Sue, who was still crying, and I joined in. With tears streaming down my face I said, “ I will not let the hatred trying to take over this country enter this classroom! You are safe here. No one is going anywhere!” The boys who had said the terrible things immediately apologized and backpedaled, saying they were only worried about their friend. They didn’t mean to upset anyone.
I decided to make this into a teachable moment and we began an honest conversation about what the students were so concerned about: closing the borders, an economic downturn, racism being more vicious and prevalent than ever before.
In the midst of our talk, the phone rang. It was the principal. “Hey, Will. Are you doing alright?” I told him I was, and briefly explained what had happened with Sue and the boys.
He was quiet a beat, then said, “Well, you handled that well, but why don’t you come down and we can talk about things for a bit? I’ll send someone up to watch your class.”
One of the security guards arrived and I made my way down to the front office. A number of thoughts went through my head on the way: am I getting fired? Should I call the union before I talk to him? What had I said that was so inflammatory?
I knocked on the office door. “Come on in. And shut the door.” I sat down across from his desk. “Now tell me, what is really going on?”
I recounted the whole story. Before he could speak, I said “Richard, if I’m getting reprimanded over this, can I at least write it up so it sounds good?”
He laughed. “You’re not in trouble, Will. A parent called and said that their student indicated you were really upset over all this. I know we’re all upset. I wanted to give you some time to reflect before you go back to the kids.”
We sat and talked for a full hour. We talked politics. We talked about the fact that I was becoming a dad the following month. He told me he was becoming a grandfather for the first time in March. We both worried about the world these new children were going to inherit.
Before I returned to my classroom, Richard got a call from the area superintendent’s office. This is where the directive comes in, and where I start to feel like the district cares more about PR than they do about teachers…
So how much intellectual freedom should teachers have as they design their curriculum? Should they fear reprisal for telling students the truth, even when it comes to politics? Teaching is, in fact, a political act, one that drives democracy, and one that gives voice to those who never knew they had voices to begin with.
As I write this, we are only 13 days from what stands to be one of, if not the most important elections for Kentucky teachers in many years. With our pensions on the line, with the potential invasion of charter schools looming on the horizon, public education stands to lose everything if Bevin is re-elected.
Frankfort has failed us, so we must stand together to ensure the future of this Commonwealth, while standing up against those who seek its destruction.
On November 6th, I hope that the windows of my fancy Camry will rattle again, this time to the sound of victory. I hope to talk with my principal that day, not about politics, but about all the ways we can keep making our school better for every student. I hope I can look my kids in the eye and say that we have made a difference, that an era of division has come to an end, and that this great state can finally take a step forward towards a better tomorrow for every citizen.
Tests are discouraging, stressful, and problematic in so many ways. Kids and teachers hate them. Tests don’t show how well a school functions. Tests don’t show what students have learned. Achievement tests are designed too broadly and administered in such a way as to render them virtually useless to schools.
The idea of a standardized test is appealing for non-educators. We are told by our regulators and overseers that tests show how well we teach. We are told that we can use them to adjust our instructional practices. The real role of standardized tests is to rank schools under some misdirected guise of allowing taxpayers to see how public education is functioning. We receive the results too late to affect actual change in our instructional practices for the students tested.
We’ve known the reason for the achievement gap for fifty-three years. On July 2, 1966, James Coleman and a group of sociologists published the Equality of Educational Opportunity report. The report, later dubbed the “Coleman Report,” included data covering hundreds of thousands of students, more than half of a million. Coleman and his peers analyzed survey results and other data to show Congress what any educator could have told it; the number one indicator of educational success is familial wealth.
Schools are integral parts of any child’s life. Important work happens in schools every day. Schools cannot make up for gaps that were created before children even walked through the doors. We can narrow gaps. Sometimes, we can close gaps for some students. Nevertheless, achievement gaps will persist until we address the economic variables that hinder our most disenfranchised children.
Teachers are not trying to shirk accountability. The problem is that the lack of differentiation to account for these inequalities means that schools full of amazing pedagogical practices are labelled “failing” or “one-star” as Kentucky’s new rating system dictates.
We don’t need more tests. We need more supports to help our children. From universal pre-kindergarten to more in-depth interventions for our older students, education needs an overhaul. Standardized testing is never going to help with that.
An oft-cited reason for how socio-economic status affects education is “how can you learn when you don’t know when you’ll eat again?” Food insecurity is just one of the ways that poverty affects learning. Due to the lack of access to health care, children who grow up in generational poverty can have significant issues with hearing from ear infections as an infant. If your hearing is affected, learning can be more difficult. Children who grow up in generational poverty are more likely to have asthma. Children who spend part of the night suffering the effects of asthma will have difficulty focusing in class after losing sleep.
Dental health can affect learning outcomes as well. While their affluent peers get cleanings and check-ups, students who deal with poverty can suffer the effects of toothaches that distract them during class and inhibit their ability to sleep at night. Vision is also affected by poverty. A 2002 study by Paul Harris gave randomly selected fourth graders access to optometrical services. The result of that study? Students who received the services grew in reading achievement more than the normal rate. Children living in poverty are less likely to get the in depth visual screening they need and can require assistance to correct tracking and focusing beyond the normal read-letters-from-a-chart-at-a-distance visual screening.
These physical effects are separate from advantages affluent peers receive. Children who have access to educational opportunities before enrolling in school and during school breaks will widen the gap. Parents who have to work two or more jobs in order to make ends meet will not be able to enroll their children in these enrichment activities.
Schools absolutely can make a difference in the lives of children. Schools and teachers work to close the achievement gap every day. We know, definitively, that standardized assessments will never close this gap. Instead, what do we get? Food for our children? Better dental access? More optometric coverage? No, we get more tests. The tests don’t tell us how to get the things our children actually need.
We know we need intervention and more help. It has been more than half a century since the Coleman Report was published. If we want to affect change and close the gap, we have to address our students’ needs beyond the classroom.
Coleman’s final conclusion remains true; students benefit from having classmates from a variety of backgrounds, including socio-economic. Diversity remains a gateway to equity within education. Testing does not provide diversity. The only thing that will is effective public policy and the understanding that education is but one piece of an all-encompassing puzzle.
Last week we celebrated an important event that is integral to the democratic process in America and in the Commonwealth: National Voter Registration Day. You took the first step to electing a slate of candidates who will be champions for public education. You rock! But Election Day is still a little more than a month away, so what should we do until then? Here are some things you can do between now and then to make sure Friends of Public Education are elected.
Help someone else register — Voter registration doesn’t close until October 7. There’s still plenty of time to help others register. Any US Citizen who will be 18 on or before November 5, 2019 is eligible to vote in this election. People who have moved, changed their name, or who didn’t vote in the last election should update and verify their registration. Just go to www.edvotejcta.com/jcpsgotv to find out more and complete your registration.
Generate some hype for the election by posting on social media — How can you inspire and inform others? Leverage your digital connections to spread the word: Take a selfie and share a post explaining why this election is important to you.
Understand the issues and know who you are going to vote for — Registering to vote is only half the battle. You’re going to need to cast your vote on Election Day for candidates who will make and enact public policy that will protect and improve public education. Not sure where to start? Watch the JCTA website for the BSK Report to see a list of Better Schools Kentucky’s endorsed candidates. Coming soon!
Talk to friends, neighbors, and family — Now’s the time to talk to everyone you know about why public education is the most important issue in this election. If we don’t elect candidates who will support educators and protect our schools, our students and our communities will pay the price for years to come. Arm your friends, neighbors, and family with the information they need to make informed decisions about candidates. You can read more about the issues that will help us get the Schools Our Students Deserve at www.tinyurl.com/JCPSBetterWayForward.
Volunteer for a candidate — Our candidates need your help! Canvassing happens every Saturday. Any of our candidates would LOVE for you to help knock on doors to spread the word about why they’re the best choice for public education. Not sure where to go? Check out these dates and locations: https://edvotejcta.com/help-us-elect-public-education-candidates/.
Make sure your vote counts — You registered to vote because you care about the results of this election and you want to make a difference. Make sure that you know what to do and where to go when the big day gets here. Now’s the time to plan ahead:
Find your polling place — If you’re a first-time voter or if you haven’t voted in a long time, you may not have given any thought to where your polling place is. You can find out by going to the Voter Information Center page on the Kentucky State Board of Elections Website. Just go to https://vrsws.sos.ky.gov/vic/ and type in your information to find your polling location.
When should you go — When will be the best time for you to go and how will you get there? The polls will be open from 6:00 AM till 6:00 PM, but be prepared for the possibility that you may have to wait in line if you go at peak times (before 9:00, between 12:00 and 1:00, and after 4:30). Be sure you leave early enough to get there, or at least get in line before the polls close at 6:00.
How to get there — Voting’s always better when you do it with a friend or neighbor, so don’t forget to carpool. Don’t have anyone to go with but still need a ride? Many rideshare services offer free or discounted rides on Election Day, so be sure to ask when you book your ride on your favorite rideshare app.
Absentee ballots — Are you going to be out of town or otherwise unable to vote on Election Day? No worries! You can request and absentee ballot in the mail or cast an absentee ballot in person at the County Clerk’s office. Be careful, though: There are restrictions! Go to https://elect.ky.gov/Voters/Pages/Absentee-Voting.aspx to see the list of absentee voting requirements on the Kentucky State Board of Elections website.
Follow up with your network on election day — Let’s make sure no Education Voter is left behind! Check in with your friend, neighbors, and family to make sure everyone follows through on their committment to vote for Public Education candidates!
So, I began to brainstorm a list of ways that we may more actively lean into revolutionist transgression against the system. Many of the ideas were inspired from the wisdom and actions fellow educators. For me, much of this list is an aspirational challenge as I try to step further into this work. This list is meant to be neither exhaustive nor prescriptive. Unity does not require uniformity, so every point may not resonate. But, I hope our shared commitment to making even small deviations from the norm will build momentum and challenge each other in ways that will roll into a larger movement. So, some actions to consider:
Don’t celebrate “victories” in standardized test scores. Soon results from the state accountability system will be released. Celebrating “progress” based on those or any other standardized measures lends them validity. It can be exciting to see “growth”. But, if we truly believe the system is fundamentally flawed, then that growth is equally flawed. Such celebrations are then not only built on a faulty premises, but also likely expense of someone else.
Challenge those who do celebrate such “victories”. Silence is complicity. Be the voice that questions whether such “growth” is meaningful. Or, even suggest it may be harmful.
Admonish any rankings, rewards, stars, medal, ribbons, etc… given to schools. Most are based on a system of standardization and testing, so celebrating them again reinforces for ourselves and for non-educators that such systems must have some validity. They also create division where we should be unified and only incentivize the enactment of more assimilationist approaches. It’s difficult not to share a recognition your school has earned because we want our schools to be seen and noticed for the good they do. But, such recognitions are more badges for adherence to an oppressive system than they are signifiers of what is actually good at your school. Point instead to stories and experiences that showcase unique and empowered students.
Don’t ask students to reflect on standardized test scores and make a plan to improve. First, the norm referencing in most standardized tests would mean asking for a mathematical impossibility. Secondly, asking this of students obscures for them the truth that racism, classism, power dynamics, homogenization, etc… are the inherit basis of standardization and testing. At worst, it instills a belief that such tests are accurate measures of their worth and capacity, and that a lack of success it is due to a lack of effort and not institutional bias, present and historical oppression, and a systemic filtering out of difference. As with any of these points, there is nuance. The assimilationist and revolutionist approaches are not dichotomous; they are dialectical. So, this is not to say we abstain from helping individual students who have a goal to improve a test score. We must assuredly do so, but also help them develop lens for interrogating what they are doing. There is a vast difference between imposing this type of reflection and planning on all students and empowering students as individuals to think and act in an unfair system.
Speak the full truth to students. Students know or at least intuit the unfairness, injustice, and painful absurdity of standardization and testing. We know they are stressed and anxious because of it. Help them name the systemic bias of these forces and take a critical view of the power dynamics at play. Continue to help them understand their worth and value is not dependent on their ability to justify themselves to an external system. Empower them to move from being objects of the system to agents who decide and act in their own assimilationist-revolutionist dialectic.
If ACT or other test prep must be done, also make sure to engage students in dialog about the power dynamics and exclusionary forces at play. Help them understand that test achievement is not solely a function of effort in test prep, but more a result of systematic inequities. Be clear that test prep is not a neutral form of learning, but the practice of imitating the values and expressions of a culture that may not be their own.
Speak the full truth to parents. Help them be agents within an assimilationist-revolutionist dialectic as well.
Stop using standardized measures in the classroom. Too often we accept a standardized measure as just another data point, but all others seem to collapse around it. We need to start reclaiming our space as professionals. We have the capacity to help our students show what they know and what they can do. We can do so better and more fully than a standardized data point. Right now, the forces of standardization and testing are so powerful that the gravity of one point can out weight all the others. We have to reject what holds us back if we are to move forward. Black holes do not illuminate; they hold in light.
Question articles and “experts”. The swirling blur of “research” and advice is a form of power through authority and confusion that often distorts the value, validity, and assumptions behind the work. The quick-fix instructional practice is often not actually research based, but is at best based on an interpretation of research and at worst only anecdotal. Moreover, when there is actual research it often uses outcome measures based on standardized assessment and not holistic, edifying, and humanizing views of students. If we accept these articles and practices, even the ones that seem harmless, we empower their underlying values. Enacting these beliefs and practices in our classrooms makes it more difficult to argue against their companions of standardization and testing. Specifically, we must ask more, what is the actual research? What are the assumptions of that work?
Don’t proctor the ACT on a Saturday. If we are agents of the system on the weekend, it is more difficult to advocate for its destruction during the week.
Remind each other, explicitly, that we do not teach subjects or standards – we teach students. The more we center our work and conversations on them, as people, and stirring the brilliance and brokenness in every soul, the more we move away from the mechanistic systems that sort and fit and filter.
There are, without a doubt, countless other ways to push back. There are just as many reasons not to do so. We are all restrained by the heavy and comforting inertia of the status quo, by the discomfort of causing awkwardness, and by the rationalization that it’s not that bad. These are often the more difficult acts to take than joining in a major collective action. But, they are the necessary things to do before such an action can be successful.
In my previous piece I wrote that the forces of standardization and testing, and the belief systems behind them, are the root of many of the problems we face today. Taken as a stand-alone issue, I don’t know many educators who would disagree with the claim that, on the whole, standardized testing has had more negative than positive impact on our students. So then, the question must be asked, if their failings are almost universally acknowledged, why do standardization and testing still persist? I think the answer is what may be a slightly awkward family conversation: it’s us.
It is perhaps easy to rationalize away our culpability. Certainly, there is the tangle of moneyed privateers and politicos, the circling coven of corporate profiteers, and the self-advancing, education bureaucrats that enact real and formidable power. But, there are more of us than there are of them. And while such concentrated and aligned power will ultimately only be brought down through major collective action, we have much groundwork to do before we can be ready for this final step.
The fact is that many in the public, and probably a fair number of our colleagues, tacitly support the beliefs and theories that make standardization and testing a logical inevitability. Through our often well-intentioned actions we perpetuate a culture in which standardization and testing seem like a natural and necessary, or at least acceptable, part of schooling. Thus, concerns we voice, no matter how loudly, about the injustices of such systems will always be drowned out by our own decisions to use the tools, methods, and metaphors of those systems to shape the experiences and directions of our classrooms.
In one way, our complicity stems from the fact that educators, like anyone, attempt to counter systems of injustice through two approaches: the assimilationist approach which seeks to overcome oppression by adopting the values and ontologies of the dominate system with the hope of then succeeding within it; and, the revolutionist approach which intentionally and actively transgresses against the system, naming its inequities, and empowering all to see and create a different world.
The assimilationist approach asks us to train students to fit the mold of standardization and testing so that they may garner some opportunity from it (I emphasize ‘may’ because oppressive systems always only provide the illusion of merit as a basis for entry and acceptance, and will establish or rearrange barriers to maintain their exclusionary ends). The revolutionist approach would ask us to help students name the unfairness they see and experience and then empower them to take action to reshape the world.
In practice, the assimilationist and revolutionist approaches are not dichotomous. The lived realities of a student who must both confront the system while also being subjected to it require that we hold both approaches in tension. The unfortunate truth, however, is that every enactment of an assimilationist approach only valorizes and strengthens the system of oppression. Thus in addition to a sympathetic pull to help students succeed as much as possible within a system that, for now, still exists, the system itself also exerts a self-preserving pressure to enact assimilationist approaches. Moreover, this unintentional complicity only supplements the innumerable ways that forces of power compel schools to explicitly support and implement standardization and testing.
And so, if we are honest, a great deal of what happens in schools today is either shaped by the forces of standardization and testing or falls along an assimilationist response to those systems. But, if we are serious about dismantling the systemic forces of standardization and testing, we must find more ways to act in a revolutionary manner. Otherwise, the balance of our actions ultimately serves and supports this unjust and inequitable system, especially to non-educators looking in.
Such revolutionary politics doesn’t begin with protesting or even voting. There is an everyday politics of nudging wider the narrowing way of the world through small, but courageous, acts of divergence. Such acts slowly pull on the window of what is considered within the realm of accepted discourse in our schools and communities. Such acts prepare the ground in which a larger revolution can flourish. Part 2 will brainstorm some ways we can live further into the ordinary work of revolution.