It Takes A Teacher To Explain What School Cuts Do To Poor Kids

[This powerful testimony, delivered by 5th grade teacher and Florida NEA member Megan Allen, is worth the read. Megan brings to life the real world challenges of teaching in a high needs, high priority school facing devastating federal cuts.]

Testimony of Megan Allen

Before the U.S. House of Representatives, Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, February 21, 2013

My name is Megan Allen.

I am the 2010 Florida Teacher of the Year and a National Board Certified Teacher. But I am most proud of being a fifth grade teacher.

I teach at a Title 1 school in Tampa, Florida named Shaw Elementary School. We have about 600 students and more than 90 percent of them qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. I teach two language arts classes and have a total of 36 students. To them, I am Ms. A.

Let me paint a picture, showing you the faces of my students. Let’s dive into what it means to be a student at a high-needs school, because today I speak for them.

Of my 36 students, I have 10 with special needs, who work with the support of an exceptional education teacher. They have disabilities ranging from Emotional Behavioral Disorder to Schizophrenia.

I have two students who are Haitian, whose families show up to every school event dressed in their best, for their dreams and hopes are placed in their children.

I have five students who are English-language learners, receiving daily support from a translator so they can better understand their academics and so I can communicate with their families.

I have two students with arrest records, one who is in a live-in program for troubled youth.

I have four 10 and 11 year-old boys in a special program for our most troubled boys, where they learn manners, wear coats and ties, and learn what it means to be a man.

I have five girls who receive extra support in a lunch group for girls with low self-esteem.

I have two young ladies who receive intense counseling at school, one because she is a rape victim, one because she is a ten-year-old with an ulcer due to anxiety about taking care of her siblings now that her mom has been deported.

Just yesterday morning, I had one of my girls act out and refuse to work. Upon a little prodding and a whole lot of love, she confided in me that she is a victim of violence, crying on my shoulder. Once she had told me, she returned to reading the day’s Robert Louis Stevenson poem and interpreting the author’s meaning. I don’t know how she did that.

I have one student who is checked out of school every Thursday to visit her mother, who is in jail.

I have students who go to bed afraid because of violence in their neighborhood, who look to school as their place to call home. Who go home hungry on the weekends and look forward to two solid meals a day during the school week.

But most of all, I have 36 students who dream. Who have beautiful goals. Who see school as the lever to break the chains of poverty and achieve something amazing in life for themselves and their families. And our school is working to make that happen. Our students are winning county science fairs, making great gains in their student learning, and shining in and out of the classroom. Our students are moving towards greatness.

So, how does that happen? Why is our school successful despite all of these challenges? And how do we help our students with these intense levels of emotional and academic needs?

We use Title 1 funding to provide our students with a lower teacher-to-student ratio, with additional teachers such as math resource teachers, reading coaches, and academic intervention specialists. These supports help lift our kids to their full potential, while helping me and other teachers make sure we are meeting the needs of every child.

We have more social supports so our students can then narrow in and focus on their academics. School psychologists, counselors, Title 1 teachers, and teacher aides work with our students in small groups, providing the care and academic support our students need.

Head Start and solid pre-kindergarten programs are vital to our success. We battle the achievement gap every day, and this academic and social instruction is one of our primary weapons. It is crucial to our students’ success.

My students live in poverty and have special needs that federal funding helps meet — for example, keeping class sizes manageable so teachers can provide individual attention and support. For my students, a low student-to-teacher ratio is a dream lifter and life changer — essential if they are to realize their full potential.

To put one more human face on the looming cuts, I would like to tell you about one of my students. But remember that even though I share just his story, there are hundreds like him in my school alone and millions like him all across America.

My story is about a boy named Daniel. He was shy, started the school year with very low self-esteem, but blossomed into a writer I can only describe as “poetic.” One day, toward the end of the year, Daniel shuffled up to me after school and said: “Ms. Allen, I have something special for you. It’s one of my favorite things.”

I knew that Daniel didn’t have many material possessions, so I tried to decline the offer. I told him the thought was enough. But Daniel was having none of it. He stuck out a closed fist, slowly opened it, and unveiled … a rock.

“Ms. A.,” he said, “I was thinking. School is my rock. I know I can always hold onto it, that it’s always there for me.”

That’s when I realized the power and importance of education, school, and teachers. Straight from the mouth of a child, the truth hit me like a ton of bricks. School is the rock in this child’s life, the one place he knows he can count on. For no matter what instabilities our students have, there is one thing they can depend on: school.

Daniel helped me realize that we are not there as teachers to only help our kids pass a test. That is important, but not our main purpose for this child or for any child. We are there to be the rocks for these children, to be the one stable force in many of their lives. We are there to help them see education as a vehicle to take them far in life, to help ignite a love of learning.

The looming cuts threaten all of that.

We may lose the momentum from the successes that our students are building upon due to massive across-the-board cuts — the “sequester.” Those cuts are scheduled to take effect on March 1, just a week and a day from now.

In my school district — Hillsborough County in Florida — 142 schools stand to lose $3 million in Title I funding. On top of that, we’ll be getting $2 million less for special education — the equivalent of shifting the entire cost of educating 1,500 students with disabilities from the federal government to Hillsborough County. Programs serving English-language learners — we have 25,000 — will be cut as well.

The impact will be harshest on students in Title I schools — like the one I teach in. Students like mine — my little learners, my Daniel — are the reason the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was passed in the first place, back in 1965. As Title I of the law says, the goal is “to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.”

Students like mine are the reason the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed in the first place, back in 1975. IDEA ensures that children with disabilities have the opportunity to receive a free and appropriate public education, just like other children. It governs early intervention, special education, and related services.

In the name of Daniel and the 36 students that I work to nurture and inspire every day, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to stop the sequester. Think of what it would mean to them — and to millions of students just like them all across America.

Some say we cannot afford to keep spending as much on education. I say we cannot afford to spend a cent less. In fact, we should be spending more. We owe it to our youngest dreamers. Our learners. Economic recovery begins in our classrooms. Investing in education is investing in the future of America. The children of today are the leaders of tomorrow — our living legacy.

Thank you for hearing my testimony today.

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What’s Keeping America From Doing What’s Right For Children

by Jeff Bryant

After the horrendous slaughter of 20 school children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a heartbroken President Obama implored the nation, “This is our first task – caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right.”

“Surely we can do better,” he stated.

Just shy of two months later, Obama presented us with an opportunity to “do better” for children when he included in his State of the Union address a call to provide preschool education to every 3- and 4-year-old in America.

Days later, at an early learning center in Georgia, he followed his address with another call to “give kids a chance” while the White House released more details of the plan.

The details, as reported by the Associated Press, revealed that the plan doesn’t  cover “all” 3- and 4-year-olds but instead starts with “any 4-year-old whose family income is 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level – a more generous threshold than the current Head Start program.”

Plus, “communities and child care providers [would] compete for grants to serve children 3 and younger, starting from birth. And once a state has established its program for 4-year-olds, it can use funds from the program to offer full-day kindergarten.”

Despite the limited scope, this is still the right thing to do for many reasons.

But part of “getting it right” for children is calling out and countering the forces intent on blocking this initiative and making the case to the American people in a way that clarifies minds, commits hearts and moves people to action.

Why This Is The Right Thing To Do

From a cost-benefit perspective, expanded early childhood education is, as Salon’s Joan Walsh observed, a “no-brainer.”

The case goes like this – drawing from a recent report by the Center for American Progress, that is supposedly providing the “roadmap” for Obama’s plan:

It’s a financial relief to parents with young children. As the percent of child-rearing families who have “a male breadwinner and a female homemaker” has plummeted to just one in five, the financial burden of child care has become unsustainable for families with children under the age of 5 – especially those families making less than $1,500 a month.

It will “strengthen America’s human capital.” Because “the first five years of a child’s cognitive and emotional development establish the foundation for learning and achievement throughout life,” if we address children’s socialization and education needs while they’re young, they’ll be far less apt to later on drop out of school, commit crimes and become chronically unemployed.

It will “help address our growing economic inequality and diminishing rates of upward mobility.” In a country where there is an “increasing number of children who are being raised by low- and lower-middle-income single parents, particularly single mothers,” there are growing numbers of children who are “more likely to struggle in school, to earn less income as adults, and to experience a wide range of less-favorable life outcomes. By investing in these children while they are still young, we can have a much greater impact at less cost.”

The president crystallized this argument with the point – proven by research – that “every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on.”

So given these outstanding cost-benefit ratios, surely universal Pre-K will soon be the law of the land. Right?

The Republicans Are Coming

It should come as no surprise to anyone in the Democratic Party that Republicans will likely greet Obama’s preschool proposal with the same message they regard the rest of his proposals: “dead in the water.”

Expect Republicans to turn proposals for universal pre-K all into an issue that is mostly about the deficit and the need to cut spending – as they have with virtually every domestic issue. And the topic of pre-K – regardless of any current and future economic benefits – will immediately be forced into a scarce resources frame where it can only be made possible if we cut something else. (Pell grants anyone?)

Second, even the most pro-education Republican is going to discount any plan for government-assisted pre-K as something we’ve already tried and it didn’t work.

That’s already happening, as Education Week’s Alyson Klein reported. She noted that Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and a Republican, was “eying the proposal with some skepticism.”

His primary misgiving: “Too many questions remain unanswered” about the current federal program targeted toward young children, Head Start.

Centrists Don’t Help

Unfortunately, the arguments Republicans make against early childhood education are being reinforced by centrist-minded wonks.

They are quick to repeat Republican concerns about how “expensive” government-sponsored preschool might be “in today’s fiscal climate.”

They echo Republican perturbations about “quality” by claiming that preschool can only work “if it’s done right.”

And a favorite of this contingency is to strap on their business-speak and talk about the Very Serious Issue of bringing education services “to scale.”

The biggest issue with high quality preschool is simply that we don’t know if we can do it on large scale,” we’re told.

We’re exhorted to be alarmed about A Totally Massive Problem throughout all of education that “some schools are excellent and make an enormous difference in kids’ lives, but there are also a lot of middling to poor institutions.”

The misgivings of centrists are mostly unfounded.

Why Centrists’ Concerns Are Mostly Unfounded

Too often, when it comes to determining whether a new public program is too expensive or not, no one asks, “Compared to what?”

If the budget Obama ultimately proposes for his preschool program is based on the above-mentioned CAP report, we’re talking about $100 billion over 10 years.

That sounds like a big, scary number, but compared to what? The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein did some comparison shopping and noticed that a recent study from the Urban Institute noted that our federal government spends 10 percent of discretionary income on children compared to 20 percent on defense. And “over the next 10 years, federal outlays on children will fall as a percentage of the budget (from 10 to 8 percent).”

Furthermore, if we as a society want to do something to improve the lives of children, that $100 billion outlay is probably a bargain compared to any other action we could take – that is, if there actually were another action centrist concern trolls were proposing.

Second, regarding the supposed quality issues with Head Start, not everyone agrees. Most people raising concerns about Head Start cite a Brookings study. But another credible study concluded something different: “For low-income children who participated in Head Start in the 1960s through 1980s, the program seems to have generated lasting improvements in a range of key outcomes that society cares about, including health, educational attainment, labor market earnings, and perhaps criminal behavior as well.”

Third, this handwringing about whether early childhood education can be brought “to scale” is a rabbit-hole argument. It comes from people under the false impression that schools can be run like businesses. They’ve never considered that maybe the reason quality schools at the pre-collegiate level can’t be “brought to scale” is because maybe school can’t be run like a pizza franchise. And they’ve reached an absurd conclusion that public schools have to attain a Lake Woebegone standard where there are no “middling to poor institutions” – a measure we apply to no other endeavors, public or private.

Centrist concerns over Obama’s preschool proposal are mostly about Republican appeasement. But when you know that Republicans are going to be against your proposal no matter what – a day before the White House release of the plan’s details, House Speaker John Boehner said “involving the federal government in early childhood education was ‘a good way to screw it up'” – then why continue to pursue a mythical middle ground?

What The Obama Team Must Do

What the Obama team is proposing for America’s children is the right thing to do. But the way it’s being pitched is wrong.

First, don’t make “research” central to the pitch. As Salon’s Walsh noted, “American social policy is rarely inspired by research.”

Second, stop talking about early childhood education as if it were a financial transaction – a dollar spent now with a return later on. Although White House folks are likely to be in the investment strata of society, most Americans aren’t. Instead of sinking costs into something that will eventually pay off, most Americans are thinking about the here and now. State why educating our youngest children is good now.

Third, don’t answer arguments about quality with layers of bureaucratic language about assessment. The whole notion that 4-year-olds should be tested is on shaky ground and likely doesn’t square with most Americans – especially parents who understand all too well that no two young children develop at the same pace.

If you want to show that you’re addressing issues with quality, don’t consult economists, consult people who actually know something about how young children develop and know that 4-year olds need a program that is broad-based, hands-on, and individualized – not too narrowly focused on academic skills.

Finally, and most importantly, frame the campaign for early childhood education around parenting – that America is a good parent, that we take care of our children because they are our children, and that people who don’t want to take care of America’s children are deadbeats.

We Can Do Better

Returning to the words he spoke to us at a ceremony for 20 murdered kids, Obama didn’t speak about our children’s welfare as if it were a math problem. He asked us to consider whether “we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose.”

Then in his State of the Union, Obama returned to the memory of the slain children in calling for restrictions on weapons that are all too frequently used to kill them. This has been widely regarded as the “smash finish” of his address that may eventually lead to real action on gun control.

That we can be swept up into action about dead children but speak with such dry calculation about living ones is more than disappointing – it is testament to the shriveled, rotten heart of a country that can’t seem to care for its children.

Yes, “we can do better.”

 

Michelle Rhee And The Relentless Marketing Of Education ‘Reform’

by Jeff Bryant

Is it over yet? Michelle Rhee’s barnstorming of America this week, to hawk her new memoir, taxed the stamina of even the most ardent education wonk. It was a relentless PR campaign that would truly be the envy of any tobacco executive or gun manufacturer.

In interview after interview Rhee recited a series of bullet points regardless of who was interviewing her and what the questions were – even sticking robotically to the same inflections in her pronouncements on the paramount importance of “eFFECtive” teachers, the “burEAUCracy” that “traps” families in schools, and her “COMMon sense solutions.”

It’s understandable that television program hosts complied with interviews that were generally void of even a hint of skepticism.

(With the exception of Comedy Channel’s Jon Stewart who managed a few doubtful observations on Rhee’s confidence in standardized testing, charter schools, and the ability of teaches to overcome the conditions of poverty.)

After all, the purpose of American television is to sell stuff, and we’ve all grown accustomed to the fact that the commercial space that exists between programs does not necessarily separate entertainment and information from marketing.

Marketing truly is the frame to understand what’s driving Rhee, in particular, and the market-based ideas behind the education “reform” movement, in general. (Full disclosure: I’m a marketing consultant.)

Any marketer worth her salt will tell you that good marketing has nothing to do with the quality of the product being represented. In fact, Rhee isn’t selling a product at all, as there are no schools that operate the way Rhee prefers them to – as evidenced by her organization’s Report Card that gave almost all American school systems a grade of D or F.

What good marketing does, among other things, is use all the tools of persuasion available to appeal to the interests and desires of a particular target market. Give education reformers like Rhee an A on this.

Achievement = Test Scores

Take their use of the word “achievement.” Rhee talks a good game of being all about “student achievement.” But no one ever asks her what she means by that.

Education blogger EduShyster noticed this recently too and recently wrote, “You know that word ‘achievement’? While it used to have something to do with heroic deeds and accomplishments, today achievement refers to one thing and one thing only: test scores.”

Schools she looked at put students “under virtual test-prep lockdown, practicing the art of test taking week after week,” all in the pursuit of higher scores that get called “achievement growth.”

“The big winner in this, ” she noted, “is the consulting group that earns as much as $25,000 per school to help boost ‘achievement.'” The name of the consulting group? The Achievement Network, of course.

Now that’s good marketing!

Effective Teachers = Fantasy Teachers

Another Rhee favorite, “effective” teachers, is yet again a term whose meaning is completely unclear. Rhee stated again and again that the most important thing that could be done to improve the education prospects of the nation’s children was to ensure that every child had an “effective” teacher in every classroom. Sure sounds good. But what does it mean?

The most ambitious endeavor, yet, to define how to tell an effective teacher from an ineffective one has been the MET Project, a three-year endeavor sponsored by the Gates Foundation. Recently, the “Culminating Findings” of the project were published, and math teacher Gary Rubenstein, an experienced statistical analyst, took a look at the results.

What Rubenstein determined was the MET Project on teacher effectiveness was much ado – a $50 million ado – about nothing.

Drawing from the reams of data produced by this endeavor, Rubenstein concluded, “according to test score gains, the vast majority of teachers are statistically ‘equivalent.’ It seems like 90% of the teachers are within .05 standard deviations of the mean. [The authors] don’t say how much extra learning the .05 is, but they do say that .25 is equivalent to one year. So I’d say (if I had to, that is, I don’t think ‘learning’ is measured in time units) that .05 would amount to a few weeks of learning.”

“This report will surely be quoted by ‘reformers’ as some kind of scientific proof,” Rubenstein stated, “But my examination of the same data . . . tells me that [the Met Project] really didn’t come up with anything we didn’t already know about the problems with these crude metrics.”

The unremarkable results of the MET Project aren’t isolated. New teacher evaluation and rating systems – the kind of systems Rhee has advocated for – have come up with equally unremarkable results. A write-up of the results in the education trade newspaper Education Week noted:

In Michigan, 98 percent of teachers were rated effective or better under new teacher-evaluation systems recently put in place. In Florida, 97 percent of teachers were deemed effective or better.

Principals in Tennessee judged 98 percent of teachers to be “at expectations” or better last school year, while evaluators in Georgia gave good reviews to 94 percent of teachers taking part in a pilot evaluation program.

One of Rhee’s favorite anecdotes she loves to bring up again and again is the dismay she felt when, as chancellor of DC schools, she found out that despite low student test scores, 98 percent of the school district’s teachers were rated satisfactory. Well, guess what. The teacher evaluation systems she advocates for conclude the very same thing she says she is against!

So yet another contention of the reform community – that an “effective” teacher is a known quantity that can be easily replicated – proves to be a fantasy.

School Choice = School Segregation

The third leg on the stool that props up Rhee’s relentless marketing campaign is the necessity for parents to have a “choice” in where they send their kids to school. Again, great marketing rhetoric. Who is against “choice?”

But like the other components of the reform creed, the hype can’t stand up to scrutiny.

America’s longest running trial of school choice-driven policy has been conducted in Milwaukee. That city has had a voucher program for over 20 years that allows parents to send their children to charter schools if they so choose. The latest look at the results of the Milwaukee choice program, published by the Forward Institute, found that choice hasn’t done anything to improve the education attainment of children.

Diane Ravitch highlighted the conclusions of the study at her blog: “There is no significant difference between the performance of public schools and charter schools. However, public schools in Milwaukee are more successful with the poorest students than are charter schools.”

So the supposed promise of “school choice” is a mirage. Furthermore, there are unintended consequences of school choice that are a matter of historical record. In fact, America has had its experiences with school choice. It was called segregation, and we as a society rightfully rejected it.

A Lexicon of Reform Speak

So looking behind the marketing hype of Rhee and the reformers we see that

  • Achievement = Test Scores
  • Effective Teachers = Fantasy Teachers
  • School choice = School Segregation

But the lexicon of reform marketing doesn’t stop there. A complete guide to reform speak is currently being compiled by the ever-useful Leonie Haimson, founder of Class Size Matters. Diane Ravitch, again, pointed us to this effort, summarizing:

One can tell if an organization is allied with the corporate reform movement by its rhetoric. For example, the use of such buzzwords as “transformational”, “catalytic”, “innovative”, “great teachers”, “bold”, “game changer”, “effective”, “entrepreneurial”, “differentiated instruction”, “personalized learning”, “economies of scale”, “informational text”, “instructional efficiency”, “college and career ready”, and/or the term “disruptive” used in a positive sense provide clues that the organization or individual is associated with the corporate reform movement.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong, per se, with using all the tools of marketing to advance a cause. People who oppose Rhee’s way of thinking probably engage in the same exercise.

What’s wrong is for people who call themselves “journalists” to unblinkingly accept marketing hype as fact and pass it on as “reporting” – and even worse, for people who call themselves “leaders” to make marketing hype a basis for public policy.

One day, there will be a popular awakening to the big lies being sold to us about our nation’s public schools and the education policies being implemented in them. That will be a news event truly worth taking on tour.