Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Vergara, the NEA, and Maria Montessori

I traveled to Washington, DC, the day after the Vergara v. California teacher tenure verdict was handed down. It was in the shadow of this event which has been rippling across the education community that I arrived at the doorway of the National Education Association headquarters.

The purpose for the visit was to gather the Teacher Ambassadors together (I am one) and create trainings for our colleagues back home to implement the new Smarter Balanced assessment system. The Teacher Ambassadors are supported by a grant directed in partnership between the NEA and WestEd. I've been working on a training to support writing instruction that addresses Common Core standards and helps teachers understand the demands of the assessment, which is a decent reflection of what we want students to be able to do.

While I'm still not behind all the assessments and am certainly an advocate of reduction in the time spent testing students, I can vouch for the teachers involved in this meeting: we are dedicated professionals, coming to Washington during the end of our school years or beginning of our summers - both difficult times to leave - in order to do this work to support colleagues.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel with Montana legislator Amanda Curtis (D-Butte) and me. 

In fact it's a rare teacher who is not dedicated. Perhaps we aren't all dedicated to fund-raising, or to club leadership; perhaps some of us are less interested in coaching or in mentorship. We are not cookie-cutter teachers. And some teachers do need assistance from their colleagues and extra instructional leadership from their administrators to reach their potential. And yes, a few teachers should find new careers.

However, my sense of the Vergara verdict is that it underscores and perpetuates the narrative that goes something like this: bad teachers = low-performing students = grim future for America. Therefore, fire the bad teachers by stripping their rights = high-performing students = bright future for America. There are so many things wrong with this misdirected logic that I don't know where to begin.

But let me try. Here are some simple questions: 1) what happens when teachers lose their job protections? With little incentive already to become teachers, who then wants to step into that lion's mouth? 2) And will removing job protections actually create better teachers? 3) Is it reasonable for a district to expect teachers to overcome the circumstances of the children who come to their classrooms, and then to gauge the teachers' success on these children's test scores, and to release a teacher from duties if scores aren't satisfactory? This negative narrative is currently gripping our public school system and fueling political maneuvers to privatize schools, which will reduce equitable access to high quality education in the long run.

I returned from the NEA with some newfound respect for my fellow teachers who are committed to helping their colleagues improve, no matter what their state legislatures and courts are doing. 

I attended Montessori schools through 8th grade and I believe Maria Montessori's method pervades my beliefs about teaching and shapes much of what I do in my public high school classroom. Her portrait in the NEA building reminded me of the chasm between her philosophy and today's conversation around public education. What would she say about all this? 

Friday, June 13, 2014

White House Domestic Policy Council Listens

It's a mouthful, but yesterday I had the opportunity to meet with the Policy Assistant for Education from the White House Domestic Policy Council, Zealan Hoover. I'll just call him Zealan. Also present were Laurie Calvert, the Teacher Liaison from the Department of Education and Domestic Policy Council intern Lauren Burdette.

The meeting took place at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House.

To prepare for this meeting I gathered questions and requests from State Sup. of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, Education Policy advisor to Gov. Bullock Shannon O'Brien, and CSKT Tribal Education Director Penny Kipp. These fine Montana education folks expressed an interest in several topics: funding of Indian schools specific to impact aid, the work of the Interagency Working Group created in 2011 by Executive Order 13592, the potential use of Montana's Essential Understandings about Montana Indians by the Smithsonian related to the National Museum of American Indians to support teachers across the country, and a revamp of thinking on Pell grants used for dual enrollment students. There's more...but I'll quit the list-making.

View from our meeting room toward the White House.

Zealan said he appreciated my visit because his office doesn't get the chance to speak to many real teachers. This concerns me although I can understand why it is so: with teachers' schedules and demands it would be unrealistic to think that many can plan to visit with these folks. But who then is advising Zealan's office? My experience has shown me that many of the people behind education rhetoric and reform are not teachers. They have little understanding of the realities of classroom work and apply their own background knowledge, whether from business, politics, or farming, to schoolhouses. This doesn't work.

More teachers must become involved in leadership at their district and state levels; we need teachers' voices in the conversation about education. We need teachers to lead, and we need teachers to speak. We need teachers to be part of the solutions to the challenges we face.

And what are those challenges, Laurie wanted to know? What keeps you up at night, as a teacher? I'll let you ponder that and then decide how to raise your own voice to be part of the solution.

Laurie Calvert sports the feather. (I wonder what those guys are loading into the motorcade Suburbans, bottom right?)

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Secretary Arne Duncan Hits The Warrior Trail

I doubt most of those kids in the Two Eagle River gym knew who that guy really was, the one talking to them about the importance of finishing high school and doing some kind of postsecondary training or education. "Graduate," he told them. "There's nothing else." Then he coached them a little more, this time in dribbling and layup drills on the court. That's right: the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan schooled some kids from the Flathead Reservation today in a Nike basketball clinic just prior to the Salish Kootenai College commencement.

With Secretary Duncan was Bill Mendoza, director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education. Bill suited up and did some running and gunning too, though not as much coast-to-coast as any of the kids!

I met with Secretary Duncan briefly before he entered the gym. I shared with him some thoughts about education in our country and in my community. Actually I was concerned we wouldn't have much time to chat (which we didn't) so I wrote down some "notes from the field" and gave them to him with a feather from this blog.

To summarize, I shared four insights: the intense and intensifying concern our parents, teachers, and community members have over the testing going on in schools; a reminder of the importance of after-school and wraparound services, especially in Indian country; another reminder of how partnerships with tribes and communities need to precede initiatives and special projects in Indian schools; and my own special project, a request for a boost in training teachers more effectively in culturally responsive teaching  practices.

After the basketball clinic we attended the Salish Kootenai College graduation where Secretary Duncan gave the address. I was most impressed with his very specific references to current events at the college (satellite launch) and on the reservation (Kerr Dam takeover), as well as his commentary on modern traditions as evidenced by the place-names signs in Salish and Kootenai. I was very, very impressed by his correct pronunciation of almost every local word he used!

You may not like the Department of Education and you may oppose some of the things Mr. Duncan has supported or stands for. However, he's a member of the President's cabinet and as such could live up to every negative expectation if he were aloof or nonresponsive, and I found him to be quite the opposite. He was personable and mindful of what he said to the students and the graduates at SKC. I really hope he reads what I wrote, especially since it came from interested parties whom I consulted, and considers some of the ideas we presented.

The following pictures are pretty self-indulgent but I can't pass up the opportunity to share the fact that the Secretary took selfies with my kids. He has children the very same ages as mine so it seemed that he took a quick liking to them.

I don't think I can call today just another day on the Warrior Trail. Thanks, Secretary Duncan and your staff, Juan Perez from SKC, and Bill Mendoza for making today an extra special day on the Warrior Trail.