Open Letter to BEST NC About Their Principal Pay Plan (and Their Shallow Response to the Push-back).

Dear. Mrs. Berg and BESTNC,

Today I read your reactionary response on EdNC.org concerning BESTNC’s explanation of the new principal pay plan that has received some much well-deserved criticism. It was nice to finally see BEST NC take responsibility for this absolutely detrimental policy.

Without taking the time to mince words, I want to thank you for further proving what many of us public school advocates have known for a while concerning BESTNC and its principal members – that you and BESTNC are a special interest group who claim to represent a non-partisan, non-profit coalition that actually is helping usher in an agenda here in North Carolina which benefits those who wish to profit from the privatization of public schools.

One only has to read your latest attempt at amelioration entitled “North Carolina’s new principal pay schedule, explained by BEST NC” to understand that it is nothing more than damage control for an ill-conceived yet purposeful plan (https://www.ednc.org/2017/09/21/north-carolinas-new-principal-pay-schedule-explained-best-nc/).

You start it by stating,

“This year, North Carolina made the largest investment in state history in principal salaries through an updated salary schedule and bonus opportunities.”

That sounds great, but when you say the word “bonus,” you already have aroused suspicion. The words “bonus” and “public education” have never really collided successfully in North Carolina. Remember the ABC’s? or the 25% of top teachers get a raise concept? Probably not, because you are not an educator or administrator. Rather, you are a mouthpiece for a special-interest group without an authentic understanding of public education but a clear understanding of profit.

When many principals have spoken out against this plan and have specifically stated that they under this initiative would actually see a decrease in salary, you come back with the horribly safe “average bear” concept.

“The new principal salary schedule provides the average North Carolina principal a 10 percent raise, built on a student-focused, nation-leading foundation.”

There is a seismic difference between “average” and “actual.” Just ask a veteran teacher to explain “average” teacher salary raises in the last five years. And that “built on a student focused, nation-leading foundation” comment? What “nation-leading” foundation are you referring to? I have a hunch.

Your VP at BESTNC is the former executive director for Carolina CAN, the state affiliate for 50CAN which is partnered with an outfit named Students First.

Students First was founded and is run by Michelle Rhee who I have stated in the past in a letter to you as someone who is “the antithesis of how to approach helping public schools. In every endeavor she has undertaken in ‘improving’ educational outcomes, she has left disunity, damage, and a large void in her wake” (https://caffeinatedrage.com/2017/01/29/an-open-letter-to-best-nc-concerning-meeting-with-michelle-rhee-every-public-school-teacher-needs-to-be-aware-of-this/).

You invited her to speak at BESTNC’s Legislative Gathering for 2017 in which no teachers, education advocacy groups, or even press were allowed to attend. There was only a press-conference in which you offered “soft” questions in hopes that it would ameliorate the concerns people had with Rhee’s coming to talk to the very legislators who passed the principal pay plan you praise.

Michelle Rhee had once instituted a plan for bonus pay with performance “carrot-sticks” called Project IMPACT in Washington D.C. that has been widely scrutinized. This new principal pay plan that you are having to defend in this op-ed makes that Rhee visit come into a lot more focus. That is unless you are willing to share the nature of Rhee’s visit with the legislators that evening and prove the opposite.

But back to your recent missive:

“BEST NC is committed to working with state leaders to build on the state’s new plan and correct unintended consequences.”

Do those state leaders include actual teachers and teacher advocacy groups? If they do, please identify and explain how that was part of the collaboration to come up with this proposal for a principal pay plan in the first place.

“Since this summer, we have worked in consultation with state associations and educator groups on technical corrections to ensure that no principal sees a loss in pay this year, and to create greater stability for all principals by extending the provision into future years.”

What state associations and educator groups are you referring to? And I am not asking as a way of pressing the issue as much as I am genuinely asking whom you are collaborating with who fits those descriptions because I have not heard a word from other groups praising this plan.

I am also referring to your own words when it comes to having discourse with all parties involved. You even explained the need for “open discourse” in another EdNC.org op-ed called “(Not) Taking Sides: Civil Discourse with Michelle Rhee and George Parker” (https://www.ednc.org/2017/02/17/not-taking-sides-civil-discourse-michelle-rhee-george-parker/).

You said,

“Choosing to listen to other perspectives; especially ideas that may challenge our own beliefs – requires us to recognize that no one is perfect or has a monopoly on the best ideas – and this is hard. But when it comes to our students, it’s the right thing to do.”

So, when you help to craft this pay plan and push it through legislation, did you have those conversations with actual principals, public school administrators, and superintendents who have to hire principals to help lead schools, especially the hard-to-staff ones? And if you did, were they enthusiastic about the plan that was released this fall because BESTNC sure was.

On July 17th the same VP for BESTNC, Julie Kowal, who once was with Carolina Can penned an opinion piece that praised the very plan that you seem to be gingerly defending now. She even said,

“Not only is principal pay too low, but for years North Carolina – like other states – has paid school leaders based on school size, along with their level of education and years of experience, with no accounting for the difficulty of the job or the principals’ effectiveness in their role. This structure and level of principals’ compensation have made recruitment and retention increasingly difficult, particularly in high-needs and smaller schools.

That is why BEST NC’s top legislative goal for this year was to build on the 2016 recommendation by the Legislative Study Committee on School-Based Administrator’s Pay “to make meaningful, sustained and strategic investments in school leader compensation.”

The legislature followed through. This year’s budget completely restructures the salary schedule for principals in what may be the most innovative and student-focused pay structure in the country. The 2017-18 budget also invests more than $40 million in principal pay raises over the next two years” (http://best-nc.org/raising-and-transforming-principal-pay-north-carolina-leading-the-nation/).

That letter seems to be a rousing approval of a plan that has in a short time done more to disturb high school principals than empower them. Reports given on the pay plan by educational groups have said that this plan will actually hurt “recruitment and retention… in high needs and smaller schools.”

And that removal for advanced-degree pay bumps is rather ironic when looking at the profiles of the staff of BESTNC on their website as they list all of the graduate degrees they have obtained to help validate their position.

And when you talked about helping “struggling schools” did you or BESTNC ever lobby for programs and initiatives to combat the very poverty that seems to go hand-in-hand with schools who receive chronically low school performance grades. You can easily see that correlation if you explore EdNC’s Data Dashboard.

But it is the last paragraph that shows your and BESTNC’s total disconnect with public education. You say,

“These corrections and improvements are critical. It is unfortunate, though, that they overshadow such a significant investment and important step forward to pay North Carolina’s principals as the executives they are.”

Of course they overshadow what you think is a great plan because you have not really improved the situation. You have rammed a business model down the throats of something that cannot be run like a business.

Furthermore, PRINCIPALS ARE NOT EXECUTIVES! THEY ARE EDCUCATIONAL LEADERS!

There is a massive difference. And to think that principals are executives only further proves your disconnect. If you really wanted principals to be executives, then let them operate without the need for complete transparency, or having to publicize salaries, or run on protocols established by outside entities, or even having a limit on what they can spend on the resources they think they need.

Oh, and let them choose their customers and set a price point.

But that will never happen because public schools are a public good, not a private business. And principals are educators by trade, not business executives.

If there is one thing that BESTNC’s involvement in the new principal pay plan has shed light upon, it is that being fully financed does allow for groups to take action and have influence, especially behind closed doors in Raleigh.

Now, just imagine if public schools were fully funded and fully staffed.

Fight for that.

The Dramatis Personae in the Privatization of Public Schools in North Carolina – or Who is Trying to “Reform” Education Through Deformation

Michelle Rhee’s visit to North Carolina for a “closed-door” meeting (February 7th)) with lawmakers in the current climate of public education in this country and in the state should not sit well with public school advocates.

In fact, this meeting that was brokered by an educational lobbying body of business leaders called BEST NC (coupled with the NC GOP’s invitation to Betsy DeVos) should serve as an ominous omen of what will be attempted in North Carolina.

This meeting with Rhee was passed off as a session with leaders where candid questions could be asked and ideas exchanged on how to improve public education seemed to be void of the very people who know education the best – educators.

And while the media did have a chance to meet and greet with Ms. Rhee and George Parker in a manicured and measured way, what happened behind closed doors with people who make decisions on how to spend taxpayer money and fund public schools along with controversial educational reformers remains a mystery.

So much for transparency and including all stakeholders. In fact, it seemed more like a special session of the NC General Assembly who used such “secret sessions” to spawn actions such as HB2, SB4, and HB17.

Despite what they claim, the intentions of BEST NC to improve public education seems to have a different meaning to them than it does to those who are educators in our public schools.

That’s because there exist too many relationships between business leaders, lobbying groups, wealthy benefactors, politicians, and educational reformers to be coincidental. In fact, many in the “reform” movement that have started to dismantle the public school system are strategically linked to each other, including BEST NC.

Look at the graphic below:

privatizers

That is a diagram of the relationships between entities that many public school advocates deem as detrimental to our public school system. The box at the bottom represents the state of North Carolina. All of the other listed players are national.

Consider the following groups:

  • Teach For America
  • Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Walton Family Foundation
  • Eli Broad Foundation
  • KIPP Charter Schools
  • Democrats For Educational Reform
  • Educational Reform Now
  • StudentsFirst
  • America Succeeds
  • 50CAN
  • American Legislative Exchange Council
  • Civitas Institute
  • SAS Software
  • CarolinaCan
  • North Carolina General Assembly
  • BEST NC

They are all linked. And the only teachers who seem to have any sustained dialogue with any of these is the Hope Street Group – and that dialogue seems mostly to have been with BEST NC.

Somehow, someway all of the bulleted entities above were in that closed door meeting which started literally four hours after Betsy DeVos was confirmed as secretary of education thanks to the first ever tie-breaking vote by a vice-president for a cabinet position.

If you are willing, simply follow the explanation below because what seems to be a simple meeting may just be another step in the GOP-led NC General Assembly to dismantle public education and finance the privatization of schooling.

In 2014 a teacher/researcher named Mercedes Schneider published an informative book called A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education. What Schneider did was literally research and report on all of the bodies of influence that were applying forces on the landscape of public education for the benefit of political and capitalistic gain.

The fact that she is a teacher, product of public schools from southern Louisiana, a trained researcher, a survivor of Katrina, and a residential expert of the charter takeover in New Orleans, she has a unique perspective and an educated point of view.

Chapter 17 of the book is dedicated to the Democrats For Educational Reform and the Educational Reform Now groups (DFER and ERN).

DFER supports vouchers, union busting and other reform measures that are common in other reform circles, but they are (to summarize Schneider) not “non-profit.” What makes them powerful is that they have the word “Democrat” in their name and it allows them to literally “train” democrats into accepting and advancing a protocol that actually is more conservative in nature – initiatives that align with school choice and charter movements. Schneider talks about in pages 276-279 how the DFER even promoted “mayoral control and charter favoritism.”

It may seem a little bit like conspiracy theory, but it does make sense. Why? Because DFER is non-profit and has the word “Democrat” in it and therefore does not get the big time donations from conservative donators.

Or do they?

DFER is run mostly by hedge-fund managers. One of them is Whitney Tilson, who happens to be a Teach For America alumnus and a vice-chair of New York’s KIPP charters. He also sits on the board of DFER. That alone links DFER, KIPP, and TFA (p.278).

At least in 2013, DFER had an Executive Director named Joe Williams. He just happened to “also head another reform group, this one actually is classed as a ‘nonprofit,’ and it doesn’t have the D-word in its title.”  Education Reform Now (ERN) is a “democratic” body understood to be a “sister entity” to DFER (p.279).

By 2010, ERN counted the Broad Foundation and the Walton Foundation as donors. “ERN enables hedge-fund managers to quietly donate to Democrats advancing the privatization agenda…. Looks like the big Republican money is available to DFER, after all – through its ERN back door” (p.279).

More from Schneider:

  • Remember that Whitney Tilson is also a founding member of Teach For America along with Wendy Kopp. Kopp was the mentor of Michelle Rhee. Their ventures literally share the same circulatory system.
  • Tilson sits on the KIPP board and sits on the DFER board.
  • Kopp sits on the Broad Foundation Board which feeds money to ERN who in turn feeds DFER. Kopp is also married to Richard Barth, the CEO of KIPP Foundation.
  • DFER through ERN conducts business with Rhee’s StudentsFirst.
  • Tilson, Kopp, and Rhee are TFA alums.

How does this link into BEST NC? Well, BEST NC is affiliated with an outfit named America Succeeds that feeds and supports various “reform” groups within certain states that bring together powerful business leaders to push “educational reform.” Look at the following article: – http://www.prwatch.org/news/2016/03/13065/how-dfer-leaders-channel-out-state-dark-money-colorado-and-beyond. The title alone alludes to the ability for DFER to channel “dark” money to out of state entities that promote anti-union, pro-charter, voucher supporting measures. It shows something interesting.

  • America Succeeds’s address in Colorado is 1390 Lawrence Street in Denver.
  • DFER’s Colorado office is located on 1390 Lawrence Street in Denver.
  • KIPP’s Denver charter schools are headquartered in Denver. At 1390 Lawrence Street.

Seems that TFA, StudentsFirst, DFER, ERN, KIPP are about as incestuously linked as a Greek god family tree and it is feeding support to groups like BEST NC who just happens to be the Carolina affiliate of America Succeeds.

Think about it. North Carolina is an ideal target. Why? Because of the following conditions:

  • Right-to-work state.
  • Elimination of due-process rights.
  • Removal of caps for number of charter schools which are not regulated.
  • GOP controlled state assembly.
  • Opportunity Grants increasing.
  • Push for merit pay.
  • The new state superintendent is a TFA alumnus – Mark Johnson.

Brenda Berg who is the CEO of BEST NC has increasingly brokered working relationships with many entities that have targeted public schools – John Locke Foundation being one.

BEST NC’s VP is Julie Kowal, who at one time was the Executive Director of CarolinaCan, which is the NC chapter of an outfit called 50CAN, a national “advocacy group” that just last year merged with another entity: StudentsFirst: https://studentsfirst.org/pages/50can-and-studentsfirst-merge-strengthen-support-local-education-leaders-across-country.

Now, add to that the fact that BEST NC has had some workshops/meetings with people from the The Hope Street Group which is a group of teacher leaders who receive a stipend in exchange for gathering and communicating educational concerns with public school teachers.

Also consider:

  • Hope Street Group receives funding from the Gates Foundation.
  • Hope Street Group and other teachers were not in the meeting that Michelle Rhee attended with lawmakers that was set up by BEST NC. That means that the dialogue between what happens at the meeting and other teachers will be brokered by BEST NC because if HOPE Street can’t go, then other teachers can’t go.

It could also mean that there might be an altered script that is read to these teachers.

And one other thing – the vice-president of BEST NC (Julie Kowal), the Director of the North Carolina Teachers Network for Hope Street Group (Katharine Correll), and the NC state superintendent (Mark Johnson) all have law degrees. Johnson practiced corporate law. Kowal and Correll worked with non-profits.

Additionally, Mark Johnson was granted a massive amount of power over public education through House Bill 17 and Senate Bill 4 (HB17 &SB4), power over charter schools, and the control of the Achievement School District and has retained the services of ex-Pat McCrory aids who possibly were enabled by other McCrory cronies, such as Art Pope who is linked to the American Legislative Exchange Council, otherwise known as ALEC. Art Pope is also part of the aforementioned John Locke Foundation.

And Mark Johnson is an admirer of Betsy DeVos. When interviewed by the Charlotte Observer for a Jan. 27th feature Johnson expressed his support for the neophyte DeVos.

When asked about her, Johnson didn’t hesitate: “I support her.”

Mark Johnson has only three to four more years (as a teacher and local school board member) of experience with public schools than DeVos, and DeVos has no experience with public schools.

It’s not ironic that Betsy DeVos, Trump’s selection for secretary of education, is also associated with ALEC. From sourcewatch.com it is learned that DeVos has “bankrolled the 501 (c) (4) group the American Federation for Children, the 501 (c) (3) group Alliance for School Choice and by having these groups participate in and fund the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).”

All of these connections seem more than coincidence and this perfect storm of timing, state politics, gerrymandering, and people in power can’t just be by chance. Could it?

So where are the teachers in this dialogue? The schools of education in one of the best college systems in the nation and from some of the highest ranking private schools in the country?

Well many teachers have been represented by groups like NCAE (which is an association and not a union). Multiple times the NC General Assembly has tried to weaken any group like NCAE through stopping automatic dues payments and other things such as what the Civitas Institute tried to do here – luring teachers in NCAE to “buy” their membership back.

Remember this?

civitas

That website was established by the Civitas Institute, which was founded by Art Pope. It showed NCAE members how to withdraw their membership in NCAE and make $450 because that is what they would not be spending in dues.

Furthermore, on February  8th, the NC GOP which holds a supermajority in both chambers of the NC General Assembly issued a formal invitation to Betsy DeVos to come and “share ideas” according the 2/9/17 edition of the News & Observer (http://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article131486504.html).

Now look at the graphic again:

privatizers

The NC GOP (where many of the very same lawmakers and policymakers in this Feb. 7th meeting with Rhee caucus together) were very instrumental in the following actions:

  • Removal of due-process rights
  • Graduate Degree Pay Bumps Removed
  • Standard 6
  • “Average” Raises
  • Less Money Spent per Pupil
  • Remove Caps on Class Sizes
  • Jeb Bush School Grading System
  • Cutting Teacher Assistants
  • Opportunity Grants
  • Virtual Schools
  • Reduction of Teacher Candidates in Colleges
  • Elimination of Teaching Fellows Program

Also look at the timeline in which BEST NC came into existence – 2013

  • Art Pope became McCrory’s budget director – 2013
  • Graduate Degree Pay Bumps Eliminated – 2013
  • 50Can created CarolinaCan – 2013
  • School Performance Grades – 2013
  • Due-process rights taken from new teachers – started in 2013
  • Charter school cap in NC lifted – 2014, but proposed in 2013.
  • Opportunity Grants – 2014
  • Hope Street Group in NC – 2015

And one last thing – the Feb. 7th meeting with Rhee and Harris does have a connection with SAS, a software company whose president, James Goodnight, is married to one of the founders and current Board Member of BEST NC, Anne Goodnight. Mrs. Goodnight was also one of the founders of Cary Academy, a rather prestigious private school in the Triangle area.

In a data-driven, educational-reform era that seems to crunch and use data to position evidence that supports their claims, it would make sense to align with SAS, an “American multinational developer of analytics software based in Cary, North Carolina. SAS develops and markets a suite of analytics software, which helps access, manage, analyze and report on data to aid in decision-making” (Wikipedia).

“Decision-making” is an interesting term in this discussion, because isn’t this meeting with Rhee just about asking questions?

Because it seems to have raised more questions.

But what this all really means is that public school advocates should and must hold our officials accountable and do everything they can within legal limits to counter the trends that are privatizing our public schools.

Part of that started today with the Moral March in Raleigh. The tens of thousands of people who came to show solidarity in overturning suffocating government policies is just a sampling of the strength that resides within the citizens of our state – 90% percent of whom are affiliated with the public schools either as a student, graduate, parent, or a combination.

An Open Letter to BEST NC Concerning Meeting With Michelle Rhee -Every Public School Teacher Needs To Be Aware Of This

Dear Mrs. Berg,

As the CEO of BEST NC, you and your team have led a coalition of business leaders who have helped steer the conversation surrounding public education in North Carolina. While many times as a public school teacher I have disagreed with your interpretation and analysis of the variables, causes, and effects that have shaped the public school system, I have appreciated your willingness to converse and exchange viewpoints.

I also have not only read, but studied the materials that BEST NC has released, and I did it with the thought that your coalition’s purpose was to remain non-partisan and open to all sides of the discussion.

As soon as one visits the “About Us” page of your website, best-nc.org, the following appears:

BEST NC is a non-profit, non-partisan coalition of business leaders committed to improving North Carolina’s education system through policy and advocacy. We do this by convening a broad constituency; encouraging collaboration around a shared, bold vision for education; and advocating for policies, research, programs, and awareness that will significantly improve education in North Carolina.

The word “non-partisan” really stands out to me, especially in a state where the public education system has been rather manipulated by partisan ideologies.

And then one can view the “Our Approach” tab and read:

BEST NC is a non-profit, non-partisan coalition of business leaders committed to improving North Carolina’s education system through policy and advocacy. We work to…

  • Convene a broad constituency of education stakeholders,
  • Inform an engaged business community, and
  • Advocate for policies, research, programs, and awareness that will move the needle…
  • …toward a shared, bold vision for education.

The words that resonate most in this are “convene,” “broad constituency,”” advocate,” and “shared vision.”

And while you tout that your group is pro-public education and seeks to “collaborate” with others, news that BEST NC will be holding a “legislative gathering” on February 7th makes me rather suspicious that the non-partisan approach you claim BEST NC maintains is not real.

My suspicion is not caused by the fact you are meeting. It arises because of whom you are meeting with.

In my 18 years of teaching in public schools and in my active advocacy for fully-funded public schools, I have never encountered a more polarizing figure than Michelle Rhee. In fact, I (and many others) consider Ms. Rhee the antithesis of how to approach helping public schools. In every endeavor she has undertaken in “improving” educational outcomes, she has left disunity, damage, and a large void in her wake.

No one really needs to exert much energy to see that her tenure in Washington D. C. was disastrous. She clearly endorses high-stakes testing, elimination of due-process rights, and the closing of schools she deems unsuccessful because she values a test grade over student growth.

No one really needs to dig deep and realize that her Project IMPACT initiative in Washington DC has been widely scrutinized because of the use of a “carrot and stick” mentality and its adherence to “teaching toward a test,” both of which run counter to the very premise of having a “skilled citizenry.” Michelle Rhee simply champions efforts to make teachers “jump” through hoops to get students to do well on arbitrary tests rather than empowering students to grow in their skills. It pays no attention to other factors that affect student achievement like poverty, lack of funding, overcrowding, all of which exist widely in North Carolina.

However, it is what she stands for now that is even more frightening considering current trends in North Carolina. As a strong advocate for charter school growth and vouchers for private schools, Ms. Rhee represents efforts to privatize public institutions which runs counter to our state’s constitution which your site quotes.

The General Assembly shall provide by taxation and otherwise for a general and uniform system of free public schools… wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.– Article IX, Section 2(1), North Carolina Constitution

The invitation to include George Parker only reinforces that BEST NC is uniting champions of school choice and value added measurements with lawmakers and business leaders who can further those causes. You claim in Billy Ball’s article in NC Policy Watch (1/27),

“The legislative gathering is always closed to media, always has and always will be as a promise to members. Because they want to feel comfortable asking elected officials and experts candid questions off the record.” – See more at: http://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org/2017/01/27/public-education-advocates-cry-foul-legislators-private-meeting-controversial-school-reformer-michelle-rhee/#sthash.Zn4WUvda.vHutAkcx.dpuf

So much for open dialogue and collaboration. In fact, it makes it all appear that it is part of a larger agenda.

Consider the timing. The election cycle has just passed. Gerrymandering has enabled the GOP to maintain majorities in the NC General Assembly. We have a president who champions school choice and vouchers. North Carolina already has been infected with several “reforms” and our state is a “right-to-work” state which has no unions, contrary to what Mr. Ball reported.

And the two groups that will not be involved in your “candid” discussion are the two groups who have the biggest stake in public education: public school teachers and the public.

Ball’s article later reports,

“Still, Berg said there’s nothing secretive or inappropriate about BEST N.C.’s gathering with Rhee and lawmakers, which she described as a reception with a guest speaker, followed by a brief Q&A session. No state policies will be on the table; nor will legislators be holding a discussion of state public policy.

“The beauty of this is we want our members to ask really blunt questions,” said Berg. She acknowledged, however, that she’s not surprised, given the press attention surrounding Rhee’s education reforms, that some would be anxious over her attendance.

“I don’t have concern with people being upset about the national speaker,” Berg said. “She shut down schools. That made some people mad.”

When it comes to public education, “blunt” questions do need to be asked, but those discussions need to involve all parties.

  • Why is this “legislative gathering” about public institutions and public monies so secretive?
  • Why allow someone who clearly does not have a good track record with actually improving schools come and educate selected people who can make critical decisions about our public schools?
  • Why not have these discussions with actual scholars in educational research? Have they been invited?
  • Why are there not any teachers or teacher groups involved in this?

 

There are very concrete reasons why people would be “upset about the national speaker.”

But I am more upset that a group that supposedly celebrates open discussion and collaboration would broker a meeting such as this when what will be discussed are most certainly reform ideas that run counter to really improving public schools and still profit a selected few.

That is the reason that I am writing you. And that is the reason that I am making this an open letter in hopes that all public school teachers can learn more about what might be happening when a known privatizer who devalues teachers is coming to speak with the very lawmaking group that crafts how well public schools are resourced and how teachers are treated.

That is the reason I am also asking that you reconsider actually having this meeting with Michelle Rhee or make it more open to other stakeholders because BEST NC’s credibility as being “non-partisan” will suffer.

It certainly has changed my opinion of BEST NC.

 

Curiosity Didn’t Kill The Cat – It Made The Cat a Better Student

About nine years ago, I read Thomas Friedman’s iconic book The World Is Flat 3.0, an updated edition of The World Is Flat. Although, I do not have my original annotated copy (I like to take notes in books – you never know when you will blog about them), one particular argument from Friedman has always remained in my frontal lobe – the need for curiosity in our students.

Flat

Segue to today where I read a tweet from EdNC.org referencing May 24th post on Valerie Strauss’s blog for The Washington Post, called The Answer Sheet. The post was entitled “Can we please stop holding up China’s schools as a model for the U.S.? It’s ridiculous” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/05/24/can-we-please-stop-holding-up-chinas-schools-as-a-model-for-the-u-s-its-ridiculous/). It’s very much worth the read.

In a nation where we tend to compare our students’ test scores with our counterparts in the world, it is sobering to think that we do not lead the world in student scores. That information can fuel fault-finding and then give reason to reform or even “re-form” our schools.

In 2013 a book was released by Amanda Ripley, a journalist who wrote for Time and The Atlantic, called The Smartest Kids in the World.  She followed three students from the states who traveled to different countries to enter different education systems, notably South Korea, Finland, and Poland.

smarter

This is not the first time I have encountered Amanda Ripley’s writing. She wrote that now famous cover story for Time Magazine on then Washington, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee in 2008 called “How To Fix America’s Schools”. The cover picture is somewhat famous for it shows Rhee with a broom as if she is sweeping the D.C. schools clean.

time-cover-how-to-fix-american-schools

Rhee did bring in sweeping reforms along with pink slips for almost every person she encountered who did not fit her profile of success. Ripley’s article presented Rhee as a pseudo-savior for school reform. It was almost hero worship.

But Rhee failed. She not only failed; she failed miserably. There are still unresolved allegations of test tampering. Any “gains” that the D.C. schools had under Rhee have always been cast in doubt.

Needless to say Rhee went on as a face for charter school growth and privatization after her tumultuous tenure as D.C. Chancellor. Furthermore, it made me think that Ripley’s angle on what is god for public education may not actually be correct. Therefore, I read The Smartest Kids in the World with personal and professional bias.

And Ripley did nothing to change that bias. In an attempt to show that poverty is not as big an obstacle in student achievement, I sensed that what Ripley’s book really showed was that schools around the world are simply the same in one very basic respect – they are reflections of the society and culture that they are set in.  In actuality, Ripley’s book tried to teach me something that I think we as Americans already knew – or used to know.

While I respect Ripley’s attempt to give clarity on the need to reform schools, I think what she did was lend lucidity on our need to recapture some of the things we used to do in education.

Students in South Korea work extremely hard, but their obsession for testing and ranking places students on a track that they must travel practically the rest of their lives. Poland’s schools shows a resiliency of a people who have seen much in the last 80 years and how all can benefit from a good education. Finland shows what can happen when teachers are revered as professionals and have more control over pedagogy and kids are allowed to play and experiment.

Remember when testing was not the beast it is today with the advent of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top? Remember when the focus of federal and state governments was to adequately fund public schools? Remember when teachers were more regarded as professionals rather than scapegoats by politicians and reformers?

I do. And that was when we as Americans did not compare ourselves with other countries to gain a sense of ourselves. Certainly we can relate to other countries in looking at the obstacles that keep us from becoming greater, but to always compare ourselves to other countries will always leave us unsatisfied.

Reading that post on China from The Answer Sheet reminded me that looking to others to not only identify our “problems” in schooling but also on how to “solve” them (at least have the appearance of solving) is not the authentic way to get better.

Rather we should compare ourselves to what we want to become and go from there. That’s because growth is usually an inside job. What I mean is that we must change from the inside out – not the outside in. And we must regain more than re-form. In short, we need our kids to be curious again.

Now back to Friedman. In his book (version 3.0) he talks about the need for curiosity. Chapter 7 says that the CQ (curiosity quotient) + PQ (Passion Quotient) is more important than the IQ (Intelligence Quotient). He specifically states, “Nobody works harder than a curious kid.”

We need to not test students so dang much. We need to prioritize the learning environment and the process and we need to let teachers facilitate learning, not administer assessments.

And let kids be curious and give them the time to be curious. Curiosity leads to personal investment in learning and independence. Curiosity leads to innovation and problem solving.

Bubbling in answers to tests that teachers have no control over making or grading so that we can measure our results against other countries and constantly be disappointed does not make for a great education system.

It’s the hallmark of a country that is losing what it used to have and can have again.

Teach For ‘Merica!

There was a very disconcerting report from Arika Herron in April 28th’s edition of the Winston-Salem Journal. In an article entitled “School district could partner with Teach for America to fill persistent vacancies”, Herron describes that the WSFCS system is looking at trying to fill persistently hard-to-staff job vacancies through alternative means.

There are many who look at Teach For America as fulfilling a need. Bright, young, energetic recent college graduates can devote two years (sometimes more) to educating students in hard-to-staff schools. According to Herron’s article, there are studies that show these teachers having effectiveness like their “counterparts” in the schools where they are placed.

However there are many, many critics of TFA. Sometimes referred to as “Temps For America”, TFA only requires candidates to complete a summer “crash” course in teaching before placed in schools. Critics look at this as bringing in ill-equipped teachers into schools who will only stay for a couple of years at most. In essence, it only puts a Band-Aid over a gaping wound.

Dana Goldstein’s book The Teacher Wars spends some time exploring the rise of TFA and other “corps” driven ways to counter teacher shortages. While attempting to treat the subject of the reform movement in education with objectivity, Goldstein shares what are perceived as positives and negatives of Teach For America, but one quote really seems to garner the most attention from me. It is from Catherine Michna, a TFA alumna, who states,

“They work in service of a corporate reform agenda that rids communities of veteran-teachers, privatizes public schools, and forces a corporatized, data-driven culture upon low-income communities with unique dynamics and unique challenges” (p.196).

That’s not flattering coming from someone who was a part of the program.

Michelle Rhee, the former firebrand chancellor of the Washington D.C., made national headlines with her method of “house-cleaning” in the D.C. schools firing many principals and teachers immediately. She is a TFA alumna who is now championing the charter school movement in California. She expounds on TFA’s credentials quite often.

Diane Ravitch is well-known for voicing her opinions about TFA and opposing the ideology of reformers like Rhee. She even devotes a chapter in her bestselling book Reign of Error to dissecting Teach For America. She opens Chapter 14 with a claim made by proponents of TFA and then immediately follows it with a statement on the “Reality” of TFA.

CLAIM Teach for America recruits teachers and leaders whose high expectations will one day ensure that every child has an excellent education.

REALITY Teach for America sends bright young people into tough classrooms where they get about the same results as other bright young people in similar classrooms but leave the profession sooner.

In a recent March 21st, 2016  post on her iconic blog entitled “Insider:Big Trouble Inside TFA”, Ravitch posted an anonymous letter from an employee at TFA chronicling layoffs and improprieties (https://dianeravitch.net/2016/03/21/insider-big-trouble-inside-tfa/). That post nearly coincided with news that San Francisco was terminating its relationship with TFA due to poor results.

Yet, I am not simply wanting to debate TFA’s merits. There are some great teachers who naturally possess qualities and a drive to succeed that allows them to be successful in teaching. But I do have a concern over the length that many TFA’s serve in classrooms because if teaching is a professional endeavor, then does that not denote some sort of commitment beyond two years?

I would argue that it takes almost three years to even get a handle on the teaching profession. Dealing with actually developing a craft, much less get a handle on the curriculum takes time. Most teachers student-teach longer than TFA “graduates” actually train, and that is not even talking about the course work and observations beforehand.

Two to three years may not afford one person an idea of what it is like to undergo a curriculum change, a change in leadership, a new evaluation system, or a new round of standardized tests. Gosh, it took me over two years to just develop an immune system that had come into enough contact with students to not get sick every week with some malady.

Maybe it is just that fact that some teachers spend more time preparing to become teachers than many TFA’s actually serve in schools that makes me wonder.

But I believe the real issue is why would these people need to be recruited? What would make the teaching profession so hard to staff in a state that once boasted one of the best teacher education systems in its colleges and universities? How could conditions become such that school systems like WSFCS even need to look at alternative paths for teachers to become “certified” to place in a school?

Kevin Bastian of the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina (EPIC) wrote an interesting piece for EdNC.org on May 22nd entitled “Staffing North Carolina’s classrooms”. In it, he highlighted the decrease in enrollment in teacher preparation programs while a teacher shortage is continuing. It is very much worth the read, not that I agree with all that he says.

What I truly feel is the root of this need for teacher recruitment through programs like TFA is a simple lack of respect for the teaching profession that many state governments have made commonplace. With stagnating salaries, more students in more classrooms, VAM evaluations, and an emphasis on singular test scores, many teachers do not feel supported and respected. Potential teachers stop even considering becoming career teachers.

In my youth, the teacher was respected he/she was the teacher. In fact, my mother believed a teacher over me when it came to academic progress. Simply put, the teacher was respected because the occupation was valued.

Is that the case today?

Sorry, that is not a rhetorical question.