Civil Discourse in Public Education “Reform” Cannot Happen If You Refuse to Involve Teachers

civil discourse

Over the last year (and week), much has been said about the need for civility and constructive dialogue especially when discussing the topic of public education.

John Hood has a recent op-ed in EdNC.org entitled “Carolina needs civil, curious leaders.” It begins,

If you are involved in politics and public policy in North Carolina, I have some unwelcome news: lots of North Carolinians are dissatisfied with the quality of our political discourse and leadership (https://www.ednc.org/2017/11/22/carolina-needs-civil-curious-leaders/).

I am usually not in agreement with Hood on many things, but I do agree with this statement. He makes a good point.

However, I do take issue with the context in which it is said and the unrevised history that predates it. Hopefully, this post will be civil enough to explain. And yes, it is a little ironic that the subject of civil discourse be the central topic on a post by someone who named his blog Caffeinated Rage.

When you write a blog, you can control the dialogue. If someone makes a comment on a post who does not agree with what is said, it can be dismissed and never posted, but I do not make disagreement a reason for not posting a comment (although cursing and profanity are not published as well as threats to a person).

The issue that this teacher takes is that in order for civil discourse to happen, all parties need to be at least invited to the conversation. And there are a lot of people who have been deliberately not invite to the table, namely teachers.

Mr. Hood has written extensively about the educational reforms that have happened in North Carolina, mostly in praise of what the North Carolina General Assembly has done in the past five years. Just recently he published “On reform, quicken the pace” (https://www.ednc.org/2017/09/25/reform-quicken-pace/). He began that one with the following:

The annual testing data and report cards for North Carolina’s public schools are out. Here are the headlines. Achievement rose in some areas and declined in others, with most changes being fairly small. Our graduation rate continued to rise, but other data suggest some of these graduates aren’t really college- or career-ready.

The testing mechanisms, the formulas used to measure and disseminate data, and the criteria of the report card grades were constructed by lawmakers and their appointed officials. What civil discourse was there in the creation of those measures?

The “requirements,” the “evaluation protocols,” and the funding of resources were also in the control of lawmakers. Was there any civil discourse when those were created and enacted?

And data about being “college – or career ready?” Betsy DeVos recently gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal and made the following claim:

Children starting kindergarten this year face a prospect of having 65 percent of the jobs they will ultimately fill not yet having been created” (http://www.chalkbeat.com/posts/us/2017/11/21/to-back-up-claim-that-schools-must-change-devos-cites-made-up-statistic-about-the-future-of-work/).

There is absolutely no evidence for that data. Just read the rest of the Chalkbeat report referenced above.

DeVos is not one to be able to bring a lot of people to the table for a civil discourse. She is too polarizing. And while Hood has defended her (“DeVos attackers surrender higher ground”) with a nice armor, he seems to forget that in the discussion of public education, it probably would help if the people in the discussion actually were knowledgeable of public education. In that defense Hood said,

Conservatives like DeVos who believe that applying conservative principles to education policy would benefit students and the public at large could certainly be mistaken. But we have good reasons for advocating the reforms we do. Those reasons stem from personal experience, empirical evidence, and basic insights about why organizations succeed or fail. In our view, those who question our motives are implicitly granting that they can’t refute our arguments. They are surrendering the high ground, not fighting for it” (https://www.carolinajournal.com/opinion-article/devos-attackers-surrender-high-ground/).

The use of “we” with Betsy DeVos, the claim of “personal experiences” about public education, “empirical evidence” that was not evidenced by DeVos’s earlier claim on future jobs, and “basic insights” about a public good that is not an organization is not grounds for claiming the high ground.

In fact (and in the most civil way possible), the very reforms that Hood and others in the conservative movement have championed have done more to hurt public education than help it. Consider:

  • Opportunity Grants
  • Unregulated charter school growth
  • Push for merit pay
  • Removal of due-process rights
  • Removal of graduate degree pay
  • Principal pay restructuring
  • Change in standardized tests
  • Changes in how schools are graded
  • Changed in teacher recruitment
  • Teacher pay unevenly restructured
  • School funding debated in a hurried fashion
  • State Board suing the State Superintendent over unconstitutional transfer of power
  • An Innovative School District that has little public support

And that’s just a small sampling of “reforms” by a General Assembly that has had more laws overturned in court than they had special sessions to come up with those laws. That’s the same General Assembly that forced a Voter ID law in gerrymandered districts.

Where was the civil discourse in those actions? That is not a rhetorical question. Where was the civil discourse there?

Those actions have literally thrown public school teachers (especially veterans) out of the very room where the discourse is supposed to happen. How else can we be heard and more importantly the students whom we serve be heard without raising our voices with higher pitched tones?

Hood stated in the originally referenced op-ed,

“I believe in the value of structured, face-to-face programs. But they can’t scale up large enough to solve the problem on their own. Everyone has a role to play.

We can start by making concerted efforts to avoid politicizing all our personal and professional relationships, or thinking we can always know why “they” disagree with us. Why not ask them?”

Hard to be “face-to-face” when you aren’t allowed in the room. And yes, everyone has a “role to play,” but when a few are constantly redefining the very roles that others are playing, then it is already an uncivil situation.

And veteran teachers are not being “asked” about why they disagree with these “reforms.”

Because someone claims to have taken the “high ground” does not dismiss the fact that many have been thrown out of the conversation. Because someone claims to have taken the “high ground” does not dismiss that there is no empirical evidence that what North Carolina has done as far as “reforms” are concerned has actually helped the public education system. Because someone claims to have taken the “high ground” does not dismiss the fact that someone who is highly financed tends to be able to command a least a sizable reading audience.

But those claims do not make that someone “more correct.”

It means that public school advocates are having to speak up more frequently and with more volume to at least be heard with the hopes of being listened to. And many of those advocates are the very teachers who civilly discourse with hundreds of students, parents, and public school stakeholders on daily basis without politicizing the very issues that bring them all together.

It is why some of us drink a lot of coffee and write a blog.

“At” The Table or “On” the Table – The Need for Teacher Input in Educational “Reform”

You can be either “at” the table or “on” the table.

For teachers in North Carolina, there are many other prepositions that could identify the relationship between the legislation process and teacher input such as “under” the table, “without” a place at the table, or “behind” the table.

But we are really never “at” the table.

Julie Kowal’s recent perspective on EdNC.org entitled “North Carolina’s new approach to teacher recruitment,” praised the new version of the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program to be launched this year.

As a veteran public school teacher, when I see BEST NC defending or lauding a piece of reform, I take it with a grain of salt.

Actually, it’s an entire salt block.

Aside from the glowing generalities that sprinkle rhetorical glitter throughout this piece, I could not help but think that like so many other “reforms” and “innovations” that have been created and enacted in North Carolina, this one lacks a crucial and vital component: teacher input.

Kowal is the Vice-President of Policy and Research at BEST NC, a “non-partisan” business consortium for education advocacy. In the few years that it has been in existence, BEST NC has helped to craft policy and “reform” to supposedly strengthen public education in North Carolina which has waned in the past few years according to her and many others.

Kowal explains,

North Carolina has previously led the nation in education innovations, and will do it again, with new and pioneering solutions designed specifically to solve the talent challenges our schools face today (https://www.ednc.org/2017/11/08/north-carolinas-new-approach-teacher-recruitment/).

Those “new and pioneering solutions” she is talking about include the new principal pay plan, the rise of charter schools, the expansion of vouchers, the gutting and rebirth of a distant relative in the Teaching Fellows Program, and much more.

They all have one thing in common: no teacher input.

When the NC General Assembly went into GOP hands and McCrory came to the governor’s mansion, the process of “reforming” education began in earnest. There was the removal of due-process rights, the removal of graduate degree pay, Standard 6, push for merit pay, bonus pay, removal of longevity pay, removal of class size caps and then the placing of class size caps without funds to hire extra teachers or build extra classrooms, etc.

The list goes on.

Were there any teachers involved in these reforms? Any teacher advocacy groups consulted? Any way a teacher could chime in?

Those are not rhetorical questions. And considering that the current General Assembly seems bent upon diluting the voice of groups like NCAE, it should not be a stretch to realize that teachers are not consulted when it comes to schools.

The Report on Education Legislation from the 2017 Session of the General Assembly released by DPI and the State Board has a list of all of the bills that were passed that in one way or another affect public education.

From pages 4 and 5.

Bills 2Bills 1

Excluding the “local bills,” how many of those bills and “reforms” had teacher input? How many of those initiatives had any consideration from teachers and asked for contributions from public school educators?

Look at SB599. Sen. Chad Barefoot’s idea of streamlining the teacher recruitment process literally allows for teachers to enter the profession with very little preparation. Was there teacher input?

Again, not a rhetorical question. And do not let it be lost in the world of sadistic irony that Barefoot was the chief champion of the newest version of the Teacher Fellows Program.

When Kowal praises the new version of the Teaching Fellows Program, it is hard not to ask if BEST NC had a hand in its current rendition. Their ties to the business community are apparent, but can they actually really claim that they have extended relationships with actual teachers and teacher groups?

I do not think so. And that resembles the modus operandi of the NC General Assembly who even this past year crafted in a special session the very “laws” (like HB17) currently debated in courts that would enable a man with hardly any educational experience to run without checks and balances the entire public school system.

And the very criteria that measure teacher effectiveness and school performance are established and constantly changed by that same body of lawmakers without teacher input will always translate into a narrative that reform is always needed.

Kowal stated in her perspective that we as a state did lead the nation in educational innovation.

We sure did.

But that was before teachers were not allowed to be “at” the table any longer.

Open Letter to the Registered Voter Who Believes in Public Schools

Note: I have combed through all of my op-eds, posts, rants, and lists and compiled from them what follows as a last posting to help get people to vote next Tuesday for pro-public education candidates.

The current General Assembly and governor are very scared of public school teachers and those who support them. Without their support in this next election cycle, many candidates for office simply cannot win. That’s why the governor and NCGA have touted so many “band-aid” style electioneering schemes to make them appear pro-public education.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

When the GOP won control of both houses in the North Carolina General Assembly in the elections of 2010, it was the first time that the Republicans had that sort of power since 1896. Add to that the election of Pat McCrory as governor in 2012, and the GOP has been able to run through multiple pieces of legislation that have literally changed a once progressive state into one of regression. From the Voter ID law to HB2 to fast tracking fracking to neglecting coal ash pools, the powers that-now-be have furthered an agenda that has simply been exclusionary, discriminatory, and narrow-minded.

And nowhere is that more evident than the treatment of public education.

Make no mistake. The GOP-led General Assembly has been using a deliberate playbook that other states have seen implemented in various ways. Look at Ohio and New Orleans and their for-profit charter school implementation. Look at New York State and the Opt-Out Movement against standardized testing.  Look at Florida and its Jeb Bush school grading system. In fact, look anywhere in the country and you will see a variety of “reform” movements that are not really meant to “reform” public schools, but rather re-form public schools in an image of a profit making enterprise that excludes the very students, teachers, and communities that rely on the public schools to help as the Rev. William Barber would say “create the public.”

North Carolina’s situation may be no different than what other states are experiencing, but how our politicians have proceeded in their attempt to dismantle public education is worth noting. The list below is not by any means complete, but it paints a clear picture.

  • Removal of due-process rights – This keeps teachers from being able to advocate for schools.
  • Graduate Degree Pay Bumps Removed – Removed a means for teachers to invest in their profession.
  • Standard 6 – Teacher evaluation protocols are arbitrary at best
  • Push for Merit Pay – Never has worked in education. Besides, all teachers assume duties outside of teaching.
  • “Average” Raises – Average and Actual do not mean the same thing.
  • Attacks on Teacher Advocacy Groups – specifically NCAE.
  • Revolving Door of Standardized Tests – And many of the tests are made and graded by for-profit entities.
  • Less Money Spent per Pupil – NC still has not approached pre-recession levels.
  • Remove Caps on Class Sizes – Teachers are teaching more students and sometimes more class sections.
  • Jeb Bush School Grading System – This actually only shows how poverty affects public education.
  • Cutting Teacher Assistants – Hurts elementary kids the most.
  • Opportunity Grants – A Voucher scheme that profits private and religious schools.
  • Unregulated growth of charter schools – No empirical data shows any improvement in student achievement with charter schools.
  • Virtual Schools – These are hemorrhaging in enrollment.
  • Achievement School Districts – Again, an idea that “profits” only those who take taxpayer money and has no successful track record no matter what state they have been established (lookout Georgia!).
  • Reduction of Teacher Candidates in Colleges – We are lacking in numbers to help supply the next generation of teachers for a growing state.
  • Elimination of Teaching Fellows Program – Another way to discourage bright students from becoming teachers.

So what can be done? Actually lots. And it all starts in the ballot boxes.

Remember, North Carolina has 100 counties, each with a county public school system. According to the Labor and Economic Analysis Division of the NC Dept. of Commerce, the public schools are at least the second-largest employers in nearly 90 of them—and the largest employer, period, in over 65. That means teachers represent a base for most communities, the public school system.  And they are strong in numbers. Add to that their supporters. The numbers get bigger.

If public education matters to you at all, then please understand the damage this General Assembly and governor have done to our public schools and communities. The number of teachers leaving the state or the profession is staggering. It is has given rise to a new state slogan: “North Carolina – First in Teacher Flight.” If our communities are to recover and thrive, then this trend must stop.

Do your homework and see which candidates truly support our public schools.

Educate yourself, then please vote.

vote

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou Reform? I Mean Re-Form?

In October of 2014 toward the end of the contentious and expensive Senate Race between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis, I wrote a piece that Chad Nance and the Camel City Dispatch kindly posted entitled “Oh Thom Tillis, Where Art Thou?” It explored the use of the crossroads motif in the film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and how the movie was a metaphorical depiction of making a Faustian deal in order to gain earthly power.

I began the piece with the following:

Film and literature have that wonderful quality of not only imitating life and giving us a clearer picture of human nature, but they can instruct us on how to better our lives and make wise choices.

I love the Coen brothers’ movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” This cinematic tale loosely based on “The Odyssey” is an entertaining, yet intellectually stimulating work of art. I have heard many teachers using it as a tool for class because they see how students could revisit many of the concepts learned American history and American literature.

Currently, I am showing part of this film to my AP English Language and Composition classes to take a look at concepts local color, allusion, colloquial rhetoric, and overall cultural value. And while Thom Tillis is not running against Kay Hagan in this election cycle there is a lot of perspective one can gain from this film for the current 2016 election, especially when it comes to the use of one word: reform.

Just look at the word closely.

Reform

Homer Stokes plays a populist (and racist) gubernatorial candidate who is running a grass-roots campaign against the incumbent Menalaus “Pappy” O’Daniel, a flour magnate. Making stump speeches and kissing children along the way he makes a claim that is one of the better lines in the movie. He says,

“We’re gonna take the broom of reform and sweep this state clean!”

 

It is as if the word “reform” automatically garners votes. When the word is stated, many people hearing it are conditioned to believe that what we have had before is not acceptable. And the person who states the word gets to claim the title of “reformer”, thus placing a spun, yet positive, image on himself.

The people in the state of Mississippi seem so enraptured by the “reform” message of Homer Stokes that even Pappy O’Daniel’s farcical political brain trust thinks of trying to use some of that “reform” as well which is humorous because they are the incumbants. There is a great scene when the governor and his son, Junior, have a comical exchange about the word “reform”.

PAPPY
Languishing! God*** campaign is
languishing! We need a shot inna
arm!  Hear me, boys? Inna god****
ARM!  Election held tomorra, that
Sonofab**** Stokes would win it in a
walk!
JUNIOR
Well he’s the reform candidate, Daddy.
Pappy narrows his eyes at him, wondering what he’s getting at.
PAPPY
…Yeah?
JUNIOR
Well people like that reform. Maybe
we should get us some.
Pappy whips off his hat and slaps at Junior with it.
PAPPY
I’ll reform you, you soft-headed
Sonofab****! How we gonna run reform
when we’re the damn incumbent!

 

They really have no idea of what “reform” they may use; they just know that it is a conditioned buzzword used by many to create concern and instill fear.

Ironically, that same use of “reform” has been used by many in office or seeking office here in North Carolina. These people have used the anthem of reform to re-form law to help propel their own political ambitions when what was being reformed really did not need reforming but maybe needed more resources and attention.

Look at the word carefully again.

Reform

Now look at it this way.

Re-Form

Same sounds to make both words, but they have different meanings. “Reform” seems to want to improve something. “Re-form” connotes that something is taken apart and then rebuilt to suit someone’s needs, even if the original form was viable.

People said that we needed to “reform” voting registration, so the law was “re-formed” into the new Voter ID law. Something that didn’t need reforming was re-formed along with other provisions to ensure that a few certain people benefitted.

Another example is public schooling here in North Carolina. GOP powers in the General Assembly used the mantle of “reform” to “re-form” the public school system into a shadow of its former self. Just look at what has been used to “reform” public schools within the last three to four years.

  • Frozen teacher pay
  • Removal of Graduate pay
  • Removal of Due-Process rights
  • Standard 6 and ASW
  • Testing measures
  • School Grades
  • ASD districts
  • Opportunity Grants
  • Removal of class size caps
  • Less money per pupil
  • Charter School Growth
  • And the list goes on and on.

That’s not reform. That’s “re-form”!

Homer Stokes does not get elected in the movie. He is found to be a racist and an unforgiving man by our heroes, three of whom are “reformed” through the penal system while the other is a black man who sold his soul to the devil. (I guess that would be religious freedom).

Reform does not always have to be a bad word, not if it is done with noble intentions transparently and without special interest. But right now, I would say we certainly need a lot of repealing (HB2) and restoration (respect for teachers and public schools) in order to recapture what used to make us great.