Sunday, September 10, 2017

XQSuperSchoolLive and High School Theatre

On Friday Night Sept 8, Laurene Powell Jobs produced a star-studded TV show, XQSuperSchoolLive that was broadcast on all four major networks simultaneously. 

The premise of the show was that High School needs to be redesigned to be more exciting, more relevant, and more current. That idea is certainly worth the conversation she and the performers ( pop icons Kelly Clarkson, Justin Timberlake and Chance the Rapper; and actors Viola Davis, Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hanks and others), insisted that we need to have. Her case that it takes all of us to produce schools that are responsive and supportive to all children is, in my experience, undeniably true.

Jobs' efforts to make sure the country focused on this topic for at least one Friday night, and that we discuss Education is laudable. I'd like to thank her, and thank the presenters for what I’m assuming was their well-intentioned participation.

The show brought to mind three different show experiences for me.

1.      Disney productions like High School Musical with lots of flash and production glitz.
2.      Up with People- the 1970’s singing and dancing show meant to steer easily influenced young people away from the excesses of the 1960’s counter culture, and
3.      Cappies Galas I attended when I was teaching High School theatre.(Cappies is a competitive program that combines journalism and theatre productions across a region or state. )

 The first two recalls might be read as negative comparisons, since neither High School Musical nor Up with People will be remembered for their authenticity or great cultural contribution, but the Cappies connection actually has a positive element to it.

The formula for Cappies is that high school theatre programs across a region produce shows (as my students did) which journalism students attend and review.  The top reviews are published in commercial media outlets as well as school papers and non-profit outlets, training a new generation of writer/journalists. At the end of the year the shows and performers are nominated and winners awarded in a range of categories comparable to the list for Oscars or Tonys, encouraging and developing another generation of designer, director, performers.  It is a phenomenal program that introduces many high schoolers to more discerning ways of approaching their art.

Our Cappies Awards Gala for the mid-Atlantic is a grand red-carpet do at the Kennedy Center in D.C. Tickets are much sought after-- for High School theatre, because each show nominated for Cappies show of the year does a musical number or scene: Musical numbers from shows like 42nd Street, Amadeus, Les Mis, Rent, and Sound of Music, and play scenes from Streetcar, Long Day’s Journey, Raisin in the Sun and others. It’s a grand night, attended by local dignitaries and proud parents, and the performances are staggeringly well done. Like the XQLive show, it showcases the bright beautiful performances of highly talented young people. At both you could see:
  •  Young people tightly choreographed and smiling broadly for the audience.
  •   Lighting and Tech designs crafted to maximize excitement and impact.
  •  Punchy spoken segments interspersed with professional quality musical numbers and staged dialogues or monologues.

The only difference being that at the Cappies productions students themselves contribute much of the lighting design, choreography, and production choices.

The writing resonances of what XQLive raised were less positive because at the beginning, its stated thesis was that current public High Schools still operate like they did in the early 1900s.  Having taught English or Theatre for the better part of the last 20 years, I knew this could not be further from the truth. 

The classroom photo with an old chalk board and blank walls around a set of single rowed student desks  shown on XQLive was nothing like the classrooms I taught in or that my colleagues outfit each year for their students.  From whiteboards/smartboards and projectors to tables that could be grouped differently unit to unit, to highly colorful decorations and student work displays, current classrooms are about flexibility of instruction, inclusivity, and incorporating current technology in the most engaging ways. 

From that moment on, when the show misrepresented what is really going on in public High Schools, I couldn’t take the rest of the show seriously as an unbiased open invitation to the Education discussion.  Already, built into the base premise was the idea that teachers were teaching in dated, uninteresting ways that did not support young people in developing 21st century life skills; something I knew to be antithetical to what teachers do.

The claims coming out of the initial network journalists’ bits were equally misleading and flawed, and I had to wonder if the journalists had done their homework about the words they were saying.  Had they fact checked for balance and factuality the things they were saying, as I taught my Cappies journalists to do?

Anyone knowledgeable or informed about education would know the high stakes standardized tests factoids that they were quoting were invalid measures of school performance, and that efforts to streamline High School to produce those data points were exactly what is pushing schools away from creative design cycle and interactive learning—even as teachers struggle to hold onto differentiated and individualized learning. 

One could excuse the performers for not having been in the classroom for a while, or could we? Were they simply repeating what the PR firms had given them to say? Or had they brought to this show the kind of dramaturgy that my theatre students brought to developing the authenticity of the pieces they produced and performed?  Had anyone done their table work, their research, their due diligence? Did any of them realize the subtext? Or its effect?

No one can deny that meeting the needs of the wide variations in experiences and talents among contemporary adolescents is hard.—even sometimes almost impossible. No one can deny that the challenges of  inspiring widely different students is complex and requires much of contemporary teachers.  No one can deny that there is wide disparity in what is provided to schools in different districts and states that can impair the quality of what teachers can deliver.  No one can deny that all students do not and will not like high school, some do, some don't, some are mired in much more than high school as their personal work during adolescence. No one can deny that the test and punish movement (data and accountability) of the last 20 years has taken a toll on both students and teachers in the high schools of our country. All those things do need to be discussed, and Jobs' case that communities need to come together to address them and all Ed issues is critically important.  

However, to insist that high schools haven’t changed in the last 100 years denies the innovations created by high school alumni of the recent past, who have led the way to the most dynamically changing culture ever known.  It denies the skills and talents of all those handsome, smiling, singing and dancing faces and bodies that performed so adeptly on Friday night during XQLive, because it is the programs in high schools across America that have nurtured the beginnnings of those skilled and innovative performers and thinkers.

It is our Science and History, our Math and Arts & Humanities, our Languages and Cultural classes that have given rise to so much of what we can be proudest of and hopeful about in our world. 

Sadly, XQLive and XQSuperSchools misses that and chooses to demean it rather than build from it.  What a disappointment.

Our Cappies productions are much better, even if not nearly so well-funded.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Change the Dynamic 2017-18 : An Invitation to Principals and Administrators Across the Country to Save our Education System

I taught in public schools for about 18 years, and have been retired about a year.  Across those 18 years,
I taught in three different schools for 6 different principals, 7 different supervising Assistant Principals, 4 different Assistant Superintendents, and 3 different Superintendents. I also have participated in several national and state level teacher groups that provide some insight into wider geographies.

Most of my Administrators were good people, hardworking, and smart, but also were fraught by things currently plaguing the job, such as:

1. Administrators, like teachers, feel professionally vulnerable.  As a result, they largely go along with what their superiors tell them, even when they know the practice, policy, or regulation is not best for the school, and will not solve the issues the policy claim to address.  Sometimes they quietly ignore, circumvent, or ameliorate the damage of those requirements, but seldom do they go to bat and openly challenge or contest them.

2. Administrators are, like teachers, caught in the double bind of having their evaluations tied to false testing-based measures that can destroy or make their careers without having real relevance to the quality of their job performance.  This makes their jobs highly uncomfortable, even as  they know in their heart of hearts that the “standards” currently used to measure their students, teachers, and themselves are invalid measures.

3. Even Superintendents often feel their hands are tied by political choices made beyond their control, like federal regulations, state policies, accreditation requirements, and funding formulas at all levels.

4. Most struggled at first to reclaim their professional center and fully develop their managerial abilities after the “Leadership Masters” they are required to take in preparation for the job and the bureaucratic gauntlet they had to run to get the position, and like teachers, their job spans and careers are getting shorter.

5. Out of necessity, more of the Administrative decisions they make for the schools are based on financial choices than on instructional choices; including who will teach the children in their schools, and which programs are offered. There is Never enough money to meet all needs.

6. Few Administrators are able to follow the labyrinth and time consuming processes of meetings, observations, and data collections now required (usually due to federal and state regulations)  for evaluating the overload of teachers they supervise.

7. They wish the job they struggle to do were as fulfilling as they had hoped and dreamed. They too want to make a positive difference in the communities they serve, yet often find that sense of accomplishment elusive. Their workload, like teachers, is heavier than it should be, and made so by the massive changes their schools have faced, and the student disciplinary part of their jobs is hard, even when they are very good at it.

What might bring a sense of fulfillment and a real sense of accomplished leadership back to the daily challenges Administrators face? How might you be the navigators who safely and effectively steer our schools through the quantum change and complex questions of the 21st Century?

And, Why is a retired teacher writing to the nation's principals and administrators now, and what can an old teacher have to say to those still trying to steer the schools in our communities?  Perhaps it is to finally say what your still working faculties cannot, and to ask for your help.

These are a few of the things we need:

1. Please ask yourself what are the most important things for your schools to do, not for the federal government, not for the state government, not even for the local school board or the business community at any of those levels.  Let this be your guiding question:
What are the most important things to do for the children in your care?

2. Ask yourself if each policy or stance is really good for your school and community, and ask questions of policy makers. Challenge decisions that you know are questionable.  For instance, many districts these days are spending vast sums on testing and the technologies that promise better test scores rather than on creative interactive teaching and learning. There are many areas in which districts, states and USDOE are pushing you and your colleagues to accept poor practices that drain your school’s resources and morale with crushing workloads.  Be willing to ask, which data is actually useful to learning, and which is expensive shelfware or merely valuable adlist for vendors. Accept your own knowledge and skills as superior in your field to those of entrepreneurs, moguls, politicians, and bureaucrats.

3. Ask teachers questions– about their favorite units, their most effective practices, and the programs that have made the largest differences for your students.  Listen– to the good stuff. Choose those programs and practices, not what the Edupreneurs with company funded studies tell you is best. Join forces with your teachers. The push for some time has been for administrators to not think like teachers, or view teachers as their colleagues. Throw that out. Teachers are not mastodons. Most are highly capable and dedicated to their field and students. They can both follow and create algorithms.   View them as your fellow professionals and encourage the rest of your administrative staff to do the same. Ask them for their help in your mission– and mean it.

4. Ask your parents about their hopes and dreams for their children and community, and share your aspirations for their children.  Let them know that you need their help in providing the kind of school they want, not just in cookies and homeroom, but in advocacy and vocal support in the community. Help the teachers and parents collaborate more openly and more often.  They will be your advocates and your champions, and you will be theirs.

It may seem presumptuous for a retired teacher to tell you these things– and I only do so because we teachers cannot reclaim and renew our schools alone.  We need your participation and engaged facilitation.  Until our Principals and Superintendents are as strongly activist in both protecting and renewing our schools as teachers and parents have been becoming, we can all only be partially successful.

The forces that would privatize our schools and take them from the communities they serve to turn a profit are powerful and well-funded.  We cannot fully meet the challenge without your voices and activism.

If I am underestimating the activism of you or your colleagues in general, accept my apology, but from the perspective of many teachers, Administrators' defense of our schools, teachers, and students has not been as visible or vocal as needed across these sorely trying years of “reform.” We have been hoping and waiting for your profession-wide vocal defense of our schools in vain.

Whatever you decide to do, we need you now— to approach this year 2017-18 with an open hand to your faculties, staffs, parents, and students, with an awareness of how hard we are working together to keep and renew our schools.

Help us, Help you, Help our students and save our schools.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Are you going to educate the children of this nation or not?

After teaching for 18 years, and being a volunteer defender of schools for the last 5 or so, it amazes me sometimes that I am still surprised by the remarkable conversations and lack of perspective that we as localities and districts have about teaching our kids what they need to know to survive and thrive in the world.

These are a few of the realizations that shock and amaze me:

1.       We allow the question of “What should the government do, and what should private enterprise do?”—a totally ideological concept – to get in the way of providing collectively for our children.

The question of whether everything should be managed by private enterprise has been the driving decision maker for policy at least since the Reagan years, and though it’s tempting to lay that concept at Republicans’ door, that would be overlooking the massive promulgation of that idea by both the Clinton and Obama administrations.  We have reached the point that many in our society (especially among our policymakers) believe government serves little or no purpose , other than to militarily protect us, and even that can be privatized.  But the corollary of that idea is that business’ goal is and should be profit, not providing for the “greater good” when it does not profit the business.  As a result we have a system where no one wants to fund the local government schools, and businesses only want to run schools if they provide substantial profit, a situation which does not serve our children well, and leaves many out.

There have been other ratios of blended government-private management of the nation in other times, than the current extreme view that holds only private enterprise will work.  

In the case of education, who manages it, local governments or private businesses, should not be the major question.   The major questions are:
·         Do ALL children get equal access to a strong, vibrant, positive education?
·         Does the education we provide, provide for the current and long-term  social and economic health of individuals, our communities, and the nation?
·         Are the children and their/our future the first and compelling reason for how we run our schools systems?

2.       We allow non-education “experts” to hang up shingles and pretend that we do not know what works,
(In today’s work landscape it takes considerably more credentialing to become an Interior Designer than to be an Educational Consultant),  and we allow our schools to be sold  packaged products that fly in the face of what we already know.

We know what works in education and it’s more utilitarian than glamorous.  Here are a few items:
·         Regular attendance and consistency.   
o   The single highest predictor of success at learning and life is showing up.  Beyond that, a regular well-organized plan of instruction is needed. That means a student has to be able to get there and when they get there, it’s best if they have a known person they can rely on, who has decided what to do next.
·         Students who are ready to learn—
o   ie healthy and well-fed, not hurting, not tired, not traumatized.
·          Optimum (small) class sizes,
o   not too large, not too small. We know that over 25 is too many, and under 9 or 10 can be useful for some types of learning, but not optimum to all tasks.
·         Well-trained teachers who believe the students can learn.
o    Teachers who have both substantive knowledge in subject fields and pedagogical skills, such as classroom procedures and organization of tasks, and developmental knowledge of students at a particular level.  
·         A space that is conducive to the work of learning.
o   Clean, safe, not too hot, not too cold, with enough room for activities, and reasonably well kept including provision for human requirements like food, water, and bathrooms.
·         Materials that enable the work—
o   chairs, tables, writing & reading materials or subject area materials such as labs and lab supplies, and in today’s world some technology resources.
·         Programs that include a broad range of interests  and a plan for students to pursue,
o    ie  students learn best when they Want to Learn.  Both well planned content and electives that provide expression of their learning, hold their interests, and hook them to liking school.
·         Integration of subject fields
o   so that students can see how the world fits together.
·         Teaching of both metaskills (including design and critical thinking)  and subject specific skills
o    to enable students to learn basic knowledge and know how to learn on their own.
·         Assessment to guide both the student and teacher
o   to understand what they already know and what they have yet to learn.

Seriously, all these items are well studied and documented-- those are the basics.  The rest, many of which are pushed these days, are often not well-researched or serve other purposes than learning.

3.       We pretend there is not enough money to do the job well, while throwing money at outrageous initiatives that don’t contribute to learning, and while spending large proportions of our budgets on measuring rather than learning.

The fact of the matter is that we are the richest nation that has ever existed on the face of the planet.  If we do not have enough money to graciously and completely educate the current and future generations, no one ever has or ever will.   We hide money in tax deferments and exemptions, in poorly conceived but well-sold initiatives, and in 1000 boondoggle crony deals and made up spending needs outside the education arena --rather than just paying the bill to provide for our children.  As a nation we have become the worst kind of derelict parent, refusing to pay our child support.

4.       We allow businesses to demand that schools deliver specifically trained employees to their door with certifications, licenses, core skills, and work ethics to reduce their cost of doing business, but we do not ask them to pay their fair share to educate the workers they will need.

It’s become popular for some businesses across the country to complain that workers are not career ready, yet companies that do their due diligence in workforce training do well—only those who refuse to do the needed job specific training are without the kind of workers they need, and some businesses that object to paying US citizens are more than willing to hire non-U.S. workers who were often U.S. educated, at lower pay and pay immigration costs, along with training supports for them – rather than hiring our own STEM graduates.  Demanding schools do career specific training is a bogus and ill-calculated set of requirements that cannot be effective in a working environment that is expected to change at the speed of light in the present and near future.  Do career electives fit in, for heightening interest for students and helping them career select? Sure it does, but providing an ever rolling set of workplace training programs for businesses while relieving them of responsibility for job training is hardly appropriate.

5.       We insist we want to educate all children equally well, but sabotage poor districts when they do well.

We accuse poor districts of cheating or demand they change what they are doing when their kids do as well as those in affluent neighborhoods, and often deliberately destabilize schools to provide business opportunities for edu-preneurs.  We quite frankly, won’t allow them to succeed, as though it would somehow hurt our more favored children if those with less thrived.

I have watched this in person, as schools in poorer neighborhoods developed programs and sought and received  grants to raise the quality of school for their children, only to be blocked or accused of nefarious means when the district or state saw the scores. It is one of the ways bias creates a no-win situation for poor kids and their teachers  daily in our society.

6.       We know from studies that the quality of teachers is the primary determiner, outside of quality of homelife and basic health, in whether a child/children learn well.  Yet, we continue to micro-manage, undermine, underpay, and refuse to listen to teachers who have consistently performed well.

The members of the one profession which has delivered for over 100 years a populace educated enough to bring us to the pinnacle of nations as innovators, workers and creators in virtually every field. Yet, we rarely believe teachers have anything to contribute to management decisions or the public conversation on education.

7.       We continue to report and accept reports of school performance based on invalid and useless test scores as though they meant something, when in fact the measure of a good school is in the quality of their teachers, the breadth and depth of their programs, and the sustained time and monetary investment of the community they serve.

8.       We allow people to publicly lie about our schools, the children in them, and the people who work for them without contesting or refuting what they say on a regular basis—even as we know they are lying and know it is with malevolent intent.

From the constantly circulating memes that imply or openly say that schools do not say the pledge of allegiance to the much more sophisticated state cut scores that are decided after the tests based on how many children test proponents have decided Should fail; people lie constantly and pervasively about our schools.  From accusations that we are values bereft, to those that we are academically bankrupt the enemies of locally run and funded public schools say and do outrageously dishonest things, but expect to be credited with having the kids’ needs at heart because they are holding teachers accountable.  The master lie, is that it’s about the kids.  Whether you are a philanthropist, a consultant, a vendor, a trainer, a schools company executive, a politician, policymaker, or an upper level manager,

If you lie in order to denigrate others based on ideology, or to make money—IT IS NOT BECAUSE YOU CARE ABOUT THE CHILDREN.

So I would ask as loudly as internet etiquette and the gods of human decency will allow,

Are you going to educate the children of this nation or not?

Because right now, Or Not, is winning.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Governance by the Perpetually Clueless, Politics as a Comedy of Classes

Most people are familiar with Jane Austen’s Emma, even if they don’t realize it. The often remade and modernized story shows up all the time either in new movie versions or thinly disguised TV shows, from a 2009 BBC series and the Miramax movie with Gwyneth Paltrow to the 80’s vehicle Clueless with Alicia Silverstone.  Most recently, Emma showed up for me in, of all places, a Today show Obama political ad.  

Yesterday morning I was watching the Today show waiting for the weather report as I have every morning for years when an Obama ad for Tom Perriello came on; a series of ads that can be credited with closing the numbers on the Virginia primary race for governor.

For those who don’t follow Virginia politics, Perriello is currently the younger and trendier candidate in a Democratic primary race for governor against Ralph Northam, the more staid but stable current lieutenant governor, in what has turned into a race between the the National party (Perriello is backed by Obama, Sanders and Warren) and the Virginia state party (Northam is endorsed by ranking Democratic Senator Dick Saslaw, and most Virginia based progressive organizations.)

On the Today ad Obama is smiling arm in arm with Tom telling us what a wonderful progressive Tom is, and how Obama hired him to head the progressive think tank Center for American Progress; but back to how that made me think of Jane Austen.

For those who don’t remember, Emma is a lovely, privileged and in many ways bright and capable young woman, who is constantly dabbling in the lives of her neighbors and friends. However, her narrow world and resulting lack of awareness of class differences blinds her to the destructive effects of her constant meddling.

You see, Emma’s friends, unlike her, live in the ordinary but wider world, dealing with daily survival and sometimes struggling to maintain the  human dignity that Emma’s wealth and station automatically affords her.

So, Today Show/Emma Voila! First thing on a Wednesday morning it came to me. The National Democratic Party is an unrelenting and completely clueless Emma!  

The tip off was Obama’s perception that everyone would see Perriello’s credentials with Center for American Progress (CAP) as progressive. No offense, but only a disconnected, aristocratic elite could think that. Center for American Progress was founded by John Podesta (Yes, the John Podesta of Clinton’s Whitehouse, and Wikileaks e-mail fame), and staffed by a mixture of Clinton pro-privatization Democrats and a collection of Reaganite economic neoliberals. It is mainline national party, but that is Not the same thing as progressive, even if they call themselves so.

That think tank Obama brags of Perriello heading for several years during the Obama administration was constantly behind the scenes dabbling in ordinary people’s lives, particularly  in the case of local communities trying to run their schools, with no clue as to how badly they were screwing up things for those actually living the reality of their policy recommendations. CAP has supported school privatization and the disastrous education policies that have destabilized the lives of children in even our best schools. Ala, Emma!

Given the continued close connections between prominent school reform billionaires and those in the National party and CAP,  I can only assume they are still wanting to “improve” public schools through similar but newly named policies in the ESSA bill. They still are like Emma, inviting poorer friends to the party so they set them up and can convince them to be more like the superior aristocracy.

The primary election in Virginia is coming up on June 13th, and the National is seriously wanting a statewide win, which sadly, was virtually assured before they injected themselves into the process.  The state party is looking to avoid an ALEC-DeVos hostile takeover from the radical right and get some solidly dependable governance: Same goal, sort of, but world's apart in stakes and possibly in outcome. Not all Democratic wins are equal, just as Emma and her friends were looking to get married, but what they each needed was very different. Obama, Sanders, and Warren would like Virginia to marry Tom.

In the end of the book Emma has an epiphany, and though she still doesn’t really understand, she’s learned enough to grant her friends and neighbors a little more autonomy and a little less condescension.  I'm pretty sure the National Democratic Party is not there yet. It seems they continue to believe the whole world would be great again if only everyone went to Harvard or Yale.

Tom Perriello says he no longer supports the testing-data-privatization movement Center for American Progress promoted under his leadership. It’s hard to argue with any of his currently pronounced positions. He says all the right things. But then, Ralph Northam actually cast his votes against charter schools expansion in Virginia in the last two state legislatures.  

But don’t get any ideas that Gillespie or the Republicans would be a better choice than either Northam or Perriello. In Austen terms, voting for Republicans these days is pretty much like running away with Wickham; an entirely more dangerous proposition.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Has the Fairfax County School Board Just Declared War on all School & County Employees?

On March 2, I went with three friends to a meeting of the McLean Citizens Association.  We drove through the magnificent neighborhoods among McMansions, Real Mansions, and Really Real Mansions, admiring the Gated Houses and Gated Developments.  It was fabulous, beautiful, like visiting another world.

I don’t see these kind of neighborhoods that often because I live on the other side of the county, among 60's split levels and 50's three and four bedroom bricks on a slab or over a basement. Older homes are nestled here and there among the classic early suburban landscape. My neighborhood is filled with teachers, plumbers, bakers, firefighters, policemen, small business owners, carpenters, and mechanics–and I love it.  But gotta admit, McLean is spectacular.

The reason for our visit was to observe the McLean Citizens Association’s meeting on our teachers’ pension plan.  The Association had recently come out swinging in the Washington Post and local papers at ERFC, the Fairfax teachers’ supplemental retirement plan, and we wanted to get a feel for what it was about.

The recommendations they had for the people who teach in the McLean and Fairfax County public schools was that their pension plan be privatized and reduced to mostly what the teachers themselves could contribute from their $47K starting salary, or $58K average salaries.

After all, the people whose homes I was driving by insisted, we don’t have those generous retirement plans like ERFC, which  pays retirees an average of $1,429 a month.  That $1.4K is from deferred compensation and the employees’ own contributions, and out of that $1.4K the cost of teachers’ personally paid health insurance is deducted, making take home considerably less.

The average household income in McLean according to the census bureau is well over $164K per household, and over $194K for families.  Single guys in McLean make an average of $132K.

Of course, I’m glad for them that they do, well done, and would never go to the newspapers to recommend their hard earned money be taken away, but comparing teachers’ delayed compensation to their own portfolios, golden parachutes, and stock options might be a better comparison than-- you’ve got a pension plan, and I don’t.

On Monday April 24 and on Thursday night April 27, I went to two more meetings. These were of the Fairfax County School Board.

These meetings were for the final deliberations and vote on an FCPS budget proposal that would cut ERFC-- not about privatizing the plan immediately; that would be too expensive, but about reducing benefits for teachers with under 5 years or new hires–the first step.

The first meeting on Monday was 7 hours long because when all the community attendees arrived at the time scheduled, the Board left the public observers sitting for the first 1 ½ hours, waiting while the Board excused themselves to go into closed session.  They would go into closed session for another hour later in the day before finishing the meeting.  My friends and I sat and waited through both delays while the board attended to other more important matters.

To fully understand, it’s important to know that ERFC has been a well managed pension system, not in danger of failing, conforming to best practices consistently, and performing well compared to national plans.

On Monday, my friends and I watched as the Board questioned the ERFC managers and coordinators vigorously and with less than professional respect at times. It became progressively more clear, based on their questioning that the Board was all over the map in their relative understandings of large scale investment and pension funds, with most  having little experience, expertise, or self-education in the area. It also became clear that the proposal to reduce ERFC, which had been published as part of the 2018 budget back in September, was a fixed goal, not a possible consideration as most budget items are.

The second meeting on Thursday night April 27 was the business meeting, where it would all be decided. That one lasted until after 11 and also included a hiatus for a closed meeting while the Board recused itself.

The Board was arrayed as always across the front of the stage and the house was pretty full, but not SRO.  Teachers have a hard time doing weekday evening meetings.  They have necessary second jobs, papers to grade, family requirements, and often small children, but many, who could not be there, had called, e-mailed or sent their concern.

The reasons the Board had been giving since September for the ERFC changes was to give teachers raises, help balance the budget, and establish the long-term health of the fund.

Had we been suspicious, we might have suspected this was not entirely genuous because the projected savings was $4.7 million for this year, and the Board had $22 million in general carryover they could have used, an additional $8 million dedicated to the Boards’ own “special projects” carryover, and they were spending $2.4 million on a computer program to add additional  testing and data collection for all elementary schools.

But these were people we knew, from our districts, people who ran on caring about our public schools, about children, and their teachers.

Megan McLaughlin and Tom Wilson, in a last ditch effort to stop the changes, presented a motion to postpone the decision for no longer than a year, for more study.  Afterall, the proposed changes if directed to salaries for this year would give each employee $200 a piece for the year, not enough to cover much of anything.  The cuts would not seriously relieve budget woes in a $2.7 billion proposed budget– and the fund is not in trouble unless Fairfax pulls its contributions.  There is no hurry we can wait a year, they maintained.

The rest of the Board denied the motion to postpone and at the end of the day, most voted to cut what would amount to 3% of ERFC benefits from all new hires who start on or after July 1, 2017. (Voting to cut new hires' pensions was Hynes, Schultz, Strauss, Evans, Moon, Kaufax, & McElveen,)

The new plan would also require our 2017-18 first year teachers and all after to work well over 30 years for a retirement.  A 22 year old would have to work 37 years and a 25 year old, 34 before being eligible for the reduced benefits.

The cherry on the cake was yet to come though. One final motion was presented after all was done-Elizabeth Schultz proposed another working group on both County and School pensions.  It was decided they did not need to include all employee compensation in her motion because they had already initiated a joint study group that would study how they could change compensation for All County and School employees, it would consist of Sharon Bulova and Sandy Evans, and their respective Budget chairs. *

The Working Group was approved with only Ryan McElveen voting no. Chair Sandy Evans and Schultz agreed from the stage that it should not be a large or far ranging working group made up of citizens and stakeholders, but should be 3 Board of Supervisors members and 3 Interested School Board members.

Next year, it would not be 3% of retirement for newbies, everything would be on the table–on both the County side and the School side.

As I walked out of the meeting after 11, I recognized  several of the McLean Citizens Association members sitting with their laptops up and running. They were smiling.

In my quiet house in my working class neighborhood, I didn’t get to sleep until 4 a.m.

*CORRECTION: After rewatching the recordings of the end of the April 27 meeting,  Apologies to Ms. Schultz for attributing the General Compensation study group to her motion in the original blog.  Her motion was to create a new group to study pensions.  However, there was substantial discussion that concluded they did not need to include other compensation in her motion, because the school board had already recently authorized a Joint Working Group to study General Compensation.  The outcome was the same. Everything is still on the table, it was just done with 2 working groups rather than one.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

the Ones we lose

Last week, right before Easter and in the middle of Passover, a vandal spray painted Nazi, anti-Jewish, and anti-LGBTQ messages on a Jewish Community Center and United Church of Christ in my neighborhood. The Community Center is a place I have bought gifts for family.  The church is a place I have both attended and led workshops, though it’s not my home congregation. The community rallied and removed the graffiti, but the attack has me in a deeply reflective place.

They quickly caught the alleged perpetrator: a 20 year old, who had attended a high school in my district. Had his eyes not looked dead in the photo he might have been handsome and capable looking.  Word among my former students on social media was that he is a member of local white supremacist groups; groups I did not know existed in my community. I had not been his teacher, but for a mile or two distance one direction or the other, I might have been.

I can still remember almost 20 years ago when a student was arrested, my first “loss.” A colleague, older and more experienced said, “You can’t save them all.”  It was one of the hardest things to hear.  It still causes me pain that we don’t find a way to save them all.

Each “loss”: each drug overdose, each suicide, each prison sentence is a blow to your own “why” for teaching and being.  Just as each success, each life affirmation is a cause for joy. For teachers our “why I teach” is often to help each child to find a path to life’s gifts, and when one loses their way, or does not learn the lessons that will help them navigate life,  it triggers deep introspection for those who taught that child.

What did I miss? What could I have done differently? Could I have done more? How did this happen?

Ironically, students we lose the most these days are on opposite sides of the political spectrum.  I have been to memorial services for recent former students whom I knew struggled with gender identity and sexuality, heard of students who had wound up in prison, and visited the hospital for bullied students who OD’d.  

Until now, I had never thought it through that white supremacist boys (or girls) are lost; just as in need of help as our LGBTQ, or our impoverished students. I don’t mean that we should back away from acceptance, defense, and caring for our LGBTQ students or stop helping those who live with fewer resources.  It is just a realization to me the common cause of their struggling is feeling left out, marginalized, disrespected, and unmoored from belonging.

The conversations overheard of young white-supremacist men saying, “We are taking back our country,” speaks to a feeling of being outcast, and rejected.

The young man who spray-painted the community center and church is lost in similar ways to the Trans kid who died at his own hand or the at-risk kid who overdosed from despair. One’s alienation expressed in self harming despair, the other’s in violent hatred for others.

Both beg the question: Why am I not accepted and included in the compassionate caring of family, friends, and community? Why am I seen as unworthy of love and acceptance?

Clearly, there is no pat answer for either’s lostness.  But there is a mandate for us as families, neighbors, teachers, schools, and communities.

We have to ask ourselves why,  and change the way we are treating our children and adolescents so that they don’t arrive on the doorstep to adulthood with anger and despair in their hearts.

We have to understand how we are systematically doing things in our culture and society that bring them to such a sense of despair, and we have to stop doing those things.  We must find the ways to include and connect with those who feel most bereft of care, and reach out to them, support them, and create systems that are inherently kinder, affirming, and more giving and forgiving.

We have to find a way to save our “lost” children before their anguish tears us all apart.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Why Congregations Across the Nation Should Stand Against Vouchers

 Many of the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish congregations of the U.S. behind the scenes are welcoming, even promoting the idea of government vouchers and financial supports for religious based PreK-12 schools, and the reasons are fairly evident.  More money, more students, the opportunity to open their own school.

Right now Vouchers is the flagship policy being promoted by Mrs. DeVos, the new Secretary of Ed, and by the new President, Mr. Trump.  The Secretary and President are supported by much of the Republican party which has depended on faith groups for their election since Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove figured out ways to attract churches to political action in the late 70s. Many politicians even see Vouchers, also called Ed Savings Accts and Scholarships, as a payoff to religious leaders who have delivered the votes in past elections.

However, there are some glaring reasons that Congregations across the US should rethink supporting or promoting vouchers for private PreK-12 schools.
1. Our history of Religious Freedom as a nation is antithetical to requiring children be taught in a particular religion.
2. “Fundamentalists” and “Evangelicals” and “Christians” are not the monolithic group politicians would have us believe.
3. The story that public schools are anti-Judeo-Christian-values is untrue.
4.With the Money comes diminished control and fragmentation for our local communities.

1. Our history of Religious Freedom as a nation is antithetical to requiring children be taught adherence to a particular governmental religion. 
I still remember as a child in Baptist Sunday School learning the story of Roger Williams and how he and his followers were pushed out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 by the Puritans who considered him and his Baptist followers heretics.

The story of how he escaped in a blizzard and made his way to Rhode Island to eventually found the state of Rhode Island and the first Baptist church in the Colonies was important history in our church.  His belief in Separation of Church and State, in the importance of individual conscience, and his belief in treating the natives honorably were taught as hallmarks of what it meant to be Baptist, even as late as the 1960s.  Many American denominations have a similar “freedom of religion” story in their history.

Williams’ beliefs have become less revered now that media preachers outrank congregational ministers and following a charismatic preacher carries more weight than figuring out what you, yourself think.  But it’s not my goal to convince everyone that we should all become AnaBaptists.  The point is that the Puritans’ push to make Massachusetts Bay a theocracy quickly became antithetical to what it has meant to be American for the last 400 years. It is important to remind ourselves, that though we may be the religion in control of government this year, we may be the victims of a theocratic government when another sect takes over.

2. “Fundamentalists” and “Evangelicals” and “Christians” are not the monolithic group politicians would have us believe. 
Each of those terms has a different meaning, and every faith is a minority in some part of the country.  There is also no assurance that the private for-profit firms, who will also be founding new schools or are currently in place, will be any more in touch with community values than the elected boards we put in office through our local elections, and the leaders/teachers from among our own local population.

It has become an urban legend that Republican views are Christian views, that they are only one set of beliefs, and  that the two labels are interchangeable.  Yet, beliefs, worship practices, and codes of belonging across Christian communities in the US are as diverse as the complex heritages we grow from: from Catholics, to Quakers, to Jehovahs Witnesses, the range of “Christian” churches is vast.  Even among Jewish Congregations, there is national diversity of types and practices.

Many families across the country have stories of breaches and breaks because Grandma was a Methodist, and the Great Grands could not abide that she might not raise the grandkids Church of Christ, or Presbyterian, or some other denomination, and those stories are not limited to long gone generations. There is even the old joke about the guy stranded on a tropical island who when found has two churches there– one where he worshiped before he split off (from himself) to the new one.

My home town had two gas stations, one grocery store, one stop light and 26 churches– all variations on protestant Christianity.  Yet, there was a reason there were and still are 26 or more instead of fewer. Each had a slightly different flavor and style to the other 25, and the congregants in each considered their reason for belonging to that particular church and denomination something worth being separate for.  Which of those churches will have control over the new school that receives the bulk of the voucher money from the community’s taxes?

That variation has not gone away in communities across the nation, and it is good and important to keep that variety in the context of our personal searches for truth and meaning.  However, it makes converting our Monday-Friday schools into religious ones, a problematic endeavor.

3. The story that public schools are anti Judeo-Christian values is untrue. 
Politicians, and some ministers who want to separate us from one another, would have us believe that public schools deny children freedom of religious belief, deny them the option to personally  pray, and deny core values that have been part of Western Judeo-Christian tradition.

Yet, in most states, the pledge of allegiance with “under God” right there in the middle of it starts off each day, by law.  Holiday concerts in December of every year are still much loved performance events of most localities with traditional carols and some add on’s in welcome to other cultures. The opening prayers still get said at many a local event, and major calendar breaks are still centered mostly around western religious holidays.  After school programs sponsored by local religious groups continue to be hosted across the country--Except in places like Michigan (Mrs. DeVos’ custom designed home state system of privates) where the fabric of local community identity has been shredded by mostly for-profit private schools who use the communities' money without serving the greater community.

 Public schools have actually been able to understand the difference between widely varying individual church dogma and the general religious ethics that inform our civil society.  Miraculously (or not so miraculously) there are core values that do reach across religious lines, and not just protestant Christian religious lines.

Values like honesty, not cheating or stealing, respecting one another’s possessions, not hurting others, gratitude,  kindness, sharing, and respect for our families and elders are both religious and civil societal values which continue to be cornerstones that keep our classrooms and schools functioning as healthy communities. Those values we can teach and do teach.  Though reinforcement of these values on a worship day or through religious community are helpful and healthy, the basic religious ethic of all the Big Five religions are already part of our public school traditions because they are the values that help us live in harmony with one another as good neighbors.

Will the same be true of the narrower, more dogmatic, or for profit schools that voucher/scholarship money goes to? There are no assurances because they will not have the same requirements or community oversight our current public schools have. Will the religious organization that runs the new school respect your child’s right to practice a slightly different religious belief or practice?  They will not be required to.

4. With the Money comes diminished local control,  and fragmentation of our local communities. 
For many years, the joke among farmers and other local businesses was that the scariest words one could hear was, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.” The truth behind that fear is the reality that people who see citizens’ money as better spent based on outside views often bring ill-fitting policies. Public schools have suffered that plight much of late. Both Democrats and Republicans have felt economic unregulated capitalism would be a better system for managing schools than local democracy would.  Vouchers and Privately run Virtual Schools are the culmination of that belief.

Nationally aligned business and political people believe that the unregulated Market will govern our children’s daily lives better than local community leaders, local parents, and local business people-- Just the way the Market has better governed our health care with better service and better prices. Neither ESSA nor DeVos/Trump Voucher-privatization will include actual local control, only corporate or indvidual religious organizational control.

While privates and virtuals will get the benefit of our federal, state, and local tax dollars; our local public schools will be left without enough to run the already legally required programs the privates and virtuals will not have to provide, with local districts unable to exert any control over the non-public schools that operate within their borders.  Those new schools (and some already established) do not operate with the same conceptual mission to serve the children and communities of the whole town, neighborhood, or county.  The new schools’ mission is to push a particular ideology or make a profit, regardless of the effect on the community as a whole.

Even if the new school happens to luckily be of your denomination, which of those 26 ministers will have control over what your child learns? And what happens when the money has been taken from the local school, but only those who "belong" are accepted?

It will be their choice, regardless of the effect on your community, your congregation, or your child or grandchild.