Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Why the name Badass Teachers? How can that be a good example for students?

On Monday July 28 the Badass Teachers gathered outside the US Department of Education to make our concerns known. The news coverage, and questions from friends who saw personal pictures has brought a new round of questions about the name. For those who are just hearing, here's what I told my friends who asked.

To me, being Badass means being brave, being skilled at what you do, and being willing to fight for what's right even when the fight may not be winnable. When I think of Badasses, I think of people whose spirit cannot be crushed because of their internal integrity. You can kill them, but you cannot conquer them.

They are also people who no longer ask permission or accept instructions from those in power who use that power to abuse others.

Here are a few people I think of when I think of a badass in real life:  Gandhi, Susan B. Anthony, the men and women of D-day, Sojourner Truth, women pioneers, Jesus, my mother and father, and lots of others.  

In the movies and literature I think of Steve McQueen in Great Escape, Spartacus, Cool Hand Luke, Tom Joad, Sally Field in Places in the Heart, even Harry Potter, and 1000 other heros and heroines whose determination, honesty, and caring about others was inviolable. 

As teachers, for years we had been raising our hands politely, asking for "a place at the table," and being circumspectly respectful.

 It just kept getting worse. 

My breaking point was last spring when as English department chair I was responsible for making sure all the 11th and 12th grade students passed the barrier exam to graduate--even if they had learning disabilities, even if they had not been in-country long enough to speak English, even if they had been sick or had deaths in the family.

It was the third time the state had deliberately made the tests harder (not better or more comprehensive, but trickier, and dependent on knowing how to play the test).

My colleagues and I got all of the most vulnerable kids over the hump, with sleepless nights all around for parents, students and teachers; and much stress barfing and headaches, and many tears. We were successful. 

But at the end of that process I knew that what I had just participated in was abuse. I had been on the wrong side of something that made me ashamed of who I was, and what I did, and I resolved to do whatever it took to break the standards and testing machine.  This was not what American education was about or for.  

Right after that, on June 17, 2013-- 3 days after it was founded--I found and joined the Badass Teachers, other teachers who like me were done with allowing what was being done to our students, our colleagues, our schools, and neighborhoods. 

We don't raise being Badass in the classroom, though some our kids read the news and have figured it out.  We do our jobs, and advocate professionally and appropriately in the school building and in our political spheres.

But I like the name, I think it is perfect. It serves notice-- if you are coming after our students, and our schools, you may be dealing with teachers, those nice ladies and easy going guys who like to help kids learn,  but know, we will bring all we are and have to bear against those who would harm what we hold most dear. 

In one year we have gone from 3 to 50 thousand, and we are dedicated to being as Badass as it takes--for our children. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

An Open Letter to Lily and Randi

An open letter to Lily and Randi
(and other leaders in our state and national organizations) from a teacher.

Dear Randi and Lily,
First of all

Thanks for taking a stand against high stakes testing and for all your years of work for us
 But, right now

We often wonder why you do not take a stand against CCSS or Charters, and why you entertain ideas like “accountability” --why you even portray them as good or acceptable ideas.  It creates a real disconnect for us in the trenches suffering under the multitude of threats the various components of reform are delivering.

It is difficult for us teachers to imagine why you think these things are not a problem, and why you are not out there resisting them with us.

Here’s what we are hoping, and what allows us to continue to support you.

What we want to believe is that you have made a strategic decision  to challenge high stakes testing as the first leg of the privatization platform, perhaps because it is the easiest to explain to the public and the easiest to get support for from parents and general citizenry. 

The others (VAM, CCSS, Closures, Untrained teacher replacements, and Charters) can become complex to explain and leave teachers and schools open to accusations of protectionism and making excuses for poor performance, so perhaps you have decided to not focus your efforts there. 

Also, Charters, so far, have mostly targeted poor neighborhoods, which in today's climate, leaves other parts of the population believing it's not their problem.  Changing societal attitudes toward poverty is a big one to take on when we are in a hurry and need fast change, so we get why that might not be the first place you would choose to do full out battle.

It is true that once the testing collapses, the standards become expectations rather than detailed mandates, and there will be no scores from which to enforce VAM, or school closures. 

If we kill the testing, we may be able to seriously injure, even kill the other components of this draconian reform.

Ok, we get all that,


You cannot really expect us to give you a pass on challenging the other components of reform.

Though we can accept that you are choosing not to attack on all fronts at once, what we have real trouble with is that you actually voice support for some of the other components-- either partially or fully.  

Lily, your last blog was about the wonders of Common Core, and Randi, you regularly switch back and forth on your anti-reform stances. One day you are against an element, and the next you are getting headlines standing by the president to sign the next destructive initiative.  

So here is what we need from you to be able to wholeheartedly back you with unequivocal support.
  • We need you to wage all-out battle with us and on our behalf, using all the resources at your disposal to stop the high-stakes testing, marshalling the staffs, advocates, budgets, states apparatuses, and your own status and credibility to stop  the madness now
  •  We need you to hold off on statements and efforts to sustain, accommodate, or in any way support Common Core as currently configured or proposed, the implementation is how the reformers are driving our best teachers from the field. It is not a good thing, don't say it is. 
  • And to do the same, refraining from any position of support or acceptance, for Teach for America or other quick replacement schemes to replace the work force of trained teachers.
  • We need you to hold off on any endorsements, or positive statements related to “accountability” or “assessment” driven evaluations for schools or teachers as a possibly valid endeavor. New "accountability" schemes are not appropriate or ok right now. 
  • We need you to not endorse or support Charters, even as you support your individual members who teach in Charters. Charters are the goal and end game of privatization you cannot give them quarter.
  • We need you to reframe the conversation. The entire effort of learning and teaching has been turned on its head, away from curriculum and instruction toward assessment and standards by business schools (as opposed to education schools) across the nation.  Teaching and Learning come first, not the other way around.  Your new vision, must be accessible,clear and inspiring.
  • We also have to tackle that difficult issue of poverty, steadily and with our hearts and skills.  You have to articulate solidarity with those who have lost access to money and status in non-jargon, so that the everyday citizen can understand, empathize, and not glaze over.
  • Finally, and this is very important and very hard to do—We need you to be invulnerable:

o   To those with money
o   To those with power
o   To those with status
We need leaders who cannot be seduced with any of the things that normally attract and draw people to doing the bidding of others, not access to philanthropy, access to high office, the promise of fame and accolades, or fortune, or privilege.  That means you cannot let policy makers tell you one thing while they are doing another.

I know this is a lot to ask, but do these, and together we might just save our schools, our children and our society.  

Try this and we will have your back in ways you never imagined.

And --I really do appreciate the work you are doing.  

It’s just that there is a lot on the line right now, and we need leaders who can inspire us to follow without hesitancy or question.  

Can you do that?
One of many Third Millennium Teachers 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Making the Newspaper

This week my former school was featured  in the Washington Post for its low scores on a teacher satisfaction survey. Only 25% of the teachers felt the administration was effective and only 32% felt it was still a good place to work.

It is a wonderful school and a culturally rich neighborhood.  In the first few years of the 15 I worked there the school was featured in National Geographic and other media outlets for its amazing diversity and positive atmosphere.  During those years we won awards and often hosted visitors who wanted to know how we did what we did-- Take a school in a mixed ethnic neighborhood with low income levels and keep pace, even out-perform, schools with much more homogeneous and affluent community bases. The school was remarkable. Every day working there was deeply fulfilling. The word miracle was often used by others in reference to our work. The principal often said, "My job is to support your job and provide everything you need to be effective."

As the years went by the poverty levels of the neighborhood increased, moving the school from a 37% free and reduced lunch rate to an almost 65% rate.  The number of second language learners continued to rise until the last year I was there; there were almost 500 second language progress tests given to students who were either in or recently exited ESOL classes in a school with a population of about 1800. It was growing ever harder to get top level SOL scores, but even with these numbers, we were still managing to get high performance scores in many areas, and maintain the benefits of an all-American high school, including a highly subscribed and successful IB Diploma program.

There are several things that a high school with both mixed cultures and high poverty faces:
  •  The lack of a common set of cultural references and a deficit of traditional background knowledge students traditionally came to school with.  Because students come from a variety of backgrounds and are very often less schooled in their native language than those from middle American neighborhoods, the variations in knowledge and skills is huge. (I once had a gen-ed 10th grade English class in which about 1/2 the class read between a 3rd and 8th grade level and  the other half read between an 11th and junior in college level. There was almost no middle where students were actually reading on grade level.) Which means the school has to create a common culture that binds the community together in their diversity, and teachers must be multiculturally competent and have a bottomless tool belt of differentiation methods.
  • Students lack the basic resources to "do school." In poor neighborhoods there are thousands of ways that students are prevented from "accessing the curriculum"-- from not having access to adults to help them with their studies, to nowhere to sleep or study, to lack of the nutrients needed for their bodies and brains, to the hyper-vigilance of living in unsafe environments. (I have had students who only had a blind wheel chair bound grandfather to live with, who were gang members, who were afraid of gang members in their building, who lived in a one-bedroom with 15 people, who lived in drug houses, who worked 40 hours a week or more, who financially supported their families, who were homeless, and who could not get medical care for things like toothaches, rashes, or even serious chronic disorders.) Which means the school has to be very creative and inventive in the way it gathers community services and organizes its assignments for students.
  • Most District and Administrative bureaucracies are not equipped to handle such schools.  Administrative systems are by nature designed and acculturated for regimentation and common procedures.  They are not ready or willing to accommodate variance and non-conformity. Outliers, good or bad, are a problem, and bureaucracies don't like problems.  This last issue has been exacerbated by the last 20 years of the standardization movement and the pressure of the school reform movement.  Which means the school needs administrators who are good communicators and advocates for the needs of their school, and that teachers too must be pro-active about sharing their experiences with the managers and the community.
The beginning of the troubles for our school  were about 6 years ago when at the encouragement of central office, the new principal, at the beginning of her second year, decided to dismantle the math programs we had designed to help students who were coming to us from around the world.  Central office felt that all schools should look alike, that classes should be the same length of time, teachers should be teaching basically the same lesson, on the same day, in the same way.  These views were announced openly by the superintendent, carried out by the employees who were in charge of policy, and adopted by our principal.

  The Math department chair was pushed out, and a novice was hired.  About 1/2 the teachers in the department left. In one year the math program went from 4th of 25 high schools in the district to 25th of 25.  The math department has never really been fully reconstructed, and today scores hover just below 50% on standardized tests that determine AYP. The net result has been that the school is now on conditional accreditation.

The story doesn't stop with the Math department though.  In a school such as this, the English Department and ESOL (English as a second language) departments are critical to the success of other subject fields.  One cannot understand physics or biology, or US History from an English textbook and English speaking teacher without being capable of reading and understanding spoken English. For the next 5 years the English and ESOL Departments worked extremely hard to avoid what had happened to the Math department.

Literacy programs, double-blocks for transitioning ESOL students, focused vocabulary programs, special remediation programs, and communication between the departments on behalf of students was the standard of the day.  Teachers did summer work on the SOLs and curriculum development to make sure the resources were there for our students and that we knew exactly what was expected of them. For second language learners a barrier test English exam was the worst kind of nightmare.  We worked to match vertical skills from grade level to grade level,  and built multicultural summer reading programs, but eventually the local administration and the standardization emphasis coming from above turned toward us and our programs. The last year our teams were intact pass rates for the SOLs were 96.5%, keeping in mind that for many of our students their first year of mainstreamed English was 10th grade with the test being in May of 11th.

The ESOL departments and English Departments are now on their 3rd department chairs in 5 years, and the principal and APs who are over those departments are determined to dismantle them in the same way Math was. They have done away with the double blocks, given the teachers new and added preps that keep them from collaborating, assigned the hardest courses to the least experienced teachers, and driven away anyone who speaks out that those decisions might not be "best practice" in this school.

For those of us who love the school, and our students, it has been like watching a slow motion locomotive that could not be stopped.  As the incoming administrators tried to hold more and more power to their offices while doing less and less to support the teachers they saw as recalcitrant line-workers, the school lost more and more ground, and morale dropped further and further.

We all anxiously wait the scores for this year. Appeals to a variety of officials for help have either fallen on deaf ears or brought more invasive management actions. We in the community are still hoping there will be a real change that will return power to those who work most closely with the students; change that will bind and heal this community.

All these destructive events can be seen as part of the overall school reform locomotive-- standardization of performance, teacher performance measured by standardized tests, rigid curriculum time-lines, rigor rather than joy of learning, best practices determined by faulty data studies, a deliberate erosion of teacher leader control in favor of centralized decisions making; And last but certainly not least, school management by teacher bullying  and administrative decree (a nationwide trend in style and methodology promoted by such institutes as the Broad, USDOE, and other reform organizations).

The fate of  our school can be viewed as an isolated situation.  It is, after all, an unusual place where up until last year there was no ethnic majority.  Or the fate of this one school can be seen as a symptom of a nationwide mindset among education managers that has become toxic to our best schools, our children's worlds, and our communities' values. Here was a school which was doing what the reformers claimed to want-- raising scores for poor students, offering high level courses and opportunities. Yet, the reforms they have brought are destroying the performance they claim to desire.

For those of us who worked so hard for so long to make miracles happen every day, it is like someone cut off our life-line to the source of miracles.

But if anyone still wants to know how to create great schools in spite of high risk factors, there are still quite a few teachers around who know how to do this.  I'm pretty sure my old school is not the only place those kinds of teachers exist- able to open young people's lives to wider possibilities, to teach the skills that equip them to access all the might be's of their adult lives.  All the administrators, politicians, and reformers have to do is ask again-- how do you do that? and give us a little support.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Telling my Truth - School Board May 13, 2014

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen of the Board.
 My name is Cheryl Binkley, and I have taught English for XXPS for 15 years.  I carry certifications in 6 different categories, including Special Education and Advanced Academics. I come to you tonight to tell you my story.

I am not an unusual teacher, not teacher of the year, not even teacher of the month or week.  You employ thousands like me.  

For a long time, I loved teaching. 

Each year was an adventure. Discovering each student’s needs and helping them go as far and as fast as they could was my passion.   It felt like we “went where no man had gone before.” We used all the tools at my disposal to create exciting and dynamic learning spaces. 

For many years students who had averaged 6 months reading progress per year  made 1 to 2 years reading progress in my classes, and those who had made 1 year in their past made 2-3 years progress based on the Gates-McGinitie reading test. Sharing ideas with colleagues and working together to target just what would help our students was a joy. 

Today I spend most days in high stress, feeling I cannot complete the tasks assigned to me. 

My students make an average of 1 year’s progress-- period, and we struggle sometimes to get that due to required test prep.  The reason is that my options have been narrowed by ever encroaching requirements on my time, and loss of curriculum options. Over the last 5-6 years intrusions into how and what we teach have become progressively invasive, eating away the time once spent on diagnostics, design, and planning.  Everything must be aligned to standards and high stakes tests. One cannot vere, even slightly, from the designated agenda.

Where once our documentation for evaluation took 2-3 hours every three years, now it takes closer to 10 to 15 hours per year every year, not counting evaluation meetings. The time we once spent aligning to our students’ needs, is now taken in meeting with school improvement teams who must align to state and federal expectations. The number of common assessments have gone from 2 per year to 4 or more. Where once we reported to parents monthly, now we are expected to report every 2 weeks.   Our individual planning time has been consumed by PLC/CLT meetings and assorted county required meetings. We are told that the county knows what best practice is, and  we must align to their expectations. 

Because of salary freezes, like six of the seven teachers on my hallway, I began to work a second job, as an adjunct at the community college, and staying up well into the night to meet my obligations for grading and data collection.  Hopefully, the proposed step raise next year will diminish the need for that.

I no longer can say I love teaching, not the way I am commanded to practice it today.

There is no way I can help my students soar or travel new galaxies while working under the excessive, demands on work and personal time; Demands that limit exploration for any innovative teaching.  Instead of a Starship captain, I feel like Picard in the Start Trek episodes as he fought the Borg, repeatedly told “Assimilate, Resistance is Futile.” 

I want to love teaching again.

Psychologists tell us that the way to break the human spirit is to trap a person in an inescapable double-bind, where no choice is a good one, where the penalty is to either violate their values and ethics or suffer intolerable consequences.  Teachers today are trapped in that perpetual double bind.  They can no longer love what they do; they are on the verge of being broken.  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

As Most of my friends know I am a member of the Badass Teachers Group who are political activists resisting corporate reform of public schools.

 Several people have been asking recently what standards we would support to replace those we are protesting. A sensible response is--

 What we need are not "standards." The concept of required standards in and of itself is destructive. We certainly will always have ways of describing the basic tasks of learning, teaching, and growing, but the concept of "standards" is based in an arbitrarily imposed and rigid model that cannot serve the wide range of our students' and communities' needs.

 However, we can approach goal setting, design, and planning in a very different way.

 I recently sat on a committee for my district to design a "portrait of a graduate." The idea was to go back to square one, come together as a community, and decide what we wanted our young adults to be like, to know, and to be able to do.

 The group of over 70 included parents, business people, school employees including teachers and support staff, clergy, and representatives of community sub-groups like sports groups, ethnic organizations and disabilities and service organizations. Everyone had a voice. What was surprising was that across a series of facilitated conversations, we all wanted very similar things for the young people of our community. We collectively wanted our children to become capable adults, but we also wanted them to become purposeful, well-balanced and resilient, creative, problem-solvers.

 From those agreements we came to, we will be redesigning everything we do, from curriculum and instruction content, to school day design, to assessment, grading, and reporting, and special programs or activities. Everything is on the table for optimization.

 These types of conversations need to be happening all around the country for a lot of reasons;
 -to reestablish community connections with our schools,
 -to clarify what we want "education" to do and be,
 -to share the knowledge all the different constituencies bring to the task,
 -and to own our public schools as we have not in a very long time.

 Each system's design should not necessarily look like another. Each facilitator might be different. But each system should be a reflection of the community it serves, and an expression of their fondest hopes and dreams for their children and the future of their community.

 We need to beware of packaged programs, labels, and outside directives. Someone who wants to sell us their package of 21st Century Skills, or Learning Community systems or Technology integration only tempts us to easy fixes that won't work. We can use facilitators, and ideas, and supporters; but in the end we must do the hard work of sharing our ideas, asking questions, and earnestly listening within our own schools, pyramids, districts and communities.

 We are just beginning. There is much work to be done, but if we do it together, what an amazing life we can facilitate for our children as young people, and as adults.