You don’t know what you don’t know

I’ve been a teacher for a while now. One thing I’ve noticed is how few teachers really know what’s going on in the state of public education.

They know what’s going on in their classrooms, of course, and at their schools. They may even have a vague sense of what’s happening at the district level. But beyond that – state legislation that affects public education, who said state legislators are and what their beliefs are, federal education guidelines like ESSA and how they affect things like testing and accountability, etc. – they don’t know.

And maybe worse, they don’t know what they don’t know.

They aren’t really aware of how what is happening at the state and federal level affects them in their classrooms.

I’m not necessarily laying blame here. Ignorance is bliss, so they say. But what I’m trying to understand is why. Why don’t they know what’s happening?

It could be because they are overwhelmed. Or complacent. Or uninterested.

But many are just unaware. I know teachers – and parents – who feel frustration about things but never do anything about it. I guess it just depends on the person and how much they want things to change.

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Who are we talking about here anyway?

John Merrow writes about people fitting into one of four categories when it comes to knowledge about public education: The “DeVosians,” “Education Reformers,” those who don’t know or who aren’t involved, and the Progressives. I, along, with Merrow, see myself as a progressive. Not just because I’m a teacher and a parent of a public school student, but because I truly believe in the importance of a strong public school system.

As Merrow writes:

How about you?  Deep down, are you a progressive?  Ask yourself these simple questions.

1) Do you want your child or grandchild to be in schools where the adults look at each kid and wonder “How Smart Is This Child?”—and then sort them accordingly?

2) Or would you choose a school where the adults ask a different question, “How Is This Child Smart?”

3) Do you want your children or grandchildren to repeat what they have been told, or would you like them to discover things on their own, guided by the teacher?

If you opted for discovery over sorting, then you are an education progressive.  Welcome!  Now let’s get to work on creating a genuine paradigm shift. For that to occur, at least three things have to happen.  One, we need to reject the language of ‘school reformers’ in favor of a more precise vocabulary.  Two, we need to change the conversation from hackneyed terms like “learning for all” to more dynamic language like “discovery” or “knowledge production.” And, three, we must get outside our own echo chamber and engage with the 75% of the population that does not have a direct stake in schooling.

We need to change the conversation; or rather, we need to expand it. We need to engage teachers in a way that has been done recently in West Virginia and Arizona. Part of that is organizing that takes place at the union level, but the more important part occurs at the school level, in conversations during lunch or in the hallway or the parking lot. It’s getting teachers to open up and share their concerns and then showing them that we can make changes. You just need to know where to put your energy to try to change things.

For example, at the national level, if you care about public education and want to fight against privatization and corporate reform, you can find “your people” over at the Network for Public Education. You can even attend their conference next week in Indiana (I’ll be there!). You can subscribe to Diane Ravitch’s blog, or Peter Greene’s, Steven Singer’s, or Julian Vasquez Heilig’s, or Mercedes Schneider’s. Check out the links they provide in their writings, and you’ll see there are many people out there who are fighting for public education. You can support groups like the Alliance to Reclaim our Schools. Pick an issue that you’re most frustrated about – school funding, social justice, standardized testing – and then start reading about it. If you’re a teacher, you can join the Badass Teachers Association (BATs) on Facebook and get involved in your state group.

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In Tennessee, if you’re frustrated with the amount of testing we have to do and the botched teacher evaluation system that is tied to it, you need to focus your energy on the State Legislature. Help get teachers like Gloria Johnson and Larry Proffitt elected. Visit Legislative Plaza to talk to state representatives – they need to hear from teachers about what it’s really like for us and our students.

Here in Nashville, if you’re frustrated about the lack of school funding, there are two places to focus your energy – the Metro council and the State Legislature. And there are parent groups (start here: Mid-TN CAPE) and teacher associations (join us at Tennessee Education Association) that can help.

If you’re frustrated about the way teachers are treated – the way we are overworked, stretched too thin in a million different directions with all that is asked of us, and then sorely underpaid for all of our hard work – then you need to focus your energy on the school district. Specifically, the Nashville Director of Schools Dr. Shawn Joseph and the school board. And there are groups (message me for more info) that can help with this as well.

There are movements afoot at this very moment to try to unseat the Director of Schools because of multiple offenses. There are movements underway to bring about change within our teacher associations so we can grow our membership statewide and engage teachers to get involved in the fight for public education. There are movements building statewide to engage our religious brothers and sisters in the fight to support public education.

You just need to know where to look.

And that is where teachers who are engaged – those progressives Merrow spoke about – come in. We need to be talking to teachers and parents and community members. We need to spread the word – join the Tennessee Education Association, become active in your local association, attend a training on organizing for change. Or join the Parent Advisory Committee for the school where you live. Join a Facebook group focused on saving public education. Better yet – sign up to speak at a board meeting during public comment. Find the best way you can contribute – write an op-ed for the paper, deliver a speech, help organize an event.

And of course, vote for candidates that care about public schools!

It is so easy to become frustrated with politics and all that is happening at the national level. It can be depressing and dreadful. But caring about our public schools is something that we can – and should – all get behind, no matter your political party.

Ignorance is not bliss. Be aware of the issues that affect public education. Educate yourself. Get involved.

Your voice matters. Make it heard.

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Fed Up: Nashville Edition

Teachers have had it.

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Arizona

Too much testing. Low wages. Rising health care costs. Disappearing pensions.

Non-existent or battered textbooks, lead in the water, and buildings that are falling apart. Thousands of dollars of personal money spent on necessities.

The necessity for many to work a second and sometimes a third job to make ends meets.

No autonomy.

No respect.

It’s no wonder teachers all over the country – and in particular, in red states and right-to-work states – have had it and are finally doing something about it.

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#RedForEd

There is strength in numbers, and teachers are finally realizing that. In West Virginia, there were months and months of advance planning for the walkouts.

These walkouts have surprised a lot of people in red states. According to Thomas Frank in The Guardian:

“And in most cases, it was state governments that capitulated. It was hard-hearted believers in tax cuts and austerity and discipline who caved, lest they themselves get fired by voters at the next opportunity.

“That, folks, is the power of solidarity, and the wave of teacher walkouts is starting to look like our generation’s chance to learn the lesson our grandparents absorbed during the strike wave of the late 1930s: that given the right conditions and the right amount of organization, working people can rally the public and make social change all by themselves. Irresistibly. Organically. From the bottom up…

“It is with an observation about those red states that I want to conclude. However Republicans might appeal to the resentments and fears of white working-class people, they are still working-class people, dealing every day with the indignity of having to sell their labor in a system determined to bid them down and insult them in a thousand different ways.

“Yes, many of them went for Trump in 2016. But just look at them now, as so many rally around … teachers’ unions, a rightwing hate-object bigger than Hillary herself.”

That is where real change happens. From the ground up, when people come together.

Public education is not a partisan issue. It is something that every American should value and fight for.

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WHAT TEACHERS WANT

Diane Ravitch has a good summary here of what teachers want. Ravitch writes:

“America cannot retain its position as a global leader unless it educates its children well. Investing in our children is investing in our future. The states’ refusal to pay teachers appropriately, as professionals, is an admission by their leaders that they don’t care about tomorrow and they don’t care about the children of their constituents…

“Until now, we have been a world leader in science, medicine, technology, music, entertainment, the arts, sports and higher education. We can thank our teachers for that. Without the groundwork they provide, none of these achievements are possible.

“If we kill our future, it hurts everyone. Without well-supported, professional teachers, we are nowhere.”

Teacher Pay, Charleston, USA - 22 Feb 2018

WHAT WE NEED

Teachers need support.

Teachers need autonomy.

Teachers need to be trusted to do their jobs.

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Parents know that if they want to find out how their child is doing in school, what their child is learning, what their child is struggling with, how their child is excelling, all they need to do is ask their child’s teacher.

Now, parents, we are asking you for help: please speak out in support of teachers. Please write to legislators asking for full funding of public schools. Please speak up at school board meetings about trusting teachers to do their jobs.

WHAT NOW, TENNESSEE?

So the burning question for me is, will we have a teacher uprising, an “education spring,” here in Tennessee?

Well, let me say this: We are trying.

We are trying to garner public support for public education. Support for fully funding our schools. Because the funding is where it all begins.

THE PROBLEM WITH THE “IT CITY”

So Nashville’s been an “It City” for a while now. There was something like a hundred people a day moving here, though that number has decreased a bit now. So with that fancy title and the thousands of new residents, you’d think we’ve got a world-class city with world-class amenities and services here in Nashville.

But you’d be wrong.

Our city – and I say “our” though I’ve only lived here for five years myself, but I do consider this my home – is bursting at the seams. We’ve put on way too much weight way too quickly and now we can’t figure our why we can’t squeeze into a medium anymore. We didn’t realize we needed to slow down – or at the very least, buy a bigger size. But no, we were stuffing our faces and living it up. And now, we pay the price.

We’re not slimming down anytime soon. People are here to stay – maybe not all, but I’d say most – because Nashville really is a nice place to live. And this comes from someone who grew up in America’s Finest City, San Diego. I love it here (save for the humidity).

So since we are a larger city now, we need to deal with it accordingly.

To keep with this metaphor, we need to be buying clothes that fit the weight we are now. Which means that since we are a bigger city, we need more – more public services, better transportation, affordable housing, and yes, a more fully supported public education system.

Our school buildings should be gleaming, our textbooks up to date, our teachers well-paid.

It’s not a pipe dream. What I’m describing is what it’s like in Williamson County, our next door neighbor.

And yet, our city has failed us. We grew too quickly and now we’re paying for it.

Or rather, we’re not paying for it.

And that’s the problem.

SCHOOL FUNDING 101

In a nutshell, schools here in Tennessee are funded from two sources, state and local. First, the federal government gives money to the state government, and they divvy it up to each county according to some complicated formula they call the BEP (Basic Education Plan).

Andy Spears over at the Tennessee Education Report gives a good summary of the current state of the BEP here, as well as a history of it here.

For the record, the state has never fully funded the BEP.

That’s right – you read that correctly – they created a formula and they chose not to follow it. So from the start, school funding has been a problem. A huge part of this problem lies with the state government.

And we will continue to fight that fight. But the state legislature is out of session for the year.

The second source of school funding is local, from each county’s government. That means that here in Nashville, the Metro Council and the Mayor are responsible for setting the budget. And currently, approximately 40% of the Metro budget goes to public schools. And it isn’t enough.

In fact, it has never been enough. The state says that Nashville’s revenue is higher than other counties, so they decided that we would get less money from the state because the city can afford to pay more.

The problem with that, of course, is that the city is NOT paying more. It is not paying its fair share of funding for public education.

If you ask me, the whole system of school funding in this state is a crock of BS. It’s like a bad joke – one side is saying you can pay more, so pay more – and the other side is saying no, you need to pay more. But no side is actually paying more.

FUND #ITCITYSCHOOLS

And that’s where our fight begins. With the local funding for public education.

June 5

Tonight, the public gathers to speak out about the budget. I’m here now, in the Metro Council chambers. Hundreds more are here, too. Lots of red shirts for public education. #RedForEd

Happening now in Nashville #ItCitySchools

And lots of purple shirts too, with SEIU members here in support and to ask for more funding as well. #UnionStrong

Tonight’s council meeting has time on the agenda allotted for public comment, and so, I’m waiting in line, along with many others, to speak for two minutes. It should be my turn in about 30 minutes. I’ve already been here for two hours. (It’s a good thing I’m a teacher and know how to control my bladder!)

Here is my speech to the Metro council:

Good evening. My name is Mary Holden.

I am an MNPS teacher and parent. I care deeply about our public schools. My question is, do you?

It really is that simple. If you value public education, you will show it by fully funding our schools. The first step is to vote no on the current proposed budget and then correct the tax rate.

When I moved to Nashville five years ago from southern California, I had been teaching for 12 years, and I took a $40,000 pay cut to teach here. Now that we are an “It City,” we should be keeping up with the rising cost of living here in terms of teacher’s salaries. But we are not. We should be keeping up with capital demands and schools repairs and upgrades. But we are not. We should be doing a lot more to actually be an “It City.” But we are not.

Please stop selling out our city to corporations. There have been many incentives for them, but now we need to focus on taking care of our city and its needs, including our public schools and our teachers.

This is your chance to be the heroes! Be the ones who fixed the problem and paved the way for Nashville to truly be a world-class place to live.

And I don’t want a 1% raise. That’s basically a slap in the face and it will take away from someone else without really doing anything. It’s a hollow attempt to make things right.

As a teacher and parent, I’d by lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about how Dr. Joseph is choosing to spend money in the budget. But that is the school board’s job. And we will continue to hold Dr. Joseph and the board accountable for how the money is spent.

But that should not prevent this council from fully funding our public schools. They have been chronically underfunded for years. And that tells me that you do not actually value our children.

Nashville has the capacity to fully fund its public schools, but does it have the willingness? We may be the “It City,” but it is our city. Do your part and fund our schools.

I’m hoping from here, this number will continue to grow across the state, so that by the time the state legislature is back in session, we will be strong enough in numbers to make a real difference – just like they did in those other states.

UPDATE: Joey Garrison at the Tennessean wrote about our efforts at the council meeting here. I think we were successful, but time will tell.

Please help us out. Help make Tennessee grow in its support of public education. Let’s get into the Top 10 states when it comes to public education funding! That may be a lofty goal, but our children are worth it.

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TNNOTReady

Sometimes you just have to laugh, I guess. I mean, in order to keep from wanting to punch something.

I just took the teacher survey about the TNReady testing process for the 2017-2018 school year. I was honest. I wrote about how it was an extremely frustrating experience and gave specific information that I observed during my time proctoring the online exam.

I had to laugh at the end of the survey when I got this message:

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Am I supposed to actually believe that my voice will make a difference somehow? That the TN Department of Education will make a better choice next year?

I don’t have that faith at all. I, like many others, have had enough. I already know it will be yet another big mess, as it has been for several years now. And while lawmakers aren’t too happy either, our only hope is that they will take meaningful action to make it stop.

I thank our state lawmakers for “holding harmless” all schools, teachers, and students from this year’s test results. That is a good thing. I mean, everyone knew this testing season was a total disaster – especially the students.

Let me see if I can sum up this year’s TNReady experience:

  • Some students couldn’t log on at all because their login information was incorrect.
  • Some students couldn’t log on at all because their laptops were offline and we had to find the IT person to help. Or get another laptop and hope it worked.
  • Some students logged on, started their tests, and then got booted off the testing site in the middle of testing. Then they had trouble logging back on.
  • Some students logged back in after being booted off the site and their progress hadn’t been saved so they had to start all over again.
  • Some students completed their whole test, clicked on the “Submit test” button, and then got booted off the site. Then they couldn’t log back on. Then maybe, hours later, when they were called back, they logged back on the site and then, hopefully, their progress had been saved and they were finally able to submit their test.
  • Some students needed an extra password – a proctor password – to log back in, so we had to find the person who had that.

Through all this frustration and stress with the online testing platform and connectivity issues, students were told to do their best because this test was going to count for 20 percent of their class grade. They were stressed. They were angry. They felt they were being jerked around by the state of Tennessee. And they weren’t wrong. In the middle of the testing window, we learned that scores would not count. And they still had to continue testing! It was unreal.

And that is only what I personally experienced as a test proctor.

Statewide, we had even more ridiculous things happening – the testing platform was hacked (a “deliberate attack” was made on the site)(ummmm…. should we be more worried about this?), the testing site was down, a dump truck may or may not have been involved in a severed cable line – a line that just happened to be responsible for the testing site (for real?), and some students took the wrong test – and I could go on and on and on.

All this happened while our State Commissioner of Education stood by and basically said There’s nothing to look at here, folks! Our students are all successfully taking their tests and smiling all the way through! No problems at all! It was surreal.

But it really did happen. It really was a big mess that occurred at the expense of students actually learning and teachers actually teaching.

And for that, we should all be angry. Parents, you should know after hearing from your own children that everything about our state test – from the amount of time it takes away from learning to the frustrations of actually taking the test – this is not what education should be about.

It’s been like this for too long. Looking back to the 2016 test – the year that I decided I’d had it with the testing nonsense and actually quit teaching until recently – students took the tests in April and May, and scores weren’t released until December. We have to ask what is the purpose of it all? My friend and blogger at Dad Gone Wild TC Weber said it best back then:

“In looking at the tests, it isn’t clear at all exactly what these tests are really testing. Is it a student’s knowledge of the state standards? Is it their ability to decipher the test? Is it their ability to use technology? Who knows what the results even mean. Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat Tennessee does as a good job as anyone explaining it, but the bottom line remains: If less than 50% of students can be proficient, you are setting the bar wrong, and you open yourself to the question of whose benefit is this for? Is it administrators and lawmakers trying to build a resume or is it kid’s who are trying to attain skills in order to build a better life? If it’s for the kids, then it is imperative that we create accurate assesments of what teachers teach and what students learn not some hypothetical pipedreams of  those who never enter our classrooms or interact with our kids.

“Don’t think for a second that kids aren’t asking that question of who this is for. They can smell hustle a mile away. Talk to teachers, and they will tell you how hard it is to get kids to take the tests seriously. They’ll tell you of their frustrations at trying to get kids to understand the ramifications of these tests. But can you blame them? If I demanded you take a test that I couldn’t administer properly, and the odds were that you would fail it, would you take it seriously? Furthermore, as your teacher, would you take me seriously?”

We must do better.

But now, as we move forward, there is no clear path. The state’s testing task force did slightly lessen the testing requirements for next year, and that is a start. But ask teachers, and most would say we need to get rid of this stupid test entirely! Or at the very least, we need to completely remove all the legislative and legal requirements that are tied to it – school letter grades, teacher and administrative evaluations, student grades – and just give the test for the sole purpose it was created, which is to give us a snapshot of how students are doing.

I am hopeful for the end of TVAAS. I am hopeful we will get rid of letter grades being assigned to schools based on these scores. I am hopeful we will get rid of having to threaten students to do their best because their scores will factor into their grades (because it just doesn’t work like that anyway! We don’t get the scores back in time. And when we do, what do they even mean?!). I am hopeful we can return to actually teaching our students and not having to narrow our curriculum to what’s being tested.

But for now, these things only remain a hope.

All these problems I’ve mentioned occurred with the online administration of the test. And yet many of our lawmakers seem convinced we need to stick with giving the test online. Our State Commissioner may have been “devastated” with the problems that happened with the test, but her devastation is misplaced. The problem is with the test itself –  both the online and paper tests – and the woefully misguided emphasis that is placed on the test that takes away from the education of our children. She has lost site of the purpose of public education – it is not to be based on a single test! – and that is the real devastation here.

Our current governor is considering changing testing companies as a start to fixing this problem. That sounds great… until you realize that the other company being considered, ETS, owns the current company, Questar. So then it makes no sense. As Andy Spears writes in Tennessee Education Report:

“Let’s get this straight: Governor Haslam and Commissioner McQueen think no one in Tennessee understands Google? They are “firing” the company that messed up this year’s testing and hiring a new company that owns the old one and that also has a reputation for messing up statewide testing.”

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So…. there’s that. I guess I’ll try to have faith that we can elect some representatives who truly care about supporting our public schools and truly understand how much damage our laws on state testing and accountability have harmed our schools, teachers, and students.

For starters, I fully support Rep. Craig Fitzhugh for governor. He is a champion of our public schools and teachers. We also need fellow educators Larry Proffitt and Gloria Johnson to be in the State House, helping to write and pass legislation that gets rid of these problems and instead supports public education. And locally, here in Nashville, we need TC Weber on the MNPS School Board, helping to make decisions that help students and teachers.

Statewide, we have a big opportunity this year to make some positive changes. Let’s not waste it! Public education shouldn’t be a red or blue issue; it should be about what’s best for our children. They are our number one priority!

Come on, Tennessee!

 

Communication Breakdown

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Today was an interesting day.

For the past month, I’ve been back to teaching high school again after my departure from the classroom back in May 2016. It’s been a (mostly) good month. It’s challenging to start teaching in February, after my students’ original, very-well-liked teacher moved to another town. But I’d like to think I’m making it work. I’m teaching 10th grade English and Critical Thinking. Anyhow, back to what happened today.

It’s a Monday. Two weeks before spring break begins. That means, as every teacher knows, it’s getting difficult to get everyone to focus. Here in Nashville, we were expecting some significant weather later today – heavy rain, thunderstorms, possible tornadoes, and hail… serious stuff.

And according to the weather reports, all this bad weather was supposed to hit around 1-5 PM this afternoon. Which would have been school dismissal time, followed by the typically hellish evening commute all over Nashville. It would have been a mess.

Now, as it turns out, that terrible weather didn’t actually hit at that time. As I’m typing this, it’s 6:31 PM, and we’re still waiting…

But hey, you can’t always count on the weather doing what it was predicted to do. And so, that’s why earlier today, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) made the decision to dismiss school early.

I think this was a good idea. I mean, the weather reports were serious enough to warrant concern for our students on their way home. So I totally understand the decision to dismiss early.

However, how the situation was handled is the problem. The BIG problem.

ANATOMY OF A COMMUNICATION MISHAP

Let me begin with last night’s callout and email. At 7:40 PM, I – along with all MNPS parents and employees who have their correct phone number on file with the district – received a call stating that the district was paying close attention to the weather on Monday, but at this time, the district was planning on operating on normal hours.

I didn’t think anything of it other than Monday would be a regular school day.

Then, this morning, I’m in the 2nd period of the day, which is Critical Thinking, where we are finishing up a presentation and discussion on fake news and how to spot it. We’ve been learning all about media literacy in that class. Around 9:50 AM or so, our campus assistant comes in my room to quietly let me know we would be letting school out early at 10:30 AM. He knew this for a fact because he coordinates all the school bus arrivals and departures each day – and apparently we have about 29 different bus routes at my school!

I had not received any official communication from the district at this point. And our campus assistant wasn’t that quiet; my students heard his announcement and quickly got excited about it. So I turned it into a mini lesson on how news stories are created.

I told my students that here we have a news source – the campus assistant – telling us some important news. If we were going to write a news report about this, would this one source be enough? Is he a credible source? Where could we get another credible source to back up what he told us? After all, we had just been discussing what fake news is and how to debunk it, so here was an opportunity to put what we learned into action by verifying the truth.

My students said we could check the district website, Twitter, Facebook, etc., so we started checking it out. I told them to get their phones out and see if they could find some credible information to back up what we had just been told.

On Twitter, we found a Tweet from 9:55 AM about the schools closing from the district’s official Twitter account. Yay! We found another credible source! We determined this was really happening for real, and my students were now excited that they’d be going home in about 30 minutes.

To be honest, once we confirmed that, it was hard – make that impossible – to get my room full of 26 teenagers to focus on anything else. So I didn’t really try. Many of them were trying to contact parents and making plans. So instead, I went back online to check for more information. That’s when I noticed that the Tweet we had just looked at had been deleted by the district.

By the way, I should point out that I don’t usually have my phone out during the school day (other than at lunch time). And I’m not on social media during work hours (though today was an exception). So the fact that I even saw the district’s Tweets were out of the norm for me on a work day.

Then I went to check my email. Surely the district had sent out an official email detailing the early dismissal for us all. You know, so we could all have accurate information to share with our students. Because that’s important in a situation like this where student safety is the number one concern. RIGHT?

Sounds like a logical thing that should happen in a case like this, right?

But no! There was no email. Nothing at all from the district on what was happening at that moment that affected every single employee and student in the entire district.

It was only the beginning of a total communications disaster.

I detailed the events on Twitter here.

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Here’s the timeline of events from my point of view as a high school teacher and a parent of an elementary school student:

Around 9:50 AM: We hear from the campus assistant that school will be dismissed early at 10:30 AM

9:55 AM: MNPS tweets about the early dismissal. Then the tweet is deleted. I wonder why.

Around 10:00 AM: Our principal announces we will be dismissed at 10:30 AM

10:03 AM: MNPS tweets again announcing the dismissal. It’s the same tweet from 9:55 AM. Go figure.

And by the way, their tweet wasn’t specific as they may have thought it was. It said schools would be dismissing 3.5 hours from their start time. That would have been 10:35 AM for high school, not 10:30 AM. I know, it’s a tiny detail. But really? For the communications department, IT’S THEIR JOB TO COMMUNICATE. And why say 3.5 hours instead of saying the actual dismissal time? Why the extra time calculation for parents to have to figure out? Come on now!

10:10 AM: I start thinking of my own daughter and whether or not she would be able to get her normal ride to her after care program. They have a bus of their own that drops off and picks up approximately 10-15 students. So I try calling the after care program, but the number is busy. They must have been scrambling to make plans. Thankfully, I did reach them later and it all worked out.

10:11 AM: I text my neighborhood mom friends to see if they had heard that all our children would soon be out of school! Surprise! They hadn’t. They start trying to change their afternoon schedules so they can pick up their kids.

At this point, THERE STILL HAS BEEN NO OFFICIAL DISTRICT COMMUNICATION ABOUT THIS ISSUE OTHER THAN THE TWEET. It’s possible they put it on Facebook at this time as well, but I didn’t have time to check. I mean, I could be snarky here and say something like who do they think they are, the President? but I’ll keep going…

10:13 AM: I receive a text message from my daughter’s elementary school stating they would be dismissed at 11:30 AM. They even sent a follow up text at 10:36 AM, clarifying that Fun Co, the school’s after care program, would also be closed and apologizing for the “abrupt timing” of it all. I am so grateful to hear some official news, and think, YES! THIS IS HOW THINGS SHOULD BE DONE!!

By this time, I’m wondering what I am supposed to do once students are dismissed. Am I supposed to stay at work? Do I get to leave? Since I hadn’t confirmed that my daughter’s after care program would be picking her up, I didn’t know if I needed to pick her up by 11:30 AM. I was pretty stressed out about it, to be honest. I can only imagine how other parents across town were feeling.

10:23 AM: I get the official district callout about the early dismissal. It sounds like it is the exact same information contained in the tweet. In other words, they said schools would be dismissed 3.5 hours from their start time.

LET ME PUT THIS A DIFFERENT WAY: If you have a son or daughter in high school, you received a call from the district exactly SEVEN MINUTES before dismissal informing you school was ending early.

What?!?

If you have a son or daughter in pre-K or elementary school, you had about an hour and 7 minutes to completely rearrange your schedule to be there for your children.

School buses were running on their normal routes, just 3.5 hours earlier than usual. I wonder how many little children got on their bus only to find there was no one home?? With only one hour’s notice, what were parents supposed to do if they couldn’t make it in time??

10:30 AM: High schools dismiss students. The buses leave. The school became real quiet real fast. There is an announcement over the PA system for teachers – we are told it is a work day. Our grades need to be finalized in the grading system. Blah blah blah. I don’t know if all teachers stayed or not.

10:35 AM: I get confirmation from my daughter’s after care program that they will be picking up students as usual, though they would be closing early at 3 PM. Whew. I relax a little at my desk, where I am sitting and trying to finish up my grades. I start tweeting.

10:59 AM: My daughter calls me from her classroom to ask what is happening. She sounds a little stressed out. I know she gets a bit scared when I talk about bad weather like tornadoes… she’s only 9, you know. I wonder how many other kids are making phone calls to their parents, trying to figure out what will happen when school is out.

I am so grateful for our teachers and school leaders who handled today’s situation with grace, compassion, empathy, and calm. Clearly, the message we got from the district was not sufficient, but we made the best of it.

Because that’s what teachers do. ❤️

11:09 AM: We get an email – FINALLY!!! – from the district. Only all it says is staff “should treat today’s dismissal the same as an early dismissal for snow” and to check with our site supervisor if we have any questions. I don’t even understand what that means, but thankfully, our principal announces that we can leave if we are done with our work for the day.

11:41 AM: I finish my grades. I am trying to relax from this stressful 90 minutes I’ve just gone through. I’m done tweeting. And I’m getting ready to head home.

12:45 PM: I’m home, in sweatpants, with my daughter. I can finally relax.

As I said from the first tweet, I understand why MNPS decided on an early dismissal. But how they handled it really, really sucked. It was bad. Really bad. I mean, this is the main job of the communications department – to communicate to the public about district news and events. And in an emergency situation, we have got to be able to trust them to communicate in a clear and organized manner that reaches as many people as possible.

But they failed us today.

img_2736

A PATTERN OF BEHAVIOR

Communication has long been an issue for MNPS. Perhaps they don’t have the right people in charge? I mean, the district’s public information officer – the public face of the district – was recently on the news discussing how we don’t have enough money for water filters in some of our schools where there is lead in the water. LEAD IN THE WATER. And we can’t pay for filters?! She came across as callous and tone deaf.

I don’t know. All I do know is that it is frustrating. I’m left with a bunch of questions…

Are there not communication protocols in place for this kind of event? Shouldn’t there be at least one official district email for all employees in a situation like this to prevent the spread of misinformation? As soon as a decision is made like today’s early dismissal, shouldn’t there be an immediate callout AND email to parents and teachers with all the necessary and specific information needed? Shouldn’t every avenue of communication be pursued at the moment the decision is made – instead of just one tweet??

I mean, seriously, are we supposed to rely solely on Twitter for official district announcements now? I don’t think so.

These questions I’ve raised are basic common sense. But maybe these communication problems are indicative of the bigger problems within MNPS. Who knows?

So come on, MNPS Communication Department, DO BETTER. PLEASE.

Now I’m going to make pancakes for dinner. Because it’s been that kind of day.

pancakes

Oh.

One more thing.

I may have talked about all this with News Channel 5… here’s the link.

I’M BAAAACK!

HEADING BACK INTO THE FIRE

Well, that didn’t take long.

Less than two years.

I’m a teacher again.

Honestly, I really did think I was done when I quit in May of 2016. Really.

I didn’t keep my teaching supplies, my folders full of files, my copies of great assignments and student work, my cool posters, or my extraordinary assortment of white board markers. I was done. I was never coming back.

But….

I missed teaching. I missed being intricately involved in public education.

Sure, I have been involved as a public school parent and as a former teacher. I have spoken at board meetings and met with legislators and attended rallies. I haven’t given up.

But it’s different when you’re actually a teacher.

So now, as a current public school teacher, I am once again involved in the fight to support public education in the strongest way possible, by putting my so-called money where my mouth is. I’m walking the walk again. I’m a dues-paying, card-carrying union member again, not just someone who is supportive of unions. I’m a high school English teacher in an urban setting at a school that is struggling to raise achievement. I’m a public school parent who sends my child to the schools in the district where I also teach because I believe in Metro Nashville Public Schools. I am proud of MNPS. I AM MNPS.

I’m in this, once again.

EYES WIDE OPEN

There is a growing teacher shortage in this country. I wonder how many other former teachers like me are actually going back to teaching after some time off. Teaching is a profession that many feel a calling for, and it is especially hard to give it up – I can say this with certainty.

So I wonder if there are others who are daring to reenter this strange and remarkable world of public education. I mean, it’s not like things have gotten better for teachers and public education. Especially under the current administration.

I know what to expect. MNPS is struggling, as usual. We have some frustrating leadership issues, in my opinion. We have some scripted curriculum we are being directed to teach. We are being told there isn’t time to teach whole novels in English classes. We are being reminded frequently of the importance of the tests. We still have a culture of fear, where many teachers are afraid to speak out about issues. We still have an unhealthy obsession with data, data, data. We still have a HUGE over-reliance on tests and test data that is supposed to be used to inform our instruction.

I am not a fan of these things. I will have to figure out the best way to keep my sanity. And my integrity. All while still keeping my job.

I expect it to be a challenge.

But I know I’m a good teacher.

And despite all the negative things I just listed, I am still very excited to be back in MNPS. Great work is being done in MNPS every single day, thanks to dedicated teachers and staff members.

And now, I’m a part of that, too.MNPS success

CHEERS TO THE FUTURE

I don’t know what the future holds. No one does, I know. There are some days I think we are *winning* in public education, and other days where I feel totally set back.

I will try to remain optimistic, like Diane Ravitch has suggested:

The fight continues. I have a strong sense that the tide is turning. I am not giving up, and neither should you. There is much good news to share. Books reflect the world and books can change the world. All of us acting together are changing it right now. I have never been more hopeful about the future. I want to gather the hope and inspiration that you have generated and use it to inspire even greater activism to defeat the stale and dying status quo.

Help me write this important next book. Share your stories. Help me stop the privatization train, which ran off the rails long ago. I recall being told repeatedly a few years ago that it was useless to resist because the train had left the station. When they said that, they never said  where the train was heading. Not a good place. Maybe to a steep cliff. Trump and DeVos know. They tell us. The Koch brothers tell us. They want to destroy public schools. They are the “low hanging fruit.” They are driving the train to nowhere, and the “low hanging fruit” are our children.

Friends, together we are telling them that their plan to destroy our public schools is not going to happen.

It. Is. NOT. Going. To. Happen. We will show them what democracy looks like.

Keep me informed about your community, your state. They have money. We have numbers. Together, we will save our schools, our children, and our democracy.

There are, after all, millions of public school supporters out there in the form of teachers, parents, and students. We just need to make our voices heard.

I will also gain some hope and inspiration from The Progressive’s public education outlook for 2018, written by their education fellows. One outlook, by Peter Greene, is one I’ll now be doing on a daily basis:

The story that should be covered in 2018, but won’t be: Despite all the attacks on education, systemic underfunding, and a host of unaddressed social issues, millions of teachers will show up for work and do the very best they can. This, like the sun rising in the morning, is not news—but it is important.

And so, I’m a teacher again.

Today was my first day back.

I’m feeling good.

 

 

 

 

In a haze

I grew up in south San Diego along the coastline – I mean, I could literally see Mexico from my house – and other than our mostly perfect weather, we also had a common occurrence in the mornings: the marine layer. From the ground, the marine layer looks similar to fog or a cloud cover, but it’s not actually the same thing. It causes the sky to look dull and gray before it burns off with the arrival of warmer temperatures in the afternoon. In San Diego, it is fairly common to have a marine layer through the morning into the early afternoon. And I hated it because it hurt my eyes and gave me a headache.

THE YEAR THAT WAS 2017

2017 was like one super long, hazy, marine-layered morning in San Diego, where the sun and warmer temperatures never came. I couldn’t look up. It hurt my eyes. And I had a headache for most of it – metaphorically, anyway. I kept waiting for it to burn off so I could feel the warmth and happiness of the sun, but it never came. It was one, long 365-day marine layer.

I’m so glad it’s over. There were some good moments in 2017, some happy family memories made, but mostly, the year just sucked. I tried to avoid the headlines, but news of Trump’s behavior or his Tweets or his bad decisions were everywhere I looked. It was a hard year to get through.

It was a hard year to feel hopeful.

After January 20, 2017, there was that one glorious day where women (and some men) came together all over the world to stand up for equality and justice and be heard. The Women’s March was great! But after that, I pretty much felt deflated the rest of the year, and I’m not proud of that. It was just so hard to slog through it all, and I found my energy as an activist just wane away as the year went on.

I was depressed for most of 2017. There were so many times during the year I was frustrated or angry or wound up about an issue, and when I sat down at my computer to blog about it I felt absolutely overwhelmed by it all and couldn’t get any words out. I’ve got a dozen unfinished blog posts from last year that I just couldn’t get done. Blogging is challenging for me anyhow, but man! 2017 was just the pits.

A NEW YEAR, A NEW HOPE?

And yet, here we are, finally, in a new year. It’s 2018, at last.

That marine layer is starting to burn off. We made it.

Every time a new year begins, I usually feel hopeful. This year, there is only a teeny-tiny feeling, but it is there. Maybe a positive change is coming. That hope may have started when Doug Jones was elected as Alabama’s new senator, and I hope it keeps growing. Though, unfortunately, things may get worse before they get better.

Fingers crossed, 2018, fingers crossed.

LESSONS LEARNED & A NEW COURSE

Professionally, 2017 was a bit of a downer for me. I quit my job as a teacher in May 2016, and I really thought I was done with it all.

After graduating from massage therapy school in May 2017, I became a licensed massage therapist and slowly began working in that field.

Along the way, I learned a few things about myself:

  1. I feel good about my decision to quit teaching in 2016. I was reaching my burnout point, and my frustrations about testing were at an all-time high. It was definitely time for me to get out before I started letting it show in the classroom.
  2. I’m also really happy about my decision to become a massage therapist. Though it may have seemed like a decision completely out of left field – and in some ways, it totally was – it makes sense to me now. See, I like to help people, but I wanted a much less stressful job than teaching. And that’s basically massage: it’s a very non-stressful job for the most part, and it definitely helps people. And plus, I really enjoy it! Who knew? So now, I have a whole other skill set I can use! Pretty cool decision overall.
  3. But… guess what I figured out the longer I was away from teaching? I miss working in public education. I didn’t think I would. But I can’t deny the pull it has on me, the desire to make a positive change. I feel led to work in public education in some way, to be a leader, to effect change, and I realize that now.
  4. And lastly, after over a year where my husband and I have had to pay for our own health insurance out of pocket, we decided we need to make some changes. The state of our health insurance system is obviously broken, and I am tired of paying a fortune each month ($1032.66 to be exact)(plus $88.30 for dental!) for really, really crappy insurance. In short, I realized I need to have a full-time job with benefits because what we’re doing right now ain’t cutting it. (Also, I can’t really earn a decent wage and have benefits as a massage therapist. Bummer.)

So, for the last few months, I’ve been actively looking for a full-time job in education. I’m still working as a massage therapist – I’m definitely going to keep that up! It’s just that now, I only plan to work on some weekends and maybe more in the summer. It’s just not going to be my main job or source of income.

I’m eager to get back to what’s been calling me…

After taking this time to truly relax and recharge, I’m not burned out anymore. In this sense, with my career path, that marine layer I was talking about has completely burned off, and things are clear as day now.

In fact, I feel excited. I feel ready. I don’t know yet where I’ll end up… but I’m hopeful.

Something I haven’t felt in a long time.

Wish me luck.

once_a_teacher pic

Testing Madness in Tennessee

testing

I WANT TO TALK ABOUT TESTING.

Specifically, standardized testing, the overemphasis placed on the results of said tests, the addition of value-added measures where test scores are used to evaluate teachers and somehow measure student growth (based on a student’s predicted growth)(what?!), those same results being included in up to 25% of students’ grades, and starting this year, schools will be given an A-F grade based on their test results.

As if that weren’t enough, here in Tennessee, land of VAM, we’ve had enough missteps to piss off nearly everyone about testing. Which is a good thing – because now, maybe we can do something to end this out-of-control testing madness.

Missteps, you say? Yes. Let me attempt to sum up: First we had a different test (TCAP). Then we were brought a newer, better (says who?) test (TNReady). Then we tried to give the test (on computers), but it didn’t work (literally)(we broke the online system). So we didn’t have the test. And then students did take the test (using trusty pencil and paper) – but only in high school (yeah, that went over really well with my students). Then we waited and waited for results. This year, grades 3-11 finally took the test! But not on computer because it wasn’t ready. So back to pencil and paper. So we waited for results. And waited. And waited. And then we got some results, but not all. And the state tried to formulate TVAAS scores with the new data, but when you compare it to the TCAP data, it simply isn’t comparable (because they are two different tests) and therefore shouldn’t be used. But the state did it anyway and told us – I mean, they mailed out expensive flyers to many people across the state assuring us of it! – that we could trust these oh-so-meaningful scores. And then, last week, they said oops! we made a mistake! And now?? We still don’t have all the results. And who knows if they are accurate anyway. It’s a really, really bad joke.

Only the joke is on us.

TN ready flyer
Really fancy flyer that (our tax?) money was wasted on

WE CAN’T TRUST THE SCORES.

WE CAN’T TRUST THE TN DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION.

We need to throw out the test and the scores.

We need to throw it ALL out.

Listen, I’m writing this from memory. But I can’t even remember all the stupid things that have happened regarding standardized testing over the last four years I’ve lived in Tennessee. Luckily, you can read all about it over at Tennessee Education Report, Dad Gone Wild, and Momma Bears. I’m not being lazy, I promise; I have #TNTestingFatigue. I’m ready to #TrashTNReady because instead of TNReady, we got #TNnotReady. I’m over it.

Seriously, people, I am pissed off. This issue is a huge part of why I quit teaching in the first place. We place WAY TOO MUCH emphasis on these standardized tests. Time is wasted. Money is wasted. And it keeps happening. We need things to change – and that means at the top. Things need to change at the legislative level – with the TN House and Senate.

had enough

I’VE HAD ENOUGH. AND I’M NOT THE ONLY ONE.

So I’m part of this statewide coalition of groups that advocate for public education. In Nashville, our group is called Mid-TN CAPE (Coalition Advocating for Public Education). And we put together this resolution to send to the TN House Education Committees and State Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen. Please sign the resolution here share it widely.

In less than one day, we collected over 1000 signatures of support! That is true grassroots organizing.

Here’s the resolution:

TN Ready Resolution

Whereas TN Ready testing in 2017 resulted in large numbers of scoring errors rendering all results suspect,

Whereas TN Ready testing failed in 2016, causing confusion and disappointment among students, teachers, families and administrators, and resulting in no data for the academic year for most students and teachers.

Whereas the State of Tennessee made the decision to change testing instruments from TCAP to TN Ready, a defensible shift that nonetheless complicates judgments about student achievement and growth and teacher accountability in the short term,

Whereas TVAAS is an unstable measure of student growth especially when fewer than three complete years of data is available,

and

Whereas the American Statistical Association (April 8, 2014) and the American Educational Research Association (November 11, 2015) have issued cautions regarding the scientific and technical limitations of the use of value-added assessment for purposes of accountability

Therefore, be it resolved, that we the undersigned call on the TN State Legislature and TN Department of Education to suspend use of testing data for consequential decision-making until after the 2019-2020 school year.

We further call for a three year collaborative study —involving the TN legislature, the TN Department of Education, teachers and their professional organizations, school boards and district administrators, and parents of public school students — to determine the most productive and constructive path forward to ensure real and reasonable accountability for educational outcomes in the service of the best possible education for Tennessee’s children.

And soon after the recent scoring debacle was announced, we held press conferences across the state demanding changes. Knoxville. Nashville. Memphis.

Screen Shot 2017-10-23 at 8.00.47 PMHopefully the State House is taking notice. They are holding their Education Committees Joint Meeting on October 24-25 and TNReady is on the agenda. In fact, I’ll be speaking out against it at that meeting.

I’ll update this blog post after that meeting with some notes and my speech.

** FINALLY! AN UPDATE! HEY, IT’S ONLY 3 MONTHS LATER! **

It’s about time I updated this post with my speech from that meeting back in October! To be honest, that meeting felt like a set-up. And I was depressed about it for a while, so I didn’t feel like updating this post. I didn’t get to make my speech, nor did others who feel the same way as I do and had waited patiently all day to speak, thinking we were on some actual list of speakers. What happened was that SCORE, a group with a lot of power with the TNDOE and certain members of the State Legislature, had stacked the deck with teachers (all were current or former SCORE Teacher Fellows) who spoke about their undying love for TNReady and of their inability to teach effectively without their detailed TNReady Score Reports. For real? I found myself asking after each of these teachers spoke. They can’t teach without their Score Reports, which teachers hadn’t even received yet?! It didn’t make sense. But then I realized it did make sense because SCORE doesn’t want their precious TNReady or its effects on teacher evaluation to go away at all. And they had the power that day. My only hope is that our legislators saw right through their BS.

Anyway, here is the speech that I would have given that day if I’d had the chance. Hey, I only spent the entire day at Legislative Plaza, listening to ridiculous testimony from the head of Questar, the test vendor, and our State Education Commissioner, and waiting patiently to set the record straight…

Good afternoon. My name is Mary Holden. I am parent of a 4th grader here in Nashville public schools, and I also taught high school English in California and Tennessee for 15 years. I’m here to talk about why TNReady isn’t doing what you may think it’s doing.

We place too much emphasis on standardized testing in Tennessee. Test results count toward evaluating teacher performance, figuring into student grades, judging our schools, and even influencing the real estate markets. This is ridiculous. It isn’t what testing is for. By placing so much emphasis – and legislation that backs it up – on the test, we have changed what we focus on in classrooms. In other words, teachers must focus on the test because their job depends on it. This results in a narrowing of the curriculum – as an English teacher, I was told not to teach poetry or whole novels because they weren’t on the test – and this shortchanges our children. They are the ones who lose because of our testing madness. Public education should not be about preparing students for a test. But that is what our state laws have made happen.

Then there is the debacle that is TNReady. First we switch tests. Then the test gets canceled. Then it’s back on. Now we can’t get the data back. Then the data we get is flawed and incorrect. But we do get expensive flyers mailed home assuring us that we can trust the results. Are you kidding me?! Even my high school students knew it was all a joke.

Pro-testing advocates like to say that these tests inform teachers’ instruction. But that is not true at all. Teachers are naturally assessing students every day, in both informal and formal ways, and in diagnostic, formative, and summative ways. Teachers know their students. That’s what they do. Assessment is a natural part of teaching. But these standardized tests? They don’t give any valuable or new information to teachers at all. Not to mention that results have never been received in any kind of timely manner. And this year, the state tells us that there were mistakes made in scoring the tests? We aren’t buying it.

You want to help? Let’s take a well-needed break from this testing mania. Let’s start with a 3-year moratorium on state testing. Then let’s remove all punitive restrictions on this test – that means we get rid of TVAAS, which is unreliable, inaccurate, and highly impersonal to our children – who aren’t statistics (and Houston ISD just removed it from teacher evaluations); remove results from student grades; and stop grading schools based on test scores.

Let’s be forward-thinking and look at other ways to evaluate school success that are research-based and developed in conjunction with teachers, professors of education, and other education professionals. TEA knows plenty of educators who would like to be involved in shaping future education policy in Tennessee. Our students are more than a score.

The good news now is that it does seem like many legislators are waking up to the testing madness in our state. And now that the Legislation Session is officially underway, maybe there is some hope we’ll see some legislation that helps our schools.

IF I RAN THE WORLD

If it were up to me, I’d get rid of standardized testing completely. After all, it has its roots in racism (see here, here, and here for some background). If we truly did want to have a general overview of what students are learning – a snapshot, so to speak – let’s go to grade span testing, where students take a standardized test in grades 3, 8, and 11. These tests wouldn’t have any punitive or evaluative measures behind them; they would simply be a snapshot of statewide data. But the moment you attach any more meaning than that to these tests, their original purpose is gone. And then, the test becomes the focus. The test drives all decisions. That is wrong.

You think students care about these tests? No way. Don’t believe me? Ask them and see for yourself. In 2014, a then-16-year-old student from Ohio asked What’s the Point? Students know these tests are total bullshit.

You can’t use these tests to measure school success. Or to measure equity. In fact, that is what some pro-testing advocates believe – that we need annual tests to show us the inequities. But hello! We already know where the inequities are (since there is a strong correlation between test scores and poverty levels – see also here, here, and here)! So here’s a novel idea —– let’s actually fix the inequities!!! Let’s take a long, hard look at how to eradicate poverty and reduce the effects of trauma on our kids.

And to do that doesn’t require annual testing. It does, however, require a true commitment to improving public education. Which means a real commitment to fully funding our schools (come on, Tennessee!), supporting the transformational community schools model, looking at ways to integrate our schools, and finally, really investing in our teachers – not only with respectable salaries, but also with autonomy and overall respect for the profession.

I know we can do it.

We have to do it. We can’t give up on public education.

Public education is a cornerstone of our democracy. And as I recently heard TN State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a candidate for TN Governor, say, “Education is not a quick fix. It’s the only fix.” (And yes, I’m #TeamFitz all the way!)

Indeed. Public education is the foundation for everything we do. So let’s make it a priority.