The Deprofessionalization of the Teaching Force

29 Jan

Last semester, I had the pleasure of teaching an undergraduate course at my college, Public Purposes of Education in a Democracy.  To my horror, one of my students expressed her desire to go into Teach for America rather than our teacher education program (one of the top ranked teacher preparation programs in the country). While certainly university-based teacher education programs are not created equal across the US, TFA and other “alternate route” programs contribute to a deprofessionalization of the teaching force and is part of a systematic agenda to dismantle university-based teacher preparation- as well as contributing to the perpetuation of a stratified education system in our country.  In case anyone else in my class was considering TFA, I prepared the following presentation that outlined the research and scholarly critiques of alternate routes and Teach for America.   To be clear, although it is not explicitly addressed below, alternate routes and Teach for America (TFA in particular) are part of the larger “corporate education” agenda (for more on this, see Stan Karp’s “Primer on Corporate School Reform” on The Answer Sheet).


—Because teacher quality is so difficult to assess, and therefore the effects of teacher preparation are difficult to measure, some argue that teacher preparation is not necessary—”Anyone can teach.”  —The idea that no professional preparation for teaching is needed has many possible contributing causes:
  • —Teaching is historically a feminized profession and has historically been one of low status/respect/pay- some regard it as ”glorified babysitting.”
  • —Everyone spends approximately 13,000 hours in school, leading them to think they know what teachers do.
  • —Due to their low status (and, some argue, the fact that it is a female-dominated profession), educators aren’t considered the “experts” in their field and are not the decision-makers in their profession; so those with policy-making power aren’t aware of what teaching really entails.

Alternate Routes and TFA

—“Alternate certification” was created to address teacher shortage in the early 90s, and, some researchers argue, is a result of the widespread “Anyone can teach” mentality.  Today every state has some form of alternate route teaching program.  To be eligible for an alternate teaching certification, usually candidates must possess a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and work experience related to the subject.  Such programs —overwhelmingly place teachers in “high needs” areas (as these are where teacher shortages exist).  Although alternate route programs vary in quality, generally they offer little coursework and no clinical preparation, which amounts to a “sink or swim” situation once in the classroom.
Started as a program for corporate-bound college grads to provide community service and build character, —Teach for America (TFA) is probably the best known alternate route program in the US.    —TFA requires a 2-year commitment in a “high needs” school  and provides 5 weeks of training in a summer institute.
What Does the Research Say about Alternate Routes and TFA?
  • —Multiple studies have shown that alternate route teachers have extremely high attrition rates (up to 70% leave the teaching force by year 3, by Stanford researcher Linda Darling-Hammond’s estimate); program quality varies widely in terms of coursework and mentorship.
  • Beginning alternate route teachers are not as effective as university-prepared teachers in years 1-3.   While studies do show that the ones that stay generally “catch up” to traditionally prepared teachers within a few years, it’s important to keep in mind that this is a small proportion of overall alternately prepared teachers (since most of them leave by year 3).
  • Actual —TFA research has been mixed: i.e., TFA recruits are better at math than some teachers in some cases but are not better in other subjects; or they are better than other alternate route teachers, but not better than those that have had clinical preservice preparation. A huge issue with the research that TFA has produced is that data is solely based on students’ test scores using statistical measures that the research community recognizes as hugely flawed (and some claim to be invalid).
  • — The data on TFA grads that stay in teaching is also mixed (and somewhat fishy on TFA’s part).  While TFA claims that nearly half their grads stay beyond their 2 year commitment, non-TFA sources show the figure is MUCH lower; for example, Tennessee’s DOE data showed that 8% of TFA teachers stayed in the classroom, and researchers Heilig & Jez (2010) found that 80% of TFA grads were not in teaching positions by year three.

Scholarly Critiques of Teach for America

Educational researchers have presented the following critiques regarding Teach for America:

  • —“High Needs” schools (i.e., those with large populations of English language learner/special needs/high poverty/minority students) need teachers who plan to spend a career in the classroom.
  • —The two-year commitment only adds to the already heavy revolving door of teachers in our “high needs” schools, which creates instability and financial burden.
  • —What little preparation TFA offers is based on the “no-excuses” rhetoric rather than culturally/linguistically responsive, socio-culturally aware pedagogy.
  • —TFA emphasizes data driven, test-focused instruction over constructivist pedagogy that fosters critical thinking.

Social Justice Critiques of Teach for America

While some of these certainly overlap with scholarly critiques, the following are noted by social-justice focused educational groups, including grassroots community organizations.

  • —TFA is a cheap staffing solution for low-income schools: young, fresh, enthusiastic teachers who get low pay/no benefits and do their two years and leave before burnout sets in, to be replaced by another fresh face.
  • —TFA is more evidence for the stratification of our school system: in higher income schools, teachers are almost always “traditionally” prepared and properly credentialed; but young kids with no experience are “good enough” for our high needs schools.
  • —TFA provides character & resume building for affluent, (mostly) white college grads on the backs of our high poverty, kids of color, ELLs and special needs and promotes a “white savior” mentality.  This has led to the nicknames “Teach for Awhile” and “Teachers for African-Americans.”
I leave you with these questions to ask (yourself, your students, or anyone who will listen):
  • —Would you go to see a doctor who has only had five weeks of training?
  • —Would you drive across a bridge built by an engineer with 5 weeks of training?
  • —Would you let an attorney take a case for you that only had 5 weeks of training?

Dear Mr. Cerf

26 Sep
A letter to Mr. Cerf regarding his statement on Monday night that poverty does not cause educational failure, and that “until you fix education, you can’t fix poverty.”
Dear Mr. Cerf:
           While I agree that poverty cannot be cited as the sole causal factor in the “failure” (as deemed by standardized tests) of low-income children (a category which overlaps with others, such as children of color, English language learners, and special needs students), I also think that  socio-economic factors that ABSOLUTELY contribute to educational access (at a bare minimum) deserve attention, rather than just pinning the blame on “ineffective teachers” and “failing schools.”  The “No excuses” rhetoric is one that is dearly beloved by the corporate education reformers (“poverty is not an excuse for failure”) because it allows them to perpetuate (what many recognize to be) the American myth of meritocracy and continue the privatization movement under the guise of “improving schools”–while not having to address the deeply entrenched inequities that exist in our society and are perpetuated by school structures. Many of their “reforms,” supported by a nationwide acceptance of the “No Excuses” rhetoric, hurt poor children of color rather than helping them (standardized tests have cultural and racial biases; charter schools have been shown to disproportionately underserve children of color, ELLs, and special needs students; closing down “failing” schools forces children out of their home communities and disproportionately puts teachers of color out of work, etc).
           There are many, many factors that contribute to the “failing” of our children of color/children who live in poverty/English language learners/ etc.  One issue is that parental property/income largely dictates educational access; since poverty, race, and language intersect, the students who attend the “low performing” schools are more likely to be students of color, low income students, and/ or ELLs.  These schools (with a few exceptions, like the Abott v Burke law in NJ) are not funded equitably, and schools in high-poverty areas are more likely to have outdated and/or dilapidated facilities; fewer resources; and larger class sizes.  Not surprisingly, since the working conditions are challenging, teacher shortages exist, making high-poverty schools more likely to have teachers who are on an emergency license (i.e., a sub), teaching out of their subject area/underprepared, brand new, or, yes, “ineffective.”  Such schools are often mired in bureaucracy, suffer from a lack of human capital (which means principals and supervisors have less time to provide support to teachers). These contribute to a heavily-swinging revolving door of teachers.  And those are just the school-based factors that are influenced by being a school located in a low-income area.  Combine that with a student population that tends to have higher mobility indexes (the percentage of students in a given year moving within or between districts) and absentee rates, the myriad of social issues that plague high-poverty areas and follow students to school (hunger/malnutrition, abuse, homelessness, incarcerated parent, deported parent, crowded home with no privacy, drugs, crime, the list goes on and on) that can affect the students’ mental/physical/emotional well being in the classroom… and this is by no means an exhaustive list, and of course these vary from community to community.
           Placing the blame solely (or mostly) on so-called “ineffective” teachers and “failing schools”–rather than adopting a complex analysis of the socio-cultural-economic factors that influence a child’s school experience–is dangerous because it allows the deeply ingrained inequalities in our society and the structural design of schools (which help perpetuate that inequality) to go unchecked while the focus becomes “accountability,” firing teachers, and closing schools.  It allows us to adopt a colorblind, one-size-fits all approach instead of a nuanced one that promotes recognition of the ways that schooling can contribute to classism, racism, and language oppression (and of course other -isms as well) and finds solutions to combat them.  I myself am committed to the latter.
           Rather than closing schools and firing teachers we should be ensuring that the schools have adequate resources and wrap-around services to actually meet the needs of their students; that teachers actually get the mentoring and professional development that they need to be successful; and that the working conditions of the schools are such that teachers and students have their basic needs met.  Alongside these kinds of reforms there has to be larger community revitalization initiatives and programs that really tackle the root causes of poverty.  Anything else is a mere band-aid.  If your agenda really ISN’T privatization–which you said was a “patently ridiculous” charge–you would be interested in stabilizing schools, providing real supports to teachers and students, and finding ways to make sustainable community change.  So far, your brand of reform doesn’t come close.

Op-Ed: Tenure Reform — The Teacher Perspective

21 Jun

Repost from our Op-Ed over on NJ Spotlight:

Op-Ed: Tenure Reform — The Teacher Perspective

The tenure bill (S-1455) sponsored by Democratic State Senator Theresa Ruiz (D-Essex) is the latest attack on teachers demonstrating New Jersey legislators’ bipartisan support of the corporate education agenda. These anti-teacher reforms, couched in the language of equity and democracy, harm our nation’s kids living in poverty, kids of color, kids who speak English as a second language, and kids with disabilities (although often these categories are one and the same) by covering up the real sources of failure: widespread child poverty, institutionalized racism, inequitable access to quality education that reproduces societal inequality, and recently, a deliberate starving of public education monetarily. The mainstream coverage of the bill in New Jersey also shows that those who have a voice in this issue lack even a precursory understanding of what “tenure” means and does for K-12 teachers, so here is a short lesson. 

“Tenure” simply means that a teacher has the right to due process — that’s it — and teachers are not granted tenure automatically. After three years, during which their administrator must conductnine formal observations to determine whether the teacher is effective, the administrator signs off on the teacher’s tenure.

Once a teacher has been granted tenure, raises and seniority are not automatic, but based on performance. Any teacher, no matter how long they have served, can be denied their contractually prescribed raise from one year to the next. This is commonly called “withholding of increment.”

Additionally, the difficulty of getting rid of teachers is greatly exaggerated. Regardless of the popular rhetoric about rubber rooms, tenure does not protect teachers from being terminated, it merely requires proper cause and documentation. Teaching already has one of the highest (if notthe highest) attrition rate of American professions: an estimated one-half of teachers leave within their first five years. Proposed changes to tenure will only speed up the revolving door of teachers, which swings heaviest in high-poverty urban areas.

Historically, tenure has also been granted to teachers because of the political implications of their positions. Reforms come and go with alarming regularity, and, our recent Democratic administration not withstanding, normally a shift in political power comes with a shift in educational focus. Tenure protects teachers who have been evaluated as quality by their administrators against, say, massive layoffs due to draconian educational budget cuts. Without the protection of tenure, many teachers would lose their jobs, regardless of their quality, because they are higher on the pay scale. While some have argued that ageism is a federal offense, and victims could take their district to court on federal grounds, it is unlikely that a recently unemployed teacher would have the wherewithal to withstand the necessary legal battle that lay ahead. Before the bill was passed by the New Jersey Senate earlier this week, concessions were made to protect seniority and due process of tenured teachers (although granting of tenure has now been pushed to four years). However, organizations such as the New Jersey Boards Association, have vowed to continue the battle against tenure. After his testimony at the recent bill hearing, Michael Vrancik, the association’s governmental relations director, promised, “The war is on . . . there’s more to fight.”

The tenure reform bill also calls for teachers to be evaluated in terms of student outcomes — a.k.a, student test scores. Evaluations based on student performance, especially ones closely tied to tenure decisions, will have devastating effects. Not only will we see narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test, but places like Newark and Paterson, frequently cited as places with the most need of quality teachers, will have even more difficulty recruiting and retaining those good teachers. Within districts and schools, classes of struggling students and challenging populations, such as English language learners and students with disabilities, will be difficult to staff. Even teachers who love a challenge, of which there are many, will have a hard time rationalizing what could be career suicide.

From a research perspective, even the statisticians who created value-added modeling (the statistical process by which teachers are tied to their students’ test data) caution against linking individual teachers to their individual students’ test scores for the purpose of making high stakes decisions like tenure or dismissal.

Value-added modeling applications have giant margins of error, between thirty and fifty points depending on the formula used and the study under consideration. For purposes of comparison, most quantitative scientific research is not considered valid if it has a margin of error of more than 5 points. Statistically speaking, a thirty-to-fifty-point margin of error means that the only conclusion a researcher could draw from data with confidence is that the teachers placing in the top 2.5 percent of the distribution are probably pretty effective, and the ones in the bottom 2.5 percent probably are not.

Empirical educational research has also demonstrated that even for teachers determined to be “effective” by these measures, gain scores tend to fluctuate from year to year. This makes the tenure bill’s required two-year time frame for teachers to demonstrate effectiveness problematic, since longitudinal results typically are not stable. 

This tenure bill feeds into the national meta-narrative around education in the past few years, casting the teacher in the role of villain. Placing the focus on tenured teachers takes the blame off the actual guilty parties — those that relentlessly cut the education budget, forcing districts to lay off teachers and cut already inadequate resources, and champion privatization measures like charter schools and voucher programs (we are looking at you, Chris Christie). These moves disproportionately affect our most vulnerable children, those who cannot afford to lose quality, experienced teachers to a poorly hidden political agenda. In erroneously offering up individual teachers as the cause of the failure of disadvantaged kids and communities, we also ignore realities that reproduce societal inequality: poverty, institutionalized racism, and school structures and policies that perpetuate both. 


The Educational is political…and racial

10 Apr

I am at once furious and saddened by the firing of Brooke Harris, a teacher from the Pontiac Academy for Excellence Middle School in Pontiac, Michigan.  Harris engaged her students–who are mainly African American–in discussions about Trayvon Martin.   Together, they planned a day of action at the school to show solidarity and raise funds for the family of Trayvon Martin.  Although the principal signed off on the event, the superintendent refused it. When Harris asked for her students, who had written persuasive essays about the event that were published in the school newspaper, to be able to present their case to the superintendent, she suspended Harris.  The students went ahead with the fundraiser in Harris’s absence.  When Harris, who had purchased the supplies for the fundraiser, showed up to drop them off, this was cited as insubordination and Harris was subsequently fired.  Teaching Tolerance–a branch of the Southern Poverty Law Center–says, “The explanation given—she was being paid to teach, not to be an activist.

Many of us who have condemned this act are centering their argument around the fact that Pontiac Academy is a charter school.  Certainly this facilitated the ease with which Ms. Harris was dismissed, as the school is non-union. But teachers have been disciplined similarly for many years by public schools also.  The bigger issues here, for me, are the looming myth of the neutrality of educators (indeed, education itself) and the underlying purposes of our educational system.

When I first started teaching, I began as a teacher of twelfth grade civics.  I worried that my bleeding heart liberal views would leak into my lessons and unfairly influence my students.  I believed that my duty as a teacher was to present the curriculum in an objective manner so that students could form their own opinions without my biases interfering with them.

I now believe differently.  Education is inherently political, and by extension, teaching as well.  The very curriculum we use, the standards that guide our planning, the textbooks assigned by the district, present a political agenda.  One could make the argument that no knowledge is objective, which I believe as well, but one has merely to flip through the pages of a McGraw Hill or Pearson US History textbook to see that there is a blatant political slant–one that presents a one-sided, white-washed view of history, intended to build nationalistic sentiment (the very reason US History began being taught in our schools in the first place).  An even uglier agenda of this content, some might argue, is to gloss over the brutal, but unescapable, reality of our violent and inhumane beginnings as a nation, the long-term genocide of Native Americans, and the imperialistic moves of the last few hundred years (disguised under euphemisms like “Manifest Destiny”).  Still uglier are the events that were glaringly absent from my textbooks, like the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the even more recent forced sterilization of Native American women.  One can only conclude (since what is found between the covers of these books has been judged to be what is appropriate for the learning of our children) that these events are issues that the powers that be would rather our children not engage with.

The issues themselves that have been left out of our education are not only political- many of them are also racial.   And it makes sense that if we as teachers are not to engage with centuries, much less decades, old atrocities perpetrated by Americans, then it would be even less acceptable for us to do so with a recent racial atrocity like the Trayvon Martin case, or the many black men that have been killed by “police security” since January.   This then brings up, for me, the underlying purposes of education in America–a fundamental issue that our children should be talking about in our schools, not something that is hidden under layers of standards, mandated curriculum, and standardized tests.   Should our children be educated to be good little economic soldiers, as my friend Brian is fond of saying–citizens who go through the motions of life, learning the version of history, science, math, art, etc. that our government has decided is the safest?  Citizens who do not question the status quo, who accept our society’s norms–and the entrenched inequalities that exist along racial, gender, language, ethnic, religious, and sexuality lines–as common sense? Or should our students have the opportunity to engage with real issues, to actively question why black men are routinely brutalized and killed by our police, why our prisons are disproportionately populated with people of color, or why someone would be judged to be suspicious merely by the color of their skin?   Or even better, should our students have the opportunity to wonder about why it is that our schools actively condemn this kind of questioning? Are they afraid of what students will uncover as part of their investigations, of the conclusions they would inevitably reach?  And of what students would then do with that knowledge, or because of it?

Granted, Ms. Harris took discussion of racial inequalities, or racialized justice, and extended it to events outside her classroom.  In doing so, she was modeling a key feature of democratic society–civic action–and encouraging her students to use their voices and actions to raise awareness of an injustice.  Personally, I applaud Ms. Harris for living the values of teaching for social justice and supporting her students as they begin to question their world and the oppressions that are accepted as common sense.    I hope that you will help to spread her story far and wide, as it has yet to make it to major media outlets, and sign the petition for her to be reinstated.

The Status of Teaching and The Raising of Teacher Voices

27 Jan

The main project I do my research with, an urban teaching residency program, had an event two days ago to celebrate the progress of the program.  The people that work in this program–the residents, the mentor teachers, the faculty–are amazing, dedicated, talented professionals who are truly committed to providing the high quality education that every child in deserves.  The entire effort seeks to reimagine teacher education through a hybrid partnership between the school district, university, and the local community, features a year-long co-teaching apprenticeship with a quality classroom mentor, and onsite classes provided by faculty.  The actual coursework stresses transformative teaching through inquiry and fosters the idea of both “teacher as researcher” and “teacher as knowledge maker,” with prospective teachers learning to learn about their community and students, assess student learning, and inquire into their teaching through qualitative research and action research methods.  In short, the program itself is one-of-a-kind and the people that take part in it are wholly wonderful and quality individuals.

Toward the end of the evening, the director of the program pointed me to one of the funders and asked me to go talk with him.  I approached with three teachers from the program and we introduced ourselves. After chatting for a moment, the funder inquired, “So, what was your parents’ response when you told them you were going into teaching?  Were they upset?”

I felt as if the cheese and crackers I had pilfered from the appetizer table were going to make an unwelcome appearance.   I myself had been the recipient of many such comments throughout my short teaching career: “A bright young lady like you, what are you doing as a teacher?”  The smiles on the new teachers’ faces froze as they digested that their chosen path, the work they were pouring their heart into, was being casually assaulted by this individual.  Amid the pithy replies–mustn’t offend those with deep pockets, you know–I detected a brittleness, and I wondered what these young teachers were thinking and what their theories might be as to why teaching is looked down upon by our society.

Has this always been the case?  Historical quotes abound extolling the nobility, the art, the heroism of teaching.  The Roman statesman Cicero declared, “What nobler employment, or more valuable to the state, than that of the man who instructs the rising generation.”   George Bernard Shaw said, “The sole hope of human salvation lies in teaching.”  And John Steinbeck commented, “Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”  And I remember during one of the most painful moments of my beginning teaching career, as I sat quietly weeping in my principals office after one of my seventh graders stole my wallet, contemplating my future in the profession, and my principal telling me firmly, “Katie, the work you do is heroic.  Others may not understand, but know that teachers are heroes.”

But in the United States, the answer is yes, this has always been the case, especially since the founding of the Normal School in the 1800s. In my doctoral studies regarding teacher education I have come across many possible answers to the reasons teaching is not considered a profession, that teacher education is not considered a discipline, that teachers themselves are considered to be those who had no prospects elsewhere (or saints who gave up a lucrative career elsewhere to lower themselves to teaching).

For one, teaching is a feminized profession; nearly 90% of the modern teaching force is made up of women; and isn’t education glorified babysitting, after all, and therefore women’s work? And why should we pay well, because it’s not a career–they are going to get pregnant and leave anyway, right? (Hopefully you are picking up on the sarcasm here–the feminization of teaching and the connection to the profession’s  low status is a topic worthy  of much more depth than I can properly spend on it today, so I hope you will forgive me.)

Another contributing factor is the sheer number of teachers required–everyone in the United States must have access to a public education, and the amount of bodies needed to staff those classrooms is enormous–we have nearly four million teachers employed today (three times the number of doctors and a little more than twice the number of engineers).  The sheer number of teachers that must be recruited each year, combined with the low pay and status, means that a large number of teacher candidates are drawn from the middle and lower ends of the talent pools–giving fodder to studies like the one recently released from conservative think tanks the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise institute that claim teachers are actually overpaid because the individuals who make up the teaching force are so cognitively deficient (

Yet another important consideration: teaching is a unique career because all of us have gone through what Dan Lortie (Schoolteacher, 1975) calls the “Apprenticeship of Observation”–a term that describes the approximately thirteen thousand hours we spent in classrooms as student, learning about how to teach by watching our teachers–which gives our society the feeling that they have insight into the teaching profession, and most come to the conclusion that “anyone can be a teacher,”  you just need to know the subject, right?  Unfortunately, this feeds into the perpetuation of the low status of teachers in many ways, such as the proliferation of alternate route teacher credentialing programs, many of which drop career-changers into the classroom with little or no pedagogical education and little or no clinical experience.  This also drives the expectation by teacher candidates in teacher education programs of easy coursework and practical applications with very little theory involved–and since higher education institutes are also businesses, they must cater to the large proportion of teacher ed students that demand less rigorous, more technical coursework, which both drives down the quality of teacher ed programs and discourages higher ability candidates from attending.

All of the above–the fact that teaching is a feminized profession, the idea that teachers are intellectually inferior, and the notion that the nature of teaching is publicly known–combine to produce a situation where teachers have no voice in education.  A classmate of mine made a particularly telling comment in class last night regarding education reform: “Reform doesn’t happen with teachers, it happens TO teachers.”   No other profession has this issue: No medical reforms would ever happen without doctors being a critical part of it–but then, doctors are considered the experts in their field, while teachers are not.  The sheer irony of this is that teachers comprise the largest professional group in the United States: what would happen if four million teachers joined forces to use their voices and act for positive transformation, for reforms that truly support quality teaching and learning?

Teachers, your voices need to be included in policy, in research, in reform efforts.   There are many local and state organizations trying to pull together teachers and educational alliance groups for this purpose–NJTAG is one of them.  We are hosting a teacher conference called “Teachers who Dare: Claiming our Power, Transforming our Schools” on May 5, which will highlight teacher led research and activism, encourage dialogue about important issues in education for teachers, and begin to build a local teacher community.  It is only in solidarity that we can move forward.  Please visit to register (it’s free).  Power to the teachers…


Real Education is Relevant: Lessons from Occupy Wall Street

3 Nov

Real Education is Relevant: Lessons from Occupy Wall Street

“…Making history class into ‘NOW’ class.” Laura Rubin, high school history teacher, New Design High School, New York City

This past Monday I had an amazing opportunity: I visited the school I previously worked for in San Diego and taught a guest lesson on Occupy Wall Street in my former teaching partner’s twelfth grade government class.  As a bonus, many of the students had been previous students of mine when I taught them as eighth graders.

The class began with the question: “What does it mean to be an active participant in a democratic society?”  Students brainstormed ideas in answer to the question.  After we shared out, I introduced the topic for the day: the civic action of Occupy Wall Street protesters and the Occupy movement as a whole.

Next, in small groups, students analyzed photo essays, which included pictures of protest signs and posters from various Occupy sites and the Occupy Wall Street website, to determine the messages of the movement and discuss the significance of the “99%.”   After compiling the groups’ collective ideas, we watched a video of Keith Olberman reading the first official statement of Occupy Wall Street, which outlined their purpose for demonstrating; students observed that it read like a list of grievances not too dissimilar to the ones in the Declaration of Independence.

A discussion followed in which students shared their thoughts on the statement we read, strategies utilized by OWS, and their agreement or critiques of the movement.  We then returned to the original question posed, and I shared a few examples of local and regional efforts, briefly showing the websites for the New Jersey Teacher Activist Group (, a student activist group, NJ Youth United ( and Occupy Education (, which features statements from youth, educators, and others regarding their personal efforts to “occupy education.”

The lesson closed with students revisiting their initial brainstorm and identifying concrete ideas of ways they can be involved in local civic action—one student proposed a student solidarity effort with Occupy San Diego, and we discussed options such as blogging, writing about their own school reform efforts, and contributing to websites already established, such as Occupy Education.

It was incredible being back, and even more incredible to have the opportunity to teach my former students and talk about a very relevant subject near and dear to my heart.  Through my interactions with other educators, I see that many teachers are taking advantage of the teachable democratic moment of Occupy Wall Street, bringing it into their classrooms or even better, taking their students to their local movement.  However, I encourage other teachers besides those who teach history or civics to think about ways to bring this very important topic to your students.  Math teachers, capitalize on this moment to teach proportions, inequalities, or distribution (of income) through OWS. Science teachers—have your students brainstorm solutions to weather-related concerns of OWS camps in New York and other locations that may experience severe winter weather soon.   English teachers—have your students read articles on the movement and write persuasive essays that identify the strengths and weaknesses of the movement or create a working nonfiction account of the movement…and so on.  Below are websites where you can find other accounts of lessons taught on Occupy Wall street, and you can join a community of teachers committed to teaching about the movement at

Teachers Support #Occupywallstreet

3 Oct

I’ve been eagerly following the activities of the brave folks who are occupying Wall Street.  Rather than dying out by now, as I heard people predict in the beginning, the movement is growing–both within New York City and all over the nation.  On Saturday in New York, some six thousand protesters marched down to the Brooklyn Bridge, with nearly a thousand breaking off from the walking path and blocking traffic, chanting, “Who’s bridge? Our bridge!”  Almost eight hundred people were arrested. Conflicting reports abound regarding police activity, but many agree that police actually seemed to cooperate in facilitating bridge access for protesters, and then trapped them on the bridge in order to arrest en masse.  By yesterday, nearly all had been released and many returned undaunted to Zucchotti Park.  And the movement continues.

Across the nation, Occupy Wall Street efforts have popped up–Occupy New Orleans. Occupy DC. Occupy Chicago. Occupy Los Angeles. details the list of “Occupy” movements, and as of my last visit, there were over seventy US sites–some specific city events like the ones listed above, some representing the entire state (Occupy New Jersey, Occupy Iowa) and some on college campuses (Occupy Oklahoma State).  The movement has also gone international, with sites in Canada, Japan, Australia, Mexico, and 10 European countries.

I have been wanting to get involved, and my chance arose when Teachers Unite ( planned a grade-in for Sunday, Oct. 2 at Liberty Plaza.  Teachers were invited to bring their work and grade in the park, as a way to express solidarity with the protest against corporate greed, protest the privatization of education/defunding of public ed (among other educational issues), and make transparent that the work of teachers extends far beyond the “regular” work day–the latter a response to the recent widespread demonization of teachers for their exorbitant salaries, ridiculous benefits, and (*gasp!) job security.

I met a few fellow NJTAG (New Jersey Teacher Activist Group) members in Newark and we headed over to Wall Street via the path.  As we approached Liberty Plaza, I could hear it before I saw it–Occupy Wall Street announced its presence with the beating of drums and the strumming of guitars.  Walking through the actual park to the agreed-upon meet up location, I marveled at the number of tents, tarps, and sleeping bags–and the makeshift kitchen set up in the middle of the square, complete with a team efficiently washing dishes.   We finally arrived at the northwest corner of the plaza and were met by the welcome sight of bright fluorescent signs bearing messages like “TEACHERS AT WORK,” “WALL STREET GETS AN ‘F,'” and “SAVE PUBLIC EDUCATION.”  Two teachers had strung together a garland of paper apples, each containing a positive phrase regarding education and educators, and were busily decorating a tree with the festive adornment.

After contributing a few signs of our own– “NEW JERSEY TEACHERS GRADING” and “TEACHERS SUPPORT #OCCUPYWALLSTREET,”  piles of papers emerged from backpacks and grading began (I brought along my reading for Monday night’s class, in solidarity with my current teacher friends).  I don’t know how much grading actually got done due to the frequent (but mostly not unwelcome) interruptions. CNN, various student groups, and local media appeared asking for interviews.  Mark Naison–aka “Notorious PhD”–performed his “Achievement Rap” to the beat of a local drummer. Gawking tourists formed a semi-circle around us that made concentration impossible.  Passerby who happened to be teachers stopped by to chat.  Teachers talked to one another about what was happening in their schools and with their children–the young middle-school teacher next to me kept proudly sharing his seventh grade students’ essays, encouraging me to read one particular student’s work–which I happily admired and read aloud to my friend Brian, sitting on my other side.  But the true highlight of the day was a singalong–I’m not sure if the folks who led it were teachers, but we all enthusiastically  joined in.  We sang Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “If I had a Hammer,”  “Solidarity Forever” (to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic), “Whose Side are You On,” “This Land is Your Land,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and then, for good measure, we sang “If I had a Hammer” again.  My personal favorite was “This Little Light of Mine,” because it lent itself to customization so well.  After the first few verses, Sam, a local teacher who had stepped in to lead this particular song, began shouting cues for each subsequent verse.  For example: (Sam) “All over Wall Street!” And in response, “All over Wall Street, I’m gonna let it shine…”  (Sam) “In New York City Schools!” (Everyone) “In New York City Schools, I’m gonna let it shine…”

It was a truly inspiring day. Plans are already in place to go back next weekend for another teacher action, this time a “teach-in” offering a critical view of the impending celebration of Christopher Columbus.  What does Christopher Columbus have to do with Occupy Wall Street, you say?  As I said to a young man yesterday, who asked me what the actual goal of Occupy Wall Street was, in my humble opinion, a large part of it is about a national consciousness raising.  Our citizens must stop taking information offered to them–whether by our politicians or textbooks–at face value. Period.  And the movement continues…

For more information regarding the agenda of Occupy Wall Street and the unanimously approved “Declaration to Occupy Wall Street,” created at the daily General Assembly on 9/29, which succinctly outlines the issues of Occupy Wall Street, visit

25 Sep

The past two Fridays, NJTAG (New Jersey Teacher Activist Group)–an educational activist organization I am affiliated with-hosted screenings of The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, a documentary created by educators from New York City which provides a counter-narrative to the one popularized by Davis Guggenheim’s 2010 film, Waiting for Superman. The plot ofSuperman revolves around a handful of students applying to various lotteries of charter schools, which they hope will save them from their awful neighborhood public schools.

The “Inconvenient Truth” is that charter schools are by no means the magical solution to America’s educational woes.  The largest comparative quantitative study of school performance shows that 17% of charter schools out-perform their public school counterparts; approximately half perform on the same level; and 37% “deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools” (Stanford University Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) 2009 nationwide charter school study, www.credo.stanford/edu).  Additionally, charters are often under-represented when it comes to special needs students (National Center for Learning Disabilities, and English Language Learners (, which raises equitable access questions.

However, while we are on the topic of “truths”–another truth is that charter schools have cropped up in unprecedented numbers across the country, and both our state and the federal government have thrown their weight behind them. New Jersey has seen unprecedented numbers of charter schools opening in the past year, and the forecast only shows more coming.

As educational entities that receive public funds, charter schools should be held accountable to not only the state, but also to the local communities, parents, and students they serve.  Across the nation, some states are doing a better job of this than others.  I actually come from a charter school background–two of the three schools in which I have taught have been charters.  But in California, the schools I worked in were both approved by and held accountable to their districts and were required by the state to adopt non-discriminatory policies if they accepted public funds.

To pro-charter folks who might say that being accountable to the local district would spell doom for charters, I offer up the evidence of San Diego, where a full ten percent of school-age children attend charter schools (about three times the national average).  The charter schools there must be approved by their districts (with an appeal process to county and state levels) and are accountable to the school districts in which they are located.  For example, at the school where I worked the majority of my teaching career, we had an audit once a year, where district representatives would investigate every aspect of the school from financials to academics to board governance. At the conclusion of the audit we would be told both areas of excellence and areas that needed growth.  The rigorous process kept the school extra-transparent at every level, which did nothing but add to my school’s credibility.

In new Jersey, this level of accountability does not exist yet.  But two bills are being introduced into the Senate in the hopes of correcting that.  Senate bill 2443 will require local approval for charter schools, and Senate bill 3005 will seek to increase charter transparency as well as ensure representation in terms of income levels, special needs students, and English Language Learners.  Read about SB2443 here: and read about SB3005 here:

These bills make sense for voters on both sides of the charter issue; the bill has bi-partisan sponsorship and support in the Senate, and nearly three quarters of New Jersey voters support it.  To drive the point home for legislators, take five minutes this week and call or email our senators to reiterate our support for the bills:

Senator Diane Allen


Phone: 609-239-2800

Senator Thomas Kean

(908) 232-3673 (Westfield)


Senator Theresa Ruiz

(973) 484-1000


The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman

7 Sep

The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman

On Friday, September 16, the New Jersey Teacher Activist Group (NJTAG) will be hosting a screening of The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman at Montclair State, in University Hall, room 1010, at 5pm (second screening to be held in Newark on Sept. 23, Bradley Hall, Rutgers Newark, 5pm).  This important film was created by the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM-www.gemnyc) to challenge the claims spread by the 2010 documentary, Waiting for Superman.  

For those of you who didn’t see Waiting for Superman, educational historian Diane Ravitch provides a succinct summary of its main message, which she refers to as “the popularized version public education that is promoted by some of the nation’s most powerful figures and institutions”:

“American public education is a failed enterprise. The problem is not money. Public schools already spend too much. Test scores are low because there are so many bad teachers, whose jobs are protected by powerful unions. Students drop out because the schools fail them, but they could accomplish practically anything if they were saved from bad teachers. They would get higher test scores if schools could fire more bad teachers and pay more to good ones. The only hope for the future of our society, especially for poor black and Hispanic children, is escape from public schools, especially to charter schools, which are mostly funded by the government but controlled by private organizations, many of them operating to make a profit.”

GEM’s film tackles the main claims from Superman, adding a dose of reality:

Superman: The business model will improve education. 

The Inconvenient Truth: Free market business principles have taken center stage in our country’s education reform debate. Increasingly, our nation’s school districts are run, not by educators, but by lawyers and corporate executives who push accountability and competition as the way to improve education. In a competitive business system, the real needs and voices of students and educators are ignored or minimized. Instead, the focus turns to cost containment and profit. Finland’s education system, which is ironically touted in Waiting for “Superman”, does not follow this model. In Finland, class sizes are low, teacher experience is highly valued, the students are not measured by high-stakes standardized tests, and most importantly, parents, teachers and students have a voice. 

Superman: Charter schools are a silver bullet. 

The Inconvenient Truth: Charter schools are not public schools. They are defined as “education corporations,” and operate with little or no oversight. Charter schools hold lotteries for enrollment, but have the ability to counsel out students. They drastically under serve children with special needs, children who receive ELL services, children who are homeless or in foster care, and children who receive reduced and free lunch. In addition, charter schools tend to have disproportionately high student and teacher attrition rates. According to a study conducted by Stanford University, only one in five charters are more successful than their public counterparts. Charter schools are not outperforming our public schools. 

Superman: Teachers and their unions are the problem. 

The Inconvenient Truth: Teachers and their unions advocate for children and their families and for better conditions in our public schools. Tenure and seniority rights are currently under attack, however they are nothing more than due process protections that all workers should have. Without these rights, teachers could not advocate for their students. While Waiting for “Superman” claimed teachers and their unions are to blame for our country’s educational challenges, the film also held up Finland’s system as a model. Yet, in Finland, 98% of the teaching force in unionized, educators are treated as professionals and are included in the decision-making process. 

Superman: Poverty doesn’t matter. 

The Inconvenient Truth: Poverty is not an excuse; it is a reality. No matter how extraordinary an educator is, without necessary supports such as parent involvement and community and health services, the effects of poverty will have a negative impact on student achievement. Well over 20% of our nation’s children currently live in poverty. Instead of attacking educators and ignoring the needs of our children, we should be working to reduce poverty and correct the policies that reinforce it. Ignoring the effects of poverty and blaming teachers is a convenient way of doing nothing at all. 

(Source: GEMNYC)

This documentary is extremely important because it provides a counter-narrative to the immensely popular story being told nation-wide to our citizens in a systematic effort to privatize education, dismantle university-based teacher education, de-skill teachers, and expand the punitive, flawed, and expensive testing and evaluation systems in place.  After the film, a discussion will take place to dialogue about the film, our current educational issues, and suggestions for tangible alternatives to the status quo.

For more information, visit

The Activist Mentality

29 Aug

I’m in the midst of writing a literature review–those of you who are doc students, I know you are commiserating with me–on novice teacher development.  My work has me examining the challenges that new teachers face, as well as the factors that either facilitate or impede novice teacher development/success.  I’m sure it’s not a huge surprise to those of us who work with teachers, but many of the factors that determine success are related to the individual–personality, depth of commitment, emotional intelligence, etc (you know, the kind of variables that make education a “soft science” because they aren’t “quantifiable”).

I was trying to figure out a way to categorize two articles dealing respectively with internal locus of control and internal locus of control, and I typed “internal orientation.”  One article found novice teachers with an internal locus of control–those who felt they had agency and power to shape outcomes in their classrooms–were more likely to exhibit the complex pedagogical reasoning skills of more experienced teachers, and so were more successful in their classrooms.  The other study found that novice teachers with an external locus of authority–those who looked to outside “authorities” for knowledge, rather than reasoning and critiquing for themselves–were more likely to revert to traditional teaching practices once they entered the classroom, while teachers with an internal locus of authority tested the progressive practices they learned in their preservice program in their classrooms and finding that these worked, continued to implement constructivist pedagogy throughout the longitudinal study.

Reflecting on the locus of control and authority made me think of an extremely influential book I read, Women’s Ways of Knowing, that spoke of different ways of knowing: the person who gets knowledge only from others (received knowers), the person who gets their knowledge from their gut (subjective knowers), the person who gets their knowledge from careful observation and analysis (procedural knowers), and the person who  constructs their own knowledge by integrating their own subjective knowledge with the knowledge obtained from other sources and creating their own meaning of the world (constructive knowers).   This book also compared linear and didactic ways of knowing versus connected, relational ways of knowing, and one particular metaphor stands out: the linear knower conceives of the world as a hierarchically constructed mountain, with the powerful at the top and the powerless at the bottom; to the linear knower, change is practically impossible–one would literally have to move mountains. However, the connected knower sees the world as a web, and for major change to occur, one has only to gently pull one gossamer thread.

If teachers have an internal orientation, they are more likely to be constructive, connected knowers, and more likely believe that they can enact change in the classroom–and outside of it.  I began to think about the implications of these concepts for teacher activism and the current movement–is an internal orientation an important component of the activist mentality?  If so, how can we foster an internal orientation both for our students currently in school and our preservice teachers? I truly believe with all my heart in the need to create a more humanized educational system that can serve as a new “social imaginary,” in the words of Pauline Lipman,  but in order to do so, teachers must not only stand in solidarity–they must believe they are agents of change, be able to act on that belief, and provide their own students with the tools for self-empowerment.  Our rising generation of children must believe in their own agency, actively critique the legitimated forms of knowledge they are fed by “authorities,” and know they they are not only capable of liberatory action, but responsible for it.