Dear Catrina

Catrina Edit 2

 

Dear Calavera Catrina,

I remember meeting you for the first time in an art store on the Puerto Vallarta Malecón. You were there in the hundreds, small and large, garish and elegant–and always possessed of a haughty stare and a set of ivories that would do justice to a shark.

I’d met you before, of course, but never understood that in-person encounters with individual representatives of your archetype pale next to your cumulative effect on society.

You are easy to recognize, and you demand that recognition. Your clothes and demeanor always mark you as one who has access to wealth and power beyond the peons you expect to bend to your will. You’ve always been a dilettante, dabbling in public affairs with little expertise or experience to guide you. You’ve also been absolutely sincere, a true believer in the appropriateness of turning over public institutions to the private sector for exploitation. After all, it’s usually your friends and family members doing the exploiting.

Campbell Brown is but the latest acolyte in your stable, and I’d say she emulates your appearance, attitude and intellectual depth with precision. Someone might have warned Campbell that attacks on teacher rights to due process ought not to be paired with statements like “I do think there should be equality in money.” After all, it will cost a lot of public dollars to correct the effects of unequal funding of public schools, if that’s what she truly intends. I rather think that she’d prefer to withdraw public funds from wealthier districts than support poorer communities…it’s a “Catrina-like” solution to the situation she created with her off-the-cuff remark on the Colbert Report. I wonder if her husband and former investment banker, Dan Senor, would approve? After all, he managed to help us lose nine billion dollars of hard-earned U.S. taxpayer cash to fraud and theft in Iraq during his time working with the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Michelle Rhee exemplifies your attributes as well, Catrina. It’s apparent that she has worn out her welcome, but her crusading efforts to destroy unions, establish charter schools, and whip students into shape with standardized testing are based on absolute conviction of the righteousness of her cause. She will never view herself as anything but a warrior against forces of darkness…even though her denial of the reality that poverty is a fundamental cause for academic difficulty has been repeated time and time again. Catrina, you know that Michelle has attached herself to Sacramento Mayor (and former NBA player) Kevin Johnson; power and money attract your ilk like sugar water attracts hummingbirds. I expect Michelle will flutter in and out of educational politics for the foreseeable future.

But even Michelle can’t outdo Eva Moskowitz when it comes to out and out fabrications. Eva is the face of “Success Academy,” the ironic name for her chain of academically un-successful charter schools. Her “Catrinaisms” reach so far beyond the truth that fact-checkers can get whiplash just listening to her. The successes her academies have achieved have been almost entirely financial…she’s been able to secure funding for her schools from private hedge funds in addition to the public dollars she collects. Still, her students perform no better than those in poorer public schools.

But gender is no barrier to you, Catrina. Your attention to personal grooming and manifestations of power are also evidenced in the male personas you inhabit. Peter Brabeck, for instance, is a magnificent specimen. Only recently, Peter managed to turn thousands of years of social obligation on its ear by denying the right of humans to free access to water. Why, if we accept that the basis of life is open to exploitation by corporate enterprise, what argument can be made for any common good to remain in the public sphere? Education becomes another endeavor subject to the laws of supply and demand, for the only ethical principle a corporate leader is bound to follow is, “…to maintain and ensure the successful and profitable future of his enterprise.

Individually, Catrina, your minions are easier to dismiss than the damage they collectively inflict on society. Catrina, you are not separable from death, for death is what you bring wherever you go. You have killed the hopes of generations of poor Mexican peasants, the dreams of poor black and white sharecroppers, the opportunities of the late middle class.

Catrina, your passion for the causes you promote is founded on a level of understanding as superficial as your smile. I remind myself that your smile is what most see last, just before your shark-like maw tears apart the tender fabric of societal protections necessary to meaningful democracy.

Will I live to see your demise, Catrina? Unlikely. You’re a slippery customer–attacking public education today, but shifting to other targets as the public becomes aware of your deceptive tactics.

No, Catrina, you’ll be with us in one shape or another…and your smiling countenance, thirst for power and impeccable taste will mark you for those with eyes to see.

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Into the Unknown

Into Unknown

 

A collective sigh rings out at this time of year from educators at all levels. That relief is a sure sign that our teaching and learning environments are toxic. The negative reinforcement that accompanies our escape from the classroom prompts a wide variety of utterances that are symptomatic of that toxicity, but which are also red herrings. We wail and gnash our teeth when parents challenge carefully considered student evaluations; we despair when administrators fail to support us and change grades unilaterally. We moan and groan over our own annual evaluations and the amount of energy spent collecting supportive data for them. We fume at the excessive standardized testing required of students and the time we spend proctoring. We throw up our hands in dismay when union leadership appears too willing to accept corporatist ideals.

What we seldom do is consider the root causes of our dismay and discouragement. We hope that temporary escape from these various symptoms will cure the underlying disease. Unless we confront our demons, we simply return in the fall and repeat the cycle. Each passing year breeds further alienation from the institution we once cherished.

We are walking in circles. All of the hubbub concerning CCSS (including the hubbub emanating from this site) and the anger against Bill Gates, the Kochs, etc.–is hot air unless it results in an ongoing reconsideration of all public educational policies by professional educators at all levels.

The inclination teachers have to carp about the complaints students and parents make about grades is more a symptom of loss of power and dignity than it is a comment about student performance or behavior. Likewise, the complaints we make about “harvesting student growth data” or administering standardized testing has less to do with either task than it does the corruption of a supportive student/teacher relationship. When we focus on these symptomatic issues, we allow these tangential problems to distract us from what is most important, and we continue on our circular route.

Attacks on union leadership in education also distract us from more important issues. We look to NEA and AFT leadership to challenge the rush to corporatism in education, and when their efforts seem timid, we assume they must be cozy with corporate deformers. To be blunt: do some union leaders receive compensation that is excessive? Do they not represent teachers but instead front a corporatized entity that pretends to represent us? Perhaps, but the stated purpose those leaders serve is to improve workplace conditions, pay rates and benefits to rank and file members so that those workers can focus on student needs. Vote ’em out if they aren’t effective in these areas. Compare that purpose to the goal of CEOs in private corporations − maximizing returns to stockholders. Consider the amazing inequalities of income and benefits that exist between executives in private companies and their workers, and ponder the fact that those companies thrive on that exploitation. We have little to complain about. Focus on the bigger issue, and deal with the little fish at election time.

The root issue—the underlying disease– for educators today is an excessive and often abusive reliance on evaluation measures that strip both teacher and student of dignity and power. Corporatists honestly believe that defining goals and measuring progress toward them−a practice that serves well when manufacturing consumer goods− ought to provide a solid foundation in the educational world as well. We can restore dignity and render the issue of power moot by demanding reconsideration of the role evaluation ought to play in the educational environment.

I’ve given my share of grades to students, and I’ve never felt productive or positive when doing so. Students who are just beginning to comprehend the basics of a discipline do not need categorization− they need support and encouragement. Students who are at advanced levels in study do not benefit from microanalysis of their performance− they benefit from reflection on their practice with the input and advice of established experts. Take it closer to home– we do not provide a significant other with an evaluation of their performance according to a set of proficiency standards. Why not? We inherently sense the inappropriateness of judging the performance of a loved one according to a set of external standards. Why do we view the appropriateness of evaluation for learners any differently? We should stop now.

How do you feel as a professional when you sit down with an administrator to find out whether they have labeled you as “Distinguished,” “Proficient,” “Developing,” or “Below Expectations?” Do you feel emboldened to push into new areas of pedagogy and curricular development? Or do you feel relieved that your paycheck is safe for another year? We put students through this experience regularly, and we have no evidence that they − or us−are better people or learners for it.

Evaluation is not a necessary part of learning. It is, at best, a number or letter external to the learner’s personal experience. It is a means of quantifiable coercion at worst. It is unproductive and unnecessary.

John Lennon’s song, Imagine, represents the challenge in front of us. We take the first step toward freedom of mind and spirit when we begin to imagine alternatives to our own history. Imagine there’s no report card; I know it’s hard to do− Imagine all the students learning; learning for themselves… That is the relationship I envision between my students and myself, and I’ve long wondered why it doesn’t exist.

And now I know. The corporatist vision demands absolutes. Evaluation is a natural and necessary part of their absolutist domain, and they demand we participate in that world. They prescribe standardized tests and Danielson rubrics to ensure that we do participate.

I prescribe abstinence. I prescribe the unknown and unfamiliar.

It’s wise to venture into the unknown if you do so with a sense of purpose and a sense of direction. But please, reconsider both that purpose and your direction from time to time; don’t just walk in circles.

That’s the difference between adhering to standards and using standards as a framework for professional judgment.

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Churn, Churn, Churn

Quote

Churn, Churn, Churn

[With sincere apologies to the late Pete Seeger…]

 

For charter schools– churn, churn, churn

There is one purpose– earn, earn, earn

And no time for equity in education

 

A time to recruit, a time to hire

A time for ads, a time to conspire

A time to fib, a time to conceal

A time to invest, a time to make the deal

 

For charter schools– churn, churn, churn

There is one purpose– earn, earn, earn

And no time for equity in education

 

No time for doubt, no time to think

No time to reflect, more bucks for machines

No time to inhale money’s stink

No time to heed the voice of learners

 

For charter schools– churn, churn, churn

There is one purpose– earn, earn, earn

And no time for equity in education

 

Get rid of real pros, the TFA plan

Get only the young, they don’t have a clue

Get rid of the educators who squawk

Get rid of all who are not the true believers

 

For charter schools– churn, churn, churn

There is one purpose– earn, earn, earn

And no time for equity in education

 

A time to open, a time to close

A time to arrive, a time to flee town

A non-profit gig that pays owners well

The public’s been conned, I hope it’s not too late!

 

 

Charter schools are for the Byrds.

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Data—Dada—Dodo?

DataDataDodoPic2

 

“Speak roughly to your little boy


and beat him when he sneezes

he only does it to annoy


because he knows it teases.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The word “data” has invaded my teaching environment in new and un-intriguing ways over the past few years. To my mind, data is verifiable quantification of some variable over a period of time or space. Data sources I like to use in my history classes include maps—which are almost magical in packing both time and space together—and charts, which permit analysis of varied combinations of data. New on my living room wall is a map of the original Jamestown Colony, which constantly provokes new questions of relationships and consequences. Struggling with the questions that data suggests is some of the most rewarding work I do along with students. We don’t usually find the answers, but we expand our understanding and sure rack up a list of good queries to pursue!

I like data.

That side of data is not what I hear much about. Instead, teachers are asked to collect “data” on student achievement in their classroom in order to “improve instruction.” Districts need data! Are students up to standard? Did you use the Common Formative Assessment that your district Committee to Forestall Creativity and Professional Judgment created to go along with the Uncommonly Boring State Standards that were produced by a Secret Committee for Undemocratic Mandates? Since teachers must provide “data” to prove that students who don’t care about standards are mastering standards teachers did not choose to create or abide by, a “smart teacher” creates goals that are almost impossible not to achieve, or simply alters the data to suit. Data is no longer a tool of informed judgment, but a means of quantifiable coercion. Data “speaks roughly” to us in the tones of Duchess Michelle Rhee rather than conversing with us as Socrates might.

The surreal feeling of participation in a system that corrupts the meaning and use of data not only prompts alienation of teachers from their occupation, but also incites self-loathing. Somehow, teachers know that collecting data for an end of the year summary evaluation meeting has limited relevance to the development of student ability to participate effectively as an individual in a democracy. If you are compiling a stack of “evidence,” you sure aren’t talking with students, or working alongside them as meaningful, productive data is pored over. Data can lead us to greater interaction and thoughtful engagement in the process of learning, or it can limit our scope to one or two measurements, chosen a priori. Data becomes dada, because the natural and dynamic quality of data has become an obstacle to education.

I love the absurd and participate in it daily with gusto, but a system that is supposed to have serious merit should not be based on a preposterous notion. It is definitely absurd to think that persons drawn to a humanistic endeavor like teaching would value the reductionist quantification of learning this notion of data represents. Absurdity ought to make me laugh. This absurdity makes me wince, and every administrator doing their final evaluation meetings ought to cringe with embarrassment if they are focusing on numbers rather than the professional judgments that stem from them.

The true purpose of this system is to transfer students to a system where achievement can be thoroughly quantified and “individualized,” with those poor learners all becoming perfect replicas without blemish—of a systematically neutered blandishment. Machines do this sort of thing better and better, and do it without internal conflict. Computers collect data faster and more accurately than any human, and apply it without concern for irrelevant factors like, say, whether the learner had breakfast or a parental hug before school.

Data—Dada—Dodo. The extinction of teachers as a species is inevitable if we do not contest the perception of data as the final arbiter of educational excellence. I believe teachers will speak up to demand attention to the un-quantified and undervalued professional judgments that are necessary to a rounded educational experience and which do not exist without human interaction.

I may be a dinosaur, but nobody’s diggin’ my bones yet.

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

 

Academic Football with No Pads

batsfootball2

 

I’ve got to admit a level of hypocrisy when it comes to the subject of football. I’m against it. I’m also a Seattleite who went as nuts as anyone when the Seahawks took all the marbles. Still, those are two different subjects, really. Putting children in a situation where concussions are likely, not just possible, is unconscionable in my book. The risk an adult athlete wants to take in order to earn a significant salary is, short of outright murder in the ring, an appropriate decision to leave up to the individual.

The children in our care in the public schools are subjected involuntarily to a daily game of academic football, minus pads. The “concussions” are emerging even now; Louis C.K. speaks eloquently on that subject, and I expect many, many similar stories to emerge in coming days. When abusive standardized testing is forced upon students, the curriculum narrows, the educational experience is diminished, and the need for more testing is justified…and the circle goes ‘round and ‘round.

It’s time to admit the damage done due to institutionalized underfunding that has led school districts everywhere to become dependent on federal or corporate dollars. That need for funding has opened the door to coercion of state and district leaders by federal officials who have no constitutional authority to demand anything of them. When dollars, politics, and educational philosophy intersect, it ain’t a pretty sight, though…stuff happens.

The damage is evident when students—regardless of developmental disability, emotional instability, academic background or language understanding—are required to take a test, lest the school be penalized for being unwilling to test everyone. When a decision for kindness, for reason and humanity is declared inappropriate in order that corporations may more easily calculate “academic goals” in winning educational contracts, the system tosses children without reasonable protection into a game they do not comprehend. These students gain nothing from participating in the process, but are mined for information of value to a corporate entity.

The damage is evident in the diminished commitment to the process of education I see in student eyes year by year. As demands for “rigor” have grown, alongside the institution of “safety net” classes to improve test scores, the academic breadth of experience has diminished for students who give up “electives” to double up on a purely academic subject. Increasingly, we will see these remedial courses placed on-line, and if any specific connection is necessary between student and teacher…best of luck. Students who experience learning as a deeply personal collaboration will resent the constraints of “standards” as much as they do standardized testing now.

The damage is evident in the time students lose for further enrichment and guidance in the classroom due to excessive standardized testing. The amount of time varies widely from state to state, but it has increased dramatically for all during the past two decades. A lost week? Is that justified? How about places where yearly testing takes up even more time? Are their teachers able to use the time while students are testing to do productive work, or are they misused as very expensive proctors? How much do students lose when school administrators, office staff, and instructional support personnel are entirely focused on the organization of test materials, staff training, and test administration rather than the real and present needs of children? I think the public at large would be outraged to know the true costs of standardized testing, including hours spent on proctoring, organization and administration.

Students deserve a safe, healthy environment for learning. Excessive standardized testing is not conducive to that end. The information generated by those tests is unlikely to benefit students either directly, or through the creation of greater opportunities in their future. Rather, that information will be exploited to extract value in form of payment for increasing student adeptness in taking those same lousy tests that tell students nothing.

The only profit in public education should accrue to the learner, who should feel that they have gained by the opportunity to pursue happiness in a socially responsible way, and that they are ready to accept the responsibilities of citizenship. When that basic principle is met, students will find themselves in a safe and healthy environment , with pads firmly in place as they compete and cooperate in the supreme individual and team full-contact learning challenge!

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

AlbertHandsome

I used to live in a room full of mirrors

All I could see was me

I took my spirit and I smashed those mirrors

Now the whole world is here for me to see

Jimi Hendrix

 

It is maddening to be assaulted with the cacophony of demands on public schools today. Schools (and by that I mean teachers) are expected to “fix society” in any number of ways. Each of these goals has a degree of merit, and it is not surprising that non-educators might hope that they would be met within the K-12 years. These expectations cannot be met, however. Schools have never, and will never, “fix society.” Instead, schools reflect the society they exist within.

Anti-bullying programs will not rid us of people who want to push society in one direction or another. Ask the Koch Bros. and Bill Gates if this isn’t so. “Raising standards” will not cause children to escape the effects of poverty or emotional deprivation. Teaching Shakespeare in elementary school will not inoculate future generations against the Duck Dynasties of the future.

The purpose of public schools is to preserve a democratic society by assisting citizens in their pursuit of happiness and to prepare citizens to take an active role in public affairs. Corporatists instead insist that education is utilitarian; that it functions to provide a workforce that will maintain American dominance in world markets. They work toward ensuring that every reflection of corporatism remains permanent—toward a society that shapes itself to a corporate structure, paralyzed by a need for certainty.

Corporatists are determined folks. They can amplify their messages and the political consequences of their beliefs in proportion to their willingness to use their cash. They believe that their position in society is evidence of the equivalence of capitalism and democracy, and that their socioeconomic status therefore entitles them to dominate the political scene. It’s a circular argument that has the added advantage of perpetuating their power.

It does not serve corporatists to have an engaged citizenry. They would much rather that citizens be passive spectators, disaffected by political chicanery and alienated from a government they do not think they can affect. This leaves civic affairs firmly in the hands of the one percent who distort democracy by manipulating the language of debate and purchasing the loyalty of persons who possess political power.

Corporatists want us to change the “mirror” rather than change our society. They demand a school system that conforms to market-driven forces. The mirror they offer is a distorted one; one that reflects with limited focus and exaggerated promise the possibilities of an instrumentalized education. We who have great experience in keeping the mirror in focus have been excluded from decisions that only those anointed by corporatists or their lackeys are permitted to influence. These anointed ones possess little or no experience with the population of students we engage with daily, yet feel entitled to meet behind closed doors to undermine the curriculum and limit student opportunities.

Jimi Hendrix encouraged us to smash the mirrors surrounding us, but I believe that refocusing and a bit of polish may yet permit us to enlarge and expose the image of society those mirrors reflect. Truth exists in mirrors that are square and plumb, not those built with distorting curves. That refocusing can only begin when the warping curves of education deform are straightened by teachers who demand transparency in the processes leading to determination of curriculum and the goals of public education.

At the same time, we must not permit corporatist initiatives such as CCSS and excessive standardized testing to dishearten us. If we do, our dismay will breed the apathy that permits corporatists’ unfettered control of the one institution that exists to provide students with experiences likely to instill commitment to democracy rather than oligarchy.

No, mirrors don’t fix anything, but they do permit us to consider those aspects of ourselves that might deserve attention. The discussions that can result from honest self-reflection are the heart of democracy. But there is no honesty in the reflection I see from the corporatist’s mirror. Their vision is of a profit-driven and profit-producing educational system, for that is the sort of society they are committed to. It is a society as bereft of humane interest as it is ravenous for mammon.

And yet, the number of people who have encouraged me during these “dark times” heartens me. If we all will reach out to others with and for support, our schools and world–and we ourselves–will be better for it. If we connect, then we will be able to make a commitment to a society that we will be proud to be mirrors for. My commitment is to a society that is inclusive, supportive, and fundamentally democratic and to an educational system that reflects those values.

What do you want to see in the mirror? Let’s make the changes to our society needed to bring that vision into focus in our schools.

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Testivus fȕr Alluvus

PTTestmore

It is with pride and importunity that I declare the Testivus Season open!

Festivities throughout the nation begin on the evening prior to the “window of testing” in each state, city or district. Actual dates may be adjusted locally to ensure the greatest disruption of learning and sufficient failure rates.

For those of the audience unfamiliar with the traditions and activities of Testivus, a brief description of the events to be endured:

The Testivus Breakfuss

It is best to begin the ceremony with the spooning of the pabulum. This ensures that all else imbibed, devoured, masticated, swallowed or otherwise consumed is swathed in a flaccid layer of tasteless gruel. Celebrants often comment on the direct comparison to our annual testing marathon, which is wrapped in a film of educational obeisance to the god of mammon and the lesser god, Marzano the Minimal.

If you can swallow that (along with the pabulum), the rest is easy:

Querical Cannelloni—questions about black holes, right whales, and Mylie Cyrus are baked into narrow pasta tubes and served with vinaigrette. Devotees swallow the pasta whole and belch their answers to each edible query. Loose interpretation of vocalizations is encouraged. This event is rumored to be a possible replacement for the SAT essay next year.

Toasts to Testivius—Nods of disapproval are directed toward effigies of politicians, wealthy “philanthropists,” Pearson officials and others who have advanced the cause of standardized testing. Doses of cod liver oil are distributed between nods to facilitate the feelings of discomfort these persons have bestowed upon teachers. Lucky winners receive an effigy for their school honor societies to use as a night light for pretest cramming.

Testivus Miracles are verified and ridiculed. In the past year, two astounding singularities were subject to catcalls at Breakfusses around the nation:

  • A Bleating Miracle—The absolute absence of a general uprising of teachers against all standardized testing was recently announced as the Department of Education’s greatest accomplishment by Randi Weingarten, who subsequently accepted the Medal of Confounding Compliance on behalf of her zombified teacher’s union in a very private ceremony.
  • The Where’s William? Oddity— In what can only be classified as a miracle escape, Bill Gates failed to debate the doughty Mercedes Schneider concerning his abuse of democracy and public education. He did, however, did appear to shill for his CCSS offspring in Washington, DC. It will be a miracle for the ages if Gates can avoid public humiliation by means of either his avoidance tactics or his debating skill during the Inter-Testivi Doldrums.

Fusstivus Interruptus

Following the Breakfuss, no discussion or mention of the events related to standardized testing is permitted until the final #2 pencil is re-sharpened, the computer labs are re-opened to daily desecration, and final attempts to get opt-out parents to rescind decisions have been abandoned.

Guilt and self-loathing are appropriate throughout.

The Testivus Hole

The final, and most sacred event of the season is the digging of a Testivus hole, excavated by hand with an entrenching tool on public land or by backhoe on Gates Foundation property (there are those who believe that popping the top of the nearest sewer hole is a righteous alternative) …into which is placed all evidence of personal participation in the past year’s federally mandated tests, including, but not limited to:

  • Mandatory staff training notices
  • Proctor training session sign-in sheets
  • The cremated remains of any U. S. Dept. of Education officials or state assessment coordinators who are at hand
  • Disturbing—Do Not Test signs once posted on classroom doors
  • Copies of testing protocols
  • Student bathroom passes (placed in Ziploc® bags for safe handling)
  • Losing Lotto tickets, purchased in moments of lucid desperation
  • Official testing calendars and class schedules
  • Receipts for snacks issued to students—(may not include items for personal use)
  • Testing tickets for logging on to malfunctioning electronic test sites
  • Test booklets smuggled home for pre-reading and lesson-planning
  • Sheets of lined yellow pre-writing paper (with student names at top)
  • Lists of pupils to be sent to alternate testing areas or for make-up tests

Under no circumstance should lists of students who have opted out of testing be included. No ceremony is to be wasted here, a wanton disregard for used testing materials is considered de rigeur, and fresh splashes of effluvia on the discarded documents prized.

Musical Accompaniment

During the dumping of the documents, a sacred chant is performed (customarily muttered under the breath to the rhythm of the Horst-Wessel-Lied or any ABBA tune):

Blessed be our Gatesmeister,

for he provides the fodder for the Testivus season!

And hail the Duncanology that the hole represents:

Dark, empty, vapid, and utterly without merit.

AlbertTestivusHole

© David Sudmeier, 2014