Organize, educate, agitate, must be our war cry. (Susan B. Anthony)

The following is the speech I gave as a (very honored to be included) speaker at the International Women’s Day Rally & March in Cleveland, Ohio, on March 8th, 2017, on a very windy day at Willard Park. 

International Women’s Day March & Rally Cleveland, Ohio, 2017

Thank you so much to all of you for being here today.

My name is Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith, and I am here today representing 100s of local education activists, 1000s of education advocates statewide, and hundreds of 1000s of education activists & advocates across this nation who are fighting for the schools ALL our children deserve.

When government officials and the business community attack teachers and public schools, you better believe that it is an attack on women, who make up over 75% of the teaching profession. It is an attack on our children. It is an attack on our democracy.

We know that education is essential to human liberation.

In this spirit of liberation, we fight to dismantle oppressive practices in schools; practices placed upon us by legislators and corporate interests without any regard for what is best for our children.

We demand that curriculum and classroom practice be culturally relevant, comprehensive, engaging, challenging, and promote critical thinking, and that these practices be based on research and the input of educators, not based on the whims of politicians or the profit margins of corporations.

We call for an end to harsh zero tolerance policies and the policing of our children, and instead call for the implementation of restorative practices that do not disproportionately put children of color on the school-to-prison pipeline.

We support local democratically elected school boards. Because if you can vote to have your taxes raised to support a school district, then you should be able to vote for who is on the district’s school board.

We demand an end to high stakes standardized testing, a system rooted in eugenics and racism that has done nothing to improve teaching and learning for our students, but has created a false narrative about “failing public schools” and “bad teachers.”

We want community schools that are provided with funding and resources to offer the wrap around services that families surrounding those schools need.

School reforms should meet the needs of children in classrooms, not corporations.

All children deserve prepared, experienced and fully licensed teachers.

And all children and all schools must have equitable access to resources and adequate funding.

I plead with all of you today to remain vigilant and diligent in the fight for our public schools.

Until the government ends the test and punish system, tell your child’s school that your student will not be participating in the state’s punitive system of  high stakes standardized testing. Refuse the tests!

No more of our tax dollars to millionaires and billion dollar corporations, so that they can sell our kids developmentally inappropriate tests and then call our kids failures.

Hold public officials accountable. Budget bills must equitably and fully fund education –  not mass incarceration.

We must fight this battle not because education is called a civil rights issue, but because education is an inalienable human right.

Our children need us too much to get tired of being in this battle.

They may have demolished and neglected the buildings we use for education, but they cannot decimate our desire to educate & be educated.

They will continue to wage this political and corporate war on educators: the Liberators.

But they cannot  liquidate our aspirations for liberation.

Education is liberation. Education. Liberation. Education. Liberation.

 

 

 

  

 

My Students Pay Every Day for Their “Free” Lunch

     When billionaire Betsy Devos, the woman who bought the Secretary of Education position in Donald Trump’s administration, addressed attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, she received a lot of criticism from people who actually care about children for a remark she made in which she claimed to be the first person to tell Bernie Sanders “to his face that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Although her comment was meant to be humorous, those of us who possess an ounce of humanity know that there is nothing funny about children living in poverty. However, this may be the one and only time that I can actually agree with the literal words of Betsy Devos. There is no such thing as a free lunch. In fact, my kids pay every day.

      According to a 2016 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1 in 4 kids in Ohio, about 600,000 children, are living in poverty.  In the city that I teach in, Cleveland, 53.2% of children are living in poverty. Our children absolutely pay every single day of their lives for the meager opportunity to have a “free lunch.” They may not be paying with the currency that Betsy DeVos and her wealthy cronies value, but they are paying in many other ways that matter so much more. Below are just a few examples from the American Psychological Association:

Effects of child poverty

  • Poverty is linked with negative conditions such as substandard housing, homelessness, inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, inadequate child care, lack of access to health care, unsafe neighborhoods, and under-resourced schools which adversely impact our nation’s children.
  • Poorer children and teens are also at greater risk for several negative outcomes such as poor academic achievement, school dropout, abuse and neglect, behavioral and socioemotional problems, physical health problems, and developmental delays.
  • Economists estimate that child poverty costs an estimated $500 billion a year to the U.S. economy; reduces productivity and economic output by 1.3 percent of GDP; raises crime and increases health expenditure (Holzer et al., 2008).
Poverty and academic achievement
  • Chronic stress associated with living in poverty has been shown to adversely affect children’s concentration and memory which may impact their ability to learn.
  • The academic achievement gap for poorer youth is particularly pronounced for low-income African American and Hispanic children compared with their more affluent White peers.
Poverty and psychosocial outcomes
  • Children living in poverty are at greater risk of behavioral and emotional problems.
  • Unsafe neighborhoods may expose low-income children to violence which can cause a number of psychosocial difficulties. Violence exposure can also predict future violent behavior in youth which places them at greater risk of injury and mortality and entry into the juvenile justice system.
Poverty and physical health

Children and teens living in poorer communities are at increased risk for a wide range of physical health problems:

  • Low birth weight
  • Poor nutrition which is manifested in the following ways:
    1. Inadequate food which can lead to food insecurity/hunger
    2. Lack of access to healthy foods and areas for play or sports which can lead to childhood overweight or obesity
  • Chronic conditions such as asthma, anemia and pneumonia
  • Risky behaviors such as smoking or engaging in early sexual activity
  • Exposure to environmental contaminants, e.g., lead paint and toxic waste dumps
  • Exposure to violence in their communities which can lead to trauma, injury, disability and mortality

    As I was leaving a wake this morning for a teen I knew who was killed while at a playground in Cleveland, the price that my students pay because of poverty weighs heavily on me. There are no free lunches. My kids might get some free food at the schools they attend, but no one can tell me that they aren’t paying.

Finding Educational Justice in the Justice System for Students with Disabilities

Post for Special Education Consultants Group     

In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, students can be adjudicated prior to age 18, or sent from the juvenile detention center once they reach age 18, to the adult county jail pending the outcome of their case. A couple years ago, I learned that access to education services are scarce to nonexistent at the adult county facility in Cuyahoga County. Appalled for all students, I began reaching out to local government officials at the county level. Outside of a meeting with a community liaison at the county executive’s office during the summer of 2015, I was largely ignored or dismissed. I then began reaching out to the Ohio Department of Education, Disability Rights Ohio, and to representatives and senators on a national level, lobbying my senators and representative in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 2015. At the end of the summer, I realized that most folks in government don’t really give a rat’s tail about this practically invisible population of students. It was also then that it occurred to me that a significant number of the students sent to languish at the county facility for extended lengths of time without access to education, often still had active Individual Education Plans under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and that not offering services was a violation of their civil rights. I filed a complaint with the Department of Justice against the state of Ohio because students are assigned to the Buckeye United School District once they leave the county juvenile facility for the county adult facility. The Buckeye United School District includes schools under the Ohio Department of Youth Services.  

    Meanwhile, the State Deputy Director from Senator Sherrod Brown’s office responded to my outreach and agreed to visit my students at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, and to listen to my stories and theirs. When I did not get a timely response from the DOJ, Senator Sherrod Brown’s office followed up for me, and I received an update within a week. I also traveled to Boston in December of 2015 to meet and ask a question of Bryan Stevenson about the students I serve, and the situation of youth in adult detention facilities.

    The case initiated by my complaint was eventually transferred to the United States Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office in Cleveland, Ohio. An investigation is currently open and pending as of the summer of 2016. I do not believe that I need to explain to this educated group of people how damaging and negatively life-changing a lack of education, or the deprivation of education, can be on our young people caught in the juvenile or adult justice system. When students fight back (with the help of advocates), they receive compensatory school time, thus I have a former student in Mansfield now on an active IEP until he is 22 because he spent a year without access to education waiting at the adult county facility. For students already struggling academically, a year away from education cannot ever really be compensated. Due to the large number of people incarcerated who have disabilities and are between the ages of 18-21, I am creating awareness about this issue so that other people who care about the rights of students with disabilities can also advocate for those entangled in the very complicated maze of juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. There are many entrances into this maze, but the exits are few and infrequently include a high school diploma for those who experience it. Our communities would all be better places if that changed.

With hope for a means to justice and education for all,

Melissa

Opt Out/Refusal for Ohio 2016-2017

     It seems that the high stakes testing season begins as soon as the school year starts. For high school students adhering to the new Ohio graduation pathways and requirements, state high school exams will be administered beginning in December (next week). I don’t need to review all of the reasons that high stakes standardized tests are bogus, invalid, and do nothing to improve teaching or learning. However, if you need some inspiration for your student’s Opt Out or Refusal letter this year, feel free to read on and borrow any parts you find useful from mine. 

Greetings BMHS Staff,

Just as in the past 2 years, (my son) will NOT be participating in any Ohio State Tests, or in any tests created by AIR, NWEA, ProCore, PARCC, etc. I only want him to participate in assessments created by his classroom teachers whom we value and respect.
If you would like a more thorough understanding of my objections to the racist and oppressive practice of standardizing testing in schools, please refer to the following websites:
http://fairtest.org/racism-eugenics-and-testing-again
http://www.fairtest.org/sites/default/files/racial_justice_and_testing_12-10.pdf
http://ideas.time.com/2012/10/11/why-its-time-to-get-rid-of-standardized-tests/
http://parentsacrossamerica.org/civil-rights-discrimination-standardized-testing/
http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2015/12/the-racist-origins-of-standardized.html
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ronnie-reese/test-bias-minorities_b_2734149.html
Standardized Testing is Racist
https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/06/21/sat
Once again, I realize that (my son) may do well on the state tests. That is irrelevant to the fact that he would be participating in a systemically racist institution, which serves to perpetuate oppression and a discriminatory narrative in society. I will not allow him to passively participate in a system designed to sustain a legacy of inequality in our country.
He will be taking the ACT this spring at BMHS, and should meet graduation requirements at that time through the ACT pathway. His high school graduation and his future are the only reasons I concede to the ACT testing.
I am copying everyone on this email so that there is NO misunderstanding or miscommunication that ultimately puts (my son) in an uncomfortable or compromising position; during which the principles I have raised him to espouse become in conflict with his desire to comply with school officials.
I appreciate your understanding.
Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith

It Takes a Community: Social & Emotional Learning at a Juvenile Detention Center

The following are links to the Google slides prepared for a 5-7 minute Ed Talk at SEL in Action, a conference in Phoenix, Arizona, made possible through the generosity of the NoVo Foundation, and planned and hosted by Education First. I am very grateful that I was given this opportunity, and more importantly, that my students were given a chance to shine.

It Takes a Community  

it-takes-a-community-2

Thanks to Jillian A. for the photo. 🙂

What’s Tough about Teaching in a Juvenile Detention Center?

What’s Really Tough about Teaching at a County Juvenile Detention Center…

     Work obligations plus the generosity of family and friends gave me the opportunity to travel to various regions of America this summer. Frequently, the kind and interesting folks that I meet ask me what I “do.” When I respond that I’m an educator at a county juvenile detention facility, the response is either verbatim, “that must be tough,” or something equivalent. When I worked at other high schools in our urban district over a span of sixteen years, I would get a similar response. Then, I used to reply that kids are just kids everywhere. I would elaborate in an attempt to expand the person’s viewpoint with stories of my students’ brilliance and accomplishments against unimaginable obstacles. The past two years I have had a different reply:

Actually, no. It isn’t tough being a teacher there. I love it. I love the boys I work with. They’re just kids.

I have to explain that these young men, the majority of whom are black and brown, and from environments designed by society to perpetuate poverty and oppression, are not the monsters that the corporate mainstream media and those dominant in our society would like us all to believe. They are kids. When I look at them, I see my own sons.

But let me tell you what really keeps me up at night…

  • A country that has promoted and allowed for mass incarceration; a modern Jim Crow
  • Prosecutors who care more about putting people in jail than keeping them out
  • A system of injustice that treats a guilty, old, wealthy, white male much better than an innocent brown and poor young man
  • A city that spends $50 million on the security of visitors for the RNC, but can’t find the money to protect our city’s children from violence in their neighborhoods or a policeman’s bullet
  • A city that spends $50 million to renovate a public space downtown, but can’t find money to prevent 2,000 children from being poisoned by lead each year in their homes, or money to provide children with nutritious meals free from processed foods and full of fresh ingredients 
  • The criminalization of addiction or other health issues & the lack of services available to assist people in need
  • Tertiary prison-for-profit businesses like “Jpay” who exploit the already desperate and disadvantaged families and their loved ones who are incarcerated
  • Schools, districts and politicians who care more about scores and data than the humanity and potential that every child deserves to have recognized and valued
  • Policies from politicians that have forced schools to become pipelines to prison, rather than conduits of knowledge and discovery
  • A system that magically transforms juveniles into adults in order to bind them out of the juvenile system, and into an adult county system that doesn’t even provide students with special needs access to their federally mandated civil rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

It isn’t tough being an educator at a county juvenile detention center. It is tough to regain the trust of kids who have been hurt by dumb adults too many times. It is tough to plop spoonfuls of self esteem on boys who are used to having it scooped away, and to hope that they embrace their own worth. It is tough knowing their stories of tragedy and childhood trauma, or to read how they can’t stop seeing the violence they’ve witnessed replaying in their minds. It is tough when they tell me they’re afraid because I know they need more than what they’ll get from me. It is tough when I push them to graduate, and they tell me that they never thought they would.

Caring about the boys I teach isn’t tough.

Greedy corporations and plundering profiteers that value money more than people, and capitalism more than children, in addition to our corrupt political system, are a burden ON ALL OF US, which makes things tougher for ALL OF US.

Kids belong in school, not jails. More funding should go to education, not incarceration. The liberty of people’s bodies, minds, and souls should never be exploited for profit.

 

How Can I Make My Students Republicans?

    “I know a lot of guys here hold anger against their fathers. I don’t blame my dad for not being around,” the articulate and thoughtful young man asserted, “he wasn’t given the opportunities that other people have had.”

It is not always easy to smolder the swell of tears, that initiates in my gut and rises with a heat quickly to just below my nostrils, when I hear the compassion and maturity my students express. Working as an educator in our city’s juvenile detention center, the 16-17 year old young men in my classroom in Cleveland, Ohio, bring me on emotional roller coaster rides unintentionally and unknowingly almost daily. I smile and laugh when they reveal glimpses of the childhoods they could have, and should have had, as they earnestly work to earn a treat or certificate in class. I send silent screams of rage out into an unresponsive universe, proclaiming unfairness and injustice as the culprits that are too often the cause of my students’ circumstances. Although I never let my students see a tear fall from my usually sleep-deprived eyes, a persistent heavy sorrow weighs on my shoulders.

    Another student chimed in, explaining that an elder provided him with his gun because he thought it would help keep him safe in his neighborhood. “It’s either shoot or get shot,” he stated as a matter-of-fact. An uncertainty about their health and safety is a reality that our CHILDREN, who are often not even given a chance to grow up in our city, confront every day. Over two-thousand children are poisoned with elevated lead levels every year in Cleveland; a completely preventable toxic attack on their health and lives that we keep allowing to happen. The website Neighborhood Scout rates Cleveland as safer than only 2% of other cities in the United States. Would my students approach the police to protect them, or their rights in our city? Can my students rely on our city leaders to protect and serve them?  A 2015 Department of Justice report about the Cleveland Police Department and the Tamir Rice story are enough to understand why my kids feel like they are in occupied territory. They often feel contained and neglected, not protected.      

    As Cleveland celebrates its historic championship basketball team, Calder Cup winning hockey team, and currently winning baseball team, officials are also preparing to showcase the city to the 50,000 visitors expected for the Republican National Convention, which is less than a few weeks away. The fruits of successful collaborative efforts between government, business and nonprofit entities are evident as long-time residents travel throughout Cleveland’s neighborhoods. Colorful art murals have appeared on the sides of buildings, walls, highway bridge supports, and utility boxes. New hotels have opened in time for the convention. Additional gardens and greenery-filled planters have been placed around the city for added beauty, and extra lighting has been strategically placed to keep visitors safe and so that the city can shine. Sidewalks and roads have been repaired and paved, and new trees have been planted. A redesigned public square was recently revealed for a $50 million dollar price tag. Outside of the aesthetic appeal of the multiple improvements around the city, $50 million dollars of an NSSE grant was allocated for security in a 2015 fiscal appropriations bill “to ensure the safety of convention goers,” according to Senator Portman (R) from Ohio.

    Recently, Cleveland has been given accolades by media sources throughout the country as a “revitalized city” ready for the national stage when the potentially boisterous Republican National Convention arrives July 18th. While Cleveland is putting its best foot forward for the worldwide media attention it is likely to receive, there are questions that should be asked about the amount being spent on the downtown area to impress and keep the RNC visitors safe.

     Where is the money to keep Cleveland’s children safe? Where is the money to revitalize neighborhood centers with mentors for Cleveland’s children? Where is the money to create jobs and job training for our young people and their families? Where is the money to turn our city schools into community resource centers for students and their families? Where is the money to eradicate lead poisoning and to keep testing children for lead? Where is the money to get guns off of the city’s streets? Why aren’t our city’s children as valuable as the 50,000 visitors who will descend upon our city, then leave? Where are the children’s $50 million dollar grants and allocations?

    Some people may respond with lines about generating business, marketing Cleveland to the world, and income generated for the city. The promises of capitalist investment abound for the already affluent, in a city that has no qualms about leaving its most vulnerable citizens in segregated, impoverished, isolated neighborhoods. Others may assert that the convention hosting is about business and not about messy human issues embedded in systemic and historical racism. To both assertions I reply “Correct!” Capitalist principles should not be applied when we are discussing human beings. Capitalism shouldn’t be integrated into healthcare, education, unions, or the judicial system. Profits or marketing shouldn’t be considered when leaders are aware of children being poisoned by lead, or when children need saved from violence. If it helps though, consider what a significant investment in our city’s children right now would do for the future of Cleveland. There is a tremendous waste of human potential created by the purposeful neglect of other people’s children.

   Clearly, the safety of visitors during the RNC is important to city, state, and national leaders. How can we make the children of Cleveland as valuable as these 50,000 temporary residents to those same leaders? How can I make my students, who have tremendous insight, resilience, and brilliance, as important as the republicans?

 

    

 

    

      

 

     

Now is Not the Time to do What is Convenient

     Cleveland Public Schools have been under mayoral control with an unelected, mayor-appointed school board since 1998. Under the Cleveland Plan three years ago, test scores became the driving factor for all decisions, and a tedious, subjective, punitive teacher evaluation system, as well as merit pay for teachers, was implemented. The Cleveland Teachers’ Union and the District began negotiations for a new contract this school year. Recently, representatives of  the District announced that they were walking away from the negotiating table, and instead began preparing for a fact finding.

My speaking points for the Cleveland, Ohio, Board of Education Meeting 2-23-2016

Good evening, my name is Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith. I am an educator in Cleveland, CTU member, and an advocate for children.

Rather than leave the profession entirely two years ago, I switched positions in the District for a 20% pay cut, because I feel that the current data-obsessed system (even when the data produced is not valid) is harmful to students. Of course, all of us working in schools deserve to be paid fairly for our education, work, and experience, but being a teacher has never been about money.  

As others have already alluded to this evening – members of multiple unions work in this district because we care about students. We want the children of Cleveland to have a quality, sustainable, public education system.

Those of us who serve students in a variety of capacities in our district, experience firsthand every day the challenges that confront many of our young people in the city. I would like to use my time (3 minutes) to bring awareness to some of these issues, and I hope you consider the multiple factors that influence a child’s educational experience as we move forward this school year and for school years to come.

For example:

We know that the Plain Dealer reported this past October that 2000 children are poisoned with elevated lead levels every year in our city, and that this exposure causes learning disabilities and behavior issues in children that could have been prevented, but now require special interventions; interventions that more “rigor” in school classrooms will not address.

We know that venture capitalists and for-profit firms are salivating over the exploding $788.7 billion market in K-12 education, and are already enjoying making money off of our city’s children. Breaking up unions is not going to stop them, even though Governor Kasich has tried his best to destroy them.

We know that invalid and made-up test scores are repeatedly used to shame and harm students, teachers, and schools so that those with their eyes on dollar signs can run in with the next latest and greatest scam-of-a-solution to save us all; when really it is politicians and society who have repeatedly failed to address or profited from the social injustices that perpetuate around us.

We know that students may show up to school traumatized at varying degrees, and schools do not have an adequate amount of access to mental health professionals or social workers, and that piling more paperwork on teachers is not going to solve that.

We know that structural inequalities, an unequal distribution of resources, and institutional racism still exist in our city and schools, and that hiring more expensive outside consultants will not eliminate that reality.

We know that highly trained, experienced, and committed teachers are what research shows us will benefit our most vulnerable and needy students, and that punishing educators for wanting to work with those students with a subjective and invalid evaluation system is not a solid retainment strategy.

We know that research shows us that children need time for free play and movement, and access to art, music, physical education, and fully-staffed libraries to maximize their learning and development, and that the excessive amount of tests that our young people endure is making those important opportunities less accessible or non-existent.

We know that students who end up in our justice system, foster care system, residential programs, or homeless are often neglected or poorly tracked because of systemic neglect and failures.

We know that access to healthcare can be a challenge for some of our students. We need full time school nurses all day, every day and access to other physical therapy and medical professionals. More unfunded mandates from Columbus, Washington, or City Hall are not going to make access to that healthcare a reality either.  

We know that if our parents and community stakeholders are qualified enough to pass a school levy through the democratic process of voting, then they are qualified enough to participate in the process of voting for a democratically elected school board.

We know that every child has the ability to learn and excel, and we want the best schools for all of our students. We want money to be spent on classrooms and kids. We want our students to be ready for our diverse 21st century world, and not forced into the role of testing robots or drones.

None of us have a problem with being accountable for the things that we can and should control, but the system better be fair and hold every stakeholder accountable, including all of us here this evening.

Now is not the time to do what is convenient. Now is ALWAYS the time to do what is right.

Thank you for your time this evening.

PS – As an RIP to Jeb’s campaign… Please Clap

Hillary, Politicians, Education Reformers, & Education Profiteers: You Are Cowards & Failures

You say my school is failing. You label my students as failing. You call me a failure. Then you shake hands with profiteers who wear fancy suits and promote edperialism and a testocracy. These profiteers and elitists you embrace send their kids to expensive private schools, so their children don’t have to endure the policies stuffed full of educational malpractice you collaborated to create. They sit cozy in offices and devise untested business theories for application to the humanity that is education. You let them steal our tax dollars, and you praise them as philanthropists for their astronomical failures in education. It’s time you change your narrative. It’s time you change your proximity.

Do you really want to know what it’s like to be a public school teacher in an economically devastated & segregated neighborhood in one of our nation’s cities? Neither you nor the profiteers and policy makers really want to know. People like you want to keep judging and labeling, but you don’t want to admit that you helped create the suffering and disadvantage. You don’t want to claim the role and responsibility that you bear for the disasters you’ve created for other people’s children. Come take a look at my joyful, sad, sweet, angry, helpless, and hopeful students and tell them they’re failures to their faces. Come see me and my colleagues in our classrooms working 10-12 hour days and look us in the eyes and tell us we’re failures. Tell the families who rely on the existing public neighborhood schools we have left that they’re failures raising failures.

Does that seem harsh? It should.

But you have no problem preaching about “failing schools” full of “failing students” while you’re perched in expensive offices in skyscrapers, or as you muse about education in affluent and gated neighborhoods. Change your proximity and see if your narrative still feels all cozy, warm and righteous. See if you still possess the courage or ignorance to make bold declarations about failure when you’re looking into the eyes of hungry six-year-olds who suffered through childhood traumas and lead-filled homes in one of our nation’s cities. Can you look into those sweet, helpless faces and tell a little girl that she’s a failure?

Yet, that is what you do every time you or your education reformer/deformer friends and contributors suggest competition and privatization or closuresinstead of addressing the poverty, historic and systemic racism, and epic failure of our society to care about other people’s children.  The real failures among us fill boardrooms, legislatures, executive offices, non-profits, and cabinets all over this country. They aren’t in my classroom. They aren’t in my school. And they aren’t the families in my city.  They’re people like you.  And I have the courage to state that directly.  Now, I challenge you to stand in front of us and tell us we are failures while you are looking straight into the eyes of my children, my students, our school staff, and my colleagues. OR you can finally gain the courage to change your narrative, examine the research, and acknowledge the role that our nation has played in making sure that some people’s children start out with less than others, and to admit that we don’t do enough to change that, or do enough to help our fellow citizens catch up.  

Maybe once you have the courage to admit to policy and approach failures, you and those who believe that having money makes them authorities about EVERYTHING, will actually ASK educators, healthcare providers, social workers, mental health providers, safety and security providers, nutritionists, and the people we serve what is really needed to improve our cities and education.  I am pretty certain the response won’t be that we need more politicians and reformers threatening us and calling us failures. You won’t know though until you change your proximity, and then change your narrative. Meanwhile, I’ll keep working under your failed policies and egregious labels while making sure that my students, their families, and my colleagues remain reminded that YOU FAIL US then label us. Yet, until you make an initiative for change, it is YOU who should wear the label of failure and shame.

Not us.

*Changing proximity and changing the narrative were ideas presented by justice advocate and lawyer Bryan Stevenson at a Boston Community Conversation on December 9th, 2015 at Emerson University’s Paramount Theater in partnership with Facing History.    

Now is Always the Time to Do What is Right

    Recently, the Ohio Department of Education(ODE) held a phone propaganda conference to inform Ohioans about the state tests that they want students to take this school year (2015-2016). The new (but not really new) tests from AIR will replace the PARCC tests, but will still incorporate PARCC-like questions and possibly even the exact same questions used on tests that AIR created for purchasers in other states. AIR tests in the states of Utah and Florida this past year received less than positive accolades. Recruited for part of the ODE’s propaganda effort was Ohio’s 2015 Teacher of the Year, a high school teacher from Tallmadge, Ohio, and ODE Associate Superintendent, Lonny Rivera, who will soon be replacing retiring State Superintendent, Richard Ross. The following is my sincere plea to those educators who may not recognize the damage that high stakes standardized testing wreaks upon public education as a whole, but particularly on the schooling of underprivileged children.

Dear 2015 Teacher of the Year (and Any Other Educators Who Have Yet to Join The Force),

    I applaud the efforts and dedication that earned you the recognition bestowed upon you. Obviously, like the vast majority of educators I know, you care deeply about your subject, position and students. You have recognized and harnessed the power that teachers possess to impact lives. This ability, that only certain people can master, requires a combination of intellect, heart, endurance, passion, patience, dedication, and crafting. Knowing that, the entire profession should be held in high regard and well respected by politicians, leaders, and society in general. Being a “Teacher of the Year,” provides you with a potentially stronger voice to influence others. Listeners may even offer you a certain level of respect that they will not afford to the profession in general.

    With this great respect, comes great responsibility.

    When you convey to an audience of listeners that standardized high stakes testing is not punitive, or does not require you to teach to a test, you not only misinform that audience, but you forget that while you are lovingly nurturing and nourishing the minds of your students in a supportive community, with a democratically elected and locally controlled school board, there are other students and educators in the state who are enduring the dismantling of democracy, and the enforcement of harmful, non-researched based approaches designed to punish and label children and schools, even if those students and teachers are working just as hard, if not harder, than the staff and student body in Tallmadge.

Below is a comparison of Tallmadge, Ohio, to Cleveland, Ohio.

The cities are 37 miles apart.

2013 Tallmadge, Ohio Cleveland, Ohio
Unemployment Rate 1.8% 15.2%
Median Household Income $53,748 $26,096
Estimated Median House or Condo Value $154,170 $66,600
Average Monthly Rent $655 $631
Foreign Born Residents 2.7% 4.6%

http://www.city-data.com/

    The implications of the data should not need explanation, but it may be necessary to highlight that even when students are from families with a parent working full-time, year-round, they can still be living in a low-income household because wages are so low that many families cannot survive solely on what they earn.

     Growing up in poverty, or in a low-income household, can have significant effects on learning and brain development that have been known about for over a decade. According to the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education, “Biological factors include toxin exposure (e.g., lead paint in older buildings), malnourishment, premature birth from prenatal drug and alcohol use, and vitamin deficiencies in the mother (e.g., folic acid). The NRC identified time between parents and their children to be the most important factor in early child development, and parents in low-income households often do not have the time to devote to their children. Less time with parents means less verbal discussion, less vocabulary development, and less social skill development — all contributing to a tougher time in school.”

    The organization  Zero to Three notes, “Research shows that major adversity, such as extreme poverty, can weaken  developing brain architecture and permanently set the body’s stress response system on  high alert.” Children from low-income families are  “at greater risk than middle‐ or  high‐income infants and toddlers for a variety of poorer outcomes and vulnerabilities, such as later school failure, learning disabilities, behavior problems, mental retardation, developmental delay, and health impairments.” None of this research reveals an actual deficit for the potential to learn, but it does reveal that standardization of learning is inappropriate and abusive to the mindsets of children who already have considerable odds to confront. Massive testing that has never been appropriately vetted to eliminate cultural biases, in addition to the dozens of other reasons high stakes testing lacks validity, has been punitive to our most vulnerable citizens, and has neglected the needs of our most gifted learners.

    Before even considering the disparities in access to resources and opportunities for students in Cleveland compared to those in Tallmadge, there is already an established pattern of risk for students that has nothing to do with the school systems, and everything to do with factors related to family backgrounds and socioeconomic status. Testing is not going to change that. An historical account of housing segregation and job discrimination in Cleveland, and other northern urban areas, reveals that the U.S. government contributed to segregated poverty when returning World War II white GI’s could get low-cost federal home loans to move to the suburbs, while black veterans could not. Then, there is the history of “sun-down towns”  and sun-down suburbs in Ohio and other northern parts of the U.S.  These areas still remain purposefully all white, or nearly all-white today, because they were intentionally designed to exclude other groups, particularly African Americans (3.4% of Tallmadge residents are African American). Testing does not promote integration or support equity. 

    There are adversities for Cleveland students that the majority of the population in Tallmadge and other suburbs may never encounter. Being a teacher anywhere means being a member of an important and necessary profession. We have the power to impact individuals and a collective future. However, when a teacher states from a perspective of privilege, that test scores are not punitive or that teachers do not have to teach to the test, then that someone is either lying or sorely lacks knowledge. If anyone believes that testing does not castigate, then they should go teach in one of the most economically devastated neighborhoods in a city, at a public school that cannot turn away students deemed as “less desirable,” and compare that experience to wherever they are coming from. Were the students retained because of a test, even when the professional educators who worked with the student all year saw growth?

     Take all of the teachers from a school rated “A” by the Ohio Department of Education in a suburb like Tallmadge, and swap them with the teachers at a school labeled “F” by the Ohio Department of Education for a year. Will the grades of the schools automatically be reversed the next school year after a year with new staffs? The odds are in strong favor of the state grades for both schools remaining the same, regardless of a staff swap. Does going to a school with despicable overhead labels hovering every day motivate students or teachers, or does that feel punitive? Teachers work hard wherever we are, but we can’t solve systemic poverty that was cast upon marginalized groups in our society, through generations of discriminatory and oppressive practices, all by ourselves. Educators need society to finally decide that rectifying past wrongs and caring for other people is worth the effort. We do not need another member of the profession touting false information to an audience of listeners or proclaiming that testing is not punitive. 

    We cannot change our country’s history or mistakes made in the past, and we should not regret wanting what is best for our children and working for that aim. Yet, we should also not be a society that continues to ignore the fact that the time to do what is right, is always NOW.

    NOW is the time to reject the high stakes test and punish system that has been discredited and exposed as producing little, but costing much. 

    NOW is the time to stand against punitive labels and inequities.

    NOW is the time to proclaim that our children are not products, and that they do not come standardized.

    NOW is the time to say that access to a quality education should not be a competition. It is a right.

    NOW is the time to decide that our children deserve much better.

    And to decide that other people’s children deserve better also.

    A better time than NOW will not arrive. The time to do what is right is always NOW.

Please join us.

Sincerely,

Just A Teacher