St Paddy’s Day, Starvation & Public Education

Perhaps you’re recovering this weekend, along with many others, from the celebrations on St. Patrick’s Day which were full of parades, green clothing, Irish whiskey, green beer, and corned beef. Setting all of the green fun aside, the history of Irish immigrants is dark and rich, and should prompt all of us to question why we continue to allow those in power to starve the poor.

    During the first winter of famine in Ireland in the mid-1800s, hundreds of thousands of Irish peasants starved, while landlords and the British exported 17 million pounds sterling worth of food that could have prevented the starvation. As those Irish who were able to migrated to other countries for survival, the British government and Anglican church did nothing on behalf of the poor in Ireland to stop the starvation.

    In America, Trump’s recent budget proposal could cut programs that feed poor children and the elderly, and his Secretary of Education mocks our national free lunch program. Are we any better today than the capitalist and colonial forces that sacrificed Ireland’s peasants over 150 years ago? Looking at the deprivation, violence, trauma, and toxins that are allowed to surround the students I serve in Cleveland, Ohio, I’m uncertain that we’ve learned anything from history.

    According to Feeding America, in 2015, 42.2 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 29.1 million adults and 13.1 million children. What does it mean to live in a country where over one-third of the adults are obese, and a country that exports $131 billion in foods, feeds, and beverages, yet fails to provide its most vulnerable citizens with access to adequate nutrition? Maybe it is time to examine what it means when food remains a commodity, instead of a human right.

    What happens when the same destructive global system of profit that pervasively commodified food is applied to education? We’re left with segments of the population starved of adequate learning materials, resources, qualified instructors, enrichment activities, and the arts, and a citizenry devoid of the ability to think critically. We’re left with colonizers telling certain demographics that they aren’t worthy of democratically controlled school boards or neighborhood schools, but that they are still good enough to pay taxes. We allow for fallacious ideas like competition, charters, vouchers, and the generation of standardized products formerly known as children to invade our common schools and devour public funds. We become victims of profiteers and eduperialists who legally plunder millions (billions?) of public dollars to inflate their personal wealth at the expense of educating all children. We manifest a destiny that empathetic future historians will surely reflect upon with shock, dismay and horror.

    As we recover and rejuvenate from St. Patrick’s Day shenanigans, we don’t have to let the dismal tragic details of Irish immigration get us down, but perhaps we can reflect upon our country’s obsession with capitalism and the commodification of things that everyone should have access to as human beings. Consider the words of Fintan O’Toole, a columnist for The Irish Times:

“We either wink at a racism that affords most of us the privilege of a white skin,” he wrote. “Or we honour the struggles of so many millions of Irish immigrants to be accepted as equal human beings.” … Will we stand “up for all of those who share the Irish experience of having to overcome poverty and prejudice in order to make decent lives for our children?

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine. (Gaelic)

Under the shelter of each other, people survive.

 

 

 

     

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

Suggestions and a Request of the Ohio Department of Education

Emailed to statetests@education.ohio.gov

Dear Ohio Department of Education (ODE),

Please stop misleading and lying to parents about state tests.

In addition to the corruption surrounding charter schools that forced Governor Kasich’s buddy, Dave Hansen, to resign from his position as school choice director at the ODE, and the sinister and deceitful attack on urban school districts in the state (in partnership with business leaders and many in Ohio’s legislature), the unscrupulous and blatant disregard for honesty or truth also permeates the department’s testing “informational” literature.

In opposition to multiple misleading or blatantly false claims in the ODE’s Information on Student Participation in State Tests, I prepared some truth to share.

  1. States are required under the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to maintain annual testing in grades 3-8 in reading and math and once in high school, and three science tests are to be given between grades 3 and 12. Any additional testing is completely at the discretion of state lawmakers and the ODE. Furthermore, state lawmakers decide how much test scores count within state-created accountability frameworks. Thus, elected representatives, who are supposed to represent the people – not test-makers profiting off of the system, or charter school operators looking to use children as cash cows – can decide to continue the climate of test and punish, or they can approach education as a right that all children should have equitable access to, under the guidance of credible research-based instructional approaches. This would be a fresh approach not guided by corporate and unethical profiteers, and instead focuses on children’s best interests.
  2. Although thus far Ohio is continuing the pattern of harmful high stakes testing, under ESSA, lawmakers have discretion to determine how to address schools or districts with parent opt-out or refusal rates which result in less than 95% of the student population being tested. In a democracy, when the government secretly plans then implements policies that are in opposition to the people’s wants or needs, then the people should revolt. The more people that join the revolution or resistance, the sooner the Ohio Department of Education, Governor, and Legislature will get the message.
  3. Testing is not educating. Stop saying that teachers need the results of these tests to inform instruction. It is absolutely FALSE. By the time teachers in Ohio get results back (if they ever get the results), their students are already in another grade, in another classroom, and the scores are meaningless. If teachers were waiting for scores to be returned from last year’s tests to inform their instruction, they wouldn’t have been able to teach anything up until last month. There are still teachers and students in our state who have not received any results from last year’s tests. Have they been teaching students since August, or have they just been sitting around waiting for test score results to inform their instruction? Added to this absurdity is the fact that Ohio is an embarrassing national example, once again, of the manipulation and inflation of scores, which renders those scores to a level of indescribable uselessness.
  4. High stakes standardized test scores are completely INVALID when held to psychometric or statistical standards for validity. The ONLY reliable result of the tests has been a correlation between test scores and socio-economic status. The exact same teachers can teach the exact same way in two different school districts in Ohio, and have very different results based on factors that influence the children and families in their school that are beyond the teacher’s control. In fact, 70-90% of how students perform on tests is a result of influences outside of school. Results from state tests do not result in an accurate accountability system for schools, teachers, students, or communities.
  5. State report cards that use results from state tests, like Ohio has chosen to implement, do NOT provide an “apples to apples” comparison between schools or districts. Instead, report cards for districts creates a hierarchical system of labels and harsh consequences in order to continue the mission of an unending plunder of public education at the expense of taxpayers, while contributing to the already wealthy friends of Kasich and some Ohio legislators.  
  6. State tests have nothing to do with providing every child a high-quality education in Ohio, or anywhere else. There is not a single high-performing nation in the world that tests all of their children annually. Furthermore, studies show that the emphasis on testing in our country has actually harmed education, and it has been especially punitive for traditionally underrepresented groups, and for groups protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act(IDEA).
  7. The tests are not “checkpoints” that ensure readiness. In fact, decades of credible research suggests that laws like the “Third Grade Reading Guarantee” only serve to increase the chances of deleterious long-term effects on children subjected to mandated retention.

It is my hope that by bringing to light these discrepancies between the truth and the false claims in your literature, that a more candid and sincere informational message could be shared with parents and stakeholders in Ohio.

Here is a sample. Feel free to borrow any parts for future publications.

Information on Student Participation in State Testing in Ohio (Adapted for the Ohio Department of Education by Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith)

    All schools in our state should be equipped with the resources and funding necessary to ensure that every child has equal access to a quality educational experience. It is important to acknowledge that historic and systemic racism and oppression, as well as economic inequities, have negatively impacted obtaining this goal. Furthermore, the majority of factors that influence a child’s experience in school begin long before a child enters kindergarten or even preschool. For example, the first 2000 days of a child’s life has the potential to negatively or positively impact that child’s future academic attainment. Additionally, twenty-two percent of children in the United States are living in poverty. Poverty can have long-term negative effects on a child’s learning.

    Utilizing the credible and valid research at our disposal, the Ohio Department of Education will fully comply with federal mandates under the Every Student Succeeds Act, yet will not pretend that the annual testing of students has in any way improved education in our state or country. Some schools, districts, organizations, and private entities have been given sums of money to promote testing, or hope to profit from testing children, even when it is detrimental to students. However, with the best interest of students and a healthy democracy in mind, we will limit testing to federal mandates, and advocate for policies that do not emphasize high stakes testing. Results of tests should not be used to label or shame districts, schools, teachers, or students. Misusing test data could result in harm to students and education in general.

   POSSIBLE CONSEQUENCES OF HIGH STAKES TESTING

  1. A nine-year study by the National Research Council (2011) concluded that the emphasis on testing yielded little learning progress but caused significant harm.
  2. High stakes testing drives teachers away, especially from schools that need them the most. They also eliminate or reduce time for other subjects that are not tested like music, art, and physical education. Research shows that access to those classes improves academics.
  3. According to statisticians, standardized testing does not meet the criteria for validity. Even score gains do not mean improved learning. It could just mean more teaching to the test. They also fail to accurately assess gifted students or the progress of students with special needs.
  4. High stakes standardized tests do not measure non-content skills children develop at school, or take into account the individuality of students’ learning needs. There is no teamwork, creativity, or work ethic being learned while sitting in silence and taking a test.
  5. High stakes standardized testing does not help students who arrive at school with disadvantages. Instead, students from low-income households, traditionally underserved students, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners are more likely to not earn a diploma, and are more likely to be pushed out of school into the school-to-prison pipeline.

    WHY STUDENTS ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN STATE TESTS

  1. Children should not have to attend a school labeled “failing,” or labeled anything at all. Schools should be resources for children, families, and the community.
  2. The word FAILURE should never hover over a school building, and make children afraid of how they will do on a test.
  3. Children should not have to be afraid of how their teacher will be hurt by their performance on a test, or how their school, community, or city will be labeled because of how they do on a test.
  4. Children’s privacy should not be violated, and test companies should not profit from harming children or data mining in schools.
  5. Subjects like art, music, gym, and recess have been shown by research to increase academic success, and shouldn’t be reduced or eliminated because kids need to take, or prepare for more standardized tests
  6. The emotional and social growth of children in school is not measured on a standardized test.
  7. The teacher who delivers groceries to a family in need, advocates for a student, or becomes a student’s confidant, counselor, or role model will never have that data show up in test results, and children’s teachers should be trusted to assess their progress.
  8. The long term consequences of labeling and retention on children is profound.
  9. There are more effective and research proven methods to educate our children and to evaluate teachers and schools.

I will continue refusing to allow my children to be subjected to a system designed to attack and destroy public schools. It isn’t because I am afraid of how they will perform on standardized tests, but because I am afraid that children who do not have the advantages and opportunities that they have, will be unfairly labeled and punished. I will never be convinced that children in other schools, in other cities or neighborhoods, are getting a better education because of mandated high stakes standardized tests.

I hope my sons grow up to be happy, healthy, empathetic human beings who never forget that their humanity is bound up in others. I will never look back on their childhoods and regret that they did not get to take more standardized tests. I will never wonder if I need standardized test scores to tell me what my children are worth. It will not occur to me that by not taking standardized tests, my children somehow missed out on obtaining the best education that they could.

However, I may wonder how and why so many adults who were supposed to advocate for children failed, and chose deception and harm instead of protection and resistance.

Thank you for your attention to my concerns.

Sincerely,

Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith

 

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.    

An Ode to Public Education Privateers in Contemporary Times

What’s scarier than ghouls and goblins this Halloween?

Privateers (during the American Revolution) achieved the best results if they could bluff an opponent into believing opposition was futile. When this failed the result was often vicious combat with unpredictable results. Many privateers were captured or sunk when the odds were against them. In spite of all the risks and hazards, the overall effort to cripple Britain’s commercial fleet was highly effective, and fortunes destined to finance the new republic were made. It is estimated that the total damage to British shipping by American privateers was about $18 million by the end of the war, or just over $302 million in today’s dollars.”  ~The National Park Service

An Ode to Education Privateers in Contemporary Times

To you so bold and brazen

So Walton, so Gates, so Broad

Armed with wealth and power

Charity and benevolence are your facade

Fortunes you all have made

Yet more influence is what you desire

Purge, plunder, cripple, damage

Place public education under fire

Our government sanctions your mission

To destroy all love for learning

So full throttle you press forward

With plans for more money churning

You want to create a workforce

Full of clones, ready to obey

Standardize, test, standardize, test

No time for kids to play

You write the false media narrative

Declaring “Public schools are failing!”

You stake claims to dictate policy

And chart a course for smooth sailing

You prepare for vicious combat

When resistance begins to rise

How dare those agitators defy you!

And refuse your toxic lies

Praise to you, education privateer!

Proud lover of edperialism & the testocracy

After all, public schools are only necessary

If you actually care about a democracy

*Inspirational credit goes to Christopher Chase

It’s Time to End the Age of Edperialism

It’s Time to End the Age of Edperialism

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith

Edperialism – when individuals with more resources and power invade a system that belongs to people who live in the system, exploit those people and their resources, and structure a system to benefit the eduperial power and their interests without regard for the inhabitants of the system.

    Not too long ago, Ohio Governor John Kasich stated that if he were king, he would abolish teachers’ lounges. His statement seemed outlandish not only because most educators do not even know what a teachers’ lounge looks like, but also because he seemed to be aspiring to a tyrannical empire that British colonists considered so unfavorable – they would rather die than surrender to it. However, his words are actually a revealing admission of the fragmentation and privatization of public schools, and of what some have referred to as the testocracy. The combination of attacks on public education from multiple political, wealthy, and privileged factions in our society, who perhaps wish they were an absolute monarchy, is akin to imperialism, or what I refer to as edperialism.

    An honest historical outrospection of any nation’s imperial past calls for contemporary global citizens to denounce imperialist policies as racist, classist, elitist, sexist, and yet still very profitable for the nations doing the exploiting. For the people who lived in the colonies, or for those who remain affected by the remnants of imperialism, the cultural and economic effects have been brutal. Similarly, eduperial powers also called “education reformers”—often people who are extremely wealthy billionaires, hedge fund managers, and bankers—have gazed upon the 99% in this country through their possibly racist, classist, sexist, and elitist telescopes, to totally reshape American education for their own interests. With the goal of controlling resources to scratch the nagging itch for wealth and power, dominant members of America’s elite project a facade of benevolence. Unfortunately, most often their motives have been anything except altruistic or beneficial for the masses. Instead, their obsession with forcing all students to learn a similar curriculum at a similar pace has ruined true learning, and has ignored the very basic notion that all students learn through different modalities at different paces. Just as imperial powers failed to value the cultures of those they wished to exploit, or to recognize the humanity of those they subjugated, ed-reformers fail to acknowledge the credible, substantial amount of research and data that proves not only the failure of their test-based, standardized reforms, but also the harmful negative consequences thrust upon our cities, schools, students, and teachers.

    Recently, it wasn’t King John Kasich who was anointed to rule over American edperialism, so he could finally abolish those pesky teachers’ lounges. Instead, John King Jr. was appointed by President Obama to be the acting Secretary of Education once the current U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, steps down from the post in December. Acting Secretary King may have learned something from the failed edperialism policies he began as Education Commissioner in the state of New York, and he may even  possess characteristics of empathy. Surely, not every general or governor appointed to rule over colonized people during the height of global imperialism lacked superficial empathy. However, true empathy goes beyond simply understanding someone else’s viewpoint, or another person’s perspective. True empathy produces heroes that none of us will ever know the names of. These empathic heroes not only understand other people’s perspectives, but they value them and care about them.  They are grassroots organizers, activists, and agitators, and they are part of the resistance. If Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Secretary Arne Duncan, or Deputy Secretary John King were truly empathic people, brave residents under eduperial rule in Chicago would not have to go on a hunger strike for 34 days to try to save and revitalize a neighborhood public high school. Gandhi only had to be on a hunger strike for six days to change the minds of the British.

    More of the same edperialist approaches or policies from (acting) Secretary King is unacceptable. Our children, our public schools, and the future of our country as a democracy, are at stake under eduperial rule supported by an oligarchy. In the spirit of resistance to unjust, inhumane, and incogitable ignorance, it is time for those with true empathy to demand “insistence on truth,” or Satyagraha. This truth-force, or “the force that is generated through adherence to Truth,” must compel all students, educators, families, and communities to refuse to cooperate with the eduperial powers. We must refuse to submit to the injustices and inequities in education that we are fighting. This means we must refuse high stakes standardized tests for our children and students, and demand that truth and true empathy guide education policy. Power is only held through obedience. We allow the tyranny that we consent to. Our children can’t wait for an eduperial king at the U.S. Department of education to develop true empathy. If Gandhi’s Satyagraha can profoundly shake a vast empire, then imagine what the power of mass-mobilization in our country could do to begin to address the injustices and inequities in public education. Step one of the resistance is deposing the test-and-punish system. It will take strength, persistence, courage, and action. Join the non-cooperation movement. Refuse the tests. Help end the Age of Edperialism. 

What if they gave a test and nobody came?

Let’s find out.

For more information visit http://unitedoptout.com/,

http://www.networkforpubliceducation.org/,

http://www.badassteacher.org/, http://www.fairtest.org/, or

http://parentsacrossamerica.org/

In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, please visit http://refuseofcuyahogacounty.webstarts.com/

   

    

 

What if the executive council of the AFT lived my teacher-life? A (now open) email to Randi Weingarten

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith <@gmail.com>

Jul 2 (9 days ago)

to rweingarten, bcc: me

President Weingarten, 

 
Thank you for including me on the conference call this evening. It is a relief to hear that many of my brothers and sisters in union have the same concerns that afflict me as a mother, educator, and citizen (except that guy asking about road infrastructure – that was a little out in left field for me). 
 
I will try to be brief so that your staff isn’t deliriously angry about you extending this offer to email you with unanswered questions, but brevity is not my strong suit. I guess if I wasn’t a teacher; I should’ve been a politician. 
 
I’m the daughter of a Longshoreman who raised me in Ashtabula, Ohio, and the grandaughter of a man who told me he went to DC in the 1950s to testify about unions. I’ve been a member of Local CTU 279 in Cleveland, Ohio since August of 1998. I don’t think it would surprise you to read that the culture of education in our city, state, and country is vastly different than what it was when I began.
 
With the Republican National Convention being held in our city next summer, I believe we have a prime opportunity to take action on a national level that will begin to remedy the atrocities that have been occurring in our state with regard to education. The Ohio budget bill is being used to mandate absurdities in education. Ohio got rid of PARCC due to grassroots efforts that encompassed parents, community stakeholders, and educators, but then replaced it within 24 hours with another assessment from AIR that will prove to be equally horrific. Changing the name of the test, or the entity that produces it, does not eliminate the over testing, nor does it pacify our principles. The legislators and governor demolished democracy in Youngstown last week as they took over the city schools in a late night, backdoor deal that included banning any debate on the issue in chambers. Our state teacher evaluation system ties test scores to 50% of a teacher’s annual rating. We have TFA propaganda in abundance as well as a steady stream of TFA candidates not only teaching, but now in administrative positions at building and board levels. We have an unregulated charter system that is the laughing stock of 99% of the nation. The other 1% is rejoicing over the billions that they are gathering in profits while they fail our children. In our district, we have the “Cleveland Transformation Alliance” and “Cleveland Foundation” spitting out propaganda reports, with practically zero credibility, claiming that our schools are failing, our students are failing, and that the teachers are ineffective. The high stakes testing culture has ruined our traditional schools that don’t offer, or barely offer, music, phys ed, art, or vocational and trade subjects that our students are craving. We fuel the school-to-prison pipeline which fills detention centers with a wealth of human capital the system seems intent on disregarding. In Cleveland, my pay is now tied to an evaluation system that has no statistical or mathematical validity, and has been implemented with complete incompetence. All of this has left many of my colleagues in fear or apathetic from the defeat they sense. We had one teacher described as a “gentle soul” who “loved her students” placed in “teacher jail” after being bullied by an aggressive, unkind principal all year. CMSD had this teacher removed from a K-8 school in front of her special needs students. Already fragile from other personal issues, Dr. ***** (name omitted in public version) ended her own life because teaching was her life. The callous principal is now working downtown at the board office. 
 
We need our brothers and sisters in union on the largest scale that I have known in my career. The Cleveland Plan is a farce. We all know that by 2018-19, the overarching goal is to have all of our city schools turned into charters. They have been slowly and steadily dismantling us. Unfortunately, our union is viewed like a criminal defense lawyer instead of as a defender of the people. This view is not only held by the public, but by its own members as well. When I’ve been approached about running for office, I scoff at the idea. I don’t want to be an “executive” at a downtown union office, posting pictures of myself at a table at Democratic fundraisers, maintaining a state of oblivion to the daily realities of teaching in a classroom; who will eventually ask the CEO for a job at the board and fight the very union I was once elected to (2 names omitted in public version). If someone like me, who came from generations of union workers, who understands and teaches the history of labor in our country, is scoffing at being part of the governing body of the local union, can I be angry at young members for feeling disconnected and disenfranchised? My teacher effectiveness state rating was dropped from “accomplished” to “skilled” 2 years in a row because my union signed off on a test for 10th grade US History for the “data” part of my evaluation that no one told me about until 2 weeks before it had to be given, and that wasn’t aligned to the curriculum that is in our district’s scope and sequence. It is on public record that I am a “skilled” teacher instead of an “accomplished” teacher, even though I have extensive evidence to fit the “accomplished” rubric requirements, and even though I am a “Master Teacher” and was named the “2013-2014 Cleveland Bar Association Teacher of the Year.” The results of this test from April of 2014 that have been used to supposedly prove that I am an “average” teacher this school year (2015) and last school year (2014) even though I am not even teaching at the same 2014 school any more, have never been given to me, to students, published in our district database, or revealed to anyone. Due to the merit pay negotiations in our CBA, that means I didn’t get a raise 2 years in a row based on a union decision; the same union that is supposed to be protecting the wages of families. Sadly, I’m not alone in the rank and file with my disappointments.  
 
I file grievances. I email. I speak at school board meetings. I’m interviewed by local and national news organizations. I whistle blow. I blog. I create petitions. I sometimes get a response from the union, just like I sometimes get a response from the district. 
 
It became so frustrating, that I formed a group (Refuse of Cuyahoga County) with colleagues to accomplish the things that my union should be doing. We solicit parent input and support. We hold forums and events to inform. We build relationships with families, colleagues, and community stakeholders. We launch counter assaults on our legislators and governor when they don’t do what’s best for kids. We meet with local leaders. We talk to state leaders. We set up meetings with national legislators. We use social media to promote our cause and to inform. We make sure that people know that we care about kids first because once we build that trust, they understand that if we say “teachers need smaller class sizes” it isn’t because we’re lazy leeches sucking the taxpayer’s money away. It is because we care about kids and we know research shows that significantly smaller classes make a positive difference for kids. They know that when we say it is time to stop this testocracy, it isn’t because we don’t think kids can achieve, or because we are afraid of losing our jobs or our money, it is because we know from the research that it is harming, not helping, kids. When we build these family relationships, we can say to the district that it isn’t just teachers who want these things, but families of students want them also. It is a lot more difficult to use that leverage in negotiations when the state has already disenfranchised the families in Cleveland and Youngstown with CEOs, mayoral control, and appointed boards, but it is worth something in public opinion polls which leads me back to my questions that couldn’t be answered this evening on the conference call:
 
What can the AFT do on a national level to help our city and state reclaim the culture of education so that teachers are once again valued and respected as competent professionals? So that charters are held accountable? So that schools and students are never labeled as “failing” because they can’t pass tests that aren’t even a valid indicator of their talents or intellect? So that states can’t annihilate a city’s right to democratic processes? So that teachers can’t be punished through public humiliation and loss of pay because they want to work with students who live in high poverty areas? So that teachers feel like being part of the union is contributing to the greater good of society? So that being in the union will feel like being part of a movement for social justice because that is what it was intended to be? 
 
There was a massive campaign in NY, supported by AFT, because of Cuomo’s suggestion to tie teacher evaluations to testing. Our PAY and state evaluations have been tied to test scores for 2 YEARS in Cleveland. We need national attention and outrage while we simultaneously build grassroots support for what we achieve and accomplish with children every day as members in our union of professionals. 
 
As Ohio goes… so goes the nation. It works in presidential elections. Let’s make it work to change the national culture that surrounds education.   
 
In Solidarity, 

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith
 
PS. I’ll be in DC July 24th-29th. I’d be happy to stop by and say “hello.” Of course, you can probably tell from this email that I may have a little more to add to the “hello.”