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.    

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.”