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.

Reciprocal Rescue Story About Our Dog, Gatsby, as it appeared on cleveland.com

http://www.cleveland.com/faces-of-the-suns/index.ssf/2016/12/gatsby_filling_void_for_family.html

 

‘Gatsby’ filling void for family, now will serve as therapy dog; send us your pet-rescue stories

Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith, of Berea, found the perfect furry companion when she rescued Gatsby, a Lab-pit-bull mix.

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By Special to cleveland.com

on December 15, 2016 at 9:12 AM

BEREA, Ohio — We got our dog, Gatsby, from the shelter on West 7th in Cleveland. He was nothing but a big head and bones with a really dull coat of fur whose color was indistinct when we got him. He’s now a healthy, shiny, chocolate-colored happy guy. He overcame a lot, including separation anxiety. I can’t imagine life without him.

We initially sought a lab-pit mixed dog because my son stayed with us in between college and his move to Nashville for about a year with his lab-pit mixed dog,  Ace, and I thought bringing in Gatsby would help ease the pain of the separation we would feel once my son and Ace moved. I tried to get my son to leave Ace with us, but he told me that getting Ace was a life-long commitment, not just an idea he had in college. I thought to myself, “darn it, why did I raise a responsible, caring kid?”

Even more… I work with young people as an educator at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center and Gatsby is about to pass the first part of his certification process towards being a therapy dog with the help of a trainer who specializes in working with dogs from shelters.

This amazing trainer also runs the program at Grafton, which offers dog training through the prison facility for dogs waiting to be adopted.

A colleague who works with autistic students gave me the idea to train Gatsby as a therapy dog. The majority of my students come to me at varying levels of crisis and trauma.  I believe Gatsby and my students will benefit from his intelligent, gentle, and loyal disposition once they begin to interact. Before my grandmother passed in September this year, we took him with us to visit her at a nursing home and the residents loved him there.

In the end, Gatsby may have been rescued, but he also  saved us from feeling completely devastated when my son and Ace moved, brought cheer to residents at Saybrook Landing, and he’ll ease the spirits of kids in detention in our county facility once we finish the therapy training process.

It makes me so sad to hear about breed bans because my pit-lab is the sweetest, most loyal, and fabulous dog anyone could ever ask for. Every time he wants to meet a new dog, he bows down and waits for the dog to approach. The only time I’ve ever witnessed aggression, is from little dogs yipping and lunging towards him.  He just walks away.

Those are the chapters of my dog-rescue life. I hope that others open their lives to the amazing potential of rescue love.

Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith

Berea

Have you rescued a companion animal that is now part of your family? We’d like to hear from you. Tell us something about your pet – all species are welcome – and send along a photo of the two of you. Be sure to tell us which community you live in. Send everything to Linda Kinsey at lkinsey@cleveland.com.

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dgwlkr5 days ago

What a great story. Sounds like Gatsby is touching many lives.

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VP of Discontent6 days ago

Thank you for the beautiful story, Melissa, and thank you for saving Gatsby…although it sounds like he saved you as well 😉

 

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

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.

 

Hope & the Means for Justice

Speaking Points for May 12th GCC Listen. Act. Win. at FDR School in Cleveland, Ohio

Good evening. My name is Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith. Thank you to everyone for the opportunity to speak this evening.

I’ve been a high school teacher in Cleveland Public Schools for 18 years. The past two years I have been working in a classroom with young men being held at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC).

Yes. CMSD has a school at the juvenile county jail. It is called the Downtown Education Center, or “the DEC.”

I could stand here today and share the stories of tragedy, despair, and trauma that I am frequently privy to, but those stories are not mine to tell. I could also speak to the many ways that we, as a community and society, miserably fail our city’s children, which often results in their placement at CCJDC. However, tonight I am here to present some of our academic challenges, which I believe can be eradicated.

Think for a brief moment… what is the difference between a young person that has plans to attend college soon, and a young person who decides to rob a store or steal a car? (pause)

I contend, that at the most basic levels of our understanding, one young person has hope and believes they have access to a means for justice. The other young person does not see a means for justice and lacks that hope.

Working in classrooms with groups of less than 20 students, the teachers at the DEC work hard to rebuild, or create, a sense of hope in our young people.

In March, a young man who started in my classroom last school year, graduated from our school. Over the course of one year, this young man was in and out of our juvenile facility, at 2 residential facilities in 2 different counties, and he attended one of our traditional CMSD High Schools. I knew in order for him to graduate, I needed to follow him through all of his placements. Without that follow up, he would not have had an accurate transcript, would not have been placed in the correct classes, and would not have been able to earn that diploma. However, this student is only one of over 1000 children each year at the DEC that need this exhaustive follow through.

There is a disconnect between our school, residential facilities, and CMSD.

Just this week I had a student return to me who had worked hard and earned credits while he was with me the first time. He was even  promoted to his proper grade level. He told me that the CMSD school that he was enrolled at, in between his times with me at the DEC, placed him back in 9th grade classes that he had already passed and earned credits for. When he protested, he was told that “it was hard to get transcripts from the jail.” It isn’t difficult at all. We use the SAME data system. His credits and grades are in that system. Plus, we issue exit reports within a week of a student leaving us to return to their last known high school of record. He also had Fs on his report card in addition to the grades we gave him, because teachers are told that they cannot leave any blanks when report card grades are due. Can you imagine how difficult and frustrating it is for this young man? How are we, in CMSD, securing hope and justice for our young people?

There is no clear policy or explanation in place that is being communicated to regional superintendents, principals, teachers, guidance counselors, or administrative assistants, as to how to make sure that grades and credits are following students and being properly shared with the appropriate personnel.

The success that a great majority of our students experience while with us, often all seems like a lie to the families and students when CMSD issues report cards, and they see a bunch of Fs incorrectly listed on them, or they are missing credits that students have earned. This lack of communication consumes a tremendous amount of time and produces an unnecessary amount of frustration.

Mr. Gordon, you have an opportunity to set a local, state, and even national precedent for how education within the juvenile justice system can be done correctly.

Through a collaborative process that includes our staff, we ask for 3 things on behalf of students at the DEC:

  1. Ensure that a clear policy and explanation are in place with regard to record keeping for students at the DEC and other residential facilities. Make this policy available and all CMSD staff, faculty, and administrators aware of it.  
  2. Designate a CMSD key liaison responsible for receiving, requesting, sharing, and following up on academic records for kids being detained or placed in residential facilities to ensure accountability.
  3. Finally, we ask that you allow us to welcome you to the DEC for a conversation with our young people and GCC during the 2016-2017 school year, and become one of the champions of education for the young people in the juvenile justice system who need opportunity, hope, and justice just as much, if not more, than anyone else.

I believe that a conversation with the boys in my classroom will reveal that our young people do not want charity, or pity, or sympathy, but that the most important thing to them during these crucially important developmental years, is hope. They hope that if they do the right thing, the adults responsible for cultivating their future will be pushing doors open for them, so that they can enter into a realm of what is possible, and a means to true justice for all.

 

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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.    

Evaluate What?!?!

“I’m staying because I haven’t finished reminding our country that students are people not products, and that teachers are people too.”

You can tell Pat your story also! pat.bruns@education.ohio.gov

Hello,

I was told that you are gathering stories from Ohio teachers about their frustrations with legislation, certification, and how they are treated. Thanks for your interest. I’ve been asked more than once while I’m advocating or working for my students and the future of our city: “Are you just a teacher?”

Yep. I’m just a teacher.

If you’re willing to read on, I’m relieved to share what life is like for “just teachers” like me in one Ohio city.

I’ve been teaching in Cleveland for 18 years. I have an extensive resumé. I’ve only wanted to teach in urban schools. I hold an Ohio 5-year Senior Professional license. I am a Master Teacher, an OTES certified evaluator, a certified RE Mentor,  New Tech Certified,  and a certified Class Meetings Trainer. I hold a BA with a triple major and a double minor. I earned an MA in English Lit. I have 50+ hours towards an EdD. In addition to all of my training and education, I love working with kids, especially “those” kids, which is a label pregnant with all of the challenges, obstacles, and disadvantages that your imagination can conjure.

My passion and spirit started to dissipate when the state began to label schools and overwhelm us with testing and absurd mandates. It hurts your soul when you care deeply about kids, but are forced to become an accomplice to their ruin and part of a system that shames. Soon,the state and district threats “if the numbers don’t get higher” began menacingly hovering over our staff at the school I taught at for 13 years. The instability of many different administrators, constantly changing models, and repurposing everything, every year, was too head-spinning for me. So, I left that high school for another one in the same city that didn’t follow a traditional model. It had a consistent national model and innovative approach to education, although the staff and students moved buildings three times in five years. The experience reignited my passion, partly because I joined a staff that had been exclusively selected and were amazing to work alongside.

After completing two years at a New Tech school, the new collective bargaining agreement under The Cleveland Plan took effect. Voters had repealed the signing of Ohio Senate Bill 5, but that did not stop Governor Kasich or the legislature from continuing the attack on public schools. Even though decades of research has indicated that poverty and socioeconomic status far outweigh the impact of anything else on student success, the facts and truth do not stop ed-deformers, corporate profiteers, legislators, or edperialists from continuing to encourage legislation according to whatever whims they fancy. Amid a cluster of chaos and unknowns, the pseudo accountability of tying student test scores to educators and their compensation (salary) began with the year 2013-2014 in Cleveland for some teachers, and the rest would experience the turmoil eventually.

During the 2012-2013 school year, 80% of my students passed the social studies part of the Ohio Graduation Test. It is a test that covers ninth and tenth grade curriculum, but I only taught 10th grade. During the 2013-2014 school year, the new 10th grade class arrived, but they had a different 9th grade teacher than the students before them. There were also more challenging issues that the 2013-2014 10th grade students possessed that the prior year’s class had not. A little over 60% of my students passed the social studies OGT that school year, which was about ten percent higher than the district average. The district assigned predicted scores that my students were supposed to earn on the social studies OGT test, based on reading scores from NWEA tests that the students previously took. Apparently they had examined the numbers and there was a correlation between students’ reading and social studies scores. They didn’t consider other factors when creating predicted scores, such as the fact that some of my students were English Language Learners. There was no causal evidence of a link between reading and social studies scores, and the district only looked at scores from one year, so statistically speaking, the approach was completely flawed. I submitted this statistical analysis to the district as part of the grievance process: Statistical Analysis of the Validity of Using NWEA Reading Scores to Predict Social Studies OGT Results. My students’ scores didn’t match the district’s predictions, and were within a wide range above and below. I thought that the students’ OGT results would count towards half of my overall teacher rating as test scores are required by the state for 50% of teachers’ overall effectiveness ratings. I was incorrect.

Soon after students finished their week of March OGT testing in 2014, which drastically reduced instructional time not just during test week, but during weeks of test prep as well, the test coordinator and principal surprised me with another social studies test that students were to take by April 9th. The student results of this test were to be 35% of my evaluation, and students’ invalidly predicted performance scores on the OGT were the other 15% of my evaluation. The remaining 50% of my evaluation was based on my principal’s subjective placement of my performance on an extensive rubric.

When I was emailed the blueprint for the test chosen, I noted that it did not align with our district’s scope and sequence. I wrote the final version of the American History portion of the scope and sequence for the district that school year, so I was very aware of what was to be taught. There were also topics on the blueprint that we hadn’t been able to cover yet in class, because testing and test prep took up so much time that could have been used for instruction. Plus, the school year didn’t end until June, but the students had to take the test before April 9th, 2014. There was seven weeks of learning left, but they had to take a test on things that they were GOING to learn over the next seven weeks, and on content that was not even on our scope and sequence. I decided that I didn’t choose to be a teacher to make students feel stupid, and intended to resign. I started applying for non-teaching jobs.

In May, even though I had 29 “accomplished” and 13 “skilled” marks on my teacher evaluations throughout the school year, and was chosen as the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association Teacher of the Year, and earned Master Teacher status that year, and was interviewed by a national blog about a happiness project that February, and presented at national conferences, the principal stated at my composite conference that my students’ test scores just weren’t high enough for her to give me an overall “Accomplished” rating. That was the chalk that broke the teacher’s back. My salary is tied to my rating in Cleveland, which meant that I would not be getting a raise. Meanwhile, teachers of electives earned “Accomplished” ratings in the same building because not only are they “accomplished,” but they also did not have any tests tied to their composite ratings.

Neither I, nor my students, nor their families, have ever received the student performance results of the April 2014 test. Someone in our district mysteriously assigned me a “3” or “average” rating for the April 2014 student test scores. I have no idea how they concluded that I was average because I have never seen my students’ test results. This year, my former students from spring 2014 are high school seniors.

In May 2014, when discussing the torment that the students and I were experiencing because of test anxiety, a colleague mentioned a job opening for a teacher at the county juvenile detention center. Only state or federally mandated tests are required there, and current student test scores are not tied to educators’ evaluations (yet) because the population literally changes every day. I interviewed and accepted a position at our juvenile detention facility for significantly less pay than my previous position provided.

My first year at the county detention center (2014-2015) revived my teaching soul, and reminded me why I became a teacher: to facilitate and inspire learning. At the end of the year, my principal reviewed the 3 walk throughs that he completed, and the two formal observations (one announced and one unannounced) he conducted, as required by the teacher evaluation system. I earned an overwhelmingly “accomplished” composite rating. I felt vindicated. Then, in June 2015, I received an email from our Student Learning Outcome email account. It stated that my final rating for the 2014-2015 school year was going to be “skilled.” With shock and anger, I asked them how that was possible. The response has been that our legislature and collective bargaining agreement both allowed for the district to use those student test score results from the spring of 2014, from the school that I no longer taught at, from students that I no longer taught, from a test that I never received student results from, for three years. Regardless of how “accomplished” I am as an educator, scores that have nothing to do with my performance as a teacher, and scores that I never received results for, will hold me to a “skilled” rating for three years. This means that I will not receive an annual raise because an “accomplished” rating is what equals that raise. Educator ratings are also considered when reviewing applications for stipend positions that could supplement a teacher’s salary, so additional monetary losses accumulate.

If this sort of evaluation system is supposed to reward “great teachers,” then the system has epically failed. It certainly hasn’t made me feel appreciated, respected, or inspired either. I would give the teacher evaluation system an overall rating of “ineffective.” It is not even “developing.” (Those are two other ratings in the teacher evaluation system that can be assigned to educators.)

One may wonder…

Why then do I continue to stay late at work, continue to advocate, blog, network, and organize? Continue to monitor and communicate with my students and their families once they are released from me? Why do I continue to collaborate with staff, mentor other teachers, participate in national conferences, and attend additional professional development? Why do I plan engaging, meaningful lessons connected to students’ lives and provide them with effective feedback? And why do I differentiate, assess, and develop empathy and self advocacy in my students every day, if all I am ever going to be, according to the district and state, is “skilled?” If I know that I am not going to be paid more for doing more, then why am I always doing more?

I do what I do because I want what is best for my students. I treat my students the way I want my sons to be treated: with care, respect, compassion, confidence, and integrity. I didn’t decide to become a teacher because I wanted to be rich. However, it becomes increasingly difficult to not want to curse and attack the unfairness that surrounds public education, or to not be compelled to run away from it all. The string of teacher-resignation letters being published around the country is not without cause.

I’m not going anywhere, but obviously it isn’t the rewards I’ve received from the state or district for working hard that keep me around. I stay because I’m naive enough to hope that one day the oligarchy will wake up from their dreams of profiteering, deforming, and controlling, and restore control of public education to the professionals: educators. I’m staying because I know that money and greed have given rise to an opposition force of revolutionaries who want to reclaim the profession and our democracy. I want to bear witness as the resistance continues to swell. I want to remain in the fight until all public schools are equipped with the resources to provide equal access and opportunity to all citizens; because democracy is the people. The right to educational equity should also belong to the people. I’m staying because I haven’t finished reminding our country that students are people not products, and that teachers are people too.

If you’re reading this… thank a teacher.

Skilled I remain,

Melissa