Saturday, April 30, 2011

Waiting for Superman and Our Responsibility

By Matt Buccelli

This past Monday, I was riding a bus back to DC from New York and happened to be sitting across the aisle from a GW student who had been in New York for an interview and became my friend for the trip.  After we exchanged the usual pleasantries (school, major, class year, etc.), and I mentioned that I worked with DC Reads, my new travel companion (David was the kid's name) asked me about what it was like to work in the DC school system.  Immediately this set off a very interesting conversation that I think says a lot both about the state of education reform in this country and about our broader responsibility as people who work in schools.

David had recently seen Waiting for Superman, and once I told him I worked in a school he could not ask me enough questions about education.  This kid was pretty chatty to begin with (that's an understatement - I had been trying to put my headphones in when he started talking to me), but I also got the sense that he was genuinely interested in learning more about education after seeing the movie, and as someone who is always down for a good conversation about education, I was happy to oblige.

David's existing perspective had been almost entirely formed by the assertions made in WFS - the first thing he said to me, almost verbatim, was "so it really seems as if the big problem is just the teachers' unions then, right?"  Regardless of your personal opinion on the movie (I had generally positive but still very mixed feelings), we know that this is simply not true.  I started from scratch and tried to use the way WFS portrays unions as a jumping off point to talk about how there are a lot of issues for schools to contend with, and shared my own personal view that the only way to solve these problems effectively is for every party in the educational process (parents, students, teachers, administrators, policymakers) to respect each other and work together.

The education gods must have been having a good time that day, because not five minutes after David and I started talking about the movie, a young twenty-something girl sitting in front of David turned around, apologized for eavesdropping on our conversation, and explained that she was interested because she teaches preschool in Ward 8 and thus had a firsthand perspective on the exact issues we were talking about.  For the next 2 hours or so, David, the teacher, and I had a lively conversation that consisted mainly of David asking questions, the teacher answering them, and me trying to chime in where I could but treading carefully and being careful to respect this teacher's experience and not saying anything that might make me sound like I didn't know what I was talking about.  The conversation touched on just about everything - from unions, to charter schools, to teacher evaluation, merit pay, and the role of standardized tests in contemporary education.

What's the broader point here?  I didn't get on the bus back to DC to have a lengthy conversation about every education-related issue under the sun, but it happened anyway.  The kid sitting across from me got on the bus with a perspective on these issues that had been almost entirely formed by a two hour documentary, and got off of it understanding that things might just be a little bit more complicated in real life.  And while I would have to say that the teacher sitting in front of David deserves the lion's share of the credit for this, it still shows how much of a difference we all can make in DC Reads by using our experience inside of the classroom to help better inform people outside of it.

Waiting for Superman was effective in the sense that it introduced mainstream audiences to the education issue, just as An Inconvenient Truth did for global warming.  But that doesn't change the fact that it also presents an overly simplistic portrayal of school reform, makes some fair points about teachers' unions but also makes it seem like they are the only thing standing between underserved kids and a good education, which isn't true, and gives the false impression that charter schools are always the answer (in reality, only 17 percent of charters outperform traditional public schools).  Waiting for Superman should not be taken as gospel, but treated as a place to start a more extended and better-informed mainstream conversation about education. 

In this regard, it is incumbent on all of us, as people who work in schools, to share our perspective, and insure that one well-produced film doesn't create legions of faux experts who, in the words of an old MTV show, think they know but have no idea.  When we talk about being advocates for our students in DC Public Schools and for just education throughout the country, we need to show that we mean it by taking advantage of opportunities to share our knowledge and experience - and become better informed when our own perspective on the challenges of school reform isn't as complete as it can be or should be. 

There is a lot of attention being focused on education right now in America.  It's up to all of us to help make the most of this opportunity by being the best informed and most willing advocates that we can be.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Christie on Earned Tenure

To be frank, although I am not the biggest fan of Chris Christie or his policies, I actually support his proposed reformation of teacher tenure. Teacher tenure remains a contested issue in education policy throughout the United States, mostly because it makes it extremely difficult to dismiss terribly ineffective teachers. I think every public school student experienced being stuck in a class taught by an awful teacher who had been teaching for thirty years—a teacher who the school would never be able to fire, no matter how unsuccessful her teaching methods were. 

Christie proposes using teacher evaluations to assess teacher performance, and he also wants to eliminate the last in – first out policy, which results in the dismissal of new teachers over veteran teachers without consideration of performance. The NJ governor claims that he does not want to eliminate teacher tenure, which I am relieved to hear. Hopefully he sticks to this assertion, as I have read in other sources that he has considered more drastic policies than those described in this article, such as completely eliminating tenure. The success of Christie’s plans, however, depends on how he sets up this system of teacher evaluations, which could certainly be viewed by critics as biased and imprecise. Of course, he also has to negotiate with the unions and get legislature to pass his proposals. If he is able to overcome these obstacles, he will be revolutionizing education throughout the state, as well as possibly setting a precedent for the rest of the nation, such as in DC.

Our first priority is the education of children throughout the nation, and effective teachers are the best way to ensure that children receive a quality education. Christie’s tenure policy could pave the way for a more successful public school system due to more efficient and dedicated teachers. DC would hopefully follow suit. This proposal has a long way to go before it can have any effect, but for now I am (surprisingly) hoping that one of Christie’s better policies works out. 

The Right to Write

By Bisi Orisamolu

Something that was said at the educational panel last night really resonated with me. For those who did not attend Thursday night’s panel discussion, it consisted of five teachers and administrators who had taken an alternative route to teaching. One of the teachers who works in tenth and eleventh grade classrooms said something that I thought was truly inspiring. To paraphrase, he said that educational reform is the new civil rights movement. Stop and think about that for a second. If you let it sink in, then you feel the full impact of this statement.

Many can remember the time before the civil rights movement of the 60s when children of color and white children were not allowed to attend the same schools. America prides herself on moving beyond segregation and becoming the land of opportunity for all its citizens. But is this really true? It seems like segregation has been moved from between races to between social classes. As many like to say, the poor are getting poorer while the rich are getting richer. Cycles of poverty seem to be never-ending. This all stems from education. How can we say that everyone is granted equal opportunity when the quality of education in our public school system has such an immense gap? 

The way people react to things has a lot to do with the way a problem is presented to them. The importance of rhetoric is often underestimated. I think that if we talk more about education as a right, one that is as important as the civil rights we possess, people would take this issue more seriously. Maybe then people would be more inclined to become teachers or have greater respect for the profession. People recognize that education is a problem but the gravity of the issue seems to sometimes be overlooked. To deny a child the right to read or to write or to learn in general on a level that is equivalent to that of their more fortunate peers, is a sentence to a life of despair and destitution. It is an intolerable injustice that we must all strive to change.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A "Duhh" Moment

By Tierra Evans  

Thursday, March 31st, Georgetown University and Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy hosted an education forum focused on the importance of character development within the realm of student achievement. The conversation was carried by a distinguished group of panelists including: Tim King, who is founder, President and CEO of Urban Prep Academies, James H. Shelton III, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement under the Department of Education, Abigail Smith, Chief of Transformation Management Office of DCPS, Irasema Salcido, CEO and founder of the Chavez Schools and driving force behind the DCPNI, and Paul Tough, New York Times Magazine former editor and author of Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America.

             Mr. Tough gave a keynote speech surrounding the role of certain character traits that are imperative to healthy academic and social growth. Some of the traits included grit, curiosity, gratitude, self-discipline and resilience. He provided scientific studies and evidence as to how and why they are so important. What I remember most is that after that speech, Tim King remarks, “Duhhh…We already know the solutions to education. The problem is, how do we apply them?"  I agree. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure that out. In the learning process and in everyday life, it’s important to have good character. However, where does good character come from?? It comes partially through proper relationship building and positive support systems. In essence, one’s character is defined by a set of traits that can be acquired. Together we need to figure out a system that can make that happen.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

DC gets hosed, Gray gets arrested

By Matt Buccelli

I'm taking a class on Washington, DC history this semester, and a couple weeks ago we had a local talk radio host (Mark Plotkin for WTOP FM) come and talk to us about local DC politics and other related issues.  Mr. Plotkin has lived in this city since he was a student at GW in the 1960s, so he had plenty of perspective to offer.  When the conversation turned to DC voting rights, and the injustice of living in a city that is federally taxed but not federally represented, the class talked about how people here and around the country seem to be complacent toward, if not completely ignorant of, the voting rights issue.  Mr. Plotkin gave his opinion that it would take something dramatic, something eye-opening, a we're-not-going-to-take-this-anymore type of moment, to raise public awareness and actually change the predicament here in DC.

Although the ramifications of DC Mayor Vince Gray's arrest on Monday remain to be seen, it at least may have provided the optic that people like Mr. Plotkin have been waiting for. 

Mayor Gray was arrested along with several DC city council members while protesting controversial provisions in the budget agreement negotiated last week between President Obama and congressional Republicans.  As part of the agreement, Congress will block DC from using its own money to pay for abortions, and will also terminate a needle-exchange program meant to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, which afflicts 3 percent of DC residents - the largest percentage in the country.  More relevant to the DC Reads program, and to the cause of equal and just education throughout our city, was a separate provision mandating that DC reinstate its private school voucher system.

The return of the school voucher issue is a big deal.  Vouchers are taxpayer subsidies given to low-income parents so that they may send their children to a private school of their choice.  But could the money that is being set aside for vouchers not instead be spent on shoring up the current budget gap in DC Public Schools, which is forcing schools to scale back essential programs and extra-curricular activities that help students succeed?  Republicans also plan on cutting the federal appropriation for DC that helps the city to fund its education system and pay for other essential services.  So Congress is setting aside money for DC students to flee public schools, but at the same time continuing to undermine those schools by forcing the city to cut its budget.  This makes no sense. 

Beyond vouchers, however, the federal power grab currently taking place in Washington gets to several deeper questions.  The idea that Congress could impose its will on a city that is meant to represent freedom and democracy would be laughable if it weren't so true and steeped in history.  DC was not even permitted to govern itself until 1973, when District residents first voted for a mayor and city council.  Even sincd then, Congress forcibly took control over the city's budget during the 1990s, and continues to dictate what the city can and cannot do with its own resources.  Meanwhile, the people of this city have no political recourse because they have no legitimate congressional representation.  Part of the reason this hasn't changed is because many people don't even know it's a problem - two-thirds of college educated adults do not know that Washington, DC has no congressional voting rights.  Many students on the Georgetown campus don't realize that they live in a city that literally does not have the right to solve its own problems; a city that can have essential programs and services cut or altered at any moment by politicians who have an ideological agenda but could care less about the people that actually live here. 

Education has been referred to by Arne Duncan, Al Sharpton, and others within the reform movement as "the civil rights issue of our time."  I know for a fact that this is a motivating factor which drives a lot of the work that many of us do within DC Reads.  So how can we begin to talk about the injustices surrounding education in America while ignoring the fact that the city where we live and work lacks the basic right to have its voice heard?  And what kind of a world are we tutoring and educating our students to live in if we can't also face up to this reality?

If we're to be advocates for students in this city, we also need to be advocates for this city.  And recognize that whether it's education reform or any other issue that needs to be addressed, DC will not reach its true potential as long as someone else is pulling its strings.

Reflections on Waiting for Ruperman

by Mallory Widell

Tonight I watched the screening of Waiting for Superman as a part of Education Week. Some of the statistics and facts presented in the film are astounding. The movie lists countless problems in the American education system but two of the biggest problems that stood out to me were those of teacher tenure and teacher unions. Of course there are both positive and negative sides to these concepts, and they were mainly positive when teachers' unions  were first founded. For instance, unions can help protect teachers from being fired for arbitrary reasons and from being mistreated. On the other hand, many uncaring teachers are kept around because of these practices. The film stated that only 1 in 2500 teachers lose their credentials, while the number of other professionals who lose their credentials is much higher. I think Michelle Rhee's idea to give teachers potentially higher salaries on a merit-basis is a good one but teachers' unions were unwilling to accept this proposal. Rhee's response to this was, "it all becomes about the adults," which is so true. The movie demonstrates how effective charter schools are for the most part (top charter schools send 90 percent of their students to 4-year colleges), but show us that there are not enough spaces for all the children who need them. The movie explains that the education system is broken and fixing it is not going to be easy.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Morning Miracle

By Kate Newman
When my alarm goes off at 8:00 A.M. every Tuesday and Thursday morning, my immediate desire is to groggily grab my phone and press SNOOZE for at least another five minutes of much-needed sleep. However, knowing that this battle with technology would continue for at least another hour, I don’t try. More importantly, knowing that some very special second-graders are waiting for me at Houston Elementary School, I actually get out of bed.
It doesn’t matter how tired I am as I walk down to the McDonough parking lot, or if my eyelids start drooping in the van ride from Georgetown to Houston. Once I sit down with Da’Mion or William, I somehow find a sudden burst of energy. They make me want to wake up in the morning and be there for them.
Although I’ve been tutoring with DC Reads since my first semester at Georgetown, this is my first semester as a morning tutor—and I have to admit that I’ve never left in the morning feeling frustrated or unaccomplished, as I have in the afternoons. I’m sure this is partly due to the fact that students are more concentrated during in-school time than during after-school care. However, I believe the main reason is that I’m more concentrated.
As a morning tutor, I start my day with D.C. Reads. I don’t let myself dwell on the events of yesterday, or the things I have to do once we get back to the Hilltop—I allow myself to fully embrace the new day as a fresh start. I wake up with a purpose concerning something bigger than myself. When our van arrives back on campus, I already feel as though I’ve done something with my day. I’ve accomplished something for my tutees, and learned something in return—whether it’s the fact that I apparently look like a “very, very small 20-year-old,” or that a second-grader can come across the word “compassion” and relate it to the earthquake in Japan all on his own.
My experience as a morning tutor has revealed the benefits of fully immersing myself in the time I spend with my tutee. It has also taught me how to be a more engaged and more effective afternoon tutor. Most importantly, it has shown me how essential it is to start every day with a larger purpose. My suggestion to anyone who has an open schedule in the morning: skip the sleep and sign up for morning tutoring—you won’t regret it. Dealing with the alarm is worth it for the students of DCPS.