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Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Fight for Lower Merion Schools: A Must Read

What will motivate you to take action against those who are seeking to lower the quality of public education for our children? 

Huge class sizes? 
A push for low quality, cheap online learning? 
Loss of real estate value on your home? 
Ethics and morals that insist that ALL children deserve a first class education? 
All of the above?

No matter who you are or if you have children in our public schools, the quality of education impacts not only our community, but our society as a whole. Please consider signing the petition below, which will get you on a mailing list for LM Fight for First Class Public Education.

If you  haven't yet signed the petition, please do.
We thank you in advance for your efforts to save our schools.

Parents Across America: 


NAACP against charter schools:

Posts by Danielle Arnold-Schwartz, LMSD Parent, Blogger, Villanova University Teacher of Courage & Conscience Award Recipient & LMSD Teacher:






Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Lower Merion: Are Public Schools and Elected School Boards Obsolete?

Here in Lower Merion, PA, heads are spinning from the Lower Merion School District's loss of a lawsuit brought by Arthur Alan Wolk.

Some people are appreciative of Mr. Wolk's questioning the transparency of the tax situation, but many of us are concerned about a much larger issue – the protection and preservation of local school board control and the quality of education for our children.

Is it a coincidence that Mr. Wolk stated to a reporter that, "He wants district administrators removed from office... and plans to launch a 'Dump the Lower Merion School Directors' movement to run a slate of independent candidates"?
It is still too early in the game to know for sure, but threatening local control through aggressive and hostile attacks—well, that is just what corporate education reformers do.

In this post by former Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, the big issues are brought to light about the aggressive movement by charter school investors & the politicians they support to end local school board control. There is no reason, other than personal financial gain, that these non-education experts are sticking their noses into the education of America's children. Just because people went to school does not make them experts in education. 

The only obstacle to charter schools in Lower Merion is a school board that does not want them. If we lose local control, we are ushering in charter schools and the demise of LMSD. For every student a district loses to a charter school, a large percentage of their spending per student leaves with them. This is what has destroyed nearly every district that has allowed them. As we have seen in Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, LA, and around the country, charter schools are no friends of public education or the families they serve.

Read below:
"Chester Finn, Jr., Bruno Manno, and Brandon L. Wright declare in the Wall Street Journal that public schools and elected school boards are dying a slow death and being replaced by charter schools. All three are associated with right wing think tanks (Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Walton Family Foundation).

Bear in mind that some 50 million children attend public schools, and fewer than 3 million attend charter schools. Bear in mind also that voters have never voted to replace public schools with privately managed charter schools. Americans have never been asked whether they want to pay their taxes to private corporations to run schools that can choose their students. The charter movement has flourished because of massive investments by billionaires like Gates, Broad, and Walton, political support by right wing groups like ALEC, right wing governors, and the unfortunate support of the Obama administration. 

Public education, open to all, has for many years been considered an essential democratic institution and a basic cause of the great economic, social, and cultural success of our nation. Finn & friends hope for and celebrate its demise. They tacitly acknowledge that charter schools don’t get higher scores than public schools. They note that some charter operators are frauds. What they don’t admit is that they welcome the hyper-segregation of American society. One of the reasons our society functions as well as it does is because public schools bring children from different backgrounds together, across lines of race, religion, class, gender, and ethnicity. It doesn’t happen enough, but the authors don’t care if it happens at all. They welcome the return of segregation as a step forward, not as a retrenchment from our ideals. 

Similarly, they see no value in democracy. Elected school boards are a fundamental exercise of democracy. They are established in state constitutions. Yet the authors would wish them away and replace them with privatization. 

This article and the book it is based on comes at a time when the privatization movement is staggering. Charters were just recently criticized by the NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives, a collection of 50 organizations. Charter scandals are breaking into the mainstream media, most recently with the admission by an online charter founder in Pennsylvania that he stole $8 million from the school. And the CREDO study finding that students in online charters learn close to nothing. And then there was the John Oliver program on the shoddy and corrupt practices of charters that close overnight and charters that steal and cheat taxpayers. And there was the Washington State and NLRB decisions that charters are not public schools."

 Watch this John Oliver segment and be prepared to learn.

"When the charter movement began, Finn and Manno wrote about the promise of charter schools: in return for public money, they would be held accountable for better results at lower costs. Now we know that charters are not held accountable, do not produce better results unless they cherry pick students, and do not cost less." 

Respected education blogger and teacher, Mercedes Schnieder, responds to the Wall Street Journal piece here.

Diane Ravitch reports, "[Schnieder] says there is no mass movement to charter schools. Instead, there is a movement bought and paid for by billionaires, millionaires, and others who have embraced free-market ideology."

"Finn et al. are just a part of the well-financed corporate ed reform mass of think tanks, billionaires and hedge funders trying to foist reforms onto the American public in the name of a “quiet revolution."

Sure, watch the district's spending. Absolutely, ask for transparency. But don't sleep at the wheel for a second on the issue of local school board control.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Lower Merion, wake up or forever hold your peace.

Make no mistake, the lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District is not by a lone, selfless attorney who wants to save tax payers a few bucks. This is as clear as can be in this fluff piece about Arthur Allen Wolk and his new puppy. I love puppies, too, but his sweet puppy can't distract me from Mr. Wolk's actual goal, which seems to be to strip local control from Lower Merion tax payers. Here we go again. It is the same old story they used in Philadelphia, Camden, and many of America's other cities. And it happened to this wealthy, suburban school district in Brookline, Massachusetts, which is a lot like Lower Merion. Once the corporate education reformers are on our school board, all bets are off.

When education entrepreneurs (edupreneurs) want to make money off of our tax dollars, they find a way to belittle and discredit the officials, whom tax payers elected. Below, Mr. Wolk is clear about his agenda.

 "In the interview, Wolk called Copeland's letter 'inflammatory' and 'wrong,' and the district 'arrogant.' That was an opening salvo. He wants district administrators removed from office, he said, and plans to launch a 'Dump the Lower Merion School Directors' movement to run a slate of independent candidates.

I wrote about the sharks that are circling Lower Merion's school tax dollars here back in May. 

In the piece, it is clear that Mr. Wolk's family is not invested in our community’s schools. With all due respect, if he does not want to pay the district’s school taxes, he can certainly afford to move somewhere else.

The article states that, "Wolk's two children did not attend Lower Merion schools; they graduated from Cheltenham High School and Abington Friends School. But 'he's got a large house and pays lots of taxes,' said Knauss, adding that he thinks Wolk viewed the suit as a 'civic service. 'Wolk said he thought it was 'worthy.' The median refund of $1,400 that Smyth said taxpayers might eventually receive is kibble compared with what he said he spent out-of-pocket on the case."

Should Lower Merion tax payers be grateful that Mr. Wolk is spending out-of-pocket to undo a democratic process? School boards are elected the old-fashioned way. The people who show up and vote make their voices heard. I respectfully suggest that Mr. Wolk put his money towards a campaign to get residents out to vote, instead of trying to buy his preferred school board.

Those of us who closely follow what is known as corporate education reform find the kind of attacks we are seeing in Lower Merion as cliché, except for the fact that this horrific treatment has been reserved for our cities... until now.  

In this Washington Post article, you can see how a businessman with his own agenda wants to get rid of locally elected school boards (so unoriginal, folks). Netflix's very own CEO, Reed Hastings spoke at a charter school conference to" ...advocate for the end of locally elected school boards. Hastings said the 'fundamental problem' with school districts is that they 'don't get to control their boards.' He suggested that the democratically elected school boards are the problem with public education and they should be replaced by privately held corporations."  Hastings is developing his own ideas for how public school children, our children, should be educated... and it will make him even richer. But first he has to get rid of those inconvenient local school boards who would reject his generic, low quality edu-business models.

As Lower Merion residents are trying to put the pieces of this puzzle together, I predict it won't take long before we connect the dots and realize that this attack on local control is really all about opening the education market to investors who want to profit off of our spending per student. After all, this is one of the few bipartisan ideas where so many politicians fill their glasses and toast together. Read more here and here

I am a recipient of Villanova University's Teacher of Courage and Conscience Award. I try my best to live with integrity and to educate my community about the corporate attack on our schools and the unethical (yet mostly legal) ways local control is stolen from communities in the attempt to pocket public school tax dollars.

Lower Merion and all suburban school districts, it is time to wake up. We are in the thick of it and it all happened while we were asleep. Maybe Kathy Boccella is trying to warn us when she writes, "As Boo, the golden retriever, said in the book Wolk wrote about her: 'Dad has been home with me after work every day and wrestles with me every chance he gets. He always wins even when I try to bite him.'" He always wins, which in this case would mean that the children of Lower Merion School District would be the losers.

Speak up now or forever hold your peace.

Sign this petition to show your support for Lower Merion and public education, in general.    


Saturday, August 20, 2016

School Vouchers & Digital Learning to destroy Suburban School Districts

For over two decades the focus of corporate education reform has been on urban schools.
However, recently the powers that be have come out of the closet and are openly admitting that they are coming after suburban schools. Our schools.

 " With vouchers gaining momentum nationwide, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), )...  has decided to drop the pretense that vouchers have anything to do with social and racial equity, and is now pushing vouchers for the middle class—a project which, if pursued enough in numbers, will progressively erode the public school system and increase the segregation of students based on race and economic standing."

The agenda for the "...ALEC meeting includes a presentation entitled: “Problems in Suburbia: Why Middle-Class Students Need School Choice, Digital Learning and Better Options.”
Perhaps more importantly, ALEC's revisions to three of its "model" voucher bills make clear that it is changing focus from underserved inner-city schools to middle-class suburbia. The talking points at the end of the bills state:
  • "Legislators … should keep in mind the financial burden many middle-class families face in paying for private schools."
  • “The authors believe that all children from low- and middle-income families should receive public support for their education regardless of whether they are attending a public or private school."
  • “The authors do not adjust the amount granted to an ESA [Education Savings Account] student based upon the student's income because states do not adjust the public investment for a student attending a traditional public school or a charter based upon their household income.”
As if to further nail down the point that school vouchers are not about equity, ALEC also advises legislators against including language “banning discrimination in hiring.” But if they choose to do so, they should “take care not to interfere with the ability of religious institutions to hire individuals who share their religious beliefs.”

Read more here.

In other words, suburban parents and tax payers need to wake up and look across the road to our cities because what has happened there is headed towards us. It will look slightly different in the burbs and will include weaning our kids off of real, brick and mortar schools with real, highly qualified teachers, in caring environments with their peers.  Instead they will try to convince us that our tax dollars should go towards the private or parochial school of our "choice", but those tax dollars will barely put a dent in a private or parochial school tuition and they will KILL our public school systems. They will also try to convince us that our children, especially teens, want to sleep later and therefore will benefit from online learning. I wrote a previous post about the push for cyber/virtual schools here, titled, If I wanted to send my kids to cyber school, I would've.

I can't tell you enough how Isaac Asimov's short story, The Fun They Had, is disturbingly coming to life. Read it and weep. Then start speaking to school board members & school administrators and let them know what you think.

 Online learning, AKA Open Campus, Virtual Learning & Cyber School 
if anything, should be a parent decision, NOT a state mandate or school district requirement.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The real reasons for the teacher shortgae may surprise you... or not.

I was recently contacted by the Philadelphia Inquirer to share my thoughts on why the US is experiencing teacher shortages. In the article, the gist of what I said was reported, but more needs to be added. In addition, there are certain words used to summarize my opinions, which are words I would never use – like rigor. In fact, I blogged here that when you hear certain jargon, beware. Rigor is on the list.

The article begins with the following, 

I love teaching with all of my heart.

It is my 13 year-old daughter who had wanted to be a teacher since pre-school, and I was thrilled... until things began to change, even in my wonderful school district. It has been difficult to stand by and watch the changes that have slowly been eroding away at my beloved profession. But the changes are real. I want all kids to be able to have happy futures in their chosen fields, and they need degrees that will help them find a career which is intellectually satisfying, ethically responsible, and financially feasible. If your child wants to be a teacher, I do recommend a second major, because many of our elected officials don't know what they are doing.

 What I am really warning parents & tax payers about is more than the symptoms listed above. It is a warning to pay attention to your local school district, school board meetings, strategic plan, and to ask questions – before it is too late.

The teaching profession has been purposely undermined by corporate education reformers (including Teach for America... I am sure that the Teach for America volunteer featured in the article along with me is a fine person, but he never studied education, chose not to be an education major in college, and was not a professional, highly qualified teacher, though he did give it a try. Read legitimate concerns about why NOT to Teach for America here and here.)

What I actually said was that I worry my daughter will not find teaching as satisfying as she thinks. Working with my students is still the best, and I find connecting with parents and families a true pleasure. But the other stuff – the stuff you will read on the list below– that is what frustrates teachers and makes us consider leaving. Ours is a career in a caring field. We have ethical and moral standards that are often compromised when we are forced to teach in ways that are questionable and administer high stakes tests that hurt our students and communities.

I am often surprised when I discuss the purposeful starving of public schools via budget cuts and the intended results of charter schools, which suck the funds away from local, neighborhood schools. Some people really think that underfunded schools are "failing" because the teachers stink, the parents are indifferent, and the kids don't care. Our urban schools are suffering from skin and bone budgets, but the article predictably omits charter schools and their impact. The charter school industry gives people the illusion of choice, because not every charter school takes every child, like a true public school does. As we are growing closer and closer to the end of of city public schools, I wonder who will take the kids the charters don't want? I worry. Some people think that charter schools are good for kids of color, but I blogged here about how the NAACP is for public schools, NOT charters.

Testing overkill is a huge symptom of the problem, but parents, grandparents, and all who care about children, must be wary of competency-based education (CBE), which is coming to a school near you soon. CBE involves stealth testing, which I wrote about here and here.  Basically, children will be on screens working on isolated skills much of their school day, as data will be collected constantly and we will never know when the high stakes data is being collected. It is sneaky and it doesn't improve the educational experiences of our kids. It just gets rid of the stand alone, weeks of high stakes testing and gives the ILLUSION of the terrible tests going away. 

As far as the new PA teacher evaluations, I would never call them "rigorous."  I would call them time wasting, a mile wide and a millimeter deep, and rather ridiculous. I am happy to share that in all of my years of teaching I have had excellent evaluations. The most informative of the bunch came BEFORE corporate ed reform ideas were implemented by our legislators, who are mostly NOT educated in education. They may mean well, but most have no idea what they are doing. Just because people went to schools does not make them experts in education. Previous evaluations had principals sitting in classrooms for entire periods and observing how teachers not only deliver instruction, but how we handle the inevitable behavior challenges that occur, how we respond to student questions and disruptions, and how creative, organized, and engaging our lessons are. The new evaluation model is a burden on principals and they spend short amounts of time in our classrooms. The feedback is not detailed and helpful, as it was before. This is not due to individual principals, but to the new laborious paperwork in the time sucking new evaluation process.

In terms of dimming public respect for teachers, I can honestly report that I see this myself. I work with the most brilliant, interesting, nutty professor-like science teacher you would love your kids to have.  He originally wanted to work for NASA with his love of physics and space. Fortunately for every student who ever sat in his class, he changed his major and followed his heart to teaching. You can imagine how my jaw dropped when a parent who was a scientist sat at parent conference night and told him he wasted his talents teaching... How lucky for this man's child that such a dedicated and brilliant teacher didn't see it that way. Another colleague I teach with also came to teaching from an incredibly sophisticated background in IT, among other things. She is also brilliant and is certified to teach English, Physics, Math, Spanish, Social Studies, and probably some other areas I am forgetting. I came to education via a degree in marketing. At my interview in 1994, I was asked by the assistant superintendent if I was wasting my business degree. I went on explain how understanding marketing and psychology makes me a better teacher. I got the job.

I am concerned about the public education system on its current trajectory. Blogger & former teacher, Nancy Bailey, explains perfectly in this post  what is really driving teachers out of the classroom.

She shares the following list, which I find to be true. Not necessarily all are found where I live, but all are true elsewhere in our state and around the country, just the same.

  1. Lack of control. Teachers are told what and how to teach without being given input. Many schools have signed on to draconian reforms in structured teaching that ignores the needs of the developing student.
  2. High-Stakes Testing. Teachers understand that high-stakes testing is bad for children. They don’t want to be a part of it. They also don’t want their teaching judged by it.
  3. A Limited Curriculum. The curriculum is too narrow. Many teachers (e.g. art and music) have not been hired for years.
  4. Large class sizes. The research is clear that lowering class size especially in k-3rd grade helps students. So why aren’t they working harder to do this?
  5. Non-supportive school administrators. This could be the school principal or school district administrators who look down on teachers and do as they are told by the outside corporate school reformers. Many of these individuals aren’t even educators!
  6. The loss of a good library. Many schools no longer have libraries, and if they do, they are often inadequate.
  7. The loss of support staff. Many school counselors are now relegated to mundane tasks having to do with testing and data collection instead of helping troubled students. A good school relies on a variety of support staff—school psychologists, librarians/media specialists, nurses, school counselors and more.
  8. Data Collection. Teachers who care about teaching find micromanaging useless school data on a child maddening.
  9. Common Core State Standards (CCSS). These un-scientific standards were foisted on all teachers and students removing a teacher’s decision-making power. Many teachers distrust CCSS. The Common Core State Standards are such a volatile issue, it was reported yesterday, that WikiLeaks caught the DNC warning they should not be mentioned in the campaign–calling CCSS a “political third rail.” (A third rail is the electrified rail on a subway).  
  10. Standards in general. The high emphasis on standards started with No Child Left Behind, even earlier, and has done nothing to improve schools.
  11. Lousy school conditions and poor teaching resources.
  12. Lacking respect. All of the above lead to a pervasive disrespect of teachers that lacks professionalism.
  13. Disregard for poverty and a child’s difficulties outside of school. Teachers are caring individuals. They recognize problematic outside circumstances that affect how students learn.
  14. Lacking special education and ELL support for general education teachers.
  15. Professional development that is uninspiring. 
If we want to keep great teachers or attract college students to the field, I think the solutions are fairly simple. Read Nancy Bailey's list above and make things better.

 I like to think that one of the reasons I was hired was for my imagination and creativity. What I bring to the table cannot be found in a text book or teacher's guide. When micromanaging and alignment start to take away the part of my job that uses my mind & my intellect, it makes me feel dissatisfied. That is just good old psych 101. 

Would I leave the business world behind if I knew then what I know now? You bet.
As I stated in the article, "If it's really in you, you have to teach. Or at least you have to try."

Saturday, July 30, 2016

If I wanted to send my kids to cyber school, I would've.

This is a wake up call to all parents. Stop believing the PR and marketing about "21st century learning", "anytime, anywhere learning", and "innovation." Most kids I know are already overly attached and probably addicted to their cell phones and have way too much access to technology.
For this generation, technology is NOT innovative. It is overly accessible & is limiting the way growing minds learn. Like everything, technology is good in moderation.

Diane Ravitch agrees with me.
We need to take a look at what is going on in states who are ahead of PA in implementing these terrible education reform ideas. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but no matter how wonderful you think your children's schools are, they are slowly but surely leading us down the path of cyber schools for all.

Even in Pennsylvania our Intermediate Units (and many of our very own superintendents) support the 21st Century Charter School.

The thing is, I moved to my school district because I wanted my kids to actually go to their schools and be taught in classrooms by human, professional teachers in brick & motor rooms with their peers. Disrupting systems does not work in education and is downright unethical.

I am turning to the beautiful state of Maine, and the implementation of Mass Customized Learning (MCL). MCL is defined as, " The capacity to routinely customize products and services through computer applications and technologies to meet the specific needs and/or desires of individuals without adding significantly to the cost of the product or service."

Clearly, this is attempt to make it seem like our kids will get more with less money. We all know how that story ends every time.

What concerns me is that teachers felt the moral and ethical need to speak up, but were too scared for their jobs to share their names. That is sad because teachers are the very people we need to be the canary in the coal mines for our kids. Many teachers want to speak up, but they need to pay their mortgages and feed their families, too. It is with much respect that I share the letter the teachers of the RSU 18 School wrote to their school board. But first you need to understand a bit about MCL.

Mass Customized Learning is selling itself as the panacea to "assembly line learning".  I can assure you that in my classroom and the classroom of many other teachers, there isn't an assembly line in sight. Once again, some slick marketing spin has found a negative image to put in the minds of the public in the name of profiting off of children.

Stop experimenting with our kids.

 Mass Customized Learning reminds me of the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) fad that is already a failure and thing of the past at the university level. The infamously disruptive Clayton Christensen Institute has deemed them dead and is now pushing its latest fad – competency based learning online. In other words, investors in MOOCs your time is up. New edupreneurs have a newer idea to get their hands on the money of parents and tax payers. Rest assured that disrupting the k-20 education system constantly may not benefit students, but it sure will fatten up the wallets of those in the education market.

And public school parents, this is coming our way without a doubt. Listen for jargon (some are actually terms that have been coopted from their original intent) such as "Anywhere, anytime, learning", "21st Century Learning", "Personalized Learning", "Student Centered Learning", "Student voice", "Emphasis on skills", "innovation", "embedded assessments", "flexible and fluid schedules", "Flipped classroom", "Blended Learning", "Online learning", and many more. Look up your school district"s strategic plan and see what you find.

Back to the Maine Mass Customized Learning crisis. 

Do you want your kids to be guinea pigs in the latest education fad? THIS IS NOT INEVITABLE.

Teachers at the Oakland area schools are objecting to a controversial new teaching system they claim has turned their students into guinea pigs in a failed educational experiment, but administrators contend that Mass Customized Learning (MCL) is inevitable.

According to letters obtained by The Maine Wire, there is widespread dissatisfaction in RSU 18, a school district comprised of eight schools in China, Belgrade, Oakland and Messalonskee, with the MCL program which has been implemented over the last four years.

One letter, written by an anonymous group of “concerned, dedicated teachers from RSU 18,” paints a dark portrait of the emerging conflict between MCL’s supporters and those who wish to conserve the traditional system of public education.

“We write to you as members of the RSU 18 faculty who want to express the feelings of so many who are afraid to speak up,” the group of educators stated in a May 5 letter to the district’s school board and several concerned parents. “We must report to you that MCL has shaken this school system to its very core.”

The teachers wrote the letter anonymously because they fear administrators in the district would seek retribution if their opposition to MCL became public.

“We are afraid to voice our opinions,” the teachers wrote. “We know the repercussions that would occur if we voiced our real feelings to the administration. We wallow in sadness at the poor educational model that we are forced to subject the children to. It is the children of this district that are suffering the most.”

Read this article in The Maine Wire for the full story.

In this world it can be hard to know who to trust. Are you going to go with the people who spend their days with your kids in their classrooms or put your trust in the profiteers? The choice is yours.

I say trust the canary in the coal mine.