How to kill a good teacher…

Yesterday I felt like a dog chasing his tail in circles.  I just couldn’t find what I was looking for.  I had no information on teacher turnover rates in the 1960’s.  I thought I had read that they spiked during this time, but I couldn’t find any evidence of the sort.  I searched and I searched, and I basically came across nothing of substance.  Then, I looked at the gigantic pile of books I have been ordering from the library (they’re beginning to surround me on both sides of the desk as if to bury me alive as I type this).  I found a book that described the history of the teacher shortage problem.  I read the first chapter, and then spent about an hour writing one, yes just one, paragraph about my new findings.

dog chasing tail

I went to class, which is honestly just feeling like a burden at this point.  Once I get into the groove of working, I hate to stop everything I’m doing and leave.  I was feeling really looney and silly once I got to class; likely a symptom of the solitary confinement to my desk.  Disinterested in the conversation that was happening, I began to do some more google scholar searches on turnover in the 1960’s.  Among my findings was this fantastic little piece: How to Kill a Good Teacher, which so perfectly captures my experience in teaching; particularly the constant surveillance and menial tasks.  It’s amazing to me that something so poignant could have been written in the 1960’s, and yet, we’ve only exacerbated the problem in the the current neoliberal policy context of education.

I slept in this morning, and I’m glad I did.  I just feel so much better when an alarm doesn’t wake me up.  I hate alarms.  I organized all my findings from last night’s class, and began reading.  I was feeling discouraged.  I didn’t know where to start, and I wasn’t sure I would find anything useful.  I came across a report which summarized teacher turnover in the 1960’s and tried to predict turnover in the 70’s.  This study found that turnover was higher in disadvantaged schools, which is an important characteristic of my research problem.  I feel like I can begin to summarize the problem of turnover and relate it to the policy context of education.  This is good.  Now, I’m off to write up these findings (in a paragraph that will probably take me over an hour to draft).


Take your curriculum, and throw it in the garbage (sácalo)!

And your pacing guides, and your required reading lists….

I firmly believe that if I were to enter the classroom again, I’d be fired before October.

But, hear me out…

“The child who is explained to will devote his intelligence to the work of grieving: to understanding, that is to say, to understanding that he doesn’t understand unless he is explained to.” (Rancière, 1991, p. 8)

I have the privilege of taking a summer course with a professor who embraces intellectual emancipation.  We’re reading, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, by Rancière which reminds us that we are all born with intellectual power, but that power is stultified, or rendered stupid, because teachers become master explicators.  The above quote shows what happens when students are explained to.  They begin to doubt themselves, they don’t realize the true power of their intellect, and they become stultified.  How sad.

I have also had the privilege of meeting a 20 year old who despises reading.  He said he’s never picked up or read a book on his own, and he shared his frustration with me that he never understood why he was reading things that didn’t mean anything to him in school, like Romeo and Juliet.  He also told me that he loves The Freedom Writers movie, and wishes his school experience was more like that.

I brought him a copy of The Freedom Writer’s diary on Monday, and something that shouldn’t surprise us happened, he opened the book and began reading it on his own.

Imagine if we gave students the ability to realize their intellectual power?  Imagine if we threw our curriculum away and listened to what students wanted to learn?  Imagine if we allowed curiosity to take our students to intellectual heights instead of filling their heads with knowledge that one person decided was important enough to be a multiple choice question on a test?  That would be intellectual emancipation at its finest.

Some teachers are already doing this.  But if they’re like I was in the classroom, they’re doing it subtly while still meeting the demands of their “superiors”.  My question for all teachers is, “why do we continue to do things we don’t think are right for kids?”

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Why I’ve been silent

I know my last post was March 2015. This is not an excuse; it’s an explanation, and a poignant lesson on speaking out, especially in these dark times we find ourselves in. Now, I may have gotten busy after my trip to the Freedom Writer’s symposium in Washington D.C., which was nothing short of amazing, by the way; I was finishing up my master’s work, a principal internship, and moving halfway across the country to join the love of my life who relocated for work while I chose to stay in the Northeast completing my degree. These are all excuses to stop writing, for a short period at least, but it’s not why I stayed silent until now, and I’ve never stopped thinking about starting this blog up again. Now here’s the explanation I promised and you deserve. You see, I felt somewhat like a hypocrite. I had accepted a position as an 8th grade humanities teacher at a no excuses charter school, and I spent the past year working there, much to my own disappointment. The truth of the matter is, I needed a job, and I believe in giving kids opportunities to go to college, which they promised we would do. They were the first offer, and I was excited to get back into the classroom. I mean, how bad could it be?

Mostly, I felt like a hypocrite because I never believed in charter schools and I certainly don’t believe that they are any way to close the achievement gap, although many of them certainly claim they are doing just that. They don’t close the achievement gap because they don’t serve all kids. No, I’m not referring to the popular argument that they hand-pick their students and kick out kids that don’t “fit” their no excuses policies and procedures, I mean they don’t serve all American children. Education is supposed to be free and public. When we build charter schools, we take students and funds away from the traditional public schools, we give parents options, but parents often believe that sending their kids to a charter is the only way to give them an opportunity to go to college, and they’re devastated when they don’t win the lottery. Charter schools don’t fix the traditional public schools that are failing to give kids opportunities; they don’t serve the population, therefore contributing to even more inequality within the American educational system. I felt horrible for the students who weren’t being promised an opportunity to go to college in the schools I passed on my way into the charter school every morning (it ironically, probably purposefully, had been built across the street of a public school district’s central offices). So given this, I didn’t feel like I should be writing about closing the achievement gap while I was contributing to widening the gap. Additionally, I was scared to discuss anything in the school openly, as writing negatively about charter schools while paying my bills with money I earned from one, in a state where collective bargaining is illegal, probably wasn’t a good idea. Here’s how the story ends; I could never have prepared for how oppressive the regime in that organization was, and I quickly found myself depressed, disillusioned, and fighting for a way out.

I am happy to report that I have since been liberated from the shackles placed on me. While working there, I completed my first year in a doctoral program in educational leadership and policy studies. This year, I was awarded a fellowship and am continuing my research and coursework as a full-time student. I couldn’t be happier. I don’t plan to get into the cornucopia (hey, it’s November) of anecdotes I have about my sobering experiences working for a charter school and being a doc student in this particular post, but say stunned for lots to come. I’m sorry I stayed silent for this long, but I’m also grateful for the experience I got at the charter school, which I believe will allow me to further expose some of the inequities in our system and advocate for revolutionary change. I look forward to sharing with you again, and thank you in advance for your support of this little project.

Help me take my blog to Washington!

Back in November, I received a comment from JC Moore that said,

Your voice will be heard as you continue to scream about our failing public education. What you are doing is important in every aspect, so don’t give it up. When the right time comes, we should all scream together to wake up and shake up this nation once again. We, educators and teachers need to march to Washington DC

“E Pluribus Unum”

I am thrilled to report that I plan to attend the 2015 Freedom Writer Teacher’s Empowerment Symposium this May in Washington D.C!!  Over 400 teachers, myself included, have attended the Freedom Writer’s Institute in Long Beach, CA with Erin Gruwell and this year we will be having our annual Symposium in Washington.  Please help me take my blog with me and raise awareness about the issues facing teachers and students in low-income communities.

Click Here to Donate

It’s NOT an economics issue, it’s a human rights issue!

Last week, I published a piece on Brown v. Board of Education’s implications for administrators.  When discussing this in my graduate class, I explained how Brown v. Board of Education’s stance that, “Such an opportunity [education], where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms” means that we as educators have the obligation to provide quality education to all students who attend our public schools.  Although most schools have been desegregated, poorly performing public schools are still failing to provide quality education to all students.  I must say, I was not prepared for such an unethical rebuttal from one of my classmates.

“Well, it’s an economics issue, schools are funded based on property taxes, and so naturally, poorly performing schools are underfunded as a result of the environment they are in.  If students don’t want to go to those schools they have the right to choice out.”

I really had to bite my tongue at this point, as many people in the class were agreeing about the issue being due to economics.  First of all, we cannot sit back and blame the issue on poverty.  Yes, the way that schools are funded is inequitable, but that doesn’t mean that they should be poorly performing.

As for school choice, let’s just imagine this very common  scenario: A fifth grader is doing well at his elementary school, the middle school he will be assigned to as a result of the neighborhood he lives in is under-performing.  He is an only child in a single-parent household where his mother is working long, 12-hour days split between two part-time jobs just to pay the rent.  She barely speaks English, hasn’t heard about school choice, nor is she able to understand the school’s performance report-card that was sent home at the beginning of the year.

Not every child can or will choice out of poorly performing schools.  It would be impossible to choice-place thousands of children, most are ill-informed even about the possibility of school choice, and by giving kids the option to choice out, we are not addressing the fundamental educational inequity that Brown v. Board sought to address.

The implications I mentioned above for administrators are timely.  Congress has just passed the Student Success Act, which places emphasis on state and local districts to turnaround poorly performing schools.

The Student Success Act dramatically reduces the federal role in education by returning authority for measuring student performance and turning around low-performing schools to states and local officials.

Similar to the sentiments of my classmate above, the Bill provides a substantial investment into the growth of national charter school networks and emphasizes parent’s rights to school choice.  Basically, the Federal Government is throwing their arms up when it comes to their involvement in turning around poorly performing schools and hoping that more charter schools and increase school choice will put pressure on state and local officials to improve the schools.

Therefore, it is crucial now, more than ever, that we educators are prepared to fight this good fight.  We have the responsibility to improve our schools.  It is up to teachers and school and district leadership to do what we can to make educational opportunity available to all on equal terms. Finally, I can’t help but think, that if you feel educational inequity is an economics issue, you’re in the wrong business.

“Mr. Duarte, shouldn’t you be teaching at one of those white schools?”

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms. (Brown vs. Board of Education, 1954)

It’s been over sixty years since the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark civil right’s case, Brown vs. Board of Education, that separate but equal schools have no place because separate schools are inherently unequal.  When asked to write about the implications of this decision for school administrators today, I found myself lamenting about the responsibility we have to close the achievement gap.  Since, this gap, proves that many of our schools serving low-income and students of color are in fact, inherently unequal.  Here are the demographics and state accountability rating of the school I taught at:

  • 31% African American
  • 46% Hispanic
  • 88% Low Income
  • Among the lowest achieving and least improving schools in the state

In my second year at the school, I had a student ask me, “Why are you teaching here?  You expect us to do so much work, you should be working in one of those white schools somewhere near where you live or where you grew up.”  My heart was instantly shattered.  This was a student who had been completely critical of everything I had been trying to do, she would make an effort to derail my lesson on a daily basis.  She had been challenging me this whole time and up until this moment, I couldn’t figure out why.  You see, this student represents the typical feeling of a child growing up in a community with poorly performing schools.  As Brown v. Board stated, “A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.”  My heart broke in pieces when she said this because I instantly understood that up until her 8th grade English class, she had been lead to believe that she was inferior; that she didn’t deserve a good teacher, that she didn’t deserve a quality education or the chance to go to college.  She didn’t believe that the school I was teaching at was good enough to have me and that she was good enough to be in my class.  I finally understood why she was challenging me; she didn’t think she could perform in my class because she never had a teacher that made her feel that she could achieve.

Isn’t that an educator’s essential job?  Aren’t we supposed to be the cheerleaders for our students?  Aren’t we supposed to tell them that they can achieve their wildests dreams?  How can we look a child in the face and say, “No, you cannot be an astronaut beucase you attend one of the lowest achieveing schools in the state, which will put you behind everyone else that will be competing for that job.”?  Now, of course this sounds a little harsh, but isn’t it essentially what we are doing in our public schools?  If an eighth grader can look me in the face and tell me I’m too good a teacher to be working in her school because of where its located and who it serves, we are violating the very right cited in Brown v. Board;the opportunity of an education to be made available to all on equal terms.


Graduation rates rise, but are still too low…

First, let me begin by saying I am not here to discuss particular districts or to throw anyone under the bus, my purpose is to present issues and begin a dialogue about the state of urban education and the need for reform.  To preface, the school districts I am referencing represent typical, large, urban school districts that serve low-income communities.  I was surprised to come across a local news broadcast on how two notoriously under-performing, large urban districts in Massachusetts saw noteworthy increases in their graduation rates from 2013 to 2014.  That being said, I dug a little deeper into the numbers of these districts and some similar districts and here is what I found:

  • Overall student graduation rates are between 60 and 65 percent
  • Graduation rates among students with disabilities is nearly half that amount
  • Graduation rates among Hispanic/Latino and African American/Black subgroups are on average 5 percent below overall rates
  • Graduation rates for English Language Learners are significantly below the overall rates
  • 9/10 non urban, non low-income serving districts have graduation rates above 85%

It is absolutely wonderful that these districts have seen an increase in students graduating, that is not the issue here.  What is disturbing is that four in ten students living in these districts are not graduating from high school.  In case you don’t see the problem, please the the economic importance of this in my previous post, ‘College “prep” goes beyond the classroom’.  With this troubling data, why are we not discussing the inequity within our public schools?  Why are we not screaming from the top of our lungs for reforms that will address this issue?!  I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that more accountability and more standardized tests are not going to address this gap.  In fact, we may even see the gap widen….