What’s wrong with that Principal?

 

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Contrary to the wisdom of common practice, here I am, leading with a negative. To be fair, there is already enough written about how significant, important and necessary principals are, how much good they can do for the school community: but those articles are mostly aspirational, except in the rare award winning cases, the cases when awards are given by long standing professional organizations with high credibility factors and not private foundations. Most principals fall far short because, in reality, it is frequently an impossible job, so it should be no surprise to hear the question, “What’s wrong with that principal?” Maybe it really should be “What is wrong with the principal’s job?”

 

Personally, I would not want to be a public school principal (I’m happiest in the library). I think it is a rotten job. That’s mostly because there are far too many opportunities for failure. Which means of course that there are far too many failures, which is why the hierarchy above the principal is the zone of real control. The hierarchy is willing to smooth the edges of failure as long as the principal remains compliant. To the school community they are the deciders but to the hierarchy they are nothing but place holders. And candidates for moving up the ranks, if they have that certain something.

Most principals are easily sucked into the allure of corporate riches and are susceptible to soft corruption.

They dress for success. When I say that, I am specifically saying success in the corporate world. In any school community the principal is the front person for the corporate world, the persona of corporate reality. Most principals are easily sucked into the allure of corporate riches and are susceptible to soft corruption. They become unwitting shills to market forces. They usually come trained with a non existent understanding of political economics, psychology or philosophy. They are the front line in the hierarchy that supports white supremacy culture with their able logistical guidance, keeping the schools running just well enough.

 

They abuse data. It is rare to see a principal’s presentation on data that does not send up a dozen red flags putting the bullshit detector into hyper activity. Some principals cheat or game the system. Others use benign neglect and omission to home in on their single issue concerns. They use data to rationalize inequitable decisions. Data is the carrot that their superiors use to dangle in front of them, motivating them and keeping them in line. They themselves are abused by data.

 

They employ logical fallacies. Asserting the consequent, denying the antecedent and lacking a true premise is their norm. They sound like politicians in public settings and technocrats in private meetings, but throughout they are prone to saying things that they don’t actually believe and doing things they never talk about. They exist in a very narrow place facing the wrong direction. They are adrift in an existential wasteland, ill equipped to make authentic decisions and unable to employ the power of the school’s hive mind to make the best decisions. But they could turn things around.

 

If principals took up the cause of their students and teachers and fought against the hierarchy to undo the artificial scarcities that have plagued our schools since the 1980s, they could make all the difference. It seems far too unlikely but maybe we can wake them up. Maybe we can help them see that what’s wrong with the schools is what’s wrong with principals and vice versa. What’s wrong with principals is that they are the pivot point and they need some help.

 

The Moratorium Manifesto

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Moratorium Manifesto

 

WE are committed to fighting the standardized testing movement because progressive education and standardized testing are antithetical. The premise of progressive education is that the best learning happens when theory and practice come together experientially.

 

WE understand that progressive education is at its best when it is culturally responsive and that cultures vary in their structures of discipline.

 

WE believe that progressive education in America is anti racist.

 

What would a moratorium on standardized testing do to stimulate progressive reform?

 

  1. It would blow the lid off the narrow constraints that have been imposed on curriculum and allow the adequate implementation of ethnic studies.
  2. It would allow PBLs to take a leading role in curriculum development.
  3. It would be a bold step toward dismantling tracking.
  4. It would open up the teacher initiated referral for advanced learning opportunities.
  5. It would allow for measure of musical, artistic, athletic, mechanical and interpersonal  aptitude to be assessed on an equal footing with math and reading.
  6. It would interrupt the deficit model cycle for low scoring students who hear year after year that they are below standard.
  7. It would put the center of learning back in the classroom and out of the hands of distant technocrats.
  8. Money that would have gone to Pearson and other testing companies could be put back into the classroom.
  9. It would eliminate gaming the metrics and cheating.
  10. Removing tests from the schedule would be a pain palliative.

 

Why I don’t work at a progressive school

And the reality of public education in the 21st century

 

When John Dewey introduced the ideas of progressive education that advocated active, experiential learning within a curriculum designed to accommodate the interests and experiences of individual students, he inspired a reform movement away from the Prussian style, factory model of the 19th century. Many progressive ideas were embraced that improved public education but the real core of the movement required a much more intensive student/teacher relationship that could only be accommodated by private schools. Public schools have never been adequately funded to implement real, progressive programs. Even with the post sixties revival by way of alternative schools, the budgetary and business pressures on public education far outweigh the evidence provided by research and experience, and now alternative programs struggle for survival.

Standardization is the best way to get good enough.

Standardization is “cost effective” and generates a uniform data stream. Dewey’s way is costly and the data it produces is only useful to the student and the teacher. This is why you see more occurrence of progressive education in wealthier communities, whether in private schools or affluent neighborhood public schools, where there is a higher level of privilege. Standardization is the best way to get good enough. But if you really want quality, you have to customize. Quality is not a real priority of public school in general, therefore we don’t see much in the way of what I would call progressive education there.

 

The American corporate reality has a deep thirst for data. It wants to use it for predictive analytics which is a powerful tool for understanding markets and consumers. Data is the new gold rush, the new oil boom, the latest frothy bubble of intense scrutiny for the capitalist system to generate profit. Public schools have been set-up and manipulated by corporate interests through legislative action and sophisticated marketing, to generate the type of data that is useful to their interests.

 

I could of course work at a private school, after all I graduated from a progressive private high school (after 10 years of public education) and a progressive private liberal arts college. The problem is that I want to do anti-racist work in a culturally diverse community, so I would rather work where I am, in a south end Seattle Public School, the center of the storm so to speak. The truth is the working conditions would be much better at a private school but where I currently work addresses my passions. My passion for progressive education permeates into what I perceive as an an anti-racist solution to so many artificially induced problems in public education.

“We anarchists do not want to emancipate the people; we want the people to emancipate themselves.”

I don’t work at a progressive school but I want to. At this point the only way for me to work at a progressive school is to transform the school where I currently work and to do that I need to transform the district too.  Obviously, I can’t do it alone. Nor do I want to do it alone because that is not the way I work. I agree with Errico Malatesta: “We anarchists do not want to emancipate the people; we want the people to emancipate themselves.”  So, I’m going to need a lot of help. There are hundreds of teachers in Seattle who feel the way I do. So let’s get together and make some progress! Let’s disrupt things! Let’s disrupt with our love for humanity.

 

Soft Corruption

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When it comes to schools and morality, no one wants to call out decisions made by school administrators as corrupt.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the balance of power in our schools. Administrators feel no compulsion to respond to the actual needs of individual teachers in their classrooms. It starts with the principal whose main function is to coordinate the implementation of a predetermined policy which they have come to believe they have the liberty of implementing in their own way, giving them the false hope that their actions are their own and that the results will be due largely to their interpretation of policy. How naïve of them.

 

Of course principals are merely the first layer in the hierarchy that comes into contact with actual classroom teachers. There are many layers up to the Superintendent and many side spurs as well. But one thing is clear. The hierarchy is self-sustaining and not really dependent on the schools it is meant to manage. Each layer of the hierarchy protects the next layer up from the layer just beneath, so that classroom teachers never see the principal’s boss, the executive director. But all of the administrators see each other, even the principals, because they are all in a club with its own social conventions that are quite different from the social conventions in the schools. Yes, there is a class difference. This is where the corruption begins to be evident.

 

Just to be clear, the schools are only one hierarchical system within a network of hierarchical systems that relate to each other hierarchically. Superintendents live on the border of the next hierarchy up, government and the political system. Above that, of course, are the banks, big business and the military industrial complex.

 

When it comes to schools and morality, no one wants to call out decisions made by school administrators as corruption. “Corruption” conjures images of brown paper bags stuffed with cash. But the corruption I see has to do with the culture within the central administration offices. The people who place the orders with ed companies like Pearson are solicited by sales people who pump up their buyers’ self esteem. It is not that difficult to stroke the ego of someone with an important job, an advanced degree and a budget. They earned their place after all and have the credentials. They deserve the free lunch that comes with the territory, since they are so important and meritorious. The problem is they tend to listen to the sales people and the expert colleagues in their offices more than the stakeholders they are supposed to be responsible to. They have a self sustaining culture of “we know better”.

 

The actions they take, buying worthless text books or expensive solutions to non existent problems, are taken to reinforce their positions. That is what they are paid to do, (along with protecting the next, even more comfortable layer up). Their actions can be seen as job protection. It is self serving . That is corrupt. They actively justify racist policies because the comfort to which they have become accustomed is an easier choice to make than the choice to fight for what their teachers and student families want. Standardized testing has been locked into the system by legal contract. What a waste.

 

Ultimately, it is the profit motive that messes everything up, not just for the schools but for our society as a whole. Competition inevitably leads to cheating. When competition is monetized it goes into a completely different dimension and that dimension is corrupt. Once the idea “What’s in it for me?” has taken over, displacing it with the more humanistic notion of “How does it affect the next person?” becomes next to impossible. But that is where we are with our school system and its soft corruption. And one last thing; when an administrator claims the tough decision has to be made and it is “for the kids”, there is more than just a bit of insincerity in it.

Cruel Society

I take the bus to work every day. Since I transfer downtown I am accustomed to seeing people sleeping on the sidewalks. At 7AM this morning, I saw for the first time in my life, two young males sitting on the sidewalk with their sleeping bags wrapped around them, shooting up. As I approached they just looked like run of the mill homeless people. But when I walked right in front of them I could see that one of them had the needle still sticking out of his arm. The other one was rocking back and forth, tears streaming down his face, eyes rolled up inside his head. It reminded me of the utter cruelty of our society.

This realization, year after year, is what drew me into public education. Education seems to be the best way to work for a better world, which is where my heartfelt commitment lies. But in our society educators encounter relentless opposition to doing the work necessary to making progress. The root of this opposition in not philosophical, it is economic. Enough resources are never adequately allocated. Policy makers are full of idealistic rhetoric but consistently fail to come up with the cash.

If we as a society turn a blind eye towards the cruelty of leaving junkies in the street, how are we ever going to face the harmful effects of a resource starved public education system whose main function in society is to sort and rank our population? As long as the education system performs this function which solidifies the social hierarchy, it will be funded, but only up to the point of mere life support. With the development of policy under Betsy DeVos, even life support could be pulled.

The blind eye turned toward the problems that can be addressed through education is far removed from the general gaze. It is not in your face like what I saw this morning. I had a very clear snapshot of human suffering that is not being addressed. But the suffering we face in the schools exists in the dimension of time. One snapshot rarely tells the whole story the way a needle dangling from the arm of a young male couched on Third and Lenora does. To see the inherent cruelty of public education policy, you have to be in the clutches of it, all day, every day.

The same cruel society that allows the junkies of this generation to flounder, allows schools to fail the next generation. It is the cruel society that cherishes money over humanity, that encourages corporate greed over mutual aid, that allows a few to have too much and too many to have so little. It is a cruel society that only shares enough for most to just get by and ignores the pains and sorrows of those who cannot get by at all and need help.

 

It really doesn’t have to be this way. The greed that is the ultimate driver of this suffering is a sickness. It is a risk to public health. But it can be managed. All of it can be managed, the greed and suffering can be managed if we, all the individuals in society, make the moral choice to do so.

 

End Times for Standardized Testing

My experience and expertise about why it must end now

By Jeff Treistman

“Characterize people by their actions, and you’ll never be fooled by their words.”

I grew up Jewish in the shadow of the holocaust. I was born ten years after World War Two when the memories and images were still fresh. One lesson that I learned early on was that the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews showed that racism and eugenics were wrong.

As it turns out the founders of the testing movement were academics who promoted the racist idea of eugenics. I learned about this when I was in high school, which was the late sixties and early seventies. Along with the desire for relevant, hands on learning, it is one of the reasons I sought a progressive education in high school and college.

I went into the teaching profession fifteen years ago. I was not in favor of standardized testing then but since I was newly inducted into the teaching corps I went along, because I needed the job. It was at precisely the same time that the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) was rolled out in the state of Washington; it was the first wave of mandatory, high stakes tests. There were many more to follow.

Watching the parade of hundreds of students became my personal image of dystopia.

When I became a middle school librarian, ten years ago, I was assigned the duty of test coordinator. It was that experience and all of the research I’ve done since then that set me on a course of total opposition to the practice of standardized testing. Watching the parade of hundreds of students into the computer labs for testing, closing the library for weeks on end, became my personal image of dystopia.

There are a lot of other reasons to end standardized testing but to me the most urgent one, given the state of our country’s politics, is because I see them as racist. Dr. Ibram X Kendi, Director of The Antiracist Research and Policy Center, put it best when he wrote, “Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies.”

The thing that these standardized tests do well is to sort students by socio-economic status. Which is exactly what they have been designed to do, so they are doing their job. The problem is that they do absolutely nothing to end racism. They are advertised as an equalizer but in fact they are barriers. They are racist through and through and that is no longer acceptable.

The bad news is that there are a lot of things we are doing completely wrong, raising the next generation. The good news is that there are a lot things we do right and ways to fix the things we do wrong. But at some point we have to face the music. This is my song.