Recent Schooled Press

Schooled was reviewed in the McGill Journal of Education, where Teresa Anne Fowler writes, "Lutz Fernandez and Lutz address the theory and practice gap through these connections and inform those that engage in this story how what is spoken on one side is lived out on the other. Faces of teachers and stories from their classrooms demonstrate that policies and pedagogic practices are not lived out in a vacuum but within the diversity that makes up our classrooms....In our era of standardized schooling, with little attention given to teacher and student experiences with prescribed policies and pedagogies, this work is a must read by those in the field, pre-service teachers, and those removed from the field that have an interest in education." http://mje.mcgill.ca/article/view/9371/7191

More Media Teacher-Bashing

Cable network TV Land wants you to check out its new show Teachers, which features a variety of wacky and wild personalities in the mold of those entertaining women from Bridesmaids.  Sounds fun, until you watch the trailer and realize the series is just another vehicle for damaging teacher stereotypes.  As Entertainment Weekly put it, these "jaded and inappropriate" characters "aren't the kind of teachers you want imparting wisdom to your children." 

Why are media stereotypes of teachers so harmful?  We discuss some of why in this earlier post.

Recent Schooled Press

Catherine Lutz is interviewed about teachers as education's experts in The Brown Alumni Monthly: http://www.brownalumnimagazine.com/content/view/4001/31/ and Anne Lutz Fernandez is interviewed about the Common Core in Westport Magazine: http://www.westportmag.com/w/September-October-2015/Education-Reform/.

 

Listening to the Experts on Education

In previous posts, I have discussed how teachers’ voices are largely missing from the education debate, and how, sidelined from it, teachers have found themselves cast as the central source of our education woes. Americans hear that bad teachers are holding the nation back from educational greatness. Based on this premise, a complex and dramatic set of reforms are being rolled out that include standardized, even scripted curricula; an increasing battery of standardized tests; and convoluted teacher evaluations and waves of school closures based on these tests.

What would we learn if we did listen?  In travelling around the country over the past few years to do that listening, my Schooled co-author, anthropologist Catherine Lutz, and I learned much.

The teachers we met said that the problems facing education are numerous. Most profound among them is widespread child poverty, with the majority of public schoolchildren today growing up in low-income households. First grade teacher Ulla Tervo-Desnick told how she collects outerwear so that all of her first-graders can take recess in chilly Minnesota. Glorianna UnderBaggage on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation explained how she keeps snacks in her classroom for the students she’s helping get to graduation, many of whom come to school unable to focus, hungry or exhausted from having no bed to sleep in.

We learned that austerity policies have hit schools hard. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than 60% of states have failed to restore school funding to pre-recession levels. Teachers talked about furlough days that keep students out of school, about the loss of classroom aides who helped struggling students, about the time and energy they put into fundraising to provide basic supplies for their classrooms, and about increased class sizes that make it more difficult to reach every child.  We saw how Arizonan third grade teacher Lindsey McClintock’s class was inflated further when a substitute shortage created by low sub pay means teachers must take in students from the classes of sick colleagues.

We learned that teachers see some popular reform efforts as counterproductive to learning. Topping the list is the boom in standardized tests and a growing obsession with the data they produce. Teachers witness higher stress among students who frequently face high-stakes tests that can affect their grade promotion, course placement, and graduation, but also their school’s very fate. Colorado special needs teacher Robert Lewis explained how fixating on these tests narrows the curriculum—with the arts, social sciences, and physical education reduced in schools compelled to devote more time to the tested subjects—and fails his students, whose talents can be neglected by a strict focus on a few academic subjects and whose knowledge may not be meaningfully measured by tests.

We learned that teacher pay, quite low for professionals with advanced degrees, means many must take second jobs or consider moving on to more lucrative careers.  At the same time, teachers have been loaded with additional duties, including the work of crossing guards and clerical staff cut from budgets. Although some fortunate teachers retain flexibility and autonomy in what they teach and how they teach it, others are being constrained from fully exercising their craft. Standardized curriculum and scripted lessons mean teachers can’t innovate; such standardization, meant to ensure a consistent, minimum standard of instruction, is instead deprofessionalizing and demoralizing teachers. Illinois English teacher Gary Anderson pointed out, “If somebody else writes the script and then I'm evaluated on how well I read the lines, that's not evaluating me at all.”

We would learn that top-down reforms often misread teachers’ motivations and ignore our diverse communities’ differences. “Teacher accountability” reforms presume that teachers don’t feel intrinsically accountable for their students’ success and wellbeing.  Talking to Ann Marie Donnelly, who teaches the children of immigrants in a Bridgeport, Connecticut Catholic middle school, we learned that she, like many, feels answerable to her students in profound ways. Personally, culturally, even spiritually bound to their communities, the people who choose to teach know the job is a highly complicated art at which most are continually striving to improve.  Experienced teachers believe they know what will work to make their teaching more effective, and this includes changes in the wider conditions of children’s lives.  In their classrooms, they see the promise and the problems, some of which are specific to their communities, every day.  

Teachers are the experts to whom we should be turning for insight on how to design the truly necessary reforms to a system that cannot be meaningfully bettered without their input.  As Pasi Sahlberg, renowned Finnish educator and education policy advisor put it, “teaching is not rocket science: it’s more complicated than that.”  Let’s consult teachers, then, before pundits and businessmen, to restart the national conversation about its future.

Anne Lutz Fernandez became a high school English teacher after a career on Wall Street.  She is the co-author of Schooled: Ordinary, Extraordinary Teaching in an Age of Change.

Q & A with Schooled's Catherine Lutz

Catherine is interviewed about Schooled:

"Broad social and economic changes are making teaching harder: widespread child poverty, widening income inequality, growing cultural and linguistic diversity, rising rates of children with disabilities, frequent school violence, limited job opportunities and ballooning college costs, contracting public budgets, and persistent racism and segregation. The most profound are the basic economics; astoundingly, roughly half of America’s public schoolchildren growing up in low-income households."

Read more.

Some Feel-Good Education Stories Shouldn’t Make Us Feel so Good

Last month, comedian Steven Colbert made news when he announced plans to fund the projects then posted by teachers in South Carolina, his home state, on the crowd-funding site DonorsChoose, an astounding pledge worth $800,000. Another feel-good story came recently about teachers receiving monies, albeit on a less grand scale, via PhilaSoup, a teacher-led microgrant program in Philadelphia.

When education coverage seems to be only a startling array of bad news, these stories are a welcome relief, focusing as they do on a satisfying convergence of donor generosity and teacher ingenuity.

Behind these feel-good anecdotes, however, is the larger, painful story of American educational austerity.  Despite the increasingly healthy economy and the stock market’s robust performance, more than 60% of states have failed to restore education budgets to pre-Recession levels. In fact, many states—the largest source of education funding—are providing far fewer dollars per pupil than they were seven years ago. The budget “crisis” in Philadelphia, where PhilaSoup fills a need, may be more dramatic and complicated than most, but for the city’s teachers, the end result resembles that experienced by teachers in districts across the nation.

Because their schools are underfunded, America’s teachers have had to add fundraising to their long list of professional responsibilities. They can’t do much about some of the greatest damage done by budget cuts, such as smaller support staffs and larger class sizes. But in recent years teachers have stepped in, often despite salary freezes, to pull from their own pockets to pay for classroom materials and supplies, including pencils, paper, books, and other basics, even food for hungry students. In droves, they’ve used the internet to raise money for everything from shelving to iPads; America’s teachers have raised $329 million since 2000 via DonorsChoose alone.

In its coverage of PhilaSoup, Education Week explained that three dozen teachers spent two hours on a Sunday evening competing for four hundred dollars. Assuming each spent another hour preparing his or her pitch and traveling to and from the event, that’s 108 man-hours devoted to the task, valuing those teachers’ time at $3.70 an hour. Let’s consider how that time could have been better spent planning instruction, developing or grading assessments, and communicating with parents or—given that it was the weekend—devoting attention to their families and resting up to be their best selves in the classroom during the coming week.   

Raising money for schools shouldn’t be the job of teachers. It should be the job of our political leaders and government officials who invariably campaign on platforms of improving education. These leaders’ failure to lead—their failure to raise and allocate sufficient revenue to invest adequately in schools, their failure to finance some of their own education reform mandates, their failure to plan for and protect against economic swings, and their failure to establish systems to fund schools equitably—have put teachers in the position of scrambling for resources. Teachers are often remarkably successful at this extracurricular activity, but they shouldn’t have to be.

Colbert’s singular act is heroic; the ongoing work of DonorsChoose and PhilaSoup no less so. As a result of these and similar efforts, students in South Carolina, Philadelphia, and across the country will have access to books, technology, equipment, and supplies that their teachers know they very much need. And PhilaSoup doesn’t just facilitate funding; as Education Week pointed out, it has created a meaningful community of learners among teachers across a vast and fragmented district. If you can afford to support these groups, there’s no reason not to give them a call. But there’s good reason not to stop there. Call the governor’s office next—or maybe, call there first.

Anne Lutz Fernandez became a high school English teacher after a career on Wall Street.  She is the co-author of Schooled: Ordinary, Extraordinary Teaching in an Age of Change.