Thursday, September 30, 2010

"We have met the enemy...and he is us"

I truly want this quote to not be true. I want to believe that our poor education system is not the fault of those of us who work diligently with our children every day, but over the last week or two, I am beginning to wonder.

Waiting for Superman has stirred up all kinds of conversations around our educational system. The film has shown people that not all families and children have the same opportunities. It talks about the desperation of parents as they hope and pray that their child is chosen to attend a school that can offer their child a quality education. It speaks of and shows good classrooms and teachers, but it also recognizes that there are teachers and school systems who are failing our kids. The film talks a lot about charter schools that have done well, like KIPP Academy and Harlem Success Prep...schools that recognized children were failing and faltering and did something huge and immediate.

Yet, after the film was released...after Oprah did her segment...and after NBC has created the conversation about Education Nation, Twitter blew up each time with teachers screaming, "We're under attack!!"

First of all, no where has it said that all teachers are terrible. No where have I heard anyone say that a teacher's job isn't challenging. My conclusion is that these teachers who are screaming so loudly have never set foot in the schools I have been a part of...and I would bet money that they wouldn't put their child in a school like some of the ones I've been in. However, if they have been in those schools and still feel like defending all teachers, then yes, I think they should go, too.

I have never been a classroom teacher. I have after school programs. And just from the small number of kids with many different learning levels and different behavior needs, I truly respect a teacher who can engage the diversity of 25 students. I have seen teachers who do it. Some who win their kids over with kindness and some who show very tough love. They build relationships with the kids and their parents. They respect the kids and they respect the art of teaching. They go home every day and tirelessly work often until 10:00 at night grading papers, writing lesson plans, and trying to squeeze in some time to read about new ideas that can help them teach better. They have a love for the kids in their classroom and a desire to see all kids succeed. They deserve the highest honor and they are not compensated or acknowledged near enough...and no, the conversation shouldn't be that they should put more effort in. They are already doing that.

But we have to be real. The "bad" teachers create difficulties for the teachers who work so hard. Studies talk about kids who have three "bad" teacher are at a huge disadvantage. So after a few teachers haven't done a good job, the other teachers have to work even harder to pick up the slack. How is that an effective system??

So, what defines a "bad" teacher?

When I first started in the education side of our non-profit, I had (and took) a lot of time to volunteer in the schools so I would know how things worked. I spent many hours in a day at one school. I was there so often, I became a part of the school culture. No one changed their behavior because I walked through the hall. The little room where I tutored kids was a storage area behind a chain link fence in a little "loft" so I was able to hear what went on in other classrooms.

  • 4th grade classroom teacher-- "Stupid! If you were smart enough to bring your glasses, you would be able to see the board! Yes, move up here to the front so maybe you won't be so dumb."
  • 6th grade male teacher-- didn't speak Spanish, but had a classroom of bilingual students. Three boys made his life very difficult. They saw his trigger buttons and Spanish. After bursting out in a tirade (which I could hear from my area), he sometimes pushed them as if he were instigating a fight with them. I'm not sure why they never broke out into a punching match with him
  • 3rd grade teacher--talked on her cell phone during class. When a child didn't do well on their test or misbehaved, she called the child to the front of the class and called the parent in the middle of the classroom asking the parent to talk to her child about this or that behavior and handed the phone to the child in front of his/her peers
  • 2nd grade teacher--punished a child by making her sit beneath her desk for a couple of days. When parents got involved, the principal explained they really couldn't do anything. When I questioned the principal, she explained that it takes about 3 years to fire a teacher. (and that's *if* there's really good documentation)
  • pre-K teacher--as I sat in the hall waiting to tutor my next kindergartener, the pre-K class walked by in their straight line. They stopped in front of me to wait for their door to be opened by the teacher. Though I'm not sure what the little boy did, the teacher began slapping him back and forth on his shoulder in a flurry. When I took the information to the principal, his response: "Well, I've never had a complaint about her before and I've worked with her for 10 years." As far as I know, she was never even reprimanded.
  • 1st grade teacher--said her job was only from 7:00-3:00 and the principal was making her do more than she could get done. If they were going to do that, she was going to take it out of the time of her classroom. So, she sat at her desk grading papers while giving the kids busy-work to do during their "instructional" time. Sometimes, she would have me, a volunteer, work with small groups of kids so she could record grades or grade papers. She always left right at 3:00.
The first four scenarios were in one school during one school year. The last two scenarios were at another school during a different school year. I could give other the principal at a high school who tried to "let go" two teachers, one who was ineffective and one who was sleeping in the classroom, only to be told that the administrative office lost the paperwork so he had no documentation...and then the teachers sued for their jobs and are still working. I have others as well...but they are all second hand stories told to me by other teachers. Since they are not my personal experience, I won't bother sharing those.

I know the teachers have challenges. Even some of the scenarios I provided show that. However, it is our children who suffer.

Let's stop complaining about, "Teachers are being attacked," and, instead, talk about the real problems...getting resources...accessing technology...being forced to teach to the test instead of exposing kids to learning and systems that are too big...principals who can't or don't fire bad teachers...

Everyone is talking about privatization of schools and how that will destroy our schools. Though I do have some concerns about that, my question is, "Really?! Can it get any worse than 60% dropout rate?? Can we do any worse by our kids when many of them are graduating from high school with 2nd grade reading levels??" I don't know that Bill Gates, Cory Booker, Geoffrey Canada, and Mark Zuckerberg have all of the answers, but I'm willing to listen if they want to create the dialogue...and they have more pull than teachers to get things done (I know we don't want to hear it and it's not fair, but it's true).

The thing is, I've been in the inner city for 15 years. I have watched a generation of children get lost in a system that doesn't work. We don't have time for "with all deliberate speed..." I think we've ALL been waiting for superman...and at least some of us are waking up and figuring out that he isn't coming. We can't keep hoping and waiting for our school system to change. The kids and families in my community deserve better schools NOW. So what are we going to do?

I'm ready for the conversation. I'm ready for the battle. I'll fight for good teachers. I'm happy to look at quality public schools and quality charter schools (which *are* public, by the way) and let's figure out what is working. Let's figure out how the successful schools that are serving poor and minority children are doing it...because there are some that are. Let's do whatever it takes to create those same qualities--money, teachers, legislation, etc. in all schools.

Are you in??

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

CDM hosts Waiting for Superman screening

Click on the photo below to be able to read the invitation and go here ( to reserve your ticket.

Waiting for Superman...and believing in change

On Thursday, October 7, the Central Dallas Ministries public policy department will co-sponsor a showing of the Waiting for Superman documentary. Though we made the decision before all of the controversy, there is now a firestorm of strong opinions thrusting themselves into the media on both sides. It seems there really are no lukewarm voices.

I'll publicly admit that I was one of the major advocates pushing our public policy committee to show the film...and I am still strongly in favor of showing the film. I watched the Oprah segment and I must say, I was very impressed. No, she didn't have teachers on her panel...but she also didn't have parents. What she did have was socially conscious voices who are concerned about our children. See the film below:

What I truly appreciate is Guggenheim's willingness to recognize that he takes his own children past all of other other schools to ensure they receive a quality education. Because he can. And he recognizes that ALL children deserve the same quality of education that he is able to give his own children. His film forces us all to acknowledge that our education system is not fair and opportunistic for every child (believe it or not, some people don't know that)...and we need to change that.

I have read arguments that the cost of schools like Harlem Children's Zone and KIPP and other charters are exorbitant and not sustainable over time. To that I would say, if there is success there and that is what it takes, then we need to figure out how to make it sustainable! Why should we provide mediocre or less than mediocre education to all children because that's all we can (or are willing) to do??

I am not advocating for firing good teachers who have a bad day or two along the way. That doesn't make any sense...and I don't believe that is Michelle Rhee's purpose or mission either. I have taught teachers at the graduate level. I have had some plead with me not to "give" them a "C" because they've never received lower than an "A" (yet their final paper is filled with grammatical errors and shallow thoughts). In our After-School Academy, I have seen spelling lists our kids are supposed to practice laden with mis-spelled words...and I have challenged the school for the sake of the children in her class. I have seen teacher's "give" an 11th grade student a perfect 100% on a research paper that could have been written better by a 3rd grader. I am not saying that good teachers should be fired. I understand that we all start off at a place and continuously learn and improve. What I AM saying is that some people are not academically ready to be teachers and some teachers lower their expectations to the extent that it hurts our children. I do not want those teachers teaching my child.

I understand that the next thing a teacher will say to me is, "But the parents have to play a role." I completely agree. And I think we have to work on that as well. But I also understand that some parents do not have the academic background needed to help their children. I know parents who put their faith and trust in teachers and schools because they feel those are the people who have what they can't offer. No matter what a parent does or doesn't do does not justify a teacher to enter a classroom if they are inadequately trained or have lowered expectations of our children.

Believe me, I do understand this is NOT all teachers! For those who have entered the education field because they truly believe that children deserve the highest opportunity to succeed and are working 10-12 hour days making sure their students have new, innovative opportunities to learn and grow, THANK YOU! Keep pressing on...and I believe you do deserve a break and deserve to be compensated and you shouldn't be expected to be super-human just because you have chosen to enter a field that is often valued less than it should be.

Fifteen years ago, when the charter school movement had just gotten started here in Texas, I thought about starting my own charter school. After toying with the idea for a little while, I couldn't bring myself to pursue the idea. I grew up in public school and I believe in the concept. I wanted to do what I could do help make public schools better. I still do. However, in the meantime, too many of my kids are falling through the cracks. The large majority of my kids who go off to college have to take remedial/developmental classes. When I assess a pretty bright 11th grader and find out she is at a 2nd grade reading level, my heart drops. I believe in public education, but something has got to change...FAST.

"With all deliberate speed..." in 1954 comes to mind. This isn't a new problem and nothing seems to be changing in a way that seems to be closing the gap for so many children and families who want to see a better life but are stuck in school systems that are overburdened systems too difficult to change.

Yes, charter schools probably attract more parents who take the initiative to get their children in. People with money have been leaving public schools for years. Poor parents who want something better for their children deserve that same opportunity...and make that quality available for everyone! And I would argue that even "unengaged" parents are being engaged when they are standing up to say, "My child deserves better!"

To me, opening this discussion may be exactly what we need to challenge everyone to start thinking about our children and working toward dramatic changes to an agrarian public school system that desperately needs dramatic changes.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Leaders who believe in our kids...

O.M. Roberts Elementary is the school in my neighborhood. I volunteered there on a daily basis when I first moved into the community. At that time, the principal changed about every year and was a low-performing school year after year.

A few weeks ago, all of Central Dallas Ministries' Americorps members came together for a service day. One of the Americorps members who works in our Education Department was inspired by the commitment of the principal at O.M. Roberts and pulled out her camera to create this video.

I was very encouraged to hear Mrs. Ortiz, the principal in my community, talk about how much she believes in and has hope for the children at her school. I love that she thinks about, plans for, and prepares her teachers to send the elementary kids on a path to college. I'm grateful for leaders like her who commit to stay for the long haul.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Being a person of faith in a Christian nation


Why does my faith challenge me so much?

Is it because crazy people like Terry Jones use Christianity as a shield to schedule things like a Quran burning? Is it because Christians feel it is their obligatory duty to evangelize people and often make assumptions about what people do and don’t believe and how they should and shouldn’t profess and demonstrate that belief? Is it because the financially better off Christians often seem to want to help the poor, but don’t want to live next to them or be a part of their every day lives? Is it because people who claim Christianity feel it is ok to make disparaging comments about people?

I guess if I were Muslim my faith might be challenged in the same way. I would wonder why the extremists have to kill and I would be angry at the ones who take the Quran and use it to abuse women. I suppose that every religious sect has sections of people who seem to distort and then justify their message.  I also guess I have to realize that we are all flawed.

Some recent events have caused me to think about what and how I believe.

Eat Pray Love (the book...not the movie) caused me to reflect on my own internal faith--what I believe when no one else is watching. Realizations: Faith is my own spiritual journey. When I focus on myself, it radiates out. Not through evangelism or piety, but in how I interact with others. Faith is internal that results in horizontal relationships with people and a vertical relationship with my God. My hope would be that my horizontal relationships and interactions with people would cause others to seek to create these as well…which would cause them to begin to find their own vertical relationship with God or, if they already have a relationship, they would reflect and continue to seek to improve. Eat Pray Love helped reinforce the conclusion I was already moving toward. It’s not about my evangelism. It’s about changing myself from the inside out.

This morning, I finished A Lesson Before Dying (by Ernest Gaines). Toward the end of the book, I found myself reading quicker, wanting to figure out what the “lesson” was going to be. Mr. Grant Wiggins seemed to have faith struggles much like my own. He had stopped going to church. The preacher, his aunt, and the other ladies in the community constantly raised their eyebrows and shook their head, yet never thought to seek an understanding of what he did believe. Their judgment didn’t make him desire to go to church, but reinforced his decision not to. The irony of this was that Mr. Wiggins had a better ability to create a horizontal relationship with other "unbelievers"...the ones the preacher and the church-goers desperately wanted to "save." 

Alternately, though the book reinforced my belief that “church people” can often be over-bearing to the point of turning people away from Christianity, it also challenged my thoughts of why we all need to be grounded in faith. Our faith is often not about us. Our faith is often conciliation. Sometimes we demonstrate our faith by doing conciliatory things for others...and sometimes that means portraying faith in a way that helps them feel comfortable.

In our world today, it also has other implications. Our conciliatory nature can be to accept and allow Muslims to build a mosque at ground zero...because conciliation doesn’t mean expecting others to make the compromise. It means that we (because of our faith) make the effort. It doesn't matter how others respond and whether they do something for us in return. Christianity...and many other faith about what we we respond to situations more so than church attendance. Church and prayer is what keeps us focused on how we're doing and what we still need to work on.

Faith reminds me of integrity…what I do and how I act when no one else is looking. Every day I have new things to work on.