Sunday, September 24, 2017

HOW TO BE HEARD -- or Reading is Complicated When You Make Connections

I am intrigued when a book reconnects me to favorite activists, to my own writing, and to concerns I’ve struggled with for most of my career. Celine Coggins is founder and former CEO of Teach Plus – more about them later. Her book, How To Be Heard: 10 Lessons Teacher Need to Advocate for their Students and Profession is that book. My National Board trainer, brilliant advocate, Nancy Flanagan, and my online friend, Doug Martin, author of a cautionary tale about education in my home state of Indiana, have prior experience with Coggins’ work. Their insights put Coggins' book into context for me, and expand my understanding well beyond these pages.

The ‘big idea’ that brings all this together in my eclectic mind is teacher leadership. Nancy has written often and well about teacher leadership sometimes being nothing but cleverly-constructed ‘teacher management’ – using the name and credibility of a respected educator to promote others’ agenda (Notice the fact that Nancy refers to Coggins in her post).  She points it out, and she challenges the concept thoughtfully and reflectively.  Her piece inspired me to think about the ways I’ve been managed in the past.

I was drawn to the book because I know I need to become a better advocate for schools and students and families…I’m missing the boat somehow. When I visit with legislators one-on-one I ask them for advice about advocating, and I get advice like, build relationships, bring your passion, focus on issues not personalities. OK…I can do that. I’m a teacher. But there’s got to be more.

How to be Heard has a kernel of what I’m searching for. Educators and legislators use the same words, but mean something completely different, and we must recognize that fact, and use it. “Equity” for teachers is making sure every student has an opportunity to thrive in our classrooms, and in our schools. For policy makers, it means systems are in place that might close the achievement gap; it means improving teacher quality in some measurable way (read test scores).

When we use “students” or “kids”, we can conjure up a sea of individual faces, our kids. Our classes. We are advocating for those students. Policy makers, because their sphere of influence is so much larger, these same words have an abstract, generic meaning. Their “kids” are all the students in the state, or in their district. Educators who advocate should be aware of that shift of meaning, and know it goes with the territory.

Coggins also analyzes other language differences between educators and legislators – our knowledge base (content, management, development vs. research on systems, rules of education policy), our influences (direct vs. indirect), the process we focus our attention on (inputs vs. outcomes), levers for change (relationships vs. legislation), our vision of professional success (impacting lives vs. re-election), and the pressures we encounter (scarcity of time, factors outside our classroom, and the needs of our students, vs. resource scarcity, a desire to measure accountability, and that equity I described above). Teachers are practitioners; policy makers are social scientists and researchers.
This, I think, is the piece that was new learning for me…and important for me to think about as I work with legislators.

When we understand policy makers’ concern with scarce resources, we understand how teacher salaries seems to be the most useful variable in forcing change. In any district’s budget, teacher salaries make up the majority of dollars spent. That is why we’ve seen such a push to do away with the traditional teacher salary schedules, to add schemes to pay teachers for high student test scores. Legislators are tinkering with the largest lever they have.

One more part of Coggins’ message I will enfold into my advocacy is the idea of coming with solutions. I need to come to conversations with ideas, a ‘third’ way to help solve the issues and problems facing education policy makers. Have ideas, not just “No”. I often enter the process after the legislation has been written, too late to have influence. I feel like I’m always behind the curve. I need to be involved earlier in the process. I need to bring education research to conversations to help craft legislation, not use the research after the bills are presented to show how bad they are. Easier said…

Coggins' ideas of advocating from a position of limited power,  a position when I am building power are useful: learn patience, help find that new plan, meet one-on-one, be creative, write and research, build coalitions. As I look at that list of actions, I see the work that teachers do every day. We are the experts, and we have the skills to reach out to influence policy. We need to remember this.

One of Coggins’ ten rules is this: “Accountability is inescapable.” I agree, and support that…but part ways with her when she says testing will always be a part of accountability, even as she admits that testing is broken. She suggests educators help policy makers make ‘better’ tests…I need her to spend more time talking about broken tests, and broken accountability based on broken tests. She fully supports the idea that achievement tests measure learning, a typical policy-maker stance. 

She believes teachers should be evaluated on student test scores, on value-added measures. She believes that incentive pay should be based on student test scores. She believes that student attendance should be used in accountability measures for schools. She believes teachers associations should be challenged, and sees her work as the catalyst. She seems to side with disruptions that seem to benefit education reformers.

Her examples of how her teacher leaders have participated in policy making gave me that twitch between my shoulder blades that I always feel when I’m being managed. It seemed like her teacher leaders came to the conclusions policy makers is it leadership? Or managed teachers?
Her vision of ‘teacher leadership’ really seems to be that managed leadership Nancy talked about. It’s ‘we have the good ideas, and when you come onboard, we’ll let you talk about these great ideas. We’ll use your reputation and your credibility to sell our idea.’

Here is where my friend Doug’s work comes in – here, and here linking Coggins’ work with Bill Gates. Her stances are suspiciously similar to Gates' goals for disruptive reform. Doug’s book Hoosier School Heist is one of the most important books I’ve read about how ideological school reform can affect our students. She and her ‘teacher leaders’ used Gates money to write legislation that changed teacher employment practices in Indiana.

In my mine, she is a managed teacher herself. She’s bought into reformers’ narratives about schools and teachers. Her work at Teach Plus seems to be focused on creating more managed teacher leaders who will go out and preach her message, funded by Bill Gates’ grants.  Go back to that list of her beliefs, and connect the dots with Gates money.

She begins and ends her book with the power of stories…and this is where we both are on the same page. Her first rule is ‘Advocacy begins with your WHY,’ without crediting Simon Sinek’s book,  Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.  In my work with teachers, I will ask them to begin here…and, I’d love to ask policy makers their WHY. This could build those relationships educators need to be successful advocates.  Her tenth lesson is, “Your story has to meet the moment,” and she includes tips about creating your story, and using it to build your credibility. So, we agree about stories’ power.

We also agree with her ninth lesson, but my point of view is much more cynical. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” I can’t help but think she’s carefully grooming her teacher leaders to be at the table as the entrĂ©e. That they’ll agree with and support policy makers’ views without challenging. I don’t want to be at the table in this scenario.

Bottom line? I’m still looking for a book that will show me how to take my reputation and my credibility to the table and hold on tightly to them both, and not relinquish them as the price of admission. Does anyone have some ideas?

Thursday, September 21, 2017

"How to Talk to Your Legislator": Guest blog by Brendan Jarvis

I often brag about having smart friends, because it's true. My friend Brendan was posting a series of pieces on FaceBook about how to talk to legislators, and how to answer some of their favorite attacks on public schools. I begged him to combine them all into one post that I could publish for us all to share.
In OK, we are going into a special session next week, supposedly to find new revenue to fund our state, and to fund teacher raises. That may or may not happen. But, if you find yourself visiting with a policy maker, and they fall into any of these conversations, Brendan has supplied your non-confrontational, professional, fact-filled responses. I thank Brendan, and you should, too! BTW -- lobbying photos are with very friendly legislators would NEVER talk to constituents like Brendan's fictional one.

"You are a teacher.  You are embarrassed that your friend from overseas shared an article with you about Oklahoma, your home state, refusing to fund core services such as education and health care.  You have seen teachers in your school quit teaching when they had babies because their salary does not justify paying for day care so they might as well stay home.  You have seen teachers leave for other professions and other states.  You have been encouraged to speak to your legislators about the problem, but are not sure how.  You decide to try, and make an appointment to talk to the elected state representative from your district.

You:  I would like to talk to you about the education funding problem in Oklahoma.

Legislator: Funding to Oklahoma schools had actually increased.

You:  That includes federal dollars for federal programs and cannot be used for teacher salaries and textbooks. It is your job to fund those things.  Funding is lower per pupil than it was in 2008.

Legislator: Education accounts for more than half of state government spending. You: That is because you have cut so many government services that education is the biggest piece in a smaller pie even after cuts. Districts don't meet payroll with percentages, they need more dollars.

Legislator: Your district seems to be doing fine, look at your athletic facilities.

You: Facilities are funded with local bond money; our community decides to invest in our kids in an election every year.

Senator JJ Dossett
Legislator: Look at all the free meals you provide.

You: That money comes from the federal government. Our nation decided that kids should not go hungry at school many years ago.

Legislator: So why don't you just pay teachers more?

You: Most of the money that goes to teacher pay is allocated by the state legislature. That funding has been cut by over $48 million while enrollment has gone up by 8,000 students.

Legislator: The funding formula is so complicated. How are we supposed to fix education funding when nobody understands how it works?

You: You don't have to know exactly how an engine works to know that you have to put gas in it.

Legislator: So why don't we just make it so local districts can use bond money to pay teachers?

You: Well, that would cause several problems. First, it would cause further inequities between districts who benefit from high property values and those that don't, and make it even more difficult for many districts to retain teachers. Second, it would place a further tax burden on homeowners and renters by raising their housing costs, and would force people to weigh their household budget against the education of their children.

Legislator:  Administration wastes the money we give schools to line their own pockets.

You:  There is already a law concerning administration costs.  It caps the amount that can be used for that purpose.  In fact, at under 3.6%, administrative costs are lower state-wide than what is legally required.  Of course there may be individual examples of waste in districts.  That is a local school  board issue and can be dealt with at that level, in keeping with the conservative principals of local control and limited government.  As a legislator, you should be most concerned with the overall numbers.

Legislator:  We have too many school districts.  If we force rural districts to consolidate, we will have fewer superintendents and we can pay for teacher raises.

You:  Again, administrative costs are only at 3.6%.  Consolidation will not save much if anything and will give people false hope the way the lottery did.  In ten years, people will be saying, “wasn’t consolidation supposed to fix this?”   You do bring up a good argument against charter schools, though.

Legislator:  Schools need to be run more efficiently.   We the legislature will audit and oversee the administration of schools.

You:  You mean the same legislature that has been featured in state, national, and international news for its lack of problem solving skills?  No thanks, I would rather have communities control who runs their local schools.   Again, that’s good argument against vouchers/ESA’s, as they lack accountability measures for the schools receiving funds.

Legislator: Then how are neighboring states managing to pay teachers more than we do?

You: They have a higher Gross Production Tax on oil wells and/or higher state income tax. There are other revenue measures involved as well.

Newly-sworn-in Rep. Karen Gaddis
Legislator: So you are saying it's on me?

You: Yes

Legislator: If we raise the GPT, oil companies will leave the state. You: Oil companies are beholden to their shareholders. As long as there is oil here, they will drill it, and we have the SCOOP and STACK plays that are booming right now.

Legislator:   What are you doing in my office anyway?  If you care about your students, shouldn’t you be in class or working on lesson plans?  You shouldn’t be advocating for an increase in your own pay.

You:  I am here because I care about students, and want them to have the best education and teachers possible, and you are one of the people who has control over that.   I’m for a teacher raise because it helps the state retain good teachers, not out of self-interest other than the fact that I want to be able to do the job that I love in the place that I love, and it is currently difficult to do.

Legislator:  You are just listening to that liberal teachers’ union.  They are just dang liberal liberals.

You:  The Oklahoma Education Association includes teachers from all political perspectives, and focuses on education policy, on which there is more and more common ground.   They work with legislators from both sides of the aisle, but certainly wouldn’t support a legislator who bashes teachers and does not support funding.  That would be dumb.  Besides, many groups other than OEA are supporting teacher raises, including a group that represents oil and gas producers.  They all represent both Republicans and Democrats. 

Legislator:  I saw in the paper that a teacher did a really awful thing.  Should we be giving teachers raises when they are doing stuff like that?

You:  So every person in a given occupation should be judged by the actions of a few?   Let’s talk about Ralph Shor…

Legislator: Never mind

Legislator: It is clear that I should vote to return to the rates of GPT and the top bracket of state income tax that existed before we cut them. That would help us retain teachers and not put the burden entirely on families or other groups that can less afford taxes. I'm going to go do that right now.

You wake up elated, and then disappointed that it was only a dream.  You should have known because it went a little too well.  You know it won’t go that well in real life, but you know what to say, and you have every right to say it."

Brendan Jarvis is in his 14th year of teaching at Union Public Schools in Tulsa and his 20th year over all.  He began his first term on the Oklahoma Education Association Board of Directors representing Tulsa Metro Zone D this past summer.  His children attend Union Schools and are members of the Renegade Regiment marching band.  He is a proud Union teacher and a proud union teacher.    


Saturday, September 9, 2017

Outside Money Funds Attacks on #oklaed

We saw it through the last election cycle: American Federation for Children, a foundation devoted to private school 'choice' in the form of vouchers, and its local affiliate, Oklahoma Federation for Children funneled almost $200,000 into legislative races in Oklahoma, specifically targeting our Teacher Caucus, educators and family members who risked everything to contribute to a new conversation about education and funding in our state. I wrote about it last year, and I truly hoped we'd seen the last of Betsy DeVos's meddling in our state.

Alas, I was incorrect. OFC, funded directly by AFC, congratulated Darin Chambers, Republican candidate for HD46 on his primary win, aided in part by their attacks on his opponents.

This is MY House district, and these last days of the campaign (VOTE on Tuesday, September 12), OFC has sent attack ads to our mailboxes, defaming MY candidate, Jacob Rosecrants. It's a tactic they employed in the primary against his Republican opponents, and, frankly, we knew it was coming. Time-worn strategy:smear the opponent with too little time for them to mount a rebuttal, and do it with dark money so the candidate can feign shock and surprise, while reaping the advantage of the attacks.

The flyers are clear that they have not been "approved" by the candidate, giving Mr. Chambers the gloss of deniability. But, there is no denying the fact he's relying on out-of-state from a group that has vouchers as its prime directive. They will want votes from him. Even if he hasn't 'approved' the attack flyers, we know there will be a reckoning...and it will involve his votes. I, for one, do not want MY Representative to pay AFC and OFC back for their support with votes for vouchers when our schools are not fully funded.

Disclaimer: Jacob Rosecrants is my friend. He was my student. I've literally watched him grow up, grow as an educator and as an advocate. These attacks are ones I take personally for my student and friend. But, I'm trying to follow the positive example of Jacob's campaign, and trying to tamp down my outrage and hyperbole.

Rage amplified by the fact that a Norman Public Schools Board Member is featured prominently on Chambers' campaign literature as a supporter. Yes, a Board member of a PUBLIC school district, one of the best in the state, is supporting a candidate funded by a group who pushes private school vouchers over public schools. "Disturbed" is the politically-correct term for my emotions.

We must fight for OUR schools, OUR students...and Jacob is the only choice for HD46. We must tell DeVos and her foundations that they are not welcome in #oklaed. Jacob has been supported by legions of neighbors, knocking doors, making calls, hand-writing postcards. Volunteers have streamed down from Edmond every weekend. We know what's at stake and we're committed to Jacob's positive message.

In case you think I'm the only one incensed over this dark money trick, my friend Alison McCormick Petrone described the situation well. I am using her words with her permission:

"American Federation for Children is a voucher peddling SuperPac with chapters in every state attacking Public Ed. They have endorsed Darin Chambers because he believes in vouchers and charters, and created a smear campaign of a dedicated and talented local public school teacher in an attempt to seat another voucher-pushing corporate Private Ed state representative. 
"Public Ed is truly under attack in Oklahoma. This cannot be stated any more clearly. The groups want all of our children to go to corporate, for-profit schools. These D.C. SuperPacs they have created to push their agenda may have bottomless cash bags, but we will not be intimidated by their money and lies because our children deserve a quality public education by birthright as Americans.

"Vote for Jacob Rosecrants! Get out and volunteer for Jacob. Make calls from the Hilton meeting room today through Tues. Get people out to the polls.
"This isn't about Democrat vs Republican. This is about our kids."

I've sent the following to our local paper as a letter to the editor. But, knowing the election is Tuesday, and my letter may not make it into print, I'm sharing it here. So, on the great chance I've missed the deadline to have my letter printed, here it is to be shared.

"There have been some ugly flyers dropped in HD46’s mailboxes, full of innuendo and downright attacks against candidate Jacob Rosecrants. I’ve known Jacob since he was my student in English 1 and English 2 at Central Mid High. I watched him as a student, always with a smile on his face. I watched him create friendships with his classmates, reaching out to everyone, being inclusive and positive. You were never a stranger when Jacob was in the room.

 I watched him decide to become a teacher and those same gifts I saw in the fourteen-year-old Jacob helped him forge climates in his classroom of mutual respect and acceptance. He has taught in some tough schools in OKCPS, and he has thrived.

I saw him show an interest in fighting the school reforms that were damaging his classroom. He educated himself on the issues and found his voice.  As a social studies teacher who takes his role seriously, he began to speak out, to advocate for his students and their families.

Some of the volunteers Saturday morning! 4 Central Mid High folks!
I saw him begin to take an interest in politics, attending meetings, joining party groups, speaking up and speaking out. I’ve seen him educate himself on other issues that voters in our district care deeply about. Jacob has built a grass-roots campaign with volunteers who believe in his message of inclusion, public schools, health care, and adequate funding of schools and other core services. He ran a positive campaign against Representative Scott Martin, learned valuable lessons, and was ready to run again. He has prepared himself to lead.

How ironic that an out-of-state group who works against public schools is now financing the attack ads in our mailboxes. US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos is someone we should trust with our public schools. But she has a long history of favoring privatizing our schools, giving vouchers to private school families, at the expense of public school students and their families. The Oklahoma branch of Ms. DeVos’s foundation, Oklahoma Federation for Children funded attack ads against several of the “Teacher Caucus” candidates in the last election, using their out-of-state funds to blanket districts with what we are now seeing in our district. Vouchers and privatizing schools are their core issues. In the last election cycle, OFC spent $190,000 to attack Teacher Caucus candidates, $180,000 of which came from the National Federation for Children (Oklahoma Watch 1/10/17).

 While we must wonder about the independence of a candidate who would accept assistance from OFC and NFC, we will never doubt Jacob’s support of public schools and adequate funding for our core services.  

Jacob is the independent voice for all of HD46."