Time keeps on slipping

A lot of us wondered, between canvassing and phone-banking and trying to get people out to the polls, where the national Democrats were in this recall process. Many of us remembered a speech President Obama gave in 2007, promising to walk the picket lines on the day that collective bargaining rights were taken away.

Well, we didn’t have picket lines. And we certainly didn’t have Presidential support.

I didn’t grumble about this too much. After all, it is an election year, and Obama’s on the campaign trail. Now is probably not the best time for a candidate to get involved in messy, complicated state issues. I get that.

Just don’t tell us that you didn’t show up to support Barrett because “The truth of the matter is that as POTUS, I’ve got a lot of responsibilities.” We all have a lot of responsibilities. We all have to prioritize them. I would rather have spent February and March of last year indoors, working and getting lunch with friends and spending time with my family. But instead, I spent that time outdoors in the cold and freezing rain, because someone needed to protest and so for a time I set aside my other responsibilities and became that person. I know lots of people with young children, or disabilities, or who work longer hours than I do, who made it out as well.

I understand why President Obama showed up in no meaningful way and said nothing of import about what was happening here. Maybe that doesn’t matter, given his Department of Education’s failure to do right by the students and teachers in this country. While it would have been morale-boosting to think that someone outside of Wisconsin cared about what was happening inside Wisconsin, most of the time I’m not sure people outside of Wisconsin know where Wisconsin is, exactly. I didn’t expect a whole lot.

I also understand, though, that time had nothing to do with it.

So if you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of people who made time to stand up for what you believed in over this past year, congratulate yourself! You deserve it.

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High-stakes, low-stakes, no-stakes: The testing dilemma

Standardized testWisconsin, like most other states in the nation, is moving towards a teacher evaluation
system based heavily on student test scores. As has been discussed over and over, this is
problematic from both a mathematical and values-oriented standpoint. In other words: judging teachers based on their students’ test scores doesn’t work, and even if it did work, it wouldn’t be the right way to go about things.

This kind of testing, in which the results weigh heavily on the students and/or teachers, is generally described as high-stakes. Another kind of standardized testing, in which the results only matter somewhat for teachers and students, is commonly referred to as low-stakes. On the scale of testing, this is better. It holds teachers and students collaboratively rather than competitively accountable for student outcomes, and uses test scores to guide things like professional development and budget allocation.

But both high- and low-stakes testing are looking at the wrong things. They’re using data from the past to determine action for the future. In the meantime, students are lost in the shuffle. The tests don’t add anything meaningful to what students are learning now. If you learn that your third-graders can’t read, and then pump lots of money into third-grade reading, you’re reacting too late. You’ve already lost kids.

This is why I’m intrigued by the idea of no-stakes testing. No-stakes testing avoids the anxiety and stress of tests, the artificiality of what is tested, and the long lag times between when information is learned and when it is recalled. In Annie Murphy Paul’s words:

Although we often conceive of memory as something like a storage tank, and a test as a kind of dipstick that measures how much information is inside, that’s not actually how the brain works. Every time we pull up a memory, we make it stronger and more lasting — so that testing doesn’t just measure what students know, it changes what they know. Reading over material to be learned, taking notes, even engaging in teacher-favored techniques like concept-mapping: none of these practices are as effective as testing at improving retention.

These are things like the peer-corrected spelling tests many of us took in elementary school, the ones that asked us to remember lieutenant and beautiful and prairie and nougat. The landscape was dotted with spelling tests that factored into a grade, but by that time, we had spelled lieutenant twice with a W and once with two Is and had finally mastered and internalized the knowledge. It’s important to be both wrong and right a few times along the way. There are still words I can’t spell on demand, but know immediately when I write my two mental options.

No-stakes testing is a branch of formative testing, or testing that tells us what students are learning as they’re learning it, rather than, say, what they’ve learned in the first two months of school in May.

Have no fear: I’m not suggesting that students ought to be tested nearly as often as the article on no-stakes testing suggests. I’m not even sure that it’s a good idea. Perhaps opening the door to any standardized test means you get them all, good and bad. But it’s something to think about as we move forward. How do we tease what’s useful or well-advised out of policy that is overall swill?

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Moving on

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated here. A lot has happened in the meantime. I’m sure all of you have heard about it.

I won’t pretend like yesterday was a great time. I’m deeply disappointed to be told in such stark terms that over a million of my fellow Wisconsinites lack empathy for teachers or women or the LGBT community or minorities or any other group that will suffer as a result of Walker’s re-election. I’m disappointed that the Wisconsin State Journal (publisher of many a problematic, value-laden headline) chose to describe this as a “reaffirmation” of Walker’s popular appeal. If this election affirms anything, it is that people have been deeply divided by the whole thing, in ways that will be slow to heal.

But we need to heal. We need to move forward, and resist in different ways. Right now, that might mean looking to Chicago, where the CTU is right now voting on a strike authorization. We can certainly draw on eloquent readings like this one: Hey, you know, it sucks. But we’ll live. We make them fight to hold position. That’s something. We did something, and we did it well. We made new allies, and we’re stronger for having been through this fire.

Today, it was beautiful outside. As I walked past the Capitol Building, the Solidarity Sing Along was in full swing. It’s tempting to be devastated, but there are roses blooming. They’ve bloomed twice since this started. They’ll bloom again next year. And the one after that.

So will we.

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A new opportunity to ask Arne

An opportunity, that is, if you don’t happen to work on Friday mornings.

Arne Duncan will be embarking on an education bus tour through the midwest, stopping in Milwaukee on Friday, September 9 for a visit to the Milwaukee School of Career and Technical Education and a town hall.  U.S. Sens. Herb Kohl and Ron Johnson, State Superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction Tony Evers, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Milwaukee Superintendent Gregory Thornton will be joining him for the duration of his visit and town hall.  There is no information yet about the time of the town hall, who is invited, or how long Duncan will be taking questions, but as he’s scheduled to visit another school in Chicago that same afternoon, my guess is that he will not be in Milwaukee after noon.

Once again, Duncan has chosen a time to “hear the public” that leaves most stakeholders–like teachers with jobs that require them to work during the day–unable to attend.  Like the Twitter Town Hall that occurred during the middle of a work day, this town hall allows Duncan and his press secretaries to control the audience, manage who can appear and ask questions, and leave teachers entirely out of the process.  He could easily have held this town hall in the evening, or gone on the bus tour two weeks ago, but did neither, which is telling.

If the leaders of this country’s education system do not have time to sit down and listen to teachers, we should make sure they at least know we’re here.  I encourage you to take a few minutes and write Mr. Duncan at:

U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20202

Alternatively, you can contact the press office at (202) 401-1576, or press@ed.gov.

Don’t make do with silence.  Make some noise.

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Simple acts of kindness

Today in Milwaukee, many teachers arrived at school to find something unexpected waiting for them.  For once, it wasn’t bad news.  Instead, it was a gift box, courtesy of Penzey’s Spices, with two jars of spices, a recipe pamphlet, and a supportive bumper sticker.  One of the spice blends is aptly named Forward!, reminding us of our proud state history and reassuring us that there is always hope for the future.

In an age when teachers have been scapegoated, ruthlessly mocked and jeered at every turn, and told that they must do more and more with less and less, this simple act by a local company is humbling in its kindness.  In this day of neighbor against neighbor, one of us has chosen to rise above the fray in a moment of class and grace.

So thank you, Penzey’s owners and employees, both for the gift and for the opportunity to step back from the fight.  I’m sure you’ll see many of us in your stores soon, and in the meantime, you have helped ensure a great first day back to school.

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New Berlin, a Brave New World?

I have just been given the outline of a new handbook governing New Berlin teacher hours, compensation, and yes, coffee machines that as of tonight, August 29, replaces the contract negotiated in good faith with New Berlin Public School Teachers.  I have no substantial commentary.  I feel too sick.  I have no doubt that New Berlin Public School teachers feel sicker.  This seems to be the worst that a school district can do with Scott Walker’s budget repair bill: it’s petty, demeaning, and punitive.  I reproduce it in full below.

Dear Staff-

Elections have consequences. The changes forced on us by Walker’s new laws appear to be but the tip of the iceberg. Below, I have outlined what the NBEA was told is contained in draft version of a new handbook meant to replace our legally binding contract. It was shared on a Smartboard with school leadership teams. This was not a collaborative effort, but presented as a completed draft. Leadership teams asked for clarification on items and were told there may be changes.

Please plan on attending the August 29’h School Board Meeting at New Berlin West meeting at 6:30 to impress upon the board the need for moderation and to ask they work with the union on this handbook. It is only through our solidarity that we can let the Board know we object to the punitive terms listed below. You do not need to speak unless you desire to do so; the NBEA will be speaking on your behalf. Do not let the BOE pass this quickly one day prior to the first day of school. We are asking that all teachers (and supportive family and friends) attend and be present at 6:30 PM in the parking lot west of the New Berlin West library to walk in together. Please wear Red. We will leave directly after the speakers are done and the regular meeting begins (approximately 7:30 PM). For those who plan on speaking, please email me- themes and issues you would like to raise.

More Time; Less Pay:

  • Workdays for elementary will increase by 60 minutes and Secondary by 30 minutes
  • Staff must be available to students before and after student schedules for at least 30 minutes per day
  • You can be required to work an additional unpaid 15 hours; no more than 3 hours a week
  • No set pay for overtime; only stipends
  • No pay for subbing during your preps; Principals can assign you to sub
  • Certified staff hours are 1520 per year full time (190 days for this year only)
  • The 2012-13 school year starts on August 15’h and runs until June 15’h
  • You may be required to start as early as 6:15 AM and end as late as 5:00 PM
  • No pay for any attendance at IEPs prior to 5:00 PM
  • You may be required to attend inservice or other training, outside your regular work schedule
  • Next year, if we do not change the political landscape, pay will be based on performance; pay is insured this year because of the NBEA agreement.



  • Full details not be revealed until September 8th; changes occur October 1
  • Possible 80/20 plan and we pay additional premium if the cost of insurance rises
  • $4,000 deductible with a $10 generic/ $50 brand drug cost
  • The deductible can be reduced by $3,000 if employee and spouse fully participate in the Wellness Program
  • Full participation in wellness program: health risk assessment, including biometrics, refrain from use of illegal drugs, participate in program to reduce risk factors, coaching, diet, behavior, follow up medical care, smoking cessation. 1st year: participate, 2nd year: have to take classes to reduce risk factors.
  •  False reporting, such as claiming you do not smoke when you do, can result in dismissal.
  • Other details, such as increased co-pays TBD


  • $15,000 payout and age 55 retirement has been eliminated
  • Retire by 2016 at age 57 with 20 years at New Berlin, receive insurance until age 65
  • Retire by 2021 at 57 with 20 years, receive 3 years of insurance
  • Retire after 2021 no benefit packages given.
  • 5.8% of your salary will be deducted for state retirement benefits (pension system)

The Ridiculous, Punitive New Rules:

  • You are not allowed to drop any licensure without the superintendent’s approval
  • Dress Code: Skirts below knee, no sweatshirts, no jeans, no large logos, no open shirts, etc.
  • Be dismissed for having students as friends on Facebook
  • Grievance: only in termination, discipline or alleged workplace safety issues; you cannot grieve non discipline issues are the items listed under non discipline items such as suspension, letters in file, plans of improvement, etc.
  • Jury Duty: regular pay, but you must show documentation to the district that you’ve tried to change the jury duty time to July and August
  • School calendar same, teacher convention will be professional development for this year only since it is part of the NBEA working agreement for this year.
  • Evaluations: Done yearly without notice
  • Collaborative time twice weekly for 2 hours a week.
  • You must report all traffic incidents (except speeding) or any tickets you have received to the District within 3 days or face dismissal even if it occurs during your time off
  • Take away all microwaves, refrigerators, and coffeemakers, even though each administrator and the District have these items.

Sick Days or Leave:

  • 4 initial days and earn l!I day per month based on good attendance
  • However those who have accumulated over 45 days will not be awarded any days until they have used enough days to fall below the 45 day cap.
  • Long term disability reduced from 90% of pay to 60% of pay. If ill or have had surgery and do not have any sick time built up, you will be short pay. You will also have to pay your insurance premium during any disability leave.
  • No days will be added to sick bank, which will be discontinued after this year, erasing any safety net for those who become critically ill.

Want to Leave? Well, they are not letting us go without penalties: 

  • Resign before first day of school, you must pay $200 plus board contributions of benefits (insurance).
  • Resigns after the first day school, $2000 plus benefits payments if not 60 days notice given
  • Compensation: -5taff will be issued a contract for pay not less than the amount of their pay in the year before the effective date of this handbook. Please report any effort to ask you to sign any additional “individual teaching contracts” unless they are co-curricular)
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Problems with “the problem”

In recent months, I’ve heard a lot of people say things along the lines of, Teachers aren’t the problem; poverty is the problem, or If we only tested the richest students in America, they would score just as high as students in the [mythical land of] Finland.

I believe it.  I attended public schools in a large urban school district.  In the richer parts of town, the schools were beautiful old brick buildings with playgrounds.  The students from these wealthy schools won science fairs and math competitions and writing contests.  They went on field trips to study the ocean or to learn about early settlers or to see Civil War battlefields.  Their classrooms were heated and air conditioned; their clocks and PA systems worked.  It’s surprising what you could take for granted in those schools.

In the poorest parts of town, the schools looked and felt like prisons.  Once you walked in past the sturdy fences and through the metal detectors, you found yourself in dim hallways leading to classrooms whose windows had been nailed shut, barred, and often broken.  In the winter, teachers tried to tape cardboard and plastic over the shattered glass, but students had to wear their coats anyway.  In the summer, the windows would not open to let in the faintest of breezes.  The desks creaked and rocked; the maps on the walls predated the breakup of the USSR.

You don’t have to take my word for it–just read any one of Jonathan Kozol’s books on the subject.

So I have no doubt that poverty is indeed the problem.  But are schools capable of changing the facts of poverty?  If so, why is the problem getting worse?

If schools aren’t able to change poverty, then what can they do?  What are they for?

It’s important not to use the immensity of poverty as a distraction from what schools can accomplish.  The public school can be an effective site for change precisely because it is not immense.  It is not national or even state-wide.  It belongs to a community–a fairly small community–and as such has the power to work within that community.  It’s possible to achieve great things in high-poverty schools.  But I think we as individual communities need to decide what those great things are and how we will assess whether they work.

Maybe we need to ask new questions, to get new answers.  Instead of asking: “What is the problem?” we could ask, “What is a problem we could solve?”

Maybe we could start by fixing some windows, by un-criminalizing the students who walk through the front door, by printing flyers in English and Spanish and Hmong and inviting those parents in.  In many schools, these are problems.  They’re part of the problem, but they’re community-sized.

Have you seen schools solve problems?  How, and where?  What was the process?  How can we learn from each other?

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