What do Crash Diets and Charters Have in Common?

Having had struggled with my weight all my life I pay very close attention when I hear success stories of people who've lost an enormous amount of weight in a short time. Usually these success stories are followed by a sad ending, "they gained it all back, and then some." On a very similar note, I am very wary when I hear success stories about some school 'somewhere' that managed to 'close the achievement gap' and get students from very low scores to very high ones within a short span of time. What we don't usually hear in these stories is whether these schools are able to maintain these gains over the long haul.

A crash diet is very similar to what these schools do to succeed. They work great, but for a short time. In a crash diet you essentially avoid some form of food, to an extreme. When I was 16 I did a soup diet and for the only time in my life I achieved the skinny. Of course, since a crash diet mimics 'holding your breath', one has to come up for air at some point, right? The minute I began to eat the other foods I have been avoiding, I put all the weight back on. Sound familiar? We all know this cycle.

Similarly, these schools that claim academic success in the standardized tests may very well have done so, but the question we MUST ask when we hear these stories is, "Are these gains sustainable over time?". Two years ago when I was both nursing my daughter and looking for a job as an art teacher, I felt very lucky to land a phone interview with a KIPP-like school in NYC. The interview was going great until the interviewer shared that all teachers go away on a 4-day sleep-away retreat every August. I said that was impossible for me, seeing as I was a nursing mother to a baby and I wanted to continue to nurse for a while longer. She spoke before talking and said, "we've never had that problem before". Needless to say, I did not get the job. When I was younger, and without a husband and a family I did double shifts at my teaching job, yet as a mother of two, and married, dedicating and donating extra hours to my job was just not possible; my priorities were different.

These schools that claim to close the gap rely heavily on these young, not-yet-committed-elsewhere folks to run the show, yet what happens to the school when these teachers get married? have kids? have other priorities that are not their jobs. Seeing as the amount of hours required does not allow for very much personal time, teachers move on to more humane work settings once they marry or have kids. Also for each new teacher transition the new staff brings a new set of dynamics to the equation, further destabilizing the school. How could anything be sustained in such a dynamic environment?

This is why I believe in supporting public schools and strengthening public schools above charters. Most charters operate under this same model I described above. They might meet and maybe even exceed expectations in some instances, but because of the very way they are structured, these gains are not sustainable over time. Just as a well-balanced diet works best to keep the weight off permanently, schools need to shoot for solutions that are long-term, and sustainable over time and do not mimic crash diets.

Is your school system limiting the range of the debate?

While reading through the rounds of education policy related articles for the week, I ran across a piece titled, What Parents aren't asked in school surveys, and in it was an amazing quote by Noam Chomsky that pretty much sums up the level of involvement school districts allow parents and teachers these days. It reads,

"The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum - even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.

This week I must have filled out half a dozen surveys for my school system seeing that I am a both and a mom and an employee of this school system. While these surveys initially made me feel included and my opinions valued, I am bothered that the framework of the 'conversation' is already determined by the questioner. My input, no matter how lively, or radical or no matter how outrageous my ideas are they still essentially only exist within the continuum provided by the survey. Parents and teachers must demand more open dialogue to happen around more democratic and comprehensive set of issues and absolutely not wait to be invited, for that may never happen.


Educational structures that lack respect and trust are doomed to fail

I had a debate with a friend the other day on the question of why more parents are not against testing, why more parents are not out there lobbying for smaller class sizes for their children, etc. I meet parents daily who not only happily agree with standardized tests, but who also need them to help them define to themselves who their children are.

Do we need a number to know our child? Is our child not essentially the same child regardless of what percentile they are at on some bubble test? In 20 years from now, would this child be truly affected by where they scored on their high stakes testing? The answer to these questions is no. As a nation we need to begin to wean ourselves off this obsessive need for data for it's doing more harm than good. Do we not trust our child's teacher enough to have her just tell us where our child is in math, reading, etc? How did we as children ever make it to adulthood without all this data? I don't remember ever taking TWELVE hours of bubble tests in one week.....ever! That is what our kids do several times a year.

The solution of why more parents do not come forth against these practices was simple. The idea of 'accountability', as it's defined by the reform folks (I call then deformers) is an easy sell. For parents who don't go beyond the local 5 o'clock news, and for parents that unquestionably absorb what's told to them in the mainstream media and don't or can't bother to scratch below the surface, an 'accountability'-based system makes absolute sense. It's a simple and uncomplicated way of addressing the so called 'bad teacher problem" and in this day and age of tweets and a plethora of information coming at us every second, we want short, sweet answers to complicated problems.

When Oprah had Rhee on as a guest on the Oprah Show a few months back (And yes, I have not yet forgiven Oprah for that yet) Rhee was able to sell to the mass public this oversimplified rationale for her reward-punish system. This system is now used to evaluate teachers all over the country. It sounded so easy when she explained it that even I thought, who knew different thought it made sense; that's what I mean, the easy sell. It sounds logical, it's a clean lobby attempt without any glitches. The gist of it goes like this: You put the child into public school, knowledge is poured in, they get tested, scores are tallied, the results are then used to evaluate everything from teachers, to schools, even districts. The scores are also used to justify rewards and punishments, such as closings, firings. Simple right? How could one not fall in this trap?

The issue is that education is not linear, our children are all more different than they are the alike. Accountability does make sense, but only when the variables are not so varied and most importantly , when the 'products' are not children. When teaching children, there are no high-stakes bubble tests for what phrase, lesson, unit or teacher who will ultimately be the life-changing agent in that child. What is most unfortunate is that the current forced system of 'accountability' essentially squeezes the life out of teaching. This might sound a bit cliche and dramatic, but it's true, what makes any teacher effective can never really be measured by any bubble test.

A true measure of a teacher is seen in her students' eyes when they go home and share stories about the magic going on in their classrooms with their families, the true magic of teaching is planting a tiny little seed of self-esteem in a child's heart that will one day grow and make him fearless and great in the things that matter. A true testament to how good a teacher is can be found in those quiet unstructured moments. What most parents don't realize is that teachers need a great deal of creative freedom and trust in order for these famous inspiring abilities to naturally spring forth. In forcing teachers to work and exists within a factory-style structure that uses disrespect and distrust as its main tools, they only serve to dampen any possibility of this power of inspiration to rise in anyone within the system. In essence, we are hurting our own children by supporting a disrespectful and distrustful system such as the one reformers currently push for today.

Want to help reform education? Ask teachers and parents the tough questions, listen to their answers. Let them help you frame your systems so that respect, trust and children are at the core of each policy decision made. Just as children cannot bloom in an abusive home where respect and trust do not abide, teachers too cannot do their best for your children when the systems in which they work and exist in parallel a broken and imbalanced home environment.


Bill and Melinda train Pretend-Teacher Lobbyist to do their bidding...

Today's teacher can no longer afford just to be in the classroom and trust that all will be well in 'teacher world'. Teachers are not politicians I know, and had they liked policy they probably would have never been a teacher, yet the times call for them to become political, period. In fact, while we teachers have been busy teaching the nation's children, Bill and Melida Gates have been busy training pretend teacher lobbyists to help change education policy to suit their 'mission'. In this week's NYT's article by Sam Dillon entitled, Behind Grass-Roots School Advocacy, Bill Gates I read the following:

"To that end, the foundation is financing educators to pose alternatives to union orthodoxies on issues like the seniority system and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers....In some cases, Mr. Gates is creating entirely new advocacy groups. The foundation is also paying Harvard-trained data specialists to work inside school districts, not only to crunch numbers but also to change practices. It is bankrolling many of the Washington analysts who interpret education issues for journalists and giving grants to some media organizations."

How appalling. Not only are non-educators who in some cases have never been in the classroom now running schools, but now we are also getting non-educators posing as educators!! With all that has been going on in education since that horribly distorted movie, Waiting for Superman, came out and even further back since since the introduction of NCLB, I can't help but to become more and more impatient when I meet both teachers and parents who are not even vaguely aware of the issues and policies that affect their children. It's time this changed.

Two instances to prove my point. The other day at a meeting I talk to a young teacher who loudly and proudly claims to me that she "deeply hates the teacher union." I vaguely understand people who have no experience with unions to not like the unions. I am fully prepared to meet Republicans, for example, who swallow the rhetoric about unions protecting bad teachers to say that they hate the union. But I was not prepared to hear that a teacher 'hates' the union. When I hear this I know the person has no historical knowledge of unions and whose fault this is? I have no idea. Perhaps the unions need to educate their constituents about their own powerful and important history. Perhaps people need to begin to scratch the surface of all the rhetoric they hear and begin to ask more questions, make more connections and follow the money.

Second instance. I was talking to a teacher friend of mine and she tells me she has no conflicts with standardized tests that she did not see any issues with them being done yearly for days on end; no problems whatsoever. Being a true pluralist, I am very respectful of people's differing decisions. I have seen a lot of younger teachers come into education in the last few years while all these tests have already been at fully swing all over the country, so it's understandable that they not know any different. I came into education 13 years ago, that was before all the craziness began and I am so very thankful to have experienced what teaching was like before teachers began to be treated as if we needed to be 'policed', before we began to be treated as if we were made to do our jobs 'right'. Teaching with freedom, trust and respect is what makes teaching most effective for those three factors are what feeds and creates passionate, inspiring teachers. Once the freedoms are dampened, and the trust is replaced and the respect is lost, teachers lose their passion and inspiration to teach. This is what we have today. Essentially, the magic is gone.

My conflicts with standardized tests are too many to spell out here. In short, their results help create this reward-punish system in which teachers must work under, which in turn create a whole generation of timorous teachers, teachers who are afraid or unable to take risks, and teachers who are unable to trust themselves without the almightly 'data'. The most damaging result befall on our children, who in turn experience disconnected teaching, units lacking in true and rich life-changing inspiration and total boredom. Also due to a national focus, wrongly placed on attainment of often irrelevant and always externally-based knowledge in order to 'beat a test', stupefies a whole generation of children. That is hard to swallow as a parent and I demand more.

Yet, unless you've taught with freedom, respect and trust at your wings, one would not know that these ways of teaching ever even existed. Young teachers, often who have no children of their own yet, are coming into education today simply accepting the status quo and never realizing that teaching use to be much more inspiring and that teaching use to have the ability to change lives than the work they do now under all these restrictions. I urge all parents, teachers and especially veteran teachers, who have been fortunate enough to have taught under better conditions to speak up for what they know to be better practices.


Union Leader George Parker joins the 'dark side'

I just learned the news that ousted Washington Teacher's Union President, George Parker has joined forces with Michelle Rhee. After I got up from the floor I started fuming; connecting the pieces, yet fuming. What does this mean to us DC teachers? Parker was involved in the making of our famous 'balanced, fair and negotiated' contract 2 years back, so how fair could it have really been with our own union president having one foot on the other side?

I was talking to a friend yesterday about trust and he shared how he does not trust anyone involved in the education policy world, not even the unions. I added that perhaps the distrust came from the fact that most people no longer cared to do the right thing, but only cared about doing precisely what would place them in control, at the top or give them some sort of fame. No situation proves my point more strongly than this situation with Parker. We've all seen the media coverage on Rhee's wardrobe, her expensive purses, etc. She has become a sort of celebrity. For control and fame-hungry people like Rhee (and other unmentionables in the education deform movement), once people put you in on pedestal it's hard not to believe the hype going around about you; it gets to your head and clouds all traces of common sense. This process of moral decomposition must have happened to him; perhaps the money is better. Who knows, maybe soon we will begin hearing about Parker, "the celebrity" and his expensive Italian suits.


Corporate "Deformers" will lead us to larger class sizes and classrooms run by computers...YEPPY!

I had started a new blog last week for my professional photography pictures and as a way to hopefully promote my side business of event photography. Paying a monthly fee for a website was getting a bit too costly, so I copied and pasted all the sections from my old site to my new blog. Yesterday I went back and the site and it's gone; it's like it never existed. What was most painful was knowing I lost all my material, yet I was sure they'd be someone to hear my complaint. Yet, after doing literally about two hours of research I find that these things happen quite often and that Blogger, the company, has no person you can email or call when these things happen; it's all robots. In disbelief, I kept getting re-routed to a forum where other customers answer your questions, no an official entity, just Blogger customers. It seems the trend of doing what's easy and cheap has taken over every aspect of our lives and when decisions are made prioritizing on cost-effectiveness we all suffer; except the money-maker at the very top of course.

In education, for example, it's easy to sell the idea that standardized tests will be a good way to measure learning. Perhaps the ease in which people can relate to this model is what keeps many from seeing its harmful and negative potential to our children. Yet, when we follow the money, the priority in this approach is not whether or not it really assesses true learning, but only that it appears that way. In the end, it only serves to perpetuate the reward/punitive system that places them at the control panel and to make the money-makers, who are taking over education, richer. Kids? oh, they are not part of the equation.

To anyone remotely associated with a child, this solution is not in the least bit child-centered. Just like in my dilemma with the non-existent customer service at Blogger, one must be completely delusional to think that raw technology will enhance where we stand, or that more children in a class is better than less children. All over the country we have heads of school districts claiming to do what is 'best for children' and meanwhile they themselves do not even apply these philosophies to their own children. To offer a solution where larger classrooms run primarily by computers is a solution one offers when one's never been in a classroom for long. Offering a solution where larger class sizes is at the heart of the selling point is also saying that these 'solution-makers' have never seen or experienced what true learning in their classrooms looks like. Had they experienced what true learning looks like, even in a single child, they would never in million years offer a solution so devoid of life, inspiration and common sense.

So as parents and educators we need to be very, very aware of buying into oversimplified solutions and to always follow the money if ever in doubt of anyone's intentions. Anyone can claim to push policy 'for the sake of the kids', yet only solutions that are truly child-centered can really help children. Only people who know children will be the best barometer for what solutions work for children. It's unfortunate for this country, for right now we have a series of arrogant, self-centered leaders who sound good, but who who possess very little real experience with children and are with much confidence and force, pushing for policies that would do well in Wall Street, yet will ultimately hurt our children. These are children, and most importantly, these are our children and we must demand the same things they demand for their own children, who attend private schools; such as small class sizes, less testing, and a humane environment for their teachers, so that they would feel free to creatively inspire our next generation.

Finding a gift from a friend long gone-message from the universe

I love how when you openly ask the universe for something, it comes to you...but not always in the ways you expect them to come your way. I had asked for strength. Strength to maintain my eye on my priorities and make decisions primarily based on them, strength to wave away fear in following my own path and vision, and strength to look inside myself and face my own weaknesses so as to become a better person.

I would have never expected my answer to come the way it did. I was cleaning this weekend. Spent all Saturday filling up trash bags full of STUFF we no longer need. Monday comes and 4 huge trash bags sit waiting to be dragged to the thrift store, and a pile of clothes by my bed that need some form of hemming, trimming, fixing, etc. But the highlight of my weekend and my response from the universe was finding a secret note from a good friend that had tragically taken his life 4 years ago tucked away in a painting he'd given me to celebrate my son's birth. He had wrapped the small watercolor painting in clear tape and when I removed the backing of the frame I saw a note in his handwriting saying, "I wrote you something on the back of my picture Mir, Just peel off tape." Took me half an hour to peel off the tape but inside was a short, sweet note about how he specially painted this for me to celebrate my son's birth. My heart was full, this was a true gift.....as true a gift as anyone could give another. Made me realize that when someone dies their love remains with us forever. The moment I read it I knew he was right beside me, holding my hand the whole time. I have no fear and I am sure strength lives within me.


Fed up with Teacher Bashing.....(from a teacher)

A rule of thumb I have when gauging people is when they get too entangled in others' business that can only mean one thing. It means they must be terribly unhappy in their own lives. Look at gay-bashers for example. One must be totally unhappy in their own life to take the time and energy to bash people who have not hurt you, or don't even know. You could shroud and justify this bashing with religious or philosophical mumbo jumbo. But ultimately, this type of behavior to me signifies a very unhappy person.

Similarly, as a public school teacher, I also apply this rule to people who have excessive and often loud negative views on teachers. When I hear teacher-bashing of any form I often think to myself, "these people are just jealous!!!". They are jealous that we have the summers off, they are jealous that we have national holidays off, that our day technically ends at 4pm and so on. But, they are not jealous enough to want to be a teacher, oh no, never!!!! But just jealous enough to spew out negative stuff about our, so called, benefits.

You see, people who bash teachers have generally chosen a path that insures financial security, and because their path prioritizes on money-making, they also often have to work like a dog. Most of them hate their own jobs and have no choice but to work long hours in order to be able to afford all the bells and whistles they've been told they need to feel successful; they see no other way and may even feel horrible stuck.

Career teachers chose this other path that sometimes does not even provide a living wage, yet prioritizes in making a difference. (By career teachers I mean the ones how want to be teachers for life and not the three-year teachers that want to get out of the classrooms as soon as they gather some experience.) We have chosen this path not because we are saints, but because it feels wonderful to be a teacher. I chose to teach because I love teaching, I love being in the classroom, I love schools, I love schedules, I love kids and the unending slew of sacred small moments that reaffirms life. Teacing makes me feel alive. I also chose this path because I want to spend time with my own kids. The house and the big back yard are being sacrificed so that mom can be home to make dinner every night. The house and the big yard are being sacrificed so that I can feel I am making a difference in people's lives. The house and the big back yard are being sacrificed so that I get home from work with enough energy to play with my kids, read to them, hear about their day and make sure they know deep in their core they are worth spending time with.

Therefore, when you feel yourself getting too overworked, jealous or angry about what others out there are doing and are ticked off at the vast benefits others are enjoying, instead of bashing, perhaps it's time to look within and see what's missing in your own life. I suggest you volunteer at a local public school and check it out. The financial/corporate office is no match for life-affirming feeling a classroom environment provides me each morning.

The BOLD shall inherit the earth

The bold shall inherit the earth. That is my great life lesson learned this week. Now you don't need to be smart, you don't need to have any experience, you don't need to even have good ideas. You only need to sound like 'you know what you're doing' and people will support you. That is what I see happening all over, from education, to our elected officials, all the way down to more local situations.

The BOLD shall inherit the earth. I see young people, barely having stepped into schools being placed in positions of power in education leadership positions all over the country, parading around with 'bold' ideas that come across as promising and revolutionary, yet, they miss the mark dramatically. I see and hear only the 'bold' people all day and am made to feel these few loud people are wise, correct, on point and looking after the interests of all. It's all just a huge facade. Bold does not automatically translate to correct, or wise.....BOLD is simply that, loud and daring.

On a recent interview with Bill Maher, he stated how he felt most of the American people are not very bright. At first, I thought, "how arrogant of this guy!", yet now, I feel this is inherently true seeing how most of the people choose not to get their heads out of the sand and scratch below the surface on any serious issues effecting our world today. In the end we get a distorted view of reality thanks to the very few, yet loud and bold wackos who do get airtime simply because they have 'something' to say.

So there is a lesson here worth walking away with here. The silent majority better start speaking up if we ever want to be truly represented. It's a 'doggy-dog world' and we better stop thinking we will be invited to the table fairly, and democratically. How about not waiting. How about not waiting at all to be invited to the table. Yes, you'd be playing their game...so what, be bold, be dramatic, put on an act like they do. The BIG difference is that, unlike them, you might know what you are doing. Unlike them, it might not be just about gaining power. Unlike them, you might actually be right for the task and know what the hell you are doing. So I urge all those people who have been afraid to step up, or sitting around for the world to notice them, to embolden their approach and show up uninvited....crash the part---eyyyyy!


Who would you be without the house and the car and the name brands?

The top reason I am drawn to the Buddhist philosophy of looking at life is because it asks difficult questions that force you to accept yourself at a much more genuine level. Unlike other philosophies or religions that train you to look outward for answers and 'add-on' or change qualities to your existing self for 'salvation', Buddhism is all about shedding, letting go, simplifying, accepting your genuine self. One such question is, "Who would you be without _________?" set of questions. Who would you be without that car?, Who would you be without that house? Would the entirety of who you are hold up if tomorrow you had nothing but yourself?

In raising my kids I try to think of ways to get these ideas to them in kid-friendly concepts. I think in teaching them to not value themselves through external qualities, such as materialistic goods or even grades, I save them a lifetime of suffering. Daily I encounter people who verbally and openly flaunt their external goods, blindly assuming the whole world will equate the value of these goods to them personally. I want my kids to know they never need to put on a song and dance to show the world that they are worthy of adoration.


Life IS perfect as it is- A different view on suffering

I am grateful for so much. Looking back I can see how the bumps and bruises of the past have paved the most amazing set of lessons in my life and prepared me for every single path ahead. Buddhists often claim that, "All is perfect as it is" and most often than not I have had conflicts with this seemingly overly simplistic view on life. How could everything be perfect as it is?, I would ask There is so much suffering out there; it's just simply not possible to have this view. If I allow myself to even slightly ponder upon the current day senseless war casualties, or on the uninhibited pollution of our waters, or child abuse I would never sleep a blink.

So, how could life ever be considered perfect? You see, we often look at life only through one lens, the current lens, our lens. Instead, if we were to look at life through a wider, longer-timed lens we would see something quite different, quite amazing. We would see the slow, yet unrelenting strength of the human spirit rise again and again against all odds. When I open up about my painful past with others, people are often taken aback at my casualness in discussing such heavy subjects. Yet, through time, the pain from the past has become a source of great source of power for me. The past has chiseled out in me a set of skill sets I know actively use to connect with others, on a very human level. I have been to the doors of hell and made it back in one piece, and the mere fact that I survived my tough journey has made me fearless. I love life, and do not take any of its gifts for granted.

This vivid and insatiable gratitude is only one of the many gifts I have inherited from my bumpy youth. Life IS perfect as it is.