Blogger for Education Week; former middle school teacher
“Giving voice to the honest perspective of the classroom practitioner.”
Anthony talks about moving from classroom teacher to blogger and the importance of teachers having a voice in their work.
Our conversation occurred several hours before the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike ended.
I left the classroom six years ago. Now I have a blog called “Living in Dialogue” that I’ve had for about five years on Education Week magazine online. I write a lot about education issues from the point of view of a teacher. I try to address education policy that affects teachers and students in the classroom, and I also try to elevate other teachers’ voices where I can, give other people an opportunity, a platform from which to speak.
The primary focus is education policy, and taking a critical look at education reform. The world seems to have decided that our public schools are unacceptable, and there’s all kinds of rather ineffective and even dangerous ideas being enacted about how to fix what’s wrong with school. So it really calls out for critical examination and discussion, and that’s what I try to do on my blog. That’s been the centerpiece of my work for the last five years.
I got a job in Oakland in 1987 teaching at Bret Harte Middle School. I taught there for the next 18 years. I started out teaching science, primarily, then I ended up teaching both science and math. Bret Harte is a really interesting, very diverse school that was about 40-some% African-American, about 20% Latino and 20% Asian and 5-10% white during most of the time I taught there. Really nice, really dynamic staff. We had a fantastic science department for a lot of the time I worked there that did a lot of collaborative work to support one another and to support new teachers in the department.
The nice thing about it, for the most part, I was not oppressed by the need to do test preparation, partly because a lot of my teaching was before No Child Left Behind. I was encouraged and allowed to do innovative teaching. I did workshops, professional development at the Exploratorium and learned all about inquiry. It was really great to have my classroom be a place where I could innovate.
Then I did teach during the first five or six years of No Child Left Behind. I saw my colleagues and my school get labeled a failure year after year. I saw our faculty increasingly turn toward professional development focused on raising test scores, focused on identifying which students were most likely to benefit our school’s rating, and the ones that are sort of on the bubble, proficient. That meant, by definition, you’re neglecting the students who are already performing well as well as the students who are so far below that they don’t have any chance of affecting your score. If you move someone from far below basic to basic, you don’t get any credit for that under the systems that are in place. So a lot of our students who are in the greatest need really are not being served.
What was it like for you to leave the classroom after 18 years?
It was really hard to leave the classroom. I felt that what had happened at the school was, we had been rated “failing” under No Child Left Behind for several years. We were feeling a bit defeated, honestly. The money that had supported a lot of the innovative work we had done dried up because there was a state budget crisis. This was around 2003 or so, 2004. We weren’t able to do some of the exciting and energizing work that we had been doing. A number of the people that had really been working to make the school great left, and the principal, I think, were getting a bit burned out by that point. It was tough. It was tough times at the school, and I felt bad about leaving, but I also felt like I needed a change for myself.
I think the problem is that we have a lot of things we want our students to learn. We want them to learn citizenship, we want them to learn to create and appreciate art, we want them to make music, we want them to be physically fit, we want them to be emotionally stable. We want them to be able to work with others. We want them to be able to think critically. A lot of these things are not addressed by the test scores. So we ended up eliminating a lot of these things.
We don’t have time for them because we’re under such pressure to cover all the content standards. And in a school that has a high level of poverty like my school, you have students, a lot of them, that are coming into the sixth grade performing at a third or fourth grade level. So, from day one, you feel you’re already way behind in this race. You’re less likely to spend that time doing the kind of community building in your classroom or address the other aspects of learning that aren’t going to be measured on the test.
A lot of the supposed remedies are worse than the problem they’re trying to fix. When you look at what education reform has become, this exercise in driving our schools to improve through the use of data, unfortunately that leads us down a dead end. Data is really a two-dimensional description of a three- or four-dimensional set of circumstances. When we drive our schools with data, we tend to produce conformity; we tend to emphasize preparation for tests. What’s been done in the last decade, starting with No Child Left Behind, is to try to punish schools into improving with the threat of school closure.
More recently, that has shifted down to the individual teacher, where we’re now tying teacher evaluations to their student test scores. This, again, has a really terrible consequence. It defines student learning as performance on a test. It encourages teachers to teach to those tests and feel satisfied if they’ve improved students’ scores on those tests. And most of those tests are not really any kind of an indicator of the real quality of thinking that we want from our students.
Tell me about your blog.
I call my blog “Living in Dialogue.” One of the things that I really try to do is not just preach from a pulpit, but really engage people that don’t necessarily agree with my point of view and try to have respectful conversations with them. I’ve also used it as a platform to speak truth to power and to challenge some of the leading policy makers that are making decisions that I think aren’t rooted in the interests of students
For example, I’ve engaged with the Obama administration, the Department of Education. I wrote an open letter to President Obama in November of 2009 nine months after he had appointed Secretary Duncan, challenging his administration’s approach to education reform. That led to the creation of a Facebook group called “Teachers’ Letters to Obama,” which grew to over 3,000 people. We sent over 100 letters to President Obama. We ended up getting a phone conversation with Secretary Duncan, but it really didn’t feel very satisfying, honestly. So then a lot of us got involved in organizing the Save Our Schools Rally and March in Washington D.C. last summer , which brought about 5,000-6,000 teachers and parents from around the country. I look at that, even though it’s a protest, it’s still in my view a form of dialogue.
More recently, I’ve been writing about the work of the Gates Foundation very critically. I was contacted by some people within the Gates Foundation about four or five months ago asking for a dialogue. I ended up visiting their headquarters in Seattle in July, and that led into an online dialogue through our blog where we had five exchanges over some of the biggest issues that face us in education. That just concluded a week ago.
What’s been interesting is that this Gates dialogue was really, really unusual. Usually the people or organizations that I’m critical of studiously ignore the criticism, and I can only assume that they feel comfortable enough that a retired teacher’s criticism is not sufficiently threatening for them to respond to. So it was surprising that they did it in the first place. Once they did it, though, it was kind of strange, because I wrote very thorough posts.
We had five exchanges on five big topics. One of the topics was, “How does poverty affect education?” For each of these posts, I wrote in excess of 3,000 words. I had multiple sources of evidence, multiple threads to my argument that basically said that poverty is a central issue in education and you cannot ignore it. You have to address poverty and you can’t simply tell the schools, you’re responsible and if you do your job well enough, we can end poverty. That is basically what they suggest.
I presented this complicated and well-evidenced argument. They responded with a very vague statement that was less than 1,000 words that really did not address any of the evidence that I provided. It felt kind of patronizing and dismissive of a lot of what I’d said. Then in their conclusion to the debate, they even went so far as to suggest that they felt that I did not believe that poor children can learn because I emphasized so much the importance of addressing poverty. They even went further and quoted Martin Luther King, suggesting that somehow I was similar to the ministers King was addressing in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” who were suggesting we wait until poverty can be fixed. As if I was suggesting that we defer action, when I’m simply suggesting we act now with all deliberate haste to address the core issues that are undermining our students and not simply leave it to teachers.
Chris Hayes [in his 2012 book, Twilight of the Elites] talks about a meritocracy, which is sort of the underlying ideology behind education reform: that we have something approaching a meritocracy in America, and that kind of redeems privilege, because everybody who has privilege has it because they earned it, because they have merit. So if you say, “Oh no, we don’t have a meritocracy,” they will drive you back every day, saying, “Oh, yes we do, and you’re saying that poor people can’t learn.”
I think that the whole idea of “college for all” is very linked to this idea of a meritocracy. If you can create the illusion that our schools are actually offering college readiness and career readiness for all, then anybody who doesn’t go to college, anybody who doesn’t get a career, it must be their fault that they are impoverished. The system has done all that it’s obliged to, so let them rot. We did what we could and anybody who has not prevailed is lazy or flawed in some way.
I think Chicago [the Chicago Teachers Union strike] is doing a huge service to the nation to challenge the whole story in a powerful way. I’m in California and what it looks like from here is Chicago is a microcosm or a macrocosm of what is happening in cities across the country. Up until a week ago, nobody had drawn a line in the sand and said, this is not acceptable for our teachers or for our students. And they’re doing it in a way that, if they stay united, and if they maintain the support that they’ve had from parents and from the community, there’s no good ending for Rahm Emanuel, so I think it needs to be replicated and strengthened across the country. Rahm and the others will not stop until they are stopped. When they stand together and actually withhold their labor, refuse to cooperate, that’s their only power.
We make it clear that we don’t oppose test score evaluations because we don’t want to lose bad teachers. We oppose them because they’re going to promote bad teaching. We oppose them because they’re going to harm our students, and we want our students to have a well-rounded education. We want people to understand that teachers are the best defense for our students, and what teachers want is in the interest of students.
What would you identify as the Goliath that we face?
We face a bunch of Goliaths. There’s two sets of billionaires, and I’m not sure how much overlap there is between them. There are billionaires who want to make money from education, and there are billionaires who, like the Gates Foundation — I don’t know whether Bill and Melinda Gates need any more money. But I have a feeling they think kind of like Lucy in Peanuts, that their ideas are just better. Remember that cartoon? “I’m not bossy. My ideas are just better.”
They think that they ought to be in charge, because obviously they knew how to revolutionize personal computing so they can bring that same magic to the education system, and they also very strongly believe in market-driven solutions. There’s a natural alliance between the billionaires who want to make money on education and the billionaires who think that introducing competition into the marketplace and privatization is going to drive improvement. I’ve been deliberately tipping the hands of the billionaires as much as I can, show what’s going on, engage them in dialogue, challenge them, try to get them to acknowledge what they’re doing, try to get them to rethink what they’re doing. If they won’t rethink it, we can rethink it for them.
What would you name as your slingshot?
I think the teachers in Chicago are really using the most powerful slingshot that we have, which is organizing and collective action. My slingshot is sharp analysis with evidence, giving voice to the honest perspective of the classroom practitioner in a way that empowers teachers. So that’s a lot what I’m trying to do.
As of July 30, 2014, Anthony ended his six years with Education Week. He shifted Living in Dialogue to its own independent platform. It can be found here.