Category Archives: Civic Engagement and Activism

My comments sent to Maryland’s Kirwan Commission on education

Kirwan

Dear Commissioner Kirwan,

I write to you not only as a private citizen and taxpayer, but as a parent of two public school children and a professor of education who has taught and studied education policy for twenty years. I wanted to begin by commending the commission for putting the spotlight on education equity as an issue that needs attention. My children are not receiving the kind of education that I had growing up because of its slow reduction of schooling to its bare bones- literacy and math. As a teacher and researcher, I see the inequities that schools face depending on the zip code in which they are located. In one of the wealthiest states in the nation, there is no reason that the conditions of schooling should be this way.

I know that you and the members of the commission share my concern about the state of our public schools, but our ways of addressing the problems we face are very different. For me, I think that the people that know the answers to how to solve our problems in schools are the people who are most impacted by the schools- students and teachers. We do not have any students represented on the commission and only one teacher. As a result there have been blind spots, many of which were pointed out in Dr. Toldson’s remarks on November 14, 2018. Toldson suggested that the commission pay attention to the stakeholders who were arguing for racial equity, which the commission had overlooked in its initial workgroup recommendations.  Racial equity, not just a focus on concentrated poverty, would lead to a redistribution of school funds so that the students in Baltimore, for example, where we have the largest concentration of Black students and of poverty, would not only get their fair share of funding pie, but would also get extra funding to compensate for the many years they received less than their fair share.

Another blindspot has to do with the issue of the recruitment and retention of a diverse teaching force. Teaching certainly needs to be elevated and salaries need to increase, as the commission recommends. However, research and experience tell us that in order to get the kind of teachers we want, we need to make the conditions of teaching attractive and supportive to people who teach. As a former teacher myself, I wanted three things: (1) A supportive principal (i.e. one that cared about my professional development),  (2) A flexible curriculum (i.e. that allowed for cultural responsive pedagogies), and (3) An opportunity to build culture and community with students and families. Richard Ingersoll, an expert on teacher retention, recently showed that teachers of color are leaving at higher rates than white teachers. In order to shift this, we will need more than salary increases. The commission will need to explore what obstacles need to be removed (i.e. high stakes testing, teacher evaluation based on tests) and which supports  (i.e. quality professional development) need to be put in place so that principals and teachers can have the freedom to serve students well.

A third blindspot is around how to address struggling students and schools. The commission refers to struggling students as “at risk,” which as Dr. Toldson points out, is a dated term that describes students as deficient. Thus, the solution the commission has suggested is to correct what is wrong with the students. However, another way to approach the issue of struggling students is to broadly examine the root causes why students struggle. To address those causes, the commission will find that students need more than extra tutoring or a higher bar to reach. They need access to regular healthy meals, culturally responsive curricula, and health and mental health services, enrichment programs, among other supports. The community school model comes the closest to this, but even those schools do not provide all that students need.

From where I sit, the commission has had a difficult time. One reason seems to be because it is working from a paradigm that reflects a desire to compete on the global stage. If we are truly going to compete, and I am not necessarily endorsing that as the goal for our schools, we should be asking the people most impacted by schools how to improve them. Teachers and students understand the issues of schools better than anyone. They understand the need for equity, for improved conditions for teachers, and for stronger supports for students.

There are many other issues to discuss, and am happy if I am ever invited to do so. However, for now, I am hoping that you will take these comments into consideration as the commission finalizes its recommendations.

Sincerely,

Jessica Shiller

 

Four key areas for public school advocates to work on now!

It is an understatement to say that those who work with public schools are not thrilled with the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Her aversion to public schooling is on display every time she speaks publicly. Since public schools are not getting any help from Washington, it is on all of us to defend public education now.

There are lots of issues in education to take on, and some will dispute me on these, but here are four critical areas of work that I think need to be taken on to help public schools now:

 

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  1. School safety: Support the the right of children to attend schools without worry of gun violence, as well as restorative practices so that schools are actively peaceful places. The drive for these changes come straight from the youth themselves, from the Black Lives Matter campaign and the Parkland students.
  2. Fight for funding and salary increases: There are teachers all over the country that are working very hard for little pay. Each year there are increasing demands on teachers from having the burden of too much testing to cuts in mental health and social supports for students, all while more and more students in poverty show up at schoolhouse doors every day.  The arts and libraries have been cut dramatically from school. The need for funding in public schools is critical, and living wage for teachers is a crucial part of increasing the funding to schools. Many states around the country are involved in battles over school funding. In Maryland, where I live, there are two bills at the state legislature now to increase school funding, but only one HB557 is demanding that school funding be increased immediately. Find your local bill or organization to support in this struggle.
  3. Protecting unions: Teachers are striking around the country. They have had it with state austerity plans that drain their schools and their pensions of funding, while asking teachers to do more with less every day. Teachers buy their own school supplies, take on second jobs, and still find time to coach, run an after school program, or sit on the PTA.  SCOTUS is considering a case now that will make or break unions. Known as the Janus case, the court is deciding whether union membership can be optional essentially. If the court decides that union membership is optional, then we can say goodbye to union protections for teachers and many other workers. This would be destructive to teachers who would suddenly have no job protection, and would discourage future teachers from going into the field.  The final decision should come down in June and will tell us if the unions will continue to strengthen or will this be their last gasp.
  4. Combat privatization: Our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is trying promote privatization throughout the public school system. She just submitted a budget in which pubic school funding would be slashed, cutting after school programs and professional development for teachers while increasing funding for vouchers and other school choice schemes. Call you legislators to tell them to turn down this budget, and to not approve a new one unless it fully supports public schools.

Activism is the vehicle for school change

When I moved to Baltimore, in 2010, the prevailing wisdom was that in order to change the public schools, advocates needed to pursue one main course of action: To get more funds from the state. The schools and the city had been neglected and divested from for so many decades (which was certainly true), that the city was in desperate need of funds. Every spring there was a big push to mobilize parents, students, and teachers to ride to the state capitol and demonstrate for funds, lobby legislators, testify at hearings for  increased funding. Even locally within the city, advocates pushed for public and private partnerships and pressured the city to provide more funds for the schools.

Very few people involved in this advocacy work discussed what these funds would be used for, or publicly imagined what school should look like in the city. Maybe people were so busy describing the deplorable conditions to politicians, philanthropists, and the media, that they did not have much energy to imagining possibilities. But in reality, there was a lack of public imagination beyond some well worn, yet not so successful strategies, like expanding charter schools.

Years later, I can say that the landscape has shifted dramatically. The Baltimore Movement of Rank and File Educators (BMORE), a small group of teachers who have been dissatisfied with their union and have decided to organize a group of their own. Inspired by CORE in Chicago and the Caucus of Working Educators in Philadelphia, these teachers have both acknowledged that they are union members, but want to differentiate themselves from the traditional union leadership that has fought for bread and butter issues, and have  articulated a serious commitment to racial justice. This is something that we have seen in other teachers’ unions around the country, especially in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Los Angeles.  It has taken a while to get a foothold in Baltimore. This small group has grown slowly, but really started to hit their stride this year, and now they have taken off.

The recent crisis around the temperature in Baltimore’s schools has changed the context, and people who have been dissatisfied with the school system for many years have Black teacher matterdecided to get involved, attend meetings, go to events and demonstrations. When the schools had to close in January because there was no heat in many of them, and there was fundraising for space heaters and warm coats for students and classrooms people had had enough. BMORE was right there at the January school board meeting and testified about these unacceptable conditions. They are now working on a legislative agenda at the state level as well as ongoing activism within Baltimore’s schools to ensure that there are more teachers of color, more culturally responsive curricula, and more communication and transparency from the school district about decision-making.

This week BMORE is organizing a week of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, alongside similar events nationwide. Next on their agenda will be pushing for legislation to earmark funding that gets generated from a local casino to go to public schools. The momentum is building to ensure that the public commitment to education has some accountability to local teachers and students. By next year, there will be a new union election at the Baltimore Teachers Union, and BMORE plans to run a slate of teachers to challenge the incumbent leaders who have held office for decades. This is an exciting turn of events in which there is a movement to advance a positive and clear agenda for public schools, not one that simply criticizes. BMORE is working in partnership with the youth at the Baltimore Algebra Project, and has the power to grow much more, and more than anything Baltimore has seen in many years has the power to change public schools in the city.

In the news….

Screenshot 2017-12-18 14.45.22    Recently, I wrote an op-ed in a local online magazine called The Baltimore Brew. I wrote about the state of Maryland’s appointed commission to address education inequity, The Kirwan Commission. Kirwan, as it is known locally, had as its main charge to deal with funding inequity in the state to address disparities between poor and affluent school districts. In Maryland, this comes down to a decision to fully fund Baltimore’s, mostly Black schools. The commission had a year to come up with a new funding plan, and did not. This was disappointing to many, but as I say in the piece, there is not enough political will to pressure the commission into coming up with a solution to this issue.  Rather, we are content to demonize the poorest, and Blackest communities, leaving them without the funding needed to educate and support children.

I was happy to see that a lot of people read my article, and it got me recognized in several other local media outlets. I appeared on Maryland Public Television, debating the issue of school funding as well as the Real News Network, and The Baltimore Sun. I was also able to make the case again that school closings are linked to the problems of funding because the lack of adequate funds have drained the schools of resources for years, causing their inability to meet student needs. What continues to happen in Baltimore is closing of schools that are in the center of Black communities, leaving them without community resources.

Of course, it is great that the local media is picking up this story, but there are still not enough people engaged in the debate and conversation about school funding and school closings. It is a larger conversation about whether we value public education, and for whom we think public education should be available. We need to all invest in this dialogue. Without public education, many young people (mainly Black and Brown) and their families would not have access to food, social services, community space, organized recreational activities, as well as schooling. The time is now to engage so that we can advocate for racial equity in public education.

Bringing wisdom from D. Watkins

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I teach a course focused on urban education and racial equity at Towson University. I have mostly white students, and so I try to embed them in the experience of working in Baltimore’s schools, which are mainly Black. Another thing that we do is read from multiple perspectives and hear from Black authors, community organizers, and teachers. Yesterday we were lucky to have D. Watkins visit our classroom. We also invited middle and high school students that we work with to attend this session as well. The collective conversation was amazing to watch, but mostly we listened and learned. Watch some of the video here:

 

 

Free Minds, Free People

IMG_0916   Free Minds Free People, or FMFP, is a space where youth and adults can converge to discuss social justice and education for liberation. This year it was in Baltimore at Loyola University. FMFP is a space like no other, where folks come together to discuss praxis, the blending of theory and practice. Folks discussed the decolonization of schools and universities, ethnic studies, youth-led movements, and emancipatory teaching.

I was proud to be a member of the planning team and a presenter. But it was the youth of the Baltimore Algebra Project, who led the charge. Without them, the conference would not have come together. It was an impressive effort that should be a model for any conference on social justice. There were vegan meals, childcare, and safe spaces for members of the LGBTQ community.  There was art, music, and poetry.  And there was a march in solidarity with immigrant communities facing raids and deportation by ICE.

IMG_0918   My presentation was about how teachers are working in a classroom in the time of the Trump administration. It was a great collaboration between faculty and teachers. The well-attended workshop was an example of how folks can come together to reimagine educational spaces as well as form networks of support in a climate in which people committed to social justice are being targeted.

Kudos to the Algebra Project, and look out for Free Minds Free People 2019!

 

Public schools and budget crises

 

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Bake sales are being put on to raise money for buses to get students to and from after school programs. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s school system faces a $130 million dollar deficit, and layoffs are imminent. In a wealthy state, like Maryland, you might say that the school system and the city are being starved for funds. Locally, observers have said the city has mismanaged its own funds or the population loss  over the last ten years  has impacted funding.

Wherever you lay the blame, there is no doubt that the cash-strapped city needs help. As CEO of schools, Sonja Santilisses argues, there needs to be a new funding formula. The city cannot meet the needs of its students with the resources it currently has. Given the impact of  poverty has on students, the city needs more funds to provide the kinds of programming and services that students in poverty need, not the least of which are bus passes that allow them to get to after school programs.

The CEO is running the school system to the best of her ability, given then context, acting swiftly, for example when a city teacher lashed out at her students screaming racial epithets. Yet,  the fact remains is that there is not much in place to support the daily work of school staff. School staff in urban districts are used to working without, but there has never been a time where the need is so great. It is clear from the evidence from Detroit and New Orleans, the needs of Baltimore’s young people will not be resolved through school choice, nor will they be resolved by the school renovations proposed by the 21st century plan.  Children come to city schools hungry, tired, and having experienced trauma caused by the violence of inequity. They need resources wrapped around them.

Yet, states have been reluctant to provide their cities with enough funding to thrive.  In New York, for example, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity has gone to court multiple times to demand that the state legislature give New York City schools the funding that they needed, but have been deflected many times over the last decade and a half when they began their campaign.  In New Jersey, a court decision now known as the Abbott decision  provided low income districts with funding equal to wealthier districts, but ever since wealthy districts have fought the decision and found ways not to equalize funding.

In Maryland, there is the Bridge to Excellence Act, better known as Thornton, which required equity in school funding back in 2002. Still every year, advocates in Baltimore fight for funding from the state for the schools. Thornton has never been fully funded. This raises the question about what would be required for the state to adequately fund public schools so that there would be no annual battle over school funding.

The larger context is important here. The confirmation of Betsy de Vos for Secretary of Education, and the close vote to clear her nomination, suggests that public schools in general may not be a priority more generally. Consequently, those interested in public schools will need to fight hard for funding and for a vision of public education that might compel legislators to think of it as a priority. Public schools are the only institution in the country that serve everyone: youth of all social classes, of all races and ethnicities, and of young people of any immigrant status.  They provide meals, shelter, counseling, and education to young people regardless of who they are. While public schools need to be improved in many ways, limiting their funding is the wrong course of action. It would take away the one resources that many communities have to support their children.

 

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