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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

 

Envisioning equity

Screenshot 2017-10-20 15.00.25 The idea of equity is something that I have been hearing a of people talking about in schools and at the university.  With the failure of policies like No Child Left Behind, the Common Core, and Race to the Top to “fix schools” and solve intractable problems like the achievement gap, now educators have turned to equity as a possibility.  Education leaders and educators themselves have begun to realize that academic achievement will not be resolved by curriculum or testing fixes, but what do we mean when we talk about equity?

Equity is different than equality. Equality is providing everyone the same thing. Equity is acknowledging the differences between people, and providing what they need to succeed.  Equity is harder work, and forces us to examine historical and institutional nature of inequality.  Once we engage in that process, we have to go along the journey of continually checking ourselves around the ways in which we contribute to and enact inequity in our every day so  that we can interrupt it.  Those of us who are white have an important role to play because so much of what we do reifies inequity. We are blind to it often, and until we go down the road of deep self-reflection, we cannot notice how we are contributing to inequity.

For the first time, my university, a predominantly white institution, began to open up a space for dialogue and reflection around equity in education. They spent the day on October 7th listening and learning about how to apply a racial equity lens.  The whole day, which we entitled Envisioning Equity, allowed educators at public schools, universities, non-profits, community centers, to start to explore what equity can look like in classrooms, in whole schools, as part of discipline practices, in access to the arts. Here is a video one of my students made about the day. It is optimistic because they are hopeful about equity. I am a little more realistic in that I think this will take hard work, and some people will not be up for it, but I do believe it’s a start.

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!

 

White fragility as resistance on university campuses

 

Francis Kendall, who writes about the need to examine white privilege, wrote a semi-autobiographical book about her own privilege which I use in my classes. Often it is eye opening for my students, who are majority white, to surface the ways in which they benefit from privilege. I use the book so that they can begin to understand their own identities, how they are impacted, and how power has been inequitably distributed as a result. They do indeed begin to understand their own privilege, but this sets them on a course of racial identity development which can lead to real road blocks.

I teach at a predominantly white institution, and there are very limited opportunities to address race and racism, until there is an incident of racism. Without these ongoing opportunities to talk about race, race becomes something unusual to discuss– both exciting and taboo. This is not only true in my classes, among students, but with colleagues and administration as well.

Among students, as I said, they are usually animated by the discussion of race, but often express in evaluations that their professor brings a liberal politics that make them uncomfortable.  Among colleagues, a conversation about race is challenging as well. When  our new vice president of diversity addressed our education faculty, she talked about the importance of creating a more tolerant campus, but what people remembered was an off-handed remark she made about her unhappiness with the Trump administration’s influence on the climate on schools and college campuses. Faculty members balked at her being too political.

Another example comes from my own experience of planning a conference on equity and education. The conference will focus on race and the need to address it at all levels of education in order for us to more effectively and equitably educate young people. The focus on race was met with surprise and anxiety from administrators. I was asked numerous times if I was sure this was a good idea to focus so narrowly, if I was sure we should use the terms Black and Brown youth, and if I was sure that the focus would make enough people feel included in the discussion.  One white faculty member was suspicious of the single focus on race, and wondered if it was “promoting an agenda” and was “exclusionary.”  I argued that this was an opportunity to engage directly with race and racism, which has been a major problem since we have not fully grappled with it as faculty or as a society. This was met by silence. The message was clear, there was real resistance to focusing on race and racism.

This year, I had a white colleague call me, at home, out of the blue. Someone with whom I had never really spoken. She told me that she felt that the climate for faculty of color, and anti-racist faculty was inhospitable and they were feeling vulnerable in a time of Trump. This and all of the examples I mention is worrying because we cannot expect our students to be comfortable talking about race if we are not.  It is these set of experiences that cumulatively have shown me how the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the reproduction of white domination continues, leaving campuses like mine inhospitable to the experiences of Black and Brown students as well as faculty.

If directly confronted, I am sure that white students, teachers, faculty and administrators I know would say that they are interested in dismantling racism on campus. They would reiterate their support for inclusivity and would celebrate diversity. But celebrations will not get us to where we need to be. If we cannot have open discussions about racism, then it is clear the university cannot create a welcoming space. Of course, there is always the possibility that things will improve. The university hired a new administrator to focus exclusively on diversity. She immediately identified the problem of silence around race and racism on campus among faculty. I don’t know how successful she will be, but the alternative is that the campus cannot engage fully in the work of changing its culture.

Still, I cannot shake the worry that white people cannot handle the conversation about race, their fragility and discomfort is problematic at best. I do not have the answer for how to proceed, other than to keep on talking about race and confronting racism when I encounter it.

 

 

 

The Towerlight highlights school closings work

PANELISTS TACKLE RACIAL INJUSTICE, BALTIMORE SCHOOL CLOSINGS

By: Nilo Exar, Staff Writer

Students and guest panelists gathered Monday, March 23 to discuss the potential closings of some Baltimore City Schools and the role of racial inequality in education.

A video, entitled “School’s Out,” was shown before the panel discussion.  The video was co-produced by TU assistant professor Jessica Shiller and her “The Possibilities and Challenges of Reforming Urban Schools” honors college students. The video touched on issues like the lack of a community and city relationship when closing schools, as well as the general racial issues surrounding school closings and the greater racial injustice that the schools closings represented.

After the video, panelists including Johns Hopkins associate professor Lester Spence, Morgan State professor Lawrence Brown, Jamal Jones of the Baltimore Algebra Project and Ryan Good, a doctoral student at Rutgers, discussed both Baltimore and the country’s history of racial discrimination.

According to Spence, many of the cities where many schools are closed have high rates of segregation and removal of black population.

“117 of 188 schools [in Baltimore City] are 99 percent or more Black,” Brown said.

Spence also talked about racial zoning, which refers to the period when African-Americans were restricted from living in certain neighborhoods, as well as redlining, when banks refused to give mortgages to minorities.  He said that this discrimination still occurs in the closing of schools.

“14 of the top 20 cities for school closings are in top cities for segregation,” Brown said.

Schools are closed down when they are under a 71 person in the utilization formula, according to Spence. This can mean that schools perform poorly on standardized tests and general academic performance.  However, usually these schools are already being slighted in terms of funding.  Jones, who went through Baltimore City Schools himself, attested to the existence of this.

Another reason city schools can’t succeed is the lack of permanent teachers and administrators at the schools.

“There’s a lot of leaving that happens,” Jones said.  He said that many teachers are brought in through Teach for America, but leave at the end of their time because they are drained, which creates a revolving door for teachers and faculty.

The panelists also looked at outcomes of community-based schools being closed.

“Getting rid of schools perpetuates this other history of not knowing where you’re from,” Jones said.

He said that having deep and truthful conversations about the racial issues behind school closings is the first step to bettering the situation.

Students of Shiller’s seminar class were in attendance at the panel discussion.  Junior exercise science major Daniel Andrades spoke to the value that educating about such issues plays in motivating people to help the cause.

“Before we came to class we had no idea what the policies were about the schools, we had no idea about Jim Crow and how it actually affected what’s happening today,” Andrades said.

“I think this program also really showed the inequalities that go into urban schools, and not just education itself but housing, neighborhoods, [and] the distribution of wealth,” junior psychology and sociology major Maia Williams said.

http://thetowerlight.com/panelists-tackle-racial-injustice-baltimore-school-closings/

What do schools do post presidential election?

By now the election of 2016 is over. Donald Trump is the president elect of the United States. Leading up to the election, the country was engaged– or at least glued to social media– as this election was like no other. There were personal attacks, accusations of law-breaking, tampering to gain the advantage, and grandiose promises. Comedians took this and ran. Saturday Night Live may have had its most-watched series of episodes as it lampooned the debates between the candidates.  As adults were consumed with every move that Trump and Clinton made this fall, young people were as well. In response, schools across the country held discussions, civics lessons, and mock elections. It was a great time to be a teacher of English and social studies as it was an incredible opportunity to teach debate, rhetoric, government, and the electoral process.

However, this election was also filled with discrimination and hate. There was talk of inner cities as “hell,” banning Muslims from entering the country, and objectifying and belittling of women. The election also elevated talk of law and order in response to police brutality and immigrants as dangerous.  For the most part, Trump grabbed the headlines for making these insulting remarks about race, class, and gender, and young people were listening . For schools, it was an opportunity for all teachers to discuss systemic oppression as well as tolerance  with their students in the classroom.

controvery-in-classroom

As a teacher educator and partner to public schools, I saw teachers engage in dialogue  about civics and debate as well we tolerance and hate.  There were resources flying around the internet and discussions about how to teach the election. Some teachers shared their own feelings with students to open up the classroom dialogue, to make discussions less abstract, and more personal about the country’s current state and its future. As the election ended, however, things become more tense. In my blue state of Maryland, many teachers were very surprised that Trump would be elected. Many students were too, and came to school on November 9, 2016 with tears, questions, and fear as well. Teachers were tasked with helping students as young as 5 with discussing the election. In my own children’s schools, there were amazing discussions about feeling about the election, how the electoral college works, how Trump won, and implications of his presidency. With so many students and teachers who felt the same way about the election, the classrooms were by and large peaceful, safe spaces for children and teachers to share their perspectives. There were many schools that fell into this category.

In other schools I visited, however, there were different things going on. In a number of schools I was in, Latino students reported students– of all other races– saying things like, “bye, bye” and “guess I won’t be seeing you anymore.” There were reports of this around the country. From California to Michigan to my own context in Baltimore, there were reports of this kind of hatred, from micro-agressions to hate speech and attacks. There were also reports of similar incidents regarding Muslim students. On the other side, there were also calls for tolerance and unity. Teachers largely took that stand in the schools I visited, letting students know that they were safe in the school and that as a school community they should all try to get along.

Of course tolerance and unity is a positive message to send to young people, but with the teachers I spoke with, it was often a defensive posture rather than a rallying cry. It was a way to avoid talking about conflict and racism. I spoke to teachers who were not sure of what to say when students in their class made racist remarks. They were not sure how to keep their Latino or Muslim or other targeted students safe. Rather than engage, one teacher told me that she spent 10 minutes letting students discuss the election and then it was onto math! There is a long history of teachers avoiding conflict. Diane Hess, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has written:

“Even when teachers believe a topic is a controversial issue, they do not necessarily include it in their curricula. When talking with a group of high school teachers about what Supreme Court cases they think deserve attention in high schools, I encountered an example of avoidance: virtually all of them said they did not teach Roe v. Wade (1973) though they acknowledged it was a landmark case and that abortion rights were still an important controversial issue in the United States. Their reasons for avoiding this controversy fell into two categories. First, some teachers were afraid that the very mention of abortion in the classroom would cause uproar in the community. More prevalent, however, was the influence of the teachers’ own views.Thus, these teachers avoided including issues in the curriculum not because they thought it was an insignificant issue, but for precisely the opposite reason: Their strong views about the issue prevented them from teaching their students about it in the pedagogically neutral fashion they assumed was possible,”(Hess, 2004).

This is interesting. For teachers avoiding the topic of racism in their classroom, it may be because of uproar, conflict, or upset parents calling the school. It also could be because they are worried that their own views may be racist or considered racist. If that is true, then we need to be really concerned as people who teach teachers and for those who supervise them once they are in the classroom. What can we do to help teachers feel comfortable with controversy in the classroom? What can we do so that they can really be allies to students who are targets of aggression and prejudice? How can they make their classroom spaces that are free for students to feel like they can express themselves without worry? There is much to say about these questions, including research and great work being done to show teachers how they might lead discussions about difficult topics. But all of it starts with a willingness to do it. Teachers, and all of us, need not to avoid conflict and always keep the peace. We actually need to actually dig into conflict and controversy and be willing to be wrong, to make mistakes, and to be uncomfortable. That will help students develop civic capacities that would assist them, as adults, in engaging in healthy political debate, which is what we need now more than ever.

 

Why is there no one in my classes from the city where I teach?

I teach at a public university called Towson University, a mile over the Baltimore city line. My students come from all over the state of Maryland, as well as from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. They are racially and ethnically diverse, but they all hail from suburban and rural communities. Why? Why are none of them from the city down the road from campus?

I wondered this in my class the other day as I began another semester teaching a course on urban education. Students take my classes to understand what “urban schools” are like. They come with all kinds of stereotypes and myths about urban schools as chaotic places where students do not care about learning and teachers do not care much about teaching. In my classes, I work to undo these stereotypes and to get them into urban schools to see the complex daily experience of teachers and students in urban schools.

With some exceptions, of course, graduates of urban high schools, like those in Baltimore, tend not to come to Towson. Students who graduate from Baltimore’s schools, for instance, often do not have the requisite SAT scores, college prep courses, or a guidance counselor to guide them through the application process. The school system is  underfunded, and has historically under-served its majority African-American population.

The price tag for a year at Towson is also another obstacle. Students need to pay over $10,000 each semester if they are an in-state resident. That’s over $20,000 per year, a price tag way too hefty for many Baltimore residents, over a quarter of whom live at or or below the poverty line.

Even if all of those obstacles were not in place, it’s not like Towson’s campus has  exactly had a reputation for being a welcoming place for people of color. Last year, students occupied the president’s office to demand that the administration pay attention to racism on campus and to act against it. Just five years ago, Towson had a white student union, whose leader was named an extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The new president is trying to change the campus climate, but it has a long way to go before we welcome more graduates of Baltimore’s schools to campus.

While ironic, I will probably continue to teach courses on urban education to students who are unfamiliar with urban spaces on the outskirts of the city.

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