Saturday, August 9, 2014

Retirement as a Subversive Activity

I hope this statement is not automatically interpreted as one of those “Why I Quit” letters from teachers.  For one, I didn’t quit; I retired.  But I retired earlier than I had planned, so it felt a little like quitting.  If you would like to read such a letter, they are easy to locate online, and several are very good.  In fact, the sentiments expressed in some of them coincide with one of the reasons I retired earlier than I had planned:  the adverse effects of corporate school “reform” movement on public education.  And although school “reform” is indeed one of the main reasons I chose to retire, it was not the only reason.  Several other important reasons converged in June, 2014, that ultimately led to my decision to retire.  I will explain those factors below.

More importantly, however, is the act of explaining why I retired.  For the last several decades I have listened to my colleagues articulate the reasons they chose to either resign prior to retirement age or retire sooner than they had planned.  Of course, there is always spending more time with family, taking care of elderly parents or grandchildren, and so on.  These are all good and noble reasons to resign or retire.  Recently, however, these reasons have taken a back seat to the disappointment, frustration, anger, and disgust they have felt in response to the current trends in education "reform" that have made teaching for many dedicated teachers a very unenjoyable and unfulfilling pursuit.  Nonetheless, when the time comes at the end-of-the-year staff meeting to accept the ubiquitous potted plant of retirement and say a few words of farewell, there is rarely any mention of the these front seat reasons.  Only the more innocuous, back seat reasons are given.  

I had always vowed to break that trend when I retired.  I planned to follow the acceptance of my potted plant with a ten minute address that exposed the diabolical designs of the current corporate education "reforms" and how they have virtually ruined teaching and learning in the public schools, so much so that I was obliged to follow thousands of other long-time educators out the door.  But that address was never to occur, as I didn't decide to retire until a month after the conclusion of the school year.  No potted plant, no address.  This written statement serves as that address and I don't need a potted plant to make it.  

I officially retired from the Albuquerque Public Schools on July 1, 2014, after 27 consecutive years as a “classroom teacher” (teachers know that term is not redundant!).   It was rather unexpected.  I was not among the school staff who announced their retirement in January and spent the rest of the semester waxing nostalgic about all the things I was experiencing for the very last time.  I finished out the school year believing I would be back in August to begin my 28th year of teaching.  My decision to retire was unexpected due in part to the fact that, at the end of the school year as throughout, I had no time to think about anything or do anything other than teach 4th and 5th graders, study for my doctorate, and grade the papers of my undergraduate students at the university.  And eat and sleep a bit.  Just thinking about retirement, let alone going through the requisite motions to retire, was simply out of the question.  So when June arrived and the craziness of the school year had subsided, I was once again receptive to many things I had suppressed during the school year, including thoughts of retirement.

The reasons I ultimately decided to retire are many and varied but fit generally into four categories:  1) It was time and I’m tired; 2) I need a less stressful, more balanced life; 3) I have to finish my PhD; and 4) I need more time and freedom from censorship and harassment to continue the fight against education “reform.”  

It is time
  • For several years now, some of my former students have been sharing photos of their own children, some of whom are now old enough to be my students.  Others have announced the completion of their PhDs, MD, and JDs, or other credentials.  Still others are far enough along in their careers that they, too, are contemplating retirement.  And if these realities don’t indicate a long teaching career and hint that it may be time to retire, I now have teacher colleagues who are young enough to have been my students.  
  • Twenty-seven years is exactly half my life.  One more year of teaching in the district would have tipped the balance forever:  from that point on, my years in public education would constitute more than half my life.  (You, too, can do the calculations on this intriguing 5th grade math problem!)  When I include other years of teaching experience, I realize I have been teaching for 66% of my life.  And when that percentage is combined with the years I spent as a student in the public schools and at the university, I have spent nearly 90% of my life in public institutions.  In other words, I have been institutionalized for 90% of my life.  If it seems crazy to choose to remain institutionalized for so long in the first place, it seems even crazier to prolong it.
  • I started teaching in the public schools in the fall of 1987.  I started my last year of teaching in the fall of 2013.  Coincidentally, 2013 was also the first year since 1987 where all four digits of the year were different.  (More fun with 5th grade math!)  I consider 1987 and 2013 to be appropriate mathematical bookends to a teaching career in which I grew to like math in ways I never had as a student. 
  • Derek Jeter, star shortstop for the New York Yankees since 1995, is retiring at the end of the 2014 season.  I started teaching at my current school his rookie year.  If Jeter says it’s time to go, it’s time to go. 
  • In baseball, a game isn't over until both teams have recorded 27 outs.  The end of the 2013-2014 represented the 27th out in my teaching career.  Game over.
  • By June 2014, there was no more space in our kitchen cupboard for new coffee mugs given to me and my wife as presents from our students.  (Teachers know what I’m talking about!)  I am faced with the prospect of either building more cupboards, or retiring.  As I am no carpenter, I chose to retire.  
  • Everyone wants to go out on top.  The students in my 4th and 5th grade dual language class in the 2013-2014 school year represented one of the best classes I’ve ever taught.  Teaching one more year might have pressed my luck a bit too far.  Pleasant memories of this class will go a long way toward softening any lingering negative memories of my 27-year career.
I am tired
  • I am tired of saying, “Please make a straight line,” “Use quiet voices,” and the hundred million other commands teachers feel obligated to issue throughout the day.
  • I am tired of the overwhelming cacophony of voices in an acoustically unsound cafeteria.
  • I am tired of being forced to quantify qualitative beings on report cards and other assessment instruments.
  • I am tired of filling out, three times a year, 84 quantitative marks on each student’s report card.  
  • I am tired of playground duty.
  • I am tired of having an increasing number of baseless, adult-centered demands and mandates put on my plate without anything being taken off.
  • I am tired of being “balled-and-chained” to the classroom without the freedom to use the bathroom when I need it, make a phone call, or leave for an appointment.
  • I am tired of cramming down my lunch in 15 minutes flat while simultaneous grading papers and answering work related e-mails.
  • I am tired of being on stage every working minute. 
  • I am tired of my daily actions, and those of my students, being determined by bells and whistles.
  • I am tired of not being able to call in sick without having to spend 2-3 hours the night before writing lesson plans despite an aching body and a 101ยบ fever.
  • I am tired of having to write shallow and meaningless “lesson plans” and linking them to the new corporate standards all for the sake of some policy maker's definition of accountability.
  • I am tired of administrative incompetence at all levels, from the president of the United States to school principals. 
  • I am tired of vapid, dumbed-down “professional development” schemes and “trainings.” (“We train animals; we educate people,” some famous person once said.)
  • I am tired of being spoken to and treated like a 4th grader by administrators simply because I teach 4th grade.
  • I am tired of being forced to participate in Professional Learning Communities which have now evolved into Professional Indoctrination Communities that serve as conduits for corporate education “reforms.”
  • I am tired of grading homework.
  • I am tired of the meaninglessness of the Pledge of Allegiance.  
And most of all:
  • I am tired of pointless staff meetings which some administrators use to reassert their perceived power over teachers.
  • I am tired of being forced by the federal and state governments and their corporate partners to commit emotional and psychological child abuse by administering high stakes standardized tests to my students.
  • I am tired of being told what to teach and how and when to teach it.
You will note that none of these issues has much to do with children.  If teaching consisted simply of a rich, high quality learning relationship between teachers, students, and parents, I would probably still be teaching.  However, the agendas of misguided adults have made such dramatic incursions into what was once a caring, child-centered, and highly effective public education system that I no longer recognize the profession I joined nearly three decades ago.  Consequently, I want little part of it. 

I need a less stressful, more balanced life

Since I began pursuing a PhD four and a half years ago, life has been crazy, too crazy, really.  I started the PhD program without giving up my job as a full-time 4th and 5th grade dual language teacher.  I literally couldn’t afford to.  Since then, daily life for me was contained within a six mile triangle between home, school, and the university.  I travelled that triangle virtually every day on my bike.  After riding the 1.8 miles to school, I would spend an eight-hour day in my classroom in what has recently been very stressful conditions that are directly related to the national education “reform” movement (see “Education Reform” below).  By 4:00 p.m. each day I was physically and mentally exhausted.  But there was no time to rest.  At the point of utter exhaustion, I would remount my bike and pedal the 2.2 miles to the university where I would slip into my seat in at 4:15 for two and a half hours of lecture and discussion during which I struggled to stay awake and speak coherently. (If I wasn’t attending class, I was teaching an undergraduate class during the same time slot.)  By the time I pedaled the two miles home at 7:00 p.m., I was a virtual zombie.  Nonetheless, I grabbed a bite to eat, debriefed the day’s activities with my wife, tried to help with my sons’ homework, then opened my books to read or write until 11:00 or midnight.  Once in bed, I often remained wide awake for an hour or more, the result of my body’s relentless attempts to stay awake and alert for all the day’s obligations.  After five to seven hours of often fitful sleep, I would wake the next morning to another long day.  

The weekends were not much better.  Though I did study on week nights, my efforts were only marginally productive due to the fact that I consistently chose to study in a busy household.  Consequently, I regarded the weekends as prime study time.  Beginning after school on Friday and continuing almost non stop until late Sunday night, I read, wrote, thought, and graded papers, often to the point of exhaustion.  Down time came in the form of my sons’ baseball games and an occasional beer.  

I sustained this crazy schedule for four and a half years.  By June, 2014, it was obvious to me and to others it was no longer sustainable.  Every facet of my life was suffering:  my teaching, my PhD work, my health, my family, my longtime interests in music and nature, and more.  I had fallen out of balance.  After carefully weighing the financial consequences of my retirement, it was apparent that my full time teaching job was what had to go in order to restore balance to my life.

I need to finish my PhD

Some of the students who were a part of my PhD cohort in the fall of 2010 have already graduated and received their doctorates.  Some of these same students, plus others who are still working toward their degrees, are not married, have no children, and do not work full-time.  For the last four and a half years I have envied those of among my fellow students who, instead of making a hasty and frantic exit from a busy household in order to be at a full-time job at a specific time each morning, awoke in houses relatively free of stress and in which they were able to read and write while their minds were fresh and clear.  How I yearned for just three or four uninterrupted hours of studying free of stress, exhaustion, and other obligations hanging over my head.  I hope my decision to retire will allow me more stress free study time so I can make more progress on my degree and perhaps even finish it before my first social security check arrives.  

The fight against school “reform”

At the conclusion of the school year my wife and I joined other teachers and parents to carry out a series of anti-education “reform” protests in Albuquerque.  The focus of our protests was what I have been calling the evil three-legged stool of school “reform”:  high stakes student testing and teacher evaluation, the privatization of our schools, and the Common Core.  We protested and spoke at several school board meetings in May, June, and July.  We picketed and interrupted the New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) principal indoctrination sessions at the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors’ Center in late May.  Finally we stood in silent protest outside the annual meeting of the state’s school boards at which PED Secretary Designate Hanna Skandera was scheduled to speak (she never showed up).  

On the evening following one of the protests I was struck with the stark, powerful, and obvious realization that, come August, I would be expected to return to the classroom and implement the very policies and practices against which I had been speaking and protesting.  I decided on the spot that I could no longer live that contradiction.  In the end I, like everybody else, must live with my decisions and their consequences.  By June, 2014, it was clear to me that the moral and professional consequences of implementing the immoral and abusive policies and practices of education “reform” finally outweighed other consequences I might suffer by no longer earning a full-time teacher’s salary.

Furthermore, I decided it is no longer productive for me to subject myself to the threats, harassment, censorship, bullying, and intimidation I have suffered in recent years at the hands of district administrators who happened to disagree with my perspective on education “reform.”  I do not have a strong filter for education politics, nor do I want one.  But nor do I want my time and energy drained off into conflicts with "reformers" in our schools who are not likely to change their minds.  It's not worth it.  They're not worth it.  Unlike the district's administrative "reformers," I believe the school “reform” measures advanced by President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan, accepted with enthusiasm by New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and NMPED Secretary Designate Skandera, and financed by the Gates, the Broads, the Waltons, the Kochs, Michelle Rhee, and scores of other wealthy non-educators, should not go unaddressed by thoughtful, caring, and enlightened educators.  I can no longer close my classroom door and pretend the corporate attack on public education is not occurring.  I feel compelled to take action and speak out.  I know that my retirement will afford me more time to do just that.

Finally, as Chris Hedges once said, “The greatest crimes against humanity are perpetrated by people just doing their jobs.”  I can no longer continue to "just do my job" knowing that my job perpetrates crimes against children—and teachers, too, for the exploitation of teachers leads to the exploitation of children.  I agree with Rosa Parks when she said, upon being arrested on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, that she could no longer participate in her own exploitation.  Instead, I will attempt to liberate myself from the political oppression of the public schools and mount, along with many other courageous parents and educators, a more vigorous and sustained defense of our public schools and their students.  I look forward to carrying on the struggle to expel corporate education "reform" from our schools so we can reinstate localized, culturally sensitive, flexible, and caring public education in our communities.

I ain't done yet, ya bushwhacker! 
(Adapted from the first True Grit with Glen Campbell and John Wayne.)

While I am officially retired, I am not fully retired.  I have accepted a 0.25 bilingual language arts "intervention" position at the school where I have taught for the last 19 years.  I have been a teacher my entire adult life and will continue to be a teacher for the rest of my life.  I can no more shed my identity as a teacher than my identity as a father, husband, cyclist, musician, bird watcher, and so on.  So here's to a new life of teaching and learning and, I hope, doing the right thing.  

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have some bread to bake, some musical instruments to play, some birds to observe, a ballgame to monitor, a bicycle to ride, a sunset to watch, a PhD to finish, a pint of IPA to savor, and nearly three decades of classroom memories to process before what I hope is a good night’s sleep.

And in the end, the kids you teach are equal to the joys you reach.

(Apologies to the Beatles!)

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Fox and the Hounds: Hanna Skandera and the Attack on New Mexico's Schools

Copy of an e-mail I sent February 17, 2014 to the New Mexico State Senate Rules Committee concerning the confirmation hearings for New Mexico Secretary Designate of Education Hanna Skandera.

Honorable Senators:

My name is David Aram Wilson.  I was born right here in Santa Fe, just a few short blocks north of this great building.  I am speaking to you this morning as a teacher of 34 years; a 27-year veteran of New Mexico's public schools; a Tier III teacher for 12 years; a PhD student in Bilingual Education at the University of New Mexico; a part time instructor in UNM’s College of Education; a husband of a teacher; a brother and son of a teacher; a brother-in-law and son-in-law of teachers; and the father of two public school students.  In a word, I was born New Mexico and I am a qualified, licensed, and experienced educator. 

The same cannot be said of the secretary designate.  As you know, she possesses not even the minimum credentials for this office.  State law mandates the secretary of education be highly qualified and experienced.  She is neither.  She does not have a degree in education.  She has never been a teacher.  She has never been an educational assistant.  She has never been a school administrator.  In fact, she has never worked in any school in any capacity for any meaningful length of time.

Yet, despite these astonishing lack of credentials, she has been in Santa Fe for the last three years, unconfirmed, making educational policy as if she knew what she was doing.  Honorable Senators, she does not know what she is doing.  And for that reason the students and teachers in our public schools suffer more each day due to the misguided and damaging policies she promotes, often by circumventing the legislative process. 

Last year you heard testimony from the secretary designate’s advocates in the business community.  They claimed that everyone, including her, is essentially a teacher, and therefore has the right and even the duty to determine education policy in New Mexico.  Senators, I am a teacher and I know teachers.  The secretary designate is not a teacher. Instead, she is an impostor whose illegitimate actions should not be validated by an affirmative vote of this committee.  

The secretary designate has stated recently that, contrary to the perceptions of thousands of educators in New Mexico, she is not their enemy but their friend.  Senators, she is not a friend of education and here are some of the reasons why:

No friend of public education would advocate assigning letter grades to schools based primarily on invalid and illegitimate test score data.  Some schools considered excellent by their students, parents, and teachers received Ds and Fs while others, considered no better or worse by their "constituents," received As and Bs.  What’s more, many of the A schools tend to have extremely low rates of poverty while all the F schools have the highest rates of poverty in the state.  The B, C and D schools tend to have rates of poverty commensurate with their letter grade.  If this isn’t blaming the victims, I don’t know what is. 

No friend of public education would advocate the wholesale retention of third graders who, according to dubious and subjective measures, are deemed "below grade" level in reading.  Nor would any friend of education deny parents the right to challenge a retention based solely on whether their child reads on grade level at an arbitrary point in time.  

No friend of public education would base teacher evaluations primarily on their students' standardized test scores.  The test companies themselves have emphasized that their tests were NEVER designed to evaluate teachers and should never be used for that purpose.  

No friend of public education would instruct principals to artificially evaluate teachers lower in the fall and higher in the spring in order to demonstrate growth over time and to prove that the growth occurred because of the evaluation process. Nor would any friend of education instruct principals to place the teachers in their schools on a bell curve so that the results of the evaluations correspond to the erroneous and ungrounded assumption that most of the teachers in the school are either merely “effective” or “minimally effective.”

No friend of education would advocate for merit pay for teachers based primarily on student test scores.  In Tennessee, where the only large scale, longitudinal study of merit pay was conducted, researchers found that, after the first year of implementation, teacher effectiveness actually decreased in successive years as teachers realized that the process was rigged in favor of teachers who cared not about teaching, but about teaching to the test and gaming the system. 

No friend of education would neglect, ignore, and disparage the educational needs of New Mexico's Hispanic, African American, Native American, immigrant, and non English speaking students. In a state that was the first minority-majority state and has the largest minority population per capita, her negative attitude and damaging actions toward these majority populations is astonishing.

No friend of education would submit proposal after proposal that directly contradicts what the preponderance of research has concluded about education policy and practice in New Mexico and beyond.  

No friend of public education would kowtow to business interests, such as Pearson, Achieve, the Gates, Broad, and Walmart Foundations, and the various initiatives of Jeb Bush's Chiefs for Change, of which the secretary designate is a member, that seek to siphon enormous amounts of public money destined for public schools and redirect that money to private or semi private educational institutions in which they may have a financial interest.  

No friend of education would hold artificial, "kangaroo court" -style hearings around the state with the express purpose of promoting her misguided agenda while categorically denying the public the right to speak publicly about their concerns.   

No friend of education would attempt to coerce the state's 89 superintendents into signing a "petition" that would oblige them to uphold her dubious “reforms” known collectively as Students First, New Mexico Wins.  Thankfully, only a handful of superintendents signed the document, which is more evidence of the fact that the opposition to her confirmation extends into the highest reaches of New Mexico’s educational hierarchy.

The secretary designate is no friend of education.  Rather, she is the fox guarding the chicken coop that is Public Education in New Mexico.  We need a secretary of education who is highly qualified and experienced—as per state law—and who, instead of standing in judgment of teachers, stands in awe of them and everything they do.  Senators, I ask you, I implore you:  vote no on her confirmation.