Education

Fighting back against mandatory school testing: It’s my way or the highway, says No Child Left Behind—but is it really?

The red pillow takes the least space. The yellow pillow takes more space than the blue pillow. Which of the following is not true:

  • The red pillow takes more space than the blue pillow.
  • The yellow pillow takes more space than the red pillow.
  • The blue pillow takes more space than the red pillow.
  • The red pillow takes less space than the yellow pillow.
  • The blue pillow is the one I will bury my face in while I cry myself to sleep because my frustrated child told me today, “I’m a loser.”

That there is a real homework question (mostly) from my child’s third week in first grade. She’s in a language immersion program and isn’t reading fluently in any language just yet, so problems like these need to be dictated to her. This is typical of the state-mandated curriculum taught every day at her public school and of the battery of tests she’ll take during the next 11 years beginning this past October. Never let it be said I didn’t offer you readers birth control.

Folks, if you think the people leading us today are fucked up, wait until you see what our schools are going to churn out in the next decade and beyond.

Exactly one year ago, San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Bill Kowba spoke on an episode of KPBS’s These Days radio show about a “lost generation” of children.

“If you were a kindergartner enrolled about 2007,” Kowba said, “and you moved forward, you’re in about the third grade now or so. All we have done is reduce the opportunities for you as a student.”

With the end of 2011 comes a much-needed four-week break for my generational refugee. For one month, she’ll be free from the barrage of multiple-choice, fill-in-the bubble worksheets and the drone of standardized-testing-based curriculum that now comprise the meat of our public-education system. Designed to prep the little ones for the revolving door of tests, the classwork being pushed is also perfect for squashing the curiosity right out of them.

According to Diane Ravitch, an education historian, former supporter of No Child Left Behind and outspoken critic of high-stakes testing, “No high-performing nation tests its students every year or uses student test scores to evaluate teacher quality.” That tells us a lot about our nation’s direction. Behold, our testing:

California students are to take federally mandated tests (the NAEP in grades 4, 8 and 12); state-mandated tests (STAR, which includes the CST, CAPA and CAMA tests for grades 2 through 11, and the CAHSEE in grades 10 through 12); and district-mandated tests (math-, science- and literacy-benchmark exams administered three times each year to grades 1 through 8 and end-of-course exams in grades 6 through 12—there are no cool acronyms for these). More tests are coming, too, thanks to Obama’s Blueprint. Are your eyes going all psychedelic kaleidoscope on you right now? Just wait. I’m about to add some neon.

Counted among the “voluntary” tests are the AP, EAP and IB exams. There are the college entrance exams—ACT, PSAT, SATI and SATII (how voluntary are these?)—that can be taken more than once! There’s the CELDT for new English-language learners and the infamous-amongst-parents GATE test because it supposedly identifies the cream of the crop. Of course, none of this includes the old-fashioned test—like the math and spelling tests my daughter takes at the end of each week.

With tests like these—and an ever-shortening school year—who has room for meaningful, inspiring instruction in any subject, let alone math and literacy? Certainly not teachers, who are at once hamstrung by the standards and made out to be the scapegoats of all that’s wrong with public education. Why anyone would want to be a teacher right now is beyond me.

I’ve said before that being a parent means going through school all over again. Nobody tells you this, and had I known way back when, I might have made a different decision about my future, settling on a reliable dog-sitter and lots of world travel instead.

More likely, I would have pressed ahead with my naiveté, thinking—like I did in 2005—How bad can it be? Schools have got to be better by the time my child is 5. Isn’t that quaint? The thought is so adorable that I want to pat it on the head and send it to bed with a warm cup of milk. And even if I’d been able to imagine a worst-case educational scenario, it still would’ve been a termite’s dust tower compared with the Mt. Kilimanjaro shit-pile that it is.

So, here I am at base camp of the shit-pile, faced with the daunting task of navigating my route to the top. Testing looms, and it pisses me off.

I’m angry that my kid is being held hostage to tests by a system that threatens to take away her school’s funding if she and her schoolmates don’t perform well. I’m angry that my child’s class spent an hour, during the math benchmark test in October, transcribing their answers from the test sheet to the Scantron sheet. I’m angry that whatever changes are coming to this system will not be soon enough—or even the right ones—to change the experience the “lost generation” will have.

I’m not willing to be complicit in it. So, we are opting out of the mandated testing. What? You didn’t know you know you can do that?

To be continued…

(Published Dec. 20, 2011 in San Diego CityBeat.)

Michelle Rhee’s 5-City California Infomercial- Coming to an auditorium near you!

Last night, I drove over to the Shiley Auditorium on the beautiful campus of USD to hear  Michelle Rhee talk about education reform, or as it should more aptly be called when it comes to Rhee, “reform.”  San Diego was the first of five stops she is making in California as part of what she called a listening tour, or as it should more aptly be called when it comes to Rhee, a “listening tour.”  But I’ll get to that in a minute.

I had planned to tweet the event, despite the signs that said “no texting,” but then I couldn’t get a signal on my phone. The conspiracy theorist in me thinks there was a jammer involved. After all, this was a university campus and I have a smart phone. But my friend, Grant who sat with me, laughed at the notion. He claims to be cynical, but perhaps he’s not cynical enough.

The un-tweetable event was touted in our local paper as “a series of education forums with California mayors,” so it didn’t seem outrageous to expect a conversation between Rhee and San Diego’s newly-svelt and rather handsome Mayor Jerry Sanders. But following a short welcome by Scott Himmelstein of the slippery San Diegans 4 Great Schools—the “grassroots” organization that would like to see four private citizens appointed to our elected school board—Mayor Sanders only offered a brief introduction before disappearing. His dinner was probably getting cold, as the event began 45-minutes later than scheduled.

So: No conversation with San Diego’s mayor. Instead, Rhee shared the stage with three non-mayoral panelists: two young and well-liked teachers who have each repeatedly experienced the annual pink slip, and a parent named Sally Smith who was clearly waiting for Michelle Rhee to up and walk on water. Her fawning made me avert my eyes, but the teachers were compelling.

(It should not be overlooked that there was another mayor present. The mayor of Sacramento, Kevin Johnson, emceed the evening. But Aaryn, you may ask. Why was the mayor of Sacramento emceeing the Michelle Rhee “listening tour” in San Diego? Well that is an excellent question! Johnson is Michelle Rhee’s husband, a notable nepotistic fact given that Rhee and her organization—innocuously dubbed Students First—are elbowing their way into the California education morass. Aye, the rabbit hole is twisty. Johnson was a one-man cheerleader for his wife, the head Rheeleader if you will, interjecting an emphatic “awesome!” every time it was his turn to talk. He excitedly pointed to the audience as proof of how many people support his wife and her “reform” movement. Speaking of which, I did nothing more than RSVP for the event and was subsequently counted amongst their 900,000 supporters. Be cautious of numbers coming from Rhee.)

Aside from the delay at the beginning—which Johnson claimed was due to the large number of people trying to get in; it is difficult to fill a theater before curtain time, after all—the event was carefully orchestrated. Students of the teacher panelists were escorted to front-of-house reserved seats to the left and right of the stage. The front section was reserved for important grown-up revelers escorted in moments before the show started. Hmmm…could it be possible that the presentation started late because Rhee was in a meet-and-greet with powerful donors? No. No. It must have been the rest of us on-timers patiently waiting for the show to start.

When it did finally begin, the Marshall Middle School Chamber Choir plucked at heart strings like little angels when they sang a moving rendition of “God Is Watching Us” (you can hear it at the end of this post). They followed it with Jay-Z’s “New York,” and drove home the adorable factor when a little Asian boy with spiked hair sang the lead. It was contrived, for sure, but effective. I swallowed tears because a) the kids were so damned good and b) so damned lucky to have a music program. Unlike the kids at my daughter’s school where there isn’t even a locker room for them to change for PE class, let alone a middle school chamber choir. Unspoken message: It’s good to attend a school in Scripps Ranch.

After a short speech by Michelle Rhee and anecdotal stories from the women who joined her on stage, the listening part of the “listening tour” began. The AV folks brought microphones to three pre-selected audience members, because nothing says I’m-listening-to-what-you-all-have-to-say like choosing the voices you want to hear. Rhee knows she can’t be held to account if she doesn’t allow a real conversation.

Teacher Kathleen Gallagher said teachers and administrators in schools are at fault because they “don’t monitor the quality of instruction” in their schools. She said that “kids are bored out of their minds” and that teachers “need to be more accountable.” She didn’t mention the dreadful curriculum foisted upon teachers, designed to prepare children for testing, but her point was applauded. Shelli Kurth introduced herself as a parent of two kids and went on to say that “nobody wants to have the conversations that are uncomfortable.” I assume she wasn’t talking about the role of poverty in our education system. Another thing she wasn’t talking about during her staged moment at the mic, was that she is a co-founding member of Up for Ed, a local organization that sponsored the event. A little disclosure goes a long way. Finally, Christopher Yanov of Reality Changers spoke of the need for high expectations. His group is a non-profit but recently launched a for-profit “new social enterprise” called College Apps Academy. The association, to me, is curious. Also included were two similar audience questions written on note cards, selected by staff and read by Johnson. Generally speaking: What do we do now? Rhee’s answer: Join Student’s First. Awesome!

Of course, Rhee spoke of her time as the Chancellor of D.C. schools, citing dizzying statistics about her successes. She talked about once visiting a failing school where “kids were throwing desks out of windows” with “papers flying everywhere.” Sounds like fast times, to me. She then revisited later only to find the kids were “in uniforms, with shirts tucked in, ready to focus.” She did not mention the cheating scandal that resulted from her tenure.  Rhee said that “schools need to be more welcoming to parents” and described the laziness of front office workers she witnessed “chatting on their cell phones” and “getting a cup of coffee,” instead of happily attending to “clients.” She said they needed to “smile” when parents come to visit a school. I know the office workers at my child’s school don’t have a lot to smile about right now given the prospect of their ever-increasing workload and always-pending lay-offs. And Rhee plugged a new feature film coming out in the spring, “Won’t Back Down,” as the counterpart to “Waiting for Superman,” which she and her husband cited several times during the one-hour-and-fifteen minute event as proof of something good. Never mind that much of it has been debunked as false.

And that was it. Rhee and her non-mayoral panelists fielded five vetted comments from an audience of several hundred. To be sure, much of what was said was the right stuff to say; the stuff many parents agree on: That kids should come first, that we need to get rid of the last-in/first-out policy, that all is not equal, that parents need to be at the table, that we all want something better for children in this city. But what wasn’t discussed—at all, nary a breath—were the solutions for which Rhee advocates. Solutions that continue to rely on standardized, high stakes testing as a legitimate and equal measure of all children; of test scores being used to determine a teacher’s effectiveness; the desire to dismantle the teacher’s union; the effort to close and privatize schools; the move to lift caps on how much public funding goes to charters.

It didn’t appear that Rhee wanted to talk about any of this last night. Then again, she was here to listen.

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Why the system loves conformity

In order to do this hairstyle:

…I had to buy yarn, which—when it looked as though I might run out—meant an emergency trip to Michael’s. I had done the first half of Ruby’s head on Saturday and planned to do the rest on Sunday, starting as early as possible so the child would have some bit of playtime to her weekend. If I couldn’t do her hair on Sunday, it would be another week before I could finish it. So I drove down Michael’s that Sunday morning and got there just as the doors were opening at 9:00. At least, that’s when the doors were supposed to be opening according to their website.

Instead, a young woman who was setting up the displays of impulse-buy hoo-ha just outside the front doors, informed me with zero amount of apology and quite a bit of slack-jawed apathy, that the store didn’t open until 10:00 a.m. Being desperately in need of the yarn, I offered the girl a mutually beneficial plan. “How about this?” I asked her. “You run inside and grab me one skein of 100% acrylic Red Heart yarn in black, and I’ll give you ten bucks. When the store opens, you can ring it up and keep the remaining money for yourself.” Please? Please? Oh, pretty please?

I was being nice but I was displeased with the situation. Much like Ruby was displeased with the self-portrait she made as part of her district-approved, two-hours-long, once-every-six-to-eight-weeks art class at school. Mind you, her self portrait was completed in three stages AFTER a 40-minute lecture during which the kids watched a volunteer parent draw shapes on the white board while explaining, thiiiiiis is a ciiiiiirrrrrccccle, thiiiiiis is a squaaaaaare, thiiiiiis is a triiiiiiangle. And thiiiiiis is meeeeee blowing my braaaaaaains out on behalf of the wiggly children suffering the long-winded example. Oh. Wait. Did I just say that?

The assignment was to use the shapes to make a self-portrait. If the kids deviated from the instructions (“No, honey. Heads are not round.”), they were corrected (“Heads are oval.”). They were not allowed to go ahead. They had to stick with the stages, which were…

Stage 1, the sketch:

Stage 2, the second sketch (Ruby got in trouble for adding color because it wasn’t time to add color):

And, Stage 3, the third sketch and NOW color!:

Is it me, or does her smile get progressively weaker?

“Look what they made me do to my body, Mom!” she said. “My body is NOT square. Look at my legs! Look at my fingers! They MADE me do that!”

And not only did they make my child do this, but they made her do it twice. Two weeks ago, while Ruby’s teacher went to a professional development meeting, the kids were sent into other classrooms. It just so happened that the class Ruby ended up in was having their art lesson that day. All said, she spent four hours on this square-body, oval-head, round-fingered, zero-creativity-or-inspiration project. That is the our district hard at work right there.

Of course, I used this as an opportunity to explain that some kids don’t have exposure to art like she does, and that this sort of guided project gives those children a chance to practice drawing. Not all kids are prolific in pumping out detailed outfits and lapdogs on a daily basis:

The legs do look fairly familiar, and I notice she could use some practice on the fingers.

Anyway, I also told her that in life, we often have to do things we don’t want to do, especially when teachers or bosses (or mommies, ahem) are in charge. And, too, I told her that I thought the art class was stupid. Yes, I did.

So far, I’ve been able to hold my tongue when it comes to telling her what I think about the Envision math curriculum.

I simply pick and choose which parts of these lessons she’ll be ignoring.

What I have decided about our public school curriculum, specifically here in California, is that it is designed to narrow the thinking down to the most tunnely of tunnel vision humanly possible. It has been designed to squash critical thinking and individuality and any sense of joy in learning. It has been designed to create a future society of drones who can fill in a bubble, recite an equation, and pass a test, but who will never be able to solve a problem that isn’t in the employee manual because they won’t know how.

I’m convinced the system wants these kinds of adult humans to be in the labor force so they will do what they are told and they won’t ever make waves and they won’t question authority and they certainly will not, will not, will not! bend the rules for the lady offering a 350% profit on one skein of Red Heart yarn, because such solution is not in the realm of possibilities they’ve been taught to fathom.

I mean, if we gave kids the rich and joyous education they deserved, who in the hell would be left to work at Michael’s?

 

 

The Scarlett Letter on my shirt will be an “O”

I am neck deep in a very serious decision-making process about whether I am going to opt my child out of the many, many standardized tests that are headed in her direction. And I don’t mean just for this year; I mean opt out for the foreseeable future.

She is set to take her first test next week—a district mandated benchmark exam complete with multiple choice bubbles!—and as of now, since I’m still in information gathering mode, she will be sitting for it. But lo, this rabbit hole is fraught with switchbacks and multi-forked roads, and what I’ve discovered so far leads me—I should say, leads us—toward the very scary, very unpopular, very not-supported, very dangerous option of opting out. I’m scared to do it, for many reasons. But I’m more scared of what will happen if I make my kid take all of these ridiculous, meaningless (yes, meaningless) tests that I do not believe in.

It would be really great if I were able to get a group of parents at my daughter’s school to boycott a certain test as an act of civil disobedience (there’s power in numbers). Well, look. If I’m going to dream, I might as well dream big: I want many groups of parents, teachers and administrators all across my city to boycott all of the tests for one year. I want us as a group to push back against NCLB and Obama’s Blueprint and our state’s “mandates” and our district’s requirements and say a collective no, we do not believe such testing (and accompanying curriculum) to be in the best interest of the children.

No, you will not teach our children math and reading, math and reading, math and reading, at the expense of art and science and social studies and music and physical education. No, you will not teach them how best to memorize or perfect the process of elimination, forsaking creative problem solving and critical thinking and curiosity. No, you will not mine our children for data to which you can then point and twist so it fits your argument for dismantling the public school system for which I pay. No, you will not suffocate, strangle, bludgeon and clobber the love of learning out of them with your teaching to a battery of largely meaningless standardized tests.  No, they will not be your collateral damage. No, we will not be held hostage by threats to withhold funding for each child who skips the tests to go to a museum, instead. Just: NO.

Anyway. That is my dream and nobody can take it away from me.

In the meantime, my research led me to the following compelling excerpt from a longer and equally !!! must-read piece written by Alfie Kohn, a leading progressive thinker who opposes the rabid movement to privatize (yes, charters, I’m talking about you) our public school system. He is outspoken on the topics of homework for young kids and the incessant testing forced on our children. Time magazine described Kohn as “perhaps the country’s most outspoken critic of education’s fixation on grades [and] test scores.”

Before drinking the Kool-Aid being pushed by the ever-more-powerful and rabid “reformers,” spend some time reading Alfie Kohn.

I try to imagine myself as a privatizer. How would I proceed? If my objective were to dismantle public schools, I would begin by trying to discredit them. I would probably refer to them as “government” schools, hoping to tap into a vein of libertarian resentment. I would never miss an opportunity to sneer at researchers and teacher educators as out-of-touch “educationists.” Recognizing that it’s politically unwise to attack teachers, I would do so obliquely, bashing the unions to which most of them belong. Most important, if I had the power, I would ratchet up the number and difficulty of standardized tests that students had to take, in order that I could then point to the predictably pitiful results. I would then defy my opponents to defend the schools that had produced students who did so poorly.

How closely does my thought experiment match reality? One way to ascertain the actual motivation behind the widespread use of testing is to watch what happens in the real world when a lot of students manage to do well on a given test. Are schools credited and teachers congratulated? Hardly. The response, from New Jersey to New Mexico, is instead to make the test harder, with the result that many more students subsequently fail. [Addendum 2009: “Math scores are up on Long Island and statewide – enough so that state educational leaders could soon start raising the bar….Meryl Tisch of Manhattan, the new Chancellor of the state’s Board of Regents, said…’What today’s scores tell me is not that we should be celebrating but that New York State needs to raise its standards” (Newsday, June 1, 2009.]

Consider this item from the Boston Globe:

As the first senior class required to pass the MCAS exam prepares for graduation, state education officials are considering raising the passing grade for the exam. State Education Commissioner David Driscoll and Board of Education chairman James Peyser said the passing grade needs to be raised to keep the test challenging, given that a high proportion of students are passing it on the first try. . . . Peyser said as students continue to meet the standard, the state is challenged to make the exam meaningful.(9)

You have to admire the sheer Orwellian chutzpah represented by that last word. By definition, a test is “meaningful” only if large numbers of students (and, by implication, schools) fare poorly on it. What at first seems purely perverse – a mindless acceptance of the premise that harder is always better – reveals itself instead as a strategic move in the service of a very specific objective. Peyser, you see, served for eight years as executive director of the conservative Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank devoted to “the application of free market principles to state and local policy” (in the words of its website).  The man charged with overseeing public education in Massachusetts is critical of the very idea of public education. And how does he choose to pursue his privatizing agenda? By raising the bar until alarming failure(10) is assured.

 

 

Teaching to the test

My first grader is in a French immersion school where she is learning nothing but French all day, everyday, and therefore cannot read English. She will not have any English instruction until third grade. Keeping this in mind, here is tonight’s fill-in-the-bubble math problem from her math workbook (the same workbook that instructed her to measure lengths using cubes that we do not have at home):

The red pillow takes the least space. The yellow pillow takes more space than the blue pillow. Which of the following is not true (again, imagine bubbles instead of numerals, and the backward thinking in a language you don’t read):

1. The red pillow takes more space than the blue pillow.

2. The yellow pillow takes more space than the red pillow.

3. The blue pillow takes more space than the red pillow.

4. The red pillow takes less space than the yellow pillow.

5. The blue pillow is the one I will bury my face in while I cry myself to sleep because my frustrated child told me today, “I’m a loser.”

 

 

 

Too Important To Fail

In a new PBS special —that didn’t air in my city because our local station thinks that Great Performances is more relevant, which is where I stop my contributions to them and instead, send my money where I feel it will be better used—Tavis Smiley delves into the achievement gap, an epic crisis in our country that is disproportionally leaving black boys behind. Like, can’t see them in the rear-view-mirror behind. Desperately, unforgivingly behind.

Why should you care? Because it’s an issue that affects all of us, as we are all connected. And because the job of public education is to educate all children. Indeed, it is a moral failing to not care.

Too Important To Fail is 50 minutes long and worth ever compelling minute. Watch it here. Come back after and let me know your thoughts. I’m very interested in your thoughts…

The bad apples

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a staunch defender of teachers. I think it’s absurd to blame them for the economic woes of our country; I loathe how they are vilified by the media and politicians. I believe that most of them want to do a good job, that most of them love what they do, and—paramount to all of this—that most of them love children and have their best interests at heart.  If these things aren’t true, then why would anyone become a teacher? It certainly isn’t for the incredible salary, or the easy six-hour days, or the summer months off. Falacies, one and all. Teachers put in long hours and are frustrated daily by the demands of mandates, curriculum, children, parents, administrators, and so on.

I pretty much view teachers as saints.

But this Polyanna view was challenged this summer at Pact Camp. Willie Adams, the Dean of Middle School Life at the Head-Royce School in Oakland, and co-founder of the Excelsus Foundation, was the keynote speaker on the third morning. Adams’ work is focused on the education and support of black boys, who consistently remain on one side of the achievement gap. And part of his discussion included the bias—sometimes overt, sometimes subconscious—that teachers bring with them into the classroom, resulting in lower expectations for black students than for their white counterparts.

This isn’t new. But sometimes it takes hearing the spoken words to make it real. I began to percolate on this.

And then: Yesterday.

Yesterday, I found myself engaged with two self-proclaimed teachers in the comment section of a post (since removed) on Derfwad Manor. The post was innocuous enough: Mrs. G. offered a short intro to the audio of the Smiley/West Poverty Tour, and spoke of how she was deeply moved and inspired by it. I listened to all 48-minutes of it but not so, some of the commentors. And as it tends to go with all things funky, as Dr. West might say, the negative response was quick.

The first hint of ugliness came from a former internet “colleague” of mine named Stacy, who posted using a pseudonym. The other was from a person calling herself Shawna. Both women expressed opinions about poverty that included derisive remarks about black women, castigating them for getting weaves or french manicures or a pack of cigarettes, while not providing adequately (in their opinions) for their children. They each made blanket, racist, white-privileged based statements, and I took them to task in one general remark.

Comments have since been shut down because Shawna’s retort to my retort included the n-word, which doesn’t fly at Derfwad Manor. The management drew the line in the sand there. And I get that should-I-or-should-I-not-let-that-stand inner dialogue. But at the same time, oh hell-the-fuck-no! Over here, I like to shine a bright light on exactly what kind of person this “teacher” is. Her exact words were:

Yep, just leave teachers to sweep up all the shit left behind from shitty n****r parents. (Asterisks mine.)

This from a teacher. Who is teaching.

We should all know which classroom is hers so we can request out of it immediately should our kids be so unfortunate to land there.

What a teacher is saying online should matter to every single person who has a child in school. Teachers spend seven hours or more each day, five days a week with our kids. There aren’t any other adults who are granted such an abundance of time with our babies. We are trusting them. Yet, they cannot be effectively teaching children, brown and/or impoverished included, while tamping down racial prejudices and closeting bigoted views both of which lack any sense of historical knowledge.

To call yourself a good teacher in one breath, and then vent to the internet about what imbeciles your students are—because if you didn’t, you’d have to “blow [your] brains out,” as Stacy wrote on her own site—isn’t funny or satirical. It’s sad, and indicates that perhaps she’s in the wrong profession, or in need of a good therapist, or both. And definitely, the teacher who uses the n-word in her cyber-time shouldn’t be anywhere near my kid at any time, ever.

Certainly, the frustrations of teachers are myriad. But to commiserate face-to-face with parents in one manner, and then mock them later online, is a complete and appalling violation of trust. The thought of this possibility had never occurred to me before now. But this experience has given me a lot to consider as I figure out how best to speak to my daughter’s new teacher about the things that occupy my mind these days. Because that is a conversation we will be having.

For sure, a teacher cannot be one thing in the classroom and another outside of it. James Baldwin said it best:

A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled.

Neither can parents.

 

 

Budget Woes: California is one hot mess with a tough governor

This week’s installment of BAIHH (acronyms are so stupid, and I just needed to prove it) was going to be a meditation on the state of state government, except I can’t quiet my mind.

The deadline for passing a state budget is here, and in the balance hangs the future of lots of stuff, including my topic du siécle—education—or, more specifically, the operation and financing of the 2011-12 school year. I don’t dare to think much beyond that—sort of like our leaders. The difference is that they’re paid by you and me to consider the future when making decisions that affect us, and we have little say (none, if Republicans get their way) in any of it. Depressed yet?

Click here to continue reading…

Together we are stronger

A teacher at Ruby’s school organized a rally last Wednesday morning to show support for the six teachers who have in their possession, at this very minute, layoff notices (Ruby’s kindergarten teacher is one of Golden Ticket holders). Yay for creating a healthy work environment! Pfffft. The rally was also aimed at expressing frustration with the district’s handling of…oh…pretty much everything. Parents, teachers and students were instructed to wear red and meet an hour before school. Signs were to be provided.

I woke Ruby early, packed her lunch and over a breakfast of eggs, mixed berry applesauce and vitamins—don’t forget the vitamins!—I explained why we’d be stepping between the raindrops that morning. The discussion went swimmingly. I told her about silly people firing teachers, and she responded with, “Mama, Ella is the best dog in the whole world!” I told her about buses becoming extinct like the dinosaurs, and she sang out “I got no chicken in my chicken pot paahhhh!” When she stood to shake her booty to the sound of her new chant, I knew the conversation was over. I grabbed our umbrellas and hoped something had sunk in.

When we got to the rally, we found that we were the rally. Just the two of us, sign-less in our rain boots, standing on a damp sidewalk as cars whooshed by. Because I don’t usually check my email at 7:40 AM, I missed the rally-canceled-due-to-rain notice to disarm. To think: Thousands upon thousands of folks stood in snow and sleet and freezing temperatures for more than a month in Madison, Wisconsin, this past winter. They slept in their capitol building, too. But here in San Diego, a little marine layer rolls in off the ocean and we need chains on our tires. That is if we don’t call off the job. I’m convinced this type of halfheartedness is why Chargers fans are the only thing lamer than the Chargers.

I was miffed and voiced my opinion to the appropriate source. Poor guy. But I got over it and focused on the so-called teachable moment. On the way to the drop-off area, I talked to Ruby about apathy. Then she placed one kiss on each of my cheeks before wiggling off to class singing, “I got no chicken in my chicken pot paahhhh. I got no chicken in my chicken pot paahhhh.”

The rally was rescheduled for yesterday, and because I support our teachers and our school, and because I want my daughter to learn to stand for what she believes in, I woke her early, packed her lunch and reminded her over breakfast why we were going to stand with teachers in the glorious morning sunlight.

Tonight, when she told her dad about the rally, she said to him, “TEACHERS! YES! TEACHERS! YES! LAYOFFS! NO! LAYOFFS! NO! COUNSELORS! YES! COUNSELORS! YES! CUTBACKS! NO! CUTBACKS! NO!”

I’ll tell you what: That girl most definitely has some chicken in her chicken pot pie.

False Solutions: Waving goodbye to the yellow school bus

Hey-ho, readers. I have a public-service announcement for you: Don’t have children. Too late, you say? Well, this piece is for you, too.

The reason I say this is not because kids suddenly need to talk to you every time you pick up the telephone to chat with your best friend. It’s not because they use their favorite Hannah Montana rubber stamp to decorate the floor, baseboards and west-facing wall of your newly painted dining room. It’s not because you have to hold post-potty depositions after every single mother@!&#*^!! bathroom trip—complete with hand sniffing and counterarguments—about whether hand washing actually occurred. No, this stuff isn’t why I implore you to put on a rubber.

I beg because trying to get a decent public education for your child in this city is like walking up a down escalator. On crutches. While simultaneously patting your head and rubbing your tummy. It’s way more fun to be a childless hipster. Even a tragic, brooding one.

The reasons San Diego children are completely screwed are myriad. But the standard We’re broke! excuse has brought us to the latest emotional, ideological, political and un-thought-out decision to do away with all but federally mandated busing.

For those who don’t speak educationese, that means the roughly 6,000 students in San Diego Unified who aren’t designated as special-education kids or who aren’t bused out of failing schools under No Child Left Behind—and further encouraged by the district’s very own School Choice program, mind you—will no longer have access to transportation. School-board members Scott Barnett, Shelia Jackson and John Lee Evans like to paint it as a return to neighborhood schools. I like to call it re-segregation.

Currently, parents who can afford it are asked to pay to use school buses. I’d advocate for increasing the fee before puncturing all the bus tires, but that’s because I care. The school district, though, has been incompetent when it comes to tracking current payments, with approximately half of the 5,000 paying families delinquent. (Oh, bureaucracy. You’re so adorable I want to squeeze your chubby cheeks!) Of course, it is difficult to track bus ridership in the day and age of children swiping pre-paid ID cards each day to eat cafeteria lunch.

According to an analysis by the district’s very own Tiger Team on Transportation, it costs $32,000 annually to operate a bus. This is whether one child is on a bus (say, a federally mandated rider) or 40 children are on a bus (say, all the kids who live in the general area and could get on that bus but won’t be allowed to). Here’s the thing: The school board would sorta need to know who’s riding the bus in order to know how much money could be saved by eliminating bus routes. Can I get a witness?

Anti-buser Scott Barnett says that eliminating busing will save teacher jobs and he projects an overall savings of $3.1 million—amid an estimated $140-million deficit. Drop, meet bucket. (Things will change a bit with the governor’s new budget, but unless Evans is open to reason, it’s unlikely busing will remain untouched.)

Interestingly (which is probably why the school board is uninterested), the Tiger Team projects that 36 schools will be below capacity if busing goes the way of the dodo bird, and at least 11 will be over capacity.

Mission Bay High School could see enrollment nosedive as much as 75 percent if its bused students don’t find another way to get there. Teachers will be laid off, and then the school will be—what? Operated at 25-percent capacity? Or will it be shut down and remaining students sent—where? And if the latter, will they be—bussed? Or will Barnett arrange for them to have taxi vouchers? He seriously proposed taxi vouchers as an answer to busing. That’s out-of-the-box thinking.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town where the real beating will take place, Lincoln High School—with 2,100 to 2,700 students enrolled in any given year—will absorb as many as 1,120 students, according to the Tiger Team. Jackson pshawed that as a “worst-case scenario” and defended her vote to eliminate busing by saying that there’s no way to know what the actual number of new enrollees would be. I love the let’s-just-hop-in-the-car-and-see-where-we-end-up plan of action. It’s an especially effective policy when you start on empty.

I ask Jackson & Co.: What already-large high school can absorb another thousand students? Or even 500? Or whatever made-up number you’d like to propose? Will you accommodate this mystical influx by building more buildings? I wonder if the school board has wondered whether that will cost more than $3.1 million.

The elimination of busing will be the third decision in a series aimed in a not-so-veiled way at closing down magnet schools. With the redistribution of magnet funds and the phasing out of Title 1 funds, my daughter’s school will face a reduction of up to 47 percent of the student body if busing is axed. Taxis are likely out as an option since I don’t know one parent who’s going to put a first grader in an Orange Cab, or on a city bus, for that matter. Will my school operate at half-capacity? Will it close? And how many teachers will be let go? Yup. I see the savings now.

Readers: On the morning of May 10, our school board met to discuss this issue in an air-conditioned room. The National Weather Service recorded the high temperature in San Diego as 68 degrees that day. And they say busing is a waste of money.

Any estimation of savings from eliminating busing is magical thinking. Educating our city’s kids with nincompoops as sitting board members is the sad, sad reality.


Don’t write to me, silly! Write to the school board and urge them to take busing off the table. Then write to aaryn@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.