Friday, June 12, 2015

When Teacher Evaluation is Driven by Bigoted Testing

So today, on the last possible day to administer my End of Year REACH performance task (the test used to check how much I taught students and used to assign me a portion of my rating), I pushed aside our incredible sexual education curriculum to give one of my seventh grade classes the test.

Of course, I was already pretty skeptical of this assessment after last year's fiasco where the 7th grade library test had an extremely racist question in which the test designers made up fictional anti-immigration African American and Latina and forced students to choose one to support.

This was today's test:

It featured the exact transgender rights principle that I had taught earlier in the week: "People have the right to express their own gender identity and choose how they are addressed". Only the test modeled the bigoted approach:

We do not know why Charley Parkhurst chose to live her life as a man, because we have no records of
interviews w
ith her. We do not know why Charley Parkhurst chose to live her life as a man, because we have no records of
interviews w
ith her. We do not know why Charley Parkhurst chose to live her life as a man, because we have no records of
interviews w
ith her. 
We do not know why Charley Parkhurst chose to live her life as a man, because we have no records of
interviews w
ith her. 
We do not know why Charley Parkhurst chose to live her life as a man, because we have no records of
interviews w
ith her. 
We do not know why Charley Parkhurst chose to live her life as a man, because we have no records of interviews with her.

In fact, the title of the piece was printed on the top of every page:
I was pretty pissed. We've had discussions all week about identity, sexuality and gender, and it took considerable work to create a safe space where students were respectful of the concepts and each other's identification. Now I was administering a test--with my own job rating on the line--which directly violated those concepts.

One of my students raised their hand. "Why does it keep calling 'he' as 'she'"? I said, "Why do you ask?" "It seems like this test doesn't respect Charley's choice."

I said, "That's a great point. You can write that into your answer if you'd like."

The outcomes were incredible. The seventh graders were confused by the conflict of a test enforcing a transphobic narrative and what they knew was fair and right, and this what they came up with in response to the transphobic essay prompt, "Based on teh documents above (A-D), what are the reasons Charley Parker lived her life as a man? Be sure to explain your thinking and use evidence from 304 sources to support your answer."

DC (first crossed out all of the female pronouns and wrote in male ones to respect Charley's choices)
No one can be for sure about this since he hasn't been interviewed. I would say it was by choice and under his circumstances, it would seem relevant. It states in document A that "Another Charley Parkhurst story is that he was the first 'woman' to vote in Colifornia". This might be a reason why he made the transition by his choice. 

MG: The reason Charley Parker changed his gender was because he was a runaway and found his identity in being a male. Both documents A and C have information stating that Charley had family problems and decided to leave home. It also states that Charley loved his life as a male because he had a very important job and was very good at it without being judged by his gender. 

Charlie Parker (copying the wrong name from the question title) lived his life as a man for a couple of reasons. One of them was because he ran away from the orphanage. Another one was because he enjoyed driving and learning about horses.

JV: Charley Parker lived her life as a man because in Document A, it says that she voted so she was a guy. Also in Document C, Holiday said, "You are just the man I want". So Charley wanted to be a man and also because it was a good choice for her. 

Some of the other students just referred to the subject by his chosen name Charley Parkhurst over and over again to avoid using the incorrect pronouns proscribed by the test. 

Others got confused and thought that since the test was using female pronouns, that must have been Charley's choice, and so deduced that Charley must have been born a man but chose to be a woman because they couldn't believe that the testmakers could be that prejudiced. Others just wrote he/she in every sentence. 

Additionally, I had to help them understand how to connect the documents to the questions as due to the identification of the documents and questions with different alphabet letters, it was hard for them to follow. They knew what primary and secondary sources were, but they couldn't navigate the poor design of the test. My recollection was that the Beginning of Year REACH Performance Task was far shorter and easier than this round--which would destroy the integrity of the growth measurement--but it's no longer available online, so I can't remember for sure. 

In the end, they completed the test, we had a good chat and then they went off to the next class leaving me to input the scores for my rating.

But then the power and water went out at my school and we have no engineering position staffed by the district, so I couldn't put them in anyway. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Yes, I Was Fired and Still We Will Win

At 9:11am Friday morning, on a quiet, scripted phone call from my principal, my teaching career ended. Again. 

Many of you have already read the exact details here:

And I hesitate to blog on it, as I could never match the beautiful words of friends and accomplished bloggers Stephanie Rivera and Fred Klonsky.

In many ways, I feel out of generous love, people have focused too much on my story and I don’t want to perpetuate that dynamic—there are some 3,000 other educators who are going through the same.

But I always teach my students that our voices may not be the strongest; our writing might not be the most polished; we may be nervous and stumble; but our experiences are precious and must be heard and we are the only ones who can make that happen.

I am deeply thankful to all of you who have reached out in this time. I am sure it is jarring and sad to watch someone’s life passion torn away, and it has been immeasurably helpful to have each and every one of you supporting me.  

Beyond that, I feel so blessed by my community. I feel fortunate to work with amazing students who communicate directly and frequently the difference my work makes, a supportive professional group of colleagues and the warmest community organizers and allies anyone could ask for.

I say all this because I don’t want anyone to feel bad for me.  I want them to start by acknowledging the beauty that my students and I conspired to build and understanding that it cannot ever be destroyed; even by an action as cruel as this.

I would ask each of you to pause to capture in your mind that one teacher or several that altered the course of your life. Now tear them from the fabric of your experience. What would it look like? How would you be changed?

Our city inflicts that sadistic exercise on our impoverished students of color as a regular occurrence.
I don’t pretend to have been that life changing teacher for every one or even most of my students, but like my 3,000 colleagues, each of us was the difference maker for some students.

And as it happens again and again, the message that the district sends to our students is clear, “You are uncared for. Even those you thought loved you dearly have abandoned you, and it’s your own fault.”  Again, this is not just a happenstance; it is a regular matter of practice. When I was let go in 2010, my principal first told students that I simply left, (He didn’t care about you) and later told them that “There wasn’t enough interest in Japanese” (You didn’t care enough). Both were lies—lies that made students feel worse about themselves.

So this time, I need my students to understand—we did nothing wrong. We did everything right, and through our honest collaboration we created many treasures. We spoke for justice when others were silent and we took consequences to fight for what we knew to be right. Now, as one of those consequences, I must go on a journey, but it is not out of lack of love.

This was my best teaching year by far. Better than the year that I raised the scores the most; better than the year I won that national teaching award. This year I listened most deeply to the largest portion of my students and learned to support them in all the right battles: for student voice, against sexism, homophobia, ableism, and racism, for student/teacher unity and against the school-to-prison pipeline. The classroom was open and the youth shared amazing personal stories that I will share-with their consent-in this space over the next few months.  I would not trade this year away for 100 years as the football star I dreamt I would become when I was a tiny little 10 year old who didn’t really understand the physics of Professional Football.

I know that in the reactions, many people were shocked that with what I do each day, I could be treated in this fashion. Thank you for your outrage. But I want to be very clear about your dismay:

This was not those who run the Chicago Public Schools System failing in their mission; it was them succeeding.  While it took me by surprise when I was laid off in 2010, I had planned for it this time. I was relatively sure I would be one of the thousands of people who devote their lives to the children of Chicago who would be mechanically thanked for our service and tossed aside as if our students didn’t need us anymore, so I made plans in case of this situation.  A former student understood:

Janai Cooks @Kitty_luvs_Unot19m (Japanese/Social Justice at Julian 2008-2010)
Why is the CPS board so scared of @xianb8 ? Because that man has got more heart and drive to actually educate teens & watch us grow !!!!

If I had taught what I taught in Mayor Emanuel’s hometown, I would still be employed. If the children I taught had been rich enough and white enough, I would have continued to collect my paycheck and accolades and they would have been affirmed in all of their accomplishments.  I am unemployed and my students are without their teacher today because I chose to teach students of highest need. I chose to actually address the opportunity gaps in our society, and not in theory but in reality supporting impoverished young people of color to fight to improve their own lives and demand to be treated as equals.

But it was more than worth it. While to many these constant horrible disparities can cause resignation and hopelessness, what students have taught me is that while consistent injustice can numb some, they have reached a stage of consistent righteous struggle beyond where others despair.They have shown me that it's not enough to urge those in power to treat us humanely; if they will not, they must be removed.

This is exactly what we need at this time. Rather than be models for the students who are the victims of this injustice, let them be your models. The deep, consistent social inequities that transport our students from their crib to the jailhouse door will not be vanquished with a phone call or momentary righteous indignation. Unlike the white abolitionist that John Brown spoke of derisively who can be outraged and then quit whenever he wants, this struggle is our students’ and communities’ daily struggle. And they must and will lead it.

So I thank you for your anger at my unjust firing, but I would ask you to reserve the same rage for the educations ruined by arrests on school grounds, over testing and under resourcing.  Get furious at the total indignity of a system that calls a dedicated worker’s momma to inform him of his termination, but get more livid about the teen mothers who get shamed into giving up the education they so desperately want for themselves and their children. Get angry that I didn't get due process, but get madder about the millions of young people who had to plea bargain out to a crime they didn't commit or go another day without employment opportunities or access to health care. 

The depth of the injustice in our society is so deep that it’s a miracle that many of our young people can see any light at all, and yet they pursue it with all they have.

And so we must too. This fight must continue, and it must not end until Rahm Emanuel and those he serves are vanquished from any position of power that they could use to further hurt the children of the City of Chicago..

For me, I've decided to that this might be the right time to step away from the classroom for a moment. I realize looking back that I've neglected self-care for quite a long time, and do not have the energy to work with a new group of amazing youth people to build to a new vista.  This isn't a permanent state, but with each heartbreak, we must heal.

While I won’t be in the classroom, I will be teaching next year. In our broken city, in this jacked up state of Illinois, in this great country of ours that seems to have forgotten that education and such things are basic rights, there are a few people in need of instruction more than my students. I will take my expertise to teach those failing to run our society. Are they prepared for their lessons?

We all continue this beautiful struggle and we will win because we must.

And one day I will return to my classroom, and another adventure will begin.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

What will you do to save the lives of the children of the city of Chicago?

Today, the Chicago Board of Education announced their plans to proceed with major school actions against 71 schools. These are not the least utilized schools, nor the lowest performing by CPS’ own flawed metrics.
This is the ultimate insult to nearly twenty thousand parents, students, educators and community members who came to community hearings to protest the closings nearly unanimously. They came to demand that CPS not compromise their children’s potential and now they have been utterly ignored. Anyone who came to any of the hearings knows that the parents both know far more about the district than the board employees responsible for the decisions and deeply oppose these actions. CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett neither attended the hearings nor listened to the community voices responding with the proclamation that “everyone understands that we need to close some schools.”

The board has made a political decision to help their deep pocketed allies that will hurt tens of thousands of Chicago students.

And what of that hurt? Let’s put it directly—real talk—if we, the people of Chicago; the ones who the schools belong to; the ones who attend, work at and send our own kids to CPS neighborhood schools allow the board to follow through on this decision, we will lose children; victims of an absurd system in which an unelected school board plays Hunger Games (much respect to Joel Rodriguez who coined the comparison and whose children’s school is slated for closure) with the lives of poor children of color even as they and many of the decision makers at central office give their own children and grandchildren highly resourced, stable educations.

Can you imagine parents from Winnetka having to come to Chicago and beg poor people of color to “allow” New Trier to stay open? Can you imagine the Lab School being labeled “underutilized” and closed?
Close your eyes for a moment and envision your own child, or grandchild. Now add their classmates and other students who go to a school. Now imagine someone sitting next to you had expressed their intention to press a button that would hurt a percentage of the children you see, cause another portion to dropout, and put another portion six feet underground. What would you be willing to do to stop them from pressing that button? Would you reason with them? Would you beg? Would you march around? Or would you do more?

Now, in Chicago, if the kids you are envisioning are rich or white, the likelihood that you would have to treat this as more than a thought exercise is very low. After all, this is a nationwide experiment on poor children of color—“other people’s children”.

Our corporate overlords have taken historically under resourced schools and placed them under constant siege in a barrage of overtesting, charterization, constant chaos and now is the moment they expect our neighborhood schools to fall.

This is unjust. It is disgusting. It is a slow genocide. It is Tuskegee and Jim Crow, and “Kill the Indian, save the man.” It is the death knell of Brown v. Board aborted before it could even sniff its potential.

And it must not stand.

What are you willing to do to stop it?

There are specific actions we must take to save these young people’s lives. They may risk your job or your freedom; are our kids’ lives worth it to you? I must admit, while my heart never wavers on these matters (as I have shown in action in the past), my mind sometimes questions.
But when it does, I think of a brave young woman. I think of Vicki Soto, who faced with a mass murderer armed with an automatic weapon, walked out to almost certain death in order to increase the likelihood of her students surviving. And I remember what it means to be a teacher. I think of my own students like Araceli Medrano who snuck into the principal’s conference room to scrawl on the data board a powerful message, “Reading scores aren’t everything. Reevaluate the rules you have imposed for next year because students and teachers agree the atmosphere is ‘suppressive’. ; we have all lost our spirits. Do not take offense; take action. Listen to those you work for” and then signed it in her own name with her graduation year.

And I am ready to protest.
And resist.
And speak truth.
And suffer punishment.
And risk livelihood, profession, personal safety,
And even life.

Rahm Emanuel and his minions—our bosses—are on the verge of becoming mass murderers. Let’s save their victims—Chicago’s children—but also let’s save them from themselves and ourselves from being accomplices.

Let’s fight to build a bridge from this dark day to the day when our schools belong to the only group who could ever actually develop the school system Chicago’s children deserve—our communities themselves. Whatever harm and danger that we may encounter together on that journey, let us dance the desperate dance of justice together.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Where policy comes from

If we race and leave childrans behind only then will will know is our childrans learning.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Obama's impending victory

First of all, I want to congratulate many of you on your hard work. 

I still hold hope and as critical as I've been, I'm relieved that the election results for this one day seem about as good as they can get for a single election's results. But we need far more--long, life-shaking civic engagement that can really change the landscape of a society.

I hold serious hope that everyone who has assured me that we just needed to come together and ensure Obama's re-election so that we could subsequently switch into accountability mode was not just saying what needed to be said, but really honestly believes that's the next step.

Because with all that hope, I also know one harsh reality: starting tomorrow, all of the corporate influences that sidetracked Hope and Change throughout the first-term will have already had their first second-term conversations with the administration and we will have not.

The other thing that worried me about this cycle was the constant refrain of how bad Romney would make it and that there'd be nothing we could do about it. This assumes that we are at the mercy of people in power and their agenda. If this is the case, we might as well just give up now. We cannot vote our way to the free society we deserve, and there are going to be moments where we have to get mad and active and use civil disobedience to push those in power to act justly. If we do that effectively, we can win over the unjust rule of law.

We will likely need to do that under this administration as well. We must stand for what just and we should expect this administration to oppose us in many areas:

1. We need to bring people together now and resolve that we will not vote for any candidate that enters the current debate pact to exclude third-party voices. We need to act quickly and decisively to throw corporate money out of politics and grab grassroots control of policymaking in as many areas as possible. Those with power should offer resources to execute our plans, not demand that we accept the plans they impose on us.
2. We need to draw a line on due process. No President from any party should have license to employ killer robot planes to execute 16 year-old American citizens who have neither committed, nor been accused of any crime. Gibbs' comments on this case--blaming the victim for essentially having a bad dad are crazy and he should have been fired on the spot. 
3. We need serious immigration reform and it should fully acknowledge the vast contributions of immigrants--both documented and undocumented--to the country. It should seek to decriminalize immigrant populations and provide expedient pathways to citizenship rather than the fragmenting of families.
4. The final margin in the Superintendent race in Indiana and several other Congressional races suggests that Corporate Education Reform dollars only go so far in certainly contexts. They are often beating us soundly in the policy arena, but the general public is neither asking for these policies nor particularly resolute in following this corporate narrative. We need to call out the current administration's disastrous direction on privatizing education and testing the crap out of our kids for what it is: junk science that will pour over a hundred billion dollars into making our students' educations worse.
5. We need to look at making public education all the way through college free, accessible and equitably outstanding for all young people. Education should be a right, not a privilege, and we should be able to pursue it regardless of our background without being criminalized or put into veritable debt slavery for large portions of our lives.

That's just a start, but we need to nail down these commitments today and stay engaged. It is impossible for us to build the free and fair country we envision through a single election day, but we can achieve that lofty goal by applying increased organizing energy to the struggle between these elections.

Much love.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Open Letter to Newark Teachers

The Newark Teachers Union is facing a critical contract vote that was supposed to be Monday, October 28th although the hurricane is pushing back the date. It's a particularly interesting vote in light of the emergence of the NEW  (Newark Education Workers) Caucus as a group within the union opposing the contract and the current NTU leadership, along with Randi Weingarten, AFT President and Republican Celebrity Governor Chris Christie supporting it. Hear more about it here:

Unlike the AFT leadership and the annoying head of state of New Jersey, I don't think it's right for me to presume to know what's best for the educators of Newark--they certain can and must figure that out in vibrant, democratic and grassroots fashion.

On the other hand, it's vital to show support for fellow educators and to remind them that they are not alone in the fight to defend public education, so:

October 28, 2012
Dear Newark Teachers:
You stand at the crossroads of an immense and democratic decision. Many may try to make you feel like you are making a horrible mistake if you don’t vote a certain way, but I want to ensure you that it is far more important to engage in your profession, union and the policy that governs the daily learning of your students than to vote one way or another.
As a recently returned striking Chicago Teacher, I can tell you that there are plenty of things worth striking over. It’s worth standing up and saying what needs to be improved in your working conditions even if a single strike or contract negotiation cannot address all of them. I cannot think of a time in my teaching career when I was prouder than standing on the picket line to fight for smaller class sizes and humane classroom conditions with my fellow educators, students and parents.
Like in Chicago, I’m sure there are many challenges in Newark Public Schools, and some of them are unique to your situation. However, I’m quite sure that we share many similarities. We work extremely hard. We are under-appreciated  We often put our students and their families ahead of the needs of our own families. Most of all, we are under attack by the same corporate forces that seek to blame us for the problems they've created in our public school system and use that as an opportunity to divide us. They intend to take full control of the resources of our schools.
They are spending billions of dollars to sell us policies that studies tell us will hurt our students:
  1. Districts controlled by the richest of the rich who do not send their own kids to the schools we teach in
  2. Evaluations dictated by the employer and predicated on inaccurate high stakes tests not intended for this purpose
  3. Charter and turnaround schools that contextually underperform their counterparts
  4. Multi-tiered employment that will cast us as unequal based on when we were hired
  5. Merit pay
  6.  A continued erosion of our voice into the conditions of our own profession.
  7. Extended work hours without the necessary resources or adding more employees so that we are stretched more thinly
  8. Destruction of our retirement plans, so once we’ve given our all to students, we get nothing in return

You’ll recognize many of these corporate goals in the contract you are being asked to vote on. You’ll also recognize them as policies that serve a corporate purpose but in no way help your instruction. Now you are faced with a decision to make: “Would voting for this contract help or hinder my teaching and the quality of life for my students and my own family?”
It is a shame it has come to this—I, like many of you, wish I lived in a time where I could just close my classroom door and be an awesome teacher to my students—but it’s also an opportunity. Heroic battles are not waged and won by superhuman heroes, but by every day people inspired to do what they never thought themselves capable of.
So go forth and vote what you feel to be best for students, but look beyond that too. The fight for our profession, the public school system and our very American democracy is at hand. The bigger question is not whether or not Newark teachers should accept this contract. It is whether we as educators will continue to allow the super-rich to fund and push separate and unequal education or we will force them to step aside so with our parents and students voices combine we can shape our schools and classrooms in the ways we know to be best.
Be courageous, and stand up for what you know to be right. This is a glorious teaching moment, and you are just the educator to shine in it!

Xian Barrett, Law and Chicago History Teacher, Gage Park High School, Chicago Public Schools
2009-2010 U.S. Department of Education Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow
VIVA Teacher Leader

Saturday, October 6, 2012

"Real parents"

The director of Education Reform Now which is a differently named part of Democrats for Education Reform, Ms. Nieves Huffman recently wrote an article on Catalyst: "Real Parents Have Been Standing Up" to respond to a thoughtful piece from Wendy Katten, director of Raise Your Hand for Public Education.

I'll try to avoid snark until the last paragraph as I respect that we can have reasonable discussions within our differences about educational policy. We can be polite. We can be respectful. That is, until the last paragraph, then we get to treat each other and all bets are off.

I think Ms. Nieves Huffman's story illustrates exactly why CPS should be expected to adhere to state law and common decency into major facilities decisions. I would include attendance boundary changes.

What she describes is exactly why hedge fund managers should not dictate policy in Chicago; parents and students should and educators should be supported to implement that policy.  It sounds like Ms. Huffman-Nieves agrees in her emphasis on the need for parents and key stakeholders (like students and educators) to be involved in the process.

I expect that she will stand by that conviction and testify with us at future Board meetings, run expensive television ads and use her thoughtful, Broad reaching voice to contest CPS' atrociously bad school facilities process which has been excoriated by a honorable state panel of educators, community organizations and educators.

Furthermore, I hope that she will reconsider using an illegally obtained list of parents' private contact information to spam parents to watch a non-veiled piece of corporate funded propaganda that is rapidly emerging as one of the worst movies of all time. (#1 Worst Box Office Showing of the Last 30 years.)

I would not to presume to know better for her and her funders' organization than she does, but given her stated goals, I would advise the convening of some non-hedge fund connected parents who don't have the means to choose selective schools (charter or otherwise) and ask them where the ample dollars they have ought to be spent.

After all, that would be democratic parent voice, which would deliver better decision-making and may have helped avert the strike in the first place.

Finally, in reference to the titles of the pieces, I'd say that Huffman doesn't really address the key issue here at all: There's a difference between an independently formed advocacy group that builds itself from the ground up and a well financed organization that obtained its money and chose its positions before it spoke to its first grassroots parent voice. "Selected voice" is not the same as "grassroots voice" and is infinitely less useful for creating good policy. If I can find 200 parents to take $1000 to make their kids smoke cigarettes, that doesn't count as a grassroots parent advocacy group for child smoking, it's just me being a terrible person.

Xian Barrett
Prime Minister, Chicago Barretts for Billionaires Not Getting to Run Rabbit Proof Fence Experiments on Other People's Children

Postscript: What I hope is not lost in the playful sniping is that we do have an obligation to fight for true democratic voice. I know that may sound presumptuous, but I'm not saying that I have the right to define what is "true" voice. I think that everyone has a pretty good understanding that the law that lets billionaires buy elections and run constant and misleading ads through groups like DFER does not promote a fair marketplace of ideas. On the other hand, Raise Your Hand's labor of love has brought together people across communities and led to the development of new ideas that with advocacy and implementation will lead to a better education for Chicago students.

Why should we care? Because I believe that when we push aside these money groups and really get the voices of those who experience the daily indignities of our school system, that's when we'll finally have the opportunity to reform our schools for the betterment of kids, not moneyed folks.