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Friday, February 10, 2017

SILENCING CIVIL RIGHTS


Image source:  https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/74/Coretta_Scott_King_1964.jpg
When I described what it felt like to be silenced by school district officials because of my research findings showing accurate dropout numbers in our schools, I could not have imaged that the next silencing to capture our national attention would be the exclusion of our civil rights history on, of all places, the floor of the US Senate.   Seeing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell essentially tell Senator Elizabeth Warren to sit down and shut up was stunning.  Even more stunning was the reason:  Jeff Sessions, conservative senator from Alabama, would be confirmed as Attorney General unless enough senators took seriously his documented history of active opposition to civil rights, voting rights, women's rights -- basically the body of law it would be his duty to enforce.  

Elizabeth Warren chose to make that history known by reading a letter written by Coretta Scott King opposing Sessions for a federal judgeship because of his racist treatment of African Americans trying to vote in Alabama in the 1980's when Sessions was not a US senator but the state's attorney general.   The letter is eloquent, detailed, and credible.   By reading it, Elizabeth Warren would unmask the silence of Sessions' racist past, exposing any senator who voted to confirm him as complicit with an agenda not compatible with the duties of the attorney general or the rights enshrined in the US Constitution and in hard-fought laws and landmark court rulings.

Instead, Senator Warren was silenced.  "Rule 19," which sounds like something out of a children's game, was the weapon.  Mitch McConnell was the silencer.  His demeaning treatment of Senator Warren is now legendary:  "She was warned!" 

Telling Senator Warren she could not speak about Sessions was demeaning, embarrassing to our country and our Senate, and frankly childish.  But thanks to Mitch McConnell, a whole new generation now knows Coretta Scott King as not just the beautiful supportive presence beside Martin Luther King, Jr., but as a force for justice in her own right.  By silencing one powerful woman, Mitch McConnell gave voice to another.  And he quite inadvertently but very effectively showed the nation that his effusive praise of Jeff Sessions cannot hide Sessions' personal racism and his undeniable history of a willingness to use the full force of his public office in its service.

We need an attorney general who will enforce our most just laws and work to improve our justice system for everyone.  Jeff Sessions is not that person. And now, thanks to Elizabeth Warren and Coretta Scott King, we all know to watch every move he makes, speak up when he fails to uphold the law, and stay vigilant on behalf of those least likely to be well served while he holds this office.

Thank you, Senator Warren, for shedding light on Mr. Sessions' role in one of the darkest moments in our history and for bringing into the light another powerful moment of resistance!


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Thursday, February 9, 2017

TAKE ACTION FOR ETHNIC STUDIES!


Texas SB No. 695

Relating to elective courses in ethnic studies for middle school and high school students

Good news out of Austin:  A bill requiring the state of Texas to offer ethnic studies courses as middle and high school electives has been introduced in the legislature.  SB695 would authorize ethnic studies electives in Mexican American, Asian American, Native American and African American studies.   Tireless efforts by informed community groups built the coalition behind this bill.  Forward-thinking legislators signed on to sponsor it.

Now we all need to make sure SB695 gets a hearing, gets a vote, and becomes Texas law!  If you were horrified by the bogus “Mexican American studies” book that colonized Mexicans and degraded our collective history, if you admired the scholars and community leaders who successfully fought its adoption, then seize this chance to make our kids’ education match our rich history and cultural assets.  


See Angela Valenzuela’s advice for legislators to contact, copied from her blog (below).   The bill itself is here; share it with your friends, your children’s teachers, your children themselves.  Letters and calls from school kids carry weight:  these are the future voters.

Whom to thank:
  • The K-12 Committee of the NACCS Tejas Foco organization.  
  • Senators Garcia, Hinojosa, Lucio, Menéndez, Miles, Rodriguez, Uresti, Watson, West, Whitmire, ad Zaffirini for co-authoring this historic legislation.

Whom to contact:


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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Let's work together to Educate All Our Children.  Below is a listing of a CVPE (Community Voices for Public Education) event to be held in Houston on February 9.  Support of these voices is more important than ever.











RSVP Here


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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Please forward Diane Ravitch's eloquent summation of the DeVos confirmation to all of your friends, your neighbors, your elected officials.  Let your children and their teachers know that you stand with them and will be a tireless advocate for them and for their schools.  Then call or write every elected official who will need extraordinary courage to stand up against the harmful policies that will start to impact our schools; let them know you'll be right there with them as they stand up to DeVos's determination to dismantle our schools.

And to those public officials -- right now 50 senators -- who were too scared to stand up for the public's schools, let them know that you know when the next election comes around , you'll be watching to see if they cave to the DeVos legislative agenda or have the courage to listen to the parents and teachers and business leaders and civil rights organizations in their states and vote for strong, equitable public schooling.




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Friday, February 3, 2017

When You’re Told to Shut Up, You Must be Doing Something Right, Part II:  A Lesson I Learned in Houston 

And that’s where the letter you see here comes in:  As Anna Werner, the award-winning investigative journalist who uncovered the Firestone tire hazard, took our findings seriously, her national reputation could give these academic studies a wide audience and considerable credibility.  Thus, I personally had to be discredited.  The district’s press secretary (HISD’s Sean Spicer!) took the time to write a 4-page letter advising Channel 11 reporters not to listen to me because I had “an ax to grind,”  was “a paid critic of the Texas accountability system” who “frequently attacks the Texas accountability system and HISD.” 

Yes, I gave testimony as an expert witness in a discrimination lawsuit on behalf of Hispanic and African American students who had fulfilled all graduation requirements but been denied a diploma because they did not pass the state test.  My research was independent, conducted prior to the lawsuit. I was paid for my time in depositions and at trial, a standard practice (I had planned to donate my time but was advised by other women scholars that if a woman expert witness is not paid, the court or opposing counsel often discounts her expertise).


The Ch. 11 reporters did not silence me or my data, nor that of other researchers, nor did they discredit the experiences of the students and their parents who came to them for help.  They did the ethical thing of providing me with the school district's letter, thus notifying me of the attempt to prevent my findings from being made public.

Principals also received a “don’t talk with Linda McNeil and don’t answer questions from reporters about the testing system” email, which several showed to me, grateful for my concern for the ethical dilemmas they faced every day in the conflict between producing test scores (thus keeping their jobs) or taking the risks needed to educate kids well.   My colleagues and I in the Rice University Center for Education had since 1988 been working closely with Houston public schools in our innovative teacher development programs to enhance the teaching of science, writing, early childhood, and such specialized areas as Asian studies. Our grant-funded programs created opportunities for teachers to update their knowledge of their subjects, of children’s learning and of the cultures of the children and their families. Our credibility was hard-earned over decades.  When principals told us they knew the kids they were holding back would likely dropout, they trusted us to make public through our research the perverse incentives the accountability system placed on them.

Central office had no such desire for the public to know what tricks lay behind the production of rising test scores.  The HISD press secretary’s letter challenges a story Anna Werner and her Ch. 11 investigators were about to run:  “We urge KHOU to produce a fair and balanced story on this issue rather than simply allowing disgruntled employees such as Bob Kimball (featured on Bill Moyers NOW as a whistle-blower) and apologists for the failed education policies of the past such as Linda McNeil to say whatever they want without challenge.”  [Note, scholarly findings are challenged through rigorous peer review.]

The press secretary’s admonition went on:  "We also urge that if KHOU airs an interview with Linda McNeil that you also report that Texas officials say that McNeil and others oppose the Texas accountability system because 'they have an ax to grind, because they were paid witnesses against the state in a Hispanic civil rights group’s failed lawsuit alleging school bias.' (The district judge who found the testing system to be discriminatory but not to a ‘constitutional level,’ would soon be appointed by Bush to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.) 

Especially grating to HISD was my comment to the Washington Post that “It [the testing system] is all phony; it’s just like Enron. Enron was concerned about appearances, not real economic results.  That pretty much describes what we have been doing to our children in Houston.”  The HISD letter to the reporters noted graduation rates for several of the district’s high schools as rising (citing percentages that did not match actual grade-level enrollments) and argued that not holding kids back would deprive them of an extra chance to learn, though many who were held back had already passed all but one class in that grade and had earned sufficient credits to be promoted to their correct grade.  Details few policymakers would pay attention to so long as test scores appeared to be rising.


So HISD and the State of Texas continued to produce and publicize “alternative facts,” hyping test scores and hiding dropout rates.  Bush got Democrats in Congress to go along with NCLB on the Texas claims of closing racial achievement gaps, Paige got to be Secretary of Education, the testing companies and their lobbyists kept raking in the big bucks, and Obama and Duncan compounded the assault on our teachers and kids with Race to the Top, shifts of tax dollars to charter chains, and other misguided deeds.

I take no pleasure in knowing our research findings were right: the standardized accountability system was harmful to the children and their teachers then, it has been used since as an excuse to further under-fund and even close schools with low test scores, and it has enriched privatizers at the expense of the public’s schools. Its greater legacy may be in the legitimation of false numbers and phony indicators as a proxy for the public’s right to know what is happening to our children.

Thomas Jefferson was speaking not as an idealist but as a harsh realist when he said that an educated citizenry is essential to the health of a democracy. An informed populace is the only effective protection against a demagogue.  Misinformation can be dangerous.

If you’re a researcher or teacher, take heart from my “silencing” experience to stay in touch with reporters and reliable social media:  make sure they have all the information they need to keep the public informed. Stay in touch with your school board and legislators and members of Congress, making sure they hear more than the official claims.  Use clear language – call charters for what they are: outsourcing companies, corporate chains, not “public” schools.  Don't let test scores displace meaningful, authentic, robust assessments of children's learning.  Don't let corporate charter chains call themselves "public" just because they capture our tax dollars.  Don't let a nice-sounding word like "choice" give a pass to people who want to dismantle the public's schools, making democracy all that much more fragile.

Today’s silencing seems more draconian, the fake claims more obvious and outrageous in their audacity – but even the smallest silencing shifts our common culture away from the truths we need to counter tyrannies and protect the public good.  Speak up, speak out.



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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Don't Wait to Read "What for Me" by Caroline Leech!

Wonderful news for young adult readers:

We no longer have to wait to read Scottish author Caroline Leech's new book "Wait for Me"!  It hit the bookshelves yesterday and I'm already captivated by the story, the characters and Leech's vivid descriptions of life on a farm in Scotland in 1945 where the shortage of farm hands (the sons are of course off to war) is shockingly solved by assigning German prisoners of war to work in their place.

We won't easily forget our first meeting of the enemy prisoner the British army truck brings to Lorna's father's farm:

As Lorna began to argue, a prisoner -- had the sergeant called him "Vogel"? -- jumped down from the truck, stumbling as he landed, his back to them.  He quickly righted his balance. Tall and skinny, his dark uniform didn't fit him. The pants were baggy and too short, and the jacket swamped his gaunt frame.  He  had the same haircut as the others, shaved close, and his neck was scrawny and pale. He was just a boy, and it looked as if a puff of wind would blow him away.

But then the boy turned toward them and Lorna could see a high cheekbone and strong jawline. All right, perhaps he was more a man, but still...

Then he faced them full on, and Lorna's irritation was instantly extinguished, her shock catching in her throat.  

Half the boy's face was gone.  No, that wasn't quite right. His face was there, but .....

Praised by her peer authors as "Compelling, moving and beautifully written....rich with history, conflict and tension," and "A delicately written love story with a gorgeously evoked setting, an intrepid heroine, and a knee-weakening romance. Not to be missed."

I loved hearing Caroline Leech share with the teachers in our Writing and the Arts seminar how she came to write this story, in this time period, with these characters.  She has generously shared with the students in my Adolescent Literature class the challenge and mystery and fun of writing first lines.

(Should I tell you that the first line of "Wait for Me" is Lorna Anderson was ankle deep in muck and milk.  Yes, you want to keep reading!




The only thing better than reading her writing is to hear Caroline Leech read in her lilting Scottish voice (I actually asked her to repeat something once so I could hear those vowels again!)

If you're lucky enough to be in Houston next week, you can hear that memorable Scottish voice for yourself  on February 7 when Caroline Leech reads from Wait for Me and talks about her writing at Brazos Bookstore.  

Congratulations, Caroline, and to all the young adult readers about to discover what happens when the stalwart Scots meet the German enemy -- at home. 


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

When You’re Told to Shut Up, You Must be Saying Something Right (Part I)

Environmental Protection Agency scientists are told not to release data on climate change; the Acting Attorney General is fired for saying a presidential order must comply with the law; the press is told by the White House staff to “shut up!”  Then there is the matter of requiring the National Parks Service to come up with a higher count of attendees at the president’s inaugural or to quit making their count public.

We’re not surprised when we hear that the truth that threatens power may be suppressed:  the tobacco industry for years fought off lung cancer claims by denying its own internal findings that proved nicotine is addictive and carcinogenic. We now know the sugar industry decades ago paid scientists to “prove” that sugar isn’t harmful to human health.  And the oil and mining corporations, including Exxon whose CEO may become the next US Secretary of State, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in false science and huge PR campaigns (to say nothing of buying representation in Congress) to keep the public “confused” about the “unsettled” science of global climate change caused in large part by the burning of fossil fuels, their products and the bases of their profits.  In a democracy, we would expect our government to be working against corporate suppression of the truth, not adopting their playbook.





I don’t claim to be the peer of our famous climate scientists or lung cancer specialists, but I do know what it feels like to be silenced – silenced by public officials for doing the research that shows the errors in their policies and the falseness of their claims.   I can tell you it feels strangely threatening – after all, your work and your reputation as a scholar are at stake.  And it also feels unexpectedly gratifying when you know your analysis must be accurate if it is causing those officials to attack you, the messenger, because they are unable to refute your findings.  And, with the curiosity of a researcher, you take some brief pleasure in being able to see inside the mechanisms of secrecy – you get to see what they’ll do to keep the public from knowing the truth.

The superintendent of Houston Independent School District tried to silence my findings on the harmful effects of the standardized-test-based accountability system.   I’m in Houston where the system that became No Child Left Behind was first initiated. George W. Bush was Governor and Rod Paige was the superintendent of schools. My research on the curriculum in urban schools happened to coincide with the beginnings of the testing system, and so I saw first-hand how the pressure to produce scores on multiple choice, computer-scored tests reduced the tested subjects to oversimplified, meaningless content in test-prep booklets and pushed out subjects like the arts and social studies that were not being tested. 

The governor, his business backers (including testing company lobbyists), and Rod Paige were all claiming the testing system was raising student achievement and “closing the racial achievement gap.”   “A test score is the new civil right!”  We did see scores going up, but the quality of instruction was going down. We also saw dropout rates going up.  My research, and soon that of others, began to show a connection between schools’ rising scores and the rising dropout numbers (not the districts’ official dropout numbers, but the actual numbers of youth leaving before graduating – the fact that many high schools with 1000 9th graders ended up with only 350 – 500 of that group graduating).  Our research revealed that many of the high schools were using a legal “waiver” to change the rules about grade promotion, holding back weak students who they knew would likely then drop out and thus never take – and fail – the test, never be a liability to the schools’ average score.

As parents began contacting local news media to get reporters to investigate why their kids were being pushed out of school, those reporters called researchers to find out how school ratings could be going up if so many kids were dropping out, sometimes advised to leave. We told them. We showed them the real numbers.   The testing system was far from the “Texas Miracle” being claimed. The system was not only not improving kids’ education, it was degrading learning as millions of dollars poured into the testing companies, not into our classrooms.

But the pressure was on to discredit our findings:  if the Texas accountability system were not working miracles – “even equity, and in Texas!” – how could Bush take it to Washington? How could the testing companies expand their markets nationwide? The negative findings in Texas had to stay in Texas.   

See Part II to see what Lessons I Learned in Houston about the silencing of facts by a government official.


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