Monday, September 17, 2018

200 Students, $50 to Spend

The thick envelope gave a hint of elegance inside.  An invitation.  Colorful graphics, fine card stock, strategically placed photographs, “bold face” names inside the folds of this multi-layered, professionally crafted solicitation.    A separate card, two-sided on high quality card stock, lists in bold contrasting colors the details of the events.  Also inside, a return envelope for the enclosed commitment card suggesting “underwriting opportunities” from a mere $500 to levels of $50,000 and $100,000. 

An invitation to a museum gala or symphony fund-raiser?   A call to join the restoration of our Harvey-flooded opera house?  The funding categories would seem to so suggest.

No, this was an invitation to a fund-raiser for a corporate charter school chain.  A private company that has added “public” to its name because it is one of the corporate entities that takes taxpayer dollars (the “public” part) to fund its schools.   

My first inclination was curiosity:  who are these people?  I looked over the names of the funders already listed on the invitation: the usual anti-public school billionaires, some names of really good people who should know better, and some people I didn’t recognize who probably have been sold on the idea that only by contributing to these charter chains can they save the city’s poor, minority children.

My next reaction was anger.  This invitation – fancy graphics, elegant card stock, thick white envelopes – was expensive!  Each one must have cost several dollars, even accounting for a bulk order discount. I turned each piece over to try to find the printing company that produced it. No designer or graphics company attributed, but a line that caught my eye:   contact the charter chain’s “manager of special events” for more information.   Really??

Manager of Special Events! I know of no public school, no neighborhood school, that has a manager of special events – much less the budget to hire one.  But they all could use that $100,000 for a long list of needs after years of underfunding.

Then I immediately knew the source of my anger: the inequity of it all.  These charter chains are privately incorporated, but they not only take our tax dollars out of our public schools – the public’s schools, but they may be using our tax dollars to pay their special events managers and printers to advertise against our public schools!  Our tax dollars enable their “marketing” in competition with the public’s own schools.   I took the invitation to a high-quality stationery store to ask if they had produced it and what it might have cost. The woman said they hadn’t produced it but confirmed it was definitely expensive and each would have cost “several dollars” even if, as I had suspected, several hundred or thousand had been printed and mailed out (yes, add the mailing costs).   And even if the printing had been donated by an individual or corporation, those dollars would still have been taken from our public schools as a tax-deductible, “charitable” contribution. 

So the first inequity is that all of these “contributions," from the modest $500 (mere seat at luncheon) to the ‘naming rights’ (I’m not making this up!) for donors giving $100,000,  all of these dollars end up subtracted from the public treasury.

The second inequity:  the costs of those invitations. I suddenly realized each one must cost more than many of our teachers have for school supplies and instructional materials on any given day.  So I asked some teachers.   A 7th-grade biology teacher new to her current school was hopeful:  “They say I’ll have the supplies I need for labs and we’ve ready sent in the order for frogs for the kids to dissect,  so we’ll see.  So far, so good.” 

The next answer was less optimistic:  “I’m told I have to require every student to bring a ream of copier paper; when that runs out we won’t get any more, so I’m trying to be careful to plan ahead.” From a high school teacher:  “No, we don’t get to buy paperbacks for our classrooms. We have some on hand but if we want to assign other titles, the kids have to buy their own.  If they can’t afford it, I see if I have an extra copy at home or maybe I just buy it for them.”

And this conversation with a high school English teacher:  

Teacher: “I get $50.00 to buy things I need for my teaching.”  

Me, somewhat seriously:  “Is that per student?  And is it for each semester or for the whole year?”  

Teacher: “It’s not per student. It’s all I get for the whole year.”  

Me (trying not to cry):  “And how many students do you have?”  

Teacher:  “Right now I have seven classes, ranging from 20-some students to more than 40, but they are trying to adjust the schedule so no teacher has more than the usual six classes.”  

Me, doing the math:  “So right now you have about $7.00 per class for the whole year? That will be a little more than $8.00 if you end up with six classes, but you’ll still have almost 200 students?”

Teacher:  “Yes.”

So, a charter chain with already enough money to have a special events manager on staff, already taking our public tax dollars, mails out invitations that each cost as much as one of our fine public school teachers has for her entire instructional budget for the year.

I’m preparing a series of posts on the damage these charter chains are doing to the public’s schools, to our goals of educational equity, to state and district education funding, and to our democracy.  I had thought I'd begin by re-iterating that regardless of the words in their name, these are private, not public organizations. Then my plan is to showcase the detailed new reports that follow the money behind these charters and the politicians being funded to enable them.  Then lots of examples, from California to Ohio, from Florida to Texas, of charter chains that move in and out of “markets,” often taking taxpayer dollars with them, often leaving kids and their families stranded and – of course – leaving the public’s schools, now lacking the money taken out by charters, to welcome and educate those same kids.  

Lots to report on.  Lots of news stories, scholarly analyses and first-hand accounts.   I just didn’t anticipate finding a piece of fancy and compelling evidence in my mail slot!    Stay tuned for my new series:  Grand Theft Schoolhouse.  And send me your examples of the impact of charter chains on your schools.

Friday, September 14, 2018

“KidLit” Authors Taking a Stand for Children

The Children are Watching

Children’s books are the best! The children in my family – and my friends’ families – always know that their gift from Aunt Linda will include at least one new book.  When a sticker on The Very Hungry Caterpillar announced "over a million copies sold,” one of my daughters asked, “Mom, how many copies of that book have you bought?!”

Well, not a million, but from Corduroy to Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes and Snuggle Puppy (and of course Sandra Boynton’s Barnyard Dance), there is nothing like a wonderful children’s book to give music to a hug, pause to a tantrum, and rhythm to picking up toys or rocking to sleep. 

If the writers and illustrators of books for toddlers and big kids did nothing but write and draw and paint, they should be honored with statues in town squares (in front of the library!) and boisterous parades of grateful parents and inspired children.

But “KidLit” writers are doing more: they are standing up for children. They are marching with children.  A compelling article in the September 7 New York Times by Maria Russo tells the story of writers taking action:

“When photos began circulating of migrant children separated from their parents and placed in what looked like giant cages in detention centers, the young adult novelists Melissa del la Cruz and Margaret Stohl had an immediate response.”  They texted several other author friends and drafted a statement denouncing such practices  that “should be restricted to the pages of dystopian novels.”  They gathered thousands of signatures of writers of children’s books and raised nearly $240,000 for legal services assisting the migrant children and their families.

Children’s book writers had already organized “KidLit Marches for Kids,” encouraging their colleagues to join in the March 24 marches for gun control organized by the student survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shootings.  “We wanted to boost the signal of the kids,” explained one of the authors.

Boosting the signal of the kids! Not preaching to them or exhorting them or dismissing them as too young, too inexperienced, too novice to organize demonstrations across the whole country.  No, “boosting their signal.” First, listening to what the kids were saying, then taking it seriously, then marching alongside them.  

 Some of these authors have created a PAC dedicated to supporting Democratic candidates in state and local races, and others have established a PAC to advise “giving circles” on ways to more effectively direct their contributions in support of children.  As one publisher said, “Our life and work revolve around the children.” 

Thank you, KidLit writers, for all the picture books and storybooks and chapter books we – and our kids – can’t live without. And thank you for risking your audience, your “market,” and your precious writing time to stand with and march beside and act for the children.

They, and their grateful parents and teachers, are watching.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Your Kids, Their Data, No Privacy

Who, exactly, is watching?

A woman is pacing up and down the sidewalk in front of your child’s school, taking pictures of the children and the school. She seems especially interested in the front and side entrances. A kid runs in to tell his teacher. An alert parent in the carpool lane calls 911.  

Your daughter sees a shadow outside her bedroom window and hears a rustling in the flower bed.  You rush outside too late to see the culprit but find a large shoe print in the newly raked soil and call 911.

The coach catches the shy sophomore boy everyone believed to be kind and polite sharing nude photos on his phone with the guys in the locker room.  He takes the phone and calls the principal – who then has to call the girl’s parents to let them know their daughter’s body is no longer her own private self.

When children’s privacy is violated in ways that are overt, visible, knowable, the violation is unquestioned. It is unacceptable. In most cases it is illegal.  Even when a perpetrator is caught, prosecuted and punished, the unease remains.  The fear doesn’t go away.   The child may not feel safe, may not be able to trust.  And the parent – or teacher – lives with the vulnerability of not being able to protect that child.

So why is it different when the violation is hidden, opaque, electronic, commercial, and complicated?

Kim Slingerland, a mother of three in Alberta, Canada, discovered an intrusion into her children’s privacy by an unlikely source:  a game app marketed for children in the “family” section of Google Play.  The app, which has kids racing cartoon cars driven by animals, looks innocuous, and is even labeled as age-appropriate for young children.

In a report titled “How Game Apps CollectData on Children,New York Times reporters say that the game is designed to do more than make racing against animal drivers fun.  They write “Until last month, the app also shared users’ data, sometimes including the precise location of devices, with more than half-dozen advertising and online tracking companies.”   The attorney general of New Mexico filed a lawsuit claiming the maker of Fun Kid Racing had “violated a federal children’s privacy law through dozens of Android apple that shared children’s data.”  The suit charges the maker of this and other apps designed for children of “flouting a law intended to prevent the personal data of children under 13 from falling into the hands of predators, hackers and manipulative marketers.” And the suit charges Google with misleading parents and other consumers by listing these un-private apps in the “family” section of its products.

The Times analysts did additional research, confirming academic studies and other investigations that show that without parental consent (or even knowledge), many apps aimed at children are collecting such personal details as names, physical locations, email addresses and tracking other connections such as ads the users click on. 

The article, which extends to a full-page story in the Business section, follows attempts to regulate apps designed for children, and restrict their capacity to collect data on children, through laws and regulatory policies.   The writers document pushback by Google and others, both denying and defending their practices and urging “self-regulation” by the industry.  Graphics accompanying the article show how the data moves from the “user” (a child!) to being collected to then being marketed to third parties.

The article concludes with statements by regulators and industry leaders about whether new laws can protect children’s privacy (their “data” is their lives!), suggesting without good, consistent enforcement these companies will never be compliant.

So about that 911 call:  if we don’t know that the person lurking outside the window is really an electronic signal hiding already inside the child’s room, how can we call to report the violation?

Some speculate that the current generation of parents who grew up on computers and cell phones and social media don’t even expect for their personal information to be confidential. They think privacy is passé – it’s over.  But I’m not so sure.  If these same parents call 911 about that woman with the camera taking pictures of kids who aren’t hers, these parents clearly do care about privacy. They do care about protecting their children.  The intruders are just not visible from the carpool lane. They’re not leaving footprints in the flowerbed.

I’ve written before about the ways instructional software and digital testing programs increasingly dominating our classrooms are gathering data on the students – not just from their digital homework and tests but from any other social media they have open on their devices.    Researchers are making these intrusions – and the very inadequate laws meant to regulate them – known, but policymakers, often reliant on the big campaign contributions of the tech companies, have been slow to act. And most have little knowledge of how any of this works.

So it may be up to parents to step up, speak up. I suggest sending this article to all the parents you know who may be concerned in general about the amount of “screen time” they allow their young children but think these cute kiddie apps are harmless. The apps and the hidden systems behind them are not safe and there is no way to know just how much of your children's information has been sold to these third parties or what they may already be doing with it.

Let’s stop them from watching.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Teaching and Learning the Truths of Our History: James Loewen’s New Book

When scholar and educator James W. Loewen published Lies My Teacher Told Me:  Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong in 1995, he based his claim on careful examination of the 12 most influential US history textbooks in our public schools. At that time, “the” textbook was a teacher’s main resource, the stuff of the curriculum. Schools purchased 1000-page survey texts that chronicled (usually literally chronologically) the history of America.

Loewen examined the content of those widely used texts and found them to be at best incomplete and at worst completely inaccurate.  From partial accounts that omitted the least savory of America’s past to “facts” that were in fact erroneous, Loewen revealed the content of these textbooks, and thus of much of the “history” that America’s youth were encountering in their required history courses, to be creating a false narrative of America’s successes and a silence about its injustices, failures, and questionable policies.

For his comparisons, he often sought out official US government documents of historical events; the textbooks’ brief and often uncritical accounts of the US war in Vietnam were prime examples of textbook content that directly contradicted even official sources.   Similar investigations of such historical periods as Reconstruction and of such American luminaries as John Brown and Abraham Lincoln contrasted the historical record, as documented by numerous and varied serious historians’ analysis of the record, with “hero-villain” and other simplistic renderings in the texts.   His discussion of the portrayal of Native Americans throughout our history as well as at pivotal moments of treaties, Indian “removal” and oppression are vital corrections to the record, as are his calling out the lack of information about Japanese internment and other systemic injustices.

Lies My Teacher Told Me has just been released in a third edition. It belongs on every history teacher’s desk, in every school library, in teacher education programs preparing the next generation of social studies teachers.  Much has changed since the original edition was published:  many schools no longer buy textbooks but rely on “digital resources” produced by the big testing companies to be “aligned” with their state-mandated tests, further reducing the historical content to fragments of fact conducive to the company’s own multiple-choice tests.  Some schools are even considering eliminating social studies departments and subsuming history and government courses into English-Language Arts departments as “reading skills for non-fiction.” Content-free "skills."  The “lies” – the omissions and glossy narratives – are not, then being told by teachers themselves so much as being packaged, in textbooks or digital formats, for students’ passive consumption.

Loewen directly addresses the current political climate in which “alternate facts” are not the satire of writers at The Onion, but pronouncements from the White House, when claims of “fake news” are used to cover the painful realities of injustices, conflicts of interest, and official malfeasance.    Loewen truly believes that knowledge is power.  If our students are ignorant about their history, they will be more likely to be passive rather than active citizens and more likely to be vulnerable to those who would use “alternate facts” to manipulate them and run roughshod over their rights. 

From his Preface to the third edition, Loewen's vision for teaching the truths of our shared history:

"First, the truth can set us free. That is, when we understand what really happened in the past, then we know what to do to cause our nation to remedy its problems in the present.....Second, there is a reciprocal relationship between truth about the past and justice in the present.  When we achieve justice in the present, remedying some past event or practice, then we can face it and talk about it more openly, precisely because we have made it right.....Conversely, a topic that is mystified or distorted in our history, like secession, usually signifies a continuing injustice in the present, like racism.  Telling the truth about the past can help us make it right from here on."

Loewen could have added that only teaching which faces, embraces, and examines the truth is credible to our students.  And only truthful teaching empowers them to value themselves as thinkers and learners who will be active in civic life.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Student Rights: Know Your Rights and Claim Them

The Children Are Watching

What would we do without the ACLU?  Right now, while the US government is stalling and resisting judges’ rulings requiring them to immediately re-unite immigrant parents with the children stolen from them by border agents and other US government employees, it's the ACLU that has brought the lawsuits that have led to these rulings. And it's the ACLU now engaged with non-profits and legal assistance organizations in our country and in Central America to find parents who were deceptively deported and reunite them with their children who may be scattered across the US in detention centers we hadn’t even known about.  Thank you, ACLU.

The ACLU – the American Civil Liberties Union – is also marking the beginning of this school year by reminding us that when a child enters a public school, he or she does not surrender their rights.  This would seem obvious in a democracy, in a country governed by the rule of law, but in fact has been contested over many decades, especially since students began protesting the US war in Vietnam and bringing those protests to schools.  Do students have a right to free speech at school?  Can a student wear a t-shirt with a peace symbol to school?  Can students wear black armbands protesting the war – and the military draft, which all boys over 18 were facing – in class?  Did a dress code forbidding boys’ long hair to be longer than their collar violate freedom of expression?

These and other questions of  student rights arose during the US war in Vietnam and had to be litigated, fought for.  Courts would often rule in favor of school regulations that forbade anything that “disrupted learning,” meaning if a teacher found the peace symbol shirt distracting, or saw boys’ long hair as disrespectful, he could send the student home or refer for disciplinary action. A teacher who found armbands unpatriotic and therefore disruptive (especially if the teacher made a big deal out of it, thus causing other students to be “distracted”) was often supported by rulings that valued keeping the school “smooth-running”  over individual rights.

We need the ACLU’s reminder that students have rights. Share their guide to student rights with your children and grandchildren, your students and fellow teachers, your school’s administration.

The issue of student rights is more urgent, more timely, today than ever.  Today, we have to worry about the criminalization of student behaviors, the role of the school’s discipline policies in setting some youth – mostly African American and Latino and poor – on a path into mass incarceration by turning school disciplinary practices into policing. We have to worry about schools being pressured to reveal immigration status of children and their families (it’s illegal, by the way). We have to worry about the rights of students walking out to advocate for gun safety laws and DACA protections.  And we especially have to worry about the uses of technologies in classrooms that open children to data gathering and data mining for commercial and other purposes – a danger little known to parents (who are promised that computers in schools help “prepare their kids for 21st-century jobs….”).  These dangers have been recently well documented in detailed studies by Alex Molnar and his colleagues at the National Education Policy Center (see also my blog entitled “Learning to be Watched”.)

I’m very grateful to the ACLU for reminding us that children in schools have rights.  These rights were fought for by individual youth and their families, by student journalists, by teachers, and by many pro bono lawyers over many years. I’ve been dismayed to see these rights often buried in the back of student handbooks (now websites) under the school rules – showing up as just another administrative document under “Rights and Responsibilities.”  We need to bring student rights out into the light – not as bureaucratic detail but as an affirmation that our children are protected in our democracy. We want them to grow up to be active, to feel that freedom to speak and choose the message on their t-shirts, to lead out on social issues, and to respect and defend the rights of others.

We need to keep working to protect these rights as the encroaching and invasive technologies work to undermine them in such surreptitious and technically sophisticated ways we are often unaware.

We can’t let that happen:  the children are watching.

Here’s the ACLU’s most recent information on the larger issue of rights:

Over the past year, students embodied our democracy. They organized against injustice, participating in a mass walk-out and taking hold of a national conversation.
But as students are heading back to school, many of them are being greeted by more police and metal detectors, and few, if any, counselors. Increasingly, students of color are entering a school system that's policing the children it's tasked to protect – conducting invasive searches and subjecting them to disproportionate punishment.
We just released an interactive report analyzing data on race, discipline, and safety in our public schools – all 96,000 of them. Check out these findings that show how public schools are performing nationwide, and in your own county.
Here are some key takeaways:
  • For the first time in history, public schools in America are serving mostly children of color.
  • Students who missed school in 2015-16 because of suspensions – disproportionately students of color – were denied a total of 11 million days of instruction. That’s 60,000 school years and 60 million hours of lost education. All in a single school year.
  • Millions of students are in schools with cops but no counselor, social worker, or nurse. In 2015-2016, there was a student-to-counselor ratio of 444:1.
The Trump administration is calling for increasing "law and order" with more school police, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is even considering allowing the use of federal funds to arm teachers with guns – moves that will harm students of color the most and deepen education inequality.
We're facing a national school system that’s harming the students it has a duty to protect, but this past year showed us the power that youth have, even so.
We all need to be back-to-school ready.
The ACLU Team

Friday, September 7, 2018

Meet the Lumberjills in Caroline Leech's new book "In Another Tme"!

Sometimes good news!  Caroline Leech has written another wonderful book for teens (and adult readers of all ages!).  In Another Time takes us back to Scotland during World War II, a time when the war is upending normal life in ways no one could have expected.   Who would have imagined that the war would take teenage girls and young women out of their schools and kitchens and into the forest to harvest timber essential for the war effort?  Who knew there were lumberjills?!

Caroline Leech picks up this hidden thread of history and weaves a story that brings to life the ironic ways war may inspire courage, open new paths, forge friendships, and – always – cause lasting and even inexplicable pain.

Maisie McCall shrugs off her last year of high school to leave home to serve in the Women’s Timber Corps, taking on the hazards of axes, saws and all kinds of weather, to fell trees in the forests of Scotland for the war effort.   Her tenacity in the treacherous work is transformative for her and for the young women friends she makes among the Timber Corps as they build physical strength and daunting persistence that they – and their families – would never have imagined possible.

But in showing us the human capacity to create new possibilities during dangerous times (the growing power of girls and women, especially), Leech does not romanticize war.   In her first novel, Wait for Me, also set in Scotland, the war is ever present: the enemy is here:  a German POW works on the family farm!  In Another Time feels at times less urgent, less threatening because the enemy – the Nazis and their war planes and soldiers – are not physically present.  Maisie doesn’t see a German soldier.   Instead, she learns that the dangers and pain of war are not just of the moment.  In this story, the ravages of war are lived everyday in the life – and recovery – of John, the Canadian lumberjack she meets and grows to love.

Leech’s characters are so real you keep them with you after you put the book down.  Herself Scottish, she’s a true storyteller.  Her stories of the courage and spirit of Scots during World War II teach us their inspiring history and also remind us we don’t want to create more war stories in our time.

If you have a teen reader at your house, if you’re a teacher, if you’re a grownup who loves a good story that takes you to another time, get yourself to your neighborhood independent bookstore, your public library or to HarperTeen to get this book!  Buy a copy for your school library or afterschool program.   In Another Time is a delight to read and share! Thank you, Caroline Leech! We can’t wait for your next book!