New Whistleblower Teachers Say Baltimore Schools Designed to Fail to Speed Privatization
In a follow-up exclusive interview with another Baltimore school teacher, TRNN delves deeper into the threats to public education that involve over testing, defunding of the arts, and the preference for charter schools
WHISTLEBLOWER: So, to me these are just strategies put in place to undermine public education, and to promote what a better option is, are charter schools, and private schools. And taking out the voice of the stakeholders that know better.
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis, reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland. We’re in The Real News Network offices, where we just completed another interview with a Baltimore City schoolteacher who came forward to reveal what’s going on inside our schools.
Our first interview with the whistleblower teacher stoked controversy. His unfiltered view of a failing city school system drew both praise and criticism. But the underlying reality remains; schools are facing a $129 million deficit, and the possible cuts of 1,000 employees, including teachers. And many say city schools continue to fail both students and the community.
CROWD: (chanting) … No cuts! No cuts! No cuts! Fully fund our schools! Fully fund our schools!…
MARIETTA ENGLISH: One thousand school employees will be cut from Baltimore City public schools. That is a travesty. It will hurt the children of Baltimore City.
TAYA GRAHAM: Which is why another teacher has come forward to delve deeper into the problem facing education in Baltimore, and her critique focuses not just on conditions, curriculum and discipline. But a much more sweeping indictment of what actually ails the system, both teachers say they care deeply about.
To talk about what she said, and the reaction to our first whistleblower interview, I’m here with investigative reporter, Stephen Janis. So Stephen, what was the first reaction to the interview?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, there was a lot of people, a lot of teachers, a lot of people who had posted to our Facebook account and responded, who said you know, this first teacher was dead on.
TAYA GRAHAM: Uh huh.
STEPHEN JANIS: You know, the conditions he described, the lack of structure, the defunding, you know, unsanitary, lack of drinking water, all these things, he was spot on. Some teachers did say that they felt that he was too harsh on the kids themselves. But overall, people said… appreciated his perspective.
Most importantly, I think in a city where we tend to overlook problems, or not discuss them in detail, I think what they appreciated was his ability, to sort of say, what was actually happening. So, there is some realistic base starting point from which to analyze the schools.
TAYA GRAHAM: So, they felt that he was honest?
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, I mean, I think that was the main thing, that he was saying what should have been said, but hasn’t been said. Interestingly, we gave his interview to the Baltimore City school system, and to the Mayor’s office, and didn’t hear anything back.
The only person who spoke to us was Councilman Zeke Cohen, who is Chair of the Education Committee. Who has said, you know, he supported the teacher, and realized… I think he’s fully cognizant of the fact, that the school system has a long way to go to even become acceptable to the community.
ZEKE COHEN: You know, I understand from my perspective as a taxpayer, and as a former teacher, it does feel like, North Ave sometimes fails to have itself together, when they’re doing budgeting. And we do have a large bureaucracy.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, Stephen our second schoolteacher had a much wider, much broader critique of the city school system. Can you characterize what she was talking about?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, you know, she touched on many of the same concerns about structure, curriculum, over-testing and discipline, but she also took it a step further. And what she talked about, was the fact that city schools are being set up to fail intentionally, that there is basically an over-arching theme here, of trying to make city schools dysfunctional, in order to pave the way for more privatization and, you know, development of neighborhoods in Baltimore.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right. I think she actually said that Baltimore City schools were being purposely destabilized, in order to make their way for gentrification in Baltimore City.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, I mean, I think her basic theme was that, you know, the charter schools, which there are a lot of charter schools in Baltimore City, are not just a compliment, but actually competing. And that it’s preferred by the people who fund education by the political establishment, that really want to deconstruct city schools, and get rid of public education, so that education can be privatized. And she said that, you know, relates to things like the over-testing, like the disinvestment in the Arts and other types of…
TAYA GRAHAM: …Defunding of music programs, theater programs…
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, the curriculum. Yeah, she was really specific. She focused on that, and I think that’s a really relevant critique, given that we have Betsy Devos who is our Education Secretary, who’s been a huge proponent of privatization.
TAYA GRAHAM: Yes.
STEPHEN JANIS: That is her main goal, is to privatize. And I think this teacher says, you know, wait we’ve really got to think about this. If we privatize schools, and you know, we’ve pretty much disassembled public education, we’re going to change the nature of democracy. And I think that was her main argument, and I think it is very relevant. So, let’s take a listen what she had to say.
WHISTLEBLOWER: I don’t experience a lack of structure. I experience a lack of accountability from administrators.
STEPHEN JANIS: From administrators? You mean the administrators aren’t held accountable, or they don’t hold the children? Who is not held accountable?
WHISTLEBLOWER: They’re not held accountable for how to handle disruptive students, and because they don’t do the structure that’s in place for them to handle it once a teacher writes a referral. Then it trickles down to the student.
STEPHEN JANIS: And what kind of stuff should they be doing that they’re not doing, that you think needs to be done?
WHISTLEBLOWER: For example, if they could hold an after school reflection, if they could hold a Saturday school reflection, where they come in uniform, if they could hold a lunch conference for students who may have been disruptive, and in conflict with one another. And there are just certain restorative skills… when I was coming up; it was called “Correct Ed”. That isn’t being taught and implemented, to help with the values of students to offset the behaviors.
STEPHEN JANIS: What kind of disruptions do you experience? Is it just students who don’t want to learn, or students who have trouble at home, and then they can’t… you know, they bring it to school and they don’t really have counseling, or what kind of troubles do you experience?
WHISTLEBLOWER: The troubles that I see, is the lack of motivation, and innovation, either by the parent, some teachers, and administration. And if you’re not enthusiastic and motivated and innovative, to teach children who need that type of guidance, for them to perform well. Then you get the results that you get. I believe that all students, for the most part, can learn, and they want to, as long as you intrigue their interest.
STEPHEN JANIS: Now, he was teaching at a high school level, he said there was too much testing. You teach at elementary school. Is testing an issue too?
WHISTLEBLOWER: Testing is a big concern. For example, the second graders have seven different tests.
STEPHEN JANIS: Wow.
WHISTLEBLOWER: There’s DIBELS, TRC, i-Ready, Math, uniTEST, Math Interim, there’s the Gifted and Talented test. Then the teachers have to do SLO’s on every student. And then they also have to do SKB’s on every student. And some of these tests, the teacher has to give individually, three times a year.
So, the students are constantly in test mode, and so are the teachers. So, it’s very difficult to have engaging lessons that intrigues and motivates the kids. They say, “I want to come back to school today because we’re supposed to do this in school today, or finish this up when I get back to class.” So…
STEPHEN JANIS: Is funding an issue for schools like yours? I mean…
WHISTLEBLOWER: Yes. Funding is an issue. Funding is an issue for extra-curricular activities. At first, funding was an issue for staffing. But funding was an issue for getting specific type of calculators that eighth-graders should have, graphical… graphing calculators, where to find slopes and all that stuff in a quadrants. So, that every student can have a workbook, in which they can write in and keep, for science, mathematics, language arts.
Now, the teachers are constantly making copies. When they first came up with the program, every child would have a workbook. For example, Agile Minds, for the first year or two, everybody had a workbook, now, constantly making copies, or doing something on a computer.
And then there’s a misperception, or thought, that because students like computers and technology and things of that nature, that they will learn best by a computer. Computer doesn’t teach them. It just shows them, and talks to them. But it’s not teaching. So, Agile Minds has been a great failure for math.
STEPHEN JANIS: What is it called?
WHISTLEBLOWER: Agile Minds, and they use this for math.
STEPHEN JANIS: Okay, so what is it? Can you explain so that people…?
WHISTLEBLOWER: It’s a math program that’s supposed to calculate any skills that they’re weak in, based upon the questions that they answer incorrectly.
STEPHEN JANIS: Uh huh.
WHISTLEBLOWER: And it’s supposed to give them more practice on that skill. And it just shows a diagram of how to complete the computation, or the word problem. But it’s not teaching them. You’re showing them, and you’re telling them. Teaching is something different. It’s not just telling, and showing a chart.
STEPHEN JANIS: And this is a new curriculum implemented a few years ago, and hasn’t worked?
WHISTLEBLOWER: Yes, it’s a new… Yes, and it has not worked.
STEPHEN JANIS: It’s supposed to be all computer based?
WHISTLEBLOWER: Yes. And schools are supposed to, or what I was told, they should be able to have some supplementary resources. However, then the District will say, “No, you use the program the way it’s supposed to be used.” And they’re using it incorrectly. They were using it the way it was supposed to be used, and it didn’t work.
So, then they said, “Well, you’re also supposed to supplement some things, and ask them some stuff if you think you need to.” And then they did that, and they said, “Oh, well, you’re not using it strictly to how it was supposed to be used.” They always had an excuse for why this program hasn’t worked.
STEPHEN JANIS: It’s been a lot of investment, sounds like, in time and technology.
WHISTLEBLOWER: In the wrong things. So, they have “i-Ready” and “i-Ready” is for reading and “i-Ready” is also for math. That’s the testing program and whatever… it’s the same thing, whatever skills you are lacking in, you’re supposed to be able to go back, and “i-Ready” will give you more practice on those skills.
Again, it’s not teaching. It’s just giving them practice on something. It’s showing them a diagram. And it really hasn’t been successful, because the children are still lacking grammar. When I was in school, and my older children were in school, it was called Grammar School.
So, even if they can read and answer some questions, they can’t write. Well, they know the format of an essay. They know the format of a paragraph. They know to answer the question and give some details. Then it’s the mechanics in the grammar that just really has depleted in the school system. And to me, it was by design.
STEPHEN JANIS: How was it… what do you mean, by design?
WHISTLEBLOWER: When public schools were doing very well, people were pulling their children out of private schools. So, private schools had low enrolment. And so, in order to keep that balance, they started taking away resources, such as art.
STEPHEN JANIS: What about music?
WHISTLEBLOWER: Music, oh definitely.
STEPHEN JANIS: You don’t have music in your school?
WHISTLEBLOWER: They have a choir. But there isn’t a band. We used to have middle school bands. Some schools have middle school, or high school orchestras. The first thing they want to take is the arts program, so that private schools can have the arts. So, that’s the new thing, they don’t have plays, music, art, drawing, poetry.
STEPHEN JANIS: So, what are you doing with the arts program in your school?
WHISTLEBLOWER: Well, in my school it was hanging on by a thread. So, we still have a music teacher, and we have an art teacher and we have a drama teacher. But it’s hanging on by a thread, because we still have staff members who really like to do those things.
And some of them are old school, where they believe in having assemblies and programs, where the children can dance, and put on a play, and model, and things of that nature. But, if that teacher decides that they don’t want to do it because they’re overwhelmed, wanted to go back to school, or they get sick, there’s really no one else to pick it up.
STEPHEN JANIS: That’s… Do you think charter schools are better than the public school system? How do you feel about charter schools?
WHISTLEBLOWER: I think that charter schools really aren’t a competition for public schools. Except for in effect, they have more autonomy over their academics, and over their discipline. So, that gives them the edge. So, they can say how they’re going to discipline disruptive students, and do it, and not have to worry too much about the District, North Avenue saying too much about how they do things.
Like, they said, “Well, we’re not using their program, Agile Minds, because it doesn’t work. And we have decided that we are going to use this program.” And that’s what they use.
STEPHEN JANIS: But you can’t do that?
WHISTLEBLOWER: No. The District says, “This is the program you’re going to use. You use that program.” Or, you can have your advanced academics group, or your ingenuity group, use a different program, but your average or low performing students will use Agile Minds. So, you still have to have it in the curriculum in some kind of way, because the District said you have to.
STEPHEN JANIS: And what have you seen? What has changed over the 11 years since you’ve been a teacher that has been the most substantial change you see, that’s affected how students are educated in Baltimore?
WHISTLEBLOWER: The quality and investment of teachers have changed. When I first started, teachers went to undergrad school to teach. They were invested in living and staying in Baltimore, or in Maryland. Teachers that are coming in now are coming from Delaware, Pennsylvania, Ohio… They are coming from different states. They do not plan to stay.
They plan to get their experience, so that they can go to their state and teach, because they’re going to teach in their state if they have experience, or if they have a Masters’ degree. So, they use Baltimore as a stepping-stone.