Whistleblower Teacher Says Defunded Public Schools Vulnerable to Mass Privatization
In TRNN’s ongoing investigation into Baltimore schools, a teacher says the long-term trend of over-testing and starving public schools of funds has made them an easy target for controversial education secretary Betsy DeVos – Interview by Taya Graham and Stephen Janis
TEACHER: When public schools were doing very well, people were pulling their children out of private schools. So, private schools had low enrollment and so, in order to keep that balance, they started taking away resources such as art.
They are hiring a lot of new teachers or teachers that are transferred from another discipline, so that they’re constantly in school to get AU’s. AU’s are Accredited Units, or some type of academic units to help them increase their salary. So, this takes away time that they may have for after-school programs or clubs for students because they’re constantly in school.
STEPHEN JANIS: So, you’re saying they come in, they get a little bit of training and they walk out.
TEACHER: Yeah. But in this case, they get a free Master’s Degree in Education and they’re required to only stay two years. Some may stay two, some may stay five — it depends on what the criteria is in their state for them to go to that state and be hired as a teacher.
STEPHEN JANIS: So, we pay in the City for their Master’s Degree and they’re out in two?
TEACHER: Yes. Yeah, they’re out in two. The residential teachers program does the same. They hire professionals, they may have a background in accounting, and they give them a free Master’s in teaching and then they ask them to go to a high school and teach accounting, or teach something in business. And the concern is that just because you know a discipline doesn’t mean you can teach it.
There’s a whole craft to managing children, to motivating them; not just being able to say, “Oh, I have an Education degree and I know accounting. So, now I’m going to go and I’m going to teach accounting.” It doesn’t work that way. So, we have a lot of problems with the perception of what teaching really is and what a teacher really does.
STEPHEN JANIS: What, in your mind, should a teacher really be doing? I mean, how should a teacher be working in a city school system?
TEACHER: To me, teachers and schools should be empowering parents, empowering students, empowering the community, and together as a village they make the neighborhood and they holistically mold the students with engaging activities. The average student, you model it first and you use the vocabulary while you’re modeling. Then you have the student help you with the modeling. Then the student does it and you help them — if they have any challenges or steps in which they may be confused with what to do next, or not so sure. Then they do it on their own and you kind of briefly look, check on them, see what they’re doing. Give them a buddy, a peer partner to work with. And there are stages to this.
They allow these stages to happen in pre-K and Kindergarten where they can spend a week or so, on a skill. But then once you get to first, second, on up, then you only have three days. So, they don’t allow the nurturing and the mastery of a skill. They just expose them and give them a day of practice and then you’re supposed to give them a test on the third, fourth day. And therefore, there’s no deep connection, there’s no deep understanding. And if you tell a parent too much information, the principal will be upset with you, or the District. They’ll find a way to get rid of you, if you tell a parent that they can call a complaint line, and if they’re not happy with that, what to do next.
STEPHEN JANIS: They’ll get rid of you?
TEACHER: Oh, they’ll find a way. Budget, because of budget.
STEPHEN JANIS: Is that surplus, or they just literally fire you?
TEACHER: You could be surplused, transferred to make you uncomfortable, or they’ll give you to students that are more students challenging. They’ll do a lot of things to make it uncomfortable for you to teach there — a retaliation.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, so there is retaliation?
TEACHER: Oh, there definitely is retaliation from the District on the principal, and the principal to the teacher. If the principals don’t do what the CEO wants he or she to do, they get rid of them. And so, you don’t see too many principals at a school for too long, or a principal that’s really deeply connected to the school. They’re just there to do a job and then they leave.
STEPHEN JANIS: And what is the focus do you think of the administration that conflicts with teaching? Or what is it that they focus on that you think people would push back, like teachers like you would push back against?
TEACHER: They’re focusing on privatization and gentrification. That’s what they’re focusing on. So, they are pushing that agenda here in the City. The same way they pushed it in DC and now they’re trying to do the same in Chicago.
STEPHEN JANIS: So, you’re saying privatization and gentrification. What do you mean specifically?
TEACHER: Specifically, charter schools are the first step. I don’t see that there’s any mandate that a charter school cannot go private at any time. I haven’t seen any policies or procedures that hinder them or it says that if you are receiving public funding, and you are considered a public school, you will remain a public school. They could receive the funding and next year say, “Well, I’m going to be private now.” And you could send a child here with a voucher to be able to afford to come here, which is what Governor Hogan is pursuing, as well.
STEPHEN JANIS: So, you’re saying that he really wants to sort of, you know, degrade the public part of it and promote the charter?
TEACHER: Definitely, that’s the whole point. So, that’s why public schools have much more constraints and much more testing, and are underfunded, and they take away their extracurricular activities and resources and… Oh, they don’t want any public school to be a school for the arts. You can say you’re a school about science and do some science things, but not really be in-delved in science the way poly, high school, one of them would be because then that takes away from the edge that a charter school or private school will have. So, they purposely take out the arts, extra-curricular activities and things. They only want science, yes.
STEPHEN JANIS: What do you think is going to happen when this budget deficit? What are your concerns about… You know, they’re talking about cutting a 1,000 people.
TEACHER: Uh huh.
STEPHEN JANIS: I mean, it sounds …
TEACHER: My concern is the classes will be too large. So, that’s another concern. Charter schools can have small classes. They can have 15 or 20 ratios to one teacher, but a public school has to have 25 to one or more in order for them to have sufficient funding to support the teacher, or the school. So, that’s another difference in which they treat public schools different from charter schools.
So, it’s going to cause over-sized classes. It’s going to make people have fear. They always go after the highly-qualified and the one that makes the most money, high salaries. They try to push them out to keep the ones that they have from Teach For America, and residential teach, the new teachers, because the contract says that the newest ones in are the first one out. So, what they try to do to work against that is to try to make the seasoned teachers and these staff members with the most salaries uncomfortable to make them want to retire early. So, they push early retirement. Or they put them into positions or situations that they know will be uncomfortable for them.
STEPHEN JANIS: Do you have, you know, the teacher we spoke to they didn’t have water that was usable. Do you have useable water in your school?
TEACHER: They say it’s been tested and is useable, but I haven’t seen them test it. And I would like to see the results. I believe that we need to do our own testing. Our school is a renovated school, which was done by our old principal. But I’m not sure if the pipes from the old part of the school were replaced, or just extensions added on to it. So, I would have a question about the quality of the water.
STEPHEN JANIS: So, you don’t drink it, I’m assuming?
TEACHER: I try my best not to. I try my best not to drink it.
STEPHEN JANIS: When you say there’s students that are having trouble, what do you think is the origin of their problems? You know, why do they have trouble concentrating, some of the things that would be disruptive? What do you think prompts that kind of…?
TEACHER: Some of it is just lack of knowing — lack of knowing how to avoid a conflict, lack of knowing how to redirect your anger. Anger management, having pride in being different. These are just core values that the concentration is so much on reading and math, and passing a test, that the core values to build character aren’t there.
So, when I went to school, and you know, even when I first started teaching, although you received these things at home, they were reinforced in school. So, we had notebook checks to help people with organization; how to color-code things to help people with organization. The teacher would have a locker clean-out at the end of a quarter, or the semester, after the second quarter. They would have a desk clean-out, every two weeks. Clean out your desk, straighten up your desk. They had the reinforcements and section dividers, in case yours were raggedy and you know, your parent didn’t buy you anymore, or they didn’t ask you or your parent didn’t buy you anymore, they just forgot it. And so, the homeroom teacher would have a day in which you cleaned your notebook out. You organized it with everything color-coded. They had notebook checks, book bag checks, locker checks, desk checks. All of these things were done by the teacher in the school.
STEPHEN JANIS: And that doesn’t happen anymore?
TEACHER: It rarely does, these types of things, happen the way that they should.
STEPHEN JANIS: So, it’s more about testing?
TEACHER: Oh, it’s definitely about testing.
STEPHEN JANIS: Why do they want to test these kids so much, in your opinion?
TEACHER: I believe they test our students so much just to have a reason for why the public school is failing. When they’re doing well, they may have it another year or two, or they say that test just wasn’t challenging enough. They’re not being challenged. So then they change the testing and make it two years ahead of where they need to be.
STEPHEN JANIS: It sounds like they’re setting them up to fail?
TEACHER: Definitely. They’re definitely setting them up to fail.
STEPHEN JANIS: What’s at stake here, do you think? Why did you want to talk about this? What’s at stake for this city and the children?
TEACHER: What’s at stake here is the quality of public education and the abundance of it. They’re constantly closing schools, saying it’s low enrollment, but they are assisting in the low enrollment. And the Governor, as well, assists more by now trying to provide vouchers to students to attend these other schools that have low enrollment, as well, but trying to hang on until the Governor helps them.
What’s also a concern for me is the gentrification, the investment in schools, the investment in communities so that it’s easier for a company or for the bigger agenda to come in and take the whole neighborhood, or the community, and set up the school that they want to have there, and Red Line families and different people that they don’t want to attend that school or to live in that community.
So, to me it’s a bigger agenda than just low enrollment, closing schools, hiring teachers that you know are not invested to stay in Baltimore City, changing how you manage behaviors, changing principals that you know are not invested and deeply connected to a school. So, you make sure that there’s detachment there. And then constantly having the new teachers on edge and the most experienced teachers on edge and trying to form a bridge between a unity of the teachers and then overworking the Union as they’re trying to keep you with their jobs. And you’re testing all the time.
So, to me, these are just strategies put in place to undermine public education and to promote why the better option is a charter school and private schools.
There’s really no focus or large push to make sure that you have communities and teachers and students and parents have an input on the decision-making of the school. They’ll say they’re doing it. On paper, it’ll look like they’re doing it. But there’s no real push. There’s no empowerment of the community and the parents and the students to help make sound, effective and efficient decisions that are long-term, that have long-term effects.
So, I would like to see the way the school operates on engaging issues needs to be reformed – or, actually, it needs to be implemented the way that they say it’s supposed to work. And once things are implemented the way it was designed to work, you can get quality meals; you can implement having restorative skills instilled in students. You have a base to say, “No, we’re not doing all this testing.” The test pretty much tests the same thing. Why do we have to do three different tests to test reading comprehension, or fluency, or phonics? You don’t need three different tests for that.
TAYA GRAHAM: But he talked a lot about some of the violence that he saw in school and disrespect to teachers and how difficult it was to be able to get the students to receive the appropriate counselling and/or punishment. That was very difficult. Have you seen any of these children who are at risk, that perhaps have that potential, and if you have, how has your school dealt with it?
TEACHER: Again, I have seen these behaviors and a lot of it goes back to the relationship that you have with the student. A student knows if you’re just coming there for a paycheck and to expose them to something but you’re not really there to teach and to help them understand how this connects to the real world.
Most schools at least have a counsellor. I don’t know if they have a psychiatrist. But the counsellor can’t handle 300 to 1,300 kids. So, that’s where the restorative skills and restorative practices come into play. And when it comes to strategies implemented to help redirect misbehavior, again, the teachers may have their, “Okay, we’re going to have 10 minutes of free time. You can’t participate in the 10 minutes. I want you to explain to me how this happened? What happened?” They may say, “We’re going on a field trip and because of your behavior you can’t go on the field trip.” But explain to them why and what can we do to change it, to make sure it doesn’t happen again. All of that happens. The teacher will do that.
Once the teacher has done everything they could possibly do, and referred it to administration, what is the administration doing? And, to me, that’s where the breakdown comes into play because you can’t suspend a child if they cut class. Or you can’t necessarily hold a detention to hold them accountable. You can’t hold them accountable if they’re late. You can’t hold them accountable if they curse you out. There’s nothing that says you could suspend them for that. Okay, I understand that.
So, what’s in place to teach them how to handle that anger? What’s in place if they do it again, where they have to have a reflection or detention — what’s in place for that from the administration? And there’s nothing written, or if it is, it’s not on the web page, or it’s not given to the teacher. It’s not there for you to say, Well, after we did everything we were supposed to do, administration said they were going to do this and this didn’t occur.” And, to me, that’s where the breakdown comes into play because they don’t want high suspensions, but then you don’t have the restorative skills that you need to have to mold a child from the inside — not just all of the detentions and reflections and taking away an incentive to handle how a student behaves, all the things on the outside of the student. And, to me, that’s the one of the biggest breakdowns to conduct with students.
TAYA GRAHAM: And I guess I just have one final question. Of course, you know about Betsy DeVos being appointed as Secretary of Education. There are a couple GOP lawmakers who’ve already said they want to actually banish this department entirely. Does this give you any concern? Are you worried about your school? Are you worried about Baltimore schools when you hear this?
TEACHER: It does. It concerns me knowing if she knows the difference between a student who makes growth or a student who is proficient based upon the test that you say a student should be proficient on. A lot of private schools don’t even take the tests that they want public schools to take. And if they did, they would fail tremendously. The average charter school is not doing well either when it comes to taking part in different testing.
When it comes to Special Ed, I actually thought I heard one of our political officials say that Special Ed, they’re going to have a school for Special Ed children. That’s discrimination. So, you want to have a separate school for students who have some type of disability, whether it’s behavior or academic or social or emotional? You want to have a separate school for them? I don’t agree.
So, if you have this coming from the top official in your state, and you have this coming from the federal government, this is a big concern. Because you’re promoting discrimination — whether it be by income, or it be by what you perceive as cognitive ability.
I don’t think the education system should be dissolved because a lot of that IDEA, the things that are in place to help students that may have some challenges, has really helped students. If you dissolve that, it gets left in limbo trying to figure out how to implement it, how much of it you should implement and then how to evaluate if it’s working, if it’s not working. Trying to add to, take away — so, there definitely should be someone overseeing the criteria of education. But it should be someone that understands why public education is important. Not someone who believes you should pay for everything, or that the private business sector should be in charge of it all. Because that’s when you get blackmail, lack of union and lack of stability, and you just go along with what your boss wants you to do to keep your job.