"A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops." Henry Brooks Adams

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

SRC Budget: Penny Wise and Pound Foolish (My testimony to the SRC on June 30th, 2015)

Good Evening. My name is Kristin Luebbert—community member, taxpayer, teacher, and member of the Caucus of Working Educators, the social justice caucus of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

When speaking of spending that values cheap and easy over long-term value, my grandmother (probably your grandmothers, too) had a saying: Penny wise and pound foolish.  Many items in this budget—especially the outsourcing of valuable staff—are the very epitome of penny wise and pound foolish.

The potential outsourcing of our certified school nurses to agencies that employee lesser-qualified people is most certainly an example of this flawed and short-sighted policy. Agencies exist to make a profit—they will come in to our schools for one reason only: to make money off of our students. If a student has a problem that is not billable or has the “wrong” insurance, these agencies will flatly refuse to serve them. This is already happening in our schools that have outsourced mental health services for students. At my school we have an outside agency that provides mental health services to some students.  The VERY FIRST thing this agency (and, indeed any agency) does when a student in distress is recommended to them is to vett the family’s insurance coverage. I cannot count the number of times I have received a call in my classroom regarding a student I referred for services only to be told: “Sorry, the family does not have the correct insurance, we cannot admit them to our program.”  The needs of the students, the families, and the school community are simply not addressed by agencies if they cannot bill for the service. This is the nature of the beast—agencies exist to make money!

So many of the things our certified school nurses do all the time are simply NOT “cost-effective” in the world of billing codes and medical insurance. When those children show up at the nurse’s office instead of being asked: “What’s wrong, sweetheart, what happened?” will they be asked, “What is the name and number of your family’s insurance policy?”

What will happen to the kindergartner who gets so excited or nervous that he wets his pants and needs to go to the nurse for some comfort, a change of clothes, and a phone call to mom?  There’s no billing code for that.

What will happen to the seventh grade girl who did not realize she would get her period that day and needs some comfort and a sanitary pad? There’s no billing code for that.

Who will I –as a teacher—consult when I need help figuring out why an 8th grader is unusually sleepy throughout most of the school day? Who will be that trusted school nurse who can call the family to delicately investigate the myriad of reasons--from depression, to homelessness, allergies, to drug use that could cause this? There’s no billing code for that.

I could go on, but again I say to you that agencies will not equitably serve all our students—and I thought that was our mission. Please do not be penny wise and pound foolish and please restore our real certified school nurses to our schools.

Monday, March 9, 2015

WHY Does This Great Kid Feel Like A Failure at 13? High-Stakes Tests, That's Why!

     Today when Anna (not her real name) came into class, she was not her usual happy, interested self. As her friends talked about what High Schools they had been accepted to,  Anna looked unusually miserable. When I called her out in to the doorway to talk to her, I found out why: Anna had been "denied" acceptance to all the high schools she had applied to. (See note) Anna felt lost,  unhappy, and was truly down on herself. I did the best I could to comfort her in the moment, my heart was breaking a little and I got angrier as the day wore on. WHY should this great kid feel like a failure at 13?
    Some things you should know about Anna--every teacher in my K-8 school that has ever taught Anna misses her, loved having her in class, and asks about her. People will just say to the 8th grade teachers, "How is Anna?", "Oh, I do miss Anna in my room.", "I just loved Anna".   Anna is one of those kids who has a sunny personality, is a great problem-solver, is creative and hardworking, interested in learning, a deep thinker, and gets along well with pretty much every body. Yes, Anna is THAT student: the one everybody likes, the one both fellow students and teachers look forward to working with--she is not a teacher's pet....she is just an all round good kid. SHE is the one who will be able to lead a group to get a project done.  So, you might be thinking, what DOESN'T Anna have? Well she does not have "advanced" high-stakes test scores, Anna is merely "proficient". And, at many of Philadelphia's selection high schools, proficient is not good enough.
     The interesting thing is, that if I had to choose a kid to run a team or be in charge of a project, there are plenty of my "advanced" students I would not give that responsibility to.  I would give it to Anna in a minute. But, high-stakes norm-referenced or standardized tests do not really test the "real-world" skills that education reformers are always blathering on about. High-stakes tests simply measure the ability to take tests--a skill that has a very short half-life in the real world.

High-stakes tests make kids feel like failures--that is wrong.

Anna deserves more. ALL our students deserve more.

Note: In Philadelphia, students apply to various selection high schools--if they are not accepted, they have a place at their neighborhood high school which are purposely under-resourced by the SDP.

Monday, February 16, 2015

What My Third-Graders Have Already Figured Out About High-Stakes Testing

            A bunch of smart, talkative, and engaging eight and nine year olds at my school have already figured out that the high-stakes testing gurus in Harrisburg don’t really know what they are doing! 
          Working as a Reading Specialist this year, I teach many different grades.  I really dislike standardized, high-stakes testing, and I despise test prep disguised as teaching.  With my third-graders (who will take the test for the first time this year), I am conflicted about this because I know many of their parents want them to take the PSSAs (Pennsylvania’s state test) because it is currently used in Philadelphia for admissions to magnet schools. I hate boring kids with mind-numbing test prep, I never want to make them anxious or scared about the test, but I do not think it is right for them to be completely blindsided by the idiocies of the test. So, what to do?
           These third graders love writing, so I decided just to show them the released narrative writing prompt and have some fun with it. They enjoyed the picture of the house, thought the prompt would be fun, and went to work writing some pretty good adventure stories. The prompt told them to “Write a story for your teacher about an adventure you could have visiting a friend at this house. Make sure your story has a beginning, middle, and end.”
            We used an authentic writing process: pre-writing, using word walls, having peers and teachers read ideas, etc…. They came up with great adventures and had fun.  However, they soon started to ask me about how this might appear on the PSSAs. Here is how our conversation went:
Will we have to write a story like this for PSSSAs?
            Something like this, but not exactly the same.
When will we find out how we did?
            Not until Summer. (quizzical looks)
Will we get the grade on our stories back?
No, you will get a score on your whole test, but you can’t see how they graded it or what your score on one story was.
Are you and Ms. W. (their homeroom teacher) reading it and marking it?
            No, the state hires people to grade it. (more quizzical looks)
But it says write a story for your teacher, you and Mrs. W. are our teachers.
            It does say that, but we will never get to see it.
That’s stupid! They lied.
            Yes it is, and yes they did.
But when it is all over, we can take our story home to read to our parents, right?
Sorry kids, no one in this school or classroom will ever see these stories again after we send them away!
Well that’s just dumb! (really loud and exasperated by this point).
Obviously, I have no good answers for these bright, enthusiastic kids, so I told them what I knew to be true:
You know what I have figured out boys and girls? Everyone in this room is smarter than the people in Harrisburg who make us take these tests.
They laughed and got ready for the rest of their day.

Read more about the many stupidities of the high-stakes testing industry:
     Making The Grades                         
    No Profit Left Behind                                   

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

My Comments at the Rally Against Tax Abatements today

My name is Kristin Luebbert, and I am a teacher in Philadelphia. When we talk about these huge numbers it all seems very ephemeral—what does it really mean to say that twenty buildings keep almost $15 million in revenue away from the Philadelphia schools that desperately need it?  Or that the 20 buildings with the largest 10-year tax abatements are cumulatively valued at more than $2.2 billion? Or that 10 Rittenhouse Square gets an abatement for most of its value, which costs the schools over $1 million annually? What does it mean to say that these losses in revenue could fund 446 Counselors for our schools?

I can tell you what it would mean to two of my students, right now, this week!

The first student I worry about (one of the many actually) is a middle school boy who is new to our school this year. Because of that, I do not know his family or his circumstances. He is a quiet boy, a boy who does his work and mostly stays out of trouble. A boy who eagerly asks to borrow books from the class library.  But, I worry because I notice that he is just a little too sleepy, a little too hungry, a little too skinny, and not very healthy looking.  What is wrong? I don’t know. In past years—when I got done with my day of teaching 80 plus students—I could email the counselor and let her know my concerns. She would have investigated, set up a meeting, and let us know what was up with this child. Now….our school has an itinerant counselor who is doing her best to keep up, but she has a caseload of over 3000 students, and I have to wonder why the owner/developer of this building is considered more deserving of a break than a 12 year old boy who clearly needs help?

My second concern is a young man who is literally screaming for help—in that loud, obnoxious way that 8th grade boys are so good at when they are in distress.  He is living in circumstances that no one his age (or anyone for that matter) should have to—despite this, he manages to get himself up and come to school every day.  BUT, he is flailing and failing—we are desperately afraid that we are going to lose him in one way or another.  Everyone at our school is working hard to get him help, but without a full-time counselor it is a slow, piecemeal effort that is taking longer than it should.  I have to wonder why a young man who lives in dire conditions is less important or less deserving than people who just want a tax break on their expensive properties?

These are just two stories from one floor, of one school, in one neighborhood of Philadelphia—the extraordinary thing is that these stories are not extraordinary—there are dozens of them in my building and thousands of them in the schools of this city.
Our students need and deserve for the people who can afford it to pay their fair share of taxes.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Why "Helping" Doesn't Really Help

    As the Philadelphia Public school year limps forward with a severe lack of funding, many principals are trying to figure out ways they can get their schools and students the resources that they desperately need. As a parent and teacher, I truly understand this impulse--but I have to argue that trying to hold schools together with volunteers is the equivalent of trying fix a complex machine with duct tape and baling wire. It may work just enough to barely get us through a tough time, but will work neither optimally nor for the long term.
     Principals at many schools, including magnets like Masterman and neighborhood schools like Houston, are practically begging parents to volunteer to help staff schools.  While parent volunteers certainly have a place in schools, and have often provided valuable auxiliary help to principals and teachers, these requests are different: this year principals want parents to provide basic, needed services to schools that should be provided by the district. There are several problems with this kind of "help":
  • Principals are asking parents to help with services that involve students' confidentiality. Even if you are simply answering the phone in a school office (and many principals have asked for parents to do this), you may be privy to confidential information. DHS might call to check on a students or leave a message for a teacher, a doctor's office might call to verify an absence, or a lawyer's office might call to relay changed custody arrangements. NONE of this is the business of anyone who is not official school staff.  Frankly, any principal who is allowing this is a fool because they are opening themselves up for complaints from parents whose confidential info finds its way in to the wrong hands. Parents manning late desks or helping with high school or college applications for students present the same problem.
  • Parents or community volunteers who are "helping" with essential school tasks are taking away a paying job from someone who probably needs it. This hurts the economy long-term, and it hurts the school district long-term.  If we make it seem doable to make due without essential personnel, they will never be replaced. It is not sustainable because eventually parents will get tired of or need to stop volunteering, and then we will be right back where we started from--with schools chronically underfunded.
  • This also sets up an inequitable system within schools.  The parents who have the economic and social capital to volunteer most often will be a known presence in schools and will have more opportunities to gain the principal's or teachers' ears. This gives the volunteers' child or children an advantage or the kids whose parents' work schedule or family obligations to not allow them to volunteer.
  • The volunteers, no matter how well-intentioned or skilled in their own job areas, are not educational professionals (usually) and cannot truly replace the school staff whose role they are trying to fill. Parents or community members volunteering in school libraries are not an adequate replacement for certified School Librarians/Media Specialists.  They probably do not know how to level books for students, or teach internet safety, or address the varying reliability of internet sources for research. Volunteers in a library are poor replacement for true professionals who can really help students. Even in a recess yard or playground, parents cannot adequately replace Noon-time Aides who have worked in a school community for years and understand the varying relationships that come in to play in such spaces.
    Helping out in these circumstances is probably doing more harm than good. What volunteers are doing (even though their motives are probably pure) is making this unsupportable lack of resources seem okay.  It is NOT okay, and we need to stop pretending that it is! Parents need to tell principals:
 "I want my child's school to have the resources it needs! I will NOT replace a person who was laid off!  You--as a principal--need to communicate the legitimate needs of your school to your superiors at the School District! Please stop begging for free help from parents, and truly advocate for your students!"

Here's what parents and community members can do in these awful circumstances:

Friday, July 26, 2013

Comments to the School Reform Commission today 7/26/13

Good morning, 
My name is Kristin Luebbert. I am a community member, teacher, proud member of the PFT, TAGPhilly, and the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.
I stand here today astounded and saddened that you, the people charged with making sure our children have available to them a “thorough and efficient system of public education (Sec.14of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Constitution)," have decided to funnel yet more money away from the true public schools and give it over to charters.  I am hearing that this will cost the district at least 3.9 million.  Even though these are Renaissance charters and are supposed to serve the same students that the SDP schools they replace served, we know from experience that this will not be the case.
Meanwhile, I and every other teacher in a District School will arrive at school in August and September with an impossible situation: No counselors, no lunch-time personnel, and no secretaries.  How will my students be kept safe in school? Whom will I call when a student threatens suicide, or confesses that they are being abused? These things happen often! There will also be very few opportunities for Music, Art, and other crucial forms of enrichment.  How does this situation provide our students with a good education (or in your odious term “high-performing seats”)?
I guess I would really like you to answer these questions: You always say there is no money, yet you have hired two high-salaried executives recently, and you have ads in job-search forums for two more high-salaried positions.  There seems to be money for executives, but no money for the things that directly help the children you are supposed to serve.  Why is this?

Has the Special Education issue at Mastery Clymer been resolved?  If not, why give them another school?

Has the rent issue with Universal for Audenried and Vare been resolved?  If not, why give them another school?

I await your answers.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Great School Search: Calm. The. Heck. Down.

Searching for the "Perfect" School: Hint--It does not exist!

     This post is directed mostly at the upper middle-class parents who seem to have made a second full time career out of finding a school for their 4 and 5 year-olds.  This mad school search especially happens in big cities like my own Philadelphia as well as places like New York and Chicago.  This is partially a function of parents wanting the best for their children (a perfectly understandable feeling), and largely a function of the reformers lie that "American education is failing".
     As a teacher in a regular old public school and a parent whose two daughters were raised and educated in Philadelphia (the actual city, not the "surrounding area"), and who now are successfully ensconced in graduate school and undergraduate school, I can tell you this: your kids are going to be alright!  Or, at least, the school you send them to is not going to make or break their educational careers nearly as much as what you, the parents, do (or do not do) at home!  It is certainly not worth the hand-wringing, breast-beating, and outright keening I have seen when parents find out that their kid (for one reason or another) will not be attending their "first-choice" kindergarten. Your child's educational life is not ruined! The biggest indicator of a child's success in school is the socio-economic status of the parents.
     So, all you parents who have read to their kids since before they were born, who take them on trips to the zoo, museums, apple-picking, plays, concerts, limit their exposure to inappropriate amounts of media, etc...., your kids are going to do just fine educationally no matter what school they attend!  Of course, no parent wants a school in which their child is going to be abused or mis-treated or be miserable everyday--and a child with documented special needs requires a special school placement.  But, barring those kinds of extraordinary circumstances, almost any school will be OK for a kid from a middle to upper middle-class family.
    No school is perfect, not even a school that you pay many tens of thousands of dollars a year for. Each school my daughters attended had its good and bad points, and I would have changed things about each of them if I had been in charge of them.  I spoke up when I needed to, adjusted course when I needed to, and overall I think both my daughters had good educational experiences in  K-12.
They have good memories, some complaints (who doesn't?), had great social and emotional growth experiences, made good friends from many different backgrounds, and so far both have been very successful in their post-high school endeavors.
    My point is this, do the best for your kids, but you and the income and experiences you provide for your children are much, much more important than the school they attend.
    So worry more about raising good citizens of the city, commonwealth, nation, and world and less about finding the perfect school.  When it come to choosing a school for your kid, calm the heck down!