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

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

SRC Testimony 11/15/16 "The Penn Alexander Plan"

An  “Evidence-based Academic Improvement Plan” for our ‘Underachieving’ Schools

            Several weeks ago, Superintendent William Hite announced yet another plan to “improve schools most in need”.  According to the district, this year’s planning process to improve the eleven named schools will include community meetings in which a menu of five options will be presented. One of the improvement plans named is an “evidenced-based academic improvement plan”. Luckily for the school communities on tap for “improvement” this is the smartest option, and the one that the excellent teachers and school staffs of the district know how to implement.
            We are fortunate to have a blueprint for an evidenced-based plan right here in our own district: The Penn Alexander School was just named a Blue Ribbon School because they have “narrowed the achievement gap" (properly called the opportunity gap).  This provides us a ready-made template to follow at the “schools most in need.” What does Penn Alexander have that our most struggling schools do not? The Daily News pointed to Penn Alexander’s staff selection process as the secret ingredient to PA’s success, but this is simply wrong. The fact is that all Philadelphia School District Schools are currently 100% site-selected; that is, principals and their committees interview and choose the teachers for their schools.
            So, what is truly different about Penn Alexander? A look at the district’s own school profiles provides some answers:  Penn Alexander serves a student body in which 39.14% of the students are economically disadvantaged—which may sound challenging until you realize that 85% of all SDP students are economically disadvantaged. By contrast, PA serves a relatively wealthy community. The unfortunate fact is that the schools named for improvement plans each serve a student body in which 100%--yes, 100%--of the students are economically disadvantaged.
What supports have been provided to these economically disadvantaged schools?
The low-poverty Penn Alexander receives $1300 more per pupil to help their relatively privileged students succeed.  But the high-poverty schools get no such bonus.  They also took the brunt of the Hite administration’s staffing and substitute debacle last year.  Penn Alexander maintains its kindergarten class size at a very manageable 17 students, while high -poverty schools must cram 30 kindergartners into each class—with no classroom aide. Some of the high-poverty middle and high schools have 40 or more students per class. Many do not have enough desks and chairs (let alone books) for their oversized classes.
            To review:  Penn Alexander has a low-poverty student body, receives extra money, and boasts ideal class size.  They have access to many resources from the University of Pennsylvania, including graduate students as additional personnel. These advantages have enabled them to reduce the achievement gap and be named a Blue Ribbon School. Therefore, I propose what I call the  “Penn Alexander Plan” as an evidenced-based academic improvement plan for our struggling schools: First, advocate for an end to generational poverty; second, endow the highest poverty schools with $1300.00 more per student; third, provide the necessary funds to implement small class sizes for the students who most need it. Throwing in a full-time school librarian, which Penn Alexander has (and only nine other district schools enjoy), wouldn’t hurt either.
            We have the evidenced-based plan. We know it works. The only question that remains: Will Dr. Hite and the SRC have the fortitude and vision to advocate for our most economically disadvantaged students, schools, and communities? To do that Dr. Hite and his team must give up the false and destructive narrative that teachers and school workers are the problem, cease applying simplistic band aid solutions (such as endless churn) to this complex issue, and work hard to find equitable solutions for all neighborhoods and schools.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Planned Destabilization of our Schools and Communities: SRC Testimony 3/17/16

Good Evening fellow citizens, my name is Kristin Luebbert, I am a parent, teacher, PFT member and proud member of the Caucus of Working Educators.  I have come here tonight to talk about the deliberate disinvestment and forced destabilization that is being perpetrated upon our struggling communities.
            For at least the last half-century, our urban communities (as well as our rural areas and small towns) have been decimated by the deliberate disinvestment of resources forced upon them by our city, our Commonwealth, and our federal government.  Factories have been closed, jobs that pay a living wage have flown away—all to line the pockets of a very few. When jobs and income flee certain areas, community spaces that serve the public good vanish as well.  There is only one public institution that stays and serves its community no matter the difficulties—that institution is the true public school.
            Unfortunately, the administration of the School District of Philadelphia—throughout several regimes—has embarked upon a strategy of deliberate destabilization of the public schools that remain in our stressed neighborhoods.  There have been many iterations of this destabilization: Renaissance, privatization, “turn-arounds”…. The things they have in common: first the SDP—claiming poverty—understaffs and underfunds its neediest schools, then they over-test with developmentally inappropriate assessments, then they blame the stressed and traumatized communities for alleged failure, and then they conspire to take away more neighborhood stability by closing or churning the neighborhood public schools. 
            One example of this forced destabilization is the inexplicable yet stubborn insistence of the district’s leadership team in continuing the failed relationship with Source 4 Teachers. This ineffectual agency has proven to be “below basic” at every turn, has utterly failed every “data-driven assessment”, yet still mysteriously retains the contract to NOT supply substitute teachers to the SDP. The only logical explanation is the planned destabilization of schools in preparation to turn them over to private operators.
The isolated administrators at 440 may not truly understand the place our public schools hold in the heart and fabric of their communities, but those of us who work in them every day do. I was privileged enough to attend the community meeting at Muñoz-Marín last week, and I saw a welcoming, beautiful school with great work displayed in front of each classroom, and engaged and enthusiastic parents, students, teachers, and staff. This was clearly a community that had bonded together in their mutual work and interest. I also witnessed a community that felt completely disrespected and disregarded by the power brokers in the SDP.  It is a shame that members of the SRC could not find it in their hearts or schedules to attend THAT meeting. 
SO, the problem remains, how can we best serve our students and school communities? Common sense tells us that a scientific experiment should only change ONE variable at a time—when one changes multiple variables it is impossible to know which one caused improvement. So, by all means, help the Muñoz-Marín, Mitchell, Rhodes, and Roosevelt school communities by endowing them with needed financial resources; by advocating at the city, state, and federal levels to bring jobs and stability back into the neighborhoods; and perhaps by leaving the confines of Center City to personally witness the good work happening in these schools. What is not needed, and will not help, is the churn and burn tactics of forced destabilization that rip trusted teachers and staff away from the communities that have already lost too much.

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: