A Charter School in My District? - Part 2


Well, my prediction came true! Here is what I wrote last month about what would happen with the charter school proposal in my district:

“In the end, I predict that this proposal will be denied because it is not a sound proposal. In my professional opinion, the Irvine International Academy does not meet the threshold for a high-quality educational environment. The leadership of the school are not educators who understand the core ideals of education, and especially of dual immersion programs.” (M. Nubia-Feliciano, Sept. 17, 2019)

After deliberating for the required 60 days, both in committee and in public, the Irvine Unified School District school board decided to deny the charter proposal for the Irvine International Academy. At tonight’s meeting, there was an opportunity for public comment, limited to 3 minutes per person and a total of 30 minutes per topic, during which supporters and opponents of the charter proposal spoke. The current Executive Director of the Irvine International Academy, Dr. Michael Scott, also spoke during this time.

After all the comments were made, something struck me: there is a huge disconnect between the need for a dual immersion program in the district and understanding by the public that this proposal would not meet that need. Parents especially spoke of their disbelief that a district like Irvine Unified does not already have a dual immersion program. I share in their disbelief. After speaking with the president of the Irvine Teachers’ Association, and others familiar with the history of this issue in the district, I better understand why this is the case. The primary requirement is that there needs to be a stable student roster, not one that is growing so quickly each year like is happening in IUSD. It does not escape the understanding or sympathies of the school board that parents want a dual immersion program in IUSD. The issue is that it is just not possible with the rapid growth within the district.

In their desperation, parents looked to the Irvine International School as a way to address their immediate need and desire for a dual immersion program in the district. Unfortunately, the Irvine International School’s proposal is so inadequate as to cause more harm than good. It also does not meet the educational standards for a school in the state of California.

In our attempt to provide what I personally believe to be a vital 21st century skill to our district’s children, multilingualism, we must not rush to grasp the first option that comes along without looking at it with a critical eye. Our children deserve that the adults in their lives do their due diligence to provide a high quality educational experience. I applaud IUSD for standing by the education standards that the district and the state work so hard to maintain and improve.

Here is a link to the October 15 board meeting video and transcripts if you are interested in learning more.

A Charter School in My District?


This past Tuesday, I attended my second IUSD (Irvine Unified School District in Southern California) school board meeting ever. My children have been attending schools in the district since 2010. What motivated me to attend this meeting was because I received word online that a group of people were presenting a proposal for a new dual immersion charter school in the district.

I’ve been asking the district nearly every year since 2009 when would they create a dual immersion program similar to the ones that exist in every school district that touches IUSD. More than once, I was told that there was not enough interest. I gave up asking two years ago believing that dual immersion programs were not part of the education agenda for the district. I always found the excuses hard to believe because the proposal for this new charter school, the Irvine International Academy, has received a lot of support both online, via the 127 signatures of interest, and by the nearly dozen people who spoke in support of the school during the meeting that evening.

When it was finally time for the representatives of the Irvine International Academy to present their proposal, I listened and took note of what they said and how they said it. The academy would be a charter school located within the boundaries of IUSD. It would be a dual immersion English-Mandarin charter school that would begin with grades TK-2. The presentation started with statistics of the prominence of Chinese language around the world. They then spoke about the high regard the city of Irvine is held in China.

The current Executive Director, Dr. Michael Scott, said that he regularly hears from people in China that Irvine is the best place to come and raise a family. He also hears people brag “I have a house in Irvine”. When he worked in another California school district that was predominantly Latin@ and Spanish speaking, if the children did well on the standardized tests, he would declare “Those are Irvine scores!” The presentation consisted of well-known facts of the ideal time to learn another language, the benefits of multilingualism, and how such knowledge sets you up for success in the future.

Fortunately, there was a Comment Period where individuals from the audience could address the board for 3 minutes to voice their concerns or support for the proposal. I sat and heard all the comments. Some were from teachers and others who expressed concern for the legitimacy of the charter school, while others expressed support for what I believe was the idea of having such an educational experience available for their children. After about 30 minutes, and thinking about everything that was said, I decided to contribute to the conversation and put in a request to speak to the board. As luck would have it, I was the last speaker. During my time at the podium, I shared my history living in Irvine, my education background, my family’s relationship with multilingualism, then quickly moved to core of my comments. Here is a summary:

“I have some concerns that I hope the board takes under consideration. The Irvine International Academy would be a charter school, not a public school. As such, there would be a shift of public dollars to private management, with some oversight of course. More effort needs to be put in educating parents on the differences between public, private, and charter schools so that they can make informed decisions for their children. There is no way of ensuring the quality of the teachers at this charter. Teaching is a profession that requires a high level of expertise and experience. All our children deserve teachers who are worthy of the privilege of calling themselves their teacher. Also, why this school now? Given the high level of interest, I recommend the district look for ways to create a dual immersion program that is modeled after the many successful programs that already exist in every district that touches IUSD. This way parents can be assured that highly trained people will be teaching their children and ensuring that the love of languages will be something that will stay with them forever. Thank you.”

As we moved on to the Q&A section, Dr. Scott and Michael Husan, another person on the board of directors of the charter, went to the podium to answer questions. I immediately noticed inconsistencies in their presentation. They could not answer basic questions about the budget, how they would sustain themselves fiscally, how they would manage the population of children as they flowed in and out of the school, issues with staffing, or where they would have the physical location. At one point they disputed the evidence presented numerous times by board member that supported having a 50-50 ratio of native and non-native language speakers as the best approach to dual immersion. They even had trouble answering questions posed by two of the Student Body Presidents from the local high schools.

They consistently used “trained” when referencing the outcome of the instruction the children will receive at the school. They also used words like “normal” to describe the children and the learning space. It was clear that they were not able to accommodate children at any point in the Special Education spectrum despite their claims that they could do so. When pressed further on how the classroom time would be used, they said that children would be teaching each other through peer discussion while the teacher walked the room and monitored them. This brings into question the pedagogical approaches they are using to teach the language. Children, especially young children, are not the best teachers of a language. Direct instruction is best to prevent bad habits or incorrect information from being passed on. It was unfortunate that the leadership of this school didn’t understand this vital instructional approach.

When pressed for where they would locate the school, Dr. Scott said that they were prepared to evoke their rights under Prop 39, which allows charter schools to request and be given space in an existing school to conduct business. This was their first option, with leasing space being their second option. Since the school would begin as a TK-2, or early elementary, with four classrooms, space needs would not be as extensive as a regular elementary school. But they still didn’t understand that young children also required space to run, play, rest and eat.

One unusual exchange was between Dr. Scott and the president of the school board. She asked if he was interested in learning Mandarin. He dodged the question and said that it was essentially too difficult. If you are someone who is leading a dual immersion program, the expectation would be that you either already know, or would be actively learning, the language that you are teaching the children. This would allow you to assess the qualifications of the teachers, as well as monitor the learning of the students. That exchange was odd and uncomfortable. It created even more doubt in my mind that this school was representing its objectives accurately.

That section of the meeting lasted about 2 hours. In the end, the board decided that they will send along more questions for the proposal writers to answer. The final vote on the proposal will take place on October 15. From my conversations afterwards, there is still a lot of questions in the minds of the board members.

Some of the attendees shared with me that they are concerned with the strong influence of China on the school, as evidenced by the education professionals in China who are on the board and/or endorse the charter proposal. Another said that she is concerned that so many of the board members are not educators and have only been (or currently are) affiliated with religious institutions.

Members of the teacher’s union and the certified workers union shared concerns about this school wanting to situate itself in Irvine in order use Irvine’s reputation to attract parents and donors, siphon off teachers, students, and staff from the district’s public schools, provide subpar education for the children of the district, and force itself into a school – called colocation – disrupting the learning environment of students.

All told, the meeting was informative. I saw all sides of the charter school proposal issue as it is being addressed by my community. This seems to be a first for the district, and the board is being careful in its approach to both addressing the concerns of the community and giving the proposal writers a fair hearing. In the end, I predict that this proposal will be denied because it is not a sound proposal. In my professional opinion, the Irvine International Academy does not meet the threshold for a high-quality educational environment. The leadership of the school are not educators who understand the core ideals of education, and especially of dual immersion programs. We will see how things go at the next meeting.

Here is a link to the September 17 board meeting video and transcripts if you are interested in learning more.

Education Blog – What I Learned From My Most Recent Speaking Gigs

Both of my speeches centered around action with purpose. I spoke about why we must act, and why we must lead with compassion. I also made it clear that education was my method of engaging in critical conversations, modeling best practices, and putting myself in spaces where people like me were often left out. I mentioned that educators are seeing their role in helping society move into the 21st century. In other words, Education Matters.

Education Blog – Public Speaking is Essential to Connect with the Public at Large

In order for academics to find and maintain their relevance in the public sphere, we must learn to speak English! I know we all speak English, but not the English that non-academics speak. We must code-switch. Popular reading materials like magazines and newspapers are written to match the reading and comprehension level of a typical 8th grader. There is nothing wrong with this because it allows the information to reach the largest group of people

UCSF, Texas Tech, and Why Diversity Matters in Medical Schools

Some would say that there is no real good answer for how to solve the “diversity problem” in medicine. Personally, The response to diversity from these two institutions cannot be more different. UCSF decided to provide a health service that was specific to the unique needs of a particular population. In so doing they also acknowledge the work that still must be done to produce more doctors of color. Texas Tech, in an attempt to remove what I believe to be unreasonable scrutiny informed by racism, commits to a race-blind admission policy.

The Importance of Black History Month

Silence, colorblindness, ignorance, inaction, all these approaches have not brought us any closer to diminishing the life-threatening experiences that Black people suffer at the hands of others in this country. From institutional racism and physical acts of violence, Blacks have endured much over these centuries. Despite it all, we persist and endure, and our accomplishments are many.

A Response to the Atlantic Article: The Liberal Arts May Not Survive the 21st Century

The liberal arts require us to engage with very human issues: ethics, morality, compassion, hope, despair, fairness, equity, etc. So long as humans are part of the equation, we will need people who know how to factor these issues and ideas into the development of innovation. The liberal arts remind us we are humans. All that we create, including technology, requires a deep understanding of who we are as human beings and how we function. Tech and other industries need us more than we need them.

Education Matters - There are No Shortcuts to a Meaningful Life

I recently came across a video by the online company Jumpcut. It is a promotional video about the services they sell that will help you “Design your life. Follow your passion. Become an influencer.” (you can see it by clicking on the image above). I watched the video with the sound off first just to see how the images are used to convey the company’s message. Then I watched it with the sound on. Interesting...a few initial thoughts.

Teaching Children that the Family Business Matters for Them as Well

Yes, it took some extra time for us to do this with our children, but there were so many benefits that we considered it an excellent investment of our time. Not only do our children understand our home-business a bit better now, but they can actually help out with things in case one of us is at a conference or doesn’t feel well. The more we thought about this, the more the benefits added up.….

Fatiga Económica y el Impacto en Nuestros Estudiantes

Durante los últimos años, las conversaciones sobre la calidad de nuestros estudiantes en grados K-12 y las instituciones educativas post-secondario han recibido mucha cobertura en las noticias sobre este tema. Uno de los muchos asuntos que ha recibido muchos de la discusión es la materia de la resistencia. El artículo del Señor Gray es un ejemplo de este discurso, que habla sobre a la opinión de la resistencia que declina en nuestros niños….

The Cost of a College Education?

This article made me reflect on the popular media buzz surrounding the relevance and value of a post-secondary education. The tone of the rhetoric has mostly been negative – and it divides us along political lines. Despite that fact, both sides say that cost is the main issue. However, when asked if college tuition should be free, the political devide was still there, so perhaps cost is not the issue, but politics is....

Do Colleges Prepare Students for a First Job or a Career? The Answer May Not Be So Simple.

While the evidence does support that colleges prepare students for their first job, the debate is about whether college prepares them for their second job and their actual career. One view is that colleges do so by encouraging a broad curriculum and soft skills in addition to hard skills. The opposing view is that colleges do not prepare students well and instead it is up to the first employer to complete the training. I believe that both views are incomplete…

Tracking: the Eventual Result of Merging the Departments of Education & Labor


This past week the president outlined a proposal to merge the Department of Education with the Department of Labor. This new department would be called the Department of Education and the Workforce. According to Education Secretary DeVos, “This proposal will make the federal government more responsive to the full range of needs faced by American students, workers, and schools”.

However, the consistent call from professional educators has been that public education needs to be fully funded. Likewise, those who work in worker advocacy have been calling for a national minimum livable wage with more robust worker protections. In addition, the consistent call from employers has been that there are not enough qualified workers to fill the jobs available. Nowhere in these long-standing discussions has anyone articulated a need to merge Education with Labor.

From my professional experience as an educator, I believe that merging education with labor will lead to tracking in schools. Tracking is the practice of placing students in the 7-12 grade into specific academic tracks that lead to separate tracks: college or career. This practice was the norm in the US in the past and produced a lot of low & lower-middle class workers, but also few managers, thinkers and creative people to lead companies forward. Bringing back tracking is something that neither educators nor employers consider a desirable outcome.

As with all mergers, jobs in these departments will be eliminated, and resources will be reduced to focus on a narrower scope. Specifically, we will be reducing the ability of each department to do what they do now. This will have significant impact on their ability to set policy. The mission of the Department of Labor is to provide resources that better serve American workers at all levels. If merged with Education, they will have fewer resources to meet the needs of American workers, which will inevitably reduce wages, worker protections, and retirement benefits.

The Department of Education sets educational priorities, provides equity and access, and informs state curricula so that we educate a globally competitive workforce. By merging this department with Labor, these policies will become truncated to serve a more insular, narrow, and trade-focused mission. This in turn will create more lower and lower-middle-class jobs, but not create a dynamic workforce that can compete on a global scale.

How this trickles down to the K-12 curriculum is that it will force states to re-direct resources to meet more trade-oriented skills and aptitudes. In essence we would be reducing the arts, humanities, and social sciences to better serve this new mission. This is tracking, plain and simple. As we now know, tracking has many undesirable outcomes, not the least of which is a less educated, less competitive, less diverse, and low-income earning workforce.

Instead of moving backwards, we should be moving forward.

This blog post is part of a newsletter I publish weekly called The Gigster 'Zine. It is a production of the Colégas Group, an organization that seeks to offer new opportunities for anyone with a college degree. To learn more about us, to receive valuable strategies for improvement, and to find innovative employment opportunities, sign up for the complete newsletter at colegasgroup.com.

Pushing Back on EdTech

I am on my annual quest to limit my children’s exposure to screens and overuse of technology in their educational lives. Last week I met with my son’s middle school principal to discuss the Opt Out letter that we submitted a few weeks back. Although the principal was supportive of most aspects of the request, he did have one concern. Here is the excerpt from the letter that outlines what we ask that our son be opted out from:

Our child is to be exempted and excused for the 2017-18 school year from the following activities:

  • SBAC Pre-tests and Tests
  • STAAR Pre-tests and Tests
  • Any formative or summative assessment or practice/sample test related to the SBAC and STAAR tests
  • ALL online testing and online curricula. The Children’s Online Privacy Protecting Act (COPPA) allows us to control what information is collected online for children 12 and under; therefore, we are refusing her participation in such programs.
  • All "Social Emotional Learning assessments”

The section that is italicized is the one that we met to discuss. He wanted to know why we wanted to opt out of the Google environment. I explained to him the limitations of the Google Classroom and the role that COPPA plays in allowing me to make such a request. I also reminded him that Google’s policies of “assuring that data will not be mined” is not a guarantee, and therefore violates the COPPA legislation.

We reached a compromise that our son would be given a fictitious account with a unique login name and password. At the end of the year, all of his data that was used to assess his qualification to move on to the next grade, will be deleted and given to me in a portable device (thumb drive). We will be speaking with the district contact this week to finalize this arrangement.

After speaking with some parent friends of mine about my concerns and what I’ve chosen to do about them, I found that most don’t know or do not have the time to concern themselves with this issue. Perhaps my concern comes from a privileged position - I am an educated woman, living in an upper-middle class community that more than sufficiently funds its schools. My degree is in education and I have full access to the knowledge that educators have and I can speak on their terms. I know what questions to ask when all of the options are not made clear. I know how far I can insist on my rights and the rights of my children within the educational world.

When the principal told me that most of the ELA (English Language Arts) and History curriculum classes at the school require the use of Chromebooks, I was troubled. All data is then stored in the cloud, but more disturbingly this is typically in a one-to-one relationship with their own personal account and that it is not condusive to collaborative thinking. Ironically for a cloud-based service, this creates a norm that actually moves away from working collaboratively in the “real world”, a know-how to express oneself orally and socially, and focuses the interactivity with technology rather than human beings. Over time it creates adults who cannot function on their own without the help of a machine to tell them what to do, which reduces one’s sense of independence, problem solving skills and self-confidence.

Ultimately, this is not the type of person I want my children to grow up to become. I want them to develop into people who can play and work well with others, can critically think about difficult questions, and develop a healthy interdependence with technology – knowing when and how to utilize it. I want them to be able to function equally well in person as they do online.

Educators are in a difficult position to help our children overcome the negative effects of poverty, neglect, intellectual challenges, racial inequality. In addition, they now also must teach our children technological best practices, digital citizenship, and how to protect themselves from cyberbullying. While technology is often intended to help alleviate inequality, theunintended outcome in school is that it actually amplifies it. Without support and instruction on how to best integrate technology so that learning outcomes are met, teachers are left to do what is best given the knowledge they may or may not have.

As a society, we must do better in integrating technology into the educational lives of our youngest citizens. “It’s cool” should not be the metric with which we decide whether to use a technological tool in the classroom. The allure of collecting, aggregating, and monetizingmassive amounts of data, the iconic "Big Data" we so often read about, should also not be a motivation, especially not with minors. When districts cannot control who sees and uses the data of minors in their care, who is then making sure it is not misused?

Ultimately, there is no such thing as “free access” to Google and similar services - there is a vested interest there and it cares little about learning outcomes unless this learning is geared to creating more consumers. We should actively question whether we are selling our children’s information for profit. That is too high a price to pay for my child’s intellectual property.

For more information on COPPA and protecting your child’s intellectual freedoms, please see the following links:

Why I Support Ethnic Studies for K-12 Students

Photo courtesy of www.pixabay.com.

Photo courtesy of www.pixabay.com.

Recently, as I was preparing for class in the morning, I watched the live stream of the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. This came on the heels of Governor Brown signing AB 2016, a bill requiring the development of an Ethnic Studies curriculum for grades 7-12 in California. It then also dawned on me that I would be teaching a section on the history of Africans in the Americas in my High School Ethnic Studies class. To wrap it all together, I also remembered that I took my children to the California African American Museum not too long ago as well. All these memories gave me the feeling that this day would be different.

In class, as the students made their way in, I arranged my materials and waited for them to settle down. I then asked, “what is happening right this very second that is related to the topic we will be discussing today?” A couple of students mentioned the recent shootings of unarmed African American men, and subsequent marches and protests. I acknowledge that this was also happening, and commended them for being so in touch with the very important issues of the day. Still, I kept asking, “what else is happening right now?” None of them knew. I then mentioned the opening of the museum. They were surprised. I asked them to remember this feeling of surprise, and asked them to relate it to the material we would be discussing that day.

We began reviewing a seminal text that covers the history of Africans in the Americas. Since it was a long article (over 30 pages), the students were each assigned a section of it, and they took turns coming to the front of the class to present five important points from their section.  The only two African American students in the class both took the opportunity to add a personal reflection during their presentations. The one young woman spoke about how her dark skin and dreaded hair mark her as different, for good or for ill. She also said that, “despite this,” she still demands and deserves respect. The young man spoke about how it was important to know the scientific contributions that Black Americans made because he was going into the sciences himself. Both took the time to really sit with the material and use their own words to express what may have been hard to express before…that they, as people, mattered.

So what is Ethnic Studies? Surprisingly, not many parents know the answer to this question. It is a field of study that focuses on the histories of the people of a nation. Ethnic Studies also educates us on the influences of immigration, wars, economic opportunities, and, as is often the case the enslavement of people, and how this is imprinted on them. It explores our own relationship to the international community and how it helps us define who we are as a nation. It is important that our children know about their collective histories. In so doing, they can begin to see the similarities, but also how differences can and do contribute to progress in society. One of the students asked, “Why aren’t we taught this stuff in our regular school?” Great question! It is a question that is usually asked by my college students when they take my upper level multi-cultural education classes. Those students are juniors and seniors in college! For a high school student to bring up this question demonstrates the absolute need for Ethnic Studies in the K-12. While AB 2016 focuses on 7-12 grade, this is a good start. However, for real change and impact, we need to make Ethnic Studies part of the K-12 curriculum, and embed it in other subjects where appropriate.

Both of the African American students seemed more relaxed at the end of their presentations. More engaged. The young man took off his ear buds (a pleasant change) and actively contributed to the conversations. He began to really listen because he now saw himself in the material. The young woman even gave me a hug after class, a silent one, but it was an acknowledgement that the lesson hit home for her as well. It was as if she infused truth with her own power.

All of our students need to believe, deep in their soul, that they matter. That is why I support Ethnic Studies.

* * *

To find out more about the scholarship and activism surrounding Ethnic Studies at the national and international level, please visit the National Association for Ethnic Studies website.

Please go to the California Legislature Website to find out more about the recent AB2016 legislation.

To find out more about the Long Beach Ethnic Studies Initiative (LBESI), please see the following video.

The Case for Ethnic Studies in the K-12

Photo courtesy of www.pixabay.com

Photo courtesy of www.pixabay.com

Given the recent divisiveness taking hold in the U.S., from restrictions on hair styles targeting African American girls, to the Trump Phenomenon creeping into our K-12 schools, we need to push for comprehensive education reform that includes Ethnic Studies.

What is Ethnic Studies? It is a field of study that focuses on the histories of the people of a nation. Here in the U.S., since we are all either immigrants or children of immigrants (excluding the First Nations peoples), it is important to know where we came from, and how time has helped us become who we are today. Ethnic Studies educates us on the influences of immigration, wars, economic opportunities, and also enslavement (among other things) on the character of a people. It explores our relationship to the international community and how it helps us define who we are as a nation. We are a democracy based on pluralism, meaning we are who we are because of the awareness and influences of our differences. We are enriched by the influx of new people from all over the world, and continue to be nourished by diversity as we adjust to new political and social realities therefrom.

Our children also need to understand where they came from, and how they contribute to this social experiment that is the United States of America. Their existence is the result of cultures, nationalities, races, and religions coming together in the most intimate way possible. They are the hope that our future will be brighter than our past. With that hope comes responsibility to do what they can to move society forward.

In order to live up to this responsibility, they need to be informed, educated, and ultimately motivated to act for the good of all. This can best be addressed in the classroom, and it should involve more than learning about heroes and holidays. Should be about learning the history of all the people of this land, the contributions they made, and the hurt some of them caused to others in the quest for “progress”. Yes, this includes learning about the less glorious events of our past such as the attempt to eliminate Native Americans, the forced enslavement over 11 million people from Africa, the sordid history of lynchings of Mexicans (not just African Americans), and the use of Chinese immigrants as near-slave labor to build our railroads... all in the name of progress. These are just a few examples.

Progress is slow, and happens over generations, but this is part of this education. Even when it takes decades to bring lasting change for the better, this progress needs to continue in an informed and lasting way. This progress is ensured through education. We must teach the generations that follow us a history that is connected to the histories of others. During a recent family visit to Manzanar, my children learned that there was an Irish-Mexican man named Ralph Lazo, who selflessly followed his Japanese friends to the internment camp. He was not Japanese, so he was not technically required to go, but he went anyway. He said: “I know their loyalty. They hadn’t done anything I hadn’t done, and time has proven this.” He realized that he wasn't very different from his friends and neighbors, and that time and education would make that apparent.

Knowing how we are the same as well as how we are different allows us to begin the conversation about how connected we really are to one another. My children are Dutch and Puerto Rican. This combined history will help shape their world view. We are doing our best to let them know where they came from and what responsibility they have to help “form a more perfect union,” as the meme goes. So, like the parents of blended families as well as those of unique heritages, we are doing our best to teach them what they are not learning about in school, but it shouldn't be that way...

To find out more about the scholarship and activism surrounding Ethnic Studies at the national and international level, please visit the National Association for Ethnic Studies website.

To find out more about the movement to include Ethnic Studies in the K-12 curriculum, please visit the Ethnic Studies Now! Coalition website.

Award Ceremonies as Privilege on Display

Last week, I went to two award ceremonies for both of my children in one day. The parents were there with their cameras and telephones taking photos and videos. It was standing-room only, but I am not working this summer and I live close by, so I was there early. It was a proud moment for all the parents who received word from their teachers that their daughter or son was receiving an award.

A Sad Moment

As the names were called, I saw proud children run up on stage. Many were cheered on by their classmates. At one point the students who made it to the Honor Roll were called. These were students who received A’s and B’s on their 5th grade report card. I noticed that there was one student on stage who began crying. I thought it was because she was overcome with joy. It turned out that she was crying because she did not make it to the Principal’s Honor Roll, that is, students who earned all A’s. She was expecting to be called up for THAT list, not the list that included "B" students. She was overcome with disappointment to the point that not just her teacher had to talk with her, but two other teachers did the same in an effort to calm her down during the ceremony.

Then there were those students who did not receive anything; those students whose parents did not come up to give hugs of congratulations or words of conciliation after the ceremony. I am not one of those parents who believe that every child should get a trophy, or that we need to protect our students from disappointment. On the contrary, I fully support teachers who have consequences for missed homework and irresponsible behavior. What bothers me is that in this school, in this district where the average household income is well over $110K per year, privilege is what was on display that day. The children who received all A’s for the most part have tutors, parents who stay home with them, or attend tutoring programs like Sylvan and Kumon. Those children receive extra help. The same is likely for children who receive athletic awards in our district. Those students are part of club teams and have coaches helping them improve their skills. As I've heard, many also have parents who do their homework for them "in order to fit it all in." To me, awards ceremonies such as these are more a display of income and privilege, rather than ability. Should this sort of behavior be rewarded?

Music Students

A similar display took place at the Spring concert this past June. For some background, the K-6 music program in our district is run by four teachers who teach instruments and chorus across five schools. At our school specifically, they manage music instruction for over 100 students at a time and most students do their best to learn their instrument. If they want to excel, though, they are instructed to find a tutor to supplement the learning. Everyone in the class, still receives an A, but that is not quite reflective of the actual learning or instruction that occurs there.

During the concert, the better players, the ones that receive tutoring and outside help, are seated up front. The remaining students are then seated behind them, out of view, and (hopefully) further away from earshot. I found out that this is common in music programs. Towards the end of the concert, seven of the very best students were highlighted as exceptional and the teacher even used the term "gifted" to describe them. With much fanfare, they were moved to seats right in front of the parents to play a solo piece. They played a song from the Beatles called “Yesterday” but it might as well have been "Imagine" to complete the irony. Of course, these were all students who received music instruction outside of school, and have likely been playing for many years already. What kind of message is that for all the other students? Are they not "gifted"?

The Message

Schools can be great institutions of learning and equalizers of opportunity. Sometimes, though, they become institutions that replicate the social order of the town or district in which they are located and thus mirror the existing income stratification of our society. Awards ceremonies in these schools perpetuate inequality, and increase the pressures students feel to do well.

Next year, we are thinking of opting our children out of the public acknowledgement of their achievement in the Awards Ceremony. Competition is a good motivator, but when it becomes the means to an end we do not desire, then it erodes compassion and becomes a way of perpetuating economic privilege.

Recently I heard that one of our local students attempted suicide at the junior high down the street - the child was just 12 years old. Is the example we want for our children?

In Defense of Finger-counting

Image courtesy of  pixabay.com

Image courtesy of pixabay.com

In the recent Atlantic magazine article entitled, Why Kids Should Use Their Fingers in Math Class, the writers talk about how neuroscience sees using finger-counting in math as essential for improving math comprehension. Essential! Go figure…

I’ve always been told to encourage my children to stop using fingers to count. My children are now practicing “mental math”, where they must figure out how to do a problem WITHOUT writing it out first. You know what? I’ve always had a problem with that idea. My math teachers insisted that we showed our work, every…single…step. If not, we got marked down. I learned to “see” numbers in my head because I first saw them on the paper, and saw them using my hands. My math teachers were right! Turns out that our brain comes equipped with a somatosensory finger area. In this area of the brain, “we ‘see’ a representation of our fingers in our brains, even when we do not use fingers in a calculation.” The article goes on to say that we need to encourage students to count with their fingers because if they stop, it is “akin to halting their mathematical development”! Wow…

And if you’re wondering, this also can be one way to close the achievement gap created by income inequality. Finger counting is part of a large area of brain research that focuses on visual representation and its impact on the brain and learning. The article highlights a study that talks about the benefits of board games for low-income preschoolers, it was found that “after four 15-minute sessions of playing a game with a number line, differences in knowledge between students from low-income backgrounds and those from middle-income backgrounds were eliminated.” In other words, we should not stop using what educators call “manipulatives” to help children learn math. We come equipped with 10 very good “manipulatives” that our students should continue to use during math.

We should not short-circuit the brain development of our children by placing them too quickly in front of electronic devices. We cannot make them reliant on electronics to do the thinking for them. Working with the brain, rather than against it or ignoring it altogether, is one way we can help all children do well in school. We don’t learn anything new from machines. The best “machine” is the one sitting right in between our ears. We should learn how to use that one better. Math is cool, fun, and can continue to be if we just use our hands!

Opt Out Part 2 - Don’t believe the hype: there are no penalties for opting out!

Image courtesy of  morguefile.com

Image courtesy of morguefile.com

The testing season is in full swing in CA this month and will continue through May. The CAASPP (California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress) and the STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting ) Science test will be given at our children's school. As a reminder, California Education Code 60615 allows a parent “to excuse his or her child from any or all parts of the assessments administered”. So don’t be afraid to opt your children out. In speaking with other parents, I constantly hear them say: “We can’t opt them out! They won’t graduate to the next grade!" or “They’re supposed to take it…aren’t they?” and "Won't it affect their funding?" This is echoed in a recent email from one of our teachers to the parents, “students must take the CASPP”. To be fair, when I explained to the teacher than this was misinformation, she did promise to correct the wording on subsequent emails.

The fact is, parents should not believe the hype from administrators, teachers, PTAs, and fellow parents that do more to scare than inform. Some school administrators will say that if the children don’t take this optional and, as it turns out also dubiously relevant test, that the school will be penalized, somehow. According to FairTest.org, “…eight states (California, Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin) have specific language in their statutes allowing parents to opt their children out of standardized testing. More importantly, not one school or state has ever been sanctioned - ever. Last year, the Department of Education (DOE) took absolutely no action at all when Oregon made it especially clear and easy for parents to opt their children out.

The fact is, no state or federal agency has ever withheld funds for children’s education because the school did not have a high enough participation rate for this optional, and frankly irrelevant, test. And even if they tried this, the backlash would be tremendous. Lawsuits would undoubtedly follow based on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. This protection was applied to educational institutions by the Supreme Court of the United States in May 1975, in Plyler vs. Doe, and confirmed that public education cannot be withheld from children based on criteria over which the children have no control such as race or income. In the case of standardized testing, where the argument would be whether it was required or not, this would also be outside of their control. The bottom line is, there is a shifting tide away from standardized testing and the proponents of testing do not want to test this in court.

One thing parents should do when talking with teachers about their choice to opt out is to have a proposal for an alternative learning experience. This is because teachers may not even be prepared for this and will likely ask the child to spend those three hours in front of a computer watching video - this is not recommended. For example, I am taking my children to the California Science Center and the African American Museum in Los Angeles. We worked out an agreement with their teachers that they will be writing up what they want to get out of the experience and then have a chance to present it to the class. They also will be volunteering in the kindergarten classroom as helpers during other test days. Both our children are very excited about this plan for a variety of reasons, but most of all because they get to do something special that they actually want to do. For the teacher, their students will continue to learn the content that directly relates to the learning objectives. As it turns out, our teachers have been incredibly supportive, for which I feel very fortunate.

Parents contact me asking what to do during the testing period. I tell them simply opt out! It's really not that hard and I calmly tell them that the tests do nothing but hijack the teaching time, stress everyone out, and contribute nothing to the educational well-being of the child - they are over-tested already. Let me be very clear. As I said before, I am not against all tests. I just will not allow our children to become trained test-takers at the expense of so many other things they could be learning that will benefit them in life. In the end, our children are why we invest in schools. Let’s do our best to ensure that their education isn’t sacrificed at the altar of the testocracy.

For part 1 of this article, "Opt Out! The Harm of Standardized Tests," see below.