Monday Morning Open Thread

What’s up?

First, an update: as it turns out, Matt, our baker baker’s husband is able and working on switching the underlying platform of to keep us there. (Yay!) However, to let him do his thing we should meet here until he is done. Then he will converge the two sites and we will continue meeting at as we have the last seven years. Thank you for your patience and understanding.

In the meantime, I am collecting funds to pay him, hopefully, for a one time upgrade and every once in a blue moon if the site is down. If you feel inclined to help, paypal me at elisa at mothertalkers dot com. Thank you!!

In other news: I was tickled to see this rock video by Daily Kos intern Faith. She is the lead singer with the red hair and she used Eli’s dolls to rock out! We were all smiles here. Enjoy!

Mitt Romney won the Puerto Rican Republican primary this past weekend, according to the Washington Post.

I already see the Republican presidential candidates all over this one: the Springfield, Massachusetts school district will hand out condoms to students 12 years and older with parents’ approval AND handing out information on abstinence as well. Of course, this won’t stop us from hearing about it on the campaign trail as if kids today don’t already face teen pregnancy and STDs.

Seattle is considering canceling its contract with Teach for America before completing one of it’s three-year commitment with the organization, according to 360 Education Solutions. Public officials are starting to question the program’s effectiveness especially since the program trains its students only 5 weeks to become teachers and it is expensive to implement.

This BlogHer story touched a nerve as I’ve shown up to an Aveda hair salon in Chicago to be told that my children couldn’t stay with me. This particular story focused on whether hair salons should have child-free policies. My beef is if they are going to have such policies, then they need to state that upfront. It isn’t fair to the parents to show up to learn of the policy.

And justice is served. A Rutgers student who secretly video-recorded his roommate having sex with another man to share with others — in which his roommate later committed suicide — was convicted of 15 charges related to the incident, according to the New York Times.

Also, Freedom Airlines settled with a mom who it kicked off one of its flights five years ago for breastfeeding her baby. Companies, take notice.

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?


How To Encourage Life-Long Educators?

This has been on my mind a lot lately as I recently spoke to Ari’s first grade teacher, who just wrote a book and does not want to return to teaching. He is a phenomenal teacher, human being and was beloved by his colleagues and students, including my son, who misses seeing him at the school.

He is also a trilingual Latino male with decades of teaching experience, a rarity that is so needed in our schools!

All of this was fresh on my mind as I waded through a cesspool of anti-teacher comments in a USA Today story co-authored by the leaders of the National Education Association and Teach for America. There were gems like this one:

Best way to imporve the quality of teachers…fire about 1/3 to 1/2 of them because they are terrible teachers….Many of the teachers now employed as teachers would have a difficult time finding another job elsewhere.

Really, dude? From what I have seen, many people don’t stick with the profession because they can get more money and respect elsewhere. See Ari’s teacher as an example.

There were a lot of issues with the USA Today article, which was about how teacher preparation was key for exceptional teacher performance in the classroom. As Teacherken at Daily Kos pointed out, Teach for America certainly has no legs to stand on as it invests only five weeks of preparation for new teachers, and usually, these folks are out and in the private sector after two years on the job. Why invest in new teachers if they aren’t going to stick with the profession? This seems like a bad investment, and also bad for our kids who get attached to teachers to only see them leave a year or two later.

From what I have seen at our now six-year-old school, teacher — and staff! — stability is essential for the stability of a school, but also creates a sense of permanence and community at the school. I would hate for this teacher-bashing to scare away some of the best members of our community.

How important is teacher stability to you?


LinkedIn Talk With Michelle Rhee — My Comments Included!

The online professional network, LinkedIn, recently hosted a conversation with former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Corporate America loves Rhee’s ideas for “education reform,” like dismantling the unions. You could say that LinkedIn moderator, Steve Cadigan, and the audience were receptive to her.

Nonetheless, the conversation raised much food for thought and fodder such as the “last hired, first fired” policy guiding school layoffs during tough economic times. Also, are there ways to evaluate teachers? Is there a way to allow low-performing teachers to train and prove themselves that won’t negatively impact students? What can be done about the achievement gap between low-income minority students and everyone else? Here is what Rhee had to say about this and more — I added my own thoughts and comments throughout the piece:  

Steve Cadigan: What do you hope to achieve with (your organization) StudentsFirst?

Michelle Rhee: The concept behind the organization is a simple one. Our education system is ruled by special interests. You have the text book companies, the teachers union and testing companies…and there is no group advocating for children….It is time to start a movement in this country that is dedicated to putting kids first and to fixing public education in our country.

Steve Cadigan: Have you found receptivity? Are people joining your cause?

Michelle Rhee: We launched this initiative on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the power of Oprah is amazing. The first week (after we launched on the Oprah Show), we had 100,000 members. Now we have more than 340,000 members….In California alone we have 55,000 members. It’s our most popular state by far.

Steve Cadigan: I was curious what the demographics are of the members?

Michelle Rhee: One of the demographic groups we are interested in is teachers. About 15% of our members are teachers. We want the teacher voice….Right now we have a monolithic teacher voice in the country and that is the teachers union. But a lot of the teachers I talk to don’t (agree with) the teacher union leadership. Parents of school-aged kids are frustrated with the system. But we also have grandparents and people who used to be an educator a long time ago. This is a diverse group of members, and they take action….Our open rates and click rates are much, much higher than the industry standard.

Steve Cadigan: We do have many thousands of teachers on LinkedIn. How have you been able to leverage social media in your campaign and reach out?

Michelle Rhee: I have to say I am very technologically not savvy. I’ve had special needs I’ve had to overcome. (laughter) When I was Chancellor, I didn’t do Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn….So when I came out of that job, my staff immediately got me signed up for all of those things. I remember saying something on Twitter and getting slammed for it. People told me I wasn’t supposed to do that….(OTOH), I had a chat online with a group of special education teachers. It was a great way to engage with a large group of people across the country…I was impressed with the level of respect people engaged with back and forth. We covered a wide range of topics in a short period of time. For example, for the teachers out there, almost always a teacher will come up to me and say, “I am with you, but I am a teacher and I can’t say I am with you. You’ve got to speak out and be vocal.” A lot of the teachers feel that way. They don’t want to speak out. They don’t want to be ostracized. I think that social media can really be a transformational force for that.

Steven Cadigan asked her about StudentsFirst’s “strong advocacy” around its “Save Great Teachers Campaign”.

Michelle Rhee: We wanted to start a national issue campaign on one thing we can get lots of people to agree on. We targeted the “last in, last out” policy, or “LILO”. You have to be the last teacher out, regardless of quality. But it has a detrimental impact on kids: you end up firing the best teachers. You end up firing more teachers because the junior teachers tend to be paid less. This impacts schools in (struggling areas) like the inner city where the newest teachers tend to work, and their teaching staff is decimated. (Layoffs) should be based on quality and not seniority if we are going to put kids first.

Elisa’s Note: Okay, I have to stop right there. Considering that StudentsFirst aims for 1 million members and to raise $1 billion, can’t local parents and Rhee’s organization raise the money to keep teachers? I feel the same way about vouchers, by the way. If you support vouchers, which Rhee does, why not give money to a private school and earmark it for low-income students?

Steve Cadigan: What is the goodness they are trying to realize with that policy?

Michelle Rhee: I have no idea….People oftentimes ask me, “What are we going to do about the teachers union? We have to get the teachers union to (embrace change).” The point of the teachers unions is to protect their members. When school children start paying union dues their interests will be met. The teachers unions are effective because they have millions of dollars and millions of union members. They can get politicans elected….We need a counter to that….As chancellor, I ran it as a mother. I have two children, and put them in the DC public schools. When I made decisions I knew they would impact my own kids….I’ll give you an example. I was meeting with legislators and someone said, “We want to give people who are ineffective in the classroom three years in a row to improve.” So here’s the thing. I made the decision to let go of ineffective teachers after one year…I told the legislator that, “If what you want to keep those people in the classroom, then you need to do what they did in Florida, which was to warn parents that their teacher was deemed ineffective.

(The legislators) are coming from a different perspective in terms of job security and training.

Steve Cadigan: That’s great. You’ve got union issues, differences district from district, state to state, federal issues. We are always looking for someone to blame, whether it’s the economy or the climate. How do you decide on where to make change?

Michelle Rhee: Everyone is always looking for the silver bullet…”What is the reason for the problem?” it’s never that simple. There is no one thing….In terms of when I started StudentsFirst, what I decided to do was focus on…human capital, making sure there was a quality principal leading every school, and making sure that there was a quality teacher in every classroom; school choices so that families don’t feel that they are (stuck); and accountabilty in tax dollars we were spending.

Steve Cadigan: When you’re going after something as entrenched as the education system, how do you find the courage or conviction to keep going forward?

Michelle Rhee: When I first got to DC, I was told that you have a honeymoon period. Mine was about 11 weeks. A columnist in the Washington Post wrote a column saying, “I like Michelle Rhee. I just wish she would be nicer.”…During my first 100 days on the job, I announced I wanted to close 23 schools in the district, and people went nuts…There were protesters outside my office. I got in at 11 o’clock at night and my mother says, “Are you okay?” “I’m fine. I’m making myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”…I’ve always been one of those people. I’ve never been concerned (about what others think of me)….One of the things that drives me crazy is how much we are willing to compromise away just to get along. We are willing to turn a blind eye (to problems) in the name of harmony among adults….If we know this is better for kids, why are we willing to go halfway? As you can see, I will never be a politician. (Laughter)

Elisa’s Note: Her answer was much longer, but I actually appreciated her passion for change, even if it means pissing off people. As someone whose husband’s job revolves around making waves — he, too, is frustrated with our insistence on “compromising away” on issues like healthcare — I did feel kinship with her here.

Steve Cadigan: Great answer. What did you think of the documentary Waiting for Superman, (in which Rhee was featured)?

Michelle Rhee: I had no idea what that movie was going to be about. My mother and father, who throughout my career could never figure out what I was doing — “Could you please go to lawschool now, or be a doctor?” — my mother’s comment was like, “Did you not know they were filming? Could you have combed your hair?” (Laughter) When (film director) Davis (Guggenheim) approached me about participating in the movie, I told him at first that I was not interested. My fiance (and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson) said, “You gotta do this.”…I was very skeptical. I didn’t know how you were going to do a documentary on education in 90 minutes. He far exceeded my expectations. He made it very easily understandable to normal people. You see actual kids and families. It shattered the expectations that people had about inner city parents.

Elisa’s Note: Have you seen Waiting for Superman? I am doubly curious now.

For the last 15 minutes of LinkedIn’s conversation, Rhee took questions from the audience.

On measuring teachers:
Michelle Rhee: That’s a good question. A lot of what you hear is that we don’t have a problem measuring teachers, but we don’t have a perfect tool. There is no perfect tool for measuring anything in the world. The evalutaion tool (we used in DC) was that 50% of a teacher’s evaluation is based on the academic growth of their kids, 40% based on observations of classroom practice, some done by surprise and some by outside experts, 5% on community approval and 5% contribution to their community like leading extracurricular activities.  

Whether Rhee has encountered teacher opposition to the evaluations:
Michelle Rhee: You know I run across a lot of teachers who are angsty right now. There is a lot of rhetoric that teachers are being attacked and being blamed. “When you move to an evaluation system, you just want to evaluate based on test scores.” What I tend to see more with teachers is not that people are opposed, but they want to know is it going to work? It makes sense to a vast majority of teachers when we get beyond the scare tactics and get to the nuts and bolts of how things would work.

A man who has continuously voted “yes” on tax parcels, wondered why taxpayers aren’t seeing a return on investment:
Michelle Rhee: If you say it’s for the kids, it’s hard to say you are against it. We have more than doubled the amount of moeny we are spending per child, and the results have gotten worse. The U.S. along with Belgium is in the quadrant you don’t want to be in that it spends a lot of money, but doesn’t get results.

Elisa’s Note: Yes and no. We are No. 3 in terms of per pupil spending, but this is an average and does not take into consideration more affluent areas that are able to collect more money in property taxes, and thus, have more resources for students and better reputations. Depending on where a student lives, there are many kids in this country receiving less than the $7,000 per year.

More telling to me is what little priority education is in this country. We are No. 37 in terms of our GDP — 5.7% — devoted to education spending. Cuba is No. 1, devoting 18.7% of its GDP on education.

I thought I would clear that up and get to the second part of Rhee’s answer:  

Michelle Rhee: Where are we spending the money? We spend billions and billions of dollars compensating teachers for their Master’s degrees. There is no correlation between having a Master’s degree and effectiveness in the classroom.

Elisa’s Note: I was actually surprised to hear this. My understanding is that many people choose not to teach because they graduate with too much debt, and can’t afford to work for such low wages. Then again, as someone whose kids attend a school, in which the faculty largely has degrees and credentials from other countries, I find the credentialing process for teachers in this country quite onerous and superfluous. The Spanish immersion programs in this country, for example, would benefit from the expertise of native Spanish teachers who studied and taught in their home countries. Unfortunately, many are prohibited from teaching in U.S. schools because they don’t have degrees or credentials from the U.S. and/or don’t speak English — which, minus some communication issues with English-only parents, has not been a problem at our school.

At the end of the LinkedIn event, there was a softball question on whether students should get to evaluate their teachers. Rhee thought their opinions were important.

In terms of training teachers in technology, she said there were “infrastructure” problems at the public schools. For example, she remembered during her first year of teaching, no one was able to use the thousands of computers delivered to the school because the outlet plugs were incompatible. But even if this were not the case, the building’s circuitry couldn’t handle that many computers plugged in at once.

How to help StudentsFirst:
Michelle Rhee: One, you can help us raise some money and get us more members. We want people to become engaged. I’ll give you a specific example. If you look at school board elections, they are usually off-cycle elections…These are people who drive school policy. We need more people to run for office, willing to put politics aside and put students first…I often talk to groups, in which someone says, “What she’s talking about is problems with the inner city, minority kids.” This is a national problem that we have. The top 5% of our students, these are the students who go to the tony private schools, they rank 23 out of 29 in the globe. We have to make people understand that this is something that impacts your world today.

Elisa’s note: I couldn’t find any information about this, not even on the StudentsFirst website. My understanding is that we do have an achievement gap in this country between minority and white students, but that our more affluent (and white) students were on the same playing field as students abroad. What do you all think? Have you seen the statistic Rhee espoused about our top students?

Finally, Rhee was asked by a teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District about the achievement gap. In this case, the teacher has noticed a gap in performance between her African American and Pacific Islander students and Caucasian students. Rhee gave a very candid “Tiger Mom” response. Check it out:
Michelle Rhee: It’s not any one thing. Our poor minority kids are attending low-performing schools. If you are a poor African-American child in this country, you have a 47% chance of being in a  failing school. The second thing is we have a very, very low expectation (of these students). These don’t come from bad places….Our poor minority kids are coming from tough home environments….I think one of our things as a nation is that we have gone soft. We have lost our competitive edge and competitive spirit. I have two daughters, 12 and 9, and they play soccer. They suck, like bad. But if you were going to their rooms today, you would see trophies and ribbons that you would think I was raising the next Mia Hamm. “You actually aren’t good at soccer. You have to practice every day.” They look at me like I’m crazy because they can’t square that with everyone telling them they’re great….If we continue to build a culture in which we are allowing kids to celebrate mediocrity then we are going to lose overall as a nation. This lowered expectations is a significant part of the problem.

Yes, Michelle Rhee really did broadcast to the world that her daughters “suck, like bad” in soccer.

In related news, she considered Teach for America the catalyst that got her into the field of education. Here is easily the best story on Teach for America that I have read, courtesy of Teacherken on Daily Kos. Enjoy!

Oh, and feel free to talk all things education in this post.  


More on the Education Wars…

With the release of Waiting for Superman, which was made by the same filmmaker behind An Inconvenient Truth, literally, everyone is talking about the state of our public schools. According to every pundit and their mother, it’s bad, and it’s all the teachers unions’ fault.

You know this movie — and topic — has made it to the public consciousness when HBO host Bill Maher and R&B singer John Legend are sparring over it on a Friday night. (Disclosure: My husband was on the show, too. This is what he contributed to the topic: “Teachers don’t get paid shit.”)

Aside from my husband’s erudite comment — LOL! — Maher’s and Legend’s stances represented the extremes of this debate. Maher blamed the high dropout rates in certain high schools and low performance of minority students on the impoverishment of their parents. Legend blamed poor performing schools on poor performing teachers. Here is more detail on their perspectives: Maher’s can be found at the Huffington Post and Legend’s at the Daily Beast.

I am saddened that either the media or reality has pitted teachers against parents. From my experience as a mother, former AmeriCorps volunteer, and board member of a new independent school, you need both. You need energetic, knowledgeable and passionate teachers who are on board with the school’s teaching philosophy and needs of the communities they serve.

You also need very energetic, passionate and involved parents, who at minimum, monitor homework, help teachers in the classroom, and donate what they can in time and money for classroom supplies, field trips, and those little things that enrich learning, but are unfortunately being slashed due to budget cuts. This is no easy feat when parents are working multiple jobs or long hours to make ends meet.

OTOH, this is no easy feat for teachers who must educate an increasingly larger number of students living in poverty and with special needs — on less money.

Still, I am thrilled so many people, including those without children like Bill Maher, have taken an interest in education and are talking about it. Here are the latest education articles I have seen in the press:

The tough-on-teachers “accountability” measures in places like Florida has actually had an undesired effect, according to Newsweek. It’s actually the best teachers that are leaving underperforming schools.  

In 2002, Florida became one of the first states to grade schools on student progress. But the result, the study shows, was a case of “accountability shock“: in the 60 schools deemed failing, about 30 percent of the workforce left—usually for jobs at higher-rated schools nearby. (The average school nationwide might see annual turnover of about 15 percent.) Since the best teachers were among the most likely to transfer, says Northwestern University professor and study coauthor David Figlio, accountability pressure may actually reinforce the gap between educational haves and have-nots; teachers, like athletes, want to play for a winning team. The solution, Figlio suggests, might be retainer deals for the best instructors at bad schools, something to compensate them for the rebuilding ahead.

On the flipside, Newsweek also ran an article on how the best principals can turn around failing schools. I was intrigued by this article on so many levels. In my experience, parents tend to judge a school by their child’s teacher, but not the principal. I even had a friend comment to me that “principals don’t matter.”

But in my experience, our current head of school was very instrumental in turning around our uncertain start-up of 80 kids into a full-fledged school with 186 students. I often wonder why principals are not credited or even mentioned in the success or failure of a school.

Here’s what Newsweek’s Pat Wingert had to say about one experiment to place the best principals in the toughest schools:

By late spring 2009, a year after the initiative started, student proficiency on the state test had risen in all seven of the original SSI schools, with some school scores rising by more than 20 points, a remarkable achievement. Equally surprising, scores also rose in the second group of SSI schools, which were launched only four months before the tests were administered.

Among the most effective was principal Suzanne Gimenez. After two years at high-poverty Devonshire Elementary, she has boosted the reading score of her Hispanic students by 30 points and her school’s math score by 33 points. Her secrets? Posting a chart to track the performance of every student, plus instilling more accountability and discipline. Years of experience had taught her that “children of poverty perform better with a lot of structure,“ she says. “Many of them don’t know where they’re going to get dinner or sleep. School needs to be the same for them every day.“

What do you think of your school’s principal?

Lastly, Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp got props in a Vanity Fair article. I did not know this but Teach for America, which places graduates from elite colleges into low-income districts to teach, is 20 years old. But here’s my question to VF and all the publications out there singing its praises: Does it work? And yes, I have read individual studies in places like North Carolina. But what about a comprehensive study on its impact on a country as a whole. Do TFA teachers really match up or outperform credentialed teachers — TFA’s claim — everywhere it teaches across the country? Also, what is the impact on students and a community of having such high teacher turnover since most only stay for the two years required of them? Now that’s the story I want to read!


Review: Why Great Teachers Quit

Over the break, I had the pleasure of reading a book by our very own Katy Farber. I always get a thrill reading books by people who I know and admire.

Katy, who not only parents two girls and writes for MotherTalkers and Non-Toxic Kids, but she is also an elementary school science teacher. (Where do you find the time, girl?)

In her first book, Why Great Teachers Quit And How We Might Stop the Exodus, Katy examines just that: why are so many young, smart and idealistic people exiting the field in droves within the first five years? While she did examine the obvious reasons of low pay and crazy hours, which left me convinced that teaching is not a family-friendly profession, her answer was much more nuanced.

For example, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, the No. 1 reason teachers left high poverty, urban public schools was because of poor administrative support (50 percent) and not poor salary (26.9 percent). A lack of faculty influence (42.5 percent) was the second biggest reason teachers left poor urban public schools. As for teachers in low poverty, suburban public schools, they left due to poor salary (51 percent) followed by poor administrative support (30 percent). Notice that their reasons for leaving had nothing to do with the students.

Which leads me to one of the biggest factors driving out teachers: politics. Legislation like No Child Left Behind and standardized testing is decreasing student morale and forcing out teachers, who must take even more time from their busy schedules to supervise students during the test rather than teach or grade papers. Also, they have not been trained to supervise such tests in a way that would please legislators, often non-educators, mandating such testing.

What surprised me was that, while well-intentioned, these tests have not increased student achievement.

In some cases, when it looks as though test scores are going up, one must read the back story to understand whether all students were assessed, how the dropout rate plays into it, and how much quality teaching is happening. Houston, Texas, was touted nationally as a success story for raising the test scores of all of its students. The district claimed a low 1.5 percent dropout rate, but at Sharpston High School, 463 of 1,700 students left during the school year; none were reported as dropping out. Instead, they were assigned a code that meant they had changed schools, gone back to a native country, or gone for their GED, when many of them never reported these reasons to the school (Meier et al., 2004). The real story is that a new correlation has arisen from frequent standardized testing: falling graduation rates as standardized testing increases (Meier et al., 2004).

Interesting, eh? Another aspect of Katy’s book that I liked was that it wasn’t simply a whiny tome on the state of education today, rather it offered educators solutions to implement best practices. She visited schools all across the country and interviewed dozens of teachers both online and offline. She gave examples of schools that were actually implementing these practices, like, the Sherman Oaks Community Charter School in California, which allows teachers and staff 90 minutes daily of uninterrupted time to collaborate.

Here is a great example of how parents can partner with teachers to give children the best possible education:

In an era of dwindling budgets and jam-packed agendas, this may seem impossible. Not so, says Principal Peggy Bryan (Curtis, 2000). At Sherman Oaks, “Teachers meet while students have lunch, study hall, and a recreation period. Paraprofessionals — usually parents — come in during that time and oversee the children. ‘It’s simple, inexpensive, and it makes all the difference'” (para. 8), she said.

While the format is always under revision, teachers use this time for planning, grade-level meetings, cross-grade meetings, and problem solving. This lends itself to a feeling of professionalism, colleagueship, and support…By providing built-in opportunities like this, Sherman Oaks fosters a collaborative community that works together to support every child, and every teacher as they constantly hone and learn their craft.

Katy’s book is a quick and delightful read, a mere 156 pages. But one area I would have loved to see her dedicate a chapter to is that of “education reform.” So-called education reformers like Teach for America, charter school proponents, and DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee, have rankled some in the teaching profession because they are non-union. But I am interested to see what success, if any, they have had.

There are a few ideas that I am especially curious as to whether they would work. One is year-round schooling as practiced by charter schools like KIPP in Texas. It makes sense that three-month summer vacations are not compatible with a working parent’s schedule, especially one who cannot afford day camps. Of course, I would rather parents receive vacation, too, but it doesn’t seem realistic in an era of fewer full-time jobs and people working multiple part-time jobs.  

The other, as proposed by Rhee, is more money in lieu of tenure. I wonder how many teachers would go for it?

Finally, I am wondering how the three-year teaching cycles as dictated by Teach for America is working for them. On the one hand, I am sad that children in high risk areas are experiencing such high staff turnover. But a part of me also wonders if some schools are so tough that it is better for a teacher to remain there only three years to avoid burnout — like the military, another tough job. I don’t know, which is why I’d like more research on this. What do you all think?


Q&A With NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen

While I was at Netroots Nation last week, I had the privilege of meeting Lily Eskelsen, Vice President of the powerful National Education Association teachers union. Honestly, all I know of teachers unions, in general, is what I read in the press and it is not good. They are often locking horns with their non-union counterparts like Teach for America and D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee — all who I trust are in education to help children. (Michelle Rhee, by the way, made headlines last week for firing 241 teachers, or 6 percent of all D.C. teachers, according to the Wall Street Journal, which celebrated the move.)

At NN, I got to see a bigger picture, as Eskelsen is anything but incompetent. She is one of the highest-ranking labor leaders in the country and one of the most influential Hispanic educators with decades of classroom experience teaching our most vulnerable youth. At NN, she recalled a year, in which she taught 39 fifth-graders, and another year, in which she had 12 special education students in a class of 35. She has taught both gifted children and children who were homeless. In 1989, after only nine years in the classroom, she was named Teacher of the Year in Utah. Her accomplishments exceed beyond the classroom, as you can see in her online biography.

I got to ask her a few questions and was impressed by her breadth of knowledge. Check it out:

I want to ask you about the student achievement gap. Right now there is a disparity between minority and white students, and the high school dropout rates for African American and Latino men are abysmal. Is there anything that teachers and school staff can do to help narrow the achievement gap in public schools?

Eskelsen: And (the achievement gap is) growing. Absolutely. What Child Left Behind assumes is what you do is teach to the test. You cram for the test, and you practice for the test, and it is having a negative effect on every other aspect of student achievement. What has to happen you have to make learning relevant. You have to make it exciting. You have to make students want to learn. When you drill and drill for the test, you have the opposite effect.

Can you briefly summarzie a way to fairly evaluate teachers? Almost all schools have, usually, principal observations. They also keep track of whether there are parents who have complaints. That will affect your evaluation as well. In my district back in the ’80s, we experimented with something that was cool. The legislature gave (additional funding to) all the districts who came up with an evaluation system that looked at more than what (teachers) teach. It was voluntary…(Legislators) said, “Here is a menu of up to 10 different ways to demonstrate your effectiveness as a teacher.” One way was an anonymous survey of parents. You could have your peers evaluate you. You could use your students’ test scores, if you had chemistry AP students who passed the AP tests. They gave us a whole menu, including things like a principal evaluation. You could also pick an evaluation of peers where a team of teachers from another school came in and evaluated you.

Elisa’s note: Unfortunately, we ran out of time. But she encouraged everyone to contact their senator — NEA has a convenient link — to support a bill that promises to save more than 138,000 teaching jobs due to budget cuts.

Also, I did ask her about union antagonism towards charter schools at the education caucus. She said there were good public schools and bad public schools as there were good charter schools and “very bad” charter schools. Also, she said some charter schools were unionized, and in her opinion, the best ones were formed by educators and accounted for quality. Her two reservations about charter schools had to do with accountability, and also the “for-profit” motivation by landlords leasing buildings to charters.

Because our time was cut short — she had a jam-packed schedule at NN — she offered to answer any other questions we may have. Feel free to drop them here or in an e-mail at elisa at mothertalkers dot com.