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Month 3 As a Failing School: The Hatchet Drops

November 16, 2010

When the public middle school in which I work received news that we had not met our testing target, and in fact had dropped in our scores, we were not surprised.  To the educators on campus, this outcome was a logical event based on the turmoil students and teachers had experienced with the laying off of 23 teachers in 2009, and another dozen in 2010.  The social fabric of our school had frayed, there were lots of new faces on campus, and the economic lives of our students were not getting better in the midst of this recession.

But being labeled a “failing” school, or “focus school” as is used down here in Los Angeles, was a label many of us were not accustomed to wearing.  Our staff is quite accomplished, with several Doctors of Education, NBC teachers, and over two dozen Gifted and Talented Education teachers with master certification in this area.  Our students too, continued to try their hardest, but in today’s world of testing and sanctions, best efforts are irrelevant if scores do not increase at a fast enough rate.

It was precisely for this reason that on November 1, 2010, the Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District announced the names of schools which were not improving rapidly enough, or “failing,” but now had to also face sanctions for their low performance.  Our school, Los Angeles Academy, was on this list.

Being on the list of “failing” schools means we are forced to participate in a process euphemistically called “Public School Choice,” or PSC.  In this process, any organized group of individuals or corporations can submit bids to take over failing schools, and if awarded the school, can completely dismantle any prior staff or governance system and replace it with their own.  Charter schools are active participants in this process and submit bids for almost all campuses on the “failing schools” list.

The staff on our campus has been devastated by the news.  Our job is hard enough with the layoffs we have experienced, the reductions in support staff, and the increased fragility facing our students and their families on a daily basis.  Now, additional pressure will be placed to eliminate the trend of downward scores, as if we the teachers, had the magical abilities to erase all that ails our students and the community during these trying times.

Being a teacher at a “failing” school means attending more meetings, implementing more programs, strategies, and techniques in a year where furloughs have already reduced instruction by 7 days, and testing by even more.  There are scant planning periods that can actually be used to create better lessons; most are spent feverishly catching up with the latest mandate sent down from the district or making sure that the district curriculum is followed to a T.

Our school has the option to submit a bid of its own, to pitch for retaining management of our own campus.  The idea is that the additional pressure of competition will elicit better teaching skills from the folks in the classroom, better governance by administrators.  I imagine that idea sounded excellent in some think tank when it was devised, but in practicality, no one feels inspired, motivated, or challenged by being forced to fight for a school that is supposed to belong to the public in the first place.

We are tired, and it is only November.

Leaving our school’s students and families in the lurch during this process, is not a choice.  We cannot let our families down.  The parents and community know us, trust us, and would prefer us to continue managing the school.  This will mean that hundreds, if not thousands of hours lay ahead for the team of teacher leaders who will write a plan for PSC.  The magical summer break to which we look forward for rest and rejuvenation is rapidly fading from reality, to be replaced with more meetings jam-packed with edu-speak, data, graphs, and proposals, and all the while, the root cause of our students’ under-performance continues to go neglected:  poverty, crime, violence, and hunger.

I think of the millions of dollars the district is spending on consultants to examine how value-added measurement can be used to evaluate teachers.  I think of the amount of money that will be spent to pay for teachers to meet and write plans.  I think of all my students’ families who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, and I wish we could just give them the money.

So how to sum up month three of working at a “failing” school?  Distressing.



32 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Davis permalink
    November 16, 2010 5:12 am

    Distressing indeed, Martha. What you describe further exaggerates the kinds of time wasting teachers have long bemoaned. It is the pattern that has changed least (at least in any constructive direction) since the appearance of A Nation at Risk in 1983. If a company was trying to run a competitor out of business, it could hardly hope for conditions more conducive to its agenda. Oh, perhaps this is more than an analogy? My favorite Scottish saying is “Set a stout heart to a steep hillside.” Hardly adequate to your Sysiphian task, but I wish it for you nonetheless. JSD

    • November 16, 2010 9:29 pm

      It makes one want to yell, “leave us alone and let us teach!” but the days of practicing the art of teaching are few and far between. Tragically, it is those magic moments when teachers create that pivotal lesson, delivered in a masterful and engaging way that the students end up remembering for a lifetime, not just for the state test. But as many have said, the intention of NCLB and now RttT does not seem to be to encourage innovative and creative teaching. And at my school, it is pushing instruction into the complete opposite direction: canned curriculum with little, if any, room for differentiation.

  2. November 16, 2010 1:46 pm

    I want our president and legislators to read this!

  3. Lynne Formigli permalink
    November 16, 2010 2:41 pm

    Thank you for sharing the appalling conditions you are being subjected to. How incredibly frustrating and disheartening. It’s hard to imagine who can possibly conclude that these actions are helpful for our students.

  4. November 16, 2010 5:01 pm

    Federal policymakers and their spokespersons would be quick to point out that what is happening to your school is a result of local interpretation of the federal law (NCLB), not the law itself. And I’m the Easter bunny. Considering their comments and promises during the election, why hasn’t the Administration moved to put a freeze or extension on the penalties in NCLB? Instead, they seem to be stoking the fire by giving cash-strapped states even more incentive to focus on test scores and punitive actions towards veteran teachers (those that are left).

  5. November 16, 2010 10:34 pm

    Sounds eerily familiar…Care to guest post sometime?

  6. Kathie Marshall permalink
    November 17, 2010 7:52 pm

    Martha, I’m so sorry for the current state of affairs at your school. We were on the short list last year for PSC this year as well because our scores dropped the previous year, but somehow we rallied the kids and made a 47 point gain this year. Astounding. And needing repeating, of course, this year. Our principal was touted at this weeks Board meeting, so it makes me a little sick how you and your colleagues are feeling. My students’ scores two years ago after my return to the classroom were pretty embarrassing. They were much better this past year, but of course I stopped teaching history for four weeks and did a double dose of English every day. Is that teaching to the test? This year the kids get a semester of intervention in math and one in reading; our “curriculum” for reading intervention is Measuring Up. Is that teaching to the test?

    Meanwhile, we’ve lost hundreds of kids over the past few years due to the economy, are down one AP, six or nine secretaries, and countless custodians. With more cuts coming, according to UTLA. My room hasn’t been swept by an adult more than once in the past two weeks, I’m purchasing my own copy paper, and everyone keeps talking about how tired they are. We’re actually happy to see a furlough week to recuperate from the stress!

    I hope you and your colleagues can hang together through this interminable process and come out the other side with some teacher-based reforms in place instead of district or state mandates.

  7. November 17, 2010 9:31 pm

    Another example of the system operating illogically. What is going to happen if the next step doesn’t magically cure all that ails?

  8. southside Mike permalink
    November 18, 2010 9:20 am

    I would like to tell you the wornout cliches of keep at it, try your best, but like Sisyphus, you are, we are, battling against forces way beyond our school. In the 1980s it was The War on Drugs… tax money spent without any researched based accountabilty that it had a positive lasting impact. Now it is A War on Public Education where money is spent by interests that want their greedy hands on public funds under the guise of saving the children.

  9. Rebecca permalink
    November 20, 2010 5:29 am

    Thanks for an accurate description of how ridiculous all this “reform” is. We are experiencing the same frustration all the way across the country in Massachusetts. Isn’t it time teachers took back the profession? I ask myself where the outrage is. But in my heart I know it is buried in those longer days, extra meetings and the negative press. Nothing like demoralizing a group of people to keep them submissive.

  10. November 20, 2010 10:12 am

    Whether in Massachusetts or California, we are all singing the same refrain. Please let us go back to teaching. When you have students missing 7 out of 15 days of class due to testing, something is wrong. When you pay consultants to come in and do training, while laying off 25 teachers, something is wrong. When a very successful and experienced colleague tells me that she doesn’t know if she can effectively teach a beginning ESL class with over 35 students and no text, something is definitely wrong.
    We’re all exhausted. We are all demoralized. And our teacher appreciation dinner (pizza) was just canceled due to budget cuts.

    • November 20, 2010 10:19 am

      And isn’t that just the thing that may put us over the edge? Broken copiers that can’t be fixed because contracts are on hold while funds are transferred, but transfers delayed because of reduction in staff at budget office, etc., etc.

      If leaders really wanted us to make a difference with students of poverty, or any student population we work with, then put your clipboards down, stop calling meetings, stop imposing more mandates and policies that will NOT improve learning. Let us create and implement the lessons we know will work to help students focus and concentrate on instruction in spite of the chaos going on outside of the school building.

      We are the teachers, we know what to do. Let us do it.

  11. November 20, 2010 12:54 pm

    In my personal opinion, maybe those highly paid consultants and administrators that have all the right solutions should implement their directives themselves. Teachers have certainly had enough training to interpret data. So, we can trade places for the time it takes for the administrators and consultants to bring up the test scores. Also, during that time, we can trade salaries, since the work the teachers do is certainly much easier and not worth as much as those that come up with all the “ideas”. WE, the teachers, can then evaluate the administrators and consultants based on the test scores of the children…those that have brought all their students up to proficient can have their job back with the higher salary. Those whose students are still “failing” can be fired, because, after all, they must be among that huge group of “bad teachers”.

  12. Robin Lerner permalink
    November 20, 2010 1:28 pm

    and when the charter or whatever you call it fails…what is next…..does this process help or hurt the kids…if you ask me ..just lower the class size to 20 and those students will have better test scores…….robin lerner

  13. Paty permalink
    November 21, 2010 5:46 am

    I made a little movie about a similar topic

    What if teachers choose not to participate in all the crap? It’s like hanging your own rope on the gallows to save the hangman his work.

  14. November 22, 2010 2:49 pm

    I am going to graduate in May with a bachelor’s in elementary urban education. I doubt I will survive because I am anti-competition, pro-collaboration, small group oriented. This system seems like a conspiracy theory to destroy and push out all good teachers so only ones who will do what they are told for the sake of their job will stay.

  15. November 24, 2010 8:52 am

    My God, Martha, I feel for you and your colleagues. The only thing I can say is what Winston Churchill once said: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”

  16. RSA@PHS permalink
    January 1, 2011 12:33 am

    Thank you for letting light shine FINALLY on the reasoning behind the “hockey stick” improvement curve under NCLB as well as its entirely illogical demand that 100% of all students would be at grade level by 2014 (or whatever the deadline was). Now I see that it was all a very well disguised strategy to dismantle public education by making every school in the nation available for take-over.


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