Fed Up, Mississippians Deserve Answers From Jackson

girl looking at computer monitorThis week, we learned ACT Aspire, the Common Core test supported by the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, backed out of the bid process for Mississippi’s testing contract after new restrictions were placed on the vendors. There’s allegations of conflicts of interest.  Do yourself a favor and read the Clarion Ledger article linked above. Ever since testing started, I have been looking for a teacher or parent of a school aged child in Mississippi who thinks the PARCC test we’re administering is beneficial to Mississippi’s students or education in general. I haven’t found a single one. I’ve heard support for the Common Core Standards. I’ve heard support for testing in general.  But for those who are seeing it from the foxholes, PARCC seems to be considered a complete disaster.  The attitude is to simply endure “the one year” and hope for a better test next year.  But change seems to be eluding us.  We seem doomed for a decade of endless PARCC madness. None of these observations are scientific, obviously- I’m just reporting the sentiment from the front lines.

We also found out this week Mississippi high school seniors will no longer be required to pass SATP tests in order to graduate. For those who complain that test scores are used too much to judge teachers’, schools’, and districts’ job performance, publicly, here’s insult to injury: The kids can sleep through every standardized test from middle school through high school, and you’ll see them snag that diploma at graduation anyway. If you still have a job, that is. You’re welcome.

When I decided to start blogging, I wanted my site to be a showcase for bright spots in Mississippi education.  I wanted to devote my writing efforts to help highlight stories of hope and hidden points of pride that were going on in education.  I wanted to brag to my friends and family about how wonderful it is to be a teacher in Mississippi.

But since my blog started, it seems public education in Mississippi has been under an unprecedented assault. Good news is being roundly defeated.  If I want to talk teaching, I have no choice but to bring up a whirlwind of confusion and disfunctionality.

Here’s how it feels on the ground: As a public school teacher in Mississippi, I feel like the house I teach in is going up in flames.  It’s terrifying, but I can’t just run out. There are kids in here who can’t afford for it to burn down.  I was born and raised in the most needy, impoverished state in my country.  My students are desperate for teachers to change their lives.  They need more folks to start grabbing buckets to put out the fire.  But for some reason, however this fire started, it feels like there are people outside who aren’t content to just watch us trip over ourselves, frantically trying to salvage our state’s education system.  Sometimes I swear I can hear faint splashes of gasoline against the windows.

You see, this could be it.  This could be the big one, the last battle, the cliff.  We might soon finally find out what happens if you’re 50th and you keep getting worse.  Destroy a kid’s love of learning, and you may never regain her trust.  Lose her trust, and she stops investing in her education. She stops listening to her teachers.  She stops caring about coming to school.  She loses her academic footing.  She drops out.  Her ability to compete for jobs slips away forever.

This is these kids’ livelihoods on the line.  It’s our state’s future. And apparently it’s not just me who’s noticing.  A grassroots campaign called Fed Up With 50th has swept the state from the Coast to the Tennessee Line, and it’s gaining momentum. It is time for us to have an honest, fact-based conversation about education in Mississippi. And to begin, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered.

The Demolition Hypothesis

I was raised to show respect to the Powers That Be.  I understand that they are professionals, they have more experience than I do, and that many of them are experts in the field of education.  I’m a relative newbie; I have no misconceptions about that.  I do not claim to have the answers to this problem, or to know better than those who have worked hard to achieve the positions they’ve got.  Since my “Snow Days” blog, I’ve had several people urge me to air out sentiments common to teachers these days, but I had refused. I’m not out to gain cheap notoriety by biting the hands that have fed me so well.  I know there are good people at MDE.  I’ve worked for some of them.  I still believe there’s good in the Common Core Standards.  I do not believe that any legislators in Jackson actually want Mississippi to remain 50th. I’ve just honestly never been more discouraged with the state of Mississippi education, and I believe the absolute worst thing I can do is shrug it off, go home, and recharge for tomorrow with Netflix and a burger.

I cannot help but to ask questions and create hypothetical explanations. I’m a science teacher.  That’s what we do.

I’ve started comparing decisions made in Mississippi Education to what I’ve termed The Demolition Hypothesis. It’s a horrible scenario I desperately want to prove is not our reality.  In fact I look for information to poke holes in this explanation. It’s simply a control to compare our situation with. In this imaginary hypothesis, decisions made by the Powers That Be are cleverly deceitful steps made to undermine and ultimately destroy public education. In the Demolition Hypothesis, the legislature is working underhandedly to privatize education.  They maintain a rigorous testing culture to collect massive amounts of data to support a hypothesis that public schools are failing. They want public schools to fail so that the public will lose trust in them, and accept a manufactured solution in the form of private schools, charter schools, and vouchers.  They want students to hate the school day.  They want teachers to be so overworked, underpaid, and demoralized that they quit their jobs.  They want parents to have no safe haven from poor education but to pull their kids out and jump ship to private schools.

As I said, this is not what I believe. Our brains are much too skilled at seeing patterns where there are none, and the unfortunate effects of dozens of random actions is sometimes too hard to accept. But some people don’t know what to believe.  I run into them at the grocery store, at the movies, and at family gatherings at home.  They ask me what in the world is going on with education in Mississippi.  Questions upon questions that I can’t answer.  Again- I’m “just” a public school teacher.  I just want to go into my classroom, teach science to my 8th graders, and come out to write blogs about how awesome it’s going.  That’s it.  But I feel like the walls of the classroom are closing in around us, pushing in on our ability to learn together.  And even I’m starting to wonder why.

So I’ll just put the questions out there, respectfully.  Mississippi voters and stakeholders in education want to know.  What’s more, they have a right to know.  I fully assume that there are intelligent, reasonable explanations for each of these.  I just don’t have the answers to connect the dots for the folks in charge.  Communication is always a good thing.

1. How is all this testing supposed to actually improve public education in Mississippi?

What do you, our state leaders, think of the work of experts like former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch who show that rigorous testing doesn’t actually work, and that test scores are simply an indicator of poverty levels?  Do you assume to understand the problem better than people who have spent decades researching it? Or do you perhaps have other studies we teachers don’t know about, which we could share with our neighbors to support your position? Where is the evidence that increasing standardized testing actually helps Mississippi students?

2. Can we not- at the very least- agree to learn from the mistakes of other states?

What do you think about how rigorous testing failed to improve education in Florida?  Do you have any plans to ensure that their vouchers catastrophe won’t happen here?  Is there a master plan we’re operating off of, or are we essentially throwing spitballs at the wall to see what sticks?  If there is a master plan, does it have a certain philosophical leaning?  Don’t Mississippi’s citizens have a right to know what that philosophy is?

3. Why are you taking accountability away from students and heaping more on teachers?

Is it because you think Mississippi’s teachers are more to blame for our ranking as 50th than our students’ impoverished life situations, or what happened to them for years before they met us, or the decisions they make about how they spend their time?  How does it prepare them for job accountability in their futures?  Do you have any data to support this approach, which would contradict the overwhelming body of research that says income inequality is much more of a factor than teacher failure?

4. Why can’t we try funding the schools?

Do we really think underfunding public schools prepares kids better for life?  Does it increase test scores?  Is it really part of the solution?  Why did you create MAEP if you didn’t think funding was important?  Why do you deem it unacceptable to give full funding to public schools who have strict accountability, yet completely acceptable to take public money and give it to private schools with no accountability whatsoever?

5. How are you helping Mississippi public education?

We know you’re doing your best, but what would the Demolition Hypothesis look like in action?  In an alternate universe where evil lizard people control Jackson, if they were trying to destroy public education in our state, what would they be doing differently?

Again, I’m just a teacher who is passionate about providing the best education for his students, and who wants to understand as much as he can about his state’s plans to improve.  There are thousands of teachers like me- better than me.  We’re tossed, turned, and confused. Give us the answers we need so we can understand how to help you improve education in Mississippi.

15 Comments

  1. Jenni

    “My students are desperate for teachers to change their lives.”

    Mississippi teachers and social workers have a few things in common: low pay, evaluated on events out of their control, blamed for family problems, high expectations coupled with low resources… I’m sure I could go on.

    From my experience with the foster care system in Mississippi, I’ve learned that most governmental agencies don’t care about the kids. They care about control and money. It’s the lowest paid people (teachers and social workers, for example) who care about the kids but are required to follow the policies of the agencies or else they won’t be allowed to care in the future.

    At times, I certainly lean toward the conspiracy theory of evil lizard people destroying our lives from Jackson, but I also think that we the people are ultimately going to be held responsible. These are our kids and grandkids. They will be the next generation of law makers – or drug abusers. Which it will be depends on the examples of the people that they see every day. Teachers, principals, parents, church folk, police, political folk… (Side note – why does it seem that people who live in poverty see these authority figures as the problem and the rest of us esteem them?)

    Anyway, thanks for being a great teacher and also for holding our system accountable through this blog. You will make a difference! You have already changed lives. 🙂

    Reply
    1. James

      Thank you so much, Mrs. Jenni. You’re too kind! I’m just worried, I guess. Can’t complain if you don’t get involved, right? 😉

      Reply
  2. Joe

    The void in leadership in education is second to none. The county offices could fill some of the void, but are too busy trying to protect their “kingdom”. The emperor has no clothes and they will continue to play the shell game with dollars and “results” until the taxpayers stop it.

    There is no support for the teachers, no expectations from the parents and no disclipline for the kids. They are not enforcing residency requirements and not holding anyone accountable.

    It’s a sinking ship and anyone that has the capability to go somewhere else is leaving.

    Reply
  3. Charlene

    Wow!!! You are a great writer of all things good for Mississippians. As a parent of two school age children who are very good students, I have witnessed my children falling apart. We have gone from loving school to hating it. We have gone from desire to do well to full out meltdowns. It has completely destroyed my children. I am utterly ashamed of these elected politicians in this state. I can assure you that I will never vote for anyone who only has big business, special interest, or no desire to change the very core issues that have for decades kept us at the lowest in education. BTW where all these millions of dollars being spent? Teachers in this state are paid the MINIMUM salary that is required by Federal law….why do TEACHERS keep electing these people…at a district level WHY do TEACHERS keep electing the same selfish people who run their district? I recently read an article that places this state 51st…we are now behind the District of Columbia….makes you wonder what kind of morons are running this state! Fed UP

    Reply
    1. jacomans (Post author)

      You’re right. It is a shame.

      Reply
  4. Cookie

    I will point out that high school student now MUST pass the 4-subject area assessment tests because those tests now will count as 25% of their class grade. THAT is the change that the MDE made. Students can no longer take the classes, refuse the test, then opt for another path (like the ACT) to graduation. You have to take the four classes and the assessment tests are now embedded in the classes. IF you get straight A’s in the class and refuse the test, then the best you can hope to get in the class is 75%.

    Do the powers-that-be hope MS schools will continue to fail? Yes. I’m not sure of the end game and they aren’t revealing their war plans. At this point, I’m guessing they want MS to remain 50th so they can hold up Common Core as the great saver. But I don’t think they want to drive students to private and charter schools. There is too much of a long tradition of discouraging those kinds of schools in this state. (MS is woefully bereft of private and charter schools – considering the lack of quality public education that is shocking to me.) Instead they seem to be driving families to home school. Since I’m seeing challenges to home schooling right on the federal level, perhaps part of the plan is to tighten home schooling laws in MS. The recent failure of the extra-curricular activities law for home schoolers was a bad sign.

    Reply
    1. jacomans (Post author)

      You bring up a lot of great points. However- if they were consciously trying to get you to home school your kids, how would the failure of the activities bill support that goal? I’m not clear on that.

      Maybe historically private schooling has been discouraged in our state, but the school choice movement in particular is gaining momentum in several states. Under the guise of the “school choice” logic, many lobbyists openly advocate funneling public tax money into private schools. This seems fairly outrageous and unconstitutional unless a case is made that doing so is in the best interests of the state.

      And so in many cases you have the manufactured “education crisis” as this impending doom that must be confronted. Research doesn’t really support that such a crisis exists, but lobbying groups like ALEC are working hard to convince people it does. We know ALEC has a presence in MS, but just how much control they have is unclear. If they get their way though, from what I understand, you’ll get to send your kids to private schools which have no accountability, on taxpayer dime.

      (Shrug)

      Reply
  5. Ashley Brown

    I have been asking myself the same questions as you. It didn’t occur to me until this year that they were really harming public schools on purpose. But what other explanation is there? Right now, vouchers are not much of a threat because there aren’t many private and charter schools. But, what if demand increased due to vouchers? What if churches stepped in to meet the need? So many of our law makers right now are deeply religious. Maybe the end game is to get religion back into schools. What do you think?

    Reply
  6. Tim

    This is a very well written piece. I too am a public school teacher in Mississippi. I too see a general attempt to discredit public education in MS. Sadly teachers voices are relatively muted in the discussion. Teachers unions have no power in our state. (We are threatened with a loss of our career If we make any attempt to organize). Why are our legislators so against funding education? Why are charter schools now going to be the solution to all our problems? The answer is money. There is a group with deep pockets that is lobbying for essentially gutting Public Schools in MS. Pro public education legislators now find themselves facing well funded challengers for their seats, as do school board members and school superintendents. There are millions of dollars for te taking for private schools who will not be under the same accountability that public schools are. It is in the legislators best interest to have a poorly educated population. The less educated you are the less likely you are to vote. They will end up with an elite group of voters that will make all the decisions. As I tell my students: The less you know the more you can be controlled by others. Unfortunately I do not have a solution, but I believe in public education and my students. I will continue to work to improve this state because it is my home.

    Reply
  7. cly

    In 2000 49 Governors met and voted to establish the United Kingdom’s Pearsons COMMON CORE for all the states schools. In 2001 out came NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND. iN WHAT WE CALL the Constitution of 1871, the Corporation was reconnized as a entity,like it being a living human
    being. although it was to be the structure of Washington,DC. and its 10 sq miles. PEOPLE go into their schools, churches and courts every day and do not notice that the American Flag is surrounded in gold fringe nor do the principals, teachers know what it means…plus all they have going is for each school is a list of local corporation sponcors.
    All corporation are spelled in capital letters hence,UNITED STATES, INC., HENCE THE CHANGES MADE IN THE 70’S TO THE State of Mississippi constitution, either changed or deleted and now STATE OF MISSISSIPPI,INC.
    dID NO ONE EVER LEARN THAT ONLY the State of Nebraska is given only longitude and latitude and wonder why? eVER HEARD OF THE lAW OF admiralty?

    Reply
  8. cly

    This year by using computors in each school, COMMON CORE testing will cost the school only $27.00 per student vs written COMMON CORE $33.00.

    No will say how much this State has paid for the total program of Pearsons COMMON CORE although other states who are trying to exit this have found thatis it runs into the millions to exit.

    I favor vouchers that I have paid for through my taxes… think about the state deaf school vs Magnolia Speech school. One is state funded and the other is private paying parents ALL BECAUSE the state funded school does not teach lip reading and they want their children to have as many advantages they can get with this type of disability.

    Does anyone remember that nearly 50 years ago Murrah high school was listed as one of the TOP 5 high schools in this our nation?

    Reply
  9. Rachel Rich

    Cly, the new charter framchises are not your mother’s charters. Almost none of them now are grassroots efforts started by someone saying, “Let’s start a private arts school in our neighborhood.” The majority of publicly funded private schools are now run by huge corporations, some even from Turkey. The point being American education is now viewed internationally as a savvy investment. These charters are not about the kids and are not up to the same standards as in the past. They exist solely to soak taxpayers for billions in ed bucks.

    Reply
  10. Sarah Mcknight

    I especially like the point made in #3
    All accountability should not be on the teacher… It’s kinda like the old saying “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Well, for all our teachers out there from the mother of a kindergarten student I understand you give everything to my child she needs to learn, and our kids should be held accountable for their education and parents as well, because “you can teach a child a lesson, but you can’t make him learn!”

    Reply
    1. Angela Hamilton

      I like all the points that were made, but what about the certification for licensing in Mississippi to become a teacher. It is terrible; the price is $90 for each test and $135 for all three together. I think it is a racket, to make big bucks. How are they determining a good teacher by a test score? Some people aren’t good test takers, others are. That’s one reason Mississippi Public schools are at the bottom 50. I am just saying, experiences show be used to determine a good teacher too. We have lots of Teacher Assistants that are qualify to be a good teacher but can not pass the test. MDE is continuing to change, why?

      Reply
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