Peter Schurmann

High Stakes Testing is 'Toxic' Warns New NEA President

Stories about Lily Eskelsen García typically mention the fact her career began as a lunch lady in a local school in her native Utah. But the new head of the nation’s largest teacher’s union, the National Education Association, offers a slightly different take: “I was the salad girl,” she said. “They wouldn’t even trust me with hot food.”

On the urging of a kindergarten teacher she later returned to school, paying part of her way by singing folk songs in coffee shops around Salt Lake City. Nine years later Utah named her Teacher of the Year.

This September, she takes the helm of the 3 million-member NEA. As the first fluent-Spanish speaker to hold the post, she comes in just as a majority of the nation’s public school students will be non-white for the first time in the country’s history. She also comes in amid heated political battles over the future shape of U.S. classrooms, from the Common Core education standards to legal tussles over teacher tenure rules and the growing charter school movement.

Speaking at a briefing for ethnic media in Los Angeles Wednesday, Eskelsen García acknowledged the challenges ahead of her. “What we’re up against,” she said, “are people who use good words like reform, and accountability, and progress.” But their real meaning will be to “narrow what it means to teach a child to fit on a standardized test.”

Eskelsen García believes the push toward high stakes testing and efforts to measure teacher performance on how well students do on these tests is "poisoning what it means to teach and learn in this country." She points to Texas, where she says teacher salaries have been determined by test results, leading many to artificially inflate scores. In Oklahoma, some 8000 third graders were held back because they failed to “hit a cut score that some politician decided meant something.”

Eskelsen García described such practices as “toxic.”

Echoing her comments, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Thursday stated that high stakes tests were “sucking the oxygen out of rooms in a lot of schools.” He also said states could delay for another year using tests in teacher performance ratings. The move is sure to please NEA members, who last month approved a resolution calling on Duncan to resign.

Meanwhile states across the country continue to roll out new standardized tests aligned with the Common Core. California will introduce its own version of the Common Core test, known as the Smarter Balance, next spring. The new tests will be computer-based and will require students to articulate their answers in writing, instead of filling in bubbles. California is still working out how to use the tests in teacher evaluations.

Eskelsen García told audience members Wednesday that she was initially “as critical as anyone” of the Common Core standards, which were designed to revamp the way schools instruct and assess students. She has since come to support them, though she said her fear is that they will be “corrupted” by efforts to limit what textbooks schools could use and to create “cut scores that determine if a student gets punished.”

Eskelsen García spoke alongside Mikki Cichocki, secretary treasurer for the California Teachers Association (CTA), and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) President Alex Caputo-Pearl. The briefing was held at the UTLA offices in downtown LA and was organized by New America Media.

Caputo-Pearl, who taught for 12 years at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles and has two kids enrolled in the district, said many in the education reform world liken test scores to “profit margins,” taking a “top down corporate” approach to addressing educational issues. “Schools aren’t businesses,” he said. “They are more like families.”

He also laid out some of the areas UTLA plans to focus on, including an emphasis on increasing staff around music and the arts, as well as enhancing afterschool and extended learning programs that are culturally relevant to the students they serve.

Asked about the recent Vergara vs. California decision on teacher tenure laws, Cichocki said the ruling was “incredibly disappointing.”

The case, brought by students in the Los Angeles Unified School District and several advocacy organizations, challenged state laws around layoffs and seniority, as well as due process and tenure for teachers after two years. A superior court judge gave a tentative ruling in favor of the plaintiffs earlier this year, saying the laws were harmful for students. A final ruling is expected later this month.

“The [case] focused on all the wrong problems, and offered the wrong solutions,” said Cichocki, who stressed the importance of “teacher driven change.” Eskelsen García was more blunt, calling the decision an “absurdity” that did not take into account ways to “protect good teachers.”

The child of immigrants, Eskelsen García also acknowledged the challenge around serving an increasingly diverse student population even as teacher ranks remain predominantly white. She noted part of the problem stems from the high costs for college that “block out a lot of minorities,” an issue the NEA is looking to tackle through its new Degrees Not Debt campaign.

“We want to work to identify not just problems, but solutions,” she said. “A huge part of the solution will involve reaching out to minority communities.”

What a New Generation of Muslim American Leaders Wants You to Know About Who They Really Are

When an acquaintance recently quipped that Salmon Hossein had adopted the “Taliban look” because of his newly acquired beard, it was something of an aha moment for the Bay Area native.

“It was a person I knew and respected, someone familiar with the intricacies of the Middle East, and even they were saying that,” recalls the University of California, Los Angeles alumnus.

Hossein, 26, is currently pursuing a dual Master’s degree in law and public administration at UC Berkeley and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He says part of what drives him is the desire to counter some of the prevailing notions of Muslims in America.

It’s part of the reason he first grew his beard.

“I was told [by a friend] that I wouldn’t be able to succeed in corporate America with a beard,” he says. “I took it as a personal challenge to grow the beard to disprove my friend and dispel stereotypes.”

Those stereotypes have helped drive ongoing Islamaphobia in the country. A recent study of Bay Area Muslims found that 60 percent had experienced prejudice because of their religion.

Muslim community members and organizations have also been the target of government surveillance and political campaigns aimed at conflating Islam with terrorism. A recent online campaign called for a boycott of the annual White House iftar dinner, when the president meets with Muslim leaders to mark the end of Ramadan.

In a commentary for Al Jazeera, Associate Professor Sahar Aziz of Texas A&M University slams the “usual suspects” invited to the White House for “failing to take a more assertive and defiant approach to defending Muslim communities.”

The controversy over the meal, she adds, reflects a “broader need for more effective and creative forms of advocacy, community mobilizing, and representative leadership” from a new and gender-diverse generation of Muslim Americans now coming of age.

It’s the kind of message that resonates with young Muslims like Hossein, who describes public policy as a “passion.” Like others of his generation, growing up in the shadow of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 prompted a very personal reckoning between his faith and his role in society.

“I was in middle school when 9/11 happened,” he says. “I became the de facto representative of the Muslim, the Afghan.”

But Hossein remains cautiously optimistic about changing American attitudes. He says he’s seen in recent years an increase in understanding about Islam, and with it a growing tolerance. He also knows that more needs to be done to dispel some of the lingering “mistruths” surrounding his community.

“I see so many people talking about Islam, but there are so few Muslims at the table,” he says. “There are so few people who have a background or expertise in that area of the world, who live, breathe and speak it … who are able to contribute their voice to make a difference.”

Hossein credits Islam with inspiring him to work for change. Citing a quote from the Prophet Mohammed that urges believers to make change first with their hand, then their tongue and, failing these, then within their own heart, he says lessons like these “pushed me towards a very social justice bent.”

He also credits UCLA with showing him “what I could do with my faith.”

The child of Afghan refugees, Hossein grew up in the Bay Area. His parents were determined to send him to college. But after graduating valedictorian from high school and applying to universities, rejection letters began coming in.

UCLA was the first to open its doors. “It was the first university to take a chance on me, to see something in me and to believe in me,” he says. “I almost begrudgingly went there, but it turned out to be one of the greatest blessings in my life.”

Resolved to “make good” on the school’s faith in him, Hossein became active in student government and in local campus organizations. With a double major in political science and international development studies, he volunteered his time teaching in local public schools and working with community service organizations.

During the holy month of Ramadan, a time of daylong fasts and communal evening meals, Hossein admits it was the “free food” on offer at the local Muslim Student Association (MSA) that first drew him in to connect with fellow Muslims.

“I didn’t want to break my fast alone,” he explains. “I used to break fast with my family. The MSA filled the hole left by being away from them.”

Bonding with others in the group, Hossein discovered a community of “like-minded fellow Muslims who want to make a difference in the world,” individuals drawn together by a shared faith and also by some of the “negative experiences” encountered because of that faith.

Today he divides his time between Boston and Berkeley, a hectic shuttling back and forth across the country that leaves little time for socializing. “I feel almost like a nomad,” he jokes. “My best friends have become Craig from Craigslist and BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit].”

In the last year of his Master’s program, Hossein says he plans to sit for the bar exam before embarking on the “bar trip,” that period when aspiring lawyers hit the road as they wait for the test results. He’d like to go to Europe, where he has never been. 

As for the broader Muslim community, he sees among his peers a growing awareness of “their powers of activism, diplomacy and outreach … they realize they can make a difference.”

And he plans to keep the beard.

Napolitano: University of California-Mexico Partnership Set to Build Critical Ties With US's Southern Neighbor

Editor’s Note: University of California President Janet Napolitano recently returned from a two-day trip to Mexico, where she met with government officials and academics to discuss the recently announced UC-Mexico Initiative, which aims to bolster cross-border academic and cultural ties. The initiative comes on the heels of an agreement between President Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña-Nieto to increase student exchanges between the two countries. Napolitano spoke with NAM education editor Peter Schurmann about the initiative and about the recent shootings at UC Santa Barbara.

What was your initial reaction to the shooting in Santa Barbara?

I was just horrified. In fact I had literally just gotten back from Mexico City, and like most people I was looking forward to a nice, calm three-day weekend. But then you have to go into, ‘What do we need to do?’ We need to make sure the campus has an emergency operation center up and running. The [UCSB] chancellor was in Boston visiting his grandchildren [so] we needed to get him back to the campus; working with the sheriff’s office to get the identities of the victims so that we could then reach out to the families; making sure those who are in the hospital are getting good care. All those things have to happen simultaneously.

At the same time, [we were] thinking about support services the campus might want to offer students, staff and faculty in terms of counseling. A couple of our campuses were already done with school, so they were able to make resources available immediately. The [UCSB] campus decided it wanted to have a memorial. They did that on Tuesday, and cancelled class. It was a remarkable event – 20,000 young people crammed into a football stadium totally silent. It was just very powerful.

What will you carry from this experience?

Sadly, what I carry is that I’ve been to too many of these, and through too many of these. As the governor, as the Homeland Security secretary … these mass casualty events, I’ve just seen and been through many by this point in my career. And in a sad way, that was very helpful because many at the campus had never been through anything like this.

What steps can or should the university take to deter similar incidents in the future?

One of the things we can do, and this is long term but the work is going on and will go on, is more research into the causes of and treatments for mental illness. This ties into the president’s Brain Mapping Initiative and into a lot of the work at our research facilities. As we talk about national health care and implementation of the Affordable Care Act, we need to be thinking about mental, in addition to physical health. We see mental health in the criminal justice side of things, and in all kinds of social problems. I think we are a long way from having our arms around what is going on.

As former head of Homeland Security, your job was to secure America’s borders. Now, as head of UC, you’ve adopted a globalist’s approach to leadership there. Is there any inherent tension between these two positions?

I don’t think so. Part of my job as secretary involved enforcement of the law as the law currently is, even though I was advocating, at the same time, that the law and the whole system needed to change. But that’s not my job here at the university. My job here is, as I like to say, teach for California and research for the world. What that means is to really think of ourselves as the globe’s leading public research university, what are the opportunities for us and what responsibilities do we have.

What was the reason for your trip to Mexico and the initiative you are spearheading there?

The genesis of the trip came out of my visits to the UC campuses during the fall. I kept asking, ‘Well, what are we doing with Mexico?’ at each campus. There were little pockets and episodic things, but no strategic approach by the entire university toward our neighbor to the south. When you look at the world’s fastest growing economies, Mexico is right up there. And there’s been so much focus toward the Pacific and Asia, which is great and we do a lot of that, but it seems to me that we ought to also look south.

Then, in part because I know many of the people in the Peña-Nieto administration from my time as the governor of Arizona and as the secretary, it’s an ideal time to use some of these friendships. Peña-Nieto and President Obama have a joint project to exchange 100,000 students. What role can the UC play in that, and what are we doing in terms of faculty research and joint opportunities?

The UC-Mexico Initiative is designed to put a strategic umbrella over our current activities, but also identify new ones – graduate student exchange, undergraduate exchange and research opportunities. For example, sustainable energy – what work do we have going on in our campuses in that field? Lots. How can we connect with work being done in Mexico? How about work on climate change, or agriculture and security of the food supply?

Data from Google shows 91 percent of [its] employees are white or Asian, and only 3 percent are Latino and African American. Can the UC-Mexico Initiative help balance the numbers in this critical industry?

I would hope so, alongside our own education mission. The second largest cohort of our entering class is Hispanic. They surpass whites. That’s the first time in California history that that’s happened. As we educate these young people, they’re going to be entering the workforce, and these companies are all headquartered in California.

Violence has been cited as a reason for the low number of American exchange students studying in Mexico. What’s your sense of the situation there now?

Of course we will not send students to some place that is dangerous. In Mexico, there are some areas to be careful about. But at the major universities and places where we send students, these are very safe environments in which to study and to learn. Mexico City is like any major metropolitan area in the world, and it’s very cosmopolitan. I think there is a misperception by students and parents about violence in Mexico.

What do you see as being a potential draw for students from the U.S. to go study in Mexico?

First of all, [Mexico City’s] UNAM is a major research university. It is a university that we are going to be forming a specific partnership with. The student body of UNAM is almost the size of the entire UC system. It’s a huge university. The students we have there now are doing sociology and related fieldwork. I would like to see us do more in science, engineering and technology. I think UNAM and UC can match up very well in terms of these undergraduate experiences.

Mexico is behind countries like Korea, China, India and Vietnam in the number of exchange students it sends to the U.S. What’s your response to that?

I think this is why President Peña-Nieto has announced the FOBESII (Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation and Research) Initiative, to get more students to come to the United States. My impression is the government will be putting some financial support into that for students. But there’s also the perception issue. U.S. students are deterred by the perception that all of Mexico is violent. Mexican students are deterred because of the view that the United States is hostile. Perceptions are difficult to change, but one of the ways you change them is through actual experience. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important to increase the relationship with higher education in Mexico.

Does the potential for immigration reform factor into the long-term success of the Mexico Initiative?

There will be a window between June and the Labor Day recess for the House to take up immigration. I read an article yesterday about how a number of pro-immigration reform advocacy groups are asking the Obama administration not to do anything in terms of changing enforcement policy right now, to take a pause to see whether the House will do anything. I hope they do, and I hope it is meaningful reform. It is something the country needs so badly. Again, a lot of the political reluctance for reform is because of misperception. But the UC-Mexico Initiative is independent of immigration reform.

A good deal of your personal and professional life has been involved with the U.S.-Mexico border.

The border is part of who I am. I’ve driven it, I’ve walked it, I’ve ridden horseback along it, I’ve flown it in helicopters, I’ve been to virtually every port of entry, and I’ve also spent a fair amount of time in Mexico. There is such a rich opportunity here for meaningful exchange, and it saddens me that the toxicity of the immigration issue has infected so many people with respect to our relationship with Mexico. I would like to do what I can to dissipate that toxicity.

What role does Mexico play in California’s future?

California will be stronger and thrive even more in this century if it develops a stronger relationship with Mexico. And I mean that both from an education standpoint, from an economic and trade standpoint, and also from a regional standpoint in terms of facing the world as a region as we deal with some of the global issues that we have. We talked about energy and climate change – two perfect examples of how, if we deal with these together, we will do better than if we deal with them separately.

California Schools ‘More Segregated Than Ever’ Study Shows

Sixty years after the landmark Brown v. Board decision that desegregated public schools in the country, California has seen a new era of segregation, especially for Latino students, according to a new study.

Separate and Unequal: California Schools 60 Years After Brown v. Board of Education, released this week by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, shows that California’s Latino students – who account for more than half the state's student population – are siloed by race, class and language. African Americans, meanwhile, are increasingly minorities in Latino-dominated schools.

Continuing on this path of “triple segregation,” the study warns, portends dire consequences for the state’s future economic and social viability.

Among the key findings from the study are:

Latinos attend schools that are 68 percent Latino and 70 percent low-income; California is one of the most segregated states for African American students; one-third of California schools are 90 percent students of color, double the percentage from 10 years earlier.

These figures are also correlated to student performance, according to the study, with poorer schools showing profoundly lower scores than their more affluent counterparts. The study also found that California ranks last in the nation in terms of integrating its Latino students.

The report blasts California leaders for ignoring an issue that  “calls into question the state's racially progressive image.”

On the other side of the divide are whites and Asians, who are largely grouped together and typically find themselves in middle-class schools that have the highest ratings. Citing a 2009 study, the authors note that 49 percent of Asian students and 40 percent of whites are enrolled in schools ranked near the top in the state’s performance index. That compares to 12 percent for blacks and only 9 percent for Latinos.

"Brown was a major accomplishment and we should rightfully be proud,” said study co-author Gary Orfield in a statement. “But a real celebration should also involve thinking seriously about why the country has turned away from the goal of Brown and accepted deepening polarization and inequality in our schools.”

Orfield is a professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and co-director of the Civil Rights Project. Pointing to the demographic shifts of the last century, he stressed the need to find “ways to apply the vision of Brown in a transformed, multiracial society in another century.”

Among the most segregated districts in the state are Los Angeles Unified, Santa Ana Unified and San Bernardino. Conversely, Sacramento Unified and Fresno Unified were the most integrated and diverse.

“The most segregated schools are among the worst in California,” read a statement released by the Civil Rights Project ahead of the study, citing test scores, graduation rates, college prep course availability, and suspension and expulsion rates.

The report does cite the recently enacted Local Control Funding Formula, which redistributes state dollars by providing more to school districts serving greater numbers of high-need students, as a step in the right direction.

“Now is the time to think about how to use that money,” the authors write, “to make California schools less separate and more equal.”

A spokesperson for the State Board of Education said members are “working tirelessly” to implement LCFF, “which the report's authors highlight as 'an equity-focused policy and funding strategy.’”

But Patricia Gándara, co-director along with Orfield of the Civil Rights Project, notes that unless LCFF funds are put to where research says they are most needed, it likely won’t have the desired effect. “It [LCFF funds] has to be spent on research-based things and not what districts might want to do without the research.”

As to the goal of reintegrating California’s schools, she noted that California’s shifting demographics could complicate such efforts. The state’s white population is decreasing – down to 38 percent this year from 42 percent in 2010 – while the number of Asians and Latinos continues to increase. The black population has fallen slightly, accounting for some 6 percent of the total population.

“This is a huge dilemma for us,” Gándara admitted. “People point out that in a region where 75 percent of students are of color, how will you desegregate? Any equality has to include equality in segregated schools.”

But, she noted, the Brown decision ruled that equality in segregated schools was not possible. “Separate means inherently unequal,” explained Gándara, “so this does raise an enormous dilemma for us.”

Still, despite the challenge she said the state needs to work at integration “in all directions,” including socio-economic and language backgrounds.

“We have to try to achieve the most desegregation that we can, and if that means sometimes having the same ethnic group but with different social and language backgrounds, that’s at least a movement in the right direction.”

Students Push for Greater Voice Under California's New Funding Formula

About 50 student leaders from around California gathered for a hearing at the State Board of Education Thursday to press for greater participation in the state’s new school funding law, known as the Local Control Funding Formula.

The event also marked the launch of a statewide campaign aimed at ensuring students have a seat at the table as districts begin to roll out spending plans in accordance with LCFF.

“As a low-income student, I know what our schools need,” Christopher Valencia told board members in front of a packed house. An undocumented student at Coachella Valley High School, Valencia spoke about his time working in the fields to pay for school supplies, adding that low-income students like him  “will be most impacted by the new law.”

Thursday’s hearing gave board members a chance to gauge the rollout of LCFF across the state. The law, which promises more money to high-need students – defined as low-income, English Learners and foster youth – also requires districts to engage parents before finalizing their Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAP), which lay out spending priorities over three years.

June 30 is the deadline for districts to submit their LCAPs to local county superintendents for approval. In July the board is expected to finalize its language for the new funding law, which currently says that students should be “consulted” only. Student advocates are hopeful the board will rewrite that portion giving students a more formal role in the process.

Californians for Justice, a non-profit organization that works to foster greater participation among low-income students and students of color across the state in the education system, spearheaded the “My Future, My Voice” campaign. In a press release issued before the hearing, the group noted the campaign is the result of “unanswered student demands over the past year to have a voice” under LCFF.

Among the campaign’s demands are: that the State Board of Education create a formal process for student input, that it give school districts a menu of options to engage students, and that it update the LCAP requirements to ensure districts demonstrate engagement with high-need students.

Students at the hearing sat with placards bearing numbers that they held in front of their faces. The demonstration was meant to highlight the fact that low-income students are often seen as statistics only and that beyond the numbers they remain invisible.

“Our voices have gone unheard, and our faces unseen,” Citlali Hernandez, a student from Long Beach Unified School District, told board members. She was one of two students invited to join the LCAP process in her district, but says her concerns around improving school climate – one of the eight priority areas highlighted under LCFF – were largely ignored.

Jesse Aguilar teaches art at East Bakersfield High School and is a member of the California Teachers Association. He was among those who testified at the hearing in support of the campaign.

“You can’t just talk about student voices,” he said during a press conference following the hearing, where he reiterated the need for districts to set up formal mechanisms to incorporate student voices. “You have to make it intentional.”

Aurora Lopez, student engagement liaison for Oakland Unified School District, highlighted the work her district has done around incorporating student input. Describing it as a “template for the state,” she said students had participated in a recent election for superintendent.

“Validating student experience is critical to improving student outcomes,” she said.

As for Valencia, he said if he were given a role in the LCAP process at his school, which serves a large number of low-income and English-learner students, he would press for more AP courses, more career centers and more help in preparing students for college.

“They’re [the district] focused mainly on graduating students from high school, but not on getting them into college,” said Valencia, who arrived in Coachella with his family from Mexico when he was in fifth grade. “We need more help with the college application process, more exposure to scholarships and other opportunities.”

Valencia said there was a sense that many of his peers are seen by faculty as being bound only for community college, at best, and that most are “not deserving” of advancing into the upper-tier colleges.

“A lot of students are being forgotten about,” he said.

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