I Don’t Want To Have A Conversation About Bare Minimum Scraps

If you don’t like this blog, blame Ama Nyamekye.  She’s the one who inspired me to take a year off and go on this crazy quest in the first place.  “In my experience,” she told me over drinks one day last year after work, “if you’ve got a burning curiosity about something, sooner or later, you’re gonna need to satisfy it.”

I’d met her a few months earlier; she runs the L.A. branch of the non-profit Educators4Excellence in Los Angeles but had taught in a in the Bronx for several years, making her the only person I knew at that point other than my immediate colleagues who’d taught in a very low-income community.  Ama, a dynamic and enthusiastic woman with a waterfall of braids spilling down her shoulders, was born in Papua, New Guinea but spent her childhood in Culver City and later, Las Vegas; she was inspired to teach by an elementary school teacher and before coming to E4E has always worked with disadvantaged kids in public schools and in the prison system.

That evening last year, although Ama and her partner had just had a baby, she somehow was able to be fresh, energetic and brimming with excellent advice.  I on the other hand was burned out, isolated and, at that point, nearly weeping from confusion.  I loved my students.  Would I ever find a job as satisfying as teaching?

 “No,” she said, flat-out.  “Of course not.  Nothing is as rewarding as teaching.”

 I felt about 800 times worse, obviously.  Still, she encouraged me to take a year off and write.  At the time, I was obsessed with all that could not be measured or expressed in data.  “So write about that,” she said.

 And there you have it: the smoking gun linked directly to this blog.  If you have complaints in the future, please forward them to her.

 That night last year, of the million things I did not know yet, one of the most shocking was just how polarized the public debate about education has become. As an example of this polarization, Educators4Excellence, whose website describes itself as “a teacher-led organization [that] works to ensure that the voices of classroom teachers are included in the creation of policies that shape our classrooms and careers” is in fact highly controversial.

 Why?  Well, a teacher friend of mine who is very active in his union says that E4E has advocated for measures that many unions oppose, including teacher evaluations and the continued use of standardized test scores.  They are also funded in part by the Gates Foundation, which is pro-charter and pro-TFA and is regarded by those who oppose it as having a privatization agenda.  For a longer description of this battle, click here and here.

 In fact, as Ama tells me in an email, E4E’s positions on these topics are more nuanced and do not represent their main focus.  “We are focused mainly on teacher leadership and voice,” she writes, reminding me that “the vast majority” of their members teach at non-charter schools.  Though she is opposed to the wholesale elimination of standardized test scores, she also feels strongly that they should not be used exclusively.  For a look at E4E’s recent study analyzing the factors that contributed to the high test score growth of a variety of L.A. schools, click here.  For a look at E4E’s recommendations on teacher evaluations, click here.

 Now, frankly, I am starting to tilt against standardized tests, I really am, because of their outrageous cost in a school district that is packing 50 kids to a classroom, because they exert a disproportionate gravitational pull over teaching and because in my opinion a lot of them are not very good. Though I am not opposed to charters, I am starting to understand why people believe they are damaging to local schools.  And because of my own bad experience, I believe that teacher evaluation systems and merit pay are in no way ready for prime time and may drive good teachers out of the classroom.

In other words, though I am offended by the nastiness of much of the online commentary (and, it must be said, by the appalling grammar of some of these commenters, which undermines their arguments on so many levels, I just…don’t even want to go there), I’ve come to disagree with Ama on many third-rail topics.

So when I asked her to talk to me again, I was a bit worried.  In an atmosphere so toxic, would we be able to communicate?

 In fact, the spirited discussion we have is even livelier and more fruitful because we disagree.  “I think we have to challenge the idea of charter vs. non-charter,” she says right away.  “First of all, there are a ton of different schools now, magnets, pilots, small learning communities—and instead of talking about who’s to blame, we should be asking questions.  If families are leaving the LAUSD, why are they leaving?  What are they not getting?”

She is a passionate advocate of “choice” schools.  When I ask her about kids whose parents are unable to advocate for them or who don’t have the resources to make choices, she is actually offended.  “I am never gonna say to a poor black family, you don’t have choices.  Never.  And at the same time, I don’t think the solution is to create two tiers of education.  Obviously, any family would rather send their kid to the school down the road.  So why aren’t they?  Can’t we try to give them what they want for their kids before we start removing options?”

 And she is a genuine advocate of keeping some form of standardized testing.  “As a parent, I need to know that information.  Teachers need to know that information.  I’m not saying it has to be included in accountability structures” like evaluation systems.  “I question waiting for the perfect test, it’s never gonna happen.  Any assessment is flawed, but you’ve got to have something!”

She has no patience with conversations focused on the socioemotional needs of students in poverty.  “They don’t just need the basics.  They need all of it.  I mean, yes, it’s common sense that we need to meet the basic needs of human beings.  But it can’t stop there.  I don’t want to have a conversation about bare minimum scraps.  We need all of it. Yes, let’s keep fighting for bare minimum scraps.  And let’s fight for high standards, too.  It’s not just reform and it’s not just funding.  It’s both.  This is the wealthiest nation in the world.  Why can’t my daughter have technology and a teacher?”

She has to race off to pick up her daughter from day care, leaving me to think about the question, which seems so simple and, in Los Angeles, seems close to impossible.  And that, maybe, is the battle we should be fighting.

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