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No On 2: Counseled Out

I've been trying to focus my commentary about why we in Massachusetts should vote no on question 2 and keep the charter school cap on easily-verifiable data. (Find my previous posts on this issue here and here.)

But I want to talk a little about my experience working in a charter school.

I spent 3 years working in a Boston charter high school in the late 90's/early 2000's.  Here are some things that happened during that time.

I worked in the English department, and we had two high-stakes assessments that students needed to pass in order to move on to the next grade. One was a timed writing assessment. This was given in the spring, and students had two or three chances before the end of the school year to pass it.

The other was "juries." We would give a student a poem or a paragraph, and they'd have a certain period of time to mark it up, and then they'd have to come in and face a "jury" of a staff member and some people from the community. They would read the poem, and then we would grill them with questions about it.We would score them on a rubric, and if they didn't pass, they would have to go to summer school.

This was true no matter what their grade in my class had been. Does it make pedagogical sense to have summer school hinge on a high-stakes, ten-minute performance on a task that depends at least in part on skills not explicitly taught in the class? I would argue that it does not.  But this is what we did. And we patted ourselves on the back for our awesome rigor. And also played havoc with families' schedules.

Because not only were some students who had passed English being sent to summer school, but students who planned ahead for their summers were punished. They would have to move around summer job schedules and family vacations. The school literally would put kids who had successfully passed all the work in my class in the position of having to choose between visiting family in the Dominican Republic (for example) and passing English.  

Perhaps this is one reason why our senior class always had half the number of students who had started as ninth graders. This is still true in many Massachusetts charter schools. This is why it bothers me when pro-charter hedge fund guys describing themselves as brave fighters for educational equity: charters subject their low-income students to things that wealthy parents would simply never put up with. 

As it turns out, a lot of parents agree with hedge-fund managers that charter schools are not the best choice for their own children. So a lot of students leave.

And, of course, students are also counseled out. 

Charter schools will tell you they don't do this. This is a lie. I sat in the meetings and was complicit in this happening.  It was done with this veneer of kindness and concern--"we see that you have needs that we're not going to be able to meet here. We know of a great program at West Roxbury High School [or wherever]where they can give you the support you need. We really enjoy having you here, and we don't want you to leave, but more than anything we want you to succeed, and we just feel like you'll have a better chance of success somewhere else."

This, of course, is illegal as well as unethical. It also gives lie to the charter assertion that they are better schools--charters themselves tell certain students that they will be better served elsewhere.

Most importantly, though: this damages children.  I know: I watched them cry in the meetings. Just imagine what it does to you to be told that you're very lucky to be in the best possible school, except, actually no, not you, because this incredibly awesome school doesn't serve people as broken as you.

I can't prove this happened. I don't have any records, and though I remember some names of the students in question, it would be neither legal nor ethical for me to reveal them.  

But it happened. I would swear to it in a court of law. If anyone on the other side asserts that it doesn't, they are lying. 

Please vote no on Question 2.


I Was a Teenage Bully

I don't particularly want to write this, but I keep composing it in my head when I'm supposed to be sleeping, so here goes.

I am a physically small person. I was beaten up with ease by people bigger and stronger than me a few times and threatened by people bigger and stronger than me countless times.

More importantly, my dad died when I was nine. I got screwed. Most kids I knew had two living parents.

I was also, from 7th grade on, a kid with no money going to school with the richest kids in my city.

So I protected myself with the weapons I had--sarcasm and a quick wit.

I considered any use of these weapons to be justified. After all, I was a victim in life and not popular with girls. (At the time, I blamed them for not seeing the generous, faithful heart I concealed under a snarky, indifferently-groomed exterior.)

Many years later, I look back at some of my behavior during this time with shame. I bullied people. I thought I was the underdog for all the aformentioned reasons, and yet I had the power to make people laugh, and I often turned this against people who "deserved" it.

People were afraid of me. 

Many of the people I was mean to were far more privileged than I was, and they still are: when you come from wealth, you don't have to do much to stay comfortable in life, and your family usually won't let you fall too far.

But I was not justified in being mean to them. And, in fact, in that situation, despite their numerous societal advantages, I was the one with more power, and I was indiscriminate in its use.

I'm thinking of this because of something that happened on the internet this week. I'm not going to refer to it by name because I am afraid of having a social media mob summoned against me.

But, to be brief: someone wrote something very stupid and hurtful. And they did not respond graciously to being yelled at. And a mob was summoned, driving them into social media silence and quite possibly killing their publication.

Here's what stood out to me. The first is that the offender, in a private email that was shared with Twitter, asked why they were being attacked like an enemy when they were not the enemy.

I know that the conventional internet wisdom is that whenever someone offends you, it's your right to go in guns blazing and denounce them in the strongest terms possible, at which point they must grovel abjectly or be mobbed into silence.

But the offender's question resonates: is this how you would talk to a friend? 

When someone you know and like says something a little off, how do you approach them about it? With some compassion and empathy, or by denouncing them in the strongest terms possible? 

Perhaps you've never said something that hurt someone's feelings. But if you did, how did they let you know?  

I'm not suggesting not being vigilant about injustice. I'm suggesting perhaps approaching individuals who mean no harm but cause harm anyway with empathy and kindness before rage. In other words, talking to them flawed human being to flawed human being. Treating people, even ones who have said something stupid, like they are people. (Note: I'm not talking about trolls who pop up and say outrageous and/or threatening things in order to provoke and/or silence you. I'm talking about people who unintentionally hurt your feelings by saying something ignorant and hurtful.)

I know about the concept of tone policing. I don't, however, feel that anyone has a lifetime license to be unkind to people. I thought I had one in high school. I got screwed over, so people who had more than me deserved what they got from my anger.

But here's the thing: they were still human beings. They deserved kindness and empathy because of their humanity. And I feel bad about the times I was mean to them. If you feel that someone's identity means they do not deserve to be treated like a human being, I would like to encourage you to examine that point of view closely and see if it holds up to scrutiny.

A final note: no matter how you identify, if you have the ability to get hundreds or thousands of people to angrily denounce someone who offends you, then you are the one with more power in the situation. If you have more power than someone else and you use it to humiliate and silence them, then you are actually the bully. Trust me. I was a teenage bully.