First Person

A Letter from One Non-Believer to Another

In the following letter, education historian and author Diane Ravitch responds to an opinion piece by Marc Waxman, an educator based in Denver. Education News Colorado published Waxman’s piece, “Why I Don’t Believe in ‘Reform,'” on Sept. 7. This post is cross-posted at Education News Colorado.

Dear Marc,

I was surprised and delighted to read your essay explaining your loss of faith in the now-dominant narrative about school reform. These days, everyone seems to be either in one camp or the other; most everyone seems to have rock-solid beliefs; and all too few people seem willing to re-examine their beliefs.

I was trying to do that in my book, and as you know, it is painful. It is also risky. In your case, you risk alienating friends, allies, even financial supporters. I had more freedom than you; my work life is behind me, I don’t need any financial supporters, and my children are on their own. But it is scary to take risks, and not many people are willing to do it.

I was heartened to read your admission, in light of your experience, that charter schools are not a panacea. That is a bold admission to make at a time when three new movies are trying to persuade the American public that charter schools are indeed a panacea. The charter movement unfortunately has built a narrative around the ideology that charter schools are not only a panacea but that they can beat regular public schools by the only metric that matters: test scores.

And it is here that your blog was most wondrous: You have worked with children for many years, and you have come to realize that test scores are not the only goal of education. I certainly agree with you that test scores should not be confused with “achievement.” Achievement, broadly defined, is a worthy goal. We want children to achieve many things, including the ability to read, write and calculate. Learning to play a musical instrument is an achievement; writing a research paper is an achievement. For some children with unusually difficult lives, just being in school everyday is an achievement. Like you, I have learned not to accept test scores as synonymous with achievement, nor to assume that the only children who matter are those who “win” whatever competitions we create for them. Teachers, especially those who deal with a wide variety of children every day, understand this.

You find yourself asking hard and important questions about why we educate and what we hope for when we educate. You understand that the powerful demand fueled by NCLB and the Race to the Top to get higher test scores year after year is not by itself a worthy goal, nor one that well serves the children for whom you are responsible, nor is it a reasonable way to judge teacher quality. Sure, test scores matter and we should use them. But you understand that test scores these days are misused, and the policymakers’ obsession with them is warping schools and the lives of children. I suggest that the obsession with test scores is also warping the charter movement, encouraging charters to exclude students who might pull down their scores, and limiting the movement’s ability to develop good schools.

Discussions about why we educate and how we define good education can easily become mere rhetoric and empty verbiage. I would be content to rely on my favorite quote from John Dewey: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.” So, let us ask, for example, whether the education our society provides for its children is good enough for the children of President Obama and Bill Gates and other leaders of society. I don’t think they would stand for schools that have cut back on the arts and science to make more time for test prep. Not for a minute. I doubt that their children go to schools where teachers are judged by their students’ test scores and thus incentivized to ignore whatever is not on the state tests.

Marc, I admire your courage and your independence. Keep raising questions. Keep questioning yourself. I don’t know what your funders will think about it. But you have crossed that bridge already. Now you are in new territory. Thinking is dangerous. But how could you teach your students to think and to free their minds unless you were willing to do it yourself?

Diane Ravitch

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.