Open Letter to Senator Lamar Alexander

Senator Lamar Alexander has solicited opinions and ideas about rewriting No Child Left Behind.  If you want to send your own letter, here is information about how to do it. This is what I sent him.

Dear Senator Alexander,

I am one of your constituents. I’ve been teaching in Metro Nashville Public Schools for five and a half years. Currently I teach English and Spanish at The Academy at Old Cockrill, an alternative high school for students ages 17-21. Typically, students transfer to our school when they find out they aren’t going to graduate on time, or they come to us from another alternative school for younger students who are “overage and undercredited.” Because of my position in this unique school, I hear a lot from my students about the other schools in the district.

Senator Alexander, please read Diane Ravitch’s book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Former Assistant Secretary of Education Ravitch was one of the architects of NCLB, but changed her mind about the law when the results started to come in. Since then she’s been an outspoken advocate against privatization and the corporate reform movement, including Teach for America and the Gates Foundation. If you only have time to read one book about education while writing this new law, Reign of Error should be that book. This book is much more comprehensive than any email I could write to you, and covers every aspect of education that your new law could possibly address (as well as some very relevant issues it probably will not touch). If you enact as many of its suggestions as possible, this law will be the highlight of your long legislative career.

The main thing schools need is enough money. Funding them inadequately or taking away the money they depend on when new budgets are made has concrete, measurable negative effects on the education students receive. Here is how budget cuts have affected my students. My school used to have a teacher who taught both Spanish and French, but we lost her when we had to eliminate a position to save money. Now my Spanish classes are larger, so that each student gets less individual attention. I have several students who had completed a year or more of French at their previous school, but now they have to start over from the beginning with Spanish because state diploma requirements say they need 2 years of the same language. As you can imagine, they don’t like having extra time added to their degree. When they complain, I tell them to blame the people who cut money from schools, and remind them to vote in the next election.

Standardized tests as they are currently used are a waste of time for students. Since the results don’t come back for weeks or months, and the result is usually nothing but a number or a broad classification like basic, below basic, proficient, or advanced, students can’t learn from how they did in order to improve for the future. When students feel like their test gets sent into a void, they’re less likely to care about it or try their best. Taking the high stakes out of standardized testing would be a good thing because it would remove some of the pressure from teachers and students, but that still means that students are wasting valuable learning time just to generate data.

If we have to have standardized tests, they need to be genuine learning exercises. They should be developmentally appropriate in length and complexity. Students should get the results back in a week or less, and they should be able to look at every single question and see why they got it right or wrong. Grading should be transparent; there should be no arbitrary cut scores set purposely out of reach in order to define failure in a way that creates profits for the test writers. If testing companies like Pearson can’t provide this kind of service, they’re not worth what we’re already paying them.

People complain about teacher quality and wonder how to improve teacher quality. To improve teacher quality, there are two good questions to ask: 1) How do we attract smart, motivated, young high achievers to the profession? and 2) How do we keep good teachers from leaving the profession? The wrong question to ask is how to identify and get rid of bad teachers. The reason for that is not because anyone wants to protect bad teachers or wants to keep them in the classroom. The reason focusing on getting rid of bad teachers undermines efforts to attract and keep good teachers is because it assumes that many, many teachers are terrible. This rhetoric is disrespectful and has a strong negative effect on the prestige of the profession. No college student wants to major in education after hearing the way we talk about teachers in this country, after hearing the way they are blamed for everything that’s wrong in schools. And lots of great teachers have been run off by overzealous administrators pressured to do exactly that, identify and get rid of bad teachers.

So it might seem counterintuitive, but to improve teacher quality we need to stop all of the negative talk about bad teachers. This means we need to stop using student test scores to evaluate teachers, and stop pushing merit pay, which doesn’t work. Instead, we should just trust teachers to do their best every day. It’s as simple as that. Showing trust by giving teachers control over their own jobs would make them feel respected and honored, and would make those jobs seem worth pursuing and keeping. To ensure that teachers use that trust well, administrators should observe classrooms frequently with the intention to provide feedback to help teachers improve lessons, rather than to catch them failing to deliver a lesson that includes all 72 items on a checklist.

This is how using value-added test scores to evaluate teachers has worked for me personally. For half of my teaching day, I teach English III, which has a standardized end of course test. For the other half of my teaching day, I teach Spanish I and II, which does not have a standardized test. Basing my evaluation on test scores incentivizes me to spend all of my effort on my English classes and none on my Spanish classes. I don’t do that, because unlike the law I value foreign language learning, but that seems to be what the law wants me to do.

To increase the prestige of the profession and attract young high achievers, we need to increase pay, and offer generous perks and benefits. Teachers should be paid as much as other professionals in the private sphere with equal amounts of education and hours on the job. They should also expect annual raises in take-home pay, in addition to increases to account for inflation, since their skills build every year and they become more valuable to their schools. School districts should not be allowed to manipulate health insurance or other benefits to save themselves money by taking it from their teachers’ pockets. New teachers in my district with bachelors degrees make $40,000 their first year; if that figure were standard nationwide (in places with average cost of living or below) that would be a step in the right direction.

What most people currently talking about education seem to ignore is that working conditions for teachers are learning conditions for students. When teachers are afraid of losing their jobs, they don’t take risks in their lessons, and the joy has been sucked out of them. When teachers have to work a second job, they have that much less time and energy for their students. When teachers are worried about their own children getting substandard child care because that’s all they can afford, they can’t concentrate on teaching. When working conditions make it harder for teachers to teach, it’s harder for students to learn. At the very least, we need to remove the things that are currently making teachers’ jobs so hard: anti-teacher rhetoric, high-stakes standardized tests, value-added measures, insultingly low pay, and ‘gotcha’ evaluation systems.

Because the truth is, Senator Alexander, bad teachers are rare. Here is a Washington Post editorial about what makes a truly bad teacher: people who don’t like children, who don’t know or like their subject matter, who are totally disengaged from their students. I have heard stories from my students about some of these teachers, like substitutes who didn’t know Spanish teaching Spanish for a semester because a teacher left halfway through the year and no one who was qualified wanted to take the job. Cases like these are obvious. We don’t need 72-point evaluation systems to identify them. We just need caring administrators who have time to look in on classrooms frequently. Another Washington Post editorial points out that it’s not fair to call teachers “bad apples” unless we’ve given them the support necessary to succeed, and I have never seen that happen. Maybe some of my students’ former teachers wouldn’t have checked out if they hadn’t gotten so frustrated with the lack of resources and support.

I could write much more, about early childhood education, community colleges, school lunches, recess, school nurses and counselors, special education, vouchers, charter schools, and what I hope for my own toddler son’s school experience. But as I said, I truly think Ravitch’s Reign of Error covers everything I would want to say about those issues, and states the facts in a well-researched and persuasive way. Please read the book, Senator Alexander. My son’s generation would thank you for it.

Sincerely,

Mary Jo Tewes Cramb

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The King’s Curse

The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory

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Margaret Pole was cousin to Elizabeth of York, mother of Henry VIII. She loses her brother to the executioner so that Katherine of Aragon will come from Spain to marry Arthur Tudor, heir to the throne and her ward. When Arthur dies, she supports Katherine in saying the marriage was never consummated (this is most of the plot of The Constant Princess, another of Gregory’s books). That makes her lots of enemies in the Tudor court, until Henry VII dies and his son wants to marry Katherine. Margaret’s family rides that wave of good fortune for as long as that marriage remains happy, and she becomes the guardian to their daughter Mary. When Henry divorces Katherine for Anne Boleyn, Margaret and her family begin a downward spiral, including plotting rebellion. For most of this book, she’s an old woman. In the end, she becomes the oldest person to be killed by order of Henry VIII.

Margaret is not Gregory’s most appealing protagonist. She’s entitled, resentful, and conservative. Her early experiences of fear and imprisonment, and the loss of her father and brother to the executioner’s axe, make her willing to do almost anything to keep herself and her children alive. The way she describes Anne Boleyn and some other women is pretty vicious. At the same time, you can see why she felt that way. She did have a pretty remarkable amount of wealth and power for a woman of that time, though not enough to save herself from the Tower.

Gregory’s books are long, and I think her style is a bit repetitive. Maybe that’s part of her attempt to give readers the flavor of Tudor-era English, or formal court language. But every time Margaret is affronted in some way, she mentally recounts all of the kings and queens she’s been related to, all of her family’s past honors, and that gets old after a while.

The weird thing about reading Gregory’s books and most other historical fiction that sticks as close to the real story as hers do, is the way the plot seems nonsensical and capricious. The twists and turns feel random, rather than motivated by any logical progression or character growth the way it would be in most fictions. Perhaps it’s especially the case here, since the plot is determined so strongly by the whims of Henry VIII. Margaret’s family falls into and out of favor so many times it’s dizzying, and rarely do her actions or those of her sons have much to do with it. She concludes at the end that Henry is killing her and her family just because they’re members of the old royal family, the family his father usurped. My God, if you didn’t already know that Henry VIII was an insane, murderous tyrant, a courtly terrorist, this book will show you the extent of his madness and his horrifying control over all aspects of life, especially for the people closest to him. A theme is that no one can ever tell him bad news because he really will kill the messenger. That’s a great way to run a country, isn’t it?

The “curse” of the title is Gregory’s attempt to make some meaning out of the events of the end of the Wars of the Roses and Henry VIII’s reign. In the mythology Gregory creates in this series, the mysterious deaths of the two young York princes in the Tower called down a curse on their murderer that explains the early deaths of Arthur Tudor and Henry VIII’s infant sons, and finally cut short the dynasty. It’s an interesting way to novelize history.

I’m getting on Twitter

I’ve never claimed to be an early adopter or to live on the cutting edge of media and technology. I know that starting a twitter account for the first time* in 2015 is like buying a Walkman in 1995 (actually, I think I did have a Walkman in 1995…). But I want to interact more with people, and sometimes it feels like blogging is speaking into a void. I’m also finding that I’m having some short, 140-character-suitable thoughts about the books I’m currently reading. Sometimes it takes me a while to finish a book, and then a while to review it, so I want to capture those fleeting thoughts before they’re lost forever. Maybe the short, fast nature of twitter means I’ll be able to fit quick tweets in the few empty moments between teaching full time and toddler-chasing in a way that doesn’t work well with longer writing. I still really value the length and depth of writing a blog allows, and twitter doesn’t, so this is going to be an addition rather than a substitute, and hopefully one that enhances the blog and brings it more readers. I’ll probably be tweeting on the same issues I write about here: reading, literature, education, parenting, and feminism.

So if you want to follow me on twitter, I am @mereaderblog. Hope to see you there.

* I technically started this twitter account in 2009. I looked around, tweeted twice, and lost interest. That old account didn’t disappear with almost 5 years of disuse, but is still attached to my email address. Before rebooting it this week, I’ve changed the names, and the pictures, and the people I’m following.

Jude the Obscure

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

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Thomas Hardy is far from my favorite Victorian, and I think this is my least favorite of his novels I’ve read (compared to Tess of the D’Ubervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd). Here’s a short plot summary: Jude is a young man who dreams of being a scholar, longing to study in a town that seems comparable to Oxford. But he’s poor, so that’s impossible. He marries a young woman in his town named Arabella because she lies and tells him she’s pregnant; their marriage is ridiculously short. When she leaves him, Jude moves to the university town just to be close to all that learning. He meets and falls in love with his cousin Sue Bridehead. He can’t court her because he’s already married, so she marries Phillotson, their old teacher. She can’t stand having sex with him, though, so she begs him to let her leave him, and takes up with Jude. They live together for years but never get married. Arabella sends them the son she had after leaving Jude, and Jude and Sue have a couple kids too. They’re poor and itinerant because Jude can’t find steady work because of the scandal of being unmarried. Sue tells Arabella’s boy that she’s pregnant, and he hangs himself and the other two kids. Sue interprets this tragedy as a judgment on her and Jude for living in sin, decides Phillotson is her true husband, and goes back to him, even though she’s still repulsed by him. Then Jude wastes away and dies alone.

I really had a problem with the portrayal of women in this book. It read like a primary source text for the “men’s rights movement” because all the women behave in the conniving or irrational ways that MRA’s expect. Arabella lies about pregnancy to entrap Jude. Sue is educated, and that education seems to have made her into a bit of a radical and a free spirit, so she acts as she pleases rather than as society dictates, and that causes her and Jude’s downfalls. Sue’s main sin seems to be acting like she should be allowed to choose who she sleeps with, instead of the men who want her.

Sue and Jude have lots of conversations that seem like they’re supposed to be romantic, but I didn’t find them so. They both sounded like hippies, repeating the idea that they’d spoil their relationship if they were to get married because then they’d be together by force and not by choice, but I really don’t sympathize with that idea. I don’t understand how marriage could be seen as inevitably poisonous to love, or how a loving, equal marriage could feel like a trap.

The ending of Jude the Obscure seems like a tragedy, but if Jude is a tragic hero, what’s his flaw? Dreaming too big? Not being born rich? Marrying Arabella out of guilt or honor, without love? Living in sin with Sue? I don’t think any of these things are wrong, and certainly don’t deserve the punishment meted out. Especially compounded with the deaths of innocent children, it all just seemed pointlessly bleak and empty of meaning.

To me, the greatest lesson of this book is how glad I am to live in today’s world rather than Hardy’s. It is wonderful that today’s sexual morality is so much more reasonable and humane than it was even 100 years ago. The way Jude and Sue, and even Phillotson, are ostracized because they live together, get divorced, or in Phillotson’s case, refuses to rape his wife and allows her to leave him rather than imprisoning her, reads as profoundly stupid today. This book is a strong argument for why the modern normalization of divorce and cohabitation is a good thing.

Not That Kind of Girl

Not That Kind of Girl A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” by Lena Dunham

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I am generally pro-Lena Dunham, mostly because a lot of her criticism has been misogynist, or at least unfair. I enjoy Girls, though I’m not so obsessed with it: I think I’m at least a half season behind. I’m not sure that she was ready to write a book; this memoir is nowhere near as good or as funny a book as Girls is a TV show. It’s very inconsistent. There are a few very good chapters, some listicle chapters that seem mostly to fill space, and a couple very odd choices she made.

My personal favorite part of the book was the introduction. At her best, this is what Lena Dunham is about:

There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman. As hard as we have worked and as far as we have come, there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed, that we lack the gravitas for our stories to matter. That personal writing by women is no more than an exercise in vanity and that we should appreciate this new world for women, sit down, and shut up.

This really hit home for me, especially with my recent writing about finding the courage to write in the face of what I called “the inverse of mansplaining.”

I thought the most important part of her book were the two chapters where she told the story of her rape. She told it twice to show how complicated the situation and her feelings about it were, and how her thoughts and feelings about it changed as she gained time and distance from the event. Making stories like this public supports survivors who may feel just as confused as she did, and contributes to a national discourse about preventing campus rape and helping survivors.

Lots of her essays were stories about her sad and pathetic love life, in which she details all of the many ways she allowed men to mistreat her over the years. Personally I found her portrayal of bad relationships kind of frustrating to read and incomprehensible, it was so foreign to my experience. I guess I was lucky that though I haven’t had amazing self-esteem, I was generally too afraid of men to be self-destructive in this particular way. Thankfully, the point of all these stories is that she knows better now, and encourages readers to have high standards in their relationships. I liked the poetic way the final chapter “Guide to Running Away,” summarizes what she’s learned, comparing a 9-year-old’s attempt at running away from home to the many ways a woman in her mid-to-late twenties might want to run away from things that are good in her life, and finally has the courage not to.

Lots of people have overreacted to a passage in one of the essays in which 7-year-old Lena explores her toddler sister’s vagina. I think it’s ridiculous to call her a child molester, but the way she presented the story was strange, seeming to intentionally open her up to those overreactions. It reminded me of a time in writing workshop where one line I wrote crossed a line, for no real reason, and I got called on it. It seems like no one was doing that service for Dunham here, or she hasn’t yet had enough experience to know exactly how to dance around that thinnest of lines. She’s made crossing boundaries one of her trademarks, so it seems inevitable that she’ll go too far at some point.

When Dunham is at her best, she has a goal in mind when she pushes boundaries. For example, I think her work with nudity in Girls is expanding the range of body types we see on screen, and that’s important. Her work falls flat when there doesn’t seem to be a reason to step over the line. Edginess for its own sake isn’t very compelling.

Girls is better. Dunham should stick to screenwriting and essay-length writing on serious feminist topics until she has more to say.

Best of 2014

Looking over this year’s books to pick out my favorites, I found I was able to pick out more books than I did last year. It just seemed like I found a ton of super-relevant nonfiction, imaginative YA, and powerful stories this year. (And of course there were the bad ones too.)

Best Nonfiction

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte

The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance–What Women Should Know by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman

 

Best YA

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Cress by Marissa Meyer

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

 

Best Fiction

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

 

Worst

Teardrop by Lauren Kate

The Scorch Trials by James Dashner

Watership Down by Richard Adams

MeReader: Year Three in Review

My blog is 3 years old now! Here are some highlights of my personal writing from 2014:

I wrote my second guest post on Liberating Working Moms

I wrote about the sacrifices of parenting and the difficulty of setting priorities

I audited my blog for its VIDA count

I ranted my annual Mother’s Day protest post

I put my two cents in the debate about the value of YA lit 

My baby turned one

I went to the Southern Festival of Books

I detailed what a day in my life is like, then examined the way women talk about their daily routines online

My school lost its founding principal, and I lost a mentor and friend.

I had deep thoughts about confidence, then decided to dump out my draft folder

In 2014 I wrote 110 posts and reviewed 86 books!