In Defense of Friends

For those who know me now versus the person I was three or four years ago, I’d like to think you’ve noticed a progression of sorts. The Mike Matthews of 2004-2008 was one that rarely bit his tongue. Rarely held back how he really felt. Rarely considered the consequences for the often outlandish (though steeped in truth they may be) comments that I would perhaps choose to reword if I were saying the same thing today.

I am a man today whose ideology hasn’t changed much from then, but my presentation and tone have changed greatly as I try to appeal to various audiences and enact the most positive change possible. I teach. I work with students of wildly varying ability levels. They require heaping amounts of care and encouragement. Positive reinforcement and gentle redirections. Sometimes adults need that gentle redirection.

Enter Evan Quietsch. It pains me to do this, but I feel I must link to an absolutely disgusting and hateful post on a blog that I didn’t know existed until earlier this evening. On top of attacks against me and the work I do with my students, two of my good friends have been fallaciously attacked in a manner that can only be described as wicked and cowardly. And while I generally feel responding to such attacks would give this Evan character more power and attention than he deserves, I do feel it’s absolutely necessary to rebut such outright ridiculous and patently absurd charges and attacks when they’re made public.

Let me first say this to Evan: I’ve tolerated you for long enough. You have infected the (generally) civil Delaware blogosphere with your now-transparent and bilious garbage for far too long. You are an odious individual for whom there is enough of a history of individuals who can attest to your outright thuggishness. Both verbally and on video. This is a man who latched on to the lunacy that was the Christine O’Donnell campaign and acted in absolutely contemptible ways to shield his candidate from being asked difficult questions. See the video here.

This is a man who attacks me as “corrupting 5th graders” without ever setting foot in my classroom. Without ever meeting the students I teach. Without ever meeting the staff with whom I teach. Without ever engaging me in a conversation on education. Ever.

This is a man who attacks my good friend Kenny Rivera as being an unfaithful Christian because he dares to ALLEGEDLY question the seeming incongruity of a balls-to-the-wall capitalist system stacked up against the major tenets of Christianity. A man whose hatred for Kenny Rivera is so extreme that he can’t offer more paragraph breaks in his hateful, tortured screed to make the piece of garbage easier to read.

This is a man who has attacked another good friend of mine, Frederika Jenner. I have no reason to defend Jenner here. She can do that herself, though I wouldn’t be surprised if she ultimately doesn’t give a good goddamn about the ridiculousness that has spewed indiscriminately from your microcephalic brain, Evan, to the tips of your fingers and onto the keyboard. In the nearly five years I’ve known Jenner, I’ve come to respect this woman for the lion she is. Get you two in a room together and you will hear her roar, though I must say you wouldn’t be worthy of her presence. I believe you and I have spoken once or twice at public events, Evan. Trust me when I say this: You are no match for Frederika Jenner.

Let me go one step further here, Evan. You have posted this absolutely vicious and hateful piece of garbage having announced yourself as a candidate for public office. You are running as a Republican for the 11th Senate District seat, which is currently held by Senate President Pro Tem Anthony DeLuca. What do you hope to gain by engaging in such outlandish histrionics against three individuals with whom you’ve ostensibly had very little contact? Your base understanding of our political proclivities leads me to believe that your worldview isn’t one in which much dissent is allowed. How will you govern 35,000+ constituents in your district, many of whom perhaps fall into some of the same categories you’ve identified to help launch your attacks against us?

Wait. Don’t answer that. You know why? There isn’t a chance in hell you’ll ever get to the point where you’ll be placing your hand on your precious Bible and taking that oath of office in the Legislative Hall. Ever. You really aren’t worth the time and sleep I’ve lost over this. However, there is a real permanency to this whole Internet beast. As long as your filth has been published then I feel I owe it to the individuals you’ve slandered (myself included) to offer a rational and reasonable response.

It’s late now. I must sleep. I will be waking up at 5:30 in the morning to go for a quick run and then make it into school so I can being the good work of “corrupting” the minds of my third through fifth graders.

Thanks to Steve Newton for the words of support. If Evan ever wants to take some tips on how to engage with someone he disagrees, perhaps he should read Steve’s blog for some excellent pointers.

 

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Teacher bonuses a raw deal for most

As many of you know, I hold dual-employment. I work full-time in the Red Clay School District as a special education teacher. On top of that, for the past six years, I’ve worked a part-time job at a local bank on the weekends. This affords me a unique look at the quirks of being both a “private” and a “public” employee. I must say each has its advantages and drawbacks.

One of the great advantages of working for this bank has been my participation in my company’s annual Performance Compensation program. Read: Bonus! It always shocks people when I tell them I qualify — even as a part-time employee. The benefits at this gig have been truly rewarding and I’ll miss it when I finally pack up and leave on June 24. The great thing about my company’s bonus program is it’s fair. It’s clear. And it allows for a great amount of employee buy-in. Once a year, each employee designs his or her own set of goals to achieve in that year. There are several check-in points throughout the year to make sure you’re following through and making adequate progress. At the end of the year, each employee has a sit-down with his or her manager and it’s decided the amount of pay-out that employee will receive based on the outlined goals.

I have met 100% of my goals for four out of the five years I was eligible. One year was a little rougher and I only got 80% of the pay-out. But I understood why and I absolutely self-corrected so the following year wouldn’t be the same. Those bonuses were so delicious that the thought of losing one thin dime made me just a bit crazy. The great thing about my company’s bonus system was that it was clear throughout the process. There was a certain amount of control it provided the person receiving the appraisal. We could design our own goals, but we had to hold tight to them if we were going to get the desired pay-out. There was also consistency; every employee was eligible. And while some people, no doubt, didn’t receive a pay-out because they failed to keep up their end of the deal, their eligibility for a bonus was always made clear.

Yesterday The News Journal published an article confirming what many of us knew was coming. Thirty “high-need” schools eligible for teacher bonuses.

The $8.2 million, three-year program is meant to help reward and attract teachers to challenged schools in Delaware. Thirty schools were named by the state as eligible for the program, which will award a $10,000 bonus to certain teachers in these schools who meet yet-to-be-defined student test score goals set by the state.

I love this. $8.2 million dollars. Three years. Temporary cash. Temporary period of existence. Sound familiar? Race to the Top, anyone? And, like Race to the Top, it sounds like Dept. of Ed. doesn’t know what it’s doing before announcing it, as evidence by the line above saying they’ve “yet-do-define” the goals that will justify this bonus to select teachers. Check out Steve Newton’s post on this topic over at Delaware Libertarian. He outlines more thoroughly some of the same concerns I have: Did anyone actually think this through before announcing it?

Also:

“The one thing that I really think about … is how important educator retention is in the highest need schools,” said Christopher Ruszkowski, chief officer, teacher and leader effectiveness unit in the state Department of Education.

I can’t say I much disagree with Mr. Ruszkowski on this point, though I fail to see how his comment on improving educator retention can — in any way — be connected to bonuses. I could do a quick Google that would perhaps gut his argument that providing bonuses will keep the “best teachers” in the “most difficult” schools, but who would actually read that research? I’ve done my own research. It’s called a raised-hand survey. At a union meeting last year, the issue of bonuses was discussed. When asked if teachers in more affluent, “high-performing” schools would move to the needier, “lower-performing schools” in exchange for a bonus, none of their hands went up. NONE.

As anyone who has completed more than a two-year stint in our public schools knows, there’s a bit more to this equation than the simplicity the Department of Education may like you to believe. Teachers aren’t holding back their best instruction because of lack of pay. We’re not shorting our students that world-class education in the hopes of a $10,000 bonus. In general, we’re doing the best we can with the limited resources we’re provided in way of manageable class sizes, technology, student and family supports, and a bureaucratic system that seems to generate an obscene amount of paperwork if only to justify its own existence. But that’s another topic. I’m digressing again.

Let’s get back on topic here. Bonuses.

For the first year of the program, the only school employees eligible will be reading and math teachers who have students in grades 3-10 who take the Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System. Teachers selected for a bonus must remain in their schools for two additional years as part of the program.

You see that? This program will only be open to reading and math teachers — those subjects for which data is easily available. So, rather than doing the fair and equitable thing — like my part-time bank job — in opening this up to all teachers, Dept. of Ed. takes the easy way out by offering this to teachers for whom simple data would be available to justify rewarding them a bonus.

We have departmentalized classes in our fourth and fifth grade. Meaning one teacher teaches reading/ELA, another teaches math, and the third teaches science/social studies. Having previously taught in the science/social studies capacity, I helped beef up the math and reading instruction with all 75 of my fifth graders, particularly as test time got nearer.  Would I have been eligible for this bonus? Or would my other two team mates have been the only ones eligible? This is a hot mess waiting to explode.

And this pretty much confirms what many already believe about the Department of Education. It’s big government at its worst. It has lots and lots of money to spend on programs (in this case bonuses) for which adequate measures aren’t established before implementation. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so infuriatingly pathetic.

The News Journal adds:

It’s up to school districts and charters to decide if they wish to participate by the end of this month. If they don’t, their teachers will not be eligible for the bonus.

I will be in touch with administration and the school board at my school district and ask that they reject these funds and the likely increased scrutiny and regulation that will be attached to them. I recommend other teachers in other school districts do the same. We don’t need this diviseness infecting our neediest of schools. We need tangible and concrete resources being pegged to those schools. Not another piece of mumbo-jumbo straight from the Michelle Rhee book of edreform.

All special interests are not created equal

Sorry, Steve. Read my headline. Read it again. And again.

Sink in yet?

Let me explain. My friend Steve Newton has taken to his blog Delaware Libertarian in this weekend before the Red Clay School Board election to — ostensibly — call out hypocrisy. I’ll put it out there again even though most of you already know this: I’ve been heavily involved with Kenny Rivera’s campaign for almost two months. So let’s just put that out there. I will also add that this post is in no way meant to reflect the Rivera campaign and has not been cleared or endorsed by anyone involved. These are my words.

In his first school-board-related post today, Steve decides to take on the special-interest money ON OUR SIDE because we’ve decided to question the funds from a “shadowy organization” that has spent thousands of dollars on mailers for our opponent, Joanne Johansen. He goes after DSEA and the Working Families of Delaware PAC and attempts a false equivalency to make those organizations look like they’re doing nothing better or worse than the Voices 4 Delaware Education Action Fund.

Well, Steve, you’re wrong. And attempting to make yourself immune by calling out our line of defense before we get a chance to use it makes no difference:

Undoubtedly, somebody will post a comment here saying to the effect, “At least DSEA was transparent enough for you to find out about all this.  Voices is hiding behind campaign loopholes.  So our candidate is more moral and better.”

Exactly, Steve. That is the line I will use. But I won’t muck up your blog by putting it there and confirming your prediction. I’ll put it right here. THE DONATIONS MADE TO WORKING FAMILIES AND DSEA ARE ALL PUBLICLY AVAILABLE ON THE STATE DEPARTMENT OF ELECTIONS WEBSITE. THIS IS TRANSPARENCY. VOICES’ FINANCIALS…ARE NOT!

Steve, none of us has ever complained that Voices 4 Delaware should exist. Never. We’ve never said that organizations WITH special interests should ever be barred from engaging in the political process. Never. We’ve never said an organization like Voices shouldn’t be able to back candidates of its choosing. NEVER.

What we’ve said is that organizations involved in the political process should be good enough to disclose the individuals who donate to their cause. This allows those interested in knowing who’s funding the operation their chances to see just what’s going on. This is not Voices 4 Delaware Education Action Fund. No one knows who’s given them thousands of dollars to bankroll extremely nasty campaign mailers in Christina School District. What do they have to hide? If you’re gonna go nasty like that, you’d better damn well expect people to ask who the hell you are and what your motivations are.

Now on to our race, the Red Clay School Board race. Here goes: Joanne Johansen was the first candidate to file in the Red Clay School Board race. I heard about Joanne from several friends and had heard even that several of the Red Clay School Board members thought very highly of her and that she’d serve effectively on the school board. “Great!” I thought. That’s what we need. Someone with deep community roots who knows exactly what’s going on. Eric Randolph is not running for re-election, so a great person in his place is what we need.

I’d heard some word, though, that another candidate might be interested in running. This was confirmed about a week later when a government teacher from Brandywine High School announced he’d be running as well. Wow. A teacher. Considering Eric Randolph is the only current educator on the Board, this is an interesting development. I mean, it would seem natural to have a teacher on the school board, no?

So we had two candidates. I had heard from neither of the candidates, but would certainly participate in what is becoming an annual ritual: the Red Clay Education Association’s school board candidate interviews. I’d participated in the previous two years’ interviews and have found the process to be very engaging.

For those who don’t know, Red Clay sends out a list of questions to all candidates before the interview. We feel this is the best practice so no candidates arrive with a sense of “Gotcha!” in the interview. We ask all candidates the SAME pre-set list of questions, with some additional topics of conversation potentially covered. All, questions/topics, though, are listed.

We held candidate interviews on a Thursday in mid-March. Both candidates showed up on time and ready to go. Joanne went first and answered our questions fine and confirmed to us that she’d make an excellent candidate on the Board. Kenny went after and it was just a little different. In every respect, he understood what a school board member is charged with doing (as Joanne did) AND THEN SOME. His responses were at times exhaustive. He had so much to say. So many ideas. The interview went well over the hour we’d allotted each candidate. The decision of the committee — which included some Red Clay Secretaries who sat in on the process, but were not given voting status because the secretaries were just about to unionize with DSEA — was unanimous. Considering the breadth and depth of Kenny’s responses to our questions, we felt he was the best choice to recommend to our Representative Council at the next meeting. Rep Council voted unanimously, as well, to endorse Kenny Rivera for Red Clay School Board.

And so our involvement in the campaign began.

Contrast this with the Voices 4 Delaware school board campaign, which has been phony and disgusting from just about day one thanks to the involvement of one Marvin “Skip” Schoenhals, former WSFS CEO. Let’s back up. And PLEASE stick with me, because this is going to be long. Very long. Please first read my friend Frederika Jenner’s excellent blog post from January entitled “Goodnight, Moon,” in which she takes Mr. Schoenhals to task for some irresponsible rhetoric before the State Chamber of Commerce Dinner. She follows up with another post here. Here’s video of Skip’s comments at that dinner:

Skip cast his lot with this foolishness well before the campaign and he has continued ever since. In an email dated April 4, Skip sent out an urgent request to — presumably — his friends and supporters for money. Money he says would be spent on candidates “Voices 4 Delaware identified.”

Let me say something. There is most certainly another difference between Voices 4 Delaware and that evil, corrupt teachers’ union: We at least interviewed and deliberated before endorsing a candidate. This joke-of-an-organization Voices 4 Delaware did no such thing, though they probably wish they did. Or perhaps they thought Skipper was jumping the gun by making this announcement too soon.

Y’see, less that two weeks after Skip’s email asking for money to support the Voices-endorsed candidates, on April 13, several candidates received a survey from Voices 4 Delaware. Now, I don’t know about you, but don’t organizations tend to provide surveys and complete interviews BEFORE making endorsements? Voices had already identified “its” candidates, so why send a survey? Maybe they wanted to assume an appearance of fairness?

Upon reviewing the questions, Kenny said the same thing I did. “They want us to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to these incredibly complex questions?” He balked at this. And we laughed a bit. He refused to answer the questions without being able to provide more detailed answers. This is how Kenny thinks. This is how he responds. His answers may not always be the easiest. They may not always be the quickest. But he refuses to play into tepid soundbites and the oversimplification of very big ideas just to placate some seemingly flies-by-night organization looking to influence education policy in the state of Delaware.

I could go on on this topic. I could go on about how questionable Voices’ connections to other “education reformers” in this state are. I could point you to the registration of Voices 4 Delaware’s website, which clearly shows a connection to the Rodel Foundation of Delaware. I could go on about how we still don’t know the interests and motivations of this group because their shady campaign finances don’t allow us to delve deeper. I could go on, but I won’t.

I will, instead, return to the major crux of my post title: All special interests are not created equal. It’s a pretty hot phrase to throw around, especially in an election year. Demonizing all those “special interests.” Those “special interests” that are taking candy from babies and pushing grandma over a cliff. Steve likes to play the moral equivalency game when it comes to special interests, saying, well, if DSEA can do it, so can Voices. And, like I said above, sure, Voices should be able to do what they’re doing, but with an appropriate amount of transparency.

But where Steve gets it wrong is equating our special interests with their special interests. All special interests are not created equal. The special interests that stand out in my union involvement are ensuring equity for all of our students. The special interests that stand out in my union involvement are seeing that all of our schools achieve an unparalleled level of excellence. The special interests that stand out in my union involvement are seeing that we get the most committed educators and support professionals in our school every day of every year. The special interests that stand out in my union involvement are making sure that the basic needs of all of my students are being met day in and day out. The special interests that stand out in my union are making sure my school board acts in a fiscally transparent and responsible manner and doesn’t revert back to the flagrant abuses of the 90s and early 00s when my union was completely absent from board-election activities. The special interests that stand out in my union involvement are one in which we attempt to engage all members to be active and aware of the issues that don’t simply surround their pay and benefits, as many in the media would like to project.

Yes. We have special interests, everyone. Special interests that set us aside from other industries but that, perhaps, may be interests the public holds as well. We do very much have special interests. The difference, though, between our special interests and the special interests of Voices 4 Delaware Education and, to some extent, the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, is that our interests are pretty clearly defined. We are educators. We walk into those schools every damn day with the goal of doing something for those children. Be they upper, middle, or lower socioeconomic status, we walk into those schools with the HOPE that we’re affecting some positive change in their lives and imparting some knowledge that will make them kinder and more respectful human beings.

It is Voices’ special interests that are so undefined. Nebulous. Mysterious. If I were to go with what I know as well as the associations this organization holds to the business community, then I believe it’s probably fair to say their special interests aren’t nearly as altruistic or benevolent as ours. They want schools to be run like businesses. Where production is standardized, much like the tests our students take only about ten times per year. They want students put through a machine so they come out the perfect producers and consumers to work for them. Though it’s left unsaid because these “shadowy organizations” are so mysterious with their motives, I’d bet Mitt Romney’s $10,000 that there’s not much to argue against what I’ve just written.

And that’s where I will fight. I will fight to see to it that “production” in our schools is not “standardized.” I will fight to see to it that our students are treated as the amazingly fascinating and individualistic creatures that they are. They deserve and require teachers who will see those qualities in them on a daily basis and not treat them as cogs in some bizarrely fetishistic profit-driven machine.

There is a difference between DSEA — the teachers’ union — and Voices 4 Delaware Education, an organization whose membership remains unclear and whose funding is an absolute mystery. Yes, they both represent special interests. However, all special interests are not created equal.

For the record

My comments before the House education committee on Tuesday, May 1.

Good evening. My name is Mike Matthews and I’m a special education teacher in the Red Clay School District. I work in what’s called a resource room. I work with students who require a substantial amount of services.. These are students who, in some instances, are later referred to intensive learning centers when my setting isn’t working for them.

I work with students who are classified as educable mentally disabled. These are students who have extreme learning disabilities who require such a high level of differentiation and individual attention that placing them in the general education classroom would likely do a disservice to both the below-level and on-level students.

I work with students who are classified with other health impairments. These are students who perhaps come to me with severe emotional issues or health issues that have impaired their learning ability to such an extent that the general education environment is inappropriate. These are students with seizures who’ve regressed so poorly that a pull-out setting is required. These are students with severe audio, visual, and spatial sensitivities for whom structure is required and anything out of those norms could prove disastrous.

I work with a group of students — exceptional students — who require an exceptional amount of services. Sadly, the learning disabilities most of these children face means they likely won’t pass a single DCAS test in their life — unless perhaps by chance. Some of my students really like to press those buttons!

I work in a situation where I have little control over the students who come to me every year. I have no problem with this, though. What irks me, though, is the continued COMPARISON at the state level of charter schools versus traditional public schools. Charter schools that have been labeled “superior” versus my school that is now labeled “academic watch.” What I object to are the COMPARISONS made that allow for these offensive labels of our schools when they do NOTHING AT ALL to detail the nuances and complexities we are dealing with at schools like mine. Do NOT stack my school up against a charter school that has rigorous admissions standards and lotteries that qualify potential entrants based on geographic — and by default socioeconomic — parameters. Do NOT stack my school up against a charter school that requires active parent involvement. Do NOT stack my school up against a charter school that has the ability to remove repeat offenders with utter ease.

It doesn’t offend me that charter schools exist or that many want to send their students to charter schools. And though some may choose to characterize my membership in a union as one antagonistic to charter schools, let me say there’s nothing further from the truth.

It is not the charter schools themselves with which I have a problem. It is the continued comparisons to traditional public schools. Comparisons that, as we speak, are tearing apart school communities, in particular with the near-fraud that is PZ schools. A near-fraud that does LITTLE to address the social ills in so many of our schools that the PZ process seeks to remedy.

Charter schools? Sure. But don’t for one second think more charter schools are an answer to the problems that few charters today are actually facing.