Katie Paetz wants to make one thing perfectly clear: “No matter where you come from or who you are when you start, that does not determine your outcome.”
The throbbing music in the central Phoenix coffee shop accentuates the points she’s making, her hands almost matching the rhythm in the air. Her energy is almost palpable.
Katie is running for one of the two open spots on the Osborn School District board. She’s driven by a determination born of frustration in seeing students’ potential wasted by an education system twisted toward substituting testing for teaching. She’s seen the results of both approaches first-hand in her nine years of teaching music in inner-city elementary schools, and she makes it plain that the move to standardized testing is destroying both the hopes of students and the motivation of teachers.
She tells of the remarkable transformation of “Alex”, a 14-year-old still stuck in 7th grade. He came to her music class as a failing student with little hope of ever catching up. Minutes after picking up a guitar for the first time, he was strumming and plucking out notes. It sounded like music, and music was the magic that ignited his life as a student. His discipline problems soon came under control and his skills in math and writing improved — all in service of his newfound passion. His first successful school year perhaps ever culminated with his class presentation on Frankie Valli, a performer he had taken as his personal inspiration.
In a later conversation that started with his introduction to slide guitar using a bottleneck, Alex was inspired by the fact that the bottleneck could have come from a beer bottle. Katie recalls “He said ‘I used to drink and do drugs. But I don’t anymore. It’s because of the music. The guitar saved my life.'”
Although Katie was delighted with his progress, the school was still forced to mark Alex as a failing student due to his results on the standardized AIMS (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards) test. AIMS was blind to Alex’s particular situation and the altered trajectory his new love for music had provided, and it showed no regard for his future as a student.
“It’s programs like that that are extremely difficult to measure in our current assessment system. And it’s extremely difficult to communicate out to our leaders if they have no current experience in the classroom.”
If elected, Katie would be the only schoolteacher on the Osborn board, and the only one with experience as a full-time teacher.
“There’s this thing about educators not being involved with policy or the process because of the idea that education shouldn’t be political. But one side wants to eliminate funding for education as we know it, and the other side wants to continue what has made the US tops in education. “
“Yes, 22% of US children live below the poverty line. We’ve taken on the task of educating everyone in this country without regard to poverty or disability. When you factor that in, the US education system is the best in the world. That’s at the core of our democracy, the belief that the ordinary person can do extraordinary things.”
Katie grew up in the small town of Ottawa, Illinois–home to a few grade schools, one middle school, and one high school. She discovered her talent in music when she was introduced to the French horn in the third grade. Her parents’ decision to move to Arizona coincided with the start of her college years. “You can stay back in Illinois where it snows or you can come out to Arizona with us,” her parents said. She chose the warm climate of ASU and went on to take a master’s in music instruction.
Upon graduation, she specifically chose to teach at an inner city school. She took a position at the Creighton district in an older, urban section of Phoenix. Over the course of her five-year career at Creighton, she established programs in piano, guitar, and voice. But with the advent of standardized testing, trouble arose. She started noticing more and more students like Alex — students whose promise was wiped out by the blind, high-stakes evaluation imposed by AIMS.
“You tell me that kid was ‘falls far below’ that year,” she demands, citing the AIMS rating given to challenged students like Alex.
“That was happening on a regular basis with a lot of our students. I started speaking out against it. I started talking to my principal and to other teachers about this system that was based on testing, scores and data, and not on learning.” But soon after she called AIMS into question, the district chose not to renew her contract. “I wasn’t asked back. That was probably the hardest year of my career.”
She shakes her head at the groupthink within typical schools that silences dissent. “Within the school district and within the school building is not the place to have policy discussions or to try to fight the system. They’re all in it together and are all slaves to the higher policies.”
But her dismissal was the low point that would later inspire her to run for the school board, and she didn’t stay out of the game for long. She soon took a contract in the Roosevelt district and has gone on to transform music instruction for her 600 students at Rose Linda school.
She notes one major, essential problem with standardized testing: It forces the focus off the student and onto the institution. “All of the sudden the teacher’s job, evaluation, pay and feedback is no longer based on (service to) the student as an individual but instead on how the institution has decided to measure it. We’ve made a shift from honoring the student to honoring the institution.”
She sees parallels to teaching in the way kids first encounter music lessons. “The first things kids do when being introduced to a new instrument is to test timbre and dynamics (tonality and volume). The typical music curriculum tries to teach melody and rhythm first. That’s backwards, but that’s also shows what we’re doing wrong with teaching. As they mature, kids test the parameters of independence, personality and humor.” She laughs and shakes her head. “I had to learn not to take it personally.”
As she grew into her career as a teacher, she noticed kids test life like they’d test an instrument. They are looking for feedback from their teachers, and the teachers must provide it on a personal basis.
“Closing that circle is 60% of what we do. If (students) don’t have interpersonal skills, content is never going to get through. When a kid does something that is seen as misbehavior, that’s the teachable moment. A system that only encourages high test scores in content undermines and demotivates the teacher in the room to engage the students in those teachable moments.”
At 32, first-time candidate Katie is among a new breed of politicians.
Over 90% of her funding has come from small, private contributors. Her colleagues and friends have helped her start a strong organization from scratch. She advises other potential candidates to build their networks and support while making sure to take care of themselves to better serve their chosen causes. Additionally, she points out there’s more help than ever before available for new, young candidates–especially women.
Following the disillusionment of enacting hope and change from the top-down over the last six years, a new approach is needed. Instead, hope and change need to come from the bottom up, starting in races for posts as minor and yet deceptively important as spots in school boards. If change is to come it will start at the local level with people who are able to make changes locally and affect their surroundings–and who have kept their ideals strong.
More information on Katie and her campaign is available here.
Words and Images ©2014 Bill LaBrie