Tuesday, April 16, 2019

No, It is NOT ok

No, it is not ok!

I still remember a pivotal moment in my childhood.   My mother was at the sink with her back to me doing the dinner dishes.   I was on my usual perch on a stool chatting about my day as she worked.   At some point I said, “mom, is f… a bad word?”  Only I said the word.  My mom was very good about it; she did not break a single dish.  She calmly asked me where I had heard it.   I explained that the second grade sister of a boy in my 4thgrade class had told me the word on the playground and said it was the “baddest of the bad” words.  My mother did not tell me its meaning.  Instead she said that it was a word that people with very poor vocabularies used and that people who had a good vocabulary should never use it.  She then reminded me that I had a good vocabulary, even my teacher said so.    That was my introduction to profanity and to this day I do not use language meant for people with a limited vocabulary.
Many years later I became the Assistant State Superintendent for Special Education at the Maryland State Department of Education.    One of my very talented staff members routinely used the “f-word” for every part of speech.   The notion that only people with a poor vocabulary used that word had long since been discarded but still I felt a physical blow each time she used it.
Now it seems we are in an era where all restraints are off.  Crude and common language is becoming more and more common and yes, it is still crude.
Entertainers feel it is quite acceptable to use profanity to punctuate songs, jokes, and general expressions.  The language is used on cable TV.   Young children do not begin to know what the words mean but they do know they get a rise out of adults and somehow makes them seem brave in front of peers.   We tell kids they shouldn't use these words, yet they hear adults doing it all the time.   The use of such profane language has become a status symbol into adulthood as much as puberty.
Now it seems the issue has even reached the Supreme Court. Yesterday, the Court heard a case brought by a fashion brand named FUCT.   And yes, it rhymes with duct.   The US Patent Office has refused to patent the brand.  Under the law it is allowed to do so by calling the name scandalous and immoral.  Even the attorney presenting the case before the Court does not pronounce the word, instead saying just the individual letters of the brand name.   The plaintiff’s position is that the decision by the patent office is arbitrary and that the name is really an acronym for “Friends U Can’t Trust”.   The designer believes that a positive verdict from the Supreme Court will help him to pursue counterfeiters.  No one asks who would want to counterfeit such a vulgar name for a company because we already know that lots of people do.
How far are we as a society going to go with our decent into the most vulgar and coarse words?   At some point someone really needs to stop and say, “NO, this is not ok”.   Each of us could do that today. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Budets are tight and stakes are high

Budgets are Tight and the Stakes are High

There are multiple iterations of high stakes testing around the country. Kids who can’t pass the particular test for the area are at risk for not getting a high school diploma unless the school system has come up with a work-around.   Teachers and principals are evaluated by how well their students do on these tests.   Instruction in the various language arts is designed to prepare kids for the tests.
In our headlong rush to prepare students (and staff) to do well in these tests we forget that the real reason for education, besides providing our democracy with an educated electorate, is to prepare students for college and careers.   The PARCC test even stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.  Interestingly, the skills assessed in these test are least related to readiness for post-secondary transition.   In fact, employers cite totally different skills that they look for and cannot find in new hires.
Commonly, we teach children to do book reports.  What exactly is the purpose of the book report?   When was the last time an employer asked a staff member to write a book report?  When students get older we up the digital platform to demand PowerPoint presentations when in fact few folks on the job have to do these.   The skills that kids will need on the job are seldom taught.
Everyone looking for a job needs a 60-second elevator speech that describes who you are.  This tool is useful for a job interview, networking at a professional gathering or even the company cocktail party.   The ability to construct a clear and concise oral message tailored to different audiences is a skill needed by most of us not just politicians.  Interacting with teams, speaking publicly and receiving and using feedback and constructive criticism are also critical.
Where in the curriculum are these skills most often taught- Performing Arts!   What area of the curriculum is first on the chopping block when we work to increase reading and math scores on high stakes tests- Performing Arts.   Budgets are tight and finite.   When money is limited administrators cut what they perceive as “nice but not necessary”.
The fact is when preparing students for the next stage of life, performing arts does more than most academic areas.  In performing arts, students learn to take on different persona. That is a lot like learning how to present to different audiences.
In performing arts, students work within a cast, each person counting on the other to produce the final product.   That is a great deal like a workplace team.   Cast members learn to accept and use constructive feedback about their performances, whether from other cast members or the director.  That process is not unlike what happens in the workplace.    Cast members have to listen respectfully to all points of view so that the final production will bring it all together for a pleasurable performance.
The truth is the stakes are too high to cut performing arts.   Yet we let school systems do it to the peril of the children they profess to be preparing for college and careers.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Just sleep in...

Just sleep in…

Teenagers need more sleep not less.   Educators know this.   Psychologists know this.  Physicians know this.  Parents know this.  We all know this yet we continue to behave as if we do not.   Why is that?
In school districts across the country, high schools open the earliest, followed by middle and elementary schools.   Yet we know that factually, the adolescent brain works differently than the brains of younger children and adult.  Sleep experts say that when kids move into puberty, they experience a sleep phase shift that makes it very difficult for their brains to drift off before 11 p.m.  To make matters worse, those same brains will stay in sleep mode until almost 8 the next morning.  The CDC says that two out of three teens get less than eight hours of sleep a night.  There is research that says teens really need ten hours of sleep a night.  If you go by that standard, only 10% of teens are getting the recommended amount of sleep.  
It isn't just adolescence that makes teens so much fun to be with. Not having enough sleep yields grumpy, grouchy kids, just like the rest of us.  But for teens the stakes are higher.
Sleepy teens experience more depression.   They are also more apt to engage in risky behaviors and more likely to be bullies and get into fights.  They are also more likely to get into car crashes if they are driving alone.
That’s not the half of it.   Teachers of morning classes routinely complain about how hard it is to keep kids engaged.  REM sleep is very important to the full benefits of sleep for anyone.   Teens frequently miss that final REM cycle because they are getting up too early. It does not help that the teen addiction to blue light emitting technology just before bedtime doesn’t relax them but rather suppresses the body’s melatonin which is the sleep/wake hormone.
So with all this common sense, why are high schools almost always the early run for busses.   Busses are the key issue.   Most school systems run busses on shifts.   High schools first, then followed by middle and lower schools. Why not just switch the routes? Some systems say that is too expensive.  Some athletic directors say starting school later means ending school later; hence, practices will start and end in the dark, particularly in the winter months.   Some families say the later ending of the school day will limit the time kids have for after school jobs.   That position is often countered with a later ending to the school day will leave less time for kids to get into trouble.
The Seattle school district recently delayed the starting bell for high schools.  The results were very positive.  Students got extra sleep, grades improved, students were tardy less often and had fewer absences.  Teachers and parents reported that kids had better attitudes and were more pleasant all around.
Sounds like the notion of starting high schools later is a win-win.  Can’t understand why more districts jumping on it.  Well maybe they are sleeping on it.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Get Shot or NOT

Earlier this year there was an outbreak of measles in Washington state.  Several children died.  Washington state has allowed parents to refuse to vaccinate their children and still allow those children to enter school.  Most state require that students be vaccinated; however, they allow for an exception for religious considerations.  After the outbreak of measles in Washington, some lawmakers are wondering if this exception should continue to be allowed.

Now there has been another unprecedented measles outbreak on the other side of the country in Rockland County, NY.   There school officials have said that children who have not been vaccinated may not attend public schools.  Forty-four families whose children were excluded from school had sued to insist that their children be allowed to return to school arguing that none of their children had contracted measles and, therefore, were not a risk to the population.   However, a federal judge has recently ruled on the side of the school district and denied the request for the children to return to school.

In the meantime, there is legislation in process in New York that would allow minor children to request and receive vaccination without parental consent.  Pediatric organizations have supported the legislation.

The notion that vaccines cause autism has been debunked routinely.  In Maine, families could refuse to vaccinate their children for non-medical reasons, including just a basic fear of the vaccine.  A Democratic sponsored bill would end all non-medical reasons for forbidding vaccinations.  On the other side, a Republican bill would leave medical exemptions at the “sole discretion” of the health-care provider.   Maine has one of the nation’s highest rates for nonmedical exemptions.

Maryland currently allows for a medical exemption and a religious exemption.  It does not allow for a philosophical exemption.   Some states do allow for that type of exemption.

The issue is, where does the right to decide for one’s own children begin, where does the child’s right to decide for itself or in consultation with another adult- and what are the rights of the other children in the school.

What should Maryland do as more religious organizations begin to weigh in?   Get shot or not?   Whose right is it.  

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

So much money wasted

So much money wasted!

The news has been full of the scheme to spend millions of dollars to get kids into elite colleges for which they may or may not be qualified.   A great deal of money and a lot of conniving with sports’ coaches, college admission folks, and a crooked college admissions counselor.   Clearly these folks crossed the line, but many millions are spent every year in what is considered legitimate encouragement to enroll an offspring in a premier college or university.   It is okay to donate a building or two, perhaps a scholarship and don’t forget the totally legal test prep programs and advisors- all of which push hard for kids to go to college for their parents’ bragging rights if not their own.

Nationally we have the major academic push to prepare students for college and careers.  Truthfully, the careers part of that equation is a misnomer.   Schools are pushing kids to go to college and have a career after that.  In the meantime, there are very important high-paying jobs that are going unfilled BECAUSE they do not require a college degree.   For some reason we think a college degree opens the golden door to riches.  

We need to prepare students for the skilled trades!   Not only is our population aging but along with the general population are the people who build buildings, drive big trucks, install electric, repair plumbing- all of those things that not only literally build a nation but also repair a nation as homes and other buildings need attention.  If we do not attend to these builders, each of us may be doing a great more DIY or paying very high prices for a limited number of people with those skills.

Most kids starting college today take six years to do what the older generation did in four.  More importantly, 45% of students entering college never graduate.  What becomes of them?  They usually do not have a job skill.  Sometimes they have filled their schedule with light weight courses such as “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame”.   Yes, really, that is a 3-credit course.  And besides being unemployed, they may also still be straddled with student debt.

Why?   Whatever happened to good vocational training for students who are not interested in working behind a desk?  Some people are catching on.  In Massachusetts there is a waiting list for kids to get into the vocational technical high schools.  I wonder how many of those schools were closed or discouraged with the race to get into college.

College is not the best choice for everyone.  Even people who graduate are not necessarily winners. Fifty percent of law school grads do not get jobs practicing law even allowing for our country being the most lawsuit happy on earth.   Not going to college is NOT a consolation prize; nor does it mean the student was too dumb to go to college.   It might mean that the student and her family were not interested in wasting money on ego and decided to use the talent to build a better career.  

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Throwing Good Money After Bad

Throwing Good Money After Bad

Maryland teachers clogged the streets of Annapolis on March 11, 2019, trying to convince the legislature to throw good money after bad.   They were insisting that the legislature needed to increase funding for schools in Maryland so that the schools would get better.  They insisted on this position in spite of the fact that throwing money at schools has yet to improve them.  
In 2002, an earlier commission, the Thornton Commission, provided a huge boost to school funding in Maryland.  Yet less than 40 percent of Maryland high school graduates can read at a 10thgrade level.  The gap between Hispanic and African American students and their white peers persists.  
An analysis by the Maryland Public Policy Institute found that increased funding encouraged administrative bloat and higher teacher salaries. Neither of which did anything to improve instruction.  The response to these findings by advocates of the latest race for more education funds, the Kirwan Commission, insist that this time there will be a new state bureaucracy that will ensure accountability. Am I confused or does this look like  more administrative bloat that does not impact students.
Maryland is already spending more per student than almost every other state. In fact of the top five highest per pupil school districts in the country, two were in Maryland.  Baltimore City schools come in at #4 nationally and Howard County Schools come in at #5.   Baltimore City is spending $15,818 per typical student and not very many would argue the citizens are getting their money’s worth.
In the headlong rush to implement this “one chance in a century” to fix Maryland schools, we have failed to address the primary cost of an education in Maryland or any other state for that matter-it is salaries. The amount of money is finite unless taxes are dramatically raised.  Giving more money to education, takes it away from other programs that may be just as necessary to the well-being of citizens.   Over 80% of school money goes into salaries.  Of course, there is the very high administrative bloat salaries, where it is not unusual for school administrators to make well over $100,000 a year.  In fact, Maryland has some of the highest school administrative costs in the nation. Still the bulk of the salary money goes towards teachers and other non-administrative school-based staff. Until there is a system in place where quality educators are rewarded and people who are marginal in their jobs are either fired or reduced in salary, nothing will change.  We will continue to throw good money after bad, resulting in more highly paid incompetent teachers.  More money won’t make them better.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

It's Easier to Pass the Bar

It’s Easier to Pass the Bar

It seems to be easier to pass the Bar exam to become an attorney than it is to pass the Praxis licensing exam to become a teacher.   More than half of aspiring teachers fail all or part of the Praxis exam required by eighteen states and optional in five others.
The data show that more than half of aspiring elementary school teachers fail all or part of the exam the first time.  In fact, only 38% of black candidates and 57% of Hispanic candidates ever pass the test at all, compared with 75% of white candidates.
This situation presents multiple problems.
First of all, why are the fail rates so high?  Do the reasons lie in the quality of the test or the quality of the preparation for black and Hispanic candidates?   The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) estimates that over 8,600 candidates of color are excluded from the classroom each year because of test failure.   Yet there is a huge push to increase diversity in the nation’s teaching pool.
There are 4 subtests to the Praxis (reading/language arts, mathematics, science and social studies).   Science and social studies have the highest fail rates.  Over a 3-year period reviewed by the NCTQ, over a quarter of the test takers did not pass.  Only certified public accountants have a lower pass rate on their exam.   Doctors, nuclear engineers and lawyers, all have higher pass rates on their licensing exams.
Let’s start with the test.   Is the Praxis testing what is relevant to being a successful teacher.  In testing terms, is the Praxis test valid, that is does it measure what it says it measures- predicting who will be a successful teacher.   No study has been done to see if high Praxis scores correlate with high quality teacher evaluations.  Additionally, unlike other professional licensing exams, there is nothing in the Praxis that relates to how to teach school.  The Bar exam measures an applicant’s knowledge on court proceedings and legal precedents.   Nothing in the Praxis quizzes applicants on learning theory or education practice.
Then there is the issue of preparation.   A review of the content of an undergraduate elementary school teacher’s course work shows that 3 out of 4 programs do not cover the breadth of knowledge of mathematics content required by the exam.  Two out of 3 programs do not require a single course aligned with any of the science topics on the exam.   Additionally, one-third of the programs do not require history or geography aligned with the exam content.
Given this information, why do states persist in using the Praxis exam as a gatekeeper for the teaching profession?
Advocates of the testing program will tell you that the test ensures that people entering the teaching profession will be of “high quality”.  But high quality in what!   Every other professional testing exam measures the knowledge and skill set for the profession.   None measures basic academic knowledge.  
If we are concerned about the basic knowledge set for elementary teachers why not push that requirement down into the teacher preparation programs.  If candidates need more academic preparation, that is the time to do it.   Once the student has completed his/her professional preparation, we should be measuring knowledge and skill set for the profession.   Otherwise it might be easier to become a lawyer.