Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Stupid on top of stupid

Remember the old movie, Dumb and Dumber?  I think the US Department of Education wants to bring it back.  First a bit of background.  In 2002 Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law the "Wishful Thinking" act. Oh wait!  It was called the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act.  Among other magical thinking components was the idea that all children would be on grade level by 2014- get it no child left behind.  Of course, anyone with any sense knew that would never happen because- well because kids are different from each other and have differing abilities.  To prove that all children would be at grade level NCLB required that kids be tested each year to measure their progress- or not.  This great idea became known as the "Standards Movement".  Who could be opposed to higher standards right?

Well before too long it became obvious that some kids were not going to be at grade level this year or ever.   That did not stop us from putting those kids through the rigors of a testing program that essentially showed them how far behind their age mates they were and battered their self-concepts further into the dust.  So the Department of Ed in an act of mercy, decreed that 2% of the children taking the test could be tested on grade modified standards.  This meant that states could create alternative tests for children with very limited abilities.  Of course, those modified tests still needed to assess grade level content even though that content had no relevance to their lives.   Ok, that was the first "stupid".   So if kids couldn't read Anne Frank, they were given a version of Anne Frank rewritten on a 2nd or 3rd grade level.   Never mind that once you do this the book is no longer Anne Frank.  And never mind that for a child who is still struggling with recognizing coins or community safety words, time should not be spent on Anne Frank at all.  But the US Department of Education thought it was helping and many states developed alternative tests.

Now comes the second "stupid" on top of the first.  The US Department of Education is removing the policy that allowed states to consider some students with disabilities academically proficient without meeting grade level standards.  "We believe that the removal of the authority for states to define modified academic achievement standards and to administer assessments based on those standards is necessary to ensure that students with disabilities are held to the same high standards as their non-disabled peers," the agency said in making the rule change that will take place on September 21.

Have these people not learned that achievement by decree does not work?!  Next perhaps the Department of Agriculture will make a rule that squirrels will give milk and cows will climb trees.  Children with severe disabilities are not choosing to be that way.  Their disabilities are not the result of poor teaching or lower expectations.  They are considerably disabled.  They need to be taught the skills for independent living, holding some type of job, using money, reading for safety.  The current Common Core curriculum was not handed down on tablets from Mt. Sinai.  When will we stop piling stupid on top of stupid and teach and assess kids according to their differing abilities and needs.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Always right, no wait, always wrong...

When I was a kid, my mother was very clear.   "When you are in school your teacher is like your mother."  Your teacher would not punish you unless you did something wrong.  And if you do something wrong at school, you will feel consequences again when you get home.  Translation, your teacher is always right.

Fast forward, a long time later.  The new message to kids is, "that teacher better not hurt you, holler at you, catch you doing wrong or I will be in that principal's office in a heartbeat."  Translation, your teacher is always wrong.

Neither approach is correct, but if I had to go with one, I would pick my mother's advise.  I say that not because I think of myself as a teacher or because my mother almost always gave perfect advise, although both are true.   I lean toward teachers being on the side of the angels more times than not for lots of reasons.

Firstly, teaching is hard work and not for the faint of heart.  Mostly people become teachers because of the kids and because they want to help children be better.  Even with the vastly improved salaries a person will never become breakout rich teaching school.  So there have to be other rewards.

Secondly, I freely acknowledge there are lots of lousy teachers who bully kids and like the feeling of authority over kids.  Every barrel has a bottom and some teachers live there.  However, whatever negative things are true about teachers' personalities are also true about the personalities of bosses kids are going to encounter when they grow up.  So they should learn to manage less than fair treatment.   And NO, I am not endorsing bad teaching as a good learning experience.

Thirdly, parents and teachers need to be on the same side of the battle to produce fully functioning good adults.  With all the distractions today, that is not an easy task and both parents and teachers need each other to fight along side of them.

Lastly, the teachers are always wrong position is bad for kids.  Human beings, including kids, need to learn to take personal responsibility when they mess up.   This acceptance of responsibility is key to a good personal relationship, good work experience, and a positive outlook on life in general.  It does kids no good to think that there will be a parent or other powerful figure ready to rush in and get them off the hook when they do something wrong.  Our jails are filled with people who think the rules do not apply to them and if they do, well they will still get off.

So in standing up for teachers, parents are also standing up for a good future for their kids- and who doesn't want that.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Where oh where have the teachers gone?

I can predict a news article every year at this time.  School systems are scrambling to fill teacher slots.   Baltimore City notably laid off about 200 people in a surplus teacher corps about  4 months ago to balance the budget.  Now they are looking to hire about the same number, but in different disciplines from those laid off.
So what's going on?  In the old days people said it was teacher salaries.  Not so today.  The average teacher salary in Maryland is about $65,000, not bad for working 190 days a year.  Nationwide the education of teachers is down 30%.   In Michigan there is a surplus; hello Scott Walker.
If the issue is not money or working hours, what is the problem?
Supposedly the decline in the interest in teaching began in 2008, about the same time as the great recession.  Many districts stopped raising salaries and coincidentally started measuring a teacher's ability against test scores.   High test scores meant you were a good teacher.   Low scores meant you were a bad teacher.  Then there were the pacing guides.  Teachers were told where they needed to be in the curriculum each and every day.  Again it was the testing program that was driving this race.  It would not be fair to test a child on material that was not "covered".  Notice advocates for the pacing guides do not use the verb learned.  Teachers just need to make sure the material is "covered" before the testing date.  Not to worry if a child didn't get the content or had a personal life issue.  The clock is ticking, just move on.
Teaching has really never been about money.  It is a very tough job.  If you go into teaching for the material rewards, energy in will never equal financial resources out.  Good teaching is all about emotion and watching kids learn.  It is about the hugs, high fives, and the bright eyes when a kid gets it.  Teaching is about showing a child that she can learn math even though girls are not supposed to be good in math and science.  Teaching is about telling parents that their child is doing well and really catching on to the content.  Teaching is about showing a child how he can get into college and make a future different from his family.  People do not need to live great lives; we need to find greatness in the lives we are handed.  Teaching used to be a wonderful way to do just that.
When teachers unions weren't looking, politicians and supposed education advocates turned teaching into an assembly line profession.  There was a reason automakers had the strongest unions with the best benefits.   The work is hard and mind numbing.  There needed to be tradeoffs.
Teaching has always been hard work; but it has never been mind numbing.  Pacing guides, standardized testing programs, off the wall threatening parents, lack of administrative support have all joined to suck the joy out of teaching.  Great teachers have great passion for their work and for the kids.  Over and over studies have shown that increased salaries do not correspondingly increase worker satisfaction.  We are killing the teaching profession by sucking the life out of teaching and replacing those teachers with folks who are content to measure what they do by test scores.   That is not great teaching.  It is no wonder fewer and fewer people want to do it.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Who is for a punch in the face?

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was recently interviewed on CNN.  He was in prime form.  Christie said that the best way to treat a bully was to give him a punch in the face.   The interviewer asked what national organizations deserved a punch in the face.  Without hesitation Christie said the national teachers' unions.  He said they were only interested in increasing membership and benefits and had no interest in improving the education of children.  He went on to declare the unions the "most destructive force in education".   He said that this was not a new position on his part, he has felt this way for nine years and had the scars to prove it.
So how much of this is political hype and how much is true.  Is this comment a hail Mary pass in a crowded presidential field or a Pickett's charge against a strong political enemy.   Probably a bit of both.
At the time of this writing there are 17 Republicans running for President.  That is the most crowded field in memory.  So clearly there is a strong need to distinguish oneself from the look-a-like field of people not in the least bit shy about making fools of themselves with their comments.  However, there is some truth to what Christie says.   While the unions are currently raging against the annual testing requirements, that is a new rant.   They must have been on a very long lunch break when NCLB with its boatload of testing was being debated in Congress.  Now they are embarrassing themselves by being the only national education organizations that is against the continued special examination of test performance by at risk groups such as kids with special needs, minority groups and those for whom English is a second language.  Makes them seem a bit callous with regard to the less fortunate. It has been quite some time since a union has argued for something that will benefit kids rather than put gold in their own pockets.
It could be easy to argue that attacking these strong unions is a lot like Pickett's charge as well.  These are among the strongest unions in the nation.  And their members are white collar teachers who work with our kids every day so how bad can these people be.  On the other hand, the Supreme Court is going to be hearing a case in the fall regarding the legality of continuing the mandatory service fee that closed shop states such as Maryland and California require of those teachers who do not want to belong to the union.  If the plaintiffs win that case, the strength of the unions will be severely impacted because lots of people will drop out since they will have the option of saving a considerable amount of dues money.   Given the economies of states since the recession, unions have not been able to negotiate for much in pay raises and a lot of what they have done is try to hold onto the benefits they already have.
All in all, my view is more inline with Christie than not.  I personally think the unions have ruined the profession I love.  They did this when they went from being a professional organization like the Bar Association or the AMA and decided to go with the trade union model.  Then they like to insist they want to be treated as professionals.  Act like a professional and just maybe you will be treated as one.