Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Go Forth Into the World

Go Forth into the World

This is the season of graduations and graduation speeches.  Hundreds of graduation speakers will be giving advice as they send graduates off into the world.  Unfortunately the entire standards movement with its hugely heavy emphasis on testing is sucking the lifeblood out of that future.  That is happening in two ways.
First, having a rich and rewarding work life is one of greatest gifts that anyone can ever hope to receive.   We spend almost one-third of our lives at work.  I read an article recently that said Sunday evenings were a time of great depression because people hated the thought of going back to work the next day.  I do not feel that way and my heart went out to those who do.  So a day or so later I was in a lab having blood drawn in preparation for a physical.  I mentioned the article to the lab tech and asked her what she thought.  Her response blew me away.  “Of course”, she said, “everyone hates going back to work and I like my job ok.”  
I happen to think teaching is one of the most rewarding professions anyone can have.  Think about it.  Teachers get to shape lives.  They get to instill the love of learning in kids. They get to awaken kids to the wonders of reading.  They get to show them how miraculous it is when numbers line up to prove things.  They show them how science solves unsolvable problems.  They open the doors to other cultures and explain how our present was molded by the past.  They get to help kids explore who they are and who they want to become.  They get to help mend broken hearts and support fledgling dreams.  What job could be more wonderful than that!   For years teachers have endured low salaries and sometimes crowded classrooms, but the kids, the kids, -- they made up for everything.  
Now teachers’ salaries are not too bad.  Benefits have always been good.  And, of course, the calendar allows for a private life as well as the joy of hunkering down on a snow day.  But, along come standards.  That huge whooshing noise you hear is the testing and the pacing guides sucking all the bliss out of teaching.  All those special times with kids take time with kids.  Pacing guides don’t allow that.
And what of those kids?   Children need time to think and reflect and to experiment.  They need time to fail and to learn what doesn’t fit their personalities along with what aligns perfectly.  Those enlightenments do not occur on a prescribed schedule.  Having the time to reflect and to figure out whom you are and what you care most about is absolutely critical to a good education.  Students need the time and the experience to figure out what it is that sets them on fire.  How can they assure that rich and rewarding work life for themselves?  Those things don’t happen on a time clock.  Kids need time to tinker.

Perhaps these commencement addresses are coming at the wrong time.   The graduates may be commencing into the world but perhaps these great speeches should come at the beginning of an education milestone, not at the end of one.   And while we are at it, maybe some education leaders should be listening as well so this sage advice could guide the standards.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Can These Schools be Saved?

There is a scene in “The Wire” when one of the police chiefs is complaining about something and the police commissioner says, “It’s Baltimore, gentlemen.  The Gods will not save you!”  Perhaps the same thing could be said about Baltimore City public schools.

Recently the City Schools came to an understanding with their CEO  (e.g. superintendent) so that he would leave before the end of his contract in two years.  Don’t let it bother you that the president of the School Commissioners in February said that the CEO had received positive evaluations and that they were expecting him to fulfill his contract.  Within three months of that statement the Commissioners had negotiated the leave of this CEO and hired a new person to lead the system.  The new CEO will start on July 1, 2016.   There will be an interim until then.   The Baltimore City Council is whipped up about the process not being transparent enough.  Have they even noticed how BAD the outcomes are for Baltimore City Schools and why aren’t they having hearings about that?  That is an easy answer.  Attacking a process that was sort of questionable, but is now a done deal is ever so much easier than trying to solve real problems.

There are so many disasters going on in Baltimore City Schools that it is hard to enumerate them.  The City spends about $16,000 on each student each year.  The absentee rate is the highest in the State.   The high school graduation rate is the lowest in the State.  The teachers are among the highest paid in Maryland and there are no bonuses for combat duty.  Approximately 15% of the kids in City schools have disabilities and the City spends 15.4% of its budget on them.  High School Assessment scores are among the lowest and most students achieve well below grade level.

The State Legislature approved millions of dollars to improve the physical plants of City schools.  HVAC systems routinely breakdown, water is bad, rodents attend more frequently than kids.

Some people will tell you it is because of the high poverty level in the city. Certainly that is a contributing factor.  But in my view it is time to start holding these highly paid teachers to some standards themselves. And I don't mean test scores.  Lots of Baltimore City teachers make over 100K a year.   Paying a bad teacher more money does not make her a good teacher.  And paying a good teacher more money does not make her a better teacher. 
In other professions to make lots of money you need to keep having better outcomes.  The pressure stays with the job.  So if you are a great builder of houses and people know you build great houses, you sell lots of houses and make lots of money.  But if you start to let standards slide in your construction the word gets out and your profits decline.   The same is true for great attorneys, physicians and electricians.   Not so with teachers.  Once you hit a pay grade, it is only going up, never down.  You don’t have to keep getting better. 

The money spent on these super salaries needs to be spent in the lower grades so all kids are at grade level in math and reading by 5th grade.  That may mean groups of five or six per teacher for those subjects rather than 28.5.    Additionally, there needs to be academic academies for high school students, perhaps a 13th year where the kids could get the academic skills they need to have a fighting chance in college.  As it is they are starting post-secondary education with middle school or worse achievement scores.

The Gods will not save Baltimore City public schools.  Changing spending priorities might give the new CEO a fighting chance.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Is a basic minimum a good idea?

We are not going to skimp on education!  Most citizens agree with that idea.  So a long time ago, Maryland passed a law that requires public school districts to never reduce the basic minimum spending for education.  The law was passed for a couple of reasons.
First of all it was the era of a good bit of both federal and State money being added to local budgets.  State legislators and the general public did not want this additional money to supplant the money that was being spent by the local system.  They wanted this new money to be indeed NEW money and not replace what was already being spent.
Another reason for the law was that there are good times and bad times in the economy.  The rule was supposed to make sure that even in bad times the kids would get the money to which they were entitled.
Generally people thought this was a very enlightened idea and a wonderful way to protect school funding.
But as with all good deeds there were unintended consequences.   Counties might want to increase spending for schools in times when revenues were high.  However, the catch is once expenditures are increased, those expenditures re-set the basic minimum.  So then school systems cannot go below these new amounts.
Critics say that the effects of the basic minimum limits the amount of new money school districts want to put into education since once raised they can’t go back.
Supporters say that inflation eats up those increases and even though there is more money in the budget, the purchasing power of the new money is about the same as the former lesser amounts.  Therefore, it is reasonable to set the new basic minimum commensurate with the increases in spending.
Every once in a while, a school district will ask for a bye on a new expenditure.  For example, during the recession, a school district reduced its contribution to health care for the staff.   Now that district wants to put some of that money back.  It has requested that the State Board of Education not count that money towards a new basic minimum expenditure.  At the present time the Board has not responded because it does not want to open a floodgate of more exception requests. 
Some districts have had no issue whatever with the basic minimums because the new teacher contract eats any deficits.
Still the argument rages.  Do required basic minimums act to deter innovation?  A school system spends money to innovate; the innovation fails, but the system is stuck with still spending that money on something else to sustain the new basic minimum.
Supporters of the law say it sustains local spending when state and federal grants go away.  Other public money leaving a lower local contribution without the safeguard would supplant local spending.  If the other money does go away, the local money remains intact.
Basic minimum spending- an enlightened idea to assure safeguards for children or another government rule that stifles innovation.

You decide.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Is your child's teacher coming back next year?

Did you know that the attrition of teachers each year is very similar to the attrition of police officers?   It is also higher than nurses, another profession with high stress.  Most other professions have much lower attrition rates.   So why is that?
One of the most often quoted reasons is low pay.  But the fact is that really isn’t true anymore.   Many teachers make in the 6 figures after 20 years of experience.  New teachers with only a bachelor’s degree start in the low 40’s.  That is not bad for a 190-day work year.  The benefits are great and once tenure is secured, it is very difficult to get fired.  You really have to work at losing your job.
So what is the issue?   Are kids really that much worse than they were twenty years ago?   Probably some are, but it is also true that the “bad” behaviors of the past were probably considered just as extreme as the “bad” behaviors of the present.
Several reasons have been advanced.  Most specifically, many researchers believe it is both the accountability programs (i.e. testing) and the sanctions that have been applied to schools with poor testing results.  The sanctions were part of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and those sanctions were definitely disproportionately applied to schools with a preponderance of racial minority kids and/or lower socio-economic students.   Admittedly teachers in these schools face particular challenges and while no school would welcome sanctions, many teachers felt the application of sanctions amounted to a piling on an already difficult situation.
Researchers sought to confirm this widely held belief.  What they discovered was that there was another variable out there that was more powerful than test scores.  Imagine that!   Schools that failed assessments and received sanctions had the highest rate of faculty drop out.  That rate hit 20%, ok, no surprise there.  It was 5% higher than schools that had failed assessments but received no sanctions.  However, the common wisdom that schools that passed the assessments would have the lowest turnover turned out not to be true.  The lowest turnover rate belonged to schools that FAILED assessments, RECEIVED sanctions BUT whose teachers felt they had high teacher autonomy.  It seems that the critical variable is not failing, not sanctions, but autonomy.
I am guessing that this autonomy thing is not just about teaching.  Being a police officer is stressful but important work.  How much autonomy in today’s climate do police officers have?  Their lives are at risk but how much autonomy do they have.  Likewise if you look at other professions with low turnover, these are professions with a high degree of autonomy.  In fact, long ago and far away autonomy was considered the hallmark of a profession.

We trust our teachers to prepare our kids for their futures but we don’t trust them to teach at a pace that works for those kids.  If we want smart, well-qualified people to teach all of our kids, we need to trust them to make the hard day-to-day decisions on how to do that.