Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Know Nothings are Alive and Preaching

The Know Nothings Are Alive and Preaching

Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dee are at it again.   The know-nothing Washington Post education columnist has proclaimed that 80% of the kids receiving special education do not need that label. They are not disabled.  He does not share how he knows this, he just does.   He has for years been advocating the demise of special education for all but the most severely disabled children.  His latest column celebrates the opinions of a man who had two terms on the school board of Baltimore City and even deputy mayor of Baltimore.   If he knows so much how come he left the city’s schools in the same mess that he found them.  And in his long list of self-congratulatory positions, being a public school teacher or any kind of teacher is not among them.  Both the columnist and the town-crier have proclaimed that the kids in special education have been captured by myths- whatever that means- and do not really have learning challenges at all.  According to this view only children with Down syndrome, severe autism or visual and hearing impairments are truly disabled.  All the rest of the students have just been “dumped” into special education.  
Being in special education could hardly be a worse situation for the struggling learners according to these two wise men.  The advocate knows an instructional system that would raise all boats, including the poor souls struggling in special education but the school districts won’t use it because they are “uncomfortable” with it.   If he knows so much why didn’t he implement this magical system when he was deputy mayor or on the City school board?  Unfortunately, this wonderful system can’t be implemented because the districts lack the “imaginative” people like these two.
Funny how these two who have yet to get their hands dirty doing the hard work of actually working with kids, know everything to do but haven’t done it. Perhaps they need to attend the high school graduation of a child who could not read at all after six years in mainstream fully-included classes and is now graduating with a high school diploma and, yes, can read at a level that allows for community college attendance. Or maybe they would like to see the face of a child who has been shunned for being weird among the other “not disabled” age-mates in general ed classes, when that child stars in a performing arts presentation.  How many parents have they spoken with whose kids were not accepted, or tormented or bullied by both staff and plain students- then tell me how bad it is to be in special ed classes with specially trained staff who have skills to address these learning issues.  Oh and are people who really WANT to be with these students who learn differently.
It is all fine to make proclamations about who needs specialized instruction and who is disabled and who is not.  To co-opt a line from The Christmas Carol, in the eyes of the informed, these know-nothings may be the most disabled of all.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Who Cares for the Caregivers?

Who cares for the caregivers?

Something is driving teachers out of the profession.   Both newbies and seasoned teachers are leaving at a faster pace than ever before.   Our schools need experienced teachers.   Our most vulnerable kids need them the most.  Teaching is a profession of the heart that requires a tremendous amount of skill. If teaching is in your heart, it is not something you leave easily.  Yet teachers are leaving-why?
For the most part it is not about salary.  Although there are some VERY notable exceptions in those states where teachers have recently engaged in state-wide strikes trying to get a living wage. But for the most part around our country, teaching is paying a solid middle-class salary with decent benefits.
So why are teachers leaving in droves.  Teachers are leaving who teach in the core areas, the elective areas, all racial groups, ethnically diverse and LGBTQ and not!   They are all leaving at about the same pace.
There are several different reasons that boil down to the same thing. Teachers do not feel supported in what they do.
Teachers who were on the picket lines repeatedly said, yes, it is about the money but it is also about the politicians and the members of the boards of education not caring that we are not making a living wage.
Teachers are a bit like statues of liberty.  They welcome the poor, the weak, the disabled and the children from dysfunctional families – for each of these children, teachers lift their lamps beside the golden classroom.  They are happy to do this.  Helping kids is what brought them to teaching.  But they need support!
We can’t blame teachers when students do not do well on standardized tests. There are lots and lots of reasons for poor test performance that have nothing to do with poor teaching.  We can’t pretend that feeling helpless when the children you teach tell you about what went on at their home the previous night or parents who are fighting over custody and use the child as a pawn does not take its toll on the teacher.   
Teachers worry about their students.  They worry about the neighborhoods the children live in.  They worry the children can’t pass all these tests. They worry they need to choose between meeting student needs and keeping up with the pacing guides.   Good teachers and good teaching is critical to the well-being of our children and of our nation.   Teachers are more than willing to do the heavy lifting.  But we need to show we care about their well-being as well.   We need to care for the caregivers.  We aren’t and they are not taking it anymore.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Sun Investigates Incorrectly

Sun Newspaper Investigates Incorrectly

A big article in the Sunday Sunpaper led with the headline, “Special Ed costs add to budget”.  There was a good bit of misinformation in the article.  Plus, the article is strongly slanted towards the notion that providing an appropriate education for kids with special needs is somehow not worth the additional cost. 
 Let’s start at the beginning.  The proposed budget allocates about $278 million for meeting the needs of 12,000 students, roughly 15% of the system's budget.  Special education costs were cited as one of the reasons for the $130 million deficit last year. No mention was made of the lucrative contract negotiated by the former superintendent that escalated teachers' salaries about the $100,000 mark.  The district’s chief of staff said that the amount does not necessarily reflect inefficiencies even though it is much greater than similar cities and other local systems.  
The City’s executive director of special education indicated that one way to drive down the costs of special education services is to not over-identify students who require special education.   As a special educator, I am offended that the executive director did not cite early identification and intervention as the best way to drive down long-term costs and still serve children’s needs.
The article further states that federal (and state) law requires that students be educated in the least restrictive environment possible.  That is NOT what the law requires.   Rather it requires that children with special needs be educated in the least restrictive environment appropriate to meet their educational needs.  
The article notes that when no public program can meet a student’s needs the city is required to purchase a non-public program.  For next year, the system has budgeted $33.5 million for that purpose.  The system brags that is the lowest level in five years.
Maybe they should not be bragging.   The Harbour School located in Baltimore County is projecting a tuition rate for the 18-19 school year of $39,490.  That sounds like a lot of money and it is.  BUT, first of all that includes all OT, clinical and speech service that a child needs.   Baltimore City currently spends $15,483 for its children with no special needs.  The new budget is spending an average of $23,166 per child with special needs.  So why is the non-public placement the better deal?  Even without looking at the quality of service provided, Maryland will reimburse Baltimore City approximately 50% of its non-public cost.  That reimbursement would bring the cost of The Harbour School to Baltimore City down to $19,725 not too much more than the cost of educating a plain student.  And most people agree that The Harbour School delivers a top-notch program.  
Take away all of the financial matters.  What is most offensive about this article is the implication that somehow educating children with special needs is not worth the additional cost.   It costs more to educate a high school student than it does to educate an elementary student, but no one is suggesting we are "over identifying"  the number of students we allow to go to high school.
Making sure children with disabilities receive an appropriate education program to meet their needs is cost-effective in the long run.  It is also the right thing to do and IT’S THE LAW.   

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Really? Really!

Really?  Really!

There was not a great deal of snow this winter but there were a great number of snow days.  So many days that several school systems had to ask permission of the State Board of Education to either forgive the 180-day school year requirement or extend the school year beyond the original closing date and busting the Governor’s directive to end school by June 15.
For the most part, the State Board did not forgive the 180-school day requirement and allowed systems to end school after June 15.   There was one notable exception.   The high school students in Baltimore County, Maryland attend school eight hours less a school year than any other school district in Maryland.  The State School Board ruled that the county’s high schoolers won’t have to make up the eight hours of instructional time they lost this year because of bad weather, on the condition that the county rework its high school schedule to lengthen the time students are in school each school day.  Without the waiver, the school system will need to extend the high school year by one full day.
However, the county cannot do this without negotiating with the teachers' union.  
The union has decided to play hard ball on the issue.
The union is saying that they will not work an extra 8 hours unless they are paid for that time.  And to further complicate the situation, the union insists that all teachers be paid the same with the same credentials and years of experience.  So not only would the county have to pay the high school teachers for those eight hours of time it would also have to pay elementary and middle school teachers as well.
Here is another take on the situation.  All these years the high school teachers have been working eight hours a year less than the elementary and middle school teachers but have been paid the same amount of money.   Since the union is asking that all teachers be paid more for the extra eight hours the high school teachers will work, how about those high school teachers paying the county back for all those years they were paid for hours they DIDN’T work.  If the union does not agree to a settlement all high school teachers will need to work another day at the end of the school year.
To top it off, all teachers in the system work a seven-hour day, unlike the rest of us who work eight hours.  Even with the extended day to make up the extra eight hours, teachers would still be in the school building no longer than the required seven hours. The average teacher’s salary in Baltimore County is $60,497, which is 29% above the national average for teachers and about $18,000 more than the average salary of teachers who are striking in states around the country.  They work seven hours a day for about 195 days for that money.   
After all these benefits- the union expects the county taxpayers to cough up more money for ALL teachers.   Really!  Really? Say it ain’t so 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Lying or Stealing-Which is worse?

Lying or Stealing – which is worse?

OK, neither on is something you look for in a leader.  But it seems we have it anyway.  Recently the superintendent of one of the largest school districts in the country was found guilty of lying on an ethics report about $146,000 he received as part of an outside consultant job.  As part of the deal with the outside company, he guaranteed that the school district would purchase large quantities of technology.  The man acknowledged his guilt and was sentenced to six months in the county detention center and two years of probation.  He is relatively young and his career is probably ruined.
Then there are other ways students are cheated and their futures stolen. It happens mostly in school systems where students are struggling to achieve academically and parents and taxpayers are demanding more for their investments.  They want to see higher graduation rates and higher grades.   So school systems are delivering both.  They are doing this by operating a shadow school system.  How does this work?   As the end of the school year approaches, kids discover that the courses in which they thought they were failing, now they are not. Magically grades have increased as students are asked to do minor projects which advance their grades. These events happen most often in high schools where the pressure for on-time graduation in four years is huge. So kids who have missed up to a third of the school year are still able to pass the course, gain the credit and graduate from high school “on time”.
Shadow school systems don’t just promote and graduate students who have barely attended school or not been proficient in the content.   These school systems offer courses that are a mere “shadow” of the real thing.  So transcripts show that a student has completed algebra 1 when in fact the content of that course was basic arithmetic because that is all the child is capable of doing.    One school system is now requiring that all graduates have a course in physics and chemistry.  Physics demands higher order math skills to address the content and to master the concepts. Yet the kids in that school district do not even earn basic scores in math on the standardized tests!   How are they going to master the concepts required of physics or chemistry?!   Not to worry, the transcript will show the credit.   It will not be until these kids get to college that they will find themselves completely unprepared to move on.  These school systems are stealing kids’ futures.  They are telling the kids and their parents that their children have earned credits in coursework they are lightyears away from mastering.   The administrators of these school systems get to brag about the higher standards they have implemented.   They get to tout the huge increases in graduation rates.  All the while stealing the students’ futures.   These administrators will not be brought to trial for their theft and they will not serve jail time.
Lying on an ethics form and steering purchases towards a particular company or stealing a child’s future by lying on a transcript- which is worse? Lying or stealing a future- you decide.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

When Enough is Enough

When is enough enough?

Go back a few years and teacher strikes happened fairly regularly, usually in one district at a time.   Then they pretty much stopped.  There was the Great Recession and everyone was happy to have a job, even a relatively low paying one.  But the recession ended.   Economies brought on by the recession began to ease as well.   Teachers’ salaries increased.  In Maryland, the average teacher’s salary is about $65,000, not bad at all for working 190 days a year.   Maryland is one of the wealthiest states in the country and school systems are sharing that wealth with teachers.
However, while all may be well in Mary Land, all is not well in other parts of the country.   Money for education in Oklahoma has been so reduced that many school districts are only open for 4 days a week.   Arizona, Kentucky and West Virginia have also not shared the better economy with their teaching staff.   Then there is the pending Supreme Court decision testing whether teachers’ unions can have a closed shop that required everyone to pay dues or a maintenance fee to the union.   With a 9thmember of the Court being a conservative, it is not looking too good for the unions.
So, what to do?
The revolution has begun.  It started in West Virginia.   The difference between this walkout and previous strikes is that the entire state was involved.  After several weeks of closed schools throughout the state, the legislature caved and teachers were giving a 5% raise across the board.
Then Oklahoma took up the call.   Oklahoma teachers didn’t just want more money for themselves, they wanted more teachers for smaller classes and newer and better teaching materials. The legislature gave the teachers a raise.  They said that wouldn’t be enough, the teachers wanted the other improvements for the students.  The legislature said “hell no”.   The union said fine, we are staying home.   Soon the Governor decided to grant the teachers what they wanted.  He soothed the legislature by assuring it that the improved economy would take care of the increased cost without a tax increase. We will see but the union got what it wanted.
Now Kentucky and Arizona have joined the fray.
What is going on here?   
It really is quite simple.  This is just another example of big talk- we care about our kids and the education they get, followed by little to no action to back up the talk.   OPUD- over promised, under delivered.  Everyone is thinking that the expected Supreme Court decision is going to bust the unions.   But these teachers are saying enough is enough.   Guess they aren’t quite busted yet.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Barking up the wrong tree

Barking up the wrong tree

The school shootings in Florida and the one recently much closer to home in Southern Maryland were terrible events and have brought the fear of school invasion to a new level.   The Maryland State Legislature just completed its 2018 session and is requiring every school district to have school resource officers (or an affiliation with the sheriff’s office ) in every school.  Don’t be confused, a school resource officer (SRO) is a person with a gun in a school.   The idea is that this one person with one gun will protect and defend our children from an armed invader.   We know two things about this situation.  The first thing we know, sadly, is that the SRO may choose not to risk his/her own life by confronting the invader.  We saw that in the Florida invasion.   The second, and perhaps more important thing we know, is that school invaders are kids with a grudge against the school or are upset about a personal relationship.
School invasions go back to the 1800’s.  Better news media and social media make us all know about them more quickly now.  Columbine was the first school shooting incident that gained traction in the national news in recent time.  After the Columbine shooting, I asked our students if they were afraid.  To a student they said no, because our teachers care about us.   The root cause of that shooting was the same as all of the subsequent shootings, the perpetrator felt alienated from the school or felt to be unknown by the school.
So we have a pretty good idea of what turns otherwise fairly typical kids into people intent on destroying other people.  It is not clear to me how throwing more money into armed guards is going to fix the problem.
There are about 132,000 schools in the United States.  That means a student in a public school has about a .01% chance of being in a school with an invader.   Thirty-three thousand of those schools are private.   As of the end of 2017, private schools have been spared the horror of any large scale shooting.  I think there is a clear reason for this difference.  It is simple to me.   Private school students are known to their teachers.  The schools are much smaller.  Kids are not numbers; they are faces with names and interests.  Teachers ask about family members and family events. That just doesn't happen in secondary public schools and not in many elementary schools.
School districts in Maryland will be spending millions of dollars to hire, train and equip armed SRO’s.  One or maybe two of these people will be guarding high schools with 2,700 or more students.   How much better it would be if these millions could be spent on more clinicians who had the time and interest to care about and talk to kids.  People who wanted to give these kids an identity within the school.   People who were not wasting their skills pushing test scores around.   We need to spend those dollars on saving kids not shooting at possible invaders. And let us hope, that if we get all these new SRO’s and a shooter does come into the school, those 1-2 people won’t be off somewhere barking up the wrong tree.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The "Can't do it" trap

The “Can’t Do it “ Trap

There are lots of things students can’t do.   They can’t fly; they can’t leap tall buildings at a single bound; and they don’t have x-ray vision.  They probably won’t be professional athletes or win an academy award for acting. Those are all low probability events.
And there are lots more things that they can’t do NOW but might be able to do with fine, fine teaching unless we allow ourselves to fall into the “can’t do” trap.  Everyone has seen that trap.   It is lying in wait for everyone who teaches children with disabilities, poor kids or students with unstable home situations.   Those traps are waiting for each and every teacher who needs an excuse for why her teaching has failed.  It is very easy to just glide right into that trap.   As the saying goes, “when you are deep in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging”.  So here are some ways to avoid all those excuse making traps.
Give ‘em some love.   There are people who will tell you that you should not get emotionally involved with your students.   My advice is, if you aren’t emotionally involved with your kids, get out of the profession.   Many students of poverty, dysfunctional homes and/or with disabilities that make them feel they are a disappointment to others, need love.  So tell your students you love them and care about them. Trying to learn is a risk taking behavior.   Children are much more likely to take that risk with someone they believe cares about them and wants the best for them.  They also need to feel that it is safe to fail.   They need to know that they will not be humiliated and that the teacher’s love and caring will provide a very soft landing if at first they do not succeed.  So tell your students you care about them early and often.
Students need teachers.   They don’t need pity for their circumstances nor do they need teachers to use those circumstances as an excuse for low expectations.   We already know what the child’s yesterday looked like.   We can teach to the child in the present and through that teaching we can define what his/her tomorrow will be.  Think of every lesson as a stepping stone toward tomorrow and a positive future.  A child may not be able to read today, but with the proper instruction step-by-step she will be able to read tomorrow.  Teachers need to keep their eyes on tomorrow and build the stairway toward that tomorrow by starting with expectations today, not excuses for why-not.
Teachers need to be human with their kids and recognize that the students are human as well, young but human.  If we want the children to respect us we need to build relationships with them.  Talk to them (not preach).   Find out what their burdens are today.  Is someone sick at home?   Is someone home period?  Did a boy or a girlfriend reject them?   Are they in competition for affection with another peer or some adult in the home?  Share your own similar experiences. Let the kids know you respect their challenges and that you too are facing challenges.  Those connections will make it much easier for the teacher to discipline or be trusted by the student when the student is presented with challenging work.   Life is all about honest relationships.
Good leaders have a lot to do with avoiding the can't do traps.  Every teacher is a leader.  Leaders need to lead; you cannot blame the system or blame the student challenges.  If we don’t believe in our hearts that we can change these kids’ lives, we should have stopped digging a long time ago because we are deep in the hole.  “They can’t do it” trap is a deep hole.   We need to stop digging and start delivering the future for our students.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Should We Let Them?

Should We Let Them?

Last week students throughout the country demonstrated their concern and memory for the 17 students and educators who were killed at their high school in Florida.   The reactions to the question: “Should we let them?” were across the spectrum from “no, and there will be consequences if you do”, past benign neglect all the way to the other end where administrators facilitated the event and faculty participated with students.
My first reaction was why the question was even asked.    Many years ago the Supreme Court made clear that students do not leave their first amendment rights at the school house door unless the demonstration of those rights would disrupt the education of others.
Of course, the supporters of “there will be consequences” immediately jumped on the disruption factor.   Yet in school systems that either allowed but did not facilitate and in school systems that facilitated and participated there were no disruptions.   The students and their supports walked out of class for 17 minutes, mostly stood in silence with heads bowed, then reentered their schools.   In some communities, students had assemblies and discussions on the event and their very strong feelings that they did not want this tragedy to touch their school and what could be done to prevent that.
We have universal education at public expense in our country.   We even limit the liberty of children between 5 and 16 (mostly although the end limit varies) to do anything but attend school.   It is expensive so there must have been a good reason for this requirement.
Although it is often forgotten, the reason was that as suffrage expanded we needed an educated electorate to make these elections work.  The need to train workers for the economy is a relatively recent reason to fund public education.
If we go back to our roots in public education, we still need an educated electorate.   Our students need more education in civics than they need chemistry or trigonometry.  The students who left their classrooms last week were not only speaking out for their cause but they were demonstrating an understanding of how a democracy works.  I found it particularly confusing that the advocates for punitive consequences for the students leaving school for 17 minutes and, thereby, disrupting their education was to promise that they would be suspended for a day causing their education to be further disrupted.   Where is the consistent value here?

We have no business asking the question should we let them.   Our job as educators is to not only “let” them but to encourage them to think more about their values as citizens in a democracy and how those values will be played out by their civic activism and their voting record.   The children of the 1950’s were repeatedly reprimanded for being the apathetic generation.   Now our children are no longer apathetic.   They want to take up the discussion and make change.   And we have the nerve to ask the question- Should we let them?  

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Shoot 'Em Up

Shoot ‘Em Up
There are dumb ideas and then there are really stupid ideas.   The notion to arm teachers in the wake of the most recent school invader shooting certainly ranks as a really stupid idea.
What are these people thinking!?  There are so many reasons this idea is so bad that it is hard to begin.
Let’s begin at the beginning.   The solution to the problem of a violent, probably mentally ill person in a school is to provide more armed people with guns in a school.   Has it ever occurred to people that there are some teachers who also may have mental health issues?   But Trump says some teachers might have a knack for guns and those teachers should be trained and, perhaps, even given a bonus for being willing to be armed.
A teacher’s first job is to teach children.    However, we already know that a number of children find their parents’ guns and use those guns to create harm either intentionally or unintentionally.   How will we protect students and staff from some students finding the teachers’ guns and using them to settle a school argument.   What will happen to a teacher’s gun when she/he goes home from school?  That gun will go home with the teacher.  Now we have a significant increase in the number of homes with guns.   Not a good idea.
Then there is the faith that a teacher trained to use guns will demonstrate that training in skilled way if the school is invaded.   The teacher, in the heat of the crisis, will be able to distinguish the intruder from the plain clothes resource officer who may be in the area, also with a gun who may be shooting.   The teacher will get a straight shot at the invader.  The invader will stand still so the teacher can take a good shot and the students will all move out of the way so they are not hit by a stray bullet.   The entire scene will freeze in time to allow this marginally trained teacher to be calm in the moment using the pistol to fire in the direction of the automatic rifle that is being fired.   Really!!   What fantasy island do you live on!
Our solution to the problem of violence is to create the opportunities for more violence.   A person may be a straight shooter but that is not straight thinking.
Our society has become increasingly violent.  Many reasons for this violence have been advanced.   Media in the form of games, movies and popular music have exposed us to increasing amounts of violence so that our threshold for outrage keeps getting higher.  Mental health treatment gets minimal attention in our health care system.  School are becoming bigger and bigger so kids aren’t known to teachers as feeling people but rather as potential test scores that could raise or lower a teacher’s rating.  It is no wonder some kids feel alienated from the very group whose attention and caring they want.

The United States already has the largest number of guns per capita among first world nations. There are approximately 50 million children in our public schools.   Tragically 200 of them have been killed by armed invaders.   Giving more guns to more people, particularly teachers, solves nothing.  It just gives people more opportunity to shoot ‘em up.