Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Take time to get to know me

Take the time to get to know me

Yesterday I got in trouble because I did not do my homework.   Last night when I was supposed to be doing homework, my parents were fighting again.   My father said he was going to leave us.  My mother told him to go.  If my father leaves how will we live?  My mother does not have a job.  Please take the time to get to know me.

I am the girl in the second row.  I am not pretty and I don’t have a good body.  I am 14.  The other girls in my grade have boyfriends.  Boys don’t look at me and I know it is because I am not pretty.   I really want a boyfriend.  I could have a boyfriend if I let boys do some things with me.  I don’t want to do that.  Sometimes I get into trouble because I am sending notes to boys.  Please take the time to get to know me.

My parents are very smart.  They both have really good jobs but the jobs keep them very busy.  They don’t have a lot of time for me and my little brother.  We have a nanny to look after us.  When I get in trouble in school, you make my parents come to school for a meeting.  When I am in trouble in school, I get attention from my parents not the nanny.   Please take the time to get to know me.

I live with my mom and my brother and sister.  There are three of us and my mom.  We don’t have much money.  My mom loves us very much and she works long hours to make enough money for us to have food, a house, clothes and other stuff.  Sometimes our house is crazy.  It is hard for my mom to remember to sign all the forms from school.  It is hard for her to get off work to come to school meetings.  This makes you annoyed.  Please take the time to get to know me.

My parents love me very much.   I have a younger sister.   She is very smart.  She is smarter than I am.  She can do things already that I still don’t know how to do.  I try very hard but I have special learning needs and they make me have trouble learning.  I am way behind other kids my age.  My parents say I need to work hard and I will catch up.  I don’t think I will.  My parents love me but I think my special learning needs embarrass them.  They don’t talk about me to our family the way they talk about my sister.  Please take the time to get to know me.

I am the kid in your class that seems uncooperative.  I am the kid who does not do homework or bring in permission slips.   I am the kid who causes you a lot of extra trouble when you are just trying to do your job and teach your class.  There are things in the rest of my life that I wish you could understand.  Please take the time to get to know me in this new year.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Learning the hard way

Learning the hard way

Americans are learning about government the hard way.  The impeachment of an American president is about to happen for only the 3rd time in our nation’s history.  Unfortunately, this is a very tough way for people to learn civics.
Turns out that Americans know very little about their government and about how it is organized and conducted.
It is really frightening.   Twenty-one percent of the people surveyed  recently could not name all three branches of government.  I am not talking about the people who are leading those branches; I am talking about just the generic name for the branch.   Foreign born people who wish to become U.S. citizens need to take a test on US history and government.  Ninety-one percent of the people taking the test pass it.  When the same test was given to native-born citizens, the majority of people taking the test in EVERY state failed it, with the exception of Vermont.  You go VERMONT!   Anecdotally, people in other countries know more about our history than our own citizens do.
And the situation is not any better in higher ed.  Should you desire, a student can get a bachelor’s degree from any college in our country without ever having to take a course in American history.  AND, in 80% of the colleges and universities you can major in history and still avoid taking a course in American history.  
Yet we expect people to vote and to make wise decisions on who is going to lead our country and on what direction we will be taken. Sometimes I think it is just as well that only about 37% of Americans vote since so many people do not know enough to make an informed decision.  Donald Trump regularly complains about fake news.  How are citizens even able to recognize what is fake or not in the news if they have so little knowledge about the history and current events of our own country.  
STEM skills are very important and they can even lead to high paying jobs.   Being an informed citizen in a democracy is also very important.  Without that informed body of citizens there won’t be those good jobs down the road because our country will be misled and there will not be informed voters to turn it around.
Our country’s history is our country’s story.  Like any story, it can be well told or not.  We have a responsibility to our children to make sure that our history is a well told story.  As Shakespeare said, “what’s past is prologue.”  And anyone not knowing our history could be stuck in a Groundhog Day and learning the hard way.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

False Promises

False Promises

The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) promises families choices if they believe the school has failed to provide the required free appropriate education at public expense.   Families have been told that they and their children will have the right of due process in fighting back against what they believe to be an inappropriate placement. 
Turns out that in practice, not all kids are getting those benefits.  Race and income level play a significant part in the question of “who benefits?”.
The nonpartisan investigation arm of Congress analyzed the data from five states (Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania) for the 2017-18 school year.  School districts in high-income areas were four times more likely to have at least one due process mediation as compared to less affluent areas.  Correspondingly, school districts with lower income families had many fewer due process claims.
There were multiple factors that led to these differences.  Obviously, lower income families did not have the funds for lawyers and expert witnesses.  A number of years ago, Congress passed legislation that requires school districts to pay the cost of a family’s attorney if they prevail at a hearing.  However, that does not include the cost for expert witnesses nor does it help a family put out the money in advance.  Given the limited success rate of families since the make-up of the hearing boards has changed, few attorneys are willing to accept these cases on contingency.  Add to the cost factor, the limited opportunity to take time off from work for lower income families and you can see why due process is not seen as a resort.
One U.S. Representative from Virginia has called the results of this investigation a “wake up” call saying that the civil rights provided to children under IDEA are not equally accessible to all students.  Of course, he is correct.  But since IDEA (and EHA before it), school districts have been hard at work to limit these rights.   Families initially did not need to be represented by attorneys.  They could be represented by lower cost child advocates.  That changed as school districts hired high powered attorneys to represent the school district.   Early on families won 90% of the hearings.  Hearing officers were, at that time, required to be knowledgeable in the areas of the child’s disability.  That too changed when court masters, with little to no knowledge, of children with special needs and/or what their educational needs were replaced the educational professionals as hearing officers.  To add to the insult, these masters were trained by the very boards of education who were appearing before the master.  Now families prevail in about 5% of the cases.
Read IDEA, the promises will warm your heart.   Sad to say, they are false.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

You've Got to be Carefully Taught

You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught

That’s a line from the old musical, South Pacific.  The rest of it is… “to hate and fear, it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, to hate all the people your relatives hate, you’ve got to be carefully taught.”   Turns out we aren’t teaching enough of anything and what kids are learning by omission because we aren’t teaching is that difference is bad, that is why we don’t talk about it.
Sesame Workshop did a broad range survey of over 6,000 parents of children ages three through twelve and over 1,000 teachers from pre-school to fifth grade.  Parents aren’t talking and kids are noticing.  They notice that people with certain skin tones live in places that are the same or different from their own.  They notice how people like them are featured in social media, the movies or TV.   They see lots of advertising.
The findings of the survey were interesting.  Only 10% of families discuss race with their children.  Does that mean if we don’t talk about something it won’t impact us?   Minority parents seem to be more on the job than majority families, but still not enough.   Twenty-two percent of black parents discuss race with their children but only 6% of white families do; and nearly 35% of all families say they never talk about race or social class with their children.  Fifty-seven percent of families say they never or rarely talk about gender with their kids.
These conversations aren’t happening in school either.  Although the majority of teachers say they would be comfortable talking about these topics, less than half think it is appropriate for them to be doing so!
We used to think we couldn’t do sex ed in schools because that would make kids sexually active.  Then we realized that hormones more than talk made kids sexually active and that failing to discuss sex just made it more intriguing.
Now families and teachers are saying talking about race will make kids more race conscious and even racist.   Turns out that is wrong too.  Research shows that by 3 months of age, babies begin to show preference for their own racial group.  I would be interested in knowing if that is the racial group of the caregiver and what happens when the caregiver is of a different racial group than the child or if the parents are of two different races.
Researchers recommend that we start early discussing differences in skin tone and that normal is really a statistical word meaning most prevalent not necessarily preferred.  Families should be open about privilege both racial and socio economic.  Failure to show diversity in ads, on TV or in movies should be pointed out to children and kids should be told that these depictions do not represent reality.
When we demonstrate by our behavior that certain topics are taboo, we are sending a clear message that these topics need to be hidden.  Turns out there are many ways to carefully teach kids to hate and fear.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

So, What About the N word

So, What about the N Word?

Two kids are jostling in the hall.   One is calling the other kid the N word.    Does your reaction matter if both kids are white?   How about black?   How about one or two of several races?   For some reason the racial mix of the group will make a difference to how people will react.   How do families, school people and folks in the community treat the word?
Is it profane and always unacceptable as a racist slur?   If so then the make-up of the group of kids in the above example does not matter.
Should schools have absolute policies where the use of the word is just not allowed, period, end of sentence.
The Madison Wisconsin school district made an absolute rule.    The word was not to be used, no way, no how.   If staff used the word that staff member would be fired.   A school security guard who had been with the system for 17 years, was called the N word by a student.   The guard, who is African American, responded by saying to the student, “Do not call me a ‘nigger’.   That is not who I am.”   The guard was terminated!    Within in days, there were demonstrations, complaints, letter campaigns.  He was rehired.   Prior to the word being forbidden to be used by anyone, that event would have been followed up by a meeting in the principal’s office where the seriousness of the situation would be explained to the student, there would be a mediation and end with a handshake or a hug, and hopefully some education.
Managing the use of the N word is just one instance in which schools (and families) have shown their unwillingness to wade into the difficult discussions of bigotry around racist words.   While it may be true that this current political atmosphere has given license to the use of bigoted language and behavior, these problems have been beneath the surface for as long as we have had a country.   Outlawing the use of any profane word doesn’t solve the problem of why it is being used.  We just drive folks back into their hole in the ground.
We need to teach our kids empathy.   As the Native American proverb, do not criticize until you have walked a mile in someone else’s shoes.    Our students need to be taught the reasons why bigoted words are bad, and about the psychic damage they can do to the recipient of these words.  Then we can move on to conversations about how much alike we are and stop emphasizing how different we are.
Banning the N word, or any other bigoted racist word is really easy.   What is hard is trying to figure out why people want to use that word at all!

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

They Don't Notice Me When I'm Sad

They Don’t Notice Me When I’m Sad

Why do we have kids killing other kids by opening fire in a cafeteria or classroom?  Why is teen suicide one of the highest causes of student deaths in our country?   Why are students in our schools using profanity for everyday chats, posting sexual videos on SnapChat or texting sexually explicit photos and videos.   Maybe it is because “They don’t notice me when I’m sad”.
The high school student who wrote this sentence as part of a plea for his public school IEP committee to send him back to The Harbour School, a non-public special school for children with disabilities was desperate and accurate in his concerns about the public school.   The high school in question is widely considered one of the 2-3 best in the school district.   Its students are “good kids” from “good families”.   The student parking lot is filled with late model nice vehicles.  Yet here is the critique from a student.
“When the teachers are teaching, I can’t understand what they are saying because they are going too fast.  Whenever I tell the teachers that something is bothering me they rarely solve the problem or do nothing at all.”   Unfortunately, the teachers have a schedule to keep.  They cannot slow down or postpone progress.   The school pacing guides are designed so that all of the material will be covered by the time the school schedule dictates the state tests will be held.  “They don’t notice me when I’m sad”.
“The students are disruptive and I think they aren’t following the school rules.  They are swearing a lot and I don’t like the way the girls are dressed.  They wear clothes that expose body parts, it makes me feel disgusted.”  I am sure that swearing and dressing inappropriately are contrary to the school behavior code and to the dress code.   The problem is neither of these guides has any meaning at all unless school personnel enforce them.   So why don’t they?  There are multiple reasons.   People just don’t want the aggravation that goes with enforcing school discipline.  Parents will show up and support the misbehavior of the student and blame the teacher.  Teachers will be accused of being culturally insensitive, so why bother.  It used to be if a teacher had to call out a student for any behavior, the student knew that there would be another price to pay once he or she got home.   Not anymore.  Now the family is as likely to take the student’s side as not, because frankly, enforcing discipline is hard and there is going to be push back and, well, families just don’t have the time.  “They don’t notice me when I’m sad.”
“The kids make me feel like they are all above me.   I don’t feel safe and I feel like I don’t belong here.   I feel bad for the kid from my media production class, the kid who committed suicide.  I think he felt what I am feeling here overwhelmed, disappointed and frightened”
Violence is becoming endemic in our schools.    Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among adolescents in the U.S.  Maybe it is time we noticed when our kids feel sad.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Get the Lead Out

Get the Lead Out

Most of us have read about the lead in Flint Michigan schools when the city decided to save money by switching its water source from one of the Great Lakes to a local source that allowed lead to leach into the city’s water supply.   The full extent of the damage to Flint children is still not known.
Here is what is known.   Four years after the crisis was discovered, one in five students in Flint public schools is eligible for special education. The Superintendent has stated that 28% of Flint students have disabilities that warrant an IEP.   That is more than double the national average.  The school system is buckling under the cost of providing services and meeting federal requirements for children with disabilities.
While Flint may be best known of cities with lead in the drinking water, it is not alone.  Many other urban areas are using water facilities with lead pipes that are old and leaching into drinking water.   The situation may foreshadow issues that will be showing up in other older urban areas.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the Education Law Center and the New York-based firm of Case & White have joined to represent Flint families suing the school system, the Michigan State Department of Education and the Genesee County Intermediate School District alleging failure to meet the needs of special education students.  Families with the resources to do so, have moved out of town. Leaving behind people who are disproportionately poor and in need of support services.  The district is unable to recruit and retain special education teachers.   It has resorted to using long term substitutes just to put a body in the classroom.  As many as 25% of the classrooms are staffed with temporary people.  It is going to take a great deal more money to provide these children with an appropriate education but the fact remains, all of the education in the world isn’t going to fix the cognitive damage to these children who will become cognitively damaged adults, more dependent on taxpayer support. 
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 98,000 public schools and half-million child care facilities are NOT regulated as to the amount of lead in the water.  In fact, there is no federal policy that mandates lead testing in schools.   Maryland has recently required all public-funded schools to submit water samples from multiple drinking fountains and faucets throughout the school.  The state health department is evaluating the samples for lead levels shutting down those water supply areas that don’t pass the test.  In Baltimore City, multiple schools provide bottled water to students because the fountains are unsafe.  Get the lead out means more than get moving.  We need to get moving before more kids are brain damaged by our neglect.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Let's DO something with all that money

Let's DO something with all that money

Lots of chatter about the Kirwan Commission and how much money it will cost, how much good it will do and whether or not we can afford it.  Let’s get rid of the first bug-a-boo, whether or not we can afford it.   Maryland is one of the richest states in the country with, by some surveys, the highest per capita income in the country.   The more relevant question is should we afford it.  Is this the best use of billions!, yes with a B, of dollars.   Just because we can afford it does not mean we should afford it.
The results are in for the national testing of reading and math.  Once again Maryland’s results are down.    Of course, the advocates for Kirwan were all over it, proving without a doubt the necessity of funding Kirwan.  What is odd about this conclusion is that the test scores used to be higher and the funding was much lower.  Seems to me that could be an argument for lowering funding LOL.
I am not advocating for that, but I do not think the expenditure of the money Kirwan is recommending is going to improve education, yet alone test scores.
Kirwan recommends spending more money on teachers’ salaries, bringing starting salaries to 60K.   Maryland already has one of the largest median salaries for teachers in the nation.    There has never been any evidence that paying a bad teacher or a mediocre teacher more money will make her an excellent teacher.   Yet we keep insisting on doing that.    The elephant in the room is the union.  No one wants to admit in this union addicted state that it is the union which assures that weak teachers get to stay on the job.    And it also assures that there can be no differentiation of staffing so everyone is a teacher or an administrator.
If we are going to spend this kind of money on education then let’s do something dramatic and bold.   Let's dramatically re-align and re-assign what the people in school buildings do.   Let's raise the salaries of the stars, lower the salaries of the bottom of the barrel and use any money we save to hire social workers and community workers.  Let's help teenage and lower socio-economic mothers learn how to parent.  Let's have school libraries open into the evening for family activities and food.  Let's put school employed community action workers into the community to help parents enrich the experiences of kids and teach everyone the value of an education.   A parent cannot read to his/her child if he or she can't read or if he or she is working two or three jobs just to survive.  Schools do not exist in a bubble.
The so-called “Independent Oversight Board” is just another expensive way to layer bureaucracy on top of bureaucracy.   If the Board is needed because MSDE and the State Board of Education are not doing their jobs, then fix that.   Don’t just add another layer so no one knows who is in charge and the dance of the lemons can just dance to a faster beat.  A chunk of money will be paid to the members of the Board, plus, of course, they will need physical facilities and support staff that take more money.  
The education system is limping along.   Throwing money at it will not fix the problems.   Nor will the contradictory approaches of paying teachers more (supposedly to increase the attractiveness of the profession) and making it more difficult to get into the profession so there will be better teachers. 
With the kind of money Kirwan wants the citizens of Maryland to spend, Maryland could actually create a new and exciting system instead of throwing money at trying to patch this one.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Wouldn't it be great to be a kid again?

Wouldn’t It Be Great to Be a Kid again?

Hmmm, if you are a kid, the answer is probably not so much.  It seems grownups have only minimal knowledge of what kids are feeling and experiencing.   Some recent research indicates some things that kids wish their parents and teachers knew about them.
Most kids are already really trying hard.  They want to please the grownups that surround them.  So telling kids to try harder or practice more and they will get it- whatever the it is- piano, reading or math.  Well that really doesn’t help much.  And telling kids to just try harder just adds to their frustration and, truthfully, it makes them angry.
Grownups think they know the kids.  Well the kids know us too.  They can tell by our facial expressions, our body language and our response time to events.  They want us to be happy.  And when they think we are not, they are concerned that somehow they had something to do with it.  If an adult is in a bad mood, it probably wouldn’t hurt to let the child/student know that your mood has nothing to do with them and that you still love/care about them.  Because kids worry that they caused the bad mood and you won't love them any more.
Kids, like adults, want to be trusted.   They want our first, second and maybe third response be that we believe what they tell us about an event.  So when something breaks and a kid says he didn’t do it, believe him until you are sure that there is another cause for the issue.   And maybe it really was just a plain accident just like adults accidently break a glass even when they are “being careful”.
Last week I saw a sign, it said, “I wish you would stop texting me every half hour, I told you I would be five minutes late.”.  Ok, pretty funny.  But kids experience that kind of dishonesty all the time and they wish we would just tell them the truth.   If you are going to be a no-show and you already know that, tell them the truth.  Don’t put them off for an hour or whatever and then announce you aren’t coming.  Ditto about someplace you promised to take them.  If it is not happening, let them know when you know.
Kids know when adults are hypocrites.   Grownups are all over them for too much time spent on electronics.  But have you ever watched adults at dinner in a restaurant?   How many of them have their phones out when they are supposed to be enjoying the company of their companion at the table.  Yet we give kids grief for doing the same thing.  Set a standard and stick to it.  It is fine for kids to have a different standard from adults, but they need to have some leeway as well.
We all want to give our kids multiple opportunities to do everything.  But what adult doesn’t treasure a free weekend morning or evening when nothing is scheduled?   Kids are often not in control of their own lives.   It is one of the worst things about being a kid.  In our rush to give children a broad life experience we don’t often realize that kids need “me time” as well as grownups do and may just need some time to just “be”.   Let’s let them have that.
I always think that the true sign of love is when someone loves you just as you are without the footnote.  As in, I love you if only… and there it comes.  If only, you would lose a few pounds, if only you would work out more, if only, you would dress better.  You get the drill and so do the kids.   There used to be a time when we taught elementary teachers to get unruly kids to behave by saying, “I like how Tania took out her book and is ready to work.”.   That is supposed to send a message to the kids who are not ready to work that they should be like Tania.  Siblings are different from each other even if raised in the same house and even when they share the same biological parents.   Yet sure enough, one kid will be the model for the others.  One of the worst things we say to kids is, “why can’t you be like …?”   Well maybe it is because he or she isn’t that other child.  Children, just like adults, want to be loved and valued for who they are, just as they are.  We need to value them for who they are, just as we want to be valued the same way.
Adults often have the language and the power to speak up when these kinds of things happen to them. Children don’t.   We need to listen to what they are saying with their facial expressions, their behavior, and, yes, their words.   It really isn’t all that hot to be a kid again.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

What do principals think of parents?

So parents what does your principal think of you?

Probably not surprising that principals have names for parents and they aren’t always sugar and spice.   Education Weekly did an extensive survey of principals to ask them what they thought.  Principals walk a tightrope between staff and families.   If they are seen as caving in to families too often by staff, they will have a really tough time of running the school without staff support.   On the other hand, if they don’t provide the attention and understanding that families want there will be complaints to the upper reaches of administration.   So they must learn to walk the tightrope and avoid the squeeze play.
Based on the survey, principals use about seven different groupings for parents.
There are the “lawnmower” or “snowplow” parents.   These are people who are generally unhappy with previous experiences and come in with both guns blazing.   They are going to make sure that their child has only positive experiences.   They want the child to only experience success and avoid disappointment at all costs.   This attitude upsets principals and staff mainly because it does not prepare the child for what life will be as an adult.
The “helicopter” parent wants to watch over every phase of the child’s life.  They are a lot like the lawnmower parent except that these parents want to be involved in every minute aspect of the child’s life be it academic or social.   School folks worry that the child is not going to be prepared to problem solve on his/her own when life gets complicated as we know it will.
Tiger parents are often associated with Asian parents because of the book written called Tiger Mother.  But in fact any ethnic group can produce Tiger parents.   These parents have a very authoritarian style and demand high achievement from their children in all aspects of school life- academics, sports, music, or extra-curricular activities.   Teachers are concerned that the children will feel like failures because it is virtually impossible for any child to excel in every activity.
The Elephant parent is very nurturing.  They want the child to be happy and protected.   They place a very high value on encouragement and empathy to the extent that the child seldom experiences failure.   One of the most important adult skills is resilience to failure.  Learning to pick yourself up after a flop and move on.  Kids with Elephant parents don’t get to have the chance to do this very much so they lose a valuable adult skill.
Jellyfish parents are just that, jellyfish.   They have few rules or regulations for their kids whether it is because they believe kids should not be required to follow rules or because they do not want to exert the effort to teach those rules.  Often these children are overindulged and do not learn that life will have rules that they will need to follow.
Dolphin parents are the good guys.  They are firm but flexible.  They strive for balance in rule enforcement and they do have expectations for appropriate behavior.  They nurture creativity and independence in their children.   These youngsters are learning lessons that will best prepare them for adulthood.
The Free-Range parent is quick to say that their goal is to allow their children to become independent and self-reliant so they have few rules and expect their kids to learn from experience.   The problem with this parenting style is that younger children don’t have the experience or the cognitive maturity to make these kinds of decisions.
While it is nice to be able to categorize families/parents, it is seldom accurate that a family is exclusively one type of another.   One of the things that occurred to me is that we could probably use these same categories to sort principals in terms of how they respond to monitoring and mentoring teachers.
Might be interesting to do a survey to find out how parents categorize school staff.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Tell me again what test scores mean?

Tell me again what test scores measure?
There are lots of ways to measure how good a teacher is.   Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) all teachers were going to be evaluated based on the standardized test scores of their students.   This idea makes so little sense as to be ridiculous.  Yet state after state chased the money and began to link teacher evaluations to standardized test scores of students.   Now many, many states and school systems are rethinking the standard.
First of all, this requirement makes the assumption that there is a 1:1 correlation between teaching and learning by the student.  There are multiple reasons why kids don’t learn something.   Most obviously is the fact that the student may not have the ability to learn the material no matter how well it is taught.   Or there may be other aspects of the child’s life that are putting learning way down on the child’s priority list.  The child’s parents may be separating or fighting regularly.  The family may be suffering some economic trauma with income dramatically reduced.  A pet may be sick or has died.  A member of the family may be very ill.  When a child is experiencing life trauma, there isn’t much energy left over for learning.   Today, many schools have pacing guides that require the teacher to move on according to a pre-described schedule.  Teachers don’t have the luxury to go back and re-teach what the child has not learned.  Great teaching is wonderful and important but it can’t guarantee that the child will learn.  And some children need multiple exposures to the content before they learn it.
The idea was to use standardized tests as an independent measurement of what a child has learned.  Then teachers would be evaluated by this measurement.   The purpose was to move the measurement method to something more objective so that a principal wouldn’t rate a teacher highly because the principal liked the teacher or poorly is she didn't like the teacher.   Principals and school systems would need to use the objective test measure instead of some more subjective measures.   The fact is that standardized tests are not necessarily valid measures of what a child has learned.  They can measure what has been learned as measured by the test but as anyone who has ever been tested can tell you, much more was learned than was measured on the test. 
So how can good teaching be measured objectively if we insist that it be linked to learning.  Just maybe good teaching cannot be measured independently of each specific student. 
There is no teaching, good or bad, unless it is linked to learning.   And there is no such thing as the same model of teaching being “good” for all students.  What is perfect for some students is just the opposite for others.  Searching for an objective measure of good teaching is a fools’ errand.  Good teaching is very subjective.   Oh sure, there are guidelines and requirements for a good lesson or lesson plan.  These characteristics can easily be checked off by any evaluator.  But if you want to know what good teaching is, skip the test scores and just ask a couple of kids.  Their answers will be subjective and spot on.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

What If We met kids’ needs?

What if we met students's needs?

Students spend the better part of their youth in school. What would happen if we actually met their needs?    Instead it seems we are intent on meeting the needs of teachers, administrators and politicians.   Kids have a great need for verbal skills.  They need to be able to argue their position among friends and bullies.  As adults their ability to take and argue a position will be a critical work skill. 
Teachers want the students to stay on track so they can meet the demands of the pacing guide.  Too many discussions will slow down the schedule and no one will be happy with that except maybe the kids.  Principals need to make sure material is covered in time for the tests. 
Students need to know how to work in a multi-ethnic world.  That is the world they live in now and it will be even more so when they grow into adults.   Yet administrators and politicians are working very hard to design school catchment areas that are as ethnically homogeneous.   It is more politically expedient to do that but it is not in the best interests of the students.
Teenagers get to bed late.  High schools are scheduled to open the earliest of the three levels.  That makes the scheduling easier for the transportation folk.   It doesn’t seem to matter when teachers complain that kids are sleeping through the first two periods of the day.  
Young children need to play and move.   Through play they develop basic social skills.   Motor learning and movement is basic language.   Providing opportunities for group problem solving is not just a child skill it’s the basic negotiating skill of the adult world.   Social skills count as the basis of all other social learning.    But administrators are anxious to be able to tout their higher standards which for some reason means more academic learning and less play and motor/social learning.
And here’s a thought- maybe if schools met the needs of kids rather than adults there would be fewer behavioral problems.   Now there’s an idea!

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

What would happen if education were useful?

What would happen if education were useful?

How much of what we spend huge chunks of our lifetime and great amounts of money on is actually useful?   Of course I am speaking about formal education.   Public education costs take the lion’s share of local and state budgets.   The hours spent in school consume the bulk of our childhood.   What are we doing this for?
I am reminded of Frost’s poem about two roads diverged and he took the one less traveled by.  It is time to assess the road most travelled by and what are we gaining along that road.
The Kirwan Commission in Maryland has recommended dramatic increases in funding for education.  Much of the money is for increases in teacher salaries and the addition of pre-k and expansion of kindergarten.  For the last decade, we have become obsessed with increasing standards as measured by high stakes testing.  To my knowledge no one is evaluating the usefulness of the accumulation of all that knowledge.  And that is assuming that the students really store that knowledge once the testing is done.
Initially, public education was established so that the United States would have an educated electorate as we moved toward full suffrage for all citizens.   What is the point of education at public expense today?   We keep asking citizens to spend more and more money but we don’t seem to be evaluating the content of that expensive education.  Some of the most failing local school systems in Maryland spend the most money per pupil.  As I have said frequently, paying a bad teacher more money does not make that person a better teacher.  Although it does make the person a better paid bad teacher.
We are now requiring that all kids take algebra II in order to receive a high school diploma.  No one seems to need to explain why that is, except it increases standards- standards for what!?
Our kids need to be taught basic economics.  The last great recession made it clear that most citizens don’t recognize that a mortgage offer or a loan offer that seems too good to be true, probably is.   Our national credit card debt is on the rise again.   Do people know what they are paying for things when they add in the credit charges?   Do students know how much it really costs to live?   Adolescents dream of fancy cars and big houses but have not a clue about apartment rent or taxes.
Last year the Speaker of the House of Delegates in Maryland died.   He was the longest serving Speaker of the House.  There was lots of coverage in the local media.  A few weeks ago I asked students in a graduate level courses about the event. Not A Single Person in the Class knew what I was talking about!  These people are all college graduates working on an advanced degree.  We teach kids about algebra II, about settling of the colonies ad nauseum, and about physics.   Yet most graduates can’t write a grammatically correct sentence, understand enough civics to knowledgeably vote nor figure out their own financial situation.
Not sure we are getting our money’s worth for public education.  What would happen if education really were useful!

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Give me a ring?

Give me a ring?

Some schools are just saying no to cell phones.   They are seen as disruptive to the educational process.   Frustrated educators say they cannot compete with apps, text and games.   Some kids are sexting.  Educators say that allowing students to spend so much time on their devices is just feeding an addiction that would be better terminated.
The Grand Rapids Michigan school district has banned cell phones at any time during the school day, even at lunch.   The superintendent said kids are less anxious when not tied to their phones.  More than 30 schools and/or whole districts have implemented some sort of restrictions on cell phone usage in the last year and a half.  California has passed legislation that gives local districts discretion if they want to restrict or ban the use of cell phones.  Four other states have approached the issue with mixed results.  Arizona tried to pass legislation that would ban the use of electronic devices in the classroom unless allowed by an authorized educator.  The legislation failed.   Maine tried to adopt rules restricting the use of cellphones in the classroom, but allowing them in the front office.  This legislation also failed.  Maryland wanted to appoint a task force to study the issue and report back to the legislature.  That didn’t even get out of the gate.   Utah wanted to require individual school systems to develop a policy on the use of cell phones that would be submitted to the state department of education.  That, too, flopped.
Some teachers have asked administrators to restrict the use of cell phones.  But why is there so much push back?
The biggest push is from parents not the kids.   They want to be able to reach their children in case of an emergency.  Oddly, this is one of the big reasons some school safety experts do not want the students to have cell phones in school.  In case of a real emergency, school safety people say they want the students to be following staff directions and NOT looking at screens. Some parents highly resent that they cannot contact their children whenever they choose, emergency or not. When schools do implement cell restriction policies teacher say they are too difficult to monitor and take as much time away from instruction as the phones themselves.  They also say that the students are pretty adept at using the phones undercover.  
The most rational direction seems to come from the organization Common Sense.   The notion seems to be that cell phones are now an ubiquitous part of our lives.   We need to teach kids how to appropriately use them and to develop a plan not a ban.  Give me a ring when you figure that out.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Is Special Education Worth the Cost?

Is Special Education Worth the Cost?

Or as the saying goes, is the juice worth the squeeze?  Recently a talk show host suggested that the taxpayers were being taken to the cleaners with the high cost of special education and that the results were not worth the investment.  She used as her example of special education costs the per pupil costs for a special education center in Baltimore City.  She then compared their 4-year graduation rate with the graduation rate of other schools, including a high school for which students qualify by exam and grades.
Not sure whether to attack her logic first or her values.   Both are seriously flawed.
Let’s start with logic.   The very fact that these students are in a special school indicates that whatever their disabilities are, they are sufficiently severe that they cannot be accommodated in a general ed school.   This situation is all the more meaningful in an era of least restrictive environment where administrators do whatever they can to educate children with disabilities in a general education environment with plain kids.   When a system places a child in a public separate day school, that child has significant challenges.   Additionally, that school will also offer more robust staffing for related services such as speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and clinical services.   Parent counseling may also be an option.   These services cost money!  This talk show host was clearly logically challenged.   One of her statements was, “I don’t know but I am sure that most of this money is being spent on administration.”.   If she acknowledges that she doesn’t know, how can she be sure!   It is also confusing to me why the magical number of graduating in four years is so important.  Isn’t the goal of a high school education to prepare a student for employment, post-secondary education or both?   So if it takes a year longer to do that isn’t the time spent well worth the investment?  The woman compared apples and grapes and came up with lemons.
Now onto the values issue.   Children with disabilities have the right to a free and appropriate education at public expense.   They have had this right since 1975.   If you disagree with this right, would you send these kids home with nothing but day care like facilities or worse hidden in their homes or into the warehouses that stored them.   Providing children with disabilities an appropriate education is good for the kids and good for our society.   From the point of view of the students, an appropriate education enhances their abilities and helps them to have a self-actualizing life, something we want for ourselves.   From the point of view of society, an appropriate education for people with disabilities can give us tax payers rather than tax users.    The Harbour School’s follow-up graduate survey shows that our students have gone on to good paying jobs with salaries that are taxable as well as providing benefits that would otherwise have to be paid by the taxpayer.   As to the higher cost of an education for a child with disabilities, that is a paper tiger. It costs more to educate a kid in high school than it does to educate a student in elementary school.   It costs more to educate a physician than it does an accountant.  No one is suggesting we make those costs equal, either by increasing one or decreasing the other.
So the question of whether special ed is worth the cost is kind of irrelevant.   The US Congress settled that issue a long time ago and President Gerald Ford agreed.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

There Just Isn't Room

There Just isn’t Room

Test scores do not seem to be budging and when they do it is often, particularly in math, that they are trending down.  We are all about test scores so all this superfluous stuff like music, art, physical education and performing arts need to be squeezed or cut out all together.  There just isn’t time! In the old days these courses were called minors and the important classes were called majors. That poor logic, unfortunately, makes sense to many school administrators.   It is no wonder test scores are so low.
First of all, let’s look at what these so called “minor” subjects bring to the student.   The ability to problem solve is a critical academic skill.   It is also a skill that is used and refined in the arts. Problem-solving is an extension of creativity.  Employers regularly tell us they are looking for employees who can problem solve and are creative.
Secondly, for many students the arts are where they are successful.  The arts are what bring them to school every day and sustain them through the often boring and failure inducing academic “major” courses.  Without having the arts to look forward to as a break in the school day, many kids just wouldn’t come to school.  Every child needs one place where he or she can shine.  Often it is these performance based areas.
Thirdly, teachers of the arts relate differently to the students than do teachers of academic subjects.  There are no state tests in the arts, so there are no pacing guides.   Teachers do not need to be on a particular topic on any given date.  So teachers can relate to the kids and talk to them about their lives without being concerned about losing their place in the pacing guide.    It is natural to chat with a colleague while working on a piece of art or trying to get a rendition of a scene or song just right.   Many students are dealing with violence, addiction, divorce, serious illness or socio-economic issues.   Handing a student a book or a worksheet doesn’t cut it when the child has real problems.   Teachers of the arts can meet students where they are emotionally and can develop that cherished teacher-student bond of trust.  
Fourthly, the arts and music make a great coping mechanism for kids under so much stress that they feel they cannot work.  Listening to music on a device or drawing in a notepad can help a child move to a different mental state and calm down.  If we welcome the arts into our classrooms, we will see kids thrive.
But none of this is possible if there are no arts people in the building.  We need to make room.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Test Should Discriminate

Tests should Discriminate

Tests are designed to discriminate and that is good.  The purpose of a test is to discriminate between people who are good at something and those people who are not.   The key issue is not that tests discriminate.  The key issue is whether the test uses relevant factors in making its discrimination.

For example, driving tests are designed to determine who should be allowed to drive a car and who should not be allowed to have a license to operate a vehicle.   Almost all people would agree that knowledge of traffic regulations is a relevant factor in driving a car.   Vision would also be a relevant factor.   And it is.  But vision can be modified by eye glasses or contact lenses to the point where visual acuity is sufficient to operate a motor vehicle.   If vision cannot be sufficiently modified then the individual cannot be allowed to drive a car.   However, most people would agree that eye color or hair color are not relevant variables and that they should not be used.   On the other hand, some variables such as the ability to parallel park a car have now been determined to be used so infrequently that it is no longer tested in driving tests.

This same paradigm can be used in analyzing math test scores.  There has been a great deal of consternation of late about the decline in math scores on standardized tests.  Some have suggested that the issue is elementary school teachers, who are considered to be generalists, and not sufficiently skilled in math to teach it.  That argument begs the question of why are high school students also having declining math scores when most high school math teachers are specialists in the field.  Next up for concern, is the curriculum itself.   Local school districts with declining scores are rushing to change up the curriculum and the teaching methodology that goes with it.  The theory is that a different and, of course, better curriculum will yield better test scores.   Changing the curriculum has been the “go to” for school systems needing to improve test score since the millennium and yet test scores do not vary that much.   We could blame the students and suggest that climate change is lowering kids’ abilities to do math.  But no one with good sense would go there so we won’t.

To me the most obvious culprit in the declining test scores is the measuring tool being used to take the measure.   Almost 20 years ago a curriculum known as Common Core was developed by educators across the country (NO, it was not imposed by the feds) to create a common standard among states for educating kids so that the skills of a fifth grader in Alabama would be similar to the expectations for a fifth grader in Oregon.   In order to measure how kids were doing in meeting these Common Core standards companies were paid large sums of money to develop the tests that would make the measure.  Maryland chose the group of tests known as PARCC.   From the beginning everyone rushed to teach to the test so their scores would be great.  Teachers were not involved in developing the Common Core curriculum.  It was done by state level educators.   If someone had deigned to ask those same generalist elementary educators, they would have  quickly learned that the children would not be at the developmental levels appropriate to the skills being demanded of them.   In order to worship at the throne of the God of Rigor, skills were pushed down from higher grades to lower ones.   If the kids’ developmental levels are not there yet, no amount of good teaching is going to make the plants bloom before their time.   There is also the issue of relevancy because scores decline as kids get older.   Try to convince an adolescent that the tasks of algebra II are useful in their daily lives, or even will be useful when they become adults.   Good luck with that.

Last school year was the last time Maryland gave PARCC tests.   Now Maryland will give the MCAP ( Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program) test.   This set of tests will be shorter than PARCC and we are assured that it will be just as rigorous- all bend to rigor.  But the big question is – will the scores be better.   If not, we will again blame the usual suspects:  teachers, curriculum, poor schools.  There is a big elephant in the room but we will not see it.   It will have the letters MCAP written big and bold on its side. And it will discriminate, but will it be discriminating on the correct variables.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Plain Speaking

Plain Speaking

“Words, words, I’m so sick of words”, is part of a line from an old Broadway musical, “My Fair Lady.”  There are lots of days when I feel that way regarding educational terms.  Fifty-some years ago when special education was just beginning to gain some traction, we had three groups of children will lower intelligence.  We had educable retarded kids.  These were students with IQ’s between 50 and 75.  The idea was supposed to be that these students could still be “educated”. Then we had students with IQ’s between 49 and 25.  These young people were trainable, meaning they couldn’t be “educated” but they could be trained for some kind of work, usually in sheltered workshops.  Finally, we had custodial retarded students. These people were expected to remain in custodial care, usually in some specialized institution far away from public view.  The idea was to replace the previous really mean words, idiot, imbecile and moron.
Ok, these newer terms were not kind either  but they did communicate to the world in general.  Today’s kids with lower than average intelligence are cognitively challenged. These terms are designed to offend as few as possible and to communicate with as little specification as feasible.  
We talk about “urban education” which is code when we really mean figuring out how to provide for black and brown kids who are attending sub-standard inner- city schools (the white ones too, but we tend to ignore them and falsely assume that all poor inner city kids are of a darker color).  We are not talking about the upper middle class, also urban, children who are living in the new urban high rise apartments.
With all the emphasis on testing it is important that we “cover” the content whatever that means.  We have long since stopped talking about kids’ learning.  So teachers "cover" content to prepare kids for testing.
Kids who are poor are socially and economically challenged. Kids who misbehave are socially maladjusted as if they needed a social chiropractor to adjust their social skills rather than being taught some self-control skills.  Special ed teachers who work with general ed teachers in the general ed classroom are said to “push in” which may be more accurate than it sounds since mostly those people are pushing their way into a classroom to which they are only marginally welcome.
Of course, all of this help is to ensure that the academic program is taught with rigor as if the students were dead and becoming stiff corpses.  Given the way some teachers teach there may be a lot of truth to that as well.  And no matter what we do, it must be done with equity as if equity existed anywhere in the world, least of all in a classroom.  Children do not come to us with equal ability, equal interest or equal backgrounds and resources so why are we kidding ourselves that educators and schools can somehow fix that.  
I am reminded of the cartoon where a character says, “I used to be poor but that was considered unkind.  So. then I was culturally deprived, but that was bad because everyone has a culture.  Then I was economically disadvantaged but that was bad because it implied that I was in a permanent underclass.  I still don’t have any money but I have a helluva good vocabulary”.
Harry Truman, my favorite President, once said, “I never gave anyone hell.   I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.”  Wouldn’t be a bad thing if we just all told the truth and stated it plainly.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

it's My Right

It’s My Right

Federal and state law give children with disabilities the right to an assessment every three years if there is evidence that new information is needed.   Generally, parents feel this is a good idea.   School systems know assessments are expensive and they want to take advantage of the provision that says if "new information is needed".
Unequivocally, more and better assessments are good- sometimes.
But sometimes, too many assessments are not good for children.  Assessments generally cause kids anxiety and too many assessments just cause more anxiety.
Sometimes- taking the same assessment too many times invalidates the assessment itself.  Kids begin to remember what is on the test and so the test no longer measures what it is supposed to measure and instead measures the student’s memory.
Sometimes- when children take assessments too close together there is no discernable measurable progress and that upsets children and families.
Sometimes- the progress that the test does show is meaningless.  Moving from a 4.5 grade level reading to a 5.0 grade level reading is not that big a deal in terms of functioning in the world.  There are a lot more important things that children could be working on than moving the needle on grade level.
Sometimes- kids’ progress doesn’t keep up with the test so the results seem to indicate that the child has moved backwards when in fact what has happened is that the child has not moved forward at the same pace as the test has set expectations.
Sometimes- school systems measure the cost of the assessment against the benefit to the child and do not think the assessment is worth the investment.
Sometimes- there isn’t any new information that the tests will give to the service delivery team.   If a teacher has been working with a child for a year or two, that teacher should know more about that child than a newer test score can tell him/her.
Sometimes- people who do the testing don’t give good information about the results.   The test score is probably the least important information from the test administration.   A good test administrator will know what learning processing challenges were most difficult for the child and will report that information back to the direct service personnel.  Unfortunately, it takes a very skilled test administrator to do that and it takes a very good school system to provide the vehicle for this information to get back to the teacher.
Sometimes- updated assessments are only done when there has been a marked change in the child’s learning behaviors and there is hope that a new assessment might tell why.
And sometimes, it really isn’t necessary to exercise every right that you have and it is best to let the assessment review go unnoticed.   That’s your right too.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

'Tis the Time to Strike up the Battle

‘tis the Time to Strike up the Battle

The new school year will be starting shortly and with that often comes IEP meetings.  IEP meetings are sort of odd experiences and depend a great deal on the level of trust between the school and the parents.
First of all IEP meetings are supposed to be held to develop that Individual Education Program (IEP) that each child with a disability is entitled to by federal and state law.  It is because the “individual” in the IEP is frequently forgotten, families feel the need to bring an outside expert to the meeting to remind the school people of that.  I knew a family who regularly brought an 8"X10" photo of their son to the meeting to help people focus on the whole point of the process.
People do not like to write IEP’s.  So school systems make the process easier by creating templates that teachers and related service providers can use to write the IEP.   These templates frequently have objectives taken word for word from the school’s curriculum or from a prepared bank of objectives that has been precisely written.   In IEP meetings schools often pay more homage to these prepared items than they do to make sure the child's needs are met.  They also want to make sure the IEP will stand up to any legal challenges.  It is also not unusual for educators to feel defensive or threatened by parents who challenge their expertise or who want to explain that the child the parent sees at home is much different from the one who comes to school every day.
Parents often feel outnumbered and outgunned at these meetings as well.  Sometimes school people meet ahead of the formal meeting to make sure everyone has his/her talking points and everyone stays on the party line message.  To even the odds, parents will sometimes feel the need to bring an advocate or a legal expert to the meeting.  Sometimes both types of experts will attend the meeting.  The time of these professionals does not come cheaply so only parents with the financial wherewithal get to enhance the troops in their corner of the ring.
It is sometimes difficult for direct service staff to be truthful at these meetings.  Teachers will tell people that they cannot be a strong advocate for the child because they “do not want to lose their job”.   In fact, it is next to impossible for a teacher to be fired for something said at an IEP meeting, but perception is much stronger than reality.
So what is a parent to do if he/she does not have the financial resources to come to the meeting supported by professional experts?   In the olden days, Nancy Regan advised the nation to fight the drug problem by “just say no”.  That advice seemed simplistic at the time for that problem.  But it is realistic for a parent at an IEP meeting who comes without some supportive hired guns.  The IEP won’t happen until the parent agrees.   If a parent is unhappy with the IEP or feels it does not meet their child’s needs.  Channel you inner Nancy Regan and “just say no” until changes are made that will serve your child.   ‘Tis the beginning of the season, unfortunately parents need to strike up the battle lines until the school system produces an INDIVIDUAL education program as the law requires.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Mass Shootings are bad for children

                                           Mass Murders are Not Good for Children 
Many years ago a student went into his school and killed other students.    The event came to be known as the Columbine shooting.  Kids were scared in school.  I spoke with our students.  They were not afraid in our school.  They felt known.  They felt their teachers knew them and cared.
Years later terrorists weaponized the airplane and killed thousands of people not all that far from our school.  Out students were afraid.  They knew people who were impacted by the terror.  Again we assured them that we, and their parents, would keep them safe.  They believed us.
Now there is a new kind of terror and what do we tell our children.  
Throughout human history there has always been fear and a consequential fear of the “other”.   It is the responsibility and role of the leader to lead us away from this darker side of nature.  In our relatively recent national history we have separated the Native American, the Catholic, the Irish, the Italian, the Jew, the African American, the woman, and the disabled.   Now it is the Hispanics turn to be separated from the humanity that links us all.   
Our leadership is guiding the separation.    We are not reminded that these “others” want for themselves what we want for ourselves, safety, security, the chance to build a better life for our children.  Instead some leaders call humans animals and characterize them in the basest way.    Because today’s “other” has deeper skin tone, it’s easier to identify them from “us”.
In this time of domestic terror of repeated mass shootings our leadership has given license to our darkest instincts.  How do parents and schools tell our children we will keep them safe when we are not even sure we can keep ourselves safe.
We are separating parents from their children whether by our country’s border policy or by a murder's bullet.  Our children deserve to be led to our better nature as humans.  Leaders need to teach us all that as humans we are ALL yearning for safety, security, the chance to build a better life for ourselves and our children.   

What do we tell our children so they feel safe?   More importantly what do WE DO for our children so that they ARE safe. Mass shootings are not good for children