Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What can be expected of you?

The new year is just around the corner.  Many people are making resolutions for the new year.   What are reasonable expectations for each of us to have for ourselves.   Each of us needs to leave the world a better place than we have received it.  But how do we do that?   And particularly how do we make the world a better place for the children we care about.
First of all we need to have our values in place.   No child can learn if he or she is not sufficiently fed, clothed and sheltered.   Yet every weekend kids leave school hungry and stay hungry until they return to school on Monday.  How does the richest nation on earth allow that to happen.   We each need to express our values at the ballot box.  That means vote in each and every election no matter how small or seemingly unimportant.   If we care about children we need to make sure we vote those values.
Secondly, we need to make sure the agencies taxpayers are paying for are really working on behalf of children and not just pushing paper from one pile to another.  Each of us needs to report child abuse.   Then follow up to make sure that the child protective services have really done something about the complaint.  If the agency does nothing then a letter to the editor will expose that and change the attitude.
Each person needs to use the power of the free press.   Write letters to the editor.   Let people know what is happening in our schools.   We spend millions of dollars on new testing systems.  Then decide another system is better and spend millions more.   In the meantime our kids are in schools with water pipes that burst, asbestos that is destroying their lungs, mold, no air conditioning, broken windows and poor heating systems.   What could be done to these learning environments if these monies were spent on the physical plants in which we put our kids instead of continually changing testing systems whose value is doubtful.
School boards are doing the best they can but they are often caught in the squeeze between local governments, school administrators and teachers' unions.
It has been decades since teachers were really underpaid.  Yet unions demand step increases and cost-of-living increases without any correspondence to quality of performance of union members.   Unions need to be advocating for better buildings and more current instructional materials.
No one of us can make all these changes to our schools or benefit our kids.  But we can do somethings and what each of us can do we need to do.
One person can organize a food pantry to feed kids over school holidays and weekends.   Another person can track school board meetings and hold members feet to the fire to spend the money on school environments.   A weak teacher does not become a better teacher just because she is paid a higher salary.  Someone could monitor the child protective services to find out how they respond to reports.  There is so much work to be done.  The work can be seen as overwhelming and it is.
But it is expected of you that you will bite off the piece you can chew and get the job digested.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Wired for Trouble

If you teach or work with teenagers, you know they are wired for trouble.  Don't blame them, it is the uneven maturation of their brains.  As kids mature into the teenage years their brains mature as well.  The maturation moves from the back of the brain where more behavioral functions such as vision and movement are, to the front of the brain where more complex decision making and long-term goal setting begin.
Teen brains crave novelty, risk and peer affiliation.   They are in a continuing state of flux emotionally.  The kid they see in the mirror in the morning is not the same kid they see in the evening.  The frontal lobes of the brain are still maturing so the decision making is not always reliable.  As a consequence, teens depend more on the amygdala, the emotional reactive area of the brain.  This reliance makes them more vulnerable to pessimism and self-destructive behaviors.
Teenagers get what they are experiencing.  What they do not necessarily understand is why they are feeling the way they are.
Several educational approaches are better for teens and teachers.   First of all, let the kids in on the secret.  Explain in scientific detail-as opposed to browbeating for a bad decision- what is happening developmentally in their brains.  Let students see brain models.  Explain that this process is not unlike  the development of physical and verbal skills when they were toddlers.   Lots of falling down, but lots of getting up as well and soon they could walk and talk.
Just as in learning to walk, adolescents need to learn to think independently.   They will not learn this skill without practice.  Again, in learning to walk they tried a lot of times and fell a few times. But each fall was in a protected environment and encouragement to try again followed.  So it is with independent thinking.  Teens need to be in a school environment where they will not be teased or embarrassed when they slip up.   Or just as bad, be in a place where repeating someone else's correct answer is masquerading as independent thinking.  Students need to be exposed to teachers making mistakes and acknowledging them and moving on.   They will learn that in thinking, making a mistake is the same as falling down in learning to walk.
Students need to learn about themselves and what makes them think at their best.   Many teachers use the K-W-L learning strategy where the "K" is what I know, the "W" is what I want to know and the "L" is what do I need to learn.  For teens, the addition of the "H" to this plan will guide students to learning how their brain works.  The "H" stands for How will I learn what I need to learn.   Each student can detect the way in which he or she learns best.  This approach responds to the craving for novelty and some risk.  It feeds the need for independence because students will be learning to do it "my way".
Just learning content won't do it anymore for any of us.  There is simply too great an explosion of knowledge.  Just learning content is particularly nonfunctional for teenagers.  Teaching kids how to use their cognitive skills in a manner that is appropriate to their learning profiles is the gift that will last a lifetime and truly prepare them for life in the wide, wide world.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

So what's the point?

Well over half of all local budgets goes toward public education.   Our state spends millions and millions of dollars of tax money every year on State assessment development and administration of those tests.   Additionally State money is given to school districts to supplement local money.   Federal funds also pour into states for education.   Of course, all of this money comes out of the same taxpayer pockets.  What is the point of all this expense?  What is the purpose of education at public expense?
We live in a democracy.   In our country every citizen has the right to vote.   Some states try to limit that freedom with additional requirements, but still those requirements can be overcome.  When everyone has the right to vote, it is elemental to the success of the democracy that the voters be informed and educated.   They need to understand government and be able to read to learn about government.  So the first function of public education is to create an informed electorate.  Based on my experience and the voter turnout, we have failed miserably at that goal.
Another purpose of education is to provide a trained workforce to secure the economy of the nation.  Some of that workforce will need a college education to perform their duties.  Others will not.  Our economy needs multiple kinds of skill levels and all workers need basic soft job skills- like responding to supervision and showing up on time.
Ours is a multi-ethnic society.   We need to work together to secure the common good.  It is a function of public education to teach us to work with a diverse population.   Within a very few years Americans of western European heritage will be in the minority in terms of population, if not in terms of power.  If we are going to secure the benefits of the talents of all of our people we need to understand each other and be able to take another's perspective.
So how are we doing in public education after spending all of this money.  From my perspective not so well.
First of all we are testing in everything except what is needed to be a good citizen.  In Maryland the government test for graduation was scrapped, then added back in.  But it is mostly memorization about stuff that is available on our smart phones in a heartbeat.   We are not teaching kids to research active candidates for political office, decide which policies fit our needs, how to be educated voters.  It does not take a test to do that.
We are now supposed to be striving for a heavy emphasis on college readiness and careers.   College readiness was supposed to come about through the testing of NO Child Left Behind from President George W. Bush.  But after 10 years, institutions of higher education report no reduction in the need for remedial courses upon entering college.   So much for that bright idea.   Then there is the issue of careers!   How do we train for them.  No Child Left Behind promised all kids on grade level by this year.  Ok, anyone with any sense knew that wouldn't work.  And that goal has all but been abandoned.  However, we need to do more project based learning and recognize that we can't force every child into a college mold.  Some kids just won't fit.
Finally, our best shot has been exposing kids to other kids who might not look like them.  Housing patterns work hard against that.  Public schools are neighborhood schools and neighborhoods have a strong tendency to bunch like background people together.  Oddly, it is the private school that might be doing a better job of creating diversity.
So here we are, spending a huge amount of money on something we all believe in.  Maybe we need a national conversation among the citizens about what we want our educational goals to be.   And could we PLEASE leave the politicians out of it this time!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Of the year...

This is the time of the year when there is an "of the year..." award for everything.   Maryland person of the year, Time Magazine person of the year, scientist of the year, event of the year...  You name it.  Everyone is excited about who that person will be, there will be discussions about whether the choice was the correct one, It was not too long ago that the person of the year for whatever was always a male person.   Not so anymore so that is good.   Here's the thing.   As interested as we are about each announcement, how long is it before we have totally forgotten who the awardee was.   While I am sure the awardee and his/her closest folks don't forget the award, I am betting that the rest of the populace does not give up memory space for very long.
I am proposing that we each select one or two moments of the year.   You know those special times that years from now we will remember.   Certainly we will remember major life events like the birth of a baby, a marriage, divorce or death.   I am not talking about those kinds of things.   Let me provide some offerings:
If you are a teacher, that moment could be the first time a student looked at you and "got it".   You might have been working with this student for days or weeks on a concept, perhaps even wondering if you were meant to be a teacher after all, then the magical moment happens and you and the student both know, she got it.   It is a moment that warms you and fuels you for all the hours of lesson planning and recharges you to try again for another student.
If you are in a personal relationship, perhaps this year something happened and you knew you had found your emotional safe spot.  In this place you realized you were safe and here you could be just yourself, nothing more or nothing less and it was all ok.
Maybe a furry faced child owns you.  You love that little furry face and think it is the cutest in the whole universe.   Then one night as you get into bed the furry person jumps into bed with you (do NOT tell me your furry child sleeps on the floor, we have social services for that).   Your furry person walks to the top of the bed, licks your face, gives a big sigh and then settles down right next to you.   Whatever is happening in the rest of the world, your world is just fine.
Perhaps you are a parent.   You sacrifice a great deal for your child, it is not just quiet nights out with another adult, or money spent on electronics that you would love to spend on a new outfit or the hours of sleep you lost worrying about his grades or her friends- it is the emotional investment into this child's well-being.   What you get in return is eye rolling, resistance, "whatever" said in a tone of derision.   Then a holiday comes and along with a gift is a card or a note, "you are the best mom ever".  You may not be sure that is true but you are very sure for you at this moment, it rocks your world.
So as the year winds down, pick a moment of the year, pick two, they're free.  Write them down. Do it every year and save these notes.   It would be really special if you kept a notebook for your kids of a special moment about them every year.   Wouldn't that be a terrific graduation or wedding gift.   Oh so much better than New Year's resolutions or who was Time Man of the Year last year....

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Lives Matter

The Michael Brown killing upsets me on multiple levels.   Whether he was killed by a frightened police officer who felt his life was in danger or was killed by a racist cop who sees all young black men as dangerous we will never know.   We do know that a life was taken too soon and that the chance of Mr. Brown turning his life around from criminal activity will never have a chance to happen.   We do know that the hopes and dreams of innocent small business owners in Ferguson have been snuffed out by rioters and looters.   I have no idea whatever how those actions will secure justice for the other Michael Browns of the world.   We do know that life in Ferguson will be compromised going forward because there will be fewer commercial services for residents and property values will go down because no one wants to live in an area subject to rioting.  So the Michael Brown killing will take more innocent lives.

I think what bothers me the most is the rallying cry Black Lives Matter.   Of course they do.  But so do red lives, yellow lives, brown lives and white lives.   All lives matter.   Here are some issues that might deserve a rally- but will get none.

Every single day children are abused by those who are supposed to love and protect them.   We have child protective services that are understaffed, overwhelmed and conditioned to put kids back in the very environments that hurt them.   Where is the rally to remind us that these kids' lives matter?   Where are the decent loving foster homes to give these kids a chance at life?  How about a Presidential conference on that issue?

We consign children to deteriorating schools with lousy teachers.   What are their chances to escape the poverty of their families without a decent education?  We kid ourselves to believe that test scores will lead the way to better teaching.   They won't; but high test scores are a feel good way to believe that.  We need to get rid of bad teachers.   Not a chance of that happening as long as the unions care more about protecting and defending the weak sisters and brothers than they do about teaching students. Can we organize a march to help our schools get better teachers?

Children with special needs are routinely included in classrooms that do not meet their needs.   They are force fed a curriculum that has nothing to do with what they need to learn in order to survive once their entitlement to a free, appropriate public education goes away at 21.  We insist that by requiring them to learn what plain kids need to learn, somehow their cognitive abilities will grow to the challenge.   Why not accept these students as they are and give them the tools THEY need, not the tools politicians want them to need.  Let's demonstrate about that.

We are the richest country in the world.   Every Friday when the bell rings to end the school day, millions of kids go home to not much food until they come back to school on Monday for breakfast.  Why can't we figure out how to feed these kids.   It really is not that hard.   The political will is just not there.  Where are the TV interviews on this topic?

Look in our communities.   How many young adults are killing each other over drugs or gang turf.  If  lives matter why don't we do something about the killings?   It is easier to just look the other way and pick on a simpler target.  Where are the white, red, black, yellow, brown leaders on this serious issue?

So today we have riots, marches, and Presidential conferences because a killing has ignited our concern for this week's crisis.  There are lots of other causes we could take on if lives matter.   Truthfully, children's lives do matter very much for them and for the future of all of us.   Unfortunately, we just don't give a damn.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

504 vs. IEP which way to go

Families of children are often asked this question- do you want an IEP or a 504 plan?  Families are confused as to which is the better way for their child to get the help he or she needs.   Each approach offers some benefits and some drawbacks.
The IEP or Individual Educational Program is authorized under the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).  In order to be eligible for an IEP the child needs to be diagnosed with one of the disabilities defined in the law itself.   Then the child needs to need special education in order to benefit from the general education program and progress from grade to grade.  So there are two requirements before a family even gets to decide if they will accept the IEP.   First the disability and then the need for special education.
The IEP is supposed to be individual to the child, often it is not so parents need to pay close attention to make sure they are not getting a boiler plate document.   Or worse, getting something that is aligned with what the school has to offer as opposed to what the child needs.   Under the law a school or school system must provide what the child needs.  So for example, if a child needs speech therapy three days a week but the therapist is only in the school one day a week, the IEP cannot be modified to match what is already available.   Instead the system must find a way to get the child the service.   That method can be bringing extra therapy into the child's school or moving the child to a school where the service is provided.   One of the most important parts of an IEP is the description of the related services a child needs, the amount of that service and a description of the setting in which those services will be provided.  The IEP should also name the qualifications of the provider.  A child might need counseling but the school system does not have a psychologist or social worker available so it might provide that counseling with a pupil personnel worker.  Parents need to be well aware of the training of any alternative providers.
The IEP is a formal contract for service between the family and the school system.   If the school system does not provide the services it has committed to, the parents have the right to request a mediation or due process hearing to assure those services.  The IEP is NOT a contract for achievement.   If the instructional goals are not attained as described, families may request changes to the services to try to improve outcomes but it cannot request a mediation or due process for more achievement.
Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act applies to all organizations that receive federal funding.   A 504 plan for children with disabilities describes accommodations to the instructional program that will hopefully improve learning outcomes for the child.   In order to receive these accommodations a child does not have to be specifically diagnosed with a disability.  The lack of the need for a specific diagnosis is one of the big benefits that many people see in the 504 plan.  Many times the school system will recommend this approach as a way to avoid having a disability label in a child's "permanent record".   The fact is that once a child graduates, the school system only keeps basic demographic information, dates of attendance, a transcript of the high school record and any awards that were received.   So the diagnoses would only remain on a child's record through high school.  Under the 504 plan, parents have no right to due process; nor is the 504 plan a contract for service.  Therefore, should a school or system fail to provide the services or accommodations in the plan the family's only recourse is to complain, but it cannot compel the system to provide the services.
On the other hand, the IEP is a contract and provides families with the right to due process should the system fail to fulfill its part of the bargain and gives parents the right to request differing services to improve outcomes.
Is it all that bad for a child to carry a diagnostic label?   That is for each family to decide, but the truth is with or without the label, the child has educational problems.  Doesn't it make sense to pick the approach that gives the most bang for the name.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why does it matter?

Have you ever noticed how many people look like you?  Or live in areas like the one you live in?  Or dress as you do?  Or eat the kinds of foods you do?   Why does that matter?  It matters because if you cannot find yourself in books, in social media, in advertisements  or on TV, you are invisible.
This school year, for the first time ever, white children make up less than half of the country's public school enrollment.   You would never know that fact by looking in the media centers or on the websites of the nation's school systems.  Why does it matter?
Several years ago I visited a potential school for my godson.  The school's focus was creating leaders for the future.  In the media center and the hallways we were surrounded by large photos of people who were past leaders and who had made our country great.  I recognized almost all of them and respected their accomplishments.  But as I looked at them, I noticed that every one was a white male of Western European origin.  I, as a white female, did not see myself represented.   Were none of my kind among the leaders who made my country great? My knowledge of history told me this situation was not true.   Did this school only prepare white males for leadership?
My godson is African American.  I saw no dark-skinned people among those folk who made my country great.  How could that be?  More importantly what would be the message my godson would have looking at those photos?  Would he conclude that African Americans had made no contributions to the greatness of our society. Clearly not true.  More significantly would he decide that his role going into the future could never be that of a leader because his people did not lead?
Why does it matter that the bookshelves of our school media centers only feature stories about white kids?  Why does it matter that of the 3,200 books examined by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, only 253 were by or about African Americans, Asians, Latinos or Native Americans.  It matters because if all of our people are not represented in our media than none of our people is represented.  From many people, our country has made one people.  We are really the only country to have even approached doing that successfully.
We are in a vicious cycle.  Publishers say books by or about ethnic characters do not sell, so they do not publish them.  If these books are not published, people cannot buy them.
This is not an ethnic minority problem.  This is an American problem.   If we are to thrive in an increasingly non-white country and world, we need the skills and talents of all of our people.  Seeing ourselves in the media reminds us of what we can be.  It helps define who we are.  Seeing people who do not look like us in the media and in leadership and/or hero roles increases our understanding of other people. We are reminded that we all have a role to play in the future of our society. Leaders come from all ethnic groups if we let them.  Just as a healthy diet for our bodies embraces all food groups so a healthy diet for our society must include all ethnic groups to feed our future.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Why the shortage?

Public school leadership staff who are looking down the road are beginning to warn us that there is going to be a serious shortage of principals.   That information, taken together with the fact that research repeatedly shows the importance of a strong principal in a school, gives one pause for the future of our schools.
One of the reasons for the shortage is the simple aging-out of principals.   As the demographic of principals swings toward retirement age, we begin to lose more and more. Growing older is not something we can fix.    But there are other more troubling signs.
Principals are dissatisfied with their jobs.   It is not the money.   Indeed public school principals, particularly principals of public high schools, do quite well.   The dissatisfaction comes from leaders who are not allowed to lead.   Few things are more frustrating than being held accountable for something you have no power to fix.
It is notable that the problems do not exist to the same extent in private schools.   Before we look at the issues, it is important to note that private school principals generally have the right of first refusal.   That is unless their census is down and the budget needs to be balanced.   In those instances standards are lowered to the extent money is needed.  Getting money and selection out of the way, let's look at other factors.
Public school principals report 29.5% of their students are involved in physical conflict.   This figure is only 7.3% in the private schools.   Those numbers are partly due to initial selection.   But they are also due to the authority of the private school principal to remove a physically aggressive child from the environment whereas the public school principal is forced to contend with behavior policies that are becoming increasingly lenient.
Another huge difference between public and private school principals is influence on curriculum.   Only 43.2% of public school principals report having a major influence on curriculum.   On the other hand, 70.4% of private school principals report a major influence on curriculum.   Curriculum is the meat of what we do in schools.   That, along with instructional technique, are pretty much what schools are about.   If we cannot trust principals to make decisions that will keep their schools safe and then don't allow them to have leadership in what is taught and how it is done, how can we call them leaders.   More importantly, how can we hold them accountable for what is happening in the school.   No wonder they are getting out of the sandbox as soon as they can.   Who would want to play under these conditions.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Here we go again

Many years ago I learned that sometimes paperback book publishers take the covers off paperback books that have not sold well and put on new covers.   The book inside has not changed, just the cover.  This process came to mind the other day when I read that the organization of local boards of education had voted to delay the high stakes status of the PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) for two years.  It seems the boards think that the current 9th and 10th graders will not be adequately prepared for the new tests based on the Common Core curriculum.  The whole thing is further complicated by the requirement of Race to the Top funding that teachers be partially evaluated on their students' scores on these tests.
And there are further complications.   The new tests are primarily taken on computers.   That opens the door to lots of software bugs and the shortage of hardware in schools to take the tests.
The PARCC consortium is only made up of 9 states. Another consortium, Smarter Balance, is doing the western states and a couple in New England- 17 states in all.  Twenty-four states are among the undecided or are taking an altogether different path.   To say confusion reigns is an understatement.   And remember one of the original goals of Common Core was a common curriculum among the states.
The State Board of Education very quickly backtracked on its commitment to use the tests this year as a high stakes test.   Clearly it was a case of adding insult to injury.   The local teachers' union was against implementation for its own self-serving reasons.   The local ACLU came out as defending the civil rights of the kids to be tested on what they were taught. Imagine that silly notion!
Now with the change in plan by the State Board of Education, where does that leave us in Maryland? Maryland has required students to take a high stakes test in English, math (algebra) and science (biology) as part of the requirements for No Child Left Behind.  While teachers and local boards of education have for the most part supported Common Core, the testing is giving lots of heartburn.
All this brings us back to those new covers on the paperback books.   Everything old is new again.  How the PARCC tests will emerge from the piloting programs over the next two years and how the politics of what equals a passing score fall out will be very interesting.   Maryland loves to tout itself as number 1 in education across the country.   Each state gets to set its own passing score for the PARCC tests depending on the pilot results.  In order to keep its claim to #1, Maryland will need to set a passing score that is low enough to show great results.   I'll bet right now someone is getting ready to rip off those old covers and add the new ones with a better passing rate as the passing score falls.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Accountability is good

Accountability is a good thing.   It is just that testing is not a good thing.  Testing measures knowledge about a rather limited amount of content at one moment in time.  There is a huge number of variables that can and do confound this measurement.  An individual's anxiety, the "I studied the wrong thing" syndrome, and any disconnect between content and measurement are just a very few of the variables.   Additionally, while supposedly measuring learning, the tests are really set up as perform or consequences games.   People who do poorly on tests get low grades, fail to get an award or some other punishment.   With Race To the Top, teachers are now going to be punished for the behavior of their students on these tests.   The notion is that the tests will measure how well a teacher has taught.   There is just no way around the situation, regardless of intent, tests are punitive.
Well then if testing does not equal accountability, what does?
We must first begin with whom we want to hold accountable.   Are we holding the student accountable for learning?  In the end, the student will be accountable for learning with or without testing.   As long as the content we are teaching is useful to the student long term, then the student's life will bear the consequences of not learning that content.   If what we are teaching is not useful to the student then it really does not matter whether he or she has learned it or not.  And we should be ashamed to waste that student's time on something that is not useful.
Are we trying to hold the teacher accountable?  Testing students seems hardly the way to do that.  Providing teachers with a rubric of the kinds of behaviors we expect to see in the classroom would be a good beginning.   These rubrics should list only specific measurable observable behaviors.   Then teachers should be observed multiple times during the school year.   A remedial plan should be put into place for those teachers deficient in the expected behaviors.   Frequent in-service opportunities should be provided to all teachers to increase their skills.  Principals should return to their roles as instructional leaders.
Perhaps it is the school systems that should be held most accountable.   In most local jurisdictions schools take up more than the Lion's share of the budget.  The answer by the school systems to every problem  is to ask for more money, yet there are no measures to see that this money is well used.  There are two significant measures for school systems.  The first would be the number of dropouts.  We can reduce the number of dropouts by increasing the relevancy of the curriculum to ALL students, not just to those who are college bound.   When we speak of career readiness we need to include those careers that require technical training but not a program of higher education.  We need to follow up on our graduates.  What do they think of their education?   How has it worked for them? What could we be doing better?  How are our birds flying?  We are afraid to answer these real questions so we hide in the protective coloration  of a standardized test.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Leadership- does it even exist anymore

Is there no one who is willing to risk sticking her or his neck out to tell the truth and lead?  Of course, before anyone can lead he or she needs correct information.
Common Core is one of the latest bogey men out there.   For the one millionth time, it is NOT a federal program.   Yet last week in a debate, a man running for a seat on the county council proclaimed that he was not in favor of Common Core but could not fight it because "it is a federal program and we could lose federal dollars."  Listen up, it is NOT a federal program and one of the many complaints is that there are NO federal dollars attached to what will be an expensive rewrite of curriculum.  This man wants to represent people on a governing body and has a position on an important educational issue that is based on total misinformation.   How can we trust him to lead on other issues?  Does he make a habit of having opinions completely unsupported by facts.
Then there is Ebola.  Yes in Africa it is a very dangerous virus.  And not even in all of Africa.  Africa is a huge continent and only a small part of it is infected.  Then there is the United States.  We are a large county with approximately 330 million people.  So far, one person has died in our country and he was infected in Africa and misdiagnosed when he got here, so his treatment started well into symptoms.  He is still ONE person out of 330 million.   Run those numbers, I did.  That means .0000000909 people have died of Ebola in the United States.  That is .00000909%!   And yes there are two other people infected.  There have also been several people who were infected, treated and cured in our country. Politicians are screaming to close the borders!  Lots of citizens think we should too.   Three hundred thousand people die in our country every year from illness/disease that is the result of being overweight.  I have not heard a single person scream that we need to close the candy counters or purge the grocery stores of unhealthy food.  Where is responsible leadership gone on this issue?   Even the President has caved and hired an Ebola czar.  Maybe he ought to hire someone from Weight watchers as an executive assistant.  Between the media and politicians it is surprising anyone is venturing outside their homes.  Remember when we thought elected officials were elected to lead? Thing again.
Then there is going into the earth's rocks for oil and natural gas.  Is that process safe for the environment?  Are we doing it correctly?  I don't know.  And what I think is we don't have all of the science in to know for sure.  It has certainly helped us all economically as the price of oil is coming down steadily.  What I do know is that responsible leadership calls for getting all the facts that are currently available; weighing the pros and cons, and seeing how we can best mitigate the cons and move on.  I also know it is irresponsible and poor leadership to blame all of life's ills on this process just because you or your organization are against it. Organizations are asking people to donate to fight this process because it "could" expose chemicals that lead to breast cancer.  We really do not know what it COULD do.  Again the leaders of this organization have chosen to lead through fear rather than through thoughtful discussion and debate.
Leadership is tough.  It is not management or the status quo.  It is sticking your neck out and asking people to follow your direction.  It is risking being wrong.  But it is not purposely asking people to follow misinformation.  That is not leadership that is demagoguery.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Big Lie

Every day we are bearing false witness to our children.   It is something we do in the name of higher standards and equality.  We want all of our children to achieve high academic standards so we declare it so and go home.   Nothing on the ground changes.
The latest and greatest thought is that all children need to take algebra 2.   It is never exactly clear why this is so.  Mainly we are told that our children need algebra 2 in order to go to college.  There are no requirements that students master the skills in algebra 1, only that they "take it" before they "take" algebra 2.
We have a significant number of children in algebra 1 classes that have never mastered basic arithmetic.   Many of those children are poor or black or Hispanic.  Others are not.  The problem is we cannot as a society admit that the poor, black and Hispanic kids have not yet mastered arithmetic skills because that might mean they have not received a quality education.   And we all know that since our society is equal they must have received an education of equal quality to their socio-economic better off peers.
So we continue the big lie.  We teach kids material for which they are not in the least bit prepared.  We do not go back and teach them the 4th or 5th grade skills they desperately need and might actually use in their lives.  Indeed not.   In the 9th grade we teach algebra and lie to our colleagues, the children's families and worst of all to the children themselves.  We tell all these groups that we are teaching algebra.  How on earth could we be teaching algebra to children who have not mastered basic arithmetic?  The answer is we cannot.   But that has never stopped us before.
Since we have done such a great job of teaching algebra 1 to all of the children, we will now move onto algebra 2.   There will be many more children who don't learn algebra 2 than there are who haven't learned algebra 1.   Perhaps we will call this progress.
Someone once said that the bigger the lie, the more likely people are to believe it.  It is not clear just how many people are believing this lie.  Hopefully it is not the math teachers who are supposedly teaching algebra 1 and algebra 2.  Great empires have been built on the notion that you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time.
Here is the biggest foolishness of all- of what purpose is algebra 2 to the vast majority of all students. Oh right, forgot again, it will be needed in college.   Hey does that mean once college is done it can be forgotten altogether!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

What if you don't agree with the team

According to federal and state law, parents are equal partners in the team.  However, this situation does not always play out as described.   First of all the school team is made up of multiple school personnel.  So that means any issue that is voted on, the school wins.   It is not unusual for school personnel to meet prior to a team meeting and decide ahead of time what the school position is going to be.
What's a parent to do if the team's view of a situation differs from that of the team.   First and foremost, parents need to remember that the child will belong to the parent forever.   Whereas, the team will be done with this student in a few months or a year or two.  That gives the parent a lot more skin in the game.
So step one.  Parents should arrive at the meeting dressed like a grown up.  Ones appearance speaks a  lot toward ones credibility.
Secondly, parents should come with a friend, advocate or other parent.  It is good to have two sets of ears hearing what is being said.   It doesn't hurt to bring a small tape recorder either or else have the second person take complete notes.
Thirdly, parents should cross-examine presentations made by the school personnel regarding a child's needs.   How often has the child been observed?  Has the child been tested?  Has the professional met with the child?  How do these experiences compare with other children of a similar age.  Parents should be prepared to provide the same standard when presenting their views as to the child's needs.  When a parent simply says, "I believe my child can do better than that", it is not a strong case without evidence.
Fourthly, parents should summarize what is being said and attribute comments to the specific speaker.
At the end of the meeting, if parents disagree with the conclusions of the team, it is important for the parents to make sure they are summarizing the comments accurately.
Finally, parents should ask what the next level of appeal is.  There is usually another level that can review school based decisions.
Remember, the child belongs to the parents.   Their stake in the situation is the greatest of all, other than the child him or herself.  The cost of a mistake is borne by the child and the family, not the school system.  Go for the gold.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Teachers in the warehouse

Here is an interesting phenomena.   Let's say there is an allegation about a teacher that involves an offense that could lead to dismissal.  The most obvious would be an accusation of child abuse.  of course, the individual deserves due process before such action can or should be taken.  But how long does this investigation and due process take and what happens to the teacher during that process.
If the teacher works for a school system that is represented by a union, that process could take over a YEAR!   And during that time, the accused teacher is paid full salary each and every day and receives all benefits.   During the day the teacher reports to a kind of "holding tank".   In some school systems the "holding tank" is a book warehouse.   Here the pariahs read, play cards, use their smart phones and chat with each other.  All on the taxpayers' dime.   There are also supervisors watching because sleeping is not allowed, so if a person should doze off during the so-called workday, the supervisor wakes that person up.
Back in the teacher's class for which the teacher is being paid, a substitute is holding forth.   A permanent teacher cannot be hired for this spot because technically it is not an open spot.  So let's add this all up:  alleged wrongdoers salary $67,000 (the average in a metro school system), alleged wrongdoers benefits $9,300 (calculated at 14% of gross, which is probably low), the substitute's salary $45,000, and substitute reduced benefits because the person is a sub $4,900 (calculated at 11%).  That is over $126,000 without introducing the overhead costs of the warehouse itself.   AND the kids, oh right, there are students in this equation.  They are being taught by a substitute who may or may not be trained in the field.
Why do we do this crazy thing?   Well because it is written into the union contract to protect the teacher from false accusations.  I know of no other job or profession in which a person is paid full salary and benefits during a due process procedure.   And if the person is found to be guilty, there is no compensation to the school system, nor the taxpayers and certainly not to the children for all the money spent during the process and the instruction lost.
How about speeding up the process to 90 days and not pay the teacher during the process.  This procedure might speed up the motivation of the teacher to resolve the matter.  If the teacher is found innocent, the teacher could get back pay.  If the teacher is found guilty at least the taxpayers have not funded a perpetrator and the students are deprived of a qualified teacher for a finite amount of time.  Teachers' unions function to protect the teachers, good and bad.  But why do we have to be complacent in that function.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Grammar is as grammar does

I am told that in the digital age grammar does not count.   We communicate by tweets, email and texts.  We want everything to be quick, short and fast.  So the common wisdom goes, grammar just gets in the way.  I beg to differ.  Ok, first full confession- I am a grammar nerd.  But that does not take away from grammar's value.
Grammar gives our language precision and helps to avoid confusion.  Grammar gives people, rightly or wrongly,  an impression of our education and intelligence.
We think in words and visual images.  The proper use of those words structures our thinking.  It is thinking in language that distinguishes us from other animals.  It is all well and good to advocate for street language as being more authentic; however, when an individual is looking for a job employers are not interested so much in authenticity as they are in projecting a good impression of their company's image.  Poor grammar and street language when one is not on those mean streets can confine an individual to lower paid jobs.  It is cruel to have such low expectations of children that we do not expect more.
Regardless of ones career field, language is the tool of communication.  Clear, precise communication is required in the sciences and the arts.  Yet everyday we have students leaving our schools who cannot speak a grammatically correct sentence, let alone write one.  When was the last time you heard someone say, "me and him went out last night" or some variation of this same horribly grammatically incorrect sentence.  As the line from My Fair Lady goes, "if you spoke as she does, sir,  instead of the way you do, you might be in selling flowers too".  A true prediction of the value of grammatically correct language in professional advancement.
The problem is if we are not taught good grammar as young children, we do not develop the ear for grammar.  Children need to hear grammatically correct language from the adults in their environment.  They need to be called on poor grammar and made to correct it so they will learn to "hear" good language and be offended by poor grammar just as they might be by a sour note in a song.
Every immigrant generation to our country has had to learn to use English in a grammatically correct manner so it can move up the socio-economic ladder.  In some respects we are, all of us, immigrants in the new digital generation.  We have learned to use digital shorthand in our digital communications.  Now it is time that we return to the mastery of our native tongue.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Teach to need rather than dream

The other day I had an interesting conversation with two excellent math teachers.  These women have taught higher level math skills to kids with significant learning challenges.  They asked me a very important question.  Why are we teaching algebra II to students who can't make change, measure elapsed time or calculate living costs.  The answer is pretty simple although self defeating.  The reason is that politicians have taken over educational curriculum and the weak professional educators have allowed it to happen.
Politically it makes great sense and great sound bites to endorse college for every student.  But realistically that goal is bad for kids and bad for schools.  Not all students should go to college.  Some kids don't want to.  And, perish the thought, some students don't have the ability to do college work.  Somehow or other that notion is considered to be undemocratic.  When as a nation we endorse the concept that "all men are created equal", we mean equal in the eyes of the law.  All people are not equal in competence, whether that competence is athletic ability, academic ability or artistic ability.
No one would ever espouse that everyone should be on the varsity football team.  That privilege is reserved only for those who can make the grade on the field.  Yet we heartily endorse the concept that everyone should be on the varsity academic team known as college.
This ridiculous and shortsighted notion denies the students with other abilities the opportunity to develop those abilities.  It also deprive some kids of the functional learning they will need to survive in an increasingly complex world.  Sending unprepared and/or unqualified students to higher education also causes those institutions to divert valuable resources in attempts to bring those unqualified students up to higher ed standards.  And it wastes taxpayer and parental monies in funding these pie-in-the-sky notions.
Children need to be educated based on what they need to succeed.  That means starting with basic writing, reading, math and technology skills.  Skills needed to function and not get fleeced by those who would take advantage of them.  Next, they need to understand what it takes to live independently.  How much does it cost and how much can they legitimately be expected to earn.  That means every varsity high school football player is not going to the NFL.  Most will be fringe earners struggling for some way to earn a living.  It also means that every person who manages to scratch out a six year bachelor's degree (which by rights should only take 4 years)  is not going to get a great job especially if that degree is in something like mass communications or American history.
Finally students need to be educated to DO something.  Whether that something is a professional job that requires advanced education or a technical job that requires advanced education of a non-academic nature.
Education is not a game.  We have a limited number of shots at getting the right one for our lifetimes.  We should not be wasting that time on some dream we wish would come true.  If wishes were fishes no one would go hungry.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Starting late

There is a push in Maryland and some other states to begin the school year after the Labor Day holiday.  Why do we want to do that?  Long ago and far away the school year always started after Labor Day.  Then came lots and lots of other school holidays.   Martin Luther King Day, Presidents Weekend, longer spring breaks so families could travel, and more and more snow days.  When kids walked to school or rode public transportation there were many fewer snow days.  Now the liability of running busses on bad roads has created more snow days.  Having students stand on the corner on dark winter mornings hasn't helped either.  So in order to be able to end the 180 day school year by mid-June schools started opening in late August.  This was a perfect example of "you can't burn the candle at both ends".
So now we are going retro and some politicians are advocating for a post Labor Day start.  Their reasons are really interesting- it is good for business. We need the student workers in the seasonal businesses and we need the families to vacation longer.   Isn't that quaint- we shortchange a child's education because it is good for business.  In order to squeeze in the 180 days by mid-June, it is recommended that we reduce teacher training days and possibly reduce the school year to 170 days.
Research has repeatedly shown that the single most important variable for improving education is the quality of the teacher.  There are other studies that keep telling us the U.S. is losing ground to other countries because our education system is slipping.  So our answer would be to reduce teacher training!!
We also know that kids forget a lot over the current summer break.  Many schools don't even begin teaching new material until the end of September as they help kids to catch up.  This situation is particularly true in communities where parents do not work with kids over the summer.  Reducing the number of days in school would only exacerbate this issue.
Once again we have politicians butting into school policy.   Where are the educators on this?  Where is the push back from school administrators or the unions? If this idea should become a fait accompli there will be lots of jumping and shouting.  But then it will be too late.   It is only now that teachers' unions are upset about Common Core.  Where were they 5 years ago when Common Core was getting started?
"Professional" educators are a bunch of wimps.  I put the word professional in quotes because it is the only profession I know that continually rolls over and lets people without training and with little to no investment in the child's education to make the rules for the profession and for kids.  Nature abhors a vacuum and the so-called professional educators have allowed the vacuum to be quite large.  Can't blame the politicians for leaping in for their own aggrandizement.  The students?  Who looks out for their interests?  Beats me.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

FAPE-what it REALLY means?

Since 1975 children with disabilities have been entitled to a free and appropriate education at public expense- FAPE.  This guarantee came about as part of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act that was signed into law by President Ford.
As with all things, the devil is in the details.  Over the years there have been huge disagreements between families and school systems regarding what equals appropriate.  The full inclusion movement that advocates that all children, regardless of disability, should be educated in the general curriculum has further complicated the issue.
Let's start with "free".   There are few issues now if a family wants their child educated in the public schools.  Certainly that will be free. Although your taxes and those of others are funding it.   The law, however, also provides that if the public schools cannot provide an appropriate education in the public system, then the public schools need to purchase an appropriate program from an approved private provider that can offer the appropriate program.  That is where the fight frequently occurs.   Public schools are happy to let families send their child to school someplace else, just not at their expense.
The stickler is most often the word "appropriate".   School systems will argue that the child must be educated with non-disabled peers.  But that is not what the law says.  The law says that a child with a disability must be educated with non-disabled peers "to the maximum extent that it is appropriate".  There is that stickler word again- appropriate.  What kinds of things make a program not appropriate for a child.  What if a child is bullied and teased by his/her age mates?   Does the extent of that bullying/teasing render the program inappropriate for that child?  What if a child reads at several grade levels below that of the rest of the kids in the class-what happens then?  Can the teacher still teach to that child?  Suppose a child cannot tolerate being the dummy of the class any longer and begins to act out with bad behaviors.  Everyone should know by now that a child would rather be bad than dumb.   Being bad holds a certain cache and the worse your behavior is the more impressed your well behaved classmates are with your bravery.  Is your class appropriate if all the other kids have totally different learning issues from yours?  Suppose the schools try to fix that by giving your child a dedicated assistant.  That service certainly makes sure your child gets enough adult attention.  Of course, the assistant also creates a barrier between your child and the other kids so your chances of a friendship have just gone down another notch.
What can a family do?  First of all attend all the meetings the school calls.  Bring a friend if both parents are not available.  Make sure when you attend this meeting you dress like an adult so that you will not be patronized. If you are patronized take a stand.  I will treat you with respect if you do the same.  If you are addressed by your first name, address staff by their first names.  Take notes at the meeting.  Frequently stop the meeting to make sure the quotations you are writing down are correct.  This technique makes the other people edgy and helps even the odds against you.  Make your notes as neat as possible because at the end of the meeting you are going to ask people to sign that your notes are a substantial representation of what was said at the meeting.
When you present your case at the meeting avoid wishy washy words like "I believe" and "I think".  Present facts as objectively as possible and have dates when events occurred, notation of phone calls or emails that you sent.  Don't let the group rattle you.  And finally ask the question:  If this were your daughter would you choose this education that you are proposing?  That will make some people wiggle.  In the end, your response should be- "well neither will I"  or " you may be willing to shortchange your child's education but I am not.  Then request a meeting with the next person up the authority pole.
Remember, you are not asking for anything that is not guaranteed to your child in both federal and state law.  And you child's future may be riding on whose definition of appropriate carries the day.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Two sets of data-where do they collide

There are two new sets of data out regarding employment in our nation's public schools.  One set of data tells us that between 1970 and 2010 the number of employees in our public schools grew by 84%.  Another set of data tells us that non-teaching employees grew by 130%.  These data were included in a report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  It is entitled "The Hidden Half: School Employees That Don't Teach".  The increase is not particularly due to administrative staff.   When you look more closely, the increases come from teacher aides, speech therapists, psychologists, and nurses to accommodate students' special services needs.  The report hints that these additions have been brought on by the legislation in the 1970's that expanded students' rights.  It does not take a great detective to pinpoint The Education of All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) that was signed into law by President Ford in 1975.
While the report does not make a formal recommendation as to whether these staff increases are good or bad, it does strongly support creativity in options for districts to evaluate the cost-benefits of adding these new staff.
Clearly when evaluating "cost-benefits" the Foundation is only looking at dollars.   Prior to the EHA, children with disabilities were routinely totally excluded from public education or received an education that was not much better than training for sheltered workshops.  The "cost" to these individuals and their families, as well as to the communities in which they live, has never been calculated.  The push of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), the successor to EHA, has required that as much as appropriate children with disabilities be educated with their non-diabled peers.  In order to pull this off, a large number of aides have been hired to facilitate the inclusion of children with disabilities in the general ed classes.  Whether this is a good thing of not depends on the characteristics of the child, not on the economics of the situation.
It is also strange that the report has determined that speech therapists and teacher aides do not teach.  Clearly the authors are very unfamiliar with the work of these people.  Speech therapists do very much more than articulation and teacher assistants are often the people who serve as the bridge between what the teacher thinks she is teaching and what the children really learn.
EHA told us that when schools decide to serve children, those schools must therefore, serve all the children.  That is clearly a good thing.  Can we do that in a cost effective manner.  Sure.  But let's make sure that when measuring costs we include human costs not just dollar costs.   Education is a human business.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Where oh where have the good teachers gone

I am of a mind that the good teachers have been driven into hiding by the reformers, the bureaucrats and the unions.  First the data.   Half- yes half- of all teachers in an urban setting depart within three years.  Why is that?   This is what I think.
 First of all the teachers are not properly prepared for teaching in an urban environment.  The pressure is on them not to suspend students.  That is fine.  But teaching should not be a combat zone and if nothing else teachers need,  at bare minimum, feel physically safe.  Because there are always openings in urban schools, the HR departments are hiring people who are "alternatively prepared" (read that as quick and dirty).   These people come in with the best of intentions wanting to help kids.  BUT they have not a clue about the situations into which they are walking.  Nor do they have the skills to manage the behaviors of kids who either have not learned school behaviors or for whom school does not hold the same middle class values as the teacher.  Make no mistake, these kids can be taught, but the teachers need the skill to do it.
Secondly, we need to leave the good teachers alone and let them teach.  Let them teach students and let them teach new teachers how to do the job.  Let's stop pestering them with all this testing and telling them that we are measuring what kind of job they are doing by test scores.  Doing this takes all the responsibility off the student for learning.
Thirdly, we need to ask for references for new hires and listen to the reference.  There are very few people who do not know 3-4 people who think they are great and can give a good reference.  That reality makes bad references all the more potent.  Recently a school system hired two teachers who had received bad references from at least two people.  Why were these people hired?  From what I was told, the HR department had slots to fill and these people had the credentials for the jobs.  All credentialed people are not qualified to teach.  Surely HR people should know that.  And if they don't they need to move on to other jobs.
Finally, every one in a school knows who the weak teachers are.  And I do mean everyone, including the custodian and the students.  We need to have the courage to get rid of these people who are not doing their jobs.  But then there are the unions whose primary purpose seems to be to get more money, more benefits and to hell with the students because the union will protect the job of every member regardless of that member's skill.
So where are the great teachers?  If they cannot be found in law offices, sales or other non lethal professions where they have been driven by forces mentioned above, they are hiding out in your neighborhood classroom hoping they will not be noticed so they can do what they really love to do.  If you know one of these teachers, protect them but don't blow their cover.   Our students need them.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Gotta Love This Woman

Truth first.   I am not a fan of unions.   I particularly do not like teachers' unions.   I think they have ruined our profession and protected all the weak sisters.  
And I just read a piece about the new president of the National Education Association (NEA).  You've got to love her.   If she can pull off what she wants to do in the six years of her term in office it will be wonderful.
She takes office at a time when former friends and current foes alike are all over the unions.  Even the court in California has ruled that the teacher tenure laws long supported by the unions are unconstitutional because of the potential damage to students.  The Republicans are working to remove the dues checkoff from payroll and removing charter schools' staff from the requirement to belong to a union.  Even Democrats are joining the courts in challenging seniority rights and the tenure laws.
In steps Lily Eskelsen Garcia.  She has quite a life story. She is the daughter of a Panamanian mother and the granddaughter of a Mississippi sharecropper.  She started her career as a salad maker lunch lady in a school cafeteria.  She put herself through undergraduate and grad school and is the first person in her family to graduate from college.   Oh and she also won Teacher of the Year honors in Utah.   Her first husband committed suicide and her son who she adopted at 4 has been in jail more often than not for drug abuse and associated crimes.
She loves Common Core, is appalled by the testing that has taken over teaching and schools and wants the politicians to let the professionals manage their profession.  Good luck on that last one.
Both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the larger union NEA, have officially supported the Common Core Standards.  Neither is happy about the implementation nor the link of teacher evaluation to Common Core testing results.
She has her work cut out for her.   Union membership is dwindling for a variety of reasons.  The remaining membership is divided on whether to go nuclear and blast the Obama administration and Secretary Duncan or to keep a lower profile and work within the system.  The NEA has already called for Duncan's resignation.  And there is already a splinter group called Badass Teachers Association whose membership is angry about the path education is on but is more angry at the response from the unions.
So Garcia has to figure a way to focus the union while at the same time keeping all its membership pulling in the same the same direction.  It would be good if she could create a united front with the AFT, something that has never happened.  Unlike the NEA, there are no term limits on the AFT President and she has held office for a very long time.   Of course Garcia did have the AFT President's daughter Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum perform her second civil marriage ceremony to a man who speaks little English and Garcia speaks little Spanish.  Her husband remains in Mexico waiting a visa.  Lifetime Channel are you listening- there is a movie here.
Through all the stress, Garcia will be comforted by a salary of $283,124 and another 100K in benefits.  Guess the days of union organizers struggling just to survive financially are done.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Start of a new era

You might not have noticed but when schools closed this past June, it was the end of an era.  For the foreseeable future, this is the last time that white students will be in the majority in our nation's public schools.  When schools reopen in August and September, black, Latino, Asian and Native American students combined will make up a majority of our country's public school students.

This change is more than just a statistical blip.  Demographers believe that the previously thought of minority groups  will continue to grow and increase their majority in our public schools.  What does this mean for all of us?

First of all, we have already seen that state legislatures that are made up of primarily older white men have shown little interest in funding the public schools.  In many states public funds are offered to families in the form of vouchers to place children in private schools.  We are a democracy.  One of the reasons our governments fund public education is because an educated electorate is crucial to the operation of a democracy.  So whether we have children in public schools or not, whether we are people of color or not, public schools play a key role in the continuation of our democracy.

Secondly, public schools are also a key element in our workforce.  People of color will soon be a majority in our workforce and by 2042, it is predicted that they will represent a majority of our population.  Each and every one of us, regardless of race or ethnicity, has a significant stake in that.  State legislatures that fund public schools with the notion "that's not my kid in there" are totally missing the point.  That kind of ethnocentric short sightedness will take every one of us down a path we do not want to go on.  Even countries like Germany with a history of being unwelcoming to immigrants are seeing the light of their economic future.  They are encouraging the immigration of talented workers to meet their economic engine needs.  We need people to grow our economy.  If those people do not come from births at home they need to come from somewhere.  And we need to treasure and train the people who are here, one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bold new plans

This month the University of Maryland's University College has floated a bold new idea.  Competency based education!  Quite remarkable really, students will be able to earn credits based on the demonstration of content rather than just being able to repeat what the prof has said.  University College is the arm of the University of Maryland whose mission has always been the reach out to non-traditional students.  The backbone of their program has been the men and women of the armed forces who were serving overseas.  They used to brag that the sun never set on University College.  With the reduction in the armed forces, the College has seen a significant reduction in students so they are seeking to re-build enrollment by reaching out to the business community and trying to partner with that community to train and education current employees.
Of course, no good idea goes uncriticized.   People are complaining that what it means to be competent is not clearly defined.  Clearly defined has never been an issue in traditional course work.  Each instructor "clearly defines" what is expected at the beginning of each course.  Just ask students how often mind reading has been the most important skill when trying to get good grades.
There are so many just mind boggling ideas here.  Such as students would finish the course in as much time as it took to master the content.  Could be more or less than the typical semester.  Just imagine the emphasis would be on student learning not hours in a classroom.  One professor even had the courage to say out loud that he thought it was a good idea "so long as it does not lead to cutting faculty positions."  Now that's putting it out there- student learning vs. jobs for the teachers. Throughout the discussion of whether or not the competency based approach was a good idea, was whether or not it would be financially beneficial to the College.
The Harbour School has been measuring student learning based on a competency based program for over 20 years.  The approach is both so logical and intuitive that one cannot help but wonder 1) why every school doesn't use the approach and 2) why do schools keep acting like it is a remarkable new way to measure learning.
Truth is, with a very few exceptions, in the real world, you either can do the job or you can't do the job.  If you aren't competent in the skill, you will either be trained or be released from those job responsibilities.  Granted, teaching in a competency based program is harder work for the teacher.  Responsibility shifts to student learning and away from teacher teaching.  In the traditional program the teacher throws content out there and the student either makes the catch or not.  The teacher is considered to have "taught well" if he or she adheres to quality accepted practices of what is good teaching.  In the traditional model, good teaching can occur independent of student learning.  Not so in the competency based approach.  Of course the question of whether there can be good teaching without student learning is a discussion best left for another day.
Until then, let's hope that the University College of The University of Maryland follows the lead of The Harbour School and moves to competency based learning.  It is a good idea whose time has long since come.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Where did all the children go?

I just returned from 17 days in China.  Let me say first of all that the Chinese people could not have been kinder or more welcoming.  They love to practice their English on Americans since their government's policy makes it unlikely that they will be able to travel to America.  However, children do start to learn English from the very early grades and people do quite well considering the huge differences between English and Chinese.   We could learn something there.
Among other places, I visited the four largest cities in China.  China has 1.3 billion people- yep that's billion with a "B".   It has 1/4th of the world's population.  I mention this fact not because I want to show off what I learned but because of this next very curious experience.
In the seventeen days of my visit, including many standard tourist attractions, that were predominately frequented by Chinese not westerners, I saw not ONE, that is correct, not a single child with a disability.
My curiosity started with questions about how China does special education.   I was met with quizzical and confused looks.   Finally I was told that we do have some schools for deaf people.  I believe they do but I did not see a single person sign to another.  I was frequently asked to notice the strips of concrete tread engraved into sidewalks.  I was told that these were to help the blind.   But I never saw a single vision impaired person, no white canes, no guide dogs.
Then came the final question.  What about people with learning problems or emotional problems.  That was when the looks got really confused.  Often people just said "we don't have any".  Now granted with as many people as China has there are many jobs that can be managed with limited cognition.  For example, people sweep the curbs of major highways with brooms made of bamboo.  They wash down the road dividers with mop like hand tools.  Things are clean in China that Americans have no expectation of being clean or expect a machine to come along and do the job.
But the people doing these jobs looked just like everyone else.  We did not see a single person who was visibly disabled.  By contrast, on the relatively short hop from Chicago to the east coast on our return, there was a boy who looked to be about 12.   He also looked to be and acted as someone with autism.  Right there, right away, barely back in our country was a person with a disability.
Where are they in China?  Surely China must have its share of kids with disabling syndromes.   Here is what is scary.  China has a one child policy.  There are severe sanctions for failure to adhere, even to the extreme in some areas of forced abortion.  Are these children allowed to die at birth?  Are they given up for adoption?  China still has orphanages and still allows westerners to adopt out.
These children have to be born and they have to be somewhere- but where are they?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Lots of Sound and Fury...

The news was all abuzz in the last week about the connection of student test scores to teacher evaluation.  Federal law, No Child Left Behind, required testing for almost every elementary school year and 3 high stakes tests in high school in English, math and science.  Then along came Race to The Top, President Obama's contribution to the federal muddle of improving education.   In order to get Race to the Top money a state had to link student test scores to teacher evaluation.  The recommended percentage was a 50% linkage.  In the beginning, teacher unions and local school systems went along with the game to get the money.  Notably in Maryland, Montgomery County and Frederick County refused to play.  So when Maryland got 250 mil, they got zip.
But now the piper must be paid and folks are having lots of second thoughts.  Principal's are recommending a new evaluation processes, some of which do not include the linkage to testing.  In Maryland the State Board recently approved counting test scores as 20% of the teacher's evaluation.  Whatever happened to the 50%?  Reality and push back.
Now there comes a pledge by unions, the local school boards and the state school board to agree to work together to come up with a new plan.  Some principals and school systems have gone so far as to having principals and teachers establish learning objectives at the beginning of the school year and evaluate teachers based on the achievement of those objectives.  But here's the rub.  Many of those objectives are so innocuous that they would be almost impossible NOT to achieve, as in raising overall math achievement by x% without naming the measuring stick nor doing pre and post testing.
The fact is, what are all these people jumping and shouting about.  Unfortunately a teacher's evaluation has zip to do with the salary the teacher will receive each year.  That is determined by the extra degrees a person has and the years of service.  And by the way, research has shown that those extra degrees are expensive in salary but do not provide a commensurate improvement in teaching ability.  But they do look nice in the statistics of staff education.
Why don't we just start with getting rid of bad teachers.  Every principal knows who they are.  And so does every union because they are protecting them from losing their jobs.  Data seem to show that roughly 10% of all teachers are ineffective.  If the unions cared about something besides their own health and welfare benefits they would want to clean up the profession as well.  But they don't.
So the bottom line is 20%, 50% who cares about degree- it's evaluation that no one is really interested in doing anything about.  We just keep throwing up straw men to argue about.  Keeps us occupied and away from the real issues.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

And then there were 15...

Originally the idea behind the Common Core curriculum was to establish some sort of national baseline for curriculum so that all states would in essence march to the same drummer.  The idea for Common Core came from the governors of the individual states.   It has never been a federal mandated program.
Next came the idea to assess whether or not students had mastered the skill set of Common Core.  In Maryland Common Core has gotten such a bad reputation that administrators took the label off the can and changed it to College and Career Readiness.   Please note we are still sticking with the CC :)
It didn't take long for the idea of a common assessment to fall away.  Most of the west coast states and the northern tier went with a group called Smarter Balance Consortium.   There are 22 states in that collection.  Some of the New England and Great Lake states went with a consortium known as PARCC, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.  One state, Pennsylvania, uses both.  Not sure how that is going to work out.
States have been dropping out of PARCC on a consistent basis.  The latest to go is Tennessee.  Its legislature didn't exactly drop PARCC, it just decreed that Tennessee would stay with its own state assessments.  With Tennessee dropping out PARCC is down to 14 states and the District of Columbia.
Fifteen of these United States are choosing none of the above.  The tests are not supposed to be widely used until the 2014-15 school year.   However, this past school year has been the pilot year and there were a number of issues that turned up.
There are multiple reasons advanced for the various state behaviors.   Some states are insisting that they do not want to spend the money on the consortia assessments.  This approach totally ignores the economies of scale that are clear in the group development.   Others are saying that states like Tennessee will be embarrassed when their students are compared to students in Maryland and Massachusetts whose school systems are routinely highly ranked in the country.
All of this begs the question:   Do these assessments, state developed or consortia developed truly measure learning?   That is the big question and so far no one has answered it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tenure: Love it or Leave it

Depending on whom you ask, tenure is either saving the teaching field or killing it.   A California court has just ruled that the California tenure law is unconstitutional because it deprives children of good teachers.  Personally I think tenure has lived a good long life and now it is time for it to slip peacefully into its grave.
First, some history.  Tenure came at a time when teachers were hired and fired based on lots of things, many of them having nothing to do with the ability to help children learn.   A teacher could be hired because the right political party was in local power and a contribution had been made to the winning candidate.  A teacher could be hired because she (and almost always a woman) belonged to the right church or had "good" family background.  Likewise, teachers could be fired for being in the "family way" or even just getting married.  If the parties switched control teachers would be fired.  If a teacher taught a lesson that was thought to be against the mores of that community, out she went.  So teachers needed the protection of tenure to make sure their jobs were not sustained by the whims of those currently in power.
Fast forward to today.  Between tenure and the teachers' unions it is almost impossible to terminate a teacher.  The procedures are long and arduous and if even one step is skipped, administrators must go back to step one.  Add to that the fact that a teacher can request a transfer to another principal who might not be as methodical in following all the steps.  I could tell you some stories of tenured teachers that would make your taxpayer dollars curl up into a crumbled ball, yet on they stay, getting raises year after year for just living and breathing.  Teacher quality has no current place in teacher salary.  Tenure protects the good teachers and the bad teachers.  But let's be honest, there is a shortage of good teachers and there are very few great teachers- these people hardly need protection.
There is no longer any issue of firing someone because of marriage, religion, pregnancy or even in most places sexual orientation.  We don't need to worry about teaching blasphemous curriculum or protecting academic freedom because curriculum is so controlled in public schools teachers complain about how few choices they do have.  Did anyone say Common Core.
So what is the remaining purpose of tenure today?  Simply to protect the weakest links from being removed from the teaching force.  Somewhere along the line we have totally lost sight of the purpose of schools and teaching.  It is for children to learn.  Clearly children learn better with good teachers. It is unconscionable that we are using tenure to protect the weakest teachers while sacrificing children's learning.
I am sure the teacher unions have other reasons for tenure, I just can't think of them

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

What really counts in student achievement

School systems have struggled for ages on how to get kids to achieve more in school.   Excessive absenteeism, failure to learn to read at an early age and teen pregnancy have all ranked right at the top.   Now that these issues are being addressed in a strong manner, why is it that some kids are still not achieving.
Turns out that the most common reason for dropping out of school is that kids are just not motivated to stay.  The question of what drives one student to stick out the 4 years of high school while another equally talented kid does not has just seemed really elusive.
Education Week did a survey of teachers and school-based administrators as to what they thought was the difference between those who graduate and those who quit.  Overwhelmingly, the respondents felt that student engagement and motivation were the key reasons students stayed to graduate.  Teacher quality and school climate were second and third respectively.  Family background came in dead last.
So the question remains what do schools do to create that motivation and engagement.  Once we acknowledge that they are partly wired into the human DNA at creation, how do we as educators manage the areas we can influence.
It would seem to me that this current drumbeat on test scores and the heavy emphasis on reading and math is going to beat the joy out of kids whose reason for being in school is something other than academic achievement.   If we take away sports, performing arts, studio art, and other hands on activities we have taken away the "carrot" and schools are left with only the stick to beat in academic skills.  Once students reach the quitting age they can get away from that stick.
We need to return to the time when comprehensive schools really meant comprehensive.   We need to motivate kids with many thing and understand that each of us are drawn to different thing.  Then we will get the motivation and engagement we need to make kids stick around to complete their high school education.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What happens after graduation

It is the season for graduation.  All over the country we are launching our kids out into the big wide world.  What happens then?
Well if you are a person on the autism spectrum (ASD) your hopes don't look quite as high.  In fact, recent studies show that 35% of people with autism are just sitting at home.  Not employed, not attending post-secondary education- just sitting at home.
Why is that since a majority of people on the spectrum are high functioning and should be able to handle college and/or a job.  I think there are several reasons.
One of the most defining elements of people with autism is lack of social skills.  Whereas the majority of people pick up social skills by watching the habits of others, people with autism do not.  So they may have difficulty sticking with a conversation and interjecting their own topic that has nothing to do with what is being discussed.  They often appear to be very self-centered, having a great deal of difficulty taking another's perspective.  Their idea of person space can get confused causing them to stand too close to the person with whom they are speaking.  All of these deficits need to be overcome if they are to successfully move into a work place.
Another reason I believe they are underemployed is the failure to capitalize on a special interest.  Many people with ASD have a particular interest.   Sometimes it is very difficult to get them to move off the topic to discuss anything else.  But that special interest can often be a pathway to a job.  And it will be a job about which they are passionate.  Too much energy is spent getting the individual to move past the special interest rather than capitalizing on it.
Failure to look at the benefits of having autism and matching those benefits to the job at hand.  People with autism do better in a work environment that does not demand a great deal of sociability.  As noted above they are weak in social skills.  People with ASD may also appear rigid and in some ways they are.  Being rigid about doing something the same way all the time can be a work benefit if a proper match has been made between job requirements and personal skills.
A good transition program in high school is critical to the post secondary success of a person with autism.  Too often this program is not available to students in the public schools.   There is a one size fits all approach and if the student gets admitted to a college, then everyone seems to be content that the job has been done.  This is not so and the same problems that existed in high school pop up again in 4-5 years or sooner than that if the student drops out of college.
Families must work VERY hard to get that transition program and to make sure that the skill deficits of a child with autism are addressed before the entitlement to a free and appropriate education expires.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Students more engaged than teachers

A recent Gallup poll investigated how engaged todays high school student are.   The results were in some ways comforting.  Students are looking for teachers who make them feel exited about the future and schools that are committed to their individual strengths.  The poll assessed feelings about friendships, a feeling of safety and praise for good work.  In response to these questions, researchers concluded that 55% of the student surveyed were actively engaged in their schools and school work.
The most exciting things about these data is that there is a high correlation between feeling engaged and being a successful learner.  The downside is that the increased emphasis on test scores and higher standards can force teachers to neglect individual needs in favor of boosting those scores.

But here is the really sad news.   Among the general public, a different Gallup poll found that 30% of workers feel engaged in their work.   One might think that teachers would be even more engaged given what they do and the importance of their sense of engagement to kids' learning.  Unfortunately that is not the case.   Teachers were polled at 31% as engaged in their work.   This difference is not even a statistical difference.  What is really bad, is that of ALL the occupations surveyed teachers fell dead last when it came to feeling that their opinions mattered at work.  And given recent events their feelings are probably an accurate impression or reality.

There is a serious disconnect here.   As a nation we need students to feel engaged.   We need them to be high achievers and we know that engagement correlates to high achievement.   Right now we think that test scores measure high achievement.  Hence teachers are pushed to ensure high achievement on test scores.   Their teaching is even evaluated by the test scores.

On the other hand, we are cutting teachers out of all the important stuff.   We have allowed people who do not teach, have not a clue HOW to teach, to make the rules of engagement for those who are teaching and know how to do it.   Why don't the teachers' unions take up this call for teacher empowerment and lay off of salaries and benefits for just a few minutes.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Chicago Teachers weigh in on Common Core

The Chicago teacher's union has weighed in on Common Core and it is not good.   Teachers around the country have issued concerns about Common Core, some valid and some not so much.   Of course, the first concern is a holdover from Race to the Top.   In order for states to get Race to the Top money they had to link teacher evaluations to some sort of objective student achievement measurement.   That link alone caused concern among teachers.
The along came Common Core with its, depending on your viewpoint, very high standards or developmentally inappropriate standards.   It didn't take very long for independent organizations to ramp up the issues by developing tests that would measure achievement on Common Core standards.

It was the perfect storm.  No Child Left Behind gave us high stakes testing, Race to the Top linked that testing to teacher evaluation and then Common Core set a very high bar for that testing and linkage.

In passing its resolution against Common Core, the Chicago teacher's union does not differentiate between the standards and their implementation.   The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have both supported the standards but not the implementation.  In voting against the standards, the Union has said that they "contain numerous developmentally inappropriate expectations", "reflect the interests and priorities of corporate education reformers" and "emphasize pedagogical techniques, such as close reading, out of proportion to the actual value of the methods".
In my view two out of three isn't bad.   I completely agree that the standards are extremely inappropriate for children's developmental level and also agree some of the methods emphasized are out of synch with reality.  Once these standards are fully implemented I think that situation will become even more evident.   You cannot decree development.   However, I think it is a good idea to align education with the workplace if we have any hope of preparing a work force that is ready for the work place.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

US students and Problem Solving

The headline read: "US Students Score Above Average on New Problem Solving Test".   Well that certainly sounded very good.   However, it didn't take very long to realize that "above average" was really not so hot.  The test is the Program for International Student Assessment or PISA.   It has sub tests for reading, math and science.  In the U.S. 1,273 15 year old students were tested in 162 schools.  The opening report states that in modern life all success is based on problem solving.  One could hardly disagree with that.
The mean score for the test for 2012 is 500.  The U.S. mean was 508.   We were outscored by ten countries that participated in the assessment; including Singapore, Korea, Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, Estonia, France, Italy and Germany.  So while our scores were above average, we were hardly stellar among the most advanced countries.   We did beat out Austria, Ireland and Sweden but not by a great deal.
So why is that.  First of all the countries with the highest scores are hardly known for the advancement of creativity.  American students did do much better on tasks that required they scout out some information before they could respond to the problem's solution as opposed to other tasks where all the information was given but students had to use the given information to solve the problem.
There was some good news in the report.  In the US, girls scores equaled those of boys, even though the highest scores went to boys.  Another interesting result that occurred with most countries was that socio-economic status did not differentiate high and low scores to the extent that it did with academic areas.
All of this information should inform how we teach students and measure what they have learned.  Unfortunately I doubt that it will.  We will go on measuring facts and knowledge.   This test in the problem solving area is interactive and requires students to use information to solve problems, not simply repeat what they have been told.  To my mind this test measures the fruits of learning.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Running out of control

We keep hearing that it is important for our teachers to be smart and competent.   We want them to be leaders!   We want them to be able to teach challenging curriculum.   We want them to be knowledgeable.  We want a lot!
Then we assign them to a classroom.  We give them a curriculum for which they had no input whatsoever.   We give them a "pacing guide".  The pacing guide "guides" the pace at which they teach the children.  It is as much guidance as a train schedule is guidance for the train conductor.  Teachers had better be on the right page at the right day.  The so-called good curricula even tell the teachers how to teach the content over which they have no control.  
Of course, teachers also belong to a union.  The union contract spells out the hours they are to work and what they will be paid.   They can work brilliantly or not and what they will be paid will be the same.
OK, so we want smart, competent leaders in our classrooms.  Exactly what would these smart competent leaders do in a classroom.   They don't have much to lead.   The methodology, the curriculum, and the pace of their tasks have been predetermined by other leaders.   The have no opportunity to increase their income by working smarter or harder.
If a teacher is smart and competent, she might want to change the pace of the curriculum delivery depending on the knowledge and skills of her students.  Sorry can't do that, pacing "guide" does not allow that.  If a teacher is a leader, she might want to add some curriculum that meets the needs of a particular area or community.   Sorry can't do that either, the curriculum does not allow that.
If a teacher is ambitious she might want to work harder and achieve more so she can earn more money.  Sorry she can't do that because the union contract spells out what she will earn independent of skill or performance.
We can't even keep our teachers safe.  Zero tolerance policies for physical aggression, drugs and alcohol have been determined to be politically incorrect and have been discarded in the interest of being more PC.  We aren't helping these kids with these problems, if we don't treat the problem while still protecting the rest of the student body and staff.
Why don't we just admit that teaching today has become a pink collar occupation.  Of course, even those women who used to work in secretarial positions have the opportunity to move into administrative assistant positions where they have more degrees of freedom than teachers do.  Once we accept what we have done to the teaching profession, and acknowledge that it is no longer a profession, we might do a better hiring job.   Right now we snow young grads into believing they are entering a profession where they have some control.   Once they find out the truth, they leave in droves.  Perhaps if we did truth in job advertising we might not be losing 3 out of 5 new teachers in the first 5 years.