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.