Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What is a great school?

Lately we have been told how to recognize a great school.   According to the common wisdom great schools have students who test well on the standardized tests and they are taught by teachers who are skilled at getting students to have high test scores.
I disagree on multiple levels.   From my way of thinking these are the elements of a great school.
Engaged teachers who care about the students.   At one level, I don't really care what the student test scores are.   I want the teachers to know whether or not a child's parents have just separated, a grandparent has moved in with the family or a cherished pet has died.   I want the teachers to connect with the kids on a human level.  I think this is good because as a student if I know my teacher cares about me, then I will care what that teacher is trying to get me to do and I will learn more.  There are lots of research studies that show kids learn more from people they like.
Next, I want engaged teachers who care about the school.  I want the staff to tell people in the community that they teach at a great school.  At a great school, staff work together to make the school policies and they support those policies by their behavior.  Teachers and administrators work together to keep policies in place and people do not blame each other for policies not being workable or enforced.  Administrators AND teachers are committed to great teaching.   Great teaching is not just the responsibility of administrators, teachers too try to get better at their jobs and support administrators who do their job of removing weak teachers.  Administrators have the gumption to do their jobs and remove weak teachers.
Great schools have shared decision making.  This decision making includes teachers.  Teachers don't just get to voice their opinions, their opinions count into the decisions that are made.  At great schools teachers are considered to have just as much to add to the discussions about the school as do the administrators.
Lastly great schools show respect for students and staff.   Teachers treat kids as if they counted and treat them with respect.  That means no sarcasm, and no saying things to students that they would never say to another adult.  Teachers have respect for each other.  If one teacher has a difficult teaching issue she or he feels comfortable turning to another teacher for guidance and assistance.  There is no diminution of respect for a staff member just because that staff member asks for help.
Great test scores do not make great schools, but great schools certainly do contribute to great test scores.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Where is preventive maintenance?

Half of our public school children are currently from low-income families.  That's about 25 million kids.   It is also true that about half of our public school kids are children of color.   NO these two groups are not coincidental and I think that is the common wisdom.
About 10% of school age children attend private schools.   I think it is safe to say that these kids are probably not low-income with the few exceptions of scholarship kids.   The cost of attending a privates school only starts with tuition so you need to have enough discretionary funds in your budget to cover all those private school extra costs such as transportation, uniforms, some instructional texts and technology.
But what about that 50% of public school children who come from low-income families.   What do we do about them .  Poor is not necessarily the problem.   Sure poor is hardly a benefit, but the real problem is experience and investment in a child's education.  That investment starts with families and communities.   Families need to give kids cultural experiences and teach them that school is a very high value for the family and the community.   That starts with not keeping a child home from school to babysit a younger sibling and not making doctor's appointments on school days.
Vermont, a state with the fewest number of poor children, spends the most per child of any state.  Mississippi and Arizona spend the least per child and have the most children of high poverty.  I don't think there is a causation re: spending less creating more poor kids, but I DO think that the low per pupil expense certainly demonstrates the value of education to the legislators in those states.  Shame on them.
Maryland spends among the highest in per pupil expense.   The next question needs to be, where is that money going.   If we are spending it all to raise salaries, that isn't going to improve instruction.   Poor kids need cultural experiences.   They need someone to read to them at night, they need to go places like museums and zoos.  Low-income schools would do well to have community managers.  These people would organize church groups, community groups and family groups.  These groups could teach parents how to make sure their children had a better life.  The individual members of the group could take children to good movies and story time in libraries.  The groups could join to raise money to provide technology in homes, iPads and WiFi service.
It can't be all school investment. And it shouldn't be investing millions of taxpayer dollars to create more and better tests for these kids to do poorly on.   Those dollars would be much better spent on preventive maintenance.  Just think of what some good community organizers could have done with that money instead of spending it on tests.   Instead of complaining about how unskilled high school grads are and deciding we could fix that with more tests, how about we not wait until the tires fall off the car to check the tread and wheel alignment.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Everyone needs a furry face

Isn't it funny how people need to do research to confirm what we all already knew. Or maybe we are just running out of topics about which to research.   Many years ago a member of Congress gave an annual Golden Fleece Award.  It was given to the researchers who researched either the most inconsequential things or what we all already knew just using that old oxymoron, common sense.
A small study of only about 70 families has determined that having a pet in a family with a child with autism increases that child's prosocial behaviors. According to the study, smaller dogs did best but any pet could serve, including fish, farm animals, reptiles, cats and rabbits.   The common denominator seems to be that these critters do not talk back, accept whatever level of affection the individual wishes to give and doesn't criticize.   There is a lesson there for all of us.  The study reported that it was easier for a child with autism to socialize with a cat or dog than with a human.  DUH!   The study said that a child with autism is also more likely to respond to questions about his/her per than about other topics.   Double DUH!  Don't we all talk more easily about topics in which we are interested.
It has been known forever that pets give the kind of unconditional love on which we all thrive.   That's how dogs got to be man's and woman's best friend, they accept us as we are.
Now come children with autism.   Who needs unconditional acceptance more than these quirky kids who are often cautious about socializing with others.
The Harbour School has always had a resident cocker spaniel.   She or he greets the kids and gives them a friendly lick.  The cockers have the run of the school and are not a distraction to learning because they are part of the landscape. The furry children (never called dogs) sit for treats and also serve as rewards for good behavior.   Kids get to walk the puppy around the outside for bathroom breaks, lie on the floor and have a treat taken gently from their small ears or even take a 5 minute rest in a big bed on the floor snuggled with a furry faced child.  The cockers are conversation starters for new students.   We didn't need a research study to tell us that dogs are fascinating to kids, mostly non-threatening and become conversation starters because they are also non-intrusive topics and kids are curious about them.
Staying on the topic of "who didn't know that" research, did you know that dogs can be jealous of each other?   Really such incredible information.  Someone even wrote a book about that one.  Too bad there are no more Golden Fleece Awards.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Who else can we test?

Remember the old party game "How low can you go"?   It had to do with a stick held by two people and each time the dancer tried to get under the stick without hitting the stick, it was lowered.   The latest and greatest testing program reminds me of that game.
It seems that now we are doing readiness assessments of kindergarten children.  These assessments are done individually by the kindergarten teachers. They are linked to the Common Core Standards. They are supposed to take 45 minutes to complete but teachers report that they take much longer than that.  Additionally, during the time the teacher is doing the assessment, the rest of the class is being taught by a substitute.  Multiply that 45 minutes to an hour times about 25 kids in the class and you are subtracting a huge amount of instructional time from the other children.
Then there is the feeling of the child being tested.  Some of these kids are not ready for kindergarten based on the standards of this test.  These children are only five years old!  Is it really necessary for them to have these failure experiences so young.
Teachers have been assessing the readiness of kindergarten children for many, many years.  They have done so informally and carefully.  They have done so while protecting the self esteem of these very young learners.  Older children cry and tantrum when faced with these failure experiences.   The younger ones just dissolve in a puddle.  The tests also make no accommodation for English Language Learners or children with special education needs.
For once the unions are speaking out on the side of children.   And yet again no one is listening.  It has been suggested that the tests be suspended until they can, at the very minimum, be revised to more appropriately meet children's needs.  The state administrative offices have turned a deaf ear to the request.
These kids are five years old.   There should be a parental campaign to keep kids home on the testing day.  Well over 90% of teachers surveyed said the testing and the results would not improve instruction and do take away instruction time from the children not being tested.
We are back to the old axiom.  Those who can teach, those who can't develop tests about what is taught.   Our kids need a union.  Too bad they are too young to form one.