Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Free speech, hate speech, no speech

Free speech, hate speech, no speech

University of Baltimore December ’17 graduates did not approve of the commencement speaker, Betsy DeVos, U.S. Secretary of Education.  At least some of them did not.  They had tried petitioning before the big day.  Didn’t work.  Some faculty were unhappy as well.  The University of Baltimore is a publically supported university.  Betsy DeVos has never attended a publically funded school in her life.  She has made a huge pitch in favor of school choice and giving tax money for vouchers to assist students to attend private options.  Of course, the vouchers are only enough to supplement the tuition cost so moderate to low income families still will not have a choice.  Protesting students and faculty felt it was hypocritical to give a speaking platform to someone who does not fully support public education.
The President of the University, a former mayor of Baltimore City, believed that a university is a place where diverse views need to be heard and he felt the commencement ceremony was a good place to do that.
So, what to do?  Some students and faculty stood and turned their backs on DeVos when she began to speak, including some faculty on the stage.  Some people felt this behavior by protesters showed a waste of taxpayer money on their education and showed the university to be a 3rd rate school.  One wonders if the university were not publically funded would these critics feel that student behavior was ok.  Others went on to say that the mission of higher education is to promote respect for free speech and the exchange of ideas and opinions; and, therefore, DeVos’s speech should have been welcomed.   Is it not possible that the protestors believed that their behavior was a function of their right to promote free speech and that they were expressing their ideas by doing so?
The next question is whether the behavior was uncivil and rude.  And did it ruin the ceremony for students and their families who just wanted a wonderful day to recognize their achievements.  Is a graduation ceremony the place to protest ideas with which we disagree.
There is enough credit and blame to go all around in this instance.   First of all, perhaps the university president could have chosen a different venue than the graduation ceremony for such a controversial speaker at a public university.  Or maybe he felt without the high-profile event DeVos would not have come to what is really a working-class school of mostly nontraditional students.  So did he trade notoriety for a peaceful ceremony for graduates.
Secondly, one looks at the protestors.  They tried to head off the event but were ignored.  They, too, were looking for a high-profile way to show their displeasure.  They, too, were willing to trade notoriety for a peaceful, decorous ceremony.

Finally, perhaps the commencement ceremony was not so much a celebration of academic achievement but a celebration of free speech.  In many countries of the world, those protesting behaviors would have been grounds for criminal confinement or worse.  Here in our country they were annoying to some, principled to others but a celebration of a basic American right- the freedom to speak our mind as long as we do not incite others to do harm.  Free speech, hate speech or no speech- we must always choose free speech.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

How could a good idea have gone so wrong?

How Could a good idea have gone so wrong?

Long ago and far away there was this pretty good idea.   Education should have a curriculum that specifically laid out the expectations for the kindergarten through twelve grades in school.  This idea came from the various governors of the states.  Great minds in state departments of education and teacher preparation programs got together and developed this k-12 curriculum.  No the feds did not hand it down from on high.  Federal involvement came later.   Every day practicing teachers were notably pretty much excluded from the development group. Once the full curriculum was identified, goals were divided by grade level in math and language. This group was determined to raise standards for each grade level independent of the cognitive development of children.  Some rank and file teachers protested that lots of the kids they taught were not cognitively ready for the grade standard.   Others dared to suggest that not all children marched to the same standard of cognitive development.  What did they know?   They only lived with students, day in and day out.  The standards became known as the Common Core Curriculum and have been adopted and adapted by roughly half of the states.  Initially, more were on board but they have dropped out.
Then things started to go terribly wrong.  
We quickly moved from goals to accountably and from there to enforcement and rewards and punishment.   Pacing guides were created to make sure every child was exposed to the learning that would be tested at the end of the year.  Learning became some kind of bacteria to which kids were exposed instead of ideas that intrigued.  Schools were identified as failing schools.   Failing schools were punished with take overs and staff changes.  Teachers needed to be held accountable as well.   No Child Left Behind and the more recent Every Child Succeeds Act insists on including student test scores in the evaluation of teachers.  Totally ignoring that some teachers teach children with a great deal of baggage such as poverty, cognitive challenges and, frankly, families that don’t give a wit about school achievement, they are contending with survival.   No matter how challenged the learner, every teacher must surmount the challenge and have students with good test scores or be poorly evaluated.
Teachers unions protested.   We uniformly ignored them because we all know one of their prime functions is to protect the weakest among the membership.
We have gone terribly astray.   We are preparing and measuring students for knowledge and skills.  But the world they will enter is far more complicated and nuanced than that.   There is social media to destroy reputations and self-concept.  There are issues we all believe are happening or not- climate change, shifting geopolitical powers, quantum computing and a much more ethnically diverse society for all of us.

The idea of a Common Core of curriculum seemed like such a good idea at the time.   How did we let it go so wrong?

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

What does it take to make you stay?

What does it take to make you stay?

Maryland’s teachers are highly compensated.  The average starting teacher’s salary in Maryland is almost $44,000; that is $8,000 more than the national average for new teachers.  That is a big chunk of change.  In fact, the state salaries are rated at 4.5 out of a 1-5 scale, with 5 being the highest.
Maryland teachers also enjoy smaller classes than their national counterparts.   So what’s the deal?   Our teacher turnover ranking is 2.5 smack in the middle of the range in spite of smaller classes and higher salaries.  Why aren’t teachers staying around?
To discover the answer to that question, one needs to dig a bit deeper into the data collected by the Learning Policy Institute as it sought to create a teacher attractiveness rating for each state.  Maryland’s rating is only 2.1.
There are three important areas in which Maryland teachers feel they are at a disadvantage compared to their colleagues nationwide.
Seventy-seven percent of our nation’s teachers feel a sense of classroom autonomy.  That number is almost 20% less in Maryland.   Classroom autonomy is a big deal to teachers.   They want to be able to close their doors and deliver the kind of instruction they think their students need.   Pacing guides that demand teachers be on a certain page on a certain day, teaching to tests that are meaningless for many of our students, and having little to no say in the curriculum all make teachers feel more like cogs in a big wheel rather than as professionals making decisions in the best interest of students.
Maryland teachers also feel less supported by their administrators than do others across our country.   The U.S. average for administrative support for teachers is 45%, less than half.  But in Maryland that already bad number falls to 41%.   Teaching is very hard work and teachers need the support of administrators when things go array.  Clearly, teachers in Maryland do not feel they are getting that support.  Unfortunately, the system is set up in such a way that there is almost an adversarial relationship between teachers and their leaders.  These negative feelings seem to be extending throughout the school.   Maryland teachers feel a much lower rate of collegiality within their schools as well.  Only 26.9% of Maryland teachers experience that sense of “we are all in this together”. The Maryland ranking is 17% lower than the national average and like the other factors, leaves Maryland in lowest quintile when compared across the country. Maryland has almost 3 times as many uncertified teachers in high minority schools as other states. 
What’s the cause and what’s the effect?  Maryland has the highest percentage of teachers who are planning to leave teaching and the highest percentage of inexperienced and uncertified teachers.  It is no wonder that about 11% of Maryland’s teachers are planning to leave the profession.
Perhaps it isn’t all about money and class size.  Perhaps we need to stop throwing money at the problem and look at the culture in which our teachers are teaching.  Perhaps we should act like we care about teachers and what is going on in the classroom and in our schools.  Perhaps we could give them a little respect and include them in the decision making process.   Maybe then we can figure out what it will take to make them stay.