Sunday, August 30, 2015

Irony, Education Reform and Teacher Shortages

I love irony. Irony makes me laugh. I look for it in my daily life and seek it out in my reading and in my television viewing. Just today I was leaving the local car wash when I noticed the cemetery across the street was called Riverview Cemetery. I had to wonder how many of the residents of the Riverview Cemetery were enjoying that river view. I pictured the cemetery plot salesperson telling a grieving widow that her dead husband would be able to enjoy a pleasant river view in his final resting place.

Irony is, of course, the discrepancy between reality and appearance or the discrepancy between what is said and what is done. I would imagine that like me you studied irony in high school. Perhaps you encountered irony through The Rime of the Ancient Mariner lost at sea:

                                Water, water everywhere
                                Nor any drop to drink.

Or perhaps it was in Hamlet, when that old blow hard Polonius declares:

My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
What day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time;
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. 

Or perhaps you remember the plight of poor Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, reviled and literally marked for life because of her out of wedlock encounter with the Reverend Dimmesdale, who continues to enjoy the adulation of his flock because she refuses to give him up.

History is replete with ironic moments, also. Otto Lilienthal, the creator of the glider, declared it to be one of the safest modes of transportation in the world, shortly before he was killed flying his own invention. And who can forget that George W. Bush, in the shadow of 9/11, said that only through American military intervention could the Middle East achieve freedom and democracy.

Despite all the evidence of irony in our daily lives, in our reading and our schooling, it is, dare I say “ironic” that it appears that corporate education reformers don’t get irony.

These reformers tell us that education reform is the “civil rights issue of our time.” And how are they going to make sure that poor minority children in the inner city get their civil right to a good education? Why by denying their civil rights, of course. The very foundation of the most lauded charter school chains like KIPP and Eva Moscowitz’s Success Academies is a militaristic behavior code, driven by a desire to make children into compliant test taking automatons. Harsh discipline for minor infractions is the rule.

Good order, routine and discipline are necessary for learning. Many charter schools, however, have turned this understanding into a culture based on shaming. Kids are shamed in front of their fellow students by wearing yellow shirts or by being singled out in line or by having their test scores displayed in the hallway for all to see. Connecticut school principal Ann Evans de Bernard has characterized the KIPP schooling approach as colonialism. So the great irony here, is that in order to solve the “civil rights issue of our time”, education reformers want to take poor, mostly black and brown students back to the plantation and crack the whip.

Reformster Andy Smarick has a low irony quotient as well. In a recent article on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s blog Flypaper, Smarick quotes Founding Father, John Dickinson. ““Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.” He goes on to say that education reformers need to park the ideology and pay attention to experience. He is concerned that ideology is driving too many reforms and that these reforms are failing because they have not been rooted in experience. Who does he recommend that reformers turn to for such experience? Why non-other than older reformsters like Checker Finn and Bruno Manno, who discovered some of the problems that attend to relying on market forces to control school quality.

What Smarick misses is that the Dickinson quote might suggest that if reformers wanted to get things right, they could have tried asking veteran teachers and career educators rather than non-educators of like mind. Smarick says listen to the voice of experience, but those teachers? Well, no, never mind; let’s just keep talking to each other.

And even more recently we are reading about teacher shortages. This gives education reformers an opportunity to double down on the irony of the failure to recognize irony. After years of blaming teacher quality for the failures of the American education system, of working assiduously to undermine teacher job protections and simultaneously stripping teachers of autonomy in their classrooms, education reformers blame the economy for the apparent teacher shortage. As Peter Greene has pointed out, if you are worried about the teacher shortage, make prospective teachers a better offer – more money, more job security, more say in what is taught and how. Talented people are not attracted to low paying, high-risk, low autonomy jobs. But instead of suggesting the road to attracting more and better teachers is through making the work more attractive, reformsters recommend loosening of teacher certification rules.

So as I understand the reform agenda, repeated attacks on the teaching profession is not the problem. The problem is, instead, the economy. We can expect to attract the best and brightest to a profession that has low pay, low esteem and low stability. That does not sound like any law of supply and demand that I read about.

Next, we can solve the teacher shortage by loosening certification requirements, so that anyone who can prove s/he is breathing can teach. This seems to be the direction that states like North Carolina and Kansas are going. As I understand this argument, it goes something like this, teachers and their unions are the problem in education, so let’s solve the problem by putting even less qualified, less knowledgeable people in the classroom. I have to wonder how many reformsters go to a doctor who is unlicensed and received five weeks of medical training in the summer.

So there we have it. Teachers suck, but we need more teachers. Good teachers matter, so let’s open up the path to teaching to anyone who can draw breath. Doubling down on the irony.

In time I believe that the education reform movement will die from the emptiness of its own ideas and because change in education requires too much hard work for the dilettante. They will get bored and take all their foundation money somewhere else. When that happens the fate of the public schools may at last return to the life-long educators, who understand the issues and who have real solutions that include a frontal attack on poverty and a high level of respect for the teachers on the front lines.

Now won’t that be ironic.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Is First Grade Ready for Your Child?

If you are a parent of a six-year-old about to enter first grade, you are sure to be wondering if your child is “ready for first grade.” You may have already had this discussion with a kindergarten teacher, school administrator or your Aunt Janet who taught school for a while thirty years ago. Everybody seems to have an opinion on first grade readiness and after all if your child is not ready for first grade and “falls behind” at the very start of his/her schooling, what are the chances that s/he will be “college and career ready” in 12 years?

Google “first-grade readiness” and you will get dozens of hits for websites that provide you with checklists, some of them a hundred items long that purport to tell you if your child is ready. Just go through the list, check off the benchmarks and there you have it, concrete evidence that your child is ready – or not. You can find one of these lists here. These lists contain items related to social skills, like the ability to work, play and share with others and to resolve conflict with words; language skills, like the ability to listen to and comprehend instructions and distinguish fact from fiction; number sense, like counting to 30 and estimating quantities using blocks and paper clips; social studies, like the ability to understand history as stories of what has happened in the past; and science, such as the recognition of how people impact life on earth.

Ultimately, these lists are an exercise in futility. The real question a parent should be asking is not if my child is ready for first grade, but is first grade ready for my child. It is not a child’s responsibility to be ready for first grade, it is the professional responsibility of the adults at the school to make sure that first grade is ready for your child. Six year-old children come in all shapes, sizes and levels of physical, social and intellectual development and schools need to be prepared to accommodate them all and provide an appropriate education for them all.

Thirty years ago I faced a difficult decision. My son, a bright, but very active (some said hyperactive) child, had just turned 6 in July and his kindergarten teacher had suggested he was not ready for first grade. The school offered a “transitional” first grade designed for kids who were not ready (in the school's opinion), to enter first grade. This would mean that my son would spend a year in “transitional” first grade and then another year in an actual first grade. By this time I had a Masters degree in education and I was well aware that learning differences among children tended to level out by grade 4 and that readiness was a relative idea that was more about adult preferences than children’s needs. What I felt the teachers and school administrators were telling me was that my child was too frenetic in behavior for first grade.

I decided to investigate what first grade in my local district looked like. I had some experience with this school’s program because my daughter had attended first grade without incident or inspiration a few years earlier. What I found was a first grade classroom that required long periods of sitting still, whole group instruction and worksheet completion. I determined that first grade was not ready for my active learner of a son. We sent him to transitional first where he had a wonderful caring teacher who understood the needs of an active and eager child and provided the kind of learning engagement my son needed. Despite the happy ending, I am ambivalent about this decision to this day. I feel it is a choice I should not have had to make and that held my son back for a year with no good reason.

Schools should be ready for the child and not expect the child to be ready for the school. Early childhood programs must be based on the ways students learn, not on how adults prefer to teach. Since young children learn best through their senses by doing, learning should be the outcome of hands-on experience, especially play.

Exactly. In light of these guidelines and also as a sort of counter measure to all those child readiness checklists out there, I offer a checklist to help everyone determine if first grade is ready for their child.

How to determine if first grade is ready for your child

·         Are first grade classes no larger than 22 children?
·         Is the teacher certified in elementary or early childhood education?
·         Is a significant part of the day spent in hands-on learning activities?
·         Is seat work (completing worksheets) kept to a minimum?
·         Does instruction happen in a variety of group settings – large group, small group, partnerships and individual instruction?
·         Do children have frequent opportunities to move around the room?
·         Is the classroom neat, well-organized, colorful with lots of helpful “anchor charts” for student reference?
·         Do the children have frequent opportunities to interact with other children in pairs and small groups?
·         Are the children read aloud to daily?
·         Do children receive daily small group reading instruction?
·         Do children have the opportunity to read books of their own choice daily?
·         Is the classroom well stocked with a variety of books for children to explore?
·         Do children have the opportunity to write about their reading and their own experiences daily?
·         Are writing materials readily available to children?
·         Are math concepts explored and reinforced with the use of math manipulatives (blocks, tiles, interlocking cubes, Cuisenaire rods, etc.)?
·         Are a variety of word games, math games and other children’s games available and used by the children?
·         Is homework limited to no more than 30 minutes a night and focused on reading or on math reinforcement?
·         Are students assessed through observation rather through paper and pencil tests focused on success or failure?
·         Is my child’s cultural or racial background reflected in the classroom environment, in the classroom library and in the classroom learning materials?
·         Is there good communication between the school and the home?
·         Do children have regularly scheduled instruction in music, art, health and physical education?
·         Is technology available, in good repair and used as a tool to reinforce instruction?
·         Are learning supports in literacy, math, speech, occupational therapy and English as a second language readily available?

This list could go on and you may want to add some of your own criteria. The point is that your child, no matter his/her learning strengths and weaknesses, level of activeness or idiosyncratic interests should find a welcoming teacher and a welcoming environment for learning in the school.

One worry that many teachers and an increasing number of parents have is that the current emphasis on more rigorous standards will force a more “academic” environment on a first grade classroom. We need to remember that rigor does not mean that children should be subjected to developmentally inappropriate instruction. If rigor is interpreted as kids sitting at desks, reading more difficult texts and filling out more and more worksheets, we are not providing rigor, we are just making learning harder than it needs to be, and condemning many children to feelings of inadequacy and failure at the age of 6.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Single Most Destructive Force in Public Education

On Monday, I had some fun with Chris Christie’s desire to punch the teacher’s unions in the face. Today, I think it is much more important to deal with the substance of what Christie said to reporter Jake Tapper on CNN last Sunday. Speaking of one of the two large national teachers unions the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Christie said that the AFT was “not for education for our children. They’re for greater membership, greater benefits, greater pay for their members. And they are the single most destructive force in public education in America.”

Now I am sure that Christie was using hyperbole in an attempt to raise his sagging poll numbers, but what is inescapable, and most worrisome, is that so many people believe him. Of course, the moneyed, anti-union, American oligarchs like the Koch Brothers and the Walton family believe him, but the really scary part of this statement is that so many middle-class working people, people who we might expect to be on the teacher’s, i.e. the worker’s, side believe this also.

My earlier blog post was published in a number of news outlets and while many commenters expressed sympathy with my position many took the opportunity to vent their anger at teachers unions. Typical of the more rational comments was this one:

We have communities and municipalities and states near bankruptcy as well as their citizens, paying for benefits predatory and hostile teachers unions have managed to extract over the years. 

Many people, it seems, admire teachers and loathe their unions. My larger point in the blog was that you can’t separate the two. Not all teachers agree with all the positions that their unions take, but when politicians and others attack unions, they need to realize that they are attacking teachers as well.

How did we get to this point? Why so much vitriol against unions? Are the unions “the single most destructive force in public education” as Christie claims?

I think an August 4 essay by New York Times columnist, David Brooks, suggests some reasons why anger is being directed at unions. The column is about Donald Trump’s strange appeal, but the same words could be used to describe Chris Christie’s appeal. Citing sociological studies, Brooks says that in times of plenty there seems to be room for all Americans to achieve their goals, so groups on all economic levels are optimistic and don’t see others as blocking their paths to success.

In times of scarcity, however, people tend to see others as blocking their paths to success. The government doesn’t seem to be working to ease the path to success, and thus, Brooks says, the anti-government rhetoric of Donald Trump comes to appeal to many.  I would suggest that this sense of scarcity, this sense of frustration in the pursuit of the American Dream has also led to anti-immigration rhetoric as well as anti-teacher union rhetoric. Because teacher salaries and benefits are paid for by the public, many middle income people, who lack the job protections and health and pension benefits of teachers, vent their anger at teachers unions.

I don’t agree with these folks, but I understand where they are coming from. The economy is struggling and teacher unions seem to be fighting for entitlements that are not available to many. Unions become the enemy. People think, “They are in it for themselves and to hell with all others.”

Those of us with a long history in the teacher labor movement can cite chapter and verse about why unions are not the problem, but part of the solution. As I have said before, the teacher’s fight for reasonable working conditions is rightly seen as an effort to improve learning conditions for children, too. Before the teacher labor movement had an impact, I was teaching in classrooms with forty ninth-graders. After ten years of bargaining rights the class size was down to about 30. I benefitted, but so did my students. When my salary went from $6000 a year to $10,000, I benefitted, but my students did not have to be greeted by a bleary-eyed teacher who was working the late shift at the local Gulf station to make ends meet. When an air-conditioner was installed in my 100 year-0ld, third story classroom and the June temperatures went down from a steamy 98 to a balmy 74, I benefitted and my students learned more. All of these things were accomplished through union intervention.

Of course, in negotiations both sides need to weigh the costs and benefits. In those early negotiations we won some battles and we lost some battles, but the working lives of teachers and the learning lives of students improved. None of us felt we were being paid what we deserved and the school board members on the other side of the table always felt they were paying too much, but most of the time a reasonable compromise was reached.

I vividly recall an angry exchange with a school board member, who leaned across the negotiating table, waggled a finger in my face and screamed at me, “When I was in first grade we had 67 kids in my first grade class and I turned out all right.” I resisted indicating to him that his anger issues might be a demonstration that he had not turned out all right and instead cited for him the research I had done on the impact of class size.

I don’t think there is one parent out there who would champion first-grade class sizes approaching 67. Collective bargaining has worked to improve working conditions for teachers for sure, but it has also worked to insure good learning conditions for kids.

Of course, teacher unions are for better working conditions, better salaries and better benefits for their members. This does not make them evil; it means they are doing their jobs. Have they made missteps? Sure. Are compromises necessary? Yes. Is public education better off because of unionization? Yes.

It is interesting that most of our highest achieving states in terms of education are strongly unionized, while many of our lowest achieving states are not. As Matthew DeCarlo, of the Shanker Institute, has demonstrated in an article in the Washington Post, when we look at states rankings in terms of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores of the 10 states without negotiated teacher contracts

only one (Virginia) has an average rank above the median, while four are in the bottom 10, and seven are in the bottom 15. These data make it very clear that states without binding teacher contracts are not doing better, and the majority are actually among the lowest performers in the nation.

Meanwhile, DeCarlo says, states with strong union contracts do well.

In contrast, nine of the 10 states with the highest average ranks are high coverage [union contract] states, including Massachusetts, which has the highest average score on all four tests.

DeCarlo asserts that there are many factors other than strong union contracts that impact achievement, but at the very least this data would indicate that teacher unions are far from “the single most destructive force in public education.”

The single most destructive force in public education is income inequity. Poverty has a devastating impact on a child’s educational achievement. With 25% of school children living in poverty, it is small wonder public education is strugling in impoverished areas. 

The second most destructive force in public education is politicians and corporate education reformers who wish to ignore income inequity and blame teachers unions for the problems in public education. Teachers, and their unions, want a strong viable system of public education. We would like politicians and well- financed reformers to work with us and stop threatening to punch us.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Hey, Governor Christie, Punch My Face!

In case you missed it, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, erstwhile presidential candidate, declared on CNN Sunday that teachers unions need a “punch in the face.” Faced with declining numbers in the polls and with being out bullied by Donald Trump, Christie has decided to come out swinging – at teachers.

Of course the teachers union has no literal face and the leaders of both major teachers unions, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and Lily Eskelson Garcia of the National Education Association are women. I don’t think even a Republican candidate for president could get away with punching a woman in the face. Belittling them, yes. Berating them, yes. Taking away the choice of what they do with their bodies, yes. But not striking a woman, especially with a Hillary running on the Democratic side.

So, taking all this into consideration, I would like to step up and offer Christie my face to punch.

I am well qualified for the job. I have been a public school teacher and administrator for 45 years. I have been the president and the chief negotiator of my local teachers union. I have been sharply critical of Christie’s education policies on my blog. I deserve that punch in the face. I have earned it. Not only that, I live just a stone’s throw from the statehouse in Trenton, so I could meet the Governor there at any time, if he ever happens to get back to New Jersey.

I am sure it would give Christie a boost in the polls and solidify his standing as a violent, bullying looney worthy of Republican voter support. It might even be enough to get him on the stage at one of the primary debates where he could punch Wolf Blitzer in the face and garner even more support.

Better yet, forget the debate and let Trump and Christie duke it out in a steel cage wrestling match. 

No doubt Christie’s spin doctors will be out today declaring that Christie has no animus toward teachers, just teachers unions. Christie, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Andrew Cuomo and others seem to forget that a union is made up of teachers and that while individual teachers may not agree with every action of their unions, those unions represent the desires and aspirations of millions of hard working teachers across the country – imperfectly perhaps, but emphatically for the better of teachers and children and public education overall.

When teacher unions fight for better working conditions for teachers, they are also working for better learning conditions for children. When unions fight for job protections for teachers, they are also working to ensure that children have access to the best knowledge and the best instructional strategies available unfettered by flavor-of-the-day ideology. When teacher unions fight for reasonable pay, they are fighting to attract high quality candidates to the profession.

What has Christie’s teacher bashing, vitriol against unions, stripping of job protections, attacks on pensions done for the children of New Jersey?  How have his repeated attacks on teacher unions improved education for the children of New Jersey? How has his hiring of political hacks to bring unpopular education policies to the impoverished cities of New Jersey helped school children?

The answer is, of course, not at all. The children of New Jersey are worse off educationally than they were when Christie took office. And yet, those teachers he loves to hate keep soldiering on, doing their best in the face of the intolerable and deteriorating conditions to provide a good education for New Jersey's children.

If Christie wants to punch the teachers unions in the face, he needs to realize that he is punching every teacher in the face. He is punching each and every dedicated teacher who has been working to improve the lives of children for decades before Christie discovered that bashing teachers is a winning campaign strategy.

So, Governor Christie, here is my face. Take your best shot. I won’t hit back. I will just pick myself up, dust myself off and go back to being the best teacher I can be. To paraphrase Nathan Hale, "I regret that I have only one face to give for my profession."

Monday, July 6, 2015

It’s National Give a Kid a Book Day!

I am declaring today, July 6, National Give a Kid a Book Day (NGKBD).

What is Give a Kid a Book Day? It is a day when every adult takes time out of their busy day to let a child know how important reading is by giving that child the gift of a book.

Why Give a Kid a Book Day? We have days for everything. Mother’s Day. Father’s Day. Grandparent’s Day. Administrative Assistant’s Day. Boss’s Day. National Tapioca Pudding Day (That’s on July 15 for those who wish to celebrate). So, why not National Give a Kid a Book Day?

Why July 6? It seems as good a day as any. July is a month when most children are off from school. Giving a child a book now will give them something productive, entertaining and even edifying to do. It may also help to combat summer loss syndrome, that pernicious affliction that causes students to lose their learning gains by not sufficiently exercising their reading muscles over the summer. It is also my son’s birthday and I have given him books on every one of his 38 birthdays and I am pleased to say he is a reader.

National Give a Kid a Book Day is dedicated to the many hard working people who have gone to extraordinary efforts to make sure that children have access to books. Toward that end each year on this day we will recognize these folks by placing them on the NGKBD Honor Roll.
This year’s Honor Roll inductees are as follows:

Luis Soriano – In 1990, Mr. Soriano, a teacher in rural Colombia, was concerned about the high illiteracy rates of local children. Luis owned two donkeys, so he decided to create the “biblioburro” or “library donkey.” For the last 25 years he has been loading up the donkey’s saddlebags with more than 100 books and traveling to remote villages where he picks up kids, gives them a ride to school and gives them a book to read. All this despite the fact that Mr. Soriano has a full time job and was once attacked by bandits (I would have loved to have seen the robbers' faces when the saw the contents of those saddlebags). Over the years the biblioburro has reached more than 4,000 children (Mental Floss, July/August 2015).

Lisa Willever – Willever, a former school teacher in Trenton, New Jersey, set a goal of providing a book for each and every school child in this impoverished small city in Mercer County, New Jersey. She solicited the help of the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, the fire department, the New Jersey Education Association and others and within a month had collected over 7,000 books. The books were delivered to Trenton schoolchildren one Wednesday in June, where one teacher remarked, “All the kids wanted to do today was read” (Trenton Times, 2015).

Words on Wheels – College students on bicycles can be seen wheeling through north Philadelphia delivering books for summer reading to children who are participating in the “Words on Wheels” program. The program, part of an alliance between Tree House Books and First Book Philadelphia, takes the books directly to the children at their homes through volunteers from Temple University. As Vashti Du Bois, Executive Director of Tree House Books puts it, “Research has shown us that just by having books in their homes [children] increase their reading ability by one grade level” (Groundswell, 2013).

My mentor, Dr. Susan Mandel Glazer, now professor emeritus from Rider University, was a huge advocate for giving children the gift of books. Whenever Susan gave a child a book, she also included a lollipop. After observing this over and over, I finally asked Susan why she always included a lollipop. She said, “I want to send a message. Reading is sweet.”

Do something sweet today. Give a kid a book. Throw in a lollipop if you want, but just do it. It will feel good and it will do good. If you happen to read this on a day other than July 6, give a kid a book anyway. Every day is a good day to give a kid a book.

If you have nominees for the NGKBD Honor Roll, please send them along to me and I will honor them next year on the second annual National Give a Kid a Book Day.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Poetry

Happy Birthday, America. This July 4 we can celebrate that the land of “liberty and justice for all” has gotten a little more just and a little more free. I hope in coming Fourths of July, we can continue to say that, because we still have a long way to go.

Here is how I will celebrate – by sharing three different poetic “songs” about the American experience.

This first one celebrates the working men and women of our country and is written by our first truly American poet.

I Hear America Singing
by Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
     and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the
     deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
     as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the
     morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at
     work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
     fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

This second poem reminds us that there are those among us who have had to fight, and must continue to fight,  for their seat at the American table.

I, too
by Langston Hughes

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,"

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

This third poem is written by the newly appointed poet laureate of the United States; the son of migrant workers from Mexico and another group still fighting for a full measure of liberty and justice in America.

Song Out Here
Juan Felipe Herrera

if i could sing
i’d say everything         you know
from here on the street can you turn around
just for once i am                     here
right behind you
what is that flag what is it made of
maybe it’s too late i have
too many questions where did it all come from
what colors is it all made of everything
everything here in the subways
there are so many things and voices
we are going somewhere but i just don’t know
but i just don’t know
do you know where that is i want to sing
so you can hear me and maybe you can tell me
where to go so you can hear me and just maybe
you can tell me where to go
all those hands and legs and faces going places
if i could sing
you would hear me and i would tell you
it’s gonna be alright
it’s gonna be alright
it’s gonna be alright it would be something like that
can you turn around so i can look into your eyes
just for once your eyes
maybe like hers can you see her
and his can you see them i want you to see them
all of us we could be together
if i could sing we would go there
we would run there together
we would live there for a while in that tilted
tiny house by the ocean rising up inside of us
i am on the curb next to a curled up cat
smoking i know its bad for you but
you know how it is just for once can you turn around
a straight line falling behind you it’s me i want to sing
invincible                                             bleeding out with love

just for you

Enjoy the holiday and remember that the “rockets’ red glare” need not blind us to the fight for social justice that continues and that is the very definition of what this country stands for.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

State Teacher Equity Plans: Following Data Down the Rabbit Hole

You may remember that last fall with great fanfare, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in another of a long line of misguided educational decrees, announced that they were requiring states to develop new plans to ensure equity in the distribution of quality teachers (I wrote about this decree here). Well, now those plans are in and available for public inspection here.

Education week has looked at twelve of those state reports and provides a good summary of what they found here. Basically, some of these reports offered a few new ideas, but others recycled ideas from the last equity plan from 2006 or reported on the progress they had made with certain programs.

Reading these lengthy, dense reports could be a really good cure for insomnia, so I only looked at two of the reports, one from the state where I live, Pennsylvania (80 pages)and the one from the state where I work, New Jersey (40 pages).

Here is my summary of the two plans:

The Pennsylvania report said blah, blah, blah, professional development; blah, blah, blah teacher preparation; blah, blah, blah new funding formula; blah, blah, blah we don’t have good data, so we need to get more data.

The New Jersey report said, blah, blah, blah support novice teachers, blah, blah, blah differentiated approach; blah, blah, blah we have lots of data, but none of it is helpful in identifying quality teachers, so we need more data.

I will give Pennsylvania credit for recognizing that the state needs a funding plan that addresses financial inequities across the state. Of course a funding plan is no guarantee of equity. New Jersey already has a funding plan, but the governor and the legislature have refused to fully fund it.

I will give New Jersey credit for recognizing that all the work and data collection that was perpetrated under No Child Left Behind to identify “highly qualified teachers” did nothing to improve equitable distribution of effective teachers. Low and behold, they discovered a disparity between “highly qualified” and good at your job.

I would like to save New Jersey, Pennsylvania and every other state a lot of time. Data is not going to improve the equitable distribution of highly effective teachers. Collect all the data you want, refine your metrics all you care to, install all the new teacher evaluation measures you desire, but it won’t make a jot of difference. In fact, this obsession with quantifying will make the disparity even greater.

Here’s why: It’s the working conditions, Stupid.

Teachers choose where they want to work, by and large, based on working conditions. Teachers want to work in a clean safe school that has all the resources and materials that will allow them to do the job well. Teachers want to work in a school that has a climate of collaboration and a spirit of teamwork. Teachers want to work in a building where they have supportive administrators who value their efforts and offer them informed, constructive criticism.

The federal and state obsession with data will actually exacerbate inequity. If teacher evaluations are going to be based in some large measure on student standardized test scores, teachers are going to avoid school districts with high numbers of students in poverty. Teachers understand that standardized test scores for students living in poverty will be lower than affluent students’ scores no matter how good the teacher is. They also understand that evaluations based in large part on student test performance is a highly invalid, unreliable way to evaluate their performance. Test-based accountability is simply unable to identify effective teachers and it labels as ineffective many many fine teachers who do choose to work in high poverty areas.

Highly effective teachers also desire a high level of autonomy because they understand that the classroom teacher is best positioned to make instructional decisions about individual children. Inner city schools have responded to instructional challenges by becoming more and more prescriptive in their approaches to instruction. Highly effective teachers do not want to teach in a place where they are expected to be on the same page in the textbook as their colleagues on any given day.

Highly effective teachers have no interest in a school model based on merit pay. A reasonable living wage that considers their preparation and professional status is enough. Teachers recognize that the best schools to work in are collaborative and that hare-brained ideas like merit pay destroy a collaborative climate. The corporate reformer’s notion that competition is good in all things is simply wrong; it is particularly and specifically wrong in a profession like teaching.

Highly effective teachers are appropriately certified teachers. Reliance on Teach for America dilettantes to fill spaces in classrooms in schools with high concentrations of poor and minority children is, in a word, racist and it is counterproductive to the goals of getting highly effective teachers in those classrooms.

So here is my plan for dealing with the inequitable distribution of effective teachers (it is not 80 or even 40 pages).

1.     Attack poverty and segregation on all fronts by providing wrap around services including health care, decent minimum wages, early childhood education, family counseling and food security.
2.     Spend the money needed to make sure all schools are clean, safe places to work.
3.     Pay appropriately and in a way that recognizes the value of experience and advanced study.
4.     Work with school administrators to help them develop leadership skills that foster a school climate of collaboration and teamwork.
5.     Focus teacher evaluation on instructional improvement and work with individual teachers and teacher representatives to develop teacher improvement plans, mentoring services and processes for dismissal when necessary.
6.     Foster teacher autonomy by developing teacher professional learning committees that work together to analyze student work and to design instruction to meet all students’ needs.
7.     Recognize that teachers are not motivated by financial reward, but by recognition of a job well done from an administrator who knows what s/he is talking about.
8.     Hire only appropriately certified teachers.
9.     Lower class sizes.

If states can build schools that follow this plan, they will attract highly effective teachers; in fact, they will have them knocking at the door. It sure beats chasing unhelpful data around and around like a hamster on a state constructed exercise wheel.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

You’ve Got to Be Taught

These are the opening lines to a song from the musical South Pacific written by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1949.

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

Racism is not natural. We learn to be racists. Science has established that racism is a “construct that is developed in our brains over time.” In other words, it is learned behavior.

How is racism learned?

One way racism is learned is through segregation. Here I refer, not to the legislated segregation of the Jim Crow south, but to the modern version of segregation that finds the races separated through economic inequity. The segregation that finds our schools, north and south, becoming less and less racially diverse. Interestingly, it is not familiarity that breeds contempt as the old saying goes, but familiarity that breeds tolerance and understanding. Brain scientists have found that the more diverse your peer group, the more tolerant your attitudes toward race.

Another way racism is learned is through symbolism. The flag flying in view of the State House in Columbia, South Carolina is symbolic of the subjugation of one race by another. It is a state sanctioned emblem of a racist heritage that is something that South Carolina legislators think should be celebrated. The legislature of South Carolina wishes to insure that its children inherit their legacy of racism.

Another way that racism is learned is through the denial that it exists. Many articles were written, and many pundits claimed that the election of an African American president proved that we were finally beyond racism. This, however, was nothing more than a game that has been played for decades in this country – the game of allowing the exception to disprove the rule. It is the “good n******” game. The idea that by pointing to one isolated example we can excuse ourselves from the racism that continues in every corner of the country.

It is hard to imagine a white president having a finger waved in his face in public, or having his State of the Union speech interrupted by a Congressman yelling “You lie!” or by having his twitter account greeted by thousands of overtly racist tweets. The election of an African American president has not proven that racism is over; it has demonstrated for a new generation of children how ingrained in our society it is.

Racism is carefully taught in this country, but because I am a teacher the question is can it be untaught? What can a teacher do to combat the American legacy of racism? I think we must acknowledge that our power to unteach racism is limited because of growing inequity, social isolation of the races and increasing segregation of schools, but still I must believe there is something we can do.

First I believe we must be good models of tolerant, open human beings. I am sure we all would like to consider ourselves free of racism, but are we really? We must take the time to examine the messages we send to children in the way we behave to those who are different from us. Schools, being institutions, have never been very tolerant of individual differences, whether those are learning differences, religious differences or racial differences. Statistics on school suspensions, for example, would point to a racial bias, just as our larger society’s prison population points to a racial bias.

So a teacher’s quest for doing something about racism begins with a close personal inventory of what kind of tolerant model we present to the children. It continues with establishing classroom practices that encourage tolerance. Here I think immediately of the Responsive Classroom design. Responsive Classroom is a well-designed, effective approach to social and emotional learning that helps children learn to respect each other through the respect they themselves are shown by the teacher. Children, who feel emotionally and socially secure in the classroom, are not only better learners, but are also on the road to becoming better people who do not blame their difficulties on some ill-defined “other.”

Secondly, I think of the humanizing power of good literature. As teachers who need to be choosing books to read aloud to children that raise our levels of understanding of all of humanity.  We need to have classroom libraries that invite children to explore diversity and to gain a better understanding of the hearts and minds of people of all different racial, ethnic and religious groups. Knowledge is not just power, knowledge, as scientific studies have shown, breeds tolerance. The available books are many and wonderful. This link will take you to Carol Hurst’s list to get you started.

Finally, I recommend the Teaching Tolerance program sponsored by the Southern Poverty Leadership Conference. I have used these materials in my own classroom and I have found them to be highly effective. Their website offers all sorts of high quality materials for building lessons on tolerance. Their kits and materials are free to teachers and valuable for everyone.

As teachers we often feel as if we are marching out into a hurricane armed only with a flimsy umbrella. When it comes to the storm clouds of racism hanging over the country, it may seem that there is little we can do. But if racism can be learned, then I must believe that tolerance also can be learned, and that the teacher is best positioned to provide those lessons in tolerance so desperately needed. Because with tolerance as well as racism, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

Thursday, June 18, 2015

In Praise of School Librarians

Today a word about school librarians and how important they are to the goal of bringing literacy to children. I suppose first of all we need to deal with the nomenclature issue. Today it is more accurate and politically correct to call these very special folks "media specialists." Certainly the job of the librarian has grown over the years, so that librarians are now expected to be what Howard Stern used to call himself, "The King of All Media." But I confess I have a soft spot in my heart for the term "librarian", which evokes for me lazy afternoons dawdling in the stacks looking for another short novel by Steinbeck or historical parody by Richard Armour or picture history of World War II with a librarian often leading the way. So for me it is librarian and I hope no media specialists out there are offended.

I learned very early in my teaching career that the school librarian could be the teacher's best friend. I was teaching at Bristol Junior-Senior High School in Pennsylvania and had been charged with taking my freshly minted Master's degree in literacy, which the school district had helped pay for, and starting a brand new "developmental reading" program for the seventh grade. To start the program, the district gave me the princely sum of $400. I took my purchase order and my own list and went down to the school library to talk to Hilda Ben Ezra, school librarian.

Hilda was one of the more remarkable people I have ever met and she is the model I have used over the years of what a great school librarian should be. Hilda had a degree in chemistry from Penn State and a masters in library science from Drexel University. She was as well read a person as I had ever met and she loved to talk books and issues of social justice - two of my favorite subjects. We hit it off and became friends.

Now I needed a well-informed ally and friend to help me start my classroom library collection. I was determined that my studnets would be surrounded by great young adult literature in their reading classroom. I was convinced that to create lifelong readers my kids needed to be surrounded with good books to read right in the room. Hilda knew more about young adult literature than anyone I knew and so we teamed up.

Needless to say, we ran through the $400 very quickly and I was well aware that my classroom library was going to be pretty sparse for my student population of 130. Hilda said, "I have a plan." I can hear Hilda's proposal in my ear now as I write this more than 35 years later. "Russ, I have more books to read and review than I can possibly get to. How about if you help me out by reading some of them and competing review forms and I will help you out by creating a branch lending library in your classroom."

And that is what we did. Each month I would supply Hilda with the theme I would focus on in class that month (tolerance, survival, coming of age, historical fiction) and she would pull a cart full of relevant and appropriate titles for my seventh graders. We worked out a system for tracking the books children borrowed and I agreed to be responsible for them. As a bonus, I got to read and review a bunch of new books and my own knowledge of young adult literature grew.

If the truth be known, our system of tracking books did not work so well and more than a few were lost, but both Hilda nad I took solace in knowing the books had likely found a good home. Most importantly, lots of kids who had never considered themselves readers began to read.

Over the years I taught at many levels and I always tried to use versions of this model as a way to supplement my classroom libraries. Unfailingly I found the school librarians I worked with to be knowledgable and supportive.  I never did get better at tracking the books, however.

Once I moved into adminsitration, I had the great good honor of supervising the librarians in my school district. Again I found people who were passionate about books and kids and about kids reading books. With these folks we opened four new school libraries, divied up the holdings of older libraries to new schools and libraries, transformed from card catologues to online data bases and continued to try to get books into kids hands.

And yet with all the good and important work that school librarians do, they are an endangered species. The Great Recession and the fallout from the test-based accountability mania that is dominating the narrative in many schools has differentially impacted librarians.The numbers of lay-offs of school librarians has far exceeded the lay-offs of classroom teaching personnel. School libraries are being closed, full-time staffing of school libraries is being reduced to part-time. Clusters of elementary schools are being forced to share one librarian.

Any person that has an ounce of knowledge about children, learning and literacy knows that this is short-sighted. A well-stocked, well-managed school library, appropriately staffed with professional librarians will have a greater impact on student literacy in the school than any standardized test. The school librarian is central to the mission of any school. They need our support.

For all those classroom teachers out there, I recommend that you be sure to make a friend of your school librarian. The relationship will make a world of difference in your teaching and in your students' learning.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Chris Christie Opts Out of Common Core

Hespe and Christie
How might we go about "revising" the Common Core?

I have an image I cannot get out of my head. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is moonwalking down the boardwalk in Seaside Heights trying to escape US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who is chasing him and waving a copy of the Common Core State Standards Christie signed four years ago, yelling, "Keep walking, keep walking!"

In case you missed it Christie, for years a staunch supporter of the Common Core, has declared the standards null and void in New Jersey. I won't pretend to think that this move is any more than a cynical political ploy designed to increase Christie's appeal to the right wing loonies in his party. I also won't pretend that State Commisioner of Education David Hespe would be a good choice to lead the "revisions." Stuck with the daunting task of explaining Christie's Common Core manuevering to the pro-Common Core State Board of Education, Hespe did not inspire confidence. Hespe promised a "deliberative process", but when pressed on what changes to expect he essentially said, "Well, I wouldn't expect much."

Me, neither. But what if for just a moment we chose to entertain ourselves with the idea that Christie means what he says about including New Jersey teachers and parents in the revision of the new "New Jersey" standards. What might this "deliberative process" look like? What would be some key changes we might want to see in the Common Core?

As far as process is concerned we would want to empower a panel that included public school parents, public school teachers, teacher leaders, public school principals and curriculum directors, college professors from various universities across the state including professors of education, early childhood education experts, representatives from the New Jersey Literacy Association and the New Jersey Association of Mathematics Teachers, and a test and measurement expert or two.

These groups should then open hearings inviting input on the various strengths and weaknesses of the current Common Core and suggestions on what would improve them for New Jersey's students. Hearings would lead to draft standards that could then be field tested in various school districts to see if they truly make sense, can be taught, and are developmentally appropriate for the targeted children. The period of pilot testing would lead to further revisions, public hearings and the adoption of the standards. A provision would then be made for a permanent standards panel empowered to consider amendments and revisions to the standards as they go into force across the state. At this point, the panel might also want to consider developing assessments that measure progress on the standards.

This process, you might notice, has many features that the Common Core process lacked: inclusion of  classroom teachers and parents in the development; inclusion of early childhood experts; open hearings; field testing of standards and a process for revision of the standards. The process also keeps teaching and learning, rather than testing, as the central driving force.

So much for process, what changes to the Common Core document itself would make the most sense?

The first change I would like to see would be in the organizing purpose of the standards. To me, "college and career readiness" is a narrow and limiting target. It is the product of minds focused on global competitiveness rather than human development. A better target for education in a democracy would be to prepare students for a rich and rewarding life as an individual and as a contributing member of society.

Getting down into the weeds of the Core itself, I would hope that the revisions would focus on the developmental appropriateness of the standards from K-8. The Common Core was rather famously built from the perspective of the college freshman on down, a process that inevitably lead to developmentally inappropriate expectations for younger children. If the New Jersey panel, with its early childhood experts, could instead focus on ranges of appropriateness, rather than grade level appropriateness,  the standards would be infinitely better. It is simply not possible to have rigid grade level standards for young children. Every elementary classroom is filled with students at various developmental levels and standards must acknowledge this fact and be able to accommodate this reality.

The Common Core emphasis on rigor, text complexity and close reading has been interpreted in many quarters as a call for all children to be reading harder texts harder. The architects of the Common Core have been complicit in this perception with some of their pronouncements and You Tube video model lessons. A more thoughtful implementation process could have prevented this, but I would like the revised New Jersey standards to address the issue more clearly. It must be clear through the revised standards that rigor, in the words of Robert Probst and Kylene Beers, is an "artifact of instruction and not of the text."  In other words we provide rigorous instruction without giving students texts that are beyond their ability to read and comprehend.

Further, the New Jersey Core should make it clear that background knowledge is central to reading comprehension. The chief architect of the Common Core in English Language Arts, David Coleman, famously declared that "Nobody gives a shit what you think and feel" about what you read. This dismissive attitude toward "reader responses" to their reading is potentially very damaging to student engagement and comprehension of text. It is well established in the research literature that the activation and building of background knowledge, including relating to the text personally, is central to building text understanding

Additionally, the role of fiction in the development of critical thinking and human empathy must be at the center of an ELA curriculum. Again because of a flawed model, which attended to the college freshman rather than the developing mind of the child, the Common Core called for an increase in the reading of informational text. Sandra Stotsky, a leading developer of learning standards, who helped develop the Massachusetts standards that are considered, even by education reformers, to be of the highest quality has had harsh words for the Common Core obsession with informational text.

A diminished emphasis on literature in the secondary grades makes it unlikely that American students will study a meaningful range of culturally and historically significant literary works before graduation. It also prevents students from acquiring a rich understanding and use of the English language. Perhaps of greatest concern, it may lead to a decreased capacity for analytical thinking.

I will let my math colleagues weigh in on the weaknesses in the Common Core math standards. For now, if Chris Christie is serious about having New Jersey educators and parents involved in the process of creating New Jersey standards and if Commisioner Hespe is serious about providing a deliberative process, then they should be sure that the process and product concerns cited here are addressed.

I am not holding my breath, but I think if the process falls short of the expectations outlined here, all New Jersey parents and educators should cry foul all the way to the statehouse in Trenton.