Wednesday, November 25, 2015

False Idols: Woodrow Wilson and Hero Worship

Woodrow Wilson as President
at Princeton University
Spurred by events in places like Ferguson, Missouri and Charleston, South Carolina, racially charged protests have broken out at college campuses across the United States, most notably at the University of Missouri, where the involvement of the entire football team surely contributed to the resignation of the school's president. This week the protests have come to dear old Princeton University.

The Princeton controversy revolves around perhaps the most favored of all of Princeton's favorite sons - Woodrow Wilson. Before Wilson became the 28th President of the United States, he was the president of Princeton University. He is credited with many good works at Princeton including raising educational standards, creating academic majors and introducing small-group classes. Princeton has recognized his contributions by naming the highly regarded Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs after him, naming a residential complex Wilson College and hanging a mural of him in the dining hall. To attend Princeton is to think Wilson, see Wilson and praise Wilson

Wilson's accomplishments as President of the US are well documented. In addition to leading the country during World War 1 and proposing the United Nations predecessor, The League of Nations, Wilson had an impressive record as a progressive Democrat who championed many of the causes of the working man including the progressive income tax and the Federal Trade Act that controlled unfair business practices. 

What is not so well documented, however, is that Wilson was also a virulent racist. It is his racism that is at issue on the Princeton campus, where students, under the umbrella of the Black Student League, have occupied the office of university president, Christopher Eisgruber, demanding, among other things, that the institution publicly acknowledge Wilson's racism, that Wilson's name be removed from the School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College, and that the dining room mural of Wilson be removed. The students seem to be asking why they should be inundated with reminders of a person who considered them to be inferior beings.

It is important to note here that Wilson's racism was extreme even for 100 years ago. He made statements sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan, actively blocked black students from attending Princeton, permitted the re-institution of segregation in federal agencies, fired black officials and replaced them with whites and generally considered blacks to be inferior. This quote sums up Wilson's attitude, "There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro’s place is in the corn field." 

Some people seem to regard this controversy as a tempest in a teapot; just another example of political correctness gone mad. Does it really matter that Wilson, a product of his times and his upbringing, was a racist? Are we just caving in to special interests if we change the names of buildings and schools? When does it stop. Do we rename John F. Kennedy Airport because naughty JFK slept around? I think it is more complicated than that. The image and name of Wilson is a symbol on the Princeton campus and symbols have power. If the Confederate flag were hanging in the Princeton dining hall, I am sure most could agree that it was offensive. For African American students especially, but for that matter any thoughtful student, I think the image of Wilson could be just as problematic.

I think one of the problems in schools is that we tend to whitewash our heroes, not allowing any breath of imperfection to sully a reputation lest these heroes seem somehow less heroic. I remember a book from a few years back entitled Lies My Teacher Told Me. The book chronicled the misinformation we often perpetuate in our schools in order to make our history less damning. These things can be as innocuous as George Washington chopping down a cherry tree or as injurious as the myth of American exceptionalism perpetrated in many textbooks. The truth is we should not need our heroes to be perfect and we should not perpetuate myths of their perfection. The question is ultimately not whether a school or building should be named after Woodrow Wilson, but why his documented racism has been kept so far under wraps that this legacy was not a part of the conversation.

I think the protesting students have a point. Certainly, the institution needs to publicly acknowledge Wilson's racism as apart of a more complex and thoughtful examination of the man. Renaming schools and buildings may not be viable or even desirable, but I don't think anyone should have to eat in a dining hall under the picture of someone who worked to make sure they were never admitted to the university. 

In 1958 in my hometown of Levittown, Pennsylvania, the local school board decided to name the new high school under construction after the great scientist and "father of the atomic bomb", J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was an eminent scholar, and as a leader of the Manhatten Project, a World War II hero. Oppenheimer seemed like a great guy to name a school after. However, anti-communist fervor was still rampant in the country, and when it was discovered that Oppenheimer had lost his security clearance with the government as part of the communist witch hunt of the 1950s, a hue and cry came up from the community and Oppenheimer's name was removed from the school. What name was chosen in its place? Woodrow Wilson High School. 

So a great scientist who was falsely suspected of being a commie was replaced by a documented racist and the people of Levittown were okay with that. Perhaps those folks could plead ignorance in 1958, but it is education's mission to eradicate ignorance. The protesters in Princeton have, if nothing else, awakened the country to the dark side of one of its heroes. Ultimately, that is a good thing.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Should Reading Be Taught in Kindergarten?

In a rather snarky post in the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog last week, literacy expert and professor emeritus from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Tim Shanahan, mocked a recent article in The Atlantic, by Tim Walker, entitled "The Joyful Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland.The Atlantic article reports on the play oriented kindergarten practices of Finland.

In response Shanahan says essentially, "We're not Finland!" Personally, I am glad to hear this in a blog from the conservative Fordham Institute, since our failure to match Finland's (and other places like Singapore, Japan and Lichtenstein) performance on international tests like PISA has been a chief driver behind the education reform movement.

The United States is different from Finland, of course. Finnish children are much less likely to be poor and are much more likely to be raised in a household with two college graduates. Finnish kindergartners also learn to read in a language that is far easier to decode than English.. But five-year-olds in Finland are not developmentally that much different from five-year-olds in the US. Five-year-olds around the world learn best through structured play. As Mr. Rogers said long ago, "Play is really the work of childhood."

Shanahan says he has read the research and that to argue that literacy should not be taught in kindergarten is a claim you can make "only if you don't know the research." Well, others have read the research too, and not everyone would agree that formal instruction in literacy in kindergarten is a good or necessary thing. Many researchers, including Nancy Carlsson-Paige of Defending the Early Years, argue that "no research documents long term gains from learning to read in kindergarten."

What is a poor teacher to make of this? How is a parent supposed to know what is appropriate for kindergarten? As usual, the best answer lies somewhere between the two extremes.

An unfortunate by-product of the No Child Left Behind legislation and the Common Core State Standards has been to make kindergarten instruction look more like first grade, and not a very joyful first grade at that. The Common Core standards' call for kindergartners to read "emergent texts with fluency" and "identify long and short vowels with common spellings" and "use the most frequently occurring inflections and affixes" leads inevitably to more teacher directed instruction and developmentally inappropriate worksheet completion activities for kindergartners.

To his credit, Shanahan says he does not support worksheet driven instruction in kindergarten, but he must have some serious blinkers on if he believes that the Common Core call for more rigor has not already led to more worksheet driven, teacher-centered, developmentally inappropriate instruction in kindergarten across the country. One person's rigor is another person's worksheet. And research would support the idea that children don't need to be reading by the end of kindergarten, they just need to have the knowledge and understandings in place to help them be successful in learning to read.

On the other hand, it is part of the work of children in kindergarten and, therefore, part of the responsibility of kindergarten teachers to make sure that every child is ready to become a successful reader. Most of this work can be accomplished through structured play. Here is the literacy knowledge that rising first graders should take with them from kindergarten.

  • A rich oral language both spoken and receptive
  • A love of books
  • An awareness that books can entertain and inform
  • A working knowledge of the alphabet
  • Concepts about print like how to hold a book, how to turn pages and that print carries the meaning
  • The ability to hear and generate rhymes
  • The ability to hear and segment sounds in words (phonemic awareness)
  • The ability to match sounds to letters (phonics)
  • A store of about 25 sight words (the, it, and, I, me)
  • The ability to retell a story that has been read aloud
These literacy abilities can be acquired through the following instructional designs:
  • Structured play activities where students interact orally and in writing
  • Daily read alouds
  • Shared reading
  • Interactive or shared writing
  • Direct teacher instruction (kept brief and focused)
  • Word and language games and activities
  • Targeted small group instruction
  • One-on-one instruction as needed
  • Independent reading
  • Independent writing
Of course, no successful kindergarten program can be one-size-fits-all. The younger the children, the more critical it is that a program meet individual needs. When it comes to kindergarten literacy some children will enter already reading, some will have some letter knowledge and still others will not yet know their letters. Instruction must meet the needs of all these students. Readers should get instruction that strengthens their precocious reading ability and letter name learners must receive instruction that helps them learn their letters, but none of this means that play is not central to the kindergarten experience.  For a good guide book on developmentally appropriate kindergarten instruction, I recommend Kindergarten Literacy, by Anne McGill-Franzen.

In the end, kindergarten can be a joyful experience full of rich literacy learning opportunities. Should a child be expected to be reading by the end of kindergarten? My answer would be no. Should every child leave kindegarten positioned to become a successful reader through subsequent instruction in first grade and beyond? Absolutely.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

PARCC Test Results in NJ: Child Abuse on the Grand Scale

Well, the PARCC test results are out in New Jersey and to no one's surprise, the scores were low. Certainly the State Department of Education was not surprised, since they know that similar forms of the test had similar results in states like New York where an earlier version of the test was taken and where a scant 30% of students were judged to be meeting or exceeding standards. And so it is in New Jersey, where in no grade level did more than half of the students pass the test.

New Jersey Commissioner of Education, David Hespe, says that "There is still much work to be done in ensuring all of our students are fully prepared for the 21st century demands of college and career." Of course that is the official line of all reform minded politicians from President Obama, to US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, to Bill Gates to everybody else who seeks to discredit parents, students, teachers, their unions and public education in general. Low test scores are a major component of the reformers drive for privatizing education through charter schools, vouchers, national standards, over-testing of children and the elimination teacher job protections.

But this test tells us nothing about our children's preparedness for college and career. In fact, the only thing these test results tell us is that the test is deeply and irretrievably flawed. Any competent teacher will tell you that if more than 50% of the students in a class fail a test that there is something wrong with the test. I recently gave a test in my college freshman class. While 95% of the students passed the test, one section of the test caused many students trouble. When I returned the test to the students at the next class, I asked them what gave them trouble with that section of the test that I had thought would be fairly easy. Together we determined that some of the students, who had only taken one other test from me, were confused by the format of the question and had not studied for what the test was asking of them. I noted this and determined to make changes in future tests to insure students knew the expectations and had a better chance at being successful.

Like many other PARCC observers, I predicted the PARRC scores would be low long before anyone took the test. This did not take rocket science. All I did was look at the reading passages for the English/language arts part of the exam and note that they were, for the most part, about 2 grade levels above what should be expected for a student at that grade. I also looked at the readability of the word problems in math and found similar concerns. I also examined the questions asked of students and the match between the passages and the students. You can read those analyses here, here, here and here. Our children were set up to fail this test, so that education reformers can continue to argue for the dismantling of public education. In New Jersey, all anyone needs to do is look at what is happening in Newark and Camden to see that private companies are taking over public education. The PARCC test is simply one more stake to the heart for public schooling.

All New Jersey parents and teachers want every child to be a high achiever and there is nothing wrong with having high expectations for children. But when education bureaucrats seek to advance their own agendas by setting a testing bar above what a child should be expected to do, that does not lead to high achievement, it leads to frustration and feelings of failure. 

Here is what Commisioner Hespe should have said about the PARCC test. "Any test where more than 50% of children fall below expectations is obviously a flawed test. We at the State Department need to go back to the drawing board and find out what we did wrong and see if we can correct it for the future. Governor Christie and I would like to apologize to the parents and children of New Jersey for putting them through this fruitless exercise and we promise to do better by talking to parents, students and teachers about ways to design a test that is both more fair and more useful for informing instruction going forward."

I am not holding my breath for this statement. Until such enlightenment comes out of the state department, however, I recommend all New Jersey parents simply refuse to let their children take the test. Opt Out when testing time rolls around again. 

Setting kids up for failure constitutes child abuse.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Teacher Autonomy, Accountability and Baseball

I don’t think that the primary problem in American education is the lack of teacher quality, or that part of the solution would be to find the best and the brightest to become teachers. The quality of an education system can exceed the quality of its teachers if teaching is seen as a team sport, not as an individual race.
Pasi Sahlberg, Visiting Professor of Practice in Education, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University

Pasi Sahlberg is the former director general of the Finnish Ministry of Education, heading a public education program that has long been held up as a model because of high scores on PISA international tests of literacy and mathematics. In my view, Sahlberg is onto something that American corporate education reformers are ignoring at the peril of all school children. Quality education is not a matter of common standards, school choice, hero teachers, principal autonomy or teacher evaluation based on test scores. Quality education is a combination of informed, enlightened and engaged leadership, teacher quality, teacher teamwork, teacher autonomy and teacher accountability based on the quality of instruction, the quality of interactions with other teachers and the ability to reflect and grow as a professional.

I am a huge baseball fan. For me the game of baseball is a metaphor for life. Sahlberg says that education needs to be seen as a team sport. The best baseball teams are made up of individuals of talent who work together for the common good. Sure, many teams have a superstar player or two, but interestingly, superstar players do not guarantee success of the team. Many of the greatest players of all time never played in the World Series – Ernie Banks, Nolan Ryan, Ken Griffey, Jr., Rod Carew. This year 10 teams made the playoffs. One of those teams is the Houston Astros. In baseball, the .300 batting average (3 hits in every 10 times at bat) is the mark of a good hitter. Here are the batting averages of the 9 everyday players on the field this year for the Astros: .211, .199, .313, .279, .224, .243, .236, .276, .246. Clearly, something other than great hitting got the Astros to the playoffs.

Great pitching can overcome poor offense in baseball. Do the Astros have great pitching? Not so much. An average number of runs given up per game (ERA) by starting pitchers in the American League where the Astros play is about 3.75. Here are the ERAs of the pitchers who started at least 10 games for the Astros this season: 2.48, 3.89, 3.22, 3.90, 4.36, 4.17. The overall starting pitching performance is average at best. How did the Astros make the playoffs, beat the Yankees in the Wild Card game and move to the divisional playoffs? As a team, the Astros are better than the sum of their individual parts. So can it be with a school.

In order for a school to work well, teachers and administrators need to be working together toward the common goal of the best possible learning environment for every child. For this to happen, Sahlberg suggests, teachers need autonomy. This is not the autonomy of closing the classroom door and teaching whatever you want in whatever way you want. This is an autonomy built on teamwork, professionalism and trust. Professionals are people who are empowered through their knowledge to make decisions, but true professionals do not make decisions in a vacuum, they seek help, they share good ideas, they look for solutions to new problems.

Recently, a friend suffered a re-occurrence of cancer and she went to her local doctor, a very well regarded oncologist. In order to design a plan of treatment, this very experienced doctor called a colleague in a nearby urban hospital to talk through the best possible treatment plan. So must it be with teachers. A school as a whole must be even stronger than its best teachers. It can be so if all teachers are working together and if they have the time and autonomy to make it happen. Teachers in Finland, and many other countries, teach fewer hours than US teachers and spend more time consulting with their colleagues. Rather than teaching to a prescribed set of standards toward scoring well on a standardized test, Finnish teachers are guided by a loose framework around which they find the best way to teach the children in front of them.

Of course, autonomy requires trust and trust in teachers is both deserved and earned. It is deserved because teachers are professionals who have dedicated themselves to the study of the child, the study of teaching methods and the study of content. And trust is earned when teachers hold themselves accountable. Not accountable to some fool’s gold of a standardized tests, but accountable for providing the best possible instruction to each and every child entrusted to their care.  This means keeping up on the research. It means constantly improving your own teaching ability through reflection on what is working and what isn’t. It means being a productive and contributing and collaborative member of an instructional team that is working together to meet children’s needs. It means being able to demonstrate every student’s progress through authentic artifacts like tests, quizzes, classroom projects and writing samples.

Autonomy is inextricably tied to accountability. If, as teachers, we desire autonomy we must embrace accountability, as long as it is an accountability that respects our professionalism. The school administrator must trust that teachers will work together to design the best possible instruction. Parents must trust that the teacher is providing the best possible instruction for the child. Policy makers must trust that teachers are professionals doing their jobs as well as they can. The Common Core, the proliferation of standardized tests, the teacher accountability movement built on those standardized tests are all indications of a lack of trust. As teachers we have every right to demand that trust, but we also have the heavy responsibility of being deserving of that trust.

The Houston Astros trust each other. They trust each other to do their best, not only on the field, but in preparing to go on the field. They trust their fellow players to make the correct plays, throw to the right base, break up the double play, run the bases intelligently. When each Astro walks into the batter’s box, he is an autonomous actor with a bat in his hand, but he is also a teammate working toward the greater good of winning the World Series. As teachers we play in the World Series every day. Our job is that important. We deserve professional respect, we need the professional collaboration of our colleagues and we must earn the trust of the children and adults we work with by being the best professional team players we can be.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

New Teachers are Educated, Not Trained

It was gratifying the other morning to pick up the New York Times and see this headline on the Opinion Page: "Teachers Aren't Dumb." Gee thanks. The author of the piece, Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at The University of Virginia, says that Arne Duncan is wrong about prospective teachers scraping the bottom of the barrel of students admitted to colleges. When you look at the students who actually complete a teaching degree, their scores tend to fall around the average of other students completing degrees in other fields. Willingham says that college education school graduates are "smart enough" to do the job. I agree.

Willingham says quite a few smart things. For example he acknowledges that it takes more than intelligence to be a good teacher. And he recognizes that it is plain foolishness to try to assess the quality of a teacher preparation program on the basis of standardized test scores of the school children taught by their graduates. He also says, and I agree, that prospective teachers do not get enough course work in reading and math pedagogy.

Unfortunately when he tries to posit some solutions to the problems he sees in teacher education (I refuse to use the word "training"), Willingham says a lot of dumb things. He says that there are two things we should do to improve teacher preparation programs:

  1. Test students at the end of their schooling to see if they know what they need to know.
  2. Generate a list of what research says a teacher ought to know and use this list to decide if a teacher is well "trained" and should be certified to teach and whether the college's education program should be accredited.
So, even though we know that teaching is a complex human activity that requires more than "smarts" and rote knowledge, Willingham says we can assess a young graduate's preparedness with a test that rewards smarts and rote knowledge. Then we will generate a list of what teachers should know and use that list to determine their suitability to teach and the quality of the education program they attended. I would like to see that list. I bet that if Willingham and some of his colleagues started writing that list today, they might finish by the next millennium.

When will we begin to acknowledge that complex human processes cannot be boiled down to lists and measured by tests? This work of evaluating, certifying and accrediting is too messy to be easily measured. It takes time, money, dedication and human judgment. It can't be boiled down to numbers.

In my experience teacher education programs are actually quite sound, but too often they are removed from the context of the classroom. Most new teachers will tell you that they learn more about teaching in their student teaching experience and in their first couple of years of teaching than they did in the preparation courses. This is not because the courses are not good, but because they lack context. Prospective teachers need to be able to weigh what they are learning against the backdrop of real kids and real classrooms in order to make their learning concrete and to help them focus on what matters. Quality teacher education programs get students into the classroom quickly.

If we want high quality teacher education programs, here is what we need to do.

  • Provide all prospective teachers with a firm grounding in a liberal arts education: English, history, science, psychology, philosophy, arts and physical education
  • Provide a course of study that combines  the theoretical underpinnings of pedagogy with the practical application of the theory.
  • For elementary teachers provide multiple courses in reading and mathematics pedagogy.
  • For secondary school teachers provide courses in disciplines they will be teaching that combine content knowledge with pedagogical knowledge. One of the stranger aspects of teacher education is that students take college level courses in math or history that they will never teach. Certainly these higher level courses should be a part of their curriculum, but so should in depth looks at basic mathematics and history courses.
  • Get students into regular school classrooms beginning in the sophomore year, fist as observers and later to plan and teach occasional lessons.
  • Provide a student teaching experience where prospective teachers get regular feedback on their performance and suggestions for improvement.
  • Carefully select the teachers who will work with the student teachers to insure that all student teachers have good models to pattern themselves after.
  • Develop habits of mind that encourage reflective practice. Expect prospective teachers to be able to assess their own performance and develop plans for improvement.
  • Assess performance by observing practice based on a set of shared understandings of good teaching.

There is no inexpensive or quick way to educate a teacher and there is no test that can measure the tangible and intangible skills that are required of the successful teacher. Teaching is a human enterprise and like all human enterprises, it requires real human beings to interact in good faith and make judgments. These judgments will be subjective, they will be messy, they will be imprecise, but they will tell us much more about who is moving forward to be a good teacher than any tests and lists ever will.

If learning to teach was like training a dog, perhaps we could design a test and create a list that would demonstrate that the teacher was properly trained. But learning to teach requires a very complex process of educating and our systems for measuring the success of that educational process must be just as complex as the educating itself.

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.