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 struggling 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."