20 December 2010

NEA, AFT, and other dangerous / harmful acronyms

I'm a history teacher. I was trained in the modern era, so I'm not even a Mr. Hand style teacher; though I do love me some lecture. But I'm also trained as a political scientist and as an economist. Want me to prove it? Ok, I'll link to some especially boring articles now. (BOOYAH!)

Anyway, the confluence of those three areas of study is labor. (or, as Dr. Dick Johncock would spell it Labour) In America, the study of labor is really the study of struggle between the capitalist pigs and the noble labor unions. Don't agree with that summary? Read some Howard Zinn. 

Educators are not exempt from this struggle. In 1857, as the labor movement was just beginning to gain some steam, the first of the American teachers' unions was formed. It was called the National Education Association. It did important things, like fight for better pay and working conditions. In fact it still fights for those issues. It still rallies the troops against things like NCLB. However, it, like the vast majority of American unions, also has grown to large for it's own good. In my view, it too often fights for bad teachers, and too rarely fights for the good of all teachers.

Before you hop into the comments and start berating me, and providing examples of good teachers you know that were saved by the union, I want you to stop. Now, calm down. Think about every incompetent teacher you've ever worked with (or been taught by), and think about how they were protected by "tenure". That tenure, and the system of simply putting in years to get it, was negotiated by the union. And that policy has protected far more bad teachers than good.

So far, my claims are basically just conjecture. I have no good way to prove how many "good" or "bad" teachers have been protected by unions. The numbers are hard to come by. It is also hard to define "good" and "bad". That is a failure of the educational system, but also a failure of the unions. Why haven't the NEA and AFT tried to find a better way to evaluate teachers? Why haven't they fought for some form of merit pay that rewards teachers based on a real evaluative method, as opposed to test scores or supervisor evaluations?
The way I see it, the union is content to play the role of being the party of no. Whenever change is proposed, unions tend to simply react in a knee-jerk manner. 

So how can it be fixed?
Unions need to become more local. (for the record I tend to think this is true not just for educational unions, but for all unions) I understand that by becoming more local unions lose much of their political clout. However, most educational problems are the result of their local circumstance. One of the great failings of education is that we keep looking for national solutions. If there was a cure-all, we would already be using it. We need to recognize (at all levels, and from all political points of view) that the solutions for education must be more local. 
This isn't to say that some level of sharing of knowledge and techniques for improving student success from across the nation isn't good. It is undeniably so. This is to say that we, as educators must realize that every school, indeed every student is different. Only by becoming smaller and more agile; more willing to compromise at the local level to find solutions, will unions actually serve both teachers and the taught. 
Unions should still protect teachers, but they should do so with locally bargained rules. They should fight to reform evaluative practices so that schools can more effectively teach students. They should protect teachers' speech and employment rights, but not their incompetence. 
I know this sounds like a pipe dream. I know it is unrealistic to hope for national education unions to voluntarily downsize, but I'll hang on to that dream. 

Now, because I believe in reinforcing positive behavior, a video for your amusement.

17 December 2010

Friday U-boat, Finals Edition

Editor's note:

This u-boat, like all u-boats that were mean-spirited have been removed by request of the management

07 December 2010

Money, money, money

Roughly 18,000 years ago, there was a little rock and roll band that came from Liverpool, England. Perhaps you've heard of them. Now, there's a slim possibility I'm referencing them because they have had a massive impact on society or education.

Nope. I just wanted to put them out there because they recorded a little ditty that has become the clarion call for most educators. Are you a communist, and don't know what I'm talking about? Check out this video

You see, that song, and this post are about the same thing. They're about money. Public school teachers (and I speak with considerable authority here) are chronically underpaid. I haven't had a pay increase, even for cost of living, in three years. My first year teaching(2002-2003), I made $27,072. I would have made more managing a Taco Bell. (sad but true)

Often, reformers make the claim that if we could simply find a way to pay teachers more, we would attract better candidates, and all of the research shows that better teachers equals more learning. 

I'm not sure that's true, but that's a post for another day. Today, I want to talk about the money schools get (or in most cases, don't get) for spending on things that aren't staffing. 

Education is a fantastically expensive thing. In America, we make it even more expensive by using educational facilities to also build community and foster youth athletics. Schools are facilities that receive exceptionally heavy use. In many communities, they house more people at one time than any other building. They need to be heated and cooled, to serve the needs of an extremely varied population, and to foster that always hard to capture "school spirit". We expect them to be safe and to inspire creativity and learning. They house bands, and artists, host theater productions, and teach the basics of home repair and construction. They are warehouses for books (often tens of thousands of them) and computers. They are often lit and heated or cooled for 14 or 15 hours a day. 

They serve as the home for athletic opportunities for young men and women who could never afford those opportunities in a private club setting. They offer facilities for clubs that could never meet anywhere else. They have gyms, and weight rooms, and locker rooms, and facilities to feed a thousand teen-aged mouths a day. In short, schools are the greatest community centers ever envisioned; when they work properly. Even when schools don't work properly, they're still better than 75% of community centers.  

Schools do all of this on your dime. They are supported, in great part, by tax dollars. Generally those tax dollars are local. More and more often, local people are unwilling to support schools when the schools ask for more money. I personally feel that this is because schools are being held more "accountable". As I've addressed before, these measures are misguided, because the tests which are used to demonstrate accountability are deeply flawed. Now, it may be admirable to let the taxpayers see where their tax dollars are going.

The problem is that many admirable things are also stupid. You see, people will only look at the numbers, and won't think about all of the things that schools are doing for that money. I think schools are a great value. American schools routinely spend less per student than other developed nations, expect our schools to do much more (especially extra curricularly), and we still manage to score in the top 20 versus our peers. (according to this data, we rank 43rd in the world per pupil spending as a percentage of GDP). So really, public schools are a great value. 

But, because people are stupid (see the hair-dryer corollary), they don't think about the value. They think about the $6 extra dollars a month that they'll have to pay on their property tax. I actually work with a teacher who voted against a bond which would have completed our building. Why? He felt as though he already paid enough in taxes. Seriously. So, thinking about those higher taxes, and not the benefits of them, taxpayers often defeat school funding bills.

People need to be protected from themselves. I think education is like politics, which in turn is like sausage making. No one really wants to know what's going on, unless they understand. For example, my building uses $10,000 worth of paper a year. You (and many people) might think that is a lot, but it's less than $1 per student per class. This a prime example of facts that average people don't need to know. They will freak out about this expense, without thinking about the second half of it. Schools are generally pretty good with money. It's just that the job they're doing is expensive.

Listen, I don't want the schools to have hallways paved with gold. I don't need a Hogwarts. But I think schools should have enough money to not worry about the amount of money they spend on paper.

Or on the furnishings for the teachers' lounge; which should of course be cashmere couches. Oh, and while we're at it, there should be a masseuse there too. And free gummy bears.
Now that would be money well spent.

03 December 2010

Friday U-boat, ed. 6

Today, we journey into the realms of history and religion to find our U-boat

The Question: Who was the Procurator of Jerusalem, and who was the most famous person he had crucified?
The Answer: Profit was the procurator of Jerusalem, and he killed Jesus.

Hope you are enjoying the consumerism of the season!

01 December 2010

Lucy! I'm home!(schooled)

This post was originally going to be about the problems posed by schools that either cannot or refuse to adapt to changing technology. I feel that this is a genuine problem, and one I can speak at great length about (I currently can't get into the building I work in since my "key card" has simply stopped working, and I'm not allowed to have an actual key to the building).

But recently I've decided there's a bigger threat to education. English bears.

English bears? No, that's not me, that's Stephen.

My rant? Homeschooling.

Homeschoolers are parents who "opt out" of sending their children to school, instead opting to teach them at home. They often buy special curriculum, and if they meet very basic requirements, then their children don't get dragged to truancy courts. I honestly don't know all of the specifics, but I'm sure there are laws which allow these parents to do this legally. 

I suppose I don't dislike a parent's choice to raise their children as they see fit. If you don't trust the public schools, or schools in general, you should have the right to educate them at home. 

Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

You see, as I've pointed out in this space many times before, schools teach much more than just academic subjects. Schools teach social skills. Homeschoolers will often point out that they get together with other homeschoolers to socialize their children. On a very basic level, this is true. However, it can be safely ventured that a group of people who all object to the same schools are almost certainly from similar ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds. Thus, thought their children socialize, they don't get many opportunities to socialize with people who are different from their own family.

This is one of those things that public schools do really really well. For whatever failings they have, public schools have generally in the last 50 years, done a really nice job of teaching children to co-exist with other children who are different from them. We remember well in this nation the ugliness that happened when those schools were integrated. Much of that ugliness was because parents didn't want their children to go to school with children who were different from them. (Don't know what I'm talking about? Click Here).  

I'm not calling homeschoolers racist. But I do think that they are short-sighted. Whatever "evil" they are avoiding by teaching their children at home is surely lesser than the evil of children who are unable to co-exist with people who are different from them. Please understand that racist and intolerant children exist in public schools, but in most cases, the schools can attempt to modify their behavior to a level which is acceptable in polite society.

But there is a bigger problem that the socialization problem. That problem is the problem of what these students are taught. Many homeschoolers teach at home because they object to the curriculum of their local public school. This is supremely unfortunate. Children are a terrible resource to waste.

I don't care if you fervently believe the Earth is only 6000 years old, or that the world was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster. Those beliefs are fine for you to have and to hold. I don't even mind if you want your children to believe those things. I do mind if you won't expose them to other options. If your kid sits through "the Earth is 6000 years old" church with you every Sunday, and sits through Science class, I think you should trust them to make the "right" decision, if you've raised them properly. You shouldn't have to resort to hiding the other options from them if your view is correct.

I'll go further. I think you're hurting the country if you're teaching your children at home, and you're teaching them politicized history. I know that you're out there, and I know that you'll deny it. History is full of room for interpretation, but many homeschoolers will either venerate America, or denigrate America more than they should. Just because you believe something, does not make it a fact. (although I believe that last statement, and it is a fact). For a democracy or republic to function properly, its citizens must share at least a basic common history. The more people teach the fringes, the more damage is done to a building block of our nation's stability.

Again, you can teach your version, but please allow your children exposure to other versions, so that they can be well rounded.

I've got a good rule of thumb. If parents want to homeschool their children, we should allow it, as long as those parents are "highly-qualified" to teach each subject their child must take. I'll even let the government determine what "highly-qualified" means. I won't even require a teaching license. If you have a Bachelor's in each of the subjects that you want to teach your children, I'll let you do so; no matter how crazy you are.

If you don't, let's leave it to the professionals. Because if we don't leave it to the professionals, you end up with this:
And nobody wants that.

30 November 2010

An exciting announcement!!

Hey there, loyal readers of the BlazeBlog, today we are excited to announce that we have partnered (and by "partnered" I mean, "we signed up") with our friends at twitter to create a feed of ridiculous things we've over-heard at lunch.

It will be just as good as you think. To prove it, click here

29 November 2010

I Renew My War Against Charter Schools.

Hello, dear reader, and welcome back to the "Dirty Dozen"; a list of the problems that I see facing American education, and occasionally a suggestion for how to fix it.
Today, I renew my clarion call against charter schools. But before I do, a little explanation about my background, and the background of charter schools, in case you are unfamiliar with either one.
I have spent the last decade nine years of my life teaching in public schools. When I started in public schools I didn't do it for any great philosophical reason, but because that was who offered me a paying position and benefits. At the time, especially in Indiana, charter schools were largely a non-issue. In my time in public schools, I have come to value that they are the bedrock of American democracy. Public schools, at their best and worst, provide equal opportunity for their students. This is the value that Americans value above most others; that we all have an equal opportunity to succeed or fail based on our own efforts.

Charter schools have risen in demand for "better" schools. They began as a movement to allow parents and teachers who were frustrated with mostly urban public schools to leave and start their own schools. These schools, unlike private schools, would be granted charters, and would operate as "public". This means that they received public funding, and had to admit students regardless of race, gender, creed, or color. However, they could do many things that "regular" public schools could not. For example, they could place a hard cap on enrollment, allowing them to turn students away if too many students wanted to enroll. These schools have been gaining popularity and are growing across the nation, despite the fact that their results are the same as the public schools which they are an alternative to. (check out this story, about 1/4 of the way down).

Anyway, I've gone on at great length about charter schools before (read here, if you haven't before), so I'll try to avoid repeating that rant. Why? Because I have a new rant.

A new rant? But how? I work in education, there's always material for a new rant.

I'm currently on the warpath against online schools. Sure, I don't like charter schools, with their playing by different rules, and their touting results produced with different rules. I don't like how they segregate society by who's parents care. I don't like that people see them as a solution, instead of working within the system to affect change for all students. But "brick-and-mortar" charter schools seem like bastions of educational sanity compared to online schools. 

Online schools are charter schools which, by and large, offer classes statewide, and allow students to complete their learning at home, in a self-directed manner. (full disclosure: I am good friends with several people who work for online schools, and I don't hate them as people. But I also know that they could do better. I'm just saying, ladies.......)

You might be wondering why these schools would do this. For the money. You see, every student in a state carries with them money from the state. Online schools claim this money for those students whom they enroll. However, in general, online schools have much lower overhead costs, since they tend to not have much in the way of buildings or staff, since the learning is self-directed and on the Internet. Thus, they are money makers. Some other time, I'll let loose on how schools shouldn't make money, but should try their hardest to just break even.

Now, I'm not going to spend my evening writing a scathing critique of the academic achievement records of these schools, because it has already been done for me . Instead, I plan to attack them for the one thing they generally fail at more than teaching kids. Socializing kids.

For a moment, let us be honest. School was full of embarrassment. I, for one, made tragic hair decisions from about 1992-1999. For those keeping track, that was when I was in middle and high school. I'm sure many of you can also remember / regret choices you made socially while you were in school. Your peers probably made you suffer for it. That's a good thing. Wait, what? Suffering is good? Yes.

I know that no one wants their child to be picked on. No one wants suffering. In fact, suffering, on occasion, creates great tragedy. Ask anyone who attended school or taught in Colorado post-Columbine. 

However, in the vast majority of cases, the suffering leads to some tears, maybe a fight. And learning. Oh yes, learning. No, this isn't on any test, but it's learning. It's social learning. And social learning is one of those untested things that schools provide which is so important. You see, by allowing our children to make low-impact bad choices, and suffer socially in a pretty safe social environment, they grow, and society continues to have people who can interact with one another.

This aspect is lost in an online charter school. Since students are self-directed, they are free to be as odd and off as they want to be, with no social ramifications. In some cases, their only face-to-face interactions will be with their immediate family. If you've read my manifesto on parents, you know that I'm not sure that is all that healthy. ( MANIFESTO ).

So, now, you've got an entire group of students, who probably need the social interaction more than most students, in a school with very little social interaction.

Well, that seems like a good plan.

And now, to reward you for getting to the end, a mini u-boat.

Q: Why did the missionary Narcissa Whitman go into the west?
A: To spread her face to the Indians.

23 November 2010

Friday U-boat, ed. 5 (on a Tuesday)

Editor's note:

This u-boat, like all u-boats that were mean-spirited have been removed by request of the management

18 November 2010

Inquiry Based Learning and the Inquisition.

I've been in public education long enough to know that everything old will be new again. Once you've been in public schools for about 5 years, you've seen and heard about pretty much every educational innovation as long as you've managed to stay awake during inservices.

In the last inservice that my school hosted, we talked about inquiry based learning. To be honest, I didn't go, because I was recovering from riding on a bus with a marching band for 10 hours. If you're not familiar with Inquiry Based Learning, here's a brief synopsis.

For those of you too lazy to read through that fine website from some company who wants to sell you some thing, I'll summarize:

Advocates of Inquiry Based Learning say that by letting students investigate topics which are somewhat open, on their own. The theory goes that students investigating topics they like, and drawing their own conclusions are more engaged and are building more durable knowledge.

I don't disagree

I think that Inquiry Based Learning, or IBL as Dr. Dick Johncock would declare it, does all of those things. I even think that those things are important. I believe that a student who can't think critically in society is a far bigger failure than a student who can't pass a crummy standardized test.

So, why am I here, on my soapbox, ready to talk about IBL? Am I going to sing it's praises? Will this be the first positive post in the history of the BlazeBlog? In short; no. I'm on the BlazeBox because I think that IBL is dangerous.

Dangerous? Why?

It's dangerous for the same reason that people going to conferences are dangerous, because some people think that it will be a cure all. It won't be. And if schools force teachers to spend more and more time developing and teaching IBL strategies, teachers will spend less time on traditional learning strategies. And that would be fine, if the entire goal of schools was to "teach students to learn".

But that's not why schools exist. Indeed, schools exist for several historical reasons. Now, since I'm a history teacher, I feel qualified to explain those reasons to you.

Originally, public schools were financed in the Northwest Ordinance of 1785. This was because, in a fledgling democracy, the founders were very aware that schools were needed, because an uneducated populous would never work in the world's first modern democracy. If "the people" were to have a serious voice in government, "the people" needed at least to have basic skills so that they could make decisions on their own. So, the government financed some of the first truly "public" schools in the world. At this point, I'm tempted to rail against charter schools again, but that's a post for another day. Instead, I'll jump forward in history about 75 years to the second reason that public schools teach more than "how to learn"

In the mid 19th Century, as waves of immigrants moved into the crowded metropolises of the fledgling United States, the established citizens realized that those immigrants needed to be assimilated into the nation. It became clear that the easiest way to do this would be through their children. So, their children were taught hygiene, and the language, and a common U.S. History. This gave them, and by extension their parents, a common, shared history. This is why History stands still today as a core subject in the state standards of all 50 states. (in fact, U.S. History was the first set of national standards, which set off a fire-storm of controversy at the time)

History and English are taught because it is important that students have a common base of knowledge, so that all citizens are "singing from the same hymnbook," as it were. If we become to married to IBL, and letting students pick their own courses of study, instead of simply presenting some knowledge as non-negotiable, we produce students who are very good at reasoning their way out of a problem. However, they will often be arguing with false facts, and drawing conclusions which are false. Their arguments will make sense, unless you have knowledge of what they're saying; in which case you'll think of them as well-reasoned baboons. 

In short, they'll all be FoxNews anchors.

(See what I did with the last line and the title? I thought it was clever.) 

17 November 2010

Hey! Experts Agree with me!

According to this story in the Wall Street Journal, a panel composed of experts from the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (Dr. Johncock is a member of this prestigious organization) has suggested making teacher education, and I cannot make this up, "more like medical training"

Hmm, where have I heard that before?

Oh, that's right, here, on the BlazeBlog!


12 November 2010

Friday U-boat, ed. 4

Editor's note:

This u-boat, like all u-boats that were mean-spirited have been removed by request of the management

08 November 2010

The Seven Most Dangerous Words In Education

Sometimes, an educator will get sent to a conference. They'll go somewhere sunny and wonderful, like Omaha, and when they come back, the school will want to see a return on the money they spent.

Their co-workers, wondering why there was an elderly woman reading mystery novels in the class next door while children ran crazy, will ask the educator where they've been. The educator will respond with:

"I just got back from a conference"

These are the Seven Most Dangerous words in Education. Why? Because when an educator goes to a conference, they go away from school. While away from school, all things seem possible. You can go to the bathroom whenever you want. You can have free coffee and fruit.

At many conferences, there is AN HOUR for lunch. 60 whole minutes. Most educators can't even begin to imagine 60 minutes for lunch. And so, overwhelmed by this world that they don't understand, educators write everything down, and come back, ready to change the world, convinced that what they learned today really is the magic bullet.

Because someone at the conference has BRAND NEW IDEAS. And now, your school is going to implement those ideas. However, we don't have the funding to bring in the expert from the conference (Dr. Dick Johncock is actually available! Email him for details Seriously!) So, the person who went to the conference is going to lead an inservice, and we're going to implement this.

So, on the inservice day, the kids go home at lunch, you get lunch and meet in the library. At this point, a PowerPoint is projected, apologies are made for the small text, we watch a movie, get three handouts stolen from the Internet, and people walk away confused. Meanwhile, new jargon has been added to our educational lexicon. Because more jargon = better learning.

Seriously, I was once in a curriculum map planning meeting, and the leader (love you!), wanted us to develop a Vision Statement for Social Studies. I suggested that we put it in the "Random Educational Catchphrase Generator" and see what it spat out. Here's an example:

We will empower students, through experiential and differentiated lessons, to become masters of their education in an ever-changing world. Students will be supported by norms based, standards referenced, horizontally and vertically aligned, real-world applied, and community created lessons.

Far too often, administrators really buy into this stuff. They're looking for ways to improve test scores RIGHT FREAKING NOW, and these lessons from conferences seem like the real deal. That leads to administrators basing everything on jargon that teachers got exposed to for 2 hours at the end of the day in the library. (Honestly, the teachers probably graded and did the crossword, so they're just as much to blame in this deal)

You know what? The Internet is better at explaining this rant than I am.

Here's a video, it does a better job than I ever could:

So, are conferences bad, and are they hurting education? No, probably not. the problem is that the conference gets people all excited, and then they come back to school full of piss and vinegar, but that enthusiasm doesn't translate to us mere mortals. Indeed, there's even jargon for this. It's a "lack of buy-in".

What can we do about it? First, lets all calm down. Rome wasn't built in a day, and the problems of American education, as I think I've shown, are largely systemic, and won't be fixed by the ideas you're bringing back from the conference. Now that we're all calm, lets go ahead and implement these good ideas, in moderation. We don't need to reinvent the wheel every 10 months with a new set of acronyms and discipline plans. In fact, we might be well served to self-asses, or use that conference registration fee to bring in someone from outside to evaluate how we're doing.

But if we did that, no one would get to go to Omaha.

07 November 2010

Hi, I'm a Student Teacher, er, Teaching Candidate, er......

I work at a school which has a partnership with a local university. The university sends us what they call teaching candidates. These are students near the end of their university education in education. They come to us and observe for 16 weeks. Actually, they observe for 8 weeks with us, and 8 weeks in a middle school in our district. They do this in the fall. In the spring, they receive an assignment and become "student teachers".

They spend their spring paying to "teach". In reality, they'll get about two weeks of really flying free, and even then, the licensed teacher can step in at any point. As education programs go, this one is pretty good. Candidates observe in classrooms that are the same subject as that which they will one day teach. They watch for a long time before they teach.

It's still a terrible program. "Wait, what?", you're asking; you said this was a pretty good program. I did. As teacher ed programs go, this one is pretty good, but it's still pretty terrible. Teacher education in this nation is abhorrent. When I student taught, I taught for 8 weeks, was observed by my cooperating teacher daily, and by my university supervisor 3 times. Together, they decided that I was ok, and I got an A. I ended up interviewing against my university supervisor for jobs. I had superior qualifications to teach economics than the teacher who was my "mentor" in that class. All in all, I sank or swam on my own. Very rarely did I learn anything from the adults who were supposed to teach me. I learned mostly from experience, who is a bitch of a teacher.

I think we need to blow up the teacher education model we cling to in this nation. If we, as a society, want to pay more than lip service to the importance of teaching, we need to treat aspiring teachers, and their preparation, more like the way we teach another group of young people who get practice prior to their license, but after they get their degree; doctors.

That's right, I want teachers to be trained like doctors. Before I even explain, let me address the concerns that have immediately sprung to your agile minds.

1. You're worried that teachers will have debt comparable to doctors, without the upside of big pay later. This is true, but my plan attempts to address this problem. (we could just pay teachers like doctors, but that's crazy talk!)

2. You're worried that these "interns / residents" will need supervision in the schools, and that means more staffing. Ah, read on, I've come up with a clever solution, I think.

3. You're worried you'll be eaten by zombies. I can't help, but will remind you that zombies lead an active lifestyle, so cardio is important

Ok, on to the plan

I think that we should keep what we have now, observation, followed by "student teaching". Those student teachers that discovered that teaching was too hard / not what they expected / early in the morning / whatever, could get their degree and quit. They could go sell insurance. However, if you wanted to get a license to teach, you would apply to "teaching schools" which would operate like teaching hospitals. Teachers; selected by peers, or administration or the University (or a combination of the three) as master teachers would be in charge of a "resident teacher"

(These master teachers would not be selected by level of education, since a masters from the University of North Nowheresville's Online Masters in Instructional Modelling has never made someone a more effective teacher. More pay, yes, better in the classroom, no).

Now, I teach in a school with 8 hours, which makes this plan work. It would need some changes for those schools teaching in the straight 7, or the trimester, or the straight block. But, we run a modified alternating block, so this is what we would do:

1. In a year, a department of 8 people couldn't have more than one student teacher and one resident teacher. This prevents the school from being overrun by novices.

2. The resident teacher would get 3/4 of a normal load (right now, I teach 6 of 8 as a regular teacher. In this system, the resident teacher would teach 4 of 8). However, the resident teacher would also be required to complete reflections, observe teachers in other classes and disciplines, observe administrators, shadow the support staff, and be engaged in an extra-curricular activity. This would help them to experience the school culture.

3. There would be a master teacher (to keep with the medical analogy, an attending teacher). This teacher would also work 4 of 8 (though I would accept 5 of 8 to placate the schools and unions). The schedules of these teachers would be such that the attending would have planning hours during the resident teacher's classes, and would be required to observe, and to mentor this teacher.

4. As the department of Health and Human Services finances much of the salaries of residents in teaching hospitals, perhaps we could use some of that Race to the Top money to pay for resident teachers. They would receive a 3/4 salary and still be eligible for student loans and grants. Also, the University would waive all or most of the tuition for administering the program. 

For what it's worth, my first year teaching, I made less than the average medical resident in the United States, so I hope we can find money for 75% of that. Perhaps the Department of Education could do something useful and support this financially. In reality, the best we could hope for is probably going halfsies with the feds and the districts.

5. Once they finished their "residency", these teachers, now with a year of real-world teaching; the total experience, the hours, the grading, the extra stuff which student teachers are often excluded from like coaching, these people would have a true feeling of what teaching is and takes.

6. Obviously this puts huge pressure and responsibility on "attending" teachers. We would need to develop a program to help select and teach these people. They would need to be impeccably qualified, and would have to be passionate about both teaching, and teaching teachers. These people exist. I can name 10 in my building. They would have to be talked into it, but that extra planning time would help.

There are a myriad of benefits for a program like this. Since this is a post full of numbered lists, let me introduce another:

1. We increase the number of sections offered from 6 to 8 at a minimal cost to the district (Because the attending teacher would have had 6, but now the attending + the resident offer 8, or 9 if you force the attending to teach 5 of 8).

2. Teachers are better prepared, having actually honed their craft for a year under the supervision of people who have experience in the field.

3. With increased sections, class sizes shrink, which is shown over and over to improve test scores. It also, anecdotal evidence suggests, increases learning.

4. There are more adults to supervise, and to shine as role models for students. Different types of teachers reach different students, so the more types of teachers you have (and young teachers often connect very well with students), the more possible engagement. The more engagement, the more students learn.

5. New teachers, operating as peers bring the newest ideas to the classroom. This rubs off on older teachers. Student teachers are overwhelmed by being short-term visitors. Residents would, one hopes, feel like members of the team, and would share their knowledge with the permanent staff. This would lead to professional growth for all.

To be perfectly frank, I think that a system like this could, for minimal effort, make a fundamental change in both the quality of teachers we produce and the quality of the schools they work in. It would happen not just for the empirical reasons stated above, but for the much more subtle message sent by making it harder to get a teacher's license than it is to get a hairdressers license.

If we say to people, that to teach, you will spend a year of your life teaching, and being evaluated on that teaching, and then you may get your license, we have sent a powerful signal that we only want the best and the best qualified to teach. 

People will live up to that expectation.

01 November 2010

A diatribe on parents. And squirrels.

And so begins what may be the hardest post that I've ever composed.

Why, you ask? Because this is the long-awaited post on the problems presented by parents. Ok, so you're writing about parents, why is that so hard, you ask (in a second question, which is kind of irritating, honestly). Because I'm going to say inflammatory things. And I'm going to be guilty of generalizing. I'm going to talk about parents in 7 categories, and 6 of those are not flattering, parent of the year categories. I'm going to mock and deride parents. I'm going to be meanish.

And I feel bad because most parents don't deserve the scorn of educators. But the ones that do, really do. So, I'm going to write a massive missive on parents.

If you're a parent, then please don't take offense. I'm just trying to explain another of the 12 reasons that I think education is hurting, and then try to offer a solution. It's not personal. Unless you're the parent I describe in section 6, in which case, it is absolutely personal, you hack.

Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, lets get to talking turkey. I prefer white meat. Ok, now let's explore the damage done to education every day by bad parents.

I think it's important that I underscore that the parents I'm talking about in this post aren't abusive, or mean spirited. In fact, you probably know some of these people, and think that they're good parents. They advocate for their kids. They're involved. You see them at school. Hell, you might think that they're better parents than you are, since they always seem to be emailing, calling, and meeting with their kids' teachers. By the standards of involvement, these parents are "good". However, they're doing long term damage. They are, as someone clever called them,

1) Helicopter Parents:

I'm hardly the first person to write about the dangers of helicopter parents. In fact, you can check out this post on another blogspot page about the dangers of parents who are all over their kids. I could restate the arguments from SunShineParenting, but that would be redundant. Instead, I'm going to break down the two most damaging types of Helicopter Parents:

1A) The Attack Chopper:

When I say "attack chopper" you probably see images of the Governator flashing across your retinas ( gratuitous youtube link! ). However, I'm thinking about that parent who is constantly hovering, just out of sight, waiting for a perceived attack or slight against their child. Then, they're immediately calling the school, emailing, demanding meetings, where they can call into question you, your character, and the goals of the school. They'll threaten litigation, to enroll in a charter school, and to go to the school board. Maybe the teacher made a mistake, maybe the kid is being less than completely honest (insert sarcastic gasp here). Doesn't matter, this parent is coming to school, yelling at everyone they can find, preferably with child in tow, to prove their love, and then vanishing, with a wake of destruction behind them.

All the attack chopper parent is doing for their child is teaching them that if you complain, someone bigger and badder will come and intimidate your problem away. That's a lesson that will serve them well when the parents send kiddo off to school, or better yet, run into a confident, competent teacher. Then, it's two gunships blazing away. Those meetings rule

1B The fire-fighting chopper

This parent appears on the scene after a grade card comes home without acceptable grades. Suddenly, a parent who wouldn't bother to return an email 2 weeks ago wants to know why you the teacher haven't replied to that request for 95 missing assignments RIGHT FREAKING NOW. Their kid is the most important, and you must stop everything you're doing to "help" them fix their child's grade. Just like a fire-fighting chopper, they weren't around when the problem was caused, and just like the chopper, they'll only stick around until the fire is out. Then, they'll be gone. What does their child learn? To procrastinate, to do shabby work late, to depend on the coverage that mom/dad/guardian provides.

How can we fix this problem? Well, honestly it's a societal problem, which requires societal change. Parents need to allow their kids to fail. But that's hard. Failure is painful, and parents don't like to see their children hurt. I get that. It's admirable. But (and I will make this point over and over today), it's not good for kids. They need to fail in the safety of the home, so that they can fix their mistakes and deficiencies before they gain independence, where the cost of failure is much higher.

2) The Over-Expector

If you have kids, you think that they're special. Technically, you're correct. They are unique in the universe. But are they more special than all the other kids? Probably not. So, despite all of that baby Einstein, and the fact that his poop once made a perfect smiley face, your kid is probably average. And that's ok. Lots of average people have done spectacular things in their lives.

The over-expector is a parent who not only thinks that their child is extra special, but also that their kid will achieve great things, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. To whit: I was once in an IEP meeting with a Special Ed student. The kid did so little work it was almost impossible to determine his abilities. I'll even say he was lazy, because I believe that he was. His parents were convinced he was going to BYU. BYU is not an easy school to get into, even for bright students. This kid once turned in a guided reading worksheet (the kind where the words are taken straight from book, with blanks in key places) by saying that:"The Nazis came to power using guns and fire." The correct answer? Propaganda and fear. Well, I'm sure BYU won't mind that he can't tell the difference between fire and fear, right?

3) The Ray Lewis

Because you're good Americans, I'm going to assume that you're familiar with Ray Lewis. No? Ok, well, he's a NFL player famous for doing a ridiculous dance at the beginning of the game, and talking a lot of trash (it really is foolish). So how does this buffoon relate to an entire category of bad parents? There are parents out there, and I know you'll be shocked by this, who are the Ray Lewis of discipline.

Oh yeah, you call, or have a meeting, and these parents are going to go home, kick ass, chew ass, chew bubble gum, ground people, sell X Boxes, and smash cell phones with hammers. They are Ray Lewis in his intro. But once they get home, they turn into Ray in the game. Average, at best. No behavior changes. The kid still has a cell phone, and still no homework gets done.

I'll just assume you can understand why promising punishment, and never delivering is bad for kids.

4. The Over-due Bill

This parent was Ray Lewis for years. They never really disciplined the kids. Maybe they're divorced, and trying to win favor or custody. Perhaps they thought the behaviors were cute, and by the time they realized their error, their child was out of control. These parents will regularly lament to teachers that they "just don't know what to do".

Why do I call them over-due bills? Because just like a bill that didn't get paid, their is a penalty for this long-term lack of discipline. Their child is incorrigible. Perhaps this parent is attempting to reign in their child. It doesn't matter, without the history of respect, the child won't respond to discipline. Often even draconian measures fail, because the child is conditioned to ignore the pain. These children often lie, to parents, teachers and administrators. 

There's no solution to the over-due bill, unless you can get that DeLorean to 88 MPH, and get Mr. Fusion to generate 1.21 gigawatts. I thought about explaining that joke, but decided against it.

5. The Public Defender

Closely related to the Attack Chopper, the Public Defender has no doubt that something bad happened, and that their child was there, but their child is clearly not guilty, your honor.

Kid had a pound of weed in his locker? Someone else put it there. Stolen ipod in his pocket? An friend (who he won't name, because he's not a snitch) asked him to hold it. Bullying comments on a facebook page? She couldn't possibly do it, I don't let her have facebook.

This parent, I would guess because of experience, is very familiar with school law and board policy. There's not an appeal they won't exhaust. I think these parents exist because they don't want to be the villain. They don't want to "hurt" their child. They want the best. Sometimes, they cross-breed with the over-expector, and are convinced that this smirch on their child's permanent record will keep them out of Harvard and Yale.

This problem parent is best solved by having an administrator with a spine of titanium. If a principal is willing to stick to their guns, to weather the storm of criticism and obscenity, then this child will be disciplined, and the parent will be, for the short term, shut up.

6. The Educational Philosopher

I'd been teaching for 5 years when I got my first complaint from a parent about content. It shocked me. I was a civics teacher, and had sent home a simple survey about political beliefs. It did contain questions about abortion and marijuana, but fell well within the school's guidelines for the teaching of controversial topics, as well as the curriculum for teaching civics.

A parent replied, indignant that I would include such topics in a freshman level class. (here's the redacted complaint). I really enjoyed the fact that she thought I would give a low grade based on the responses. Also, she somehow is upset that the topics are age-inappropriate, but also that the questions are the extreme liberal and conservative, a good way to engage freshmen, since they often don't "get" nuanced questions. I responded with a well-researched and, I thought, calm reply. (here's the redacted response). She shot back more non-sense, I offered to meet with her and my supervisor, she stopped emailing me.

She mentions in a follow-up email that she's just gotten done with 15 years in the Air Force. That's great. I salute and appreciate her service. But she's not an educational expert. The vast majority of parents aren't experts in pedagogy or content. If they were, they'd be in the classroom, and would understand why we do things. But some parents are "experts". They teach elementary school. (ok, fine, if you're an elementary teacher, you hate it when high school teachers do this too, I get it.) There is a vast difference in content and delivery between high school and elementary school. I won't harass the pedagogy of elementary teachers, and they shouldn't harass me.

You're a something. I don't come to work and ask you why you put the mayo on before the pickle. That's not my place.But I've made this argument before, so I'll stop. What, you want to hear it? ( ok, here it is)

Now, you might think that I hate all parents. Not true. In fact, most parents are good. But maybe, just maybe, you've seen today some behaviors that you occasionally exhibit. You want to know how to be a "good" parent.

Here's what good parents do:

They might not do all of these things all of the time, but when parents are at their best, these are the things they're doing:

1. They're involved, but not showy or pushy. They let children make mistakes, and they trust teachers to be experts.

2. They listen to their child, but trust the adults. Kids lie, especially when they're in trouble. Sometimes kids don't realize what they've done was wrong. Sometimes, they don't think adults have proof, so they go all Nixon and deny deny deny.

3. They allow their child to succeed or fail on their own merit. Good parents don't do homework for their kids, and they don't ask for unreasonable accommodations when students don't do the work. In short, they let a child learn after they fail, as opposed to protecting their child from failing.

4. They hold their child accountable for the child's actions. They listen to explanations, but not to excuses.

5. They celebrate successes appropriately. Your kid is the best swimmer in the state. Awesome, have a party, go crazy. Your kid got a 100% on a spelling test. Maybe a sticker or extra dessert is more appropriate. You child learns from the way you celebrate. When little successes are over-blown, the child becomes used to it, and expects it. When the celebrations stop, the child becomes less willing to work.

In short, good parents know that there are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going, for them or their children.

And now, for reading to the end, a picture of a squirrel in a party hat. Enjoy.

28 October 2010

A district approved provided U-boat

A colleague today pointed this gem out to me:

When you go to my district's Human Resources web page, and click on "Benefits", you see the following

That's right, there are no benefits to working at my school.

True-est thing that I think they've ever put out.

27 October 2010

K19 - Soviet Sub doomed to die. K-16 - Education plan of a similar fate?

Though I now teach in Colorado, I began my career in Indiana. As I've previously mentioned, the school I worked in was very poor, but not so poor that I didn't get mail (because that's free). In October of 2003 (my second year teaching), a plan arrived in my mailbox from the Department of Education. It was called "P-16" 

P-16 was more than just a catchy name, it was a plan that all students would begin getting education prior to their enrollment in kindergarten, and would get at least 4 years of post-graduate education. This seems like a great idea. It seems ideal that all kids would go to college.

It's not.

You see, not every student is academically or socially fit for college. Some are best served by serving in the military. Some are best served by 1-4 year programs at trade schools and community colleges (which despite having "college" in their names, teach a vastly different set of skills than universities).

But parents want their kids to go to college, and so education has been pushed towards a model which shoves all kids to that goal. This doesn't just apply to counselling departments either. No, it seeps into all levels of a building. I think it's been most prevalent in the subjects we used to call "shop" and "home ec".

Those subject areas were valuable areas in which to teach valuable life skills, and employment skills to students who don't find themselves attracted to an academic track. They also provide an opportunity for non-traditional learners to find a subject at which they can excel. As these valuable programs get cut, those students who wish to learn trades must elect to leave the school to go to a regional vocational program.

Vocational programs are great for students mature enough to know that it is their interest, and for those students willing to leave their friends and campus, but for those students who are not yet at that level of awareness, but who are not necessarily academically inclined, we have closed the path they may have traditionally taken. Now we say to them "Stay in school, go to college".

We need to stop selling college as a cure all. Telling kids they need to go to college won't make them better at math, science, or reading. It won't solve America's myriad of problems. Holding them to high standards, that might help. Perhaps we could set goals, and expect them to achieve them.

A large part of this problem is the fact that almost everyone who works in a school went to college. It is too easy for us as teachers and counselors to remember our post-graduate experiences, and project them onto our charges. But to do that is to do a great disservice to our students. We need to be good enough to recognize a vocational track (shhhhh, tell no one I said "track") is the appropriate track for some students, and then enroll them on that track.

So, why is this a problem for American education? Mostly because those students who used to fill their schedules with shop, advanced metals, and practical math no longer have those classes to enroll in, and they instead enroll in "academic" classes. But they don't fit there, and so they either act out to cover their inadequacies, or they work hard, but are not rewarded with a "good" grade. Or, in the worst scenario, they work hard, and they get a good grade, but don't deserve it, leading to grade inflation, and the artificial hope and belief that they would succeed in college. 

Those students then enroll, gather debt, discover too late that they aren't built for college, and drop out. They sour on education in general, and pass that on to their children, and the cycle begins anew.

The world needs mechanics and plumbers, and they don't need college, so lets stop telling them that they do.

19 October 2010

I know what happened with Snooki, with Abe Lincoln, not so much.

And now, friends of the BlazeBlog, we're going to enter into a realm of educational "problem" outside the realm of the school.

That's right. I'm going to blame something outside of schools for problems in schools. It's not even parents (they're going to get their own post). I'm going to blame society. I realize that this is dangerous, because old codgers like myself can often slip into the habit of decrying everything new as bad, and glorifying the "good old days". Hell, the Republicans have made that their message for 40 years. I'm going to attempt to make the point that fundamental changes in society have undermined education.

Now, I've already documented my beliefs on Americans getting dumber, and being glad ( don't remember? Check it out!), so I'm not going to revisit that particular rant. Instead, I'd like to look at 5 (other than the aforementioned getting dumber and being happy about it) things which have changed relatively recently, and which I feel are murdering public education like being on Happy Days murdered Anson Williams' career (he was Potsy) Too arcane? Ok, fine, insert your own pop culture joke while I move on to the 5 things which have changed in society that are killing public education:

1.The celebrity / constant contact culture
The internet's invention radically changed world culture. I don't think I'm overstating it to compare the revolution in how we find and consume information to the Industrial Revolution. Whenever there is change on this scale, average people (consumers, if you will) play a large part in determining how that change plays out. To meet their demands, the agents of change will change to profit most, and provide goods that the people want.

In the early industrial era, this led to a massive increase in home goods and "processed" foods. In general, prior to the rise of the Progressives, these goods and foods were not of the highest quality. I think we're living in that era for information.

There's lots of it, and it's tailored to a generation of people who want to know about "famous" people. To exacerbate the situation, people now are "famous" not for any accomplishment or skill, but for being caught in the constant circle of celebrity. Far too many students see this, and believe that they are entitled to a life of luxury, which they have not earned. This attitude of entitlement, often shared by parents, causes more angst in parent-student-teacher meetings than anything else. Students increasingly feel that simply "doing the work" means they should pass. I beg to differ. Doing the work well means you should pass. Turning in crap should result in failure. You're welcome (they'll thank me later, I tell myself)

The second part of this information revolution is that parents and students have constant access to grades. On the surface, this seems like a godsend. Now, parents can keep track of their child's grades, and punish them accordingly. Many parents do this, and it can be a powerful tool. But, especially for high school kids, it's a disservice. Prior to this system, students were responsible for their grades, and for keeping track. When the grade card came home (once every 6 or 9 weeks), it was a time of reckoning. And if the student screwed up, the world might end. Now, parents can keep constantly on their children. This takes away an element of independence that children should be developing (in a safe environment) in high school, and replaces it with a short term system of little rewards and punishments (turn in your missing work, and get your phone back).

It also makes life harder for teachers. Grading, like it or not, is time consuming. But, with constant access, parents want things graded RIGHT FREAKING NOW. As a bonus, they can also email you, to ask why it wasn't graded RIGHT FREAKING NOW. And since it's written communication, a teacher has to be very diplomatic in explaining that it takes time to read essays, and it'll get graded when I get it graded, dammit. Because if you're not diplomatic, you'd better believe every principal in your building is getting that email forwarded to them. Have I mentioned that I have an entire post coming on parents? Because I do, and friends, it's a dandy. 

2. Changes in taking responsibility
Well, this explains itself, but I think I'll spell it out anyway, because I teach, and explaining things that appear self-explanatory is a big part of my job.

In American society, for a long time, high school students were treated as "young adults". If they didn't do their work, they failed, and that was on them. But we teach in a brave new world, and that world ( of accountability!), and that world demands that schools teach all students. You know, No Child Left Behind. Oh, see, that second word is part of the problem. We now teach young people (many states won't let you drop out until you're 17 or 18) as though they are children. Schools share some of this blame. In order to get more of them to pass, and to boost precious graduation rates, we've simply lowered the bar. Didn't do the work? Ok, I'll take it late. If I won't, just get your parents to bitch loudly enough, far enough up the food chain, and I'll get told I have to take it.

This is a true story: I was in a department chair meeting several years ago, and we were arguing about letting students turn in late work for full credit. I was in the "no late work, no late credit" camp, and fighting against an assistant principal in the "as long as they do it, full credit" camp. At one point she said "they're only 16." I retorted with "that means they can drive, when would you like us to start treating them like adults?"

Needless to say, a directive came down that we were to take late work for some credit.

3. Litigation
This ties in nicely with the disappearance of taking responsibility.

Lets say a kid doesn't turn in work, and so I don't give points, and so the kid fails. Mom/Dad/Guardian is upset. Perhaps it turns out that the kid was Special Ed, and had an IEP that promised extra time on tests. Now, just as an example, lets say that during tests, this kid routinely fell asleep on his test, and when the test time was over, I took the test from him.

Well, Mom/Dad/Guardian decides that I was out of compliance, because I didn't give their precious angel the "extra time" he was entitled to. Now, do they come in and chat with me, and have an honest discussion about the shortcomings of their child? No, they send an email to the counselor, the principal, and probably the poor Sped teacher.

If they really want results, they threaten to sue. That'll get some grades changed. You know why? There are two reasons. The first is that administrators often work on single year contracts, without the protection of a union, and so, are concerned about being sued, because the district could easily decide to simply mollify the angry parents by dismissing the administrator. The other reason is that lawsuits are expensive, people in education aren't made of money, and so we take the easy out. "We're not letting him into Harvard" is a common phrase when a grade gets changed.

Now, I think that we cheapened the high school diploma, and changing grades for kids whose parents complain the loudest will just result in graduates who can't read, which is what got this whole accountability nightmare started in the first place, but what do I know, I'm just a history teacher.

4. The self-esteem movement
Everybody gets a ribbon. That's the crux of this problem. You see, society doesn't like conflict or tears. So, to avoid that, we tell every young person that they are special. And they are. But not more special than anybody else. So, when they get to my room, and I tell them the truth ("you're average", "you're a weak writer"), it causes major crises.

When children fail, parents want their child to feel better. I understand, I really do, but at some point you have to let your child fail. We're a nation of birds stuck in nests. Wait, what?

Think about this marginal analogy: We've progressed to a point where we don't want our children to fail, or even to feel like an average part of society. This is as though birds never left the nest. Do you think a tiny chick just one day jumps out of the nest, and flies, because they just knew it was time to go? NO. The mother bird gives them a shove. And then, it's fly or fail. Birds learn from failure. Why can't we?

(I happen to think this is also the reason for 85% of college students telling Pew that they're moving back home after graduation, and for the so-called Quarter Life Crisis. They've never had a chance to fail, since Mom/Dad/Guardian have always been there to back them up. So, once it comes time to set out, they fail, and move back home)

An added bonus of this is that every parent thinks that their kid deserves individual attention. If you want that, hire a tutor. Your kid is in school, and part of school is learning to ask for help when you need it, and learning to work in groups. Educators are constantly hearing from business that business wants graduates to be able to critically think, and to work collaboratively, but when you try to teach those things, parents complain that their kid isn't getting enough attention.

5. Lack of respect for educators
I'm sure that the older educators who read this blog will counter my assertions in this point, and say that they've never been respected. To some degree I understand this point. Society has always played great lip-service to "respecting and honoring" educators, but has never shown that respect by fixing working conditions or funding buildings or higher pay.

However, I think that parents and students have, in many cases become more brazen in their disdain for teachers. Though I'll write at greater length about specific times that I have been questioned by parents at a later time; suffice it to say that, perhaps due to the increased access to both teachers and information, parents feel comfortable questioning everything from content to how that content is delivered. And they're willing to do it in pretty confrontational ways.

They'll call it advocating (if they're smart enough to know that term), but it's questioning. Do they question the doctor when he diagnoses them, the lawyer in front of the judge, the dental hygienist? I doubt it. But since they've all been students, they think that qualifies them to question how I teach (or what I teach, or how I discipline, or what the seating chart looks like) .

How about this? You go to school, you learn about education theory, you get at least 3 years in the high school classroom, and then I'll accept your complaints as valid. I'm willing to take suggestions, but you have to trust me to do my job. You trust so many other important people in your life to do their jobs, trust us.

(this isnt' to say that every teacher is great every day. We aren't. But, I've written about that too I'm linking all over this post!)

Thanks for sticking it out to the end. I hope that this made sense. Please, feel free to share this if you like it, and if you don't, feel free to comment and counter-point what I've said. 

16 October 2010


Friends, today I would like to take the opportunity to share with you another step in my comprehensive program to help you and your school create a more positive learning environment.

If you recall, in the past, I have introduced to you, by means of this meager blog, the NBR system. My patented "Negative Behaviour Response" techniques are ground-breaking for their back-to-basics simplicity and for their overwhelming efficacy.

Today I would like to share with you, the desperate, fed-up, overworked, and under-paid educator, the next step in our unique behaviour modification system. If you recall, the last time I joined you on this little patch of the ether, I explained, in common language, my powerful STFU method of classroom management. (check it out)   

However, with some students, the STFU method isn't enough to modify their behaviour in such a way that they actually begin to behave, and therefore learn, and therefore join society as productive members. Indeed, some students require much more in-depth interventions from members of the educational community. I refer to these as my "Level A" cases. Studies show that only about 10% of all students are actually "Level A" students. Another 30% of students require occasional interventions for behaviour ("Level B"). The remainder of students, some 60%, only require intermittent behaviour interventions, and can therefore, be mostly ignored for our purposes ("Level 3").

Today, we shall focus on the Level A students, and what techniques we can use to help them to "help themselves". If you recall, I firmly believe in a system of behaviour modification where students, as all living organisms do, learn from their mistakes, and from the pain which is caused by those mistakes.

When students participate in Negative Behaviour, it is up to us as educators and education professionals to respond to that Negative Behaviour. At the lower levels, we should make every attempt to find the root cause of the behaviour, and to help students learn to cope with those stressors which cause the unwanted behaviour. However, at the upper-level (grade 7 and above), such tasks should have already been accomplished, and the behaviours should have been fixed. If they have not, the students are old enough to understand that actions have consequences, and thus, educators should, by and large, stop trying to diagnose and should begin to respond to behaviours. 

When educators respond to Negative Behaviours, they must have a tool to which they can turn to have (at their finger-tips) a list of acceptable types of punishments to mete out to their current miscreant. To this end, my team and I have developed, through years of classroom practice, observation, modification, and publication, a simple device which we call The Octagon of Punishment (the OOP).

Many of you will ask why we didn't simply develop a flow chart or circular tool to help remind educators of the discipline tools at their disposal. The answer, I am afraid to admit, is a commercial one. In a world of competing educational devices, all seeking the flow of government money, you must be unique. We felt that though our message and techniques met that criterion, we might nevertheless be swallowed up in the sea of acronyms. And thus, we thought outside the box, as the paradigm shifters like to say, and created an octagonal device which, thanks to it's unique shape, will be easy to keep track of, for even the most harried high school educator.

But I've rambled on long enough, without further ado, The Octagon Of Punishment :

Details on how to use the OOP will be forthcoming. For now, I leave it to you to read and reflect upon it. I welcome your communication via the comments section of this blog.

I remain, as always, your faithful servant,

Dr. Dick Johncock

15 October 2010

Take this simple survey!

Today, a simple, short post, about why schools subject their students to crappy state achievement tests.

It's the money, stupid.

Ok, well, thanks for reading, and I'll be back later with more.

What's that? You'd like a little bit more of an explanation? Ok, but only because I'm generous.

Schools in most states are financed locally, another hold out from the Northwest Ordinance of 1785. Historically, this caused massive funding inequities. Starting with LBJ's "Great Society" programs of the 1960s, the federal government attempted to fix some of these inequities, especially through programs such as Title I.

The federal government told you how to spend the money (actually, on what types of things you could spend the money on), but if you qualified for the money, you generally got it.

All of that changed with the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. That legislation tied federal money to a state's willingness to subject it's schools to the tests I ranted about on Wednesday. So, you logically ask, if the tests are so onerous, why not just ignore the mandate.

It comes back to that local funding. You see, schools are loath to raise taxes, in those states in which they can, and in many states, schools have to ask the voters to approve increases in taxes. Schools know that you can only go that well so often, so they take those federal funds, and the strings that are attached. The strings are, in this case, the tests.

How much money is it, you ask? In 2004, the most recent year I can find decent information for (Thanks, Census!) (page 9) the federal government contributed just over 41 billion dollars to American schools. This seems like a lot, and then you realize that in fact, it's only 8.9% of total school funding.

So, we've changed everything we do as educators to chase 8.9% of our funding. Better yet, that includes money for schools that receive a much higher percentage of their funding from the feds. So, lots of "well-off" schools actually change everything they do and make their students dumber (remember this?) for less than 10% of their funding.

In essence, I think that state departments of education have clicked on a banner ad, which asks them to take a simple survey (the test) in exchange for which they have the chance to win $10,000 (the pittance of federal funding). Now, I'm guessing that you never click on those ads. Why are our educational "leaders" clicking on them?

11 October 2010

Testing (but only things that are easy to grade)

Author's note: Yesterday's post was supposed to include a whole raft of things from Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. But, it was already super long, and honestly kind of boring, but just know that he thinks we struggle as a nation on international testing (especially math) because we have a culture that doesn't value hard work as much as others. If you think this may come up when I'm writing about parents, you're almost certainly correct.

So I was talking to a friend outside of church / temple / mosque (whatever house of worship makes you comfortable) about how her son was struggling in a high school Honors English class with writing. She claimed that they just don't teach writing well at the lower levels. This prompted me to attempt to explain that it wasn't that her son hadn't been taught writing (in fact, he was probably subjected to a massive amount of writing instruction), but that he was taught to write poorly, and now that he's reached a high school classroom, his teachers are trying to beat that poor writing out of his system.

And believe me when I say this, his teacher is just as upset about his lower-level writing instruction as his mother is. His teacher is frustrated, but she understands why this has happened. It's not the fault of those teachers in junior-high and elementary schools. They're just acting for their own self-preservation. They need scores in their classes and schools to improve, and so they need student writing to improve. So why is student writing so bad?

To prove that students are better writers

Wait. What?! The crappy writing exists to prove that the students are better writers? Yes. You see, the way we determine how good students (and by extension their teachers and schools) are is through testing. Many education professionals have decried the rise of testing. But, in their rants about the evils of testing they miss the point. The problem isn't that we test students, or that those tests are "high-stakes". I'll finish this part of my ramble with a statement you won't expect: "I don't mind testing"

In fact, I'll go one further, I love testing.

I love testing.

Well, there's something you don't see a public school teacher say very often. Before my colleagues show up at my door with the tar and feathers, I should probably explain. I love a good test. I teach AP classes, and the (standardized, national) tests are some of the most valuable things I have for planning a class which will help students actually learn college materials and earn college credits. In fact, I think the AP test makes my students better writers.

The problem (for state departments of education) is that the AP exam is famously hard and time-consuming to grade. In fact, several thousand trained AP teachers serve as readers for up to two weeks, per subject, to grade the roughly 250,000 exams.

In a state like Colorado, there are roughly 765,000 students. If each of them were to take a good test, for each of the four subjects that the state currently uses crappy tests for, the state would have to administer (and grade / pay for grading) more than 3 million tests a year. I think that it is safe to assume that grading those tests would consume a vast amount of time and money.

States are relatively famous for being tight with aforementioned money. So, instead of using a test like the AP exam, states have begun using standardized assessments. There's nothing wrong with standardized tests. Oh, except that because they're standardized, they want standard answers, which can be fine for areas like math and reading, where they can somewhat determine proficiency. But when it comes to subjects like science or writing, areas where you would like students to demonstrate individuality and inventiveness, a standard rubric (used to grade this test) means that students are taught to answer in a form which fits into the boxes of the rubric (because teachers want those students to pass those tests). Then, when that student gets to a class where the teacher wants them to write outside of that, they can't. They've been taught, over and over, to write into those little boxes. They simply have had the individuality sucked out of them.

Citizens know that these tests measure student growth and achievement. To satisfy citizen demands about accountability for spending those precious tax dollars, many states use testing data to determine "report cards" for schools. Often the state summarizes that data in pictures, then plops a letter grade on their in a category like "improvement". See what the DofE does there? They dumb it down for the average person. So, in order to show "improvement" and keep the taxpaying yokels happy, schools teach habits that we (as a society) don't value (not just writing habits, they also ignore ideas like citizenship to focus on improving skills. And why? To show "improvement". But that really only shows that studets got better at fitting into the boxes, and the boxes don't really show "improvement". But the states continue to churn them out. Why? Because it's easy. Which, as the italics show us, is the root problem here, and in general.

And now your tangential story

George W. Bush was the President who really pushed testing to the forefront. Since many of the tests were total crap, he took most of the heat. This is especially ironic, many felt, because he didn't appear able to pass basic writing tests (even crappy ones) when he spoke.

And so, he delivered many so-called Bushisms.

G.W. on testing:

"You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.”