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.”

Everyone gets a ribbon, or at least a test......

Welcome to the first of 12 (yes, the same number as the number of donuts I had for breakfast) entries on specific problems in American education.

I could try to be especially funny with these, but the material doesn't lend itself to comedy, so I'll try to end with a marginally humorous story which is tangentially related to the rant at hand.

Today, we begin with the problem of comparing ourselves to others using standardized testing. Many people wring their hands every 3 or so years, when international tests show that American students rank somewhere below, in 2006, Iceland. We, rightfully so, believe that we should be creating smarter students than Iceland. Perhaps, one thinks, there is more to this story.

I think that tests like the PISA, which is what we use to compare nations against each other, is nice for comparing how well we know math or science or reading. Is there cause for some concern that our students are slightly less educated in algebra than Slovakians? Probably. Is there need for wholesale change and education reform? I don't think so.

To understand why I think that we're ok, we need a small history lesson, so bear with me. American education was created (as we know it) in the early days of the Republic, in fact, it predates the Constitution. The founders understood that in order to have a functioning representative democracy, you needed, at the minimum, a functionally educated citizenry. So, in the Northwest Ordinance of 1785, they provided for free, public education, supported by 1 plot in each township in the Northwest Territory.

As time passed, schools became more than places for education, but became tools of socialization. For a nation of immigrants, from diverse backgrounds, religions, and languages, American schools do something that very few other industrialized nations do, they provide a common history and background, instilling "American" values in all students (or as many as we can).

Also, due to the fact that Americans value the opportunity to succeed for everybody (every kindergartner is told that they could one day be President), American students are rarely separated prior to the conclusion of secondary school. So when a school tests it's kids here, it tests all of them. I can only speak for the three schools I've worked at, but they haven't offered a lower math until the 11th/12th grade level. So.....

The PISA is designed to test 15 and 16 year olds, since that is the end of compulsory education in most developed nations. While that is practically true, the vast majority of American students continue their studies through their 18th year. So, since we don't offer lower math, students "stuck" in math that has no practical application to their life, and therefore, they take the PISA, and our scores go down. (For what it's worth, we scored within 60 points of the top in 2003 math, about 15% off of the top nation, Finland). So our sophomores, world-wide, earned a B. Now, I'm not thrilled with a B, but considering all of the other things we did with those sophomores, I'll take it. Perhaps we shouldn't be wringing our hands over how sophomores do on a standardized test. Because we know that sophomores are dumb. Ask someone who has children who are sophomores. They'll admit it.

So, perhaps we shouldn't freak out. Perhaps we should look at high school graduates, ask if they can be productive members of society or not, and if the answer is yes, then we should be pleased. I understand that as a practical matter, schools need some fixing, but I'm not always convinced that the situation is as dire as the media often makes it out to be.

But that's just me.

Tomorrow, I'll rant about how tests are actually making American students dumber and more useless to society.

And now, the tangential story I promised

In the state where I teach, children have to take a standardized test, but the results don't bar them from graduation, so in reality our "high-stakes" test, is only high-stakes for teachers, and kids don't give a flying rat's ass about it.

But teachers do, and schools do, so to maximize the potential for good scores, teachers get together and "clean" test books (i.e. we erase stray marks, make sure that the names are correct, so on and so on). While you're doing this, you get to scan over the student responses.

I'll never forget my favorite student response in an essay booklet. Here it is, in it's entirety:

"I like green. I like bears. It would be awesome if there were a green bear"

Tomorrow: Why we take these damn tests, anyway.

If it's broken, how can we fix it? (a Dirty Dozen without Telly Savalas)

Greetings, loyal reader, and also to you, first time visitor to the Blaze of Competence!

For the next two weeks, I have an "October Break", one of those things that makes teachers revel in being teachers. Most of my peers in education don't have quite this long off, but I do, so I'm going to bask in the glory of actually having time to do the work I need to do, and perhaps getting caught up on this project. And by project, I mean blog. And by caught up, I mean spewing forth my rants on education as I see it.

I envision using my time over the next 14 days to lay out and explain, in my simple and un-researched way, what I think is wrong with American education, what I think is right with American education, and how it can be "fixed".

Now, please note, I've put "fixed" in quotes, and that should signal something to you the reader. It should signal that I might not entirely believe that education should or can be repaired. It could also indicate that I might not think that education needs to be "fixed".

See, those quotation marks may have signaled any of those ideas, and that's something you learned in an English class. However, since there are multiple possible interpretations of what I my have meant by using those quotation marks, this is the kind of question that so-called achievement tests avoid asking. Thus, this is the kind of question/skill that many average students can't answer.

The sad part is that it isn't their faults.

No, it's the fault of the American education system, which has become so chained to testing to figure out how "advanced" it's students are that it stopped testing practical skills. But that's not for right now, that'll come later. (did that get your attention? I hope so)

For now, I'd like to outline the basic problems that I think face American education, then using my cartoon-villain sized brain, I'll lead you through these problems, and then explain how I think they can be fixed.

If we aren't careful, I'll be running for office......

Without further ado, the list of the things that I think are wrong with American education:

1. Everyone takes achievement tests in America

2. Those tests make us dumber

3. We have to take the test to get the pittance of federal money set aside for us

4. Society has changed, and not for the better

5. Society tells us that everybody needs to go to college

6. Parents (and the fact that 15% of them should be institutionalized)

7. Charter and Online schools

8. Public School Unions

9. Schools that won't change

10. Schools that change too often

11. Money

12. Teacher education programs

I'll be back tomorrow, and that's when I'll unleash a whole can of common sense on why the death of the American educational system may be greatly exaggerated.

06 October 2010

The Best Educational Commentary I've Read All Year

Sad but true, the best commentary on education, just like the best commentary on media, is on a basic cable channel committed to comedy.

Watch, and enjoy.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Back in Black - Education Crisis
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorRally to Restore Sanity

Does anybody else secretly want to watch Teach Tony Danza! ?

I do.

04 October 2010

It's the little things

I'm going to start this post with something unusual, a marginally related tangent.

I listen to a morning radio show called the Bob and Tom Show every morning on my way to work. During commercials of this adolescent non-sense show, I flip over to NPR's morning edition (because I like to keep it fair and balanced). Bob and Tom feature comedians every morning, and one of their favorites used to be Rodney Carrington. One of my favorite Rodney songs is called "Little Things that Piss me Off" (You can here it
here ).

So that's what today is all about, the little things.

Now, you might expect me to start ranting about how little things like kids not having paper, or pencils, (or brains) drives me nuts. I'm not going to. You might expect a complaint about limits on copies, or having no staples, or no auditorium. I'm not going to. No, instead, I'm going to take a shot at the things everybody wants me to do for "special" students, which they insist are "not that big a deal, these are really little things."

But before I do, a caveat. This isn't intended to be a shot at SPED or ELD or or or. Those teachers are often dear friends of mine, and I would never want to do their jobs. They work hard, do mountains of paperwork, and attempt to find a way to get their charges to pass, and their charges often respond with apathy at best, and outright anger and disrespect at worst.

In short, their job sucks more than mine.

Nevertheless, they, and administration have a nasty habit of asking us general education teachers to help their students. Now, I may have some philosophical issues with what students qualify for these aids, and what they do with them, but that's another post for another day. However, I understand my legal obligation to modify and accommodate for these students. I also understand that in many cases, an underlying disability really does make it difficult for the student to succeed. In my heart of hearts, I want students to succeed.

Here's the thing, though; I don't want to be told that these modifications and accommodations are "little things". And that's what the people who want them keep telling us. "Oh, these are actually little things, they don't take that long."

That may be true, when it's for one kid, on one assignment. But when it's taken in context, it is a big deal. More than being a big deal, it takes a tremendous amount of time, which is something I have precious little of (some of which is undoubtedly because I spend time doing this). Let's say I have 5 SPED kids, and one ELL kids in my load of 200 kids. It doesn't seem like it should take much to provide them with accommodations, but it does, if you want to do it properly. (and I'll be honest, I don't do this all that well. I'm really bad at this stuff)

The best picture is that of eating the dinosaur. One plate at a time, it seems reasonable. And if you had a lifetime to eat it, you could. But it rots faster than you eat. And if time wasn't such a major issue, these requests would be fine. But time is always the issue.

You see, rewriting tests, eliminating answers, rewriting questions, so that you really focus on the core knowledge, takes time. And effort. Now, you've got a conundrum. Because you're behind on grading, because actually checking to see if the answers are right takes time, and you're expected to modify assignments, so that you're just checking the core knowledge, and the more you assign, and the more practice young writers get, the more you have to grade. It's a cycle of doom.

I'm going to assume that you'd also like to go home and sleep, and perhaps remember what your family and house look like. And when you indulge in those selfish activities, the dinosaur sits there, taunting you and getting bigger the longer you take to eat it.

The response to this is to wonder why you don't just use the same modified assignments year after year. I suppose you could, but especially in the social sciences (where I teach), the class is often guided by interest, and different years cover different topics. And then, your nice modded test is gone.

Many SPED teachers help modify tests and assignments, but they have a dinosaur of their own to eat. They have IEPs to keep current, students to ride, parents to contact, and gen-ed teachers to harass. Additionally, as you get to the high school level, they might not have the content knowledge to know what the core ideas of a unit are. Oh, and you'd probably want to meet at some point to talk about it. But when?

I don't have a solution to this problem. I know that the law says that these kids get these services. But what about the kids who aren't designated "special"? That's who really gets hurt by this. The more time I spend getting together missing work, modifying assignments and review sheets, the less effective I can be with my regular ed kids.

Sure, additional staffing would help, but that costs money. And the taxpayers are loath to open up the old talkin' wallet in this economy.

In the mean time, I suppose we'll just keep doing those little things, poorly.

01 October 2010

Friday U-boat, ed. 3

Editor's note:

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