29 April 2011

Friday U-boat, ed. 12

I know that I said I'd stop doing u-boats because at heart, they were making fun of students. However, on a day when the axe of unemployment is falling heavily upon my colleagues, I thought we could all use some chuckles.

As a sort of compromise, these aren't actual quotes, but rather paraphrased versions of what I've received over the last week.

1. When asked for an event which epitomized the 1970's energy crises, the answer given was "Roe v. Wade".

2. When explaining to candidates for Student Council that their applications had been screened, the letter said that their applications had been "overlooked".

3. When tasked with staging a student protest like the ones in 1968, complete with chanting, speech giving and protest song singing, one group presented their protest via PowerPoint.

What would Bob Dylan say about that?

(well, Bob would probably say something along the lines of "Hhhhheyy, I jusht saaaaaaw, writing in thhhhhhhe skaaaaaaay", or words to that general effect. 

28 April 2011

How do you choose who to fire?

Up until this week, the worst the financial crisis had done to me was to make it basically impossible to sell my house. I haven't been hit particularly hard. Until this week, that is.

This week, my school district announced that they were, in a cost-cutting move (brought on by falling revenues from the state), going to eliminate 143 jobs. They further said that they hoped "most of this would come from attrition", which further muddied the waters. Panicked teachers all over the district were trying to figure out if the person next to them who was retiring counted. Did that person who was moving back to Indiana count? Will I still have a job in August? Will I still make enough money to pay for my mortgage?

However, this is hardly the first time that their has been massive confusion from my district, so that wasn't a surprise. In fact, except for when people get their letters in the next twenty-four hours, there's very little surprise in any of this. People want less taxes, houses lose value, teachers lose jobs. It is a nationwide pattern.

But it did raise an interesting question: How do you decide who gets the axe? Do you fire the long-time teacher because they cost too much? Perhaps you go into LIFO mode, and fire the youngest. Maybe, in a fervor of righteousness, you fire the "worst" teachers.

How do you determine who is the worst? Do you depend on test scores? On grades in their classes? On parent complaints?

Perhaps you use their evaluations. Never mind that, most evaluation forms are flawed, and that many experienced teachers only get evaluated formally once or twice a year.

(At this point, you might be wondering how I dare to be so outspoken. Well, the short answer is that I can't be fired, because I already quit.)

In my district, the VIPWM (Very Important People Who Matter) have made the decision to eliminate as many "non-classroom" jobs as possible. While this seems on the surface like a reasonable decision, I think that there are major flaws in it.

Think about the people who are "non-classroom". Janitors, lunch ladies, the secretarial staff. These people don't have teaching licenses, and they never lead a field trip or a lecture. They don't proctor tests and they don't show up as anybody's teacher of record. In fact, many students don't even know their names. But to eliminate them because that will have less of an impact on the classroom is a bit of a fallacy. Let's be honest, teachers can't do a good job in a broken down, filthy school. Teachers would struggle if the secretaries weren't screening calls, because, as we all know, parents can be a bit crazy.

I know that there isn't a good solution to this problem. I know that every way to eliminate jobs is fraught with problems. I know that no matter who gets the axe, they'll think they were wrongly eliminated. I know that if they were going to fire all teachers and no support staff, I would be complaining about that too.

I know that 143 people in my school district are losing their jobs. I know that sucks.

Now, you might say that this is how it works. I know that. I know that people lose jobs. But these people aren't losing their jobs because they're incompetent. They aren't being fired for misconduct. They're being fired for the fiscal mistakes of others. Indeed, the people who are responsible for the financial crisis which has devoured school funding, which has caused these people to lose their jobs.

The really bitter part, for me at least, is that those people, those bankers got saved when they should have been laid off. The government bailed them out, declared them to be "too big too fail". Why can't the federal government do the same thing with schools? Are we not too important to fail?

I suppose what this whole fiasco shows us where the nation's priorities are. So it's good for that.....

19 April 2011

If I were to write a book about education

Editor's note: Today the BlazeBlog welcomes a guest contributor to the site. He is in his third year of teaching and felt the need to share his ideas for a book.

So really, this is the debut of two types of BlazeBlog posts: Imaginary books we'd like to write and guest posts by people I work with.

I have a riddle for you. What’s tired, overworked, underpaid, marginally bitter and often optimistic, and...oh, I don’t know, red all over? Yep, you got it. A public school teacher. Why red? Well, we’re not. But I needed a catchy, humorous introduction. At least that’s what I’d suggest to my students.

But here’s the thing: they would have done it better. See, I’m really tired. I just worked an 11-hour day, and then I went to my gym. There, I realized that the gym is about the only place on the big, blue Earth that I frequent where people don’t constantly want something from me. No, I can just run, lift, sweat, and rock out to the euphoric sounds of Aerosmith, U2, and the DMB. Well, Steven Tyler is hardly euphoric, but anything sounds better than sophomores cussing each other out.

Unfortunately, my work day isn’t over. I have grading to do, as I almost always do. But I’ll procrastinate to write some personal thoughts of my own.

See, I have been recently captivated by the newest, shiniest educational pillar in America. Her name is Michelle Rhee, and she might hate me. I really don’t know. She also might love me, or she might want to fire me on principle.

Rhee is the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. schools, and she wielded an axe and made some enemies. She straightened out a failing school district by mass-firing principals and teachers and creating a culture of accountability for success. Actually, it was success based upon standardized tests which led schools to cheat and lie, but she’s still being applauded. Time Magazine highlighted her, documentaries lauded her, public school critics delighted in her harsh treatment of complacency.

So how many years did she have in education before she became the pinnacle of what is right with schools in America? Three.

Hey, wait. I have three years too.

Well then. I’ll write a book. And you, my lucky readers, are going to get an appetizing taste of what’s to come.

Chapter 1: How Michelle Rhee taught me I could write a book.

Really, I’ll just expand on what I said above. This book writing gig is easier than I thought. Thanks, Michelle.

Chapter 2: Why we teach.

I’ll probably go back in time a bit here. Think about why I do this. Think about how I was selling shoes and thought that it was a rather terrible job. Kids would be more fun, right? Well, of course -- they aren’t shoes. No, really, teaching is great. As my father says, “You get to civilize the heathens.” I really like doing that, because the heathens are awfully funny until they get civilized.

Chapter 3: The Rubber Band Man.

This would be a chapter about bitterness and the maelstrom of confusion, miscommunication, and unfulfilled promises in the world of education. I will certainly refer to a colleague who once wore a rubber band around the wrist to start the school year, because he wanted so badly to be a positive professional. Every time he had something negative to say, snap! Red wrist. (See, teachers can turn red.) Unfortunately, the rubber band broke, and he was right in the reasons he wore it -- a lot of negative things happen, and you can’t do anything about them, because the system isn't set up to be fixed. It's set up to be subverted by good people.

Chapter 4: Politics and the art of busing.

As money gets tight, brains get absent. It becomes “about the children.” Well, we know that phrase, but we still believe it. Don’t let someone tell you it’s about the children. It’s not. See, that phrase has been used to justify the following things: 1. Cut busing; 2. Lay off teachers; 3. Hire secretaries who make more than me; 4. Cut programs; 5. Fire principals; 6. “Reimagine education bureaucracy.” Yes, you read that last one right, and yes, it’s a direct quotation.

Chapter 5: On barbeques and board meetings.

I would have to tell the story of how the school board wanted to fire my principal after five months on the job, and then we held an illegal barbeque outside of the central office to protest it. It’s just too good of a story.

Chapter 6: On meetings in libraries.

A mostly humorous chapter about poor communication. Among the topics: a meeting where my principal told us all to sell our houses because the district was going down the toilet; a meeting where a choir teacher introduced himself as “straight”; a meeting where a board member referred to our mascot as the wolverine (we are the wolves); a meeting where our new principal, addressing the staff for the first time, never actually stated his name or occupation. I could also branch out into other stories about other meetings that are far less funny, so I’ll save them for the long-form book.

Chapter 7: Email and the velociraptor on a bicycle.

This would be a chapter on email, and why it may be the worst thing in the world for professionals.

Chapter 8: Professional development.

Oh, the possibilities. I would talk about wonderful systems like “The PowerWalkthrough (TM)” and “PLCs” and STEM and other magic bullets to fix education. I would talk about the Gerpoltz, a meaningless task I used to renew my teaching license. Honestly, folks, I’m highly educated. Send me to a professional conference where people actually talk about content. Really, the point of this chapter is to explain that there are no magic bullets. Slow, painfully effective ones, but no magic ones.

Chapter 9: What do coffee shops, my car, soccer games, my deck, and bars have in common?

Simple. I’ve graded in these places. This chapter will be devoted to a discussion of the work that goes into being a teacher. Really, I want this chapter to be the one that professors of education say, “Look here, read this one chapter, and then decide you want to be a teacher.”

Chapter 10: Twins, the Dewey Decimal System, and why all of the nonsense might be worth it.

In this chapter, I’ll discuss happy things, like the twins who have followed me around since they were freshmen. Or the kid who celebrates Pi Day and literally fist-pumped as he referenced the Dewey Decimal System. I can talk about all the things we complain about but actually like. It would be a nice finish to the book, I think, because however much we complain, it’s really not a job we could stand to do if we hated it.

See, for teachers, there’s no other way. We have to have a love/hate relationship with the job. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t care, and that would be something that would turn Michelle Rhee an angry shade of red.

18 April 2011

Does class size matter?

Oh, hey there.

I have an article I want you to read. Now, I know that generally, when I ask you to read an article it's dry and boring. This one might be those things, I don't know. However, I do know that it made me think, and that's not all that common. Normally when I read things written by charter or privitazation advocates, I just get angry. I expected that to be the case in this situation. I expected to react violently to her mere thesis.

Instead, I scratched my head, tilted my head to the side like a confused dog, and actually thought for a moment.

By this point, you're wondering what this article could be about. You're confused that your humble author would admit to opening his mind, and consider other opinions. You're hopeful that the article is about something really, really groundbreaking.

Perhaps it is, but for that to be proven (or disproven), perhaps I should get around to linking to the article. Here, read it for yourself.

Interesting conceit, no? She puts forth a very logical argument, and one that, as an educator, I can see as making sense. She doesn't go on and on about performance pay or merit hires and fires (unlike many of her "fire 'em all" cohorts). In fact, as I previously admitted, she makes a lot of good and salient points, even if she does take a cheap shot at the teachers' unions.

Her school uses those per pupil funds pretty well. They build better classrooms, they hire people to do non-education things, so that educators can do what we're best at, and educate children.

There are several small issues, however. She bases her numbers on New York's per pupil funding. In New York, schools evidently recieve $13,500 per student. Since she runs a charter school, that's probably all of the money they get.  In Colorado, where I teach, the number is a lot closer to $6500. That means that for everything she can do with one extra student, we must have two.

She also doesn't address the problem of diminishing returns for her strategy. At some point, the money isn't worth the extra student. I already have classes that average over 30. I know it might not seem like a big deal to those of you who are just looking at numbers, but adding 2 students to that class would make a significant difference, especially at the high school level. Remember, every high school teacher actually teaches 7 classes (or 6 if they're lucky). So, adding 2 students per class is actually adding 14 students to the teacher's work load. 14 more essays. 14 more tests.

However, for all of that quibling, I will agree that being fixated on class size can do considerable harm. It is only one of many things that schools must look at. Indeed, I think her editorial puts into stark relief one of my most significant beliefs about school reform. No, not that we should "trust the experts", but that one reform might not work everywhere.

You see, there is danger in seeing what Ms. Moskowitz has achieved and saying to ourselves, "By gum! That's the solution we've been looking for this whole time! Bigger classes!" (although, since I am a lecturer, this would play into my hands. Excellent.) That danger is the general danger of school reform. If we're willing to move away from the traditional socialization role of schools (and it appears that we are), then we must protect our students from the urge to look for magic bullets. Yes, these reforms and plans work in Harlem, but will they work in Houston? In Hell (Michigan)? In Helena?

We must realize that students are the products of their upbringing and surroundings. Therefore, school reforms must be tailored to the experiences of the local community to really have great success. 

14 April 2011

On religion in schools

As we move through the season of Lent, the opportunity once again arises for news organizations to find absurd stories about religion in schools. This seems to happen every year. Every year, there is a story that springs up about how Christmas trees have to be called "holiday trees" and schools have forbidden the Easter Bunny from showing up.

This spring, the story comes to us from Seattle, where a teen (who has so far chosen to remain anonymous) called a radio station and claimed that she volunteers at an elementary school (also unnamed). Ok, this doesn't seem like a big deal. She went on to explain that she wanted to give kids Easter eggs full of candy, but was told (eventually) that she had to call them "Spring Spheres" (details here.)

Already, the story points out, the Facepagespace and twitter-sphere are blowing up with the story.(Never mind that Seattle Public Schools can't even figure out if the story is true)  It's shown up twice in my news feed. People are outraged. They, once again, scream about being offended and wonder "what ever happened to freedom of religion"? (well, I don't know that they scream, all I know is that their comments seem angry.)

So, the civics teacher in yours truly is going to provide a basic primer on the First Amendment, particularly the bit about Congress and religion. To whit: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".

Now, whether you like it or not, the Judicial Branch of the government gets to interpret laws. They also hear cases about violations of Constitutional law, the highest law in the land. So, as this applies to religion in schools, they hear cases where students' rights have been violated.

The benchmark for religion in school cases is Engel v. Vitale, which ruled that schools could not broadcast Christian prayer over the loudspeakers, even if students were allowed to "opt out". The court determined that promotion of a religion, even in a vague nature such as the case's "Almighty God" is a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Ok, so let's move forward, shall we? Schools recognize and abide by the Vitale ruling. Some principals have become over-zealous in enforcement, but I tend to agree with them that it is better to be safe than sorry. I would rather offend an entire school worth of Christian parents than subject one child of another faith to the implicit endorsement of religion by the school.

If people want to pray on their own time, that is their business, but no tax dollars should be used to endorse prayer, especially at a place where children are required by law to attend. In fact, endorsing religion, (which is what calling them "Easter Eggs" is) in a place children are required to learn sounds an awful lot like the religious schools run by our old friends the Taliban.  

(this is the point where I mention that I am a believing and pretty faithful Christian. I attend church most Sundays, and when I finish this, I'm going to go upstairs for a Lenten devotional)

In most of the stories we read about, Christians get all up in arms that their traditions, which already dominate the culture in many parts of the nation, are being forced out of schools. Why are they so upset? If they really think their children need to be exposed to only their belief systems, they should pay to send those children to private, Christian schools. Imagine the outcry from these same people if schools forced classes to stop daily for Muslim prayer, so that Muslim students could be allowed to pray. I can see the headlines now. Or what might happen if the school were to intone a Jewish call to prayer during lunch? 

Conservative Christians need to begin to understand that this nation is a nation of many beliefs, and that the government cannot, and should not, endorse any of them. They can be as offended as they want to be when schools stop calling Easter Eggs "Easter Eggs" and put up holiday trees, but that's the way the rules are, and they should learn to play by the rules.

As a total aside at the end of this post; I'm also tired of Christians acting like something should stop because they are offended by it. I know a lot of vegans who are offended you eat meat. Muslims are offended that Western women don't cover their faces. I'm offended that stupid people have "How's that hope and change workin' out for ya?" bumper stickers on their cars. All of these people have every right to be offended, but it's patently ridiculous to think that government policies should change because they offend you.

p.s. On Facepage-twitterspace, this discussion often leads down a road to absurd claim town. So let me as a nine-year veteran of public schools debunk most of them:
Absurd Claim 1: Teachers can't even talk about religion, kids have to bring it up
False. I have an entire unit based on world religions. I can talk all I want, but cannot endorse one religion over the others
AC2: Teachers can't even read a Bible in their own room.
False. Teachers are free to read what they want. Most English books even contain Bible passages as literature
AC3: Schools aren't allowed to have any religious symbolism.
False. Schools can have displays of religious items, but must explain them in a educational setting

And now, to end the post, a video about the way my hometown deals with Christmas lights on government property:

Other claims or questions about religion in the public schools? Questions in the comments will be answered!

11 April 2011

Michelle Rhee

In the world of debate that rages around education and its many failings in America, one of the most polarizing figures in the debate is a hard-charging educational reformer from Baltimore named Michelle Rhee.

Michelle Rhee has risen like a rocket through the world of east coast urban schools. She worked as a Teach For America teacher in Baltimore, she founded The New Teacher Project (TNTP) and her rise culminated as she became the chancellor for one of the worst school systems in America: the DC Public schools.

Ms. Rhee has been on the cover of many national publications. She has been heralded as a reformer for the future. She mostly made her name by being a bully. She's proud of it. She stood up to the "mighty" teachers' unions. She fired people. Then she moved on, having made her point, leaving the job in the hands of someone who could maintain the success she had "created".

This has been the story on Rhee for most of her meteoric career. But now, to the delight of her critics, and to critics of her style of school reform, there's new news. She cheated.

Wait, what? She cheated?

Oh yes, dear reader. She cheated. (well, she didn't, but teachers in her buildings, those she touted as her greatest successes did. She oversaw that. If we're really going to move to a business model, she owes the stockholders her resignation. What? She already resigned? Then she can at least pay the fine people of Washington D.C. her salary back. What? In DC her salary is paid by the federal government? Then she can pay all of us back. I'm waiting on my check, Michelle.) Following the revelations from CTB (the testing company), Ms. Rhee lashed out at her critics, claiming that they were continuing to claim that "the Earth is flat", but managed to avoid directly addressing the claims that the tests showed too many erasures to not be considered sketchy (as the kids would say) I don't know why we're surprised that it has come to this. 

When you lash out, firing teachers, threatening more, they will get you the results that you demand. It's just like Soviet Russia. If you can't meet your production quotas, you lie. The main difference is that the Soviets were lying about how many tanks they made (which seemed like a big deal, but was actually not); teachers are lying about teaching young people, and that's a slightly bigger deal. If she had embraced a policy of helping teachers improve based on shortcomings discovered using the tests, perhaps she could have overseen actual improvement, instead of the mere illusion she produced. The curtain has been pulled back, and she has been revealed as a charlatan.
Just like the chancellor of New York City Public Schools, resigned less than a year after she was appointed (for among other things, telling a community meeting concerned with over-crowded schools that they should engage in more birth control), Ms. Rhee has many ideas, none of which are proven by actual research. These ideas are, to quote their purveyors, "common sense". 

Why do we listen to these people? Why does Michelle Rhee have a voice at all in the debate about education reform? She has no degrees in education, instead having studied government and public policy. She did a commendable thing, and spent three years in a Baltimore classroom as a Teach For America recruit. Then she entered the world of education reform. That's right, this woman, who spends a lot of her time attacking public education has as much teaching experience as a teacher who in most states would still be a probationary teacher. 

Why does she get to have a national voice? I don't know. Perhaps it's because she's persistent. Perhaps it's because she made a career of it. Perhaps it's because she put that public policy masters to good use making political contacts. 

There's much I don't know, but I do know this; the longer we listen to experts who aren't actually experts, the worse off we'll all be. Education professionals recognize that change is necessary. However, we also know that anything that happens to quickly is probably too good to be true. We know that any effective reform at the lower levels will take years to pay dividends at the higher levels. (whoa, talk about a topic for another day!)

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Let's leave the teaching to the experts, we might just know what we're doing.