What Now?

Posted: May 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

I have to tell you, I’m at an impasse.  I really feel strongly that I cannot spend another year teaching where I am right now.  I also want to be in a position where I can have a greater impact.  Teaching only allows me to impact a few hundred people over several years.  I know it’s a lot to each one, in it’s way, starfish and all.  But it’s not enough.

When I was a little kid I used to imagine myself at the top of the world with a megaphone. And by that I mean on top, big, so everyone can hear me, not freezing and alone in the Arctic Ocean.

I can’t keep doing what I’m doing.  For one thing, I work in one of the largest districts in the country, and what we are doing to kids is a dismal abuse. Accountability measures have narrowed education for students from poverty to such a degree that they’re being further crippled for life by a ‘favor’ imposed on them by the state.  Kids who show up at school with a dearth of skills and a strong likelihood of negative outcomes get an education that is restricted to those benchmarks which are assessed by the accountability tool.   At my grade level, that means 84% of the curriculum takes a back seat to the 16% that’s tested.

For another, where I am is not in the best possible position to help the kids I love and the community I’m invested in.  I need a higher vantage point.  So back to school for me.


It has been both said and suggested that I had no right, or at least less right than some others, to remark bluntly and publicly about the inequities in educational outcomes for students who live in poverty, specifically if I were going to associate my school with my name and picture.  In my time at *****, I have learned a great deal from my students and colleagues about love, learning, humility, acceptance, and dedication.  However, I’ve also learned something about prejudice and discrimination.  It is ugly and insidious no matter where it comes from.

I can be part of weWe isn’t a color.  

That said, I would like to return to my original subject, which was learning, teaching, and testing.  For one thing, attempts to quantify the effect on development of one human being to another; and efforts to standardize what should be an artful, organic leadership through ever-deepening knowledge and better understanding of the world are perilously misguided.

For another, tests aside or included, the fact is that students who come from poverty achieve negative educational outcomes in greater proportion than their counterparts in other socioeconomic strata.  This is true everywhere in the country regardless of race, and educators have observed this broadly since at least 1966.  There are exceptions; examples to the contrary and small pockets of success, just as with any sociological trend, but it would be a waste of time and energy to quibble about this extremely well documented, widely known  fact.   The question is “What are we going to do about it?”

Now:  I’m here to tell you we have a big challenge in our public school system for all kids, unless their main talent is taking tests, the worst of which require kids to read passages designed to be boring.  When was the last time you sat down to read something very, very carefully that you had absolutely zero interest in?

I love telling people I work at ***** High School.  I enjoy challenging whatever preconceived notions they may have.  Some see me battened down in the trenches, gritting my teeth and dodging bullets, when nothing could be further from the truth.  The vast majority the students I’ve met at ***** are just like our young people everywhere; pleasant, humorous, and curious.  The campus is friendly, safe, and orderly. We recently celebrated dozens of scholarships awarded to many of our most dedicated and talented seniors.

But it’s not the scholarship winners I’m talking about when I say, and I maintain, that public schools are not and have never been as effective as they need to be for a great many people, and we must refuse to accept that it simply is that way.  We need to differentiate our approach, in addition to modifying the uniformity in expected outcome, because every child does not arrive at school ready to learn the same things in the same way.  With the emphasis now on testing, this has never been more critical, nor more evident.  As I see it, part of our task as educators is to develop as much human resource for society as possible, preparing as many people as we can to participate fully in civic life and the economy.

We need to begin working together to demand the legislative reform that would allow us to adjust the approach schools take, redefining modern public education to meet the needs of the 21st century world, and discussing what resources need to be redirected from what’s not working to what will.  Can we accept that individuals have varied and inherent talents, and develop those?  Mightn’t we teach people to use these specifically to address the challenges of their particular circumstances, and develop basic literacy, numeracy, and writing skills in the process and for a recognizable purpose?

I can already see people reaching for their pitchforks, reading between the lines that I said to expect less from poor kids.  I didn’t say less, and I didn’t say poor kids only.

We need a more responsive and realistic approach, and we need all hands on deck.

Pineapples Don’t Have Sleeves, and Other Rot

I’ll be adding my two cents to this later, but for now I’d like to just share the link.  Have you heard about this?

Link  —  Posted: April 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

Shooting the Messenger

Posted: April 24, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Recently a letter I wrote to my hometown paper was published as an editorial.  I have also posted it here and you are welcome to check it out on this site.

Overwhelmingly the response from my coworkers and the few students who read it was positive.  People high-fived me.  The Teacher of the Year bowed down to me repeatedly and told me how proud he was of me.  Two teachers facetiously (but very kindly) asked for my autograph.

But then I had my post observation evaluation meeting with my principal.  She recorded the conversation, which I wasn’t really comfortable with, but I allowed it because I’m willing to put anything truly inflammatory that I might have to say in writing anyway, so I decided it didn’t matter, and I’m not into making a scene just to make a scene.  The discussion went well, I guess, but then right before I left, she told me that one of the school board members had called her about the ‘article’ and she asked if he’d contacted me.  I said no, and she said that I should expect to hear from him.  I noticed that the paper was on her desk and one sentence was highlighted, but I couldn’t tell for sure which sentence it was.

When I got back up to my office, I walked into an ambush.  One of my coworkers was there waiting for me.  She started off by telling me that she read it, of course, and then said that I had no right to speak for her and then she called me a racist.  She told me that it sounds like I don’t believe in the kids.  First of all, the tag line in the paper says where I work, not that I was speaking on behalf of anyone but myself.  The accusation of racism stung a great deal.  Then her friend came in to play ‘amen corner’ and she too clicked her tongue and shook her head in disappointment.  The first one asked me what expertise I had that allowed me to say such things, and I said, “I’ve been teaching struggling readers in Title I schools for ten years.”

Her reply was that to say “You’re not an expert on the culture.”  I asked if that was because I’m not a member of it, and she said no, it’s that I haven’t been there long enough, which brought us back to the ten years thing.  Her answer for that this time around was to gesture to her amen corner and say “She’s been in it 20 years.”  Is half of 20 zero?

Throughout this extremely uncomfortable confrontation, this woman continuously stated that it didn’t matter what I actually said, but that she was going to interpret it however she wanted to.  I asked her if that is what I should coach the kids to do on the all important reading test–think what they want, or read what’s on the page.

Then she wanted to debate the merits of our methods with me.  She said I neglected to mention the how awesome our intensive reading classes with their magic program are, and when I tried to refocus her on the state and the system as a whole, she wanted none of it.  She was hellbent on taking it personally.  Frankly, I’m not that impressed that we keep buying new reading programs, because in the ten years I’ve been there, the percentage of kids reading on grade level for both 9th and 10th grades has been relatively static, regardless of the program we’re using.  That should tell you that the approach doesn’t work.

Additionally, one thing that I brought up and for which she had no answer was that we have roughly 350 9th graders each year and maybe 140 seniors.  What the hell happens to those 200 kids?  I’ll tell you:  when they’re too far behind to ever catch up, we kick them out and send them to these alternative schools, where they sit in front of a computer all day (I think), until they either finish or quit.  The vast majority of them never come back to our regular public school after that.  I don’t know what the graduation rate is for those places, but I intend to find out.

It would be one thing if this small minded person and her side kick were the only ones who seemed to think that my own ethnicity has some relevance in terms of what I said, but they aren’t.  At least three other well meaning people who agreed with what I said told me that ‘maybe I shouldn’t have published my picture with it.’  The implication being that if readers could assume I look different than I do, they might be more inclined to agree with me.

I know there’s a word for that, when you judge someone by the color of their skin rather than their words and actions.  What do we call it when we decide something is only wrong if a person of one race does it, and accept that the same action is okay if it comes from someone of another?

I’m so deeply disturbed to know that the fact that I look different from my students is more important to some people than the mission I am on to get them an education that they can access and put to use.  I realize that in part it’s that no one wants their dirty laundry aired in public, but things inside the machine are not changing fast enough.  The public system has been failing poor children of all colors for longer than I have been alive.  We have given the system a chance to fix it, and they haven’t done so.  I’m not willing to be quiet anymore, and I did try to raise these concerns within my organization before I aired them in public.  No one wanted to do anything about it.

My principal herself said it doesn’t matter if we agree with the validity of the test, we have to do it anyway.  The amen corner woman has heard me say everything I wrote in that editorial aloud, and she didn’t disagree then, though she did tell me not to push back so hard.

A proper education is literally life or death for my students.  I’d venture to say there are too many people not pushing back at all.

I’m curious about what parents wan their kids to learn in school.  I’ll start by answering the question for myself.  I’m interested in how closely what I’d want for my own child lines up with what I am obligated to do at work.

1.  I want my child’s curiosity to be nurtured.  That means I want some of what he learns to be determined by what he is interested in at the time, which means the teacher needs the flexibility to make changes and follow a line of thinking wherever it goes.

2.  I want my child to learn to love reading.  I’m fearful of what will happen when he’s no longer motivated by statistics on Accelerated Reader.  I’m concerned that he isn’t getting that reading has an intrinsic value that can’t be measured quantitatively.

3.  I want him to learn mathematical reasoning–I want him to be able to estimate, to determine likely solutions to multi-step problems.  I want him to understand clearly what real world situations are reflected by various math problems.  Mathematics is the language in which we quantitatively describe the universe, including our own world.  Math is real.  I don’t want it to just be numbers on a page.

4.  I want him to learn about music.  I want him to know it as math, as language, as protest, and as love.  I want him to know the history of classical music and jazz and hip-hop, and I want him to understand that it has a cultural and historical relevance to all people, everywhere.  I want him to learn to make music, and to realize that everyone can.  Sure, only a few of us are born with Adele’s talent, but nearly everyone can learn to carry a tune or keep a simple beat.  We all have a song to sing!

5.  I want him to learn about art–what separates a good drawing from a poor one, how to render people and emotion through line and color, how to create the illusion of three dimensions where only two are possible.  I want him to know and see how as a species, our ability to do those things has changed from our earliest days to now.  I want him to see that his own work is part of that progression, and to know that anyone can practice and improve upon their artistic skills, even if they can’t practice themselves into being Monet.

6.  Most importantly, I want him to learn about his own abilities, and that a determined individual can change the world.  Those that have exist not only in history books.  They existed, and continue to exist and be born, in the world he lives in outside of school.  I want him to know history from many perspectives–not just the winner’s.  I want him to know about the atrocities, the injustices, and the shameful places humanity has been.  I want him to know those things so that he can determine what he believes to be true and important.  I want him to come home with difficult questions, with controversies to debate and facts to discuss.

-1.  And I don’t care if he never learns to take a standardized test.  No one ever talked to me about the SAT, I never practiced for it, and I never got any list of test taking strategies.  I scored 1300.  Not amazing, but not terrible either.  I’ll be fine with whatever my son can do on the SAT as long as the above requirements are consistently met.  Hint:  They won’t be, so I’ll be supplementing his state-mandated ten years of test preparation with an actual education at home, which I have to do on evenings and weekends since I’m busy at my own school subjecting other people’s children to the same thing my kid gets all day long.

What it seems like the bureaucrats don’t realize is that getting kids better at passing any given test proves nothing, in and of itself, except that we are good at getting more kids to be better at taking tests.  It’s madness.

If anyone comments that they would actually prefer schools spend more time getting their own child to pass minimum competency tests, like their state’s standardized test, (not the SAT), and they can convince me that they are being sincere, I will eat a practice test live on my web cam.

On Monday, students across the state will take the FCAT. Regardless of whether or not they must pass this year’s FCAT in order to move on to the next grade or to graduate, the test is high stakes for all students. Those that score below the minimum threshold for grade level proficiency in reading or math will be placed in Intensive Reading or Math classes, as required by state law. This requirement has the effect of excluding these students from electives that might develop creativity or career interests, in addition to stigmatizing them among their peers.

Aside from the negative effects mentioned above, at its core, it may sound like a good plan—provide additional instruction and practice for students who are not performing on grade level. Certainly parents hope that the instruction, practice, and assessments employed will assist their child in reaching acceptable levels of performance in basic skills. But do they?

Students now are subjected to as many as 28 standardized assessments in reading throughout the school year, excluding the FCAT. The purpose of these tests is to determine mastery or need for improvement on the thirteen (out of 81) language arts benchmarks tested on the FCAT. Aside from the loss of instructional time spent administering these assessments, the question must be raised publicly as to whether they measure what they are intended to measure, and to whom this measurement is beneficial.

The results of these assessments may well determine what your child spends their school day working on, what small group instruction they receive, what grades you see on their report cards, and most importantly, how they perceive themselves as students .

Education in its most noble form should model and promote intellectual honesty, curiosity, and integrity. It should promote creativity, problem-solving, and inquiry. It should develop individual talents and natural aptitudes. Incessant testing does none of these things. In at least some schools, the data these assessments produce serve as the only indicator of student success that matters. As struggling students recognize that they’re playing a losing game, they begin to resent their teachers and their schools, and to disengage from the educational process.

As a teacher, I have spent ten years promoting accountability measures because I believe that schools should be required to do what they are paid by the taxpayer to do, and I recognize the value of ensuring basic literacy and numeracy in the citizenry. However, our current approach, which focuses solely on standardized tests and the increasing standardization of instruction to match the tests is not accomplishing that aim, and it doesn’t provide students the benefits one would hope it would. What it does is satisfy bureaucrats and box-checkers while it destroys young peoples’ self-image, motivation, and opportunities to become contributing members of society by labeling them as incompetent and ultimately turning them out of the system with no marketable skills.

Particularly for struggling students, many of whom come from poverty, these circumstances have dire consequences. Many will wind up in prison or spend their lives on public assistance or in low wage jobs. This is a consequence that extends far beyond the individual. It is we who pay to imprison them, we who are often the victims of their crimes, and we who fund the assistance. That money would be better spent on real educational reform that addresses the reality schools are presented with: some students arrive in Kindergarten dramatically underprepared for school and need a longer school year in smaller classes, doing the kinds of exploratory activities and having the kinds of conversations that mimic what good parenting provides, and some kids aren’t interested in pursuing post-secondary education. These young people need technical school options presented much earlier, starting in sixth grade. By tenth grade, it’s too late. They’ve already lost interest in school, because school is only interested in something they can’t do well enough to please the system.

Music and Love Go a Long Way

I’ve never been one to emphasize the importance of arts funding in education–I guess because I was focused on the importance of literacy, but I think there might be more to it than that.  I think maybe I’ve been slow to realize the value of arts, particularly for poor children.  I’ll be doing some research to look for data on that, any readers who know of such sources are encouraged to post them.

I think education for poor children needs three critical things, in addition to the de-emphasis on standardized testing that ALL students and teachers need–one is year round schooling (meaning more days in school, not the old model where it’s the same ten months, just spaced out differently) from Pre-K to third grade, and that schooling must mimic the types of interactions and experienced that school-ready children get at home.  Authentic conversations, questioning, and exposure to scientific principles, in addition to varied experiences with the arts–music, performance, and stories.  Our culture perpetuates itself through these means.  Young people who are not included in these experiences become disengaged youth and disenfranchised adults.  So many of the learning experiences they are expected to value and participate in later are related to these foundational ideas–inquiry, empathy, creativity, and shared history, that if we don’t provide them, we can’t hope to keep these children interested in school.

Speaking of which, I have to go read to my son about the shark attacks of 1916.

Things two and three are arts funding for all students, particularly for underserved children, because as I said above, these programs not only uplift and develop the depth of the soul, they help to create functioning, concerned citizens, and more technical education for kids starting in middle school.  Thanks to NCLB, kids know for sure whether or not they’re decent students by the time they’re nine.  By age 12, if they know they aren’t good readers, smart math students, and good test takers, they realize school has little to offer them except an annual kick in the teeth and seven hours of grind each day at things they don’t care about and aren’t good at.

Link  —  Posted: April 10, 2012 in Uncategorized