A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Of Layoffs, Seniority, and Bad Teachers: An Educational Bermuda Triangle

News junkie that I am, I was reading Newsweek (a shadow of its former self, but that's a gripe for another day because I have to have my fix) and ran across this article. Please note the paragraphs that I have placed in boldface. There may be a quiz later. (Oooh, I AM getting back into the swing of things! Maybe I should go lay down till this passes..... nahhh.)
Education reformers were feeling optimistic. With President Obama’s Race to the Top competition, which offers financial rewards to states willing to hold teachers accountable for their students’ performance, they’ve made real progress in weeding out poor teachers.

But now the reformers have spotted a dark cloud on the horizon. State budgets, particularly in badly managed big states like California, New York, and New Jersey, are out of control. Although Congress managed to avoid massive teacher layoffs last year with federal aid, the stimulus money is running out, and congressmen do not appear to be in the mood for more deficit spending. That means teacher layoffs are coming—perhaps more than 100,000 nationwide. In most states, union contracts or state law requires they be done by seniority, so the newest teachers are pink-slipped, no matter how good they are. “ ‘Last in, first out’ virtually guarantees that all our great, young teachers will be out of a job, and some of the least effective will stay in the classroom,” says Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago.

Such layoffs disproportionately hurt students attending the lowest-performing schools, because they tend to have the highest proportion of new teachers. In some Los Angeles schools last year, such cuts wiped out 50 to 70 percent of the faculty.

One surprising solution may come from Knowles’s home city of Chicago. The state of Illinois is one of the worst-run in the country, rivaling even California for its unwillingness to take the steps necessary to stanch the flow of red ink. As a result, Chicago is facing pressure to cut 900 teacher jobs. Under the usual union contract, the last hired were to be the first fired, competent or not.

But the Chicago School Board, handpicked by the Windy City’s tough-minded Mayor Richard M. Daley, has interpreted a new state law as giving it the power to fire the city’s 200 most incompetent teachers first.

While this might seem like common sense, it’s heresy to Karen Lewis, the newly elected head of the Chicago teachers’ union, who is considering going to court to fight the attack on seniority. “I admit, this is a great PR tool. Why not lay off the bad teachers first?” she conceded in an interview with NEWSWEEK. But on closer inspection, she says, there is no way of doing it fairly. In Chicago’s troubled urban school district, 99 percent of the 23,000 or so teachers are rated “excellent” or “superior,” while less than 0.1 percent are rated “unsatisfactory.” Employing some creative logic, Lewis asks: “Why are the worst evaluations believable, but the best are not?”

Reformers scoff at the union boss’s arguments. “While principals may not be consistently evaluating their teachers to the extent that they should, they certainly know who the worst teachers are in their buildings and have been using all sorts of tricks of the trade over the years to get these teachers to move to other schools,” says Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a reform advocacy group.

Largely because of the carrots dangled by Race to the Top, a growing number of states, including Colorado, Tennessee, Delaware, and Oklahoma, have changed their laws to make teacher performance a factor in tenure and firing decisions, but very few can use it to make layoff decisions. The District of Columbia’s public-school system is one place that can. Arizona has gone the furthest, making it illegal to consider seniority in layoff, tenure, and even rehiring decisions. But defying the unions is hard going. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had to back away from layoffs based on performance and shoot for an across-the-board pay freeze.

Analysts say that states’ money troubles will continue to shrink budgets over the next year, and school districts that have already cut to the bone will have to find new ways to make less go further. Weeding out the weakest teachers and keeping the most effective “is the only policy that makes sense for districts to implement in tough times,” says Walsh. After all, when student needs bump up against adult needs, is there any question whose should come first?

Okay, now let's attack this logically. I will deal with boldfaced item number two first-- I will circle back to the boldfaced part of paragraph 1 later.

So, "all our great young teachers will be out of a job...." Now, use of the word "all" usually sends up red flags for me in statements like this. But then again, I want to point out that not all of any age cohort is either "great" or incompetent, so there will also be some rotten young teachers who will be out of a job when using seniority as a basis. And there are some great young teachers, and some rotten young teachers. Just being a young teacher doesn't guarantee that you are "great." I am and will continue to be troubled (and enraged) by the assumption that those of us who have been in the classroom (mumble) years are either lazy lovers of the sinecure of tenure or at the very least losers who may have some skills but if we were really talented we would have demonstrated the gumption to get out of the classroom ghetto and out into the really important arena of administration of policy-wonkiness. Running throughout the criticism of public school teachers is a strong dismissal of experience in the classroom. This criticism runs from the greenest 23-year-old assistant principal (we had one who had spent a grand total of six months in an actual classroom before making the jump into hyperspace faster than you can say "Chewie, get us out of here!" He didn't last long as an AP either-- he's now teaching in a school of education somewhere. Ah, irony!) to people like Michelle Rhee (3 yrs in TFA before she got the heck out of Dodge) and Arne Duncan (0 years teaching experience but several years of playing basketball with President Obama which has stood him in good stead). Since many of these people felt little to no desire to really attempt to BE the lion tamer, they denigrate anyone who has the willingness to do so. No, they just want to stand outside the ring and claim that since they've been to a lot of circuses, they KNOW how to be a lion tamer-- it's just that they've got more important things to do. There must be something wrong with anyone who is sucker enough to be an experienced teacher, and it must be that incompetence and having nowhere else to go must explain this refusal to move up and beyond. Supposedly, school reformers want great teachers, but those great teachers shouldn't stay for more than three years, or there must be something wrong with them.

Second, I am deeply troubled by the fact that only .1% of Chicago teachers are rated as "unsatisfactory." Something smells here. Now here is where the next item comes in. So let's look at the most troubling quote of all, which bears repeating:

"While principals may not be consistently evaluating their teachers to the extent that they should, they certainly know who the worst teachers are in their buildings and have been using all sorts of tricks of the trade over the years to get these teachers to move to other schools."

Here is where the outrage starts for me. Let me be very clear: I DO NOT WANT INCOMPETENT TEACHERS IN MY PROFESSION. And I have taught next to some real doozies. But my next bit of outrage has always been this: how did they get there to begin with? In this discussion, there is some definite incompetence being overlooked, all right. We have incompetent teachers in the classroom because we have incompetent administrators who refuse to get up and enforce very clear policies. And this has gone on for years.

Let's break it down. Although "tenure" means very little in a "right to work" state such as those I have lived in all my life, there is nonetheless a process for evaluating teachers. In my district, a new teacher is supposed to be evaluated twice a year until their "probationary" status ends after five years. That's ten evaluations at a minimum. And if there are signs of trouble, there can be more. There should be more. And if administrators are doing their jobs, AND if they truly know what good teaching is (another big if given the paucity of teaching experience of the administrators themselves), then tenure should never be an issue. But there's not. Why is Ms. Walsh so dismissive of the incompetence demonstrated at this crucial step of the process by administrators? It seems that, when it comes right down to it, it's not necessarily incompetent teachers many reformers are after: it is simply the bugaboo of tenure on the way to privatizing public schools. The term "incompetent teachers" as a propaganda tool serves an important function for those who want to privatize public education, in the same way that the hot-button term of "abortion" serves an important function for Republican policy-makers. Both are far too valuable to ever really be gotten rid of, because these phrases shut off thinking and cause many people to react viscerally, often against their overall interests.

This is all too often the way. Some examples: Conservatives (in both parties) claim to hate illegal immigration, but the businessmen who write the checks for their political campaigns love that cheap labor and its depressing effect on wages across the board for American workers. So they rail against illegal immigration on the one hand, but then frantically fight the enforcement of laws already on the books which make it illegal to hire illegal immigrants. Take away the economic incentive if you really want to end "illegal" immigration.

Or this: States pass involuntary confinement laws for the most dangerous sexual predators, which are not only probably a violation of civil liberties, but (do not think I have ANYTHING but loathing for sexual predators) ALSO COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY. If we sentenced sexual predators with the severity their crimes deserve, they would never serve the ends of their sentences, and we would never have to resort to locking them up AFTER their sentences are served.

Okay, now, those were some very emotionally powerful examples, and we could talk about those all day. But we are here to talk about firing incompetent teachers. If we just shrug our shoulders at the refusal by administrators to do their duty and truly evaluate teachers, WHY should we give those same people the right to fire any teacher at any time at will? Do we really think that such a sweeping power should be entrusted to people who can't be bothered to come out of their offices and perform one of their primary functions? In fact, isn't that a far more dangerous idea than simply abolishing "tenure?"

As discussed before, "Race to the Top" often requires the use of a flamethrower where a surgical strike would be more apropos. There are a few school districts in my general vicinity who have finally been taken over by the state due to their utter failure to provide educational opportunity for their students. But rather than firing incompetent administrators and teachers, what usually happens is that all of the teachers-- all of them-- are fired, regardless of tenure, and the administrators are retained. The most that may happen is that they are shuffled around to another position in that same failing district. A teacher's real competence does not matter. There must be someone to blame when a school district fails-- and it so much easier- yes, easier!- to fire all of the teachers rather than to realize that just as there are often bad teachers even in good schools, there are also great teachers even in bad schools. But "Race to the Top" does not provide for any such subtlety in thinking, and often, as we see, it is already just accepted that teachers' good evaluations should be dismissed as untrustworthy. You may think, "Well, the good teachers will always find a job." In the most recent case in my area, however, teachers were left in limbo until THIS WEEK to find out that they had been summarily fired, and by now, there are no openings for the coming school year-- except at the schools in which these teachers already taught, of course. And we've already pointed out that the assumption is, if you teach in a poorly performing school, you must be an incompetent teacher. (And they wonder why the most highly qualified teachers often aren't willing to teach in the most high-risk schools? Really? Think, people!)

Finally, "Race to the Top" will not result in having better teachers in the most broken schools. If teachers are going to be held accountable for their students' test scores without any other consideration (such as poverty levels, community support of schools, student willingness to learn or, yes, even tenure) then why would any sane teacher take the risk of going to a school where test scores are going to be abysmal for all of those other reasons listed above? Especially if I wish to teach for my career rather than be an administrator or a policy-wonk? If Michelle Rhee really single-handedly raised her students' test scores so much during her three years in TFA, why didn't she see how heroic it would have been for her to remain in the classroom year after year and perform a true miracle for the thousands of students she should have encountered during a log a fruitful career? She could single-handedly have ENSURED that thousands of children could have been raised out of ignorance and poverty! It would have been a SURE THING. Right?

I will close with a true story. I have actually witnessed the firing of an incompetent teacher on a (very) few occasions in my career. But except in one single case, a part of the deal was that the administrators would provide a neutral recommendation in place of the honest evaluation that should have gone into this person's file. That simply passed the buck on and allowed that person to continue to seek employment in the field of education-- usually in some high-poverty, urban school district that is looking for ANY warm body to fill a slot at some of the most at-risk schools. Which brings us back to the problem of school districts like Chicago. Somewhere, this circle has got to be broken. Shouldn't student needs trump those of adults? Incompetence at both the teacher and administrator level serves the purpose of no one.

Or does it?

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Another year older, another year of memory loss and weight gain

Five years of blogging as of today. Not always good blogging, sometimes I've hit writers block for weeks due to all kinds of crap, but you, you've hung in there with me. And I appreciate it.

We've seen highs. We've seen lows. We've laughed our butts off and been deadly serious.

Thanks for sharing in my madness that really has no method.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tuesday Musing Open Thread 2: Qualifications for hiring teachers

For your consideration: If you were given the chance to revamp the hiring process in your school, what would be the top qualifications you would look for in teachers being hired to fill open positions? How do these compare with the qualifications that are currently in use by your school district?

Let's discuss.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

And England flirts with the charter school idea, as well

..but they're called "free schools" across the pond, and they already have started them in Sweden. From the BBC:
The creation of Swedish-style free schools in England could increase social segregation but net limited improvements, a leading academic claims.

Dr Susanne Wiborg, of the Institute of Education, also says it could lead to many private providers running schools.

Plans to allow parents and others to set up schools are in the Academies Bill, going through Parliament.

The government says such schools will drive up standards.

Dr Wiborg, an expert in comparative education, is looking at the impact these independently run but state-funded schools have had in Sweden, and what effect they might have here.

She said the impact on results within Sweden's independent schools themselves were limited and short-term.

Moderate improvements at the GCSE-equivalent level did not persist at age 18 or 19, she said.

She also found that children from "highly educated" families were the ones who mostly gained from education in these schools.

"But the impact on families and immigrants who had received a low level of education is close to zero," she added.

Several studies say that school choice in Sweden has "augmented social and ethnic segregation, particularly in relation to schools in deprived areas", she said.

But she added: "If the neo-liberal reforms increased inequality of achievement as well as social segregation in Sweden, a country with a universal welfare state and a relatively high level of social equality, then other countries could risk an even greater increase in inequality from implementing similar kinds of independent schools."

She said that the policy would "exacerbate the existing divisions further, because there are much more inequalities between schools here in England than in Sweden".

She also pointed out that the reforms that were currently being proposed by Education Secretary Michael Gove went further than those introduced in Sweden in the 1990s.

"It was expected that the free schools would through competition help all schools to improve, but we can only see a moderate effect.

"So to put so much effort into creating free schools for such a limited result - the question is whether it is really worth it."

Dr Wiborg also questioned whether parents were really interested in running schools.

She said: "Sweden has a tradition of this, but we do not, so why would be expect the results to be lots of locally run schools when this is not even the typical outcome in Sweden.

"It seems more likely that private education providers will run schools on a non-for-profit basis."

In Sweden the biggest provider of free schools is a dog food manufacturer called John Bauer, which runs 27 schools.

There were a number of private firms who were already interested in setting up free schools in England including a Dubai-based company called Gems, she added.

She said that what was lacking was the "fundamental discussion" of who should be allowed to educate children and potentially boost their business interests with public money.

A Department for Education spokesman said: "In this country, too often the poorest children are left with the worst education while richer families can buy their way to quality education via private schools or expensive houses.

"By allowing teachers to set up new schools we will give all children access to the kind of education only the rich can afford - small schools with small class sizes, great teaching and strong discipline.

"The coalition's commitment to the pupil premium will mean free schools will be incentivised to cater for the poorest children."

Well, it seems it's the same all over.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

How significant is it to be named valedictorian?

Schools around these parts have named multiple valedictorians for years--- possibly even before the "self-esteem" train began gaining momentum. But here's yet another indication from the New York Times that times change when it comes to grades, grade point averages, and honoring academic achievement:
There will be no valedictory speech at Jericho High School’s graduation on Sunday. With seven seniors laying claim to the title by compiling A-plus averages, no one wanted to sit through a solid half-hour of inspirational quotations and sappy memories.

Darvin Yi, one of nine valedictorians at Cherry Hill High School East in southern New Jersey. The school picked one graduation speaker by lottery and printed speeches from the others.

Instead, the seven will perform a 10-minute skit titled “2010: A Jericho Odyssey,” about their collective experience at this high-achieving Long Island high school, finishing up with 30 seconds each to say a few words to their classmates and families.

“When did we start saying that we should limit the honors so only one person gets the glory?” asked Joe Prisinzano, the Jericho principal.

In top suburban schools across the country, the valedictorian, a beloved tradition, is rapidly losing its singular meaning as administrators dispense the title to every straight-A student rather than try to choose the best among them.

Principals say that recognizing multiple valedictorians reduces pressure and competition among students, and is a more equitable way to honor achievement, particularly when No. 1 and No. 5 may be separated by only the smallest fraction of a grade from sophomore science. But some scholars and parents have criticized the swelling valedictorian ranks as yet another symptom of rampant grade inflation, with teachers reluctant to jeopardize the best and brightest’s chances of admission to top-tier colleges.

“It’s honor inflation,” said Chris Healy, an associate professor at Furman University, who said that celebrating so many students as the best could leave them ill prepared for competition in college and beyond. “I think it’s a bad idea if you’re No. 26 and you’re valedictorian. In the real world, you do get ranked.”

Not, though, at graduation from Stratford High School in the suburbs of Houston, which accorded its 30 valedictorians — about 6.5 percent of the class — gold honor cords. Nor at Cherry Hill High School East in southern New Jersey, which has revised its graduation tradition, picking a speaker among this year’s nine co-valedictorians by lottery and printing speeches from the others in the program.

In Colorado, eight high schools in the St. Vrain Valley district crowned 94 valedictorians, which the local newspaper, The Longmont Times-Call, complained in an editorial “stretches the definition.” And north of New York City, Harrison High School is phasing out the title, and on Friday declared 13 of its 221 graduates “summa cum laude.”

William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard, said he had heard of schools with more than 100 valedictorians, and had seen home-schooled students praised as No. 1 — out of one — all of which has helped render the distinction meaningless.

“I think, honestly, it’s a bit of an anachronism,” he said. “This has been a long tradition, but in the world of college admissions, it makes no real difference.”

Read the whole thing.

I do like the skit idea, though. Every year, it's like our student speakers pull 85 cliches out of the ol' cliche bag for their graduation speeches. There has also been a big trend around here to go to the "cum laude" system since finally people with some sway complained about have 11 valedictorians in a class of less than 400 graduates.

Now that there are weighted grades for honors/college credit/advanced placement classes, the grubbing for valedictorian can get particularly nasty. Then there are those kids who take online courses simply to try to grab valedictorian honors for themselves. Add in grade inflation and parental pressure onstudents, teachers, and administrators, and perhaps we should be trying to find a better way.

And besides, kids, two years from now no one will remember or care who the valedictorian was-- unless they flame out spectacularly like the valedictorian of a friend's high school class, who became a raging alcoholic and dropped out of college after six months. THAT'll get you some notoriety.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

You a parent of teens too? Then read this....

I love Dooce. I even love Dooce when she has a guest poster. Sarah of que sera sera wrote a absolutely perfect and hilarious post of fights she had with her mother.

Here is the post, entitled "Mom v. Me."

Here is Sarah's regular gig.

Since in my house "mother" is just an emoticon that means "embarrassing frump who's ruining my life forever and ever and can I have 400 dollars worth of clothes if I pick up five dog hairs from the floor as a sort of swipe at these outrageous insane demands you make upon my precious Facebook time known as chores," this post resonated with me. And made me laugh. Which I needed. As well as a stiff Irish whiskey.

Go! Read! Laugh!

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Idiocy from the Education Dept. Bureaucracy vs. a principal who did everything she could

Oooooh, this makes my blood boil. Read the whole thing-- it's worth it.

From the New York Times:
BURLINGTON, Vt. — It’s hard to find anyone here who believes that Joyce Irvine should have been removed as principal of Wheeler Elementary School.

John Mudasigana, one of many recent African refugees whose children attend the high-poverty school, says he is grateful for how Ms. Irvine and her teachers have helped his five children. “Everything is so good about the school,” he said, before taking his daughter Evangeline, 11, into the school’s dental clinic.

Ms. Irvine’s most recent job evaluation began, “Joyce has successfully completed a phenomenal year.” Jeanne Collins, Burlington’s school superintendent, calls Ms. Irvine “a leader among her colleagues” and “a very good principal.”

Beth Evans, a Wheeler teacher, said, “Joyce has done a great job,” and United States Senator Bernie Sanders noted all the enrichment programs, including summer school, that Ms. Irvine had added since becoming principal six years ago.

“She should not have been removed,” Mr. Sanders said in an interview. “I’ve walked that school with her — she seemed to know the name and life history of every child.”

Ms. Irvine wasn’t removed by anyone who had seen her work (often 80-hour weeks) at a school where 37 of 39 fifth graders were either refugees or special-ed children and where, much to Mr. Mudasigana’s delight, his daughter Evangeline learned to play the violin.

Ms. Irvine was removed because the Burlington School District wanted to qualify for up to $3 million in federal stimulus money for its dozen schools.

And under the Obama administration rules, for a district to qualify, schools with very low test scores, like Wheeler, must do one of the following: close down; be replaced by a charter (Vermont does not have charters); remove the principal and half the staff; or remove the principal and transform the school.

And since Ms. Irvine had already “worked tirelessly,” as her evaluation said, to “successfully” transform the school last fall to an arts magnet, even she understood her removal was the least disruptive option.

“Joyce Irvine versus millions,” Ms. Irvine said. “You can buy a lot of help for children with that money.”

Burlington faced the difficult choice because performance evaluations for teachers and principals based on test results, as much as on local officials’ judgment, are a hallmark of the two main competitive grant programs the Obama administration developed to spur its initiatives: the stimulus and Race to the Top.

“I was distraught,” said Ms. Irvine, 57, who was removed July 1. “I loved being principal — I put my heart and soul into that school for six years.” Still, she counts herself lucky that the superintendent moved her to an administrative job — even if it will pay considerably less.

“I didn’t want to lose her, she’s too good,” Ms. Collins said, adding that the school’s low scores were the result of a testing system that’s “totally inappropriate” for Wheeler’s children.

Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the United States Department of Education, noted that districts don’t have to apply for the grants, that the rules are clear and that federal officials do not remove principals. But Burlington officials say that not applying in such hard times would have shortchanged students.

At the heart of things is whether the testing system under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 can fairly assess schools full of middle-class children, as well as a school like Wheeler, with a 97 percent poverty rate and large numbers of refugees, many with little previous education.

President Obama’s Blueprint for Reform says that “instead of a single snapshot, we will recognize progress and growth.” Ms. Collins says if a year’s progress for each student were the standard, Wheeler would score well. However, the reality is that measuring every student’s yearly growth statewide is complex, and virtually all states, including Vermont, rely on a school’s annual test scores.

Under No Child rules, a student arriving one day before the state math test must take it. Burlington is a major resettlement area, and one recent September, 28 new students — from Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan — arrived at Wheeler and took the math test in October.

Ms. Irvine said that in a room she monitored, 15 of 18 randomly filled in test bubbles. The math tests are word problems. A sample fourth-grade question: “Use Xs to draw an array for the sum of 4+4+4.” Five percent of Wheeler’s refugee students scored proficient in math.

About half the 230 students are foreign-born, collectively speaking 30 languages. Many have been traumatized; a third see one of the school’s three caseworkers. During Ms. Irvine’s tenure, suspensions were reduced to 7 last year, from 100.

Students take the reading test after one year in the country. Ms. Irvine tells a story about Mr. Mudasigana’s son Oscar and the fifth-grade test.

Oscar needed 20 minutes to read a passage on Neil Armstrong landing his Eagle spacecraft on the moon; it should have taken 5 minutes, she said, but Oscar was determined, reading out loud to himself.

The first question asked whether the passage was fact or fiction. “He said, ‘Oh, Mrs. Irvine, man don’t go on the moon, man don’t go on the back of eagles, this is not true,’ ” she recalled. “So he got the five follow-up questions wrong — penalized for a lack of experience.”

Thirteen percent of foreign-born students, 4 percent of special-ed students and 23 percent of the entire school scored proficient in reading.

Before Mr. Obama became president, Burlington officials began working to transform Wheeler to an arts magnet, in hopes of improving socioeconomic integration.

While doing her regular job, Ms. Irvine also developed a new arts curriculum. She got a grant for a staff trip to the Kennedy Center in Washington for arts training. She rented vans so teachers could visit arts magnets in nearby states. She created partnerships with local theater groups and artists. In English class, to learn characterization, children now write a one-person play and perform it at Burlington’s Very Merry Theater.

A sign of her effectiveness: an influx of new students, so that half the early grades will consist of middle-class pupils this fall.

Ms. Irvine predicts that in two years, when these new “magnet” students are old enough to take the state tests, scores will jump, not because the school is necessarily better, but because the tests are geared to the middle class.

Senator Sanders said that while the staff should be lauded for working at one of Vermont’s most challenging schools, it has been stigmatized.

“I applaud the Obama people for paying attention to low-income kids and caring,” said Mr. Sanders, a leftist independent. “But to label the school as failing and humiliate the principal and teachers is grossly unfair.”

The district has replaced Ms. Irvine with an interim principal and will conduct a search for a replacement.

And Ms. Irvine, who hoped to finish her career on the front lines, working with children, will be Burlington’s new school improvement administrator.

“Her students made so much progress,” Ms. Collins said. “What’s happened to her is not at all connected to reality.”

The story about the immigrant child and the passage about Neil Armstrong reminded me of that film The Gods Must Be Crazy. And the gods at the Education Department (many of whom have spent zero time in a classroom themselves) must be crazy to think that Bush administration policies that require new immigrants to be proficient in reading within a year should continue to be inflicted upon American students and public schools.

Throughout history our schools have been at the front lines of assimilating the children of immigrants to American culture. Most history books point to these successes when discussing the great waves of immigration that have swept over the United States since its inception. Yet how might that success have been viewed if test scores were the sole determination?

We teachers know our students as individuals. But schools with low student test scores are all lumped into a single category of failure regardless of the circumstances.

Where's some of that change you promised, President Obama?

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I'm thinking that, in heaven, Molly Ivins is chortling over this one.

The Texas lege has written another superb law.

Go read. I'll wait.

So the lines were set up to keep guns OUT after a shooting, but now, if you've got a gun, you can avoid the line and just walk on in. Classic.


Tuesday Musing Open Thread 1: TFA

For your consideration: In the long term, what effect has Teach For America had on public schools? What effect do teachers from this program have upon a school while they are on staff? What effects have TFA alumni had upon education policy? Are these effects good or deleterious?

Not having had much contact with people in this program, I would appreciate some feedback. I may start this as a regular feature of my blog as a part of my own edification.

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Linky sausage o' the day

1. Thirty percent of Americans may claim affinity for the Tea Party.

But that means that seventy percent of us know they're nuts. And last I checked, that's, um, a majority.

2. Now this is a REAL American hero.

3. Ewwwwww. And I'm generally okay with insects and arachnids. But-- yuck.

4. No recusal? Yeah- because then he wouldn't be able to put his own personal finances in front of justice for those who DON'T own petro-stocks.

5. There are fears of resegregation in North Carolina. And once again, if our neighborhoods were not segregated, our schools wouldn't be.


You know, when I mangle my English, I ALWAYS use George Bush and Shakespeare as my defense.

...It's like the yin and yang of the erudite.

Gotta love Palin's cojones, though. Which is just the thing George W. would say:
Sarah Palin raised linguists' eyebrows this weekend when she urged Muslims to "refudiate" a controversial mosque -- then defended her garbled English as Shakespearean.

The darling of the Republican right and possible 2012 White House candidate coined the word Sunday in a Tweet criticizing plans for a mosque at Ground Zero in New York.

At first Palin appeared embarrassed, deleting the message on her Twitter page and replacing it with a call for Muslims to "refute" the plan, this time using a real word, but questionable grammar.

Her next update returned to "refudiate" and now proudly proclaimed Palin as heir both to literary genius William Shakespeare and Republican ex-president George W. Bush, famous for his repeated howlers, such as "misunderestimate."

"'Refudiate,' 'misunderestimate,' 'wee-wee'd up.' English is a living language," Palin Tweeted. "Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!"

Yes, Sarah, you are JUST LIKE Shakespeare.


Monday, July 19, 2010

Attempted "gotcha" on teacher emails fails-- for now

From Edweek's school law blog:
Teachers' personal e-mails on school district computers are not public records under Wisconsin law and need not be disclosed to records requesters, the state's highest court has ruled.

"There is a distinction between allowing public oversight of employees' use of public resources and invoking the Public Records Law to invade the private affairs of public employees by categorically revealing the contents of employees' personal emails," Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson of the Wisconsin Supreme Court wrote in the lead opinion.

The case grew out of a public records request by a local citizen for all e-mails sent and received on school computers by five teachers in the Wisconsin Rapids School District for about a six-week period in 2007. The district permits teachers to use school computers for personal e-mail. The requester, Don Bubolz, acknowledged in court proceedings that he was on a "fishing expedition" to examine whether teachers were using e-mail inappropriately.

The teachers did not object to disclosing work-related e-mails, but they sought an injunction to bar the district from disclosing their personal messages. A state trial court held that the teachers' personal e-mails were public records under Wisconsin law.

In its July 16 opinion in Schill v. Wisconsin Rapids School District, the state's highest court voted 5-2 to reverse and hold that the personal messages did not need to be disclosed. The majority issued three separate opinions that offered slight distinctions in reasoning.

In a plurality opinion joined by two other justices, Chief Justice Abrahamson noted that the state's public records law was adopted in 1983, long before e-mail was in widespread use in the workplace. But most other states' courts that have considered the issue have also ruled that personal e-mail messages of government employees should be exempt from public-records laws.

"Disclosure of the contents of the teachers' personal emails does not keep the electorate informed about the government and sheds no light on official acts or the affairs of government," Abrahamson wrote.

Justice Patience Drake Roggensack, in a dissent joined by one other justice, said the public-records exception for personal e-mails "prevents the public from discovering what public employees are doing during the workday, in the workplace, using equipment purchased with public funds. In so doing, the court contravenes Wisconsin's long history of transparency in and public access to actions of government employees."

I an sure that Mr. Bubolz never ever uses work-supplied technology for personal reasons, if indeed he has time to work while he is ferreting around trying to cast aspersions upon teachers. And I wonder if Justice Roggensack would like her personal emails opened up for public viewing?

I will admit that I am very paranoid-- I mean, cautious-- about using the school email system for personal reasons. However, given that teaching often requires one to put in long hours after the actual school day is over, sometimes one just can't avoid taking care of personal business on school computers.

But I have found that this divide between personal and private life doesn't work going the other way. I was recently chided by another district employee for not checking my work email over the summer. You know what my response was? Unlike this person, I do not receive paid vacations- nor do any teachers that I know. Summer is unremunerated time, and given the dedication I show during the school year, summertime is family and personal time. Period.

Over my career I have seen an explosion of technology in the classroom. I started out without even an intercom system and now we have phones, computers, automated messaging systems, and voice mail. We were told that all this technology would make our lives easier and increase productivity. Like workers everywhere, I notice that the main outcome from this growth of technology is to enable more tasks to be dumped on me and to provide my supervisors yet more ways to avoid communicating (My personal favorite? The assistant principal who claimed he didn't get my email as he played a game on his brand-new, district-provided iPhone).

We are constantly reminded that we are salaried employees, and that we are required to perform any tasks assigned to us-- it's right there in our contracts. It would be nice if it was remembered that we are also people with lives.

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Dumb, but not as dumb as some of you...

So much here to entertain.... A student at SIU's law school claims that it was unfair that she was dropped from law school due to her 1.495 GPA. There were others who had lower GPA's who were readmitted, but she was the only one who wasn't Causcasian:
A former law student has sued Southern Illinois University Carbondale, claiming the school discriminated against her by re- enrolling others with worse grades, but not her.

Lisa D. Rittenhouse was one of six law students dropped last year for poor academic performance, she claims in her federal suit.

After her first year in law school, Rittenhouse posted a grade point average of 1.948, just shy of the school's required 1.95 GPA but better than the other students' GPAs, she alleges.

The students later applied for readmission, but only Rittenhouse was denied, she says in her suit, filed in East St. Louis, Ill.

Rittenhouse claims the law school discriminated against her because she has learning disabilities, including attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity and dyslexia, and is bipolar. She also claims reverse discrimination because four of the readmitted students are minorities and she is white.

The law school's attorney, Ian P. Cooper of Tueth, Keeney, Cooper, Mohan & Jackstadt in Clayton, said Rittenhouse didn't allege a pattern, practice or policy that would support discrimination claims.

Rittenhouse has a "heavy burden" to show there was discriminatory intent on the part of those reviewing her application for readmission, Cooper said, and "we haven't seen any support at all for any such claim."

The Academic Standards Committee, which considered Rittenhouse's request for readmission, followed the law school's policies and procedures, he said. The school has filed a motion to dismiss the suit on the bases of immunity and insufficient pleadings.

God, I love lawyers!

First, who here would like to hire an attorney who may be debilitated by her low GPA?

How about her claims of ADHD? Would you like to hire an attorney who is dyslexic? Bipolar? Does that make one an effective attorney? But of course, we are putting the cart before the horse, here, because let me point out that this lady has not even made it out of law school, much less past the bar exam.

Is there such a thing as being too disabled for a certain job? Is this person suited for the profession of attorney? What are the requirements of an attorney? Is the ability to read and digest a large amount of written information a prerequisite for the profession?

Meanwhile,is she being discriminated against due to her racial background, and if so, what does this indicate about fairness in current American society?

Lots of questions. Not a lot of answers.

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Friday, July 09, 2010

Summer Playlist #1

What's on the iPod right now?

1. Better Than Nothing at All- Admiral Twin
2. All That I Am Now- Assembly of Dust (featuring Richie Havens)
3. Red Vines- Aimee Mann
4. Oh, Atlanta- Alison Krauss
5. The Crow- Steve Martin
6. Redneck Friend- Jackson Browne
7. Do You Realize??- The Flaming Lips
8. Galveston- Jimmy Webb
9. Shotgun Down the Avalanche- Shawn Colvin
10. I Was A Bird- Mary Chapin Carpenter
11. Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk- The New Pornographers
12. Take a Bow- Greg Laswell
13. Love You Till The End- The Pogues
14. Stars and Boulevards (acoustic version)- Augustana
15. I Should Have Known Better- She & Him
16. Cactus Tree- Caroline Herring
17. You Don't Mess Around With Jim- Jim Croce
18. Shut Up and Kiss Me- Mary Chapin Carpenter
19. My Baby Don't Tolerate- Lyle Lovett
20. Mull of Kintyre- Ashley MacIsaac
21. Sea of Heartbreak- Rosanne Cash (with Bruce Springsteen)
22. I Hope You're Happy Now- Nik Kershaw

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Thursday, July 08, 2010

Oklahoma's Native Students: Good news and bad news

According to the National Indian Education study of 2009, Oklahoma's Native American students outperformed other Native American students from around the country. But there's good news and bad news:
Oklahoma's American Indian students continue to outperform those in other states, but academic progress for American Indian students nationally remains stalled, a new study indicates.

Key members of Congress expressed concern over the study's results and vowed to address the issue in upcoming education legislation.

According to the congressionally authorized National Indian Education Study 2009, the average reading scores for fourth-grade and eighth-grade American Indian students in Oklahoma were higher than the national average of Indian students.

That was repeated in math scores for fourth-grade American Indian students.

Gaps in the scores among Indian students and white students in Oklahoma also were smaller than the figures nationally.

"That is something the state has been striving for,'' said Shelly Hickman, public affairs director for the Oklahoma Department of Education.

"The report showed we are doing a better job of doing that than any other state in the country.''

Hickman conceded that math continues to be a weak area, not only for the state's American Indian students but also for others.

That shows up in state exams, she said.

Hickman said the state Board of Education recognized that issue and acted to address it last year. She predicted that the impact of that change will begin to be seen as more school districts adopt more rigorous curricula.

State Superintendent Sandy Garrett has
been among those advocating for students to take more math classes, Hickman said.

According to the study, more than a third of American Indian and Alaska Native fourth- and eighth-graders nationally scored below the basic level in math and reading.

Their progress since 2007, when the last study was conducted, is largely stalled.

"There remains a wide and persistent gap between the achievement of native students and white students,'' said John Easton, director of the Institute of Education Services, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Education.

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, described the lack of progress by American Indian and Alaska Native students as alarming.

"This report offers further proof that we need to focus significantly more attention on our American Indian and Alaska Native students in the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,'' Miller said.

Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., chairman of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education and Democratic chairman of the House Native American Caucus, agreed.

"These results are unacceptable and further underscore the vital need to improve education in these communities,'' Kildee said.

In addition to the national results, the study also included data from Oklahoma and 11 other states with large populations of American Indian and Alaska Native students.

There may be several reasons why Oklahoma's Native American students performed better than those in other states. First, since there have been no true reservations in Oklahoma since shortly before the 20th century, Natives are often more integrated into overall Oklahoma society. Reservations remain some of the most impoverished areas in the United States, and they tend to deny their inhabitants economic and educational opportunities, to put it mildly. This also leads to many students who identify as Native being actually of a quite varied racial ancestry.

Nonetheless, saying that your students are at the top of a group that suffers from an achievement gap is cause for mild celebration, at the most.

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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Duh, duh, double-duh. But it'll never happen.

So, starting the school day later benefits teens, huh?

You're kidding. Here's the scoop:
A study of teens at a Rhode Island boarding school found that pushing back the school day by 30 minutes improved concentration, mood and even encouraged students to consume healthier breakfasts. It also reduced tardiness.

The results of the study appear in the July edition of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, which also ran an editorial that said a "growing body of evidence that changing the start time for high schools is good for adolescents."

Researchers believe that teens have trouble falling asleep before 11 p.m., and they are often in their deepest sleep at dawn, when they need to rouse for morning classes.

This is one of those obvious findings- and yet this policy will probably not be implemented. Why? Here's three reasons why:

1. An early start time means more time for practice for athletic teams after school-- and NEVER underestimate the power of high school sports.

2. A change to the high school schedule necessitates a change in the elementary and middle school schedules due to transportation issues. Other research has indicated that the little kids should actually go to school earlier, so some school districts have suggested flipping the high school and elementary schedules. However, many parents resist this because their high schoolers are then not home to watch the little ones, who would also get out in the early afternoon, when mom and dad are still at work.

3. An early school day also means more time for after school jobs. Thus teens, their families, and their employers are therefore going to resist the scheduling consequences.

So I personally plan on seeing groggy, half-comatose students in my classes for the rest of my teaching career. And I'm not being cynical --I've seen these changes proposed about every four years or so, and shot down just as quickly over the reasons listed above. But let's face it-- it's a hallmark of modern culture to choose expediency over what's right.

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Saturday, July 03, 2010

How do state budget cuts affect educational philosophy?

Apparently, one of the great lessons of politics has finally come crashing down in some Illinois school districts under extreme pressure from state budgetary shenanigans. What is that great lesson of politics? Why, it is as old as civilization: Ideals are fine when they remain in the abstract. One example of this is the recent decision of some Illinois school districts to abandon the middle school model to save some money:
"For 10 years, Bethalto middle school students have moved through the school day in teams. While the 125 or so students were in art, music or technology, each team's teachers would meet to discuss academic progress and lesson plans.

Next year, that will all change.

Sixth-graders will return to an elementary school model with one main teacher all day. Seventh- and eighth-graders will switch to a junior high model.

No teams, no art, no music or technology.

The move goes against a decades-long trend toward middle schools in which school districts have invested in the middle grades by adding enrichment courses, reducing class sizes and boosting planning time for teachers.

But budget issues are causing several Illinois districts to reconsider the middle years. Collinsville Middle School will revert to a junior high after seven years as a middle school. East St. Louis will adopt a hybrid of the two models, in part because of finances. And Waterloo has decided to keep the middle school this year, but with deficit spending. If the economy doesn't pick up, it will revert to a junior high the following year.

Currently, there are more than 11,000 middle schools and fewer than 3,000 junior high schools nationwide.

Instead of seven 47-minute classes, the seventh- and eighth-graders at Bethalto will have five 60-minute class periods: social studies, English, math, science and P.E.

Bethalto School District Superintendent Sandra Wilson would prefer to keep the elective classes and the teams, but with the Illinois budget crisis and the state owing the district nearly $2 million, administrators think they have no other choice. Amid a $13 billion budget shortfall, Illinois is behind in paying about $1.4 billion to schools for such expenses as special education and transportation.

'We will cut as much as they fail to send," said Russ Clover, Bethalto School District's business manager. "Educationally that's a mistake, but financially this is a requirement. The state has no idea the damage they are doing to these kids.'

The middle school model is inherently more expensive because of its smaller classes, extra electives and additional teacher planning time...."

Now, I am not exactly a fawning fan of certain parts of the middle school philosophy. I have said before that the middle school model often provides shelter for some of the worst trends in helping our students become literate, responsible citizens. In particular, the middle school model also encourages the hiring of teachers who are generalists rather than specialists, and thus specific instructional content is often a serious weakness just when kids need to be challenged the most. But-- when the team model is done right, and administration supports teachers, educational standards actually both can be increased AND be met by the students. But students and their specific needs are the last priority in these decisions mentioned in the article. To cull bad practices because they are bad is one thing. To completely reorder a school because the state refuses to meet its obligations is quote another.

Well, one can only hope that perhaps, after the chaos settles from these decisions being made, perhaps a new model for early adolescent education may develop that would actually combine the BEST of both the junior high and middle school model.

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Thursday, July 01, 2010

He's a suitor! He's bona FIDE. And he's gone.

As I watch yet another beloved colleague of mine leave our district to become an administrator somewhere else, I will admit that I am feeling a bit bitter.

Of course, the news that my friend was leaving did not come as a complete surprise. We could see it coming from the moment that we were informed that some twenty-something year old dude was hired for the opening we had for an assistant principal. And why did we have an opening for an assistant principal? Because the AP was leaving after being passed over in favor of yet another outside candidate. And so the circle will be unbroken...

Now my friend had seemingly proved himself over and over again in his bona-fides for the job. We have a habit in our building of taking teachers with administrative certification out of their classrooms and placing substitutes in their stead so that they can then sub for administrators who are taking vacation days or at a workshop or out ill (Don't start with me about this!). This he had done cheerfully. He had also served as a principal in short term positions as needed. In each instance, all reviews were glowing. He's calm (I've never seen him get angry, I swear) but firm, he's reasonable, he's knowledgeable about how students behave in the classroom and the challenges of teaching because he's been there on the front lines for more than two seconds. He understands what steps an administrator must perform in order to make sure that the ability to teach and learn are foremost as the primary business of a school.

Perhaps that was what concerned the PTB. As we tried to understand this incomprehensible decision to hire a guy who had never stayed in any one position for more than two years, this did occur to some of us. As I look at the people responsible for the hiring decisions, I see no one who taught for more than five years. NOT ONE. And I have come to the sad realization that, with the addition of our newest administrator, all by my lonesome I will actually have more classroom teaching experience than all six of our building administrators. Combined. And I am NOT that old. Really (Not a gray hair on my head!)!

So why is there this trend to shy away from actual educators when looking for people to administer a school? Further, why is there this tendency in my district to raise up amazing administrators from our ranks-- for the benefit of surrounding school districts only, of course. No such thing as growing our own leaders around here.

I am truly amazed at the lack of judgment and foresight that keeps being demonstrated in these personnel decisions. I'm certainly glad I've never felt a particular yen to move into administration, because that would mean I would have to leave.

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