Archive for the ‘Education Reform’ Category

I always start each year with the same question: Why go to school? After we get through the obvious answers (“Because my mom makes me go.”) the conversation invariably heads toward: What do you need to learn? Once again we slog through the obvious of reading, writing and basic math.

So what should kids learn in order to lead a full, rich life? What should they learn in order to succeed in our competitive world?

Why should a student do a research project about the socio-economic factors that led to the Harlem Renaissance? I could talk about young people learning to appreciate the arts, learning about cultures and communities, and understanding the forces of history. But how far would that take me with those who want to quantify education and boil it down to assessments and bottom lines?

The answer I lean toward is: You need to learn how to learn.

What are the steps in writing a report about the founding of the California Missions? You find information. You process that information, synthesizing the important points. You communicate your version of the information and put it in the form of a deliverable (essay, presentation, poster).

Interestingly, the above describes the steps of Information Processing: Input; Processing; Output; Storage. And in life, these are the steps a reasonable person uses when searching for a job, researching mortgage rates, choosing a school for their children, planning a vacation or buying an expensive new outfit.

What’s the point in teaching a kid how to use a current computer application? We need to teach them how to approach computers and applications, how to figure out the functions and comfortably use the Help Menu. On computers or off, we need to teach students to solve problems for themselves.

It’s one of those teach-a-man-to-fish things. Five years from now that young person is going to be in a job with a new device in hand that has a different interface and an unfamiliar computer application. Margaret Mead said it well:  “The time has come when we must teach our children what no one knew yesterday, and prepare our schools for what no one knows yet.”

Beyond that, what are the skills that employers need? And is it possible for high schools to help students develop those skills? (Coming up soon)

Granting tenure is just about automatic. After three years at a school (or two years depending on the school district) the vast majority of teachers receive tenure — meaning that their school/district must go through due process to remove them.

The reason teachers almost always receive tenure is simple —  it’s not like there are another 50 teachers out there vying for the job. If a new teacher is at all competent, is the principal going to risk having a job opening and perhaps getting someone worse? This is especially true if it’s a math, science or special ed teacher. There’s always a shortage in those areas. Lose a math teacher and the school may not be able to find another qualified credentialed teacher to cover those classes.

Unless you acknowledge this reality, you can’t make sense of the real issues around teacher tenure and benefits.

In an earlier post I raised a fundamental question: If you could fire 100,000 California teachers tomorrow, who would you get to watch all those classrooms day after tomorrow? Some politicians would have us believe there are swarms of highly skilled first year teachers out there begging for jobs.

Maybe there’s arrogance on the part of the anti-teacher forces because current budget cutbacks mean teacher layoffs. But the recent attacks have made teaching less attractive as a career choice (2003 = 90,000 people in California teacher education programs; 2011 = 45,000). This means fewer trained teachers in the future. And unless you foresee 200-plus students per classroom there will be a need for more teachers. We all agree on the importance of great teachers. But unless you have a pool of enough qualified teachers, how picky can schools be?

With current attacks on tenure, benefits and pensions, why would an energetic, ambitious young person in college today choose teaching as a career? That isn’t a rhetorical question. It’s one that needs to be answered.

So here’s the next question for politicians who say they want to improve our schools: How will you make teaching an attractive career choice for bright, capable people?

I teach technology-based classes. Given the speed of tech changes, it’s a drawback that  I’ve been in a classroom for the past ten years. I brought my own industry experience to my curriculum, but I’ve been disconnected from that world for ten years.

So last summer I applied for a teacher scholarship to take classes at a highly-regarded art institute (at other times I’ve paid for my own classes). Their courses are rigorous and I had very little free time given all the homework I had to complete. My final day of summer school class was the day before I had to report to my workplace for fall semester.

In one of the classes I took last summer I gained a notebook full of pointers to bring to my advanced students (“Ah, so that’s how to use this feature correctly!”  “Oh, so that’s the proper setting…”). In my other class I got a whole new (and improved) structure for my freshmen curriculum.

If I had to worry about keeping my job I would’ve spent the summer working on my resume, networking with people in related industries and on the lookout for job opportunities.  I wouldn’t have had the luxury of spending a summer taking classes.

Whether teaching summer school or visiting family, I always work on curriculum during the summer. During the school year there’s never enough time to focus on the big picture or to really plan out a new student project.

This is what teacher tenure means to me.

What kind of fool would I have to be to spend summer preparing for a job that might not be mine in the fall? Only a worse fool would spend his own money and free time taking classes for a job that could be pulled out from under him at the whim of a capricious administrator.

Lively debate about how to improve public schools is a good thing. And almost everyone should be heard in the debate. But what about those who would destroy public schools?

Does it seem like an outrageous statement if I say some people want to destroy public education? Consider the experience in one suburban community.

College friends of mine raised two children in a certain suburban town. Both of their children went through the town’s one high school — the son as a football player, the daughter as a prom queen. Some years back members of an Orthodox Jewish sect moved into their town. More followed. The shopping center has changed, not just with Kosher food but also with modest dresses, women’s hats, and religious books. (It could’ve been a similar scenario with Fundamentalist Christians or Muslims.)

All these families send their children to religious schools. Meanwhile the members of this community have become a powerful force at election time. They vote as a bloc, and they all come out to vote. A decade ago this group became the majority on the town’s school board.

Got that? They all send their children to religious schools. But they now control the school board that oversees all the town’s public schools.

Years before the current frenzy to cut budgets, the school board in this town voted to do away with high school sports. No football team, no baseball, no basketball, volleyball, wrestling or swimming. This town had been a mainstay in county league competition. Students who defined themselves by their participation in football (as an example) were suddenly out in the cold.

High school sports programs provide a physical outlet for overactive teens (especially boys); they build student skills at teamwork and leadership; they give students a sense of community and school pride. Sure, we could debate the merits and debate how much money schools should devote to sports. But that wasn’t what happened in this town.

The decision by this town’s school board wasn’t based on what would be best for the school or the kids. It was people with power cutting things they didn’t care about. “Why should we pay if our own children aren’t making use of school sports?”

Extrapolate that slightly and it’s “I don’t have school age children. Why should I pay for schools?”

Simple answer: Because you have to live in the world with these young people. Soon enough they’ll be the adults who share your streets, share your roads, share your workplaces. How can we help as many as possible become educated adults who can function well (and maybe even contribute to) the world?

If the discussion is about improving public schools, those who would rather see public schools collapse have no place at the table.

When I arrived there ten years ago our school had the second-lowest test scores in the district. Year two we got a dynamic new principal. It’s not so much that Mrs. C changed things. But she made things possible. Setting up a tech academy had been a dream of mine. With the support and encouragement of our new principal, I was on my way to starting our school’s tech academy.

Our test scores went up. Slowly at first. This year we have the second highest scores in the district.

Our district doesn’t have neighborhood high schools. Parents submit three top choices when their kids are in 8th grade. Not every parent is happy with their child’s assigned school. When she was starting out, our dynamic new principal attended school board meetings and calmly addressed angry parents who were unhappy that their kids were assigned to our school.

That following fall I told my freshmen class that within four years our school would be a top choice for parents in the district. I spoke at graduation four years later and reminded them of what I had said. My prediction had come true and our school was swamped with parent requests.

Once our scores went up, we had visitors from Kansas and Asia, school board members and school principals. Commissions and organizations came to view our success. All were brought through my classroom to see what my students were doing.

But my proudest moment came with a visit from the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) which had cited our school’s success. At the end of their visit one of our esteemed guests said that whatever school he visited he always quietly asked individual students the same question: “If you had a serious personal problem is there at least one adult in this building you could turn to?” He told us that responses at different schools had ranged from 30% yes all the way up to 100% yes.

At our school during that week every single student queried answered YES. The kids in our school felt there were adults in the building they could trust in times of difficulty.

To hell with test scores. The fact that our kids felt there were adults who supported them and cared about them — that was my proudest moment.

I love my high school. I’ve had the most wonderful administrators and the most supportive colleagues.

I’ve heard other teachers talk about terrible experiences with tyrannical administrators and with difficult colleagues. I usually keep my mouth shut because I don’t want to sound like I’m boasting.

The first year I taught at my school was with a principal who was a nice enough guy. He hid in his office and never confronted anyone about anything. And the school was stagnating. But he was a really nice guy.

Year two the nice guy got replaced with a dynamic ambitious woman — and it was great. Mrs. C was determined to improve our school. Her door was always open even though she was everywhere in the building at once. Teachers who wanted to put in extra effort and do something more knew they’d be supported and appreciated by Mrs. C. We also knew this woman would stand up for us at the district level. She was not only our leader, she was our champion.

More than that Mrs. C was willing to put in the effort to get rid of poor teachers; keeping track of complaints till the teacher in question could be encouraged to “take early retirement” (no matter how far they were from retirement age).

That’s when our positive sense of community really started.

At one point there was a threat of a teachers’ strike. At the top academic school in our district the principal called a faculty meeting and collected keys from all teachers. Administrators would unlock their doors. Teachers couldn’t be trusted with keys.

On the same day we had a faculty meeting. Mrs. C told us she was proud of the professionalism we had shown in the face of a difficult situation. She told us that, whatever happened, she hoped it would not rend the fabric of our supportive community. Then she offered the services of the schools’ Wellness Center to teachers who felt stressed or upset. We kept our room keys.

Two notes to Michelle Rhee:

  • This was a principal who could’ve asked me to walk through fire (and I’m pretty darn scared of fire).
  • When teachers feel happy going to work there’s a more positive environment for learning.

I’d like to ask Michelle Rhee one question. Does she believe the private for-profit sector would do a better job at educating America’s young people? Consider the influence of  insurance and for-profit health industries. It’s impossible to discuss what would be best for the health of Americans without these company’s profits coming into the discussion.

In case Rhee answers “No” to the first question, in case she still believes in public education, I then have a second question: What do you think those right-wing think tanks are after, Ms. Rhee? The places where the former Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor speaks and finds so much support when she denigrates teachers and blames teacher unions for the problems in education.

Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Rhee — what a picture! America’s most famous Obama-lover giving encouragement to the anti-teacher anti-union media campaign currently sweeping the nation. A lot of the talk when Rhee was a guest on the Winfrey show got me hot under the collar. But one moment was jaw-dropping in the audacity of its nonsense.

I know Oprah is a smart woman, a brilliant woman who has built a media empire and a well-deserved reputation for generosity and philanthropy. But Oprah gave her best over-the-top I’m-so-shocked-at-this-outrage delivery in recounting that the Washington, D.C., teachers’ union rejected a Rhee proposal in which any teachers who relinquished their tenure would be paid salaries above $100,000 a year.

“And the union wouldn’t even bring that up for a vote!” Gasp!

Let’s consider this. Let’s say Teacher X has given up tenure and is being paid much more than his colleagues. Teacher X can be fired at any time without cause. How many years before some budget-cutter figures out that getting rid of Teacher X would help close the budget gap?

Did it take you more than a minute to come up with that scenario? Any teacher I’ve told about the Oprah show moment instantly comes to the same conclusion I did.

Was Oprah really that dense about the prospects of a teacher who would give up tenure for a higher salary? Or do Winfrey and Rhee think teachers should trust their districts and their superintendents? Is it supposed to be that “if you’re one of the good ones you don’t need union protection”?

Let Michelle Rhee staff her next school district with teachers who trust their fates entirely in the hands of Michelle Rhee. It better be a small district.