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.

There’s an 8-year-old Chinese boy who ran home crying today because some mean kid pulled the outside of his eyes upwards and went “ching-chong ching-chong.”

I clicked on a Yahoo link to see a listing of who would guest on the Sunday news shows. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a handful of Democratic legislators, some foreign leaders, plus Republicans including Congressional leaders Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell.

The first comment under this Yahoo posting read “This should be called a list of queers and commies.”

Why is America glorifying bullies? We hear about the lack of civility in public life. That lack of civility trickles down to the nasty name-calling in America’s playgrounds.

Rush Limbaugh mocked Chinese accents on his show (including “ching chong” in his script). California State Sen. Leland Yee called Limbaugh on this insulting behavior. For his effort Yee has received death threats from people who call him a “Marxist.” Words used to have definitions. “Marxist” actually meant something. And it didn’t mean a person who disapproved of stale ethnic insult jokes.

Where is reason? Where is anyone learning to make a cogent argument to support a point of contention? Persuasion? If you can yell loudest and push hardest, you win the argument.

Of course if Limbaugh saw this blog he would spew off his usual put-downs to prove he’s right. Where are the voices to outshout him? Who taught that playground bully that it was acceptable to mock someone because they were different? And ultimately where are the voices of decency — the moral high road — to care about that 8-year-old Chinese kid?

I blew up at one of my freshmen classes last week over the word “faggot.” I asked if they knew the phrase “What goes around comes around.” I told them that if they go around spreading nastiness and name-calling, they would end up living in a world of nastiness and name-calling. (The problem of course is the rest of us end up living in that world as well.)

That 8-year-old Chinese kid is the one who deserves your apology, Mr. L. You’ve also done a disservice to that mean little playground bully (30% of kids who bully end up charged with crimes as adults). And until you and your followers recognize that, you’re making the world an uglier place.

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.

When everyone’s favorite hip hop dancer took the stage at our school talent show dozens of students held up their cell phones to shoot it.

How many kids today can connect the dots? Do they understand how it is we can have TV shows like “Survivor” or “The Real World” while 25 years ago these would have been impossible? Twenty-five years ago film and video cameras were bulky, expensive and required trained cinematographers behind each lens. Today it’s possible to plant a few dozen cameras all around a house and record everything.

Why is the Zapruder film of the JFK Assassination so important?

A Dallas businessman named Abraham Zapruder purchased a Bell & Howell Zoomatic 8MM film camera. He had a vantage point in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963 so that his camera was pointed at President Kennedy’s limousine as shots rang out. It was less than 27 seconds of footage and it became exhibit 885 in the Warren Commission Report on the Kennedy Assassination.

Where were the network cameras? Could anyone imagine a presidential visit today without multiple camera crews? A president traveling through the streets of a major American city today — that footage would be shown live on all local stations. And of course these days various cable news networks would also be recording.

Twelve-year-old kids today have already posted their dumb skateboard tricks on YouTube. Can they understand that film cameras were once so bulky and so expensive that local TV stations weren’t able to follow a presidential motorcade? A major network might set up cameras in a civic hall where the president would speak later in the day. But the mobility of a motorcade was too difficult at that time.

Do kids today understand that without camcorders  Rodney King would have been just another black man complaining about police brutality. His story wouldn’t have even made it to page 28 in a local newspaper. But a man named George Holliday happened to have a video camera nearby. Holliday’s footage of police beating King left its mark on history, leading to a court case followed by riots.

Police have changed the way they behave because of the ubiquity of cameras. We have all changed.

Here’s a way to save money — what if we switched schools to a 4 day week? Ditch the traditional pattern of seven-hour days Monday through Friday and go to eight-and-a-half hours Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

High School students in our district are in school 33 and-a-half hours per week. Subtract the time spent at lunch and for passing from one class to the next and the reality is 28 hours of instruction time. High School teachers in the district are required to spend at least 37 and-a-half hours in that building.

Think of all the money that could be saved with one less day of heat, electricity, custodial staff, food services, security and whatnot.

The first issue that comes up: how wise is it to try to cram that many more hours of learning into a teenage brain? Are more hours in a day really quality hours? As an adult I’ve attended conferences where I went from a lecture to a workshop to another lecture — there’s a point of diminishing returns.

But what does that matter if the priority for education is saving money?

Here’s the real issue for society if we went to a four-day week: What is the community going to do with all those kids running free on a weekday?

Ask the police how much fun it would be to have all of a city’s teenagers unsupervised every Wednesday. How about shopowners? How about parents? And what about the younger kids with working parents? Where’s the Wednesday childcare?

In an earlier post I wrote about the frenzy to make it easier to fire teachers and I asked “Who would you get to watch the students?” I didn’t ask who you would get to teach.

Can society admit the truth? For all the big talk about education, one of the important functions of schools is keeping kids off the street. From certain viewpoints maybe that’s the most important function of schools.

The function of high schools today is to prepare every student for success in college.

You don’t believe me? My school district has declared that we can only teach classes that comply with UC (University of California) requirements. UC is all about academic standards and higher-level thinking. The quickest way to get a course rejected from UC’s almighty list is with one word — Vocational.

Even for those teens going on to higher education, most college students today need to earn money while heading toward a bachelor’s degree. That means that high school has to do something to help prepare them for the job market.

There used to be Vocational Ed classes — wood shop, auto shop, electronics — that prepared boys for real careers. There was also home economics for girls. (No gender mixing when I was in school. Tho, frankly, I wish I had learned some domestic skills.)

But Vocational Ed got a lousy reputation. In the bad old days of stereotyping, all Latino boys were placed in shop class (“those people are good at working with their hands, don’cha know”) and steered away from college prep classes. Too many girls were discouraged from taking academic classes and herded toward home ec.

Out of fear of that sort of stereotyping, Voc Ed as it once existed has disappeared. Preparing girls only for housework seems like a dumb idea in today’s job market. But is it true that America doesn’t need as many machinists, auto mechanics or carpenters? All those shop classes are pretty much extinct now. And what sort of knowledge do our academic kids need in order to earn money while attending college?

So now we work with the idea that every kid in high school should be on track to go to university. But is that really the only reasonable alternative?

There are young people who ARE good with their hands; the ones who like to build, make, repair; the ones who would truly thrive in careers rebuilding car engines or constructing houses. These are often the students who hate high school, who can’t sit still for hour-long lectures and who will never get an A on a math test.

Years ago I met a high school principal from New Orleans whose school was entirely made up of career academies. When she mentioned “Cosmetology” as one of the academies the assembled group of educators chuckled. But then she talked about the math classes where cosmetology students learned to keep books for a business, and the science classes where they learned about the effects of heat (or else a client’s hair might fall out), the chuckling stopped. It made sense.

But for schools offering the one-size-fits-all education system (and that one size that’s supposed to fit is preparing every kid for college) certain unmotivated students are labeled “bad” and “dumb” and “losers.” Kids tend to live up to the labels they’re given. There has to be a better alternative and a way to prepare these young people for lives in which they can succeed.