The Question is Asked, the Conversation Begins

02/10/2013

It started with this question: Why aren’t our students making more progress?

One day late last week a third of the staff stayed more than two hours after school to discuss the possibility of our becoming a magnet school of sorts. The sort isn’t important, but the conversations about it are. horseshoe magnet

No one had asked that question before. We’d been told that we had to have our students make progress and we’ve been given a host of different programs to cause that to happen, but none of it was working.

In small groups we had serious conversations to answer that question. Among other ideas, each group mentioned a lack of student motivation as a major part of the problem. In response my principal said words that I never expected to come from his mouth, words I’d been saying and writing for a number of years. “The reason our students are not motivated is because school is not working for them.”

It’s not the students’ fault, he said, and not the teachers’ either.

“Students are not motivated because the way we do school, the structure of the day, the changing of classes at 42 minute intervals, isolation of subject areas from each other, none of it is working.”

For a moment it was silent. Then the conversations started. We talked about our own positive and negative experiences in school and why they occurred. We talked about how we’d change the structure of the day, the physical plant of the school, the curriculum.

Some were defensive, feeling that what they do and how they do it was under attack. We agreed that some kids thrive in the current mode of operation. Others were for change. There were even a couple who, like me, were ready to trash the system and start over.

We won’t get the opportunity to do that. And we may not win the $3,000,000 grant that would allow us to make a lot of changes and train ourselves on how to make them work. It’s not that the grant doesn’t matter, but one of the most important parts of the change has already occurred.

It happened when our principal asked that question and created an anything-goes safe zone in which we could explore answers.

Now that the conversation has started, it is up to us to keep it going.

We are the change that needs to happen.


A Few Thoughts on Gun Appreciation Day

01/20/2013
Winding Road Ahead

Winding Road Ahead (Photo credit: nathangibbs)

I’m writing about guns more than education these days. I wish I could feel I don’t have to.

The Second Amendment grants American citizens the right to bear arms. There might be some discussion about whether it’s a requirement that they be in a “well-regulated militia,” but I’ll concede for now that it isn’t.

The position many gun advocates and the National Rifle Association have taken is that there is no limit on the right of American citizens to bear arms.

But there are limits, and ones the NRA, probably supports.

Taken at its word the 2nd Amendment grants the right to own any kind of arms, even nuclear arms. Despite that, we have agreed as a society, with no dissent that I’m aware of, that private citizens should not own nuclear arms and have made it illegal to do so.

Unless I am mistaken (it has been known to happen frequently, according to my wife), it is also illegal for American citizens to own fully automatic weapons.

We have also decided that mentally ill people and convicted felons should not own arms. Our efforts to prevent those people from getting arms might not be particularly effective for any number of reasons, but that doesn’t change the intent.

Since there is some limit on the 2nd Amendment it is reasonable to ask if there might a need for other limits. The discussion we should be having as a nation is whether there are other limits we want to impose. There may not be, but not because the Second Amendment precludes it.

There may be very good reasons why additional gun restrictions are not a good idea, or there might be reasons for enacting some limits. I don’t know for sure. What I know is that a lot of children are getting killed by bullets fired from guns. I’m not talking about the mass murder in Connecticut or any other mass shooting. I am talking about the large number of children killed by bullets fired from guns every month all across the nation.

Universal mental health and criminal record checks before anyone can buy a gun should be a given. Any legitimate, sane, non-criminal gun purchaser should have nothing to fear from this, they will get their guns, eventually.

Guns should be secured when left at home, and that security should be robust. In a neighboring town two guns were stolen when the safe containing them was taken during a break-in. That safe either was not heavy enough or should have been bolted to the floor or some other strong anchor. Failure to secure weapons left at home should be a crime. That idea has nothing at all to do with the Second Amendment but might keep guns out of the hands of some criminals.

Some gun-owning friends say that laws allowing people to carry guns, concealed or openly, reduce crime. It is something that is very hard to prove, not because it may not be true but because it is very difficult to prove a negative effect.

Carry laws, whether concealed or open, might protect the individual carrying but will not prevent those scores of murdered children. I don’t know what will prevent those murders, but my instinct tells me that making it more difficult for everyone to get a gun might have some effect.

In all honesty, I am skeptical about the general safety of carry laws. Today, on Gun Appreciation Day, five people were shot accidentally at Gun Appreciation events, two of them at a safety checkpoint at a Gun Appreciation event.

That sort of thing does not inspire confidence that gun owners can be trusted to carry their guns safely.


Assessing Teachers: Almost Impossible

01/08/2013
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opening ...

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opening the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The mayor of New York City, an incredibly wealthy man named Michael Bloomberg, compared my union, the United Federation of Teachers to the National Rifle Association because we will not agree to a deeply flawed, poorly thought out system of rating teachers.

The mayor thinks what he wants and expresses himself in whatever way he chooses. No one need comment on his incredible statement because it speaks very loudly on its own about what kind of man is running New York City and the New York City schools.

But the mayor is right about one thing. My union is refusing to cave into his and the state’s demand that we accept a teacher-rating system that is largely based on student performance on standardized tests.

The NY Post reports that teachers who rate poorly on the current system are offered satisfactory final ratings if they resign. Teacher evaluations have always been political — one intent of all this testing is to eliminate subjective rating, but it just moves it into sleazier territory. What the City is saying, in essence, is we think you’re a bad teacher but we’ll tell some other district that you apply to that you’re an okay teacher and let them take their chances. Doubly dishonest, and this is what we model for our students.

The problem is, there is absolutely no way to rate the effectiveness teachers because the result of what we do or don’t do in the classroom is not readily apparent in any meaningful way for several years at best and by then it is impossible to tell what influence any one or collection of teachers had, as if it were ever possible.

In my life, all the really influential teachers retired or died before the fruits of their influence developed enough to become apparent to me, much less anyone else.

The problem is we’re educating for the long run and the powers that be keep trying to assess us on the short run.

It is like judging the health of a business based on its performance in one or two quarters. By that standard, Enron looked fantastic, just like all the slick no-credit-check mega-mortgages and the derivatives based on them. We all know how that turned out

If they really want us to teach for short-term student gains we all can do it, we know how, but that is not what our students need and most definitely is not what our society needs.

Just like in business, taking the long view might not work out as well for the current investors, but is often advantageous for the society as a whole.


Once More Into the Breech-loader

01/07/2013
English: New York City Police officers being d...

English: New York City Police officers being debriefed by their lieutenant (in the white shirt) in Times Square, May 29, 2010. Photo by Luigi Novi.

I didn’t plan to write about it again. I’d said my piece and I was going to let it go at that. Then I saw this slide show of politicians eager to arm teachers on the Huffington Post website and it made me think of these headlines.

Unarmed man shot dead by police in NYC

Police bullets hit 9 bystanders hurt near NYC landmark

Police: All Empire State shooting victims were wounded by officers

Former New York Police Captain Mistakenly Shoots, Kills Son

If trained policemen, who have almost unlimited opportunity to practice shooting can’t manage to use their guns safely, what on earth makes these politicians and all the other people advocating arming teachers or otherwise putting guns in school think that it will turn out well.

The NRA and other gun advocates often accuse people trying to limit the amount of fire power accessible by the average citizen of having knee-jerk over-reactions to instances of gun violence.

Perhaps, but that door swings both ways.

It is time to put our knees back in place and start reacting with our brains instead. Everyone has too much to lose if we can’t figure out how to let sport shooters and hunters have guns, even let the average citizen have a shotgun or six-shooter while also denying anyone but the military access to automatic weapons AND keep most of us safe from gun violence most of the time.


How to Make Dropping Out of School Work for You

08/02/2012

I recently spoke at the #140edu Conference in NYC on the topic in the title. This is what I said.

How many of you here graduated from high school?

#140edu stage - via digital camera

#140edu stage – via digital camera (Photo credit: NJ Tech Teacher)

How many of you liked high school?

Just as I thought. Despite the laws mandating it, despite the ominous predictions of what will happen if you leave it, not everyone should go to high school.

Let me say it again, not everyone should go to high school.

This sounds like heresy, especially coming from a teacher.

But even in a time when it seems like you need a college degree to be an auto mechanic, not everyone should go to high school.

When I dropped out of high school for the first time, yes — I’ve done it twice — dropping out was considered a sure path to economic and social failure.

Not much has changed since 1968. Dropping out of high school is still labeled a sure path to ruin. That there are students dropping out of school is still called a crisis.

It is not a crisis. It is a message.

Thinking of drop outs as a crisis leads to solutions that focus on compliance– things like raising the age at which one can leave school, or more truant officers to track down the education fugitives.

But if we look at students dropping out of schools as a message, drop outs tell us is that school sucks, that it is not reaching them, or that they feel they have no hope for success, in high school or beyond it.

They tell us that they are not being challenged enough, or not being allowed to follow their interests, or just that school doesn’t fit them: it is too big, too small, too cliquey or too dangerous.

The reasons students leave school are as differentiated as the lessons we teachers are being told to teach them.

You have heard, and will continue to hear today and tomorrow, about ways to make school better, more enticing, more encouraging, more engaging and more effective.

All that is good, but it is almost impossible for any modern high school to meet the needs of all students.

This is not for lack of intent or lack of effort. It is a result of an increasingly centrally-mandated standardized world. Now we’re all supposed to hone our lessons to the common core. Really? Does anyone really want to be common?

Instead of focusing on how to make school better or teaching better, I’m going to talk about how to make learning better.

My idea of the perfect school is one in which you can  learn what you want to learn, when you want to learn it, where you want to learn it, and how you want to learn it.

I say, do what teachers have been telling you to do for so long, take charge of your education and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.

I dropped out of high school twice, and college once, because attending was interfering with my learning. I got tired of teachers calling my questions and observations distracting and disruptive. I got tired of being told what to learn and when to learn it.

I figured out that knowledge doesn’t come in neat little packages called math, science, English Language Arts or social studies. Art is not a subject, neither is music, or health.

Knowledge is a massive, ever growing, completely interconnected all enveloping mass. It is the butterfly effect writ large, where everything we learn, every insight we gain, every understanding we come to, changes EVERYTHING.

So I left.

My parents were not happy about any of it, but I had the biggest, most cultured and most diverse city in the world to explore.

I still got a great education because I asked questions, followed tangents and never stopped being curious.

The real key to making dropping out — or opting out if you prefer– is to do it soon enough. Don’t wait until you’re beaten down by the system and have lost interest and hope. Leave school while you still have curiosity, a hunger to know something, to know anything or everything, and before you have to support yourself financially. It may be after 10th grade or it may be after 8th. You will know when it is right for you.

Now you can sleep a little later, but don’t spend the day in bed, or watching cartoons or talk shows. There is a world to explore.

Today it doesn’t matter if you live in Manhattan, like I did, or in East Nowhere, the whole world is available to you.

Think of the tools you have now that didn’t exist when I dropped out. Computers, the internet, Twitter, Skype, Facebook, and more are all there to help you access the world and learn anything you want.

You don’t need a curriculum, a road map or a plan at all.

Just ask a question and seek an answer.

Then ask another question.

Listen to the answers you get. Follow tangents. Focus like a laser or wander aimlessly. Tinker. Play.

All knowledge is connected and things will all start to make sense as you note commonalities, wonder about discrepancies, make connections and develop insights.

Are you in love with baseball? Study it. You’ll learn about statistics – figuring pitcher’s earned run averages takes complex mathematics — develop strategies, learn the science of the curveball, learn about the history of race relations in America, and more. You’ll learn about why the Dominican Republic produces so many major league shortstops and why Japan doesn’t, but produces pitchers. Follow baseball as far as it will take you…then ask another question.

Do you like to knit? Study it. Learn about different kinds of wool, how they differ and where they come from, how they become shocking chartreuse or majestic magenta. Learn math as you figure out how much you’ll need to make that sweater, the physics of tensile strength.

Into dolls, dogs, drumming or debate? Are you passionate about golf, gardening, guitar, grapes or Greta Garbo? It doesn’t matter what. Take the paths   your interests and passions give you.

Greta Garbo in The Joyless Street. Alexander B...

Greta Garbo in The Joyless Street. Alexander Binder (for Atelier Binder) made the portrait during the filming. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a while you’ll become an expert, an authority. You’ll wander off one path and discover another one, perhaps the secret of life, the universe and everything.

Just keep asking one more question and you will find many more answers. Each of which will lead to more questions.

Joyce Valenza calls it “a never ending search.”

Here are some things you are likely to discover:

People are eager to talk about what they do and what they know, to someone who is interested in learning.

People are eager to tell you their stories, what they think, what they feel, to someone willing to listen.

Your bullshit meter will develop and become more accurate.

You will find the joy of learning again, the joy of teaching what you learn, and you’ll rediscover the excitement of wondering.

You will learn that all answers lead to more questions, better questions, deeper questions.

Keep asking.

Keep learning.

Do all the things school doesn’t leave you the time to do and you will get a better education than any institution can give you.

Don’t worry about getting into college. Getting into a good college requires standing out from the crowd, somehow distinguishing yourself from the hundreds of thousand other high school seniors.

So while all those other kids are all taking the same classes, cramming for exams and spending every extra minute doing every imaginable community service and extra credit assignment, you’ll be having different experiences.

While they’re being told what to learn, you’ll be deciding what to learn. Their learning will be limited by the curriculum, your learning will be free-range, going as far as your curiosity takes you.

Just think of the application essay you’ll be able to write.

And somewhere in the process of writing that essay, you might begin to wonder whether you really need to go to college.
Once you start becoming a free-range learner it is almost impossible to stop. And that is the best part of it all.


Through the Education Standards Looking Glass

05/20/2012

Detail of Lewis Carroll memorial window This i...

Detail of Lewis Carroll memorial window This is the bottom central pane of the memorial window – see [284591] (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know I shouldn’t be surprised. I know I should be used to it by now.
But it still gets to me when I see how duplicitous, disingenuous, distrustful and distant our government and education leaders are.

So much so that they are dangerous.

Education in the state of New York is under the control of a Board of Regents. They run the Department of Education and oversee every school district in the state. They set the rules for graduation and all the other rules governing how schooling is done in the state.

They also license barbers. They should stick to that and give up all the rest. Here’s why.

As early as 1995, the New York Board of Regents called for higher standards of education and stricter requirements for graduation from high school. Then they raised the standards.

This is from a report of the Public Policy Institute, a business group:

“In April of 1996, the state Board of Regents acted unanimously to set new standards that will require students in New York State to pass Regents exams in order to receive a high-school diploma. These exams, which formerly were required only of students going for the optional Regents Diploma, are the centerpiece of New York’s effort to upgrade educational outcomes.”

Regents Exams are content specific tests unique to New York. They were not new when I was alternately attending and dropping out of high schools in the late 1960s.

Then in 2011, the Regents announced they were raising standards again, making the tests more rigorous to show how important education is in NY and to show how well prepared NY students are for college and unstable career paths

All well and good, you say. High expectations and high standards are important. I agree.

The NY Regents are about to take another vote on setting high standards for NY students, only this time they’re likely to vote to get rid of the Global History Regents Exam because, get ready for this, because too few students pass it.

They want to make the test optional, perhaps replace it with an extra math or science test.

Here is the August, 2010 Global History Regents. Do you think students should know the answers to most of these questions?

Do the Regents try to figure out why students don’t pass the test? Do the Regents try  improving social studies education so that students are better prepared for the test? Do they try developing resources to help students understand the importance of having a grasp of history?

No, the Regents go about the process of raising standards by lowering them.

`That’s the reason they’re called lessons,’ the Gryphon remarked: `because they lessen from day to day.’

– Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, Chapter IX  (that’s nine, NY Regents).


NY Clarifies Assessment Plans for Teachers and Librarians

05/04/2012
Teachers

Teachers (Photo credit: iwannt)

The NY State Education Department has issued GUIDANCE ON NEW YORK STATE’S ANNUAL PROFESSIONAL PERFORMANCE REVIEW FOR TEACHERS AND PRINCIPALS TO IMPLEMENT EDUCATION LAW §3012-c AND THE COMMISSIONER’S REGULATIONS.

This is the detailed explanation of how Race to the Top bribes have caused the state to assess teachers based on, among a very few other things, student performance on standardized tests. Most of it talks about ELA and Math teachers in grades 4-8 because those subject are the ones for which there are currently standardized exams, as faulty as they are (I’m sure you’ve heard of the pineapple problem; the multiple choice math questions, one with two right answers and the other with none).

Teachers will also be assessed by their principal as to whether they have met Student Learning Objectives. All teachers, except pre-K teachers are included, whether or not they teach subjects covered by standardized exams.

There’s a complex explanation of how the percentages of the influence on student learning any one teacher has will be computed. Examples of the math involved in that are not likely to show up on state tests because I doubt whether most mathematicians would understand it.

The document makes very clear that “School librarians and career and technical teachers are teachers in the classroom teaching service and are, therefore, subject to the new law beginning in the 2012-2013 school year.” (page 17)

How are SLOs for Library/Media Specialists established if these teachers do not 
have regular classes scheduled and only schedule on-demand/teacher-requested 
basis for specific topics and projects? (page 41)
Districts/BOCES will need to determine their specific rules around which courses must have SLOs when contact time varies following the State’s rules and the general principle of including the courses with the most students first and making practical judgments about how to consider different course meeting schedules like those in this example.
Huh?

Our National Story is Ruining Our Nation

04/22/2012
American westward expansion is idealized in Em...

American westward expansion is idealized in Emanuel Leutze's famous painting Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way (1861). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has always been paradox to me that teachers face demands to teach differentially to address learning individualities but only standardized assessment seems to count.

Perhaps there is some confusion. Some people, even some education officials and legislators, seem to think ‘standardized’ refers to holding students to standards, possibly even high ones.

That is not the case.

Standardized just means everyone takes the same test, not for the benefit of students, individually or collectively, but to make it easier for politicians and the media to rank states and districts competitively and mislead parents to think that there is some educational validity to those rankings.

There is not.

Our education system is broken. Taxpayers want to buy an Aston Martin but at Dodge Dart prices. Politicians want to brag or criticize without understanding what they are talking about.

Everyone admires Finland and Singapore but no one wants to make the same investment they make in teacher preparation, ongoing training and providing time for collaboration and reflection. No one seems to care that despite all the wonderful schooling students in Singapore and Finland get, and despite the fact that all those students and their families have adequate housing and healthcare, immigrants still come here, not there, for opportunities for better lives.

That, my friends, is our greatest national asset and its a pity that so few of our leaders are either able to recognize that or willing to acknowledge it.

CATTLE DRIVE - NARA - 543787

CATTLE DRIVE - NARA - 543787 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We suffer from a failure of leadership. It is not a Democrat problem. It is not a Republican problem. It is a national problem, a continuing and deepening of the long-running fantasy narration of rugged individualism in which we tell ourselves that it is the poor’s fault that they are poor, it is the teacher’s fault that education policies don’t work, and, at those times when crime is high, it is the policeman’s fault for eating donuts instead of battling crooks.

Perhaps someday each of us will take responsibility for the direction our nation is heading, take responsibility for our communities, our neighbors and ourselves. I’ll know when that happens because 90% of the eligible voters will cast ballots and show the politicians and policy makers that we really care. Perhaps then we can start addressing problems, trying to fix problems instead of cynically casting blame for them.

Perhaps then.

Perhaps.


What Would Gandhi Do?

04/17/2012
Deutsch: Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), polit...

Deutsch: Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), politischer und spiritueller Führer von Indien. Ort unbekannt English: Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), political and spiritual leader of India. Location unknown. Français : Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), Guide politique et spirituel de l'Inde. Lieu inconnu. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In its infinite wisdom, the New York State Education Department has increased the length of the state ELA and math tests by 50% this year. Now three days each instead of two.

They say that the increase is due to a need to field test questions for future exams based on the Common Core standards.

In other words, they are using our students, our children, as guinea pigs.

Any other field of science requires informed consent before experimenting on human subjects. I’ve never been asked if I consent to the state experimenting on my son. The state is either arrogantly flouting standard scientific procedure or they’re saying my son, and all the other students attending public schools in the state are not human.

Either way, they’re wrong.

I suspect that if asked, they’ll say that sending our children to public schools implies consent.

That’s nonsense.

It is the same as saying that by taking our children to doctors we’re implying consent for them to be used in chemotherapy studies.

I’ve spent part of the past week, and part of a week in February, working in the library of the Ethical Culture School in Manhattan as part of the state-required internship for the MLS degree I am almost done with.

The students at the Ethical Culture School don’t take state tests. Their parents spend $38,000 a year to buy out of them. Yes, somehow, their children get educated and everyone connected with their education knows precisely what each child is learning.

Not many of us can afford to spend $38,000 a year per child for an education that exempts them from state testing that has nothing to do with improving student learning and that also conducts experiments on those students. We have to find a different way to get our sons and daughters out of the grip of the edu-business of standardized exams.

I propose education civil disobedience. We should just keep our children home on testing days. Or if we must send them to school so we can work, teach them to refuse to take the exams.

Yes, it can have a disastrous effect on a school’s AYP if not enough students take the exam. If it happens in one school no one will notice.

If it happens in all the schools in a district people will begin to notice.

And if it happens in a lot of districts our educational leaders will have a decision to make.

They can try to enforce the laws and punish parents, students and schools for the boycott.

Or they can take their ball of data and go away.

At least for a while.


Through the NYCDOE Looking Glass

04/03/2012
A positive-edge-triggered D flip-flop

A positive-edge-triggered D flip-flop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First the NYCDOE says it is going to close 33 schools because they are low performing.

But, for no apparent reason, it changes its mind about closing seven of them, but not the other 26, even though some of those 26 perform better than the seven on a variety of measures.

Then the NYCDOE says it is going to ban about 50 words from standardized exams because those words might upset students. After all, students who daily face dangers in their neighborhoods that most of us cannot imagine might get distressed if the word ‘dinosaur’ appears on an exam.

Once again, it changes its mind – this time after a public outcry – and says it is okay to use those words after all.

So either it is all right to damage students or the words were banned  for no reason. Take your pick.

Tonight the NYCDOE is conducting a public hearing to discuss whether to shoehorn a new K-5 elementary school into the building that currently houses the middle school where I work, as well as the pre-K and kindergarten classes there’s no room for in the elementary school across the street.

Most of my colleagues think that no matter how many parents come and say it is a bad idea because almost all of the classes in the school already have more than 30 students and putting the new school in will mean the middle school will have about 50% fewer classes, the NYCDOE has made up its mind and the new elementary school will take precedence. I suspect that is the case.

If the girdling occurs, it will have some major, perhaps fatal, impact on our library’s existence and my job as librarian, but I am not worried.

The NYCDOE has a very bad record of sticking to its decisions, most likely because the decisions appear to be made on a whim, and whatever they decide is like – pardon the phrase – pissing in the wind. Everyone gets wet, but especially them.

Meanwhile, after making such a big case about the public’s right to know about those teacher ratings, you know, the ones filled with errors and based on spurious information, our mayor is refusing to make public a report critical of the City’s 911 system, particularly the revamp done during his administration because it failed during a snowstorm.

Which is your position, Mr. Mayor? Does the public have a right to know or doesn’t it? Or is this just one more case of a flip-flop, a particularly self-serving one at that?

No, don’t answer. What you say doesn’t mean what it appears to, and it is all rather confusing.

That’s the idea, isn’t it? Keep everyone confused and pretty soon they’ll just give up trying to understand.

That’s when it really gets dangerous for us.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,515 other followers