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.


Keeping My Students Safe Isn’t Easy.

12/18/2012
Gun Library

Gun Library (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to keep my students safe, I really do, but it really is impossible.

When it comes to student and staff safety, there are so many things wrong with the way my school is built and run that I don’t know where to begin.

Our principal reminded the staff again this week that only the front door should be used for entrance and exit, so let’s start there.

It is unlocked. Anyone can walk up the three steps, open the door, and be in the building. Anyone. Delivery people, parents, job applicants, former students. Anyone. Why not a shooter?

Up three more steps and our shooter is in the lobby facing our security desk. Most of the time we have an unarmed but uniformed school security officer sitting there. Sometimes it is just a school aide. Guard or aide, he or she is the first victim.

sfAssuming someone hears those shots, the PA system will announce a lockdown. The speakers in the library aren’t so loud and if it is noisy (I don’t run one of those silent libraries) I may not hear the announcement. I usually have my door open and he library is the first room down the hallway you face while shooting the security guard.

At the start of a lockdown every teacher is supposed to lock our door(s), then herd our students away from the door and keep them quiet. To lock our doors we have to go out into the hallway, put a key in and turn it so the door locks, then go inside and move away from the door to where the students are. That’s right, there is no way to lock any classroom door from the inside.

Out in the hall, I will be the second person our shooter sees. It has been nice knowing you.

To protect my students and myself, some people are suggesting I, and other school staffers, should be armed. I’d need to get trained, and there are bullets that break into tiny harmless pieces if they don’t hit their target. How the bullets know that the kid or adult I actually shoot in error while trying to shoot the shooter isn’t my target and should remain harmless is beyond me, but science and technology have come so far so fast I might have missed that development.

The idea that teachers or administrators, aides or APs could shoot a shooter is a Rambo fantasy that pops up every time a school shooting occurs.

There’s fantasy; then there’s the more likely reality. The shooter enters the building and pops Sgt. Perez. He’s lost some weight lately but he’s still a pretty big target. If I have a gun, I rush out of the library, take aim, and fire. I hit the garbage bin in the lobby, or maybe the nurse rushing out of her office.

If two of us have guns, let’s say our most athletic assistant principal and I, we would shoot each other (accidentally, I’m sure) before we hit the rapidly moving shooter.

Guns in school are not the answer. We’re not going to shoot our way to safety.

None of us are Rambo.

John Rambo in Rambo.

No one is Rambo.

Rambo is fiction.

Lets start, instead, with keeping the front door locked, with everyone who wants to enter having to be checked via video before being allowed to enter. Let’s retrofit every door in the building so they can be locked from the inside.

Will that keep us safe?

Safer, perhaps.

It’s a start.


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?

I’m Tired of Talking About Education

12/28/2011

Actually, I’m not.

I’m going to spend the rest of this essay talking about it.

I am very tired of talking about school, especially with people who think we are talking about education.

Education and school is not the same thing and I can prove it. School takes place for six, seven or ten hours a day. Education takes place 24/7/365.25.

Learning and Schooling

Image by colemama via Flickr

If you don’t know why there is a .25 after the 365 you don’t need more school. Chances are the teachers don’t know either. You, and they, need more education.

Education, a.k.a. learning, comes from asking questions (Hey, Educationontheplate, why is there a .25 after the 365?) and getting, or better yet, finding or developing answer. Go to it.

People are sponges; we learn all the time. People learned long before there were schools and we will continue to learn long after schools finally choke on the curriculum they try to regurgitate and die.

English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scienti...

Image via Wikipedia

From the moment we are born, and possibly even before then, we are observing, noticing patterns, making assumptions, testing them, revising them and starting over. This may sound familiar to science teachers who call this the “scientific method” and try to teach it to students who really just need to have it pointed out that this so-called method is what they’ve been doing naturally their entire lives.

What students do naturally, what we all do naturally, is learn. 24/7/365.25. We do it with or without schooling and often do it in spite of schooling. Schooling comes with an agenda but learning often does not. As in my life, and perhaps frequently, schooling gets in the way of learning.

It is true in kindergarten where the natural learning and socialization of play has been replaced by reading, writing, algebra and being yelled at for not standing in line properly. All this is to ready students for first grade. Children learn in spite of this.

In first grade students read more, write more, and follow more directions to get them ready for second grade. Children continue to learn in spite of this. Sometimes they’ve already learned that school is not right for them by testing it and finding that it does not meet their needs. When that happens we schoolers tell the student that he or she is not right for school, that they are not meeting the school’s needs for order, discipline and standing in line silently and we start to teach them that they are failures.

This is what school is best at: teaching students that they are inadequate, that they are failures.

They fail to stand in line correctly, form their letters correctly, or form their sentences and paragraphs according to the standards (I wonder what school thought of John Barth, e.e.cummings, Hemingway, Jonathan Safran Foer or, especially, Roberto Bolaño, known for incredibly long sentences, not to mention devastatingly evocative metaphors). They write like writers instead of three or five paragraph automatons and we call them failures.

Learning is free-range, we learn from what we manage to be exposed to; school has a curriculum (math, science, ELA, etc.) and a meta-curriculum (how to stand in line, how to raise one’s hand for permission to speak, the procedure for going to the bathroom).

I work in a school that’s part of a school network that’s part of a school system. That school system is one of 14,514 school districts in the USA (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). I’m willing to bet that at least 99% of those districts have the word ‘school’ in their name and that fewer than .0001 have the word ‘learning’ in their name.

But think about this: No one fails to learn yet many fail at school.

American Education is in the Dumpster

Image by brewbooks via Flickr

I’m tired of talking about school.

I’m tired of thinking about school.

I’ll never get tired of thinking and talking about learning.

Learning is education.

School is something else entirely.

Resource:

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, “Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey,”2000-01 and “Local Education Agency Universe Survey,” 2000-01.

For those who haven’t figured out 365.25 yet, a clue: leap years.

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School Choice? Sure, but don’t expect miracles.

07/12/2011
Shell Game

Some say that instead of automatically dumping money into public schools parents should be given the money and allowed to spend it on any school or other education facility that they think might work for their child or children.

Okay, but…

For many of my students there are no parents to make those choices.

For many of my students the parents are working two or three jobs to get by and don’t have the time to educate themselves about the options, much less attend meetings or other appointments.

For many students, some of them mine, the lack of transportation limits their choices more than the lack of options.

The parents of some of my students show up for every parent/teacher meeting…drunk…or stoned.

For many of my students their parental inability to read English, or in some cases any language, limits access to information necessary to know of options and make informed choices.

School choice does not help the student who comes to class hungry, abused or unloved.

School choice does not change the housing situation of students who can’t find a quiet room or flat space to do their homework on.

School choice does not help the student who goes home and has to care for infants or younger siblings because mom is working a night shift. Or out with her boyfriend.

School choice might be the answer for some people in some situations somewhere, but my students need a whole lot more than choice to make their lives succeed.

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Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

03/22/2011
The principal's office of Union City High Scho...

Image via Wikipedia

I really like my principal. When his office door is open it is almost always okay to just walk in and talk to him. He’s smart, generally fair, willing to listen to ideas and different opinions. He gives useful, timely feedback on formal observations and more frequent informal ones. He talks to you in private. Most of all, he is consistent. Our school has very little teacher turnover. Our school rating has been rising steadily.

I’m not trying to butter him up; I just want to show how very different he is from the first principal I worked for.

It was impossible to just walk into that first principal’s office because it was behind a thick Plexiglas barrier and she had to buzz you in even to approach her. She was not open to ideas and had no interest in what parents or people on her staff thought or had to say. She regularly yelled at teachers in front of their students. She’d love you one day or year but hate you the next.

Barrier - PCA 93

Image by Donald Macleod via Flickr

Feedback was rarely constructive and hardly timely; I’m still waiting for the results of her 2006 observation of my lesson.

On more than one occasion she changed the rating of a lesson observed by one of the assistant principals from satisfactory to unsatisfactory even though she was not present at the observation.

She once said in public, “I like my new white teachers better than my old white teachers.” I was a second year white teacher and turnover was so high it wasn’t clear whether I was new or old.

The first year that teachers could transfer without prior principal approval more than 70% of that school’s teachers moved on to other schools, including all of the fifteen or so first and second year teachers. The same thing happened the following year. That school’s rating declined consistently and now it is being closed.

I bring this all up because right now a 50-person state of New York task force is in a big hurry to develop a new teacher rating program. They want it written before the end of June so the regents can approve it and regulations can be developed to implement it in September.

You’d think that they’d want to test the never-before-tried plan before they broadly apply it, but no. Apparently teacher livelihoods are not so important that you’d want to make sure the system was fair, workable and accurate before using it to make decisions affecting the continuation of their careers.

Under the plan, teacher ratings as highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective would be based 20% on student performance on state tests, 20% on school-district tests (that don’t now exist) or unspecified other measures, and 60% on classroom observations and other reviews. It is not at all clear what the basis for rating teachers in non-testing subjects — social studies, art, music, phys ed among others — or librarians would be.

Teachers rated as ineffective two years in a row will be subject to a hearing regarding the termination of their employment.

Governor Cuomo says, “We need a legitimate evaluation system to rely on.”

Absolutely, but this isn’t it.

The Journal News reports at least one educator on the panel creating the system, South Orangetown school superintendent Kenneth Mitchell, thinks the state is moving forward recklessly, “There’s a real potential for implosion…you need years to make these changes.”

One of the regents says he fears that forcing a new system on districts in such a short period of time could lead to unforeseen costs and worse.

“It’s gotten so far out of hand, but there’s nothing we can do at this point. If mistakes are made and the data is flawed, it would be terrible to make it public. People will say ‘I don’t want my kid in that person’s class.’”

Did you notice that not even the people worried about this program never mentioned the possible effect it could have on teacher livelihoods?

This is why teachers like me support unions.

United Federation of Teachers

Image via Wikipedia

Without my union standing up for people like me principals like my first one could ruin careers on a whim.

Without my union standing up for me I would be leery of disagreeing with my principal no matter how much I thought he might be on the wrong track.

Without my union standing up for me I would not be able to say my chancellor, a very capable woman in the publishing field, is completely inexperienced, unqualified and unsuited to run a school system of any size, not to mention the biggest one in the country, and that by appointing her our mayor insulted the students, their parents, and everyone who works in the NYCDOE, no matter how true it is.

Without my union no teacher would be entitled to a fair hearing on disciplinary matters.

Without my union no parent would have any voice in the operation of their children’s schools.

Without my union the billionaires like Bill Gates.would not have anyone standing up to them as they privatized public education. Would anyone listen to him about anything to do with eduction if he didn’t have all that money?

Without my union the special education students would get lost in the shuffle and not get their mandated services.

Without my union standing up for people like me I would not have received the quality education I got from the NYC public schools.

Without my union standing up for me I’d be afraid to write this blog post.

That’s why teachers like me support unions.


The Left Hand Doesn’t Know…

09/03/2010

I’d laugh if it weren’t so frustrating.

I’d cry if I thought it would do any good.

I spent today like I’ve spent every day this week, at school on my own time setting up my classroom.

I’m setting the network of five laptops and three desktop computers that will be available in my classroom and I test them to make sure they can access the internet. It was a good thing because several were having connectivity issues.

The homepage for NYC Department of Education computers is the NYCDOE homepage.

As I launch each computer’s browser that is where I am taken and each time there is an item on the homepage about helping two NYC schools try to win $500,000 through the Kohl’s Cares program.

The item tells me that the voting deadline was today, Friday, September 3, 2010, and a link to the contest is provided.

Being the caring guy that I am, I click the link to do my part to help these two NYC high schools win the prize.

Here I am all ready to vote and…

The site is blocked.

Yes, the NYCDOE Web Sense filter blocks access to the contest promoted on the NYCDOE’s homepage.

It is insulting that the NYCDOE doesn’t trust teachers and administrators enough to allow them unfettered access to the internet, that they don’t trust me to keep my password secret to only I can use the administrator account visit websites verboten for students.

I’m not talking porn here. Not even soft porn.

Here’s where it gets really ridiculous.

The Kohl’s site was blocked because “social networking” sites like Facebook and Kohl’s Cares are not allowed. But I can go to Twitter.

The category “games” is blocked, keeping my students away from hundreds of sites with really good games with high education value, but I have no problem entering contests like the ones at MyRecipes.com or HGTV even when using a student account.

So I can’t help two schools win $500,000 but I can try to win myself $5,000 or some tools.

The NYCDOE runs a really good help desk for employees having computer hardware or software issues. The folks there are efficient and know what they’re doing, which immediately distinguishes them from many divisions of the NYCDOE.

I wasn’t sure this was under their domain but I called the help desk to point out the silliness of promoting something on the homepage and then blocking it on the network.

The fellow on the other end of the line listened and asked me to hold on while he checked it for himself. When the same thing happened to him he gave me a web address on which I could fill out a form asking that the site be unblocked.

Despite having plenty more to do to set up my classroom for the first day of school next week I tried to go to that website. A couple of minutes filling out a form would not set me back much.

I entered the address carefully.

I tried again, this time with a slight change.

I gave up.

Sorry East Side Community High School. Sorry Brooklyn Tech.

I tried to help but found myself bucking the inconsistency, inanity and inefficiency that is the NYCDOE.

But boy am I excited about the new school year!

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This World, That World and Some Other World

06/28/2010
Le Monde Flottant... The Floating World
Image by L’Ubuesque Boîte à Savon via Flickr

I don’t like the term ‘real world.’

It is often used in sentences like ‘Every lesson in school should relate to the real world.’

Formulations like that make me think schools are like the Floating World of ancient Japan or the artificial world of the holodeck on some Star Trek spaceship.

Schools are the real world, just as much as slums or split-level suburban homes are.

As different as slums and split-levels appear to be they have much in common just as the schools in slums and in suburbs have much in common.

An American slum building and a split-level each provide some manner of shelter from the elements, a place to sleep, plumbing, and some separation from what it occurring outside its walls.

The schools in poverty-riddled slum areas also have much in common with the schools in the wealthy suburbs. This comes as a surprise to some people who prefer to focus on the differences between them.

In fact, almost all schools in America have much more in common than whatever differences may exist.

They all have classrooms and teachers.

They all have textbooks.

Sure the textbooks might be newer in one place than they are in another, but when you get right down to it a textbook is a textbook and they’re all pretty terrible.

And when you get right down to it a school is a school and they’re all pretty terrible.

But they’re not terrible because they belong to some world other than the ‘real’ one.

There is just one real world. It just looks different in different places.

Perhaps you are wondering “if the real world looks different in different places why do the schools all look pretty much the same?”

That is what I wonder about.

I recently listened to a graduation speech. I’ve listened to quite a few graduation speeches.

Graduation speeches have a lot in common with schools and textbooks, they’re all pretty much the same and they’re all pretty terrible.

Listen to a graduation speech in the South Bronx and listen to one in South Salem and you’ll hear the same notes of thanks and relief, the same platitudes, and the same exhortations to create a better world, some other world where things are more, grander, greater and finer.

That world doesn’t exist.

That world will not exist.

Nothing will change even when it seems everything is changing.

Nothing will change especially when it looks like everything is changing.

The other world today’s students are supposed to create will look very much like this one just as this one looks very much like the one my generation was supposed to create when we graduated 40 years ago, and very much like the one my father’s generation was supposed to create when he graduated 60+ years ago.

My guess is that 60 years from now the graduation speeches will still sound the same and those graduates are supposed to create that better, grander, world.

And they won’t either.

This is not an accident.

This is, despite all the platitudes about how education changes the world and is a way out of poverty, etc., precisely what our system of education is designed to do: keep things pretty much the same and pretty terrible, at least for the great majority of people.

This is what schools do: they perpetuate the present from generation to generation.

Oh sure, things change. Many schools have gone from blackboards to white boards to interactive white boards, but they’re a lot like textbooks and graduation speeches, pretty much the same and pretty terrible.

They’re terrible because though they give the impression of being very different they each focus the student on the front of the room and remind the student of who holds the power in the classroom.

And schools in the South Bronx and South Salem (and South Carolina and South Dakota…) give the impression of being very different but they all remind the student of who holds the power in society and how they’re supposed to sit still, listen quietly and raise their hand to participate.

This is as true today as it was 100 years ago and 200 years ago.

This is why the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.

And none of it is an accident.

And it is all pretty terrible.

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Perfectly Qualified. Or Not.

05/14/2010
no original description
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been married almost 27 years to the same woman and I just realized she is perfectly qualified for a career I’ll bet she’s never thought of pursuing.

She’s out of town on business today so, of course, I’ve been thinking about her.

I think about her when she’s here, too, but a different though came to mind this morning.

She has this odd little behavior that, when I’m in a good mood, is charming.

She loves to cook and is very creative and accomplished at it, but she often uses the wrong tool for things.

For example, she usually uses a spatula to lift chili out of a saucepan or pot.

Yes, her chili is thick and she does a good job serving it onto plates using a spatula, but it would be far more efficient with a spoon, slotted or otherwise.

Sometimes she uses a spatula (it is her favorite tool, it seems) to serve something for which it doesn’t work at all.

This all reminded me of something and I realized that my wife is highly qualified for an important job, especially as it is being performed lately.

She could be an education policy maker.

Add in that she knows little or nothing about education history and she meets all the criteria of most of the people doing that job today.

I wonder how it pays?

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Public Education: Start Again?

05/04/2010

My Twitter friend Stephen Diil in his blog Public Education: Start Again wrote:

I pose that question again to you. Everyone is either  an investor, client or an employee of one or more public education systems. If you could start from scratch, with no idea how it should look, who would it serve? How would it serve that audience? When and where would it serve it?What a lovely notion, the idea of starting all over.

Stephen challenged me to respond. I did. Here’s what I said:

It is a stimulating intellectual exercise that, I’m deeply afraid, has little or no relationship to reality.

Oh, some district somewhere will take the plunge and try to start fresh without any of the old assumptions. Let’s even assume that they can convince the teachers to go along with, better yet, be part of planning the renaissance. Imagine that, administrators, teachers, and maybe even some entrepreneurs working together and moving in a common direction; I can almost see the sun shining through brilliant rainbows and bluebirds chirping the good news.

Double Supernumerary Rainbow

Image by Proggie via Flickr

But wait! We still have to convince the parents.

Parents, it turns out, are deeply suspicious of any major fundamental re-imagining of school. This is the main reason that charter schools, for the most part, are just more intense, sometimes more focused versions of your everyday public school.

It seems parents like the 10-hour schooldays because it provides that much more free childcare coverage for working moms and dads, but as soon as ideas like student choice and child-directed education start flying about the parents fly off the handle and out the door.

Okay, but this is an intellectual exercise, not a pragmatic one, right.

I repeat that because if it were a discussion of pragmatic reformations of education we’d have to account for all those pesky poverty-stricken inner-city kids who, while desperately in need of open space and access to nature, have little safe access to it.

It is, in fact, in the inner cities and, paradoxically perhaps, the rural areas where all discussions of education reform trip over themselves and fall.

In inner cities there are just too many kids to scrap the current system and start over. No one in their right mind is going to put the million or so school children in NYC out onto the streets whilst the school buildings are torn down to create new educational open spaces.

Farmland in the Catskill country, in New York ...
Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

The rural areas have lots of space but not the concentration of students to make use of it the way it might be used elsewhere. That students who live in open space will need to be bussed to other open spaces for educational purposes is mind-boggling.

So, if it won’t work in inner cities and won’t work in rural areas, who will benefit from this re-imagination of education? Why, it’s the wealthier suburban kids whose schools, for the most part, are not the real problems we think about when we think about the problems of or caused by public education.

One can no more restart the education system than one could restart fire service, policing, sanitation services, the military or any of the other similar major social-service agencies.

Change in education, like in most aspects of life and public policy, is and will remain far more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Tis a pity, for sure.

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