Saturday, December 31, 2011

Teaching Underground on Twitter

For the last year and two months, the Teaching Underground has provided commentary on numerous education issues from the point of view of "two guys teaching in a basement."  That is, just two average suburban teachers.  We aren't all-stars, but we're pretty confident that we do a pretty good job of teaching our students.  We've come to realize that most all of the "local" problems we encounter in our job really aren't local after all.  Certainly each local school district faces a unique set of problems and challenges, and thankfully, each of them have their own special strengths and characteristics that set them apart.  But, from technology to pedagogy to policy all of these local issues are a piece of the larger puzzle that we often miss in the classroom.

We certainly do not claim to be "the voice" of teachers, but we hope that our work at the Underground helps to educate fellow teachers, parents, and the general public on how decisions by local school boards, state legislatures, and the federal government impact the day-to-day life of the classroom.

In an effort to extend the reach of our blog, we've recently entered the world of Twitter.  We're new to the platform, so feel free to offer any suggestions.  Our twitter i.d. is TchUnderground.  Now you can subscribe to the blog by email, follow on blogger, like us on Facebook, or follow on Twitter. (each option is available on the sidebar)

If you're new to the blog, thanks for stopping by.  If you're a regular, thanks for your support.  In either case, we appreciate followers (it's nice to know that people are reading) and a few kind comments go a long way toward making us feel better about what we do.

Happy New Year to all from the Teaching Underground.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Cal and Texas Not the Only Schools in 2011 Holiday Bowl

As the football teams from Texas and Cal(both non-profit schools) square off on the field tonight they are part of perhaps the most visible contradiction within public education in this country, college athletics.   There is a lot of money made.  That much is clear.  But the title sponsor of the Holiday Bowl, Bridgepoint Education(BPI) is part of a much less clear segment of education, much farther from the public awareness. BPI has proven to be one of the most successful for-profit higher education companies and as a result has become the focus of greater government scrutiny.  Unlike schools involved in NCAA athletics, some of this attention is unwelcome.

Tom Harkin
Andrew Clark
In March of 2011 the United States Senate held a series of hearings on for for-profit higher education.  Senator Tom Harkin(D-Iowa) took the gloves off a bit and used Bridgepoint Education as the poster child for all that is wrong with the industry.  His lengthy opening statement in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions(HELP) Committee pretty much said it all and called into the question the ability of these institutions to balance profit with the purpose of education.   Many claim that for-profit colleges abuse the system at the expense of the student and public taxpayer.

The CEO of Bridgepoint, Andrew Clark, chose not appear at the hearings as did all other company officials who declined the commission's requests to appear, citing an ongoing audit by the Office of Federal Student Aid.  Clark, who earned $20.5 million(salary + stock options) has remade what was a small school in Iowa into a major player in the industry, one that has maximized its return.  Much of that success has come with efforts in recruitment and marketing.  As a business, BPI's Ashford University is an unquestionable success story.  As a school, the outcomes are less apparent.  So all this profit, where has it come from and at what cost?  Furthermore, who pays it?  Not everyone on the committee shares Harkin's views. 

Link to Senate Charts
Senator Michael Enzi(R-Wyoming) spoke out against the hearings indicating that they singled out career colleges despite similar issues existing elsewhere in education.  He commented “Unfortunately, by only focusing these hearings on individual examples of a problem in one sector of higher education, we have no understanding of the true extent of the problem, nor have we heard any constructive solutions for solving that problem.”  he then walked out of the hearings. 

On the full Senate floor Harkin said the following in advance of the hearings:   “In the first year, 84.4% of students from Bridgepoint who signed up dropped out, what do you think happened to their [federal] loans? What do you think happened to their Pell grants? Students get those back? Not on your life. Bridgepoint kept them, the money went to their shareholders.”

Link to Senate Charts
Harkin added that 63% of those seeking a bachelor’s degree at Ashford drop out within a year.  The basic criticism is that such schools work hard to bring in students and help them secure funding and loans knowing full well that they will not remain enrolled.  Then once the funding is secured they have shown little concern if the student is successful or if they are saddled with enormous amounts of debt after enrolling since they have made their profit.  True margin lies with enrolling more new students. 

About a year ago on a whim I filled out an online questionnaire for information about an online degree program at such a university.  By the time I got home I had sixteen messages, that's right sixteen, on my cell phone.   They continue to arrive on occasion to this day more than a year later.  The recruiters are persistent to say the least.  The good news is I do not actually use my cell phone much and to date haven't spoken to any real people on the matter.  If you ever want to get back at someone...fill out one of these forms with their info...on second thought, don't.

Harkin summed the business model up as follows: “While Bridgepoint employs 1,703 recruiters, they employ just one person to handle career planning…for the entire student body of 67,000 students.
He wants to reform how these institutions are monitored.  For certain, the Department of Education is having a hard time keeping up.  But many Republican Senators(Enzi, McCain, Burr) have spoken out claiming the hearings were politically motivated and singled out for profit colleges unfairly. 

Whatever the case, the money trail is big and lengthy.  To date no one really seems to have a handle on who these students are, how they are affected and what all this is really costing.  With higher education costs skyrocketing and the demand for a better educated workforce this issue has a greater significance than even a few years ago.  The TU doesn't usually delve into higher education as it is beyond our normal daily experience in public schools, but the parallels present surrounding the for-profit education industry at both levels is clear. 

As to what all this means in the world of education, I think the TU has been pretty consistent expressing concern about what motivates these for-profit companies involved in education.  As they continue to play an increasing role in our public schools we might look to this debate about for-profit colleges as a cautionary tale.  Just something to think about as we move into the new year.  As we do we hope you enjoy the college football bowl season.  Usually these broadcasts are full of graphics.  So I'll throw a few in from the Senate Hearings to wrap things up.

Link to Senate Charts

Link to Senate Charts

Link to Senate Charts

Link to Senate Charts

Not from Senate Hearing

I just figured if you read this far you should be rewarded with a smile.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Digital Footprints Prove Costly

Few of us give much thought to life before digital communication permeated every facet of our lives.   Social networking is now so woven into our society it is difficult to remember life without it.  But the existence of Al Gore's internet and Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook have changed things in ways we could not even imagine just years ago.    Online has become the place we buy things, connect with our friends, research illness and read the news.  Education is no different from the rest of the world and having an online presence is now an effective way to engage and reach out to your students.

I attended a seminar put on by our division at the start of this school year for athletic coaches, many of whom are not teachers.  I think the goal was to have those less familiar with  the dynamics in education reflect on the appropriate use and also the pitfalls of social networking and E-mail when working with kids.  As both adults and youth increase their virtual presence we all struggle a bit to keep up with the impact on our professional and personal lives.  The attorney presented myriad examples of staff who were dismissed for all sorts of things.  Some were pretty dumb and were clearly warranted while others crossed into a much more nebulous area.   One thing I took from the session was that in today's interconnected world, there is no separation between your personal and professional lives.  

Which brings me to the curious case of Ashley Payne.  She was the 24 year old Georgia teacher who 2 years ago was pressured to resign after an "anonymous" parent complaint about a photo she posted on Facebook.  The photo in question was from her European vacation showed her drinking alcohol and was far from offensive or what most level headed people would consider questionable.  She also had commented on her profile page using some objectionable language referencing a trivia contest.  None of which was open to the public even though claims were made Payne had "friended" her students.   Nor was Payne "friends" with any of her students.  Nevertheless she was abruptly forced to choose between being suspended or resigning. 

As usual there's more to the story.  A local reporter determined the "parent" E-mail complaint was likely sent by an anonymous individual and received less than 2 hours before Payne was confronted by her principal.  The sender was never identified and the most plausible explanation is that an adult sent the E-mail to get rid of Payne for reasons unknown. 

What this curious case reveals is that privacy as we once knew it no longer exists.  We have virtual footprints that remain in place despite our efforts to the contrary.  Harmless things now can return and cause trouble for us down the road.   No matter the specifics it brings into question issues my colleague covered to some degree in his earlier post "Free Speech and Ultimate Education Taboo".   Any good teacher recognizes they are role models to some degree and behave accordingly when in public.  This world where lines get blurred between public and private makes all of this more complicated. 
Educators know all to well how kids can lose perspective and common sense when they plug into the virtual world.  It brings to mind how we need to educate our children about what is OK and what is not OK when online and how important it is to use good judgment.   Cases like this make such tutelage difficult as it seems to me Payne wasn't doing anything that would even raise an eyebrow in many instances.  I had the opportunity to cover some of these issues with a group of students some time back and my message was simple..."don't be an idiot."  That was actually the title of my talk.  I stressed the need to stay safe,  keep personal information private and finally remember when you put something is no longer yours anymore and is likely public forever. 

I find the lack of fairness and degree of haste used by the school division in dismissing Payne troubling.  Maybe she was a bad teacher and a crummy employee.  If so she could be let go for that.  But in this case it appears she lost her job because she drank a beer on vacation and used objectionable language.  Not in the presence of her students, not at work...but online. Could this same standard apply to a restaurant?  Doubtful. 

The legal case involving Payne has yet to be resolved 2 years later and as far as I could tell she is not currently teaching.  A state standards board investigated the matter and said there was no cause for any sanctions against Payne.   So we are left with the reality that what is acceptable is "muddy" at best and most districts likely are playing catch up when developing policies.  They likely include broadly worded guidelines under legal advise.  So we have to always watch even more what we do and say as no doubt others are.   The new Barrow  County superintendent perhaps said it best:
“I always encourage our educators to recognize that the network is a public forum and that we need to always set our professional image and standard for how we are depicting ourselves for our students and community.”  So in a sense the internet is the same as your classroom.    

 I think most teachers realize you are not just a teacher between 8 and 4.  You are a teacher 24 hours a day.  That's generally a good thing.  The practicalities of being a teacher  usually means you will have some sort of online presence.  In doing so we must not forget to use good judgment. Even if those people who expect us to do so do not follow suit.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Apples to Apples?

K12 Inc., the country's largest provider of online k-12 education has come under fire from several sources recently for it's attempts to turn a profit by drawing students away from traditional public education classrooms.  Just last week, the New York Times ran an article subtitled Online Schools Score Better on Wall Street than in the Classroom.  Sounds like a pretty bold claim, but we've argued before, with the decline and housing market bubble burst, education may be the last safe refuge for Wall Street in the 21st century.

Ron Packard, CEO of K12 Inc, issued a reply to this article yesterday in the Fordam Education Institute's Flypaper.  I'm not completely opposed to Virtual Education.  I believe that responsible virtual education within the framework of existing educational structures is vital for 21st century learning.  I do have reservations about a complete package of online education outsourced to a distant and nebulous institution whose primary purpose is maximizing profit.  This description may not fairly characterize K12 Inc., but Packard's defense of the company in response to the NY Times articles is less than convincing.  Of the several arguments presented by Ron Packard, I found number one most lacking.  I've pasted the text of his argument below:
Academic performance of virtual schools: K12 data shows that a large and growing number of students coming into virtual schools are below grade level. The high growth rate of virtual schools means that a large portion of students taking the state tests are in their first year. This makes static test scores poor measures of a school’s overall performance because students perform better on state tests the longer they are enrolled. To measure academic growth, K12 administers third party norm-referenced tests.  Data from these tests show students are making positive academic gains relative to national norms.
 This is not the first time that I've heard this argument to defend poor results of online learning or even charter schools.  So, let's look closely at this argument.  First, Mr. Packard argues that students coming into his schools are below grade level.  It stands to reason that their performance will fall below that of on-grade level students.  Does that mean it's the student's fault and not the school?  I'm o.k. with that as long as we let our "traditional" public schools put forth the same argument.  Do students matter or not?  We have to be careful not to allow student ability or circumstances to provide an excuse for poor service.  If online schools and charters are given a pass because of the population they're dealing with then let's not apply a different standard to public schools dealing with the same students in order to label them as failing.

Second, it looks like the tests are getting blamed.  In the world of public education, again this argument doesn't fly.  The tests are the tests and if you can't perform then you're not performing.  Have you noticed any of the value-added or growth model laws passing across the nation?  It doesn't matter whether students are transferring, adding, dropping, repeating, or not even in your class in some states.  If the test scores aren't good enough, you're not good enough.  That applies to schools and increasingly to teachers as well.  If the tests aren't good enough to judge online education and charters then why do we assume they're good enough to judge traditional public schools.

I suppose if you can be identified by initials and your stock is publicly traded a different set of standards apply.  That shouldn't be a surprise, we've known for a while that Wall Street standards don't apply to the rest of us.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

All Teachers Want for Christmas

The Holiday season has arrived.  The TU is excited to take some time off to spend with family and friends.  If you are not a despised teacher(which we hope we are not), this time of the year can mean gifts of appreciation from students and parents.  While the end of the year may also bring gifts, this season has special meaning and we find the gesture quite heartwarming.

There's the plate of cookies, the candy in a coffee mug, the ziplock of homemade delights with a small note affixed to it.   One family from our recent past was known for bringing in pineapples and leaving them on your desk.  There is the gift card to the book store or the paperweight.  Some will drop off gift cards to stores and restaurants.   Cookie or hot chocolate mix in a jar, jam and other tasty treats are great.    On occasion I've received cards with lovely messages inside expressing gratitude.  The people that take the time to do this will never know how much such things mean.

This year was pretty lean and I saw precious few gifts of appreciation.  I'm OK with that and my pride blames the poor economy.  I didn't give it any thought until my wife, who is a counselor at a neighboring school, came home with all kinds of edible loot.  I guess it is time for me to step it up.  You know give less homework, give kids better grades who bring me stuff or just generally treat them more favorably.  That was a feeble attempt at humor but if I worked in Alabama it wouldn't be so funny.

I came across a ruling in Alabama recently where the courts handed down a decision upholding a law that public employees(including teachers) could only accept "de minimis" gifts.  I didn't verify the specifics of what I found, but no dollar amounts were mentioned.   Among the first laws passed after elections, the law came about after some state legislators and lobbyists got a little too cozy.   This news prompted me to evaluate how I would do in Alabama.  I went through the list of gifts I've taken in the past and I figure I can avoid the year in jail and $6,000 fine, with a good lawyer anyway.

So students can no longer give their teachers money or gift cards, anything that can be resold, or even a holiday ham or turkey, according to the opinion.   I said to myself..."who gives a ham to a teacher?"  The governor spoke out and wanted to amend the law to exempt teachers.  I hope people listen to him because I really like ham.  I'd quickly abandon morals and professional ethics in exchange for a ham, but only if it was honey cured of course. 

I guess the only thing screwy here is that no legislator thought to try and remedy the predicament that finds classroom teachers spending out of their own pockets for classroom supplies or on their pupils each year.   As a secondary teacher I spend a little money, but not as much as most of the teachers I know in younger grades.   An AL state ethics commission said a gift card could be allowed if someone collected a few dollars each from several students and this could be combined to buy the card. Commission staff members suggested each donation be less than $5.  (At my school soliciting classrooms and students for funds, even for charity, is not really allowed but for different reasons.)

In the end it is just another example of when good ideas end up as misguided legislation affecting people in our schools.  While a minimal issue in this case, it illustrates the point that it is often the unintended consequences of laws that have the greatest impact. Many of these policies and laws just make schools a less desirable place to work.  Fortunately the innate rewards received from a profession like teaching endure and offset the less desirable aspects of our job.  So what do teachers really want for Christmas?   As teachers all we really want is the chance to do our job well, the freedom to practice our craft and for some influential people to listen for a change, as some of what we are complaining about is right.

Surprise end up last on the priority list.

I recently placed a 40" LCD TV,  IPOD shuffle and of course a Christmas Ham on Craigslist.  I won't disclose where I got them :)  Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

1989-2011: School Reform Going in Circles, Going Anywhere?

In 1989 President George H. W. Bush brought together the nation's governors in my hometown for a summit on education.  I was just starting as a high school junior and skipped school that day with my father in the hope I'd see the President speak at UVA's University Hall.  I ended up back at school a short time later after being denied entry.  The doors were shut just as I reached the front of the line.  I was told at the door that even though I had the hard to come by ticket, it was common to oversell the tickets to such events to ensure the President spoke to a full house.

Twenty two years later it is clear that policies that grew out of that summit caused a massive shift in educational power from localities and states to the federal government. The climate of schools then and now and who they worry about satisfying differs a great deal. The economic turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s became linked to an educational crisis.  Whether that link actually existed or not.  The same is true today.  This belief brought about major changes.  Those changes now permeate daily life inside that same building I returned to that September day.   The federal mandates have rained down onto localities, often without the needed funds.   Among the biggest things that that summit produced was reliance and faith in testing as a means to remedy the now accepted belief that public schools were in big trouble.  A direction begun and driven home under Bush then Clinton and again under Bush and now under Obama.  Change is good when things get better.  But the opposite is equally true.  Change can be bad.  The summit produced six goals(later expanded to 8) all of which have merit. 
  1. Annually increasing the number of children served by preschool programs with the goal of serving all “at-risk” 4-year-olds by 1995. 
  2. Raising the basic-skills achievement of all students to at least their grade level, and reducing the gap between the test scores of minority and white children by 1993. 
  3. Improving the high school graduation rate every year and reducing the number of illiterate Americans.
  4. Improving the performance of American students in mathematics, science, and foreign languages until it exceeds that of students from “other industrialized nations.”
  5. Increasing college participation, particularly by minorities, and specifically by reducing the current “imbalance” between grants and loans.
  6. Recruiting more new teachers, particularly minority teachers, to ease “the impending teacher shortage,” and taking other steps to upgrade the status of the profession.

President Bush(center) with Governor Clinton(far right)
It is the pursuit of the goals that has seen less agreement.  We've detailed the folly of that course ad nauseum but the over-influence of big testing companies, lack of research based evidence, and more than a decade of efforts without substantive results ought to mean that this approach has run its course.  Instead we are in deeper and have perhaps literally invested too much in testing to give it up.  In truth there have been few new ideas and true reform has been set aside in order to plow forward with testing, school accountability and privatization.

1983's A Nation at Risk report was the spark that lit the failing schools need fixing fire.  Funny thing about that report and its' recommendations.  It appears the Feds only read the cliffs notes versions and skipped some other important parts.  It certainly is something we'll have to revisit down the road and warrants more than a cursory review from everyone in involved with education.  There were more than a few phrases that caught my eye:

-the urgent need for improvement, both immediate and long term-how's that going almost 30 years later?
-we refer to public, private, and parochial schools and colleges alike- and what is actually getting  "reformed"
-The tests should be administered as part of a nationwide (but not Federal) system of State and local standardized tests.    Very interesting
-assistance of the Federal Government should be provided with a minimum of administrative burden and intrusiveness.  I think some important people missed that point?

The 1990s saw this testing approach gain traction and support in both the statehouse and inside the beltway.  It soon became clear there was money to be made.    All of a sudden politicians, urged on by large companies now with a vested interest in promoting this direction started to take notice.   Cynics would say lawmakers did so for either political or financial reasons.  Others might say the rhetoric was just too irresistible.  What began as basic skills testing is states like Texas blossomed into testing in competencies in periodic grades all along the path to graduation.

This reached its zenith under the heavily publicized but little understood Elementary and Secondary Education Act(NCLB).  In the wake of the September 11th attacks most domestic policy remained 2nd tier at best.  This law was a notable exception.  No one gave the long term consequences much thought.  When passed the Feds generally left it up to states to set marks and measure these standards.  When asked if this approach compromised the law then Secretary of Education Rod Paige said the following:

"No. In our country we made that decision when the Constitution was drawn up. This is a state responsibility. This isn't a federal responsibility to set standards for states. So that argument's already been settled."

At the same time in 2002 noted testing expert from UCLA  James Popham said of testing:

"Most educational policymakers, state board members, members of legislatures, are well intentioned, and install accountability measures involving these kinds of tests in the belief that good things will happen to children. But most of these policymakers are dirt-ignorant regarding what these tests should and should not be used for. And the tragedy is that they set up a system in which the primary indicator of educational quality is simply wrong.     ....   We have to create tests that really do reflect how well teachers have been teaching. Those kinds of tests will allow, I think, public education to survive. The kind of tests that we're using now is setting up public educators for absolute failure"

Rod Paige and Arne Duncan both led large urban school systems and it would be fair to say the issues they faced there might not have been exactly the same as most districts in the nation For certain there were and are kids in every school in our nation that are historically underserved.  But testing has proven far from an ideal solution.  Many educators contend the unintended consequences have damaged our schools and hurt kids.   Resistance to such test heavy approached was and is dismissed as defense of the status quo.  This works given the accepted assumption that schools are and have been failing our nation for some time.

So where are we now and where are we headed.  It was a comment by Geoffrey Canada which got my attention.  His close contact with influential national leaders led him to observe  "There is no plan".  The comment referenced whether or not the feds or states had a solution to fix this perceived problem.   Canada has done much to help kids and no doubt saved many.   He's a common sense leader who was connected to teachers, school and what was really happening.  A rare combination.   In another address  “You want to save your kids? You’re going to have to do it yourself,” he said. “Nobody’s coming.”  Yet the Feds came.  And so did the states.  It started way back when and now appears the new paradigm in education is top down, test heavy and completely reliant on measurable results.  The public seems to demand such outcomes if efforts and funding of public education is to be justified and seen as worthwhile.

 The quest to remedy what we are and were doing wrong has led to the neglect and in some cases abandonment of what we were doing right.   No doubt some things are better.  I agree with much of what Mr. Bush called for 22 years ago.  But some things are worse.  The narrowing of goals, curriculum and focus on misguided measures of quality are not good things.  In my state of Virginia 3% if school division made AYP in 2010-2011.  If they really believed that meant something they'd fire everyone wouldn't they?

We can now tell whether a student has acquired needed information.  But we might be losing sight of what makes a good school, a good teacher or a good education in our one size fits all approach.   The lofty well intentioned individuals who affect school governance have increased control over what we do and how we do it.  My only hope is that as we move forward I and all the other teachers will not be shut out of the conversation like I was shut out of U-Hall in 1989.  I wonder if our state leaders were once again called to Charlottesville if the rhetoric would appear any different.  Or would the call for reform simply reflect a consensus that our schools are in trouble and for the good of the nation something must be done. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Newt Gingrich: On Education

I was at the NCSS conference in DC when I caught a quick blip on the TV  featuring a comment that emerged from the Republican campaign trail.  Newt Gingrich was quoted saying that “really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works.”  OK...what?  What did he just imply about poor kids?  Was he trying to say something else?  Was this taken out of context?

Whatever the response from a usually unapologetic Gingrich the problem that becomes evident is that discussing sensitive issues as they relate to education is a challenge.  It is hard to have honest dialogue on real issues without coming off as insensitive or even acting that way.   Was Newt trying to plant his flag among the far right and appeal to the Republican base in advance of the meaningful primaries or does his statement represent what he actually believes?  Did he give what he said much thought? Was this just poor judgment?  Should that matter?  

The answer to the last question is yes since he has emerged as a contender for the Republican nod for President.  While I can only speculate on some of these questions closer analysis might offer up some insights.

Like most issues one can more easily comprehend the educational debate by grouping people into two main schools of thought.  The abridged version is that those on the right want a system that will put/return the US to the top by providing workers to fuel our global economy.  They mostly like buzzwords like accountability and testing.  Some of them even seem to favor the dismantling of public education, privatization or seek revenues back from public education either through private school vouchers or refunds to parents who homeschool.

Those on the left work hard to lay claim to the moral high ground as defenders of education and our children.  Historically they have aligned with the education lobby and listed the issue toward the top of their platform.  But then as now are open to the criticism they have little grasp of what and how to make things better(can be said of both parties).   "Democrats for Education" could anyone oppose such an organization?   So the left and right like to butt heads on education but obviously both want what they think is best for our kids.  But they want votes too. 

So this simplified analysis leaves out the reality that the Dems and the GOP in DC sound an awful lot alike if you listen to their policies.  Currently favor seems to lie with painting our schools as awful and in need of major change.    I have little faith in either party and neither one has or is able to articulate a sensible education policy on a statewide or national level.  As long as ambiguous "reform" if featured towards the top of any list of ideas it is general enough to garner public support.  Back to Newt.  He is emerging as a frontrunner for the Republican nomination for President in 2012.  That may change tomorrow but for now what he thinks about education matters.  

I looked for a little more context to those comments from Newt.    Most politicians(and most people to be honest) only pay lip service to the importance of education and have little grasp of the complexity of the  issues involved. But the public is at fault too as the level of awareness on the impact of important policies is sorely lacking.  Politicians instead rely on lobbies and advisers for positions.  The public buys into their rhetoric.  There are exceptions.  So I was seeking affirmation that Newt had actually given some thought to an important campaign issue and didn't just stick his foot in his mouth when I looked a little deeper.  

So Newt said what he said.   But he has said a great deal more about education.  I recall when he said "America's High Schools were obsolete" and he also added in that September 2007 that "we should pay kids for taking hard classes".  I respectfully disagreed at the time and still do.   He has sponsored a Constitutional Amendment on school prayer.  Newt has an established record on education but the public and media tend to focu more on one liners and what candidates say in public.  which is often reduced to the shortest possible soundbite.

Since this is the case it is always good practice to read the full remarks of politicians as painful as that may be. In this case doing so reveals he stays pretty right but his comments jump around.   I agree with some things, not sure about others and there is plenty that worries me about what he has said in the past and what he says below. 

This is something that no liberal wants to deal with… Core policies of protecting unionization and bureaucratization against children in the poorest neighborhoods, crippling them by putting them in schools that fail has done more to create income inequality in the United States than any other single policy. It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid. You say to somebody, you shouldn’t go to work before you’re what, 14, 16 years of age, fine. You’re totally poor. You’re in a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing. I’ve tried for years to have a very simple model…. Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising….  You go out and talk to people, as I do, you go out and talk to people who are really successful in one generation. They all started their first job between nine and 14 years of age. They all were either selling newspapers, going door to door, they were doing something, they were washing cars….  They all learned how to make money at a very early age… What do we say to poor kids in poor neighborhoods? Don’t do it. Remember all that stuff about don’t get a hamburger flipping job? The worst possible advice you could give to poor children. Get any job that teaches you to show up on Monday. Get any job that teaches you to stay all day even if you are in a fight with your girlfriend. The whole process of making work worthwhile is central.

School Choice in an important Republican plank
Protest Opposing Charter Schools
I looked up The Gingrich Education Plan.  On his website, it shows where he stands and I think it at the least shares some other policies Gingrich has formulated.(my thoughts follow in blue italics)

  • Empower parents to pick the right school for their child.  Parents had the right to choose the school that is best for their child, and should never be trapped in a failing school against their will. Yeah...not so much.  That "Failing school" thing ins tricky.  School choice in theory sounds good, in practice it often stinks.  Doesn't fix  the problems and might help some kids but not others.   Look at current practices to see shortfalls. 
  • Institute a Pell Grant-style system for Kindergarten through 12th Grade. Per-pupil school district funding should go into each child’s backpack, and follow them to the school their parents wish to attend. Parents who home school their children should receive a tax credit or be allowed to keep the Pell Grant.  On principle this is just a bad idea.  Why not just tax people with school age kids?   So much for schools being a community resource adding and a source of strength. Parents should be able to do what they want with their kids...but honestly...can most folks afford to homeschool?
  • Require transparency and accountability about achievement. Each state must set a rigorous standard that allows every student everywhere to master the skills they will need to be competitive, and develop a process for grading the effectiveness of every schoolThank you "Arne".  Accountability has meant only one thing, ...testing.  I guess I was naive in thinking that local communities should have autonomy on many things.  No doubt federal and State bureaucrats far removed from schools know what is best with their extensive experience.(sarcasm)
  • Implement a “no limits” charter system about no.  Charters might help but that is just a bad idea.   Do they let everyone in?  Carters are free from the choking regulations of normal public schools.  The deal was better outcomes for more freedom.  Still vague outcomes at the best, worse at least.   Some limits are in place for a reason. 
  • All of the money allocated for student education goes directly to the school.  Could not agree more.  Stop sending it to Pearson, private companies or anyone else who doesn't work in a building with the kids. 
  • The school manages its own staff, whereby it is exempt from laws regarding tenure, and need not unionize.   The last century saw the creation of some laws were actually well thought out and serve a purpose.  Many of these include labor laws.    Remove the same protection for politicians, doctors, lawyers, banks and all other areas an then we'll talk.  Academia in particular has some protections that serve a very valid reason.   If schools are held accountable for graduation rates and you teach seniors...just imagine when you fail a student and the principal asks you to reconsider.  Novice, experienced and master teacher?  Nah..they are all the same.  Just widgets.  
  • The school defines its own curriculum, in line with the state standards and assessments.  Students in charters are not exempt from state assessments.  The schools are not exempt from reporting requirements, nor should they be.  Sounds harmless enough.
  • State law allows the school to “franchise” its model without limitation.  That means they need not apply for a new school every time they can build a new one.  If they have the demand, they must be able to serve it.  Don't franchise tags make money?  Any public funds divert to private hands where huge profits are involved become suspect very quickly.   "Public schools are a public trust that should remain free from private, corporate and political enterprise or agendas"
  • The state has NO CAPS on the number of charter schools that can be approved, and the process for approving charter schools is smooth and efficient.  Once again before you board up all the traditional schools maybe give some thought to the research about whether charters are any better. 
  • Establish a pay for performance system.  States and school governing boards should lift all existing prohibitions that prevent a principal from evaluating teachers based in part on student achievement.  Do the same for other professions and see how they react.  We don't choose our kids and we shouldn't.   Who would want to teach at risk kids in school?  The idea that we will work harder or be more effective if paid more is not only stupid but contrary to research. 
  • Welcome business talent in our communities into the classroom. Every state should open their systems up to part-time teachers so that retired physicists, neighborhood pharmacists, or local accountants could teach one or two hours a day and bring knowledge to the classroom, and business-like adult expectations to the students.  And programs like Teach For America should be encouraged and not limited.  So much for treating teaching like a profession.  Why not just hire a bunch of temps each year to staff our schools.   That'll save money and that's all that really matters here right?   There is a place for some of the things suggested here and TFA is a great example.  But it is far from THE answer and those that present them a such are either foolish or misguided.  We are dealing with young people.  Dropping people without the right preparation in a room to work with young people might just be the worst idea on the list.  I've seen it in action.  It can be ugly. Teaching is a profession.   Knowing Math ans Knowing kids are both important.  Which one matters more?  On any given day I am a teacher, coach, grief counselor, mentor, security officer, friend, club sponsor, mediator, club advisor, disciplinarian among other things.  Teacher is not what you are , it is who you are. 
  • Restore American history and values into the classroom. America is a learned civilization and every American, including immigrants, should learn American history and the principles of American self-government, productivity and prosperity. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1820: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." Every student must learn to read and much of what they read should reinforce American civilization.  I've said before stay away from Jefferson.  He lived 2 miles from me.  Maybe reconsider the overfocus on Math and Reading to the neglect other subjects.  The traditional view of American History tends to be written top down and the way immigrants are singled out here is telling. "Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of the due degree of liberty"-TJ  "Reinforce" is an interesting choice as well.  I have little use for any fact where there is  100% agreement.  So much for a more multicultural approach. 
  • Protect the rights of home-schooled children by ensuring they have the same access to taxpayer funded, extra-curricular educational opportunities as any public school student. Tougher one.  I am a coach and it has pros and cons.  My gut says no, my heart says yes.  I always think of the athletic programs as an extension of  school's classrooms.  With the exception that participation is a privilege.  That changes things.  Will they be held to the same behavioral/academic standards?  Far as I know kids taken out of a school can mean less per capita state and fed funding, so how does letting them then benefit from facility and coaching etc make sense?  Would private schools allow them in?  But we want what's best for kids and I am assuming their parents pay taxes.  Most communities offer sports of some kind.  Kids can learn more important lessons about life on the field or court than in any classroom.   I just get nervous that not ever saying "no" has consequences.  Should we institute a no cut approach as well? 
  • Encourage states to think outside outdated boundaries of education. States have developed very innovative models:
  • Individualized, 24/7 learning should be universally available online, with the Florida Virtual School (over 120,000 students for K-12) as a model.  Yep, more money for the private companies and not the school.  They'll keep kids interests ahead of profits...right?
  • Shrink the federal Department of Education and return power to states and communities. The Department's only role will be to collect research and data, and help find new and innovative approaches to then be adopted voluntarily at the local level.  (applause)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Can a school board member and some principals stop the insanity?

The answer to that Question:  They can try.  The TU has been vocal about our stance on testing, value added, and the like.  As influential as we are, we realize it will take a powerful shift to change course to a more sensible path.  It will also take large numbers of people.  Where do you stand?  Do you buy into all the testing talk?  We certainly don't.  Some recent news has lent a lot of support to our position and if nothing else makes us feel better.

Ask yourself this:  Have you ever seen any of the tests that measure student performance?   I have taught for years with such a test and have yet to see more than a handful of questions and the outdated released version.  Now, such tests will most likely directly affect how I am evaluated.  More questions arise like how specifically does this make me a better teacher and how does it help kids learn?  Is this approach working after decades of effort? 

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently spoke at the NCSS conference in DC and called for continued accountability.  From his speech(and for the record we rarely shout):

"Testing advocates are often outshouted, however, by those who view testing as the problem. They say that testing—especially fill-in-the-bubble, high-stakes standardized testing—is a flawed tool for evaluating students—let alone teachers.
Now it is absolutely true that many of today's tests are flawed. They don't measure critical thinking across a range of content areas. They are not always aligned to college and career-ready standards. They don't always accurately measure individual student growth.
And they certainly don't measure qualities of great teaching that we know make a difference—things like classroom management, teamwork, collaboration, individualized instruction and the essential and remarkable ability to inspire a love of learning."

I preferred Ravitch myself.  

Francis Gary Powers probably failed a test
Ever ask why these tests are so secret?   I do all the time.  I wish they'd guard our unmanned spy aircraft this closely.  Then we wouldn't be looking at photos of one sitting in Iran right now. Who is holding these tests and all this testing accountable.  Answer: Not enough people. 

This week has seen some people above the TUs pay grade and level of influence become much more vocal in opposition to such measures.  Maybe the TU should do as Iran did this week and call the Swiss ambassador to protest.  It would likely have the same result.   But Iran is a problem.  We're not.

The links below will take you one the TU's favorites, The Answer Sheet and two posts that share the story of a school board member who arranged to take the FCAT in Florida.  His story is very telling.  

Part I

This story out of New York where public school principals are publicly opposing their state's newly developed teacher evaluation system. The whole issue of accountability, value added and the merits of testing is starting to be called into question at an increasing rate.  Thank goodness.   Hope it is not too late.  The only rule from psychometricians I know about is do not use tests for purposes other than that for which they were intended.

All this is a step in the right direction but it will take more teachers(like the TU), more principals and most importantly parents to stop the insanity.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Diane Ravitch at NCSS 2011

“If enough people care, the public may learn the course is not wise, not reform and backed by no evidence.  Public Education is a precious resource that must be preserved and improved for future generations.” 
-Diane Ravitch, NCSS 2011

Diane Ravitch is a voice of reason and sanity in the politically charged and reckless world of education policy and so-called reform.  The Teaching Underground had the privilege of hearing a lecture from Dr. Ravitch at the NCSS national convention this weekend in Washington, D.C.

Conventional wisdom might brand her “anti-reform,” but in reality the term educational reform has been high-jacked and turned into “testing, accountability, and choice” at the exclusion of meaningful reform seeking appropriate ways to “develop qualities of heart and mind and character to sustain our democracy for future generations.”  The Teaching Underground is ready to steal the term back and label Diane Ravitch as the voice of true reform in American education.

After hearing Ravitch’s talk we jokingly said to each other, “she stole all of her material from the Underground.”  Since our arrival in the blogging world in October 2010, we’ve learned that every challenge we’ve faced at the local level is rooted in the national education landscape.  Like Ravitch, our primary hope is that people would care, and by caring, the public will learn that our present course of educational policy in the United States often guised as reform is really no reform at all.

Ravitch’s lecture at the NCSS Convention centered around a dozen or so questions.  (I was typing fast, if you were there and see that we missed a question let us know.)  Below are the questions Ravitch addressed.  We've included a few links to related posts on the Teaching Underground.  Feel free to offer your reactions to the questions, and if you were at the talk, let us know what you thought.  We'll post about some of these topics in the months to come.

Are we in crisis?
-one of the very first posts on TU: Are We Failing?

Should public schools be turned over to private management?

Why not have a free market of choices for parents and students?
-these two questions were addressed in our post Breaking the Public Schools

Should public funded schools be allowed to make a profit?
-in April we discussed The Education Marketplace

Should teachers get a bonus for higher test scores?

Will test scores go up if teacher evaluations are tied to them?

Should student test scores ever be a part of teacher evaluation?
-each of these three questions remind me of the post Why You Should Care

Should NCLB be reauthorized?
-among other posts addressing NCLB, here is 2012 or 2014

Will Race to the Top transform?
-it will certainly transform something, here's a post on NCLB Waivers and Race to the Top

Should teachers and principals have professional training?

Will competition improve schools?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

NCSS National Conference Day 2

 The day began early began with a pleasant jog with friends.   Got to see the mall by dawn with no one else around.  Highly recommended.  Then off we went to the convention center.  Shortly before arrival we saw something unexpected when a woman tripped and fell on the sidewalk.  Hard. Those nearby helped her up and I was relieved because I was pretty sure she was dead.  It led to some interesting conversation about the effect cities have on people and their behavior.  For the record, this TU member does not enjoy cities much. 

So as we made our way through our sessions on our second day of “Dimensions on Diversity” it seemed a common topic mentioned by many presenters was poverty.   It is a topic not addressed often enough in educational conversations but one that is confronted daily by classroom educators, education reformers, and most sensible people.  One would think it would rarely leave our collective conscience but it seems the opposite is true.  The problem is hard to ignore walking the streets of our nation’s capital where you are never far from those living within its grasp.  We are fortunate that our own community suffers to a far lesser degree but suffers none the less. 

Other less profound reflections on our visit:

-Another day of presenters.  Some great, some good, and some not so great.  Glad we went.
-Unlike yesterday, there was no bounding up the stairs it like I did a day earlier.  The convention center is big and we saw all of it.  Lots of up and down.
-When the 10th presenter told me they ran out of materials because they were told to make 25 copies, it got annoying.
-Many people in the exhibitors section are only there to promote and push their products.  We learned quickly to avoid the flashier booths as those people are not teachers and have far less in common with ourselves.   Target the plain with more substance.
-Perhaps next year we'll attend a conference and pass out cards promoting the TU as some did for their sites.   That would seem out of character. 
-Dyson Air Blade.  Whoa.
-The C-SPAN bus was pretty sweet.  
-If we go a few months without seeing a flashy TV screen Kiosk, that's OK with us.
-Escalators are big scary monstrous inventions.  Maybe that's why we like them better than stairs. 

We'll use tomorrow to regroup and then share some more thoughtful insights of what went on.
No visible cracks

DC Convention Center. 

Mr. Dyson...nice work.

Cards for self promotion
2012 is  a long ways away.

"Of course we'll ride the escalator"
The "secret staircase"

Hard to tell what this was until its dark

Friday, December 2, 2011

NCSS National Conference Day 1

So as you may know we are attending the NCSS conference in DC.  Given we are pretty worn out we will simply provide a summary of the days events.  In no particular order here are some highlights and some of what we learned...

-TU appreciates having a point person to get us registered(Thanks Jen)
-Don't wear any attire with your school logo when traversing the vendor's like wearing a bullseye.  "Hey ...AHS....Right"  Quickly annoying and makes avoiding eye contact nearly impossible.
-There is no clear delineation between the NCSS and the Washington Craft Show. Be careful out there.
-We sadly missed the "Using Yoga to Teach History" session.  Probably for the best.
-There are lots of great ideas among the sessions. 
-Some people don't turn their ringer off during names mentioned but they know who they are.
-Diane Ravitch is the man.  I mean ...well her talk was spot on.  More on this in the future.
-Geoffrey Canada was quite inspiring.  He's practical, understands his community well and is willing to do what it takes to help kids in a sensible way.  Whether the establishment is on board or not.
-Kareem Abdul Jabaar is not only a great basketball player but also funny, knowledgeable and creative.
What we saw of his film On the Shoulders of Giants was memorable. 
-Pierre L'Enfant was a genius.  A maniacal genius. 

So that's about all we can muster but we'll leave you with this lasting image.
A meeting of the minds

Mr. Underground Goes to DC

Recently we got a call from some folks up in DC indicating they were interested in what we here at the Underground had to say.  Actually it was just an E-mail, and it was not a request to hear what teachers think about education it was only a confirmation that we were registered for the National Coouncil for the Social Studies(NCSS) Conference in Washington, DC.

So we packed our bags(a bag each actually) and headed north.   TU along with a handful of other teachers in our division were going national.  I mean we went past National, now Reagan National on our way here.  We also passed the Occupy DC site, the Washington Monument and our Hotel twice before we stopped.

Diane Ravitch.  Honorary TU Member.
Harlem Children's Zone Founder Geoffrey Canada
The conference is loaded with great topics and boasts an impressive list of speakers.  We anticipate the highlight of those being the speech by Diane Ravitch.  Also looking forward to hearing from Philip Zimbardo, Judy Woodruff, Geoffrey Canada, and Kareem Abdul Jabaar.  After registering, we learned Secretary of Education Arne Duncan would also be giving a speech.    (When I heard that I wanted to register under the name "R. Neese Tinks" but thought better of it.)  It wouldn't have mattered in the end as Mr. Duncan ducked us, indicating he had been called to the White House.  His appearance would be limited to the ticketed "President's Breakfast" where the Teacher of the Year Awards were given out. Oh well.  Mr. Tinks will not be in attendance and I will. 
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

That said we are pretty sure our attendance is an elaborate ruse to get us out of our building.  When we return we fully expect to to find all of our stuff gone from our classroom and a new teacher there who has replaced us.

We are hoping to learn a lot and perhaps leave with some ideas and tools to better serve our students.   Look for an update that covers our first full day in DC  soon.  We'll leave you with this NCSS link to some useful social studies classroom resources keep you busy.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Reform: For Our Kids...right?

Can anyone oppose what's "good for kids?"
While perusing the Interweb the other day, wading past the funny cat videos, I stumbled onto an interesting article dealing with the word "reform".

 Reform Is Not a Dirty Word:  The real meaning of school reform by Kayla McGannon.  This commentary posted by the Interim Executive Director of Stand for Children Colorado, dealt with the the recent election of the Denver school board and its larger implications.  A year ago I'd have commended this organization for their efforts to make things better but now I am more reserved about whether what they are advocating actually makes things better.  I am also more than a little confused about the title of the article and what this organization really does or who they are. 

As a product of the pre-reform failing public schools, I dug deeper.  Constantly frustrated by special interest veils and networks of vagueness it can be tough to tell what people or groups support.   A brief peek at their Board of Directors and I started to get a more complete picture.   I digress as this post is not about that group, corporate involvement in education or seemingly anything at this point. Back to the article. 

The title seems to lead one to conclude that there are only 2 groups of people out there. "Those who support positive change or "reform" in our schools, and those who oppose such measures in favor of the status quo.  The staus quo is unacceptable by the way.  This group endorsed 3 candidates and I question what that term reformer actually means. 

Later we are introduced to the idea that there is a third group emerging.  The "posers" who claim to be reformers and use phrases like "real reform".  Huh?  In the end 2 of the 3 candidates the group supported won election.  The campaign message seemed to be "for our kids"  or "what's best for kids."   Lacking an enumerated list of what reforms this might involve it is hard to disagree.  Any effort proposed to "fix" the problems linked to the idea of what's best for kids gains traction quickly.  Maybe too quickly.  

The article later sought to bring us all together "After all, if we are all reformers, we are all accountable for the quality of our public schools." A laudable goal but one that is rarely achieved in the divisive environment of reform.  I was more than a bit disappointed in that I only found common buzz words in the campaign messages.  Likely the outgrowth of a focus group meeting to identify phrases that garner support.   I am coming to feel this approach is reshaping our educational landscape in a way that is not beneficial.   That is not rhetoric without forethought.  You can read the article for yourself but I am increasingly wary of who and what is really driving change. 

So where is momentum driving reform originating?  From the people close to the schools affected by them every day who don't use these buzz words.  It would be tough to support the idea these people in schools are not for kids.  Or is the push from someone else working for foundations that have an agenda?   Normally it is the diversity of opinion on these complex issues that eventually bear real fruit.  It is difficult to hear much diverse opinion from many powerful reformers. In fact it is alarmingly uniform.  Any concern expressed about change overshadowed by well crafted "for the kids" language.
Before you bite an Apple, know where it comes from

After searching for more information on the Stand group I came across their publications page.  Even a cursory review led me to some conclusions that seem common when finding things about education online.   There is an agenda out there and a great deal of effort to bring more and more people on board with that agenda.  Nothing wrong with that I suppose.  But there is if you disagree with that agenda and don't feel it is actually best for all kids, schools, parents, teachers, our economy, education or America as a whole.  Further if that agenda includes an effort to suppress dissent.  The online comments following the article were polemical but also very also interesting.  Here are a few samples: 

Isn't Stand for Children a front for corporate "education reform" which is in the process of destroying America's public education system?........ Colorado "reform" is a great example of the damage Eli Broad and Bill Gates are doing and Stand for Children is an example of how their billions are being employed to take away local control.
You're article reads like an extended propaganda piece with a transparent agenda that in no way actually benefits children. In fact, after reading your blog, I was amazed and appalled at how blithely you could recount as reforms the measures that are clearly contra most of the research. I pity the children and their teachers who work in your state.
I agree that the word "reform" has been tainted. A word which once meant bettering education for children has now been warped into attacking teachers through faulty evaluations and then punishing and firing them in a blatant attempt to weaken their unions. It has become the worship of meaningless test scores. It is now the cold pursuit of failure in order to close neighborhood schools thus privatizing education and allowing the takeover of public institutions by corporate interests.REAL reform has to do with equity in funding and services, a well-trained and experienced teaching force, the autonomy and freedom for teachers to use progressive non test-prep practices, and the desire to address the gross inequalities and devastating effects of poverty we allow children to grow up in. Real reform addresses children and the people who work with them in humane, supportive ways.
I am sick of having to write the word "reform" in quotes. I want my language back.
Your organization stands for greed, not children. So please sit down.

As a parent with a child in a public school, and a former member and local leader of a Stand for Children chapter, I never imagined that "ed reform" would be a dirty word.
Later, when Stand for Children had begun receiving huge donations from corporate funders and foundations, and had turned away from grass roots work, reform had less and less to do with the problems I wanted to see addressed in my daughter's school (primarily lack of resources).
Now, when I hear groups like Stand for Children speak of "reform", I hear an ideologically coded message promoting privitization of public education. Here reform has little to do with evidence or feasibility, and nothing to do with my own schools' needs--Stand's reform exploits and cultivates the prevailing loss of confidence in and cynicism towards public institutions, and self-governance.
Stand's "reform" is a dirty word indeed. 


So is all this what's best for kids?  It would be nice to be included in that conversation.  I'll close with is quote from the article:"Long into the future, no one will remember who supported which policy. What they will remember is whether those policies actually made a difference. "   I would simply point out that there are a frighteningly small number of actual educators who support these reforms.  That ought to mean something and maybe provide some insight into what is best for kids.

 Sometimes it takes someone more articulate than yourself to make a point. 
In the current national discussion about education reform, the loudest voices are not necessarily those of the people who are directly affected by what happens in our schools – the students, parents, teachers and school communities themselves.