Monday, October 31, 2011

NCLB Waivers-Thanks for the flexibility to do only what you want us to do

The link below takes you to a recent NY Times article someone sent me that shows the ground level impact of NCLB.  It comes from New Hampshire, a state not usually on the radar of education reform.  Too bad above average schools like Oyster River are now labeled as failing and must completely redesign their approach to instruction and learning.  Think it is not your problem?  Your division is different?  Your local leadership will make things right?  Think again. Arne Duncan and the neo-reform NCLB folks know better than the thousands of educators and are acting like it. Want waivers from NCLB?  Let's make a deal.

"Ms. Rief fears that public schools where teachers are trusted to make learning fun are on the way out. Ms. Rief understands that packaged curriculums and standardized assessments offer schools an economy of scale that she and her kind cannot compete with."

 Is this the system we want?  
This is a quick clip that summarizes what they are telling you to do...I mean choose to do.

"The kind of progress we want to see"
"States are going to have to embrace the kind of reform that we believe is necessary to move our education system forward"
"Accountability will remain one of the  bellwethers of our administration"  

Thanks for letting us do what you want us to do. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Fallacy of Average Class Size

The average person has one ovary and one testicle! 

If you think that’s ridiculous, then you’ll understand the folly of using average class size data in educational decisions. Statements that are mathematically correct can still be blantantly wrong.

Averages are attractive. In uncertain situations they provide a concrete anchor for understanding our world.

Data from the 2000 United States census indicate that the average household size in the United States is 2.59. Does that describe your family?

I didn’t think so, .59 of a person doesn’t exist.

You would call me a fool if I believed everyone has one ovary and one testicle, or even if I spent my days looking for the extra .59 person that should be living in the house next door. But somehow, when the average looks like something that supports our agenda, it becomes a valid measure of reality.  Kind of like average class size data.

Modern educators are familiar with the “power of zero” discussion. It goes like this: if a student has scores of 100, 100, 100, 100, and 0, they have an average of 80; a ‘B-’ for most, a ‘C’ for some. According to the argument, an 80 does not reflect the achievement of the student, the zero has an undue effect on the “average.” A move to standards-based grading indicates a desire to measure a child’s true achievement that can’t be measured with an average.  So averages aren't good indicators of student acheivement, but it's o.k. to use them as an indicator of how well a system is staffing.

Let’s assume that a school has ten teachers. Four of the teachers have a low class size of say twelve students. Perhaps they teach students who need more support, or they have a class that just met the minimum number for a section. The remaining six teachers each have classes of twenty-nine students. That school has an average class size of 22.2.

What if we looked at a different set of statistics? At this school with an average class size of 22.2, seventy-eight percent of the students are in classes with twenty-eight other students. Sixty percent of the teachers have classes of twenty-nine students. The average class size of 22.2 doesn’t look quite as successful.

What if this small model school were a high school? Each teacher has six classes. We would find six teachers at this school with a load of one-hundred seventy-four students and four teachers with a load of seventy-two student. The average teacher would have one-hundred thirty-three students, but in reality, sixty percent of the staff is teaching one-hundred and seventy-four students. Seventy-eight percent of the students at this school are 1 out of 174 to all of their teachers.

Honestly, we know better. Averages mean very little when divorced from their source, yet we continue to let them drive and/or support our positions. No amount of compiled information can substitute for looking closely at it’s individual parts and an uncritical acceptance of data is a recipe for poor decision-making.

Recently, I presented the following problem to my students:

Three truck drivers went to a hotel. The clerk told them that a room for three would cost $30. Each driver gave the clerk $10, and went to their room. After checking registrations the manager realized he had over-charged the drivers. The cost of the room should have been $25, so the manager gave the clerk $5 and told him to return the difference to the three drivers. On the way to the room, the clerk decided that since the drivers did not know they had been overcharged, he would return $1 to each of them and keep $2 for himself. Now each driver had paid $9 for the room and the clerk kept $2. 9 times three is 27 plus the 2 kept by the clerk totals 29. Where did the extra dollar go?
Just because the data are accurate and the numbers add up doesn't mean they reflect reality.  Sometimes we need to get out of the statistics and into people to find the answers.

Have you're experiences ever been misrepresented by "the average"?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Who to Trust? Teachers or Rupert Murdoch

In reading a recent TU post one might presume that we support or encourage protests and similar anti-authoritarian behaviors. While free thinkers, the TU is rather conformist most of the time and color in between the lines more often than not, especially professionally. We do enjoy a good Youtube riot video as much as anyone and there's plenty of videos of the protest in NYC and elsewhere.   But that's about as close as we like to get. It took a while to arrive at my point but I am heading towards proving that the TU in some ways sees things from ground level(below ground actually) and perhaps more accurately.  We are closer to education than most folks who talk about it.  That is simply something you cannot dismiss in the conversation about education and its future.  We are deeply concerned for the future of our schools.  We are not alone.

Rupert Murdoch has had a lot to say recently on this subject of education and seems to want to move his company closer to it.    He is a smart fella but I think on the subject of education...I might be smarter(I'll pause while you soak in that statement).  His view is blurred by his business mindset and motives and the highlight reel experience he no doubt receives when he visits a school.  Think for a second about why he is starting to talk a lot about education all of a sudden.    My view is blurred by where I work.  You know, in a school with kids.  Its a pretty good school and despite its shortfalls it ends up turning out some pretty amazing young people.  So who has a better feel for what's going on?   One of the most powerful men in the world, or me?  He got shouted down at a recent speech by some folks perhaps as frustrated as we are with the current direction of many reforms.  I can only speculate on their motives.   I think because they resent a lot of current change and he makes a convenient target.  I've been shouted down too(most often by an irate teenager).  I guess that's where the comparisons end.

Did he deserve it?  Well I think he shouldn't expect people to ignore who he is.   Based on his record,  we should be at least suspicious of his motives.  Those people(if they were teachers) probably got all "protesty" because we in teaching are now hypersensitive to people telling us how it should be.  Especially people from the business or political world.   I like to think if Murdoch spent a day with the average American teacher he'd realize a few things.  Not the least among them is that teachers know how it really is better than anyone else.  This that idea classrooms and the teaching in them have not changed 50 years is more than a slight misrepresentation of fact.   Of course someone must guide kids through their education...they are kids after all.  The classroom dynamic has not been as fluid as in other sectors of society like our economy and that is not all bad.  I know TU''s resident thesis man(Steve) could more successfully counter his points but I will attempt to do so none the less. This is not because we feel threatened and want to attack or justify our point of view over others(though deep down that may be why).  It is in the hope that it will foster a greater understanding of what we see as part of the problem. 

To begin, WTF?  My favorite acronym as an expression of disbelief.  (To maintain our PG rating I'll explain it as What's That For?)  Hey Rupert Murdock...WTF?  Are you living in a bubble?  How dare you try to simplify everything and reduce the mission of our schools solely to an academic pipeline of global employees.  Schools aren't companies.  The goal is not profit.  The goal is people.  That alone pokes some big hole in Murdoch's bucket.  Harlem Success is great.  Many charter schools are great.  No doubt so are the schools you mention in your speeches.  But before we go dismantling one of the most significant social and cultural institutions anywhere in the world let's give some forethought to the potential consequences.   Let's also not do so because people like Murdoch have convinced us they are all "failing." Instead consider how current top down changes are hampering efforts to do quality work in our schools. Many reform attempts have led to regulation  and "improvements" that have buckled some pretty great things schools did. Many of my colleagues will admit we do not feel the quality education we are providing today is not exactly what it was even 5 years ago. 

I will admit some of my objections to his and similarly framed ideas were originally based on their potential impact on my profession.  But with careful consideration I object on a far deeper level.  The idea that learning can be so easily manipulated and controlled is a dangerous one.  If I learned anything as a teacher its that things are usually more complex than they appear.    Demanding more from everyone does not equal an increase in quality output.   Programs and results may at first appear valuable and look good on paper, only to yield under closer examination or when implemented.   I have seen this firsthand with numerous online learning programs. 

The intent to profit should never be a consideration in our decisions on education.  But it has crept in slowly and as such we should place more scrutiny on reform ideas that involve public funds to private enterprise.  One approach being pushed from the Murdoch camp is to use technology to remedy our ills and make things better.   Education is far too complex a process to digitize and then plug a child in to some software.  That is information, not education.  Standardized test may show acquisition of knowledge but what has been lost?  Hard to tell as most modern measures of learning are subjective.  What's being measured?  How? Under what conditions?  Using a test?  Are the measures fair and equitable?  What's the wisdom in that?   Bottom line is this:  What motivates Murdoch and Newscorp is clearly making money.  What motivates teachers is what is good for kids. 

At 6:20 he starts to lay out main ideas.

Specifically Murdoch contentions are that "The Key is Software" and we can do better by creating a "More Personalized Education."     I wasn't as sure about his 3rd point since he is boring but it seemed to be simply using analytics to give kids access to limitless resources catered to best suit them. Thus they wouldn't be stuck learning at the same pace. I suspect it was something about how asynchronous education is the key.   Sounds great.  Who could argue with those ideas?  Me.

Distance Learning, Virtual Classrooms or whatever they go by have obvious advantages.  I sat so far back in one survey class in college it could have been considered distance learning.  I've also taken a few real ones and they served their purpose.  Can't say I learned a great deal that stuck with me though.  Their growth in recent years has been exponential.  Driven in part by the spiraling costs of higher education. While quite different in business approach and market, for profit higher education like the University of Phoenix illustrates how such an concept has supporters and detractors.  I remember a piece PBS did on Michael Clifford a while back that I found very informative.

But do not mistake access to information for a learning community.  There are problems with the any technology. On the front end there are always going to be kinks and bugs or issues with the transition.  Is the infrastructure in place in many of these locations to support the volume of traffic?   There are issues with the access, maintenance and reliability.  These will be less significant as schools integrate more and more digital resources over time.  The trend is for high ranking administrators and those at the top to view technology as the perfect solution.  It becomes a symbol for a "quality" education.  Teachers and learners more often think that while useful, these experiences are no substitute for face to face interaction.    In business terms a shift in this direction would be akin to expecting online shopping to replace brick and mortar schools.    Over reliance of technology can be problematic.  Forgive me for not trusting a billionaire but is it truly cost effective in the long term for our society?  This Education Marketplace mentioned by my colleague what's being sold here?  I fear it is our future. 

Once we are reliant on these technologies and systems, who controls the curriculum and any needed shift?  Who is held accountable for the quality?  A test might tell you whether a kid "learned" but what if they didn't?   Experience tells me that the under-performing kid in a traditional classroom might encounter even more issues in a virtual one.  Not all kids are motivated or mature enough to go this route.  One of the biggest hang-ups with our neighboring district's BLAST initiative has been parental approval and sign-off.   These issues were unforeseen by planners.  Not so for those with daily interactions with the learners and their parents.  We see things.  One advantage to synchronous learning is that it allows students to collaborate and support each other. This builds a sense of community with their peers, teachers and school.  Skilled individuals can yoke this and use these communities as a source of motivation and pride(just read the last post if you don't understand).  One can create online communities.  Its just that they not the same.  Part of the equation maybe but not the answer.  They should not be elevated to anything more than just a tool to help improve education.
Should computers replace people in learning?  In a normal environment computers are usually powerful tools.  The one thing schools are not is normal.  In this landscape teachers and people are more reliable than technology.  When problems occur I trust people.  When kids act up you need people.  When a kid needs encouragement and support you need people.  Murdoch is wrong to think that companies or software can do better with all of our children.  Most young people are significantly more dependent on adults than what those who don't deal with them everyday think.  They need people they know to help guide them.  Children need adults to learn from and they need relationships with these people to apprehend their world.  I don't really want to send my kids to an Apple store for their education and that seems to be the promise being extended here. We should approach with caution the Walmart of Education mentality as the cost vs quality balance should be important but shouldn't tip too far towards reducing costs.   A "one stop select what you want digital world of learning" isn't that far off.  But it would be a sad shell of what we could do. 

Is our nation doing as well as it can?  Certainly not.  But I don't so much worry about that.  Parents don't worry about that.  We worry about our own kids in our own communities.  I worry about how ideas hatched by those who don't teach real people could affect what we are all trying to accomplish.  Comparisons to Asia or elsewhere are thus less relevant to most of us normal folks with our feet on the ground.  Murdoch and others explain away the difference in achievement as simply a product of the school and education.  All responsibility lies with the schools.  Well when no one else takes on the responsibility for kids schools I guess should.  But be careful about how then you judge the result.  

Murdoch's Motives
I am more than a bit curious about why Mr. Murdoch has turned his attention to the plight of poor schoolkids.  We are after all talking about the same guy, head of Newscorp responsible for the British phone hacking scandal. A ruthless corporate pirate with billions to show for his efforts.  But also a charismatic convincing guy and if I wasn't a teacher I think I'd listen to what he had to say.  That thought frightens me.    He lists examples of innovation and suggests and path to the future.      Enter "his company" as a medium to access this.  See the problem? 

I think Murdoch thinks of education as a cash cow.  I just have an ideological problem with the idea that knowledge is proprietary.  And make no mistake that is the backbone of this idea Murdoch is talking about.  Competition instead of collaboration.  For profit and education...those two concepts are irreconcilable.  When push comes to shove Return on Investment will be factored in above learning when decisions are made by businessmen and not educators. 

Even more disturbing is how people can misrepresent what is taking place.  It has become a cyclical blame game where the most influential carries the least blame for under-performance. I suspect no one is entirely correct in what they think is happening since most views are either too global or too local to know the reality.  I know that some kids just aren't learning.  I'd argue about why.   Here's more reasons to be wary of Murdoch.  What works in some places won't work or even be able to be replicated everywhere.  Education is only as important as any individual thinks it is. 

Where do we agree?
Schools have to adapt, change and improve.  Technology will and should be part of this.  Too many kids aren't getting what they need.  So we can and must do better.  But it doesn't start at 5 years old or end when they graduate or even end when the bell rings to dismiss for the day.  It doesn't simply entail giving them access to knowledge.  Technology will never replace a teacher.  It is a tool and in the right hands empowers individuals to do and become more.  Both student and teacher.  It can also alter things in unforeseen ways.  At my 4 year old's soccer game this weekend I watched at least 3 parents engage with their I-phones  more than their kids.  Sad.  Does Murdoch throw this little tidbit in his speech about "human capital" and teachers to disarm us or does he really mean it?   Who knows.  All I know is that if the choice is that every kid is indeed a valuable and unique individual.  To truly educate a kid you have to get to to know that kid.   All I can do is try to remember that on a daily basis and whenever and wherever I can try to inject some sanity into the conversation about how we ought to be teaching our kids.

In a future post maybe I'll attempt to knock Bill Gates off his educational pulpit.  Whatever the subject the one thing I think the TU prides itself on is the ability to conduct civil discourse.  Disagreements today seem so polemical that the ability to talk freely with someone who disagrees seems a lost art.  Especially when they stand to realize we are right.  :)

Monday, October 17, 2011

It Was A Good Day

Friday night, riding home with two kids in the car looking back on a day well spent.  I'm pretty sure it's not what Ice Cube had in mind when he rapped these lyrics in 1992, but today, "I got to say it was a good day."

The best part about teaching doesn't always happen between the bells.  As I drove home from our high school's homecoming football game Friday night I couldn't help but smile at the preceding five hours of my life.  Here's a run down:

I left school five minutes early because I had to go to Chic-Fil-a.  Student organizations were having tailgates before the game, and my ninth grade leadership class participated.  None of my students could drive to pick up the sandwiches so I had to do it.  Organizing a tailgate doesn't seem like a big deal, but I dare you to get twenty-five 13-15 year-olds to plan one.  One of my freshmen took the initiative to contact Chic-fil-a to ask if they could donate sandwiches for our tailgate.  They gave us forty, free of charge.  I was pretty happy about the free food, but I also appreciated the initiative of the student took to get the sandwiches donated, and she wasn't even able to attend the tailgate.

Tailgates were fun.  One of the few events that teachers can enjoy with their students, not a typical chaperone experience where teachers have to "manage" students.  Lot's of food, games, and about five or six hundred teenagers doing what teenagers like best, being together.  My sixth grade son was able to join in on the fun with a few of his friends as well.

The game didn't go as well on the field, but two former students stopped by to talk at one point.  One of them wants to be a dolphin trainer, and she's going to college in Florida to pursue that career.  She said thanks to me because she's finding so many of her classes easier this year because of what she learned in my Psychology class last year.  It's not the first time this has happened, but whenever a student shows genuine appreciation for what you've done in their life it makes you appreciate yourself better for what you do.

My TU colleague sat behind me at the game.  Two current students sat with him.  They spent the better part of the game just talking.  I joined in from time to time, but by this point, my youngest, four years old, had joined me and I spent much of my time chasing him.  It's still refreshing to relate to students in an environment outside of the classroom.  In a location where both of you have gathered by choice.  As much as students struggle with seeing teachers as real people, teachers too often fail to see the real people behind the "student" sitting in their classroom.

By halftime, I'd promised the four year-old that we would leave as soon as the homecoming kind and queen were crowned.  We moved down the bleachers closer to the fifty yard line.  As I sat waiting for the court to come onto the field, a parent recognized me.  She started telling me how much her child enjoyed my class and how she appreciated all that her daughter was learning in the class.  A short and concise conversation, but one that further encouraged me in what I do.

The homecoming court walked onto the field.  Seniors arm-in-arm with the special people in their lives.  Some chose parents to escort them out, some chose teachers.  A surprising number of them had parents who were their teachers at our school.  One student had his seven younger siblings walk onto the field with him.  Another glimpse of the reality of students' lives that often fails to make it into the classroom.

In the end, a young man and young woman, both of whom I teach were crowned King and Queen.  Two young adults with exceptionally kind personalities and excellent work ethics, whose acheivements in the classroom, in sports, and in other organizations stands out, were given the honors.  It made me happy to see them recognized by their peers.

A four year-old can only make it so long at a football game, and the outcome of the game was pretty certain (and unfavorable).  My sons and I departed, stopped on the way home to return Chic-Fil-a's warming bag, and drove home for the night.  On the ride I asked my oldest, "so what did you think?"  His only reply, "I had a great time tonight!"

I have to say it was a good day.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Nearly six months ago I wrote a post titled “The Education Market.” Since then, things have only gotten worse.  The American public is divided on the Occupy Wall Street movement and it’s decentralized nature makes it difficult to figure out exactly what they’re asking for, but it’s origin is certain. Increasingly, Americans are losing trust in their Government to hold corporations accountable for their actions.

While the 99% Occupy Wall Street, I would issue a challenge to the 99% of our education world. While 99% of us either occupy a classroom as teachers or students or occupy an office as administrator, the 1% who control the wealth and spending in education are making poorly informed decisions that will cost us all in the long term.

“Reformers” and politicians try to cast the teacher’s unions as the bad guys, looking to protect the self-interest of educators. While corporations pushing an education agenda leading to higher profits escape the criticism of being self-serving. While the NEA reports revenue approaching $377 million, the Pearson corporation generates over $300 million in revenue from just three states with whom they provide services. (Illinois- $138, Virginia- $110, and Kentucky-$57. Compare that to state education association revenues in those states at $48, $15, and $11 million respectively.) source

If money is power, even the teachers’ unions can’t compete with “Wall Street.” Pearson is not the only corporation earning money from education, it just happens to be the biggest.

A few weeks ago, the big news in educational marketing came from the National Summit on Education Reform. In addition to founder, Jeb Bush, the Chiefs for Change, Joel Klein, and the Gates, media mogul Rupert Murdoch was invited to give a keynote address.  Not long ago, Rupert Murdoch extended the reach of his media empire into education through the acquisition of Wireless Generation, a data management/ instructional technology company similar to Pearson’s SchoolNet.

This deal transpired shortly after former New York City public schools chancellor, Joel Klein, resigned his post to take a position as executive vice president with Murdoch’s News Corp organization. Under Klein, the NYC school system had already established a relationship with Wireless Generation.

Recent articles in EdWeek (Report: Pearson Foundation Finances Trips Abroad for State Ed. Officials) and The New York Times (When Free Trips Overlap With Commercial Purposes) show that questionable relationships between private business and educational leaders and institutions are not isolated local matters. Current federal and state legislation places such large demands on states and local districts for testing, data-collecting, and reporting that school systems (local and state) have little choice but to determine what companies will receive a lion’s share of their resources to comply.

And the lions lay in wait to claim their share. Last year, Albemarle County decided to abandon the GradeSpeed student information system owned by SchoolNet after consistent trouble with the platform.  In it's place, the county contracted with PowerSchool, a Pearson company while continuing to use the SchoolNet data system.  A short time after this decision, the education lion, Pearson, bought the parent company SchoolNet, increasing its reach into the education market even further.

We must have common standards, the standards must be tested, the tests must be graded, the grades must be sorted into data, the data must be reported, and the reports must show that we’ve reached the standards. Companies like Pearson find their way into every element of this circular equation, standing to profit at every arc.

The two articles referenced compare what is happening in education to the way pharmaceutical companies court doctors in order to promote their products. Pearson has been financing trips for top state education officials to Finland, Brazil, and Singapore to meet with education leaders in other countries and Pearson representatives. In a follow-up article in the New York Times, top state officials from Virginia, Iowa, and Kentucky declare that they see nothing wrong with accepting these trips and providing marketing statements to Pearson despite the multi-million dollar contracts the states have signed with Pearson.

Indeed, in a cash-strapped economy, who could blame state and local decision-makers for taking the incentives offered by companies to provide a service that is de facto demanded by state and federal law. If you must choose a product, choose the one with the most attractive package.

Reports from earlier in the year indicate how Pearson hopes to benefit from our current direction in education:

“Pearson, which has spent around $1.4bn on education companies since selling its stake in Interactive Data Corporation for $2bn last year, said the acquisition would be earnings neutral in 2011. It believes Schoolnet will benefit from the Obama administration's $17bn drive to support school improvement through measures such as comprehensive data systems.” (Pearson among FTSE gainers as it buys US group Schoolnet)

As the American economy dries up and traditional markets lose profitability, corporations such as Pearson have moved into the untapped revenue source of local taxpayers through public school spending:
“The greatest risk of having such a significant slice of the revenue pie coming from US education is the dependence on state budgets. However, Barack Obama's government has highlighted education as an area of the US that requires reform.”(Pearson bets on growth in US education: Pearson has spent years building its US education business and clearly sees more room for growth.)

Having spent billions of dollars in building an educational corporation, certainly companies in this market have a voice in our government. As much as teachers’ unions are criticized for holding up education reform, can they possibly command as much influence. I’m not sure that the NEA has ever funded a trip to Singapore for government education officials. Yet, the multi-national profit machines have managed to convince an American public that teachers and especially teacher unions are the problem.

On several Lobbying Reports filed on behalf of Pearson in 2011, the following statement summarizes their lobbying efforts:
“Pearson, the foreign entity identified on the LD-1, supports reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act that includes quality assessments, technology, student data systems and records, literacy programs and opposes government funding of open education resources development.”
We more commonly refer to the current manifestation of the ESEA as No Child Left Behind. As of today, 37 of 50 states have indicated their intent to apply for a waiver from this law. Republicans and Democrats alike criticize the act. Across the nation, students, teachers, and parents have raised their voices in concern over the emphasis it places on standardized testing. In a season of declining budgets, prevalence of “assessment, technology, and data” has led to diminished respect and support of the role of teachers in education.  And, private interests push for ownership rather than collaboration through opposition to open resource development.

The corporate educators of America continue to influence and direct public education policy in a way that allows the corporate sector to earn significant revenue at the taxpayer’s expense.

For argument’s sake, let’s say that I am doing the same thing. My paycheck comes out of your pocket. If you don’t like what I’m doing as a teacher, come on down to Albemarle High School and have a talk with me. If that doesn’t work, try my principal. Not happy with the outcome yet? We’ve got a Superintendent and an assistant or two who would be glad to discuss your problem with me. It’s happened before and it is a good thing. That’s accountability.

On the other hand, let’s say you believe a question on your child’s last standardized test was biased, or perhaps you have reason to believe the test score is inaccurate. Maybe you have a problem with single shot multiple choice assessment in general. Who do you go to about that? I doubt the office doors at Pearson are open to the public. You my taxpayer, parent, concerned citizen friend are out of luck.

All of this discussion leaves me feeling quite quixotic. What can we do? The policy makers at state and local levels use test data to justify their decisions this year and then explain them away the next when the latest round of data show they didn’t make AYP. Our educational and political leaders engage in rhetoric that promotes deeper thinking and learning, praising teachers for their efforts. When you follow the money, the direction of their words make little sense. They continue to support reforms driven by corporate interest by contracting with the very companies who stand to profit the most from test-driven, data-generating, technology based reforms.

In the world of education, we are the 99%; parents, students, teachers.  It's time for our voice to make a difference.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Quick Roundup and Apologies

Sticking with the current events theme of some recent posts, there continues to be a great deal of conversation about the Occupy Wall Street movement.  More of that in a second. The TU was at the annual "Making Connections" conference held by our division at one of our local High Schools. We indeed connected with our fellow educators and  in an usual occurrence ate lunch above ground.  Bad news is that Harold Camping has revised his previous prediction.   Just when you thought things were looking up, we learn we are all doomed once again.  

In an conclusion that can be described as equally relevant, Newt Gingrich appeared on Face the Nation and commented...

"We have had a strain of hostility to free enterprise and frankly, a strain of hostility to classic America starting in our academic institutions and spreading across this country," he added. "And I regard the Wall Street protests as a natural outcome of a bad education system teaching them really dumb ideas."
Comments from to 5:10

As a member of this bad education system let me be among the first to apologize for anything else I am responsible for.  I'd add that Mr. Gingrich does better job as the former House Speaker than he does as an analyst on things, especially education(Dennis Hastert would never throw me under the bus like that).   I can certainly be criticized for some things I have done or have not done as a teacher but I think one would have to stop just short of blaming me(or any teacher) for this protest.  For the record I support free enterprise and don't want to share any wealth, especially mine.  But there is plenty of evidence socio-economic level is something that impacts education(I agree).

Speaking for myself I do believe that the government should when necessary compel our citizens to act in the best interest of our nation and not always for themselves.   The debate comes begins when we discuss how to best go about that.   I start with the  Constitution,  a brilliant creation of mankind that attempts to balance the needs and rights of both individuals and society as a whole.  Does a darn good job I might add.    This is among the dumb ideas we teach.   (Not among these is the idea that the Congress can "ignore" Federal Judges as Mr. Gingrich later stated. )

We asked around and what follows is a list compiled by experts on the events of the past year that can in fact be traced to actions of the TU.

(Feel free to add a comment with what you've done over the past year that you are either sorry for or proud of.  Funny or not.)

Oprah Retires

The Arab Spring

Jonas Salk invents the Polio Vaccine(we read this on the internet so it must be true)

Brette Favre Retires(again)

 The Miami Heat fail to win the NBA title(healing Cleveland's wounds)

The Text Neck Institute is Founded('s real   )

Rebecca Black's Friday becomes less popular

The NFL Lockout Ends

Friday, October 7, 2011

Too Big to Fail

Yep, our schools are too big to fail. Or they should be. Heck...I can't figure it out.  Funny thing to me is many argue(including the TU) that schools aren't all really failing.  But Wall Street and many other parts of our financial sector did fail.  And they, unlike schools, ran into trouble due to a "crisis of their own creation".  Near as I could tell the Feds spent  $700 billion in TARP funds and proposed $450 billion in the Jobs Bill.  Compare that to about $120 Billion(no small sum) on Education this year and it makes little sense. We got regulation and little funding and the business sector got the money and not enough regulation.  But with tight budgets money will be harder to come by everywhere.  What bothers me to be honest is the close relationship between corporations and political funding.  People are mad at all kinds of things and I am among them in that sense at least. 

I've heard that expression Too Big to Fail used to describe the rationale for the billions sent bail outs  and frankly I'm not quite smart enough to know whether that statement holds water.  Something is failing because I know smart educated people living near me who cannot find work.  And like most folks I'd ain't me messing things up.   I'm too busy trying to manage things myself.  So what's the problem?  Uh...?  Sticking to education I think we've done a fairly decent job of expressing this from our perspective. 

I don't necessarily think we need money going out to schools or business to solve problems and might get farther if we put people in charge willing to compromise and listen to each other and promote actual good ideas.  Be they running the federal government, the state govts, a corporation or a school good people care about people before everything else.    Those not focused on self promotion, advancement or spin might do a great deal to remedy any issue we might confront.  But these folks are pretty rare in the thin air of power. 

Throughout I manage to find humor amongst the gloom by not getting to caught up in things.  One guy that helps that we here at TU have shared before is The Daily Show's Jon Stewart.  He finds ways to make me laugh at things that aren't really funny.  A skill most teachers need.  This clip involves the Occupy Wall Street movement and I think their ideological similarity to the Tea Party.  Everyone is so caught up in arguing political ideology that most of them can't see they are frustrated by the same things.  Stewart makes me laugh because he never takes it too seriously.  At least in comedy we are not failing.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Me, Us and Them

Populations are made up of individuals.  The wise teacher figures out quickly each class is full of individual kids.  Likewise schools are composed of individual teachers. When you start treating individual teachers as unimportant, then ultimately schools will become unimportant. I can't escape the reality that such an Orwellian reality has arrived when a parent goes online and looks me up deciding if I am a good teacher before meeting me or talking to anyone who has kids I've taught. Or a reformer looks at data and makes a determination without even speaking to anyone in a school.

For the unlearned out there here's a little wikipedia help: ORWELLIAN-describes the situation, idea, or societal condition that George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free society. It connotes an attitude and a policy of control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past. I can think of a few things I deal with daily that fit that mold. The most immediate is how schools and teachers are being treated across the nation.

Essentially at their root many of the ideas I think are ill conceived seem to erode my ability to operate with autonomy. Should I have a completely free hand to do what I want? Of course not. But one concept that seems to echo with me is that those shaping teaching view it as a science that can be adjusted in such a way to produce a definite outcome. Where decisions are made by those who operate in a data first environment.  Many teaching see the world differently.  We  know teaching is an art.  Imagine a concert where all the solos were scripted.  A museum that only featured paint by number artwork.  A football team where players ran plays from a script based solely on down and distance unconcerned with score or field position.    Those things might be functional and generate predictable outcomes but they would also be very limiting.   As a teacher I need to be able to have freedom and play to my strengths on a daily basis.  One big thing impeding this is the smothering amount of demands being placed on me.

Already this year I have struggled to become quickly familiar with all my students.  I know that a positive relationship is often key to their success.  I am struggling to give and grade rigorous assignments in a timely fashion. While chalking it up to age at first I realized I have 142 kids. That alone is enough to bury me in grading if I let it. (1 essay, 5 mins each x 140 = 11 hours)   Couple it with the push to standardize curriculum and all the other adjustments I've made over the past  3 years and those I make daily and kids could start to slowly slip to just a name and number on a page and simply part of a larger whole. Sure some of that is the compulsory teacher griping.  It is also a red flag.  Nowhere am I hearing this on the news or even in discussions about our division.   These issues are veiled by clips of new computers, talks of budgets and a Newsweek ranking.

Now hard work never killed anyone.  Countless people work hard every day.  I suspect many teachers think they work too hard when they actually don't.  But too much work will in fact kill my ability to teach well.  Some of the most successful and competitive companies in the world recognize this fact and build in "free" time for their employees to innovate.  In that sense the private sector has realized the value of their workers.  I am getting to the point where I literally can't do a good job with my kids. Yet I am being held more accountable.  I am losing the ability to practice my craft...and it is not my fault.  I can cover content, collect data, assign a grade...but in no way can I maintain much of what I do that matters so much. All this stuff we've been talking about on this blog over the past months is starting to prevent me from being as good of a teacher as I am capable.

My concerns about student load and class size would be dismissed by folks who would point to data and studies about successful schools. They say it matters little in terms of affecting student success. They are wrong. Efforts to replicate the famous STAR study on class size from Tennessee are a classic example of wayward policy when people forget the importance of individuals. Probably a result of paying people to sit and analyze data far removed from the people the information represents.  This is in my opinion a useless enterprise.   That is after all what computers are for. 

Claims that changes are needed to standardize curriculum intending to give all students access to quality teaching and instruction who currently do not have it drive a disproportionate number of decisions. The basic premise is to fix the SYSTEM without regard to the impact it has on the people within it.  Thus revealing the absence of any appreciation for the individual teacher and what they accomplish every day.  Big mistake. You can't on one hand claim quality teachers are among the biggest factor in student growth and then ignore what they say and what makes each of them unique.  And yes I feel ignored. 

There are certainly bad teachers. Heck maybe I'm among them by some measures that are used.  But who in their right mind would make efforts to identify bad teachers using methods that adversely affect all those that are not. You cannot simply look at what one teacher does well and finds as effective and then ask other teachers to replicate that same thing. Certain patterns and skills may easily transfer but there are way too many variables to begin to think that it makes any sense whatsoever to just make that idea bigger.

Average Class Size affects the quality of what kids can get from me while they are in the classroom. Total Student Load affects what I the teacher can do. The greatest flaw with any research on teaching is that researchers don't seem to talk to real teachers during their research. The mountains of data keep them from seeing that all those kids I have prevent me from realizing my potential as a teacher, no matter how many methods or techniques I have access to.  The same is true for students who are increasingly being asked to take on a greater academic  load.  Sure the numbers look good from far away but get closer and you'll see what the unintended impact is on individual kids and families.  While all this unfolds the term accountability is thrown about as a buzz word like it has any meaning to anyone making decisions.    Now this is not a developing nation's classroom lacking basic necessities, but I can affect more positive change with fewer kids.  I am drowning in work.

So classes are made up of individual kids and the fact I might now be unaware that one of them was having a bad day matters a lot. The fact I didn't ask how they were doing and engage them in potentially the only real conversation they'll have all day matters.  The fact I now teach 142 separate people matters.  No Child Left Behind actually has meant more kids in my classes making it harder to identify and focus on ones that need more help.  Shame that teachers were and continue to be left out of the loop and simply treated as the group causing the problems and not potential solutions.  No doubt we might offer quite a few good ideas that would affect immediate change for the better.  Because we are plugged into what is happening.  I know these issues are present elsewhere but they never emerge from behind the newest and latest drive for innovation and reform.  Truth is I can hardly tell where we are headed by looking back at the track we are following.  That's scary and might mean all these efforts aren't really getting us anywhere.

As we prepare to tighten our belts once again as our division faces budget shortfalls I cannot help but expect that means my job will again get harder.   That affects me.  I have concerns on what changes and cuts mean to all of us in this building every day.  I can only hope that decision makers will recognize how the easy course is not always the better course and think first of us and not of them as they chart a course and navigate our course.  Be forewarned though that an unappreciative view of the significance and talents of individuals will simply contribute to more ideas not worthy of the term reform.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Happy Birthday To Us!

On October 1, 2010 we set out to create a blog dedicated to raising awareness of the issues faced by teachers in the 21st century public school system.  It all started with a reaction to the film "Waiting for Superman" and the immediate negative public attention it drew to teachers and the public school system.  Over this past year, we've commented on numerous world and national issues that relate to education and tried to offer a bit of encouragement and humor through the Teaching Underground.

We watched our stats excitedly the first month and sought input from friends and colleagues about the blog.  When our hit counter reached two hundred the first month, we thought we were on to something.  Then we stopped counting our own hits and realized we weren't.  That was a joke, but now after a year, and over 10,000 page views we know that even if only a handful of people appreciate what we have to offer it is worth the effort.

Maybe it shows in our posts.  We love teaching, and we love doing it in our little basement at Albemarle High School.  We don't have windows and the humidity is killer, but standing in the midst of hundreds of teenagers every week is a life-giving profession.  We hate the politics, local or national, that get in the way or make our job harder, but whether it is technology, teaching strategies, or assessment tools that make sense and help students learn, we seek it out and welcome the opportunity to grow.

Several people have liked our Facebook page and a few have provided links on their websites, and we appreciate the support.  We hope to continue bringing the Teaching Underground to the world for the indefinite future, so we're going to use this post as our annual fund drive.  Of course we're not making money, and the site doesn't cost us anything but time.  But to celebrate our birthday with us, spread the word about the Teaching Underground.  We've tried to keep from being too self-promoting, but if you enjoy the site, join our followers on Google or Facebook or subscribe using the RSS feed or e-mail.  Share our posts or site on Twitter, StumbleUpon, or your favorite social media site.  After all, we'd probably grow bored and stop if we didn't have readers like you to support us.

Finally, a big thank you to all of our readers.  We appreciate all of your comments.  Year one of the Teaching Underground has been a wonderful experience for us, and I look forward to all that the next year will bring.