Tuesday, February 19, 2013

5 Things about the week meaning the World is in Deep Trouble

We had a workday on Monday and although poorly timed it was well needed.  I had my daughter with me and some of my co-workers pressed for childcare also had kids in tow.  It turned out to be a mildly productive day.  During the course of the day the TUs conversation turned towards troubling signs.  Bad things abound. 
What better way to alleviate that anxiety than to share the cause for concern with our reader...I mean readers.  Hopefully a little humor will break the tension.

#1 That Russian Meteor-
Are you kidding me?  Nothing was funny about that incident and the people who were hurt but what's worse is apparently no one among all those math and science folks, who were focused on approaching asteroid due a day later,  even knew it was coming.  Can you imagine if that meteor hit near Moscow or New York about 20 years ago?  It'd be The Day After,  Walking Dead and Dr. Strangelove all rolled into one. I guess Bruce Willis was too busy making Die Hard sequels to head up into space, drill a hole and blast that rock in a different direction.   I don't wear a diaper but if stuff liked this happened more often, I might start.

I am left wondering after Neil DeGrasse Tyson told us we don't have a plan and he wished NASA or someone had a plan for deflecting them.  Great!?  Anytime you get to talking about NDGT you have send a shout out to Carl Sagan.

  And how come everyone in Russia has dashboard cam?  But they do have the best Youtube videos.

#2 Harlem Shake
Speaking of Youtube videos, this Harlem Shake  thing is out control.  In a bad way.  It's like that Friday song, Call Me Maybe, Psy all mashed together and sung by different people.  Even the TU has been guilty of jumping on the bandwagon.  We just enough self respect not to share or post it.  What's wrong with you people?  I am just glad this stuff didn't occur when I was in college.  It's just a matter of time before someone takes to the next level.  What does that mean?  I have no idea.  But other than the previous link you simply cannot top the one under water or this.  Nor should  we try.  I tried to explain the phenomenon to someone who didn't get it only to realize halfway through my explanation,  there is no "it."  It is just dumb.  The only thing dumber is the fact that 3 colleagues today commented to me "Harlem Shake, what's that?"  What do you say to that? 

 #3 Blackboard Wars
For the record if questioned publicly or in the presence of anyone I respect I will deny it,  but I watched a show on the Oprah Winfrey Network.  The series is called Blackboard Wars and it concerns John McDonogh High in New Orleans that becomes a charter school and the principal tasked with turning it around.  I'm not a huge fan of Docu-Series,  reality TV, Oprah, school take overs or motivations of those filming real people's lives but I was interested.    It is a jarring look at some of the nation's most difficult educational issues.  In one scene the principal deals with an angry student and comments to the security guard on the way to the office something to the effect of  "throw him out of here if he...(edited)"  Such an either or scenario would never fly in a regular school and looks past the fact that that kid will just end up somewhere else.  Public schools might be able to move that student but must still devote a great deal of resources somewhere in the system to educate them, as they should.  There is a boundary though and enough is enough when other kids are affected.  We must deal with reality.  And on occasion working to save every child can adversely affect some others. Jay Mathews said something about it the other day.   "Why are traditional public schools forced to keep dangerousand disruptive students who make it difficult for other students to learn?"

Later a community member confronts the principal expressing distrust about a California charter company coming in a taking over.  The principal responds with a comment that includes mention of test scores.  Really?  Not that he isn't well intentioned(he is) and isn't on track with what the school has failed to do for scores of students.  But it also misses the point.  The field is not level and charter schools might be part of the answer but they are not the answer.  But again I am not admitting I watched the whole show or even get that network.  You say it, Ill deny it.

#4 Mmmm...What?
On Thursday last week classrooms were visited by signing Valentines as has been tradition the past 30 or so years.  Not a great day to teach per se but you deal.  Raises a lot of money and as you might expect sometimes there are a few complications.  Students in my room were well behaved.  I asked several times if students knew certain songs based on the lyrics.  Thought then I'd challenge them and I hit them with"
"You have so many relationships in this life
Only one or two will last
You go through all the pain and strife
Then you turn your back and they're gone so fast"

 Give Up?  Its Hanson.  You know MMM Bop...Yeah that song.  Sad part was when I told my class of ninth graders,  not a one knew what song I was referencing.  WHAT?  A quick Google search revealed that was a 1997 hit and they were not born yet.  Am I old?  Yes.  Yes I am. My cultural references may be out of date.  A troubling sign.
This version might even be a bit better than the original. 


#5 It was just a Tough Week?
Then there is all of this.
The Pope
North Korea
 It's not really President's Day?

Guess it could be worse.  I could have been the cruise director aboard the Carvnival Triumph.  Sheesh.  So in the meantime let's all agree to simply focus on the task at hand and like we do every single day, just keep doing our best.

Oh well.  Hope this week holds better.  Let's Meet it head on..."Leeeerooooooy Jenkins!"   (You might have to look that cultural reference up)

Friday, February 15, 2013

"Let Them Play"- Homeschoolers and High School Athletics

I couldn't play In VA.  Or the Jets.
Tim Tebow's fortunes changed a lot in the past 12 months as he went from Denver Bronco playoff winning QB to New York Jets afterthought.  The same cannot be said Virginia Delegate Rob Bell's bill that affects the eligibility of home-schooled athletes playing on public school teams.  The Virginia version of the Tebow Bill failed for a 2nd consecutive year in a Senate Committee vote.  So should we "let them play?"  We briefly touched on this issue before.  It is a lively and complex discussion.  

Three bills began a journey but Bell's advanced to this point falling short by only one vote.  The bill would have allowed homeschool students to play for Virginia High School League athletic teams. A move opposed by the Vigrinia High School League(VHSL).  Ken Tilley represented the VHSL and shared the concerns over fairnss issue such as take 5 pass 5. “A basic eligibility requirement is that an individual must be enrolled in a member school as a full-time student in order to represent that school in interscholastic competition. It is impossible to equate academic requirements when one group must attend and pass at least five subjects offered for credit toward graduation and another group has no such requirement.”

Opponents maintain participation in sports is a privilege surrendered when students opt out of the public school system; that home-schoolers might take roster spots from public school students; and that it would be extremely difficult to apply the same academic, attendance and discipline requirements to home-schooled students as to those who are monitored daily in public schools.

Another opponent and former state superintendent of public schools, Ken Bosher,  who generally supports home-schooling said: “I support choice, but if you’ve chosen that, you can’t use public schools as an à la carte system." 

Bell and supporters of the bill, which has appeared in some form for the last 3 sessions,  bring up fairness maintaining it is unfair that student who are home-schooled pay taxes but are denied the chance to play.   Many see this as an issue of choice in our nation which is hard to argue against.  The bill was scripted in such a way requiring  home-schooled athletes to live in their public school districts to play.   Also they must have been home-schooled for at least 2 years to be eligible.  He added the bill would still allow local school districts to set their own participation rules, which could limit or prohibit home-schooled athletes.  The bill will likely be introduced again next year and there is a great deal of sound logic to justify why the law should be changed.  Time will tell if a year will change its fate. 

As a teacher and coach I personally oppose the bill.   Maybe I am just mad and thinking "If our school and teachers are not good enough for you, why should our teams and coaches be?"  That some would only value what our athletics has to offer, just seems hypocritical.  But I am not sure I have a sound position based on reasonable analysis.  That's the rub.  I am not sure why I know it is not a good idea.  On principle I suppose.  I know we are not talking about that many kids and I can't rationalize keeping any deserving kid from benefiting front the experience of team sports.  I wouldn't feel good about denying them that opportunity simply based on how they are educated.  Can I?

I can.  I think this is my best attempt to articulate why.    It's not fair.  As a coach I am unable to keep all who try out.  So next week I'll likely have to look into a few young players' eyes and say, "I'm sorry."  That's not easy and could be argued, its not fair.  Could their parents use the same fairness argument and maintain they should not be excluded since they pay taxes and have even met specific requirement? Increasingly High School sports are less significant to college scholarships in favor of  AAU. Junior Olympics, club soccer being preferred for elite athletes.  Today there are many opportunities to participate in organized sports beyond the schoolhouse door in most communities so they would likely still be able to play.

Further the difference between classrooms and sports is that sports are a privilege, not a right.   I see it that student-athletes have to earn  the honor of representing our school.  How can they do that if they don't even go here?  That privilege can be taken away or even denied based on what most of us agree are acceptable criteria.   Sports do much to further our educational mission and contribute to our sense of community.  The change would undermine some of that and open schools to a lot of sticky situations.  Kids are required to meet certain criteria and not the least  of which is managing it all.   Students and families who want to participate in organized sports may have to make significant sacrifices to do so.   Similarly the freedom afforded to Home-school families costs them in some ways as well and in this case it is the chance to play for a local high school team.   No matter how well they fit in, a home-schooled kid will always be a home-schooled kid. 

Is my logic flawed?  Probably.  Certainly others might see it differently.    I guess I am happy I don't have to make that call.  It is now up to the state to change the law.  Politics being what they are it wouldn't surprise me to see more conservative forces get this through in the near future.   Maybe one day the division or the school will decide.  Maybe even one day me as a coach.  Like I said.  It's complicated. 

There is more to it than that.  I often find myself chanting "Let Them Play".  So the tail end of this post might explain why I do that and shed a little more light on the issues involved though odd metaphor. 

The debate is much like one of the most "American" films of all time,  Bad News Bears in Breaking Training.  When one of my idols, Kelly Leak,  drove his team of misfits to play the Toros and ended up at the Houston Astrodome in an awesome van.  There, united with his estranged dad, played by William Devane, they had to convince stadium and game officials to "Let Them Play" while another of my idols Tanner Boyle races around evading capture.   I might be underselling the movie or oversimplifying the current discussion.  No matter.  How you see this depends on where you are sitting in the first place.

My observations:
Home-schoolers aren't the bad guys.  Neither were the Toros or the officials who wanted to end the game so the pros could play their game.  They just see things differently.

Its not the same- No matter what the sequel to Bad News Bears could not live up to the experience of the first.  Maybe it is worth the effort, maybe not.  Perhaps the same could be said of allowing Home-schoolers to play.

Kids can't always win-We can't forget the Bears lost in the final game in the original.  Failure is a great teacher and that is why I also don't think no cut is a good idea.  maybe this year the Bears won because of the lessons learned from their loss the previous season.

The Astrodome Scoreboard was awesome- I don't need to add anything to that and feel that the debate in the Senate should have mentioned that somewhere. 

For more on the Issue

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The TU Rebuttal to the POTUS SOTU

Yes, we're teachers, and teachers love acronyms- well, maybe not, but we sure do learn to live with them. So welcome the the 2013 Teaching Underground rebuttal to the President of the United States' State of the Union Address.

 I'm admittedly cold toward the President's education agenda this year. With our own state governor, Bob McDonnell appearing side by side with Louisiana's own Bobby Jindal, I think that Virginia has enough to worry about with state education policy without trying to smell what the Feds are cooking. If you haven't formally done so already, be sure to roll out the carpet and welcome the corporate reform agenda to Virginia education politics.

 Despite the state of our State, we've made an annual tradition out of rebutting the President's education comments during the State of the Union Address. I think the Tea Party has already offered their rebuttal before the speech is even delivered. We've kept a little more decorum on this platform and waited until the words were uttered from Mr. President's mouth. So without anymore hesitation, our fellow Americans, here's our thoughts: (Words of the President in italics)

  It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation.

Good start Mr. President.

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program...  lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America... So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.

More praise from the TU on your remarks here Mr. President. The path to equal opportunity begins early. It is not enough to simply open the door for our children unless we've prepared them to walk through it.

Let’s also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job. Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job. At schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools, the City University of New York, and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering. We need to give every American student opportunities like this. 

I don't think that high school is an "employment agency" but neither is it a stepping stone to academia. High school is the place where emerging adults grow into themselves and launch into the world of adulthood. I like the language of putting our kids on a path to a good job, whether that is through employment immediately after graduation, post high school training programs, or further education in college. But in order to fulfill the President's words in this statement, we must begin to take career and technical education as serious as college preparatory education in America. Neither should gain at the expense of the other.

Four years ago, we started Race to the Top – a competition that convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards, for about 1 percent of what we spend on education each year. Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future. 

Please don't pass off Race to the Top as a success. And as for convincing almost every state, it was more like coercion. You abused executive power to bypass legislative inefficiency to get your way. Not one of your better moments. I'm wary of the use of rewards from your administration because it doesn't fall far from manipulation and usurpation of local control of education. But, I appreciate seeing the reward focused on input more than output. Partnerships as you speak of might be a positive movement into the 21st century.

 Now, even with better high schools, most young people will need some higher education. It’s a simple fact: the more education you have, the more likely you are to have a job and work your way into the middle class. But today, skyrocketing costs price way too many young people out of a higher education, or saddle them with unsustainable debt. Through tax credits, grants, and better loans, we have made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years. But taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize the soaring cost of higher education. Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it’s our job to make sure they do. Tonight, I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act, so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid. And tomorrow, my Administration will release a new “College Scorecard” that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.

I would have normally omitted this part of the speech as it focuses more on college policy, but the last sentence struck me after reading Ken Bernstein's piece on the Washington Post Answer Sheet earlier this week. He warns college professors that they're beginning to receive the products of the "No Child Left Behind Generation." I would add to the warning that what has become of k-12 education in regards to test-based accountability and corporate driven reform is creeping into the arena of higher education as well. The "scorecard" idea sounds appealing, but I'm apprehensive that attempts to "measure" or "grade" quality in these institutions may drive higher education to value what is measurable more than continuing to pursue immeasurable goals of true value.

My personal "SOTU Scorecard", I'd give the President a B on tonight's address. In the field of education, C+. The rhetoric is not so bad, but I'd like to see the action behind it for a real evaluation. The President has expressed concern over the role of excessive testing in k-12 education and nothing in this address appears to increase or reduce the burden of testing. His comments do veer toward the positives in our system and ways to build upon success more than looking toward the negative.

In light of the political movement in Virginia education policy during the last two legislative sessions, most anything the President says would be an improvement. That's a wrap for this years analysis. I'd love to comment on the economy, gun control, world poverty, and many other notable items discussed by the President, but that's a topic for lunch tomorrow. Education is all you get from the Underground.

Friday, February 8, 2013

APWATW (A picture is worth a thousand words) Snow Day

As Josh Davis called my house for the 5th time this year I rolled over with a sense of peace rare in today's world.  After the sun rose, I looked out my window surprised by the lack of white.  So the Teaching Underground sent out  a crack team of investigators to search for answers.  They uncovered this photo, apparently the real reason Albemarle County Schools had a snow day today.

Kids are indeed resourceful.

Feel free to add a comment below.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Charging Kids Too Much

No this isn't about any of the hated student fees or charges that are becoming far too common amidst declining state support.  It is about something even more important.

I ask you to imagine:

A bank that credits your account each morning with $86,400. It carries over no balance from day to day. And that is the only downside to it all.  Every evening it deletes whatever part of the balance you fail to use during that day.
What would you do?

Most would make sure they use every last cent.  Anyone who doesn't is a fool. And those who realize this and still leave change in the deposit is a bigger fool. Right?

Well each student has such a valuable bank. They do not have to open an account. But such an account belongs to them since the day they were born. In fact, we all get to use such an account. It's called TIME.

The cost of education is more than money.

Every of us is credited with 86,400 seconds each and every day. And every night it writes off as lost whatever you have failed to invest wisely. It carries no balance. It allows no overdraft. Each day it opens a new account. Time lost is time lost forever. 

One thing I have noticed over the past few years in my division is how busy everyone seems to be.  I know for me trying to raise two kids, be a husband, teach 6 classes, coach and also find time for me among a thousand others things is tough.  I cannot imagine what it is like for a student in high school.  I often feel sorry when I assign homework or projects that as an educator I know is worthwhile.   They smile less, seem stressed and generally seem to find less joy in school.
I quit Facebook.  No one noticed.

Some students choose to spend that money in big chunks and take 5 or 6 AP classes, play multiple sports and volunteer time for charities.  I know some waste hours on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Texting, SnapChat and a handful of other social media sites  So what?  It is their time.  Others have less choice and in the midst of being saddled with 8 classes in order to graduate, they work, help raise their brothers and sisters and provide for their families.  

All the while, others that are far removed from the true cost of things very callously "bill" us all with more time.  Be it at the federal, state or local level the upward push has meant more and more of our $86,400 is already spoken for.  The addition of a personal finance credit, an online course, individually don't amount to much.  But they add up quickly.

How refreshing would it be to just speak up and say, "No, this is my money(time)", "I will not spend it doing that".  Not spoken in a defiant tone but one that seeks control.  Real Choice. Opportunity to spend our money in a manner suitable to our own wants and needs.  Not those of a bygone era.   Longer days and extended schools years be darned.

Some things will never change
I do not favor abandoning the traditions of the past and replacing them with flashy and shiny alternatives on the exterior that have no enduring value.  Nor am I suggesting that technology could ever begin to serve as a substitute for genuine and honest human interaction between teacher and pupil.  But we must explore the plurality of ways we can best prepare our kids for each day, as it comes.  We must recognize testing has its place as long as we know its purpose.  Labeling something a "requirement" must not be due to a fad or pressures of the day. Instead we'd reserve that label for those things we deem absolutely essential for a member of a democratic society to endure.

My students and time spent on work
Decision makers and reformers must recognize and appreciate the the value of time.  We know they are concerned about money and budgets.  But time is a form of currency and they are too often spending it for us.  They must acknowledge that the price they are charging is beginning to be excessive.  When given a choice, they should choose quality over quantity and not charge kids too much. 
In so many ways

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Public Good

The narrowing conduit of online information rarely offers much more than amusement or duplicitous thought but on occasion it surprises me with a carefully articulated statement that gives me pause.  Such was the case with something I read back in December.  It contains echoes of what any decent well informed teacher might say.   

While I stumbled across it back in December, I must have at some point thought it useful, as while cleaning out my E-mail drafts this week, there it was.  I had apparently pasted the text there in an effort to reference it later.  It was dated December 17th, three days after the events in Newtown.

The full post was title "The Everyday Heroism of Our Nation's teachers" by Jessie B. Ramey.   I recall thinking differently about the post at the time but the part that gave me pause more than a month later was this exerpt:

"When I look at our public schools, I do not see a security crisis (though surely schools ought to have a security plan and follow it). I do not see a crisis of bad teaching (though we surely ought to be offering “bad” teachers some assistance, and helping others to exit the profession when teaching is not their right life choice). I do not see a crisis of radical teachers or greedy teachers unions.

We surely have a crisis of gun control and mental health services in this country. But the real crisis in public education is about a lost belief in the public good. It’s a crisis of faith in the common good served by our schools. The forces of privatization feed on that lost faith, insisting that we close more neighborhood schools and hand others over to charter management companies, that we introduce more competition and choice, that we hold teachers and schools “accountable” for low student test scores by punishing them. It’s that lost faith that allows legislators to slash education budgets and forces school districts to eliminate music and library programs for our kids. When we stop believing in public education as a public good, we allow our public tax dollars to flow to private schools and giant international corporations while we demand more and more tests without asking if our students are really learning anything.

When I look at our schools, I see teachers heroically trying to teach our students – without the resources they need, with mind-numbing canned curricula and prepping for high-stakes testing forced upon them, in classrooms with ever larger numbers of kids." 

Well said Jessie. 

On my later reading I took her comments a bit out of context.   It affects the message of what the author intended.  But that phrase public good called out to me both times.  The concept of public good seems lost in the debate about education reform(and arguably much else).  Private interests seem to be pushing us to look right past one of the main aspects of our entire education system.  The fact that it is public.  That ought to mean something.

Public schools have grown into one of most important public institutions.  They are a reflection of our local communities and enrich them in countless ways.  The same is true of private and religious schools.  This Public Good is a pillar of democracy.  Public schools, public parks, public libraries, public museums, public hospitals, public colleges, are all struggling to maintain quality as government finances are strained.  

George Mead once said
"To be interested in the public good we must be disinterested, that is, not interested in goods in which our personal selves are wrapped up."  

Adam Smith would disagree.  But surely they'd find common ground on the concept of the mutual benefit to society of certain public institutions.  I don't know that I'd go farther than Mead and say something like teachers don't care about money, but I would strongly suggest that many of the forces driving the dialogue affecting the public good, our schools are motivated by something far from a common good.  Headed by selfish groups, not moral individuals, they see schools as an untapped source of revenue and money.   Even in public/private partnerships they seek to cash in on the declining of support for public goods and substitute their interests for our own.  The growing tide where people seek private alternatives for schools, hospitals and the like is a bad sign.  But our civic institutions should not be for sale.  

Our schools and the public good should not be proprietary.  They are OUR schools after all and no one should own them.  Public monies intended to serve the public good should not be diverted to private entities seeking to benefit from this deterioration.    It is often  appropriate to pay a private company to perform work or provide services that benefit the public.  But privatizing public schools strays far from that.  The practice threatens to degrade one of our most important social institutions in the name of profit.   The social fabrics woven together in a local school are essential for a functioning democracy.    Jumping ship and abandoning the schools in favor of digital substitutes, networked classrooms or corporate managed testing plants is an abrupt and seismic change.  

The combined effort of private profit driven groups and ill-informed reformers are re-shaping the way we prepare our children for the future.  They advocate teaching in a manner that does little for the public and much for themselves.   The Common Core illustrates this point.  Not because the standards are necessarily bad.  But ask where the push is coming from.  Is it the public?  Or groups that would benefit from having one set of standards across the nation?   That could be measured with one test.  Taught with one set of curriculum materials.  They insert themselves and remove society as a whole from directing our public schools.  Marketing this cause undermines public support for schools, and potentially,  a school's ability to function and serve, you guessed it, the public good. 

 Any school that doesn't adapt and change amidst the revolutionary changes of the 21st century is indeed ill performing.  But that is a far cry from justifying the school closing, online course laden,  charter pushing, part time teacher exclusionary educational world being crafted in the wake of such change.  If we indeed are indeed to succeed together in the future we need leaders who have not forgotten the value of the public good.  We further need those that willing to