Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

Moving Toward Fee-For-Service

October 23, 2014 Comments off

I scoured Mokoto Rich’s latest NYTimes article, “Nation’s Wealthy Places Pour Private Money Into Public Schools, Study Finds” in hopes of finding a quote explaining the underlying rationale for the trend described in the headline, which is to move schools toward a fee-for-service model as opposed to a public utility model.

Several years ago when I was Superintendent in MD in the mid 1990s, some leaders of the local business community introduced the idea of creating a foundation to fund some elements of the budget that they felt were discretionary. Their thinking was prompted by the experiences of  states where budget caps were forcing districts to cut things like field trips, elective courses and school clubs and school-based organizations were picking up the costs through private donations. In effect, the business community was seeking to shift the burden away from broad-based taxes toward the end users…. that is making public schooling a fee-for-service enterprise like, say, trash collection.

At the same time as this idea was being floated in the county, I was serving on a State “Blue Ribbon” panel created by the Governor that was examining the funding formula in the state. In retrospect, I can see the connection between these two initiatives more clearly. While the legislators serving the less affluent districts in MD were trying to raise the State’s base contributions to a higher level in hopes of providing their students with an equitable opportunity, the business community was trying to find ways to offset the effects of the loss of State funds they sought through capping taxes by developing “workarounds”.

Over the next 15 years I witnessed a continuation of this tug-of-war between those favoring an increased base in school funding and those advocating a de facto “fee-for-service” model, a tug-of-war that manifests itself in the following ways:

  • The portrayal of  “public schools” as “government run schools”: As the American public’s suspicion of anything associated with the government increased as a result of their belief that “government is the enemy” the so-called “school reformers” re-branded “public schools as “government run schools”. Raising taxes for a “program run but the government” would not meet favor with voters who believe that “the marketplace” can spend more wisely.
  • The increased acceptance that fees are an acceptable means of providing non-mandated programs: My first experience with a fee-for-service model was in the early 1980s with the institution of a fee for Drivers Education based on the rationale that Drivers Ed was not a graduation requirement and taking the course provided a benefit only to those students whose parents could afford a car for the student to drive. In effect, it was an effort to shift the overall cost of an education program that benefits affluent students away from taxpayers who arguably needed relief. When I went to lead schools in Exeter NH I inherited a district policy that required high school students to pay for the bus if they lived within 3 miles of the school building based on the rationale that State law did not mandate transportation for students within that range. In Hanover NH, the district I led in the early 2000s, I inherited a plan whereby the district charged athletic fees each season that covered all of the non-personnel costs for sports that were in place when the fee was instituted. The rationale was that Little Leagues and soccer programs charged fees and parents were accustomed to paying for their children to participate in those town-sponsored activities. I found many of these fees troubling, but I knew that undoing a practice that creates a revenue stream is extremely difficult in a time when many other pressing priorities were in play. Moreover, whenever fees were debated in budget sessions members of the public and Board members would cite practices in CA and several midwestern states where book fees, activity fees, and athletic fees are commonplace. By the time I retired three years ago, the charging of fees for service, once rare, was increasingly commonplace.
  • The increase in privatizing services within schools: As noted in prior posts, schools typically privatize transportation, food services, special education related services, and many non-instructional services related to business operations and technology. With every portion of the budget that is privatized it becomes increasingly easy to argue that another segment of the budget— say music lessons or even tutoring— can be outsourced to lower the budget without compromising the education program.
  • The narrowing of the mission of public education: While much has been written about mission creep in public education, including an article I wrote for a local newspaper over five years ago, the reality is that legislators and the voting public increasingly see school funding being limited to those courses that are graduation requirements and whose focus is academic. The standardized testing regimen as only made this worse by effectively de-emphasizing art, music, and physical education in favor of “academics” at the elementary level and viewing secondary education as preparation for work or college. This narrowing of the content results in schools shedding “non-essential” programs in the arts and “non-essential” electives and extracurricular activities in high schools adding to the joylessness for students and driving parents to either enroll their children in after school elective programs or take their children out of school completely.
  • The expansion of the fee-for-service model across all government services: The “government is the enemy” mentality has increased the level of privatization in other government agencies including the armed forces, parking, and, yes, the return of  toll roads.

These trends do not bode well for those who advocate an increase in the base in school funding, especially given the acceptability of the workarounds for affluent parents. Given the choice between higher taxes to provide physical education and the arts for all children and paying a fee to enroll their children in arts programs and physical activities their children enjoy, it is not surprising that parents accept the less robust program in their schools. From the taxpayers perspective, it is an even easier decision: low taxes will always trump services for children in another town if not their own community. Without the full throated advocacy for equitable funding for all schools, funding that would require the same per pupil expenditures as the most affluent districts now pay, we will never have true equity of opportunity…. and the fees will keep increasing.


The Bomb’s Too Big for the Plane

October 20, 2014 Comments off

Jay Matthews latest blog post in the Washington Post describes a concern raised by education policy writer Mike Petrilli about the “thin content” in his child’s first grade class in Montgomery County, MD. After recounting the somewhat contradictory response he got from two officials in the district in following up on this issue, Matthews invited early elementary teachers in Montgomery County to respond to him about the curriculum expectations. This whole post brought back memories from my career as Superintendent from 1981 through 2011.

In the late 1980s, when districts were reacting to the “rising tide of mediocrity” in public education, several books were written on the topic of curriculum in schools and several consultants made a good living offering workshops and lectures to schools. One of the books that captured the imagination of conservative thinkers and many upper middle class parents was Cultural Literacy by E.D. Hirsch. While many books at the time were long on theories of teaching and learning, Cultural Literacy provided specifics about what students should know and read if they hoped to be culturally literate, to be able to converse with the great thinkers of the time. For the checklist minded, particularly those who favored the “Western Canon”, Hirsch’s books and essays were a Godsend. For teachers, particularly those in schools serving children raised in poverty, the lists were absurd. How could children who could not read at all in third grade be expected to complete the extensive listing of books for students at that grade level and begin to know the information about the world that Hirsch saw as foundational.

During that time, I was leading the Exeter NH School District and we were revamping our curriculum to not only respond to “the rising tide of mediocrity” charge but to also ensure that the students attending six elementary schools in six different communities were offering the content the Junior High and High School teachers believed students should know. While I didn’t know it at the time, I would walk three other districts through this same exercise in the next 25 years. And what I learned from this exercise is best summarized in the metaphor coined by education consultant Fenwick English: we built a bomb so big we can’t get the plane off the ground. That is, by developing curricula that met the expectations of content specialists at the secondary level of our schools and/or the entry level of colleges we created a curriculum that was so dense and full of objectives that no teacher could teach it an no student could learn it.

There is an aphorism that secondary teachers teach subjects and elementary teachers teach students. When secondary teachers develop the benchmarks they want to see all students entering their classrooms with “fundamental information” in their content area but the practical reality is that when TIME is a constant LEARNING will be variable… and in some cases CONTENT will be sacrificed. If the focus on learning was curriculum MASTERY instead of curriculum COVERAGE we might be able to provide content teachers with students who have the fundamental information they seek… but if we insist on schooling children the way we do now, and administering high stakes tests to age based cohorts of children, somethings got to give… and what is giving way is the content in areas that are not the subject of tests.


First Days of School

August 8, 2014 1 comment

As noted in earlier posts, my niece, who is a follower of this blog, is about to begin her second go-round as a high school math teacher. Since I will be unable to maintain my blog for a couple of weeks, I thought I would share some stories from my first go-around as a junior high math teacher in Philadelphia. Here’s a description of my first days as a teacher at Shaw Junior High in September 1970

Just before lunch on orientation day we got our schedules for the coming year. I was assigned to teach four sections of mathematics, one section of reading (all teachers were assigned to a reading class), and had one period for lunch and one prep/team meeting period where I would convene with my team-mates who taught science, social studies, and English. The students were grouped homogeneously into 36 sections of 32 to 38 students each The highest academic section was 8-1, the lowest one was 8-36. The four sections I was assigned? 8-24, 8-30, 8-34, and 8-36. Oh… and as a math teacher I was expected to “float” into other teachers’ classrooms… 23 different classrooms over the course of a week… and the classes I floated into included the adaptive PE classroom (that featured rings and a ladder up the wall) and the cafeteria which was located below grade and on the opposite side of the building from the prior classroom I was assigned to. I asked Ms. Hawkins if she would consider changing at least those two classrooms, and she indicated it was out of her hands… I’d need to see the building’s roster chairman, Mr. McGuigan.

I went to Mr. McGuigan’s office and waited in line with other teachers seeking changes to their schedules.  A balding, heavyset man with thick black glasses, Mr. John McGuigan carried a huge set of keys on his belt and gave off an air of frustration. I listened as he breathed heavily and impatiently explained to each teacher why he was unable to make ANY changes to their roster and why their roster was reasonable. By comparison, their rosters WERE reasonable. Some of them, for example, complained that their classroom faced 54th street instead of Warrington Avenue. By the time I got to Mr. McQuigan his limited patience was far gone. He looked at my schedule and huffed: “The teacher we were going to give this to could have handled it… so can you!”

After a couple of weeks I WAS able to handle it, and do so navigating the halls with an overhead projector. But finding instructional materials for my four sections of 32+ students was a challenge. From the outset it was clear that only a few of the students in 8-24, my “high section” could add, subtract, multiply and divide and that even fewer of the students in 8-36 could add two digit numbers. This was a problem given that the 8th grade textbooks were designed for pre-algebra and there were no supplemental materials available anywhere in the school to help my students master the basics.

My father’s best friend, Doc Jennings, came to the rescue. Doc sold textbooks for DC Heath and when he heard my story of woe one weekend when I was visiting my parents he stopped by my apartment in Philadelphia and gave me several sets of ditto master books for elementary students that had no indication anywhere that they were designed for 3rd and 4th grade students. Some would later call this kind of practice “the soft bigotry of low expectations”…. but I saw it as teaching the students where they were and progressing as far as I could as fast as I could…. and it made me realize that age-level and academic readiness are separate and distinct.

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1970 Strike in Philadelphia

August 7, 2014 Comments off

As noted in earlier posts, my niece, who is a follower of this blog, is about to begin her second go-round as a high school math teacher. Since I will be unable to maintain my blog for a couple of weeks, I thought I would share some stories from my first go-around as a junior high math teacher in Philadelphia.

Here’s a description of the Philadelphia teachers strike in September 1970 as seen through the eyes of a new teacher: 

As a newly assigned teacher to Shaw Junior High School, I was given the opportunity to teach summer school algebra at the school along with a group of Penn graduates who were fast-tracking their certification. The students in the class were much more motivated than the ones I encountered as a substitute but not as motivated as the some of the students I encountered as a student teacher at West Philadelphia High. Their primary motive for attending summer school was to gain promotion to high school. In most cases they were students who skipped too many classes or missed too much school, but in a few cases they were diligent students who just struggled with grasping the subject.

I mention this because my participation in this summer program may be one reason I was not approached to join the union. Indeed, as a “rookie teacher” to the Philadelphia School system I do not recall ever being asked to join the Philadelphia teachers union or ever being given an information packet from the union describing the benefits of joining. I was surprised at this because the newspapers were full of reports about a pending strike and about the steps the district planned to take to staff the schools with new recruits and substitutes in the event the strike occurred. In retrospect I think the major issue at Shaw Junior High was the fact that they were going to be effectively doubling the size of the school by expanding to two shifts and it was probably unclear to the union who was moving to the school and where the teachers were moving from.

The net effect of all of this disarray was that despite the strike, when Shaw Junior High opened, I found myself walking past a line of teachers with picket signs into the auditorium at Shaw Junior high where I was joined by a group that included some of my summer school colleagues, some other newly appointed teachers, some substitute teachers, and a handful of experienced teachers who were not union members by choice. Ms. Hawkins, the mathematics department head, was among the group of experienced teachers on hand and she met with me and the others who crossed the picket lines to learn about the math curriculum and the procedures for procuring textbooks, materials, and AV equipment.

When I returned home after my first day of orientation I was surprised to see media reports of how the strike was playing out In other schools, accounts that included angry pickets shouting at the top of the lungs at “scabs” who crossed picket lines. After my “Fishman” experience I wasn’t entirely certain that these were not staged events… but I learned when I attended my first graduate school class at Penn a few weeks later that the angry picket lines were real and Shaw Junior High was the exception.



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Shaw JHS

August 6, 2014 Comments off

As noted in earlier posts, my niece, who is a follower of this blog, is about to begin her second go-round as a high school math teacher. Since I will be unable to maintain my blog for a couple of weeks, I thought I would share some stories from my first go-around as a junior high math teacher in Philadelphia. Here’s a description of Shaw Junior High in September 1970:

Shaw Junior High School was built in the 1930s and had the “cathedral of learning” architecture of that era. Surrounded by a concrete playground and metal fence it never had a “park-like” environment.

Philly Pix_0012

Shaw’s immediate neighborhood was Jewish, then Italian and Irish… but it never really filled the school to its capacity in the early years of its existence. When other schools in West Philadelphia began to split at the seams Shaw’s attendance boundaries expanded. In the early 1960s the demographics of Shaw’s neighborhood changed quickly as elderly white families moved out or died they were steadily replaced with young black families, many of whom were seeking a better environment than they had in North Philadelphia. By 1970 Shaw drew from a diverse and widespread area and it, too, was bursting at the seams. Because it lacked a “neighborhood”, and because there was no place to put the students, the 3100 students in Shaw’s attendance zone were assigned to split shifts while a new school was built elsewhere in West Philadelphia.

Veteran teachers at Shaw Junior High School who believed their school was always pushed around by the district saw this decision to go on split shifts as further evidence. Shaw Junior High always had been a stepsister in the eyes of 21st and Parkway (the address of Philadelphia’s headquarters). That was the prevailing attitude in the faculty room when school was supposed to open in 1970… but school didn’t open as scheduled because of a teacher’s strike.



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Substitute Teaching

August 5, 2014 Comments off

My niece, who is a follower of this blog, is about to begin her second go-round as a high school math teacher. Since I will be unable to maintain my blog for the next couple of weeks, I thought I would share some stories from my first go-around as a junior high math teacher in Philadelphia. I continue this series with a recollection of one of my first encounters as a paid employee of the Philadelphia School System: working as a per diem substitute:

I answered the ringing telephone at 7:15 AM.

“Mr. Gershwin?”

The caller inexplicably converted my name to that of the famed musician, but rather than correct her, I responded.


“We have an assignment for you this morning at Strawberry Mansion Junior High School if you are wiling to travel into North Philadelphia and teach shop”

I had already established that I was willing to teach outside of my areas of certification when I accepted an assignment working with profoundly retarded children and elementary students in District 1. Now I was being asked to accept an assignment in the most dangerous part of the city in a course that was unlikely to enroll high achieving students… but I the additional funds would help and I was open to new experience. Having gone to baseball games at Connie Mack Stadium in that general area I felt secure driving there in my VW beetle. At being over six feet tall and 210 pounds I felt like I could manage a classroom of junior high students.

“OK. What’s the address and who do I report to?”

I learned from experience that substitutes report to different staff members in different schools.

“It’s at 24th and Berks (Note: This may not be the accurate address but it is the general neighborhood). Go to the registrar’s office”.

I found the school on a city map I had and navigated the streets of North Philadelphia to the school. Since I wasn’t a staff member I could not park my car behind the chain link fence that surrounded the school and, unfortunately, like the neighborhoods near Connie Mack Stadium, street parking was at a premium. I eventually found a parking place two blocks from the school and wended my way through broken glass on the sidewalks to the entrance of the school. I was greeted there by a policeman who summoned an NTA (non-teaching assistant) to accompany me to the registrar’s office.

The registrar looked a bit dismayed at who the “people downtown” sent him as a substitute, and walked me to the classroom where another NTA was standing in front of a group of disinterested young men sitting at drawing tables in an otherwise large, nearly empty rectangular room. A bank of windows in the room overlooked the former playground that now served as the faculty parking area and featured three large tables that looked like they could be used for woodworking. The wall opposite the windows had a bank of locked doors where, according the registrar, the tools were kept… but he told me he did not have the keys and also noted that he didn’t think it would be a good idea for me to supervise kids with tools in any case. I didn’t disagree. He also lamented that the absent teacher had not provided any lesson plans and so… instead of working on the projects they presumably had stored in the locked closets or doing an assignment that would advance their understanding of woodworking, the registrar suggested the students could use their back-to-back shop classes for study hall.

The registrar and the NTA then departed, leaving me in charge of roughly 20 students with nothing to do for the next hour and two more groups to oversee for ninety minute chunks later in the day. One of the young men asked to go the lavatory and I looked in vain for some kind of slip to give him. The student reported that their teacher just let them go when they needed to since the bathroom was just down the hall and his classmates concurred. I let him leave the room. Two minutes later another student asked to leave and I told them they could go one-at-a-time and he could go when his classmate returned.

“He ain’t coming back”, one of the students scoffed. “He’s long gone!” His classmates laughed in agreement. I came up with a gambit:

“I’ll let you go and since the bathroom’s right down the hall I’ll stand in the doorway and watch you head down to make sure you don’t do the same thing.”

This seemed to satisfy the student and seemed to show the class that I was not going to let them vanish one-at-a-time. Seizing the opportunity to retain some modicum of order, I continued:

“OK… now get out your homework and use this time to your advantage”

What I neglected to observe was that NONE of the students had textbooks or notebooks, which one of the students quickly pointed out to me. Another of the students then asked if they could pitch pennies. Being at a complete loss for activities to assign, I agreed to this as long as they didn’t gamble and as long as they remained orderly. For the balance of that period a handful of students pitched pennies while another group talked among themselves and a few students slept.

The grapevine at the school was working effectively. The word got out that the shop teacher was absent which meant some students did not show up at all while those who did knew that the substitute would let them pitch pennies.

During the last period one of the young men asked me what kind of car I had and where it was parked. As I left Strawberry Mansion Junior High that afternoon I made two vows that I kept: I would no longer accept woodshop assignments and I would only substitute in District 1.

One consequence of this experience: Throughout my six years as a building level administrator I was VERY vigilant about having emergency lesson plans in place for each and every teacher.



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Student Teaching

August 4, 2014 1 comment

My niece, who is a follower of this blog, is about to begin her second go-round as a high school math teacher. Since I will be unable to maintain my blog for the next couple of weeks, I thought I would share some stories from my first go-around as a junior high math teacher in Philadelphia. I open this series with a recollection of one of my first experience in the Philadelphia School System: student teaching:

My mother was concerned for my safety.

“I’ve been watching the news and it looks like there are riots going on every day at West Philadelphia High!”

My wife and I looked at each other knowingly. Neither of our parents were happy with the idea that we lived in a marginal neighborhood in West Philadelphia and both were convinced that we would regularly mugged en route to jobs or, in my case, on the job.

“I’ve driven past the school lots of times and been there for orientation and there is no rioting going on despite what the news wants you to believe”.

There was a controversy at West Philadelphia High School involving a white teacher, Dr. Fishman, who was teaching a course in African American History, an area he was unquestioningly credentialed for. Indeed, his dissertation was on that topic and he had been a solid if not beloved member of the faculty at West Philadelphia for several years. His problem was his race: we was not black and in 1969 there was a belief among community leaders that a white man was NOT qualified to teach African American history because he had not lived through the experience of being black. That message resonated with many students and parents and a handful of faculty members and the result was large and noisy demonstrations in front of the school on a daily basis.

When I arrived at West Philadelphia High for my orientation as a student teacher in the English department there were no protesters in front of the school and the halls were quiet and orderly. At one point I commented on this to my teacher-mentor and he explained that near the end of the day or during lunch periods when students are free to leave the campus. Whenever community activists have lined up media coverage, they orchestrate “demonstrations”. He thought the media were making a much bigger deal out of this than his colleague deserved.

During my three months at West Philadelphia I taught a unit on Romeo and Juliet, a unit on poetry that focused on African American poets, and a unit on 1984. By the time I got to the 1984 unit the “Fishman case” was resolved (I forget the outcome but seem to recall it involved assigning him to a central office curriculum development position) but the juxtaposition of Orwell’s writing with the media’s exaggerated coverage of “the crisis” stays with me to this day. The “Fishman case” became an inkblot people could interpret any way they wanted to… and the language used by those interpreting was full of Newspeak.


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