Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Art of teaching’

Here We Go Again… Phonics is Ba-a-a-ack!

January 3, 2019 Comments off

I read Emily Hanford’s NPR report that students can learn how to read if teachers only took the time to teach them how to decode with a mixture of dismay, disappointment, and deja vu! Her report, titled “Why Millions of Kids Can’t Read and What Teachers Can Do About It” breathlessly reports on the findings of the administrative leadership team in Bethlehem PA who “discovered” that reading isn’t a natural process, it is one that is learned through repetitious practice. And because teachers in high poverty schools presumably don’t engage students in the hard work associated with such repetitious practice they are to blame for the low test scores in third grade. The article then described “the science of reading”, which, a reader was led to believe, was a recently discovered “secret sauce” of some sort. Ms. Hanford described a recent staff development workshop as follows:

This was a class on the science of reading. The Bethlehem district has invested approximately $3 million since 2015 on training, materials and support to help its early elementary teachers and principals learn the science of how reading works and how children should be taught.

In the class, teachers spent a lot of time going over the sound structure of the English language.

Since the starting point for reading is sound, it’s critical for teachers to have a deep understanding of this. But research shows they don’t. Michelle Bosak, who teaches English as a second language in Bethlehem, said that when she was in college learning to be a teacher, she was taught almost nothing about how kids learn to read.

“It was very broad classes, vague classes and like a children’s literature class,” she said. “I did not feel prepared to teach children how to read.”

And who came up with this “science of reading”? It was, predictably, the pro-phonics fundamentalists who believe there is a one-size-fits-all method to teaching and learning that is best measured by standardized tests administered to students batched by age cohorts.

I indicated above the reading this report brought a reaction of dismay, disappointment, and deja vu…. deja vu because we are once again getting stuck in the quagmire of the reading wars where pro-phonics fundamentalists claim— without evidence— that all children can learn to read at the same rate if only teachers used phonics to teach them. Dismay because we’ve fought this war repeatedly over the decades and it always concludes with the pro-phonics crowd declaring that their defeat is based on the teachers’ inability to grasp and teach phonics while constructionists rip their hair out because they know that one-size-does-NOT-fit-all when it comes to reading instruction any more than it comes to fitting clothing or shoes. And disappointment because every decade or so someone “discovers” phonics as the ultimate solution to the reading problem.

 

Advertisements

Dwight Scott: A Great Teacher, a Great Coach, a Wonderful Human Being

January 2, 2019 Comments off

I read on Facebook that my younger daughter’s cross country coach, Dwight Scott, passed away at the age of 87. Dwight Scott’s obituary that appeared in the local newspaper in Western Maryland, the Herald Mail, offered this synopsis of his career as an educator:

Coach Scott spent his primary years as an educator at Boonsboro High School, Boonsboro, MD, where he served for 37 years as physical education teacher, coach, and athletic director (final 19 years). He started the football and track and field programs there in the school year 1959-60. Highlights of his time as head coach of the football, track and field, and cross country teams include: Football — ten league or district championships, including two undefeated seasons (1968 and 1969); Girls Outdoor Track and Field — five state championships; Girls Cross Country — also five state championships. After retiring in 1996, Coach Scott was a volunteer assistant for the Boonsboro High School track and field program for 22 years.

Like most obituaries of educators and coaches, this one failed to capture the true essence of the human being who spent years working with students and athletes. It focused on Coach Scott’s major accomplishments: athletic programs he launched, championships he won, and the countless hours he spent as a volunteer for track and field. What it doesn’t capture is how Coach Scott connected with students when he was teaching gym classes, how he connected with athletes and the parents of athletes when he was a coach, and how he connected with his colleagues in the school when he was Athletic Director. And what it fails to capture at all is what a wonderful human being Coach Scott was.

Three personal anecdotes about Coach Scott illustrate his humanity.

When my younger daughter was in middle school, she and her classmates participated in a Field Day at the end of the year. After she did well in the longest run that was part of the event, Coach Scott approached her and two of her classmates and promised them if they joined the cross country team they would win a state championship and he would “graduate” with them in 1996. She and several of her classmates became the core of three of those championship teams on Coach Scott’s list… but they did so because Coach Scott developed a camaraderie among the team and the parents of the team members. Saturday cross country meets were not only competitions between teams from across the region, they were picnics catered by parents who formed their own bonds with each other and with Coach Scott. To his credit, Coach Scott never thought of me as “the Superintendent of Schools”, he thought of me as “Hannah’s dad” and treated me with the same respect as he treated every parent of one of his athletes. We— the cross country athletes and parents— were Coach Scott’s family and we all felt blessed to be a part of it.

During the fall of my daughter’s sophomore year, my father passed away. Between my own grief and the demands of my job, I had lost sight of the impact his passing had on my daughter. Coach Scott called me at work and called my wife at home to let us know that Hannah was experiencing some stress over her grandfather’s death and encouraged us to be sensitive to that. She reached out to him, and he, in turn, reached out to us.

A few years later after I moved from the area and my younger daughter went away to college in New England, Coach Scott learned that my wife had cancer. Because of the team picnics she attended over my daughter’s four years on the cross country team he knew her well… and because he connected with me as a human being he wrote to both is us regularly offering encouragement… and he corresponded with my daughter as well.  When my late wife ultimately passed away, Coach Scott he sent me a touching sympathy card, one that showed he knew my wife well and appreciated her life.

Obituaries cannot capture the humanity of those who pass away, nor can they capture the impact of the deceased on the community at large. Teachers and coaches, especially, touch countless lives. My late wife, daughter and I were touched deeply by Coach Scott, just as parents and students across the nation are touched deeply by thousands of teachers and coaches…. and, just as we touch the lives of everyone we come in contact with on a daily basis.

I believe Coach Scott would want us to honor his memory by honoring every human being we come in contact with the way he honored his athletes and their parents… by inviting every human being to be part of one family the way way he created one family with his cross country team and their parents. I also believe he would want to be remembered for his small acts of kindness more than his championships. Here’s hoping everyone who benefitted from Coach Scott’s humanity pays it forward in the years to come.

 

Chicago: A Happy Ending to the Charter Teachers Strike

December 14, 2018 Comments off

Because I doubt that the reporting on this strike will focus on the humanitarian efforts of the union, I am glad that Diane Ravitch flagged Harold Meyerson’s coverage of this provision:

“As a conclusion of their five-day strike—the nation’s first at charter schools—the teachers not only secured raises for themselves but also a groundbreaking provision to protect their students, whom the union’s attorney described as “overwhelmingly low-income Latino,” from the agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (aka ICE).

via Chicago: A Happy Ending to the Charter Teachers Strike

Teaching is Not the Job I Took on in 1970… It’s Far More Demanding and Far Less Rewarding Intellectually and Financially, and Far

December 13, 2018 1 comment

At the end of last school year, teachers in at least six states rose up to protest their wages and working conditions. Why? A story at the beginning of the school year identified the cause in a from page article:

….The country’s roughly 3.2 million full-time public-school teachers (kindergarten through high school) are experiencing some of the worst wage stagnation of any profession, earning less on average, in inflation-­adjusted dollars, than they did in 1990, according to Department of Education (DOE) data.

Meanwhile, the pay gap between teachers and other comparably educated professionals is now the largest on record.In 1994, public-school teachers in the U.S. earned 1.8% less per week than comparable workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a left-leaning think tank. By last year, they made 18.7% less. The situation is particularly grim in states such as Oklahoma, where teachers’ inflation-adjusted salaries actually decreased by about $8,000 in the last decade, to an average of $45,245 in 2016, according to DOE data. In Arizona, teachers’ average inflation-adjusted annual wages are down $5,000.

Whether EPI is left leaning is immaterial since numbers do not lean to the left or the right: they only go up and down and, in the case of relative wage comparisons, cannot be skewed. And anyone who argues that a decline in salaries has been offset by higher spending on supplies or improvements in working conditions would be wrong: spending has declined absolutely in a majority of states and the consequences are obvious in all school districts except those that serve the most affluent children:

The decline in education funding is not limited to salaries. Twenty-nine states were still spending less per student in 2015, adjusted for inflation, than they did before the Great Recession, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, leaving many public schools dilapidated, overcrowded and reliant on outdated textbooks and threadbare supplies.

To many teachers, these trends are a result of a decades-long and bipartisan war on public education, born of frustration with teachers’ unions, a desire to standardize curricula and a professed commitment to fiscal austerity. This has led to a widespread expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, and actions such as a move in the Wisconsin legislature in 2011 to strip teachers’ pensions and roll back collective bargaining rights. This year, Colorado lawmakers voted to raise teachers’ retirement age and cut benefits.

But what Time Magazine fails to mention is its complicity in this “…decades-long and bipartisan war on public education” that “…led to a widespread expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated“. These covers from a decade ago illustrates how Time and Newsweek, then even more widely read than they are today, covered public schools:

Contrast that with the three covers Time used to at long last recognize how teachers have been short-changed over the past 25 years:

Teaching is much harder now than ever, and yet we continue to celebrate billionaires who fund charter schools and lionize tyrants like Michelle Rhee who promise to sweep “dead wood” out of schools…. and we then wonder why it is increasingly difficult to find college graduates who want to enter teaching.

As one who sat across from the NEA and AFT for decades, it might be surprising to see MY thinking on this issue: the best hope for public education is an expansion of unions. I can recall discussing the stagnation of unions in the late 1990s with the union president in an upstate New York school district. She was lamenting how difficult it was to find younger teachers who were willing to put in the extra hours necessary to take on leadership roles in the school and especially saddened to find the more and more of the new teachers we were hiring were not enthusiastic about paying their dues. She recalled the strikes that unions led in the late 1960s and early 1970s in NYS that led to the (then) decent wages, benefits, and working conditions. MAYBE data like that gathered by EPI and stories about teachers like those featured on the September 2018 Time magazine covers will restore the teachers’ collective understanding of how unions helped them achieve the levels of compensation and begrudging respect of the communities they served. There was no agency shop when unions first formed… there was only mis-treatment by heavy-handed boards and legislators that compelled teachers to band together. MAYBE 2019 will be the year that teachers re-form unions to push back against school “reform”.

Good News For Underachievers (and the Well-Being of Students): Straight A’s Do NOT Translate to Success in Life

December 10, 2018 Comments off

In writing this post, I initially thought I would title it “This Just In: Grades Don’t Matter” because I thought that the lack of a correlation between high grades and “success” was as self evident as, say, the correlation between poverty and test scores. But I went with the title above because, as one who was labelled an “underachiever” because I failed to earn straight A’s in middle school I think it better reflects the reality of the mindset of public education when I attended school in the 50s and 60s, a mindset that persists today.

The post was prompted by an article in the Sunday NYTimes by Adam Grant titled “What Straight A Students Get Wrong”, and the “what” is that in the final analysis the grades you earned in high school and college do not matter once you get in the real world. In his op ed, Dr. Grant describes counseling a distraught college junior who had just received her first A-, a blot on her academic record that she was certain would doom her to some kind of second class citizenship in the future. Dr. Grant then revealed what underachiever like me have known for decades and used to comfort ourselves (or rebut our parents):

Getting straight A’s requires conformity.Having an influential career demands originality. In a study of students who graduated at the top of their class, the education researcher Karen Arnold found that although they usually had successful careers, they rarely reached the upper echelons. “Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries,” Dr. Arnold explained. “They typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.”

Dr. Grant then offers a long list of individualists who did poorly in school but made a name for themselves in their chosen areas of interest: Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He could have provided a much longer list, but those three clearly made the point.

He concludes his essay with advice for universities, employers, and students, suggesting to students that they recognize that “…underachieving in school can prepare you to overachieve in life” and that getting a B might be the best thing for them.

I wholeheartedly agree. As a high school student I never aspired to be valedictorian, perhaps because I did not (and still do not) have the temperament needed and did not (and still do not) see the point in it. As a parent I celebrated the first B my children brought home in high school because I knew that they would no longer be able to become valedictorian and would, therefore, be able to dedicate their time to other pursuits… ones that satisfied their curiosity and not the needs of the schools.

There is a place for evaluation in school. Students need to master fundamental math skills and need to be coached to become good communicators. And once students have these baseline skills in place— and certainly by the time they are in college– there is no need for assigning letter grades or numeric grades. Narrative descriptions of a student’s performance are far more beneficial to the student and compel the teacher to get to know each student in their class deeply.

Alas… binary pass-fail grades on fundamentals and narrative descriptions once a student has progressed to higher levels of education do not yield rankings, and without rankings there can be no “competition” and without that, well, what? I suppose some will posit that without competition our “economic system” will collapse. I prefer to believe that without competition the well-being of children will improve and our political system will improve. Evidently I am not alone in this belief. The renegades who did not conform in school and spent their time working on computers send their children to Waldorf Schools and Montessori programs where doing things and being human is valued more than getting good grades and conforming to a system that measures skills needed in the early 20th Century. Maybe it’s time to re-think grades altogether… in doing so we would necessarily be re-thinking school.

The Sad Reality: Students Returning to “Hardened” Schools

August 12, 2018 1 comment

Here’s the headline in today’s NYTimes headline article by Patrick Mazzei:

Back-to-School Shopping for Districts: Armed Guards, Cameras and Metal Detectors

The article describes the sad reality of public education’s reaction to school shootings:

  • We are investing millions on armed guards who monitor children and FAR too little on staff members who could provide support to teachers and parents when students become disengaged and depressed.
  • We are using precious and limited staff development time to train teachers on how to use tourniquets instead of how to identify and deal with students who are disengaged and depressed.
  • We are redoubling the lockdown drill training, increasing the frequency and “reality” of school shooting drills that increase anxiety and fear among students.
  • We are spending millions of limited dollars to acquire fences, sophisticated surveillance cameras, and metal detectors while roofs leak, many schools lack the technology infrastructure needed to prepare students for the future, and many teachers dig ever deeper in their pockets to provide students with school supplies.
  • We are seeking more funds from taxpayers for these expenditures at a time when spending for education overall has decreased in real dollars since the Great Recession… and decreased substantially in many states.
  • And in 10 states, districts will be debating the feasibility of arming classroom teachers… a debate that will use precious time at school board meetings, time that could be used to debate other means of dealing with student alienation and despair that leads to the school shootings.

I completely understand the urgent need to “do something”… but I am distressed that the “something” seldom addresses the root causes of student violence, which have little to do with “arms control” or “hardening” schools and more to do with making schools warm and welcoming to each and every student enrolled. I hope in the days ahead to read of a district who is taking steps in THAT direction!  I despair that we are creating schools that make 24/7 surveillance in fenced environments patrolled by armed guards the norm for our future citizens.

Eliminating Age-Based Grade Levels Face Three BiG Obstacles: Federal Standardized Test Mandates; State Laws;…and Parents

August 7, 2018 Comments off

A recent Hechinger Report monograph written by Chris Berdik describes the challenges a rural North Dakota district faced when teachers in the school decided to eliminate grade levels, and they boil down to three obstacles at three different levels… all driven by one overarching issue: mandated tests. This short paragraph from the report summarizes the problem:

Of course, no matter what individual states and districts allow, federal law still mandates grade-level-pegged testing. Education departments use those scores to evaluate schools. Quite often, so do parents.

These two sentences encapsulate the daunting challenge teachers and administrators face when they propose radical but necessary changes needed to truly individualize instruction. The age-based cohorts that we call “grade levels” are the basis for comparisons of all kinds, comparisons that are the basis for competition between students and, of late, competition among schools. And one troublesome issue for many parents is this: if grade levels disappear how will I know how well my child is doing compared to his or her peers? As Mr. Berdik article implies, when that question disappears, teachers are left to focus on the interests and aptitudes each child possesses and focus less on how a child compares with their age peers. I, for one, see this as a positive benefit of abandoning age-based cohorts.

If readers do not believe it is possible to transform schools, Mr. Berdik’s article offers a crude roadmap for making the transition. It isn’t easy, but the benefits far outweigh the pain of change.