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Posts Tagged ‘Art of teaching’

You Can’t Help Someone Who’s Not There… And Without a Change in Focus, You Can’t Even Help Someone Who IS

February 16, 2018 Leave a comment

Here’s a short but powerful post I pasted from Facebook describing the circumstances that contributed to the ill-being of the student who shot and killed 17 of his former classmates at a FL high school on Wednesday:

“So the killer’s father died 3 years ago. He started posting scary racist images of guns and hurting animals. Then his mother died 3 months ago. His girlfriend broke up with him and got a new boyfriend. He started telling people he wanted to shoot up the school. He got expelled. Why expel a messed up kid whose parents just died? What do we do with people who cannot handle immense pain and loss? Kick them to the curb and let them buy guns?” – Sarah Schulman

You can’t help a student who is not in school… yet as a society we seem unwilling to raise the funds we need to provide the kind of intensive counseling children like this young man require. At some juncture the needs of 3000 children forced the school administrators to permanently expel the shooter. Once the shooter is out of school, he is out of the only safety net that could conceivably help him cope with the stresses associated with the loss of parents and his inability to relate to others.

Disconnection and alienation manifest in other ways as well. Teens who feel socially ostracized turn to drugs and other detestable behaviors that make them hard to love and relate to. If we hope to use public schools as a means of connecting with alienated and troubled youth, we need to change the focus so that relationship building is taught and learned the same way conformance to rules is taught and learned.

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Conservatives Invite Public School Teachers to Blow the Whistle on Frivolous Spending… and the Plan Backfires

February 14, 2018 1 comment

A recent Dallas Morning News story by Corbett Smith described the hilarious and heartwarming unintended consequences of an effort by a conservative anti-public education group to enlist teachers in a whistleblowing campaign. When Empower Texans, a powerful conservative group in that state, attempted to solicit examples of the “misuse of school district funds” in the State, they instead sparked an effort by public school teachers to provide countless examples of how their colleagues selflessly donate time, energy, food, and clothing to school children who were experiencing problems at home. Here are some examples Mr. Smith cited in his article:

“Hey, @EmpowerTexans, I have a colleague who took a kid’s clothes home (in an inconspicuous backpack) every day & washed them for her AND brought it back filled with snacks [because] the kid lived in her mom’s car.”

“I’m #blowingthewhistle on a teacher of mine that gave me a shoulder to lean on when I was crying, food when I was hungry, and a second family. Teachers don’t get enough credit for what they do. They do more than teach. They change lives.”

“@EmpowerTexans I am #blowingthewhistle on one of my public school teacher friends. She has purchased several pairs of cool tennis shoes for some of her students. The kids aren’t positive who they are from. They just magically end up in their locker. This way no one knows but them.”

Public schools do a terrible job of trumpeting their successes, which occur on a daily basis and are too often taken for granted by teachers, administrators, parents, and students. If “success” was determined by the acts of kindness described above instead of by standardized achievement tests we would be hearing far more heartwarming stories and far fewer tales of woe and despair.

 

 

What Inequitable Funding Looks Like On the Ground… and How it Diminishes Opportunities for Change

February 12, 2018 Leave a comment

Last week Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss posted an open letter from the faculty of the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens, a high school modeled after Outward Bound’s approach to learning. The title of Ms. Strauss’ post was “This is What Inadequate Funding at a Public School Looks Like and Feels Like— as Told by an Entire Faculty“, and it was sobering to see just how spreadsheet analyses play out in real life.

The budget cuts in large districts like NYC have to be administered in as fair and evenhanded basis as possible, which inevitably requires someone in a business office to use staffing ratios to serve as a proxy for “equity”. But an unconventional program like Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School requires more teachers tone successful because it requires teachers to have time to collaborate with each other, to confer with small groups of students, to accompany students on field work projects in the city, and to mentor students one-to-one. Each of these programs became increasingly difficult to sustain as the city budget cut its per pupil allocations to schools four out of seven years since the school opened. But the problems for the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School go beyond per pupil cuts. Reading between the lines, the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School was effectively penalized for not being a traditional high school, as these paragraphs illustrate:

When we appealed this year’s budget cuts, the city audited our budget and told us that we had a dozen more teachers than we needed. We were dumbfounded: with 34 students per class and 100-120 students per teacher, we have too many teachers?

We have cut the planning time among teachers that permits us to work together and bring our best to classrooms. While we thankfully remain well above the contractual standard of 45-minute-a-day planning periods, we have seen the time diminish steeply some years. Our special-education teachers, who manage a caseload of students with individual needs in addition to providing differentiated instruction in classrooms, have increasingly asked: “How can we adequately serve our neediest students when we already feel like we’re spread too thin?”

This year we can no longer afford to provide free after-school programming, despite our belief that all students deserve access to a rich after-school program.

Since we began charging students to participate in after-school activities, our 30 clubs from last year plummeted to nine. Gone are Model U.N., Jazz Ensemble, Photography Club, Yoga, Outdoor Club, Live Poets Society, Dance Club, Flag Football. Saddened by the change, one eighth-grader innocently asked, “Can’t everyone just keep the school open for free?”

The truth is, many of us are doing just that.

The city’s audit speaks volumes about the expectations when it comes to changing from the traditional format. Thou shalt operate school within a seven hour time frame,  thou shalt avoid any variances from the standard CBO, thou shalt stick to academics and forget about “clubs” unless you can find a way to raise money for them. The letter was published in the context of the recent federal cuts, which are going to hurt city schools serving children raised in poverty even more! As the faculty’s open letter indicates:

In the wake of debates over the latest federal tax bill passed in December, we also wish to point out that the fate of our schools is tied to our taxes. Our school lost Title 1 funding when school funds tied to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were not renewed. In New York City, 60 percent or more of a school’s students must come from households whose incomes qualify them for free lunch before the school receives a single cent of additional funds.

The latest tax plan gives families a tax cut to attend private schools, a proposal that caters to our wealthiest families while harming investment in public schools. Likewise, the controversy over the deductibility of state and local taxes (SALT), absent from the original Senate bill, has enormous implications for schools: a 2011 report from the Center on Education Policy estimated that the complete elimination of state and local tax deductions in 2009 would have slashed public school funding by at least $16.5 billion.

At some juncture the dedicated teachers in the Metropolitan Expeditionary School will see a want ad for a job in the suburbs that would offer them the chance to develop a similar program at a much higher wage and with assured funding for the foreseeable future. Teachers want to teach and don’t want to do so under a perpetual cloud. Don’t be surprised to read a de facto obituary for schools like the Metropolitan Expeditionary School in the years ahead. Their replacement? No excuses high school that schedule six classes of 40 students a day plus lunch for students and at least 200 students per teacher. It works well on a spread sheet….

 

Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker Article on Prodigies Offers Key Distinction that Public Schools Miss

February 6, 2018 Leave a comment

I just finished reading Adam Gopnik’s January 29 New Yorker article titled “How to Raise a Prodigy” on line and “The Parenting Paradox” in print. It is well worth a read for anyone who wants an insight into parenting, the underlying forces in public education, and the underlying forces of our consumer-driven economy. Mr. Gopnik’s  article is in the book review section of the magazine because it focuses on three recent books on the general subject of raising children who are prodigies of one kind or another: Sara Zaske’s “Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children” (Picador); “Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies” (Knopf) by Ann Hulbert; and “Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence” (Simon & Schuster) by Karen Crouse***.

Mr. Gopnik’s essay provides a brief overview of each book and is interwoven with his own observations about child rearing and our parents’ and public schools’ efforts to identify and nurture prodigies of one form or another. His meta-observation is offered at the end of his critique of Ms. Zaske’s book that idealizes the German method of raising children:

And here we arrive at the real ghost that haunts these books, the one that sends us to Paris or Berlin for help: the sense that American parents have gone radically wrong, making themselves and their kids miserable in the process, by hovering over them like helicopters instead of observing them from a watchtower, at a safe distance.

Having worked with parents of the best and brightest and observed the interactions of parents on playgrounds in Brooklyn where my daughters both live, I can attest to the accuracy of the “helicopter” metaphor. Mr. Gopnik offers the “cooperative spirit” that Ms. Crouse witnessed in Norwich, Vermont, as the antidote to helicopter parenting:

What we don’t get to see, in Crouse’s account, is the little town nearby, where, as must be the case, everyone coöperates and yet no one is a champion. (And there must also be, in Norwich, at least one Holden Caulfield type who thinks the whole Norwich thing is phony.) Looking at Norwich, we’re told that the non-competitive, non-pressuring approach is best because it gets us to the medal stand, or close. But what if it didn’t? If Norwich values matter, it’s because they’re good, not because they’re shortcuts to victory. The point of a non-competitive attitude can’t be that it makes us better able to compete; the value of an unpressured approach can’t be that it creates a more effective kind of pressure. In any case, one has the sense that what Crouse has found is not a “secret” but a well-known effect: unusual excellence emerges within tightly structured local traditions, whether they are in fifteenth-century Florence, in painting, or in San Pedro de Macorís, the “cradle of shortstops.” One good painter with an apprentice produces a Renaissance, just as one good coach with willing kids supplies the major leagues.

As noted below, I am familiar with Norwich and its surrounding communities and Mr. Gopnik’s assessment that there is “..a little town nearby where everyone cooperates and yet no one is a champion” could describe any number of nearby communities in Vermont… and the values Ms. Crouse ascribes to Norwich are good in and of themselves. Too, Mr. Gopnik’s insight that “unusual excellence emerges within tightly structured local traditions” captures the notion that who children associate with outside of school is more important than what they learn in school and underscores the importance of the values of the community where a child is raised.

Mr. Gopnik’s best insights come near the conclusion of his article where he describes the importance of mastery as opposed to achievement and the futility of trying to be a perfect parent:

What typically emerges from looking at kids, gifted and ordinary, is that, from the kids’ point of view, accomplishment, that is, the private sense of mastery, the hard thing suddenly made easy, counts for far more in their inner lives than does the achievement—the competition won, the reward secured. The mystery of mastery, felt in the child’s mind or muscles, is more compelling than the concreteness of achievement, the trophy pressed in her hands. What sustains us in any competition are the moments of interiority when the competition vanishes; what sustains us in any struggle are the moments when we forget the struggle…

Accomplishment, the feeling of absorption in the flow, of mastery for its own sake, of knowing how to do this thing, is what keeps all of us doing what we do, if we like what we do at all. The prizes are inevitably disappointing, even when we get them (as the life of Bob Dylan, prize-getter and grump extraordinaire, suggests).

What really helicopters over these books is what one might call the Causal Catastrophe: the belief that the proof of the rightness or wrongness of some way of bringing up children is in the kinds of adults it produces. This appears, on the surface, so uncontroversial a position—what other standard would you use?—that to question it seems a little crazy. But, after all, chains of human causality are, if not infinite, very long; in every life, some bad consequence of your upbringing will eventually emerge. We disapprove of parental hovering not because it won’t pay off later—it might; it does!—but because it’s obnoxious now. Strenuously competitive parents may indeed produce high-achieving grownups, but it’s in the nature of things that high-achieving adults are likely to become frustrated and embittered old people, once the rug is pulled out from under their occupation. If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then all chains are infinitely weak, since everybody ends up broken.

Mr. Gopnik’s advice should be heeded by parents and public educators. If Mr. Gopnik’s assessment that a “private sense of mastery” is more important than “the competition won, the reward secured“— then parents and schools should strive to gain an understanding of each child’s gifts and talents and cultivate them instead of forcing a child to compare his or her talents in academics to other children that are his or her same age. Moreover, parents and schools should strive to help each child develop the self-awareness that is implicit in cultivating a private sense of mastery. The best writers and artists do not live to get favorable reviews: they live to develop an essay or story that captures their ideas in print, to develop a piece of artwork or music score that captures a spirit they possess, or to transfer something internal into something to share with the world at large. I think in the end, prodigious athletes, musicians, writers, and individuals in the world of work do not compare themselves to any external standard: they possess an internal standard of excellence that drives them to do the best they can and an attitude that so long as they are doing the best they can they are indifferent to winning a competition or securing a reward. If schools want to develop happy and healthy prodigies— or happy and healthy citizens, they need to stop focussing on competition and rewards and begin helping students develop their private sense of mastery.

 

***In the spirit of full disclosure, I served as Superintendent of Schools in Norwich for seven years, so I have some understanding of the dynamics in that community which, in Mr. Gopnik’s words, “…continually sends athletes to the Olympics and other competitions in numbers ridiculously disproportionate to its size.” It is not quite as perfect as Ms. Crouse describes, but it IS a wonderful place to raise children… and Mr. Gopnik is correct in assuming that there is “at least one Holden Caulfield type” in that town.

 

Astrophysicist Gets It! Standardized Tests Are Driving Instruction… and Driving Creative Teachers Out

December 12, 2017 Leave a comment

Diane Ravitch’s post yesterday linked to a Forbes article by astrophysicist and author Ethan Siegel that bemoans the effect standardized tests are having on teaching. In the article he notes that since NCLB was passed in 2001, teachers in most districts across the country have been focussed on one goal and one goal only: get the test scores higher! As a result some districts have adopted programs that provide scripts for teachers to read to their classes in lieu of improvising based on the immediate feedback they receive from children based on their responses to what the teacher is presenting or the impact of their day-to-day experiences outside of school. The result? The best and brightest and most creative teachers are being driven out of the classroom. As Mr. Siegel writes at the conclusion of his article:

By taking away the freedom to innovate, we aren’t improving the outcomes of the worst teachers or even average teachers; we’re simply telling the good ones that their skills and talents aren’t needed here. By refusing to treat teachers like professionals — by failing to empower them to teach students in the best way that they see fit — we demonstrate the simple fact that we don’t trust them to do a good job, or even to understand what doing a good job looks like. Until we abandon the failed education model we’ve adopted since the start of the 21st century, public education will continue to be broken. As long as we insist on telling teachers what to teach and how to teach it, we’ll continue to fail our children.

Unfortunately, Mr. Siegel is a voice in the wilderness… for ESSA, like RTTT, picks up where NCLB left off. Instead of insisting that test-based metrics be abandoned it reinforces the need for standardized testing but delegates the content to be tested and the nature of the standardization to the states, none of whom are using their new found power to introduce anything new in the way of assessments according to a recent study reported on in Education Week. And so our failure persists….

Utopia IS Nowhere to be Found: But Everyone who Works in Public Education is Doing the Best They Can to Create One in their School

December 8, 2017 Leave a comment

Teacher-blogger Steven Singer wrote a thought provoking post a few days ago on his website that is linked to Facebook and found himself in “Facebook Jail” because of it… presumably because their algorithm screened out his content as “Fake News”. In the post, Mr. Singer described an assignment he gave his 7th grade students where he asked them to describe their version of Utopia and offered an overview of their responses. He then reflected on how the assignment mirrored the thinking behind the charter school movement:

The economists, think tank partisans and lobbyists love to denigrate the public school system and pine for an alternative where corporate interests and business people make all the rules.

Sure they have literally billions of dollars behind them and a gallery of famous faces to give them legitimacy.

But they’re really just engaged in a more high stakes version of Moore’s novel or the assignment my kids did this week.

But Mr. Singer might not appreciate that the administrators who manage his school are also engaged in a version of Moore’s novel, albeit a version that has some constraints. 40 years ago I was appointed Principal at a rural HS where there was no student handbook, no faculty handbook, and no course of studies. Using handbooks from the school I worked in previously as a template and working with a small cadre of teachers in the HS I developed a set of handbooks that created a “Utopia”. Initially the staff members expressed universal appreciation for the handbook. But as time went on, I know that some “hard-line” faculty members wished the rules governing student behavior were as ironclad as the ones that charter school leaders like Eva Moskovitz imposes on students. Some “humanistic” faculty members, on the other hand, lamented the fact that some students chose to drop out of school because they did not want to follow rules like taking five classes, leaving their buck-knives at home, going to a study hall when they did not have class, or– worse of all– having a hall pass when they used the lavatory.

I tried hard to get the hard-line teachers to appreciate that public school administrators do not have the luxury of throwing children out of school the way that the nearby private school could. I also tried to get the humanistic teachers to appreciate that some semblance of order is needed to ensure the school operates effectively. And I tried to get everyone to understand that the rules could be changed in the same way their lesson plans, and Mr. Singer’s can be changed. And over the course of my three years as Principal the rules were changed based on input I received from a cadre of staff members the faculty elected: tightened in some areas and loosened in others.

Here’s the bottom line in public schools: everyone who works in public education is doing the best they can. Everyone who works in public education is trying to make life better for the children who attend their school. And everyone who works in public education is challenged by the finger-pointing of the “reformers” who want to impose ironclad rules on students… AND impose ironclad rules on everyone who works in public education.

P.S. In an effort to help Mr. Singer get out of Facebook Jail I posted his essay on my page.

The Mass Firing of Teachers After Hurricane Katrina Demonstrates TFA’s Achilles Heel… But a Recent USDOE Grant Demonstrates Their Connections

November 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans in 2004, President Bush and the GOP leadership in Louisiana seized a once in a lifetime opportunity to re-make the public education system in one urban area. As Mercedes Schneider describes in her blog post from earlier this week, following the hurricane the political leaders at the local level fired all the teachers in the city, allowed the collective bargaining agreement for the teachers to expire, and as a consequence, their public schools today have a:

  • Decrease in NOLA teachers with local roots;
  • Increase in teachers with 5 or fewer years of teaching experience;
  • Decrease in teachers with 20 or more years of teaching experience, and
  • Annual rate of teachers exiting Louisiana’s public school classrooms doubling in the decade post-Katrina, with teachers from alternative teacher prep programs and less experience demonstrating higher turnover rates.

And why does NOLA have so many inexperienced teachers? Teach For America (TFA)! As Ms. Schneider explains in her post, after the politicians fired the NOLA teachers, TFA filled their vacancies with their signature short-term staff, and that model increases turnover by design:

TFA promotes teacher attrition.

It asks its recruits to remain in the classroom for two years.

TFA sells its alumni as *educators,* but it does not dare call them “career teachers.” TFA plays a shell game with the American public by making it seem that those who receive temporary training and agree to temporary classroom service are actually benefiting students and their communities. But all that TFA does is guarantee that teacher churn becomes a never-ending reality for the districts that utilize TFA year after year.

So when the USDOE acknowledged there was a problem in NOLA, they decided to offer the school district a $13.1 million dollar grant to solve it. And who received a large chunk of the grant funds? A nola.com article about the $13 million USDOE grant has the answer:

Approximately $3 million of the grant will be used by Teach For America to bring “300 teachers or more” to the city over three years. Teach For America members are required to teach for two years, but (TFA’s interim regional executive director Joy) Okoro said they will “hopefully commit to a lifetime of educational advocacy” in the region.

An organization that requires a two year commitment from teachers and can offer ONLY hope for a commitment to a career in teaching does not seem like a good choice to address turnover, to address the lack of teachers with local roots, or to address the lack of qualified African American teachers. But TFA does assure that the new hires will be unlikely to unionize, will be more likely to follow whatever teach-to-the-test curriculum TFA provides, and will be far less costly in the long run because— well, they’ll leave before they gain seniority or require legacy costs like retirement and health costs.

While TFA is getting $3 million, Relay Graduate School of Education– an TFA spin-off organization designed to provide alternative certification for inexperienced teachers– is getting another $2 million of the grant. As Ms. Schneider explains in her post, Relay barely qualifies as a bona fide graduate program and has a reputation for turning out high-turnover “graduates”. The result of this USDOE decision to give $5 million to TFA and Relay is summarized in Ms. Schneider’s closing paragraphs:

So, one might think of TFA getting a $3 million USDOE teacher-training grant and TFA cousin, Relay, garnering another $2 million.

According to the New Orleans Advocate, “Relay Graduate School will use $2 million of the grant to recruit and develop novice teachers through a teaching residency. Residents serve as apprentice teachers in the first year and transition into lead teachers in the second.”

ERA notes that higher teacher attrition in New Orleans is associated with alt-cert training and less teaching experience. And here we have a teacher temp agency pretending to address teacher retention and a related graduate school that is not a graduate school offering alt-cert.

Add to that the fact that neither TFA nor Relay originate with New Orleans. Both are ed reform transplants that must work to make themselves appear local.

It’s just too good, like paying Chinet to replace heirloom china.

And many of the heirloom teachers with deep roots in NOLA remain out of work…