Posts Tagged ‘Parent engagement’

An Unsettling eSchool Article Describes What Happens When You Give A Kindergartener a Chromebook

March 18, 2017 Leave a comment

I am an an advocate for using technology to individualize and personalize instruction, but I fond myself getting a know in my stomach as I read Laura Ascione’s eSchool article titled “If You Give a Kindergartener a Chromebook”. The article described the experience Jamie Morgan, a Kindergarten teacher in Wichita Falls TX, has using Chromebooks in her classroom of children, many of whom had special needs. This paragraph gave me my first knot:

Because her class from the previous year was high-achieving, no one expected this new class to achieve the same test scores. And although Morgan’s new class entered with “scary” test scores, by the end of the year, their test scores surpassed the high scores of her previous class. Much of that achievement is due to the Chromebooks, Morgan said.

My reaction to this paragraph: TEST SCORES to determine “achievement” for Kindergarten students??!!! Have we lost our collective minds?

As I read on I learned that the students in Ms. Morgans class spend hours on end in front of a computer mastering the use of various Google applications. I have five grandchildren whose ages range from 4 to 11 and I cannot imagine wanting the to spend classroom time on a computer. They enjoy engaging with each other, playing pretend games, writing “plays” to present to us, and engaging in physical activities. My children do everything possible to keep the children off screens.

After reading the article I was more convinced than ever that the last thing Kindergartners need is a course based on Chromebooks. Far better for them to use their open minds to learn another language or, better yet, learn how to ride bikes, hit a tennis ball or baseball, or enjoy walking in the woods.


Mr. Trump and Ms. DeVos “Parent-Teacher Conference” Grossly Under-represents PUBLIC School Parents

February 15, 2017 Leave a comment

Here is a report on President Trump’s so-called “parent-teacher conference listening session”, pasted from the Politico feed I get each morning:

(Betsy) DeVos attended an education-focused White House event Tuesday during which President Trump decried “failing schools,” particularly in the African-American community, and said his administration wants “every child to have a choice about where they go to school.But American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten questioned whether public school families – including African-American parents – were adequately represented in the event, which was billed as a “parent-teacher conference listening session” and held in the Roosevelt Room. “Trump talked about African-American children. Did he have black parents or educators at his photo op? Not that we saw,” she tweeted.

– In a letter to DeVos after the event, Weingarten wrote that “90 percent of children in America attend public school, including children whose parents voted for Donald Trump. Yet, from what we could discern the president’s first meeting in the White House on education was used as a platform to denigrate – not strengthen – public schools with primarily private and home-schooling educators and parents as a backdrop.” Weingarten invited DeVos to visit public schools.

– The guest-list breakdown: When asked about Weingarten’s comments, a White House spokeswoman released a list of 10 teachers, parents and administrators who attended the event. Three came from public school backgrounds, three from private schools, two represented home-school families, one came from a charter school and the tenth attendee was a president of a “dropout prevention program.” The White House did not immediately respond to a question about the number of African-American attendees.

I continue to be astonished at the current administration’s willingness to ignore public school parents in favor of parents whose children are home schooled or attend private schools. I am also astonished that no one ever calls Mr. Trump or other “reformers” who claim they want every child to have a choice about where they go to school but refuse to promote the notion of allowing children in overcrowded urban areas to attend nearby suburban schools with available space… or- if they insist on providing vouchers- provide large enough vouchers that would enable a poverty stricken parent to send their child to ANY school that they choose. Finally, the glaring lack of African American parents or the parents of immigrants is noteworthy.

During President Obama’s eight years, I felt that the White House was doing everything possible to reinforce the notion that we are the UNITED States of America. During the 28 days of the Trump administration, I fear that unity is all but vanished.

St. Johnsbury (VT) School Board Member’s Op Ed Piece Captures Spirit of Democracy

February 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Regular readers of this blog know that I am distressed over the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education and equally distressed over Frank Edelblut, the NH nominee for Commissioner of Education. Both of these individuals view public education as a commodity and seek to introduce “market forces” in an effort to “reform” schools. But making public education into a marketplace will ultimately lead to the demise of one of America’s great democratic institutions: the local school board.

For the past three years I’ve spent many hours working as a consultant with school districts in Vermont as they struggle to find ways to consolidate. During the time and throughout my 29 years as a Superintendent and six years as a building level administrator, I’ve been impressed with the commitment and dedication of locally elected school board members. While I’ve not seen eye-to-eye with Board members on every issue we’ve faced, I’ve never felt that any of them wanted to compromise the quality of education— even those who wanted to see less spending or fewer “frills”. I’ve wanted to capture the spirit of a “typical” school board member in this blog, and on Wednesday I read an op ed piece in the Caledonian Record by a Saint Johnsbury, VT Board member that seems to do the trick better than I could. Christopher Wenger, a relocated Bostonian, describes the factors that led him to seek a board position and the role he intends to play as a board member overseeing Saint Johnsbury’s K-8 school that serves his children and scores of others in his small town. Here are the concluding sentences to his piece:

I decided to run for the school board in 2016, and I can definitely say that it has been a labor of love. “Why are you doing that?” asked several friends. “It’s a thankless job,” I heard over and over. Well I can tell you, over the last year, I have found this job anything but thankless. In fact, I have been thanked by many people in the community—people who care for this town, for its children, and for its future.

This job is not without challenges, of course. In the past year I feel like I’ve learned a lot, but I also feel it’s just the beginning. There are amazing things happening at St. J. School—things I wish more people knew about. The biggest priorities for me in the coming year are to try to get more members of the community involved, and to learn to work more effectively as a board. So please, come to a meeting. Come to a school event. Stop me in the supermarket and I’ll be happy to tell you what I feel both the strengths and the challenges are in this district. Invest some time in learning about the school; your interest and involvement will pay dividends for all of us in the long term. We need to move past the headlines, engage with, and listen to one another in order to make things better. I look forward to continuing to serve you in this role.

Like the hundreds of School Board members I’ve worked with, Mr. Wenger is desperately seeking public engagement, intent on championing the public schools in his community, and intent on making improvements. Read the last sentences and ask yourself: would Betsy DeVos set foot in a supermarket to seek feedback? Would either Ms. DeVos or Mr. Edelblut, neither of whom ever sent their children to a public school, ever say “amazing things are happening” in their public school? Are either Ms. DeVos or Mr. Edelblut interested in keeping democracy alive by helping Board members like Mr. Wenger achieve his goals?

School Choice Week Poses Yet Another Dilemma for Democrats

January 26, 2017 Leave a comment

Valeris Strauss, the Washington Post‘s education writer posted an article today that included a cross-post from Georgia blogger Bertis Brown that opened with these three paragraphs:

This is School Choice Week, the annual exercise when well-funded, corporate school reform outfits pour money into advertising and marketing to promote charter schools as well as vouchers and other programs in which the public pays for private and religious school tuition.

School Choice Week coincides with the confirmation drama of President Trump’s nomination of Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos as education secretary, who has said the public education system in the United States is a “dead end,” and who is seen by critics as a supporter of privatizing public education. DeVos stumbled at her Senate confirmation hearing last week, displaying a lack of understanding of key education issues, and Democrats have sought — unsuccessfully — a second hearing before the Senate Education Committee votes on whether to approve her nomination.

After years of supporting traditional Republican corporate education reform ideas, many Democrats seem to now realize how bad her policies to “voucherize” American education would be for teaching and learning as well as the principle of educational equity. The opposition to DeVos has brought people together across education reform philosophies, a dynamic similar to recent ballot measures in Georgia and Massachusetts, when people of different political beliefs chose local control of public schools rather than increasing the influence of the political and private sector.

Like many public school advocates, I have been disappointed in the Democratic Party’s decision to support “…traditional Republican corporate education reform ideas” and I have not been surprised to see how this embrace of corporate reform has ended with policies that will ““voucherize” American education” and, in so doing, undercut any advances made in the past decades to bring about educational equity. As noted in previous posts, I fear that no matter how the DeVos hearings come out, the Republicans will prevail in their effort to get a corporate minded pro-voucher pro-privatization “reformer” in place and if they fail with DeVos because of her inexperience they will ultimately find someone with more burnished credentials will do their bidding. When that happens, we will have nearly two decades of public eduction where “quality” was defined by test scores, two decades where districts who educate children from affluent and highly educated children have a distinctly different and superior educational opportunity than those children who are raised in poverty. And the parents in those affluent school districts will wonder why there is so much concern over test scores and why so many parents in “other school districts” are upset about the narrow curriculum their children have.

I am choosing to take heart in the recent results of statewide referenda in Massachusetts and Georgia where voters turned down propositions that would expand the number of charter schools. Why? Because voters in those states came to understand what the idea behind these propositions REALLY was and what the effects of the vote would REALLY be. And when the public understands that more charters REALLY means more opportunities for profit and no more opportunities for learning, they will “…(choose) local control of public schools rather than increasing the influence of the political and private sector.”

The President, Republican politicians in DC, and the 35 capitols where Republicans are in the Statehouse are participating in “…the annual exercise when well-funded, corporate school reform outfits pour money into advertising and marketing to promote charter schools as well as vouchers and other programs in which the public pays for private and religious school tuition.” It would be wonderful if there was a public school education week when students, parents, and teachers could flood the streets the way women did last weekend. Maybe a display of solidarity will get the message to our elected politicians: we want to choose locally controlled well funded public schools over those run by for-profit entrepreneurs on Wall Street.

Successful School Integration Requires Grit: On the part of Teachers, Administrators, and the Community

December 12, 2016 Leave a comment

A story on the Morris NJ schools by Kyle Spencer describes the incredible effort— and, yes, money— required to maintain a desegregated school district in this era. Mr. Spencer’s article also describes the painful history that led to this success story and the tenuousness of the success.

A brief overview of the Morris Schools:

  • The district was created by court order in 1971 in response to a suit filed by parents who wanted to maintain racial balance in the schools in the region.
  • The district demographics have shifted over the past five-plus decades, particularly in the past 15 years with non-English speaking students increasing from 909 to 1,698 while African American enrollments dropped from 815 to 546 during the same time period.
  • The district has made extensive use of technology to individualize instruction in an effort to meet the wildly diverse educational and cultural backgrounds of students and maintain some degree of integration in all of its classrooms.
  • To assist non-English speakers, the district has extensive supports in place.
  • Parent organizations in the district provide translators at their meetings and workshops to ensure the engagement of the burgeoning non-English speaking parent population.
  • To attract and retain affluent families with high achieving students, the district has pull-out gifted and talented programs throughout its elementary schools and a wide array of STEM and AP offerings at the high school level.

Even with all of these supplementary programs and efforts at engagement, the district faces challenges that would daunt other communities. For example:

  • The population churn has increased, particularly among the non-English students, adding to the workload for teachers and administrators and reinforcing the notion that money is being spent on “illegals” that could be spent on resident children with special needs and/or special interests.
  • Some parents avail themselves of the rich programs available to students in PK-8 but then abandon the high school in favor of private schools. Indeed, Mr. Spencer cites data indicating that over 22% of the students who live in the most affluent community feeding the high school opt to attend private schools, nearly double the State average.
  • The top tier HS courses and gifted and talented programs have a disproportionate number of white students— unsurprising given the challenges non-English speakers face but a problem in the eyes of those who aspire to equity across-the-board.

The story concludes with this anecdote, which exemplifies the value of attending a diverse school:

Nile Birch, a high school junior who is black, said that most of the students in his honors and A.P. classes are white. “In total, they are not very diverse,” he said about the higher-level classes.

Still, electives, clubs and required classes have provided him the opportunity to learn about people whose lives differ from his own.

He recalled being in a health class during his freshman year, with a quiet Hispanic girl who barely talked. One day, it was time to recite a written monologue: She stood up and told the class she was a single mother who had made it across the border and eventually to New Jersey, where she dreamed of getting an education.

“It really moved every single person in that class,” he said. “Before that she was just the quiet girl in the corner.”

After reading this heartwarming conclusion, I was overcome with sadness because, as Mr. Spencer notes, this is an extraordinarily exceptional district. Mr. Spencer notes that “…New Jersey has one of the strongest laws against segregation, but at the same time has some of the most segregated schools in the country.” And, as noted in many earlier posts, resegregation is on the increase because of residential patterns and the public sentiment the opposes efforts to address this issue. I was also saddened because I can see the tenuousness of this segregated school. It requires grit on the part of teachers, administrators, board members, parents, and taxpayers…. and if any one of those players decides to let up on the effort required to maintain the nurturing and inclusive environment in the school district, the entire construct will collapse. And here’s what saddens me the most: if a voucher program like Betsy DeVos advocates is ever put in place in NJ, the out-migration of affluent parents will increase, the taxpayer support for the existing framework will collapse, and fifty-plus years of work to create a desegregated success story will go down the drain. At a time when forceful positive leadership is needed in the White House and the State House, NJ has the opposite. I sincerely hope the grit continues in Morris NJ— they will need even more of it to sustain their success.


Chinese Bands and US Charters: Sorting by Eugenics and Sorting by Parent Engagement

December 2, 2016 Leave a comment

I read an article in yesterday’s NYTimes with a mix of astonishment and revulsion. The article, by Didi Kirsten Tatlow, describes a music program in China where students are enrolled in band programs and assigned musical instruments in the band based solely on their physical attributes. Titled “In China, Eugenics Determines Who Gets in School Band”, Ms. Tatlow’s article describes the method “Teacher Wang” uses to identify prospective musicians. Here is an excerpt from the article that describes his meeting with the parents of the future band members:

Mr. Wang, whom parents addressed only as “Teacher,” (a sign of respect common here) stood before a giant white screen on which he projected a power point full of instrument images. “I’ve chosen your kids, one by one, out of a thousand kids.” Mr. Wang was referring to band C, the third in the school which trained the youngest students, some of whom would eventually rise through the ranks to band B and on to A, at which point they would perform at overseas gigs.

“I’ve looked at their teeth, at their arms, their height, everything, very carefully,” Teacher Wang said. “We don’t want anyone with asthma, or heart problems, or eye problems. And we want the smart kids; the quick learners.”

“Your kids were chosen not because they want to play this or that instrument, but because they have long arms, or the right lips, or are the right height, say for the trumpet, or the drums,” he said.

This sounded appalling to Ms. Tatlow, but ultimately she accepted the program in large measure because her daughter wanted to be a part of it and evidently possessed the physical and intellectual qualities Teacher Wang was seeking.

In some respects US schools in the 50s and 60s were no different: students were sorted into homogeneous batches based on their intellect and upbringing— and until 1954 they were also sorted based on race, a vestigial method of sorting that remains in place today on a de facto basis. As an elementary student I was among the group in my PA elementary group that were “smart kids”. I was in the highest reading group and did well in math without much effort. When my father was transferred to Oklahoma I was identified as “gifted and talented”, largely because 4th grade in that state was comparable to 3rd grade in PA. When he got transferred back to PA, though, I was in for a rude awakening. I was no longer deemed to be a “smart kid”. Rather, I was a “kid from Oklahoma” and was consequently placed in a mid-level section of students. I excelled in my classwork, but when the team of teachers met with my parents to discuss my placement in one of the higher groups they were told there was no room in those classes. And so for the next five years I remained in the “second tier”.

Schools today avoid that kind of rigid homogeneous grouping within the school… but they achieve homogeneity in a different fashion. Schools in affluent communities effectively screen out the “middling” students because their parents cannot afford housing in those towns. Charter schools in cities can screen out children of indifferent or working parents because their enrollment procedures require a level of engagement that is virtually impossible in a single parent household or in a household where both parents work. So the schools in less affluent areas and the non-charter schools in the city tend to have students whose parents are less engaged. And here’s where our sorting arrangement and that of the Chinese music teachers are similar: a child born into a US family where the parents are unwilling or unable to engage in their schooling has no more chance at success than a child born in China who lacks the physical and intellectual qualities sought by Teacher Wang. The result in both cases is a tremendous waste of talent.

What is the Greatest Wisdom of All? Kindness

November 16, 2016 Leave a comment

My wife and I practice Buddhism in the Plum Village tradition and part of that tradition is practice songs. One of the practice songs is a haunting melody in a minor key whose lyrics are the words in this post… and when I read two recent articles on the reaction of school teachers to the recent election of Mr. Trump the lyrics to the song popped into my head.

One article from a NYC parents group website called Mary Poppins, was “An Open Letter to Donald Trump from Concerned Parents”. In the letter, parent Anna Fader cites several incidents of bullying that occurred since Mr. Trump was elected and she implores the President elect to “…lead by example and uphold the values of our great nation and constitution“. While acknowledging that everyone will have to work harmoniously to make this happen, Ms. Fader emphasizes the oversize role the President must play:

Teachers, school administrators, parents, and local and national government officials will also need to do their best to handle these situations and set the tone for their communities, but it is most incumbent on you, Donald Trump, to tell America that you do not stand for or condone any form of bigotry. Tell America’s children that you do not condone attacks on Muslims, gays, blacks, Latinos, or any group. Tell girls that they are valuable, strong and their bodies are not up for grabs. Reassure children that you are not going to deport their law-abiding parents in the night. Be the beacon that this nation needs to actually “unify our great country” as you professed you would.

She underscored her points by including this photo of a first grade teacher’s message to her students following the election:


In a postscript at the end, she notes that bullying is a two way street and in communities where children who supported Trump are in the minority bullying by children who supported Ms. Clinton is wrong and needs to stop.

The second article by NYTimes writer Emily Bazelon, “Bullying in the Age of Trump”, opens with these two sobering paragraphs followed by a recounting of particularly egregious incidents among the 430 shared with the Southern Poverty Law Center:

Kids who are in religious or ethnic minorities, or are gay or disabled, are more likely to be bullied in school than other kids. Their point of difference can be a point of vulnerability. In the last decade, schools have put more energy into preventing bullying, to the benefit of these kids and others (girls, too, are more frequent targets). And they’ve often had the authority of the courts, state legislatures and the federal Department of Education behind them.

Now the country has elected a man who threaded racist, xenophobic and misogynistic messages and mockery of disabled people through his campaign. Donald J. Trump’s victory gives others license to do the same. There are already signs that during his presidency, the moral values that schools and parents have been helping to instill in young people — empathy and “upstanding,” a term schools use that means looking out for fellow students who are being mistreated — will be in danger of eroding.

Ms. Bazelon doesn’t pull any punches in her assessment of Mr. Trump’s decisions to appoint staff members with track records of bashing religious minorities and crudity and concludes with these paragraphs:

It’s also clear that if we can’t count on our national leaders to counteract bigotry, then we have to redouble our efforts to do so ourselves. When parents and alumni at Maple Grove High posted pictures of the racist graffiti on social media, the district issued a statement: “The tweet you may have seen of a racist message scrawled in a school bathroom is real and we are horrified by it. It goes against everything we stand for.” The school officials promised an investigation, acknowledged the danger to minority students and staff members, and said they would work to heal the impact on the school’s culture and “on every member of our school family.”

Those words are a start and deeds must follow, in small moments of kindness and larger acts of standing for justice. At this moment, local civil institutions and all of us, in our communities, are being put to a test. We have to show heart and conviction. We have to ensure that our kids learn the values some leaders have forgotten.

Like the parent who composed the open letter, Ms. Bazelon sees the responsibility for instilling civility shifting away from the national leadership to each and every classroom in the nation… and… in effect… to each and every citizen. In the face of vulgarity and crudeness in our President it is incumbent on every adult to exert the greatest wisdom of all: kindness. Legislation will not help us or our children. Our thoughts, words, and acts of kindness will.