Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Empty Desk

My first long-term sub job was finishing the year for a teacher who had passed away in her sleep. Her school-age daughter went to wake her, and she was just... gone. This was at my old high school, the school where I now work. I knew the woman, her co-workers, many of the families of the students. It was April, and my job was to coax grieving eighth graders into a classroom that would, for them, be haunted.

I have only encountered the death of a still-working teacher a handful of times in my career. Some hit closer to home than others. My friend Susie and I went back to Fourth Grade together. A gifted performer, she went to college to train professionally and spent a few years criss-crossing the country with professional touring companies of major shows. Eventually she decided that was not the life she wanted; she came back home and took a job as a high school chorale director. She enjoyed it; she was good at it. Then she discovered the cancer.

She worked as long as she was able. One door of her choir room opened directly to the side yard of her school; while she was doing chemo, she would step outside between classes, throw up, and then go back to work.

It's hard on students. Of course, it's enormously hard on students when other students die; when you're a teenager, you don't think about the limits of human mortality very often. But the death of a teacher packs a different punch, perhaps because they mostly don't think of us as humans, exactly. They think of us, expect us to be, immovable pieces of the landscape, as intractable as the ground they stand on. When a student dies, they feel a shudder in their own hearts; when a teacher dies, they feel the earth shift under their feet.

So that's where we are today in my building. A colleague I have taught with for over twenty years is gone. He had battled cancer for a few years now, and in fact had left the job a few weeks ago when his doctors told him he was almost out of time. The students didn't know that; they figured he was just getting healthy again, and would be back in his room, at his desk, again.

He was a former marine who returned from service and got a teaching degree. I can't say that he was the greatest teacher who ever set foot in the building-- we taught in adjoining rooms for years and to this day, most of what I know about National Lampoon''s Christmas Vacation I know from hearing the movie blaring through from the other side of the wall. His teaching methods were very different from mine, and not methods I'd endorse for anyone.

But he cared tremendously about the students. He coached runners for his entire career, investing himself in their efforts. He ran with them until he couldn't any more. He hosted the team at his house for big team meals, even after folks told him, "You know, you really shouldn't do that." You could count on him to show up to chaperone every single school dance. This fall, he defied doctor's orders and with his family keeping watchful eye, traveled to states to support one of his runners. He was a quiet, private person, but the students felt real affection for him. Their teacher-radar told them he was all right.

His obituary is in this morning's paper, and at the beginning of the day we will each read an official announcement from the school. His students will understand that the sub they've been with for a few weeks will now finish the year with them; God bless him for handling that gig. Some students will cry; some will go to the guidance office to take a moment. Many will show up for visitation tomorrow, maybe even the funeral. I will set this to auto-post  later, so that I don't get myself all emotioned up before I work with the students.

Years ago they started telling us that when a student dies, we should just leave their seat empty in the classroom, that students find it disrespectful to "erase" the lost person. I suppose an empty teacher's desk is a similar matter. Hard to say. We haven't been through this many times. Teachers usually retire before they pass, fade from the collective memory of the school they served, move on to some other place in their lives. For those who pass while still in the job, it's different. They will never not be teachers, and their place will always be in the classroom, there, at that empty desk.

This is why education is properly about the big things-- how to be more fully yourself, how to be fully human in the world. Because life is short, and people die, often unfairly and almost always before their work is done. Be kind. Be better. Remember, you only have so many chances before the desk is empty.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Teacher in the Next Room

The Education Week Research Center has released a study of teachers and their political attitudes and actions. If it is even remotely accurate, it has one huge implication for teachers who are advocates for public education-- never mind trying to influence the public but instead, see if you can influence the teacher in the room next to yours.

The sample size was made up of 555 teachers, 266 school leaders, 202 district leaders, and 99
other school or district employees, so that's a little disproportionate. So is the sampling of two-thirds female and one-third male, which doesn't quite match the lopsidedly female makeup of the nation's teaching staff. They did get the 81% white part right. And the sample skewed "experienced, with 51% having over twenty years on the job. They were spread across the country among schools of varying size and poverty level.

The report is easy to page through, with each question given its own page and an easy-to-read graphic to go with it. You should give it a look. But for the moment, let me just walk you through some of the highlights.

In terms of self-assessing location on the political spectrum, teachers are evenly distributed. 43% in the middle, about 23% to either side and about 4% on each extreme. Yet that translates into 41% Dems, 27% GOP, and 30% independent (with 1% left over for a third party). And it translated into 50% of teachers voting for Clinton, 29% going Trump, 13% going third party, and 8% sitting the election out. That puts teacher participation far ahead of the general public (about 45% stayed away from the Clinton-Trump contest).

None of that was news to me-- I knew about a third of teachers voted for Trump. Nor is it surprising to read that education was the number one "very important" issue to teachers in the election (followed by heath care and the economy).

Now we get to the stuff that tells us just how much work public education advocates have left to do.

Of those Trump voters, 30% have a favorable opinion of Betsy DeVos-- and 10% of Clinton voters do, too. Lord only knows what that favorable opinion is based on. Anti-Common Core? General disdain for public education, and some of us are just stuck in a state of self-loathing that responds to her?

When Clinton voters were asked to grade the Democratic Party on education issues, 2% gave it an A, but 29% gave it a B and 42% gave it a C, which I would call generous. Is this why the Democratic party has generally abandoned teachers and public education-- because most teachers haven't noticed them doing it?

Trump voters were less generous with their own party-- 3% gave the GOP an A, 19% gave it a B, and 35% gave it a C. 56% of Clinton voters gave the GOP an F, which tells me that a whole bunch of Democratic teachers have not yet noticed that there is little difference between Democratic and GOP education policies.

48% of teachers have avoided political activities a little or a lot because of a "concern" that such activities might create problems in their job. Boy, I'd love to see how that shakes out depending on whether they live in a right-to-work untenured state or not.  The report also indicates some mixed feelings about unions-- no shock there.

But then we look at how teachers come down on some current issues.

When it comes to forming charter schools, 74% of all teachers oppose them-- that includes a full 64% of Trump voters. Yet 16% think charters are swell. The numbers are similar for "the use of government funding to help pay students' tuition at private schools," which voucher fans will call an unfair framing of the voucher issue. Still, 25% of Trump voters support the idea along with 11% of Clinton voters. Yet when asked about tuition tax credits (another version of vouchers, only half the teachers oppose them, and a third support.

In what I'd call one of the most shocking returns, only 14% of Trump voters think immigration is a good thing in this country. Granted, that's in keeping with Trump voters in general-- but these are teachers. 66% of Trump voters called immigration "mixed." I am concerned for the children of immigrants who are sitting in the classrooms of those teachers. Oh, and 44% of Trump voters-- and a whopping 17% of Clinton voters-- oppose DACA.

Most depressing result? The respondents were asked if they agreed or disagreed that students of color have the same educational opportunities as whites in this country. 76% of Trump voters agreed. 37% of Clinton voters agreed. I don't even know where to begin. In total, a full half of teachers do not see any inequity of opportunity by race in this country. Where are they working? What are they reading? What do they see? And what are they doing with the students of color in their own classrooms?

In happy news for reformsters that we are likely to hear repeated, 72% of all teachers support the idea "that different states should use the same standards to hold public schools accountable in reading and math." Note that they didn't use the words "Common Core," so this is in keeping with some previous surveys. But I'm going to go ahead and find it depressing.

Teachers mirror the general population in that they mostly give their local school district A-B grades and the national school system a C. And almost nobody thinks their school system is well funded.

53% of all teachers want less federal involvement, with a whopping 18% want to see more fed meddling (including a full 10% of Trumpists).

Some of these percentages are admittedly small. But they are teachers. Teachers who believe, apparently, that the drive for equity is pointless because students of color have it just as easy as the white kids. Teachers who think that immigrants may just make America worse. Teachers who think the Democratic Party has their back. Teachers who think Betsy DeVos is a fine choice for Secretary of Education, and Donald Trump is a great President.

People outside the education biz sometimes see us as a monolithic group. This survey is a reminder that we aren't. But it's also a reminder to those of us who feel passionately about public education that it's not only outside our walls that we find people who see things differently. It's a reminder that teachers are not immune to the problem of voters voting against their own interests. And it's a reminder that if we're looking for someone to try to convince and convert, we may not have to look any further than the teacher next door.

CHIP and Nobody

As of this writing, CHIP, the health insurance program that covers used to cover almost 9 million children in this country, insuring health care for the most vulnerable citizens who were not going to get it any other way-- that program has gone unfunded by Congress for months, with the states' ability to keep it going slowly but surely dwindling to nothing. Congress has been busy, y'know, trying to create a trillion dollar hole in the economy.

This is the worst kind of dereliction of duty. This is the worst kind of abandonment of an ever-growing sector of our society that so badly needs our help.

So I want to be clear about this.

Nobody in Congress-- nobody-- gets to talk about the "sanctity" of human life while they allow 9 million poor children to go without health insurance. If you believe life is sacred, than help protect the 9 million lives that are here.

Nobody in Congress-- nobody-- gets to talk about how we need to pursue charters or vouchers or some other education reform in order to promote "equity." If you care so much about equity, then make sure that 9 million children have equal access to health care.

Nobody in Congress-- nobody-- gets to talk about how we're pursuing a policy "for the children." If you want to do something "for the children," then get 9 million poor children some damned health care.

Nobody in Congress-- nobody-- gets to talk about how children just can't wait one more minute to upend the educational system so that they can be saved from the terrible, awful, no good, bad public school system. You know what can't wait one more minute? A child who's sick and has no damned health insurance.

Please, Congress-- wake up and do at least some small portion of your damned jobs. Health insurance for poor children is a bipartisan no-brainer. Get the hell to work!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

How To Teach Social and Emotional Skills

Social and Emotional Learning is once again (or still, depending on who's talking) a thing. Character education, values education, teaching students how to be Good People. It erupts every so often in the education system, just as the business world is sporadically hit with seminars and training sessions about How To Talk To Customers or How To Interact Productively with Other Carbon Based Life Forms (you can spot people who have had these trainings because when they talk to you, it will always be in the format "Why, [insert name here], I hear what you're saying. [Insert rough paraphrase of what you think/hope the person said].")

I pin the return of SEL on the rise of test-centered learning, on a rising tide of people looking around and saying, "Oh, yeah-- I suppose there is more to learning to be a grown-up human than just bubbling answers on a Big Standardized Test." That realization has dovetailed with the push from Data Overlords and Corporate Reformers to collect data on the pertinent personality traits of these future meat widgets. After all, when I send HR to plug into cradle to career pipeline, I don't just want to order up math and reading skills-- I want to know about soft skills like showing up on time, not upsetting customers, and obediently following orders (those are the soft skills, right?)

That uneasy marriage of SEL fans underlines one of the problems of social and emotional education -- we may all agree that we want children to grow up to be good people, but whose idea of a good person? Historically, we've seen plenty of parents get prickly over the notion that a school will decide what kind of person their child should grow up to be.

Even if we can get past that, we have to figure out how to teach SEL Stuff to students, and the approaches available are bizarre, as if aliens are setting up "How To Act Like a Human Being" classes. A large number of companies offer all manner of modules, including some with scripted lessons-- because nothing says "Learn To Be a Naturally Better Human" than listening to a teacher read from a script.

Maybe these program designers and the people who adopt them aren't overthinking this. Maybe I'm not thinking enough. But I would swear that the best way ton teach students to be decent human beings is to be a decent human being in your classroom, all day, every day.

I mean, here's a Summit school-- Zuckerberg's infamous education in a box program-- running a weekly class entitled "Habits, Community, and Culture (HCC) class, where students learn Habits of Success and develop social and emotional learning (SEL) skills." It seems like a swell idea and the folks in the photo are smiling, but all I can think is "What do they do the rest of the week?"

How do you take SEL "content" and separate it from everything else, when your character is first and foremost the "How" of conducting all the other business in your life? How can you possibly split your life up so that "be ethical" is over here and "conduct daily business" is over there? Trying to develop character separate from conducting all the business is like trying to develop a Southern accent separate from speaking. It's like trying to practice swimming far from any water.

You don't get rid of bullying by running bullying programs one hour a week. You get rid of bullying by running a school that never tolerates-- or models-- bullying ever. If for one hour a week you talk about how bullying is bad, but the rest of the week you run a classroom where it's understood that some people deserve to be punished or hurt or made to feel small, your bullying program is a huge waste of time.

If you spend an hour a week talking about how to be a decent person, and the rest of the week behaving like a lousy person, you're wasting that hour. And if you spend the week being decent people, what do you need that hour of class for?

I agree that there is one sign that SEL seems called for-- we are in a society moment right now where the idea of character is so debased and displaced that teaching seems like a thing we might need. But character is not a discrete element of your life, like math skills or playing the tuba or color coordinating your clothes. Character is how you do everything else. If your life is a wave, character is the water it moves through.

And yes, sadly, I admit that with so many adults lost, we increasingly need to help littles understand their own hearts and map their own emotions and connections to others.

If you want to teach your students to live with thoughtful character, then do so yourself, in front of them, out loud. If you want them to learn respect, live in your classroom with respect. If you want them to learn honesty, live honesty in front of them. If you want them to learn thoughtful, reflecting growth, then live that every day. Grab the moments when they come.

None of this comes in a program in a box with a script. When I worked summers in private industry, we used to make fun of courses like "How to pretend you care . about your employees" or "How to fake authenticity" (I may be paraphrasing course titles). Much of what's offered for SEL reminds me of those. You cannot fake it.

And for God's sake, don't implement these programs because they might improve test scores or make students more employable. You learn to be a better person, a person of character, because it makes your life better. Without character, decency, all those better qualities, a person could become rich and powerful, even rise to the highest position in a country, and still be miserable and unhappy, a blot on the surface  of the planet.

What we call SEL is learning to be your best self, to become, to journey, to try to grasp what it means to be fully human in the world, to rise and advance in spirit. You should be doing that, too, and helping your students, showing your students. Profiteers and narrow policy makers have hollowed out so much of education. Don't let them take this, too.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Failure of Test Prep Nation

Bill Gates said it would take us ten years to see if  "this stuff" (aka Common Core and its attendant testing baloney) would work  It's increasingly clear that we won't have to wait that long.

Right up front, I want to be clear-- I could not care less about the results of the PISA or the PIRLS or any other Big Standardized Test that pretends to measure the educational achievement and effectiveness of students, teachers, schools, or nations.

But this is the game reformsters wanted to play, the game at which they promised us a win, so by all means-- let's see if they delivered.

And the answer continues to be, "Nope."

New international testing results show a precipitous drop for US fourth graders in reading scores.

And yet, these are the students who have had a lifetime of test prep. They have been soaked in Common Core since Day One, and to an even greater extent, soaked in the discipline of using Common Core as directed test prep for each state's Big Standardized Test.

This was necessary, we were told over and over again, to keep the US competitive internationally. We were getting beaten by Estonia! Do you want to get beaten by Estonia? At one point, reformsters even tried to make our test-taking readiness, our best-of-show bubbling, a matter of national security! We needed Common Core and the attached battery of BS Tests to get the next generation ready to whip Estonia, to get the US back on top! We would become Test Prep Nation.

And so they arranged to hijack that next generation. Educational experts be damned-- kindergarten had better become the new First Grade (or maybe Second Grade) so that we could start cramming academics and test-taking skills into the brains of those little slackers. Third graders wouldn't even be allowed into Fourth Grade until they could prove they were willing and able to pass a standardized reading test (never mind their actual reading skills-- we need them to score well on that damn test).  Education experts and professionals and parents of all shapes and sizes said, "This is a bad idea. A really bad idea. Do you even have a shred of evidence that national standards and a test-based accountability system do any good, ever?"

"Hush up,' said (some) reformsters. "Just follow our plan and watch those scores rise."

And it hasn't happened. It hasn't even happened a little.

Not that we should brace ourselves for the apologies and walkbacks and reconsideration of these bold ideas. Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos offered this reaction:

Our students can’t move ahead – in school or in life – if they’re falling behind in reading. We must do better for students, parents & educators. We must #RethinkSchool

Sigh. Not entirely untrue on the necessity of reading skills, but there is a difference-- a deep, profound, significant difference-- between being able to read well and being able to score well on a standardized reading test (particularly a crappy one). And being able to read is a good first step, but it helps is the economy for poor folks isn't being trashed and the social safety net isn't in tatters and employers are paying a true living wage for work.

And teachers everywhere are bracing themselves for the inevitable "Well, the Core and the BS Tests are awesome. This should be working. Those damned public school teachers are screwing everything up. What we need are more vouchers and charters!"

Meanwhile, we have to watch our international standing. As (some) reformsters warned, low test scores are arriving at the same time that US international stature and leadership are decaying. Could it be that PISA and PIRLS scores really are the problem? Or could there be some other explanation that doesn't involve fourth graders?

Standardized Tests Are a Poor Substitute for Justice

John Kuhn is a Texas superintendent who has been watch the reform biz unfold for a while now. Here, in a quick two minute video, he connects the inequity of school funding to the injustice of offering poor schools not funding, not help, not resources, not support-- but standardized tests. The same politicians who keep some schools poor also demand that those schools hit the same marks that wealthy districts do.

It's the one thing that has never happened with standardized tests. No lawmakers or policy mavens declare, "This school has low scores-- we had better get them some more funding and resources and help right away." Instead, low test scores put a target on a school's back-- this one is ripe for privatizing, closing, replacing, chopping into easily-sold pieces.

Watch this, and pass it on.

2 School Districts, 1 Ugly Truth from S4E Media on Vimeo.

Remember this line: "Educational malpractice doesn't happen in the classroom. The greatest educational malpractice happens in the statehouse, not the schoolhouse."

Sunday, December 10, 2017

ICYMI: First Snow Edition

Okay, you may want to curl up with some hot chocolate and a blanket, because this week turned up an awful lot of reading material. Remember, only you can amplify the voices you think need to be heard!

Our School Systems Deserve Better Than This

Charles Pierce at Esquire takes a hard look at charter schools and segregation. You will not have to guess what he thinks.

Green Dots Suspension Rates Continue To Be Remarkably High

As the debates about school discipline heat up, School Data Nerd looks at hard data from one charter group, and finds that they are booting kids out at a high rate.

Douglas County School Board Ends Controversial Voucher Program

A few years ago, reformsters captured the Douglas County (Colorado) school board and proceeded to launch the nation's first district-level voucher system. Turns out that mostly what they did was wake up local voters. Here's how a reformy tide can be turned back,

Turkish Gulen Schools in America

The Gulen chain is perhaps the most notorious charter chain in the US, serving as a fundraising project for a Turkish government-in-exile. Mercedes Schneider looks at some of the most current tools for tracking these guys.

Success Academy's Radical Experiment

Everybody wanted to write about Eva this week for some reason. Here's the New Yorker's take on the queen of Success Academy

Tolerating failing schools in New Orleans-- as long as they're for black kids

Andre Perry takes a look at the latest bad news for fans of the NOLA chartering experiment

What Is Motivation Porn and Why Does Higher Education Seems Addicted To It

A great look a thing I didn't even realize was a thing, but as soon as I read this, I could see it everywhere. Grit, anyone?

Update on Summit Schools

Leonie Haimson took a trip to one of the schools running the Summit school-in-a-box program. In some ways, it seems even more unimpressive than I thought it would be.

Influencers and the Hillary Campaign

While technically water under the bridge, a reminder that Democrats are no BFFs of public education either. And some of this water is still flowing around making trouble.

A Portfolio of Schools

Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat kicks off a series of stories about the portfolio approach to reform, and it will probably not make you happy.

Voucher Schools Can Teach Whatever They Want

HuffPost did some heavy-duty research into what is actually taught at the mostly-religious schools that benefit from vouchers in this country. You may have expected the emphasis on anti-evolution and anti-science, but there's a also a healthy dose of political conservatism (and get them women back in the kitchen). How Betsy DeVos wants your tax dollars to work.

Kindergarten to Work Second Shift

In Florida, a parent offers a great response to the school district that wants her kindergarten student to go home and log onto the computer to do more school work.

She Breaks Rules While Expecting Students To Follow Them

Lisa Miller reviews the Moskowitz memoir and identifies some of Eva's central problems, like how she is proud of being a rebel, and demands that all of her students never rebel at all. It gets better.

How America Is Breaking Public Education

Always interesting when the mostly-conservative Forbes goes against type. The thesis here is a good one-- "we've disobeyed the cardinal rule of success in any industry: treating your workers like professionals."

Teach Kids To Start Unions

Rachel Cohen interviews Malcolm Harris, who has many intersting things to say about Kids These Days