Category: Education News

Referendums Should Be for Teachers, Too

cap

On April 4, 2017, voters will be electing local governmental leaders—village officials, school board members, and the like.  Additionally, several communities will have to vote on referendums advanced by their school districts seeking additional funding.  Two of those involve districts in which I have an interest:  Hinsdale Township High School District 86 (where I worked for twenty-five years), which is seeking $76,000,000 for additional classrooms and swimming pool remodeling; and Center Cass School District 66 (which is the elementary district my two daughters attended), which needs over $12,000,000 for various repairs and safety updates.  (You can find the official referendums here–just click “Propositions.)  Yet, one aspect of funding a school district for which you will not see any new monetary requests is the single most important factor in any school’s success—its teachers.

Just to be clear with my background, I taught English for thirty-three years, retiring in 2012 after working in both a junior and senior high school as well as being active in my school districts’ unions (President, negotiator, and grievance chair).  Thus, I have an extreme bias in favor of teachers and the role they play in public education:  No matter what kinds of reforms, programs, or experts you can cite; nothing will impact a school more than the quality of its teachers.  And despite myths to the contrary, our public schools are not rife with incompetent teachers hiding behind unions or school codes in order to maintain their “cushy” positions.  Of course there are some bad teachers out there, but they are a minuscule number of the millions of dedicated public educators.  Most teachers work extremely hard to make a difference in the lives of our children.

But it has become more and more standard for school districts to downplay any and all expenses associated with maintaining their staff.  I receive several Google news alerts for a variety of public education issues which provide me with over thirty news stories from around the country every day.  But in the last five years, I have yet to see an article covering a school district, national leader, school board member, or any organization (other than those quoting teachers’ unions during contract negotiations) who will argue that school funding should be increased in order to attract and retain the best possible teachers.  The referendums shown above make absolutely no mention of needing more money for teachers—whether it be to lower class size or to gain a competitive edge when hiring the best teaching candidates—and I can’t remember hearing those in charge of our schools ever advocate for higher teacher salaries.

Instead, it’s become a standard procedure for many administrators and school board members to claim that teachers cost too much, that things like steps on a salary schedule are no longer “sustainable,” or that ”greedy” teachers are bleeding taxpayers dry.  I do understand that resources are not infinite—How many times during contract negotiations did I hear that there were “only so many slices of financial pie”!—but that line of reasoning won’t come up when discussing more funds for school expansion or repair, even when the need for more classrooms isn’t always dire, as is the case in Hinsdale 86 where shifting some students from one school to another is a money-saving option which the district has rejected.  Yet, the attacks about “easy” work schedules and “Cadillac” insurance programs arose every time I fought to improve the working conditions for teachers I knew were doing an amazing job.

The most galling argument I ever heard was during one negotiations when, frustrated by the district’s claims of poverty and refusal to agree to a reasonable salary increase, I suggested that if money were so tight, perhaps the board should seek more funding for our salaries.  The response was that requesting a referendum for salaries would be like “re-financing a mortgage to buy groceries.”  Since teachers are mere transitory expenses, the reasoning went, one should never “waste” a difficult process like promoting unpopular tax increases on raises for them.  Needless to say, my reply (that having the necessary money to eat was significantly more important than saving a percent or two on a mortgage interest rate, thus rendering their analogy idiotic) didn’t go over well.

The most essential element by a wide margin in improving and/or maintaining the quality of public education is who is in front of the classroom.  No matter what study you look at or how many factors are cited as important, all will have quality teaching near the top of the list of crucial characteristics.  Everyone knows this, but it seems we refuse to recognize the relationship between good salaries and good teachers, unlike other professions.  As all you baseball fans know, the White Sox recently traded one of the best pitchers in baseball, Chris Sale, and a key aspect of his value in the trade was everyone agreeing on how “reasonable” his contract was at only $38,000,000 for the next three years.  Yet, when it comes to the people who are responsible for teaching and looking out for our children every day, we become enraged when they earn over $100,000 a year (which would require teaching for 380 years to earn what Mr. Sale—who is a bargain by baseball standards—will earn in three years).  And I believe Chris is worth every penny; I just also happen to believe that teachers deserve a good wage too.

So as we vote this Tuesday on the referendums which are being pursued, we should keep in mind the unspoken reality that any additional money a school system receives at least indirectly might strengthen a district’s faculty.  Hinsdale 86 is an excellent example of how a failure to use referendums can create a needless money crunch when it comes to maintaining a quality staff.  My old district hasn’t passed a referendum since the 1960s, yet has spent tens of millions of dollars on new building:  The district has added many classrooms, field houses, and science labs as well as extensive remodeling projects over the years.  The money for all this was obtained through issuing bonds and spending surplus property tax revenues.  This time, at least, it is going through the appropriate channel of soliciting taxpayer approval before embarking on significant building sprees.  Unfortunately, though, the need for additional classrooms is less clear since much room exists in one of the two schools.  (You can read more about this issue here, here, and here.)  I would vote for this referendum, were I eligible to vote in Hinsdale Township, but it’s hardly a black/white choice.  My rationale would be to support the superior teachers there, not the questionable building.  The district will have major problems if this referendum fails, but the issues which failure would raise are important and should be addressed sooner or later.  Sadly, though, those most likely to feel the pinch for a rejection financially would be the teachers, come the time for a new contract.  (You can find an editorial which rejects this referendum as foolish here in the Chicago Tribune.)

In Center Cass 66, I would strongly encourage fellow residents to vote “Yes” on this tax increase (which I will also pay).  Elementary teachers unfairly earn significantly less than their secondary counterparts, and the relatively small tax increase for repairs should allow Center Cass to compensate teachers more equitably.  Of course, the teachers in the district will have to fight for their fair share, but assuming the referendum is approved, at least they won’t be competing as much with facilities expenses.  (It was also a nice touch that over Spring Break, repairs to one of the schools’ roofs ( at Prairieview Elementary), have been on display for anyone driving by on Plainfield Road, right before the voting.)

One day, perhaps, we will see a school board courageous and far-sighted enough to push a referendum because teachers are cherished and valued more highly than the thrill of construction.  There should be no question as to what is the most important resource in any school district, but we have a long way to go to acknowledge that teachers matter most and should be compensated accordingly.  Approving referendums (even as they are currently constructed) is at least one small, indirect way to show some support for teachers.

For more outlier views on what goes on in the world of public education and ways we can strengthen this institution, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools.

McDonald’s Stops Public School Campaign

cap (1)

Here’s a quick follow-up to an article written back in November:  McDonald’s hired  ex-science teacher, John Cisna, as a “brand ambassador” after he lost weight by limiting his calories to 2,000 a day, exercised significantly more than he had been, and ate nothing but items from the McDonald’s menu for ninety days.  He continued for an additional ninety days and created a video entitled 540 Meals (based on his three daily trips to McDonald’s over the 180 days).  Of course, there was a book as well.  None of this would have been all that noteworthy since any diet expert could tell you that if you consume fewer calories than you use, you are going to lose weight (and a 2,000 limit for a man who weighed 280 pounds at the start of this process was a significant reduction), even if those calories have little nutritional value.  Cisna used this as a school project, so he had his students calibrate his dietary needs and select his meals to maximize nutrition, at least as far as a McDonald’s menu could.  But there were definitely weaknesses in that diet, which was pointed out by many nutritionists at the time this first came to light.

And it came to light because after hiring Cisna, McDonald’s used its networks to arrange appearances for him at public schools across the country.  Cisna claimed that his message was all about making good choices, but many (including myself) saw this a thinly veiled attempt to insert fast-food advertising into schools, where it has no place.  A Change.org petition was started to try to stop these appearances this past October; and after collecting 90,000 signatures (and mine), it worked.  McDonald’s announced this past week officially that Cisna was no longer appearing in schools (his last school visit occurred on November 13), and that he is instead speaking with community groups and employees (adults) about his experiences.  (You can read articles about this most recent development here and here).  I’m not sure how many points to give McDonald’s for this—they never should have started running “infomercials” in public schools in the first place, but school officials never should have allowed them to.  And Mickey D’s did end the campaign, but waited some five months to acknowledge that fact, and it took 90,000 protests as well as negative publicity to get them to do so.

The good news is that our public schools are no longer at risk for some shady presentation masking as “science” sneaking ads into our kids’ classrooms.  But we should all be on alert for the various shades of propaganda which often weasel their ways into places they don’t belong.  Now, about those multi-media events staged in schools all over the country with three screens; popular movie, television, sports, and music clips; and a vaguely positive message about being true to yourself—and, oh yeah, don’t forget the frequent “placement” of various junk food brands.

Every Student Succeeds?

cap

With significant bi-partisan support in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, a new law was overwhelmingly approved in December to replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is being hailed as a significant improvement on NCLB, but an analysis of its components shows that it is a long way from the kind of federal reform that can really improve American public education.

First off,  it still requires standardized tests be administered to all students in grades 3 through 8, plus once during high school, pretty much exactly the same as NCLB.  It has the same mandates about reporting the results of not only the total student population, but also breaking out subgroups based on race, special needs, and low income.  At a first glance, ESSA does little to alleviate the standardized testing mania which was a huge negative characteristic of NCLB.

The key difference, however, has to do with the consequences for schools that don’t do well on those standardized tests.  Basically, what measures will be taken to improve schools with poor scores will be left to the states, which is a significant modification.  Under NCLB, under-performing schools had various federal hoops to leap through in order to keep Washington money flowing, when not enough students made “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) on the exams.  Under Arne Duncan’s reign as Education Secretary, schools could apply for waivers from those specific requirements, provided they met different requirements as outlined by, yep, Arne Duncan.  The chief way for that waiver to be approved was for “underperforming” schools to accept to the Common Core and put its standards in place.  Both NCLB and the waiver system used by the Obama administration shifted much control over how schools operated to the federal government.  According to every analysis of the new law that I have read, that changes under ESSA.

Instead, states will have to determine what standards and consequences come from the tests results.  So that could be either a good or a bad thing depending on how each state operates.  Many fear that the benign neglect our weakest schools received for countless generations (generally urban districts with much larger minority populations than the rest of the country) will surge back into prominence.  ESSA does mandate that states institute some interventions for schools scoring in the lowest 5% on the tests and high schools where less than two-thirds of students graduate, but it doesn’t specify what those interventions should look like, who will be responsible for seeing that they are implemented, or what consequences will ensue should those interventions fail.  All that’s required is that Washington approve the “evidence-based” methods the states impose on those low-performing schools.  The testing aspect of ESSA will resemble NCLB, but what happens after those tests will be determined by fifty different state legislatures.

So it’s way too soon to claim that this will be an improvement over NCLB or the Duncan waiver system unless you believe (as some do) that any federal interference in school governance is bad.  The most probable outcome is that some states will do a better job navigating the extremes between overly intrusive, one-size-fits-all mandates being handed down by those with little understanding of a specific school’s needs or problems, and leaving all reforms and financing to local school districts that vary widely in both their resources and community involvement.  There’s little doubt that some states will be awful and indifferent to their problem schools, some will be way too autocratic and controlling, and a few will find the balance to nudge problem schools into improving without intruding too much.  The percentages in each of those categories will determine if ESSA facilitates reform that can help schools in America get better.

A new feature of ESSA is that it will provide for more tax dollars being funneled into private and parochial schools.  States will now have to fund “equitable services” for children in those schools who are deemed eligible.  Every state will be required to have an “ombudsman” to make sure those non-public schools get their funding in a “timely” fashion.  As an advocate for public schools, I worry about this as all funding is precious and I believe should be given only to schools subject to public oversight—the state has little say on how private/parochial schools run, compared to its control over public schools. That being said, “equitable services” should mean that the schools receiving this money will get oversight to make sure the cash is spent on those services, which, by the way, should be equitable.  Despite my reservations about non-public schools receiving public money, at least the goal here is to make sure all special needs kids are treated equally.  That intent I can support.

Then there is the “Pay for Success” initiative, which does not originate with ESSA, but is endorsed by it.  Basically, Pay for Success allows private corporations to earn a profit by investing in educational programs.  In Utah, for example, Goldman Sachs spent $1,700 per pupil on a program designed to prevent pre-school kids from ending up in special education programs once they entered public schools.  When 99% of the targeted students did not need special education placement at the end of the program, Goldman Sachs earned a profit of roughly $260,000.  That 99% figure, however, has been called into question by virtually every early education expert (you can read about it in much greater detail here).  There’s also the fundamental issue of allowing private corporations to make profits from public education funds—I would argue that the entire public education system is a huge benefit (profit) to the business world in the literate, creative students it churns out (the high school district where I worked certainly produced hundreds like that every year), and it is morally reprehensible for corporations to try to bilk additional profits out of public schools.

And with all of this, we still are inextricably tied to standardized tests as a means to assess the quality of both our students and the schools they attend.  We’ve been over and over how wrong this approach is (see this for one of my many anti-testing rants), but ESSA does little to alleviate that problem.  There may be a slight lessening in all the needless testing prep that schools now feel compelled to do since the new consequences for poor standardized test scores will vary from state to state as well as ESSA’s not requiring teacher evaluations be tied to student test scores, but that could easily change depending on individual state actions.  Regardless, as long as tests are mandated, results are published, and poor scores get punished; schools will feel obligated to spend valuable class time in getting students ready for them, not to mention the additional hours used in administering them.

Overall this is a slight move in the right direction since Washington is admitting that more local control is better than a central locus.  But the wrong-headed educational moves of governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Florida’s Rick Scott, and our very own Bruce Rauner show that state-level control often isn’t any better than Arne Duncan or NCLB, and can be worse.  Schools can’t and won’t improve unless we move to a more teacher-centric approach:  Where all parties (parents, students, community members, school boards, politicians, and especially teachers) work collectively to create the standards for which our children should strive and then get out of the way to let those with the most expertise and experience—the teachers—to help the students strive for those standards using methods the teachers believe to be best for their unique situations.  No matter how brilliant or comprehensive a federal law or state program is, it will not significantly impact our classrooms unless the teachers enthusiastically see it as beneficial to their individual students and schools.

Of course I hope that ESSA works more effectively than NCLB or the patchwork federal control Duncan used through the Common Core years.  Based on what I’ve read, however, I’m not optimistic.  You can read some of the articles I’ve looked at to see how others are previewing this new law in

The Washington Post, The New York Times, EdSource, IllinoisTimes, The PBS News Hour (video), U.S. News and World Report, Brookings, and The Progressive.  These offer a variety of opinions on both the need to change NCLB and how beneficial ESSA might be.

For more understanding on how schools work and can really be improved, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools.  To read some sample chapters, you can go here.

Not There Yet

cap (1)

I think most Americans heartily applauded the recent Supreme Court ruling making equality in marriage rights for gay people the law of the land.  I even used the Facebook app to make my profile picture rainbow-hued. (Although that does create the problem of how long it’s appropriate to leave it like that even if you really don’t like how it looks.  I went with about a month.)  The speed with which this change in attitude occurred was stunning, especially here in conservative DuPage County.  It was a proud moment for those of us who have long seen equality in marriage a no-brainer.

Then came a couple of news stories which made me aware that even if the Supremes have seen the light (barely, the 5-4 decision wasn’t exactly a landslide), we still have much work to do before we can claim that discrimination based on sexual orientation is over.  In Oregon (see this for details), the state’s 2014 teacher of the year was fired, filed a lawsuit, and then agreed to a $140,000 settlement to resign; and a teacher at a Catholic school near Philadelphia (more in this article) was fired, both due to their being gay.  Just as Barak Obama’s being elected President twice has hardly eliminated racism, Obergefell v. Hodges is just one piece of the evolving legal rights that all minorities have had to fight to get in this country.

Unfortunately, despite this historic ruling, many states still do not have anti-discrimination laws which prevent employers from firing employees for their sexual orientation.  This map shows that gays in twenty-eight states can have their employment terminated should their homosexuality be deemed an issue by their bosses.  When you think about it, this is a much bigger problem than marriage equality.  At least, Illinois is one of the more enlightened states in protecting the employment rights of both gays and trans-gendered individuals.

But so is Oregon, which did little to save its 2014 teacher of the year from losing his job.  At least he was able to challenge his dismissal which led to the settlement, which was better than nothing.  The offending school district, however, admitted no wrong as part of the deal, despite the ruling that there was evidence of “significant discrimination” in his treatment.  Yet, had he worked in one of the states without Oregon’s anti-discrimination laws, he would have had no recourse whatsoever for what was ruled (sorta) his wrongful termination.

The Philadelphia case is even sadder in some ways. The woman involved had successfully worked at her school for many years before her orientation became controversial.  She had been honest with her principal and colleagues from the start (apparently none of them ever had reason to question her morality in working at a Catholic school), but had not been “out” in any way to her students or the community.  A single letter from one parent complained about her, and the diocese wasted no time in dumping her.  And it clearly had nothing to do with her competence as the 23,000+ petition to save her employment shows—she was much beloved by the students and parents with whom she worked.  Regardless, the Philadelphia Archbishop, Charles J. Chaput (who will serve as host to Pope Francis later this month), praised the firing as “showing character and common sense.”  Apparently, when it comes to “What would Jesus do?” and gays, some believe He would cast them out as unfit to teach children.  And organized religions wonder why they are losing membership?

Obviously, this is hardly unique to schools, but it seems much worse when it happens there, especially when you consider the hundreds of kids who attend these teachers’ schools.  How many of them are struggling with their own sexual orientation? And statistics show their struggles are horrific in the number of times LGTB kids are bullied and their higher-than-average suicide rates.  Of course, school officials and politicians will claim to value and respect all students equally, but how can the kids believe that when exceptional teachers who just happen to be gay are fired for that very characteristic?  The message is very clear, “Your kind isn’t welcome to work here and we will cast those deviants from our midst should we become aware of them. Go, Bobcats!”

So before we get too smug about how much progress we have made on marriage rights and how enlightened we are, we should take a hard look at all the ways ignorance and bigotry are allowed to control some decisions.  And in places as supposedly devoted to reason and tolerance as schools should be, we cannot escape the irony of two excellent teachers being forced out of the classrooms they loved due to the close-mindedness and prejudice that is still pervasive in our society.  Hey, I’m thrilled about the ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, but that doesn’t mean the job is complete and the work is over.  We all still have miles to go before we sleep.

Do More than Just “Like” Ashley

cap (1)

By now, most of you have already heard about the wonderful act of kindness done by recent Hinsdale South graduate, Ashley Yong.  Instead of spending her money and time on senior prom this past April, she decided to help the homeless.  She bought some basic supplies, put them in twenty boxes, and the morning after she could have gone to prom; she went into Chicago to distribute these care packages to people living on the streets.  If you haven’t seen the video she made documenting her experience, you really should check it out (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enkPvV-9zSE.  You can also see/read coverage of what she did on Eyewitness News, Japanese television, and the Huffington Post).

As for how I’m connected to this fine young woman, she was in my freshman English I Honors class in 2011-12, and she also participated in the school’s radio station that year, which I sponsored (she even designed a t-shirt to promote WHSD, 88.5 FM, “Jive with the Hive!”).  Yes, she is a great kid, in my opinion, and it’s hardly surprising to me that she would perform such a selfless, uplifting act.  “Exceptional” is an adjective Ashley wears easily; she was selected as Journalist of the Year by the Illinois Journalism Education Association among many other honors she earned during her high school career.

So let’s be 100% clear right from the start that my purpose here is not to criticize Ashley in any way, shape, or form.  It was sad that some of her peers did snipe at her giving as a ploy to garner attention.  Fortunately, those small-minded attacks gained no traction because not only does what Ashley did transcend that kind of petty stupidity, but anyone with the slightest knowledge of the sincerity and character of this young woman would dismiss whining like that out of hand.  Ashley’s actions and motives are beyond reproach, and we can all benefit from her example.

And that leads us to the reason for this essay:  We all need to focus on ways we can help out those less fortunate than ourselves, rather than seeing our praise of Ashley as somehow achieving that end.  It is a national disgrace that we have any hunger at all, given that we waste roughly a third of the food we produce.  (Don’t believe that?  Check out this National Geographic article  for some evidence as well as suggestions for improvement.  Don’t worry; it’s not just Americans who have developed wasteful habits, although we do tend to lead the pack.  For a much funnier analysis of this issue, check out John Oliver’s report on Last Week Tonight)  And it’s not like we here in the U.S. don’t know what to do:  Hunger was much lower with the help of successful, if expensive, government programs in the 1970s.  In the 1980s these programs were slashed (along with the release of many mentally ill patients from institutions due to more government programs being cut, which dramatically increased the numbers of homeless).  Food banks, PADS, and other charitable organizations have tried to fill the resulting gap, but the continued rise in the number of hungry Americans suggests that volunteer efforts haven’t been enough.

Then there’s income inequality, which has reached levels comparable to those of the pre-Great Depression 1920s.  For those of you less aware of US history, that’s not a good thing.  Compared to other developed countries in the world, by almost any measure, we do very poorly on income equality.  Do a Google search for “income inequality,” and you will find many articles like these from the Washington Post, the Pew Research Center, and The Atlantic  which document how poorly the U.S. compares to the rest of the world when it comes to the increasing gap between the rich and the poor.  The most common finding is that we are the fourth worst in the developed world, trailing only Chile, Mexico, and Brazil (or Turkey, depending on who’s doing the measuring).  For a really thorough analysis of income, wealth, and poverty in the U.S., take a look at this study published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. All of Europe and much of Asia do better than America.

The homeless are one symptom of this inequality, and Ashley’s calling attention to their plight should motivate everyone.  Unfortunately, many of us will applaud her efforts by liking her video on Facebook, writing a laudatory comment under one of the news stories about her, or sharing a link on our Twitter feeds; then somehow fool ourselves that we’ve actually accomplished something.  It’s becoming easier and easier to “participate” in the acts of others without doing anything of substance whatsoever.  And the more we do this kind of “helping,” the more able we are to believe that these gestures rise to the level of selfless action that Ashley’s trip into Chicago was.

No, I don’t believe that when we click on a “Like” button we then equate that to putting together twenty boxes of necessities and distributing them to homeless people instead of going to our senior prom.  There is, however, a certain air of smug self-satisfaction in much of the reaction you see to the amazing acts others perform.  When the Supreme Court ruled gay marriage legal in all fifty states, many of us (myself included) used the Facebook app to put a rainbow over our profile pictures, which was a nice show of support.  But let’s not confuse this with the efforts of many over the years who did the serious work to raise awareness and file the lawsuits that got us to the point where this injustice was finally righted.  Even more to the point, how much did we in the straight majority really do to fight against this clear discrimination?

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon (yeah, I realize I crossed that line long ago in this essay), it’s time for us to recognize the lazy activism many have fallen into and do the heavy lifting of true progressive change.  Now, before you completely turn off to this message—“Hey, I did the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ last summer, didn’t I, smart guy?”—understand that the main thing we have to do to make this happen is relatively simple—educate ourselves on the issues and vote accordingly.

Acts of charity and community volunteering should be a much larger part of our lives, and we should be encouraging everyone to do more good works, as Ashley did.  And she is walking the walk by establishing a charitable organization to which you can donate, Give a Box.  But we also have to face the truth that most of us are way too good at finding excuses that preclude doing much, not to mention the realities of our world which show that no matter how well-intentioned and devoted many of us are (of course that definitely applies to anyone who reads my essays, I’m sure), it will not be enough to end some of the solvable problems we have here in America.  Yes, it’s great to pour a bucket of cold water over yourself in order to raise money for an illness which doesn’t receive enough funding, but that can’t cancel out the more important need to solve the problem of increasing the inadequate funding for this important research in the first place.

We have countless issues and causes that need our attention, and it is overwhelming to contemplate all the work that needs to be done to deal with the declining environment, obesity and nutrition issues, illnesses, racism and bigotry, gun violence, struggling inner-city schools, and on and on and on.  That’s not even taking into account the problems—some of which America has caused, by the way—in other parts of the world, like the Middle East, Africa, Central America, Russia, and Central America, to name a few.  But that’s why we elect representatives:  to use our tax dollars and technological prowess to address these issues.

Yet, when it comes time to select these people, the vast majority of us stay at home or vote against our interests.  Take a look at the voter turnout for DuPage County Consolidated General Elections (those are the April elections that typically don’t have the “glamorous” positions like President or Senators elected) here, and you will see that although the number of registered voters steadily increases, the percentage of those voters who cast ballots rarely rises above 25%, with the last two elections for which the county has compiled statistics (2011 and 2013) sinking below 20%.  Yet, as the residents of Hinsdale Township High School District #86 found out the hard way after a radical minority took over the school board in 2013, the school board members, township officers, and trustees elected to these elections can have a profoundly negative impact on the institutions over which they preside.

Information can be hard to find, and that’s where the effort comes for the voter.  You don’t have to skip work to travel to the city in search of homeless to help, but you might have to keep tabs on news which impacts your town, school, or neighborhood.  Even due diligence in searching for information might not be enough as it’s tough for the media to be able to cover the “smaller” bodies, not even considering doing investigative research to uncover shady doings.  So, you could attend a meeting or two, join a community group, or at least find a friend who is in the know.  No, it’s not easy and it will take some persistence, but that’s the responsibility that comes along with the rights in any democracy.  Sure, the Chinese government is extremely efficient since it doesn’t have to worry about much protest or pushback from its people; representative democracies are much messier and demand an educated populace to hold leaders accountable.  We have the freedom to ignore our government if we want, but we do so at our own peril.

So educating ourselves on the issues, ferreting out the candidates’ proposals to deal with those issues, and demanding those elected follow through on initiating actions to address the issues should be everyone’s top priority.  We can and should also engage in acts of charity as well as calling attention to the problems our society faces, exactly as Ashley did.  But even if that kind of selflessness is beyond us, we still can use our vast information resources to find out what’s really going on and force the political process to devote our tax dollars to things that really matter.

So the next time you see a news story or Facebook posting that touches upon an issue you find important, go ahead and like/share it.  But then do some research as to why this problem still exists at the level it does so you can then determine if the people whose salaries your tax dollars fund are doing what they were elected to do in finding answers to this problem.  Activism doesn’t have to be as intense as what Ashley did—although we should all be extremely grateful to the few who help motivate the rest of us in the right directions—but it certainly needs to be more than sighing to ourselves as we read about the wrong we hear about before we move on to our own pursuits.  People like Ashley show us that no problems are impossible to address as long as we pay attention, learn what’s going on, and insist that our society make improvements.  Thanks, Ashley, and may you keep showing us the way.

Tracking = Segregation?

cap (1)

In a disturbing article from The Atlantic (“Modern-Day Segregation in Public Schools”), one of the most common practices in schools across America has been branded as a modern form of racial segregation.  Tracking—placing students in classes based on their abilities, test scores, and teacher recommendations—has resulted in many schools’ classrooms becoming racially stratified.  According to the U.S. Department of Education, tracking “perpetuates a modern system of segregation that favors white students and keeps students of color from long-term equal achievement.”  The government’s analysis of tracking’s impact on students could significantly change public education soon as various cases work their way through the courts.

In the school districts used as examples in the article, white and Asian students were represented in advanced classes by significantly larger percentages than they were in the school’s total population.  Conversely, black and Hispanic students were in far fewer advanced classes than their numbers in the general student body.  While there can be many reasons for this that have little to do with race, there were a significant number of black and Hispanic students with the ability to be in the top classes who weren’t recommended or never took the required tests.

The federal government has stepped in to try to improve the situation.  Although lawsuits have been filed against individual school districts, the main approach is to increase awareness so that districts will take steps to rectify the problem, allowing districts to find the best system for their situation rather than having one “solution” for every school in the country.  It is important to figure out something rather than just eliminating tracking as many teachers prefer ability grouping since it allows for more targeted instruction based on student needs.

Among the ways to address this segregation could be requiring all students to take the prerequisite exams for advanced classes or open enrollment for any student who wants to be in an advanced class.  In the former, having every student tested ensures that all talented students can be identified and encouraged to sign up for the top classes.  With the latter, students and their parents can decide for themselves whether or not they want to take on the challenges of more demanding classes.

I taught in school districts that tracked students for all thirty-three years of my career, and I do think it enabled me to serve students better with material most appropriate to their skill sets.  However, there’s no question that both school districts in which I worked tracked more white and Asian kids into the top classes and never did I have any honors classes in which black or Hispanic students numbered in percentages even close to those of the school population overall.  I applaud the government for studying this issue and taking action with a district-by-district approach, trying to assist educational leaders to work on this problem without heavy-handed mandates.  But, schools need to address this problem before Uncle Sam enters the picture.  Every student deserves the same chance to excel, and tracking should not impede anyone’s opportunities.

WOOP (There It Is)

cap (1)

No, that isn’t a reference to the hit song from 1993. (You can see Tag Team doing a medley of their greatest hit at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-FPimCmbX8 if you must.  One of the rappers actually went by “Steve.”)  This WOOP, as a complement to my last blog entry (see https://jamescrandell.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/in-praise-of-criticism/) which dealt with the reluctance of people’s accepting constructive criticism, has to do with the belief that it’s much better to have an eternally sunny outlook.  WOOP (which stands for Wish Outcome Obstacle Plan) is the key to achieving goals, according to Gabriele Oettingen, in her book, Rethinking Positive Thinking.  Although I haven’t yet read this book, it is on my list, given the two reviews/analyses of it I read on-line in The New York Times and Men’s Journal.

If you recall in that last blog entry, we discussed how students’ overly high self-esteem and their teachers’ difficulty in being able to offer constructive criticism was creating an educational system based on good feelings that did not adequately prepare our young people for the rigors of the real world.  Having an unrealistic view of your abilities can hinder achievement which will often come only after many hardships and disappointments have been soldiered through first.  Oettingen took a look at the belief that we should all have positive outlooks and that being negative holds people back.  That belief has led many to think they should always see the glass as half full, without allowing the slightest negativity to enter their heads, and has contributed to our non-critical school system.

It turns out that a sunny disposition really does need a few clouds in order to help people navigate to get where they want to go.  Without planning for the obstacles that typically arise whenever we attempt to achieve anything, people tend to give up way too quickly.  Thinking about the things that might go wrong with our plans (what some would call, “being negative”) actually prepares us for the problems we encounter and helps us to overcome them.  Oettingen’s studies found over and over that those who started out with nothing but a positive belief in themselves wound up giving up way more readily than those who thought through their route and assumed that there might be a few unavoidable potholes along the way.

This doesn’t mean that we need to be overly negative, either.  As with most things, a healthy balance is the key mixture for success.  If you assume nothing will ever go wrong, you will be unprepared and wilt as soon as the first problem confronts you.  If you assume nothing will ever go right, you’ll never get off your butt to try anything.  Believing in yourself, but anticipating that obstacles will arise before you begin is the right recipe to get the furthest in your plans.  WOOP doesn’t guarantee success any more than anything can, but the studies Oettingen has conducted in support of this book suggests it will give you your best shot.

Yes, the sun will come out tomorrow, but you can bet your bottom dollar that you should be aware of the damage it can do to your skin and put on some sun screen.

More Effective Teacher Hiring

cap (1)

A study conducted by the University of Washington’s Center for Education Data & Research suggests that school districts can do a better job of screening applicants for teaching positions if they would focus on certain details of an applicant’s background more and de-emphasize others. (The article can be found at http://www.king5.com/story/news/local/seattle/2014/10/29/study-teacher-hiring-should-be-more-scientific/18146421/.)  Although the study only looked at a single large school district in Washington state, Spokane Public Schools, it is possible that the results could be applicable to just about any school system in the country and the ideas are certainly worth looking into.

The attributes which seemed to matter most in hiring the best teachers are hardly surprising—letters of recommendation, the ability to work well with others, experience, and instructional skills.  It’s hard to imagine that any hiring system wouldn’t look at those when determining which teaching candidate to hire.  But there were areas that have traditionally influenced hiring decisions that turned out to have little predictive power about which teachers would last and be successful in the classroom.

The prestige of the college teaching candidates had attended did not correlate with how well graduates did as teachers or how long they stayed in the profession.  It is natural to be impressed by a well-known college when seeing Stanford or Yale on a résumé, but this study indicated favoring a “name” school doesn’t lead to better hiring choices.

How well an applicant is “connected” would be another aspect of the hiring process that doesn’t work well either.  Just because the applicant knows someone or has been recommended by a friend currently in the district doesn’t lead to quality teachers.  This seems relatively obvious in the abstract since the biases of acquaintances or relatives would seem likely to blind them to the real potential of the person as a teacher.  Although it seems unlikely that these kinds of pressures from within would ever stop and they will probably continue to get those with connections interviews, those doing the hiring should make sure they don’t allow the candidates’ relationships to those already working in the district to sway their decisions on who should be hired.

Obviously, these kinds of cautions won’t help much in school districts which already have a difficult time filling their vacancies, but for many schools in the Chicagoland suburbs, with dozens of applicants for every opening, this article should be required reading.  Given the importance of quality teachers, those doing the hiring should make sure they use the most useful criteria when filling out their teaching staffs.

Teacher Expectations and Race

cap (1)

In a study published this past October (see http://www.latintimes.com/hispanic-education-news-study-finds-teachers-have-lower-expectations-latino-students-267098), researchers found that teachers expect less from their Hispanic students, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  What teachers believe about their students apparently does make a significant difference in how well they do in school.  According to the survey, teachers believe Hispanic students are 42% less likely to graduate from college than their white classmates.  (Black students are subject to even lower expectations as their teachers believe they are 47% less likely to graduate.)

Some might dismiss this as not important—what difference does it make what teachers think as long as they do their jobs and teach everybody the same way?  But researchers have found that there is a correlation between teacher expectations and student achievement.  Known as the “Pygmalion Effect,” having lower expectations can negatively impact how well students do in school, and the younger the students, the larger that impact is.

And this effect might be compounded by the lack of diversity in the teachers themselves.  Despite the 2014-2015 school year marking the first time since statistics were kept that the number of minority students in the United States is greater than the number of white students, teachers are still predominantly white.  A National Education Association (NEA) study shows that over 82% of U.S. teachers are Caucasian.  And using data from the 2010-2011 school year, a Center for American Progress study found that the gap between the percentage of minority students versus minority teachers is also quite large; when you subtract the percentage of minority teachers from the percentage of minority students in Illinois for example, you get a gap of 32%, eighth largest in the country and by far the highest in the Midwest, with Michigan next at 22%.  (You can find all the states’ rankings at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/report/2014/05/04/88962/teacher-diversity-revisited/.)

It would be nice to believe our country has gotten past race, and that teachers would never unintentionally hurt their students due to racial biases which lead to lowered expectations.  The facts, however, don’t support these beliefs, so we need to keep working at both being colorblind when it comes to student expectations and trying to increase diversity on teaching staffs.  Awareness is a key factor in making these happen, so articles like these serve as helpful reminders.  The Latin Times article, in particular, is useful since it has links to six other interesting posts embedded in it.  There’s no easy or quick answer to either of these issues, so we need to keep studying them as we look for ways to improve.

Rise above the Mark Reactions

cap (1)

Rise above the Mark is a film sponsored by the West Lafayette Schools Education Foundation and created to counter some of the testing and accountability frenzy which has taken over much of education over the past decade.  (Information about the documentary can be found at https://riseabovethemark.com/.)

The film was released a year ago and is slowly gathering some interest as illustrated by these two articles—one from the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vicki-cobb/education-reform-and-evid_b_5947980.html) and one from the IndyStar (http://www.indystar.com/story/news/2014/02/28/rise-above-the-mark-film-sparks-education-debate-/5918459/).

It is interesting that the term “school reform” has taken on such extreme connotations that the debate featured in the IndyStar article puts the issue in terms of those in favor of school reform versus those against.  I had always thought that anyone who felt that public education could benefit from changes was considered a “reformer,” but apparently, those in favor of more standardized testing, No Child Left Behind, the Common Core, and a more business-oriented approach to our schools have completely taken over the “reformer” label.  Rise above the Mark makes the case that we are spending way too much time, effort, and money teaching to, preparing for, taking, grading, and fretting over standardized tests.  Hey, testers, leave those schools alone!

I support this movement wholeheartedly.  To try to condense what a student knows into a timed, multiple-choice test seems ludicrous to the extreme.  Yes, the results do allow us to cast aspersions on schools that don’t score well, but what does that achieve besides forcing low-scoring schools to waste more class time preparing for the tests?  Basically, standardized testing has become an end unto itself, rather than one of MANY different measures of how much a student has learned.  And they have become a huge negative in that they don’t help schools to improve, instead simply ranking them so that people who know little about teaching or education can sit in judgment on them.  Plus, schools are then pressured into diverting their limited resources into experts and materials that claim to have the magic formula for instant “success” (defined solely in terms of test scores).

That a school system in Indiana would find the pressure of standardized testing so negative that it would make a movie asking for relief tells you the problems that our over-reliance on testing have created.  It is certainly refreshing to see that some educational supporters are taking steps to alleviate some of that stress.  I haven’t seen Rise above the Mark, yet, but I certainly plan to and applaud its attempt to shift our focus back to students and learning rather than multiple-guess boondoggles for the testing companies.