Thursday, August 30, 2007

Academic rigor: a top American priority...just a little behind tourism

There is nothing about the criticism of public education that makes me angrier than the hypocrisy inherent in some of it. Public education is often treated, especially by politicians, as if it is completely divorced from the rest of the public. The public is demanding high standards, but because of laziness or incompetence, those of us in the schools fail to deliver what the public wants. Baloney! I have argued that the major reason public education isn't better, especially when it comes to test scores, is because we try so hard to give our various publics what they really want.

No word is more in vogue these days when it comes to public education than "rigor." Everybody wants more academic rigor. In fact, they don't just want it, they demand it. Politicians demand it, American business demands it, colleges demand it, and if you ask Joe Blow on the street, he'll probably say he's for it, too. Everybody wants more academic rigor from our public schools...unless, as this USA Today article shows, it means that someone might be inconvenienced.

After a swing toward starting the school year earlier, sometimes as early as the first week of August, momentum has grown in several states to begin school later in August or after Labor Day.
Pressure from parents and the tourism industry has pushed 11 states to limit how early school may begin, rankling school boards that want local control and more time to prepare students for state-mandated tests.

This year, new laws took effect in Florida, where the 67 public school districts may not begin classes earlier than 14 days before Labor Day, and Texas, where the 1,033 public school districts may not begin until the fourth week in August.

In Michigan, a law enacted last year said the 838 school districts must begin classes after Labor Day.

Other states, including Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky, are debating the start date.

Before I go on, I should say that I've read that concern about August heat is a factor is some places, and that is a legitimate concern. But Minnesota passed one of these laws, and August heat is not a major factor here. I think the USA Today article has it right. The major reason for these laws is pressure from parents and the tourism industry.

This is typical of the hypocritical demands that those of us in public schools face. Yeah, everybody wants academic rigor, alright. Some people want academic rigor, but not if it interferes with the amount of money their kids can make by cutting their summer jobs short. Some people want more rigor, but only if it doesn't interfere with their kids' "part-time" jobs during the school year. Some people want more rigor, but only if it doesn't interfere with the amount of time and effort they want their kids to put into their sports or other activities. Some people want more rigor, but not if it's going to mean they can't take their two-week vacation in the middle of the school year. Some people want more rigor, but not if it means they can no longer take their vacations in late August. And finally, some people want more rigor, but not if it's going to mean the tourist industry might take a slight hit.

Does the American public, as a whole, really want more academic rigor in our public schools? Give me a break!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Public education IS NOT GETTING WORSE!

I just got back from Oregon, and when I checked Joanne Jacobs site last night, I ran in to this "opinion piece" from Victor Davis Hanson:

Last week I went shopping in our small rural hometown, where my family has attended the same public schools since 1896. Without exception, all six generations of us — whether farmers, housewives, day laborers, business people, writers, lawyers or educators — were given a good, competitive K-12 education.

But after a haircut, I noticed that the 20-something cashier could not count out change. The next day, at the electronic outlet store, another young clerk could not read — much less explain — the basic English of the buyer's warranty. At the food market, I listened as a young couple argued over the price of a cut of tri-tip — unable to calculate the meat's real value from its price per pound. As another school year is set to get under way, it's worth pondering where this epidemic of ignorance came from.

Our presidential candidates sense the danger of this dumbing down of American society and are arguing over the dismal status of contemporary education: poor graduation rates, weak test scores and suspect literacy among the general population. Politicians warn that America's edge in global research and productivity will disappear, and with it our high standard of living.

Obviously, Hanson's point is that public education has gotten a lot worse than it used to be in "the good old days." He then goes on to tell us how we can fix our problems. There are a couple of things that he says that I actually agree with, but it's hard to take him seriously when his basic point is so clearly wrong.

It's hard enough to read and hear things by public education bashers who twist facts and statistics to portray our schools in the worst possible light. But it's downright agonizing to read a clever little opinion piece based on something that is widely believed, but demonstrably false.

Even Jay Greene, who has published studies and books bashing public education, concedes that public education has not gotten worse. In his book, Education Myths, Green seems to dig out any statistic or study he can to show that public schools are doing a horrible job. But he also traces NAEP scores, SAT scores, and graduation rates all the way back to 1971 to demonstrate that the idea that our public schools are in decline is a myth. Greene tries to turn this around by arguing that public schools have never been any good, but this is a guy who argues against more funding for schools, against higher teacher salaries, against smaller class sizes, and for vouchers. Does anyone familiar with Greene's work think that if he could have demonstrated that public schools are getting worse, he wouldn't have been delighted to do so?

Public education clearly isn't getting worse. ACT scores improving for four straight years despite the fact that more and more kids are taking the test is evidence that it's getting better. Although that piece of news was publicized widely enough so that anyone concerned with education issues should have been aware of it, Victor Davis Hanson completely ignored it. I guess it wouldn't have fit very well into his clever little piece.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I'm looking for advice!

I feel a little like a used car salesman as I write this post, but I really am looking for some help. Shortly after I began this blog, I admitted in a post that I had started blogging in order to promote the book I wrote, In the Trenches: A Teacher's Defense of Public Education. The book did okay, especially in Minnesota, and there are 1,200 copies--some given away, but most of them sold--out there floating around somewhere. (I've been told that a self-published book has done very well if it sells 600 copies.) To tell the truth, although there are some people who bought the book because of my blog, that didn't exactly move it to the best sellers list.

Since the book was self-published, I ended up putting a lot more money out on the book than ever came in. One problem I had, from a marketing point of view, is that the book is short--117 pages, so it doesn't take very long to read and I'm told that it has gotten passed around by faculties in quite a few. Being the marketing guru that I am, I sent out a lot of sample copies to principals and staff development committees, so that probably backfired. It would have been wonderful for me if everyone who wanted to read the book had bought a copy, but I really am happy that so many people have read it. That's why I wrote it.

I never expected to make my fortune on the book, and the overall experience is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding that I ever had. For a few months after it was published, I was actually somewhat of a celebrity up in my neck of the woods. There were articles and editorials about the book in regional and state newspapers, speaking engagements, radio interviews, and even a TV interview for a very small station. I had never, ever thought of myself as an author, so whenever I was introduced as one, I was tempted to look behind me to see who it was they were talking about.

My problem is that I've got 800 copies left, my last royalty check was three months ago, so now I'm paying in every month for storage and other administrative crap. I'd like to get rid of most of the copies, but I'm about out of ideas. I'm not thrilled with the idea of hauling them home to have them sit in my basement, but it would really hurt to start throwing them out. I could give books away, but I'm tired of paying postage. Does anybody have any ideas out there?

Oh, I have been getting some swell offers in the mail lately. People and companies who say they've seen my book, think it has great potential, and for a mere $10,000 or so, they'll be happy to market it for me. Yesterday, I got one that takes the cake. A company called Airleaf sent me a letter saying that they've seen my book and "believe it has the potential to be a feature film" in Hollywood. No, I'm not kidding. They actually said that! And for just $1,295 they'll have a Hollywood director review my book! Now, I tend to be a little gullible, but I'm not that gullible. How in the world my book could ever be a feature film is beyond my imagination, and I'm sure that no one from Airleaf has ever seen more than the title of it. In any case, those are NOT the kind of ideas I'm looking for.

Now, I hope you'll excuse a little shameless self-promotion. I really do think the book is good, and the feedback I've gotten has been almost entirely positive. Teachers, especially, seem to like it, and the best compliment I've gotten--and it is one I've heard a number of times--is that it says exactly what other teachers had been thinking. The Grand Forks Herald education writer told me that after she read the first half of the book, she said to herself, "This guy's got way too much common sense; no one will ever listen to him." I'm still not sure how to take that, but I think it was a compliment. In any case, I do think if I could get those other 800 books out there, people would enjoy them. Some schools have used them for door prizes for staff development workshop days, and there have actually been schools who have bought copies for their whole faculty. I personally thought that was a swell idea!

If anyone has any great marketing ideas--or any way for me to get rid of most of those 800 books without losing more money on the deal, let me know. And if you want to read the book yourself, you should probably buy one or borrow one from someone who already has it. If I were you, I wouldn't wait for the movie.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Politicians and education

Another law has been passed by another legislature and signed by another governor making it easier for parents to litigate against schools.

A new law will make it easier for parents of disabled children to challenge school districts' decisions regarding their child's education, Gov. Eliot Spitzer's office announced Thursday.

The law signed this week makes the school district responsible for proving it is satisfying legal obligations to provide an appropriate individualized education program for a student with a disability, according to Spitzer's office.

"This bill rightly places the burden of proof on school districts that have the expertise needed to assess options and the responsibilities for implementing individual educational plans," said Spitzer in a release.

I guess one can argue about the particulars of this case, but I find it interesting that this law was passed because the Supreme Court--not exactly the most pro-public education bunch in the world--ruled that the burden of proof should be on the parents if they are the ones challenging the way the schools have done something. I also find it interesting that the Bush administration, "after 'a careful review' of administrative law and of the changes to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act approved by Congress," also came down on the side of the schools. And we all know how friendly the Bush administration tends to be to public schools. Nevertheless, the Democratically controlled New York state legislature couldn't wait to pass a law to circumvent that decision, and the Democratic governor couldn't wait to sign it. And Democrats are supposedly friendly to public education.

The fact of the matter is that over the last 40 years or so, politicians of both parties have supported law after law restricting schools in their ability to deal with students and making it easier for parents to challenge them. Have all these laws made public schools better? I don't think so.

Perhaps all of this has happened because when it comes to education, politicians haven't got a clue. Here are statements recently made by former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney:

"I'm really concerned that schools in inner cities are failing our inner city kids—largely minorities—and those kids won't have the kinds of skills to be able to be successful and competitive in the new market economy," he said. "The failure of inner city schools in my view is the great civil rights issue of our time." Romney said he would work hard to improve schools but did not elaborate beyond that.

"I'd like to have local school boards recognize that they need to be concentrating of course on English, math and science, but also some of the cultural elements that make us a society of creative individuals."

Wow! How insightful. It really looks like he's put a lot of thought into education, doesn't it? And he's running for president!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The achievement gap and the teaching gap

Yesterday I posted about the slight improvement that has taken place on the ACT over the last few years, but I left out the bad news. The bad news was that the achievement gap persists. Asians actually do better than anyone, but African-Americans, Hispanics, and Indians lag behind. In Minnesota, the average score for African-Americans was five points below the average score for whites, and that seems to be reflective of the rest of the nation.

I don't think too many people would argue with me when I say that the achievement gap has an awful lot to do with the fact that a disproportionate number of minority kids attend tough inner-city schools. About a week ago, Joanne Jacobs posted about an article in the Village Voice that dealt with the Teaching Fellows program. Joanne's post and the article focused on the teaching program, but the article described a number of horrible classroom situations the teachers were thrown into. Here are two of them:

"The year before I came, the kids set three or four fires in the school," recalls one fellow about to enter her fifth year of teaching first and second graders. "You're prepared that some of the kids aren't going to listen, but not for the things they're going to do—like throwing desks across the room. I had a kid taken away in an ambulance my first year because he just flipped out and was ramming into the door."

And then there's this:

"I knew I would be going into a school that needed teachers, but I didn't expect the level of misbehavior in the classroom," (Kimberly) Wand recalls. "I had never dealt with kids throwing things across the classroom. One time, I remember turning my back to write on the blackboard and noticing that the kids who were sitting by the bookshelves had ripped up a book. There were paper shreds all over the floor." One of her peers landed in the hospital after a dispute with a student ended with a door slammed into the teacher's head.

The point of Joanne's post and the Village Voice article was that teachers were not being adequately prepared before being thrust into these situations. If you read the article, it seems clear that there were some problems with the administration of the Teacher Fellows program. But when I read about the classrooms described, I have to wonder if it's possible to prepare anyone for dealing with them.

There have been a number of other articles and posts on blogs lately about the teaching gap--the fact that teachers in the inner-cities tend to have less experience and qualifications than teaches in other schools, especially the affluent suburbs. The point being made is that the achievement gap is a result of the teaching gap, but I really doubt that. While the teaching gap makes it more difficult to do anything meaningful about the achievement gap, I think it's more a result of the achievement gap than a cause of it.

Teachers, like anyone else, want to be successful. They are going to look for situations that give them the best opportunity to do that. While there are some very special people who want to go into the most challenging situations, most teachers are going to try to find jobs in schools that will give them greater opportunities for success. As a result, when it comes to education, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota proposed paying the best teachers huge salaries--upwards of $100,000--to go teach in the toughest inner-city schools. I think that's a good idea, but I'm not at all sure about how effective it would be. I suspect that many of those who are considered "the best" teachers would probably not do well in the classrooms described in the Village Voice article. Because of due process rights that courts have given to unruly students, and limits on suspensions, expulsions and other deterrents that have been imposed on schools by legislatures, even the best teacher will find himself or herself with limited options when faced with a few students who are determined to disrupt a class. Teaching in that environment takes a very special kind of teacher.

In our school, we have a shop teacher who does an amazing job with our toughest kids. He is a self-described former hell-raiser, and he understands those kids, and is able to get them to behave and perform in ways that none of the rest of us can. I don't know if he could do some of the things that some of our other good teachers do, but there is no question that no one we have can do what he does. If we could find enough teachers like him to run our inner-city schools, I'm sure that we could do a lot to narrow the achievement gap, but from my experience, I'd have to say that there aren't too many teachers like him.

When we read about classrooms such as those described in the Village Voice article, it's natural to focus on the unruly students and the teachers trying to cope. But there is someone we tend to forget about. In each of those classrooms there undoubtedly were some students who wanted to get an education. They are being cheated, and they are the people that we should be focusing on. We need to find a decent learning environment for those kids, and in order to do that they have to be separated from the those who throw desks and rip up books. I'm not sure whether it's a matter of pulling out a few unruly students from the mass of students who would do fine if they weren't there, or if it's taking out the few students who care from a classroom that has become a mob. One way or another, we have to focus on those kids, and give them a real chance to learn. And we can't wait until we find enough teachers to work effectively in those situations, because that is a goal that may never be achieved.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Minnesota, hats off to thee!

Well, I guess our state has bragging rights.

For the third consecutive year, Minnesota's high school seniors have posted the highest ACT scores in the country when compared with other states in which at least half of the graduating seniors take the college entrance exam. In results released today, the average score for Minnesota's Class of 2007 was 22.5, a rise of 0.2 from a year ago despite having nearly 2,000 more students take the test...

Wisconsin and Iowa tied for second with an average of 22.3.

The Minnesota score is the highest average score for any state's seniors since the test format changed in the early 1990s. In addition, Minnesota's 2007 graduates had or shared the highest score in all four categories covered by the exam: English, math, reading and science.

There was good news nationally with the scores going up one-tenth of one percent. That might not sound like much, but it seems to me that it's more significant because this accompanied an eight percent increase in the number of kids who took the test. You would think this would drag scores down. This is also the fourth straight year that the scores have improved. I think that's good news, so don't expect to hear much about it from the national media.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

I've got the "school is about to start again blahs"

This is one of the longer breaks I've taken between posts this summer. The other breaks I've taken have happened when I've gone of vacation or been involved in something where I just couldn't get to a computer for awhile. But that's hasn't been the case this time. I've been reading some other blogs, and I've been checking out my newsreader, but I couldn't get fired up about anything. Finally, last night, I checked out Anonymous Teacher's blog, and she has inspired another post. In the process, she also helped me understand why it took me so long: I've got the "school is about to start again blahs."

Anonymous Teacher inspired this post by by unintentionally appealing to my very strong Catholic sense of guilt. In her post, she talks about how excited she is about the start of the new school year. I have frequently heard young teachers express the same kind of enthusiasm, and since I began reading teachers' blogs last year, I seen the same sentiment expressed over and over again. I wish I felt like that, but I don't. I dread the start of a new school year. Whenever I listen to teachers like Anonymous Teacher sounding so excited, it makes me feel like an old man who is stooped over on his cain mumbling, "Bah humbug!"

Let me make it clear that I love my teaching job. I really do! And for the first several years of my teaching career, I looked forward to the start of the year, too. I don't know how many years it took, but eventually I realized that hated it. Once we get a few weeks into the year, I'm fine, and by the end of the year, I'm usually thoroughly enjoying most of my classes. But the start? Yuk!

First of all, I've got to admit that my life in the summer is pretty good. I have time for that second cup of coffee before I take off for my morning workout every day. I only work 22 hours per week, so I've got my afternoons off, and the weather has been beautiful here in Warroad for the last month. I can kick back on the deck, read a good book, or head for my office in the basement and write a post for my blog. If the Little Lady comes up with a honey-do project for me, I know I can get it done without getting all stressed out about it. By the time this summer is over, I'll have been to Cancun, Oregon, the Quad Cities, the American Idol concert in the Twin Cities, as well as spending a great weekend with our kids up here in Warroad. Life has been good! Why in the world would I look forward to all that coming to a screeching halt?

In three weeks, the kids will come to school, and I know I'll be overwhelmed. For some reason, it always seems like there's so much more work at the start of the school year than at the end. Part of the reason is that I'm slower at everything--getting materials ready, correcting papers, you name it. When I get home every night in September, and collapse into a chair, I know that I'll feel like the poster boy for teacher burnout.

At the beginning of the year there are all always some things that have to be done, but just aren't very exciting--getting all the names of the kids in my gradebook, setting up my computerized gradebook, going over school policies and classroom policies (that's always a thrill for the kids!), and just trying to get kids to understand how they need to do things in my classes. Blah!

Another thing that depresses me about the beginning of the year is that there is almost no chemistry in my classes, yet. The aspect that I probably enjoy most about teaching is the relationship that develops between the students and me and the students with each other as the year goes on. That's fun! But it's not there at the start of the year. To top that off, I don't know the kids names, yet. I hate that! Every time somebody wants to answer a question, I've got to go running to find the seating chart so I can figure out who the heck it is that I'm calling on. It's either that or asking, "Who are you anyway?" It's always great when you've got to tell some kid back in the corner not to do something by yelling, "Hey, you! Back there! No, not you, him!" When I give kids time to read or take a quiz, they probably wonder what kind of weirdo I am when they look up and see me staring at them and whispering to myself as I try to memorize their names.

Now that I've written this I feel much better. As I read over this, not liking the start of the year makes a lot of sense to me. Rather than looking at myself as an educational Scrooge, I'm wondering how anyone can look forward to this part of the year. What the heck is wrong with you people?!?!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

My plan to deal with cheating (Do I dare?)

School starts for me in less than a month. I wish it weren't the case, but I know that within a few days or a few weeks, somebody is going to cheat in one of my classes. I hate cheating. I hate catching kids and then having to deal with it. I hate knowing that someone is cheating, but not being able to catch him (or her). And I hate wondering if someone is cheating, but not being sure.

Cheating screws up everything I'm trying to do as a teacher. More than anything else, I want my kids to learn how to be good students. Much of what I do in my classes involves trying to get kids to be conscientious and to make an honest effort. If kids regularly do the assignments in my class, pay attention, and do a reasonable amount of studying for tests, they can be successful. My strategy is that as they see their work paying off, they will be motivated to continue to work or to work even harder. As they do that, they will be learning the material that I want them to learn, and as they do that, they will find it more and more interesting. The more interesting the subject becomes to them, the more incentive there will be to continue to do the things that a good student does. And as students see other students having this success, some of them might be motivated to do the same thing.

The honest work that students do in my classes is the foundation to all of this, and when students cheat, they take a wrecking ball to that foundation. They may gain the success, but when they do, it is for exactly the wrong reason. They haven't learned any of what I've wanted them to learn. In fact, if they get away with cheating, they learn the exact opposite of what I wanted them to learn. Instead of their success motivating other students to work hard, they motivate others to cheat as well. The more students who get away with it, the more students are motivated to follow in their crooked footsteps. I hate cheating!

This year, I am seriously thinking about adopting what would truly be a no-tolerance policy for cheating. If I can get the approval of my principal (and that's pretty iffy!), and if I have the guts to go through with it, any student that I catch cheating in any way--eyeballing on a quiz, copying an assignment, using a cheat sheet, you name it--will get an F for the marking period.

My policy in the past has been to give cheaters a zero for whatever it was that they were caught cheating on, but I'm convinced that's not enough. What's a zero on one assignment or quiz when you've gotten away with it ten or twenty times? Cheating has become a part of student culture in schools throughout the nation, and I'm convinced that part of the reason is that we are too lenient.

I know there are some other teachers who have the policy I am contemplating, and I can't help but feel that it's time for me to step up to the plate. If anybody out there thinks that this will be easy, I know it won't be. Here are some of the problems:

1. What if I'm wrong? There have been two times during my career when circumstances strongly indicated that students had been cheating, but I ended up being convinced that they hadn't. Thankfully, I was very careful in both situations, and never actually made any accusations. Nevertheless, this helps me to understand why principals would be less than thrilled to see their teachers following the policy I'm considering.

2. In large part because of the incidents just described, even when the evidence seems incontrovertible, there is the thought in my mind that maybe I'm making a mistake. I feel a lot better when the student owns up to the cheating, but there are some who never do. With the consequences being this stiff, I'm afraid that the percentage of kids who refuse to admit to what they did will increase dramatically.

3. Those kids have parents. No matter how clear the evidence is, there are a lot of parents who will believe their kids. "My daughter wouldn't lie to me!" With an F for the marking period at stake, those situations are not going to be fun.

4. There are some situations in which I know a student or students are cheating, and I've got some proof, but I don't know if I've got enough to convince a neutral third party (my principal), and definitely not enough to convince a parent. When I've had lesser penalties (zero for the test or assignment), I've often been willing to impose that penalty. It will be tougher for me to do that if the penalty is an F for the marking period.

5. Cheating is an equal opportunity character flaw. There are a lot of otherwise good student who cheat. Their grades are very important to them, and their grades are very important to their parents. When one of those good students are caught, the feces is going to hit the fan.

6. I think I'm an honest person, but I know I'm not perfect. Once I start clamping down on some cheaters, everything I do in school in town, and anywhere else for that matter, is going to be subject to extremely close scrutiny.

7. I really do value my relationship with my students--individually as well as collectively. Past experience tells me that some of the kids who get nailed for cheating in my classes will be kids that I've had wonderful relationships with. That is going to be hard.

So what do you think? Should I go ahead with this, or should I back off? I'd love to hear the thoughts of anybody on this.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

More on paying students to perform

The New York Times has a good article about that city's idea of paying low-income students for good scores on tests. The article is written by Joseph Berger, and I think he does a good job covering different sides of the issue.

On the one hand:

Suzanne Windland, a homeowner raising three children in a placid enclave of eastern Queens, doesn’t (like the idea). Her seventh grader, Alexandra, she said, had perfect scores last year. But she doesn’t want New York City’s Department of Education to hand her $500 in spending cash for that achievement. That’s what Alexandra would earn if her school was part of a pilot program that will reward fourth and seventh graders with $100 to $500, depending on how well they perform on 10 tests in the next year.

Mrs. Windland wants Alexandra to do well for all the timeless reasons — to cultivate a love of learning, advance to more competitive schools and the like. She has on occasion bought her children toys or taken them out for dinner when they brought home pleasurable report cards, but she does not believe in dangling rewards beforehand.

“It’s like giving kids an allowance because they wake up every morning and brush their teeth and go off to school,” she said. “That’s their job. That’s what they’re supposed to be doing.”

Actually, Alexandra will probably not be eligible for the reward because the program, which has been adapted from a similar Mexican cash incentives plan, is aimed largely at schools with students from low-income families. Mrs. Windland, who grew up for a time on food stamps but now works as coordinator of volunteers for a social services agency, thinks it is unfair that Alexandra will see other seventh graders being rewarded for far lower scores, while she savors only the intangible plums of pride and satisfaction.

I can't argue with anything Mrs. Windland says here, and she sounds like a wonderful parent. She sounds like the kind of parent that teachers dream of, and I think we should be doing everything we can to encourage more parents to be like her. The problem is that there are a lot of parents who aren't like her. There are a lot of parents who give their kids no support whatsoever when it comes to education, and that is the problem. What can we do to motivate those kids?

Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein responds to skeptics by arguing that no one has figured out how to get more poorer children engaged in learning. Trumpeting the long-term benefits of education, the better jobs and lives well lived has not worked. Cash just might.

“There are lots of kids who think education is not relevant to them, who think education is a waste of time,” he said in an interview.

Sol Stern, a well-known writer on education issues, is also critical of the program. He suggests putting the money into college funds instead of paying "instant cash." His idea sounds similar to what a leading businessman did in our town, and that is a great idea--for working class and lower-middle class kids in Warroad. I don't think it's such a hot idea for low-income kids in New York City. As Klein implied in his statement, the kids the "cash program" is meant to motivate are not kids who respond to incentives that will pay off five or ten years from now.

The dismal performance of low income kids in our urban areas is a huge problem in our education system, and it is not going to go away by itself. While I am not enthusiastic about New York's cash for performance program, I can't knock it, because there aren't exactly a lot of promising ideas out there for dealing with it.

I think there are good arguments on both sides of this issue, and there were a lot of intelligent statements in this article. But the one I most agreed with was made by Nakida Chambers-Camille, who is a school administrative assistant.

Ms. Chambers-Camille has a seventh grader, Leana, at a school that probably won’t qualify. Leana, she chuckled, may think that is unfair. But Ms. Camille believes such sweeteners may ultimately benefit her daughter. “If that’s going to help the child my child is playing with, then I’m all for it,” she said. “I want my child associating with people who have education as a priority. If that child is not learning, that child will pull my child down with her.”

Ms. Chambers-Camille understands the effect that kids have on other kids. If policy-makers figured that out, we'd be a lot farther along toward solving the problems of low-income kids in urban schools.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Different diplomas for different folks

I am often scornful of public education reform ideas, but Governor Bill Ritter of Colorado is proposing something that might actually make some sense.

Colorado high school students could choose from three routes to graduation: a "governor's" diploma for the college-bound, a workforce-ready distinction or a diploma with certification in plumbing or mechanics.

That's one of the options Gov. Bill Ritter's office is proposing as his task force on education reform meets today for the first time...

Ritter stressed that "multiple pathways to graduation" is only an idea and that he wants his P-20 Council - which will study reform from preschool to graduate school - to look at anything that might work.

The 29-member group includes teachers, superintendents and college presidents. By mid-November, it plans to pre sent Ritter with policy recommendations that could turn into legislation next winter...

Ritter's diploma-option plan has some similarities to a model put forth in "Tough Choices or Tough Times," a national report that generated buzz among education reformers in Colorado.

The report from the National Center on Education and the Economy calls for allowing students who want to attend community or technical colleges to test out of high school by passing a statewide board exam after 10th grade. Students headed for top universities and colleges would stay in high school until 12th grade, and students who failed the statewide board exam could take it in following years.

Bruce Benson, an oil-and-gas businessman and co-chairman of Ritter's task force, said he's "for getting people educated to their highest potential."

"Not everybody is cut out to have a bachelor's of science or master's of liberal arts," said Benson, former chairman of the board for Metropolitan State College of Denver. "Some people would be a lot happier being the best diesel mechanic in the world."

I've heard many people--from other teachers I respect to Celine Dion--say that school isn't for everyone, and this idea seems to go along with that. My one concern is that I have seen kids who were mired in mediocrity in high school, and then suddenly in their junior or senior year turned things around and ended up going to college and doing well. Those are some of our greatest success stories, and a program like this might make that impossible. Nevertheless, I think an idea like this makes a lot more sense than one proposed by Minnesota Governor, Tim Pawlenty, last year. He proposed something to the effect that each and every student should have at least a year of college courses under his or her belt in order to graduate from high school. I think of some of the kids I work with every year, and I can only say, "Yah, right!"

Thursday, August 02, 2007

There are no heroes in this one!

The NY Times has a story about a teacher who quit because his principal overruled him and passed a student who didn't deserve to be passed. But, believe me, there are no heroes in this story.

Several weeks into his first year of teaching math at the High School of Arts and Technology in Manhattan, Austin Lampros received a copy of the school’s grading policy. He took particular note of the stipulation that a student who attended class even once during a semester, who did absolutely nothing else, was to be given 45 points on the 100-point scale, just 20 short of a passing mark.

Mr. Lampros’s introduction to the high school’s academic standards proved a fitting preamble to a disastrous year. It reached its low point in late June, when Arts and Technology’s principal, Anne Geiger, overruled Mr. Lampros and passed a senior whom he had failed in a required math course.

That student, Indira Fernandez, had missed dozens of class sessions and failed to turn in numerous homework assignments, according to Mr. Lampros’s meticulous records, which he provided to The New York Times. She had not even shown up to take the final exam. She did, however, attend the senior prom.

Through the intercession of Ms. Geiger, Miss Fernandez was permitted to retake the final after receiving two days of personal tutoring from another math teacher. Even though her score of 66 still left her with a failing grade for the course as a whole by Mr. Lampros’s calculations, Ms. Geiger gave the student a passing mark, which allowed her to graduate...

The teacher in this story sounds pretty good....until you read this next paragraph:

Mr. Lampros has resigned and returned to his home state, Michigan. The principal and officials in the Department of Education say that he missed 24 school days during the last year for illness and personal reasons. He missed two of the three sets of parent-teacher conferences. He also had conflicts with an assistant principal, Antonio Arocho, over teaching styles. Mr. Lampros said all of this was true.

Still, Mr. Lampros received a satisfactory rating five of the six times administrators formally observed him. He has master’s degrees in both statistics and math education and has won awards for his teaching at the college level.

Twenty-four days in one year?!?! And two out of three parent-teacher conferences in his first year?!?! I don't know if I missed twenty-four days and two conferences in my first twenty-four years! I don't care what degrees this guy has, or how well his observations went on the days he happened to be in school, if there isn't some great explanation for missing that much time, quitting shouldn't have been a choice for him. He should have gotten the axe.

The written record, in the form of the minutely detailed charts Mr. Lampros maintained to determine student grades, supports his account (of what happened). Colleagues of his from the school — a counselor, a programmer, several fellow teachers — corroborated key elements of his version of events. They also describe a principal worried that the 2006 graduation rate of 72.5 percent would fall closer to 50 or 60 percent unless teachers came up with ways to pass more students.

After having failed to graduate with her class in June 2006, Miss Fernandez, who, through her mother, declined to be interviewed, returned to Arts and Technology last September for a fifth year. She was enrolled in Mr. Lampros’s class in intermediate algebra. Absent for more than two-thirds of the days, she failed, and that grade was left intact by administrators.

When second semester began, Miss Fernandez again took the intermediate algebra class, which fulfilled one of her graduation requirements. According to Mr. Lampros’s records, she missed one-third of the classes, arrived late for 20 sessions, turned in half the required homework assignments, failed 11 of 14 tests and quizzes, and never took the final exam...

Samantha Fernandez, Indira’s mother, spoke on her behalf. “My daughter earned everything she got,” she said.

I think it's fair to say that people saying that they've "earned everything they got" has become an overused cliche.

From Michigan, Mr. Lampros recalled one comment that Mrs. Fernandez made during their meeting about why it was important for Indira to graduate. She couldn’t afford to pay for her to attend another senior prom in another senior year.

Oh, well then!

This story illustrates a major problem that we have in public education. Whether we're talking about dealing with students, teachers, or principals, we are too tolerant. The only good thing about this story is that the four people involved--student, parent, teacher, and principal--all deserved each other.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The public's view of public schools

I love Joanne Jacobs blog, and she had another interesting post yesterday. Joanne's post was on a study by the Hoover Institute's Education Next, and she focused on the point that a majority of people favor "No Child Left Behind." I was more interested in the part of the study that dealt with the public's view of their schools.

I thought the way Education Next presented the information in their article on the study was interesting.

The poll also shows that the public pulls no punches when grading the quality of its schools. Most give the nation’s public schools only mediocre marks--the majority give them no better than a C. Specifically, 43 percent give the schools in their own community an A or a B, 38 percent give them a C, and 18 percent give a D or F.

Wait a minute, here! It looks to me like the largest group gave their schools As and Bs and the smallest group gave them Ds and Fs. It seems to me that if you wanted to, you could present this information by saying that 81 percent of the public believe their schools are doing at least an adequate job. Since the Hoover Institute, which puts out Education Next is a conservative think tank--and we all know how those conservatives just love public schools--I guess it should come as no surprise that they would present their figures in the most negative light possible.

Considering the constant bashing of public schools that has taken place over the last few decades, I think it's surprising that the results of this poll aren't a lot worse. As Joanne reports in her post, the public's view of American schools in general is significantly worse than their view of their own schools:

When asked about public schools around the nation, these grades drop. Just 22 percent give public schools in general an A or B, 55 percent, a C, and 24 percent, a D or F.

If people are told over and over again that American public schools are failing, it's going to have an effect, and you can see it here. And that certainly isn't going to give them a more optimistic view of their own schools. In fact, since a lot of people gave their own schools higher ratings than schools in general, some of those who gave their own schools Cs must have seen them as better than average.

Despite the positive spin I'm trying to put on this survey, it does seem to me that this survey portrays a lower rating for public schools than surveys I've seen in the past. There are many public school bashers who will be happy about that. They think the public should "wake up" and demand "reform." I am a teacher, and I have to admit that I don't see it that way. In fact it makes me angry for a couple of reasons.

First of all, it makes me angry because the more parents who see public schools as lousy, the more parents there are going to be who are unwilling to cooperate with me--and believe it or not, I want to help their kids be successful. When students do poorly, there are going to be more parents who are going to be tempted to place the blame on teachers and schools, rather than encouraging their child to work harder. I don't see that as a positive development for anyone.

It also makes me angrier at any teachers who are not working as hard as they can and doing the very best job they can, because they give ammunition to the public school bashers of America. I think most teachers work very hard, but let's face it: some don't. And those teachers are doing great damage to those of who are doing our best, to our students, and to public education in general.