Sunday, November 26, 2006

Transform Education vs. Teacher of the Year

In one of his latest posts in Transform Education, Peter Campbell takes to task the 2005 Teacher of the Year, Jason Kamras, for comments he made in an interview. This is a classic liberal-conservative disagreement. Kamras doesn't appear to be a right-winger, but he is a proponent of charter schools and a supporter of NCLB. It's safe to say that those positions along with the other views he expressed in the interview put him on the right side of the spectrum when it comes to educational issues. I doubt that anyone who has read a few of Peter Campbell's posts would disagree when I classify him as a liberal. Since being a liberal is no longer in vogue, that term is often used pejoratively, but I don't mean it that way. In fact, anyone who cares about public education and reads what he has to say knows that we can find no better friend. I think that both Kamras and Campbell are good people who care about public education, but since I am a self-proclaimed moderate, no one should be surprised that I don't completely agree with either of them.

This is what Kamras said that Campbell took issue with:

I don’t define [teacher] quality in traditional terms – how many years of experience you have, or if you have a master’s, or if you’ve taken all the right education courses. Rather [I define quality] in terms of your belief in the ability of all children to learn and achieve at high levels, and your ability to bring that to fruition – to effectively help all children learn at high levels....

… We need to face a difficult truth, and that is that not all educators, not all school leaders serving in America, are effectively serving their children. And I’ve really taken this year to challenge my professional unions and in general the status quo to be a lot more progressive about embracing policies that make it easier to transition out people who are consistently ineffective. I think that’s really important. It not only helps to remove those who are not adequately serving children, but it also helps retain really effective people, because really effective, ambitious people want to go to work with other ambitious, effective people. And when they feel they are struggling against a system that doesn’t have that — that’s one of the biggest reasons why people leave education.

Campbell believes that Kamras is, in effect, endorsing union busting, and he responds by saying this: Ironically, it's the unions that help preserve and defend the things that Kamras says that we need to do more of, i.e., retain effective and ambitious people. After all, without basic rights as a worker, without any kind of job security, without the ability to determine what happens in your classroom, and without the ability to try new, unconventional approaches, no one will stay in the teaching profession, especially "ambitious, effective people" who "want to push the envelope."

Despite my great respect for Peter Campbell, I have to say that I agree with the thrust of what Kamras is saying. I believe that our tenure and seniority systems are obstacles in the way of educational progress, but I am certainly not in favor of breaking unions. I know what the teaching profession was like before unions and I know what it's like now. Believe me, I know that owe much of the standard of living that I enjoy to teachers' unions, and I would always want a union negotiating any overall package that I was involved in.

Campbell makes valid arguments in support of the job security that teachers enjoy because of our seniority and tenure systems, and he argues that there are a lot more good teachers than bad ones--an argument that I agree with. But he does concede that there are bad ones, and he doesn't address what to me is the even more disturbing problem of excellent young teachers getting cut from school districts simply because they lack seniority. He also doesn't address the problem of veteran teachers failing to be as good as they could be because their seniority has made them so secure. I'm not saying that they become incompetent; that rarely happens. But I have seen too many teachers with seniority quit working as hard and being as good as they were when they were younger. I wish this never happened, but it does. As much as I appreciate the arguments that Campbell makes, I must respectfully disagree with him. I believe our tenure and seniority systems are doing us more harm than good.

As I indicated earlier, this doesn't mean that I completely agree with Kamras. My problem with him is that he implies that the problems we have in public schools are entirely inside the schools--the school itself, the teachers, and the administrators, and that we can solve all of our problems by making changes there. In my experience as a junior and senior high school teacher, it has been very clear that there are two basic parts that go into the equation of student learning. There is the school with its staff, and there is the student. I firmly believe that if we focus all of our reform efforts and ideas on the school side of the equation--trying to find better teachers, trying to find those magic teaching and discipline methods, trying to find better administrators, trying to give kids more technology to work with and more modern school buildings to work in--any progress we make will be very limited.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: we can't make students learn. They have to make the decision to do that themselves, and then we can help them to get there. The biggest problem we have in public education today is not a lack of good teachers, it is that there are too many students who don't make there own education a priority. Granted, good teaching will motivate more kids to want to learn, but Kamras thinks that's a much larger part of the answer than I do. Kamras indicates that the frustration that good teachers feel is due to working with poor teachers and poor administrators, but that doesn't fit my experience. The good teachers I have known have been most frustrated by the number of students who refused to cooperate in their own education.

Quite frankly, there are some kids who don't try to learn and others who don't behave no matter how great the school and the teacher and no matter what methods are used. That would be bad enough, but those kids have an effect on other kids, and at the middle and high school levels, that effect is profound. Why is it that we consistently ignore this whenever we talk about improving public education? People who want to improve education need to face the fact that sometimes, when there are students who don't try and don't behave, it is not because of the teacher or the school. If we, as a country, ever decide to address that problem, the education for all social classes and all races will improve like it never has before.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

How much math do kids need? How do we get them there?

It is embarrassing to say this, but our school missed its AYP target for math last year. Our present seniors took the state test last spring, and as a group, absolutely bombed it. Although many of us frequently bash "No Child Left Behind", I can see why others support it, because our school has been scrambling to fix the problem ever since we got the news. That's a good thing. Nevertheless, it has raised a couple of questions in my mind, and I promise they are not loaded questions. I'm honestly curious about what others think about these things.

One of the things our school has done, and in fact the decision had been made before we even got the test results, was to increase our math requirements for our high school kids. We used to require two years for kids in grades 9-12. We have now increased that to three years, and kids are required to take at least Algebra I. We have also added a geometry class to our curriculum. After we got the depressing results of last spring's test, we had a faculty meeting, and discussed doing more than that. Since the state test includes Algebra II, which includes some geometry and trigonometry, it was suggested that we should require that. But finally one teacher asked this question: "If kids aren't planning on going into engineering or some other math related field, how much math are they really going to need?" I think that's a fair question.

That question came up again, but in a different way, in my classroom recently. We had finished our American history stuff one day, and there were about five minutes left in the class period, so a girl in the back of the room raised her hand and asked me, "Mr. Fermoyle, are you good at math." I answered that I was. After all, I took all the math classes that I could when I was in high school, I aced my college algebra class while tutoring other students, and I am frequently able to figure out simple math problems in my head that others need calculators to solve. So I walked back and looked at a problem in her geometry book. I told her that I took geometry back when I was in tenth grade, so I no longer had any clue how to figure out problems like the one she was showing me. A student sitting next to her sarcastically said, "Isn't it great to know that this will have real practical value in our lives?"

I know that there is concern about the fact that other nations like China and India are producing more engineers than we are. I know that there are a lot of fields that require understanding of a high level of math, and I also understand that there may be a lot of kids who will end up needing more math than they think they will when they are sixteen-years-old. After all, we have had students who have gone to college who ended up having to take remedial math classes because they hadn't taken enough math at our high school. Nevertheless, I will ask this heretical question. Is it possible that we are pushing too much math on a lot of kids who will never use it?

Regardless of how much math, or anything else, that kids need, I wonder what is the best way to get them there. Right now, our principal, the teachers in the math department, and everyone else in the school for that matter are very concerned, and we are coming up with every idea we can so that our kids will do better on that test next spring. As I said earlier, that's a good thing, but I don't know if any of the kids, who will be taking the test for us, really care. As it is now, the tests our kids take to determine whether or not we're a failing school don't matter to them at all. According to the people who monitored our math test last year, there were a lot of kids who obviously made no effort on it at all. Now, why am I uncomfortable with that?

My understanding is that in a couple of years, the math test our kids take to determine the status of our school will also count toward their graduation. That should definitely help bring about a better effort by them when they take that test, but I wonder if that one test will motivate kids to do the work and the studying necessary to perform well on that test.

One thing that has always struck many teachers on our staff is the fact that nearly all of our kids, no matter how badly they do in their regular classes, manage to pass the written test that they have to pass in order to get their driving permits. There is no question about it--our high school kids want to be able to drive. I can't help but wonder what would happen if we tied getting a drivers license at sixteen-years-old to overall school performance. If their performance in school is too poor, make them wait until they're eighteen to get their licenses. I know there would be problems involving things like kids with learning disabilities, but it seems to me that we could probably work those problems out.

I really have no problem with our school being accountable for the job we do teaching our kids. But if that is going to be based on our kids' performance and learning--and I don't know what else you can base it on--I would like to make sure that their own performance and learning matters to the kids, too.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Why are some kids so lazy?

In a comment about my last post Ian asked this question: Why do you think it is that some students don't care about their education? Some of the blame can be laid at the feet of parents who don't prioritise education for their kids, but is that the sum of it? Our critics would charge that the majority of students who don't care about learning were disconnected from school at a young age by the same school system. To be fair, there aren't really that many unenthusiastic kindergarten students. So what happens to them that in ten years, they lose their drive to learn, to be a part of a group, and to advance themselves?

This is an important issue, and I told Ian that I'd do a post on it because I'm interested in what other people have to say about it. So here is the post. Coincidentally, this afternoon an excellent young teacher in our school dropped off this article to me because he thought I might be interested in it. The title of it is They're Not Stupid--They're Lazy. The article is actually not as fitting to this post as its title would lead us to believe, and the author does not exactly promote public education. In fact, when talking about American high schools, she says, "all this is not to say that American high schools do a great job of educating kids. They are called the weak link of the U.S. educational system for a reason." Ouch! Nevertheless, the article is in the ball game and the author does make reference to something that I think is a more important factor than most people realize--culture.

As I've said time and time again, I do think the attitudes and actions of parents are enormously important influences on the attitudes and effort of their children. But I have to admit that I have had a number of apathetic students whose parents seemed to care greatly about their school performance and were much more frustrated with their kids' poor effort than I was. This year at my high school, I have all of the sophomores in American history. I don't recall ever having a class of students with more kids who struck me as lazy and irresponsible. Out of 92 sophomores, 21 ended up with Fs in my classes (that doesn't include my basic class). I pride myself in setting up my class in such a way so that students who try hard can be successful even if they don't have great deal of aptitude in social studies, so having so many kids do so poorly bothers me more than most people know. All of these kids failed because they didn't do things that they were perfectly capable of doing. They must all have lousy parents, right? But last week, we had our school conferences, and I've never had so many parents of failing students show up. Every one of them was respectful, every one of them was concerned, and every one of them seemed willing to do anything I suggested to get their kids to do what was necessary to do well in my class. So, although in many cases students' poor effort can be traced back to the home, that's not always the case. And if it's not the parents, what else can it be?

First of all, let me admit that I think part of the problem in Warroad is that our schools (elementary, middle school, high school) are not as good as they used to be. Our district has suffered through a number of years of cuts, and as a result, we've lost some outstanding young teachers because they lacked seniority. Worse than that, however, with the checkerboard bumping system that we have in Minnesota, we now have a number of people teaching in subjects that are not their specialties. For example, in the room next to me, there is an outstanding elementary teacher who is now teaching high school English. It is the third different position she's held in our district in four years. She is certainly a talented young woman, and given time, she may become an outstanding English teacher. But if she was still in our elementary school, she would be an outstanding teacher NOW. Is this problem caused by the public school establishment, specifically unions? You bet, and I cannot deny that.

But the problem definitely runs much deeper than that, and I believe that our culture plays a major role. Right now, I'm reading a biographical book about Abraham Lincoln, who had no formal education, and it's amazing to read about the value that he put in books when he was a boy. I've read Booker T. Washington's biography, Up From Slavery, and he talks about walking for miles and sleeping under porches in order to have the opportunity to go to a school. Can you imagine anyone doing something like that in order to get an education today? The desire for self-improvement that people like Lincoln and Washington had was incredible. Today, our idea of self-improvement would probably best be summed up in the Viagra and penis enlargement advertisements I constantly receive on my email.

As I said in an earlier post, so much of our culture seems based on immediate gratification, and education is not an immediate gratification commodity. It involves work, it involves sacrifice, it involves doing something now that will be rewarded sometime in the future, and although I hate to admit it, it even involves a little boredom and drudgery. What is there in our culture today that encourages those things? The rap music stars kids see on MTV and listen to on the I-pods? The movies they watch on HBO? The sports stars they see who are blown up to incredible proportions on steroids or some other performance enhancing drug?

As much as our culture is an anathema to educational values, I don't think that's the major problem. I believe that what most contributes to the laziness we see in middle and high school kids are the behaviors that those of us in public education are forced to tolerate. Since kids have a "right to an education," and they have due process rights before they can be dismissed from schools, we end up putting up with behavior and effort that we should not have to tolerate. When some students see other students doing nothing, and still being able to come to class day after day, marking period after marking period, they are tempted to do the same. When some students see other students behaving horribly, but still being able to come to class day after day, they are tempted to do the same. I am convinced that all of our students are dragged down by our tolerating the complete lack of effort that some students show and the disruptive behavior of others.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Public Education: What I Believe

This is basically an opinion blog that attempts to defend the performance of those of us who work in public schools. It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it. It's been about six months since I began it, so I decided that it's time to do a summary post on my basic beliefs. Here they are:

1. I believe that public schools are doing a much better job than we are given credit for. I believe the best evidence of this is in the millions of public school students who have gone on to live productive lives.

2. I believe the most important factor in determining a student's performance is effort and not ability. I believe that student's who care about their education and try hard end up doing well, while those who don't care and don't try do poorly.

3. I believe too much of the blame for students who perform poorly is placed on the public schools themselves, and too little is placed on the parents of those students, the neighborhoods in which those students live, our culture, and especially the students themselves. (Public education critics view this as whining, but it's important, because as long as education reform ignores that and focuses solely on things going on inside the schools, any improvement is going to be limited.)

4. I believe that when education is a priority to the parents, the chances are good that the students will take their own education seriously. On the other hand, if parents don't make their kids' education a priority, the chances are that the kids won't either. (I recognize that there are exceptions to this, and that when parents care and the students don't, sometimes it is at least partially our fault.)

5. I believe one of the most important factors that determine the learning that takes place in a classroom is the effect that students have on other students. That means that if an average student is placed in a classroom with a lot of highly motivated students, that student will learn much more than if he or she is placed in a classroom with a number of apathetic or disruptive students. At the high school level, I believe this factor might be even more important than who the teacher is in that classroom.

6. I believe that a full-fledged voucher system would make public schools worse. The parents who would be the most likely to take their kids out of public schools and send them to private ones would be the parents who care the most about their kids education. As a result, there would be fewer and fewer highly motivated kids in those public school classrooms, and they would be made up of a higher and higher proportion of kids who don't care. I fear that this could result in a snowball effect as more and more parents pull their kids out of the public schools as they become worse and worse until they simply became holding cells for kids with no hope, no dreams, and no drive. However, I do believe that there are some places in our country where the public schools have become so bad that vouchers are justified. Sadly, they already have become "holding cells" but they have some kids in them who do want to learn, and they should be able to go someplace where they'll have a reasonable chance to do that.

7. I believe the most important reform we could make in public schools is to give teachers the power to remove disruptive and apathetic students from their classrooms. There would have to be safeguards to make sure that this power wasn't abused, but it should not involve lawyers and thousands of dollars to do it. Teachers should be given the power to remove kids from class, who have little interest in their own education and are hurting the education of their classmates. (There are people who have wanted to jump down my throat when I've stated this without further explanation. If you are one of those who want to do that, please check out this post before you do. If you still want to jump down my throat after you read it, jump away!)

8. The next most important reform we could make would be to give principals the power to keep their best teachers, regardless of seniority, when cuts have to be made, and to fire teachers who are not doing their jobs effectively.

9. I believe that God is alive and well in public schools.

So, there you have it. I realize that the world isn't going to stop because I've posted this, and that I shouldn't be expecting a breathless phone call from Margaret Spellings or President Bush, but I thought it was I good time to sum things up.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

School ? History? Who cares?

In my last post, I mentioned that there are some very low scores on my "Required Knowledge" Test when kids enter my class as sophomores. When I wrote that, I expected somebody to ask the question that was eventually asked by Crypticlife: "If your students (sophomores) do poorly on this test coming in, why do you feel the schools are doing a good job preparing students?" That is a fair question, but in order to answer it, I've got to ask it the other way. If schools are doing a good job, why do kids do so poorly on a test like this?

Part of the answer for the last couple of years probably does lie in the fact that my school isn't doing as good a job preparing students as we used to because of teacher cuts. As the cuts have been made, too many teachers in our district have been bumped around and moved into areas that they've never taught before, and no discipline has suffered more from that in our school than social studies.

However, I'm not going to be too hard on those teachers who work with kids at younger ages, because, despite my efforts, I don't know that my former students do much better. I've heard too many stories about my own former students coming up blank when asked, a year or two after I've had them, something like when the Revolutionary War took place. And I really hate to admit this, but I'm talking about kids who got A's in my class. If you want to believe I must have done a lousy job, too, go ahead, but I could show you some of the work they did, the tests they took, the essays and opinions they wrote, and you would wonder, like I do, how kids could know something so well one year and seemingly completely forget it the next. I really believe that the major problem for our kids lack of historical knowledge is that too many of them just don't care. Some of them don't care about school at all, and most of them don't care about history.

For many students, I would say those who get C's and worse, school is very low on their list of priorities. They are more concerned about their friends and their social lives, their part time jobs, their family problems, their sports and other activities. School falls behind all of those and other things in importance. They might do work they are assigned if they have the time, but it isn't because they care about what they are supposed to learn; it's something they have to get out of the way. And if they don't have time, that's just the way it goes. After all, there are more important things. I mean did you hear what Bobby said about Lisa?

As adults we know how important education is to young people. We know that when they enter high school, most kids have an almost unlimited number of doorways to opportunities open to them. If they work hard and try to actually learn, the doorways stay open, and some of those doorways can lead to a very nice life. On the other hand, if kids waste their time in school, those doors begin to slam shut, and only those leading to the least attractive avenues remain open. We can tell kids that, and they might understand that at an intellectual level, but many of them never really feel it. For many kids today, in order for something to matter to them, the awards have to be almost immediate. The rewards and the punishments being promised in their education aren't immediate enough, so they end up pursuing the things that will lead them to mediocrity or worse.

This is true for alot of kids for all subjects, but I think it would be fair to say that it is most true in history. They simply cannot see any practical value that learning history will have in their lives. This is even true for kids who care about their GPAs. They understand that they need good grades in history classes, but only a few of them believe that learning the subject will ever have any real meaning in their lives. The subject matter is something to be learned for the test--period!

I know and believe all the arguments about the importance of understanding history: it's necessary to understand and appreciate the rights and freedoms that we have; it's necessary to be an effective citizen in our democracy; those who fail to understand the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them; it's important for cultural literacy; and finally, it's really quite interesting. But I can preach those things to my kids until the cows come home; most of them just aren't buying. If I can't show them how knowing the difference between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars will have an effect on their lives today, tomorrow, or maybe the next day, they aren't going to view that as something that "really matters."

I know that I am not the only history teacher who has trouble getting kids to believe that what I am trying to teach them is important. In fact, I've got plenty of company. I'm not sure why things are this way in America, but I believe that it has a lot to do with our culture. Immediate gratification has become pervasive in our society, and you can see it in our widespread drug use, our teenage pregnancy rate, the number of Americans who are obese, and in all the I-pods and cell phones that enable people to listen to their music NOW, and make and receive phone calls NOW. Education in general and learning history in particular are not immediate gratification propositions. They require a lot of work, and the rewards are going to come very gradually or well into the future. It is a rare teenager who is willing to buy into that.

I'm sure that there are people who will read this and conclude that this is just a cop-out, and the problem is entirely within the schools. They will say that regardless of parenting, regardless of the influences of our culture, it is the schools' job to get kids to learn. I can only say to them that this problem frustrates me as much as it frustrates anyone I know, and I've tried everything I can think of to get kids to learn and retain American history. If someone thinks they've got the solution, I'll be happy to listen.