Monday, May 25, 2009

Time to say, "Good-bye!"

I've really been struggling with this blog lately. The enthusiasm just hasn't been there, and I've felt like I'm just saying the same things over and over again. What makes it worse is that my Catholic conscience works on me, and makes me feel guilty when I don't post at least once a week or check on the comments as often as I should. Yesterday, I went to church, and our priest talked about Memorial Day being a time for good-byes. It occurred to me that it's time for this blog to say good-bye. Unlike Douglas MacArthur, I don't want to just fade away. I've always found it depressing when I've gone to check out other blogs that I've read, and there hasn't been a post for a week, then a month, then several months. If I'm going to end this, I want to end it with an exclamation point. In doing that, however, I want to give voice one more time to some of those points I've tried to make over the last three years. So here goes!

I firmly believe that public schools in America are doing a better job than they're given credit for. Oh, we have our flaws--there's no question about that, and I've written about a number of them. When I say we are doing are doing a good job, however, I base that on two basic points.

First of all, in the great majority of public schools around the nation, any kid who really wants a good education can get one. Our schools in Warroad are probably about average--maybe a little above--and it is very clear that our kids are getting what they want. The kids who don't give a rip don't get very much out of it, but the kids who want to go to a vo-tech are able to do that, and the kids really want to get prepared for college are able to do so. Our district's schools have failed our AYP in math for the last two years, and judging from our junior class, I'm guessing we will again this year. Yet, I recently talked to a 2007 graduate who is in pre-med, and he didn't have to take any math in college because of all the "college in the classroom" credits he was able to gain in our "failing" school. As I've said before, I have three sons who also graduated from Warroad. One of them is very bright, but the other two are apples who didn't fall far from the tree. All three of them went to college, all three graduated from college, and all three have good jobs in the fields they graduated from today. And believe me, the success my kids have enjoyed is not unique in Warroad, and it is not unique among kids who have graduated from public schools across the nation.

The biggest problem in American public education today is that so many kids don't put much effort into their own education. Some kids are incredibly lazy and irresponsible, and that problem is combined with the fact that the American public does not want to put too much emphasis on school in general and academics in particular. And that leads to my second point: American public schools are giving American parents what they want.

Bill Gates and other business gurus can complain all they want, and say that American schools should be turning out more academic wizards. I'm not saying they're wrong, but that is not what the American public wants. The American public wants their kids to be "well-rounded." That means they want them get some academics, but they also want schools to enable their kids to be be sports stars, and/or work part-time jobs, and to be able to go on family vacations that last a week or more during the school year, and have homecoming and frosty-fest coronations and pep rallies during the school day, and use class time to vote for kings and queens and other things, and to be able to miss a day or two here and there for various other reasons and still get decent grades. Bill Gates might not like it, and sometimes I might not like it, but we are "public" schools, so it's our job to give the public what it wants. And that's what we do.

Finally, my last post wouldn't be complete if I didn't harp on the subject I've harped on more than any other. As good as public education is, it could be so much better. Public school teachers and principals need more power to demand better effort and behavior from our students. The bottom line on that is that it has to be easier to kick kids out.

I know how harsh that sounds, but it really isn't. Believe it or not, I am not an old curmudgeon. In fact, I think it's fair to say that I'm one of the most popular teachers in our school. But 35 years as a teacher and coach has taught me that kids understand limits. Make it clear to them that a certain level of behavior and a certain level of effort is required and there will be very few who will have to be shown the door. And for those who are shown the door, allow them to come back and try again next semester or next year if they finally realize that their education matters. I have seen too many bright kids allowed to get by with performing miserably, and I've even seen some end up dropping out because we were so damned tolerant.

Hey, it's been fun! And just because I'm shutting down this blog, that doesn't mean I won't be visiting yours. You never know, maybe I'll get the itch again and open up another blog, and heck, there's no law saying that I can't come back sometime and post on this one again if the spirit moves me. After all, Stephen King announced his retirement a few years ago, and it seems to me I've read two or three books that he's written since then. In any case, thanks to all of you who stopped by now and then to read my pearls of wisdom, and especially to those of you who left comments. You are the ones who made this fun.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Four days anyone?

Next year our school district will be jumping into an experiment that only a handful of districts in the state of Minnesota have ventured into--the four-day school week. That ought to be interesting!

Our small district has to cut around $900,000, and we hope to save around $140,000 by doing this. Obviously, this has created a tremendous amount of controversy in our community. Some people think the teachers are getting a heckuva deal out of that, but they are a little confused. Our class periods will go from 49 to 62 minutes, so we'll actually have a couple more minutes of student contact time over the week than we do now.

I have mixed feelings about it. When I look at other cuts we might have to make if we don't go to the four-day week, I'm willing to give it a shot. The junior member of our social studies department is an outstanding teacher and person. If he got cut, especially when I am eligible for retirement, it would make me sick.

It's going to cause a tremendous amount of work for me, however, because I'm an organization freak, and I'm going to have to restructure just about everything I do. I wrote my own textbook, and everything is set up for those 49 minute class periods. I'll have to re-do that, along with all the quizzes that go with it, and all of my PowerPoints for the year. And that's just for one of my four class preparations.

Most of our high school teachers have feelings similar to mine. If it means not having to make more cuts, we're for it. Our elementary teachers, however, are almost unanimously against it. They are not enthusiastic about the longer days for their little ones. Right now, our classes start at 8:19 AM, and we go until 3 PM. Next year, we'll be starting at 8 AM and going until 4 PM.

I must admit that having three-day weekends sounds pretty good, especially in the spring and fall when I'm not coaching. The other benefit I see is that by getting rid of Fridays, we will be getting rid of the day when kids most frequently miss classes for sports. Our spring sports kids miss a ridiculous amount of school, so right now, anything that will cut back on "make-up" correcting sounds pretty good.

On the other hand, when we get into our seventeen week hockey season, heading off for practices after that longer day is going to be a little harder.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

A lot of rose colored glasses

Right now there seems to be a lot of optimism about the difference the new administration is going to make in education. I'm afraid that there are a lot of people looking through rose-colored glasses. I really like Barack Obama, and the things he has been doing in the economy and foreign policy sound good to me. But I must confess that I don't consider myself an expert at those things, so I can only hope that what he is doing there is more real than what he is doing for American education. Since I've spent my last 35 years working with kids in classrooms, I do consider myself an expert at that, and I'm afraid when it comes to education, the Obama administration is all smoke and mirrors.

Arne Duncan, the new Secretary of Education is about to embark on a mission to gain input about how to overhaul No Child Left Behind.

WASHINGTON (AP) - Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a man on a mission: to hear what teachers, students and parents in at least 15 states think about No Child Left Behind, the controversial education law championed by former President George W. Bush.

President Barack Obama has pledged to overhaul the law, but he has been vague about how far he would go, or whether he would scrap it altogether...

"I don't know if 'scrap' is the word," Duncan told reporters last week. "Where things make sense, we're going to keep them. Where things didn't make sense, we're going to change them."

...Duncan gives the law credit for shining a spotlight on kids who need the most help. No Child Left Behind pushes schools to boost the performance of low-achieving students, a group that typically includes minority kids, English-language learners and kids with disabilities.

"Forevermore in our country, we can't sweep those huge disparities with outcomes between white children and Latino children and African-American children, we can't sweep those under the rug ever again," Duncan said.

Yet Duncan has many criticisms of No Child Left Behind, and he has plenty of company.

One of Duncan's ideas to fix the program is to change its name.
"I do think the name 'No Child Left Behind' is absolutely toxic; I think we have to start over," Duncan said. He has said he would like to hold a contest for school kids to come up with a new name.

Hey, that ought to do it! I've got news for Secretary Duncan. As long as the goal of the program is to provide quality education for every kid whether they like it or not, especially while we provide due process rights for every kid who has no interest in getting an education but wants to be in school so he can clown around for his friends, we will continue to have these kinds of results:
Since the law's passage, students have made modest gains, at least in elementary and middle school, the grades that are the focus of No Child Left Behind. The biggest gains have come among lower-achieving students, the kids who now are getting unprecedented attention.

The story is different in high school, where progress seems stalled and where the dropout rate, a dismal one in four children, has not budged.

Jon Schnur, who has been an advisor to President Obama is another optimist. Schnur talks about "breakthroughs" that have happened in "hundreds of schools" around the nation. Breakthroughs are great, but I wonder how many of those schools that he talks about are high schools. I'll bet not very many. And if progress is made from those breakthroughs in elementary schools only to be lost as kids move on through the upper grades, what good are they?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

NAEP, Dumb Experts & Smart Experts

The NAEP test results have been out for awhile, so there's been a fair amount of scuttlebutt about them during the last week. There are things in the results to give those who want to be hopeful some reasons to be hopeful, and for those who want to bash American education to bash it some more, but after eight years of No Child Left Behind, the bottom line seems to be that not a lot has changed. Surprise, surprise!

I happened to have CNN on as Jack Cafferty, one of that network's Bill O'Reilly wanna-bes, went on one of his rants. (Is anybody else sick of "angry white males" in telejournalism?) Jack is an expert on everything, of course, and he complained that after all the money we've spent on education, NAEP scores hadn't improved in forty years. Jack blamed the teachers unions, and he wants to start firing teachers. Jack is an idiot--at least on this issue.

Lately, however, I've been reading an "expert" who actually does seem to have a clue on educational issues--Malcolm Gladwell. One of the most important complaints about American education has to do with the achievement gap between upper and middle income and lower income kids. Critics have often used this to complain that American education isn't working. Well, here's a surprise. In his book, Outliers, Gladwell uses test scores to defend American education. He shows that lower-income kids keep up with middle and upper income kids during the school year, but they fall farther and farther behind during our long summer vacations. His conclusion: American schools work! Please pause while I faint.

Gladwell is also the first expert I've read who understands that the reason kids from other nations--Asian ones in particular--get a better education than American kids is that they try harder. In discussing the superior scores of Korean and Japanese students in math, Gladwell says, "We sometimes think being good at mathematics as an innate ability. You either have 'it' or you don't.'s not so much ability as attitude. You master mathematics if you are willing to try...Success is a function of persistence and doggedness." Gladwell points out that the problem is a cultural one. If we are going to improve education in America, we are going to have to address our culture regarding school.

Gladwell uses the KIPP Schools as an example where the mindset of students from the inner-cities, or their culture, has successfully been changed. He gives an example of a day in the life of a student named Marita:

I wake up at five-forty-five a.m. to get a head start. I brush my teeth, shower. I get some breakfast at school, if I am running late. Usually I get yelled at because I am taking too long. I meet my friend Diana and Steven at the bus stop, and we get the number one bus. I leave school at five p.m, and if I don't lollygag around, then I will get home around five-thirty. Then I say hi to my mom and really quickly start my homework. And if it's not a lot of homework that day, it will take me two to three hours, and I'll be done around nine p.m. Or if we have essays, then I will be done like ten p.m., or ten-thirty p.m.

Sometimes my mom makes me break for dinner. I tell her I want to go straight through, but she says I have to eat. So around eight, she makes me break for dinner for, like, a half-hour, and then I get back to work. Then usually after that, my mom wants to hear about school, but I have to make it quick because I have to get in bed by eleven p.m. So I get all my stuff ready, and then I get into bed. I tell her about the day and what happened, and by the time we are finished, she is on the brink of sleeping, so that's probably around eleven-fifteen. Then I go to sleep, and the next morning, we do it all over again.

Gladwell argues that Marita's trade-off of much of her childhood freedom for the opportunity to a promising future, especially when compared to the future of a typical disadvantaged child, is worth it. I can't argue with that, but I know how some people feel about KIPP, and I'm not proposing that we become KIPP. More important, I don't think we have to. In order to provide a first class education to American students, I don't think we have to force them to, as Gladwell says, have "the hours of a lawyer trying to make partner or of a medical resident." Nevertheless, while we don't have to go as far as KIPP, we should try to learn from them. They may take it a bit far, but I think we need to move in their direction. Screw around with merit pay if you want. Screw around with choice, standards, and blah, blah, blah, and we will continue to see little change. If we really want to improve American education, Gladwell is right. We are going to have to do something to change the mindset and culture of our students.