Thursday, December 6, 2007

To the fool who called in the bomb scare...

Yes, folks, for those of you who missed the fun today, there was a bomb scare that closed University hall for over three hours. As a result, I got to teach in the student cafe. Joy.

But seriously, it really irks me that someone thinks it's a good idea to call and get the largest academic building on a college campus closed the week before finals. Ok, maybe it makes sense if one is trying to avoid having to take an exam or hand in a project. Good for you. What about the 16,000 other students who have classes in that building?

I have to commend my undergrads who came to the cafe today to work on their projects, get feedback, etc. I'm sorry it was not our best hour. It will work itself out.

To the yahoo who made the bomb threat. If you didn't already know, it's against the law. And for once, I am glad the Patriot Act can spank your ass to the fullest extent of the law. How dare you be so selfish?

OK, I feel all better now.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Bee Movie, or, Lessons in not rocking the boat

OK, I admit it; sometimes my critical brain simply WON'T TURN OFF. I try, but sometimes, I just have to read my world critically.

So, last week I went to see Bee Movie as an escape from the pressures of academic life and the real world. I figured, cute kids' movie, Jerry Seinfeld... what could be bad? Gee, I was wrong.

For those of you haven't seen the movie, you might not want to read on. I am going to ruin the movie for you right now. For those of you who have seen the movie, I'm probably going to ruin it for you, too.

The movie is about Barry Bee who fights 27 millions years of evolution to break out of the bee mold in order to do something different with his life. After graduating school (after three days!), he is told he needs to pick a job that he will have for the rest of his life. Not satisfied with the idea of doing one thing until the day he dies, he decides to take a risk and go out with the pollen jocks. Unlike the pollen jocks, who resemble the archetypal WWII fly boys, Barry is, shall we say, rather puny. But, he goes out with them, and discovers a whole world beyond the hive. And here is where the trouble really begins.

It was bad enough that he couldn't decide what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, he actually went out and met a human girl. That's right, he was dating outside the species (and a big deal is made about this). After all, humans are not supposed to know that bees can talk, and there is a long standing history of bees dying at the hands of humans, what with the swatting and all. What makes it worse (or at least, how I read the message in the remainder of the movie) was the fact the he continued to fly in the face of 27 millions years of doing things the same way. Barry discovered that humans were exploiting bees by smoking them and stealing their honey. So what does Barry do? He sues the human race... and wins.

Everything goes south of course, because the bees get back all the honey that was taken from them. There was so much honey, in fact, that they had to suspend production. As a result, the formerly industrious bees, became lazy and slothful, because they no longer had to work. As a result, no pollination, and the world's flowers, trees, and crops started die off.

Of course, with the help of his human girlfriend, Barry learned the error of his ways, and saved the world by convincing the bees he'd made a mistake, and it really was a bad idea to fight 27 million years of evolution. So, they pollinated and the bees went back to producing honey, etc. And Barry became a civil rights lawyer for animals.

The message? Everyone has their place, and we can't disrupt the natural order of things, particularly when it comes to workers, production, and consumption. Workers can't be trusted to know what's best for them or for society, and one uppity individual who fights for workers' rights and justice can undo the entire order of things. And that, is far more dangerous.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

How can we afford $459 billion for war and not $151 billion on education, health, and labor????

It's official, I could SCREAM. For those of you who don't know, President Bush vetoed a spending bill for Education, Health, and Labor (at 150.7 billion) because Congress was acting "like a teenager with a credit card," but approved the $459 billion INCREASE in war spending.

What!?!?!?!?!?! I get the fact that my priorities are vastly different than the President's. I accepted that long ago. But to continue to mandate the pressures of NCLB without filling in the funding gap makes me want to puke. Certain folks in the Administration are complaining that Congress is being pressured by special interest groups to fund these earmarked projects. I think this is the first time I've ever been forced to view kids as special interest groups.

And this, all from the "Education President."

You can read more about it here. And yes, I am biased. Deal with it (I'm also, apparently, really in a bad mood).

Sometimes when you fall down, it's better to just stay there

No, this is not about "stupid human tricks." It's about the fact that I realized (well, finally let go of my denial) that I am doing way too much. The end result? I am doing nothing as well as I should. Three classes, two doctoral dissertations, one doctoral, portfolio, 5 masters thesis projects, one independent study, my own research and writing, 4 committees, Graduate Council... and that's just my professional life. I like being busy, and I tend to be more efficient when I have a lot on my plate. But, come on! This is ridiculous.

The reality is that in every workplace, there are people who get away with doing the minimum, those who kill themselves, and there are the smart workers. They are the ones who know how to pick and choose their responsibilities, and really shine because they can focus on what they need to. Clearly, I am not a smart worker right now. But I gotta get there. And soon.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Heading down the homestretch

It's been almost a month since I've posted. To be honest, I didn't think it was that long. I guess time got away from me.

Teaching can be grueling. It's not the planning or the grading that gets to me (though I hate grading, I admit it). It's what happens in the classroom that drains me. Teaching simply takes a lot of energy.

First, getting students engaged is not as easy as some would like to think. There is this perception out there that learning has to be fun in order for students to be successful. Lights, and music, and lots of movement... sorry folks, it just doesn't always work out that way. Learning can be really hard work, especially when you have to stop and think about what you are reading, talking about, and working towards. Sometimes, goals are not all-that-apparent.

Second, there is always too much to teach and not enough time. You always have to decide what to cut. It kills me to say that, but it's the truth. Do I cut the reading? The lecture? The KWL? The paper? I can never decide.

Finally, teaching never stops. A friend asked me last night if it was like being a student: you never really relaxed until that last final was in. Well, sort of. Except, once all of the students hand in the finals, someone still has to grade them.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Just how much can teachers and schools do?

It's an honest question, and one that I am surprised hasn't come up in class yet. For a very long time now, the view has been that schools need to do it all. On the one hand, some people are quick to jump and blame the parents (they don't care, they are lazy, etc.) without really exploring why parents may not be involved. True, there are always parents who may not care (and it's not just an urban thing--they exist in all communities). For me there is a deeper issue that needs to be explored: the responsibility society has placed on schools.

There's an interest blogpost in the New York Times that a Chicago teacher posted. It's a wonderful post on so many levels, but it raised the issue of how much schools and teachers can do. You can read the post here. There are also some really great comments attached to the post.

In the 1800's and early 1900's, especially after school became compulsory (e.g., required by law), schools were expected to play the role of "parent" while students were in school. It was called "en loco parentis." On a deeper level, though, schools were expected in some communities to replace parents. The goal here was to make students "American" and to remove as much of the "immigrant" from them as possible. The ironic thing about all of this is that society wanted schools to assume the role of parent, and yet, it still blames parents for not being involved enough.

In fact, we see this today with parents. Schools and teachers tell parents they want them involved in their children's education. But the truth is, they don't want them too involved. I hear stories all the time from both sides. Parents are pushy, and try to tell teachers how to do their jobs (from teachers); teachers and schools are unresponsive or patronizing (from parents). On many levels, this complex relationship has nothing to do with teachers, parents, and students. The system itself relies on these three groups not coming together. The truth is, teachers and parents have a lot of the same concerns. If they were to actually work together, they would be a very powerful block that could get things done. In this sense, they are a threat to the way things are and the way things are done. Just imagine if they all got together to voice their concerns, together, regarding the way in which No Child Left Behind has narrowed the curriculum.

So back to my original question: Just how much can teachers and schools do? They can't do what society expects them to do. They cannot eliminate poverty (though some would like to believe they can). They cannot make society equitable (they are part of society). They cannot fight abuse, unemployment, jobs being shifted overseas, no health care. And yet, too often all of this becomes their burden, on top of teaching. The end result is that teachers are spread too thin. This means the difference between doing one or two things really well and doing a lot of things mediocre.

Ultimately though, teachers get the blame (and parents, too) and students suffer.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A sad day for public school students

A teacher enrolled in one of my classes was called up to active duty. I am filled with mixed emotions about this, and not just about my personal issues with the concept of war, but with this war in general. But, I respect the choice of this teacher, and all I want is for him to come home safely to his family, friends, and students.

But I really am sad for his students. It takes about 6 weeks, in my experience, for teachers and their students to really settle into their routine, trust one another, and figure things out. This means that he and his students have just hit their grove, and he is being taken away from them. If they are lucky, they'll get a new teacher for the rest of the year, and they can start the process all over again. If they aren't, they could have 5 or 6 subs between now and June. It's a sad day for public ed.

Now this history teacher is not the first to be called to serve the nation, but he is one of the few that I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with. I am torn because we need his talent as a teacher here, even though his other talents are needed elsewhere.

Ultimately, all of this is a moot point. I just want him to come home safely, in one piece. But it did keep me up last night.

Monday, September 24, 2007

My reintroduction to yoga (or why teachers can make the worst students)

This fall I decided to enroll in a weekly yoga class. In the past, I would promise myself that I would go and then would find all sorts of excuses not to go. So, I paid in advance and it's the same class at the same time every week for the next ten weeks.

I'm doing this for me. It's all part of my plan to help me live a happier life. Doing so will also make me a better teacher. But, I have to say, I was not the happiest of students tonight.

I'll be honest, whenever I am in a class, I end up analyzing the teaching and learning dynamic. It's not that I want to be mean; it's what I do. So, I arrive for the class, and they have moved the location. There were no signs, and I found that vaguely amusing, until I got into the class. The instructor could not decide which way she wanted the class to face. In fact, she changed her mind three or four times in the first ten minutes. It wasn't a pedagogical tool. She simply got thrown off by the change.

OK, I can live with that. I've been thrown off by the unexpected many times. But then, she started class, and I thought I was going to lose my mind. I was once again reminded of what it was like to be the kid in the class who was bored. All I wanted was to get into the poses, breathe, and feel my body respond to the movement and holds. And then she would do things like say, "Let me show you..." and would start to explain a new pose. And of course, students would begin o follow (because she had students follow before). But then she would change her mind and tell us to watch. urgh.

The high (low) point was when she noted that she was relieved that the folks who knew what they were doing were in the back of the room. Gee, make people feel bad because they'd never taken a class before. And why not use those students with more experience as models?

My point here is that teachers can make lousy students because they have an idea in their heads about how teaching and learning ought to occur. As one of those teachers who has always worked with a wide range of students, I know not to call out students. I also know that I need to give directions and be consistent. And, I also know that I need to tell students where we are going, where we have been, and where we will go.

Sigh. I'm going to try and leave the teacher me at home next week so that I can simply enjoy the yoga. I need it. I want it.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A note about blogging

Blogging is not one of those things we don't have to do every day. Sometimes it's something that we do 3 or 4 times a day. It's the same with commenting. And, as we engage in this type of "intellectual" work, it's also important to remember that even if something is not commented upon, that doesn't mean it hasn't been read.

In some spheres, that called lurking: you hop on a blog to see what's written and commented. I encourage it; I do it. It's part of the process.

But don't stress if you don't see a comment on your blog or a response to a comment. That is, of course, unless it's December and your blog is just you and no one else.

Friday, September 21, 2007

It's a good thing it's Friday (and getting a little help from your friends)

I love weekends, and not because I take them "off". Teachers very rarely get their weekends free. I do refrain from email and spending lots of time on the web, because that's just too time-consuming.

For me, weekends are about regrouping, relaxing, rethinking, and revisioning. I know it sounds silly, but I've learned that taking time on the weekend and literally planning it into those 48 hours can make the rest of the week a more pleasant experience.

On regrouping: It's literally about mental, physical, and emotional health. Teaching well takes a lot of mental energy. Planning, teaching, grading, and making sure you make it clear for students can be a real challenge, especially when the content is second nature to you (and not your students). It's physically tiring because I move around a lot, have a lot of meetings, run between office and classroom, home and work. And teaching is emotionally tiring because I am still learning (after 14 years) how much of myself to give to my students. I never feel like I give enough. With almost 100 students this semester, there is less of me to go around to each student.

On relaxing: I have to do it. Sometimes it's gardening. Sometimes it involves movies, sometimes time with friends and family, a run with the dogs (planned for as soon as I finish this post), sleeping, music, reading... Relaxing is good for body and spirit.

On rethinking and revisioning: Ok, so this is actually more like work, but it's a different type of work. It is primarily intellectual. I think about what I taught, how it went, my writing... And sometimes, I even get some writing done, which is a good thing because it's expected.

As for getting a little help from your friends: today Marley decided I couldn't complete this post without his help. Therefore he is the co-author of this post. Of course it took me twice as long to get this done with his help, but it's all good.

Sigh. It's a good thing it's Friday.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The numbers and thinking like a teacher researcher

OK, so we've been chatting about some of the numbers. In some cases you are all falling asleep, in others, you are all fired up. Our task now is to turn our attention to thinking like a teacher researcher.

The Anderson preface talks about the importance of being a teacher researcher given today's political context.

So, being a teacher researcher, how would you use these numbers to pose relevant questions about curriculum? Why are they important? How would you answer them?

Monday, September 17, 2007

There are some things a teacher education program can never prepare you for.

Let's face it. We can teach you the theory, the history, etc. We can teach you how to develop curriculum, write appropriate lesson plans, help you to understand the needs of different learners, use assessments wisely, etc. But there are some things we can never teach you how to do. We can tell you our own experiences, we can brainstorm solutions. But, it's all different once you are out in the real world.

I could talk about some of what I've learned as a teacher, but I'd rather share the reflections of a second year teacher here. I came across this a few minutes ago. It's worth the read. And it really does the job of posing an important question: What is the relationship between schools and US society?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Numbers, numbers everywhere, but what do they mean?

Numbers fascinate me. Actually, how researchers and demographers collect information and turn that information into numbers, specifically statistics, really fascinates me. That's because numbers can lie. Not the numbers themselves, but how people collect, compile, and represent the numbers can be misleading. Take for instance the idea of a dropout rate. In most districts, students are considered dropouts if they sign out of school. That means going into the office, signing paperwork, meeting with a counselor, etc. Many students simply don't do that. So, when I look at the statistics presented in The Public Education Primer I'm not surprised at the numbers, but I am skeptical about them.

It doesn't shock me that something like 79% of teachers are women. Nor does it surprise me that 90% of teachers overall are white. After all, research has shown that women have moved into professions that were traditionally considered to be the domains of men. But the reverse has not happened. Men who become kindergarten teachers are often looked at with suspicion. After all, why would they want to work with young children? The same goes for nursing. In the case of minority teachers, it's also an issue of access. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, many college-educated minorities, particularly African American, were blocked from most careers, except for teaching. In fact, being a teachers was highly esteemed within the community. When schools were integrated, many highly qualified minority teachers were shut out because white teachers were moved into predominantly minority schools, but minority teachers were not moved into white schools.

Whenever I see statistics like these, I wonder what questions were asked, what data was collected (and more importantly, what data was made available), and how they will be used to develop policy (that is, the plan of action or arguments that drive institutional practices). After all, I can look at a statistic and conclude something completely different from someone else. I guess that's the heart of the matter, we need to learn how to critically read statistics and how they are interpreted.

It's freakin' 7:52 AM

And they start in with the jack hammers.I thought they weren't allowed to make that much noise until at least 8AM. I know it's only 8 minutes, but come on! Some of us are still sleeping, and some of us have not gotten enough sleep to want to hear that noise. Where's the coffee????

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Life with Dogs

This post has nothing to do with education. It's more about the joys of life.

I arrived home today after 6.5 hours at the university to discover that Kehli (pictured here) had a bit of separation anxiety while I was gone. I should add that she is only four months old, so it's not surprising that she gets a little wacky. But, she's 31 pounds, and getting pretty big.

As, I was saying, I returned home to discover that Kehli chewed up the pile of catalogs on the coffee table. She didn't chew any bills, journals, or work-related papers (as far as I could tell), but she SHREDDED everything else. If I had thought about it I would have taken a picture. Now that I've cleaned up and gone for a run (both with and without dogs), I can laugh. Sort of.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The New School Year

Let's face it. Every new school year starts off with some level of chaos. I had the luck to find a blogger who is an artist (A life in scribbles), who's mom is a teacher. She drew a cartoon, which I think captures the fun of the first weeks of school, particularly the weather we've had so far this week (I had on my purple rubber ducky boots yesterday. I will be buying the matching yellow slicker in the next day or so. I think farce can be a good thing).

The challenge of the new year is not just the nerves (teachers and students have them), it's the changes that happen over the summer, AND the changes that happen in the first few days before and during school. Gotta love it. One thing I can definitely say about teaching is that you have to be OK with chaos and change.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

It's just like riding a bike

Once you get back on, it all comes back to you.

First class down, and the nerves are settling. I just hope that the second one goes a bit smoother (and I don't spend 40 minutes trying to park).

In the meantime, I got this really disturbing message from a colleague crowing about how wonderful it will be if we apply NCLB-style testing to higher ed. I wanted to scream, for so many reasons. Part of it was the fact the person doing the posting knows nothing about NCLB "assessments" and how it has narrowed the curriculum. There is also this assumption that the tests really indicate what students have learned, which is far more complicated than a multiple guess test can indicate. And, if the feds (and the states) were to require testing at the college level, in what content areas would we test students? How would that affect choices of majors? Would it result in closing down certain programs? The President and others have gone on record saying that they want to streamline college majors to better reflect the needs of the marketplace. That is very dangerous in my mind, because it will fundamentally change the role of higher education in a democratic society.

I need help on this one, because I need to respond to this colleague. I have a good deal of the research (from both sides of the aisle that point to problems), and I also know about the shady deals individual states have made with the ED. I need to hear from other people what they think before I compose a response.

Any thoughts?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

T minus 12 hours

In less than 12 hours, I will meet my first group of students for the semester. The butterflies are there; as usual I don't feel prepared. I'll probably be feeling this way 50 years from now (assuming I'm still breathing). Like most teachers, there are the usual questions that run through my head:

Will they like me (not really crucial, I'll settle for respect and positive regard)?
Will they come back (My syllabus is notorious for bringing about some student attrition)?
Will they get my sense of humor (If they do, class is great fun. If they don't, the crickets are really loud)?
Will I get them to love the subject matter?
Will my breath smell?
Will I make some horrible gaff (like tuck my skirt into my underwear--joke. See sense of humor question above)?
Will the technology work (always a crap shoot, which is why I have a back-up plan)?

Don't let anybody fool you that teaching is boring. If my nerves are any indication, it's like the Indy 500, only you have to race around students rather than cars. Oh, and the crashes are not nearly as heart-stopping.

Monday, September 3, 2007

The new NCLB, or, how can we once again punish urban communities for being, well, urban?

I will not deny the fact that I have been highly critical of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for a very long time. True, I was hopeful when it was first released in January 2001. A lot has changed since then as I have watched the federal government narrow public education to tests, scripted curriculum, and more tests. I have been enraged at how poor and under-resourced communities have been expected to produce the same results with fewer resources, only to be further financially penalized when they missed the mark. So imagine my reaction when I read this New York Times article this morning.

NCLB is up for reauthorization this year, and a number of different groups have been weighing in on what ought to be changed. There are the “accountability” advocates who say that they will consider no plan that weakens testing. There are those who want to change teacher licensure so that it can be easier for anyone with a Bachelors degree. And now there’s Miller’s latest idea: to ease requirements for suburban schools.

That’s right, folks. Middle class and suburban communities would be held to different standards. Then again, the article notes that states with large immigrant communities would also have different requirements. So why am I not screaming about the changes for immigrant students? It has to do with understanding privilege and language acquisition. This proposal would relax adequate yearly progress (AYP) requirements for suburban schools that have small numbers of students in different groups. What that means is that as long as the schools aren’t failing across the board, it’s OK that a student group or two (as long as it’s small) don’t make it. I thought that was the purpose of NCLB: to ensure that all students are counted. Under this plan, suburban schools don’t have to count all their students.

The changes for states with large immigrant populations are equally problematic. Rather than require schools with large English Language Learner (ELL) populations to test their students in English after two years, schools would have five years. This is good because the research on language acquisition indicates that it takes five years of instruction in English before ELL students would excel academically in an English-only classroom. The downside, of course, is that ELL students will be tested in their native languages for five years, which means that schools need to provide tests in many different languages (in my “suburban” district, that would mean up to sixty different languages). That will be a huge burden to individual districts, to say nothing about the educational impact on ELL students.

So why am I so crazed after reading this article? Because it once again indicates to me that NCLB is nothing more than a shell game to achieve the end of public education. If suburban schools aren’t held to the same standards as urban or rural schools, then the federal government is punishing the students who attend urban or rural schools for being “urban” or “rural” students. And, given the fact that urban and rural public schools tend to have fewer economic resources than their suburban counterparts, the federal government is engaging in a very pernicious form of discrimination. Let me be honest, I am a former inner-city school teacher who is committed to urban education. To have a proposal floated that exempts suburban districts because of their access to academic resources and their lack of “diversity” (read: predominantly middle class and of western European descent) while continuing to punish urban districts is unconscionable.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Less than two days!

Gack (similar to a gagging noise, but not quite as disgusting)!

I'm not ready. I'm not ready. How will I ever be ready?

OK, this is pretty much my state of mind every year before the beginning of a new academic year. I'm never ready. There is always more tweaking of the syllabus, one more manuscript to finish, 100 more email messages to be written and sent, 3 more proposals to review... it never ends.

Wahhhh! I don't wanna go back to school!!!

OK, I'm over it.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Today's hero: James

I spend a lot of time at Daily Kos. I find it far more intelligent and informative than the MSM (main stream media). It's also a place where people do a lot of grass-roots organizing and fund raising. It shows just how powerful people can be, and just how effective the internet can be.

But I digress. This morning, I read about this young man named James, who is autistic, and lives with a number of other medical challenges. But, he and his family do not let his "disabilities" define him. They are part of who is he is, but not WHO he is.

He's joining a football team, he's trying to raise money to get a service dog, he's trying to be a normal teen.

Read more about James here. I hope you see him for who he is, learn a bit more about his challenges, and consider becoming part of the netroots.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Gearing up for a new year

One week from today, I will be "back" at work. What that means is that it is the first day back for faculty at the university. It also means that we are back on payroll (big sigh of relief). Of course saying that we have gone back to work ignores all of the work that people in education do over the summer, catching up on reading, writing, curriculum planning, grant writing, teaching summer classes, developing new research projects, mentoring doctoral students, advising masters students... The myth that people in education get their summers off is just that: a big old myth.

People in education, whether its P-12 or higher ed, do not get their summers off. It's time they work without pay. I'm not complaining, mind you, because my time is my own. In truth, I could choose not to do much of anything over the summer, but then I'd be a mess the first weeks of school (even more-so than I already am). I do take time off over the summer (this year was planting new gardens, training for a 60 mile walk-a-thon, housebreaking a third dog, taking care of an ill parent), but I also spend a lot of time on work related tasks.

This summer was pretty productive given all the other things I did in the last three months. I finished and submitted two manuscripts for review, wrote and submitted a proposal to a national conference, reviewed 12 proposals for the same national conference, began to draft a new article, re-wrote two syllabi, researched and read about an area of research completely new to me, began to organize myself for a new university-level post regarding curriculum, reviewed and commented on a doctoral proposal, looked into grants... the list goes on.

The difference between the type of work that a university faculty member gets done over the summer versus what happens during the school year concerns time-intensity. Teaching, planning, and grading is really hard. But there's also a time limit on it. You are either prepared for class, or not. Writing is very different. My writing colleague and I spent 8 months working on one article. Granted, we didn't spend all our time on it, but this summer we spent a good 60 hours on it. It takes time to complete research and write about what you've learned. But the product often doesn't necessarily reflect the time invested.

So, I have 7 days before we go back, 8 before I teach my first class. I'm hoping to make final revisions on my syllabi, build a draft of a survey, finish two more manuscripts, and write up a short piece on the new research project I started this summer. All in 8 days. I'm not sure if I can do it, but that's the nature of academic work.

And somewhere in there I will also post one or two more times, build this blog a bit more, and ready it for the new semester. All in days' work, right?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Towards an educated public: Who’s “public” is it anyway?

For those of you who don’t know, President Bush’s landmark education legislation, No Child Left Behind is up for re-authorization this year. As someone who works with teachers on a daily basis (who is not their boss), I can say that NCLB has created some serious trouble for teachers, students, and schools, especially those in resource-strapped communities. On the one hand, there are some good things that have come out of NCLB: content curriculum standards in all 50 states (though 48? of 50 had them prior to NCLB), certified teachers in every classroom (we’re getting there, but there are still shortages in specific subject areas and teachers), teachers not being punished for defending themselves when they are assaulted by students, actually acknowledging students with disabilities and English language learners, the fact that poor and minority kids are getting screwed… But there’s a lot about it that really bothers me. It would be safe to say that it infuriates me.

For instance:

Did you know that a provision was inserted into the legislation that requires all public schools to release the names and contact information of all students to armed forces recruiters? Yep. And there were some reports that the recruiters were pretty insistent and crass in their efforts to get young people to sign up. Parents have to contact their members of Congress to get names removed from the list. Oh, and that information is only made available in English and Spanish. On the surface, I am all for the idea of making that information (about the Armed Forces) available to all students. But it doesn’t work that way. The military has a lot more access to kids in poor and working class communities than they do in wealthy communities. Thus, they have a captive audience of kids who may not have the money or family knowledge about how to get into college.

If schools fail to make adequate yearly progress (on standardized tests), they have to pay for tutoring and other enrichment programs run by private organizations. That’s right, they can’t create their own programs. Instead, companies like Sylvan and Kaplan get taxpayer money. The feds are using our money for yet another form of corporate welfare. And, because the schools have to pay for the tutoring, even more money is taken out of their coffers which many of them desperately need and more money goes to privatizing education.

Parents of students who attend “dangerous” or “failing” can transfer their children to other schools in-district, Such a transfer, of course, is dependent upon proximity and seat availability. What the feds really wanted to do was be able to give vouchers (again, taxpayer money) to families so they could send their kids anywhere. The idea was to increase competition. OK, in theory (though it makes me nervous to apply this to public ed). Parents could use them for public, private, or parochial schools. My big problem with this? Public schools that receive federal funding must meet the requirements outlined by NCLB in terms of teacher certification, test scores, etc. Private and parochial schools don’t. The irony of course is that NCLB is supposed to make education accountable for how schools use money and get results. Because there is no accountability requirement for private and parochial schools, they are being held to a different standard, and still getting taxpayer money.

Oh, and don’t get me started on how they have decided to disaggregate the data. Basically, what that means is that they break down the data into its smaller representative groups (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, language, English language learner, students with disabilities, etc). Again, really good in theory because schools can no longer tell certain students to stay home on test days (trust me, happens all the time). Every student needs a score (there are big problems with this, but that’s for another diary). But, it is incredibly dangerous when you go macro to the school and district level. How can we compare a school that has 7 groups to one that has 33? It’s much easier to make adequate yearly progress with 7 different groups than it is with 33.

The feds’ definition of a highly qualified teachers simply sucks. Let me be very transparent, I am a former public school teacher who worked in a large comprehensive high school teaching ninth graders. I came to understand that teaching ninth grade was the most important place I could be. The school in which I worked had 1800 students (give or take 200-300, depending on time of year). 900 were in the ninth grade, 900 students were 10-12th grades. That’s a huge “disappearance” rate. That’s why I taught ninth grade. I was certified to teach Spanish and also taught basic schools. I was trained as a social studies teacher, but needed to take extra history courses, even though I passed the state subject area exam. So, I couldn’t get certified. But I was a GOOD teacher, especially in social studies.

My point here is that there is a difference between being certified, being qualified, and being a good teacher. The feds are pushing for content area knowledge only. As a matter of fact, at a national conference last year, one of the talking heads for the Department of Ed. (ED), noted that they were looking into ways to eliminate certification all together.

Currently, I work in a university, preparing people to become teachers. My job now is to help people become the best teachers they can be. That too, is the subject of another diary, which I will get to at some point. But the point I want to make is that knowing your content area is not enough, unless of course, all you want to do is skill and drill. You need to know your students, academically, socially, culturally, emotionally, and developmentally. You need to understand how your content are works, that is, the underlying structures and belief systems that drive inquiry into the fact and content. And you need to know how to make that content accessible to your students. That is what teaching is really about. One of the biggest problems with how math is taught today in the US is that it focuses on procedure. Students don’t learn the concepts and thought processes that lead to choosing different procedures. There’s a great book called The Teaching Gap that talks about this.

The ED refers to the study that is the basis of book’s study. But they screw it up and focus on content and standards-setting (deciding what it is that students should know and how to assess it), as opposed to the message about how teaching in the US needs to be much more complex, theoretical, and philosophical. That part was ignored because it did not reflect the approptiate vision.

Finally, NCLB punishes poor and minority kids, their teachers and the districts that serve them for being, working with, and being geographically located where they are. The ED continues to fail those who have the least and need the most support. I’ll spend more time on this in a future diary. This diary reads like a rant, I know that. It’s needs more citations, I know that, too. But I needed to get this off my chest before I go back to teaching in the fall. Teachers and schools cannot do this alone. Whether you teach or not, have kids or not, this is important. It's about our collective future.


Thursday, August 9, 2007

Blogging is fun!

I must really have a lot of work to do. I've spent the last several hours on dailykos and having a great time. I've been cross-posting some of my diary entries because they are applicable (and I am not getting that many comments/hits/attention over here). It's great fun. I think everyone should play around with a blog. Just be careful not to reveal too much about yourself. After all, the web is truly "public."

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Merit Pay: Innvoative solution or new punitive measure?

Cross-posted at Dailykos:

Merit pay, which has been a major talking point in political and public circles for some time now, has gotten renewed attention in the current debates regarding the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Bush Administration’s answer to all things wrong with public education. There are a number of politicians on both sides of the isle who ardently support merit pay, including Mitt Romney, George Miller, Mike Blumberg, and Barack Obama. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings loves it. It’s become a key piece of one of the new proposals to alter NCLB. Called the All Students Can Achieve Act, This proposal, among other things, calls for connecting individual students’ test scores to individual teachers, considering growth models, and merit pay. As a person deeply concerned about public education, I wanted to believe in NCLB, but once you get beyond the soft and fuzzy platitudes, the law is a nightmare. And, while merit pay is not part of the original NLCB package, the fact that people raise it as a way to improve student achievement across the political spectrum means that it could become a reality.

I’m not one of those people who fall back on the idea that teaching is little more than a noble profession and that only people who are really committed to students should become teachers. While that is very important, I also acknowledge some very important realities. People need a quality education because it provides access to other things: college, the world of work, social connections, and economic stability. But economics is still only a small part of it. A healthy democracy requires an educated public. Thomas Jefferson pointed this out, and it was one of the reasons he pushed for public education (in the form of University of Virginia). And while Jefferson was still elitist regarding who should have access to higher education, the important point here is that a democratic society requires educated citizens who can make informed and thoughtful decisions. What does merit pay have to do with this?

Those who support merit pay argue that it acts as an incentive for teachers to work harder, it rewards teachers who are successful, and that it will draw people from other professions to teaching, particularly in the math and sciences. The argument is that merit pay has worked for big business, so it should be applied to public education. There are a number of assumptions here that are of concern, the least of which is that public education can be run like a business. Children and adolescents are not commodities. In my mind, the others are far more dangerous.

Let’s take the first reason mentioned above to support merit pay: it acts as an incentive for teachers to work harder. The assumption here, of course, is that most teachers are lazy, and don’t work hard enough. It’s true that there are teachers who do the minimum. That’s true in all fields. And yes, the union protects all teachers, even the problematic ones. But the union ensures due process, which means that an administrator can’t fire a tenured teacher because of politics, sexuality, personality, etc. If an administration documents the problems with a teacher, that teacher can be fired. But, the administration has to do its job, and not pass a poor teacher on to another district.

From this perspective, those supporting merit pay assume that if they reward teachers they can and will work harder. Many teachers are already working as hard as they can. Many work twelve, fourteen hours a day, and eight to ten hours over the weekend. What happens in a rich learning environment doesn’t just miraculously emerge from the back closet in the morning. To suggest that merit pay is a solution to the issue of student achievement ignores the fact that many teachers are already working as hard as they can.

The second argument, rewarding “good” teachers (as defined by achievement on test scores) is equally problematic. The assumption is that all teachers have the “same” kids. By that I mean that all classes are heterogeneously grouped (all ability levels in the same classroom), and all teachers have the same chance of getting the school genius and the student who really struggles. In reality, that just doesn’t happen. Many schools still actively track their students, which means that they are placed in classes based supposedly upon “ability.” So, if a teacher has students in the honors track, she or he will have a greater chance of student success on the achievement tests. The teacher who has the students who are repeating a class (because they failed it the first time around), is less likely to have high test scores. This is not to say that kids repeating a class aren’t as smart, there are many reasons they end up in such a class, and merit pay ignores that.

Teachers don’t necessarily get to choose who their students are. In fact, new teachers frequently have the most challenging student loads. This is bad for novice teachers, and leads to the huge attrition rate of teachers in the first five years of teaching. And honors classes are rewards for seniority in a building. Again, merit pay will not necessarily reward good teachers; it rewards teachers who have the right combination of students. I am not saying that a teacher working with students with a history of failure won’t have great success. I worked with a good friend who was well known for his work with failing students. But, the work is different, and requires different ways of defining success.

Finally, the final argument, that merit pay will draw people from other professions, is equally problematic. It ignores the lack of respect for teaching and teachers in general. Over and over again, when I mentioned I was teaching, people would say to me in that condescending tone of voice, “Oh, that’s nice.” Some people, including family members said to me, “But you could have done anything you wanted to, become a doctor or a lawyer.” I won’t mention what was said to me when people found out that I worked with inner-city students. The disdain was obvious. How is merit pay going to challenge that?

The reality is that merit pay fails to address to two major issues related to public education: the deep structures of public education and public perceptions of teachers and teaching. Tracking is deeply embedded in American society, and it’s important to meet the educational needs of all students. But to ask teachers to do the same things with different students is not realistic. It not only ignores the needs and strengths of students; merit pay rewards and punishes teachers for something that is beyond their control. In addition, how schools are managed doesn’t take into account teacher and student strengths and needs. How schools are governed and how decisions are made needs to change if we are to seriously consider merit pay. And, people need to take a longer look at what teachers have had to take on in the past few decades. They no longer simply teach students. Understanding the roles that American society has forced them to take on would go a long way to change public perception.

So, the next time you have the chance to talk to your local, state, or national rep, ask him or her about merit pay. It might be worth considering before you cast your next vote (especially if you are a teacher or have kids in public school).

Monday, August 6, 2007

And now, for something totally different...

For those of you who are Monty Python fans, you might expect something completely off the beaten path, quirky, and perhaps down-right hilarious. This post is definitely off my usual topical rant, but it's important. It's about engaging in giving back to one's community, making a difference and gold old-fashioned volunteerism.

This past weekend, I was a participant in the 3-Day Walk for Cancer Research. I will not lie; it was the hardest thing I have ever physically endured. Officially, my walking partner and I walked 60 miles over the course of three days as a symbolic way to bring light to the fight against breast cancer. Collectively, the 200o people who walked raised $5 million. Amazing. We walked in 100 degree plus weather. It was hard.

Unofficially, it turns out they mis-measured the route, and it turns out we walk almost 67 miles. In a car, 7 miles is not that big of a deal. But one look at my feet should illustrate otherwise. I'll save you all the pictures. Let's just say I have awful blisters and am going to lose at least one toenail. And you won't believe the aches and pains I have been dealing with the last few days. But it's nothing compared to what people suffer when they have breast cancer.

We slept in tents. We walked as long as 11 hours a day. I was up earlier than I've been since I taught public school. I used a port-a-john for 3 days. And while I didn't love that part of it, I have a new perspective about a lot of things.

There was a guy walking who lost his son to SIDS, and his daughter at a very young age to breast cancer. When she was young, they used to mountain climb and hike together. He now carries the stick that she wrapped in ribbons, with him on every 3-Day walk that he attends so she can "walk" with him. Rumor has it that he is going to walk all 12 walks this year.

There was the soldier who's sister had breast cancer. He was deployed to Iraq. He requested to do the walk in Baghdad, but was told it was too dangerous. Instead, the army gave him a furlough and he was able to walk with one of his other sisters. He wore a uniform, including combat boots, dyed pink. He carried a flag and cried for his sister. Here's a picture of him. It's lousy, but you get the idea:

There was the woman who walked while her sister was home, dying of breast cancer. She had lost the toenail on her big toe, was told it was probably not going to grow back, and she walked anyway. For her sister. And every time I saw her, she smiled at me and congratulated me on how far I'd come.

Then there was the woman who was in a serious car accident that broke bones in her feet, her ankles, and dislocated both her big toes. I am amazed at the fact that she was able to walk again, let alone walk the long distances she did. She didn't finish every day, but she'll be back next year. She's a special ed teacher and absolutely amazing to me. I'm hoping that we get to meet again and maybe even walk together. She has family in the area, so I am sure I will get to see her again soon.

I don't know many people who have suffered through the horror of breast cancer. No one in my family has had it. But the people I met on this walk have given me a lot to think about. We raised FIVE MILLION DOLLARS with one weekend's walk. There are eleven more this year. Imagine the power in that. I am not a sappy person, and not led easily into sentiment. But this was powerful for me.

I think the most amazing thing was watching my walking partner. She refused to give up. She started this as a means to make a change in her life. I hopped on board to support her. Let's be honest, walking 60 miles over the course of a weekend is not my idea of fun. As I've said all along, it's easier to run 10 miles than it is to walk 10 miles. I still stand by that assertion. But my walking partner was an inspiration to me. I don't think she's aware of just how much she is.

I haven't decided if I will do this again next year. I'm still aching and simply thinking about what I've learned about myself and the power of people when they identify a problem and decide to do something about it. But I do know that it has made a difference in what I see around me. And that's pretty powerful stuff.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

On the topic of Sheeple

You know, it's days like this that I wonder whether the "Powers that Be" (ptb) have a wicked sense of humor, are on vacation, or what. Let's take a quick stock of the summer (the abbreviated version, because I still have some work-work to do). Still in Iraq? Check. Gearing up for Iran? Check. Continuing to dismantle the Constitution? Check. Setting civil rights back even further? Check. Still punishing children for being born into poverty? Check. The rich getting richer? Check.

I need to stop here or I am going to have to engage in some scream therapy.

There was this great scene in School Daze (I think). Laurence Fishurne's character, Dap, stands, screaming in the early morning, "Wake up!" It's a moment that has stuck with me since I first saw the movie as a teen. The movie itself got mixed reviews, and while its focus was on intra-racial politics, the overall message of the movie still strikes a chord with me. Until more of us wake up, we continue to perpetuate... our own shame.

But it's more than that. In so many ways, Gramsci had it right. We (all of us, to some degree or another) really do buy into our own oppression, and we also buy into the idea that we might actually deserve it. And, too many of us let life happen to us. Instead of engaging, thinking, and making up our own minds, we let others do it for us. And, when people do raise questions, too many of us fail to really think about what the questions are, what they mean, and the answers to them. Instead, we let others tell us what to think about it, we let others silence us with fear. We abrogate our responsibility to ourselves and the world.

In the case of Dap's world, he watched the "good" blacks, with the "good" hair, who talked the right way, who didn't challenge the system clash with other black students because they (the other students) were making it hard to assimilate and "get theirs." But the bigger picture here concerning School Daze was Spike Lee's ability to capture how it all plays out in terms of power. One group (the wannabes) decided their road to power was to divest themselves of all those identity markers that made them black. The other group (jigaboos--talk about a racialized and racist assigned identity) consciously chose a different route: to embrace who they were. The irony, of course, is that by fighting with each other, they were not focusing on bigger issues that affected both groups. As a result, they bought into a perception of the way things could and ought to be, that failed to bring them together. This certainly wasn't good for them, but it was good for those who would lose a lot if different interest groups actually saw that they had more in common than they didn't.

The really scary thing about this is that history has borne out this less-than-stellar human behavior over and over again. In education, some us call it the problem of "other people's children." It's all well and good for other people and their kids, but I want what I want for my kids. And, I don't know and care what the larger implications are for my community and society as a whole. In other situations, it becomes sticking your head in the sand.

For the sake of our friends, families, and the world, please, wake up.

Monday, July 23, 2007

CNN/Youtube debate: They want to "scrap" NCLB!

...except for the accountability issue, of course. But it was nice to hear that several of the candidates were actually concerned about teachers and, gasp(!), teaching! There was talk about a "teacher minimum wage" (which is great for states and communities with lower cost-of-living, not so much for those working in places like, CA or NYC). Someone actually mentioned really supporting teachers to help them become good teachers, and one of them actually talked about the Arts!

Too bad, once again, the Social Studies was completely ignored. And, there was still some support for "competition" (read, taxpayer-funded vouchers for private and parochial schools). There was also the homage to accountability, though it wasn't spelled out what that might look like in a revised NCLB.

At least there is some discussion about it. I'm not sure whether it is an honest discussion, but I can find a small kernel of hope there.

The proof will be in the final reauthorization

Tally ho!
It's called the All Students Can Achieve Act and is a new "bi-partisan" proposal to further amend the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB). For those of you who don't know, NCLB is the "watershed" piece of legislation brought to you straight from Texas to ensure that all children and Adolescents in the United States recess an "equal" education. Supposedly, according to former Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, NLCB is the natural extension of the Brown Decision, that landmark Supreme Court case that stated that separate is inherently unequal. NCLB was supposed to ensure higher accountability with standardized testing, qualified teachers, adequate yearly progress, and research-based teaching methods. All of which, mind you, sounds great in theory. Too bad the "theory" was based upon the trumped up "Texas Miracle" and was signed into law with little or no debate.

But back to the topic at hand. This new proposal actually acknowledges what many of us have been concerned about all along: the fact that individual states can set their own proficiency levels (as high or low as they want), and as long as they make adequate yearly progress (that's AYP for those of you in-the-know), those states get their federal funding. Who cares that the funding itself rarely covers the costs of the tests the states are required to implement? Who cares that districts in distress are punished because they need help? And, who cares if states can set their expectations as high or low as they want? Instead of helping districts in need, NCLB requires these already economically strapped schools and districts to pay for additional services out of pocket. All Students can Achieve takes it one step further. Now they want track individual students and go after teachers who's students don't make AYP. Again, great in theory, lousy in practice for district with high mobility rates, or teachers who work in districts with pretty strict tracking policies. And, this of course requires us to actually believe that the tests are accurate indicators of achievement.

The other thing that is really interesting about this proposed act is that it also calls for national standards and, possibly, national tests. THAT will go over with those who support state autonomy.

You can read about the proposal here:

Thursday, July 5, 2007

this is a test

yes, even a person who is skeptical of them, sometimes chooses to use
them. So, this is a test. More to come later.


Wednesday, July 4, 2007

It's July 4.

Nothing like starting a new project on a holiday. Friends and family are arriving for the BBQ in a few hours (hopefully before the rain), and what am I doing? Creating a blog. Yep, that's right, I am an expert at procrastination. But, it makes sense that I post my first set of thoughts on a day that is supposed to symbolize some good stuff. Instead we have:

A POTUS who commutes the sentence of one of his lackeys. The same POTUS who refused, as governor of TX, to release an inmate who had been exonerated by DNA. Yeah, there's equal representation under the law.It's simply"more equal for some than others.

A SCOTUS who in their latest decision has essentially enabled de jure segregation to rear its ugly head again. Because, apparently being race conscious is being racist. Oh, and this latest decision, just like NCLB, is in the spirit of extending the Brown Decision. Right.

Done for now. It's time to prepare for fun for later on this afternoon.