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.