Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Do We Need a General Strike?


I’ve gotten to the point where I almost hate to look at my Facebook teacher friends’ statuses. It seems that whenever the School Reform Commission has done its last stupid, vindictive, anti-union maneuver, another stupid, vindictive anti-union one follows immediately on its heals.

I know that in New York, an advertising agency has been hired by pro-charter, anti-union groups to publicly bash both the union and its president. They have taken out full-page ads in the New York Times and large billboards near busy highways that disparage and insult the American Federation of Teachers and what they do, which is teach children against all odds. I have sat in my chair and shook my head, but never expected similar tactics would be used here. But in today's feed I found this:

http://phillydeclaration.org/2014/10/14/guerilla-marketing-firm-tapped-to-counter-protest-thursdays-src-demonstration-in-forthcoming-anti-union-campaign/

Our union has not had a strike in several decades I believe. It’s because both parties showed up and the negotiation table ready to truly give and take. Now that the SRC has become entrenched in Philadelphia, Governor Corbett has appointed Bill Green, who has been anti-public schools from the beginning. In fact, when his father was Mayor of Philadelphia, he rescinded the contract that had been bargained and that resulted in a long strike. It looks like Mr. Green was appointed to the SRC to do something similar.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has been bargaining in good faith since our contract ran out in September 2012. The initial offerings from the SRC included taking away almost everything we had won in the bargaining process since the inception of the union in the 1970’s. This included taking away requirements for a working water fountain, a teacher’s desk and chair, a closet for the teacher’s purse and coat, separate rooms for the nurse and counselor to insure privacy, chairs and desks for every child, etc. You can see that their proposals were ridiculous. The SRC unilaterally eliminated seniority and class size limits after the contract ran out and instituted hire-back rules that had previously been outlawed by the contract. They wanted us to take a pay cut, increase the working hours and days, and pay a sizable chunk for our medical benefits, which were free as a consolation for not getting any raises. In fact, the School District had suggested it! The last bargaining session with the SRC found the PFT offering $24 million in paid medical benefits. This was on top of the $78 million the SRC “borrowed” from the PFT Health and Welfare Fund, $30 million of which the union told them to keep. The SRC declined to acknowledge it at all and has not been back to the table since. The SRC considers the talks are at an impasse and instead of calling in an arbitrator or mediator, decided to unilaterally cancel the contract the union members have been working under during the negotiations. Although the School District feels that the state legislature gave the SRC power to do that, the union and others are suing the district for the action.

The teachers of Philadelphia have endured 60 school closures, countless charter schools, vouchers, layoffs, and draconian budgets that leave schools without books, supplies, counselors, nurses, secretaries, assistant principals, copy paper, and even toilet paper. Cleaning staff has been laid off so that in many schools the only cleaning that can go on is emptying trash baskets and occasionally sweeping the floors. Bugs and mice run rampant through the dirty schools and teachers are supposed to supply tissues, toilet paper, paper towels and soap or hand sanitizer.

The last straw and one close to my heart is the recent decision of the SRC to abolish the union’s Health and Welfare Funds, stop benefits for retired teachers, and to institute payments for formerly-free medical benefits for teachers, counselors, classroom assistants, and secretaries. The much touted benefit program they rolled out claimed a cost of $20 to $70 for employees (5% to 13% payments). But the real costs for those who wish to keep a similar plan they have now are more like $140 to $650 a month! In addition, principals who make six-figure salaries pay only 7% and our superintendent who makes over $200,000 only contributes 5%. They are trying to balance their budget on the back of the teachers. The lower payment yields high deductibles and co-pays of 10% for hospital stays and ER visits. You will find the chart with the real costs below. Last year they had negotiated payments for benefits with the blue-collar workers and principals and then rewarded them by laying off cleaning staff and assistant principals. We are waiting for the other shoe to drop on us too. I am a retiree with 3 more years to collect Social Security. I already pay $1350 a month for medical coverage for my spouse and I. Now they have eliminated the prescription benefits, which will now cost my spouse and I upwards of $10,000 a year just for prescriptions.

I see the frustration in the posts of current teachers, counselors and nurses, trying to do more with nothing. Every day I wonder how they have the strength to go into work each day and smile and teach. I spend every day thanking God I have retired and don’t have to deal with the reality that is the current school district. Sometimes I have to NOT read their posts so I don’t become depressed about the anti-teacher, anti-union, anti-public school attitude that prevails nationwide and is especially onerous in Philadelphia.

But people are starting to fight back. Last year, parents rallied their school communities to oppose turning their schools over to charters. Helen Gym, a nationally-known parent activist, regularly contributes articles to the Notebook, an outside-the-district newspaper that highlights and investigates issues in the school district. Helen has spoken at rallies, at the SRC meetings, at parent gatherings, anywhere people will listen. Daniel Denvir at the City Paper, and Kristen Graham at The Inquirer, are two of our journalist supporters in the city media. And today’s newsfeed yields the unions citywide discussing a general strike in support of the teachers, since we are the only teachers’ union in the state not allowed by law to strike. Diane Ravitch, public school activist extraordinaire, fights for us in her blog and rallies others to speak out in support of public schools and the mess they’re in because of corporate reform methods that are not working.

I thank everyone who leaves a message of support or disseminates the correct information about our situation. The current teachers, those laid off, and the retirees all need your voices against the evil dealings of the SRC.

SPEAK OUT!

Fact Checking by the Notebook
http://thenotebook.org/blog/147806/fact-checking-district-claims-about-contract-cancellation#comment-85875

Philadelphia unions ponder a general strike to support the PFT
http://www.philly.com/philly/education/20141015_Outraged_by_cancellation_of_teachers__contract__city_labor_leaders_considered_calling_general_strike.html#WkIE5UdGVHjMXqEJ.01


The REAL costs of the new medical benefits:


Monday, October 6, 2014

The Game is On! Our Contract is Revoked.


I don’t know what the legislature was thinking when they gave the School Reform Commission (SRC) such broad powers over the School District of Philadelphia (SDP). The law was written in such a way as to NOT mention it was only for Philadelphia, but made it obvious when they wrote it to apply only to first class cities. Duh! There’s only one first class city in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia.

Among other things, the law dissolved the city-appointed school board, appointed a state-appointed majority School Reform Commission to govern the schools, and negate the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ (PFT) right to strike. One of the never-before-used-privileges it gave to the SRC was to cancel the contract and to impose terms on the teachers. These things were supposed to fix the financial and educational woes of the city schools. In the dozen years of SRC control it has done neither.

 In the years since the SRC took over, we have not had a strike, nor an imposed contract, but have negotiated several contracts in the regular manner. For 2 years, the PFT has been negotiating with the SRC with absolutely no GIVE on the SRC’s part. The PFT understood that the district is in a financial bind, and offered to forego any raises. The union also loaned the district $30 million from its Health and Welfare funds to help the SRC balance its books. Last year, the SRC revoked the pay steps for people with advanced degrees and longevity. Teachers who stay more than 10 years get no extra pay for remaining, but it is an incentive for the young teachers hired to stay. After being encouraged to get advanced degrees by the SRC, so we could become “highly qualified,” the teachers who got those degrees 2 years ago were denied their pay raises. The school district, unlike many of its suburban districts, does not pay for nor reimburse teachers for advance degrees.

The SRC claims that the teachers did nothing to help the financial troubles of the district. They are dead wrong. In addition to settling for being paid less for a much more difficult job than their suburban counterparts, 19% less than a local district, our Philly teachers typically spend thousands of dollars of their own money to supplement their meager $100 supply allowance from the district. They spend their own time after and before school to do extra-curricular activities needed by the students. They teach in neighborhoods where two-thirds of the students suffer from PTSD due to the violent atmosphere or high poverty of their environment. They have even provided soap, toilet paper, copy paper and tissues for their classrooms, supplies that the district will not provide.

This scenario has been due to happen sooner or later. Here in Pennsylvania, The last several governors have not supported public education. In 2010, the state legislature did a study and found that the public schools in the state were underfunded by BILLIONS of dollars. Although Governor Rendell supplied the extra funds for the public schools via use of the stimulus fund from the federal government, he failed to change the school funding formula to make education funding fair across the state. Even though there were additional funds for districts where students were non-English speakers, special ed, or high poverty, it was not enough. When Governor Corbett came into office, he revoked the additional funds for those groups of students, and stopped reimbursing school districts for some charter school expenses. Thus the available funds that the stimulus had provided were now gone, as well as the additional funds for poor, special ed, and ELL students.

Charters have been given rampant growth opportunities and lack of oversight as the public schools in Pennsylvania, especially in Philadelphia, siphon away the best students, and leave the special ed, behaviorally challenged, and non-English speaking students to be educated by the city schools. Only a handful of these charters have been able to score better on the state tests, with all of the cyber charters and 50% of the brick-and-mortar charters performing worse than the public schools they replaced.

In the recent debate by the gubernatorial candidates, Mr. Corbett said he was no friend of education unions. That has been obvious since day one of his term. But can the teachers’ union wait until the November election and January change of watch to get the imposition of work rules revoked. I submit that we cannot. It’s now time for action, and that action seems to be pointing to a strike, legal or not.

The Philadelphia Notebook describes the revocation of the contract here.


 

 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Learning How to Get Along

The article in August 18th’s Inquirer on philly.com states,

“The Taney Dragons look like the best parts of our city – multiracial, integrated, winning. They reflect our city schools: six of the 12 players are District elementary students from McCall, Meredith, Penn Alexander and Masterman. One student is from World Communications Charter. One of Taney’s stars was the only girl among the PA teams and the team was the most racially diverse in the state.

You’d think that would be even more cause for celebration but along the way, they’ve faced hateful and ignorant racist and sexist attitudes as a result.”

See the link below for the back story.

http://parentsunitedphila.com/2014/08/08/phillys-own-taney-dragons-are-the-feel-good-story-of-summer/

This news is a little old but serves to put a spotlight on a discouraging reality. So many years beyond the Civil Rights marches, MLK, and the Brown vs. Board of Ed. ruling, we still have to endure such racist ideas and harassment, even where kids are concerned. When Vic and I were Scout leaders 20-30 years ago, we lived in an integrated neighborhood. It was one of the best things about our little borough. We actually moved in as many were moving out, and never regretted the decision. Because the neighborhood was integrated, our kids’ friends were also. They played together in the driveway, walked to school with each other, and participated in sports teams and band activities. Our school district did not have the best reputation, but I found little to criticize about the education my children got there, despite the court-enforced bussing necessary for the integration of its elementary schools.

I believe the best experiences in living together other than on the same block were offered in Scouts, sports and band. Having to work together in activities and earning badges, camping, hiking, and discovering new experiences, the boys and girls in Scouts managed to show the adults a thing or two about getting along. Our sports teams were great examples of racial harmony because they were working toward a common goal. I do believe our community being integrated played a large part in their success since the kids already played together at home. We constantly struggled, however, to prove our worth to the people outside our neighborhood.

The school sports teams – football, soccer, field hockey, and lacrosse – constantly dealt with racial remarks from opposing teams and even from some of the coaches and a ref or two. Because we had integrated teams in a mostly white section of the county, we were an anomaly. I believe we may have been the only fully integrated set of teams in the county. There were no token whites or blacks, but we were pretty evenly distributed. Our kids had to be trained to ignore the racial taunts of the other teams who tried to get our kids to start a fight and get penalized, We did file complaints with the sport authorities, but the harassment never completely stopped. It was discouraging and disappointing that the kids had to learn of racial contempt at such a young age. But I was relieved, on the other hand, that they had already learned not to judge people by the color of their skin as young children. In some cases I believe it made us stronger and more cohesive, but it should never have happened.

In Scouts, the racial abuse was more subtle, and was realized only in retrospect. When our leaders were involved in all-white troops, they always got the campsites in better parts of the Scout reservation. Our troop somehow always managed to get the campsite that was farthest way from the mess tent, activities, and physically separated from the non-integrated troops by distance, no matter how early we registered. After several years, it finally dawned on our leaders what was going on. My husband says that it was the only time he was ashamed to be a Scouter.

Scouts also offered a look into the racial attitudes of others in the neighborhood, finding out that not everyone felt the same as we did. We wanted to plan a get-together for the families in the troop and approached the all-white private swim club. We were told in no uncertain terms that we could not. Nothing directly racial was said, but other non-integrated troops had been able to use the facilities. So we looked elsewhere, to the all-black swim club on the other side of town. We were welcomed by the officials and for the most part, the day went without incident. One kid there wanted to know why we weren’t at “our” swim club; that we didn’t belong. But a few of our scouts who belonged to the club told him otherwise.

Although it meant that my last child had to be bussed to school when the others had been able to walk to school, I am all for integrating schools. There’s so much opportunity there for understanding that people are people wherever you go, as Dr. Seuss would say. Even better is integrating the neighborhood! There are mean kids and bullies of every race and creed; bad people and wonderful people come in all colors. Kids need to learn that color has no unfortunate tags exclusively associated with it. The only way you’re going to get that across is by living somewhere that presents those opportunities everyday. The way things are today, there are still many segregated communities that rarely have opportunities to interact with people of other races and creeds. So much room for those old stereotypes to rear their ugly heads!

Let’s not allow our society to slip back to where it was before Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, Jim Thorpe, Rubye Bridges, MLK, etc. We need to be a true Melting Pot, living the motto – E Pluribus Unum or Out of Many, One.

Still learning!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

My Book Anniversary!


A year ago I launched myself on the beginning of what I hope will be a long journey. On August 28, 2013, my first book, It Wasn’t in the Lesson Plan, was published by Outskirts Press. I had been working on it for almost 2 years with a push from some Fun-A-Day show attendees in February 2011.

The project began when my son Nick asked me what I was doing for Fun-A-Day in January 2011. The concept behind Fun-A-Day is simple – for the month of January you promise yourself to do something fun every single day. It could be making your bed, cooking a different variety of pasta, taking a photo, painting, drawing, haiku writing, singing, pick something! After the month has expired, there is a show where you can share with people what you did. When I bound my writings about my students, people reading their stories at the show wrote little post-it notes, encouraging me to write and publish a book.

When I began the project, I didn’t think I’d have enough to write a different story every night after work. But I found there was a lot in that head of mine and I wanted to share it. Several of my family and friends proof-read for me as I went along, but the yeoman’s job of editing went to Tina Capalbo, whom I met online through the music of Great Big Sea. She had been a teacher and was a benevolent task master. Believe me when I tell you I had to revise and edit a lot after all the other edits! But the suggestions she gave made the book a much better set of stories. Her suggestions made it flow.

Another Great Big Sea connection is my illustrator, James Duncan. He lives in Montreal, but I met him and his wife Fran Courselle and their kids at a GBS concert in Lowell, MA. I sent him the stories I wanted illustrations for and he did a beautiful job. A couple of the drawings of kids whom he’s never seen, had an uncanny likeness to the real kids. And I was over the moon with his cover! It’s a real eye opener.

I’ve been writing a lot at home since the release of the book, and almost have enough for another book. This one will be me speaking my mind about recent education issues. Hopefully by next year, I’ll be crowdfunding once again.

I want to thank every person who’s encouraged me, contributed money for publishing, bought the book, read the book, passed it on to another person, shared the links, liked my It Wasn’t in the Lesson Plan Facebook page. I will continue to write in my blog and for later publishing as I think I have found my not-teaching niche now. I am a writer. Wow! That sounds good!

I am a writer.

Please tell me what story you liked or what struck a chord with you as you read. I’d like to hear. You could also tell me some education issues you'd like me to write about/address. 
 
You can read some of the book at Amazon.com -
 


Still learning!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Fight Has Just Begun

Ever since the publishing of A Nation at Risk during Reagan’s presidency, the teaching profession has come under increasing suspicion and scrutiny.  During the 30 plus years since his grave pronouncement, this mistrust has led to; No Child Left Behind; Race to the Top; PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College & Careers) and Smarter Balanced tests, Common Core State Standards; VAM (Value Added Model); decreased teacher training quality (Teach for America); vouchers; the outlaw of unions in some “right-to-work” states; increased importance of high-stakes standardized testing; a high rate of teacher “churn;” record-low morale among teachers; introduction of laws to eliminate tenure (due process) for teachers; and the closing and charterizing of hundreds of public community schools. This war is raging on many fronts at this time as political and corporate powers without much teaching experience attack teachers and their unions, especially teachers in highly urban or rural poverty-ridden communities.

The average teacher does their job of educating young minds no matter what the current “flavor” of reading or math teaching strategy is. We are so used to top-down management imposing programs and materials on us that may or may not have any educational value. We usually just accept the package and go on trying to reach growing minds.  In my 37 years of teaching in urban public schools, I have seen the preferred reading methods reach full-circle twice and the math has come ‘round once. Rarely do the people in authority even ask teachers how it’s working. Rarely do they consider that it will take upwards of 10 years to see whether a new method is truly working. They expect to see miracles within a 2 to 3 year period and when they don’t, it’s get on the carousel again to the next “best practices.” Indeed, it takes a good three years for a teacher to get used to a new program and use it well. When a teacher finally can implement the program easily, it is changed and the process repeats itself ad-nauseum.

Teachers have always just dealt with the war against administrators by doing our jobs and complaining when things didn’t work out for the better. Indeed, we have no say in the adoption of educational programs in the district, but have to use them anyway. Both teachers and our students have suffered through such horrible ideas as scripted lessons and no-phonics reading only because we were evaluated on using them “with fidelity.” Thank goodness our unions were eventually able to show the administrators that scripted lessons were NOT good for the education of ALL children, and that balanced literacy approach works for most children.

Indeed, no one method will work for all children to learn. Hence our opposition to the Common Core State Standards. The premise behind the standards is good, but each state already had standards which they used throughout the grades and subjects. The states, for the most part, had employed teachers to examine, write, adapt, and test the standards’ viability in the classroom. It is the states’ responsibility according to the constitution to educate their citizenry and federal interference is not allowed in the impostion of curriculum. The name Common Core STATE Standards belies the process by which they were birthed and adopted.  Neither the states’ education departments themselves nor their teachers have much to do with writing them. There were two college professors on the committee which first examined the standards, both of which refused to support the final versions in math and reading. There were no early childhood teachers whose students are the most impacted by the developmentally inappropriate standards. Most of the writers of the common core were employed by corporate educational testing companies or other non-teaching industries. Pearson, which is involved in writing the tests for the standards, should not have been given a seat at the birthing table. And the adoption of the standards was somehow done before they had been written and diseminated. I don’t know how to account for the states’ “approval” if the governors voting to implement them had never seen them, nor had they been field-tested prior to approval. 

Attackers from another front are charter schools, supposedly public schools who have the liberty to “do their own thing.”  Many charters have selective enrollment processes which prohibit or deter English Language Learners (ELL) and Special Ed (IEP) kids from applying because of their application process and/or lack of programs. Many charters counsel out students with learning or emotional disablities through no excuses discipline and one-size-fits-all educational practices. Charters were originally established to help the very students they are counseling out, those that can’t make it in the public school system. Instead, charters have managed to skim the cream from the public schools, leaving disproportionate numbers of  ELL and IEP students. All this for what? The majority of charters here in Pennsylvania do no better than public schools when standardized tests are used to compare. Some do achieve better, but many more do worse than the local public schools, cyber charters in particular. Not one cyber charter made AYP. In addition,  the school district ends up paying for all the charter school kids regardless of where they transfer from. In Philadelphia, a significant number of charter students come from Catholic schools, not public schools, but the public school district has to pay for them, too. Teachers and parents here have had it with closing schools, laying off familiar experienced teachers and hiring Teach for America recruits for the charters, most of whom stay 2 years and leave. Both teachers and parents are sick of the closing-schools battles in this war and the constant churn of new, inexperienced teachers.

Even Bill Gates, who has given millions of dollars to fund his ideas for education has admitted that the current so-called reform models have done little to improve educational outcomes. He keeps his hand in the educationally profitable computerized testing industry which will not be responsible to create, test and evaluate standardized tests that will be used to judge student, teacher, and district. PAARC and Smarter Balamced tests made for the Common Core will be given solely on computers that run Windows 8. Who’s the winner there? Certainly not the school districts that have to purchase new computers and upgrade existing one, leaving less money for actual instruction.

Computers may be wonderful, but teachers know that not every student is able to show what they know on the computer. Students require assessments that are as varied as they are to be able to judge whether they have acquired the knowledge they need to be successful. There are 7  Intelligences according to Howard Gardiner and teachers are required to differentiate their instruction to reach as many as possible. Computer skills and visual methods used on the computerized tests are but 14% of the skills that should be used to test children. Even if the computer tests include audio, that’s only 22% of the assessments that should be used in order to assess fairly. Teachers are still fighting the battle of teaching to a child’s strength but testing only one facet of learning.

Then there is the unseen enemy, that is, the behind-the-scenes corporate and political influences that shape the laws, even up to the higher levels of the federal courts. Politics plays way too large a role in how education works in our nation.  Every two-four years the elected governor or legislators seem to decide whatever the previous guy did for education needs to be changed. These changes have nothing to do with the needs of public schools, but with political atmosphere at the time. Unfortunately, these political changes have taken on a national agenda, with so many states challenging tenure, changing work rules for teachers, requiring evaluations tied into test scores, promoting charters and vouchers, and reducing budgets and pensions. It is the same all across the country, too much to be a coincidence. Schools need to be far removed from the political or corporate influences. It’s an ongoing battle we are currently losing.

One of the latest battles teachers are waging now is against our right to due process, our right to know what we are accused of and be able to mount our defense. Most of the people in the United States misunderstand the way due process, or tenure works for teachers in grades Kindergarten through 12th grade. Although it’s commonly known as “tenure,” it is not what tenure is in higher education. In universities, tenure allows professors to study, experiment with, and challenge widely held views in order to get to the truth about an issue. They can tackle controversial issues without worry of being fired because the department head disagrees. Tenure in K to 12 circles only means a teacher cannot be fired without good reason.

Highly-visible lawyers, former journalists, and movie stars all seem to have opinions on tenure which they have put out there with much ado in recent weeks. These non-educators misrepresent our profession and our unions when they complain we can’t get rid of bad teachers because there is tenure. But that is patently false. Our unions do not fight for bad teachers, but they do fight for an accused teachers right mount a defense against arbitrary and capricious accusations. It is not the unions obligation to get rid of the “bad” teachers, but the responsibility of the administrator at the school level. There aren’t that many “bad” teachers in schools, though, and no techer worth their salt wants to teach with one. In fact, the union frequently counsels out teachers who need to leave because they don’t improve after having been found ineffective.  If there are bad teachers in a school, it is the school district’ responsibility to prove it and to go through the process of firing. Despite research that shows that teachers only account for 1% to 20% of a child’s school success, false information keeps being spread by these political influences to discredit teachers and their unions.

Pension reform is the latest attack on teachers. Many teachers stayed in their positions long-term because of the promise of a good pension upon retirement. No one goes into teaching because of the salary. In most school districts in the nation, neither salaries nor pensions are commensurate with the level of proficiency and professionalism required by the job. For most teachers, it’s not a job but a career, a calling if you will. How else could you justify those tenacious instructors who stay in the ghetto, year after year, trying to better serve the students in their charge? Those teachers fight battles every day that the average citizen can’t imagine. The ravages of poverty and violence that plague the inner city make it very hard to reach and teach the students who live there. But they stay, and teach, and counsel, and listen, and cajole, and comfort children who have seen more violence than many soldiers. They buy personal items and school supplies for their students. They work within the confines of the untreated PTSD their children experience daily. After 30-40 years of teaching within these conditions, teachers deserve to bring home a pension they have contributed to their whole working lives. Many states have laws where teachers can’t collect both their pension and Social Security. We all know that living on a Social Security check keeps one at the poverty level or close to it. Is this what we want for those to whom we entrust our most valuable resource, our children?

Again, the pension question seems to be on the political agenda to destroy public education and is a nationwide issue. In my state of Pennsylvania, funds desperately needed by the Philadelphia School District and being held up because the Governor insists on pension reform. One has nothing to do with the other. Our governor insists it is the public employees pension funds that are bleeding the state. What he doesn’t tell anyone is that state has elected not to contribute to the pension fund for at least a decade, the state “borrowing” the money and using it for something else so they don’t have to raise taxes. Our no-tax governor has decreased corporate taxes as well as not tax the fracking industry in order to claim that the money it now owes to the pension fund is bringing the state down. It’s a debt the state is planning to renege on without paying any penalties and in the process, not fulfilling an obligation to its workers. An obligation that was a contract with the workers who gave up salary increases and reductions in workforce to save the state money. Ken Previti says it best in his blog, Reclaim Reform. Even though he speaks about Illinois, the battle is being waged in many states.

Not many people realize that the state legislature is required by law to fund, as earned compensation, teacher pensions. The pensions are further protected by the Illinois constitution. State legislators have intentionally not fully funded pensions, preferring to use the money for pet projects that profit political cronies and campaign contributors. Legislators don’t want to be considered the thieves that they are, so the procedure is euphemistically called underfunding. This type of theft became so popular that R. Eden Martin and his cohorts have encouraged legislators to shift money in order to put the money elsewhere into more “worthy” areas. This used to be called misappropriation of funds. Now, it is called saving the state.

Well, the teachers have been trying to work for decades with curriculum changes, evaluations based on test scores of students they may never have taught, reductions in both federal and state budgets for education, charter schools taking over their traditional public school and removing their union rights, increased standardized testing whose practice tests and formative tests eat up a whole month’s worth of reading lessons each year, being demeaned by parents, administrators, television, radio, and movies. The attacks on tenure, pensions and common sense practices has awakened the beast within. Both the NEA and AFT have called for the Department of Education Secretary to change his ways or resign, teachers have refused to give tests that count for nothing, parents, teachers and principals have protested the incessant test-taking, and an organization of teachers, 51,000 strong, dedicated to taking back our profession, has been born- the Badass Teachers Association.

Watch out! The members of the Badass Teacher Association are mad and we’re not going to take it anymore. The group is for "every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality, and refuses to accept assessments, tests and evaluations imposed by those who have contempt for real teaching and learning. " At first I was put off by the name, but after watching the continuing dismantling of the Philadelphia public schools, I felt I had to do something I was not able to do until I retired. That is, speak out loud and strong for the teachers who were left struggling to perform the miracles the system requires without the proper materials to do it. I joined the ranks of those who refuse to be blamed for the general inequalities of society and refuse to accept the assessments required by those who have no knowledge of proper educational methods and strategies.

Others have joined the fight against the Common Core, standardized testing, and the dismantling of teachers' work protections and pensions. This is the turning point in the battle that we will win. We will vanquish our enemies. The fight has just begun.
 
The Badass Teacher Association - http://badassteachers.blogspot.com/


Tenure on The View – http://goo.gl/L34aFR


 
 Peter Greene's A Field Guide to Anti-Teacher Trolls - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-greene/anti-teacher-trolls_b_5614131.html
 
Still learning!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Love & Politics Don't Mix

Stuart McLean’s Vinyl CafĂ© always makes me laugh. Today it made me reminisce and reflect on political differences. As the saying goes, “Love and politics don’t mix.”

The story was about the 50’s-type life of Morley and her mother’s finally feeling empowered enough to express a political opinion that just happened to be the opposite of her husband’s. There was much fussing about who needed to take the sign down and whose was bigger. After some fuming and sign-size besting on the front lawn, the campaign was over with the election of the incumbent, and everything calmed down. But it never went back to the Father Knows Best atmosphere in the house. Mama had found her voice.

Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, my house wasn’t exactly Leave It to Beaver. We were on the cusp of the feminist movement but at that time, women didn’t leave any footprints in the job force, newsroom or politics. Fathers went off to work and mother stayed home to take care of the kids. Exceptions to this were few and far between.

Politics was my father’s realm. In my memory he had always been a Democratic committeeman, the workhorse of the party. A committeeman knew everyone in the neighborhood and frequently knew more gossip than the women did. They knew who to call for street repairs, traffic tickets, bail money and other pressing problems. When they got help from a committeeman, the neighbors felt an obligation to the ruling party in elections. In Philadelphia, the victors were usually Democrats and the committeemen and Ward leaders worked hard before elections, visiting every house in their division, encouraging them to get out to vote for the Democratic candidate.

Enter JFK, MLK, the Hippie Age of peace and love, anti-war, civil rights marches.

I had seen candidate Kennedy with my own eyes as he rode down Roosevelt Blvd in his convertible, waving to the thousands of people who would eventually vote for him. The nation’s first Catholic president, he was huge in our overwhelmingly Catholic neighborhood. My father got to meet him in his capacity of committeeman and I thought that was magical. It was then I became interested in politics. Or at least I was more aware of the workings of politics in our community than most kids.

My awareness of politics piqued my interest in the civil rights movement and the anti-war protestors. I was inextricably connected via the folksongs touting peace. Songs from Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Simon & Garfunkel became the soundtrack of my life. I sang the songs, attended the rallies, picketed for Cesar Chavez and the grape pickers and generally subscribed to the politics of the anti-war movement. During this turbulent period, my father was elected to the State Legislature for our piece of Philadelphia. I gave out campaign literature, made phone calls, and got well acquainted with campaign maneuvers and politics in general. So when Frank Rizzo ran for mayor on the Democratic side in the 70’s, I figured the only reason he switched parties was that he knew a Republican would not stand a chance as a Mayoral candidate. Many saw through his political move. Rizzo had been the Philadelphia Police Commissioner and was notorious for his bullying, his racism, his brashness, and schmoozing of the city’s high-ranking politicians. I was not going to vote for him no matter what.

I managed to procure a Thatcher Longstreth sign (his opponent) and placed in proudly in my bedroom window. My father was not too pleased but once I explained my reasons for supporting Longstreth, he relented. Dad was all about the debate. He wanted to make you think about your positions and opinions. The poster was highly visible as my bedroom windows were facing 2 of the available 3 sides of the house, the sides where the most people would see them as they walked home from the bus stop or playground or corner store. The ward leader saw them too.

He gave my dad a hard time for supporting Rizzo’s opponent. Dad informed him that it was not he, but his daughter who was in favor of the Republican candidate. Dad listened to the ward leaders ranting, but when Mr. M. told him to take it down, Dad said NO. He was in favor of freedom of choice and that applied to his daughter’s vote as well as his. I was forever grateful and impressed that he took that stance.

So if you had walked by the house during that election season, you would have noticed a big RIZZO sign downstairs in the kitchen window where it was highly visible, and above it, on the second floor, an equally large LONGSTRETH sign.

For this was the house that compromise built. At least for that voting season, love and politics did mix!

 Still learning!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Isn't That Special?


The Miracle Workers, Part 2

Arne Duncan, the United States Secretary of Education (who BTW never taught a day in his life), insists that students in need of Special Ed services (with IEPs) would be able to pass their state’s standardized tests if they had “quality” instruction. He has recently made it a requirement that such students pass the tests at the same rate as regular ed students who do not require special instruction. In fact, my last blog post was about this subject. But I find it so unreal, that I wrote another one. I apologize for any repetition.

 Arne feels that showing progress on grade-level tests is so important that he will lessen the federal government’s watchdog role on IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) regulations which require timely identification, aren’t participation, and testing of potential special ed students. These regulations were put into effect because some school districts were making the students either wait too long for services or get railroaded through the testing process when other strategies may have worked. Those rules were needed then, and they are needed NOW. If school districts don’t have a watchdog making sure children are identified and serviced in an appropriate and timely fashion, look for the Special Ed services to lessen appreciably. It costs extra money to teach children with IEPs. In these days of draconian budget cuts in cash-strapped districts, the fewer Special Ed teachers a school district hires saves them thousands of dollars.

 Children are not identified as needing specialized instruction in a willy-nilly fashion. They are first given certain academic accommodations in their classroom by the teacher, with data collected as to the success of lack of it of the strategies.  After 4-6 weeks, the teacher determines, along with the Child Study Team, whether or not those strategies are working. If not working, other strategies are suggested and tried in the next time frame. There can be several 4-6 week sessions of identifying, accommodating, and re-evaluating before any determination is made that the child might need testing. If the child does not show enough progress, then the parent must be notified, questionnaires filled out, any physical reasons for the lack of progress eliminated, parent and teacher conferences held, and preliminary academic testing done. Then and only then, and only with the parent’s input and approval, can the child be tested by a school psychologist to determine the need for specialized instruction. In many school districts, a child must be at least 2 years below grade level to be considered for special ed testing.

 Despite the lengthy time period to determine if testing is needed, there are times in which the school does not meet the federally prescribed timelines set forth in the IDEA regulations. There were hefty consequences involved with not meeting prescribed deadlines concerning identification and re-evaluation of Special Ed students. That is the way it should be. Children who have special learning requirements should get all the services to which they are entitled in order to help them overcome their disability if possible, and to educate them to be contributing members of society as much as their disabilities allow. If the federal government doesn’t keep an eye on this, school districts are not going to be as diligent as they need to be in providing an appropriate education to our special children.

These days, most kids with IEPs are already mainstreamed into regular classes for the majority of their school day. Unless their disability is severe, the children are instructed on grade level subjects in their classroom with the special education teacher’s support either in-class or in a separate resource room for a prescribed period of time each day. In this manner, they are exposed to grade-appropriate concepts as well as instruction on their learning level, as per the IEP. As the years have gone by, the time spent on the Resource Room has been decreasing for most children. The exposure to grade-level material is important as many kids can grasp complicated concepts in Social Studies or Science instruction that doesn’t require their reading the textbooks. The instruction at the IEP level is usually far below grade level, meeting the students where they are to give them the strategies and specialized instruction needed to progress. Each child is different, needing varying levels of assistance and instruction. In my last 5th grade class, J. was a math whiz, but could only read on a second grade level. His pal, A., could read on a 4th grade level, but only did math at a first grade level, and could not write a coherent paragraph. D. was on the autism spectrum and was able to do the reading work but not the math and only on his terms, which changed from day to day. He required short sessions and frequent breaks, with little interaction with classmates. AJ could do grade level work but frustrated easily and required frequent teacher interaction, frequent breaks and reduced work loads to perform in class.

Unfortunately, the tests they were required to take are written at grade level and if they can’t read them, the students can’t even understand the questions! The accommodations allowed for most learning disabled students on the standardized tests are not very helpful – extra time and smaller classes for testing. A teacher is only allowed to read the math or science test to them if the student asks. The reading test, which most students in Special Ed can’t handle at grade level, cannot be read to them, only the directions. Consequently, students who have been identified as Special Ed and are already at least 2 years behind, can’t even begin to handle the reading portion of the test. Yet, according to the latest iteration of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) the teachers’ effectiveness are supposed to be evaluated on their students’ standardized test scores, not reaching their IEP goals.

I don’t need to tell you that not many Special Ed students pass the tests at the proficient level, although there are some exceptions. Everyone understands that most students being instructed below grade level as per their IEP, are not going to be able to handle the grade-level test. That doesn’t mean they aren’t making progress. Au contraire!

Some learning disabled children 3 levels behind can recoup 2 of those levels in a few years with a lot of hard work, support from home and the right approach to teaching. However, many students won’t be able to make a year’s progress in a year. Those with very low IQs, a child classified as what would have been referred to in the old days as Trainable Mentally Retarded, may take many years to make one year’s worth of progress. Children with pervasive developmental disabilities that make them as mature as a 4 year old will never be able to do close reading and algebra. Hopefully, they would be among the very few exempted from the testing, although not many are exempted. Even a child in Florida who was in hospice, on his deathbed, was expected to take the test. Talk about ridiculous.

But, then, how are you going to judge whether the Special Ed teacher is doing her job? The goals for each special ed child should be unique to that child. They should be goals that are attainable with work on the student’s and the teacher’s part. If a child needs many repetitions for a concept to sink in, it’s going to take longer to make a year’s worth of progress in reading or math, but they will make it. If the child requires special equipment, it may be easier to make the growth in class, but the test will still not allow all of the accommod-ations permitted in the classroom. Children with IQs of 47 are not going to be able to grasp the 5th grade concepts measured in the standardized tests. They can still improve and go forward in their learning nevertheless and the teacher and student should be recognized for the role they played in that student reaching their IEP goals.

The current requirements for most kids with IEPs to take their grade level tests is cruel and unusual punishment and results in some special ed children testing ALL day for 7 days in a row. No child should have to be accountable to test for 5 hours a day, especially those who are already identified as not being able to perform on grade level. It’s just wrong. And then to have their teachers’ “quality” depend on their score? Ridiculous!

If you agree with me, would you take time out of your busy day and email or use social media to pressure Arne Duncan to reassess his Special ed policies? Arne the Miracle Worker believes that special ed children will improve if only they are given harder tests. Show him his folly. None of us are Miracle Workers if those are the rules.

A Note to Arne Duncan from a Special Ed Teacher
http://dianeravitch.net/category/special-education/


The Stupidest Idea from the D.O.E.

 





Still learning!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Miracle Workers


In the book, The Miracle Worker, Helen Keller overcomes all odds and succeeds in becoming a contributing member of society with the 24/7 one-on-one help of her very determined teacher, Annie Sullivan. As the title suggests, a miracle is not an everyday occurrence, but a once-in-a-lifetime thing, something that happens despite terrible hardships or impossible situations. A miracle is a rarity, and the Catholic Church attributes them to the intervention of saints.

 

Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, must believe that the teachers of America are all saints, capable of delivering miracles daily, but especially during standardized test time. In his proposed changes to the IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Mr. Duncan wants to assure the public that there are no obstacles to Special Ed children reaching the goals of the new Common Core State Standards tests, the ones that “regular” kids are overwhelmingly expected to fail this year and next. Mr. Duncan expects every child with disabilities, physical, learning or emotional, to score in the proficient range on an above-grade standardized test, one that is offered with very few accommodations other than small group testing and extended time.

 

Good teachers can help the learning disabled kids make good progress, but since they cannot be identified as Special Ed unless they are at least 2 years behind, it’s ridiculous to expect such children to “ace the test.” Some may indeed, eventually catch up due to the right combination of in-school and at-home support. When I taught remedial math, there was a full-time learning disabled student who came to me for extra math instruction because she was heads above her special ed class in math. After 2 years we were able to mainstream her entirely for math because she was forging ahead of most kids in her grade in math. She ended up scoring at a proficient level on the state test in math. Reading, however, was not her forte, and she remained in her learning disabled category for Language Arts during the time she was with us.

 

Some kids are not going to make that kind of progress no matter what you try. I taught siblings in a family of mentally challenged kids and adults. Although I was able to help two of the kids who had an IQ of 47 and 55 respectively, their abilities in Grade 8 were far below what would be tested on the state test at this point. Think about a child being forced to take a 2-hour test in reading and in math on an 8th grade level when their reading and math levels were at a 2nd grade level. Algebra versus 2 digit subtraction, close reading of historical documents from the 18th century versus memorizing 200 sight words because phonics is impossible with your auditory perception problem.

 

Kids like the siblings in Special Ed are now able to take a modified version of the standardized test that is shorter and with alternative assessments and accommodations. Some kids actually score basic and proficient using these alternative methods and assessments! But Mr. Duncan is currently seeking to modify that to require only the most severely affected students to take the test. Students identified with learning disabilities such as dyslexia (visual misperceptions of words), dyscalculia (inability to work with numbers) and dysgraphia (inability to write legibly) will be considered not severe enough and have to take the 6 hours of ELA and Math tests at their grade level, despite performing at levels 4 or more grades below. Plus, their teachers, schools, districts and states will be penalized if they don’t score well.

 
Huffington Post’s Joy Resmovits puts it this way:

After years of holding states accountable under the law for such things as timely evaluations of students and due process hearings, the Education Department plans to look at results. For the first time, the government will define compliance with the law not just in terms of what states do for students with disabilities, but with how those students perform… According to this new results-driven accountability framework, states will be responsible for students with disabilities' participation in state tests, gaps in proficiency between students with disabilities and their peers, and performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, the only national standardized test.

 

I don’t understand what the US Department of Education doesn’t understand about being in Special Ed. The reason a child is identified as such, is because they are performing at a level 2 or more years below their peers. If they were able to take the test and pass, they wouldn’t be in Special Ed!

 

The new portion of the IDEA law will put punitive measures into effect for those states that do not meet their goals for Special Ed students. If a state fails to meet goals three years in a row, a portion of their federal money for Special Ed services can be withheld. That’s puzzling, since what is the likelihood of being able to meet their goal in the fourth year without adequate funding? As far as I can see it, the federal government is setting up the cash-strapped districts for failure. Most money-starved districts have already had to cut back on extra personnel and service that would make it easier for students with IEPs to come closer to grade level. Classroom assistants and specialized reading programs have been reduced. Look at the Philadelphia School District that has had to cut personnel three years in a row, and is working on a bare-bones budget that doesn’t deliver the needed services to its students. There is 1000:1 ratio of counselors to students, 44 schools are getting counseling services one day every three weeks. There is a dearth of librarians, social workers, assistant principals, and materials and supplies. And the federal government wants to up the ante for special ed students? Until fair funding formulae are commonplace, the number of support services for students correlates directly with the funds available (or not).

 

Let’s employ some honest-to-goodness special ed teachers in advisory positions in the Department of Education to determine which pieces of the curriculum and which accommodations will be reasonable to use for their IEP students. Instead, we have a Secretary who has never taught, touting a curriculum written mostly by corporate testing people, not real teachers, a common core curriculum that has never been field tested, and regulations that no teacher worth their special ed certification would agree to. We have politicians and pundits, despite never having been competent K-12 teachers, who KNOW what teachers need to do to serve their students.

 

Sorry, I can’t buy it. We need policy makers with common sense who have the best interests of the children and their schools in mind, not the policy makers we currently have who never had the common sense to begin with.

 

We can’t work miracles with every child. Miracles are the exception. We are not Arne Duncan's Miracle Workers.

 

IDEA – What is it?
http://nichcy.org/laws/idea/partb


Arne Duncan’s Makeover of Special Ed


 


Still learning!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

My Common Core FAQ Part 1


Please read this piece of much misinformation first and then you can read my thoughts. I am just answering 14 questions today, more for tomorrow. I can probably write a whole blog entry on question #15.

 



The educators that supposedly wrote the CCSS had not spent much time teaching school. None were current school teachers. College experience doesn’t count. The two profs when were experts in their fields refused to sign off on the standards because they felt they needed tweaking. They forgot in mention that among the “experts” were 16 representatives of the standardized testing industry. No elementary/middle school teachers were involved in writing the standards, only approving them. No early childhood ed teachers were involved in either writing or approving them.

1) What is the Common Core? Yes the states adopted them because they were told it was the only way to get the Race to the Top Money.  They were written because the corporate education big-wigs decided they were needed. Same reason why they adopted VAM, PARCC, etc. Can’t get federal money without paying the bribe of approving the CCSS, which includes the VAM evaluation of teachers and the standardized testing.

2) OK, so what is the relationship between Common Core and my kid's math homework? New math standards have been on place for 40 years. The NCTM standards are good. The new math is not new, indeed, some methods have been around for centuries, just not here in the USA. The problem with the math standards are that many of them are totally inappropriate for the K to 3 kids. They just don’t have the brain maturity to think in the ways the CCSS wants them to think. This is why Early Childhood Ed teachers should have been on the committee that established the standards. The math questions are like those on the standardized tests associated with the CCSS. The same people who made the standards, make the tests and are in charge of the computer programs connected to the CCSS.

3) Why do we need the Common Core? In the grand scheme of things, not that many students are moving state-to-state, most move in-state. Not speaking against the military kids, just pointing out that it doesn’t justify a whole new set of standards and therefore a whole new curriculum. And the federal government is supposed to leave the standards up to the states, not make money contingent on their adoption of standards that they really had no big part of. States already had standards in place and in many cases replaced superior standards with inferior CCSS ones.

4) Where did the Common Core come from? They came from many CORPORATATIONS, the ones that are trying to close public schools and privatize education with charters and vouchers. The so-called “reformers” who have done nothing more than DEform public schools. Notice in the Family Tree, how big a part educators played. Hardly any input was from K-12 educators who know their students’ psychological, physical, and maturational abilities. And, as mentioned before, there was NO input from current teachers of grades K-3. The union heads approved the standards without seeking opinions about them from their union members. They have since changed their minds about much of the CCSS since their membership is up in arms about them.

5) What was the federal government's role in creating the Common Core? The Federal government made sure all the players understood that approving the standards would get the states’ money. That the people they appointed to the committee would rubber stamp the standards is a given.

6) What do "standards" mean? Are they the same as curricula?New standards begot new curricula written by the people who wrote the standards. New standards begot new standardized tests written by the writers of the standards. Schools’ performance depends on test results of the new standards, and so new curricula aligned with them. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? New curricula would not have been necessary if the standards and tests remained the same.

7) What are the standards replacing? The standards are replacing other standards previously written by educators in each state. Yes, some states had “inferior” standards, but others had to give up their superior ones to comply with the “incentive” for federal money. It is true that some states adjusted their standards to have some way to make the impossible No Child Left Behind goal of 100% of the kids scoring at proficient and advanced levels. The current addendum to NCLB, Race to the Top, has the same impossible goals, especially for ESL, Learning Disabled, and Pervasive Developmentally Disabled kids.

8) Are the Common Core standards harder than my state's old standards? See above.

9) Do other countries do this? Not all high performing countries do this. In fact, you really cannot compare the PISA scores of kids in other nations whose poverty level can be only 4%, while ours is 23%. When you remover the schools with more than 10% poverty levels, the USA is either first or second in all categories. In fact Singapore is talking about pulling out of the PISA tests because of the pressure associated with the tests.

10) What do the standards mean for math? For math, the CCSS mean that everyone will now be totally confused about what the kids are learning in math. Like I said above, “reform” math programs and methods have been around for at least decades, the idea being that each child should have the opportunity to take calculus in high school, and algebra by 8th grade. A lofty goal, but it is possible for those who have been taught to think like a mathematician. You cannot implement these methods and strategies for solving in one year, or even in 5. Each year, another layer should be added, with the teachers in elementary and middle school given extensive, intensive, on-going professional development. At the same time, parents should also be given opportunities to be taught new methods and invited to attend their children’s class during math.

11) What do the standards mean for English? The writing portion of the CCSS is the most troubling to me. Elementary students are very egocentric. It is perfectly normal for them to be like this. They find it hard to be understanding of someone else’s point to view. Maturation will take them there, but certainly not at third grade age. Children should learn to write what they know first, to form coherent thoughts and expound on them through telling their own experiences. Third graders are still learning how to read, not reading to learn yet. Same with writing, learning how to form a story of several paragraphs which has a sequence, a beginning, middle and an end. To ask them to write an argumentative essay is asking too much according to ther child development milestones. The books that they list for children to read are also ridiculously hard for the younger grades. The words may not be too difficult, but the themes are meant for older, more mature kids. To require a 2nd grader to read and understand the nuances of Charlotte’s Web is ridiculous. And although Dr. Seuss books are popular with the younger set, the vocabulary in them is not at a first grade level. Most picture books are actually written at a 4th-5th grade level, but meant to be read to young people. A 50-50 balance of fiction and non-fiction is probably not going to make smarter kids, but ones that are reluctant to read for pleasure.

12) What's an "informational text"? Kids have been reading informational for centuries, especially Science and Social Studies texts.

13) How are Common Core standards affecting state tests? CCSS is affecting the state tests in hat it will be replacing them, except ion those states that have backed out of it for 2014-15. The two new tests, PARCC and Smarter Balance, are meant to be taken on the computer and/or computer graded. Many problems have arisen this year with states administering the tests via computer. Some crashed, some did not perform the way they were supposed to, some of the tests required computer skills which many kids did not have. The length of the tests were not developmentally appropriate for young children – some kindergarteners spent FIVE HOURS completing their computer tests. Almost all of the grades spent more time on the tests than are asked of the bar exam, medical boards, etc.

14) What is the "assessment cliff"? The assessment cliff is a totally arbitrary line of proficiency, drawn so the results would show failure in the beginning to prove that schools were not doing their jobs. It’s very strange that they were able to predict how many would fail. How can you do that with a test no one has taken yet? Unless you have rigged it that way...

 
MORE TO COME
Still learning!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Cheating is NOT an Option

A familiar, frequently-used phrase used to describe “good” schools is “No Excuses.” It’s supposed to mean that no matter what circumstances are blocking your improvement, no excuse will be accepted for not reaching your goal. Many influential people who consider themselves “reformers” will wax poetic about the idea of no excuses.

While the thought behind the phrase may be noble, in real life there are plenty of things that can make a child’s school achievement just about impossible to happen on time. These may include physical or mental abuse, lack of sufficient health care, violence in the house and neighborhood, insufficient food, heat, water, and other factors. “No Excuses” was even a motto of the year during a recent time when our region had a horrible superintendent. It meant that only the teachers and principals were blamed for their students nor performing as well as the children in the richer suburbs performed.

“No Excuses” promoters feel that everyone can bring themselves up by their bootstraps, and often use this phrase to denounce the low scores of high poverty schools. Although it is not impossible for children to score well, it requires a certain mix of ingredients to make it happen. A supportive family, a caring community, and school personnel who can point the families towards the right services, can lay the groundwork for higher achievement of the child who is lucky enough to have all three ingredients.

No Excuses is a zero tolerance policy. I have a huge problem with zero tolerance. Everything is NOT black and white; there are more than 50 shades of grey in school and in legal situations. No excuses touts that the teacher or administrator is ALWAYS right. Not true! There are many reasons why a child acts the way they do or doesn’t act the way we want. The motivation behind a child’s disrespect almost always lies in their not feeling respected themselves. The root could have been planted at home, in the community or at school itself. Kids like this must be shown the we feel they are worthy of respect and only then will be able to teach them how to show it to others.

Teachers are on the front lines in school for these students. Teachers need to make sure they are cultivating a culture of respect in their classroom. This does not mean total acquiescence on the part of the students. If the students feel they are respected, they will be able to question the reasons behind certain rules and policies. They will be able to respectfully question and argue their point and agree to disagree, if necessary. No excuses demands total subjugation to the whims of the teacher and school. Subjugation is NOT the way to get students to work hard and contribute to society. It feeds a subculture of resistance and revolt and will come back to sting you eventually. Questioning rules is a rite of passage for teenagers coming into their own, a necessary part of growing up and finding your place in this world.

No excuses requires sick kids to come to school and have eye contact 100% of the time the lesson is being taught even though their headache is stabbing their eyes. No excuses means even though you spent 6-8 hours in the ER trying to get your asthma under control, you have your homework completely done the next day. No excuses means not being able to speak at all during the school day unless your teacher speaks to you, except for your 30 minute lunch which is often eaten in silence as a punishment for some infraction against the rules. No excuses means when you are being bullied unmercifully and you get punished for your outburst. A recent “no excuses/zero tolerance” issue came to light a few weeks ago when a bully accused a kid who was twirling his pencil of making gun shooting motions at him. The bullied kid with the pencil was suspended, questioned at the police station, given a slew of psychological tests, examined by a psychiatrist and ultimately returned to the classroom having been vindicated. No excuses put all that into motion automatically without giving the pencil-wielding kid a chance to explain. No excuses means many round kids who don’t fit in the square holes get excluded from schools unfairly.

Behavior is one no-excuses way to get rid of recalcitrant kids, academics is another. A popular law, sponsored by the American Legislative Exchange  Council (ALEC) and written into many states’ educational regulations, is the Third Grade Reading initiative. This means that if a child isn’t reading on grade level by third grade, they are retained until they can. If this includes Special Ed kids, as some school districts believe it does, then some children are going to spend a long time in grade 3. There could be many reasons why a child is not reading on grade level by third grade. I am not saying they should NOT be retained, just that you have to go on a case-by-case basis to decide. This No Excuses mantra doesn’t accept that there are exceptions and many shades of grey.

There is one area however, that I truly feel there is no excuse for, and that is cheating on standardized tests. Over the past few years, cheating scandals have occurred in many major cities such as Atlanta, Washington DC, and Philadelphia. In many cases, the teachers were either strong-armed or made to feel threatened with being fired or laid off if they didn’t help the kids or fix the wrong answers. At the same time, the principals of the schools were also being strong-armed and threatened by the superintendent in increase the scores or lose their job. I know from close association that threats and embarrassment were being foisted upon principals in Philadelphia by both the Regional and the City Superintendents. The principals would face berating remarks and have to sit there as principals whose scores had increased got special rewards and favors. They were expected to go back and do the same to their teachers. Thank God our principal would stand up for the teachers in those meetings and refuse to make our jobs any more stressful than they were already. She truly did succeed in keeping the specter of cheating at bay.

Our Test Coordinator was very thorough in her handling of the tests and in enforcing the security imposed by the state. We were trained and had to sign that we understood the procedures. She collected the tests every day before lunch and locked them in a safe place until the next morning. We had been able to make AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) every year or two. It was nice to be recognized when you did, but we didn’t let it ruin our year if we didn’t. We tried harder and changed what we thought we needed to change and tried again the next year. I never felt the need to have higher scores than anyone else, although their were some teachers on the staff who wanted to be better than their grade partner. I can honestly say that I have never allowed cheating on any standardized test in my classroom during my 37 years working in Philly schools.

Was I aware of cheating? Yes, but way back in the 60’s when we had a different principal. In fact, it was the principal who would come in the room and ask a child who had bubbled the wrong answer, “Are you sure you want that answer?” She’d ask the question as many times as it took to get the kids to mark it properly. She was obsessed with being the best school in our region, but I didn’t let that convince me to cheat, I just felt that I’d rather know honestly how the kids were doing on the test, than not be sure.

My brother-in-law is a lawyer who worked for our rival union for a while and told me stories of teachers losing their certification because of cheating. I decided that I liked teaching and didn’t want anything to happen so that I’d find myself losing my teaching certificate. I warned teachers at school about the consequences. I really don’t know if my colleagues cheated or not, but our scores didn’t go up precipitously or unexpectedly. Our test scores pretty much aligned with our report cards and reading levels, so I think that would indicate that we weren’t cheating. That coupled with the fact that we didn’t always make AYP is a fairly good indicator that our school was on the up and up.

But in these times of Value-Added metrics and 50% reliance on test scores for a teacher’s evaluation, cheating may look better and better for those principals and teachers who are trying to hang on but whose kids are not making enough progress. I retired before the 50% test score rule and I am sure I would not have received a good score on that end because of our school’s less-than-stellar performance. But the difference between me and the teachers who cheated is that I know I am a good teacher, whereas newer teachers may not feel confident in their teaching, I know that I only have so much influence on a child and the bulk of their score is molded by home, health, poverty, and community. The teacher’s roll in all that accounts for at most 15%, 85% being influenced by out-of-school factors. I know what my kids can do or not do yet. I know that each child has their own strengths and weaknesses, and those strengths may not be in an academic area. I know it’s important to develop a child’s confidence and self-esteem so they will be able to recognize when they have to persevere, and the way to do that is play on their strengths first. When I do that, I know that I am giving each child the best chance to succeed, and eventually they will.

Teachers and principals, superintendents and school board members must understand that there is no excuse for cheating in a district that supports its students well.  And that if you feel the need to cheat, maybe it’s time to leave.





 


Still learning!