Thursday, March 27, 2014

Students Know More than Most Senators

With all the flap in Philly over the new work rules imposed on the teachers, I got upset over this article written by a York/ Lancaster/Lebanon County state senator, Mike Fowler. Here is my reply to him:

Dear Mr. Folmer,

You are no friend of public schools, students, and their teachers. You have swallowed the koolaid handed out by the corporate so-called reformers who have the privatization of the public school system at the heart of their lies and scare tactics.

You recently wrote an article on your website that railed against bad teachers and smart kids. You claimed that students who spoke at his educational summits and knew about the education budget in PA had been ”educated” in advance by “adults with vested interest in the outcomes.” You included the observation that “Students are well versed on the Commonwealth’s education budget but some have little or no knowledge of our Constitutional republic or its history.” And that one student was “so familiar with school funding formulas she knew more than most Senators.”

It appears as though some Senators may need to go back to school.

You blame the fact that the students know so much on the bad teachers who “used (students) to advance a political agenda.”  If the teachers were bad, would their students know about current Issues in Civics? That is a course of study in high school, after all. Sounds like the teachers did their job well with those students, doesn’t it? And of course, no one in the Governor’s seat or the legislature ever uses educational issues to advance their political agenda, right? Excuse me while I laugh.

It’s a travesty that you believe that students who are “college and career ready” would not have thought to educate themselves on hot-button issues in education. They are, after all, affected by these issues today more than ever. These are students who attended schools that in 2010 were found, by the state legislature itself, to be underfunded by at least $4.4 billion. $1.1 billion being the amount that the city of Philadelphia was underfunded by in that year.  These are students who have seen favorite teachers laid off and arts and music classes cut because of this underfunding. In Philadelphia, these students have had to be educated in schools without enough teachers, without extra-curriculars, counselors, nurses, and materials needed for their studies, and with increases in class sizes. Students are affected by underfunding every single day in our state. They have a much bigger stake in it than any of the adults involved.

The City Paper states, “Pennsylvania, under Corbett, scrapped a measure that considers needs, like the number of students who are living in poverty or are English-language learners. The result: huge shortfalls in poorer districts like Philadelphia, and teachers continuing to spend hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets to buy paper and other basic supplies. Municipalities throughout Pennsylvania are also wary of further property-tax increases. In 2011, a record 135 school districts raised property taxes above the normal legal limit. AThe education-funding crisis, deepened by the budget cuts, has made Philadelphia’s predicament uncomfortably familiar to people in towns and cities statewide.”

In advancing your own political agenda, you turn away from the very real education budget crisis and write about that tired, old, and inaccurate stereotype of the bad teacher that no one can get rid of, even though everyone knows who they are. Are there bad teachers in PA? Certainly. There might even be as many bad teachers as bad legislators on Capitol Hill. If a school can’t get rid of a bad teacher, then the problem is with the principal, who has always had the power to release a teacher after proving the teacher is ineffective. Principals often choose not to wield this power, instead they “encourage” the teacher to transfer to another school, starting the cycle all over again. The members of the teachers unions do not want bad teachers in the profession either, but they do make sure that there is proof of incompetence and they do provide a hearing for that teacher, through tenure. 

Many people, maybe even the senator, are unaware that tenure in the K-12 school community doesn’t mean a teacher has a job for life, good or bad. It basically means that a teacher is guaranteed a hearing if accused of something. Seems to me that is a basic tenet in our justice system, presumed innocent until proven otherwise. If the process takes too long, it simply means that the administrator did not follow protocol to get that teacher out. Put the blame where it belongs.

You state, “However, every day we fail to provide children with a quality education, we adults fail to meet the mandate of our state Constitution: to provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” I agree wholeheartedly with you here. But where you would rather tear down the public schools at the expense of charters and get rid of tenure, I am for bolstering the public schools so they can offer each child a “thorough and efficient education.”

Fair funding for public schools, increased scrutiny of charters, and respecting the job that hard-working teachers do every day will be a good start.

You should go back to school. There are many things you have yet to learn.

 If you wish to leave Mr. Fowler a note: Go here:

Still learning!

Monday, March 24, 2014

The New Math is Old!

(Disclaimer) Methinks the link below goes to a right-wing conservative site which I normally would not recommend to anyone.
But it is a rare fact that for once, conservatives and progressive liberals are on the same page about the Common Core and Standardized Testing.  We’re just coming at it from polar opposite directions regarding education.


That being said however, the example given here is a wonderful explanation of the different processes that various people (including students) use to understand math. I mean really understand, not just to do rote algorithms that they have had to memorize, like math was taught to me. I needed another way than I was taught. I had some serious problems learning fractions, algebra and trig. Even though I got A’s in my high school math courses, I had no idea how to apply it to real life problems. In fact, I aced Trigonometry because I had a great tutor, my hubby (then boyfriend) and because I could memorize formulae, not because I understood anything about Trig. I learned a lot of math I wish I knew long ago when I learned to teach with Everyday Math. We've had it all wrong all these years. We were educating future factory workers who would take direction well and do things efficiently and not future mathematicians and scientists who actually think about multiple possibilities for answers. There needs to be room for both. Take a good look at each way to solve. It might be better to print it out.

Our school has been using those methods for the past 12 years. We often heard from those parents at school who thought their method of doing math was better, even though many freely admitted they weren't too good at math! All they really needed to do was come to school and learn why we were teaching this way and allow themselves the “fun” of being taught to do the problems and play the games that would reinforce their children’s math skills. If they did that we were usually able to bring them around to agree with us.

Prior to changing math series, 3th, 5th and 6th grade teachers had stopped using the school district’s math series altogether. It was a horrible book to follow and our kids were getting nowhere fast. We taught without a textbook for 3 or 4 years because we thought the texts were inappropriate for our needs. Adopting the new math series was not taken lightly. There were 5 program choices and we examined each one carefully before making a decision. Then we piloted the series in one room in each grade so we could tell whether it was going to work with our inner city kids.

Although the teachers had to learn how to teach math all over again, and the teacher’s guide was permanently attached to our hips for the first two years, we saw an immediate change in standardized math test scores for the better, with 75% of the kids in the pilot classes scoring high on the open-ended questions, while only 35% scored well in the control groups. I won’t tell you the rest of the staff went gently into the new series, Some came through kicking and screaming about how if the old math was good enough for them, it was good enough for their students. But it wasn’t good enough; we had way too many kids scoring way too low. We needed to do something then to reverse the trend. It took a couple years of staff development once a month until most teachers were sort of comfortable with it, but I did have to go around and collect the old math books from the lower grade classes before a couple teachers bought in.

It was a steep learning curve for the teachers, me included, but our kids did so much better with the new series, which used unorthodox methods to do the basic operations. I learned many surprising things while teaching Everyday Math. Did you realize that there are at least two ways to add and not use regrouping? Three ways to subtract without “borrowing”? Three ways to multiply multi-digit numbers? At least three ways to divide? I didn’t know any of that before I was introduced to Everyday Math. In fact, during report card conferences, I heard from a few parents who were born in the Caribbean that some of these “new” ways were the ones they were taught in school in their native land. One mother from the Dominican Republic showed me an astounding way to divide, one I had never seen before. For 18 years I taught remedial math to 3rd, 4th and 5th  graders who just couldn’t get it. I only took the ones below the 27th percentile, and that was about 25% of the student population. I’d hypothesize that anyone below the 50th percentile could have used my services, but there weren’t enough hours in the day. The last year I taught, close to 65% of the students were scoring proficient or above on the math PSSAs. We had been using the series for 10 years at that point. The “new” math works.

These are legitimate strategies for doing math. I taught some of them to my remedial math students in the 1980s. Nothing there is new. More kids would learn math well if they were allowed to play with the various methods and choose the one that works for them. If for no one else, kids that don't get the traditional way need alternatives. Adding mentally is quite fast when you get to higher numbers and you are less prone to "carrying" or "borrowing" mistakes. Plus it strengthens their understanding of place value, which will help them in middle school pre-algebra and algebra. The danger is going too fast - you have to play with the place-value blocks until you get it, then go to the lines and x's until you get it, then on to numerical representations. If we want them to move, not at their pace but at ours, it'll never work.

Seriously, the way we were taught is sorely lacking, but you CAN teach an old dog new tricks, I am proof. I didn't learn these methods until I was in my late 30's-early 40's. I so wish I had been taught that way in grade school. Maybe then I would have felt confident in the higher math. But instead I shied away from higher math at all costs. Try it with an open mind. No student should be required to do the numerical representations for regrouping numbers until they are 10 or 11, when they are capable of more abstract thinking.

Please trust me, the methods work. They really, truly do. My students for the last 12 years proved it over and over again. Try it, you might like it.

If you need another explanation, try here:

Still learning!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

It Ain't Necessarily So

This is actually a two-part blog, one about misleading names/websites and also about the “new” math, some of which is actually at least 30 years old.

I was reading over some education blogs, as I do every day, and I saw a link to a math-related example of what Joe Public says is new, but some I actually used to teach remedial math in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The sample explanations were quite good and I was impressed with the teacher’s thoroughness in trying to explain to the parents how they were learning to solve basic arithmetic problems. I have hosted Math Nights at our school and wish I had this sheet of paper to hand out. There was no comment along with the example other than “I have no comment.” I got the distinct feeling that the person who put it up there was not happy with it. Lately online there have been many examples of people being outraged by the new methods their children are learning in school. They’re not new!

The website was called Truth in American Education. Red flags immediately went up in my mind. In my experience, organizations and websites that have “truth” or “freedom” or “patriot” or “America” in their titles, are not necessarily telling the truth, promoting freedom, showing patriotism, or espousing American ideals.  I looked around the site for clues about why this example was put up for review. I read the ABOUT section, no problem there. The subsections of the website were against the “right” things according to this liberal activist - Common Core, Race to the Top, Standardized Testing, Privacy Issues with inBloom. Nevertheless, there was a nagging feeling I was missing something. I didn’t want to recommend this site to friends and find out it was not what it seemed. I finally found a section on Homeschool/Private schools. Hmmmmm, any of the education groups I’m a member of would not be in favor of either of those. I clicked on it and found what I was looking for about 4-5 paragraphs down the page. Why they are opposed to the Common Core and the testing for homeschoolers and private schoolers:

  • *Establishes an Uneven Playing Field. The national effort will have a pervasive effect on college admissions and scholarship opportunities. Private and home school children will have to study for the standardized tests, or else be disadvantaged vis-à-vis other students. It also creates challenges for students seeking to transfer credits between private and public schools, and home school and public schools.
  • Normalizes Controversial Societal Issues: Controversial societal norms will substantially influence a national curriculum, which would in turn influence the values and beliefs undergirding the teaching-learning process. This was clearly seen in the politicization of the Texas Board of Education curriculum debate in May 2010 as the TX State Board of Education determined the standards for the social studies curriculum.
  • Threatens Autonomy of Private, Religious, and Home Schools: A national standard would jeopardize the freedoms of private, religious, and home schools to teach their students in a way which best reflects their core educational and cultural beliefs. A “standardized” method of teaching based on secular formatted standards could impose on the right to teach a child from a religious worldview, ultimately impeding on a school or parent’s mission.

The whole page can be found here:

My suspicions were confirmed. Methinks this is a right-wing conservative site which I normally would not recommend to anyone. But it is a rare fact that for once, conservatives and progressive liberals are on the same page about the Common Core and Standardized Testing. But we’re coming at it from polar opposite directions regarding education.

Tomorrow I’ll put up the example.

Still learning!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Should There Be Prayer in School?

I confess - I am a believer in the Most High God. So it may come as a surprise that I do NOT approve of prayer in school.  As a child, I went to Catholic school where we said prayers to bless the hour, prayers to begin the day, prayers at noon, and prayers before we went home. We said prayers for our parents, our teachers, our bishop, the pope, our governmental leaders.  We went to Mass on Sundays as well as holy days and first Fridays.  In fact, we had 45 minutes more of school each day than the public schools so we could have our daily religion class.  It got to be that praying became almost rote, something you say, not something you feel.

The person who taught me to really pray was my mother, who said that you should speak to God as if you are having a conversation, that you should pray to the saints that may have experienced what you were experiencing. That you should not pray for anything specific, but pray in praise and thanksgiving and for the outcome that would be the best. That has served me to this very day. My mother also taught me that people all over the world worshipped God, but they called him by different names – Allah, Buddha, Jehovah, Yahweh, etc. And I should not think less of a person because they were of a different faith, something my own religion didn’t tolerate. I pray daily, sometimes many times a day, by myself, in the comfort of my own home or car. I pray by singing hymns, a high form of prayer. Even Jesus himself warned against praying in public for showing off your faith just as the Pharisees did. That’s how I look at public prayer, as showing off, unless you are going to take into account all of the faiths in the world in your one prayer.

Thomas Jefferson made the use of bibles in his school mandatory because they were the chief source of reading at the time. It was the only book many people had in their homes and was a good way to practice reading. The fact that “from a penny to a $100 bill, ‘In God We Trust’ is clearly marked on every unit of U.S. Currency,” didn’t happen until 1938 when all US currency had to have the motto imprinted on it. It was originally stamped on coins in 1862 as a hope that God would be on the Union side in the Civil War. The phrase “In God We Trust” has meaning in Jewish, Hindu and Muslim religions as well as Christianity. So there would not be complaints from followers of those religions. I think, though, that followers of other religions or those who follow no religion may have an issue with it being sanctioned in the form of school prayer. Even the words “under God,” were not in the Pledge of Allegiance until the 1950’s when our nation was hit with the fear of those “godless Commies” behind the Iron Curtain.

As a primary source, look at a passage out of Jefferson’s Notes On the State of Virginia, written in 1782.

Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the earth... Our sister states of Pennsylvania and New York, however, have long subsisted without any establishment at all. The experiment was new and doubtful when they made it. It has answered beyond conception. They flourish infinitely. Religion is well supported; of various kinds, indeed, but all good enough; all sufficient to preserve peace and order: or if a sect arises, whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors, without suffering the state to be troubled with it. They do not hang more malefactors than we do. They are not more disturbed with religious dissensions. On the contrary, their harmony is unparalleled, and can be ascribed to nothing but their unbounded tolerance, because there is no other circumstance in which they differ from every nation on earth. They have made the happy discovery, that the way to silence religious disputes, is to take no notice of them. Let us too give this experiment fair play, and get rid, while we may, of those tyrannical law.

Jefferson was one of the first people to favor the separation of Church and State and was a staunch supporter of it. He was a Christian, but cut out those passages in the Bible that he disagreed with – anything concerning miracles and the Trinity, in which he did not even believe. He disagreed with much of the New Testament and thought that the book of Revelations was not divinely inspired in any way. His version of the bible, now called the Jefferson Bible, wasn’t even printed until after his death. 

There are those who would dispute the commissioning of the bible by congress also. See the link:

In short, while I believe most heartily in the Lord, I don’t think we can justify any one kind of public prayer in schools. Allow students to have a moment of silence, after the Pledge of Allegiance, which we still say, in which they can each pray in their own way to the Supreme Being of their choice. If you are going to allow Christian prayer in school then the next day should be Muslim prayer, and the next a Jewish prayer and the next day we should hear a Hindu prayer, etc. leaving room for the atheists and wiccans to have their chance at the mic also. If the occasion is a one-off football game or assembly, then the “blessing” should not be identifiable as coming from any one religion.

Religious prayer has a place and that is in your heart, not in your school or government.

A recent court ruling in Louisiana -

Still learning!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ebony and Ivory - Getting Along in an Integrated World

Something I read online the other day got me thinking about the racial make-up of our schools and how it affects our students. Oh, there are many other issues affecting our students, but I thought back to my own children and their schools.

When we got married and had children, back in the 1970s, we specifically looked for an integrated neighborhood. Having participated in the marches for civil rights, we felt that it was necessary to our children’s welfare that they learn to live and have fun with people of all ages. This was in direct opposition to the way we grew up. Both of us grew up in white neighborhoods and went to white schools. I didn’t know anyone who was African-American or Asian-American. We were mostly Irish or Italian and overwhelmingly Catholic. Our childhoods were typically middle class and “white bread.”

When I went to high school, I was shocked to find out that people of color were much like me and any differences could be overcome with a little two-way communication. It was worth it for us to work, sing or fool around together. What a revelation! My father had not been the most tolerant person growing up, and I did learn every derogatory term for ethnicities other than my own. My mother had grown up in an orphanage and was much more tolerant of people of various races and religions. She was curious about other religions and professed the belief that everyone worshipped the same God, no matter what they called him, and their beliefs were just as valid as ours. And this was before the Vatican Council #2! I also joined a community service organization (where I met my hubby) and learned to work with people of all races and creeds. I was kind of put out about not knowing people of color before age 15, and made sure to be polite and respectful to everyone throughout my life.

When we were ready to buy our first house, we looked for one in an integrated neighborhood, not wanting our children to have to wait until school to learn how to work and play with all kinds of people. We found one not far from the school in which I was teaching and I am happy to say that both of us and our kids had neighborhood friends of all races and creeds. We laughed and cried together, ate together, and even had arguments. We helped paint each other’s houses and shoveled sidewalks without thought of payment. We comforted each other when death struck the household, and we enjoyed neighborhood celebrations together and volunteered for the Boy and Girl Scouts. By the time my kids went to school, they were comfortable with all kinds of people. In fact, in my youngest daughter’s first two grades of elementary school, she was the only Caucasian. It’s funny, but neither she nor her classmates took much notice of it. Each of the kids had best friends at some point in childhood, that were of a different race.

My children went to integrated elementary, junior and senior high schools, where they learned to work out disagreements and to deal with racial issues in a rational way. I asked my oldest daughter last night what she thought about living in an integrated neighborhood and going to integrated schools. She had a lot to say.

Me: How'd you feel about going to an integrated school?

H: I think it was more like real life. The more diversity experienced at younger age the better off you will be dealing with life. Well, in High School sometimes there were race situations, but I think that is normal. You had to learn to live with other races to survive

Me: So you cope with the race situations early on and that helps later?

H: Yes, I think people who aren't exposed to it have a tougher time adjusting to how diverse the country and world really-you learn real quick that there are many differences and that is ok

Me: Was college diverse or no?

H: BU was super diverse. It was the most diverse. They had people from all over the world and the country. But I think we had to deal with real life situations earlier in life, and that is always better when you deal with things earlier in life, because you didn't have time to have biases and stereotypes.

Me: You said, "But I think we had to deal with real life situations" - like what?

H: People sitting on every side of you in a lecture hall were from all over-Sri Lanka, India, China, California, Mississippi, etc. When you go to a state school you typically only deal with people from that had to learn to live with other races to survive. It makes you handle the real world better later. Yeah, and I was glad I didn't stay in a state school like Temple, (she spent a year there) although a great school for the community, it was all one type of people (Pennsylvanians) I appreciated my time at BU.

Me: So you cope with the race situations early on and that helps later?

H: Yes. I think people who aren't exposed to it have a tougher time adjusting to how diverse the country and world really are - you learn real quick that there are many differences and that is ok.

There have been studies that show that children who attend integrated schools do better academically than those who attend segregated schools. This is perhaps one reason that the inner-city schools score so low on standardized tests, they are overwhelmingly segregated because of the neighborhoods they are in.

As Jack Schneider says in his blog, Learning on the EDge:

The purpose of education, we might recall, is to lay the ground so that young people may find their way through the world in whatever manner they wish, and find their place in it whatever that place may be. The aim is not merely to promote the accretion of knowledge — something segregated schools can do as well as integrated schools — but also to expand the mind and nurture the soul. Education should broaden. It should transform.

Which schools are best prepared to execute this task? Certainly those with qualified teachers, rich and varied curricula, adequate resources, and positive cultures. But also those with diverse student bodies capable of expressing a full range of experiences — student bodies that will expand the way that young people perceive the world and relate to each other. Just as no parent should compromise on the former of those characteristics, none should ignore the importance of the latter.


I agree with Mr. Schneider, in that we can accomplish much with integrated schools. As my daughter explained, learning in an integrated environment can help you in your adult years by practicing how to deal with various kinds of people to work together and not to be afraid of a diverse population. Perhaps the Stand Your Ground Law would not be necessary if this were a policy in areas where it is possible.

One can only hope.

But Sly and the Family Stone said it best, I think, in Everyday People.

 And Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder got it right too.

Still learning!