Friday, February 20, 2015

The School Reform Commission Took the Low Road

Teacher George Bezanis in his impassioned speech to the SRC in Philadelphia after they approved 5 more charters we can’t pay for. We join him mid-speech. Bold letters are my edit.

…I am also a proud member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the PFT’s Caucus of Working Educators, a public school parent, and a locally elected Democratic committeeperson in the 63rd Ward. These many hats shouldn’t come as a surprise though. We all wear them…

Whether we have never spent a day as a public educator but, instead, run charities for millionaires in the Wyncote Foundation and are appointed by a Republican governor who never dared step foot in a Philadelphia school…SRC member Feather Houston

Whether we say we advocate for children, but in the meantime collect a paycheck from Comcast while yelling at students that they “Must attend failing schools…” SRC member Gloria Simms

Whether we claim to be an objective member of an unelected school board, but must recuse ourselves from every other vote because our husband’s law firm has ties to charter schools throughout the district… SRC member Farrah Jimenez

Whether we dream of being mayor like our father, and just see this as another political stepping stone… SRC Chairman Bill Green

Whether we’re the only person on this mockery of a democratic institution who has actually worked in a classroom and, as a result, voted NO on every charter authorization vote. Thank you, Marge… SRC member, former Philadelphia teacher and principal Marge Neff

And finally, whether you are yet another Eli Broad Academy superintendent seeking to “narrow the achievement gap” by shutting down schools. A superintendent who takes a 10% pay cut but then secretly reinstates it one year later… School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite


The idea that ANY vote regarding charter schools would be already biased toward the charters should now be foremost in your mind. Their agenda has been laid bare to the general public in this speech.


Philadelphia is caught between a rock and a hard place regarding school funding. Our school board (SRC) is appointed by the Governor (3 members) and Mayor (2 members) and historically has no authority to raise taxes to pay for their budget. The school district must rely on the charity of the Philadelphia City Council as well as the benevolence of the state legislature to raise money to educate the children in the poorest big city in America. 80% of the children that attend our schools come from families that are at or below the poverty level. Surely, the city cannot use real estate taxes to pay for the schools. The funds must be and have been raised in another manner.


Previously, the city enacted several taxes to support schools, such as the “sin tax” on drinks and gambling, and a levy on the Parking Authority funds it collects from hapless drivers. Any other kind of tax needs the approval of the State lawmakers. We did get approval for an extra percent on sales tax, but only in the city. In this way, the burden falls on the poor people who inhabit the city and are paying more sales tax. With the Republican-controlled state legislature and senate, the chances of a fair deal are slim to none for the Democratic stronghold in Pennsylvania.


The most recent deal with the State was hashed out last summer, a tax on cigarettes in the city. The state lawmakers however, led by Senator Mike Turzai, held the city hostage as the only way they could get the cigarette tax was to agree to rules about more charters, and that if they did not approve a charter, the charter could appeal to the state to override the SRC’s decision.


In reality, there’s no way the SRC could have voted that made ANYONE happy. In taking the low road, they approved 5 charters out of 39 applicants. These 5 charters will cost the school district $20 million they don’t have. There is already a projected deficit of $80 million for next September and little chance of raising that money in the current legislative atmosphere. The district and city are up to their ears in debt with nowhere to go but down. The school district has cut the number of nurses, counselors and librarians. They’ve eliminated pay for extra-curricular activities. Decimated school budgets to the point where a 2000-student high school had $168 total to buy books, supplies and materials for its pupils. They’ve cut and privatized the cleaning staffs, so that the only thing that can be done every day is emptying the trash. No time for actual cleaning. They’ve cancelled the contract of the teachers and sought to change benefits so the teachers will have to pay $8000 a year to keep their current level of coverage. They’ve eliminated raises based on Masters’ and Doctoral degrees, eliminated step increase for longevity, and sought to increase the school day and year and cut teachers’ salaries by 13%. These hard-working, beleaguered teachers currently make about 20% less than the teachers in the surrounding, wealthier counties, teaching students with many more needs.


We would have liked for the SRC to have taken the high road and not approved any charters. Senator Turzai and his Republican counterparts would have like nothing more than approving ALL the charters. If fact, the Philadephia School Partnership (read charter and parochial school advocates), offered the district a bribe of $35 million dollars toward approving the 39 charters. A generous gift, it doesn’t begin to cover the costs to the School District to educate those kids. While it costs the SDP about $7000 to educate a charter school, the grant (bribe) only covered $2000 of the costs, leaving the district to come up with $5000 more per child than PSP offered. The district can’t handle the students it has now, there’s no way they could take on that kind of debt. PSP was upset and walked out of the meeting when the SRC did not approve the majority of the charters. The Senator was upset when the SRC didn’t take PSP’s money, the teachers and parents were upset when the SRC approved ANY charters, much less 5 of them. It’s not as bad as it seems because the number of “seats” added is about equal to the number of “seats” lost when 2 charter schools closed under shady circumstances earlier this year. Still, rather than continue to have to shell out the $20 million those seats are worth, the SRC could have approved none and reduced their upcoming deficit by $20 million. That would have been the high road to take. But that was not to be.
Some would have taken the high road, the SRC took the low road.

Here is George's Blog entry about the experience.

Still learning!

Monday, February 9, 2015

What Do Teachers Do All Day?

I watched Taylor Mali's Rant the other day on and was reminded once again that the average person has no idea what teachers do all day.

My dad used to rag on his friend who taught high school history about not having to work for a living until Mr. D invited him to spend an entire day in the classroom with him. After spending the day watching Mr. D work, my dad never again said that teachers have it easy. He couldn't believe how much work Mr. D had to do teaching so many different classes and dealing with the kids with attitude without killing them. He finally understood what teachers do all day. And he only really knew about what went on at school. So much more happens to make those school day activities work. Someone has to research information, write lesson plans that demonstrate the standards, make sure the objectives are clearly understood, mark papers, make comments on writing, enter grades, make phone calls. That someone is the teacher. Every. Single. Day.

I've been retired for 2.5 years now and today's teachers have to keep track of many more assessments than I did and many more regulations. I don't envy them. Here's what a typical day was for me while I was a teacher in the city. Some days were much more packed, and rarely the days were less busy.

What do teachers do all day?

6:15 – Alarm goes off. Get ready for work

6:55 – Leave house for work, stopping to pick up a coffee and bagels

8:00 Arrive at school, sign in, field a phone call from a parent, run off annotated notes for Social Studies lesson. Make sure reading books can be picked up by students later, use the toilet.

8:30 Go out to the yard, say the Pledge of Allegiance and the school pledge with the entire school. Field questions from 2 parents, referee in disagreement between 2 students over something that happened yesterday after school.

8:40 Walk class into building send arguing students to counselor, collect homework, allow kids to sharpen pencils, get paper, etc.

8:45 Morning Meeting – learn about the Museum of Fine Arts that we will visit on a field trip the end of the week, introduce a new reading routine and practice it, call on 2 students to tell a joke or riddle. Return to seats for reading.

9:00 – Send one student to Special Ed teacher, review new routine again, write reading menu on the board, answer questions, Read the whole-group reading story, assign activities to be completed by the end of reading groups. Set the clock for 20 minutes and take first reading group. Work on word sorts and suffixes, read. Time is up. Repeat with three more reading groups (different activities and books) with reminders about changed routine. At some point, arguing students come back from counselor and need to be caught up on changes in between reading groups.

11:00 – Make sure 2 students go to Special Ed teacher for their reading instruction. Work on writing with mini-lesson on using strong verbs and synonyms. Demonstrate on board how many ways there are to say “said.” Conference with two students about their writing while the rest of the group is writing in their writer’s notebooks or working on a draft.

11:45 – Begin math lesson by introducing a game, play one round with class

12:00 – Grab coats and go to lunchroom. Wait for three students to get their school lunch, so they can come back to eat with me and practice guitar for our next show. Talk to counselor about what happened with formerly arguing students. Counselor gives me paperwork to fill out for one of the students. Use the bathroom, eat lunch, put out manipulatives and activities for math. Listen to kids play guitar.

12:45 – Pick class up from recess, send 2 kids to Special Ed teacher, go to class and continue math lesson with manipulatives, play math games again and break into small groups for instruction/enrichment. Work on long term project when finished assignments.

1:30 – Take class to computer lab for instruction. Go back to room and fill out paperwork for student, write homework on board, put manipulatives away, get out science materials

2:15 – Pick up kids from computer, give them 5 minutes to copy homework, intro science briefly and do as much of the experiment as we can. Rotate around room to make sure procedures are being followed. We will have to finish tomorrow.

2:55 – Bus kids are called down to the bus. The rest of the class gets coats and bookbags, pack up and tell one good thing that happened to them today. We sing “Ordinary Day” by Great Big Sea

3:10 – Dismissal – walk class down to the schoolyard and out to the street. Talk to 2 parents who are waiting in the yard. Help a teacher with a kid who is going nuts. Return to building.

3:30 - Erase today’s standards and objectives, write tomorrow’s standards and objectives. Grade papers handed in from reading and math, make phone calls for kids without homework or permission slips, and kids with problem behavior. Gather five sets of materials for Social studies which I will teach during reading tomorrow, as reading. Make a list of groups for Social Studies/Reading groups, making sure kids are with students they can work with. Troubleshoot what went wrong in the science experiment and plan for a redo. Call bus company to make sure we have a bus, Talk with colleague about a former student and ways to get him to work. Talk to Special Ed teacher about what activities I can do with the Special Ed students in reading and math when she is out.

5:30 – Gather up drafts of writing to mark at home.

6:30 – Make and eat dinner,

7:30 - Collect and answer email. Enter test results from yesterday’s math test into online grade book, Flag kids who don’t do well, change math groups according to the results. Go on internet to collect photos or Social Studies. Load Google Earth onto laptop to bring to school tomorrow for Social Studies/Reading. Read and give suggestions for the writing drafts. Read the first two chapters of the 5 different reading books.

10:30 – Put away anything not completed yet. Browse the web for fun

11:00 – Go to bed

6:15 – Wake up and start all over again

Still learning!

Still learning!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Where are the Pro-testers?

John Merrow published an article on the Opt-Out movement and standardized testing in general, called What a Difference a Dash Makes...Pro-Test or Protest? He asked for input and 138 comments later has not had even one person in favor of high-stakes testing. I wonder why?

As a retired teacher who spent 37 years in the Philadelphia School District, I can say all the high-stakes testing has done is make it harder for the kids to learn and the teachers to teach. I left right before the Common Core Standards went into effect. When I began teaching in 1975, or children took one standardized test that took up about four hours of my time to give.
When I left teaching, in fifth grade we were giving standardized benchmarks every 6 weeks to see if the kids were getting ready for the test. We spent one day of each week giving short multiple choice and open-ended tests in every subject. I calculated that we missed more than 20 instructional days of reading (a whole month of school) doing these extra tests and the real tests. That 11% of school time taking standardized tests. But there’s more – The kids that didn’t do well were expected to attend after-school reading and math sessions 4 days a week and not allowed to participate in extra-curricular activities on those days. Three times a year, they took a standardized test in the after-school program to see if they were ready for the big test. By the time they took the REAL test in March/April, they were tested out. In 2012, the kids were enduring 44 hours of testing, not counting the day-to-day tests given by the teacher. 4 hours in 1975 versus 11 times that in 2012. As someone above mentioned, testing kids more often does not make them test better, just like measuring a child daily doesn’t make them grow faster.
The tests are but one problem. Because they are so important to the school/district/state. we have had to change the way we teach. For instance, I discovered a great way to teach Social Studies and make it stick was to use historical fiction. We’d read and discuss and argue and get some understanding of how it was back in the day. The understood the reasons for the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, what it was like in the Great Depression, why child work laws were established, how hard women and people of color fought for the right to vote. No more novels. Now we must only read a chapter in the book and go on to the next standard no matter what. Teaching with novels allowed me to hit two subjects at once and not short shrift either one. Otherwise, there was no time for social studies.
These tests have only exacerbated the problems in the high poverty schools by not addressing the real problem – poverty. Our school had a 90% poverty rate. We needed help with social services, mental health and behavior, clothing and medical care. All that had to be taken care of before the kids could concentrate on the tasks at hand rather than worry about how cold the house was going to be, or if there’d be a hot meal at home or a warm place to sleep.
Tests can be useful, high-stakes tests are useful for nothing. Not for kids, not teachers, not parents, schools, or communities. they have only served to make children stressed and weary and make them hate school, kill any creative drive in the teacher, close schools that the community needs, and take funds away because charter schools supposedly do it better. (Not really!)

Here's Mr. Merrow's blog link. Read it and comment.

Still learning!