Archive for March, 2010

Act on Acting Out

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

Do you know the jingle?  “When she is good, she’s very, very good, but when she is bad she is horrid.”

In my 4th grade class I have a child who is like that, so little self-control.  Now that it is the middle of the school year, her outbursts are close to habitual and I’m running out of strategies to modify her behavior.  By now she is often “sent to the office” for a “time out.”

When reading through articles, I get answers like ‘teachers must be able to remove disruptive students immediately’ suggesting that charter schools and parochial schools are better because they have that policy.  Perhaps those schools are quieter, but I can think of a number of reasons why all is silent, not necessarily kind and helpful reasons, and not simply because they get rid of disruptive students.

Of course, all teachers want their students to be quiet, studious, busy in productive activity-that’s what I learned in my credentialing classes.  After all, this is an intense phase of the school year when state tests are coming up in a month and students must have mastered all the subjects to be tested on California’s current criterion-referenced assessment tool.

At the same time, this is a school year of instability.  Though the Education Foundation is trying to cobble together funds, our school district deficit is large which means 102 teachers, including me, face lay offs.  In addition, guidelines for accountability are going to change due to new California legislation, and articles advocate a variety of evaluation mechanisms to lift up the highly qualified teachers and weed out the poorly qualified, all of which will take money, lots of money.  How will that happen?  The state is facing a budget deficit of $20 million for 2010-2011.

Do you see what I mean?  The ground is shaking under us and it’s hard to think of one more way to get this child to have a successful year.

Never give up.  We hold daily morning class meetings to review the business of the school day, remind ourselves how to act to help the class get through a successful day, talk over problems that might come up, defining over and over what happens if you choose to act out.

Toil and Trouble

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

March 19, 2010, a California education conference in Santa Clara with 400 attendees highlighted the financial troubles bubbling in California, but also described good news for troubled middle schools, a large number of which were nominated by the California State Department of Education for turn-around.  A surprise for anxious participants!

The huge school budget trouble was first on the agenda at the conference organized by Edsource, a foundation situated in the Bay Area that focuses on where the dollars are not and where they should be.

So, the big picture from the state administration’s plan to stabilize the budget is to cut K-12 funding by $1.9 million, child care and development by $300 million, but increase community college dollars (decimated in previous budgets) by a paltry, but still welcome, $200 million.  UC and CSU systems whose students were the most vocal in recent demonstrations get a combined $800 million.

The presenter, Mac Taylor, legislative analyst for the state, offered different options for the legislature to consider as it writes bills for its education budget.  As this blog has outlined before, legislators should be accounting for different populations, needs in different geographic areas, program quality, and public benefits to regions that need the most help.

The reader can see details of both the K-12 and Higher Education recommendations in reports from the legislative analyst’s office.  One can guess, double trouble is exacerbated by unintended consequences of California’s Proposition 13 and Proposition 98.

Community colleges are the higher education group most diminished in the past few years, but now during the recession community colleges are most desired by the young and the older student returning to upgrade their knowledge.  Philosophical Jack Scott, chancellor of the state community colleges, asked how do we define quality in higher education?  Is it by the quantity and quality of people excluded from that distinction or by the quantity and quality that the system produces?  In the global economy of the 21st century the answer is obvious.  What’s left is the toil necessary to provide opportunities.

Which led to the talk by Hal Plotkin, former community college board member and currently at the U. S. Department of Education.  He advocated for the student direct loan legislation attached to the reconciliation measure which passed in the House of Representatives Sunday, March 21, and is waiting for Senate approval.  It will allow students to complete their course work and raise the number who graduate, an education goal of the current administration.

Not all trouble is doubling.  Edsource has completed a study about middle schools, the well of adolescent angst, and found that many children in some schools are high achievers.  And it doesn’t depend on the school grade configuration (K-8, 6-8 and so on) or on instruction and teaching organization (eg. by subject or interdisciplinary).

To the writer of this post, of the many recommendations, 3 stood out.  Superintendents and school boards should give priority to academic improvement in the middle grades.

When principals and teachers are hired, those with interests, skills, and competencies outlined in the findings for high-performing schools should be the main considerations.

Make sure the curriculum is aligned with California academic standards and teachers, principals, superintendents are in part evaluated by how well students grow from assessment to assessment.

Last, the study did not find that salary adjustments, better known as merit pay, helped achieve higher student outcomes.  Another welcome result.

Where Are the Great Teachers?

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Within a month, three articles appeared in national magazines describing great teachers–who they are, what they do, how they do it.  Check out The Atlantic, January/February 2010; The New York Times Magazine, March 7, 2010; and Newsweek, March 15, 2010.

high-achieving suburban high school

high-achieving suburban high school

Perhaps the writers were making up for the put downs, blame games, and finger pointing, reasoning that, after all, some teachers must be doing a great job.  Otherwise, how would there be students at public university UC Berkeley, private school Harvard, or any of the terrific higher education institutions in between the coasts?

However, there are also plenty of reports about teachers in failing schools.  For example, the media flocked to Central Falls High School in Rhode Island when the board of education on the superintendent’s recommendation fired every single teacher because the school was performing on state tests at a persistently low level.

All that was reported was the fight between the teachers and the superintendent.  Couldn’t the Central Falls debacle be a story of what demographic and economic changes in the community let the school slowly sink until it was too late to address the problem?  Or why the school board let the problem fester for years and years?  Or why the superintendent and teacher leaders at the school site didn’t sit down and plan a satisfying turn around?  Hard to find clarification for the dismal picture of that school.

But as of March 15, 2010, the president and the U.S. Department of Education have taken on American education.  Revising No Child Left Behind to raise academic standards, turn around the most distressed schools, and develop tools to better evaluate teachers and principals.

And everyone is surprised?  Did every state think the issues would slither around the edges, lost in the tussle for school funds, while high-achieving students went to Stanford and the other kids got a finger wagged at them?

Speaking of which, this week California distributed its list of 188 persistently lowest-achieving schools in the state.  Mostly middle and high schools were placed on the list to go along with the state’s effort to get funds from Race to the Top, the biggest pile of money out there to help transform secondary schools.  Next application deadline is June 2010.

In the meantime thousands of teachers and students took to the streets on March 4 to advance comprehension of the disaster befalling California in which teachers will be laid off to balance school district budgets when the state can’t balance its own budget.

Which creates the question: what happens to good teachers with no money available?  Three possibilities have surfaced in the news.

First, great new teachers will be gone unless, as in San Francisco, the PTA gets families to chip in money and attract matching donors to make up the deficit.  Think that can rub out $1300 million?  Or the Educational Foundation asks each district family to contribute $375 to erase the $3 million deficit as in Cupertino.

Second, a school board in a district like Los Angeles, $200 million in the hole and 23 low-performing schools to turn around, will lay off teachers and improvement efforts will sit on the back burner to simmer and bubble.

Or third, school boards may take the cheap way out and let for-profit charter schools take over the low-performing high schools, getting the problem off the school board’s back.

As the three articles showed, the latest teacher preparation has improved a teacher’s ability to manage the class, understand the curriculum, and use best practices to teach.  No statistics tell how many and where are the great teachers.  There is an answer.

The truth is some great teachers work at Central Falls, just as they are found in every public school.  All schools could have many, but the effort to increase the number of good teachers is like the discipline needed by school boards to turn around low-performing schools.

It’s daunting, time-consuming, and depends on teacher-leaders, administrators skilled at communicating*, and, above all, resolute school boards willing to back the teachers doing the hard job.

*For one model of good communication go to the website for this blog:

No blood in those state turnips

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Means no $ for Ed

School districts are beginning negotiations with their unions based on their 2010-2011 budget numbers, which are depressing.  If it’s impossible to draw blood from a turnip, just try to wring money from state legislatures for education.

The Colorado legislature is about to claw back $250 million+ from public schools for the ’10-’11 year.  It will probably take back just as much, if not more, for ’11-’12.  If school districts don’t have enough reserves, and no one does, they will be going backwards in funding for years.

Money saving tricks

Some districts are freezing salary – no COLA, no steps and levels.  Others are doing furlough days.  Others are charging for transportation.  Others are ending all technology purchases.  Others are emptying administration – no more professional development for teachers or curriculum support!  Others are increasing classroom size by one, two, or three children.  Last but not least, some districts are closing buildings.

No more investing in education!

Investment in education has stopped.  Districts that have made progress in student achievement will probably freeze in place or will start drifting backwards.  After all, if no one is in charge any more of managing the voluminous data underlying each student’s progress, how will the analytical process thrive that supports achievement?

Schools going backward in funding

The largest district in Colorado is about to cut $60 million from a $670 million budget.  The district estimates it will make the same size cut in ’11-’12, and possibly again in ’12-’13.  That means that by ’13-’14, unless miracles happen, the district will be at a budget starting point roughly $180 million below where it is today.  And yet the District is supposed to get every student to meet annual growth targets.

Colorado calculates annual growth against student peers.  Proficient students are measured against proficient students, barely proficient against barely proficient, etc.  So the only good news for schools is that all students in the state are in the same hole, so the lack of annual achievement growth should be relatively similar.  This prediction will assure funding remains at about the same dismal level for all schools in the state.

Not enough tax dollars for education today

Colorado is almost last in state funding per student, at about $7300, even though the state has one of the highest college education levels.  This “Colorado paradox” happens because educated out-of-staters like to come and live here for the mountains.  The state is also reasonably affluent.  But like other western states, including California, citizens prefer to keep their money in their pockets.  Colorado has one of the lowest state income tax and sales tax levels in the country.

How’s that Obama money doing?

ARRA money has bailed districts out in 2010, but now everyone is headed towards a cliff.  What kind of help is the Obama administration offering?  Race to the Top, of course, or as some wags say, slow jog to nowhere.  Really, the $4 billion will go to schools doing education Arne Duncan’s way, which means pay-for-performance and closing non-performing schools or turning them around or starting over.

What does any of that do to help districts whose schools aren’t completely in the doghouse yet (but may be after two or three years of these budget cuts)?

What would you do if you could?

And will pay-for-performance really do the trick with teachers? Schools definitely need something beyond steps and levels, but what should that look like?  Do schools need a more streamlined way to move bad to mediocre teachers out?  Yes.  Do schools need more money for entry level teachers, so education can compete at least marginally with law and medicine for top graduates? Yes.  Do schools need a way to pay off student loans to encourage teachers to work in challenging schools?  Yes.

How about a little extra money for some teacher career tracking – giving teachers money for online course development, professional development of peers, etc.

Get your 30 in and retire

It’s true that some relationship needs to exist between compensation and how well kids learn, but that’s not the whole package.  And frankly, in Colorado, teachers and districts are going to be so busy plowing money into their PERA pension fund, they may not get a raise for years.  They are mostly going to be working for that glorious final moment when they stagger over the 30 year finish line and can get out of education altogether.  Not very pretty, is it?

What was he thinking?

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

I received my pink slip two weeks ago, long before  March 15 (California’s education code rule) when layoff notices must be delivered.  A district personnel officer handed it to me in person.  I think the human resources office thought we’d feel better if a human being delivered it instead of getting a certified letter in the mail.

Why would I feel better when the guy walked into my class while I was teaching and said, “How are things going today?”  Can you believe how obtuse that was?

What was I supposed to say, “Oh fine, and how’s your day?” while holding up my hand to indicate wait to the child who was waving furiously for me to come help and accepting the letter in my other.  As if receiving a RIF notice was going to make my day.

After school when I calmed down, I thought he could have said, “Hello, I’m glad to meet you even if I’m the bearer of bad news.  Please know I’m sorry we are in such a bind.”  At least it would have been admitting the quandary.

Here is what the teachers in California are doing.  It started last fall when University of California students, initially over tuition increases, decided to have demonstrations up and down the state on March 4, 2010.  Then the State University students joined in, angry about all the cuts to state university public education.

Then the news came out that San Francisco schools would have a $113 million deficit beginning next year.  Parents began to devise ways to raise money. The usual: another parcel tax measure, asking businesses to match funds raised by PTA’s, a surcharge on movie tickets.  I laughed reading San Francisco  legislator Tom Ammiano’s pitch for regulating and taxing marijuana purchases to raise money for schools.

Of course, the district is doing the same as my district: layoffs, furlough days, no professional development, summer school cuts.

Same ole, same ole.  Too bad.

But teachers and students in public universities and community colleges and teachers in public elementary and high schools throughout the state and across 2 dozen other states according to the San Francisco Chronicle are demonstrating on Thursday.

In colleges, there will be marches.  I did my undergraduate work at San Francisco State and I’ve heard students there have built giant puppets, La Llorona weeping for her students and a skeleton with a graduation cap to show that students will still be paying off their fees when they’re dead.  I suppose humor helps you laugh instead of cry.

At our elementary school we will all wear black to signify the loss of school staff and support for students.  During social studies the fourth grade classes who, remember, study California history and government will have a lesson on how schools and libraries and the police and fire departments are paid for.  During the time for writing, they will compose letters to the governor describing which services are important to them and offering ideas to help the government.  Fulfills several grade 4 standards, but most important students are analyzing what they know to synthesize new ideas and write them down.

After school, I’ve heard many teachers will join demonstrations at city halls or along well-traveled intersections on the peninsula, but as of this post I’m not sure where my union will participate.

By the June primary elections I tell you, people are really going to be furious as cuts get worse and services collapse.  Even though initiatives are troublesome to me, seven likely to be on the ballot aim to increase funds to support schools and other social services.  All because so far the legislature has not found a way to finance support for state services or schools that used to be the best in the United States.