Archive for October, 2010

Educational Earthquakes

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Last week we had another all-state earthquake drill.  Even Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco, was under the desk at a school in the East Bay.  California is not kidding.  No hurricanes, no tornadoes, but schools are prepared for the unknown earthquake.

My 4th graders weren’t even born when the last major quake hit the bay area, October 21, 1989, but I remember it well.  I was waiting on my bike at the corner of the major intersection, on my way home from math tutoring.  I put my feet on the ground as the road started rumbling.  The guy next to me got out of his car, saying ‘That was a big one’ as an old lady fell to the ground.  After all the shocks stopped I was riding down the hill street, and another girl helped me stomp out a small fire that was burning in the dry grass.

This year’s earthquakes don’t heave the ground; instead financial choices and school choices are thrown around.  Especially with the elections coming up, day after day I read about the latest reform plan for some school, dependent on fiscal policy in the state.

In Monday’s New York Times, the article was about the New Jersey governor doing all he can to dump the teachers union.  Free marketers hate the unions, and I’m not sure how long this discussion about free market competition improving the quality of schools will continue.  What will happen in the meantime to low-performing schools whose students can’t wait for free markets to come up with, revise, and implement reform to make a unique, perfect school?  Some say good competitive schools are already providing a choice, but how many are actually receiving API of 900 like my traditional public school?  Right now, the score is the guide.

I know our school does well because the majority of parents are involved in the classroom and raise funds.  That’s how all the teachers, in spite of a severe budget crisis in the school district, managed to be retained for this year.

In my master’s classes I’ve reviewed the best language practices to show results.  For example, students need the skills to decode new vocabulary, infer, ask questions to analyze characters, predict.

Have you heard of ‘silly bands’– thin rubber bands made in different shapes like a rabbit, a genie, a high-heel?  I used them in my master’s class to show how one uses those skills to figure out anything, even the form of a silly band.  I’ll tell you, those silly bands are one of the earthquakes in our school.  Right now they are causing an uproar in the lower grades and in my class, if I see one out, it goes in my drawer.

Still, I have students that read so well that during the language arts bloc each student has chosen a book and conferences with me at which time I give a mini-lesson about a skill not yet mastered.  Very different from other teachers in my master’s class who use an all class model to teach language arts.

At staff development at our school yesterday afternoon, another earthquake shook our vision of  teaching math.  Students are being asked to look at word problems and decode new vocabulary, infer, ask questions to analyze the operation, predict.  See what I mean about skills that will help a student do anything?

As long as the students learn to read for meaning and like books, including math books.  That is the goal for life, correct?

Recent History of the Yearly Test

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

It is difficult for people to move forward.  They prefer to stand still, jogging from one foot to the other, step back and finally turn forward again.

In schools, a million excuses are made.  Whether accountability, reform, transform, high-achiever vs. low-performer, second language learner, charter, private, parochial, public, and etc., the list attached contains all the reasons to stick with that justification, telling why it is wrong or why it will solve all educational problems.

This week the word is “test.”  How well a student performs on a test has been a criterion for success K-12 since Sputnik soared into the heavens.  You may laugh because you know someone who didn’t do well on tests, but who has done very well in the market place.  You may smirk because someone did well on tests, but not in the work place.  And everything in between.  And you were surprised as a high school high-achieving senior when the counselor said “don’t worry about it.”

Nowadays, however, no matter what kind of school, the students, teachers, administrators worry about success and the test is how the public knows.  It sounded good in 2002 when No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), was instituted, even though teacher’s unions were warning against testing requirements and benchmarks even then.

The education world was in the middle of facing the research that showed a number of schools in each large district were stumbling, not graduating students with ambition to go to college, in fact not graduating enough students overall, leaving African-American and Hispanic students in the dust and making them repeat a grade or subject if they didn’t drop out in disgust.

Testing became the way to assess how schools were doing.  Anyone in charge of supervising the testing knew that it didn’t matter how relentless you were in helping students improve.  In several years the benchmarks were going to overtake the schools, even if most groups attained the minimum proficiency except one, eg. special education.  Most educators would say it is because the NCLB legislation treated students as robots, all were going to do well and improve as long as the “test” was given.  And if they didn’t it was the teacher’s fault.

Opposition from two well-respected organizations, National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the International Reading Association (IRA), as well as other groups at the state level have shown that transformation doesn’t occur by looking at scores on standardized tests, not even on criterion-referenced tests as is touted in California.  In addition, major publishers of school texts make money from interim tests that are supposed to show the teacher how well students have learned so far.  No studies have been made to show that those tests help, not even as practice for the kinds of questions asked on yearly exams.

Adults love tests.  Good students don’t mind taking them, confident that they will pass well.  Some high school students cavalierly fill in bubbles, no longer impressed by tests.  Students who don’t read English, and are still required to take the exams, fill in the bubbles and close the booklet.

Tests need to be revised now that Common Core Standards have been instituted.  Let’s hope the tests are short, ask competent questions, and are used only as one source of information to guide a school and district to transform a low-performing into a high-achieving school, to make sure those students graduate with the skills to attend a college or other post-secondary school.

Small Learning Communities

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

Stand up for public schools.  In the Bay Area (4 counties) one can find about 700 public schools, and while the low-performing and troubled behavior schools reach the news all the time, the majority keeps moving along.

Neither by lottery nor because of fees is a student not allowed to attend.  If desired, the child can attend a for-profit charter, private, parochial, home school, or be tutored at home if he/she is sick.

What will not happen is stepping away from the tax paying system if your children go to those schools (except home illness tutoring which is offered by the public school system).

Why does the working person have to pay for both?  Because as a citizen of the United States, public education is paid for by all, this principle understood by all.

Now all the complaining about public schools lately has gotten out of hand. The latest fury is generated by the film “Waiting for Superman” which depicts children suffering from poor public schools and trying to get a place in the charter school, which, according to the film, is the answer to all problems.

On the other hand, fussing about and resisting the guidelines from the U. S. Department of Education is not going to solve all problems either.

Trying different ways to transform troubled low-performing schools is a solution.  And allow time for change to occur.  Look at the many high school “small academic communities,” aka “small learning communities” discussed briefly in the last post (10-6-10).

Benefits for students when large urban high schools are transformed into small learning communities (often 4 at one site):  students can choose a focus for their study; greater participation in extra-curricular activities, improving peer influence; smaller class size so students can’t be lost in the crowd.

Problems in this kind of conversion are sharing space at a school site and negotiating the budget, hiring, curriculum, teacher professional development that addresses the needs of students.  Teachers, however, find they are more satisfied with the school, assume leadership responsibilities, and market the success of the school.

The purpose for redesigning designated failing high schools to this model is to improve graduation rates, reduce suspension and expulsion, increase the number of students entering college and staying, and reducing the need for college remediation.  Sounds like the values of all high schools, public or private.

Much of the funding for such changes comes from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a huge supporter of transforming public schools as well as charter schools.

Here is another opportunity to lean forward rather than stop in your tracks.  At whom are you looking?  The successful student?

Conundrum for Public Schools

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

Low-performing schools, whether by federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) standards or a state’s benchmarks, are the hardest cases.  No matter that parents and students love the school, the national education field wants academic student success at those schools and it’s wanted now.

a "good" elementary school

a "good" elementary school

At public June Jordan High School in San Francisco, front page on September 20, 2010, in the San Francisco Chronicle‘s “Conundrum of June Jordan School” by Jill Tucker, the scores are ‘so low they look like up’, no matter that it has begun to transform, separating into four small academic communities and pushing students to go to college, providing counselors and services to help students and families.  Education experts each have their reasons for its failure to achieve academically from ‘the fault of the teacher’s union’ to not ‘getting back to basics’.

Such certainty about solutions for these high schools affects all schools that have used the ‘small academic community’ approach to begin to solve its problems.  Look at Roybal Learning Center (public high school) in downtown Los Angeles and the famous Green Dot charter high schools in Los Angeles, both unionized and both providing plenty of basics for its students in small learning communities.

The big problem is working with students who have been low-performing all their school lives and who have a large attrition rate once they hit high school, if they manage to enter the door.

The chatter does not allow the time needed for change to happen.  Five or more years to this blogger’s thinking, if nothing gets in the way.  And something is sure to get in the way.  Right now in California as well as many other states, it’s the budget.  And if you watched the News Hour, Monday, October 4, the segment reported on all the homeless students that have difficulty staying in one school, even with federal money for each district that needs it.  How about the Special Education students in low-performing schools and the increasing number of English Language Learners (ELL) for whom public schools must intervene?  Does any expert think those issues can be resolved with a magic wand?

Besides small learning communities, what are some changes that can be tried?  President Obama, last Tuesday, September 28, mentioned a longer school year.  The September 27 New Yorker article “Schoolwork” by Nicholas Lemann suggested curriculum models that have a “strong sustained record of field-tested success in improving the education of low-performing students.”  Some Education Week articles affirm that technological equipment, furniture, and even decent restrooms make a difference to the education of low-performing children.

The film “Waiting for Superman” has brought out the latest arguments, trumping charter schools over all other possible transformations.  However, to someone who has taught in many different locations the immediate view is that none of the charter schools depicted in the film look any better than the large quantity of good public schools already turning out successful students in this country.  The use of a lottery to decide who gets to attend a school should never be touted as the way to go.

Even congratulating the students who won a lottery seat, anyone who watched that film was crying for those children who did not.  Does anyone think a homeless child’s parent even knows about the lottery?  Field studies have shown special education and ELL numbers in charter schools are woeful.

What is needed is more good schools.  It is well-known, however, among the education elite that with approximately 140,000 (National Center for Education Statistics) public schools in this country, charter-including for-profit, private, parochial, and home school will never be the only source of “good” schools.

So the experts who think that everything is broken need to buck up and support the research available to reach the most difficult schools so that the education of the most downtrodden succeeds.

(Need to talk to your school community about turning around the low-performing students at your site?  See the ‘how to talk’ website