Archive for January, 2011

Winter’s Tale

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

My fourth grade students tromp into class each January morning wearing down jackets, scarves, baseball caps, nylon basketball shorts, and tennies, or better yet, flip-flops. The conglomeration of clothes is my fourth graders’ way of high-fashion dress, a nod to freezing winter temperatures and a nod to California sunshine.

California Bay Area elementary school

California Bay Area elementary school

On the other hand, my students are serious learners. On return to school after New Year’s, we began a science unit on classification of animals and plants. They learn fast, hold facts in their brains, and are quick to apply what they know.

On the study question that asked students to classify creatures in a photo as omnivores (plant and meat eaters) or herbivores (plant eaters) and give reasons, most students claimed bacteria were omnivores while the teacher’s manual said bacteria were herbivores. However, the students claimed they were correct because scientists have learned that many bacteria digest anything. How do they know? These children watched a lot of media coverage about the gulf oil spill, especially when the reports talked about petroleum-eating bacteria.

What does any highly qualified teacher do? I analyzed the data. It turns out those students were generally correct, but they had not read the question carefully.

The students certainly knew about omnivores and herbivores and didn’t need to have a review lesson on that scientific topic. If I had given points only by counting correct answers, I would never know that these smart students needed more instruction on the study skill of reading the question carefully before deciding on an answer.

The more I read about the poor scores of students in the United States on summative tests like the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the more I shake my head. Recent NAEP science test results reported that only 34% of a sampling of 308,000 fourth graders were proficient. The test was given to schools nation-wide in early 2009.

Statistical array results can bring up a lot of questions. Teachers aren’t teaching enough science because the focus is on reading/language arts and math? Science instruction is given short shrift because the teaching/learning day isn’t long enough? Public school budget crises divert attention from student academic achievement? Professional development isn’t emphasized unless the topic is reading and math?

Or all of the above? Education experts arguing about reform often use the results from NAEP tests to bolster any and all of the positions listed above.

Still, at my school for my class of students in 2011, the answer is none of the above. Above all, we do have the resources to analyze data. So here is the conundrum. Our school district does not volunteer to give the NAEP assessment. But how many of my kids would have proficient scores on that exam? I think almost all of them.

The scores, however, would not tell me which students needed more help with the study skill of reading the question carefully. To be proficient in high school and college, students need that skill, not only science facts.

What the NAEP results do tell me is that one time scores give a glimpse of science learning in the country’s schools, but what teachers need is collaborative time to analyze results and make instructional decisions that address student needs at a particular school.

And remember, they’re only in fourth grade. Minus jackets and mufflers, they’ve run outside to play soccer at recess in the California sun.

What do unions say?

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Are unions bringing the U.S. down? Does unionization mean that jobs will never increase? Whose jobs-private sector, public sector?

Teachers unions, for example, are blamed for everything related to school problems.  They hold onto pay scale systems that are old-fashioned; berate the weaknesses of state tests; defend weak teachers; stand against changes to teacher evaluation; and, especially, defend teacher retirement systems.

Wait a minute. Teachers have formed professional organizations since the mid-eighteen hundreds. In 1959 when Wisconsin passed labor laws that allowed collective bargaining, teachers unions adopted labor union strategies. Negotiations for decent pay, hours, work place safety, as well as curriculum and evaluation became the norm.

With the current budget struggles, it is easy to lump all labor unions into one bundle and scapegoat those institutions for all the money problems of each state. It is true that to keep middle class wages, benefits, and pensions, the unions can use their negotiation muscle, but who would not want to keep what you’ve worked for?

Are you thinking of the Wall Street-hedge fund-private equity manager guys who’ve certainly used muscle to keep tax revenue low and bonuses high? Do the state governors and assemblies come to mind, who budgeted for pensions in good times but are now stingy in bad money times?

Right now, private sector workers are being pitted against public sector workers in unions, in an effort to justify taking away money to balance state budgets. The lawmakers who want to resolve the fiscal crisis on workers backs say that public employees earn far more in average wages than private sector employees. Think, however, about college degrees that teachers must have; only 23% of private-sector workers have those degrees. In most professions, a college degree is worth a higher salary. Overall in fact, public sector wages have dropped relative to private sector pay.  However, since jobs have been lost mainly in the private-sector, due to the recession, it is easy to establish a stand-off.

Teachers unions do need to turn to themselves. National Education Association(NEA) stances on dropout prevention, plans to lower the achievement gap, placing limits on charter schools and vouchers do benefit school communities.

Still, unions are not wearing halos. First and foremost, unions must use their muscle to help schools that are truly failing, instead of finding excuses for longtime poor performance. Insist on changes to student assessments that do not lead to school quality, a big factor for improvement. Next, teacher evaluation must be taken on. Once teachers feel they are being evaluated fairly, then unions can focus on changes in pay-no longer ‘steps and ladders’ and tenure, but a plan to combine performance with pay. Last, teachers unions in some states can be part of a team that bargains for changes to pension systems.

Stop pointing fingers. All workers have the right to bargain for working conditions and decent pay. Setting teachers against social workers against electricians against public defenders against state engineers is not the solution to budget problems.

Stop reproaching unions, claiming that student achievement would improve if only unions were out of the way.

Civility and collaboration generate better outcomes.

(More on the private vs. public sector union issues can be found in the San Francisco Chronicle‘s January 16, 2012, Insight article by Robert Reich. More on teachers unions at the NEA website.)

When budgets are resolved, what do schools take up next?

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

Suppose the California legislature agrees to resolve the most current budget deficit of $25.4 billion as of January 11, 2011. California’s Governor Jerry Brown presented his administration’s budget this week. It includes big budget cuts (but not to K-12 budgets), as well as temporary tax extensions to be voted on in the Spring.

Suppose the California legislature agrees to revise the state and local tax system which had become so unfair that Proposition 13 passed easily in 1978. The fiscal trouble that existed then has increased many times over as the state and local governments vie for revenues.

Suppose  California citizens agree that all services cannot be paid for individually or by initiative.  Some, like fire protection, police protection, infrastructure, parks, recreation programs, and schools are better provided by communal funds.

If all that were agreed, some schools are still found in very poor areas-both urban and rural. Those schools need to be turned around. It’s not easy.

Mass Insight Education and Research Institute has laid out the steps to take. See

Matteson School District (SD 162) in Illinois under Superintendent Dr. Blondean Y. Davis has given an overview of steps taken to improve student success. See

Success For All is used often, especially in eastern urban areas, as a specific reform for reading/language arts.  SFA lays out school-wide steps to make sure students learn to read and understand the meaning of text.  See

Edsource’s February 2010 report “Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better” explains steps that help adolescent students succeed.  See

Suppose schools began to turn around. What’s the next step?

Testing and the tests schools use is a huge complaint, whether the scores are used to assess student success or to evaluate teachers or to determine school quality.

The first problem is the kind of test: standardized, criterion referenced, short formative tests several times a year, one summative test a year; tests provided with software.  Who decides which kind of test to use: the state, the local school board, the federal Department of Education, the publishing companies of the United States?

Here’s another list of questions to resolve: which standards are tested; what do tests measure; how do results affect promotion, teacher evaluation, and accreditation for higher education?  See the Public Broadcasting Service’s Frontline program for an in-depth analysis of testing issues.

In education, the biggest concern is the quality of each school.  Does a single test determine all of the school qualities that establish success?

One statement can be made: once the budget crisis is resolved, state departments of education must analyze the tests they use. Successful schools depend on the steps taken.

Who’s going to take the tiger by the tail, the bull by the horns, or shoulder Sisyphus’ burden?

Prognosis: California Will Wrangle

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Happy New Year!  Take Care Productions wishes it would be, but it won’t happen until the state has exhausted itself fighting over ‘spending cuts’ and ‘increasing revenue’.

Writers in the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times have scratched their heads over low-performing schools that are not improving test scores.  Whether it shows up in an effort to call out poor teachers by using the “value-added” formula or in the bleak results when analyzing low rates of student proficiency, no one is happy.

The California Teachers Association  strong-armed California’s passage of the Quality Education Invest Act (QEIA) which uses the Academic Performance Index (California’s API) as the indicator of scholastic improvement.  In six years (2004 – 2010) the 500 QEIA schools reached an average of 21.2% proficient students.  That’s good enough?  It means 68.8% still weren’t on track.

Why?  Is it the ‘test’ or is it teacher evaluation? The media has written article after article. Universities have spewed forth document after document to talk about low-performing schools and poor quality tests or low-performing schools and poor  teacher evaluation.

On the other hand, Mary M. Kennedy of Michigan State has reminded everyone of the attribution error, ignoring the working conditions of the teacher, preparation time, materials, work assignments, untreated student characteristics.  As if no matter the conditions, a good teacher can make the difference.  Maybe, but it takes time.  And the “value-added” attribute doesn’t make the grade when school boards as well as unions insist on old evaluation tools.

In British Columbia, Michael Shumatcher hits the button when he reminds the country of the demographic issue, urban or rural, and struggling populations who could use spending to promote the neededlearning tools instead of useless evaluation tools.

Or read Thomas Stephens, professor emeritus at the College of Education and Human Ecology, Ohio State University, who says one can find many good evaluation tools.  His hit is that the multi-billion dollar test industry won’t be pleased.

Let’s move on to California’s Sue Miller from Santa Monica who is representing the teachers who do all the work and need praise, not vitriol.

Which brings us to the wrangling likely in California which is deeply in debt from state to local entities.  Although many groups have been studying the problem, it comes down to cuts and taxes.

There will be no change in the tax plan to 1978’s Proposition 13 which started California down a long, dark road.  With effort, there may be a revision to the system of taxation generated by the proposition.  If you have read the article in SF Chronicle‘s January 2 edition “Prop 13 in urgent need of retrofit” by Michael Gervais and Dontae Rayford, defunding special districts and creating regional property tax boards are the options suggested.  Neither change addresses the money that corporations don’t pay in taxes.

Governor Brown has been sworn in this week for a third term and one can figure that the dysfunctional sections of the California State Department of Education will get cuts, along with all state entities.  Let’s see if the temporary taxes made to balance previous budgets will be maintained.

The National Education Association in the January/February 2011 NEA today issue includes “The Long and Winding Road” by Mary Ellen Flannery and Kevin Hart. The writers covered the entire country and found priority schools that teachers have had some say in transforming.

However, the deficit is so large in California that it is hard to see how the state test (CST) and the evaluation system are going to be top priorities.  It is possible like Mary M. Kennedy has said that turning around low-performing schools should be the top priority.

Will that transformation ever happen?