Archive for November, 2011

Think Long

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

Another committee report has hit the newspapers in California. This group, made up of big names in Democratic and Republican politics and business, were charged with developing proposals to overcome the issues in California that have led to nagging dysfunction. Officially known as The Think Long Committee, it was brought together by the Nicolas Berggruen Institute to make “structural and constitutional changes that will break the present gridlock, make government more responsive and efficient while at the same time putting in place the incentives and Institutions vital for California’s long-term future.”

The committee’s main function was to design a “blueprint” for the state budget and taxes. In addition, the group has addressed education, noting the past high quality of education and the loss of funds to sustain the quality.

Anything that will help education in California is welcome. So far the main principle is to raise the funds spent on K-12 and community colleges and more funds for the University of California (UC) and California State Universities (CSU). Also, proposals for teacher and principal evaluation are prominent in the plan. See bullets for meaningful evaluation, non-seniority based lay-offs, earned tenure over 5 years, equitable distribution of teacher talent, and data analysis in the report. The generalizations seem a lot like the proposals put forward by the U.S. Department of Education but also represent thinking by people outside of the education field. How much did the new state superintendent contribute? And, until teachers are included in the deliberations, the proposals will remain generalizations. Neither the superintendent’s name nor the names of any teachers were listed in the report. The president of CTA and the superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School district were listed.

Looking again at the design for the California state budget and taxes, it includes best practices, and includes a new tax rate initiative for voters to approve in November 2012. The new tax rate is supposed to generate revenue to support schools. Also, a citizen’s watchdog group, which is supposed to make sure all the recommendations occur, is a proposed initiative for November 2012. Right now, there are organizations, California AAUW for example, examining the Initiative Process itself and recommending changes. So initiatives are currently up in the air.

However, if there are no changes, there will be no benefit for schools. The big obstacle in the room is Proposition 13, of course. Until brave souls are willing to make further revisions to that insidious legislation will money ever appear for schools?

Finally, it is a shame that university and city administrators can’t see the value in letting the Occupiers demonstrate, like UC students did at the UC regents’ meetings on Monday, November 28, 2012. Over time, the majority of those people will be working and paying taxes, so what does it say when the sites they occupy are public property, but the occupiers are treated as criminals? All of the members of the Think Long Committee are well-to-do and hold sway in the state. What will the occupiers think of the committee’s proposals if speech is cut off?

See the editorial “A solid set of reforms” in the San Francisco Chronicle, November 27, 2012. For a look at the detail of the report go to

No Pay

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

Lots of school districts are arranging their calendars so furlough days are scheduled for the entire week off to celebrate Thanksgiving. Maybe teachers are thanking the heavens that they have a few days to take care of grades and lessons for December, and they still have a job. Neither the state nor the Congressional votes are helping anyone retain their job. And remember “furlough” means no pay for the time off.

California newspapers have warned the public of the downturn to the revenues estimated last spring to balance the budget. That means students will have five fewer days of school-fewer than the furlough days already in the school budget. With the failure of the “Supercommittee” to come up with a plan to dissolve the nation’s deficit, cuts to federal monies sent to states will play havoc in California schools as well as other state’s school districts by Fall 2012.

That’s the education news for Thanksgiving 2011.

Standing on the Corner

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Public school truancy begins a lot earlier than the public thinks. To overcome the barriers that make students opt to stand on the corner takes a lot of relentless effort.

Start with the small child who enters school unready, who moves from neighborhood to neighborhood, whose parent has no time for her. This is poverty–16% of the nation according to the latest Census Bureau supplementary data measures. Until hardship is overcome and families are stabilized, the school district that keeps accurate attendance data and employs personnel to assure a child’s on time daily attendance (home visits, clothes for children, doctor and dental appointments, family counseling services) provides the support.

If the student makes it through elementary school, middle school can be the truancy breaking point. On top of the problems that an elementary student faced, once an adolescent reaches puberty it takes tremendous strength to not be distracted by the desire to belong. Lack of tutors for difficult subjects and fewer counselors available to oversee student progress means attendance can drop again. It’s easier to stand on the corner than seek help.

The final hurdle is high school. Especially at schools in low-income neighborhoods, under-performing students have insufficient support to improve in high school, prevent moving one from one school to another, avoid homelessness and other family problems. It is easy to become the hidden student and finally the drop out. If the school district does not have budgeted funds to work with these “at risk” students, they disappear and become the unprepared jobless. See the data released Tuesday, November 15, 2011, from Stanford University in California that shows more proof of the demographics of low-income areas in large cities in the nation.

Is that what the United States wants?

Nowadays, the problem is not loss of manufacturing corporations in the U.S. The issue is production has improved with automated machines that need fewer humans to keep them going, i.e. fewer jobs. The people that keep their jobs have graduated from high school and have, at minimum, vocational technological training. An entire group of workers, aged 18-64, now jobless, were high school dropouts who didn’t even complete a General Education Development (GED) exam in order to receive a high school equivalency diploma.

Another large group of jobless workers has been caused by the housing market debacle which has led to the fall-off in construction. If the infrastructure jobs bill in Congress doesn’t pass, there will be another group that is under-educated and that can’t move into the high tech jobs that support the new manufacturing of the day.

What the government can do right now is pass the jobs bill for three reasons. One, to give a wage to construction workers so that the poverty rate falls. Second, low-income families will have time to support the education of their children from pre-school onward. The school can only do so much to keep students in the classroom. Three, teachers will be rehired in the school to help students learn.

Finally, the four states that have just been notified that they received U.S. Department of Education waivers to redo their plans to turn around programs should stress the science, math, and technology curriculum to prepare students for the workplace.

Standing on the corner, waiting for a job, is not fun.

Is It Luck?

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

I have a student who reads well and is a math whiz, but can be hyper-focused on a book or a math concept that he finds intriguing. Sometimes during discussion time, he will focus on making origami birds, one after another, rather than participate. It’s a quiet activity but can be distracting as other kids at his table watch his progress instead of leaving him to himself. Other times, he uses his pencil like a tiny baton, twisting it back and forth like a drum major. It flicks the table and this time it’s a noisy distraction. His mother is one of my best classroom volunteers. She won’t tell him that he’s been diagnosed with ADHD, even though he has seen articles about the syndrome on television and has said, “Is that me?”

the pencil as distraction

the pencil as distraction

Was it luck that I didn’t blurt out in a conversation with the boy and his parent a comment about such symptoms? I know better than to offer a diagnosis, no matter how distressed the parent is. But just an offhand comment would have been unkind.

Compare my problem in a full classroom of smart children with the articles in the news about Tennessee and Memphis. The state was one of the first lucky grantees of Race to the Top funds to turn around low-performing schools. How can a state turn a piece of luck into the monstrosity that has become the model as depicted on TV and in the news? Speed seems to be the problem. For one, the state instituted a teacher evaluation system based on a single poor test, instead of spending the time to devise a good model for evaluation. Second, the changes were made top-down, not getting buy-in from the teachers or administrators affected before implementing change.

On top of that confusion, imagine re-playing the 70’s when white students left the Memphis schools for the suburbs to avoid integration. At that time the district had a half white and half black demographic, but all black schools on one side of town and all white on the opposite side of the city. Now it’s an issue of money-the inner city district is way down on its luck and the suburban county district is doing fine. A controversy over who gets how much lead to the merger of the districts. Good luck for the students in Memphis, but class and race challenges rise to the surface for the suburbs.

Reading about those shifts makes me wonder what’s going to happen to the children like my ADHD student who need support way down at the classroom level.

Will their luck depend on me as one of the teachers who keeps chugging along even in difficult circumstances? Leave it to the big guys to hash out the system? And hope that the big guys rise above race and class and use some research to guide decisions. Can we depend on such luck?

To Fix NCLB or Not

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Teachers sit in the middle of the muddle strewed around by California and Congress and the U.S. Department of Education.

November 1 means a rush of teaching in the school days before Thanksgiving and then three weeks of instruction before winter holiday vacation. What units can be completed in that timeframe?  Very few teachers have a moment to consider the legislation passed in the state, much less the fixes that the Senate has supposedly made to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) or the conditions of the waivers offered by the U.S. Department of Education.

To many in the education world, the waiver and its conditions seem to be a program worth attending to. It asks for growth data, requires goals to take the place of the lock-step NCLB yearly progress; and encourages data-driven accountability systems for both students and teacher evaluation.

The main problem is using the standardized or criterion-referenced tests to measure growth during the year. There are too many qualifiers as related in the San Francisco Chronicle, November 1, 2011, article “Test scores a poor measure” by David B. Cohen of Accomplished California Teachers. Assessing the improvement of students or teachers depends on more than one test a year.

On the other hand, the revisions approved by the Congressional Senate Education Committee have gone too far in relaxing accountability for schools. The language leads many disparate groups to worry about the most under-served kids. It’s a bill with deregulation at its core that allows state departments of education to set their own rules, that is, back to the old ways.

The state of California, with a legislature ever ready to stick its fingers in every small muddle, has come up with seven pieces of education legislation to fuss over in the Senate and Assembly-only two of which come even close to addressing the problems with student and teacher accountability. Concerns about head and neck injuries in sports and rules about administering emergency medical assistance to students with epilepsy are important, but guaranteed to cause unforeseen consequences.

The two bills that actually address instructional and learning issues concern the Common Core Standards (CCS) that the state’s Department of Education has approved. Align the English Learning Development curriculum to the CCS (AB 124) and approve additional instructional materials to go with the changed standards (AB 140)–a money issue.

Finally, the California Teachers Association (CTA) stand against an “unfunded top-down approach” by the U.S. Department of Education seems intractable. The CTA is leery of any premise that includes accountability by testing only.  A detailed report on evaluation for teachers has been written by the Accomplished California Teachers called A Quality Teacher in Every Classroom: An Evaluation System that Works for California (2010). A clue-the report advocates teacher input in an evaluation system.