Archive for October, 2012

Rush for Gold and a President

Monday, October 29th, 2012

It’s time for California’s fourth graders to learn about the 1849 Gold Rush that has resonance for me as well as students.

Students want to know about the Americans, French, Germans, ChileƱos, Chinese who suddenly flooded into a region with few inhabitants. They want to know where all the gold came from and how gold miners used picks, pans, long toms, and cradles to collect nuggets and flakes from the creek bottoms. They are amazed that within two years all the placer (surface) gold had been collected from claims in dry diggin’s and hundreds of creeks spilling into big rivers that roll down to the central valley from the high Sierra Nevada.

Although the national consequences of such a glittering discovery are a small part of the curriculum for the fourth grade and not often found in texts for elementary students, for me those end-results have made a greater impact on California’s history.

Why do you think California became a state so quickly (1850) after the petition for admission was sent to Congress? Far away in the eastern United States, Congress was in the midst of fierce arguments about slave states and free states. California was admitted as a free state and even now you can see homes on the National Register of the few freed slaves who took flight to California during the Gold Rush time to settle in mining towns.

What do you think kept the United States solvent and paid for the Union Army’s battle against secessionist states in the Civil War? Gold from California.

How do you think distant California’s wealth became available to the rest of the United States? Men with huge fortunes accumulated during the Gold Rush overcame objections by Congress and fostered legislation that set the stage for building the Transcontinental Railroad.

I’ve been thinking about such far-reaching effects all the while I’m teaching students about the Gold Rush.

During this election, the size and population of California gives it status as a big electoral award in the election of the president. The state was an important prize in 1850 and retains its place as a valuable trophy in 2012.

The diverse demographics and wealth of people in California make it a valuable source for candidates’ campaigns just like California gold paid for campaigns in the 1860s.

Last, there are ample sources of evidence in California for the argument in this election about government versus business creating jobs and wealth. Competent, ruthless Gold Rush businessmen believed in building the railroad in California. However, without government legislation and lending, even rich men would not have enough money to complete the complicated project through the granite rocks of the Sierra Nevada.

I phone banked this weekend to get out the vote in other states because I think it’s my duty to back the candidate who would stand up for my fourth graders’ academic success and my job as teacher, unions and all. Just like the shiny mineral from California’s Gold Rush helped the U.S. in the past, I listen to the presidential candidate who will support California teachers and students in the future.

Binder of Support

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

Remember, teachers, the November general elections are coming. Time for each of you to seriously think about which candidate’s ideas are likely to carry on improvement for education in the United States.

Think back to 2001. The one benefit of the legislation called No Child Left Behind was to cause schools to think about access to good education for all students. Most teachers, however, could see the loophole right away.

States received the mandate to make sure every student achieved 100% proficiency in English and Math by 2014. States were left to decide how that difficult goal would be achieved. No government funding, other than Title I, was attached to the legislation. Each state had to find the money to satisfy the requirements.

Think about 2009. A new president and new Superintendent of the United States Department of Education took on the legislation. A jolt provided a chance for student achievement in an economy that needs well-trained, skilled workers; a call was made to turn around low-performing schools; and money, notably Race to the Top funds, was offered to help states achieve the goals.

Quickly, school change has resonated across country. In any education journal, one reads how school districts produced a model for growth from low- to high-performing. States have redesigned evaluation for students, teachers, and administrators without denigrating or chasing away unions. The national Governors Association agreed to the establishment of Common Core Standards for the country’s curriculum. It’s amazing to hear about the variety of school plans that take into account the student demographics, from the poorest neighborhood to the wealthiest.

True, using one standardized or criterion-referenced test a year is still a controversy, and not the best or only way to assess students. The “how to” for teacher evaluation has not been acclaimed by all.

Compared to the mishmash of educational ideas that would take place with another change in presidency, it is difficult to imagine any teacher, even one who doesn’t like the testing situation or the school district’s evaluation scheme in use at the moment, would want to go back to the old ways.

Paying attention to statements put forward during the GOP campaign should raise alarm. Would you want education funding to be slashed further? Do you want to solve the issues for public education with an opt-out program such as vouchers? Or the candidate who would only preserve the U.S. Department of Education in order to go after unions?

In addition, the GOP candidate suddenly pledges lower taxes to middle-income voters although his tax plan is an unfair mathematic muddle. The candidate insists on reducing the deficit by cutting all services that benefit families and thus your students. Not to forget, the Affordable Care Act that helps families and students will be decimated.

Teachers, vote early or by mail or at the polling place on November 6, but you must choose. Who will support your profession or the students for whom you have dedicated your time and effort?

Bullies Not Only At School

Monday, October 15th, 2012

Teachers, is bullying a concern for your students? Americans prize tolerance but don’t always act as if they do.

Usually one thinks of ‘bullying’ as a school problem, but a long list of articles can be read on the internet to remind you that bullying takes place in city and town public places and behind closed doors, as well as at up-scale and rural schools.

A good example of adult behavior that came close to bullying has recently been viewed in front of a 70 million person TV audience. The candidate did not push or use foul language to coerce the camera to put him in the limelight. He overrode the moderator to finish his statements and, brazenly looking at the camera, claimed policies that had changed from previous statements. Some say the actions were intended to show strength, not intimidate. Is that so?

How do you teachers recognize a bully? At staff development workshops, experts have listed changes in daily behavior, increased aggression, putting blame on others, or making intolerant statements about groups. Eventually a bully uses force or coercion to abuse or intimidate another. The United States Department of Education’s program (www.stopbullying.gov) reminds us that a kid from a poor family in an up-scale school, handicapped students, or gender bias often generate bullying.

Have you been reading the Teaching Tolerance magazine that comes to your school twice a year? Is your school involved with the Mix It Up at Lunch Day, taking place at many schools on October 30 this year? This nationwide project has been misrepresented. Another example of adult-style intimidation.

The Mix It Up at Lunch Day is a program developed by the Teaching Tolerance arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center, formed to fight hate and bigotry and expanded to seek justice for all those who are vulnerable. The project has been protested this year by the American Family Association. The association disagrees with the project which, according to AFA, takes a position on the acceptability of gender lifestyles. A letter to parents suggested students be kept home that day to avoid sitting next to someone who may have a different sexual orientation. And call the school about it. See Kim Severson’s education article in the New York Times, October 15, 2012.

Of many school projects to teach students not to bully, rather to be aware of acceptable behavior among an increasingly diverse population in the country, the Mix It Up at Lunch Day is only one that asks students for one day to sit with students they don’t usually mix with. Teachers know that, especially in middle and high school lunch rooms, students form cliques and shun anyone outside that group.

A few schools have cancelled the program on October 30. Unfortunately, some groups form in order to insulate themselves and browbeat the rest of the community to accept their position. Fortunately, in other parts of the country teachers find that students no longer malign groups. Still, to teach each child to tolerate every student unlike themselves will be a long, long time coming.

School and November Elections

Monday, October 8th, 2012

School critics come in two groups.

a desert high school awaits November elections

a desert high school awaits November elections

The first think teachers’ unions are anathema to improvement for low-performing schools and only for-profit elementary to high school charters and colleges are the answer.

The second, foundations call attention to states who have received Race to the Top grants or ‘waivers’ and turn in plans that game the outcome to show evidence of turning around poor-performing public schools.

In the 15% of U.S. public schools that carry a heavy burden toward recovery, teachers hear over and over about the “quiet revolution” called by Arne Duncan, the United States Secretary of Education, aimed at quality teacher evaluation as an important goal to improve student success. See Motoko Rich’s “Loopholes Seen at Schools In Obama Get-Tough Policy,” The New York Times, October 5, 2012.

Nonetheless, this is October of an election year. Teachers have other issues on the table. As an example in California, the state in perpetual budget crisis, teachers are gearing up for the election to support the initiative that stops cuts to school district budgets and helps pay down the state’s deficit. Since the measure involves raising tax revenue it has loud advocates and opponents. Everyone knows California schools were once the envy of the nation but without a change will generate more layoffs, inability to renovate dilapidated infrastructure, loss of programs.

Another California initiative is one of the deceptive measures that are written to fool the uninformed voter. While it claims to stop special interest money in politics, especially union funds, the measure exempts ‘super PACs,’ corporate special interests, and very wealthy Americans. Teachers are spending plenty of time educating voters about this deliberately misleading proposition.

On top of election issues on teachers’ minds, gasoline prices have skyrocketed in the last two weeks. Despite explanation of the circumstances in California and the governor’s action for early changeover to ‘winter blend’ from ‘summer blend’ gasoline (all used to minimize pollution on the state’s highways), not only teachers, but parents of students, are paying the price. What kind of disruption is that causing in low-income neighborhoods? A very local problem that plays its part in the difficulties of elevating student success. See San Francisco Chronicle, October 8, 2012.

Local or statewide or national, critical issues take over the attention of teachers at the same time they are called on to improve public education. It’s a political football!

How Large a Class?

Monday, October 1st, 2012

Teachers, you know that you have to consider the quality and consequences of yearly testing, now that every teacher will be evaluated partly by student growth in proficiency. Next, class size as one of the components of judging a high quality teacher is up for debate.

In this election year’s squabbles about the value of different propositions to increase state revenues or not for public schools devastated by budget cuts, class size has been pronounced to be a magic bullet to reduce school budgets.

One national election candidate waves the issue of class size in the air as if that one aspect can solve the problem of student achievement, and, moreover, school budgets can be smaller! If you haven’t heard, the GOP candidate raised classroom size in 2003 and 2004 in Massachusetts, thereby reducing the number of teachers needed which allowed funds to be cut in the state school budget. Using the oft repeated trope that high quality teachers were more important to student learning, class size was the factor used to manufacture a balanced budget. This supposed triumph was trumpeted this past week at the Education Nation conference.

Slash investment to balance the budget? What’s the issue-saving money or improving student success?

In the New York Times on Friday, September 28, 2012 in the article “A Different Class Warfare,” one teacher quoted, “Come be in a classroom with fifth graders and tell me class size doesn’t matter.” How many of you teachers can remember teaching a classroom too full of students to provide consistent support to each no matter what high quality evaluation you received?

While the current administration wants changes that will turn around school systems in which students do poorly, high or low class size is one of a set of measures that must form a state’s complete plan to improve student success. Not a way to come up with money to balance a budget.

Whether conservative Will Dobbie and Roland Frye of Harvard or progressive Michelle Rhee, now head of Students First, list the qualities of a good teacher evaluation, similar traits highlight successful outcomes: frequent teacher feedback, analysis of data to plan curriculum, tutoring, more class time, and high expectations.

Both liberal and conservative education experts would agree ALL teachers need to be highly-qualified. But Take Care Schools doesn’t believe investment means squeezing a few more dollars through a thousand small cuts to state school budgets. Instead adequate funding for schools–decent facilities, strong administration, worthwhile testing tools, suitable class sizes-must be the top priority to escape the inequalities which hinder student achievement.