Archive for the ‘Elementary’ Category

Next Year

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

When I read the newspaper I wonder how schools will ever change.  Budget cuts threaten everyone and everything associated with teaching students.

Now, I’m the lucky teacher.  My district cut costs in the 2008-9 budget, somehow recognizing the dangers lurking in the economy.  Also, the residents in my school district, who strongly support education, passed a parcel tax at the last election.

The district has saved so much money that, at the end of the school year just completed, we were assured of weathering the disasters affecting other districts.  The major disruption will be a reduction of before and after school classes.  They will only be offered for students with learning difficulties.

On the other hand, funding for adult education classes, touted to retrain the unemployed all over the country, is being slashed (the New York Times, May 28, 2009, and the San Francisco Chronicle, July 1, 2009).  I question how people are going to get back to work without the programs offered in the community colleges?

In Oakland, California, a school district under state takeover after making a mess of its finances, is now back under the guidance of its school board, along with $60 million of debt.  How is that low-performing district going to devise a plan to raise its students reading and math achievement when it’s searching for money to clean the school restrooms?

A teacher friend in a large district in San Jose, California, told me the schools will revert to 30-1 students per teacher.  The 30-1 formula reduces the number of classrooms needed.  That’s when teachers will not be rehired and the “who-to-lay-off” question comes into play.  A young highly-qualified teacher or a tenured teacher?  In my school, the issue has been put off for a year because of the massive savings held by the district.

In the huge Los Angeles district, I’ve read that most summer school programs have been cancelled.  The cuts leave students whose parents work at loose ends; leaves teachers who depend on the summer income searching for work in a recession; and worst of all, leaves the achievement gap, that most worrisome of school issues, to expand because students don’t have access to learning opportunities.

Most students in my school have highly-educated parents with time and money to provide all sorts of opportunities during the summer.  In my small district I only worry about keeping students at the top of the achievement benchmarks in California.

It’s infuriating that the federal stimulus funds, supposedly available to support a turn around in low-performing schools, will likely be used for basic services.  Why?  Because the legislature in California and other states gives funds and takes them away from the budget depending on the temper of the governor and legislators from one day to the next.

As a teacher I surely want clean restrooms in my school, but I also want to teach my students with all the resources available, not simply ‘make do’.

We Are Going and We Will Get There

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Woyaya, a gentle, melodic song from South Africa encourages the singer to keep walking, even when the road is hard and muddy and rough, or when she can’t see how far she still has to go.

Of course, the song was composed to keep up the spirits of those pressing for freedom from apartheid, but even now for low-performing schools in today’s education world, the road is long and rough.  And those who embark on a turn around effort need every good word and good tune.

Fortunately, a few studies (see post 6/24) have researched the traits of the schools that are moving in spite of the travails on the road.

In 2008 I heard a presentation from the Mass Insight Education & Research Institute, Inc. that outlined the bold steps a school,  school district, and state must take to see students perform as well as students in the most high-performing schools in the country.

Geoffrey Canada, Founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, 2004, was quoted, “Instead of helping some kids beat the odds…why don’t we just change the odds?”

A brief summary of the findings to change the odds shows that instead of a model that merely tries to keep up with the curriculum, the school or district or state must pursue a model that will help each member of the entire school succeed.  Change occurs when the students, teaching staff, administration, and parents are ready to act.

Unfortunately, as we’ve posted on this blog, (5/16 and 5/20), there is little leverage, i.e. funding, from No Child Left Behind legislation; there are few exemplars that are easily available to school districts; there is a lack of public will to sustain support for any school.

Finally, there is a lack of highly visible collaboration among schools, districts, and the state to pull together-as the song urges, no matter how hard the road or far away the end of the trail.

Now, to overcome the odds (some say 5000 low-performing schools will need to be restructured by 2010) the report from the Mass Insight group offers three components, sending the undaunted toward coherent, comprehensive change.

First, revise the conditions for work, time, money, staff, and programs used.  Teachers and administrators will all have to agree on the incentives for work (often a teacher’s union issue), accept the negative impact of the status quo, and be willing to pursue aggressive performance targets.

Second, the capacity to turn around a school requires a school staff that understands and prepares to sustain a revised curriculum, invites other community partners to support the turn around (from nearby universities, for example), and includes students and parents in the effort.  See the article at the end of the Program tab for

Third, clustering bolsters successful collaboration for change, the desire to be part of a successful team.  For instance, several schools can band together to access resources, share success, and offer support.

While the components for program improvement seem obvious in a report, be assured beating the odds requires relentless, consistent effort.

That’s why I remember the words “It will be hard we know, and the road will be muddy and rough, but we’ll get there.”

School volunteers in times of budget crunches

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

When school resources decline, and districts slice millions of dollars from their budgets, what options are available to reduce the world of hurt?  Every kid in school right now is potentially threatened by cutbacks.  Every kid in school right now deserves school districts ready to innovate and create a powerful and positive response to this financial crisis.

Kids love the attention

I helped in my grandson’s school this year.  About once a week, I’d spend two hours in his second grade classroom working with the kids on their reading or math, or doing some small chore to make his teacher’s life a little easier.  I let his teacher know by email exactly when I was coming, to give her a heads up.  She was very flexible and accommodating.

This weekly outing made the best two hours of my week.  The kids seemed to love the attention, and I know I did.  I’m unsure if I made an academic difference in their lives, but I do know that the additional focus on them was important.

Volunteers can benefit from some instructional guidance

I was handicapped, though, in not having many tricks of the trade for helping the kids with reading or math difficulties.  If a child was below grade level in reading, I couldn’t help much more than telling him a word or helping him work through the syllables.  I’m not trained in even the basics of reading instruction.

Similarly with math.  If a child couldn’t do a subtraction problem, I was locked into my “old way” of subtracting, using “borrowing,” which is not exactly how math is taught today.  I told the unsuspecting child I was giving him a “shortcut,” but I wasn’t reinforcing current math strategies.

Welcome volunteers, build reliability

I think schools need to take the possibility of parents and other volunteers much more seriously as one option for curing the budget disease.  My home school district has one link on its website for “Volunteers,” which reads – “go to your local school site to volunteer.”  Not exactly welcoming.

Ideally, each school would have a volunteer coordinator, but if that’s not possible, perhaps one in 10 schools can have such a person to assess academic needs, numbers of volunteers necessary to meet the needs, to find volunteers, and provide training on student learning styles and basic instructional techniques.  Perhaps the volunteer  coordinator can be a volunteer  also- a reliable parent or grandparent with time to help.

Websites as volunteer-coaching medium

School districts can use their websites for instructional resources to help parents and volunteers understand new methods and reinforce learning.  A section of the site at the district and school level should be devoted to this effort, with marketing to parents especially as a value-added resource.

Parents and volunteers must agree to a full commitment, perhaps in a “contract form” so teachers and schools can rely on them. If a district puts in training and coordinating resources, the volunteers must resolve to do their part regularly.

Clearly, this concept is not a complete solution, but it can help schools in bad times – and good times.  Let us hear from schools who have successfully extended their open arms to encourage volunteering – what works and what doesn’t.

Questions the Tests Don’t Answer

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Almost every teacher in the country will put his hands over his face at the mention of the assessments required by No Child Left Behind.  And he can come up with the reasons.

Written by a publishing company?  The summative test is made to cover the curriculum taught anywhere in the country, so the company can sell as many as possible.  No matter that the standards in one state aren’t the same as those in another.  (Another controversy to resolve.)

Tests written to satisfy the standards in one state?  Criterion referenced tests, as they are called, may test minor standards with large numbers of test items, built in to separate the proficient from the advanced, the ‘basic’ students from the proficient.  What does that tell anyone?  Perhaps which students have increased their understanding of the standards for a grade level, or maybe that they’ve mastered the tricks to test taking?

And what about the thousands of students with limited understanding of English?  They still have to pass the same test with the same required increase in points to reach the No Child Left Behind benchmarks each year as students who have been in the United States since birth.

Or students whose parents are working two jobs and don’t or can’t find the time to spend on take-home practice or reading or math or writing essays?  Or students with parents who had limited education themselves?  Many parents do manage and their children do well, but the achievement gap wouldn’t be like it is, if that kind of relentless, selfless support were achievable in all cases.

What about the often mentioned issue that the class spends so much time on preparation for the state test in reading and math that, except in schools with strong numbers of high-achievers, there is little time to spend on science and social studies, art and music?  There is a reason for all the emphasis on the 3 R’s.  Research has shown, on the SAT for example, constant practice can pull up performance scores, if that’s what is being asked for.

Well, why don’t they practice reading with the science text?  Great idea, except the test is focused on specific reading and language skills, not the science content which those texts, fabulous as they may be, cover for a grade level.

And what does the school find out from the API (California’s Academic Performance Index), a number that ranks a school among all 6000 elementary schools in the state?  Or from the AYP (United States Annual Yearly Progress), percentages that tell how far along a school is on the grid to become 100% proficient in reading and math by 2014?

It’s an indicator, but those numbers don’t help analyze the needs of the students who are not yet proficient reading and math learners.  So far in California, for example, only 40% of the elementary schools scored at least 800 (considered excellent) on the index, San Francisco Chronicle, “School Making Big Strides…”, May 22, 2009.

How does the teacher and school analyze the data and plan the reforms to improve learning for all students during a school year, not just for students almost ready to make the next leap?  That’s the important question to answer.