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Here and Now in the Education World

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Taking on the latest in the controversy about the best for public school students from the viewpoints in a family of teachers and trainers.

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What Should Be Part of Public Schools

January 27th, 2017
Post by CJN

Concern amplifies about the president’s choice for Secretary of Education after Betsy DeVos could not bring herself to agree that guns do not belong in schools. She seems to think grizzly bears pervade this nation. It’s laughable. Who needs gun safety rules for protection? Students in urban and suburban America is the usual answer. How many schools are up high in the Rockies where grizzlies roam anyway?

Opinion is that her nomination is being held up in hopes that her critics will move on from opposing the billionaire philanthropist with ties to Amway and the Family Research Council, both funding religious organizations and schools. She has the GOP leadership behind her in spite of an extremely poor showing about the duties as head of the United States Depart of Education. She has not withdrawn her nomination.

Recall that she was selected, first, because she contributes large amounts to the GOP and, second, because she has invested millions of dollars lobbying for laws that drain money from public schools and fought against requirements for measures of accountability in the charter schools in Michigan although accountability is what all schools in the United States must value.

Article after news article, senator after senator during her first hearing, observed that Ms. DeVos has no teacher training or experience in public schools. How will she know the best practices to achieve academic success for the diverse schools in the country?

In addition, her critics do not see that Ms. DeVos is a good fit for overseeing the civil rights of the 6 million students in the nation’s schools, including special education needs, LGBT student needs, high-achieving and low-performing school needs. She refused to commit to upholding Title IX guidance requiring schools to investigate instances of sexual harassment or violence.

Moreover, while one mission for all students in the country is to learn citizenship, kindness, tolerance, and responsibility for others, it may be the purpose of the private schools that Ms. DeVos and her children attended, but has never been the purpose for public schools, to “advance God’s kingdom” – (Ms. DeVos words) – whatever that phrase infers.

One wonders if Ms. DeVos has any knowledge of the many projects in the country whose purpose is to help create success in struggling schools? The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, which started in the term of President Reagan, has invested in a program called Turn Around Arts. In the 2015 report Reinvesting in Arts Education, Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools showed the evaluation of a three-year pilot program of Turn Around Arts. The lowest performing 5% of America’s elementary and middle schools in the program showed improved academic achievement, reduced disciplinary referrals, and increased attendance – three strong guarantors of  improvement.

What many studies have shown, students, participating in the arts, science, history even though the programs are not direct instruction in reading or math, improve in those important learning areas, as well as become enthusiastic students, for instance, of the arts – dance, painting/sculpture, music.

The first of these programs are found in thirty-six school districts from Minneapolis to the District of Columbia to Los Angeles. In California, an independent non-profit with financial support from architect Frank Gehry and the California Arts Council provides the funds.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama has urged struggling schools to consider this model to bring academic and arts success. One wishes that the U.S. Department of Education would select a cabinet member that knows about and finances valuable tools that support improvement in schools.

 

Victory Often Changes Her Side

December 19th, 2016
Post by CJN

The president-elect’s cabinet is filled with conservatives whose goal is to kick federal bureaucracies down the right field, incorporating policies that most in education, for example, wince to hear or read.

The president-elect’s choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a billionaire philanthropist with ties to Amway and the Family Research Council, both funding religious organizations and schools. She was selected, first, because she contributes large amounts to the GOP and, second, because she has spent years in Michigan supporting for-profit charter schools that are not doing as well as the public schools (National Assessment of Educational Progress – NAEP – results) and vouchers for private and parochial schools.

Some charter schools in some states have served children well, especially when the purpose is to provide students with alternate modes of learning. When the schools are promoted as a tool for providing the “Christian” way of learning, which Ms. DeVos advocates, the founding fathers’ First Amendment policy of “separation of church and state” is attacked.

Children go to Saturday or Sunday School or After-School Fellowships to ponder any number of religious ways of thinking. Public schools teach reading, written expression, oral language use, mathematics, science and social science/history, and do not “advance God’s kingdom,” as Ms. DeVos stated at a gathering of Christian philanthropists. New York Times, Op-Ed “DeVos and God’s Plan for Schools” by Katherine Stewart, December 13, 2016.

Vouchers can be looked at as another tool, which proponents may say is to provide better learning opportunities for all children, but if the funds are directed to be used to attend private “Christian” or parochial schools, the same problem exists.

In addition, the president-elect has proposed a $20 billion federal voucher program for “school choice”, right up Ms. DeVos’ alley. However, only 9% of the $600 billion a year spent in the country for education comes from federal sources used for specific purposes – for students with special needs or in low-income neighborhoods. Along with all the tax cuts, tax credits, military spending, and eliminating the budget deficit that the president-elect proposes, it is hard to fathom $20 billion being available or enough to help all the students in the United States, even if states are told to kick in some of the cost.

Assuming she’s confirmed and Ms. DeVos actually enters her office at the Department of Education, it might be possible that she has done some reading about the policies of the DOE. Perhaps she’ll realize the value of advocating for the pursuit of strong programs in every United States school to close the achievement gap; to further support Common Core State Standards (remember, devised and coordinated by the states), in spite of VP-elect Mike Pence’s dislike of the standards movement; to understand the conflict over testing vs. learning; and to keep her mouth closed about her LBGT feelings in light of the total number of students her position demands she support.

What can we do? Check out the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, founded by two educators in Chicago and supported by NEA and AFT along with eight other strong national organizations, to stage a Day of Action on January 19, 2017, all over the country, the day before the inauguration. Along with the January 21 Women’s March, Mr. Trump, Ms. DeVos, and his other cabinet members might soon see that it’s necessary to address the concerns of the 65,746,544 popular voters for Ms. Clinton. His side may be the Electoral College winner, but “Victory often changes her side.” Homer, Iliad.

 

 

 

 

Now what?

November 20th, 2016
Post by CJN
independent reading in a diverse elementary classroom in California

independent reading in a diverse elementary classroom in California

The election is over and the president-elect is not known to think much about schools. However, one of the president elect’s well-known campaign assertions is about to take effect: getting rid of gun-free zones.

In California, the state with some of the toughest gun safety measures in the nation, Kern High School District School Board in Bakersfield, home of famed House of Representatives majority whip Kevin McCarthy, can and has approved 3 to 2 to allow teachers and staff to carry concealed guns. In total 4 high school districts and one unified school district in the conservative counties of the state have sanctioned concealed carry.

Other than that, nothing has been heard except rumor that Michelle Rhee, former superintendent of Washington, D.C. public schools, may be appointed to head the United States Department of Education.

On the other hand, as reported in the Take Care post of 7/2016 the USDOE may be gone. Pfft! Since it wastes money, harbors fraud, and embraces bureaucratic regulation.

The president-elect may be too busy trying to find like-minded cabinet members. Jeff Sessions, up for approval to be attorney general, will not likely be a protector of education rights. Beginning with what is known about his position on immigration, no wonder high school and college students continue demonstrating day after day. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, better known as DACA, is in jeopardy for all the students who crossed the border with their parents when young and who thought they may have a chance to become legal residents of the United States. And elementary students, K-5, spend their days when they should be learning, worrying instead if they will be deported along with their parent.

The day after the election, teachers felt the need to stop academics and spend time on values – no bullying, no name-calling, no writing slurs, no shoving or hitting, no ostracizing – all actions that were on television and radio all during the campaign. The few words from the president-elect hasn’t stopped the action in the streets.

From the Archbishop of Los Angeles to the Chief of Police of New York, city governments felt obligated to speak out that they would not support deportation by ICE. Still, schools are one of the first places that worry is displayed.

Some teachers have used written language time for students to write opinion essays: Why the man who won should/should not be President. Other classes used time to discuss why in a democracy one must respect the outcome. Students are taking part in Project Cornerstone which asks the students to think in terms of “up-standards” – looking for the positive ways to approach an outcome with which you disagree.

Views of the vice president-elect make it difficult to expect a generous outcome when the administration finally gets around to any thought about public schools. A man who as Congressman and governor never supported a bill that he thought led to “federal intrusion,” also thinks Common Core State Standards are intrusive on the state, and prefers charter schools (good or bad) and vouchers. He is not likely to advocate spending effort or money on federal funding for schools.

Good bye Title I funding for low-income public schools, farewell to Title IX that assures fair sports funding and prohibits gender harassment, and exit now to Title II that provides funding for highly-qualified teachers and administrators.

In addition, since the start of the great recession in 2008 until 2016, 23 states have cut taxes and so cut funding to education, a position that suggests deliberate policy. Three of those states had initiatives on the 2016 ballot, but only Maine voters passed its initiative. Of the other 27 states, only California and Oregon had measures on the ballot. California passed both measures, a substantial bond measure and an extension of the special tax on high incomes. Oregon voters didn’t pass its initiative.

This brings us to the point that everybody loves to criticize schools, but if states won’t provide funding, the federal government must step up. It’s “the duty of the executive branch to ensure, through regulation and supervision,” (New York Times, “Schoolchildren Left Behind”, November 12, 2016) that funding supports schools with students most in need. A public-school-minded executive branch must pressure the conservative members of Congress who are well-known for efforts to cut Title I funding.

Who will teachers point to as models of tolerance and advocates for public education, one of the most basic foundations of our civil society since the days of the Puritans?

 

 

As the November 2016 Election Nears

October 12th, 2016
Post by CJN

News about government legal action seems more important when the presidential elections are coming.

In September 2016, the news told about the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision that the legislature’s funding for schools in the state was unconstitutional and purposely inequitable among the public school districts. In essence, school infrastructure is inadequate, teachers are poorly evaluated, students graduate unable to read well, achievement gaps persist between high-income and low-income communities. These problems pop up country-wide, in spite of the celebrated move from No Child Left Behind Act to Every Student Succeeds Act, the new name for the congressional Elementary and Secondary Education Act revised in 2015.

The Connecticut’s Supreme Court decision has come after a decade of legal action, and other states are facing the same actions about adequate and equitable funding for public schools –  in Kansas, Missouri, New Jersey.

However, some states moved forward long ago. In 1993, facing a school funding lawsuit, Massachusetts legislature passed an act that evened out funding between well-to-do districts and poor districts and set high achievement standards that has resulted in improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams. Massachusetts is now considered to have a high-achieving system of public schools.

The presidential candidates are wrangling about federal tax rates which affect funding for schools. So, what are states around the country doing to fund schools and address issues to help schools improve, instead of waiting for lawsuits that take years to reach a decision from state Supreme Courts and even end up at the United States Supreme Court?

For example, in California two propositions on the November election ballot advocate for a kindergarten through community college public education facilities Bond Act of 2016 to bring infrastructure up to code for earthquake, fire, and asbestos – still an issue for California. How about states facing tornado damage, hurricanes, and flooding?

In addition, a measure for an extension on tax rates for the wealthiest to fund children’s education and healthcare – not bureaucracy or administration – is on the ballot.

Although Santa Clara County is one of the wealthiest counties in the state, the legislature addressed an issue – AB 2368. It will ease restrictions for low-income families in the county, giving Santa Clara County government limited flexibility regarding child care and early childhood education subsidy funds so that all low-income pre-school-aged children have the advantages of well-to-do families.

Look at your state legislature and local government action in the November election!

Let’s look at what’s happening in the schools during this controversial election.

From last Spring to Fall, an on-line survey of 2,00 K-12 teachers, nationwide, report the toxic outcomes of what educators call the Trump Effect. Although many articles have been written and discussed in previous Take Care posts about teaching student collaboration and responsibility for their actions and words, the survey reports in elementary and high schools an increase in bullying and students fearful for their status as immigrants.

For instance, in Silicon Valley’s city of Mountain View, California, using social media to make threats against the school, though not targeting specific students or staff members, “three (Mountain View High School) suspects…were detained, questioned, and eventually arrested at the Mountain View Police Department Monday morning October 10. The teens were all arrested on charges of making criminal threats and conspiring to commit a crime.” Mountain View Voice Online, “Three MVHS teens arrested over social media threats” by Kevin Forestieri, October 10, 2016.

In a year of news about war, shouting lies and claiming truth, shooting people of color, and targeting attacks on police officers, how can teachers “explain the unexplainable”? nea Today “The Trump Effect” by Amanda Litvinov, Summer 2016.

Tolerance versus hate-filled language is a troubling concern for teachers, but perhaps we can take heart when a teacher notes after the second presidential debate that “My fourth graders give better presentations than Trump,” Sarah Noonan on Facebook, October 10, 2016. The post may be partisan, but it’s not hate-filled.

Perhaps teachers can find ways to teach students to do as Michelle Obama said, “When they take the low road, we take the high.” Difficult, but maybe a way to address the unexplainable.

 

 

 

Projects to Overcome Problems

September 3rd, 2016
Post by CJN

Nightly, Project XQ, one of PBS The Newshour sponsors, advocates a new concept to refocus, recharge, rethink American high schools. The XQ premise is that high schools were designed for the economy of the early 20th century and must be redesigned for the needs of students in the 21st.

In fact, as the 2016-17 school year begins, the lack of equitable school finances; the oft times weak teacher/principal/curricula efforts; the resistance to efforts that alleviate poverty and economic segregation; the opposition to accountability and governance; and the need for early childhood education provide the news articles about schools found daily in the media.

Let’s begin, though, with some good news. In the New York Times, August 28, 2016, “The Good News About Educational Inequality,” a report from the National Center for Education Statistics confirms that the achievement gap in reading and math between Kindergarteners in 1998 and 2010 has narrowed and the achievement of 4th graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams holds the gain. Even with the distance between high and low income families and economic segregation, the effects hold for both groups.

Why? It is easier to find affordable high-quality early childhood education. Low-income homes have books and parents read with their youngsters. The nation has realized that the first few years are consequential for learning.

We cannot, however, take the stakes off the long term table.

In this post, Take Care Schools shares suggestions from KQED (local PBS affiliate) articles about relief for the neighborhood segregation in schools in Oakland, California. Since court-ordered desegregation was never successful country-wide, schools stick to improving the quality of the neighborhood school in hopes of more students choosing to attend – health clinics at the site, wrap around services for the students and families, low class -size, transportation.

Or the district may rewrite its method to be assigned a school. Right now, like in many districts across the county, Oakland public school students are allowed six choices of schools to attend. However, the priority for selection is 1) siblings at the school and 2) families living in the neighborhood. Then, other students are admitted until capacity. It hasn’t made change in the number of majority white or black/Hispanic schools. Perhaps the regulations may be rewritten to assure that 60-80% of the students admitted to each school (K-12) qualify for free/reduced price lunch. In that way the school populations would mix.

Furthermore, Understood.org, a group seen in the New York Times, August 4, 2016, provides excellent information for parents of special needs students, another category of student for which support from school districts is hampered by budget limits, supply of credentialed teachers, and administrator awareness of the diverse student needs in the school.

To conclude, Project XQ, founded by Russlyn Ali and Lauren Powell Jobs of Emerson Collective who see the current American high school as frozen in time, is determined to offer the next student generation high schools that adapt to our changing world. An ideal opportunity would provide generous time to master the fundamentals of literacy; collaborate; expand the horizons for the curious, original thinker; and encourage lifetime learning. Sound good? Sound necessary? Sound hard to overcome resistant thinking?

The question is: Does the education world start with local change, address the low-income issues that absorb all of a school’s energy? Or look at school change as an act of social justice? Shake off our fear of difficulty and move forward to innovate?

 

 

Contributors

Ongoing posts by CJN, Claire Noonan, M.A., elementary teacher in large urban schools with fifteen years in the classroom and twenty years supervising and coaching the reading/language arts curriculum.

Occasional posts by PEN, Paula Noonan, Ph.D., thirty years in training and consulting services to companies across the nation and content expert/teacher of M.Ed. programs for Jones International University.

Periodic posts by SEN, Sarah Noonan, the teacher starting her career in a suburban elementary school hit with all the budget and achievement dilemmas in beautiful California.