Don’t Sit This Out. Please.

white and grey voting day sign

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Don’t sit tomorrow’s election out. Go vote.

Think your vote “doesn’t matter”. I disagree. Recently in the MA3 Congressional District Primary, less than 150 (recounted) votes was the difference between the eventual winner, Lori Trahan and second place, Dan Koh. Yeah, those 150 votes mattered. Quite a bit as it turned out. Your vote might just be a deciding factor; go vote.

Yes, I agree with you that the electoral college is an abomination but we are in the mid-terms and the electoral college won’t be a factor this time. Maybe who you vote for will be able to help change the presidential election process; however, so go vote.

Good ol’ boy/girl network making you think it’s pointless. Vote anyway. It will only be pointless if you don’t vote your heart and mind. If the candidate for office is unopposed and you write in a name, that also sends a message. As I learned in Latin class, illegitimi non carborundum. You can look that one up and then go vote.

Does an Election Day on a November Tuesday seem inconvenient?  (The answer to why we vote on the first Tuesday in November is here.) Your vote could change that; after all many states allow early voting now.  Absentee ballots can still be petitioned for and submitted prior to noon today (see MA Secretary of State Absentee Voting or call your City/Town elections office). And although the Early Voting window is closed for this election, you can and should still go vote.

Hard to get to the polls? Need a ride? Contact candidate campaign offices. Oftentimes there are volunteers who can help with that. And by-the-way, the rumors about free Lyft and Uber rides are not exactly true. Here’s the straight talk dispelling rumor and misunderstanding from Snopes. Get a ride and go vote.

In Massachusetts, the polls must be open from 7 am until 8 pm; some places are allowed to open at 5:45 am, so check with your city or town election office. If you are in line at 8 pm, you must be allowed to vote. DO NOT GET OUT OF LINE (that is also true for most other states). The Massachusetts Secretary of State’s Office has a detailed list of when (and why) you might be asked for identification and also about requesting a “provisional ballot”. Check here. Know the voting regulations and go vote.

Listen, we all need to make time for this civic obligation. There are some important issues that are being decided and even more coming in the future. You may or may not be cancelling out my vote; go vote anyway.

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More is Less

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Sometimes I wonder if we’ve lost our collective minds when it comes to early childhood education.  This morning, I found this well-written article, from January 2016’s Atlantic: “The New Preschool is Crushing Kids“.  Thoughtfully written by author Erika Christakas, the idea that our education system has shifted from a “protected” childhood to a “prepared” one resonated. Ask educators and you will hear that what used to be taught in second grade, is now a requirement for first grade. First grade expectations are have moved down to kindergarten. And preschool? Yes, preschool is filled with academic skills.  It’s the trickle down theory of education.

According to Christakas though, all of this new “rigor” may not translate into academic success.

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills.

Could it be that by forcing young children to perform academic skills at such an early age is killing their curiosity and love for learning?

Our schools seem to focus on the “cognitive potential” learners, even those of a very young age. When test scores are published and reported, we hear about gaps in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged learners.

In my experience, such gaps are a function of a child who needs more time to experience the world, to learn the language used in school, to converse, to listen, and to experiment. It troubles me that in place of deepening and enriching the experiences of young children, young learners are subjected to more seat/paper/desk work. In an impatient rush to boost test scores and school ratings, there has been a misguided effort to push academic skills and concepts earlier and earlier at the expense of learning that is developmentally appropriate.

I was taught that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I believe our edu-crats need to take heed of this adage. More is definitely less for our youngest learners.

Early Childhood Education Insanity (my rant)

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Our first grandchild arrived in August, and as many grandparents come to understand, things have changed since we raised our own children. Babies don’t sleep with crib bumpers, or on their tummies. Children don’t wear winter coats in car seats. I most definitely have zero applicable knowledge when it comes to infants. Times have changed, research has changed, thinking has changed.

My wheelhouse, though, is education. I wonder – often as it turns out – if my own thinking as a teacher is outdated. I was reminded of this when a colleague shared the school district’s current Early Childhood (PreK) progress report with me – which was over 10 pages long. These 3- and 4-year-olds have been “in school” barely 5 weeks and already their teachers are tasked with assessing their progress.

Progress in what, exactly? When one is 3- or 4-years old, shouldn’t the ultimate goal be to learn to love learning? To get along with others and take turns? Socialize?  A 10-page checklist of skills – by category – seems ridiculous for a little one who has only been on this planet for less than 5 trips around the sun.

It did make me curious: what exactly is being asked of young children, so I did some browsing through Boston Public School’s Early Childhood page. Check out the “robust questions” intended to spark conversation with 3- or 4-year olds in Centers found in the vocabulary section of this document,  “What is the inspiration for your work?” “What is your plan for structure?”

Looking at the assessments recommended for this age group, there are a number of screening and assessment tools recommended and required.  Some would be useful as a child’s language development progresses; one that seems “optional” but noted in use in some school PreK programs is Fountas & Pinnell benchmark testing. That’s right, some schools endeavor to find a 3-year-olds “independent” reading level. No, they are not kidding. Shouldn’t we be reading to children this young and not expecting them to read to us?

Here’s my question as a new grandparent and a retired educator:

When do young children get to just be young children?

Is there such a driving need to prove children are “learning” at such young ages that reasonable expectations, developmental appropriateness and an emphasis on developing social skills and love of learning been replaced by assessment, evaluation, and checklists?

My hope is that the pendulum swings back to more child-friendly early childhood education before my granddaughter reaches school-age.

 

It seems pretty clear to me

Screenshot 2018-06-08 07.05.05About two weeks ago, the Massachusetts Legislature failed once again to update school funding formulae known as the “Foundation”.  In my opinion, this is not only a huge disappointment, it is a disservice to students, families, and public schools in 351 cities and towns across Massachusetts.

Here in Lowell, the erosion of school services and supports can be traced in the budget cuts that have been necessary over the last nearly 20 years. In the late 1990s, when an elementary class size reached 25, it was common practice to assign a paraprofessional to that classroom, which allowed for more focused and individualized attention to students. In 2015, my retirement year, my grade level of 100 students and 4 classroom teachers shared 1 paraprofessional.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, elementary school staff included not only a library aide, but a certified Library Media Specialist. The library was a space where students not only learned research skills, but were exposed to wonderfully diverse literature and media curated by the Library Media staff. By the mid-2000s, all but one Library Media specialist was cut from the Lowell Public Schools and school libraries were maintained by Library Media aides. This year, 2018-19, the school budget has cut all library staff in Grades Kindergarten through Grade 8 essentially closing the libraries to any students below Grade 9.

These are but two examples of service cuts in Lowell. There have been many others. Teachers in Lowell spend inordinate amounts of personal money (in my own case, I spent on average of $1,000 each year and some years much more) to supply classrooms. Social workers, Speech and Language therapists, OT, PT, Special Education…. all carry larger-than-reasonable caseloads.

Have municipalities like Burlington or Wellesley cut K-8 library staff and access to school libraries? Of course not. Wealthier communities make up the shortfalls in Foundation funding from their property tax base and a community that is able to afford to allocate more funds toward schools. Does that seem equitable to anyone? (read WBUR’s commentary Inaction on School Funding Will Keep Opportunity Gaps in Place.)

What does our Commonwealth say about our schools and the Commonwealth’s responsibility to fund education? We only need to look at the Commonwealth’s Constitution and this paragraph:

“Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them, especially the university at Cambridge [and] public schools and grammar schools in the towns….” Mass. Const. Pt. 2, C. 5, § 2.

As of this writing, the Legislature has failed our schools and our children. They have failed in their duties to “cherish” education and they have failed to provide the funding that would allow ALL public schools across Massachusetts to provide equitable educational opportunities.

We must tell our narratives as parents, students, educators, and community members. We must let our legislators know in no uncertain terms, that to continue to underfund the Foundation Budget Review Commission’s recommendations is unacceptable. We need to cherish our schools here in Massachusetts and fix the funding so that every child has access to equitable educational opportunities.

What Are YOU Missing?

We are about a week beyond the Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) disappointment. Last evening, as I listened in to a conference call sponsored by Mass Education Justice Alliance (MEJA), this question was posed:

What we are missing because of underfunded schools?

When I left active teaching in 2015, I know that underfunding was impacting the public school in which I worked in many ways. Paraprofessional staff had been severely reduced as had ELL support teachers, Reading Specialists, and Science specialists. Library Media Specialists and Instructional Technology Specialists were eliminated. GoFundMe and Donors Choose were the new “normal” for obtaining necessary school classroom supplies. Teacher out-of-pocket expenses climbed (at the time I was spending nearly $1,200 per year on books and paper goods), new curriculum often meant more personal expenditures on trade books and resources for the classroom.

But, as I write this, I know my experiences are three years post-retirement. So I ask you, if you are a Massachusetts Public School teacher, how has underfunding impacted you?

Leave the Drama to the Drama Department

pexels-photo-220320.jpegLowell appears to have established a personnel practice that is not, in my opinion, a winning strategy for attracting, and more importantly, keeping the best administrators to serve a large and complex school system.  

The last two School Superintendents in Lowell had tenures lasting 3 years. When these former administrators first were appointed, the spirit of collaboration and cooperation was positive. And then, as often happens, the honeymoon period disintegrated. Time passed, the acrimony continues and before you can say “help wanted”, a new hiring committee formed. 

Oh Lowell, this is why we can’t have nice things.

The School Committee agenda published on the City’s website hints at what could turn out to be an extension of this practice, this time directed toward the current superintendent, Dr. Khelfaoui. This is disturbing for several reasons:  the loss of continuity in LPS District leadership and the manner in which what appears to me to be a personnel issue, is being conducted.

Right now, the Lowell Public Schools budget/financial situation is dire. The lack of funding is so critical that K-8 school libraries will no longer have a library aide to oversee them. Effectively, that will end the library access for elementary and middle school students. There have been several cuts, equally acute, at the High School level. Lack of funding is no longer a belt-tightening exercise, it is now affecting students and school services directly. 

Anyone paying attention knows that the amount of Chapter 70 funding allocated to Lowell’s charter schools has increased by $2 million to a total assessment of $19 million. Top that off with a state budget that chronically, and I’d say intentionally, underfunds its obligations to both ELL and low-income students (see Foundation Budget) and a charter school reimbursement that never actually receives funding from the State.  Consequently the swirling vortex of school funding has turned into a tsunami. This is not necessarily the fault of Lowell’s Superintendent of Schools.

The CFO for the District has left Lowell for another Massachusetts school position. Currently the CFO position is vacant at a time when critical end-of-year reporting is in process. Three candidates for the interim CFO position withdrew before being interviewed. Does this indicate that Lowell’s reputation for being a tough gig is limiting the number of candidates willing to work here? 

Lowell, your reputation precedes you.

And that reputation as a “tough gig” brings me to conducting and discussing personnel and evaluative issues. No doubt about it, one of the School Committee’s main responsibilities is overseeing the school superintendent. It is the body that evaluates the superintendent. [Note the last evaluation, overall “Proficient”, was completed and reported at the School Committee meeting on Dec. 20, 2017. Notes for that meeting are found here in Agenda Item 6. under “Unfinished Business].

The three agenda items for the July 18, 2018 meeting (link above in Paragraph 4) which, in short, call for a document to terminate the superintendent’s employment, an immediate move to put the superintendent on administrative leave, and the appointment of a replacement from the Superintendent’s Central Office “team” telegraph that the School Committee has issues with the Superintendent’s performance since that 2017 evaluation. Shouldn’t this be a discussion held in person, either in a face-to-face meeting OR in executive session?  Putting such items out in an open meeting seems vindictive and petty, and not at all benefitting to Lowell’s schools or families. It most likely means any resemblance to a Central Office “team” has now evaporated.

This is an embarrassment to our schools and our community. It does not serve Lowell’s interests now, nor will it serve in the future when a new leader for our schools needs to be selected.

Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance

IMG_0200For 30 years, I was a teacher in both private and public elementary schools. I certainly was not a perfect teacher, and I made more than my share of missteps, especially in interactions with students.

Experience can be an exacting teacher, however. One of the most important and useful lessons I learned was that for empathetic practitioners, there is no such thing as “zero tolerance”. Despite one’s insistence that a rule be followed without exceptions, the reality is simply the opposite. In a world of right-or-wrong, black-or-white, there is always a gray space.

Take a school’s zero tolerance for wearing caps in school as an example. On the surface, such a policy seems simple enough particularly for those of us who were brought up in the generation of “men do not wear caps inside.” I share with you an anecdote from my time as an elementary teacher.

One morning, a student of mine walked into my third grade classroom just on the cusp of the tardy bell. His head was down, he hadn’t gone to his locker, he made zero eye contact with anyone and… he had his baseball cap firmly on his head. This student was a leader, well-liked and respected by his peers and, even at his most challenging, liked by his teachers. When I asked him to take off his cap, as was the rule, he simply looked down and shook his head defiantly.

As I was about to escalate this conversation, I was saved from being a jerk by the school’s social worker who had cajoled the whole cap story from this child. For some reason, this student’s father had taken to giving the child an at-home hair cut, leaving tufts of his hair randomly interspersed between patches of skin. My student was mortified that his friends would see his new haircut and, as kids often do, taunt him mercilessly. So in a nod to the gray area, the zero-tolerance of caps in school was abandoned and the cap stayed on.

I tell this story because there is an important take-away for every “zero tolerance” situation, including the one currently unfolding in our government. The consequence of this government’s action however is far less benign than becoming an over-zealous enforcer of school rules.

Zero tolerance should never become an absolute; there are far too many extenuating circumstances that can and should guide it. It is a lesson our government could and should apply as well.