Fact Check From the Democratic Debate

Fifty Top Literacy Statistics

There has been a great deal of attention and buzz about former VP and current Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s rambling response to the education question posed at the end of last night’s debate. For the uninitiated, a record player is what we old-farts used for streaming music in our youth.

Beyond the Friday morning commentary though are some facts that were mangled and should be given some consideration and attention. A huge gap in vocabulary and language acquisition exists between children whose families are more affluent and those who live in poverty. Children living in poverty arrive in our public schools with huge vocabulary deficits of a thousand words – and actually many times over a thousand. This is a significant factor impeding academic growth.

The statistics cited above are ones that we, as a community and a caring responsible society, need to know and address if we are truly serious about education as a pathway for lifting children and families out of poverty.

I’m not sure I’d agree with Mr. Biden that the solution is to turn on the television or “record player” to add more vocabulary and intuited syntactic learning about our language and literacy, but I do believe there are ways to equalize the socio-economic differences that impact academic achievement. One of those ideas I believe in is that a universal PreKindergarten experience must and should be offered to every family.

So while the news is abuzz with talk of record-players, let’s not lose sight of the facts – the statistical facts – that our students are highly impacted by economics as well as academics, and that needs to also be part of our response to improving educational outcomes.

First Day

Do you remember your first day of school as a child?

I recently came across some photographs my mother took on our first day of school in Huron, Ohio. In one, a line-up of neighborhood children are waiting for the bus. Bus Zero – Bunky’s bus. How I can even recall those details so many years later is a testament to the pleasant memories I had growing up in a small town in northwestern Ohio.

In another photograph, the first day of third grade for me, I am sitting on a rock boarder near our garage. From that image came a flood of memories – the smell of stiff new leather shoes, a new metal lunchbox stylishly tartan plaid, hair pulled back into a tight pony tail, and of course the smell of air on a morning in September when summer fades toward fall.

Those warm and wonderful memories are juxtaposed with the reports from Mississippi detailing the aftermath of ICE raids on the first day of school. The children of workers rounded up by ICE went off to their first day of school with all of the anticipation that encapsulates a first day of school, but those young children return home from their first day of school was not the stuff from which warm memories are created. It was nightmarish and cruel.

Those children arrived home to uncertainty and fear. Not knowing what has happened to your parent and the insecurity of figuring out where you will stay or who will take care of you is a cruel brand of separation anxiety that is likely to scar these children for years. Acting DHS Secretary McAleenan may claim that the 680 workers were given an opportunity to use cellphones, make arrangements, released, whatever, but the reality is that did not always happen. Many questions linger including whether the cooperation – and timing of the raids – from the processing plants’ managers was retaliation for harassment charges.

In my opinion, if our immigration and naturalization policies and laws need to address new realities, have that discussion and revise accordingly. Instilling a sense of insecurity, anxiety, and fear because it is expedient to enact a round-up of immigrant parents is cruel, and without a doubt will result in irreparable harm to the children whose first day of school in Mississippi featured chaos and anxiety.

Massive round-ups of and raids on immigrant workers, many of whom seem to have been knowingly employed under suspicious circumstances, does not make this country “safer”. It makes our country heartless and without empathy and the collateral damage can be found in the fears of children.

We Have Become Insane

From the New York Times, August 8, 2019

This was a story featured in the online edition of the New York Times this morning. And it has really driven home for me how insane and “normalized” mass shootings have become, as if that wasn’t totally obvious already.

Apparently, along with this week’s advice for potty-training a child, we now need expert advice in helping kiddos to cope with our own – and the child’s – fears after a mass shooting. Our country has experienced so many of these gut-wrenching mass shootings that advice is needed?

Allow me to rant a bit here. There are actual solutions to the number of violent terroristic acts involving mass shootings. Licensing and strict registration of guns for example. Or amunition. Yet legislation always seems to be dead on arrival in the hallowed halls of the US Congress. So what happens? Experts offer advice about everything except to address the elephant in the room.

As an educator, I was trained to respond to an active shooting situation during our yearly active shooting drills. Specifically, that meant instructing my 8-, 9-, and 10-year old students how to defend themselves should a shooter enter our school building and/or classroom. We planned to stack classroom furniture in front of our door, throw whatever was handy (like a stapler), hide silently against wall so as to not be visible to anyone looking from the hallway into our classroom interior, and/or run like hell to a “meeting place.” My paraprofessional and I scoped out a closet that I and a mobility-disabled student could attempt to hide in since a sprint out of the building was not possible. We removed the closet bar and brainstormed ways to make that closet a viable hiding place.

So I ask: Have we become insane? The solution to mass shootings is to stop them. This week over 30 families have a huge hole in their hearts where a loved one once lived. Many other families are coping with serious injury that will take weeks to physically heal and a lifetime of therapy to cope and recover, if that is even possible.

Are we to believe that the solution to mass shootings is to learn to live with that fear?

You say potato: Losing track of low income/economically disadvantaged students

WBUR’s Max Larkin’s piece on the way Massachusetts has changed counting children living in poverty, How Massachusetts Lost Count of Its Poor Students, was published yesterday. While Massachusetts educators are paying attention, this is a topic that deserves much broader discussion as the unintended consequences are substantial.

In 2015, the Commonwealth began recalculating the number of students living in poverty based upon a new metric which included enrollment in programs like SNAP. Using this new way of counting and classifying the needs of students meant the use a new label, “economically disadvantaged”, replacing the term “low income”. However, more than a change in labeling data collection resulted.

In Lowell prior to the new measures, the average (and I stress the use of the word AVERAGE) poverty rate district-wide was in the 75.1% (2013-14 DESE Select Population data). In the particular school in which I taught, that rate was closer to 85% (84.9%). Using the new means of measurement, in 2014-15, Lowell’s District calculation of students in poverty, now referenced as “economically disadvantaged” was reduced to 49%. So according to the new measure, over the summer break about one-third of Lowell Public School’s students disappeared from the count of children who lived in poverty.

Why does this matter? When we look at student growth and achievement, there are factors within the school and classroom over which educators have control but there are also factors which influence student growth over which educators have little to no control. One of those factors is the impact of living in poverty. This is a huge reason school districts make every attempt to provide students who are low income or economically disadvantaged with additional services. Such services range from wrap-around services for health and housing security to additional educational opportunities like books for home enjoyment and field trips.

As an educator, it did not make sense to me that over the summer break one-third of our students were suddenly no longer in need of such extra supports. Certainly no one could imagine that over the summer months about a third of Lowell’s students for whom poverty was a factor had suddenly become financially stable.

Poverty levels are often a consideration for needs-based grants. Here’s an example: In Lowell, the United Teachers of Lowell applied for participation in the FirstBook Books on Wheels free book distribution program in 2015. To qualify, the District needs-based percentage had to be 70%. Under the new calculation using CEP, Lowell’s 49.1% economically disadvantaged calculation would have disqualified our students and their families from the benefits this wonderful program: books to add to a home library. Luckily our Title I office had actual data which did allow us to qualify for the program.

Which makes me wonder: what other needs-based programs are our children living in poverty missing because a district or school no longer qualifies based upon economically disadvantaged data collected by Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education? Are our children who are living in poverty missing the additional services needed to help them be as successful as their more affluent peers based upon a falsely “improved” low income number?

When the Commonwealth falsely represents students living in poverty based on a flawed new metric, the consequences have a significant and real impact on our most vulnerable students.

They’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear

You’ve got to be taught from year to year

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Oscar Hammerstein II, “You’ve Got to Be Taught” from the musical South Pacific, 1949
Photo by Todd Trapani on Pexels.com

One thing I’ve learned as a parent and as an educator: children mirror our own behavior. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Has anyone had their own child pick up some naughty language which was repeated at a most inopportune moment?

Besides being excellent observers, children look to adults – those who are their caregivers and those encountered through media as “celebrity” – for models of acceptable behaviors and interactions.

This, of course, causes me to wonder about the effect the racist and hyper-charged hate-filled “soundbites” that are blasting into our lives on a daily, and oftentimes hourly basis. What impact is this having on our children?

When adults use disparaging taunts and insulting nicknames to refer to others around them, particularly those with whom there is a disagreement, children intuit that this is an okay way to react and respond. When an adult feels compelled to tell someone to “go back where you came from” or targets people of color, the message is again condoning what I believe and know are unacceptably racist behaviors.

It won’t take much for this to spill over into diverse classrooms. School staff – all of us really – will need to be ready to counteract and replace the unacceptable with inclusiveness and kindness. While that is going to be challenging when each day brings a new low in personal interactions from some corners, it is important, essential work.

Because they’ve got to be carefully taught can run both ways.

Online Preschool? Surely you jest.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

I was once called an education technology pioneer, probably because there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t try at least once if it seemed like it might be a good fit for my students. Drawing on my experience in the private sector, and as an Instructional Technology Specialist in public schools, I embraced the idea that technology was a tool and there was a core of programming that should be in every student’s technology toolbox.

This article, An Online Preschool Closes a Gap But Exposes Another, published in the New York Times, however, indicates to me that educational technology has gone too far.

Briefly, the article tells of less-affluent communities who are embracing a Pre-School curriculum developed by Waterford. You can learn more about the mission of this non-profit here and read more about their partnerships.

While “preschool for all” should be must be a priority for US education, replacing a face-to-face preschool with screen time and 15 minutes of technology programming bothers me. I agree, every child should have access to preschool. As an early grade educator, I recognize that the fact that many communities that cannot and do not offer a quality preschool program puts some young children at a disadvantage which is difficult to overcome.

For some communities, offering universal preschool education through public schools is a matter of economics. There just isn’t adequate public funding for the public schools to offer preschool programs to every family wanting to send a child to preschool. Community budgets are strapped, and there are as many reasons for short funds as there are preschoolers, so community leaders do as the mayor in Fowler, California has done: offer a freebie program for online preschool access.

While I understand that this may seem like a good idea on the surface, it is not. In an effort to ensure every child can read by Grade 3, academics are being foisted onto 4 year olds. That is wrong.

The question is: Just what should a preschool program look like? Should a preschool be 15 minutes of drill and kill on a computer? Who is deciding which computer-aided skills are taught? I ask this because I was stunned to discover the Waterford program teaching silent letters as a phonics skills appropriate for preschoolers. When I actively taught Grade 2, “i+gh” for example was a second grade skill, not a preschool/pre-reading skill.

Preschool, in my opinion, should be heavily weighted toward teaching children to get along with each other, to share and take turns, and to learn appropriate group social behaviors. Preschoolers should also be allowed to learn by experiences; those experiences are important to everything that comes later in learning. Preschool children need to form a strong, compassionate, relationship with the adults teaching them. A positive preschool experience sets the stage for lifelong learning attitudes. These are the things a 15-minute daily online preschool program can never provide.

Our education leaders, in fact all of us, need to step up efforts to make an affordable universal preschool experience available to all who would like one, and stop relying on questionable “free” software to fill in the gap.

Retired & Expired & Letting Go

For the first time since 1974, I no longer hold a teaching license. I decided not to renew my licenses (I have three), and that is something I am discovering to be a source of some apprehension. I retired several years ago from active teaching, however, my identity for most of my life has been, and I imagine will continue to be, synonymous with education.

I’ve wanted to be a teacher since the second grade – which oddly was my favorite grade level to teach – and despite a few detours, that is what I’ve done with most of my working career. But like most things, it is time to officially bring that to a close; my time has passed and it is time to officially let some things go.

Throughout my years of teaching I experienced, as you might expect, good days and bad days, but, as with most who enter the field of education, I wouldn’t have traded for another career. Working with children and families and learning from colleagues has been a rare privilege.

I was fortunate to re-enter education when teaching was, I think, at its best. I think it is difficult to describe that to people. There was a level of collegiality between administrators and teachers based upon mutual respect and trust. And it was that mutual respect and trust that made the hard work of education exceptionally rewarding. We worked hard, the children worked hard, we all learned. And still we had fun.

My principals were exacting and their expectations were high, yet I never felt that I couldn’t try new ideas for reaching students. I trusted my administrators and colleagues, but more importantly, they trusted me.

As I move into this next phase of my life’s story, I do know that I am not leaving education far behind. I have a granddaughter who will be entering school in the next few years, and thus, my interest in education is changing focus a bit.

The paper proclaiming my legitimacy as an educator may have expired, but there is still much to think about and speak up for. And that is what I will continue to do.