Keeping Things Real

The Group Insurance Commission or GIC here in Massachusetts is at it again. Fellow public employees, active and retired, will recall last year’s efforts by the commission to bring health costs under control. I’d like to think attention was paid to questioning spiraling health care increases, particularly from pharmaceuticals, when the GIC set last year’s rates and policies. However,  the cost controlling aspect of last year’s adventures in rate setting became less about holding-the-line on increased costs,  and more about shifting all the increases to the subscribers.

Last year, subscribers found deductible increases doubling, retirees had co-pays in medi-gap insurances doubling, and some drugs were removed from formularies.  We survived that one, although as a retiree, I noticed my health insurance premium increased 13% over 2016. That cost change does not include increases from raising the deductibles (a 67% increase for individuals last time around) or increases to co-pays, particularly targeted toward retired members last year.

The GIC held a meeting last year and seemed shocked that GIC members from across the Commonwealth were upset by these increases.

Now before anyone goes all “you should be glad you have health insurance at all” on me, yes I am glad to have this benefit. I too, have experienced private sector insurance increases and realize that health coverage increases are pretty steep no matter whom you work for. Unless of course, you happen to be a member of Congress and get something pretty sweet for practically no cost – but that’s another story for another day.

So fast forward to 2018. In fact, let’s go right to January 19, 2018 and the GIC Commissioner’s regular monthly meeting.  This time, the Commissioners decided to eliminate some of the plans and offer fewer health care choices.  Read about which ones here, but interestingly three plans that were eliminated from the GIC’s offerings are ones that serve half of the GIC’s 442,000 members (that would be Harvard Pilgrim, Tufts, and Fallon). Read the Boston Business Journal article to get more specifics on which plans made the cut and which did not. If you believe Governor Baker, “practically everybody” will be able to keep the same trusted doctors and hospitals with whom they have an established relationship. On behalf of the 50% of us who are going to need to change plans, I say we shall see.

GIC members may have an opportunity to find out more as the Commission takes this information on the road around the Commonwealth. In Lowell, that opportunity presents itself this Thursday evening, January 25 (5 pm) at UML’s O’Leary Library on South Campus (Rom 222). That address is

UMass Lowell

O’Leary Library*, Room 222 (South Campus)

61 Wilder Street

Lowell, MA 01854

Parking: Wilder Lot/Visitor Metered Parking Lot

You must RSVP to attend the meeting. Please be sure to do that by emailing the GIC at gic.events@massmail.state.ma.us. The link below should take you to the GIC’s flyer for other venues across the state.

GIC PUBLIC HEARING – 2018_FLYER

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“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

img_1871Day four’s Meditation from the Mat really resonated with me. That is so not only because of the simple truth, but also because what happens on a daily – or is it hourly – basis in these unprecedented times calls us to do something.

When legislative leaders in the United States can’t find money to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), but can find a (very) sizeable tax give-away to very rich and powerful donors, it is time to act.

When the Congress of the United States entertains an offset to the deficits that will result from said give-aways by reducing Medicare and Social Security benefits, it is time to act.

When state aid to schools is based upon 24 year old (plus) formulas that result in underfunded public schools, it is time to act.

When our unique differences are a flashpoint for senseless violence and discrimination, it is time to act.

We must act, we need to speak our truth when we witness or experience those things that harm not only our personal selves, but our collective self. Because we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

The whole of this quote from a Hopi Elder

can be found on p 7-8 of Meditations from the Mat:

“There is a river flowing now, very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and suffer greatly. Know that the river has its destination. The elders say we must push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open and our heads above the water. See who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves, for the moment we do that, our spiritual growth comes to a halt. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves; banish the word ‘struggle’ from your attitude and vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred way and in celebration. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

 

Teacher

2014-11-25-lincoln-024I started reading Meditations from the Mat this weekend. The writings are daily practices in mindful meditation written by Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison and had come highly recommended by a group of yogis I’ve encountered in an online group.

In explaining his own yoga journey, from a weekend retreat at Kripalu to yoga teacher training, Rolf Gates relayed a story about an encounter with Baron Baptiste, renowned yoga teacher and author.

…”Are you a teacher?” I said I was, but the words didn’t ring true. I taught classes, but I was not a teacher.

For a while I puzzled over how that could be true; if one taught, one must be a teacher, right?

As Rolf explained, the act of teaching is the act of drawing out. In yoga, that means drawing out what the student may already know about breath, alignments, and postures.

In education today, do we have the flexibility to draw out of our students what they already know and can connect to? Can we lead them to knowledge without having to force it in before the students are ready for it?

Standards in a general sense, are good end-goals for education and educators. Where standards and standards-based education go awry is when those end points are unreasonable or developmentally inappropriate or, in some cases, designed to foster failure. The purpose of early childhood education should not be a dress rehearsal for intermediate grade level standardized testing. Yet it sometimes is.

As an example, I have heard from participants in the graduate level literacy class I led tell of kindergarten students writing or keyboarding.  This is wrong. Forcing young learners toward skills that are outside what is developmentally appropriate for them is a disservice to them.

Teachers want to teach, to draw out, what their students know to make connections. We want learning to be relevant, to spark curiosity and to stay with our students. We want to teach.

 

Data Digging

IMG_0021This article, found in the December 5, 2017 New York Times and titled How Effective Is Your School District, should trigger some more in-depth thought about test results and effective schools. The assumed narrative hyped by press and edu-crats, is that urban school systems, more particularly public urban schools systems, are failing to educate students.

My experience with standardized testing and assessment of children based solely on such measurements has not been all that informative or enlightening. As an example, the last class of fourth grade students I taught before retiring regularly wrote reflective responses to their reading. Their writing was (developmentally) appropriate and most were meeting grade level standards based on the rubrics and inter-rater discussions my colleagues and I used as an assessment guide. Yet the results of their state standardized testing did not reflect that.

One could certainly make the case that, in knowing my students, there could have been a layer of subjectivity which I applied during my assessment, but I don’t think that was true very often. In fact, when my grade level colleagues and I looked at student work, my assessments were most often in alignment with theirs.

So what does this anecdote have to do with school effectiveness?

For most if not all of the years when I was teaching in urban and high poverty schools, I felt as if there were more factors influencing students’ tests and my school’s educational effectiveness. And, as Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy point out in the Times article, by looking more deeply at test results and tracking student growth over time, the rest of the universe just may discover what educators have known in their gut: that when students begin education from trauma and poverty, it may take a bit of time – years actually – to catch up and many students do.

Badger and Quealy refer to third grade students in Chicago Public Schools. Collectively those students are a year or more behind when tested in Grade 3; however, by Grade 8, many of these same children have grown 6 years and are nearly at Eighth Grade performance expectation. To me, that shows a school system that despite being nearly starved to death financially, is able to provide effective education to students, many of whom come from situations of poverty and trauma.

Looking more analytically at standardized test results over time might actually show urban (and southern) schools are actually working. Using a measurement of student growth alongside those performance results shows some remarkable results. Be sure to utilize the graphic further into the article where a reader can add the name of a local district to view that district’s result on the scatter plot.

 

Could it be that our urban districts are models for effective education?  Here’s some solid data that shows that effective schools are not only found in wealthier communities. And it’s a good place to ask how our urban schools are effectively fostering student growth in educational achievement.

Happy or Proficient?

IMG_0021Our good friend and UTL president Paul Georges shared this article with me this morning: “Is a good teacher one who makes kids happy or one who raises test scores“. If you read nothing else in this post, migrate to EdWeek and read that article.

For educators, this is the question above all questions because doing one thing does not necessarily compliment the other.  According to the EdWeek article, a recent study found that, on average, a teacher who managed to raise test scores was worse at making students happy. Here’s the study from David Blazar in MIT Press- read it and weep.

Over the course of my career, I have been an MCAS test administrator (admittedly only for the “legacy” version – whatever that descriptor means). I’ve felt the dichotomy of creating a positive and joyful learning environment for 3rd and 4th grade students and the pressure of removing high stakes testing monkey from our backs. Don’t forget the weeks of “preparation”.

I have no great love or respect for high stakes testing nor for the value of high stakes testing. It did not inform my teaching in a timely manner as the results from the Spring arrive on a teacher’s desk in October. How helpful is that?

What testing in the era of No Child Left Behind and its successors does accomplish is the creation of a toxic and stressful environment for everyone. The joy of learning and exploring is sucked right out of the room; curricula are narrowed and teachable moments left in the dust.

Of course in a perfect world teachers could just not worry about test scores. The reality, however, is far more harsh and possibly devastating.  Agree with it or not, state Departments of Education (including our own here  in Massachusetts), periodically attempt to tie student high-stakes test results to teacher evaluations. So far, thankfully, that effort in Massachusetts has failed.

Kids and teachers are more than a number. Isn’t it time schools used other measures beyond a test to evaluate learning and schools?

Adventures in Web-meetings

10082015TryAgainHere in the Northeast, we’ve endured some whacky weather – high winds and plenty of rain. Not exactly a hurricane, but a giant inconvenience, particularly for those without power since Sunday night. The wind damage and power outages resulted in school cancellations throughout the Merrimack Valley; some school districts are now left with just 2 of the allocated 5-day calendar allowance for snow days before snow season actually starts. Buckle those seat belts, it is going to be a bumpy ride this winter.

So what does the weather have to do with web meetings?  One of the off-shoots of a no-school day is that all activities after school are cancelled. For me, and the trusty group of participants in the graduate literacy course I am leading, that meant our All-Hallows-Eve session of EDUC 7226 was postponed and would need to be made up.

So, in a semi-panic (okay, that was a full-blown panic), I offered the possibility of doing a conference call based lecture to the participants in lieu of a face-to-face class. Making up the class would be a scheduling problem in that the class sessions needed for the full course already occupy every Tuesday between mid-September and December 19. I was pretty certain no one would be enthusiastic about pushing out the end date to the first Tuesday after the holiday break, January 2.  We needed to hold the Halloween class now somehow.

Anticipating that with 2 days out of school, some people might actually want to try to hold this session even if it was held off-site, I started to wonder about having a conference call where participants could access the slides that I use to accompany our class session. It turned out that quite a few participants were willing to give this a go, even those who were without WIFI and electricity.  The problem solvers in the group found ways to overcome those challenges, some even heading over to local coffee shops where WIFI and electricity could still be had.

So, my task yesterday morning was to quickly get up-to-speed with webinars and conference calls.  Never having hosted such a thing, I Googled “webinars” and discovered  hosting an online web-meeting was indeed possible… at a cost of $89/month to $429/month. I was pretty sure the bookkeeper in this family would veto that. Next search was “free+webinar+software” and BINGO! The product I serendipitously discovered was Free Conference Calls.

When something is free, there shouldn’t be any expectation for easy use or full functionality.  Free usually means there will be some pain for the user, because… free, what do you expect?

This product, however, is the real deal.  Since I had to come up to speed with the product in about 3 hours, I keep my wishlist simple:  a) ability for access to audio only (for those listening in on cellphones) or for audio+shared screen b) easy (for me) to negotiate invites and manage participation, and c) free.  Free Conference Calls was all of that – and I was able to record myself for participants who may need this class session on instant replay. Other functions that I didn’t use (yet) included Q&A boards, break-out sessions, and using pointers and highlighters on my shared screen.

At the appointed hour for our class to start, nearly all of the 22 participants in this course were logged in either as either full meeting participants or audio only.  The audio recording resides on my Conference Call account as a weblink which will allow anyone who was unable to attend our live meeting to listen in later.  And, considering that I’m not the most technology-saavy person on this planet, the fact that all of this went off without a disaster, is totally gratifying.

Sometimes the stars do line up in our favor.  We are Technology Warriors – every single one of us!

When we push children to learn before they are ready…

There is a cost for pushing readers! We don’t just TEACH readers – we help them to BECOME readers.

Dr. Mary Howard

2016-sep-22_btubooks2As an educator, I find more often than not that I have conflicting emotions about the current state of curricula. The narrative, at least from much of the press and definitely from state and federal education agencies, is that our schools are failing. And while I think that education can always find ways to improve instruction and to reach all learners, I do not believe our schools are dismally inept at education.

Consider the current climate in reading instruction for example. There is almost an atmosphere of panic in making sure students are reading with rigor. Kindergarten children are expected to leave that grade level as five- and six-year old readers on F&P Level D. Did you leave Kindergarten reading?

What exactly does that designation “Level D” mean? Let me quote the introduction to Readers at Level D from Fountas & Pinnell’s Continuum (2016, p 428):

At Level D, readers process and understand simple fiction and fantasy stories and easy informational texts. They can track print with their eyes over two to six lines per page without pointing, and they can process texts with more varied and more complex language patterns. They notice and use a range of punctuation and read dialogue, reflecting the meaning through phrasing, intonation, and appropriate word stress. Readers can solve many easy, regular two-syllable words – usually words with inflectional endings such as ing and simple compound words. Pointing may occasionally be used at difficulty, but readers drop the finger when they are confident and are reading easily. The core of know high-frequency words is expanding. Readers consistently monitor their reading, cross-check one source of information with another, and often use multiple sources of information. Readers use text and pictures to construct the meaning of stores and nonfiction texts. They infer meaning from pictures and connect the meaning of texts to their own experiences. At level D, readers process and understand simple and some split dialogue.

Yes, these are the expectations for ALL KINDERGARTENERS as they leave to transition to Grade 1. In the beginning days of my teaching career, many of these characteristics were quite normally found in typical mid-first and early-second grade students.

So I ask again, were you reading in Kindergarten? I was not.  I don’t think I fell behind in my education because I wasn’t reading in Kindergarten. I do know that I have cultivated a love of print that has lasted a lifetime. I believe I was fortunate that when I was learning to read, my teachers worked not only on how to read, but also on development of a love of reading.

Because I was taught the skill of reading when I was developmentally ready to not only word-solve (decode), but also to comprehend, I learned to become a reader – exactly what Mary Howard speaks about in the quotation above.

The demands being placed on our youngest learners are unrealistic and oftentimes unattainable. My opinion? Children who are in Kindergarten need to learn to love learning: they need to practice social skills through play. They need to get used to school and learning.

Squeezing all children, ready or not into the same curriculum funnel makes me think that education policy makers need to realign their focus. When the goal of reading instruction is so skewed toward the mechanics of reading at a developmentally inappropriate age, is the opportunity to help a child become a reader sacrificed?