Early Childhood Education Insanity (my rant)

two multicolored slinky toys

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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 I wonder – often as it turns out – if my own thinking as a teacher is outdated.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reasonable expectations, developmental appropriateness and an emphasis on developing social skills and love of learning been replaced by assessment, evaluation, and checklists?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.

 

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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.

25-year old calculations do not make equitable access to schools

Screenshot 2018-06-08 06.17.46

If a picture is worth a 1000 words, this one, courtesy of Colin Jones of Mass Budget is one of the most compelling reasons why we need to implement the Foundation Budget update (S.2525) which is currently languishing in Committee.

Communities with greater wealth have the luxury of adding to the grossly under-calculated “what it costs to educate a student” (Chapter 70) calculation. Here’s an Screenshot 2018-06-08 07.05.05example: in neighboring Burlington, MA, the per pupil cost calculated $9,940. In Lowell, that base number is set at $11,734.  Based on the economics of each community, the Commonwealth determined that Burlington’s state aid be set at $1,724 leaving the remainder, $8,341, for the Town of Burlington to provide. Recognizing that Lowell’s community economics are different from Burlington, the numbers look quite different: state aid is $8,875 and the City’s required contribution is $2,859. In an effort the keep this “simple”, which it is not, I’m ignoring the whole cash vs. “in kind services” debate.

Burlington’s per pupil costs are enhanced by the Town’s ability to add $8,409 to what Massachusetts has determined is the cost of educating a student in that town. Lowell, with many more demands on its municipal budget, adds $518. So, in the end, Lowell is able to spend $12,252 on every school student (public and charter) while more affluent Burlington can allocate $18,474.

This is not just a simple numbers game; it gets worse. Those per pupil determinations that the Commonwealth starts with are based on 1993 (yes, that is correct) formula calculations. So in 2018, the data determining how much each community is expected to expend and raise for each student is already 25 years out of date.

The Foundation Budget Review Commission tackled this issue 2 years ago, but the recommendations were not implemented. It was not forgotten by everyone, however, and a refreshed bill, S.2525 unanimously passed the Massachusetts Senate last month. Now it’s the Massachusetts House’s turn. And this week, with some strong advocacy by Rep. Vega, House members are appealing to Speaker DeLeo to move this legislation out of the House Rules Committee and on to a floor for a vote.

Locally, because state funding in education has been whittled away Lowell’s kids are on the losing end of budget roulette: our K-8 students will no longer have school libraries, for example.As of this morning, only Rady Mom from the Lowell Legislative Delegation has signed on to Rep. Vega’s letter asking that Speaker DeLeo move the FBRC bill (S.2525) out of committee for a vote.

I cannot understand why our other two representatives are hesitating to embrace a reform that would – over time – provide Lowell’s children with equal access to educational services. Maybe one of them can explain that to me.

If your Representative is either Mr. Golden or Mr. Nangle, please call, fax, or email them today. We need to fix the funding formulae in Massachusetts so that every child, no matter the ZIP code in which they reside, has equal access to education in the Number One Schools in the Nation.

It’s Not That Simple….

IMG_2565Senator Charles Shumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi have published their collective ideas supporting public education.  Their 5-point proposal can be found in this USA Today article. I read their ideas with great interest, particularly as recent Democratic administration proposals have not been very supportive of Public Schools and the 90% of students who attend them. Take a look at the often high stakes test-reliant and misguided education policies like Every Child Succeeds or Race To The Top.

I often find it illuminating to read comments attached to news articles, even when my own views are in disagreement with the commentary. I like to try to understand what people who don’t live and breathe edu-issues think.

I try to stay above the fray and not get pulled into debates with anonymous readers. However, today, I couldn’t help myself.  One comment at the end of the Shumer/Pelosi op-ed was predictably that teachers should be judged on the basis of student test scores.

As a former educator, and one who proctored high-stakes testing many, many times, I can’t disagree more.  There are far too many outside factors that can – and do – influence a student’s performance on a standardized test, and quite a number of these influences are out of the classroom teacher’s control to mediate. Education is not the simple act of pouring knowledge into children.

So I broke my own rule this morning and responded to the comment. And this is what I wrote:

…., but I disagree with this. I was an elementary educator and unafraid to take on some of the most difficult to educate throughout my career. In the city in which I worked, that meant students who were learning English as they learned grade level skills and concepts, behaviorally and emotionally challenging students and those children who came from traumatic home situations. Tying my performance as an educator simply to test scores would not tell the whole story of whether or not I was an effective teacher. It would only tell whether or not my non-native English language speakers, special education, and economically diverse students could master a standardized test. Teacher effectiveness and evaluations need to include some holistic assessments and consideration of how academic growth can be influenced by outside factors.

A single measurement is not any way to assess whether or not a teacher is effective. Nor is it a way to measure whether a teacher deserves a merit pay bonus (spoiler alert: I think those merit bonuses kill the collaboration needed to fully support and educate a child).

Tying a student’s performance on a high-stakes assessment does not tell the story of whether or not a teacher is effective.