A Vicious Cycle

10082015TryAgainSo, what would you say an unexpected by-product of ed reform might be?  With loss of autonomy in what to teach when, emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing and little control over just about anything else in the educational day, teachers are leaving some districts for transfers to more affluent schools and for other careers.

I mention this because it is challenging to teach in a gateway – or as the Pioneer Institute referred to it last week “middle” – city. And because the Lowell Schools are making an effort to diversify faculty and staff.

This article addresses this very issue and was published by In These Times last August. It clearly points to the challenge of hiring and retaining teaching staff in these times of education reform. As you read the article, consider the challenge of attracting teaching candidates who are impassioned to work as educators with a diverse and challenging student population.

The by-product of education reform is fall-out of professional teaching staff. As professional educators reach their limits of stress, do they move to a less challenging district? Or do they leave for a career in another field, perhaps related, where the environment is less toxic?

So what does happens as a result of corporate reforms overtaking the education landscape?  Is there a reliance on Teach for America trained (and I use that term loosely) or alternative certification?

Here’s Kevin Posen’s take from the In These Times article:

In order to fill the gaps, licensure rules are relaxed and “supports” are provided for an increasingly amateur workforce—through prefabricated curriculum and assessments. And the cycle starts all over again. The demoralization of the American teacher is leading to the deskilling of their profession, which leads to teacher resignations, which leads to more demoralization, ad infinitum.

In other words – a vicious cycle for educators and education.


Education: What is Equity?

IMG_1532Ludlow Superintendent Todd Gazda posed this question in a recent Commonwealth Magazine article:  What is equity?  Because, as Dr. Gazda points out, current education policy tends toward equalizing education for all students with standardized curriculums proven by standardized assessment and incentivized “business systems” for implementation.

Equity, like fairness, is not treating every student the same, but rather focuses on giving every student what they need. – Todd Gazda, Commonwealth Magazine

Any educator who has worked for a nanosecond in a classroom knows the truth of that quote. Twenty-five inquiring minds can, at any point in a school day, need twenty-five different things. One may need teacher to soothe a physical hurt. Or another may not have eaten since the last school day. And another may have witnessed a domestic assault at home.

How do you suppose each of these children might engage in learning? Would they be able to engage in the instruction in the same way? Would they have mastered the content objective for the day?  No, equity is not treating each child the same.

Which is why teaching, to me, is not a science that can be boiled down to a set of steps that everyone anyone can do; it is an art. We can expect our students to work and master content. We can hold students to high expectations and have faith and confidence that they will soar. But we should not expect our children to do this in lockstep.

Equity in teaching is taking children where they are, determining what is needed to move ahead, and giving each the supports they need to get there, no matter how long it may take to do so.

Our state and national leaders need to have the courage to allow educators to educate all students. With equity.


Editing & Revising with Peers

IMG_0200As a writer and, as a teacher, I value collaboration with peers. I know that my writing is made more clear, more interesting, and more precise when I rely on a trusted “critical friend” to offer constructive feedback. And so, when the Commonwealth’s writing standards included peer revising as well as adult conferring, the inclusion of critical friends in the Writing Process made sense. Beginning in Grade 2, Writing Standard 5 includes this important progression of peer revision and peer editing. [Refer to the Writing Standards (“Code W”) by grade level beginning on page 26 of the 2011 Frameworks.]

From my experience, elementary students must be taught explicitly how to do this. They need good models of what peer conferring looks like. As a proponent of the Daily Five, I found the 10 Steps to Independence model to be an ideal teaching method for introducing peer editing and revising to my students.

Students at the elementary level need some structure for learning how to be a helpful peer editor or revisor; and to this end, I was fortunate to get an offer for some coaching from our former Literacy Coach, Patricia Sweeney.  Pat provided a structure for the students: 2 compliments and a suggestion. Here were the guidelines:

  • The author reads the piece from beginning to end without interruption
  • The revisor/editor offers 2 compliments. Personal references (“I like...”) were excluded; more constructive/objective language included (“When you wrote…, your writing was… (very clear, powerful, descriptive, etc.”).
  • No “buts” – one of my 3rd and 4th graders favorites, because what 9-year old can resist telling another to get their “but” out of writing. (When you wrote …., your description was very clear, BUT…)
  • The revisor/editor can offer 1 suggestion (so not to overwhelm the author all at once), jotting on a stick-on note. (You might want to …. or Your writing might be more powerful if …). The author can agree or disagree with the suggestion, but listens and takes it “under advisement”.

This structure provided the students with two things: a language framework for offering constructive feedback and an opportunity to apply grade-level writing skills as the “student” become the “teacher”.

These peer-led conferences always took place prior to conferring with an adult and prior to producing a final version of the writing.  Peers did not assess another student’s writing, but offered constructive criticism for the purpose of helping the author improve upon the writing.

Exactly what my adult peer editor and revisor does for me.



School Committee Meeting, 03 February 2016

School Committee Meeting: Wednesday, February 3, 2016

All members present.


2013fieldday3legsThe Subcommittee on Policy, chaired by Mr. Hoey, met on January 27th. The report from the meeting suggested a change to the LPSD school purchasing policy so that LPSD purchasing aligns with the City of Lowell purchasing policy.  Much discussion about the threshold of a requests (currently $5,000; proposed $35,000) that would trigger a Permission to Enter.  While the full committee supports the editorial changes (see meeting packet), there is a larger discussion about retaining the $5,000 threshold for a variety of reasons, number one being to keep a handle on how the school budget is being spent. This discussion will continue at the next school committee meeting.

Reports of the Superintendent

Three agenda items (2016/43, 2016/50 and 2016/44) addressed school year and School Committee calendars.  The Calendar for the upcoming school year was approved after Ms. Martin received clarification that the Massachusetts State Primary date was indeed a Thursday (9/8) and not a Tuesday (9/6).  The reason for the move to a Thursday election day is explained here, but in simple terms, the change is necessary to comply with Federal regulations for the distribution of absentee ballots to overseas voters.

The new calendar is posted here.

As several Lowell schools are used as polling sites, the reality of post-Newtown building safety is that schools are closed for students during election days. This policy also necessitated a revision to the 2015-2016 calendar to accommodate the Primary Election on Tuesday, March 1, 2016. The revision means that the end of school dates on the posted calendar need to be revised to comply with the mandated 180-day school year for students.  The new end dates (pending any snow days) are: June 16 (180th day with no snow days) or June 23 (185 days with 5-day snow allowance). And of course if there are more than 5 snow days between now and June 23, the school year extends further. [Revision 05 February 2016: New last date is June 17 due to snow cancellation today.]

Agenda Item 2016/44, a request to reschedule February and April School Committee dates so that meetings are not taking place during school vacation weeks when interested parents or community members may wish to take part was amended. The meetings are now cancelled with the possibility of a Special Meeting of the School Committee scheduled if the need for such a meeting arises.

Agenda Item 2016/58 addressed the need to hire an additional teacher and paraprofessional at the Bartlett School for students enrolled in a Life Skills program. The requested funding was $64,789. Currently, the number of students enrolled in the program exceeds the compliance number by 3 students.  After some discussion about funding (Ms. Martin points out this is the second meeting in a row that a request for a position was made) and what compliance for the program is, the item is approved.

While on the surface, three students does not seem like it would be a significant number of children to accommodate, the Special Education Department must ensure compliance with regulations in order to adhere to state and federal laws. All students need to have access to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment (LRE). If you are unfamiliar with what LRE means, this link provides good summary information.

In order to be compliant with special education regulations, the ratio of students to teacher & paraprofessional in the Life Skills program should be no more than 12:1 (note that preschool ratios are 9:1).  As Ms. McCrystal (Special Education Director) explained, to achieve the compliant ratio, three students would need to be sent to an outside-of-district placement for their education, a decision that would not be necessitated by need but by number.  Cost estimates for placing for one student out-of-district would be about $50,000 not including transportation. 

Three additional agenda Items address:

  • athletic participation at Lowell High,
  • an update on engaging the legislative delegation and Lowell’s concerns regarding Newcomer programs (and the difference between reimbursement and program costs which are significant), and
  • an update for Community Service Day in the Lowell Schools.

The biggest discussion of the meeting was in response to the LHS Investigation Report (Agenda Item 2016/65).  The report has been made public and can be found here.

Among the many suggestions and discussions regarding information and suggestions in the report is one complicated question: Do Lowell School staff members – in all schools, not just the high school – mirror the diversity in the schools? And if not, how can the schools achieve greater diversity among staff?

The redacted report has been the subject of much discussion throughout the community; there are of course, privacy and personnel matters that impact the release of the redacted information. The Superintendent appears to be following the advice of counsel, and I would like to allow him the opportunity to follow-through. The suggestions that were made public seem minimal and should be acted on immediately. When an event this important happens to make our students and families feel unsafe, looking back at what happened and where breaks in protocol occurred are important. Ensuring that staff at all levels understand and comply with procedures no matter who is involved and increasing sensitivity and awareness to cultural differences and issues of race are imperative to school culture and the safety of all families and students.

One important suggestion in the report is to engage in more diverse hiring practices. Changing to a more culturally and ethnically inclusive faculty and staff is not necessarily something that happens overnight. Engaging in more inclusive recruiting and hiring from a more diverse field of candidates is just the first step, in my opinion. 

A more complex question might be how to encourage potential education majors from a wider cultural and ethnically diverse population. Do all students see a college education and a career in education as something within reach, something attainable? Or has the high cost of higher education coupled with the toxic public education environment turned potential educators away to other careers or fields of study? 

Last night, one of the comments was that diveristy in hiring is not simple; the corporate world is grappling with this issue as well. However, this does not mean we do nothing. I would agree with that. 

The incident at Lowell High has brought an ugly undercurrent to light. Looking at what has occurred in the past is a necessity, but the actionable items should not stop there. Looking at school department policies, sensitivity toward an incredibly diverse family population, and diversifying the school staff from top to bottom are all part of this larger conversation and effort.

The meeting packet can be found here.