Are we over-coaching developing readers?

2014-11-25-lincoln-024One of the texts I’ve reviewed for a course I’m leading this summer is Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris’ Who’s doing the work: How to say less so readers can do more

What do you, as teacher, do when a student is stuck in their reading? Do you go into wait-time mode or try to move things along with hints or suggestions of strategies? And if you do either of these, what is the student’s response or reaction?

Sometimes when we think we are moving responsibility for learning to our students, the shift is not as significant as we think. Case in point: when a student successfully uses a decoding strategy to uncover a challenging word, does the student look to you, the teacher, for affirmation.  Surely that’s something I was guilty of doing.

However, when students come to rely on that affirmation and teacher praise as an indication of whether or not the word was called correctly, that is scaffolding that has over-served its usefulness in steering students toward a gradual release of responsibility.  We set the students up for dependency, not independency.

In real reading – the kind that students engage in on their own either in school or later in life as adult readers – what happens when a decoding challenge the meaning of the print breaks down? Will a teacher always be there to nod a yes or to give hints?

The end game for reading instruction is to enable a reader to develop so that he or she knows that to do when confronted with reading challenges.  Instead of leading a student through the use of a specific strategy (get your mouth ready, think about what makes sense), what if the prompts from a teacher were more open-ended:

What do you notice?

What can you try?

There are undoubtedly times when explicitly teaching strategies for decoding and comprehension are not only appropriate, they are essential. How else would a reader learn about them? But once the strategy has been introduced, practiced and become part of a reader’s repertoire, shouldn’t we, as coaches, allow the reader to decide what to do?

Over coaching developing readers is something I became aware of as an active and as a retired teacher.  More open-ended questions and less controlled coaching not applies to reading. Think of the implications for problem-solving in math.

So I ask: are we empowering our students to truly be independent? Or, as Yaris and Burkins point out, are we creating learners who are dependent upon our affirmation and approval? Are we allowing students to be independent learners?

The promise of “yet”

2017-Jan-12_winter2017_birdyogaWords have lots of power.

How many times have you, as learners, encountered can’t statements? Can’t as in “I can’t do math” or “I can’t draw” or “I can’t” just about anything. I think it was my grandmother who used to say “can’t never did anything”.  And she was – and still is – right.

I was thinking about the power of “can’t” during yoga practice this week. It used to happen that when I was in a public class and a balance pose as simple as tree pose was called, my whole body would break into an anxiety sweat. I can’t balance on one leg, I would tell myself. I’m too clumsy, too old.

Then, one day, I switched the narrative to add in the word “yet”. I can’t do this… yet. Through those 3 letters, I could feel my attitude changing. “I may fall out of tree pose today, but some day I will nail it.” In fact in time, that’s exactly what happened.

When I was actively teaching, students often would say “I can’t” to everything from a writing topic to division. Adding the word yet to their statements – I can’t do this yet – often made a difference for them too.

Three letters. Those three letters can make all the difference for every student.

Meanwhile, back at the DOE

10012015FrenchStThis past Tuesday, June 6, 2017, Secretary Betsy DeVos gave testimony in front of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies. An overview of Secretary DeVos’ testimony can be found on mlive here.

The presidential version of the 2018 budget details a whopping $10.6 Billion in cuts to programs supporting students of all levels.  Last week, I posted what the effect of cuts to three Federal grant programs might be on Lowell Public Schools. Using a back-of-the-envelope estimate based on the FY2018 school budget proposal, Lowell Public Schools would be out close to $3 Million in funding for 21st Century Schools, Title II (Teacher Quality) and Title III (ELL support).

Layering on the devastation caused by a (state) Foundation Budget that is severely out of whack and underfunded, the fiscal future for urban districts such as Lowell does not look very bright. Several superintendents ago, the Lowell Schools had a Superintendent who told staff that “less is more”. Well, in this case, less is actually less, and our students are going to bear the brunt.

During her testimony in front of that Senate subcommittee, Ms. DeVos stated the need to cut Title funding (i.e., nearly everything funded through the Department of Education with the exception (so far) of Title I).  As usual, making up facts that fit a narrative for redirecting federal funding was evident:

“This budget does so by putting an emphasis on programs that are proven to help students while taking a hard look at those that are well-intended, but haven’t yielded meaningful results,” she continued.

Where are the reports and research that back this up, Ms. DeVos?  Are we to believe that providing students from higher poverty/economic need districts such as Lowell with after school and summer activities doesn’t yield anything “meaningful”? What exactly does constitutes meaningful for you? A higher test score?

I most vehemently disagree with that statement by Secretary DeVos.  In a Gateway City, such as Lowell or Brockton, or any number of cities across the US, there are many families living in poverty and struggling. And despite many challenges, sometimes overwhelming challenges resulting from poverty and trauma, our Gateway cities strive to provide a comprehensive, adequate and free education to every student.

Allowing students the opportunity to participate in and explore activities beyond the school day gives these children a safe and supervised environment and their parents the peace of mind knowing that their child(ren) is well cared for during the time between the end of school and suppertime. I would call THAT meaningful, yet apparently Ms. DeVos would not.

But back to the federal budget that was the overarching topic of discussion during Ms. DeVos’ testimony.  As Michigan billionaire and school privatization champion Ms. DeVos, is okay with cutting or eliminating funding of some of the more substantial federal grants. Using the theme of giving parents “choice” of school settings, the Secretary of Education intends to funnel the funds eliminated or cutback into a voucher program. funding religious and private schools. DeVos intends to implement a voucher program without guarantees that would protect vulnerable students’ rights or ethical oversight of for-profit education management firms even when federal funding is involved.  For more on that, read Valerie Strauss’ June 6 Answer Sheet analysis. 


In place of “less is more”, I am more inclined to agree with this assessment of the federal education budget proposals from Senator Leahy:

“The Department of Education budget can summed up very quickly in one word: ‘abysmal,'” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Abysmal it is. And abysmal it will be for our students.

What happens if….

flipoutToday, May 23, is the “official” announcement of the federal budget proposal. “Official” because the numbers have been floating around in the ether for a while now.  Within the proposal from the White House budget is the idea of cuts impacting education to the tune of  $10.6 Billion less.

Valerie Strauss from the Washington Post, has analyzed the proposed cuts to education and details them here. The Washington Post also carries another story of overall education cuts proposed in the Trump FY18 budget. According to the Post article, the reduction in federal education spending will be used to fund the voucher program DOE Secretary DeVos is so enamored with.

Reductions to federal grant programs will have a great impact on our local schools and the services provided to students. Here is what the proposal might mean in terms of local education:

21st Century Community Learning Centers, $1,164.5 billion

Lowell’s FY18 lists several grant funded items

  • $587,232 funding for LHS, Shaughnessy, Morey, Robinson, Greenhalge, Stoklosa after school programs,
  • $104,777 funding for after school programs Bartlett, McAuliffe and additional funding for LHS
  • $ 91,600 funding for Lincoln School after school programming
  • $ 94,200 additional after school programming, McAuliffe School

Total for after school programming $877,809

21st Century Out of school programming (summer programs) $179,600

21st Century funding for Special Education inclusions $ 93,720

This means the potential lost of funding impact totaling $1,151,129 (FY18 budget numbers) and, more importantly, the loss of before and after school programming for Lowell students at 9 schools.

A quick once over reveals additional grant cuts from a reduction or loss of Title IIA (Teacher quality, including mentoring of new staff), $1,170,759 (FY18),  and Title III (Limited English Proficiency support programs), $691,283.

If you, like I, think this could be a hugely negative impact on our children, please consider contacting Representatives and Senators. To find local House representatives, click whoismyrepresentative and enter your ZIP code. The list of Senators  and contact information is here. And, if you are curious as to what happens when a staffer picks up, here are some terrific tips.

17 May 2017: Budget Hearing and Regular School Committee Meeting

12022015ClockAll Members present for both meetings.

Budget Hearing, Part 3

Somehow in the flurry of budget activities over the last week I lost track of last night’s Budget Hearing which preceded the regular School Committee Meeting.  So if you were hoping to add a public comment to the funding proposals, you are out of luck.  The Hearing portion has ended, but there are still revisions and corrections being made to the final document. That will be voted on at the end of the month, sent to City Council and (hopefully) approved.

At the start of the Budget Hearing, Mayor Kennedy announces some positive news: the Senate version of the Commonwealth’s budget includes a $611K increase for Lowell. Additionally, Mayor Kennedy has received word that the City will increase its contribution to the schools by $257K. This additional funding should enable the Schools to restore the library aide positions.

The two positions that had been put in abeyance (a school psychologist and a clerk – both potentially eliminated as personnel retirements which the Schools propose not to replace), were discussed. The essence of these discussions is that, while the School Committee is appreciative of the additional funding by the City, these positions also need to be restored. Ms. Martin brings up the re-classification of the School Resource Officers (SRO). There are 3 SRO positions that are not being eliminated, but the expenses associated with them are be reclassified (for lack of a better term). Under the proposed budget, the expenses associated with 3 of the SROs will shift back to the City in order to maintain consistency.

Ms. Martin reminds the members that she has placed a motion on the upcoming meeting agenda (Item 7.VIII) to requests both City and School Finance Subcommittees meet to discuss the FY18 Budget and also to review Maintenance of Effort and contracts. She advocates for leaving the budget as it sits until the discussion can take place.

Superintendent Khelfaoui brings up 2 corrections to be made to budget proposal. One is a line item correction to a previous calculation and the other is to add $257K addition from the City.

Mr. Gignac makes 2 motions:

  • Amend line item in Account 2300 Library to reinstate Library aides (7 yeas, approved).
  • Amend 5100/5200 Benefits to include the costs benefit restorations for the Library Aide positions. (7 yeas, approved)

Mr. Gignac makes a motion to fund the school psychologist position (placed in abeyance in the previous meeting) by reducing the proposed budget for substitutes (p 18 of budget, Line 207). Lots of discussion here. During the regular school committee meeting which will follow, a Report of the Superintendent details suggested substitute teacher pay increases (Item 9.I), and Ms. Doherty is concerned that the budgeted amount for substitutes in FY18 will not be enough if Mr. Gignac’s motion carries. Mayor Kennedy cautions that the City will not be favorably able to provide the additional $150K (estimated) to restore both the School Psychologist and the Clerk positions currently in abeyance. Mr. Gendron notes the potential for “salary adjustments”. After much discussion, including commentary by school psychologist, Sheela Pyles, the motion does carry. (7 yeas, approved)

Ms. Martin returns to topic of Maintenance of Effort and potential impact on School FY18 Budget. Mayor Kennedy suggests that the discussions with City re Maintenance of Effort will be long and perhaps spill beyond the start of Fiscal 18.  Therefore, waiting for any impact resulting from discussion with the City side about Maintenance of Effort is not advisable.

In the end, amounts in the budget book were adjusted as follows and the Public Hearing closed.

  • Suspense Account increased to include Senate proposal and City increase. I believe that the new amount is $1,000,377 (in Suspense).
  • Page 18: $59,700,560 (reduction in substitute account)
  • Page 29: $4,501,964 (increase of 1 school psychologist)
  • Total on p 11 is now $162,942,846 (7 yeas, approved)

Budget hearing adjourns and regular meeting begins.

Regular Meeting

The discussions during the Regular School Committee Meeting were quickly dispensed with. Three budget-based items to note:

  1. Motion 7.VIII [Connie Martin]: Request that the Mayor facilitate a joint meeting of the Finance Subcommittees of both the Lowell City Council and the Lowell School Committtee for the purpose of discussing the FY18 Budget and the current review of Net School Spending and ongoing contract negotiations. (approved)
  2. Report and Approval of the Minutes of the Meeting of Wednesday, May 8 2017 [Robert Gignac, Chair]. Accepted as a report of progress. Link here.
  3. Report of the Superintendent: Proposed Substitute Salary Increases. After a short disucssion to explain the research Ms. Sheehy conducted to reach the rate increases proposed, the Report was approved (7 yeas).

The agenda and supporting documentation can be found of the Lowell City Agenda and Minutes web page.

Are we just getting by?

newbasketsTuesday evening, I spoke before the City Council to encourage that body to meet with City of Lowell school administration before approving the budget that was before them. You read that correctly, I was advocating that the Council not approve the budget. Why? I don’t believe that the City’s contribution to the school budget adequately considers our public school students.

Here are my remarks:

Former Presidential Advisor Paul Begala once stated, a budget is a “profoundly moral document” in that it enumerates those things that we view as priorities. We fund those ideas and things which we value.

As a retired elementary teacher with 30 years experience, it was my privilege to teach in the Lowell Public Schools for 20 years. And while I appreciate the City’s efforts to meet minimum Net School Spending requirements during the last several years, that effort should not stop at the minimum. We should not expect to just “get by”.

The educational challenges to communities such as Lowell are deep and sometimes complicated. Children attending our City’s public schools often have needs complicated by language, by poverty, and by culture. Stagnant computations of Chapter 70 aid, based on 20 year old formulae mean our schools operate with fewer resources to support these students. Increasingly, funding is redirected to charter schools in the City and this complicates the fiscal picture even further.

Tonight, the City Council considers a Home Rule petition, and I applaud you all for insisting that the Commonwealth meet its obligations for fully funding charter school tuition reimbursement. It is unacceptable for the Commonwealth to shrug off that reimbursement promise and leave urban communities like Lowell with fewer and fewer resources.

Yet however complex the issues may be, it is still the responsibility of our community to ensure that funding for schools is adequate. Those funds must guarantee that students and public schools in Lowell continue to be a reflection of what we, as community value.

Over the span of my teaching career, there were often years when that minimum contribution was not met. During those times, our students lost out on opportunities as positions such as Science Specialists and Librarians were eliminated.  Our school buildings delayed repairs or improvements that now loom ahead as major undertakings.

Is education is important? Is it something that Lowell values? Or is it sufficient to minimally fund the schools and just get by?

Doing the minimum does not suffice for our children, and it should not be okay for our school budget either.

A reduction in personnel is felt when positions are eliminated and other staff members pick up the slack. We get by. More often than you realize, supplies and resources needed for classrooms are funded out of teachers’ pockets, sometimes amounting to thousands of dollars a year. And once again, we get by.

The Lowell Public Schools is an asset to our community for which we can all be proud. It is not sufficient to just “get by”. Our City leaders need to envision the schools that will fully serve our children and fund that vision. Instead of beginning with a minimum budget number and fitting school expenditures to that amount, what if we look at what is needed first and then worked together to fund that?

We need to move beyond the “just getting by.” We need to strive for more than a minimum.

And so, I urge the City Council to increase funding for the 2018 proposed school budget. I urge you not to vote to approve the budget before you until both School and City administrations have met to discuss solutions to this fiscal crunch.

Let’s demonstrate that here in Lowell, we value our public schools and that our schools and our children are a priority.


10 May 2017: About the Proposed Budget

2013fielddayaIt’s budget time in Lowell and the predictions look a bit grim. I won’t second guess (most) of the reasoning behind proposed budget amounts, but I am dismayed that the belt tightening has been mind numbing. 

As a former educator in Lowell, even without children (or grandchildren) in the City Schools, I feel compelled to speak up. Those are “my” kids who are moving along through a terrific urban district and they deserve as many opportunities as we can provide. Here’s a letter that I sent to our School Committee Members this morning. I plan to attend tonight’s Budget Hearing (Butler School, 6:30 pm), LISTEN and then advocate for them as best I can. I hope many of you will do this as well. Let’s work together to ensure that Lowell Public Schools meet our students’ needs.

Dear School Committee Members,

I am writing to you today in support of one of the budget proposals, and also in hopes of engaging your support of another.

As Mr. Gendron said at the last Committee Meeting, the good news is that the budget is balanced and that there has been a herculean effort to preserve current school department employees.  That being said, there is much to reflect on.

I fully support the effort to create a CSA Day School to accommodate Lowell students needing services as outlined in IEPs. Bringing services that had been contracted through out-of-district placements is not only expensive, but worrisome for parents. Students receiving these services at collaboratives and other placement agencies often are on buses or vans for lengthy rides out of their community. By tapping in to talent and expertise in the area of Autism within our own education community, not only are parents and students able to eliminate long, tiring rides to service agencies, then the schools can ensure that education funding is spent judiciously in support of the children.  In my opinion, the School Committee should support this effort as a long-term solution to meeting the needs of children right here in Lowell.

I am, however, deeply disappointed in the effort to eliminate Library Aides from the K-8 public schools.  As a former educator, now retired, I am concerned with the short-sightedness of this action. Library Aides not only check out materials for staff and for students, they maintain the school libraries as a welcoming environment in which to pursue literacy. Books that are in need of repair, are fixed and reshelved. New and replacement materials are added to school libraries. Weekly book exchanges are a time when students can explore new reading genres. The Library Aides also assist students using electronic card catalogues, a research skill that will be necessary as a student moves from grade to grade.  Without the assistance provided by Library Aides will these valuable literacy and library skills still exist in the coming years? I do not think they will and I wonder if in a few years, the School Committee will be decrying the loss of library skills.

The budget prepared by the School Department has been trimmed, and is a representation of consensus by school administrators as to what can be done with the reduced funds coming from the City.  These fund are not adequate.

I implore the School Committee to engage the City Manager and City Council in a further discussion for funding. While the loss of available funds to a larger-than-anticipated transportation bid is understandable, the loss of monies due to expansion of grade levels at local charter schools is not.

Last evening’s City Council approved funding to fix the roofs at three schools. My questions are: a) will these repairs become part of the City’s in-kind contribution charged back to the school department and b) would these repairs have been needed had the City met Net School Spending amounts in prior years when those repairs may have been minor ones? And finally, c) should our current students “pay” for reduced opportunities at schools because of short-sighted budgeting that occurred in years past.

I urge the School Committee members to meet with the City Council and City Manager and demand increased access to funding for one of the greatest assests in the City of Lowell: our public schools.