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?


Adventures in Oxymorons

DSC_0107Say what you will about living in these political times, snaps go to the marketeers coming up with the names. Why if you didn’t actually spend a large portion of your reading time being skeptical and following up with questions and queries, you might just miss out on some really fun oxymorons.

Let’s take the group, Families for Excellent Schools as an example. Or Students First. Or Great Schools or Building Excellent Schools.

Is there a single person on the planet who is NOT for excellent schools or excellent opportunities for students and children?

Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy (FESA), a close cousin of Families for Excellent Schools, recently was fined more than $450K and banned from campaigning in Massachusetts for 4 years. Why? Because in an effort to win over a ballot question that would expand charter school networks unnecessarily, the FESA group attempted to hide large donors, including Paul Sagan (Chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2015)  from campaign finance reporting.  Not cool, FESA. Not cool Mr. Sagan. Link to Maurice Cunningham’s piece on this published on the WGBH website here.

What these names, knee-deep in oxymoronic descriptors, demonstrates to me is the never-ending need to question and check on “advocacy” groups for their true mission and purpose. Marketers are expert manipulators of vocabulary. They know which word combinations may cause unsuspecting audiences to be lulled into endorsement of groups which may, or may not, be supportive of their own beliefs. Exhibit A: Democrats for Ed. Reform (DFER) which endorses expanded charter schools, rigorous high-stakes testing, and top-down school structures particularly in the areas of “accountability”.  Building Excellent Schools apparently believes the only way to make a school “excellent” is to partner with a charter group.

It always is a good policy to learn about groups purporting to advocate, especially those involved in or attempting to be involved in public education. What you may find out can be surprising.



September 11, 2017

WTC MemorialWhen one reaches un certain âge, the realization dawns on you that the past is measured in events; the moment you meet your true love, graduation, your child’s birth, a parent’s death.

But time is also measured by events of such great historic proportion that you can remember with clarity where you were and what you were doing. We mark time by the events of historic proportions. The events mark us with changes too.

On November 22, 1963, I was in sixth grade at Huron Junior High. We had an “honors” study hall which was about anything but studying. If you can imagine it, a group of sixth grade students were allowed to sit in a classroom alone and without supervision for the purpose of doing homework. I suppose this was considered a privilege, but, as junior high students are wont to do, we spent most of the time being noisy and silly and, I believe just before we heard the news about the President, we had been threatened with loss of privilege by a teacher who was passing by the room and recognized the sounds of “un-studying”.

I cannot recall the particulars of how we found out about the events in Dallas, but I do remember snippets of the rest of that day. It was unnaturally quiet. After that, things felt a little less safe, as if the world had made a seismic shift and we weren’t quite sure how to react. But time blurs those feelings and puts them into a back corner of our memory until the next time.

And there are so many “next times”. RFK, MLK, Newtown, Oklahoma City, and closer to home, the Boston Marathon. And September 11, 2001. On that morning, I was testing second grade reading out in a hallway. With each tragic event of that day, one of my colleagues came out to whisper what had happened. We were directed not to discuss anything in front of our students; however, given the eery quiet with which the staff went about the day, I would not be surprised to learn from former students that they knew something bad had happened that would impact their world, as the Kennedy assassination had for me.

Over the past sixteen years, we observe a moment of silence to remember the people and events of 9-11. And each year when that moment of silence is broken by the playing of taps, the magnitude of that day is with me and many others.  The memory of the circumstances, the events of September 11 is renewed. May we never forget.



Speak up. It is important.

IMG_0859Last Tuesday, I was able to attend the Joint Committee on Education’s hearing in Boston. I say “able” because, while I am sure the legislation before the Committee would have garnered interest and testimony from many active educators, they largely would not have been able to attend as the hearing took place the day after Labor Day, a school day. As a teacher retiree, I was not in my first (or fourth) day of a new school year and could attend, so I did.

There were many proposed pieces of legislation under discussion last Tuesday; however, two bills, S.279 and H.304, aroused my curiosity and alarm. These two pieces of legislation appear to target teachers and students in gateway cities and,  if you are a Massachusetts parent, teacher, or administrator and your student attends school in one of these districts, you should pay attention. Your voice in what happens in your local school is being threatened.

Bill, S. 279 unnecessarily singles out and targets urban and gateway districts. How do I know this? Because the “opportunity” to become an innovation partnership zone is based on a the results of a single high-stakes test, the MCAS and consequently the assigned school level that stems from that test. To base the worth or value of a school – or a district – on how students perform on a single high-stakes exam is w.r.o.n.g.  It is bad educational practice. No teacher would ever give a student a final mark based on one measure and the Commonwealth shouldn’t be doing this with schools and school districts either.

Those who favored moving H.304 and S.279 forward spoke frequently about the power of looking at students’ (test) results and collaborating to determine school budget priorities, schedule/time allocations, and coordination of student needs with curriculum. My reaction to that is NO KIDDING. Why, why, why, do some in the Commonwealth feel that a piece of Legislation would make this a) any different from current practice, or b) necessary to mandate?

Those in favor also spoke about the empowerment zone created in Springfield. The Springfield schools working in the empowerment zone are all middle schools and have done so for two years. Even James Peyser, Secretary of Education, had to admit the “data” on the success of these schools was rather green and not established. Others from this panel (two teachers and a principal) spoke about their experience meeting as teacher teams to think about what the students need.

Sorry kids this is not a new concept or practice, nor is it one that requires a mandate from the Commonwealth. Lowell teachers, and I suspect teachers in most districts throughout Massachusetts, routinely meet to do this very same thing regularly. We call these collaborations PLCs (professional learning communities) or CPTs (common planning time). We do these things because a) we are there to figure out how to help students go from learning point A to B and b) we are professionals.
Here’s another thought: if a school is considered lower performing according to MCAS results, H.304 and S.279 would allow the Commissioner of Education (appointed, not elected) to begin the process of designating the schools for empowerment or innovation zone status. In the case of H.304, if the local teachers’ union and the school committee cannot agree to concessions to the collective bargaining agreement, the Commissioner can just make the school a lower Level 4, and in effect, start the process of diluting local control anyway.

Under S.279, the legislations proposes to “support” struggling schools through the creation of an innovation partnership zone. From what I can tell, the “partnership” is that the Commissioner of Education and DESE has a large stake in how the school is run. Schools are eligible to be in an innovation zone if their MCAS scores put them in Level 4 or Level 5 status. But – and this is key – in order to create an innovation zone, there needs to be at least 2 schools participating.

Just to put that into local perspective, if Lowell has a Level 4 school (and it does) and the decision was made to create an innovation partnership zone for that school, the Commissioner of Education could pair that Level 4 school with another higher performing school – a Level 3, a Level 2 or a Level 1. So don’t breathe easy if your school’s MCAS results are great, you too could be part of this education magic show.

When a school is “in the zone” (sorry Vygotsky fans, I couldn’t resist that), an appointed The-Zone-of-Proximal-Development Board of Directors has autonomous control over personnel, budget, curriculum and hours. This unelected board with possibly no connection to the community could decide to do anything, including conversion of the public school to a charter school through a charter management company.

Just for comparison, if a school is not in the zone, the elected School Committee and a combination of school administration/school site councils (theoretically) make these decisions and if you, a parent or voter, don’t agree with those decisions, you can voice that in person or you can make your feelings known at the ballot box.

Wait. Who is missing from those groups? If you said “teachers”, you go right to the bullseye of the Zone of Proximal Development. At least on this topic. Despite the Springfield testimony highlighting empowering teachers and teacher teams, the decision-making for what takes place in a classroom is still top-down.

The act of creating empowerment or innovation zones is different from what has happened in a few districts in Massachusetts, namely Lawrence. In those districts the state has outright put the entire district into receivership, meaning, the local governance of the public schools is given over to the Commonwealth. There is no local control over the education of the students and an un-elected “receiver” makes all the decisions. It also includes a favorable environment for education management organizations (EMO) to set up a network of charter schools. If you are interested in the track record of the charter school industry in Michigan and in particular Detroit where entire public school districts were replaced by charter school entities, read this article from the NY Times. Chilling.

The full text of S.279 is found here, and the full text of H.304 is found here.  For now, both of these bills warrant a close watch. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education seem to be ready to dismantle traditional public education one school at a time.

Two Tales in Education

Author collectionTwo stories from the education world caught my attention this week, and I feel that both are worth the time to read. The first story, Why Teachers Quit by Liz Riggs, is a cautionary tale from 2013 about teachers and burn-out. The second, Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues is by Natasha Singer of the New York Times. It is a warning for anyone who worries about the possible effects of corporate America’s influence in schools and school materials.

The Atlantic recently reposted Liz Riggs’ 2013 article Why Teachers Quit which was originally printed in October 2013. Even with a 4-year time gap, this is an article that is relevant and worth reading for anyone interested in retaining educators. The turn-over rate cited in the article, 40-50%, refers to the numbers of teachers leaving the education profession within the first five years of their career.  While I believe this attrition rate to be lower in 2017 thanks to strong induction and mentoring programs available to beginning educators, many beginning teachers continue to leave education for other fields.

Although many of the teachers Ms. Riggs interviewed were from charter schools, the conditions which lead to decisions to leave education are often some of the same expressions of discontent heard now from both novices and experienced teachers. The responsibilities of educators don’t end at the dismissal bell. Planning, assessing, writing reports – those workloads are often overwhelming and makes for an unhealthy and out-of-balance life.

Even when one goes into education for all the best reasons, the reality of the profession can become overwhelming. With all of the emphasis on teacher quality, there continues to be a need to ensure that the extracurricular demands on talented educators are not overpowering.

The second article, Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues, was recently published in the New York Times and describes a new trend in education: recruiting teachers to promote edu-products. While understanding that obtaining “free stuff” is a way for classrooms and educators to afford enhancements and the latest in bells and whistles, I think this pathway is a very slippery slope. It makes me more than a bit skeptical about the motives of corporate American forming relationships with educators to obtain favorable product placements.

As a retired educator, I can still recall the disproportionate amounts of time spent each evening writing plans, pulling together materials, researching, contacting parents, and grading student work. I am not quite sure how Kayla Delzer, the third grade teacher chronicled in the Times article finds enough time to attend to teacher responsibilities; blog, tweet, and post on Facebook; and sleep. I wonder about the cost to her students.  Is her objectivity in evaluating appropriate materials compromised? Are her students missing out when their expert teacher is away to promote these materials?

Two tales for the week, both cautionary. Anyone out there listening?


The courage to be imperfect

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes.

Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

~Scott Adams

Educators and staff in my community start the new school year tomorrow. And as they do, there will be the usual pressure to be perfect. Perfect in pedagogy, perfect in understanding students, perfect in everything that has to do with school, in the finger-pointing education environment under which we teach and learn.

Does it seem as if somehow no one in public education is allowed a misstep?  I think so; and I think that toxic expectation of perfection can interfere with the art of teaching.

In teaching, there is an underlying expectation that all should go according to plan without stumbling or error. This is an unrealistic expectation, and it creates an environment of canned, scripted and safe lessons that do not necessarily serve students. Unrealistic expectations of flawless lessons create an impediment to teaching creatively.  As any experienced educator can attest, every day there will be moments when all goes smoothly, and moments when nothing does. This is to be expected. Teaching is an art filled with glorious highs and magnificent lows; sometimes this takes place within the same 60 minutes.

As you all return to school and to the important work of creating a community of learners, I urge you to embrace both creativity and the mistakes that are inevitable.

Do the research. Read professionally. Participate in discussions with colleagues. Take chances. Take advantage of opportunities for creativity in teaching and learning. Teaching is an art and you, my friends, are the creatives.


Lost in the shuffle

flipoutThe Lowell High School project is, without a doubt, the biggest thing going in Lowell. I mainly stay out of the discussions about siting this project, mainly because, aside from being a taxpayer, I have very little skin in the game – no children/grandchildren in the school system. I do have an opinion, however, that is not based on tradition or the often-cited “that’s the way we’ve always done it”. That is one of the advantages of being a Blowellian.

In my opinion, soliciting community support for this massive project has been ass-backwards from the start. My recollection is that, until there was some blowback from community groups like CBA and CMAA, there was very little effort to include all the stake-holders in the decision-making.  Did the rush to get the project in front of Mass. School Building for project approval preclude the necessity for a referendum vote on where to put the school? I think it has.

But while decisions and debate about where to put a new high school have become the focus point, there are other equally important issues that are getting pushed aside.  One of those issues is the inadequate school funding support coming from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Thanks to cuts in the state budget and cuts coming from the Federal government, Lowell Public Schools needs to cut the previously approved 2018 budget by nearly $1 million.  At the last School Committee meeting, there was plenty of debate surrounding the cutting of positions. Some of those proposed cuts are positions that directly impact students.  The loss of anticipated Chapter 70 funding is somewhat complicated, but in my mind, these are the issues:

  • The lowering of  tax revenues at the State level has resulted in the need to make last second reductions in school budget line items.
  • The state’s budget and funding formula for Chapter 70 has not been fully funded (currently presumed to be underfunded by over $1 Billion) for many years.
  • Education funding formulae are based on 23-year old calculations. The Foundation Budget is is dire need of updating (see TracyN Foundation Analysis).
  • The continually increasing expenditures for charter schools.

Brockton, Worcester, and other gateway cities, those who are impacted most critically by Chapter 70 underfunding and under-calculations, have joined together in an attempt to force the Commonwealth to rectify Chapter 70 funding issues through a lawsuit to address the inequities of funding. Because of Lowell’s focus on the high school, the effort to fix the funding, and possibly get some relief for our local school budgeting, isn’t even a blip on the radar.

Yes, the high school facility and a building that will serve the students in this community is important, but it is not the only thing.