Fact Check From the Democratic Debate

Fifty Top Literacy Statistics

There has been a great deal of attention and buzz about former VP and current Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s rambling response to the education question posed at the end of last night’s debate. For the uninitiated, a record player is what we old-farts used for streaming music in our youth.

Beyond the Friday morning commentary though are some facts that were mangled and should be given some consideration and attention. A huge gap in vocabulary and language acquisition exists between children whose families are more affluent and those who live in poverty. Children living in poverty arrive in our public schools with huge vocabulary deficits of a thousand words – and actually many times over a thousand. This is a significant factor impeding academic growth.

The statistics cited above are ones that we, as a community and a caring responsible society, need to know and address if we are truly serious about education as a pathway for lifting children and families out of poverty.

I’m not sure I’d agree with Mr. Biden that the solution is to turn on the television or “record player” to add more vocabulary and intuited syntactic learning about our language and literacy, but I do believe there are ways to equalize the socio-economic differences that impact academic achievement. One of those ideas I believe in is that a universal PreKindergarten experience must and should be offered to every family.

So while the news is abuzz with talk of record-players, let’s not lose sight of the facts – the statistical facts – that our students are highly impacted by economics as well as academics, and that needs to also be part of our response to improving educational outcomes.

First Day

Do you remember your first day of school as a child?

I recently came across some photographs my mother took on our first day of school in Huron, Ohio. In one, a line-up of neighborhood children are waiting for the bus. Bus Zero – Bunky’s bus. How I can even recall those details so many years later is a testament to the pleasant memories I had growing up in a small town in northwestern Ohio.

In another photograph, the first day of third grade for me, I am sitting on a rock boarder near our garage. From that image came a flood of memories – the smell of stiff new leather shoes, a new metal lunchbox stylishly tartan plaid, hair pulled back into a tight pony tail, and of course the smell of air on a morning in September when summer fades toward fall.

Those warm and wonderful memories are juxtaposed with the reports from Mississippi detailing the aftermath of ICE raids on the first day of school. The children of workers rounded up by ICE went off to their first day of school with all of the anticipation that encapsulates a first day of school, but those young children return home from their first day of school was not the stuff from which warm memories are created. It was nightmarish and cruel.

Those children arrived home to uncertainty and fear. Not knowing what has happened to your parent and the insecurity of figuring out where you will stay or who will take care of you is a cruel brand of separation anxiety that is likely to scar these children for years. Acting DHS Secretary McAleenan may claim that the 680 workers were given an opportunity to use cellphones, make arrangements, released, whatever, but the reality is that did not always happen. Many questions linger including whether the cooperation – and timing of the raids – from the processing plants’ managers was retaliation for harassment charges.

In my opinion, if our immigration and naturalization policies and laws need to address new realities, have that discussion and revise accordingly. Instilling a sense of insecurity, anxiety, and fear because it is expedient to enact a round-up of immigrant parents is cruel, and without a doubt will result in irreparable harm to the children whose first day of school in Mississippi featured chaos and anxiety.

Massive round-ups of and raids on immigrant workers, many of whom seem to have been knowingly employed under suspicious circumstances, does not make this country “safer”. It makes our country heartless and without empathy and the collateral damage can be found in the fears of children.

Funding Our Future: Lowell Legislative Forum

As almost everyone with a stake in public education knows, Massachusetts funding of Public School education is in dire need of updating. Since 1993 when Education Reform and the Foundation Budget calculations were developed, there has been little done by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to update the funding formulae and account for changes in costs over the past 26 years.

Last July, after the Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed legislation to update the Foundation Budget formulae, the attention turned to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Sadly, the Foundation Budget Reform legislation was unsuccessful in the House and the entire effort fell short.

A broad coalition of advocates for not only K-12 public education funding reforms, but also Massachusetts public higher education reform worked together throughout the Fall of 2018. In early January 2019 when the new Legislature was seated, the coalition presented two critical Acts designed to provide funds for all students across Massachusetts public education systems. The two acts, the Promise Act and the Cherish Act, endeavor to bring critical funding support to K-12 public education and public higher education respectively.

As part of the state-wide and local coalitions working together, Lowell Education Justice Alliance or LEJA, has been hard at work in the Merrimack Valley to bring attention to the critical effort to update funding of our public schools. Along with LEJA, there is broad support from Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance (MEJA), Massachusetts American Federation of Teachers or AFT-MA, Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), SEIU, and teachers’ union locals in the Lowell area, including UTL495. By establishing this broad coalition and working with students, parents, and the community at large, we intend to bring attention to the needs that our schools are experiencing and work to fund our public schools adequately for the next school year.

On Monday, March 11, 2019, the groups sponsored a well-attended Legislative Forum which included Senator Ed Kennedy and a representative from Senator Barry Finegold’s office, and Representatives Rady Mom, Tami Gouveia, Tom Golden, Marc Lombardo, and a representatives from David Nangle’s office. Parents, students, educators, school administrators, and community members spoke about how underfunding schools has made a personal impact. We were fortunate to speak to several of the participants before and after their testimony, and we have compiled some of their ideas in our podcast, Episode 35.

It is clear that while many in the Massachusetts Legislature do understand the impact of under-funding schools and why that must change, not everyone does. We hope you, our listeners will consider joining this effort to convince local Legislators that our students cannot wait. We need to fix the Foundation Budget Formula now and Fund Our Future.

You can listen to Lowell Legislative Forum participants talk about why the Promise and Cherish Acts are important on this podcast from Episode 35, UTL StraightTalk.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Lowell is, according the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, underfunded by $42 Million each year. You can read more about Lowell’s underfunding by downloading this flyer.

BUT, Lowell is not alone in underfunded Foundation Budget funding. Get the Facts about Funding Our Future by linking to AFT-MA Fund Our Future website OR use this interactive map from MTA to select a city or town in MA and discover how much that municipality is underfunded.

Confused about how the Foundation Budget works. We were too – take a look at this short video featuring Colin Jones from Massachusetts Budget & Policy Center. Mass Budget & Policy Center also maintains an excellent website of resources if you are looking for more information.

Lowell Education Justice Alliance (LEJA) meets regularly in Lowell to advocate for students and public education locally. You can keep up with their efforts by joining the group on Facebook OR emailing lowelleducationjusticealliance@gmail.com for more details. All who are interested in Lowell Public education, whether a students, parent, educator or community member are welcome to attend meetings.

LEJA is affiliated with Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance or MEJA. You can visit the MEJA website for more information by clicking here.

If you are moved to contact your State Legislator to add your own voice and to raise your concerns about the Foundation Budget, you can find contact information for every member of the Massachusetts Senate or House by using Find My Legislator.

United Teachers Of Lowell 495 is participating in several statewide events for Fund Our Future. Please be sure to check our email blast, Five for Friday for dates and times. We welcome all members to make suggestions for future events.

PHENOM, of Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, has a lot of information about the higher education funding bill, the Cherish Act.

If you were unable to attend the Forum, you can see a video recording of the presentations on Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance’s Facebook page.

The 5 Percent

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Last week, the Lowell School Committee and anyone who was listening to the School Committee’s meeting heard the LPS McKinney-Vento report. The report enumerates homeless students in the Lowell Public Schools as defined by McKinney-Vento act:

The McKinney-Vento act defines homeless students as students who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence due to economic hardship, loss of housing or a similar reason.

– March 1, 2019 Report to Lowell School Committee

As of March 1, that number in Lowell was 982 – and actually climbed a bit from there due to students displaced by two fires in the City. The reported number of homeless children, however, represents 5 percent of Lowell Public Schools’ students.

This is a heart-breaking situation, and it is one that I, a former teacher, was aware of when I was a teacher. Nearly every year in which I taught, I had one – and sometimes more – students who were identified as homeless. They lived in shelters, they lived temporarily with a neighbor or relatives, and yes, some of them were living in a vehicle until their situation was discovered by Social Workers.

This brings me to the point of writing this entry: in our public schools, we rely on Social Workers, Counselors, and Health professionals to help us not only to identify which students and families are in trauma, but to help mitigate the circumstances in which they find themselves. In our public schools, with 5 percent of a given student population in crisis due to housing uncertainty, that is a massive responsibility for which there are some, but not many solutions.

Lowell’s McKinney-Vento report sparked a lot of conversations, as well as people asking “what can we do”? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know our school social workers, with caseloads stretched beyond reasonableness, are a key response to students and families living the trauma of becoming homeless.

With burgeoning caseloads, our schools need more professional, trained school counselors, social workers, and wrap-around services to support the homeless in our midst. That, of course, takes a monetary investment.

You may have heard me state that the outdated Foundation Budget calculations, now over 25 years old, are shortchanging Lowell Public Schools by $42 million each year. That is not just a guess on my part, but an estimate based on real numbers that come from Mass. Budget & Policy Center. School funding is a crisis for which the solution – fully funding schools by updating ridiculously outdated funding forumulae – should be a priority.

Our community’s children cannot wait.

Here’s the thing

pexels-photo-626165.jpegDid you happen upon KQED’s interview with San Francisco educator, Michael Essien, principal of MLK Middle School? If not, here’s the report which includes an audio of the story.

So many of us in education feel the pressure to keep teaching the prescribed curriculum even when our students, our kids, are telegraphing their emotional response to the curricular pressures they are experiencing. Could it be possible that the children are telling us “this is not working for me?”

I believe this to be the case when so many kids have escalating behaviors that disrupt the flow of the classroom. Just as an infant wails when it is hungry, tired or bored, our students are also wailing in the form of noncompliant behaviors.

As a classroom teacher, I was fortunate to have some really supportive push-in help when a child’s behavior was, let’s use the education-ese term, “off the wall”. I can picture Liz Higgins, a now-retired social worker who was assigned to my last school, talking in the calmest of voices to one of my students who was under my desk after having up-ended her own. The child eventually returned to the class activity, and the day continued.

I was fortunate to experience the power of push-in reconnections with traumatized and frustrated students many times over the course of 30 years. I hope over time I learned from these education mentors. Fred and Sandy and Sharon, Mary Ann and Maria, I don’t believe I properly thanked you for that. You taught me that when a child acts out, it is important to reconnect and re-establish our relationship. What has always impressed me about these six educators is that none of them ever seem to have lost touch with their roots in education. They may have been (or may now be) administrators, but they never forgot about their own experiences in classrooms or with students.

On some plane of understanding, I eventually realized that when one of my students was acting disruptively, that was a signal that, for that student at least, the demands of the classroom were too much. The times that I was able to keep that student with us in the classroom were, for the most part, successful outcomes. They did not happen all the time and they certainly did not happen as often as they should have.

Principal Essien’s experience as a teacher and in special education informed his decisions. He demonstrated to his staff that he could be trusted as an administrator because he still remembered what it is like to be in a classroom. Mr. Essien recognized that adding one more thing to a classroom teacher’s responsibilities was unworkable, that there needed to be a collaboration between administration and classrooms in order to best serve the students.

His push-in model is working because the collective focus is on what the students need in today’s education pressure-cooker.

Shouldn’t this be the goal for every child?

 

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!