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.

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

img_1871Day four’s Meditation from the Mat really resonated with me. That is so not only because of the simple truth, but also because what happens on a daily – or is it hourly – basis in these unprecedented times calls us to do something.

When legislative leaders in the United States can’t find money to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), but can find a (very) sizeable tax give-away to very rich and powerful donors, it is time to act.

When the Congress of the United States entertains an offset to the deficits that will result from said give-aways by reducing Medicare and Social Security benefits, it is time to act.

When state aid to schools is based upon 24 year old (plus) formulas that result in underfunded public schools, it is time to act.

When our unique differences are a flashpoint for senseless violence and discrimination, it is time to act.

We must act, we need to speak our truth when we witness or experience those things that harm not only our personal selves, but our collective self. Because we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

The whole of this quote from a Hopi Elder

can be found on p 7-8 of Meditations from the Mat:

“There is a river flowing now, very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and suffer greatly. Know that the river has its destination. The elders say we must push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open and our heads above the water. See who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves, for the moment we do that, our spiritual growth comes to a halt. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves; banish the word ‘struggle’ from your attitude and vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred way and in celebration. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”


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?


To My Congressional Representatives

I know that I have only one voice. But I have one, and I am determined to use it.

On the four month anniversary of Sandy Hook, we are reminded that nothing has been done to prevent yet another shooting of this nature.  Listen to the family members of the victims in this tragedy. They live the aftermath of our society’s inability to do something. 60 minutes 4-7-2013

Today, family members of the victims of this tragedy will be in Washington, DC. I implore our representatives in Congress to listen – do not rush by arrogantly and claim you are “all set” as one insensitive Connecticut representative does in the video.  Listen, listen to these people who will live with the aftermath of this tragedy for the rest of their days.

We cannot afford to be complacent, afraid of controversy, or stubbornly one-sided in these discussions. This is a complicated issues — along with gun control, we can no longer ignore those who face mental challenges, and yet, through stigma and misconception, are outcast from receiving meaningful help and assistance. We cannot allow, as the NRA has suggested, our schools to become armed bastions.

Something needs to change here. It’s not just Sandy Hook – violence impacts families and communities every day. Read, or at the very least, look at the graphic of mass shootings found this article from Mother Jones.

My own students sometimes come to class – third grade – with stories of guns going off in their neighborhood. They know the difference between a car backfiring and the sound of a gun. Is this the kind of childhood we want for our children?

Please contact your own congressional representatives.  I have.


Are we the Borg?

I have to touch the third rail: is education today more assimilation into a one-size-fits-all or is it about reaching a baseline of standards for learning? 

I ask this because lately it seems that there is an underlying expectation that we plan or are given one lesson and asked to apply it to every student in a grade level or a district or state. Sometimes even the teacher’s dialogue with the students is scripted.

But my teacher self – the skeptic that I sometimes am – says this makes no sense. How can a lesson applicable to one set of students work flawlessly with another? The students who make up my classroom change from year-to-year. so shouldn’t the instructional delivery also change? The ability to assess where students enter a lesson and how I deliver the instructional supports those students need – shouldn’t that be as student-driven and tailored as possible? Wouldn’t the teacher in front of those students be the best at reading the room and knowing what to do — isn’t that what you pay me to do?

Levels or distrust, disrespect, demonization. Those trends in our popular culture seem to drive the rush to a scripted, and lock-step curriculum. Silly me, I thought a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction and a 25-year career might provide me with the tools to at least figure out how to move students from point A to point B.

Students deserve more than a scripted curriculum, one that is often developed by profiteers lurking on the edges of education ready to swoop in and make a profit by manufacturing a crisis in education that often is not real.

Resistance may be futile – for now. But as long as I’m allowed to teach, I will covertly or overtly continue to resist those one-size, scripted curricula.

Am I Better Off?

If you listen to the pundits, the coming presidential election is boiled down to a single question: Am I better off today than I was 4 years ago?

I think it’s more complicated than a “yes” or “no”.

Certainly my family’s monetary worth is not better, however, I do not blame presidential policy for this. The damages were done long before the 2008 election.

Speaking of my own income, compensation has not increased much over the last several years. After 4 years of Mitt Romney gutting Massachusetts education funding (through state aid, etc.), there were and are draconian cuts to local school budgets. At one point in the last contract negotiations, a school committee negotiating member proposed a NEGATIVE raise. Several years lapsed with either a 0% raise or without a new contract, effectively a 0% raise as teachers worked at salary levels negotiated 1, 2 or more years earlier.

But that’s only the obvious. As school budgets were cut and personnel essential to supporting students disappeared, every line item was slashed. That includes supplies – supplies that teachers need to implement the very curriculum that we are held accountable for. Does this sound like Catch 22? The materials had to be procured somehow; guess where the funding came from? If you said out of my personal money, you would be on target.

In the last year, I’ve seen some improvement to school funding. There is a price to be paid for that – some of that policy I disagree with – but some positions have been restored. And for this change, I can say I am better off. Not restored to what things should be as there is much work to be done – but the fiscal improvements toward funding education are a step in the right direction.

My opinion is that the state of our country’s fiscal health was well-hidden by the previous administration.  The recovery process is only in its beginnings; the US economy – tied as it is to world economy and coming from a state of near collapse 4 years ago – is going to need a long recovery.

A simple yes or no answer to “Am I better off” really isn’t that helpful.

Thank You SCOTUS

Thank goodness I reside in a state where it has been illegal to deny health care coverage for pre-existing conditions for some time (should I say “thanks” to Governor Romney?).  As of a few hours ago, the Supreme Court ruled that insurers cannot discriminate for pre-exisitng conditions nation-wide. For someone like me, that is truly good news.

It means that I don’t need to limit my retirement living options to Massachusetts – as much as I love the place.  As a cancer survivor, I have had coverage denied by a traditional insurer, who will remain nameless for this post. I had to carry my own coverage through COBRA and pay for coverage for anything else that might crop up “new” on the new insurance my husband’s company had switched to.  Trust me when I tell you that it was a financial hardship as well as a stressful situation.

As I understood the rule at that time – pre-Massachusetts healthcare reform – if I was treated in any way, shape or form for my pre-existing cancer diagnosis, I would have the start the clock all over again.  I don’t remember the time requirement any more, but whatever it was, the denial of coverage was wrong.

So I am celebrating today because no one should ever have to live in fear of wondering how to pay for treatment of an ongoing illness or condition. Treatment and medical factors should provide all the stress anyone ever needs in that regard.

Thank you Supreme Court. By not declaring these Health Care Reform unconstitutional, you’ve taken a step toward justice in health care.