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.

 

School Committee Meeting, 03 February 2016

School Committee Meeting: Wednesday, February 3, 2016

All members present.

Subcommittees

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.

Year End Loose Ends

Project Learn

IMG_0200Recently I had the pleasure of talking about education with LZ Nunn and Brittany Burgess from Project Learn, a nonprofit supporting education and educators. LZ recently accepted the challenge of becoming the ED of Project Learn.

One of the topics we tossed around was grant writing, and ways Project Learn might offer support to teachers and staff who would like to pursue grant funded projects and activities. As a follow-up, LZ found this grant announcement that some teachers might want to pursue:

Grant Alert Detail

Fund for Teachers Grants
Sponsor: Fund for Teachers
Submitted: 10/27/2015 12:00:00 AM

Fund for Teachers provides educators, possessing a broad vision of what it means to teach and learn, the resources needed to pursue self-designed professional learning experiences. FFT grants are used for an unlimited variety of projects; all designed to create enhanced learning environments for teachers, their students and their school communities.

Award amounts vary. K-12 Teachers are eligible to apply.

Deadline: January 28, 2016

Please Note: The Center for Health and Health Care in Schools (CHHCS) does not administer this funding opportunity.

Please contact Fund for Teachers for more information and to apply for this funding: http://fft.fundforteachers.org/

Clicking on the links will take applicants to the requirements and application process. Here’s a great opportunity for teachers to design their own PD and get funding to pursue it.

Common Core, Common Care

Valerie Strauss, the author of a Washington Post OP-Ed, The Answer Sheet, often posts something that sparks my thinking. Her latest column, What Happened When a Troubled Little Boy Appeared at My Classroom Door highlights the story of transient students who challenge us not only as educators, but as humans. Please read this post and think of all the teachers you know, particularly here in Lowell who create safe communities of learners despite challenges of society.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Larry Ferlazzo, another highly regarded Education Week author as well as teacher, writes a yearly column predicting what will happen in education throughout the coming year.  Last year’s column (click here), highlighted issues in education such as E-rate funding and VAM (time to break out the Google). I think #1 is spot-on: the drive to increase technology in schools is not necessarily for enhancing learning. New technology is really needed to support the new tests that will be electronically administered by 2017 (MCAS 2.0 or PARCC – they’re going to put the same demands on our kids).

And to find out what Mr. Ferlazzo predicts for 2016 check out the latest right here.

Connecting Dots

2013fielddaybNancy Carlsson-Paige, Lesley University Professor Emerita, recently stated the following during an acceptance speech for the Deborah Meier award. Dr. Carlsson-Paige cites a statistic from the DOE Department of Civil Rights which reports that 8,000 Preschool students (!) were suspended at least once in a school year.

“There is a connection, I know, between these suspensions and ed reform policies: Children in low income communities are enduring play deficient classrooms where they get heavy doses of direct teaching and testing. They have to sit still, be quiet in their seats and comply. Many young children can’t do this and none should have to.”

Anecdotally I know she is right, not only for low income early childhood classrooms, but upper grades as well. Kids may not always be direct in identifying what is bothering them; they sometimes show us with their actions. They “act out” with displeasure.

Brain-based research from experts such as Ken Wesson tells that children in Kindergarten are capable of 5-10 minutes direct instruction and learning before they become inattentive; fourth graders – my former wheel house – can sustain attention for 10-20 minutes.

The connection is that “mini” lessons, those short and focused bursts of direct instruction beginning a learning segment, are often 20 minutes or more. And when that is followed by more pencil/paper task work, there lies a recipe for disengagement. Now extend that: what happens when a 10-year old is asked to sit and engage in a high-stakes task such as our current MCAS test? Last spring most of my students wrote from 9 am to 2:35 with a 25 minute break for lunch during Long Composition, English Language Arts, and Mathematics Tests.

Teachers do what they can to make classrooms and lessons more active by allowing kids to get out of seats, work in different parts of the room, and through cooperative/collaborative learning activities. What is lacking, however, is recess and play time – time for socialization, for learning to negotiate with peers, for exercise, fresh air, and fun.

Make no mistake: play time is important to every child. And yet it is the first thing to be cut back when schedules are tightened to accommodate more time on tasks.

So when Dr. Carlsson-Paige is talking about a connection between allowing kids more recess and the number of discipline issues, we need to listen. Our kids are stressed out and need to get off the conveyor belt.

When Teacher Training is Not Valued

Like a lot of ideas, Teach For America sounds good, but in actuality? Well, that’s a decision you would have to come to on your own.  As a nonprofit, TFA’s stated slogan is “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” Who could argue with that? 2014-11-25-lincoln-024

Creating a Peace Corps type model to work in the most needy of schools is a lofty and worthy goal. As a recently retired teacher from a school with a poverty rate hovering around 90%, I can assure you that teaching students from such backgrounds burns out even the most experienced. It is grueling, and it is exhilarating. Urban districts and other high-poverty districts need enthusiastic educators to reach students.

What I object to is the attitude that seems to indicate if one is a stellar graduate or undergraduate in a chosen major, then one can teach without much attention paid to the art of pedagogy.  I will come right out with it – I vehemently disagree. It is insulting to assume that, the process, the science, the art of teaching seems so unvalued. A search of TFA’s website shows a “training schedule” in the range of 4-6 weeks. From the perspective of a person who spent 4 years undergraduate, 1 year graduate, countless house in pre-practicums and observations, the message seems clear: anyone can teach and we’ll show you how in 6 weeks or less.

So why do I care? Well, recently I read a post on a professional list that I subscribe to indicating that the legislative aides of many of our members of Congress are TFA alumni. If that is true – currently I’m researching that using Members’ staff lists and Linkedin profiles – then it will be no wonder that educators and education are under-valued and looked down upon.

Stay tuned for future posts.

Best Teacher on Earth?

One of the joys of teaching elementary-aged students is receiving a card emblazoned with #1 Teacher or similar sentiments.  A few weeks ago, one of my students wrote out a card telling me I was “the best teacher on Earth.”

I’m not sure I feel about how deserved that honor is. You see, lately I think I might better be called a test proctor, not a teacher.

Since we administered our first state test in the March Round – an 18 hour test extravaganza spread over 3 days – our students have endured a 40-question Math Benchmark, Math Module tests (3!), Fountas/Pinnell Reading Assessments  (administered individually), and SRI computerized reading tests. In the middle of all this testing, students also completed 2 days of state testing in mathematics.

Now with 11 days until school ends, instead of enjoying a more relaxed class atmosphere, students are completing yet another Module test, a computerized assessment for a CAI program, and a progress monitoring Math test.

With all this testing going on, when do we actually teach? I’m not sure I can tell you that exactly. In between?

Take a look at all the time lost to testing in the last 2 months.  Staggering and concerning, isn’t it?  And what does the assessment show? It shows we can give lots of tests and that the kids have a good level of stamina for testing. Beyond that, we’re often so busy administering assessments that taking a thoughtful look at results and what they mean for instruction never seems to get done. If we can’t learn anything about what is working or not working for our students, what is the point?

This week, my colleagues across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are attempting to raise public awareness. We don’t need all the time taken away from instruction to complete assessments show us what students need.

We need #lesstesting.

What We Have Here Is A Failure to Communicate

This weekend, our grade level was asked to give some feedback on communication, or lack thereof, in our school.  As further proof that everything in life can be explained by movies, these lines spoken by Stother Martin in Cool Hand Luke popped into my head immediately:

 What we have here is a failure to communicate.

2014-11-25-lincoln-024Communication on every level is one thing that makes or breaks a school’s culture. I’ve worked with some really great communicators over the span of 30 years.  Here are some things that I’ve learned are important:

Is the message always top-down? Collaborative decision-making can be less expedient. Why are major decisions and messages always delivered by administrators? Is it for expediency of delivering a consistent message or is it because it’s easier to just make the decision at the top?

Group decision making takes extra time and effort because the group having the discussion must hear all the points of view and then negotiate the final message. I believe that a healthy debate of topics is a sign of a group/team that respects each other. We teach our students accountable talk, why is it so impossible for adults to practice the same talk moves? We need to stop the “pants-on-fire” method of decision making and allow vertically grouped staff to have discussions and make decisions that may not please everyone, but will allow all voices a time to be heard.

Is the reasoning known? One of my relatives gave my son and husband each shirts many years ago. Matt’s said “But why?” and Adrien’s “Because I said so.”

For administrators and leaders, it must be much more expedient to say “this is the way it’s going to go”, end of story. But “because I said so” is a sign of the micro-management that signals a death knell for collaborative cultures. It dis-empowers (is that even a word?) those who are doing the actual teaching. It squashes any chance of finding a creative solution to a “problem”, whether the problem is big or small. And it takes the voice away for the ones who are going to do the task. Sometimes those of us on the ground floor can see a problem that those with a wider view cannot.

Is it timely? Last minute changes happen, everyone understands that. But a constant stream of last minute important information is not only frustrating, it makes people (me) resentful. As good as they are subs and paraprofessionals cannot deliver instruction the way a teacher can; teaching today and teaching with the Common Core standards is more complicated than “open your book to page 109”.  Plans that are rewritten or simply rehashed on the fly are mostly a waste of time for students.

I want to know how long someone has been sitting on the information.  This week I got a notice for a special education meeting on Friday – the day of the meeting. I got an email about it on Thursday. There was no time to prepare data for the meeting. How professional does that appear?

What does success look like? In contrast, this week our Literacy Coach took time during Common Planning to step my grade level through all the (known) events upcoming for the last 6 weeks of school. While it makes my head spin, I appreciated how she communicated what was expected to be accomplished by year-end and now can approach planning more thoughtfully.  She also willingly adjusted some dates to accommodate year-end events our grade level wanted.  Collaborative? Check. Timely? Check. Reasoning explained? Check.  Now that’s successful communication.