Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Few Ideas on School Reform and a Response to the Comments of Jeb Bush on MSNBC

This morning on MSNBC's Morning Joe and its Education Nation series Jeb Bush was interviewed. According to Jeb Bush, it is the teachers' unions which are resisting reform. The implication is that teachers fear a loss of tenure and the competition of merit pay initiatives.

Having been a teacher, naturally I have strong opinions on this subject.
  • First, what about the study released last week that stated that there was no link between bonus or merit pay and teacher effectiveness?
  • Second, how many teachers have worked for reform the majority of their careers only to see politicians change their minds midstream and cancel reform programs before any meaningful progress can be made?
  • Third, why shouldn't teachers expect job security? They are employed staff, not missionaries? Yes, teaching is a calling. But not a religion.
  • Fourth, why are all decisions taken out of the hands of the educational professionals and placed in the hands of politicians, anyway? (Actually, I know the reasons, but the rationale doesn't doesn't soothe the frustration of swinging in the wind.)

  • Fifth, why is everyone so upset about tenure? It represents job security for those teachers who proved themselves to be capable and professional during the first few years of teaching when each was evaluated several times each year for effective classroom performance. If you want to improve teaching, make the release of ineffective teachers during these first few years a priority. Then continue with workshops and professional development for experienced teachers, as is done today. Make the reforms meaningful to experienced teachers by supporting their efforts to implement them, not by criticizing the professionals for their doubts based in the expertise of experience. Teachers are as much a professional as nurses and doctors and engineers. Do politicians treat the other lisenced professionals with the same contempt with which they are treating teachers today? Do they insist on pushing reform on other professions? NO, they pass regulations that are expected to solve problems. Then they let the profession work out the kinks.

  • Sixth, why are we so concerned with being #1? Other countries are just as capable as we are. Isn't that a sign of global progress? Ok, so one day we might not be the primary world leader (I fear that day, myself.) but if we work at it we can stay in the top few and remain influential. How did we get so influential? Be retaining a strong economy and a powerful military--and by being the first to assist other nations in need. Because they know we can and will help, other nations tend to want to stay on our good side.

  • Seventh, Jeb Bush made the point that other nations ranked higher than the US in student test scores made education of their young a highly valued social ethic and regarded teachers as important professionals. It does no good to verbally trash teh teaching profession and then expect students to respect the teacher in the classroom. Yet for decades, the news media and politicians have talked as if public education was run by incompetent fools and that teachers merely came to work to collect a paycheck. The hours spent planning lessons, worrying over student outcomes, staying overtime (salaried teachers do not get paid overtime) to assist students, prodding and cajoling students to learn, and being treated with disrespect by students who know they can only be suspended so many times before the school gets in trouble for attempting to discipline him. The only tool of control a teacher has over students are the force of personality, high expectations, and the phone call home. Students collect demerits. After a number of demerits, the parents are called. After the parent is called, the student can be sent to the office. But the count of demerits reflects poorly on the teacher, not the student in the mind of many. It is the teacher's fault when a student misbehaves, not the student's. (Yeah, I know, discipline is a skill. Some teachers are better than others. But students should be made responsible for their behavior, not so closely controlled and micromanaged that they never learn such control. Today, micromanagement of student behavior is the policy. Students are not given the sense of personal responsibility for their own behavior and choices. They are not allowed to fail, either with behavior or academics, and then made to face real consequences for that failure.)

  • Eighth, why aren't parents responsible for their child's behavior and achievement? Why aren't politicians demanding that parents insist that children learn and do right or face consequences themselves? Why are so many kids bringing packs of gum to school when they--and their parents--know that students are not allowed to chew gum in school. IT is written in the student handbook that every student takes home and shows to his parents and gets a parent signature to prove that he did so. Yet kids continue to bring packs of gum to school; they bring electronic equipment, including cell phones, that are likewise forbidden; they bring snack food and candy to eat in class, another forbidden practice--but they are sneaky. They break pencils as part of a game and throw paper balls around in a waste of parent's money, then borrow from friends or do not do assignments because they have no supplies (to solve that problem, parents are informed that one's child did not have school supplies and teachers buy extra paper and pencils to pass out from their own pockets.) Yeah, kids will be kids, but these practices require money that comes from somewhere. IF the money doesn't come from the home, then from where? If the cell phones and mp3 players do not come from home, then from where? Parents are complicit in this misbehavior or totally either clueless about the activities of their children. Yet the teacher is the one who held accountable.

  • Ninth, why not hire hall monitors and bathroom monitors so teachers can spend time preparing for class, consulting with students, and teaching rather than being the first to the door at the end of class and the last to enter the room at the beginning of class for hall duty. Transitioning from one lesson to another for each class must be done during classtime and cannot be done between classes because hall duty comes first. Students play the emergency need to go to the bathroom during class game because they know that going to the bathroom will require the teacher to disrupt the lesson and deal with the student's need rather than continue teaching. With a hall monitor, a quick handoff of student to another adult would stop that game. And using students for these monitor positions in this day and age is not acceptable for a score of reasons. The community will save money currently spend on replacing vandalized toilets, sinks and bathroom mirrors if the local politicians would fund the salary of two bathroom monitor/hall monitor for each hall per school. Or even if kids were allowed to go to the bathroom during a scheduled break morning and afternoon in addition to lunch and PE. Kids are so closely confined and bathrooms so scarce that there is no time or resources for the kids to take care of business--except where there is time, then the bullies take over the bathroom and...USE ADULT MONITORS.

  • Tenth, why aren't private school test scores subject to the required inclusion in the national test score results? If the majority of students in the South are in private schools and homeschools and these student scores are not included in the tally of achievement, then how do we know for sure that our nation is behind other nations in test score achievement? And why are dropout rates not tallied on the national level using one standard of definition for drop-out? And why are educational standards not implemented? Time after time, standards are stated then a loophole voted in that allows students that did not meet the standards to be given another set of chances as they are passed on to a higher level where teachers spend extra classtime remediating and advancing simultaneously. This takes the responsibility of learning from the student, who again is not allowed to fail, and from parents who are not forced to arrange private tutoring and family pressure to make the student learn (SPED kids are a special case and not considered in this problem analysis.)

I suggest that elementary and middle schools be revamped into modules where subject matter is planned per 6-9 week modules and students are allowed to advance through the modules at their own pace. Any student who has not accomplished the modules for that grade level can take additional work online for that or repeat a module. Give students a 2-4 week break between modules and offer computer labs and remedial classes during that time.

Repeating an entire year for the lack of preparation of a set of core concepts is a waste of time for a student who gets behind at the beginning of the school year and never catches up. Repeating an entire school year is damaging to the ego.

I suggest that semesters be the modular unit for high schools, with credits given per semester. A student who finds that he is not ready for chemistry, can take the 2 semesters of chemistry after he has accomplished an additional physical science semester and/or math course. Students who do not complete the set of required modules do not get a diploma.

After the age of 19, students should pay to be allowed to continue in high school, taking the classes on a community college campus Or getting a GED. GED's should be offered as adult education services provided free by the local school boards and no student under the age of 16 should be allowed into the classes. Online classes may be taken with a computer lab available and a teacher on staff as a computer/learning assistance coach.

Private, non-profit, religious and other community organizations can sponsor a computer lab for online classes and can provide a computer/learning assistance coach. The couch should be a certified teacher. Standardized testing should be monitored for all groups by certified teachers under the same security rules that govern public school standardized test administration. Groups that test other than public schools should be responsible for hiring and paying the teachers who monitor the tests. The extra burden of testing students not in the public schools should not fall on the public schools. The monitoring of standards compliance should be a government function and all testing groups should be held to the same standards. Students who study and test through online courses under the frequent supervision and test monitoring of certified teachers should receive credit for online classes that match the objectives of a module.

Graduation and class credit can be subject to standardized testing of expressed objectives. Teaching should accomplish the expressed objectives, but should also teach other materials. There should also be elective modules that are required, but not subject to standardized testing. These elective modules should be in each subject area to cover those areas of the subject matter not be subject to standardized testing, but important for subject area mastery, understanding, college prep, job prep, community interest, or just the desire for a deeper, more well-rounded education.

The required number of modules should closely match the number of modules needed for graduation. There is little reason for students to be forced to attend a school day in which he takes classes that he does not need for graduation IF he doesn't actually want to take the classes. The goal should not be to keep kids in school all day, but to offer actual learning opportunities.

And all lunches and breakfasts should be free--paid for by local taxes subsidized by federal lunch program monies, of course. Think of the reduction in bullying that will result in the lack of lunch money to steal and the additional class time the teacher will have if not collecting lunch money.

Students should bring their own water bottles to school so they do not get dehydrated. Parents should be responsible for anything not water placed into the bottles. Maybe students should be watched as they fill the bottles at school. Or bottled water could be distributed--free--at school, again paid with taxes. Broken water fountains, long lines at the water fountain, and 1c milk do not hydrate children. Nor does buying a cola solve the problem. Kids need to drink fluids. What's wrong with water?

I also suggest that past the age of 16, all kids should learn a skill. This can be done with college classes taken through the local community college, vo tech programs, technical schools, community internships, and school/business partnerships, and public school programs. College prep students work on the school paper, announce at ball games, and do other services. They can also plant gardens, breed animals, cook, design and assist in community projects, whatever. A Projects module set could be part of the graduation requirements. In this way the extra-curricular stuff and special class projects that some teachers accomplish can be more standardized and taught to more students. The 4-H projects, the FFA and FHA types of projects, the science fair projects, the student jobs: all will be given accademic purpose and prominence. And more students will reap the benefits. Also, students may collect college credits with classes taken at junior colleges. By the time a student graduates, one should be already started on a path to getting the needed education for a job or career. This should make education more meaningful to the student, not just a way to spend time until one can make more meaningful decisions about one's own life.

Communities can band together to offer opportunities. Then bus students to the opportunities. Modular classes can allow for travel time and expanded opportunities. An all day or 1/2 day set of modules that schedules for a short time only provides more flexibility than a locked-in, year-long schedule. If a choice doesn't work out, the student can attend study hall for the rest of the few weeks left in that module. During that time, he can take an online class--for credit to make up for the credit he didn't complete, saving him from having to take a credit during the 2-4 week interim. The modules can be planned to offer credit towards a technical certification and should be rigorous enough that the credit is transferable to the technical college or community college or state college that offers the technical training.

For instance, if Word is taught, or MS Office, the student should be able to get a Word certificate or some credit towards an MS Office certification. Maybe credit for the first few classes in a paid curriculum towards that certification if the course is that complex. In 2 modules, a student should be able to develop a web page in XHTML and CSS, for example. Maybe using Dreamweaver, and so have experience that can be placed on a resume that one can code a basic web page using Dreamweaver or other Wysiswyg web developer and, using code view, can locate and correct a problem on the page.

Such skills will be needed by many, but need not be required for all to accomplish during high school. Let students develop the skills that interest them now and take the others as adults, when they should be more willing to learn for the sake of the job those skills they do not personally care about.

Enough said for today. Tell me what you think.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Let's Keep Moving Forward, America!

Election time approaches. I ask all liberals, progressives, and Democrats to vote to keep the Dems in the majority and more in the House and Senate. Read what the Democratic Party is posting as a rallying cry for the upcoming elections; watch President Obama on video. Then share the video with your friends and family on Facebook and Twitter. Blog. Get the word out. Drink a cup of coffee: Join the Coffee Party! Get active in Organize America.

Personally, I am frightened that the Democrats will lose seats in Congress if we do not all vote. There is much at stake. VOTE.

Download this .pdf file for a flier that can be distributed--after you read it. (It is the same .pdf download link on the above site.)