Why I advise new teachers to avoid Title I schools

I do not want to be responsible for Mark Jones. I do not want his test scores to affect my salary. I do not want his behavior factored into my teaching evaluation.

As we begin to base staff evaluations and merit pay on student behavior and test scores, I shudder slightly. This shift toward using student actions to determine teacher status serves as a potent argument not to work in urban or underfunded schools. All the research shows a direct relationship between poverty and test scores, despite exceptions that are sometimes cited.

Mark appears slightly less motivated to learn than my wheaten terrier. Many teachers have tried to fix this lack of enthusiasm in the past. Mark listens sometimes but his books never leave his locker. His homework is usually stuck in one of those books.

In the absence of parental nudging, some kids are barnacles on the driftwood of life. While many kids ooze intrinsic motivation, others do not. Some appear to have missed the motivation bus entirely, presumably asleep on another self-declared snow day.

I had to try to run down a student this winter to plead with her to come to school. She had not yet done the speaking portion of the ACCESS test, a vital measure that might allow her to exit the bilingual program. Unfortunately, it had snowed heavily the previous night; this girl and her sister often stayed home when that happened. At first I thought maybe they walked to school and found the walk too arduous after a heavy snowfall. No, they took the bus, like most of their friends. They were simply in the habit of declaring their own snow days.

Having my performance judged by the performance of students makes perfect theoretical sense. But student motivation and learning levels remain only partially in my control — at best. In a microsense, I am judged on factors that are often beyond my ability to manage. If parents don’t insist their children attend school, what can I do? In a macrosense, my best move unquestionably would be to take a job in a district where most of the students will go on to college. That fact implies motivated students and parents, my best chance for success.

Yellow spots everywhere

“There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others
who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into
the sun.”

~ Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)
(Another great quote borrowed from bob@lakesideadvisors.com)

Eduhonesty: In many schools, especially disadvantaged, urban schools, we are now trying to teach all students the same lesson at about the same time. Some schools have every part of the day’s lesson scripted. The Assistant Principal may have designed the lesson down to the daily 5 minute opening activity. Paint-by-number teaching is becoming the norm in schools desperate to raise their test scores.

Subtle and difficult to detect, the losses from this approach are accruing around us. Test scores may go up. But teachers are artists. Creating a fun, memorable lesson takes time, energy and emotional investment. I am watching that emotional investment disappear as time is sucked up preparing to teach someone else’s plan. Our kids walk around saying, “whatever.” More teachers are doing the same thing.

“Whatever,” they say to each other, as they study the instruction they are to present for the day. Just about everyone can paint by numbers. Unfortunately, too often these lessons become yellow spots in the hands of someone who could have painted the sun instead.

America’s immigrant children and standardized testing

The first question: Are they literate in their own language?

This is not a yes-no question. Literacy falls across a spectrum. Many educational administrators seem not to understand this fact, especially as it relates to bilingual students. New students arrive who are fully literate and at or above grade level. Other students arrive who have learned almost no written language of any kind. A few years ago, a colleague added a new student from Southeast Asia who was seventeen years old and had never previously attended any school.

Many students fall in the middle of the literacy spectrum, students who went to school in rural Mexico from 9 to 1 in the afternoon. The math teacher may have visited that school once a week. Parents may have regularly removed the student from school to help the family work in fields or markets. Children of migrant workers in particular can be expected to have canyon-sized gaps in their learning.

We need to pull most of these kids out of the standardized testing pool. As it is, after one year we throw them in the pool to drown. All the research says they need three to seven years (and sometimes more) to get their footing in a new language. We ignore that and test them after a mostly useless grace period.

The current testing situation is good for no one. Students are made to feel stupid and lost. Schools’ test scores fall, putting pressure on often already overly frantic administrators. Schools receive test scores that tell them next to nothing. Teachers end up doing damage control, trying to coax fried and frazzled students back into the learning game.

A seventh grader reading English at a first or second grade level will utterly fail a state standardized test at grade level — no matter what that student’s actual knowledge base or level of literacy in his or her home language. The test may prove deceptive to the untutored eye. Abdullah may be well-educated in Arabic, may know a great deal of math, science and history. If all he sees are story problems he can’t read, we will end up thinking he does not know math — when he may be years beyond most of the students in school in his real mathematical understanding. We won’t learn what he knows.

We will just waste his time and ours.

Thoughts on the teenage unemployment rate

I read a letter to the editor today, a passionate exhortation from a man who claimed that the rising minimum wage was pricing teenagers out of the job market. That wage supposedly was denying these adolescents a chance to learn valuable life skills. I think he may be wrong. At least, I suspect he is overestimating the effect of that wage on teenage employment.

Let’s say I own a small business and I am looking for an employee. Do I hire an untried adolescent or Enrique? Enrique has work experience and he may stay for some years. He likely has a better work ethic and a more reasonable set of expectations than my adolescent applicant as well. Whether the minimum wage is $5.00 or $15.00, the odds are that I will hire Enrique.

Eduhonesty: The schools bear some responsibility for this situation, as does the whole set-up with handouts to the financially disadvantaged. We give students free breakfasts, lunches, eyeglasses, pencils, paper, notebooks, workbooks, and many other goodies. Parents hand them IPhones and buy them gaming systems in return for decent grades that may not require a great deal of effort to earn. Parents may even buy these toys for students with catastrophic grades. Add the effect of television, where hard work looks exciting when it’s seen at all, and it’s no surprise that many of America’s students are not ready for their first job. The consequences of being tardy at school might be an occasional lecture and a detention or two for repeat offenders, as well as calls home to parents who are often working and not available to supervise the morning rituals of their children. School penalties include detentions and lectures for most, an occasional suspension for those who resort to violence or actively curse at their teacher. Those penalties seldom have teeth. A suspension may represent three days of uninterrupted gaming if both parents work. Students are often allowed to make up their work. Students are given second, third, fourth and fifth chances. Or more. These chances are given year after year.

Our young children don’t get a chance to earn much. Too often, we hand them what they need. They also don’t get effectively penalized for behaviors that will never be allowed in the workplace.

A cheap minimum would imply these students are not worth much to an employer and, unfortunately, that may be true.

Trickery or not?

From the Principal’s email to staff:

“…Non-Core classes must engage students in the reading of texts as it relates to their subjects and ensure Powerful Practice implementation. Students must be engaged in reading text, charts, graphs, word problems, etc. everyday.”

Classes were expected to “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly.” A great deal of effort went into this program, designed to make sure that students understood how to cite textual evidence. This one effort has the potential to increase test scores noticeably, since at the grade levels in question that citing of textual evidence can have a strong impact on state test scores.

Eduhonesty: With our single-minded focus, we will have taught a valuable skill, one essential for writing good college papers. But I revisit the idea of opportunity costs. How much music and art was sacrificed to writing papers? How much gym time? Every choice we make in education precludes making some other choice.

I still don’t know how I feel about this one. The breadth of our educational offerings seems to keep contracting, offering less and less of anything that has not proven beneficial to math and English scores. On the other hand, if students end up more prepared for college, that’s a clear win for those likely to go to college.

I fear our laser-like focus on college is driving some kids out of school, though — a question that hardly ever seems to be discussed. When the electives vanish and what’s left is math, English and classes that are all tailoring their content to math and English, some students may decide life at the Speedy Mart will beat another year of high school.

Our good intentions may not stop this dropping-out. In some cases, I suspect we precipitate the departure from formal schooling.

Sample of new Common Core standards

7th Grade Literacy Common Core Standards

RL 7.1 Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text. Cite textual evidence Support analysis of text Differentiate between implicit and explicit Implicit, explicit, inferences
RL 7.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text. Determine theme or central idea Analyze theme development over text Provide summary of text Theme, summary
RL 7.3 Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact (e.g., how setting shapes the characters or plot). Analyze interaction of story elements
Craft and Structure
RL 7.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of a story or drama. Determine meaning of words and phrases in text Analyze impact rhymes, sound repetitions (poem, story, drama) Figurative, connotative
RL 7.5 Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning. Analyze how structure contributes to meaning in drama or poem. Per text such as soliloquy or sonnet
RL 7.6 Analyze how an author develops and contrasts the points of view of different characters or narrators in a text. Analyze development of point of view of character or narrator For more complex text, contrast points of view of different characters, narrators
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
RL 7.7 Compare and contrast a written story, drama, or poem to its audio, filmed, staged, or multimedia version, the effects of techniques unique to each medium (e.g., lighting, sound, color, or camera focus and angles in a film). Compare and contrast a written story, drama, or poem to audio version. Compare and contrast a written story, drama, or poem to filmed/staged version. Compare and contrast a written story, drama, or poem to multimedia version. Multimedia
RL 7.9 Compare and contrast a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period as a means of understanding how authors of fiction use or alter history. Compare and contrast fictional and nonfictional accounts of time period to understand authors use of fiction.

Compare and contrast fictional and nonfictional accounts of time period to understand authors altering of history.
Alternate history
Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity
RL 7.10 By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 6–8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

Eduhonesty: I’d like to start by saying that standards are essential in education. We must figure out what targets we want to hit in order to plan instruction. States have always had standards. But I have misgivings about the above demands.

What about the low end of the range? What about the many, many American students who are not currently reading close to grade level? What will happen with/to this group?

We are reinventing the wheel here and I would like to observe that the Illinois standards and other state standards covered at least the bulk of these topics. Schools were already creating “Power Standards” to teach in Illinois schools. Power Standards are standards you pick to teach because you can’t possibly teach ALL the standards in one school year.

One of my major complaints with Common Core: It is better to do fewer tasks well than to gloss over the surface of many tasks, barely introducing ideas that are then likely to be forgotten. We only have so much time.

What I expect to happen is further gutting of social studies, science, electives and vocational/technical education (yes, I am fully aware that “vocational” designation is now supposed to have the word “career” in there somewhere) as schools try to get ready for the Common Core language and math tests. If there is not enough time to cover items likely to be on the test — there’s not if you read all the Core standards — then schools will steal the time from somewhere since substantial federal dollars ride on their success.

Exit tests

I honestly don’t know if I believe in exit tests. A former teaching assistant of mine from Honduras does believe in these tests. He grew up in a system where you passed the third grade test if you wanted to go to the next grade. You proved you were ready for fourth grade or you repeated the year.

My own opening argument for exit tests is a simple one. I’ll call him Jaime. This year, Jaime pops around and into my classroom regularly. He’s supposed to be in his seventh grade classroom, since he failed seventh grade. I’m pretty sure he’s failed other grades, too. If not, he started school late or something. Because Jaime is almost big enough to be a linebacker. He has a noticeable, black mustache. When I sent an email to the administration asking them to please promote this boy, I wrote, “he’s a little like Godzilla among the tiny residents of Tokyo.”

One fragment of a conversation from right before his promotion has stayed with me: “They should put me in 8th grade,” Jaime said. “I did what they said to do. I got Cs. If they’d told me to get Bs, I’d have got Bs. I did my part.”

I looked at this big boy standing across the desk from me, asking me to help him get his verbal contract with the administration fulfilled, and I thought, “You could have gotten those Bs, too.” But we had asked for Cs and Cs were exactly what Jaime had delivered.

I like this boy. He’s another student on the list of kids I’d definitely adopt, despite the fact I know he’d drive me completely nuts. He seldom follows marching orders. He wanders the school. He skips. He ambles into my classroom and that of a special education teacher down the hall. He’s not in special education, but she helps him with his schoolwork anyway. We send him back to where he supposedly belongs. But the problem is – he doesn’t belong in those classes. He has almost nothing in common with those little seventh graders, physically, mentally or emotionally. Eighth grade will only be a little better.

Jaime is a time traveler who has fallen into the wrong time. His physical and emotional peers are in high school. Some have dropped out of high school by now. I expect Jaime to drop out of high school. I hope to be wrong, but Jaime’s not academically motivated. The factors that might keep him in school would likely be social and family factors. He hasn’t had a chance to make high school friends. At conferences, his mom grinned at me when I suggested possible future military service.

“He’s too lazy,” she said.

She’s most likely right. I was grasping for the proverbial straw at that point. Military aspirations can keep a student in school because they provide a reason to get a diploma.

Fundamentally, this “kid” is a great guy and I’d like to see him finish high school. Neither his mom nor I can think of a hook to keep him in school, however. Jaime needs to become emotionally invested in school for that to happen. His many differences from his peers make that investment unlikely.

Eduhonesty: For me, Jaime represents the perfect example for why America needs exit testing. I recognize that what I am about to say will seem contradictory: I am recommending mandatory retention as a solution after describing a problem that probably came directly from Jaime’s retentions. I’m also creating a governmental requirement of sorts at a time when I believe we desperately — and I mean desperately — need to get the government out of the classroom.

But I look at Jaime and think that exit testing might well have rescued this boy. Jaime and many students like him have the intelligence to meet clearly-set standards. If the cost of failing to meet those standards will be an obligation to repeat fourth grade, I strongly suspect many of these boys and girls will learn what they need to pass a well-crafted exit test.

Illinois requires that students pass a test on the Illinois Constitution to pass the 7th grade and a test on the U.S. Constitution to pass the 8th grade. This test naturally makes our lower students very nervous. “Will I get a second chance, Ms. T?” they ask. Then they study like they’ve never studied before. I give them study guides and index cards to make into flash cards. They make the cards. They ask each other questions. They ask me questions. In the end, they all passed last time and most passed with a comfortable margin to spare.

When we pass a student who is unready for the next grade, we create problems that ripple beyond that one student. A few years ago, during a year when my school had 18 false fire alarms and a lot of time standing in the snow, I’m not sure any student was held back. Two of my students missed the equivalent of at least one day every week and yet were promoted.

Kids talk. The following year, we had students with stories like, “I got three Fs and I passed.” The new administration put an end to the automatic pass. Students began to fail. But the stories of students passing, students who knew that by any standard measure they ought to have been held back, were already in circulation. Some kids still don’t believe their grades are necessarily linked to moving on to the next grade.

Some students will fail no matter what we do and what stories are going around. Some kids just don’t do the work. Mostly, these are kids who need more active parental involvement, but I know failing children from families whose parents are requesting regular phone calls during the evening, parents who are working constantly to make sure their child fulfills school responsibilities. Our academic failures can be Jedi Masters at evading schoolwork, blocking calls and intercepting the mail from concerned teachers.

I do think that a percentage of our students would respond to the threat of an exit test, however. Academic performance in aggregate would improve. If we ended up failing and retaining more students, maybe those students should be retained. Under the current system, there are too many 8th graders reading at a third grade level.

Insight on tenure

Tenure appears to be disappearing and I don’t know how I feel about that. Teachers need more protections than the public may realize. For one thing, some students lie so well they can make me doubt myself. (Maybe I didn’t see him throw it. No, that’s ridiculous. I was only 15 feet away. He threw it.) For another, administrators can be both vindictive and arbitrary, not to mention incompetent.

Eduhonesty: Nonetheless, I’d like to note one problem with tenure.

After four years in Illinois, a teacher who has become tenured may be difficult to remove (this is less true all the time) but the administration has to decide within four years whether to fish or cut bait. Will “Karen” learn to manage her classes? Maybe. Classroom management in urban and financially-disadvantaged school districts often proves a tough proposition. If they cut Karen loose in year one or two, they are fairly safe from challenges and legal repercussions. But Karen may be a great teacher in a few years. Who knows? Administrations under a tenure system may not be able to take the chance and wait, unfortunately.

When they talk about that 50% of teachers who leave the field within 5 years, I think part of that percentage is created by administrators who got stuck with a tenured turkey or two and decided to take no future chances. Many teachers with good potential may lose their positions for this reason.

Texas charter schools teaching creationism

The following is from: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2014/01/creationism_in_texas_public

When public-school students enrolled in Texas’ largest charter program open their biology workbooks, they will read that the fossil record is “sketchy.” That evolution is “dogma” and an “unproved theory” with no experimental basis. They will be told that leading scientists dispute the mechanisms of evolution and the age of the Earth. These are all lies.

The more than 17,000 students in the Responsive Education Solutions charter system will learn in their history classes that some residents of the Philippines were “pagans in various levels of civilization.” They’ll read in a history textbook that feminism forced women to turn to the government as a “surrogate husband.”

Responsive Ed has a secular veneer and is funded by public money, but it has been connected from its inception to the creationist movement and to far-right fundamentalists who seek to undermine the separation of church and state.

Infiltrating and subverting the charter-school movement has allowed Responsive Ed to carry out its religious agenda—and it is succeeding. Operating more than 65 campuses in Texas, Arkansas, and Indiana, Responsive Ed receives more than $82 million in taxpayer money annually, and it is expanding, with 20 more Texas campuses opening in 2014.

Eduhonesty: Apparently, the opening line of the workbook section declares, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.”

I’m not sure how I feel about this. Charter schools are private schools for all intents and purposes. It’s not like they are sneaking an unfamiliar theological view into the books, hoodwinking parents who don’t understand the educational agenda they bought into. Opponents will naturally argue that these schools should not be allowed to use taxpayer funds since not all taxpayers support this agenda. Well, I don’t support the war in Iraq but no one gives me a choice about contributing my tax dollars. I’d argue that the Founders’ intent with separation of church and state was to prevent the government from mandating that people follow one religion. Still, fuzzy science would seem to make for substandard schooling. The fossil record may have gaps, but we certainly have no shortage of fossils.

That said, I’d like to make the observation that protesting these schools because they have an agenda is hypocritical. Public schools certainly have an agenda. The large majority of teachers are liberal democrats and many are fiercely political. Union membership and liberal arts educations tend to steer people that direction.

I may alienate a few readers here, but personally I’d rather get rid of political correctness than Creationism. Education should promote free discussion and inquiring minds in my view. In that regard, the doctrine of political correctness seems every bit as intent as Creationism in shutting down the views of opponents, especially those who might hold conservative or anti-union viewpoints. I’d say let the people in Texas have their money.

Selling college

If I ask a classroom of middle-school students or even elementary students how many of them intend to go to college, every hand in the room is likely to go up. They know the right answer to that question, even if they are fuzzy on the details. Many or most of those hands will still be up in the freshman and sophomore year of high school, although I’m sure that by that time some students are just trying to duck the lecture they expect to get if they don’t raise their hand.

Eduhonesty: We have sold these kids on the product “college” very effectively. But many of these kids are not ready for college and some never will be. Some of these college-bound students will tell you they hate to read and don’t like school. Some are reading multiple years behind grade level and almost never do their homework except in spurts when I call home. These kids are extremely unlikely to succeed in college.

America needs a realistic vocational/technical track instead of this one-size-fits-all college plan.