School will start soon

Many schools now start during the middle of August, as districts attempt to cram in as many weeks as possible before the state standardized exam. Weeks after that exam are often regarded as relatively useless. They don’t add points and administrators cannot rely on students to retain information from late spring for next year’s exam.

Eduhonesty: This represents another perfect example of the stacked deck that faces financially-disadvantaged American school districts. Many classrooms in my district reach eighty-plus degrees in August, September and even October. These same rooms may see similar temperatures during late April and May. I have had a rule in the past: Above eighty-five, we go outside if at all possible. From eighty to eighty-five, the same rule holds, but allowances can be made for quiz and testing needs.

Many August and September minutes are wasted in these classroom-saunas. Students are often glassy-eyed and whiny from the heat. (I’ve seen ambulances called for two of them over the years.) If we go outside, we lose transition minutes. Students are less attentive under trees. The girls complain about dirt and bugs. Some boys do too. Papers are blown into fields. My words may fly away, taken by the wind, as students chat, taking advantage of the lack of seating charts.

Districts with money and air-conditioning will not lose these late summer and early fall minutes. Their students will not be falling asleep in the afternoon, at least not en masse. Teachers will not need back-up lesson plans for days when in-class work proves impossible.

I just received an unexpected call about a teaching position in a middle-class area. Last spring’s heat can be added to other reasons why I interviewed for the position. That heat may figure into my acceptance if I receive an offer.


Can we just throw away the milk?

A few years ago, my district was in danger of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars of government money because the number of our free/reduced lunch students did not match the food being dispensed in the cafeteria. The Principal held emergency meetings with staff to emphasize that huge $$$ were on the line.

“You have to make sure your students get their lunch tickets,” he said. “Then you go down with them and make sure they go through the line.”

“But they don’t want to eat,” a staff member said.

“They just throw the lunches away,” another one said.

“Then they throw the lunches away,” he replied. “We have to fix these numbers.”

Eduhonesty: I understood my Principal’s point perfectly. The numbers of free lunch students had to match the number of lunches dispensed to these students. We could not appear to be neglecting to feed low-income students. The government had given us money to make lunches. The existence of these lunches had to be documented.

Still, teachers were aghast at the wastage. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink, as the old saw goes, and teachers understood that you can follow a student through a lunch line, but you can’t force feed him when he gets to his table.

I particularly enjoyed one new teacher’s attempt at a solution:

“At my last school, we counted lunches by counting milk cartons. Couldn’t we just throw away milk instead?”

Very few students ever eat the apples in my school’s lunch line. On some days, garbage cans in the lunchroom are overflowing. While we are considering the wacky milk idea, maybe I will add one wacky idea of my own: Why don’t we sell school lunch garbage to pig farmers to get extra income to fund after school programs? If that doesn’t work, I’m sure we could convince farmers to take our trashed food and pay transportation costs. Wastage would go down and, with luck, the price of pork would go down too.

Calories, calories, and school lunches

This is a replay of sorts, but ought to be on the radar:

I ate a number of school lunches last year. Most teachers don’t unless they have a separate cafeteria nowadays, but I grew up on macaroni drowning in milky Velveeta, along with spaghetti smothered in Campbell’s tomato soup, often with canned green beans or peas. I can eat damn near anything that doesn’t try to eat me back.

School lunches helped my weight-loss program. The baked chicken, bland beans, and dubious fruit worked for my diet. At times, I thought my plate might contain less than 250 calories.

Eduhonesty: While fine for a teacher on a diet, the new, healthier lunches often don’t have nearly enough calories for a growing boy or girl, especially since students are tossing large chunks of these lunches in the trash.

Of course, fasting once a week does seem to improve the longevity of rats.

Children who hate apples

I’ve stayed out of the school lunch fray. I respect Michelle Obama’s motives. Too many children are eating Flaming Hot Cheetos for breakfast.

Here’s one snippet of a much larger problem, though:

My school supplies fruit and vegetables at lunch. Often we have these tiny, substandard apples that are likely all my district can realistically afford. Students get virtually unsalted whole wheat pasta with boring red sauce, a small apple, an unsalted, overcooked vegetable and milk, for example. A lot of this food will end up in overflowing garbage cans as other students pass around Cheetos brought from home.

Eduhonesty: Those apples drive me nuts. They’re sorry excuses for apples and I am sure we are turning kids off apples in droves. Apples can be delicious but, by the time school is over, some of these kids will never go anywhere near an apple. The associations will be too unappetizing.

Block the cell signals

Technology exists that can render cellphones useless in a classroom. We can block phone signals. We can shut these electronic distractions down.

Eduhonesty: Forget all these varied and futile attempts at cell phone policies. Forget trying rules that allow phones in the hallway and cafeteria, but not the bathroom or classroom. For one thing, I guarantee the conversation/thread that started in the hallway will often not shut down after crossing the classroom threshold. Forget dealing with excuses like, “My mom wants me to have it in an emergency.”

Fifteen minutes of secret texting a day is 1 1/4 hours in one week or about a week of school by the end of the year. The student texting is probably communicating with another student in the building who is also losing a week of school. Block the calls.

The House on Mango Street: Bad Plan

I am falling into a rabbit hole outside of cyberspace. Without going into details, posts will be sketchy this month. I will seize those moments I can, picking a few sound bites that I’d like to get out there.

I’d like to start with the House on Mango Street, a novel that is frequent middle school reading in our country. We can do better. The protagonist gets raped by a clown. The book contains numerous errors in grammar, many intentional but nonetheless fundamentally incorrect.

Eduhonesty: If we want our students to learn grammar, we should not hand them books that don’t follow the rules we are attempting to teach.

A sobering graph that lawmakers need to understand

national debt clock

Laws that require school districts to spend more money will result in almost all of those districts reallocating the money they have. While some lucky districts may receive new grant money, most districts have about the same amount of money this year as they had last year. A law that requires districts to add a new testing, data or curricular requirements can create insuperable difficulties as districts figure out what — and who — to sacrifice in order to meet the latest governmental demand.

Mandated small-group interventions happen at the expense of large group instruction, for example, since districts need staff to do the interventions. Especially in these times, paraprofessionals and aides may have been mostly laid off, leaving teachers to work with small groups. While teachers are doing the small-group work, who helps the students who are not in small groups? A responsible teacher will provide those excluded students with work but, to a great degree, students who don’t qualify for small-group interventions will be on their own. Some students will do the work. Others won’t.

School districts may be running with minimal staff as they attempt to control costs during tough economic times. New mandates that force districts to allocate staff members to well-meaning improvement programs will often then cause unintended, harmful consequences. Even the many staff meetings that occur to plan the latest mandated intervention are taking away time from other possible planning. If my district’s high school has relatively few spirit activities, that’s no surprise. Planning time that might go to creating those activities has been sucked up in the last few years on meetings about improving test scores and integrating the Common Core into lessons.

NCLB has not worked. I believe NCLB could never have worked. But since the government did not provide any significant additional resources when almost everyone was working to near-capacity, the program never had a chance. We can’t add extra instruction without more resources. In many poor districts, teachers spend hundreds and even thousands of their own dollars annually just to keep themselves and students in supplies. Ink for the printer and paper for my colleagues have been among my recent charities.

The debt clock above ought to make the situation clear. Districts seldom have stashes of money sitting around. Many schools barely have enough money, if that, to meet student needs. (Others may be quite comfortable, but that doesn’t help the district in the zip code down the road.) Legislators need to learn to understand financial limits. The credit cards are maxed out in many of America’s educational fortresses. We need an end to unfunded mandates.


The credit cards are certainly maxed out in Illinois. I found it pretty funny a few years back when bullet makers insisted the state pay in advance if they wanted to buy bullets for the Department of Corrections. That was the same year, we postponed numerous bilingual activities until spring as we waited and waited for a check from the state that arrived about six months after it was expected.

Gobbledygook and useless test numbers

We have become an innumerate society. Because of this, we tolerate conditions that ought to seem insupportable. Annual state achievement tests represent one example supporting my contention.

In our lower-scoring schools, we learn something from our 8th grade state achievement test, yes — but not nearly as much as we would learn if we gave our students a test reflecting their actual level of achievement. That test might tell us where the gaps in their knowledge are located, so that we could teach them the missing pieces in their academic puzzles. The 8th grade state test just tells us they are far behind. We knew that from the get-go. What our lower-scoring schools could use, if we must spend all these days testing, is information on exactly where students have fallen behind and where they need to focus. In the case of our lowest students, we learn virtually nothing from state tests since all these students are doing is guessing anyway.

I feel as if I have hammered the evils of indiscriminate testing into the ground with a sledgehammer. Simultaneously, I have been hammering the connected concept of recognizing students as individuals . Unfortunately, I can’t abandon this topic yet. We seem to be moving away from more-appropriate tests as we head toward the Common Core.

Repeating a point that I think needs to be emphasized

We praise daily work that contains little effort and no serious thought. We are taught when studying for teaching degrees to seek something positive to say about any work turned into us, and not to use red pens, since marking up papers with a lot of red ink makes students feel bad. When students copy each other on group projects, we allow this as a “group effort.”

Frankly, some of these papers deserve to be covered in red ink. Some of these group efforts should be shut down. While I believe in positive comments, in fairness I know there are times when “Think!!” is a perfectly reasonable word to scrawl in a margin. Character counts.

Smoke and Mirrors

“Nobody can get the truth out of me because even I don’t know what it is. I keep myself in a constant state of utter confusion.” Colonel Flagg

Among the first classes I ever taught were two Spanish I classes at Waukegan High School in Illinois. At one point during a frustrating day, I said to the class, “You want to learn Spanish, don’t you?” One of my best students answered back: “Ms. Turner, they makin’ us take this. If I didn’t need this to graduate, no way I’d be here.” The class chimed in to support her. Yeah. Not my idea. I don’t wanna learn no Spanish. Yeah, they stuck us here, Ms. Turner. I wanted woodshop. The most poignant voice said quietly, “I just want to drop out, but my dad won’t let me yet.”

These high school students had to take two years of a foreign language because under NCLB all children had to be prepared for college – whether they wanted to go to college or not. This sounds reasonable in theory. Parents and educators have always selected the material schools provide, understanding that children and adolescents lack the experience to make some choices. Adults know that college graduates earn more over their lifetimes. They know that Spanish has become generally useful. Nowadays some billboards no longer even bother with an English translation. Employment ads often request or even demand that applicants speak Spanish as a condition of employment.

However, sticking 35 students (40 to start) in a classroom without enough desks, with a first year teacher, a formidable gang presence, and books that predated the internet and looked like it – well, that may not have been terribly useful. The disciplinary issues that arose in that class could have swamped a veteran teacher. Complicating my efforts, many students did not want to be there. They had zero interest in Spanish. Some considered the class unfair; the Hispanic students possessed a natural advantage that angered their white and African-American counterparts.
Other students objected, with justification, that they were sixteen years old and starting Spanish at that point made little sense.

“Mrs. T, I’m not going to learn Spanish,” one said. “Nobody can learn Spanish in two years and I don’t even want to do it.”

I gave that student a pep talk, explaining that learning some basic vocabulary would be useful and pointing out that he might change his mind about Spanish in college. I compassionately explained that he was stuck, unless he was interested in French or German. I might be able to get him into another language, but he had to take a language. He decided to tough out Spanish.

Oddly enough, though, I made it through that first year of teaching and I remember many of those kids with great fondness. I just kept teaching. They sensed the sincerity underlying my white, middle-class suburban momness, and by the end of the year, we had forged a rapport. Gang colors and gang signals swirled around me and mostly right past me, although we took a midyear blow when one of my funniest and most likable students was arrested and charged with manslaughter after a gang disciplinary action that led to the accidental death of one of his friends.

This one student was not going to college anytime soon. (I hope he makes it there someday. K., I still believe in you out here. I always did.) Many of these kids are not going to college. The dirty, not-so-secret fact that we like to ignore is that the U.S. dropout rate may be (or may not be) slowly declining but remains fairly steady. We don’t have an exact number, but the number is high. Many students do not finish high school. Worse, many students graduate lacking basic literacy skills. We have been selling these students college since kindergarten but we have not even managed to sell them high school. We are marketing the most important product that anyone will ever try to sell to these students, an education, and we are doing it so badly that many of them are walking away on the first day that we legally allow them to exit the premises. You can make little children go to school. You can make most adolescents go to school. But you can’t make them like school and if they dislike it fiercely enough, they’ll leave.

Even those kids who stay in school don’t put a lot of effort into material they don’t like. They do what they need to get by, often as little as possible. My daughter used to chuck her laundry and any loose items in her bedroom into the attic when she knew her dad was about to check the room. The floor looked great, the closet wasn’t bad – and the attic was a secret, growing disaster. I found one pair of my glasses in a pile of laundry that had been stuck in that attic for over a year.

We put students in that unwanted language class because we want the best for those students, a clean application to present to a college admissions office. We want to believe they will graduate from a university. Motivated by the best of intentions, politicians and academic administrators tell us the stories we want to hear; in many cases, I believe they are telling us the stories they want to believe. They have goals for America’s children, goals that include college readiness for all America’s children.

The wealth of data available allows them to keep telling stories too. Test scores at Podunk High in northern California may have gone up 21% in the last year. With thousands and thousands of schools across the country, politicians and academic administrators can always find examples to support their contentions, clean bedrooms they can present to America.

Unfortunately, America’s politicians and administrators often end up omitting or sanitizing those educational failures that don’t fit the picture they wish to present. Sorting out the wishful thinking, make believe, and truth in the pile of facts and factoids presented to us is a daunting task. We have too much information and not enough time to evaluate that information. Most of us want to believe that the United States is making progress against illiteracy and innumeracy. We write down the facts that support our belief. We focus on Podunk High, ignoring the high school across the valley where scores fell by 8%, ignoring the many, many schools that have become attics where we cram children who have the misfortune to live in the wrong zip code. We ignore our failures despite that fact that, in a test-based system, those failures glare at us from the pages of mandatory state reports on school performance.