Friday night, July 3rd – CLASSROOM TEACHERS nationwide get another chance to be heard across the country on talk radio about the REAL issues in education

You’ve been invited back!  Last January when we were first heard on nationwide talk radio, the phone calls from teachers, parents, and students so compellingly told the story about the REAL issues in education that the call-in show was extended an hour extra, and we were told to expect an invite for another show.  Well, we all get another chance this Friday.  Here is our chance to let legislators and parents once again hear that the real issues go far beyond the false mantra of “…bad funding, bad unions, bad children, and bad teachers.”

July 3rd:  Your voice is critical to speak out about the failure of our schools.  Please join us!

Education of today’s children is a disaster – with SAT and ACT reporting only one-quarter of those taking their tests are ready for college, with 48% of new teachers quitting the profession within their first five years, and with a rapidly increasing portion of our best teachers leaving or taking early retirement.  According to the simplistic view of career DoE bureaucrats back in their cubicles far away from the realities of the classroom, the reason is lack of funding and the need for ever more inept mandates.  The commentators blame it on a handful of “bad” teachers each year, and fail to see the 7,200,000 other good teachers trying to teach despite the system.   Parents think the issue is children who don’t want to work and learn, not realizing how wrong that assessment of our children really is.

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Yet the one voice rarely heard is the voice of classroom teachers – the one stakeholder with the understanding and insights to help us fix the real problems. 

This Friday night – July 3rd, 9:00pm EST, will be a rare exception when teacher voices from around the nation can be heard.  WBZ radio in Boston, with the nation’s 7th largest radio audience, has taken a courageous stand to broadcast another segment covering the issues raised in Lifting the Curtain:  The disgrace we call urban high school education (2nd edition).   Chris Citorik, host Friday of the nationally acclaimed Dan Rea show is dedicating the show to a call-in format so that teachers can interact about the real education issues.  In addition to their on-air million-plus audience in 26 states, the show will be live-streamed on the WBZ website.

We need more than just the handful of us who are outspoken whistleblowers and advocates for how to change the real problems that have destroyed the education of our children.  Blogs like this one, or my blog on the Huffington Post, are a drop in the bucket compared to what the clear voices of classroom teachers and parents can achieve.

The show is certain to take on the most serious problems that career DoE bureaucrats and legislators carefully hide from parents:

  • Teachers must try to teach a full lesson – even though non-teaching duties, micromanaging in-class mandates, and days out of the classroom combine to be the equivalent of removing an average of 35 minutes from every standard urban high school class
  • Inept mandates by career DoE bureaucrats that micromanage and undermine education.
  • Teachers forced by school administrators to promote children who have failed
  • Teachers forced by school administrators to dumb down education to make sure everyone passes and the school is not sanctioned
  • The culture of cronyism, and intimidation by their own school administrators, that pervades almost every school
  • The impact of standardized testing on dumbed-down education and cancellation of arts and electives
  • The way inclusion classes fail everyone in the class – especially the inclusion children
  • A numerical minority of parents who have hijacked special education to get their child a free ride through high school with unlimited retests and the dreadful accommodation of “Gets an ‘A’ for doing half the work expected of the class.”

Here are the details.  Please join us!  Teachers, call in and be heard for a change!

Time:  9:00 EST
Radio:  WBZ-AM radio 1030, Boston MA
Live stream:  http://boston.cbslocal.com/

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KIRKUS and CLARION both praise the acclaimed book “…from the unique perspective of a classroom teacher” about our failing education system.  The 2nd edition of Lifting the Curtain:  The disgrace we call urban high school education includes dozens of teacher submissions from across the USA and nine new chapters.

Please get a copy HERE or on Amazon.

Posted in Charter Schools, Common core, Education, Education reform, High schools, homeschooling, Inclusion classes, Music and arts courses, Public Education, Standardized testing, Teachers, Teaching, Urban High Schools | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Progress!  Another book by a teacher who gets it!

(A guest post by Caroline Lewis follows this introduction)

I just had the chance to be encouraged by seeing another excellent book written about education from a teacher who “gets it.”  It was a very pleasant surprise.  You see, I greatly dislike most self-help books, and especially books about teaching, because all too many come from either the perspective of endless Pollyanna platitudes (“…all is beautiful, things will be better in the morning, there is a silver lining…”) or are written by someone with absolutely no clue about the realities of their topic.  As someone battling cancer, I see and hear that approach every day.  And worse, as a teacher, like all of us, I have had to live through endless PDP sessions by some paid professional “educator” who has not been back in a school classroom since leaving high school.

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Of course, there are exceptions, and when I come across one, I really appreciate what the author has created.  A book entitled Just Back Off and Let Us teach, by Caroline Lewis, is one of them!

Ms. Lewis understands the difficulties in trying to be an effective teacher today.  Yet she provides a framework that will help any teacher become more effective under the existing disastrous mandates and climate of intimidation and cronyism in our schools.  Her perspective is far from that of a Pollyanna:

“The nobility of the profession – that which drew me in – is losing its magic.  The ranks of effective teachers are declining.  How do we attract and keep the good and great ones in the profession?  How do we get that spark back?

Like many I have witnessed the role of poverty, school climate, school leadership, student motivation, parental involvement, and other such factors in influencing educational outcomes, but effective teaching remains an important component.”

One of her most insightful statements, and the reason she wrote Just Back Off and Let Us Teach is her understanding that “…some of us are born teachers, effective from day one.  Others are and have been on a journey towards effectiveness.”  Her book is an excellent structure that will help any of us who are still (does the journey ever end?) on that “…journey towards effectiveness.”

I asked Caroline to write a blog post I could host about parents in today’s school environment.  Here is her piece, and I have tacked information about her book and website at the end.

Enjoy!

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What is the role of Leadership, Parents, and Poverty in Education Reform?

(By: Caroline Alexander Lewis, Author of Just Back Off and Let Us Teach

THE THREE PILLARS

What is the role of leadership, parents, and poverty in education reform? Well, a lot more than we think. Yes, teachers are important, critical pieces of every teaching-learning experience, but they are not magicians. We need to acknowledge that successful public education requires development of three key pillars or legs of a stool: (1) the readiness-to-learn of the learners; (2) the effectiveness of the teachers; and (3) the culture of the school: leadership, tone, and resources that support (1) and (2).

These days we seem fixated on only one of the pillars, teachers, and not in ways that improve quality, but in ways that undermine, place blame, and seriously demoralize too many good teachers. Somehow the realities of inadequate school leadership and resources, coupled with increasing poverty levels and the fragile lifestyles of too many of our children, never seem to get fully addressed in the equation-balancing of education accountability.

TEACHERS

In the last decade or so, the debate on what constitutes successful education, the spotlight has become laser-focused on a teacher’s ability to get students to pass tests. It takes a toll, all of this testing, analyzing, micromanaging, measuring, and labeling that is consuming K–12 education in America these days. As a result, too many effective teachers are worn down, burnt out, and prematurely leaving the profession. And we surely are not attracting the brightest the best college grads with the talent and passion for teaching. This is not good, especially as that second pillar, effective teachers, needs all the bolstering it can get.

LEARNERS

Pillars #1 and #3 are frequently ignored and, in too many schools, teachers are expected to teach kids who are not ready to learn in schools without the leadership and resources to support teaching and learning. Parents and poverty play an important role in attending to that first pillar. Alas, too many of our students, from the youngest to the oldest, are vulnerable to hunger, homelessness, abuse, illness, learning disabilities and so much more, and have few adults advocating for them. Their readiness to learn is significantly compromised. Pillar 1 needs significant societal attention.

LEADERS & RESOURCES

School leadership and resources also matter – significantly. Teaching and learning are heavily influenced by where and with whom we work, as school climate shapes the journey that begins anew each day, each week, each grading period, and each year. Effective school leaders provide motivation, sense of purpose, and sense of pride in teachers and students, and create positive school climates. The resources available to each school (from new buildings and technology and music rooms, to strong PTAs and teaching aids and after school programs) provide the foundation of that third pillar and tremendous support for the other two.

EDUCATION REFORM

We must rethink our education reform strategy and change the current debate. We must extol, not vilify, teaching. We can weed out bad teachers AND recognize the worth and value of effective teachers. We must keep in mind that: (A) We cannot—we categorically cannot—reform public education if our pool of effective teachers continues to shrink; and (B) there are two other pillars that also need significant attention.

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About Caroline Lewis:

After spending 22 years as a science teacher and school principal, Caroline Lewis became director of education for Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and developed the award-winning Fairchild Challenge to engage students in environmental issues. As founder and CEO of The CLEO Institute, she applies her educational leadership skills to promote solution-oriented approaches to address climate disruptions. A native of Trinidad, she earned an MS in Educational Leadership in 1999 and is committed to elevating and celebrating the teaching profession.

Caroline Lewis, SQ Author Just Back Off and Let Us Teach

Visit the author online:

Website: www.CarolineLewisEducation.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JustBackOffandLetUsTeach

About the Book:

If America wants to reform public education and regain its status in the world, it must start valuing teachers and stop the present policy of commissioning study after study and revising measurement tests every few years. That assertion is made by author Caroline Lewis, who outlines reform in her new book Just Back Off and Let Us Teach: A Book for Effective Teachers and Those Who Champion Them. Both descriptive and motivational, Lewis’ book defines five skills distinctive of effective teachers called SCOPE (Sensitivity, Communication, Organization, Professionalism, and Enthusiasm) Skills. Lewis encourages all teachers to self-examine and grade themselves on their own effectiveness using SCOPE Scores.

Just Back Off and Let Us Teach 3-15

Amazon listing:  Amazon

Posted in Common core, Education, Education reform, High schools, Public Education, Teachers | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Some Advice Before You Become a Teacher

An extended version of my Huffington Post blog

It is hard to answer the question: “…what advice would you give a new teacher?”  The problem is that all teachers, even the most passionate of us about teaching, have a love-hate relationship with our jobs.  We love the children, and the look of pride on a child’s face when they master a topic. We treasure those times we can engage and challenge some of the children despite the roadblocks of today’s educational system and debilitating mandates.

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But we are so deeply frustrated by all the mandates that prevent teaching and force us to dumb-down instruction, and by the atmosphere of cronyism and intimidation by administrators, that most of the joy of teaching has been sucked out of the process.  That is why 46% of new teachers now quit the profession within five years, and overall we are losing a staggering 20% of our teachers each year to all causes – including new teachers quitting, early retirements, career changes, movement to private schools, and normal retirements.

Still, if your passion really is for children and teaching, as is mine, then you must go for it!  There really is no choice when your heart is in teaching.  Just be forewarned that you will have to work very hard to maintain the passion and initial joy you will feel when you first enter your classroom.

Essentials for today’s teachers

Here are the six things rarely discussed in college education courses that will be the key to your ability to engage and reach children despite the system, and to get the most satisfaction possible out of your career.  The first three are absolute requirements to be a great teacher, and the final three are for your own mental health during the process!

Vital for all “great” teachers:

— You must have a passion for teaching that is clear to children
— You must have the knack for challenging and engaging children in the learning process
— You must genuinely like children, and enjoy them – even those horrible teenagers!

For your mental health:

— You need a sense of humor
— You cannot take yourself too seriously
— You must be able to compartmentalize – separating the joy of being with the children from the frustration of mandates and cronyism

Today’s children only learn from teachers they like and respect. 

Children are street smart.  They can tell whether you are going through the motions, or you really care.  If you don’t care, they will tune you out.  When they figure out that you do care, they start to listen and believe in you.  The teaching environment is so bad today that you can no longer get through to all the children.  But with genuine passion and engagement, you will succeed with many.

I cannot overstate this:  without that passion, engagement, and caring you will fail as a teacher, no matter what training you have and no matter how skilled you are.

If you are uncomfortable with loud and rebellious children, you won’t last

Children today are a whole different breed of cat from when we were young.  The f-word is sprinkled on sentences like candy.  The average teenage student already has more street experience than we saw by our forties – we never even heard terms like “lockdown” or “sexting.”  Many homes are in disarray.  One result:  feisty, independent, rebellious children are the norm.

So humor and self-confidence are for your mental health. Teenagers are still teenagers.  They do dumb stuff.  They say completely inappropriate and whacko things.  They talk back.  If your natural reaction is going to be anger or “discipline” rather than a smile and quiet laugh, you will burn out quickly as a teacher.  And more importantly, you will never earn the ability to change those views and statements.  Since teasing and “insult humor” are the nature of the teenage beast, if you have a thin skin you are doomed.  Only if you can learn that such teasing is an act of affection (even though it sometimes crosses the line and must be reined back) can you connect with the children in your class.

But maintaining your passion for teaching will not be easy

If you pass the above tests, then you have a chance to be a good teacher.  There is just one final question for you before you decide:  “Is this absolutely the passion that drives you?”  If so, then go for it.  If not, make a different choice, because what you likely expect no longer exists in today’s classrooms.  We now have to live with dumbed-down teaching, a numerical minority of very difficult parents, bullying by school administrators, and inept non-teaching mandates that tie up so many days out of the school year it is the equivalent of more than ½ hour out of every class.

014---Attack-revised

We routinely inherit children who failed the prior year, but an administrator changed the grade to “pass” so the school would look good – sending the child to an even harder course without the necessary fundamentals.  The child is almost certain to fail again this year because of the administrator’s forced promotion.    But the teacher who inherits that child is the one who will be held accountable for their performance.

The single fact that destroys the most joy in teaching is that we know we can no longer expect to reach all the children in our classes with all the curriculum.  Inept mandates and the environment in today’s schools prevent it.

Just 10 years ago:

— We expected to engage 100% of the children
— Almost all children would pass and master the topics
— We would cover nearly 100% of the planned curriculum

Today:

— We try hard to reach 75% of the children
— Almost all will “pass,” but few will master the topics
— We cover 60% of the planned curriculum

So, bottom line – it will be a love-hate relationship for you, as it has been for all those of us who went before you during the education disaster of the last 10 years.  The wins, when you get through to children and see pride on their faces, will have to carry you through all the losses when you have to deal with the career DoE bureaucrats and their destructive mandates, and with administrators who raise cronyism and intimidation of teachers to an art form.

For me, those smiles and pride make the rest bearable – even on those many nights I drive home muttering and clenching my teeth at the system!

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KIRKUS and CLARION both praise the acclaimed book “…from the unique perspective of a classroom teacher” about our failing education system:   Lifting the Curtain:  The disgrace we call urban high school education.  The 2nd edition includes dozens of teacher submissions from across the USA and nine new chapters.
Please get a copy HERE or on Amazon.

Posted in Charter Schools, Common core, Education, Education reform, High schools, Public Education, Standardized testing, Teachers, Teaching | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

A Teacher View of Parents – 71% Great, 29% Difficult, 95% Clueless

An extended version of my Huffington Post blog

There is perhaps no more heated a topic in the teacher lunchroom than the role of parents in education.    The overwhelming bulk of parents, even in the most challenged schools I researched, remain the best allies a teacher could ever want.  But teachers are human (at least most of us), and by human nature all those good parents often get forgotten because of the negative impact and behavior of a minority (numerical minority, not demographic) of parents.  If you enter the teacher lunchroom and hear heated voices, the chances are very good that at the heart of it is a parent who refused to come to an important conference about their child, or one arguing to get a grade changed, or threatening the teacher, or demanding an unneeded IEP accommodation.

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The vast majority of parents – Our best allies

Prior to publication of Lifting the Curtain:  The disgrace we call urban high school education, I spent three years of surveys, visits, and interviews researching urban high schools.  Since then I’ve received hundreds of emails and posts on the topic.  One thing is very clear – even in the most challenging high schools the majority of parents are a huge help, and are the driving force in the success of their children.  A 2012 analysis in Great Britain said exceptionally well something all USA teachers know:

“A study by the Royal Economic Society, to be presented this week, finds that parental effect on test results is five times that of teachers’ influence. This comes in the wake of warnings by Sir Michael Wilshaw last week that teachers were unable to properly do their own jobs because parents were expecting them to cover their own parenting skill shortfalls and to become surrogate family for the students.”

In my research looking at parent-teacher nights, teachers reported that 87% of attendees were parents of the best students.  There is tremendous cause and effect hidden in that finding – the best students succeed exactly because of the parent involvement and caring.  Based upon the research, 71% of the parents are in this category – setting expectations, support, and motivation for their child that are the most wonderful gifts a parent can ever give a child.

A numerical minority – At the heart of the storm

But then there are the other parents.  The tremendous negative impact just a handful of parents can have on a school and their children is staggering.  A minority of 29% of the parents were found to totally dominate school conferences, conflicts, and policies.  The average teacher has 3.1 difficult parent confrontations per month.  Only 30% of the teachers get solid support from their administrators in parent confrontations – principals would rather have the problem “…just go away” by changing a grade or promoting a child who needs to fail.  Getting support from these parents is so difficult and frustrating that in 2012 Detroit actually looked at (silly, but understandable!) making it a misdemeanor crime to skip a teacher conference.

One of the most common and frustrating statements by such parents to teachers is “…it is your job to motivate my child.”  But it is not.  It is the teacher’s job to reinforce and build upon the motivation the parent has already installed in the child.

Trying to teach the children of such parents becomes the impossible challenge of trying to motivate a child for 5 hours each week, while knowing the child will be in a home and non-school environment for 12-15 hours each day that works against everything we try to do. Is it any surprise that children in urban high schools do an average of just 1.5 total homework hours per week, 29% copy most homework, and 24% routinely take zeroes on homework?

006---angry-parents---revised-NEW

The problem is especially confrontational with special education students.  SPED is a wonderful concept, a powerful benefit to those who need it, and arguably the most positive achievement of education in the past century.  It absolutely is needed and is of great benefit to many students.  The conflict is not about the special education students where the IEP or 504 is a crucial and invaluable asset that can positively change a child’s entire life – it is about the special education students where the IEP is a total farce.

Teachers in urban high schools sit in meetings every month across the table from parents armed with paid advocates and lawyers demanding their child be put on an IEP that the teacher, from direct experience with the child in a classroom and from years of experience knows is not needed.  But this small minority of parents, armed with suspect medical reports and the threat of costly lawsuits, always achieves their goal  – a “…get through school free card” for a student who is actually capable of “A” or “B”  work.  The head of pediatrics at Yale in 2013 wrote that there were so many bogus diagnoses of ADHD (up 41% in ten years) that they were now “…pure enhancement of children who are otherwise healthy.”  (That’s doctorspeak for “a crock of poop.”)  The schools cannot afford to fight the lawsuit, so the child gets the horrible  “…can retake any failed test” accommodation that guaranties they do not have to worry about studying, and the destructive “…gets an ‘A’ for doing 50% of the work expected of the rest of the class” accommodation that means they do not even have to try.

For students who need these accommodations, they are a blessing.  For all the students who do not, they are destructive.  More than half of the students on today’s IEPs absolutely have no need for them other than the parent’s demands, and even the best special education pros are powerless to stop the abuse.  These few parents, under the guise of seeking “…a fair and equal education” insure that their child never has the opportunity for that education.  They have no understanding that a free ride through high school is not an act of love.  And in so doing (the subject of a follow-up piece underway about  SPED and inclusion) they have a severely negative impact on the entire school.  Just 20-30 such parents in a school will significantly undermine the education of every student in that school.  And the typical urban high school has far more than 20-30.

All parents – Our one hope for real change, if they only knew

The other role of parents in a teacher’s eyes is that parents are our one hope to fix the real issues with education that have cheated an entire generation of children out of the education they need and deserve.  Only parents can demand that our legislators correct all the damage done to education by inept career DoE bureaucrats, unqualified administrators, and the unintended consequences of well-meaning legislation.

Yet it is hard for parents to see, or even believe, how different schools today are from when they were in school.  The real faults in schools are so carefully hidden from view behind the curtain of the school entryway that parents have no chance to see them.  In hundreds of conversations with parents, including my own children who are now grown up with children of their own, I often see the disbelief and bewilderment on their faces when I describe the realities of today’s classrooms.  They were in school before standardized testing, widespread SPED that encompasses more than half of a typical urban high school population, inclusion classes, ESL, lock down drills, school violence and bullying, nutrition and allergies, social initiatives, and a host of other issues.

 In a very real and understandable way, today’s parents are totally clueless about what is destroying their children’s education.  Yet the drive for a solution has to come from the parents.  We need to show them what has been so deliberately hidden from parents by those who profit from the disaster.

The career DoE bureaucrats, with no accountability and little or no classroom experience constantly churn out inept mandates that make it worse each year.  The state and national unions ignore the desperate pleas of the local unions for help – focusing on being PACs and kingmakers – and only jumping on the bandwagon for real issues after parents have already made that issue very visible.  I have watched with distaste a leader of a state teacher union finally show up to join a local union and parent protest about an issue – because that same state union was nowhere to be seen when teachers and the local union were begging for help to fix the DoE mandates that caused the issue.  The legislators are all too willing to just trade more wasted funding for political donations by kicking the can down the road.

Parents are the only chance for change.

Teachers – Time and again we shoot ourselves in the foot when discussing parents

Teachers have to accept some strong criticism here, as well!  In countless teacher blog articles and forum posts I read that “…parents are the problem.”  Every time a teacher says that, they are being both unfair and hypocritical by leaving out a couple words.  Indeed, SOME parents are PART of the problem.  But most parents are still as dedicated as we were to our own children.

And by being unfair we are shooting ourselves in the foot by driving away the very people we most need to help us fix this for our children!

Why hypocritical?  All of us, as teachers, are rightfully angry at way we are unfairly painted in the media because of the actions of some isolated creep, or the reprehensible actions of non-teacher administrators as in the Atlanta cheating scandal.  But we fall into the trap of doing the same thing to parents.  The terrible damage caused by that 29% minority is so visible to us, and so dominate in school problems, that we start to lump all parents together as “…PITBs.”

Time for an attitude and fairness check on this one, fellow teachers!

The Bottom Line

Parents are our one hope for real change.  That is why a handful of us are so passionate about blogs like this, no matter what consequences and price we pay for being “troublemakers” when we speak out.  We must lift the curtain for all, especially parents, to see what has happened to the education of our children.

Parents, we desperately need you to learn about the real issues in education, and demand that legislators fix it.  It is not the simplistic false mantra of being just “…bad funding, bad unions, bad children, and bad teachers.”  As the saying goes, “…it’s complicated.”

But it is fixable with your help.

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KIRKUS and CLARION both praise the acclaimed book “…from the unique
perspective of a classroom teacher” about our failing education system:
Lifting the Curtain:  The disgrace we call urban high school education.  The 2nd edition
includes dozens of teacher submissions from across the USA and nine new chapters.  Please get a copy HERE or on Amazon.

Posted in Charter Schools, Common core, Education, Education reform, High schools, Inclusion classes, Music and arts courses, Public Education, Standardized testing, Teachers, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cancelling High School Electives, Arts, and Music – So Many Reasons, So Many Lies

An extended version of my Huffington Post blog

The decline in music and arts courses in our schools is shocking. Even the most stressed-out classroom teacher will admit music and arts teachers have it worse than the rest of us.  All teachers face the constant pressure of mandates that force us to dumb down education and center on teaching-to-the-test.  All of us work in an environment of cronyism where teachers who speak out on the real problems in education are the target of intimidation and bullying by administrators to be silent.  Teachers across the nation cringe every time we see an administrator change a failing grade to passing, because we know how much that hurts the child.

But on top of all this, music, arts, and electives teachers have to face the constant threat of eliminating their courses entirely.  The worst part is knowing that cancellation is almost always based on two deliberate and intentionally misleading lies by school administrators covering up the real reasons for cancellation.

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The big lie – cancellation is a funding issue

In the urban high schools I researched over three years before writing Lifting the Curtain:  The disgrace we can urban high school education, almost all of them had eliminated all arts, music, and electives during 9th and 10th grades.  Hundreds of subsequent emails and posts reported the same in middle schools.  In each case the reason given was “… a lack of funding.”  But the real story was that funding had nothing to do with the cancellation – it was that there was no room in the curricula for these courses anymore.  The elective class periods had all been preempted for standardized test prep.

Look at a typical 5-course freshman or sophomore day in school 20 years ago:

— Math
— English
— Science
— History
— Electives

The electives slot was the joy for children.  Here is where we painted, crafted, and learned about music.   Here were study halls and gym (more than just one day per week).  But look at the same 5-course schedule today:

— Math
— English
— Science
— History
— Standardized Test Preparation

The real reason for cancelling arts and music now becomes clear.  Disingenuous administrators claim it is a “budget” issue.  But their real reason has nothing to do with budgets – it’s that there are no open freshman or sophomore open course slots for electives, because all are being used for test prep.

In most urban high schools, there are no electives, music, or arts courses in the freshman and sophomore years. Only in the last two years of high school, after the standard test are over, does a period become available for electives.  But sadly, any elective that requires continuity and a progression of skills, like music and the arts, are no longer possible.  It is akin to a football program – you sometimes get a freshman star, but the heart of a good team is the seniors who have been in the program for four years of development.  A two-year football program will not be very good.  A two-year band will have a hard time playing anything John Philip Sousa would be able to recognize.

The little lie – music and arts are too expensive

The second lie is one that sounds reasonable – music and arts are far too expensive for today’s school budgets.  After all, it is true that equipping a large band or orchestra is expensive.  But school administrators intentionally leave out an important factor in their effort to hide the need for test preparation classes.  Today’s children love the low-budget music appreciation and arts courses, not the high-cost performance courses that administrators use as a red herring.  There are plenty of great opportunities for music and arts without needing to purchase 76 trombones!

The newest lie — STEM

Recently there have been more and more instances of using “…the need for STEM” as the reason to usurp electives and the arts classes.  (For non-teachers — STEM is Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — a set of courses centered on these topics.)  Is STEM important?  Yes — to those students whose passion is the sciences.  Is it honorable or fair to focus on preparing all students into become engineers?  I wonder what life would be like without Hemingway, or Mozart, or Rowling, or Angelou, or Lennon if they had been forced to go through some career DoE bureaucrat’s vision of a plain-vanilla, one-size-fits-all education?

STEM is a great idea for some, but it is just another lie to say it is a valid reason to eliminate the option of music and the arts for those whose passion is in the notes or the words that shape us all.  Thankfully, there is a nationwide movement under the acronym STEAM (the “A” is for arts) to push back hard on this lie.  I wish the above two lies were equally visible and resisted.

So, we have hit upon yet another unintended consequence of mandates that shortchange our children. In urban high schools across the nation, the freshman and sophomore children have at least one class each day dedicated to helping pass standardized testing – often one for both English and one for Math. This leaves no room for freshman or sophomore electives, art or music.  Many schools are looking to add more test preparation classes for bio, chemistry, and history as those topics become part of standardized testing.  In New York, a governor with no understanding of education and classroom realities is even looking at adding tests for music.  And reprehensibly, many of the schools that still claim to have music and arts programs (largely in 11th and 12th grades, only) treat them as second class citizens with little support.

Nationwide, administrators focus only on protecting their positions and the school’s status by concentrating curricula on passing the tests, rather than helping teachers be freed up from micromanaging mandates so those same teachers could teach again in their classrooms, making test prep classes unnecessary.

So do the math – who loses when one or two classes each day are tied up with remedial test prep training?  Where is there room for electives anymore? Where is there a space for creative writing? For law? For small business issues? For psychology?  Where is can we fit band, art, home economics, study hall, or carpentry?

Once again, the real reason for the loss of arts and music in our schools is simple – too many mandates trying to compete for too little time. The career bureaucrats, year after year, do not understand something as obvious as that 7-8 classes cannot fit into a 5-6 class day – and our children are the losers.

We need to fix this.

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KIRKUS and CLARION both praise the acclaimed book “…from the unique perspective of a classroom teacher” about our failing education system:   Lifting the Curtain:  The disgrace we call urban high school education.  The 2nd edition includes dozens of teacher submissions from across the USA and nine new chapters.
Please get a copy HERE or on Amazon.

Posted in Common core, Education, Education reform, High schools, Music and arts courses, Standardized testing, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Homeschooling – Career DoE bureaucrats could learn a lot from homeschoolers

Whenever possible, I center my blog articles around a passage written by a classroom teacher who helps me tackle one of today’s major education issues.  Our only chance to fix the real issues with education is if classroom teacher voices can be heard above the false mantra that “…bad funding, bad unions, bad children, and bad teachers” are the cause of our failing education system.

(Another outstanding teacher story follows this introduction, as part of
our BeHEARD! initiative to let YOUR classroom voice be seen nationwide.
If you did not know about BeHEARD! – please click here.)

Today the passage, after this introduction, is by homeschooler Scott Keen, and it arrived in an unusual way.  A friend at one of my favorite websites, Women on Writing, (yes – they even let curmudgeonly old men like me benefit from their blogs and help for authors!) knew about my love for the fantasy and science fiction genre – Tolkien, TH White, Asimov, and so many others.  She told me about a new book written by a homeschooler who was heavily influenced by watching the imagination and creativity of his children during homeschool classes.  I was hooked, and asked for her to request an article from him.

I think it is important to show what homeschooling is today, because it is very different than just a few years ago.  While I remain personally against it if there is a good traditional school available, my views have changed in the past couple years.  For one, after all the research in the three years leading up to publication of my own book on education, I finally started to notice the huge “if” in that sentence.  “If” available, then no single homeschooler could ever match the quality of education presented by 12-15 dedicated, experienced, specialized teachers.  I respected the social and religious convictions that I assumed were at the heart of such decisions, but felt the education tradeoff did a huge disservice to the child.

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But that is changing.  What “if” the local school is another of the failed urban high schools I covered where teachers were forced to dumb down education, teach to the test, where administrators routinely force promotion of children who need to fail, and where 30 children with diverse learning styles are crammed into a classroom designed for 20 and with a teacher who is forced to provide a plain-vanilla lesson plan?  What if the homeschool offered some things all teachers treasure – providing the ultimate in small class size, the pinnacle in diversified and tailored learning, and avoids the mandates that suck an average of 35 minutes out of teaching the curricula in every class period?  Suddenly, what I used to dismiss as a “C-minus” education looks pretty good when compared to the failing urban high schools I researched.

And the facts are stunning these days.  Depending upon whose research you read, some 1,700,000 to 2,500,000 students are now homeschooled.  NCES reports that the rise in homeschooling the past few years matches the rise in charter school enrollment.  Education Week reported what probably is stunning news to anyone other than classroom teachers – homeschoolers are now outperforming traditional schools in standardized tests and in college admissions tests (ACT/SAT), and homeschoolers don’t suffer from achievement gaps for race, gender, and income.   Homeschoolers are now doing so well in college that the nation’s top colleges are actively seeking out homeschool students to attract.

Here is Scott’s passage.  Several things struck me about it.  First, his reason for homeschooling was diversified learning tailored to his children’s needs.  This was not the stereotypical set of reasons for not putting your children in public schools.  Second was that he also has two children not in homeschooling – making it hard to dismiss him as “…just another hater.”  And third, I am jealous – his joy of being fulltime in a small class tailoring the education to the needs of the students rather than to the demands of the mandates is obvious.  Scott Keen grew up in Black River, NY, the youngest of three children. While in law school, he realized he didn’t want to be a lawyer. So he did the practical thing–he became a writer. Now, many years later with an MFA in script and screenwriting, he is married with four daughters, two of whom he homeschools. He blogs at www.scottkeenbooks.com.

The Decision to Homeschool
By Scott Keen

When my wife and I had our first child, we began to think very seriously about her education. My wife had worked with children quite a bit, both in the public school system (as an AmeriCorps volunteer) and in others ways, such tutoring at the Boys & Girls club, summer camp counselor, theater director, etc.. Her outlook, as well as my own personal experiences with both attending public school and substitute teaching there (and to some extent my college level teaching) definitely formed our opinions about the ways we wanted our own children to be educated.

One of the main reasons we initially homeschooled was because we thought that 5 years old was too young to be in a structured environment all day. I personally remember hating going to school in the early grades (I had to wake up early, ride the bus, be around people all day, etc.). We wanted our children to have as much time as possible to explore, imagine, and play outside. Consequently, our kindergarten, first, and second grade schooling is very informal. We use A Beka curriculum, which is actually pretty rigorous, but has quite a bit of repetition built into the lesson plans, which lends itself to a more laid back approach to school – 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there, with plenty of down time in between.

This way, our children can take the time they need to really work out their creative muscles. I find that our children (and I’m sure they are not unique in this) need a lot of down time to get into a good imaginative groove. When I was young, even if my brother and I had been playing for hours on a weekend, I always felt like things were just getting good when dinner would be ready, or we’d have to go in for bath time or bedtime or something like that. Even last week, my older daughters were playing with their Legos in their room for a long time, but still complained “Oh Mom, we were just getting to the exciting part!” when she called them to dinner. (I think she let them stay and finish playing for a while longer.)

Being able to spend this much time in “imaginings” is truly a luxury. If a child is at school all day, being constantly interrupted by the teacher, other children, or the school bell, where do they get this practice at focusing on one thing for a long period of time, and get to the place of deep creativity? Yes, it can happen after school, but not when there’s an hour or more of homework. Besides, what if the child is in little league or ballet classes or something of that nature? Team sports and extracurricular activities can be great, but not at the expense of downtime or creative playing, in my opinion. After all, that is where my first forays into storytelling began – it was in playtime with my siblings.

I find that as a writer, I also need to give myself time to get into my creative groove. I often have to go out somewhere (like Starbucks or Panera) after my wife gets off work to write so that I can more quickly “get to the exciting part” of the writing process, where ideas are flowing and the story starts to come to life. When I was first started writing Scar of the Downers, I would wait until everyone was asleep. Then, I would completely immerse myself in that world for hours at a time, and found that as I did so, the scenes would visually play out in my head, enabling me to more clearly describe the action. This was incredibly helpful when I was trying to write out action sequences, which require an accurate description of a lot of things sometimes all happening simultaneously.

Writing fiction is all about the imagination. Watching my children daily tap into theirs was inspiring to me and showed me that to fully imagine my story, I just needed to do what they did – fully immerse myself into the story and stay there long enough to capture it and write it down.

But if I were to send my children away to school, I would have missed this part of their lives – their innocence, their inquisitiveness, their imagination. In one sense, to write fantasy, you have to look at the world with the same wonder a child does, and ask yourself, “What if?” What if this burning log was the body of a phantom? What if these pine needles were really creatures’ fingers? What if the ground could come alive? What if? What if? What if?

Children ask these questions. And they are answered with imagination. That is what being around them, and homeschooling them, has done. It enabled me to remember myself as a child. It enabled me to ask those same questions. What if?

In my opinion, it is the beginning of all fantasy.

Our career DoE bureaucrats, far from any classroom knowledge could learn from these homeschoolers!  They preach diversity, yet force students into a dumbed-down plain-vanilla teaching system that prevents teachers from teaching effectively.  They could learn a lot from Scott Keen and all the homeschoolers out there.  Perhaps they will listen to the homeschoolers, since they clearly do not listen to the classroom teachers.

We need to fix this.

(BTW – Here is some info about Scott’s book – Scar of the Downers)

Branded on the slaves in the Northern Reaches beyond Ungstah, the scar marks each one as a Downer. It is who they are. There is no escaping this world. Still, strange things are stirring.  Two foreigners ride through the Northern Reaches on a secret mission. An unknown cloaked figure wanders the streets of the dark city of Ungstah. What they want no one can be sure, but it all centers around a Downer named Crik.

ScarDowners_CVR_SML

Crik, too scared to seek freedom, spends his days working in his master’s store, avoiding the spirit-eating Ash Kings while scavenging food for himself and his best friend, Jak. Until he steals from the wrong person. When Jak is sold to satisfy the debt, Crik burns down his master’s house and is sentenced to death.

To survive, Crik and his friends must leave behind their life of slavery to do what no other Downer has ever done before–escape from the city of Ungstah.

You can learn more about Scott at www.scottkeenbooks.com.

 

Posted in Charter Schools, Common core, Education, Education reform, High schools, homeschooling, Inclusion classes, Music and arts courses, Public Education, Standardized testing, Teachers, Teaching, Urban High Schools | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Atlanta School Cheating Convictions – So Wrong On So Many Levels

An extended version of my Huffington Post blog

Up front, I must emphasize that I am glad these administrators and their clique were caught, that they lost their jobs, and their careers were destroyed.  I applaud their conviction, and every fellow teacher I know finds the actions of these administrators reprehensible.  There is a nagging concern about not understanding a Georgia legal system that gave a longer sentence than murderers and repeat drug dealers routinely get here in Massachusetts.   But that is a topic for someone with far more expertise in legal matters than me.

What I do care about deeply is how destructive the reporting of the convictions is, and will be, to the education of our children.  It fails our children (the reporting and perception, and not the conviction itself) because of two horrible consequences:

  • It once again misdirects us away from the real problems in education by focusing on a symptom, the cheating, and not looking at the causes that lead to cheating
  • It once again paints 7,200,000 teachers as bad when this was driven by people who were not teachers –school administrators and their clique, many with little or no classroom teaching experience

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The harm caused by these administrators and their clique, cheating an entire class out of their education and sending children such a demotivating message about the value of school, is huge.  But the misdirected media coverage cheats generations to come because the coverage diverts us from the real issues that could lead to real education reform.  The real issues go far beyond this scandal.  A staggering 46% of new teachers now quit within the first five years.  SAT and ACT report just 26% of high school graduates are ready for college.  Charter school outperform traditional schools just 17% of the time, and are failing across the country.  The Boston school district, alone, has 4,500 students who are truant a least one day a week.  81% of teachers expect abuse by their administrators if they speak out.  60% of teachers believe administrative decisions in schools are based upon cronyism, not merit.  73% of teachers believe standardized testing drives all course content and teaching methods.  We now spend 25% of state budgets on education, pouring good money after bad failed policies, and education is getting worse!

All these issues are NOT caused solely by cheating, or by a bunch of reprehensible administrators and their clique!

Misdirection – the Patron Saint of avoiding real school reform

The tragedy in the coverage is that, once again, we get diverted from the real issues as to why there are so many cheating scandals in education.  The Washington Post (April 2013) confirmed cheating scandals in thirty-seven states, and was convinced that there were far more actual incidents than were ever discovered.  They were right – the 37 are just the tip of the iceberg – the few that were caught.

Were these administrators and their clique reprehensible?  Yes!  But their personal characteristics were only a part of the issue.  What about the mandates and policies that prevent classroom teachers from being able to teach what is required to pass the test?  What about the schools being judged on a test score even though such results routinely are dragged down by just a handful of the children who are truant 30-plus days and allowed to “make up” or “excuse” the time by administrators—meaning they never receive the necessary teaching?  What about the unfairness of a music teacher being evaluated on standardized test scores for math?

We have a deeply flawed educational system. Inept mandates by career DoE bureaucrats with little or no classroom experience have cheated an entire generation of children out of the education they deserve.  We have administrators who routinely bully a teacher to change a failing grade to a passing one so that the principal’s graduation rates look good.  Yet every time we force such a passing grade we harm the child – he/she enters the next grade, with far tougher topics, and is missing the prerequisite foundations from the prior year.   The child then has no chance of passing a standardized test – because of the administrator’s forced promotion.

019---Empty-Chair

But it is easier to look at the scandal, and treat the symptom as though it is the cause.   The real issues remain hidden so the parents never see behind the curtain of the school entryway to the real issues.  And the legislators get to ignore the issues and simply trade more funding for campaign donations.

An exceptionally insightful paragraph by Richard Rothstein (Washington Post , 5 April) nailed it:

“What the trial did not explore was whether Dr. Hall herself was reacting to a culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation that her board, state education officials, and the Bush and Obama administrations had created. Just as her principals’ jobs were in jeopardy if test scores didn’t rise, her tenure, too, was dependent on ever rising test scores.”

This fixation we have on symptoms, rather than causation, is deadly when trying to fix the real issues in education.  A parallel to Dickens’ Oliver Twist might be helpful.  Yes, there were bad children back in Dickens’ London.  Yes, there were those who stole food or were pickpockets.  Yes, stealing (the symptom!) is bad.  But before we throw all the street children into jail, we might want to look at the 1800’s systemic problems in Dickens’ London – starvation, famine, poorhouse slavery, and disease.  That starving children turn to theft of a cabbage should not be a shock.  One way to “solve” the stealing and pickpocket problem would have been to imprison all the street children.  But the better way might be to look at how to end the disease and famine, and a system that let people like Fagin and the Artful Dodger flourish.

The parallel today?  We want to focus on the cheating of these reprehensible administrators and their clique, even though what the good classroom teachers and local unions really need is someone to help end the disease and famine in the educational system.  Dickens had it right.

It’s always the teachers

The second problem with the coverage is that every headline proclaims “teachers” were driving the cheating.  These were not teachersThis was not a “Teacher” cheating scandal.  The Atlanta scandal was driven by non-teachers, administrators, many with little or no classroom teaching experience.  Yes, they were aided by members of the superintendent’s clique, but offsetting the handful of corrupt teachers that the administrators influenced to assist, there were thousands of great teachers in the Atlanta system who did not.  Yet we continue to blame it on “teachers.”

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Blaming teachers has become a national pastime in the media.  Some creep teacher in a state a thousand miles away gets arrested, and 7,200,000 of us have to listen to our radios paint us all as pedophiles.  A state or national teacher’s union, caring more about being a PAC than education, takes a stand few teachers agree with, yet no one hears the forgotten local teacher’s union cry for help, still trying to fix the real issues.

The bottom line – once again children are the losers here

Holding these administrators and their clique accountable was a good step for education.  Media coverage that uses it to misdirect us away from the real causes of our national education failure, and coverage that uses the action of a handful of administrators and their clique as representative of 7,200,000 dedicated classroom teachers, will end up causing far more damage than the actual scandal itself.  The coverage will make it easy for career DoE bureaucrats to continue business as usual, and for legislators to kick the can down the road to cheat another generation of children out of an education.

We need to fix this!

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KIRKUS and CLARION both praise the acclaimed book “…from the unique
perspective of a classroom teacher”   about our failing education system:  
Lifting the Curtain:  The disgrace we call urban high school education. 

The 2nd edition includes dozens of teacher submissions from across the USA
 and nine new chapters.  Please get a copy HERE or on Amazon.

 

Posted in Charter Schools, Common core, Education, Education reform, High schools, homeschooling, Inclusion classes, Music and arts courses, Public Education, Standardized testing, Teachers, Teaching, Urban High Schools | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment