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2/26/16

A Bad Idea By Any Other Name is Still A Bad Idea

    My Dad was a Police Officer for 26 years in Jackson MS.  My brothers and I were subject to almost daily interrogations from a trained professional.  Partly because he controlled the car keys and the family finances and partly because we had a healthy respect for his occasional use of corporal punishment, we were denied the use of our 5th amendment rights concerning self-incrimination. We did, however, learn from our mistakes, and became experts at answering his questions in ways that did not, at least too much, incriminate us and our teenage friends.  We also became, through observation of and participation in Dad’s investigative techniques, experts at detecting bovine scatology when we heard it.  He once pointed to a newspaper story of a Mississippi politician that proposed a 75% raise for members of the Legislature.  Public outcry was immediate and overwhelmingly negative, so a 2nd politician came immediately to his colleagues’ defense.  “My friends, in these difficult economic times when so many families in our state are struggling to make ends meet, I say there is no justification for our Legislators to receive a 75% raise.  Therefore, I propose that we save hundreds of thousands of dollars for the citizens of our state by cutting that proposed raise to not a dime more than 25%.  That is the only way I could, in good conscience, support such a measure when our state is faced with the harsh reality of the current economic situation.” We immediately saw the lesson our Dad was trying to teach us.
    The story presents a way public figures can make bad ideas more palatable for the public, but regardless of how you present it, a bad idea is a bad idea no matter the degree to which it is implemented.  Cutting the percentage that student test scores count from 50% to 30% for public school teachers and from 70% to 40% for Principals is a good idea but does not solve the problem.  The real issue here is that the Georgia Legislature has allowed student test scores any place in evaluations of public school educators.  Consider this statement from the American Statistical Association Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment” April 8, 2014 Executive Summary:


  • “VAMs are generally based on standardized test scores, and do not directly measure
potential teacher contributions toward other student outcomes.
  • VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation: Effects – positive or negative –
attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in
the model.
  • Under some conditions, VAM scores and rankings can change substantially when a
different model or test is used, and a thorough analysis should be undertaken to
evaluate the sensitivity of estimates to different models.
  • VAMs should be viewed within the context of quality improvement, which distinguishes
aspects of quality that can be attributed to the system from those that can be attributed to
individual teachers, teacher preparation programs, or schools. Most VAM studies find
that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the
majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level
conditions. Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences.”


    So while Representative Dickson’s proposal mitigates the effect of a bad idea, it doesn’t remove it completely.  It simply makes a poor initial decision to include value added measures in teacher evaluations, one made without ANY research supportive of such a position and made to serve a political end rather than an educational one, a little more palatable to teachers.  Test scores are excellent determinants of where and who you teach.  They are worse than useless at anything else.  http://www.fairtest.org/teacher-evaluation-fact-sheet
    There are several excellent ideas in House Bill 1061 that teachers can support.  The idea of experienced teachers serving as mentors for their less experienced colleagues is a proven best practice method already employed by successful schools and systems.  His idea of improving instruction and leadership rather than punishing behavior works with students and will work with teachers and administrators also.  Consider these points from Finland:


  • There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school.
  • There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded.
  • The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians.
  • Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators. The result is that a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town.



    Perhaps the key to turning evaluations into an effective and efficient tool for improving teaching and learning can be found in a suggestion from the spouse of an elementary Principal in Georgia:  “The state legislature and the DOE need to stop micromanaging the process…  “  I would add that involving teachers in the process of determining educational policy would seem to be a common sense item that has all too often been ignored by the Governor and the Georgia Legislature.  I am glad that Representative Dickson, a former teacher, Principal and School Superintendent has a place at the table of educational policy making. I would hope that more Legislators seek the opinions and advice of Georgia’s teachers when formulating educational policies.  Until then, it would appear that the beatings will continue until morale improves.

1/29/16

Corrections

 In my years as a teacher and administrator, staff development meetings were unavoidable.  They were often held in the afternoons or on Saturdays, and in too many cases were held for the purpose of meeting some arcane requirement or to put a check mark on some district to-do list.  Agendas were rare, purpose was often vague, content was delivered by lecture or interminable powerpoint, questions were not encouraged and the primary purpose seemed to be for someone to make sure we put in our time.  Most of the content in sessions like these could have been more effectively and far less painfully delivered in the form of an email, but I suppose that would have meant the end of a job for whatever “expert” was making the presentation and somebody somewhere would not have been able to document the hours teachers had spent in professional development.  I remember a colleague that once noted “I hope my death comes during a professional development meeting, because the transition from life to death would be so subtle that it would hardly be noticed,” and more often than not found myself agreeing with her. There were those momentous occasions, far too infrequent, when a phrase or an example or a Great Truth was presented, where the audience raised their heads collectively from the mental stupor created by the anticipation of the stifling verbal assault we knew was coming, looked at the speaker and at each other and, caught off guard, almost as one thought “now that makes a heck of a lot of sense.”  These moments usually came when the presenter was a practicing teacher, and they were almost worth the deadly boredom we had to endure to get to that one presenter out of every 50 or so that was knowledgeable, practical, experienced and mercifully brief.  
    One such moment came from a presenter whose name I have long since forgotten.  He was the successful coach of a big time college football program, and made, in an almost offhand fashion, a reply to a question about discipline.  “What you don’t correct,” he responded, “you are teaching.”  Teachers know that to be true, but to hear it elegantly expressed by one familiar with the trials and tribulations of teaching was a momentous moment of shining inspiration.  It doesn’t mean you have to correct a student harshly every time they make a mistake.  Good teachers know there are better and more effective ways to make corrections without stinging words or tone that embarrass the recipient and almost ensure the result will be the opposite of the one intended.  There are positive ways to say negative things, but the truth is that what we do not correct, we teach, and not usually with positive results.  Failing to correct negative behaviors will always produce negative results.
    Teachers have suffered long years of “reform” that usually goes with “we once again want you to do more with less.”  Governor Deal recently stated he wants to “transform education in Georgia.”  I maintain he has already done so.  The Governor has led efforts that have imposed the junk science of VAM evaluation of teachers with no research that supports or recommends the method, yearly cuts to the education budget totalling billions of dollars, constant denigration of the teaching profession and teachers, the blaming of teachers for societal issues through calls for “more accountability,” massive layoffs and reductions in force to the teaching profession in spite of increases in student enrollment, significant increases in class sizes, the loss of art, PE and music classes statewide and for students at all levels, furloughs, reductions in the number of days of school for students and teachers and legislators that have in both effect and reality balanced the state budget on the backs of students, schools and teachers for the last six years.  The Governor and the Legislatures’ collective efforts have demoralized teachers to the point that 44% leave teaching within the first 5 years of their careers, and the number of experienced teachers retiring early (those with 10-25 years experience - the heart of our teaching corps) has grown significantly during Governor Deal’s time in office.  This is not a coincidence.
Teacher Retirements - 10-25 years experience
2009    2010   2011    2012   2013    2014   
2483    2999   3559    3577   4107    3979   =  17,484
All Teacher Retirements
2009    2010   2011   2012    2013    2014    
5564    6425   7168   7051    7929   7072    =  41,209


    So what’s the Governor’s response to the coming shortage of teachers?  First he proposes a 3% pay raise for all teachers.  What he forgets to say is that there are still 40 or so systems that haven’t eliminated furloughs and most of the rest are still suffering from his exponential expansion of austerity cuts to school budgets, the continuing reduction of transportation money for students, the massive insurance increases passed on by the state to local systems for classified employee insurance, and the ever increasing financial burden for education placed on local districts by state abandonment of financial responsibilities.  All those reasons mean that in spite of his threat to “hold districts accountable” for the raises he proposes, because of his prior cuts to education, they are not sustainable. He has also doubled down on his efforts to increase the use of public money for privatization and vouchers with the expansion of programs designed to further reduce funds for public schools.  Add to that his desire to create a state run Opportunity School District with a Superintendent that reports only to him, his proposal to “change” (another word for reduce) the way teachers are paid and how money is allocated to schools and districts and it’s easy to see Governor Deal never met an ALEC initiative he didn’t like.  Legislators seems not to have noticed the fiscal irresponsibility of adding another state run program to the budget, just as they didn’t seem to notice the austerity cuts that left schools and teachers - you know, the ones that need to be “accountable” - bearing the financial burden of those cuts. I remember one legislator from another state that remarked “money does not guarantee success, but the absence of money guarantees failure.”  Would that he were from Georgia.
    What has been the response of teachers to all this?  Not much.  We show some concerted opposition to isolated issues.  The insurance scam a couple of years ago and the ideas about fiddling with TRS didn’t fly politically because of teacher opposition, and the recommendations to the way teachers are paid and systems funded have been delayed until after the election year, but what about evaluations and budget cuts and merit pay and a continued misguided emphasis on standardized testing?  Teachers have managed to raise the grad rate in Georgia to 72.5%  and struggled time and again to do more with less, and have been rewarded with the threat of  more and more restrictions and reductions and restructuring. What you don’t correct, you teach.  We keep electing the same people with the same anti-public education ideas to the same offices.  What you don’t correct, you teach.
    But wait a minute - look at all the success these ideas have had in other states.  How about the state run school district in Tennessee…..oops.  Not that one.  What about the fantastic success of charters in New Orleans...no, maybe not that one either.  What about the wonderful increases in school choice in Florida and their merit pay and increased academic success...OK, maybe not that one either.  What about the studies that say that 83% of all charter schools perform equal to or worse than public schools?  Well, maybe not that one either...How about all the studies that show that merit pay is a really great and cost effective idea that improves….nope, not that one either.  What about the warnings that “VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation: Effects – positive or negative attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model” and that “Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.”  Well, maybe those groups just don’t understand real math.  The American Statistical Association?  What do THEY know about education and politics? What’s important to know here is that the goal of the folks that make the decisions about education in Georgia is not school improvement or student achievement.  Their goal is privatization.  Period.  The use of public money for private educational enterprises and further crony capitalism.
    So what can teachers do against these insurmountable obstacles?  There are several options.  First, if you are not of member of PAGE or GEA or GREA or BAT or GAEL or TRAGIC or all of the above, you are missing opportunities for information and support.  This is not meant to be an all inclusive list, and there are other important groups also.  Check Diane Ravitch’s blog or PAGE’s “Report from the Capitol” or GAEL’s monthly reports regularly for state and national information about topics concerning public education, and stay in touch with your local legislators.  Be vigilant, be knowledgeable and be aware.  Let your legislators know of your support for public education and your opposition to the efforts of lawmakers that support the privatization of education. Phone calls and emails have an effect on legislative votes.  Make your voice heard.  What you do not correct, you are teaching.
    I would also suggest you join a local opt-out group.  Standardized tests don’t measure what they purport to measure, they serve a political rather than an educational purpose and their real goal is the “gotcha” angle for legislators that want to privatize public education AND to make standardized testing companies and their lobbyists richer.  Neither improves public education.
    Most importantly, be vocal be connected and vote. Many people hear the tired old “I support teachers” line from their local career politicians and far too often fall for it.  Look at their voting records.  If they voted for vouchers, the expansion of charter schools, the expansion of the special tax credit, the Governor’s austerity cuts or teacher evaluation using student test scores the “what they say” aspect doesn’t matter compared to “what they have done” angle.  Ask your Legislators to sign the PAGE “I promise” pledge about not tying teacher pay to student test scores and to roll back standardized testing for Georgia students.  That ought to give you a pretty good idea, if you didn’t already know, where they stand on public education.  Most importantly,  when you cast your vote, remember what you already know about teaching also applies to politicians; if you’re not correcting it, you’re teaching it.  We’ve allowed it to continue long enough.  It’s time for teachers to correct it.  We are, after all, teachers.  It's supposed to be what we do.

11/25/15

Things My Mother Taught Me

Things My Mother Taught Me


    Mom passed away September 2014 after living almost 84 years and going through a thankfully short illness.  All four of her sons were there with her when she took her last breath, and she waited until her two sisters arrived before she decided to give up the struggle.  Momma was an amazing woman in many ways, and the lessons she taught us go far beyond the normal table manners and polite forms of address and behaviors she expected but didn’t always get.  Raising our Dad and four boys at the same time gave her an inner core of steel hidden by a soft spoken demeanor that could be deceiving to those that didn’t know her well.  
    She graduated at the top of her class at good ole Ruleville HS, was responsible for raising her sisters and her brother, played French Horn and Bass Drum in the band, played girls basketball, was Class President and went to Delta State before she married Dad and I came along.  She read constantly until her eyesight started failing, and exhibited an innate curiosity about things I never would have imagined she was interested in and showed an understanding of people and their curious motivations that I found to be consistently accurate, amazingly observant and borderline prescient.  “Seems to me” she noted once and seemingly out of the blue, “that spending all that money to get a man on the moon was a better investment than LBJ’s Great Society.”  “Why do you say that Mom?” I asked innocently.“Those social programs are helping a lot of people.”  I was 18 at the time and thinking about the upside of socialism, and she was, without my knowledge, waging a quiet but persistent war to undermine my intolerance for all things establishment.  “Kennedy understood” she said quickly, “that giving people a national goal was better than giving them money.  Look at the technology and inventions that have come out of NASA that have improved our daily lives, not to mention the national pride in what was accomplished.  Giving people something they haven’t earned just pisses them off in the long run, and doesn’t really help in the way it’s intended.”  I mentally marked that moment down as one not just to remember but to learn from and looked at her in amazement.  “Don’t stare with your mouth open” she said.  “Being a mother helps me notice things about people I might not have noticed otherwise.  Go clean up your room.”  I started to ask her how she knew my room needed cleaning, but realized she would have characterized that as a stupid question.  Momma for President would have been a much better choice than some of the bozos we’ve voted in.
    Mom was a teacher without a license.  She adapted the lesson to the individual, and realized that her 5 guys didn’t learn in the same way or at the same rate.  She understood and used differentiation when conformity was cool.  She never hesitated to let us try almost anything - band, football, baseball, cooking lessons (oh yes she did give us cooking lessons), boy scouts - and when we got discouraged and wanted to give up we heard  countless times “can’t never could do nothing.”  With her Mississippi drawl that we inherited it came out “cain’t never culd do nuthin’” but we knew what she meant, and kept on trying.  I didn’t know it until the retrospection brought on by age and experience kicked in, but I developed most of my educational philosophy and teaching methods from her.  She always managed to teach us things without us realizing we were being taught.
    She cooked every day for our family.  I remember going to a drive in restaurant or an actual sit down eat inside restaurant maybe three times with the family growing up.  There wasn’t money for that.  Together Mom and Dad, as a bookkeeper and policeman, made $26,000 in their best year together financially.  We weren’t gonna pay $10 for everyone to get a hamburger and fries when “we have stuff on the stove at home.”  I don’t remember a morning we didn’t have biscuits or oatmeal, and I don’t remember a Sunday we didn’t have fried chicken or chicken fried steak.  I loved her fried chicken with the crispy little crumbles on it and was always surprised she seemed to choose a wing or a back and leave the breast or legs for us. There was always something to eat in a pot on the stove, right next to her jar of bacon grease.  I never knew leftovers were supposed to be refrigerated until after I left home and got married. We were expected to be a part of her cooking arrangements and remember the recipes she kept in her head.  She only began writing them down when she was in her 60’s after we pestered her to do so.  My favorite instruction was “use just enough but not too much.”  She didn’t measure anything, eyeballed everything and it always turned out like it she intended it to.  Writing down her recipes was a chore since she had to actually measure stuff to make up the recipe where we could follow it.  She was gifted - we were the slow class.  She had us watch and help while she made cookies and fudge and dressing and fried chicken and mashed potatoes and 2000 different kinds of pies and cakes and divinity.  Ours never turned out like hers, but we knew the steps to follow.  
    She was a pea shelling fiend, and would never buy them already shelled, but had to have bushels of crowders or lady peas or butterbeans in the hull. We all tried to convince her it was easier to buy them already shelled, but she would have none of it.  “I can think when I shell peas” she said, “and I can remember.”  I believe she had discovered one of the secrets of life.  She did things for others and expected nothing in return.  For her it was putting up vegetables and canning.  She put up tons of the things, along with jellies and jams.  We were expected to bring a cooler on our visits and carry bags and bags of frozen vegetables and jars and jars of stuff home with us.  We did, partly because she expected us to but mostly because it was good.  I learned to make her pepper sauce and think of her every time I put it on peas or collards or turnips or meatloaf.  I think of it as Momma manna.  I think of her when I do it, and like her, I remember.
    She made every grandkid a Christmas stocking with their name on it.  She crocheted blankets and afghans, made quilts, did needlepoint and made sure everyone in the family had at least one of her needlepoint angels holding a baby.  She loved children and they loved her.  Momma wasn’t really a singer, but knew one song that every kid responded to - Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man….you know the rest.  One of our relatives married someone the rest of the family did not approve of, and there was talk of not welcoming them or their child in some family homes.  I remember Momma’s response - “don’t you dare say or do anything bad about that baby.  Whatever you’re mad about is NOT that baby’s fault, and I won’t have it.”  That pretty much decided the question for everyone.
   Every year there were family gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas at our house or one of Momma’s sisters’ homes.  Relatives showed up from all over, and playing with cousins and shirt tail relatives and sleeping on a pallet on the floor was great fun for a couple of days.  I wasn’t allowed to sit at “the big table” until I was over 21, and that did hurt my pride until I saw that the kids got to eat first and the big table folks were always busy making sure the little people had full plates several times over before they were sent out to play in the yard and the adults could eat in relative peace until somebody came in crying from a skinned knee or a bruise or to tell them that “Glenn said a bad word.”  Momma sensed my disappointment and said “stay a kid as long as you can, son.  Being an adult is not nearly as much fun as you think.”  She was right, and, once again I find myself wishing I had taken her advice sooner.
    She corrected us often but almost always quietly and one at a time.  She didn’t use global threats but identified the culprit of any given misdeed and dealt with them one on one.   I don’t remember ever being spanked more than two or three times, but the threat was always there and I would not have put it past her.  I do remember having to select a switch from the bush by the front porch a time or two, and the walk of shame there and back is still a vivid memory.  The thought processes and inner debates I used in deciding which switch to select could have led to a career in Mississippi politics, but thankfully I was steered in a more positive direction.  
    She was a tall woman, never really heavy but strong.  Momma was slow to anger and only rarely let us get to her in that fashion.  She was smart enough to know that anger wasn’t a prime motivator for her and wouldn’t be effective on us either.  She rarely used Dad as a threat and almost always took care of the problem herself.  “You’re too smart to be that stupid” she said quietly.  Her voice was rarely raised but we didn’t have any trouble hearing her.  Tone and inflection said what was needed to stop or correct almost any behavior.  We hated to disappoint her, and she let us know quickly when it happened.  The only way I could tell if one of my brothers was in trouble was if I had been there when he committed whatever deed he wasn’t supposed to have done or if I saw his face later because she was smart enough not to compare one of us to the other or use one’s bad behavior as a lesson to the others.  She was also smart enough to know us better than we knew ourselves.  She was an artist at turning our dumbass behavior into teachable moments, and we are better people for her having done that.
    Being boys we engaged in what was recognized generally as boy behavior.  We were fascinated by fire, played army at every opportunity, were all involved in baseball, played church basketball and softball, ran with the neighborhood kids playing football, flashlight, racing bikes around the block and chasing each other through the fog of the the “skeeter dope man.”  It’s a wonder we weren’t killed a thousand times over.  My brother burned down a paint shed once, and even tried to set the woods behind our house on fire by burning a dead tree.  She handled the situations and kept the neighbors from killing him.  I thought it would be great to set one of my plastic model planes on fire and swing it around on a string in the back yard.  I managed to set the grass on fire and discovered that burning plastic hurts a lot when it gets on your skin. She didn’t yell or scream or “go off” on us when we did stupid stuff, she just took care of the problem and let us know some things were just stupider than others.  Mom created instant solutions for what to us seemed to be insurmountable problems.  One of the neighborhood Moms told us we couldn’t play war with our BB guns because - you guessed it - “somebody might get their eye put out.”  We were heartbroken.  Killing each other was one of our favorite pastimes.  Mom’s solution for us was quick and almost painless.  “Wear your jeans” she said, “and only shoot each other in the legs.”  That woman had the wisdom of Solomon.  She knew we weren’t going to stop shooting each other, and found a compromise the other neighborhood Moms could live with and so could we.  The killings continued.
    She didn’t complain.  If anybody had a reason too it was her, but she chose not to be a whiner.  She did note on several occasions that she had learned a lesson from her mother in law.  “Mrs. Arnold was dying when I met her in 1946” she said, “and continued to announce the details of her dying every day until her death at age 99.”  I think we all know people like that.  When I would call Mom and ask how she was doing, the answer was always “doing fairly well” even when she wasn’t.  She had learned that lesson and wasn’t about to repeat it.  She had hated talking on the phone to Grandma because she knew what was coming, and must have sworn to herself  never to make that mistake when she talked to us.  She would only tell us her health issues after they had been resolved or after she had been to the hospital for one ailment or another.  “I didn’t want any of you worrying about me” she would say, but don’t think for a second it worked the other way around.  She had to know stuff about us beforehand, and wouldn’t tolerate being left in the dark about any health problems we might have.  She did ask me several times if I could check and see who that old woman was that appeared in her mirror every morning.  I would smile at her and think “I hope you continue to see her for a long time,”  and mentioned to her I had noticed there was some old guy from somewhere appearing daily in my own mirror.  
    She didn’t try to jump in and solve our problems and issues for us, but let us make our mistakes when she knew what the result would be.  “Sometimes a little hurt is a good teacher” she said.  “It’s not fun and it’s hard for me to watch, but you boys are going to do what you’re going to do no matter what advice I give.” She always said too that a little suspicion about what folks tell you is a good thing, and not to believe everything we heard.  She told us that “you can tell me something all day long but I know who you are by what you do.”  She did let us make our mistakes, but she was there to offer consolation when it was needed and advice after it was over.  Both were more productive and preferable to any pre-event advice we probably would have ignored anyway.  I don’t remember her arguing with anybody except Dad, and he wouldn’t argue for long.  He saw he couldn’t win and just left the house. One day he left one time too many and she told him not to come back.  I was in college then, but have always been confident I knew who was right and who wasn’t.  They both married again, both their spouses died later and they ended up getting remarried.  I remember announcing to my friends that I was so happy my Mom and Dad were finally getting married.  I’m convinced she made a calculated decision based on their respective finances and chose the lesser of three evils, but that’s just my suspicious nature I inherited from her.
    One of her friends seemed to live by the old saying  “when in trouble or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.”  “Foolishness” Momma said, “pure foolishness.”  That was pretty much her ultimate and final condemnation of most anything.  She never got too excited, too worked up, too dramatic, too flustered, too loud, too drunk or too anything.  She was calm in the face of adversity of any type, refused to give in to hysteria and was the Mom in the neighborhood everybody came to when they had an emergency or a problem or just needed advice.  Parents in the neighborhood and relatives from all over came to her for advice, kids turned to her when they needed a little comfort or consolation and she dispensed advice to all without condemnation.  She was pretty much the only person that had any influence over Daddy. She rarely cursed and didn’t have to.  She was the rock against which all waves broke, and was calm reason in the face of the storm.  
    Our house was the center of kid activities for many years.  It was a place a kid could hide when he didn’t want to be found, where he could find something to eat at any time of the day, where he could hang out when there wasn’t much to do, where he could find something to do when it was really needed, where he could spend the night if that’s what was needed and where we all gathered before and after any event like a ball game, bike race, after school, weekends, summer or birthdays.  We thought it was a natural thing to have people over all the time until we noticed other Moms didn’t feel the same way.  Some of them were kind of persnickety about boys and dirt and visitors in general.  There was always food on the stove or in the refrigerator at our house, and nobody went away hungry...ever.
    She condoned my comic book collection.  “I don’t care what you read as long as you’re reading” she said.  That wasn’t quite true, but it did hold up for comic books.  I had Batman, Superman, The Blackhawks, Sgt. Rock and Easy Company, The Hulk, Spiderman...you name it, and I read it...and she was right. I remember her reading to me and to my brothers before we could read ourselves, and she believed without doubt that reading was the key to educational success.  I still read every day.  It’s because of her and the example she set.  
    When we would try to grow up too fast she was quick to tell us “don’t get too big for your britches” and when we attempted to use anger on her she would say “you can just get glad in the same britches you got mad in” and effectively end the conversation and our pitiful attempt at psychological warfare.  She had a stubborn streak, and wouldn’t give in on some things.  One of them was going to church, another was making sure we went to school every day and she was adamant about us “doing the right thing.”  “If you can’t do something in front of your mother” she would say, “it’s probably something you don’t need to be doing.”  She was mostly right on that one, too.
    For years I called her every Sunday, and looked forward to the conversation and advice.  Sometimes I still reach for the phone before I remember I have to talk to her another way now.  Her voice is still there and her advice is still good.  I’m convinced God called her home because he couldn’t get his recipe for divinity candy to come out right and she, in typical fashion, said “I can’t write it down, but I can show you.”  I’ve been blessed to inherit her dry wit, her sense of humor, some of her patience, her tolerance, her investigative nature, some of her heart and a little bit of her belief in the goodness found in most people.  My brothers and I all picked up a lot of the good things she was.  All of us did, just from being around her. She knew me when I was good, she knew me when I wasn’t, she knew me when I was sick and she knew when I needed her voice.  She loved me without conditions, and I loved her the same way. Thanks again, Momma, for everything.  And I mean everything.

11/12/15

Proposal or Proposition?

A version of this article was published in the AJC by Maureen Downey.
 
Proposal or Proposition?


This article was written just before the vote in Mississippi on Initiative 42 and 42a.  Official election results show both amendments failed the first hurdle needed to pass: for a majority of people to vote to change the state constitution. About 54 percent voted against changing the state constitution. Forty-six percent voted to change the constitution.  News reports cite enormous confusion on the part of voters as a result of a two step process required to vote for either initiative.  Voters had to first vote to change the state Constitution and only an affirmative vote allowed them to proceed onward to vote for one of the two initiatives.  The confusing procedure and the inclusion of 42a on the same ballot was an intentional political ploy.   Rep. Greg Snowden, the primary author of 42A, acknowledged the alternative initiative was created as a roadblock to 42.  “Is 42A intended to make it more difficult to pass initiative 42? Of course it is,” said Snowden, a Republican from Meridian, during the August forum.
    I am a native of Mississippi, and credit Mrs. Moore from Raines ES in Jackson with instilling an interest in learning and reading that continues to this day.  I was fortunate enough to attend Raines ES, Hardy Jr. High School, Provine HS, and Ole Miss.  Mrs. Moore was my 6th grade teacher, and believed in me to the point that meeting her expectations became one of the driving forces in my life.  Mr. Bickley at HJHS and Mr. Kenney at Provine taught me about music and about life, and Mrs. McBride at Provine told me I would never be a mathematician but she was pretty sure I had learned enough Algebra II not to hurt myself.  My brothers and I all attended public schools in Mississippi, my nephews and niece are graduates of Mississippi public schools and there are more relatives than I can count that can all attribute at least part of what they have achieved in life to public education in the Magnolia state.  All of us are thankful for the opportunities that public education provided.
    I served in public education as a Band Director for 20 years, the majority of my teaching career spent in Alabama and Georgia.  I am now a recovering school administrator, and retired in 2013 after an additional 19 years as a high school Principal and Superintendent of Schools in Georgia.  I believe strongly in public education, and you can read some of my writings on a variety of educational topics at www.drjamesarnold.com.     
    In reading about Initiative 42 recently before Mississippi voters I noticed some similarities about the debate concerning public education in Mississippi and in Georgia.  Legislators in both states insist on attempting to legislate excellence in education without the advice of teachers.  They consistently advance ideas to “fix” public education in the mistaken and misguided belief that 1) public education is irreparably broken, 2) privatization is preferable to local control of schools and 3) that the only expertise needed to solving educational issues is that found in their own school experience.  Public education is and has been succeeding at a far greater rate and to a far greater degree than state legislatures and ALEC would have you believe.  The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the high school graduation rate for 2012 was 80% nationwide.  Yes there are disparities in graduation rates in places, and no, not everyone is achieving at high levels.  The idiocy of “college and career ready” expectations for all students flies in the face of human nature and ignores the obstacles of life - poverty, illness, family, addiction and too many others to name - that confront students of all ages at every level.  If any other profession achieved anywhere close to 80% of anything there would be dancing in the streets and proclamations honoring those that helped achieve that goal.  Teachers, on the other hand, have suffered underfunding, privatization, higher expectations and blame for not reaching the remaining 20%.  Of course there are improvements that can be made, and of course there are schools that do not come close to that 80% level, but taken as a whole the notion that success can only mean 100% of anything is foolish and counter-intuitive.  
    Initiative 42, initiated by the Better Schools, Better Jobs group in Mississippi, collected almost 200,000 signatures from Mississippians in every county to place the initiative on the ballot for November 3.  The language of the initiative is straightforward and simple, and calls for the Mississippi Legislature to follow the law it enacted in 1997 under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program to fund public education.  Since the passage of that law, the Legislature has seen fit to follow its own rules only twice, and since 2009 has underfunded public education and the legislature’s own law by over 1.5 billion dollars.  Folks in Georgia can relate to that.  Since 2003, Georgia Governors Perdue and Deal have underfunded their own public educational system to the tune of over 8 billion dollars in spite of the funding levels supposedly required by the Georgia Quality Basic Education formula.  The primary difference is that Georgia calls these reductions Austerity Cuts.  These cuts have continued on an annual basis even though the Governor touts a resurgence of the state economy and tax collections.  Imagine that...expecting politicians to follow the laws that other politicians have passed.  One Mississippi Legislator even commented “it’s not fair to expect the Legislature to follow laws that other legislatures passed years ago.”  Try using that argument when you figure up your state taxes in January.  While it’s true that money does not guarantee success, one Mississippi legislator noted “the absence of money just about guarantees failure.”  He’s right.  People - and Legislators - put money in what they believe in.  If everything else comes before educational funding then everything else comes before education.  Like Momma said “cheap only looks good once.”
    So rather than allow the voters to decide on the success or failure of Initiative 42 on its own merits, the Mississippi Legislature came up with its own alternative to that plan and placed it on the same ballot for voters.  The name of that plan, interestingly enough, is Initiative 42a.  Simply put, it exempts the Legislature from following its own law if they really don’t want to.  And they don’t.  What politicians fail to prevent, they obfuscate.  Voters, in order to vote for either plan, had to answer in the affirmative to an initial question about whether or not they would like to vote “yes” or “no” on an initiative.  Then, if they vote yes, they get to decide whether vote for Initiative 42 - the one supported by 200,000 signatures - or Initiative 42a - the one stuck in at the last minute by politicians determined to do whatever they think is best, and the public ought to keep its nose out of what they consider to be their business.  Let me say it again in case you missed it the first time - what politicians fail to prevent, they obfuscate.  Georgia Legislators are pretty good at that, too.  The Gov has proposed a plan to allow the state to “take over” schools that he determines are failing, place them under the control of an administrator that he appoints that reports directly to him, set up at untold cost a new and separate school district run by him and his cronies and guaranteed to remove the local control of those schools from the communities that surround them.  
    Quick - name a state or Federal program that’s a model of success, financial efficiency and achievement...how about the DMV?  No, wait a minute - how about the state tax code or the IRS?  No, how about...nevermind.  You see the dilemma.  Like the President and Arne Duncan proposing national solutions for public education when their kids go to private school or the US Congress deciding ACA is a great idea for you but they would rather not be subject to it, solutions on a state and national scale to what is essentially a local concern have never worked and will never succeed but politicians always try to convince us THEY  know the One True Answer that will guarantee success for all.  That such a thing as allowing communities to solve their own problems for their own kids that never seems to enter the minds of politicians.  They talk about it and give it lip service and issue thousands of sound bytes and position papers but really don’t trust you - or me - to make decisions about what’s best for our kids in our communities because they think they know what’s best for us, and what’s best for us is to shut up and do what they say.
    I believe the voters in Mississippi are smart enough to see sooner or later that, in spite of the rhetoric, their Legislators are more concerned with their own influence and power than they are about the education of your kids.  I hope the same thing when Georgians go to vote on the Governor’s attempt to change the Georgia Constitution to set up his own little school district without the interference of those pesky teachers and voters.  Politicians have never let the truth stand in the way of getting what they want.  (“If you like your plan, you can keep your plan” ring a bell?)  The Legislature’s insistence on accountability for everyone except themselves would be laughable if the consequences were not so severe for students, teachers and schools working diligently every day to overcome the effects of poverty.  They continue to enact, through a series of proscriptive laws and budgetary manipulations, a process that is designed to dismantle the system that offers hope for many in the name of using public money to pay for the education of the privileged few as if public schools and students were only there to allow someone the opportunity to make a gigantic profit.  Their abandonment of public education will only serve to keep those dependent upon public education as a traditional lifeline as uneducated as possible for as long as possible.
   Once again, teachers and public education are not the problem, they are the solution.  Sooner or later even legislators must see it’s not about race, it’s about poverty; it’s not about a test score, it’s about student achievement; it’s not about a standardized curriculum, it’s about good teaching; it’s not about the business model, it’s about personalization; it’s not about competition, it’s about cooperation.  Sadly, we voted these people into office.  Perhaps it’s time we began to rectify that mistake.


11/2/15

Propositional Situations

Propositional Situations


    I am a native of Mississippi, and credit Mrs. Moore from Raines ES in Jackson with instilling an interest in learning and reading that continues to this day.  I was fortunate enough to attend Raines ES, Hardy Jr. High School, Provine HS, and Ole Miss.  Mrs. Moore was my 6th grade teacher, and believed in me to the point that meeting her expectations became one of the driving forces in my life.  Mr. Bickley at HJHS and Mr. Kenney at Provine taught me about music and about life, and Mrs. McBride at Provine told me I would never be a mathematician but she was pretty sure I had learned enough Algebra II not to hurt myself.  My brothers and I all attended public schools in Mississippi, my nephews and niece are graduates of Mississippi public schools and there are more relatives than I can count that can all attribute at least part of what they have achieved in life to public education in the Magnolia state.  All of us are thankful for the opportunities that public education provided.
    I served in public education as a Band Director for 20 years, the majority of my teaching career spent in Alabama and Georgia.  I am now a recovering school administrator, and retired in 2013 after an additional 19 years as a high school Principal and Superintendent of Schools in Georgia.  I believe strongly in public education, and you can read some of my writings on a variety of educational topics at www.drjamesarnold.com.     
    In reading about Initiative 42 currently before Mississippi voters I noticed some similarities about the debate concerning public education in Mississippi and in Georgia.  Legislators in both states insist on attempting to legislate excellence in education without the advice of teachers.  They consistently advance ideas to “fix” public education in the mistaken and misguided belief that 1) public education is irreparably broken, 2) privatization is preferable to local control of schools and 3) that the only expertise needed to solving educational issues is that found in their own school experience.  Public education is and has been succeeding at a far greater rate and to a far greater degree than state legislatures and ALEC would have you believe.  The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the high school graduation rate for 2012 was 80% nationwide.  Yes there are disparities in graduation rates in places, and no, not everyone is achieving at high levels.  The idiocy of “college and career ready” expectations for all students flies in the face of human nature and ignores the obstacles of life - poverty, illness, family, addiction and too many others to name - that confront students of all ages at every level.  If any other profession achieved anywhere close to 80% of anything there would be dancing in the streets and proclamations honoring those that helped achieve that goal.  Teachers, on the other hand, have suffered underfunding, privatization, higher expectations and blame for not reaching the remaining 20%.  Of course there are improvements that can be made, and of course there are schools that do not come close to that 80% level, but taken as a whole the notion that success can only mean 100% of anything is foolish and counter-intuitive.  
    Initiative 42, initiated by the Better Schools, Better Jobs group in Mississippi, collected almost 200,000 signatures from Mississippians in every county to place the initiative on the ballot for November 3.  The language of the initiative is straightforward and simple, and calls for the Mississippi Legislature to follow the law it enacted in 1997 under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program to fund public education.  Since the passage of that law, the Legislature has seen fit to follow its own rules only twice, and since 2009 has underfunded public education and the legislature’s own law by over 1.5 billion dollars.  Folks in Georgia can relate to that.  Since 2003, Georgia Governors Perdue and Deal have underfunded their own public educational system to the tune of over 8 billion dollars in spite of the funding levels supposedly required by the Georgia Quality Basic Education formula.  The primary difference is that Georgia calls these reductions Austerity Cuts.  These cuts have continued on an annual basis even though the Governor touts a resurgence of the state economy and tax collections.  Imagine that...expecting politicians to follow the laws that other politicians have passed.  One Mississippi Legislator even commented “it’s not fair to expect the Legislature to follow laws that other legislatures passed years ago.”  Try using that argument when you figure up your state taxes in January.  While it’s true that money does not guarantee success, one Mississippi legislator noted “the absence of money just about guarantees failure.”  He’s right.  People - and Legislators - put money in what they believe in.  If everything else comes before educational funding then everything else comes before education.  Like Momma said “cheap only looks good once.”
    So rather than allow the voters to decide on the success or failure of Initiative 42 on its own merits, the Mississippi Legislature came up with its own alternative to that plan and placed it on the same ballot for voters.  The name of that plan, interestingly enough, is Initiative 42a.  Simply put, it exempts the Legislature from following its own law if they really don’t want to.  And they don’t.  What politicians fail to prevent, they obfuscate.  Voters, in order to vote for either plan, have to answer in the affirmative to an initial question about whether or not they would like to vote “yes” or “no” on an initiative.  Then, if they vote yes, they get to decide whether vote for Initiative 42 - the one supported by 200,000 signatures - or Initiative 42a - the one stuck in at the last minute by politicians determined to do whatever they think is best, and the public ought to keep its nose out of what they consider to be their business.  Let me say it again in case you missed it the first time - what politicians fail to prevent, they obfuscate.  Georgia Legislators are pretty good at that, too.  The Gov has proposed a plan to allow the state to “take over” schools that he determines are failing, place them under the control of an administrator that he appoints that reports directly to him, set up at untold cost a new and separate school district run by him and his cronies and guaranteed to remove the local control of those schools from the communities that surround them.  
    Quick - name a state or Federal program that’s a model of success, financial efficiency and achievement...how about the DMV?  No, wait a minute - how about the state tax code or the IRS?  No, how about...nevermind.  You see the dilemma.  Like the President and Arne Duncan proposing national solutions for public education when their kids go to private school or the US Congress deciding ACA is a great idea for you but they would rather not be subject to it, solutions on a state and national scale to what is essentially a local concern have never worked and will never succeed but politicians always try to convince us THEY  know the One True Answer that will guarantee success for all.  That such a thing as allowing communities to solve their own problems for their own kids that never seems to enter the minds of politicians.  They talk about it and give it lip service and issue thousands of sound bytes and position papers but really don’t trust you - or me - to make decisions about what’s best for our kids in our communities because they think they know what’s best for us, and what’s best for us is to shut up and do what they say.
    I hope the voters in Mississippi are smart enough to see that, in spite of the rhetoric, their Legislators are more concerned with their own influence and power than they are about the education of your kids.  I hope the same thing when Georgians go to vote on the Governor’s attempt to change the Georgia Constitution to set up his own little school district without the interference of those pesky teachers and voters.  Politicians have never let the truth stand in the way of getting what they want.  (“If you like your plan, you can keep your plan” ring a bell?)  The Legislature’s insistence on accountability for everyone except themselves would be laughable if the consequences were not so severe for students, teachers and schools working diligently every day to overcome the effects of poverty.  They continue to enact, through a series of proscriptive laws and budgetary manipulations, a process that is designed to dismantle the system that offers hope for many in the name of using public money to pay for the education of the privileged few as if public schools and students were only there to allow someone the opportunity to make a gigantic profit.  Their abandonment of public education will only serve to keep those dependent upon public education as a traditional lifeline as uneducated as possible for as long as possible.
   Once again, teachers and public education are not the problem, they are the solution.  Sooner or later even legislators must see it’s not about race, it’s about poverty; it’s not about a test score, it’s about student achievement; it’s not about a standardized curriculum, it’s about good teaching; it’s not about the business model, it’s about personalization; it’s not about competition, it’s about cooperation.  Sadly, we voted these people into office.  Perhaps it’s time we began to rectify that mistake.


    

9/24/15

RttT, Common Core and the Flying Spaghetti Monster

RttT, Common Core and the Flying Spaghetti Monster


    Remember back in 2009 when the economy tanked and state governments and schools were desperate for cash? Governor Perdue and later Governor Deal decided that it would be a good idea to balance the state budget on the backs of public school teachers and students by ignoring the Georgia Constitution and dramatically increasing austerity cuts to education.  Even though it meant pay cuts for teachers and a shorter school year for students and layoffs and increased class sizes and tough financial times for local boards that was OK  because the President and Arne Duncan were having a contest where the prize was millions of dollars, and all we had to do was to say we would go along with a few educational, “reforms” and suggestions and $400 million dollars would be ours and the kids would be saved and education would improve exponentially and, like a Shirley Temple movie, everything would Turn Out OK.  Only not.
    Common Core Standards were part of the deal to receive the RttT dollars.  Oh, they weren’t specifically named but 46 states responded to the announcement about the “competition” with applications that included the signatures of the Governor, the Chief State School Officer and the head of the State Board of Education that said they - among others - would support the state’s intention to “reform” education by adopting “rigorous” state standards, data driven instruction, more standardized testing and teacher evaluation using student test scores.  They really needed the money NOW, and there was no time to develop their own state standards, but, just like the deus et machina in a B movie, there WERE standards available but they weren’t quite finished yet so you couldn’t read them but we guarantee they WILL meet the Federal requirements so you could use those….if you really want to….and if you really need the money now….and if you want to have your application accepted before all these other states get the money first. There was no teacher buy in, there was no “state led initiative” there was no research to support the standards or any of the basic tenets of school reform they included and there certainly was no a priori review of CC standards before signing on the dotted line.  All those state leaders accepted without question, without supportive research and without reading the standards - they couldn’t read them, they hadn’t been completely written yet - and apparently on the assumption that any set of Federal standards would be preferable to allowing states to develop their own and, after all, it’s the Federal government.  What could go wrong?
    The USDOE guys were convinced from the outset that “we know know better than you because we are in charge.”  It’s pretty obvious now that the USDOE, like the Georgia Legislature, believes that laws and the Constitution are a series of suggestions and not necessarily legal documents, and that all those pesky rules and laws and regulations about states being in control of education weren’t REALLY supposed to apply to them, were they?  After all, these Common Core standards were written by a guy named Dave paid in part by Bill Gates and in part by the USDOE and wouldn’t it be great if everyone had to follow the same rules?  Except, of course for the kids of those of us that make the rules, and anyway, our kids go to private schools.  Private schools don’t need standardized testing and private schools don’t need Common Core...or want either one.  
    So it turns out, according to Joanne Weiss, former Chief of Staff to Arne Duncan at the USDOE, the RttT competition was remarkable in its manipulation of states that wanted the money in its use of deception, non-transparency and coercion in order to achieve the goal of Common Core implementation.  Jane Robbins, Senior Fellow at American Principles in Action, said that Weiss’ admission “shows the USED was actively coercing states in blatant violation of constitutional principles of federalism” and Weiss’ admission undermines any politician’s claim that “Common Core was a state led process.”  The surprising fact here is not that politicians used greed and manipulative tactics to achieve their own ends but that one of them, albeit after leaving office, publically admitted the deception that most of us already believed was the case.  
    Pastafarians believe the world was created by the Great Spaghetti Monster.  They also believe the GSM created the universe but hid all of the wonders of that creation behind scientific data. They also believe his first disciples were Pirates.  They point out that in spite of all the bad things you hear about Pirates, Pirates in reality used to travel the world and give children candy.  The primary reason they give for the increase in global warming, world wide disasters and other bad things is the decline, since the 1800’s, of the Pirate population.  Somalia, for example, has more Pirates than most countries but also has among the world’s lowest level of carbon emissions, so the connection there is pretty obvious.  Pastafarians wear colanders on their heads as a symbol of their faith, and believe that the afterlife contains beer volcanoes and stripper factories.  They also end every prayer to the GSM with Ramen.  Look it up.
    The Great Spaghetti Monster was created as a satiric response to a Kansas school board’s plan to teach creationism in their public schools.  RttT was created to justify Federal intrusion into state control of public education.  When education becomes a Federal issue it’s no longer about what’s best for kids but becomes what’s best for the corporations that finance US politics and politicians.  When states took the financial carrot the Feds dangled, they either forgot to look for strings or simply didn’t care that they were there.  The Common Core part of RttT wasn’t created to improve educational outcomes for students.  How could it be?  There were no pilot studies, there was no small scale implementation, there was no public or teacher input, it was magically made available at the right time for states to guarantee its acceptance in order that they receive the RttT money they so desperately needed right then.  It was financed and created to standardize education to allow Microsoft and Pearson and textbook manufacturers to standardize their products for every educational market.  Imagine how much more profitable it would be to have two or three models of computer that would fit the needs of every system in every state or a few standardized learning programs that didn’t have to be tailored to Massachusetts standards or Mississippi standards or Wyoming standards but one wonderful size that fit the educational needs of every school in every system across the country.  How great would that be for profits?  Don’t forget the textbook guys either.  Having one set of CC aligned books that every state could buy probably wouldn’t reduce the price of those books, but would increase profit margins exponentially by having only one edition for all instead of different ones for every state.
    Don’t fool yourself into thinking the USDOE or the Georgia Legislature cares about the education of a poor white kid in south Georgia or a poor black kid in Atlanta or vice versa.  They might talk about how “their plan” will transform education so every child has an equal opportunity to succeed educationally and “break the cycle” of poverty and go on to succeed beyond their wildest dreams because of this for-profit charter or this voucher program or this new school bureaucracy to take over failing schools will make a difference. That’s not the goal, and don’t fall for yet another round of political chicanery. Need convincing?  Look at the USDOE waivers for states to exempt themselves from NCLB.  A legal option for exemption approved by Congress or the administration’s pilot program for later executive actions to get something done without Congressional approval?  While you’re at it, look at Governor Deal’s plan to “reform” the way educators are paid.  Did you notice that the base amount of dollars the committee used as their starting point never mentioned that the Governor’s austerity cut was part of that amount?  Wouldn’t it make sense to begin with the amount already required by the current funding formula instead of the amount the Governor will allow?  Did anyone also notice that the requirement for every system in Georgia to declare their intention to become charter or IE2 systems already gives those systems the authority to change the teacher pay scale in their respective system?
    Addressing poverty as the root cause of poor educational achievement is much too difficult and much too expensive, and besides, that’s not the goal.  The goal is twofold: 1) control, and 2) private use of what used to be public funds.  Period.  Look beyond that and you’re looking at political promises based on the same premise as the Great Spaghetti Monster.  Georgia’s current graduation rate is somewhere in the neighborhood of 70%.  If only political promises could reach the same plateau.
    So what can be done?  What should be done?  The first positive step would be to eliminate any and all ties with Common Core standards.  John Barge said the Georgia Performance Standards aligned 90% with CC before CC was adopted, and, on top of that, GPS can be altered and adjusted as needed by the State Board.  Try to change a Common Core standard.  You can’t. The second step would be to eliminate SLO’s from the Georgia educator’s lexicon.  They were written to satisfy a Federal requirement for a program that has run out of money.  What’s the incentive to continue their use?  Can you name one student that has been encouraged or helped to achieve by SLO’s?  Third, eliminate all standardized testing for all students in the state of Georgia.  Research shows that the single best predictor of college success are high school grades awarded by high school teachers.  Trust teachers to determine the academic success and level of achievement of students in their respective classrooms.  Use the money saved on useless standardized testing to expand and support the Pre-K program in Georgia.   Fourth, end any pretense of the efficacy of value added measures in teacher or school evaluations.  There is no justification for VAM unless the intent is to vilify public education schools and teachers. Lastly, end the war on public education and teachers.  Public schools are succeeding with students in spite of the constant attacks and denigration from politicians for political - not educational - purposes.  Imagine what would happen if politicians actually kept their campaign promises and supported schools and teachers with something besides lip service and incessant attempts to legislate excellence.
    I wonder what would happen if we decided to evaluate politicians using value added measures?  The Great Spaghetti Monster knows that’s a thought any Pastafarian could support, especially if the Pastafarian happened to be a Georgia teacher. While we’re at it, maybe the Great Spaghetti Monster would pave the road to my house.  Aaargh, and Ramen to that.