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9/23/17

It's So Hard To Say Goodbye...

It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye…


    Most teachers love their jobs.  Most teachers are very good at their jobs.  As in any profession, there are exceptions, but what’s scary about the education profession now is not that there are enormous numbers of bad teachers (there aren’t) but that there are enormous numbers of good teachers that have recently retired or soon will.  Some absolutely can’t wait to get out that schoolhouse door for the last time, and their replacements are not exactly flooding into teacher prep courses. Add that to the 44% of new teachers that never make it past their first five years and we have a full blown teacher shortage.  Here are the numbers from the Georgia TRS:
   
Retirees in Georgia
Yrs. Exp     2007     2008     2009     2010     2011     2012     2013     2014     2015     2016
10-15           975       1010     1008     1195     1455     1532     1721     1744     1659    1695
16-20           704       720         701      786        954       920     1107     1066     1119    1094
21-25           758       777         774    1018      1150     1125     1279     1169     1164    1130
26-30          2725    2665       2480    2736      2797     2589     2762     2099     2190    2297
Totals         5891    5864       5564     6425     7168     7051     7929      7072     7167    7217

    One of the keys in the chart above is the increase in retirements for those with less than 30 years’ experience.  Not only are we losing 44% of new teachers it appears that those with 10-25 years are opting out too.  This problem of finding good teachers is also a function of geography.  Many systems -especially rural schools - are struggling to find qualified teachers.  It will soon get worse.
    The GADOE says there are currently 1.7 million students in Georgia’s public schools and that close to 7,000 new teachers are hired each year. In 2015, there were 19,428 students enrolled in USG teacher education programs.  Considering that, over the next 4 years, all of those graduate and seek employment, the best case scenario is that we will have a little under 5,000 teachers graduate each year from 2015-2018.. The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement says there were 110,059 teachers and 8,449 leaders  (118,508 total) employed in schools in 2015.  They also note that of that number 3,313 have provisional certificates, and that 44% of all new hires leave the profession in the first 5 years of their new careers. About 25% of the total teacher workforce is made up of teachers with less than 5 years’ experience and 51% of all teachers had fewer than 10 years’ experience.  Also  problematic is that the University System of Georgia says that the production of new teachers - not those that enter teacher education courses but the ones that actually graduate - is down 20% from 2011-2015.  Specific teaching areas like math, science and special education are experiencing even greater shortages, and many systems in Georgia have positions that remain unfilled. The AMTE reports, in a national survey of math teacher educators, three reasons for the drop in prospective math teachers:
  1. More money available in other careers;
  2. Perceived or imagined perceptions of teaching (high stakes testing, de-professionalization of teaching, lack of bargaining rights and teacher burnout);
  3. Negative perception and lack of respect for the teaching profession.
    I found these perceptions in line with my own observations, http://drjamesarnold.blogspot.com/2015/08/teacher-shortage-what-teacher-shortage.html but decided to ask present and former teachers what they thought.  This is not scientific data gathering, and I make no claim that these perceptions represent the beliefs and ideas of all teachers, but here they are:
What would make teaching more attractive to present and future teachers?
  • Raises would be great, but capping the experience raises at 17 years doesn’t encourage us to stay any longer than we have to.
  • Most teachers don’t go into the profession with expectations of financial reward, but they do need to see they are respected.
  • Raise teacher salaries every time politicians vote themselves a raise. Don’t tell me we can’t afford teacher raises. The money suddenly appears every time they want one for themselves or their staff.
  • Stop micromanagement and buying every program that comes along.  The curriculum is now scripted and there is no opportunity for creativity.
  • Eliminate external influence and political meddling.  Allow teachers to be professionals and have a say in what counts as good teaching.  
  • Eliminate ALL standardized testing during school hours. Effective testing is diagnostic. Current testing serves no educational purpose when we don’t see scores until the following year.
  • I have a great fear of litigation (even after 19 years of teaching) because of the complexity and rules of testing and special education services. Parents seem to automatically assume every issue is the teacher’s fault.
  • Teachers enter the profession because they love teaching.  Paperwork, testing, test prep, unpaid duties, larger classes and micromanagement make it impossible to find the time to actually teach.
  • Many teachers enter the profession because of the retirement.  Changing it will serve to discourage candidates even more.
  • Eliminate the TKES/LKES evaluations.  Kids don’t take the tests seriously because there are so many of them every semester.  At least the GTEP gave me constructive criticism, ideas and things I could actually influence in my classroom.
  • Our politicians listen to the wrong people.  Teachers are rarely included as part of any discussion about improving education.  It’s like a baseball owner that thinks he knows the baseball side of operations.  Having control of baseball finances doesn’t mean you can judge baseball talent. The same applies to teaching.
  • Professional development is time wasted.  Teachers could teach each other much more effectively than anyone else IF we were given the chance.
  • We are operating on a calendar that is a carryover from 150 years ago.  We need a 6 hour day with 210-225 days a year and a summer break with no summer school.
  • Discipline is deteriorating because administrators worry too much about numbers and parent reaction and central office interference and not the negative effects of misbehavior on the kids in the classes that want to be there and want to learn.  Students are often allowed to avoid any consequence at all for misbehavior.
  • The USDOE should be eliminated.  They collect Title I money from states and send it back to the states.  Name one thing they do to help kids learn or help teachers in the classroom.
  • Drop the “data driven” sham.  Data are not sensitive to context and kids are not data.
  • Somebody somewhere needs to remember that a lot of these kids come from homes dysfunctional beyond belief.  How can we overcome that during the school day in a class of 35 students?
  • No class should have more than 24 students.  Period. Right now I have 34 in my smallest class.
  • Why do we continue with the misguided belief that all students should go to college?  We need to restore CTAE classes and diplomas.
  • Some people don’t understand that it requires effort to succeed at being a student.  If we don’t get effort from students and are forced to pass them anyway what are they learning?
  • Teachers don’t have enough planning time.  When we do have a planning day it’s filled with a powerpoint specialist that’s never taught telling us how we should teach.
  • A solid school based mentoring program for new teachers is a necessity.  Mentors should be paid for the extra work involved.
  • A supportive and effective school administration is a requirement supporting effective teaching and learning for faculty and students. Teachers will put up with a lot if they feel they are being supported.
  • The pacing required with the pressure of testing and test prep does not allow students adequate “soak time” before we move to something else. We don’t have time to engage students in hands on tasks and activities required for deep learning. Test prep and testing are wasted learning time spent on superficial learning.
  • New teachers are usually the ones placed in the classes with the most at risk students.  They don’t have the experience or the skills to deal with them, and it becomes a sink or swim situation very quickly.  

      I also asked if these teachers would recommend their profession to those that might be interested.  Every respondent said yes, but only selectively. “Not everyone has the skill set to be a successful teacher. I think that I would advise a prospective teacher to do some honest self-appraisal before embarking on a career in education.  There are different kinds of successful teachers, but in addition to having a solid subject matter background, a successful teacher must have patience, perseverance, flexibility, and an ability for both self-criticism as well as the ability to accept positive criticism from others (including students).  If you don't learn from your mistakes and make improvements, you'll never make it in the classroom.  A sense of humor is also helpful.” Another said “IF they were passionate about teaching.  If they are interested in a 9-5 job find something else.” “If they are not committed to making a difference in the total child they should choose another profession.  THIS is the driving force behind great teachers and making a difference in a stressful profession.  If you are committed to making a difference, then it’s worth it.” “If you don’t like kids don’t try to be a teacher.  You are setting yourself - and them - up for failure.”
     In a previous life I had the good fortune to attend a meeting on organizational efficiency hosted by the CEO of Chik Fil A.  He said something that stuck with me - you know, one of those moments that you remember later and realize you had heard something profound that applies directly to what you do and believe and how you operate....I'm sure you've had those moments, too.  One of our group asked him "what do all these people in your corporate office do?"  He replied quickly "every person in our organization has one job, and that's to sell chicken sandwiches.  If you're not selling chicken sandwiches you'd better be doing something to help those that do."
    We need more people helping teachers be effective teachers.  More rules won’t help, more testing is a continued waste of money, time and resources, and political interference is a continual roadblock to effective teaching and learning.  The more politicians try to fix the more they break.  They are, after all, the ones that created the issues.  Should we really depend on them for answers to fix the mess they made?  So what can you do?  Glad you asked.
  1. Believe in and support teachers.  Poverty is the cause of achievement gaps and the number one obstacle to educational success.  Stop the culture of blaming teachers.  Teachers don’t cause poverty any more than law enforcement causes crime or doctors create disease.
  2. Invest in teachers.  Professional development should be experienced teachers working with less experienced teachers.  Pay great teachers to share their knowledge and ideas in ways that allow them to stay in the classroom.  One great teacher working with 3 or 4 others is a powerful tool.  Large groups of teachers listening to one “expert” in an auditorium is not.
  3. Pay great teachers more to work in high poverty schools.  Working in these schools is difficult.  Make it worth the effort for teachers that want to increase their salaries and stay in the classroom.  Want to attract great teachers to high poverty areas?  Pay them to travel and teach there.  Want to identify high poverty schools?  Simply look at standardized test scores.  They don’t tell you anything about teaching and learning but do serve wonderfully to point out through the zip code effect the level of poverty in a given area.
  4. Eliminate standardized testing for other than diagnostic purposes.  The money saved would be more beneficial invested in teaching and learning than in the autopsy reports generated at the insistence of accountabullies in the name of false accountability.  Allow teachers the opportunity to teach without having to teach to the test.
  5. Don’t believe in magic bullets.  The answer is not in canned programs guaranteed to produce higher test scores but in the power of great teachers to reach students on a personal level.  Invest in people and not in programs.  Success through standardization is a myth.  Every student needs and deserves individualized learning at all levels.  Educational achievement, like excellence, cannot be legislated.
  6. Technology is a tool for teachers and not an answer unto itself.  For every child that learns through technology alone there are more that fail miserably without the intervention and guidance of a teacher.  Lower class sizes, modernize the school calendar and give teachers the time and tools to teach.
  7. Help prevent legislative meddling in teaching and learning.  Unfunded mandates and  legislative attempts at applying standardized solutions to local issues have done more to hurt public education than to help.  Expecting every child to achieve at the same rate at the same level ignores fundamental differences in human development...sort of like Arnie Duncan’s plan to test special education students out of special education through higher expectations.  
  8. Top down implementation does not work in education any more than it does in government.  Issuing a decree that all children will succeed does not automatically mean that all children will succeed any more than outlawing death will make doctors more successful in treating diseases...but it will discourage doctors.
    My Dad told me you can always see what people believe in by observing how they spend their time and money.  The same is true for politicians.  Talking about the importance of education and passing legislation that continues to ask teachers to do more and more with less and less has gotten us into this mess. When your car doesn’t work you listen to a mechanic.  When you need to know what works in education talk to teachers.  If we don’t do something to end the “blame the teachers” game and attract more people to the teaching profession your child will not have the teacher you want.  They may not have a teacher at all.


8/22/17

The Apoc-eclipse

The Apoc-eclipse

    I have to tell you right up front that Betsy and I did not catch the eclipselectic fever that seemed to infect most of the country.  We started out the day like most other days, sitting by the pool with coffee and talking about our respective goals and tasks for the day.  Sammie, our little white dog that lives to be petted, goes with us and sniffs everything in the yard that hadn't been sniffed since the day before, pronounces all as satisfactory and sets herself up in guard position so that we would be between her and anything that happened to climb out of the pool. Frogs can be scary when you don’t expect them.  Betsy did ask if I thought we should get glasses for later in the day.  My response was indicative of my lack of enthusiasm, and I told her I was pretty sure they would be cheaper and readily available on Tuesday.  After a few minutes of conversation we parted ways for a few hours.  I went to Troy and put in a couple of grueling hours assigning education students to observe classes in local schools, and she to once again try to convince her 93 year old Dad that moving to Georgia would be a good idea if he wanted to see his grandsons and great grandsons more than twice a year.  It's been a hard sell so far.  He remains unconvinced that 1) anyone can move any of his stuff without his personal involvement and supervision and 2) that "the government" will allow him to move from one assisted living facility to another without congressional approval.  He also believes strongly that, should he decide to move, he would need us to load up his riding lawn mower to come with him because "any place with any kind of a yard is gonna need their grass cut."  I'm not sure where he got the idea that mowing would be a condition of residency in Georgia or in an assisted living facility, but we have tried to reassure him, without success, that they have other people that take care of that task, especially in light of the fact that he hasn't mown his own grass for several years.  Between that and trying to convince us to keep his car in the facility parking lot "in case somebody wants to drive me somewhere" I suspect the formulation of a rather detailed escape plan with emergency backup. He might be 93 but the man ain't dumb. He’s planning a way out if the situation requires it.
    But back to the eclipse...I returned home about 1:30 and Betsy already had Shep Smith on TV excitedly tracking the path of the eclipse across the fruited plain.  There were shots of stadia in several western localities filled with people and complete with marching bands and cheerleaders.  We read about tens of thousands of folks that traveled to north Georgia so they might see more of the eclipse than the measly 92% we were going to get here.  The extent of my enthusiasm was trying to name relevant songs I knew and trying to get Betsy to turn the sound down on the television.  I make it a policy to not watch TV news whenever possible.  We came up with "Here Comes the Sun", "Total Eclipse of the Heart", "Let the Sun Shine In", and my personal favorite "You're So Vain."  You know the lyrics so I won't repeat them here other than to note that flying a Learjet to Nova Scotia would be a bad place for viewing this particular eclipse.
    We marveled at the numbers of people that made journeys of fantastic lengths and great expense to see about 2:41 of darkness at an odd time of day.  Betsy asked if I still wanted to try to find glasses and go somewhere to watch, but I reminded her that the only things we could afford after paying for the grandsons’ travel ball expenses did not include funds for the eclipse, and besides, I would rather take a nap. She did not reply, but I did get a look that once again reminded me that her discretionary use of criticism and sarcastic replies has kept us married for 28 years, often against her parents' better judgement.  That doesn't mean she is never critical or sarcastic, but understands when best to use it and when futility and discretion overcome the need for a reply.
    It was getting darker outside.  I began to think perhaps I would go outside and look askance at the sun and perhaps get an indirect glimpse of the eclipse after all when Betsy came in rather quickly, her fists clenched and her toes curled.  I knew the body language well.  Either a major pronouncement concerning the grandkids and their immediate clothing/equipment/school/transportation/church attendance was coming or she had seen evidence of a snake.  She stalked quickly and silently to the front of my chair and stopped.  I knew then that all hopes of a nap were immediately out of the question. "There's the skin of one of those THINGS on the wall outside and 2 weeks ago there was one in the house and if you don't do something about it NOW I am going to Hendersonville North Carolina and live."  Then she walked away, sat on the couch visibly fuming and turned up the volume on the television where Shep was practically wild with enthusiasm over the enormity of the event. Bands were playing, cheerleaders were cheering on the sun (or maybe the moon) and the flashcard section had evidently not prepared quite as long as they should have but were making a valiant effort.
    The snake thing has been an issue since forever.  She told me before we were married and I saw evidence on several memorable occasions, once even carrying her on a wooded trail for about 5 miles on Mt. Pisgah after one crossed our path on what I had hoped would be an idyllic woodland stroll. It wasn’t.  Hate is not strong enough a word.  Her loathing, fear and hatred combine to create an intense negative reaction to even a picture on Facebook.  She will NOT look at a picture in a book, hides her face and screams when there is a picture on TV and the scene when she sees evidence of one - not SEES one, just sees evidence of where one might have been sometime in the last 10 years or so - is histrionic in an extreme you would have to experience to believe. Her toes curl, she dances from foot to foot, her voice reaches decibel levels only dreamed of by heavy metal rock bands, and her vocabulary is limited to “get it away, get it away, get it away.”  So naturally, being aware of this phobia, I had convinced her to move into a house on a gravel road surrounded by trees with small creeks on either side.  There is an abundance of wildlife. We see deer in the yard, one was inside the pool fence a few weeks ago but jumped out rather than diving in, there are turkeys, owls, two families of hawks, assorted squirrels, racoons and possums that help themselves to the cat food each night, moles and a mouse or two that have been removed from the skimmer and yes, snakes.  Not many, not often, rarely poisonous ones and almost never around the house, but they are there lurking.
    I am taking flying lessons.  A couple of weeks ago I was arriving at the airport and was pre-flighting the plane when I received a frantic phone call.  “It’s in the house, it’s in the house, it’s in the house.”  I recognized the problem immediately and did not ask for - and would not have gotten - clarification.  Leaving my instructor with a quick “I’ll be back in a few minutes” I ran to my truck and drove the 15 miles home.  She was on the phone with me the entire time repeating the same message.  I finally had to hang up and drive, imagining all sorts of possibilities and trying to decide before hand whether or not I could shoot a snake in the house without hitting the dog or destroying a water heater or incurring expensive collateral damage.  Upon arrival I ran in the door and found Betsy, still hysterical, standing on the bed in the guest bedroom with the poor dog looking up at her trying to figure out what all the fuss was about.  She was getting a little hoarse from all the yelling and her voice was dropping to just below a painful level.  “Where is it?” I yelled.  “In the bedroom by the door” she screamed and kept repeating herself.  I was expecting a monster as I peered around the door, but instead saw a little brown snake that might have been mistaken for an earthworm. He had probably found a crack under the door that would only admit something as small as he was and was looking, like the rest of us, for a way to escape the Georgia heat.  I’m pretty sure he was as confused and frightened as the dog apparently was, but, using the handy little grabber thingy she uses to get rolls of paper towels off the top shelf I quickly nabbed him and carried him outside to a chorus of “don’t put him in the garbage can” repeated several times in quick succession. He joined his little snake buddies in whatever happy hunting ground dead snakes go to - including the one she had shot in the head several years ago with a single shot from my .41 magnum pistol from 60 feet - yes, I stepped it off - when I was at work and the grandsons were outside. It was a sobering moment to all that might threaten the boys from that moment on and has passed on into family lore and it’s pretty safe to say that none of us argue too much with Nana anymore about anything, but that’s another story.  The danger for today was over, but she had me move most of the furniture in the house, use most of a 5 pound bag of “Snake Away” powder on the porches and around the house, and still turns a light on when walking in the hallway at night and is about ¾ convinced we have a deadly horde of copper headed water rattlers hiding in a closet somewhere waiting for just the right moment to come out and mercilessly attack or pounce or slither menacingly in our general direction.
    So the eclipse was just beginning and it was getting a little darker and I was outside knocking down the snakeskin from the shutter and, for good measure, using the long extension pole for changing spotlights in the ceiling to knock down an aged bird nest near the window on the 2nd floor that I had not noticed previously.  Why, you ask?  Because Betsy is convinced the snake was climbing the brick wall to get at the 2nd story bird nest and left his skin behind on the way up.  Mine is not to reason why, but to find a solution….
     After knocking down the nest and the old skin and hiding the evidence and wandering around the house a couple of times just to make sure there was no further danger past or present, I went inside to reassure her and gauge her mood.  It wasn’t good, so I resorted to my go-to method - distraction.  “Let’s ride up the road and see if we can find a clear area with no trees to see the eclipse” I suggested.  She was amenable, but was still thinking about whether she should move to Hendersonville today or wait until tomorrow.  We stopped at the BR and R store in Ellerslie and I got her a happy meal - Diet Dr. Pepper and an Almond Joy.  I noticed it wasn’t nearly as dark as before, but didn’t say anything.  We drove for another 5 miles or so and she noticed the shadows were not nearly as long as they had been.  Turning the truck around, we stopped in a church parking lot nearer to home.  Both of us looked up.  There were no clouds, the sun was bright, and it was almost 3:30pm.  “Do you think we missed it?” she asked.  I was pretty sure we had, but wasn’t about to suggest it. We returned home to find the sun shining brightly, the eclipse had moved on into history and the evidence of the snake on the wall no longer visible nor a topic of discussion.  Both were effectively out of sight and out of mind. The Dr. Pepper, Almond Joy and a little geographic slight of hand  had worked their particular magics and the foul mood had passed.
    So there’s our eclipse story. We have no eclipse pictures to share but we do have a great story that will no doubt be embellished as time goes on.  While we did not travel a great distance, did not wear the geeky glasses, did not see any of the event itself and only tangentially experienced its effects, we did share an experience that is uniquely ours.  I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point of life, isn’t it?



6/2/17

The Point

Singer and songwriter Harry Nilsson observed in his 1971 album “The Point” that “a point in every direction is no point at all" and "if everyone has a point, then I must have one too.”
 
    I had the pleasure of judging several students a few weeks ago as part of a district wide scholarship competition in written essays and face to face interviews.  While the questions were pretty basic (what do you like and dislike about school, what’s your favorite subject) some of the answers were not.  I remembered an old Art Linkletter show called “Kids Say The Darndest Things” and, after the interviews, decided that not only was Art right, but that one viewpoint always missing from the “how can we improve schools” debate was that of the students.  They are, after all, the subjects and the central focus of the debate on school improvement, and their contributions could add a perspective not usually considered.  Their job for now is to be students. Their daily work experiences make them experts in what works and what doesn’t, and, once they trust you they aren’t afraid to tell you what they think.
    The four students I chose to interview after the competition were not scientifically selected.  All are highly successful academically in their respective schools and included one 5th grader and three 8th graders. All four attend public middle schools in central Georgia and I did receive permission from their parents, Principal and the District before meeting with them a second time.  All were only a few days away from moving on to a new grade and new challenges, and for the sake of anonymity let’s call them Sally, Tom, Jane and Harry.  I recorded the interviews and transcribed them.  The quotes are actual and not paraphrased. Their individual and collective vocabularies are exceptional.
    I was particularly interested in their views about what they liked and didn’t like about school in general and specifically their thoughts on the Georgia Milestones tests and the Georgia Performance Standards.  The GPS are Common Core standards renamed by the GABOE.  I interviewed them both individually and in one group of two due to schedule constraints.  (Theirs, not mine.)  I have included (at the end of the article) the questions I asked.  I will not attribute any one answer to a particular student, but will include their comments in quotation marks.  Two of them said what they enjoyed most about school replied “the environment.   The atmosphere is important because I like to be around happy people but I dislike how school is often taught because not all students learn the same way and everyone is not wired the same way. We don’t get asked about our opinions very often because kids will usually say what they think and not just what you want to hear.”  Three of them enjoyed math class the most and one chose PE.  All are in music and believe that music classes “expose them to other cultures” and “it’s fun.”  All four believe that music helps them with other classes, primarily because “it’s like another language”, “requires concentration and teaches responsibility” and that “practice pays off.”  All four believe that PE should be offered to every student as an everyday choice.  PE is often rotated with art, music, drama or computer lab and students don’t often get to participate for several weeks at a time.  
  They all believed the school day was too long, primarily because the only break they get from classes is lunch. They thought the “no talking” rule in the halls was “kid stuff” and was a missed opportunity to “decompress for a few moments before beginning the next class.”  One commented that “socialization with my friends is important to me, and we don’t get any time to do that.”  They also thought an hour for classes was a little too long and it was hard, even for good students, to concentrate for that length of time for six classes every day.  All four suggested a little down time at the end of the day to do homework, talk quietly or review what they had done that day instead of the “extra learning time” that generally adds new work or concepts rather than a review of old ones.  
    Each of them expressed frustration with standards being posted each day for every class, and mentioned “we don’t have time to process new things before moving on,” “the standards prevent us from exploring what might be some really interesting stuff,” “teachers seem fixated on the standards and sometimes cover the standards just be able to say they covered them rather than make sure we really learn them.”  One also observed “a lot of my friends say the same things - that it’s difficult to keep up when we don’t really discuss things in detail, we just cover new stuff and quickly move on.” “I don’t really understand why we have to have standards for the whole country just for a few kids that move to a different state or school.  Learning should be geared toward the majority of kids in a school and not just a few that move.”  “I think the standards inhibit learning and exploration in my classes.”  Yes, an 8th grader said that.  I’ll just leave that right there for you.
    Their favorite teachers all seem to have common characteristics.  “My favorite teacher has a comfortable classroom and we don’t have to sit in rows every day and just listen. There are couches and we can move our chairs if we want.  She makes us a part of the discussion and acts like she is interested in what we say and ask.”  They also noted “my favorite teacher knows our names and the class feels safe. I like her approach.  She is not confrontational or intense and she makes it clear what she expects us to do.”  One of them noted “it’s easier for me to learn if I can relax a little more.”  “I don’t like worksheets or packets teachers just hand out.”  “I like working with other kids, especially the ones that might have trouble understanding something that I can already do.”  “I like the teachers that seem as if they like me and know me and care about me.”  (Perhaps one of the questions in the hiring process should be “do you like kids?)  “I like all my teachers, but some are more genuine and likable than others.”  One of them also noticed “we can tell the difference in some teachers when an administrator walks in the room to observe.”  Indeed.
    Technology was a common issue.  “Our computers are old and slow and always seem to crash or need repair.”  “We have Smart Boards but sometimes they aren’t very smart and don’t always work well.”  “We can check out laptops and iPods from the library but sometimes they don’t work because the internet is pretty slow.  “The internet always seems to go down just when I start doing something interesting.” “Our teachers don’t usually let us use our own phones during class except for maybe the last five minutes of a class or at the end of the day.”  They also said that almost every student has a phone and “it’s usually better than the stuff we have in school, but we don’t get to use them much.”  We hardly ever use them because some kids would just play games or text.” “I like using the Kindles in class but we don’t get to do it enough.”  All of them liked it when teachers had background music when they were reading or studying or taking a teacher made test.  “I like the music in the background and it helps me relax, but my teachers tend to like old stuff that we don’t really know.” “One teacher plays the same Christmas music for the whole month of December.  I know every Rudolph song there is now.”
    There were several observations about the Georgia Milestones reviews that “go on forever.”  “We spent the entire month of March doing test review. Some teachers even commented their jobs depended on us doing well.  That’s a lot of pressure on them and on us.”  “Some of the teachers told us we had to try really hard or we wouldn’t go to the next grade.”  “We had ‘March Madness’ test reviews and that meant no new stuff, just reviews every day. It can get pretty boring.”  “I think the test and all the reviewing gets in the heads of students and teachers and stresses everybody out.  It’s just one test.  I don’t see why it should count so much when not every kid tests well or might just have a bad day and fail.”
    There were several other observations about testing.  “Some kids don’t try very hard and seem to think they will be passed anyway.”  “Not everybody’s Lexile level is high, and some students just don’t do well.  I don’t think one test is a good way to judge teachers or a school.  What about all the other things we have done the rest of the year?”  “Kids talk about the tests a lot, but only to each other. We don’t think it’s fair because a lot of the stuff we learn is not on the test and a lot of things we’ve never seen before are on it.”  “The tests don’t seem to be about what we are really learning.”  “I don’t think test scores reflect how my teachers do their job.  Some of the best teachers have students that don’t pass.  It’s possible to have one bad day and still be a good student.” “I’ve never taken the tests because my parents think they are not fair.”  I asked this student how promotion occurs and the response was “my parents meet with the Principal and they talk about my grades and my progress every year.”   Each of the four also mentioned that “not every parent expects their kid to do well like mine does.” One of them said “we know who passed and who didn’t.  Kids know stuff adults think we don’t notice, but we do.”
    All three 8th graders said “if money were no object, I would buy a new laptop for every student, new computer labs and a smartphone for every kid (because computers are for teachers but kids know how to use their phones to do just about anything.)”  Other purchases mentioned were new PE equipment, a dedicated art room with plenty of space to display student work and a music room with a lot of different instruments for kids to play.”
    After listening to their answers, I remain convinced that 1) we don’t listen enough or ask enough to discover what our students have to say, and 2) their honesty and observations are insightful, intelligent and need to be a part of any conversations about what does and does not work in education. I will leave you with one final quote from these delightful students; “It’s not the school that makes it a good place, it’s the teachers and students that go there.”  Amen and amen.
 
Jim Arnold
    
I used the same list of questions for every student:
What do you enjoy most about school?
    What do you dislike?
What is your favorite subject.
    I noticed you are in music classes?  Why?
    Does music help you with other classes?
    Should every student be given a chance to take PE?
    If you could, what classes would you add to your school day?
    What classes would you eliminate from the curriculum?
    Is the school day too long, too short or just right?
    Do standards in every class improve learning for you personally?
    Do standards in every class improve teaching?
    What are some of the things your favorite teachers do that makes them your favorite?
    Describe some of the technology available in your classes.
    Are you allowed to use cell phones in classes?  If so, in what ways?
    Do you stress over GA Milestones?
Do your friends or classmates worry about them? Do students talk about the tests in general? If so, what are some of the comments you have heard?
How much time do you spend in classes preparing for GA Milestones in the fall?  In the spring?
    Do your test scores reflect how good your teachers are?
    What do your test scores on the Milestones say about you?  About other students?
    Do a school’s test scores tell you how good or bad a school is?
    Do all students try their best on GA Milestones tests?
    What do you read for fun?
    What motivates you to do well?
    How much time do you spend on homework or studying each night?
    If money were no object what would you buy for your classroom or school?
    Do you have any questions you would like to ask?
 
   


3/15/17

A Modest Proposal

  HB 610 was introduced in the House of Representatives on January 23 2017 by Representative King of Iowa and Representatives Harris and Franks of Arizona.  The bill is a study in brevity by current standards (10 pages in its entirety compared to the 2400 pages of the Affordable Care Act or NCLB legislation of over 1.000 pages) and in its present form is a legislative haiku that says a lot in comparatively few words.
    The bill’s purpose is to “distribute Federal funds for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers for eligible students and to repeal a certain rule relating to nutrition standards in schools.”
    You could probably hear public school parents, teachers and students cheering when they find out about the second part.  Nobody but a dyed in the wool hard core Democrat whose kids don’t go to public school likes school lunches in their current state of culinary purgatory, and the nuts and twigs kids are presently served and do not eat are universally despised by those expected to eat them.  The first part is a little more problematic.
    Section 102 of the bill (whose short title is the “Choices in Education Act of 2017” states a) “the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 is repealed and b) “the authority of the Secretary under this title is limited to evaluating State applications under section 104 and making payments to the States under section 103.  The Secretary shall not impose any further requirements on States with respect to elementary and secondary education beyond the retirements of this title.”
 My goodness!  In one fell swoop the US Department of Education is limited to distributing Federal educational funds to states in the form of vouchers to states on a per student basis according to the number of eligible students in that state in public, private and home-school settings. After Arne Duncan and the RTTT debacle that in itself is a breath of fresh air. States complete an application that says they will distribute the Federal dollars received to local educational agencies or to parents of eligible students to use for tuition for public, private or home-school students “in a manner that promotes competition and choices in education.” So the Secretary’s only jobs will be to determine the number of eligible students in each state in a given year and divide the money by how many states get a block grant according to whether or not they meet the criteria in Section 105.  The money goes directly to the schools where the child is enrolled OR goes to the parents of homeschoolers and is considered “assistance.”  One percent of the money may be reserved by LEA’s for administrative costs.
    Alrighty then. Let’s skip over the details about why we send money to Washington DC to be sent back to the states and how parents will use or not use this money for the education of their children and tax credits and how Mrs. Devos or any future Secretary of Education will determine which state applications are approved and which are not and ask a couple of burning questions.
    First, though, let’s look at the money.  The USDOE had a budget of about $70.7 billion in 2016.  That’s about 3% of the total US budget and includes both discretionary and mandatory dollars.  The USDOE has maintained a disproportionate degree of control over state education compared to the amount of money they distribute to states since 1965. The Federal money provided to Georgia for education in 2014 was about $1.1 billion, or close to 8% of the state’s educational budget.  These funds were in the form of Title I (Financial assistance to LEA’s for the education of low income families; Title II (School library resources, textbooks and instructional material); Title III (supplementary educational centers and services; Title  IV (Educational research and training); Title V (Grants to strengthen state DOE’s) and Title VI (General provisions).  Titles III-VI become state responsibilities and I and II are modified under the bill.
   The GADOE Spring 2016 FTE for public school students was 1,749,316 and the 790 private schools in GA totaled 146,525 students. The number of homeschooled students is estimated by the Coalition of Responsible Home Education as between 54,192 and 72,256 students.  Just for today let’s round those number and say 1,750,000 public school students, 150,000 private school students and 70,000 homeschoolers for a total of 1,970,00 students K-12 in Georgia.  Title I eligibility is a function of parent income, and Georgia’s Free and Reduced Lunch percentages are commensurate with the percentage of students qualifying for Title I status.  FRL percentages in Georgia in the October 2016 FTE counts were 61.72%, so multiplying 1,970,000 times 61.72% (figuring the same percentage of students for public, private and homeschool students -it won’t be, but let’s not quibble about a few million dollars here or there) equals 1,215,884 students.  Let’s round that up to 1,216,000 students. Using the long division I learned in public school before Common Core, that comes to $1.1 billion divided by 1,216,000 equals somewhere in the neighborhood of $904 and change per student.  Let’s subtract some for administrative costs and so forth, and say we’re talking about $850 per student in voucher money. So now we arrive at the questions.
    Will the students using this money for any school - public, private or homeschool - in Georgia be subject to the testing regimen currently required in public schools?  Will private schools accepting this money as tuition be required to abide by Federal guidelines under IDEA?  Will private schools accept this money from students if one or both of those strings are attached? I’m pretty sure I know the answers to those questions before I even asked.  If testing and political “accountability” were designed to improve education and, in fact, did improve education don’t you think private schools would already have adopted the idea? Of course they would, and would be requiring standardized testing in every grade in order to ensure “accountability” for their parents.  But they don’t. Not one. Zero. Nada.  I’m also guessing most private schools wouldn’t think $900 in a partial tuition payment (many charge in the neighborhood of $10,000 per student per year in tuition) would be worth ANY strings attached.
    Neither do I believe public schools would be loath to compete with private schools for students or tuition dollars IF the playing field was leveled and testing and IDEA guidelines were in place for all students that brought their vouchers with them.  Public schools now take EVERY student that walks through their doors, included those with little or no English skills, mild, moderate or severe physical or mental disabilities and no matter their level (or dearth) of prior schooling and achievement.  They also test their students to death in the name of accountabilism with a testing regimen designed to suck the joy out of school and teaching for political purposes and not to improve instruction.  Despite those obstacles and primarily because of the heroic work of teachers that succeed in spite of the system and not because of it, the graduation rate last school year was 79.2% for Georgia public schools.  Most private schools have an acceptance rate of about 85% (depending on the school), unanimously do NOT elect to participate in the state and local testing opportunities and have a graduation rate at or above 90%.  They also advertise smaller classes (20 or less) than public schools can offer.  Does it make you wonder why politicians fail to hold up that particular model when talking about “reforming” public schools? Perhaps the Georgia legislature should follow the lead of the US Congress and withdraw completely from the phony standardized student testing business. The model seems to work well for private schools, doesn’t it?
    So, just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the bill passes and public and private schools do compete with each other for students and Federal money.  I believe that good private schools have their place and are an important part of the educational process for a lot of kids, but if they are going to accept Federal or state dollars (public money) for tuition they should play by the same rules that public schools do.  Unless, of course, the people that make the rules for public schools- you know, the same ones that already send their kids to private schools - don’t want a level playing field.  I’m guessing that $850 and change per eligible student in money from the Feds is not nearly enough incentive to entice a private school to embrace either testing or IDEA, and I’m betting not one politician is willing to propose that if no testing and smaller class size works for private schools maybe the same things would work for public schools. Maybe this could even be a model for those “failing” schools Governor Deal is so desperate to help.  That might just be my highly developed sense of cynicism at work, or it might just be an accurate assessment of political intentions.  Let the posturing begin!