Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Fateful Fifth: Reflections For A First-Year Teacher

There's a 50 percent chance I won't be teaching after this year. Then again, there's a 50 percent chance that I will.

Statistics shows that one-half of all teachers leave the profession within the first five years. Seeing as I'm currently in year number five, I feel I'm in a position to offer advice to young teachers to hopefully get them to be part of that 50 percent that continue in the most worthwhile profession in America. To do this, I offer all my accumulated wisdom in letter-form addressed to myself cerca 2007 when I entered the profession. These are some tricks of the trade that have helped get me well into year number five with no real reason to leave the profession any time soon. Without further ado, here are my tips to myself in a letter before my first day of teaching in August of 2007.

Dear T,

First and foremost, congratulations on getting an education degree from a private school! Despite wasting $150,000 of your parents money, you actually will still be on speaking terms with them five years later, which is always a good thing. They'll actually come to visit you from time to time and will still give you "gas money" any time you go home to visit or go to friends' weddings. They will continue to support you in all that you do, which is absolutely essential since you will have three jobs in your first four years of teaching.

About that three jobs in four years thing. Sorry but teaching is not recession proof. You will have to fight and claw for every job. You will end up in in a large city that has all their jobs go through Human Resources departments and won't give the time of day to an outsider. You'll make do. You'll learn about charter schools, Waiting for Superman, and how the public schools of America are consistently failing our nation's school children. These schools will make you re-think everything you know about good teaching and you will be at the center of an educational reform movement that will make national news during the second decade of the 21st century.

In addition to charter schools, you will also teach at a low-income school. This will open your eyes to educational inequality in schools. You will see your school get the shaft time and time again. It will be used as a dumping ground for troublesome students. Your students will not have transportation to and from school and thus will be unable to stay after school for clubs and sports. You will see the district cater to the high-achieving schools and will bring in people with no classroom knowledge to tell you how to teach. You will become frustrated. However, you will finish out your time at the school because 140 kids will be depending on you. And they are the most important thing.

You will become frustrated as all young teachers are. You will fortunately be able to find an outlet for these frustrations. You will make the most of your gym membership and you will rediscover your love for running. In addition, you will become the boys soccer coach. It's here where you'll see your students in a new light that you don't see in the regular classroom. You'll find you enjoy coaching and will even take the kids to the local university where they will practice with the varsity soccer team. It's something you hope the kids will remember for a long time.

Your lessons will get better but will remain a work in progress. It's your blessing and your curse; you are a perfectionist. You realize you'll never teach a perfect lesson but that won't keep you from dedicating hours after school and on the weekend to attempt to do so. You'll read books and articles about the profession and will eventually pursue a master's degree to help English language learners. You'll even have your college adviser come and visit you five years later and you'll still have similar conversations about your lessons as you did when you were student teaching. You'll laugh at this because you'll realize you're moving in the right direction but it won't get any easier even after having four years under your belt.

Lastly, you'll realize how fortunate you are to be involved in a profession you consider to be a "calling." You'll wake up each day not regretting the profession you chose. You'll feel bad about missing a day of work for travel. You'll start to build relationships with your students as you'll realize no learning can occur if there's no mutual respect between yourself and your students. You'll have dreams about teaching a class without a lesson plan. You'll have dreams about going back to school yourself. Your profession will permeate discussions with your friends, family, and significant other (yes, there is a significant other and she's a keeper). You'll request education books for Christmas and will continue reading articles whenever they pop up on your newsfeed. Odds are you will continue teaching beyond the five year breaking point. Odds are you will continue teaching for a long, long time.

T, 2011

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Master's Bidding: What Arne Duncan Doesn't Get

. . . ”Districts currently pay about $8 billion each year to teachers because they have masters’ degrees, even though there is little evidence teachers with masters degrees improve student achievement more than other teachers — with the possible exception of teachers who earn masters in math and science.”

-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, November 2010

Roughly nine months ago, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated the above quote in a speech he gave concerning the state of public education in America. As a student who was at the time in a Master's program, I viewed the statement as misguided but I didn't feel the need to comment on it in a public forum. However, recent events have brought me back to this aforementioned quote and so this time, my pal Arne D. will have the opportunity to hear my two cents (and then some) about teachers and the value of their master's degrees.

First and foremost, Mr. Duncan clearly has no idea what it takes to become a credentialed teacher and, more importantly, to keep that credential. For me, I moved out to California after teaching in North Carolina for two years. Fortunately, California has a reciprocity agreement with North Carolina and therefore my credential transferred here successfully. I had to pass the CBEST (California Basic Educational Skills Test) as well, but this test was fairly simple and straight forward and measured basic skills in reading, writing, and math. After all this was done and I submitted payment, I received what's called my preliminary California teaching credential in the early months of 2010. This credential certified me to teach both social science and Spanish and would not have to be renewed until early 2014, giving me a four-year window to meet the requirements to get my clear credential.

Here is where Mr. Duncan obviously missed the memo. In the state of California, one must either earn a master's degree or have 150 hours of workshops over the four-year period to earn their clear credential. If either of these criteria are not met, then the teacher is no longer certified to teach and he or she can be removed from their current teaching position. In addition, the state of California requires an English language learner authorization. This is a certificate that shows that a teacher in the diverse state of California is equipped and has the knowledge to work with English language learners. This leaves teachers with a four-year window to figure out how they are going to get everything accomplished in addition to their daily duties of classroom instruction.

For me, I chose the master's program route. It made the most sense, and I could get it done in half the time, with my master's program taking two years out of the four I had available to clear my credential. I was also fortunate enough to be in a program of study that worked with English language learners and therefore, my master's degree also fulfilled my English language learner authorization. In order to update my credential this past week, all I had to do was print off a copy of my old credential, include a sealed copy of my graduate school transcript, and again give money to the state of California and its teacher credential office. I could have technically waited until 2014 when my credential actually expired, but I am well aware of the effectiveness of large state bureaucracies and I felt much more comfortable doing it now as opposed to cutting it close farther on down the line.

Most people I have come into contact with have gone this route. They, like myself, have not only taught during the day, but have then left their schools and took graduate courses at night. These courses include homework, research papers, and even theses or action research projects. Many of us had to give up work days at our schools (unpaid leave days) in order to fulfill graduate school responsibilities via classes or conferences. We opted to do this because there is no way to get 150 hours of workshops in over a four-year period. Teachers have a set number of personal days each year and to use these all for professional development is not a realistic option. Once upon a time, there were conferences and workshops during the summer that districts would pay to have their teachers attend. However, today with ever-increasing budget cutbacks, hardly anyone can afford or offer to host any kind of meaningful professional development during the summer. Therefore, the lesser of two evils for all teachers in California is that of getting a master's degree.

What Arne Duncan doesn't get is that for many of us, the master's degree is our only choice to continue to be employed. It's not a luxury that we decided on to enhance our resume or to get a few extra bucks a year. It is a necessity, plain and simple. It enables us to reach the next level of our profession and to have the ability to focus solely on our job as opposed to worrying about additional credential requirements. I also seriously doubt Duncan's claims that a master's degree doesn't affect student performance. Nearly all the students in my master's program were veteran teachers and they entered the program as a way to enhance their teaching. By learning techniques and being exposed to different pedagogy and critical thinking, we all were able to come away with many different things from the program that we simply would not have gotten via various workshops spread throughout the course of four years. By working with a core group of colleagues we were able to share ideas and problem solve together in an effort to understand various issues we were encountering in our classrooms, which in turn, enabled us to become more efficient classroom teachers.

Do I get paid more because I have a master's degree? Yes. Do I deserve to get paid more because I have a master's degree? Yes. This is apparently what Arne doesn't get. It's not simply about the money. If it were, I would go and get an MBA and be making 2-3 times what I am in education. Beyond a slight salary increase, what my master's degree allowed me to do was study an area of weakness in my teaching and to learn ways to better myself. I now feel that I have the ability to work with English language learners in my own school, something I know I didn't have two years ago when I first entered my master's program. I feel that this will help not only my teaching, but more importantly the education of a child who is most likely lost and feeling very overwhelmed in a public school setting. This is a population I feel has been overlooked and I hope to use my newfound knowledge to assist them in any way necessary to ensure academic and personal success. My master's degree has given me a sense of pride in doing my best to teach an underrepresented population.

Care to put a price tag on that, Arne?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

One And Done: The Inherent Flaws Of Zero-Tolerance Policies In Schools

Everybody makes mistakes.

For some reason, multiple policy makers and school administrators never learned this simple factoid about human nature. The truth is we are all fallible as individuals. Nobody is perfect, as the saying goes. Unless we feel that a given deity walks among us, then I don't think anybody can say that there truly is a single person who is without fault. Even our heroes, those that we study and honor in books, on posters, with monuments, and with awards, all these folks have flaws as well, albeit these flaws often seem minor and insignificant compared to their entire life's body of work. If even our heroes make mistakes, surely we can't expect ANYBODY to be perfect, especially not our nation's children, right?

Yet for some unknown reason, many schools across our country have adopted zero-tolerance policies when it comes to the safety and well being of children. Like most issues in public education today, the intent is good, but the execution is sorely lacking. The idea behind zero-tolerance policies is that students know the rules and know the exact violation for breaking these rules. You bring a dangerous weapon to school and you are expelled. Sounds simply enough, right? Surely nobody would want his or her child to be in an environment where any kind of deadly weapon was in the vicinity. Clearly any child who brought said weapon to school obviously did so with bad intentions and this student should be expelled immediately. Open and shut case, right?

The problem is that many schools today have taken the basic idea of a zero-tolerance policy and have convoluted it so that the term "weapon" has come to mean anything that "could" be viewed as a threat to other students. The problem with this is that administrators have attempted to follow the ideals of a zero-tolerance policy to a T and have lost any and all common sense in regard to what is considered to be a "weapon." For those educators that follow the news, you most likely have heard a multitude of examples where students were expelled for bringing various items deemed "weapons" to school. Such items have been water guns, butter knifes, safety pins, staple removers, and metal combs just to name a few. In each case, school administrators determined that the above items were a threat to fellow students and because of that, the student who brought in the item was expelled for violating the school's zero-tolerance policy.

What zero-tolerance policies amount to are essentially a one and done mentality. Students and parents may appeal any expulsion or other disciplinary action that may ensue, but the fact is that school administrators can simply go to the part of the handbook which mentions the policy and that is that. There are no exceptions to zero-tolerance policies no matter how harmless the incident. Sure, these schools might receive some negative press, but as we've all come to see, Americans have short attention spans. Within a week, many people will not only forget the name of the school where the incident took place but also what exactly the so-called "weapon" of choice was as well. The school will continue to operate as normal and students and parents will be extra careful not to bring anything to school that might in any way violate the school's zero-tolerance policy.

The inherent problem with all of this is the lessons we are teaching our children. What good does an expulsion teach a fourth grader who brought a butter knife to school to spread mayonnaise on his sandwich? What lesson does our second grader learn when she brings a toy water gun to school to play with at recess? Odds are that neither of these children even realizes they have done anything wrong. And yet, here they are, being expelled from school, a permanent black mark on their record. Imagine explaining to a second grader that he cannot go to school with his friends anymore because of something he did. Try to envision how traumatizing this must be for someone at such a young age who never intended to cause any harm to suddenly be whisked away from a place never to return again.

As a society, Americans value redemption. That is why we now applaud such people as Kobe Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger, and Ray Lewis among others. We love a good comeback story and as a society we tend to give people the benefit of the doubt as long as they admit their mistakes and then produce results. It is why we despise Bill Clinton's infidelity in 1998 but then pay him $10,000 a pop to speak in 2008. It is why we tend to overlook Britney Spears' less than stellar parenting but instead focus on her soaring album sales. We are a forgiving society as a whole for not only our celebrities but our friends and colleagues as well. Why then is it that we start our youngest members of society with a policy that offers them no chance for redemption? What kind of message does it send our children when we tell them they aren't allowed to make a mistake ever?

The idea of zero-tolerance policies recently hit home for me. Working at a charter school, we have students of all socio-economic status who enter our doors. Some of our students come from troubled backgrounds. Our first day of school in the fall, one of our students brought four lighters and enough weed to make Charlie Sheen happy to school. Under any zero-tolerance policy, drugs and drug paraphernalia would be grounds for an automatic expulsion. This particular student came to us from Texas, where he had a history of run-ins with the law. Simple open and shut case, right? This kid is obviously a bad apple and deserves to be expelled so he can take his marijuana dealings elsewhere.

Our school does not have a zero-tolerance policy. Instead we have a board of directors who carefully evaluate each incident on a case-by-case basis. In this case, it was determined that the student would get a five day suspension, but would not be expelled. He would be read the riot act, so to speak, and would be informed that if his sole reason for being at our school was to push drugs then he had better think long and hard about other options for him during his five day retreat. However, if he chose to remain with us, he would take it upon himself to dedicate himself to his studies and to end any ideas of distributing drugs within our school. Ultimately, the student returned and informed us that he would like to stay with us and vowed to try and change his ways.

This very afternoon, this same student emailed all of his teachers and thanked them for believing in him and for helping him turn his life around. This very same student won three separate awards at our school's first annual awards night. One of the awards was for the most improved history student, two other awards were given to him as recognition for him being a positive ambassador and role model during our school's year-end exhibition where student work is showcased to the community. He did not anticipate these awards and was also taken aback when all of his fellow students cheered for him as he came up to accept the awards. This student was not wearing the baggy pants a backwards cap and disheveled hair that he had during that first day of school. This night, he wore a full-suit and tie along with a brand-new buzz cut.

I personally am glad this student got a second chance. Aren't you?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Doctor No: Why I Will Never Become A University Professor

"I will not be able to attend the AR conference this weekend as I have another conference commitment, but I'm sure you will do well."

And, just like that, the final two years of my collegiate career came to a screeching halt.

This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to graduate from the University of San Diego with a Master's Degree in Literacy, Culture, and Teaching English to Students of Other Languages (TESOL). Graduation was the culmination of my time at USD as I finished by submitting what ended up being a 130 page action research project as well as presenting my findings at the 8th Annual USD Action Research Conference, which brought presenters from all over the country to the campus. It was a stressful period trying to get everything done and also continuing to try and be the best classroom teacher I could be and so, when all was said and done, my classmates and I celebrated our accomplishments. However, as soon as celebrations ended, the next question became what would we all do now?

That is a question that has been weighing on my mind heavily during the last couple weeks. I have been fortunate enough to have an extremely loving and supportive family who have given me financial assistance during my time at USD. Now that I have my master's degree in a new area of expertise, and the upcoming pay raise that accompanies it, the next logical question in my life is how I can better myself as a teacher. Spending time with extended family as well as my parents last weekend gave me a chance to begin to analyze this question more in depth. The logical question my extended family gave me was whether or not I was done my adventures in higher education, or if I ever saw myself continuing on and receiving my doctoral degree as a way of becoming a university professor. I scoffed at this possibility because one thing I know for sure: I will never, ever become a full-time college professor.

The reasons for this decision are fairly simple. First and foremost is the notion that being a college professor forces you to become more of a researcher rather than an instructor. You ultimately have to put your research first and your classes and students second and that is something that is unfathomable to me at this point in my teaching career. I teach because of the students and for me to be involved in the education profession and not have this be the case is simply not feasible to me. I honestly could not deal with a college dean constantly hassling me about my research and telling me to put for effort on that and less effort on my students and classes. If you were to ask me to choose between students and research, I would choose students 100 times out of 100, which clearly shows I am not college professor material.

Another related reason is the fact that there is huge a huge disconnect between professors and students at the university level. Students are a face in a crowded auditorium hall and nothing more. I had a calculus professor in college in a class of about 40 students. The next semester, when some friends and I visited a group of students studying abroad in Venice, Italy, that same professor was leading the group. When we visited the house he introduced himself and I said, "Oh, Professor Howards, I had you for calculus last semester." He smiled and shook his head and said, "I'm sorry I must have forgotten." And this professor was actually one of the better professors on the Wake Forest University campus. I had other professors who as soon as I left there class became oblivious to me even when I walked past them and said hi on campus. For them, they had given me their required semester to me and the rest of my classmates and that was all there was to it.

The last reason I could never become a college professor is the fact that the few professors who have inspired me have been removed from their positions for one reason or another. I guess this is what happens when you gravitate toward free-thinking professors who aren't simply yes-men or yes-women. My college advisor at Wake Forest was asked not to return because he challenged a student-teacher to take his position more seriously. My favorite Spanish professor who brought our group to Spain was mysteriously dismissed while there for reasons that we students never were told about. A sociology professor who first made me aware of socio-economic inequality through generational poverty and the Project Censored website was not offered tenure at Wake Forest. My professor at USD who brought a group of us to Kenya last summer was not that she will not be able to lead a return group this summer because she left some excess material in a storage room on campus that included science supplies and children's books that we unfortunately did not have room for on our trip. All these professors, who valued education and their students as genuine human beings, lost professional opportunities for simply being good, caring teachers.

Which brings us back to the quote at the beginning of this post. That quote stems from an email that my college advisor wrote to me. Here was my advisor, a person with a doctoral degree in education, and somebody that I had worked with over the past two years and who had met with me a half dozen times on my thesis, saying that she had no interest in seeing me through to the end. Unlike Professor Howards, she knew my name. And yet, she didn't care enough about me to see the culmination of my work, my work which I had essentially been developing for the entire two years I was under her watch, at a conference at the very school she taught at. In her email she told me the reason she could not attend the conference was that she was scheduled for another conference the same weekend. Again, it boils down to professional demands rather than focusing on your students. For me personally, I can never imagine missing something that important in any one of my students' lives.

I guess that is why I can never be a college professor.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Tower of Power: A View From The Top

Act 1, Scene 1

(setting: The new millennium has come. A large skyscraper overlooks an unnamed American city. An aging man in a business suit is seated at a large, over-sized wooden desk. He has three full-sized computer monitors in front of him. Surrounding the room are bookcases full of leather bound books. Behind the man is a full-sized glass window that overlooks the man's empire. Smokestacks can be seen in the background. It is dusk, with the sun setting in the window)

Voice from outside the room: Sir, it's your assistant. May I enter?

Boss: You may.

Assistant: Thank you. Sir, I've got some bad news. It seems that the whole internet thing is not a passing fad as we had hoped. In fact, internet usage is not only leveling off as we had hoped but it is actually increasing. Sir with all these people now having access to a wide variety of information, it's only a matter of time before people really begin to find out what is going on. Sir, with all due respect it's time to panic!

Boss: Relax. We all knew this day would come.

Assistant: But sir, you don't seem to understand the severity of the situation. The general populace is only a short time away from becoming the most educated citizenry in history. There's no way to stop them from figuring out the truth!

Boss: (smiles) Ah, my young apprentice. You have much to learn. Come, have a seat and I shall explain exactly how the people shall remain blind to what really goes on.

Assistant: (seats himself at boss' table)

Boss: First off, you must realize that our goal is to maintain the status quo so that people like us may prosper and our progeny will inherit our wealth and thus the cycle will continue. Therefore, it is important that nobody be allowed to somehow, some way rise to prominence out of the blue. The way we will maintain our status is through education.

Assistant: Uh, sir, I don't follow.

Boss: (sighs) It's quite simple. The populace as you mentioned has unlimited access to technology. Children are naturally inquisitive about those kind of things and so for us to maintain our status we must simply quash their curiosity. We must make their lives so difficult that they won't even want to explore the massive amounts of information that exists on the internet.

Assistant: Oh, so we distract them? But sir, how do we do that when they can access the internet at their homes?

Boss: Simple. We offer mindless entertainment for them rather than have them do diligent research. We create video game players with mindless games that they would rather play after school with their buddies than to use their computers for educational purposes. We also put on mindless television at the prime hours when the students get home. Surely, they would much rather watch cartoons than actually go to their computers to actually do meaningful investigation, right?

Assistant: Ah, sir that's brilliant. Make it so they don't even want to learn about what's really going on. Mindless entertainment is always the answer. But sir, what about in schools? Surely, they will be using the internet for education purposes there, right?

Boss: I have thought about this possibility as well. The solution is quite simple actually. Instead of having schools encourage diligent inquiry, we simply make them focus on one or two core areas to test all their students on. Something basic like math and reading, I don't know. We then say that if schools don't reach certain goals then they can lose money or even have to shut down. It will kill children's curiosity because we will test at various grade levels including elementary school. We'll test them to death! (laughs)

Assistant: I like it, sir. But how can we get ALL the school's to buy into this? Surely, some will complain and argue that testing is unnecessary, right?

Boss: Herein lies the beauty. We make it a national initiative. Call it something cheesy about equaling opportunity in schools. We then give them an unobtainable goal of having 100% proficiency. Any idiot knows that 100% proficiency is not even possible! But all these schools will be so blind and so fearful of losing funding that they'll still strive to do this. Even schools that are making progress will have set the bar so low that they'll actually celebrate being proficient when in fact proficiency might mean only getting 60% of the questions right on an end-of-year test. I figure this plan should last for a good 15 years or so.

Assistant: (laughs) Ah, sir this is brilliant. We dumb down the kids so much and test them to the max so they become numb by the time they reach the university level. Amazing. But sir, what about some of the brighter students? You know, the ones who don't mind testing and that excel in the creative arts. Surely they will be able to read through our smoke and mirrors?

Boss: Yes, they are tricky ones. Throughout history, performers have often risen to the forefront of political movements and openly mocked their opponents. However, this shall not be the case with us. You see, schools will be so consumed by testing that they will inevitably place all their resources to those core areas. To do this, they will cut programs they deem unnecessary. If your students are being tested in reading and math, what good do theater and music do you? Absolutely nothing that's what! These brighter students will lose their creative outlet and become drones like their peers. Sure, they'll survive the high-stakes testing portion, but they will lose their creativity and by the time they reach college, they'd rather bong a beer than listen to Bach! (laughs)

Assistant: Sir, that is brilliant! We take care of all the students in one fell swoop with this ridiculous testing program. But sir, what about teachers who don't buy in to this scheme? You know, the ones who think we shouldn't teach to test?

Boss: Luckily for us we already have a built-in system to deal with them. Our education unions have an antiquated system of tenure in place that keeps our people in the schools. This way, it becomes very difficult for new blood to enter and to begin to undermine our scheme. Odds are, these new teachers will get so frustrated so fast they'll leave the profession. I bet we can even get half the teachers to leave the profession within 5 years! Even those that somehow manage to stick around, why we'll come up with someway to get rid of them. (pauses) I've got it! When state government need to cut programs, we'll go directly to education. We'll make teachers expendable! (laughs) We'll even come up with some kind of policy that fires new teachers first. This way, there will be no new blood and our old guard shall reign supreme!

Assistant: Oh, sir this plan is simply brilliant. First student motivation and now the teachers. But sir, I have to ask, what about these charter schools? You know, the ones who are independent who aren't under the same strict regulations as their public school peers. Surely they are a threat to us, are they not?

Boss: Ah yes, I have heard about these schools. Founded by educators. Using established best practices. Open to all students within a district. Yes, they are tricky. However, in order to stymie them, we simply pit them against the public schools. We make public schools aware of how charter schools are taking their students as thus the funding that goes with these students. We evaluate these charters harshly when their provisional charters are up and if they don't make similar progress to their public school counterparts then we simply shut them down. We also hark on any kind of negative publicity we can for them and we make the public aware that these schools aren't any better than their public counterparts. These charter schools are simply a flash in the pan.

Assistant: I love it, sir. Pitting schools against each other and there all so involved in their own struggles that they can't see how the system we control is actually at fault. It's beautiful in its simplicity. But sir, there is one last thing that concerns me. What if, somehow some way, people still see through everything. What if, an idealistic teacher is able to see what exactly is going on? What if this teacher uses the internet to tell this story? How can we stop such a person?

Boss: (smiles) Simple. We open the internet up so that every whack job and weirdo can have just as much say as our teacher friend. We load up the internet so that racists, hate groups, prisoners, conspirators, frauds, junkies, prostitutes, and any other non-reputable person you can name has just as much ability to post their own thoughts and musings to the internet. This way, people have to shift through millions of web pages and our teacher friend's page gets lost in the shuffle. (laughs) Why, I bet at the end of the day there is only a handful of people who actually follow the work of our teacher friend while athletes, actors, and celebrities will have millions of followers. The educated citizenry that you feared will be so dumbed down from their schooling experience that they would much rather watch and listen to mindless thoughts and musing of celebrities rather than an educated teacher. And that, my good friend, is the beauty of everything we are doing.

Assistant: (laughs) Ah, sir I love it! (pauses) But sir, do you really think this will work? I mean, can such an intricate and involved plan merely to maintain the status quo actually be played out in the way in which you have described?

Boss: (turns to audience) You tell me.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Yer Out: Analyzing the Last-Hired, First-Fired Policy Debate

"Teaching huh? Why, that's a great choice! That's one of those recession-proof jobs..."

The above statement is one I heard time and time again when I first entered the teaching profession. For some reason or another my extended family seemed to offer me more advice than Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Whereas the clear choice for Benjamin was "plastics" the clear choice for me was public education. I came from a top-tier university and I was willing to teach in urban areas with those populations considered to be "at-risk" for the same amount of pay as my colleagues who opted to teach in more affluent areas. No matter how bad the economy got, society would always need people to teach its children. Right?

Fast forward four years. I personally have had three jobs in four years. The first job lasted two years and I removed myself from that situation due to professional disagreements over where the school was headed. I then long-term subbed for a year but that position was cut at the end of the academic year. I now am at a first-year charter school and I hope (knock on wood) that this position will finally give me some longevity that I have been desperately seeking. As rough as my initial introduction to public education has been, I am forced to remind myself how fortunate I have been. Because, due to current economic situations it could be much, much worse.

Currently, the state of California is faced with the largest deficit in the state's history. Previous economic policies have finally caught up with the state and not even The Governator himself could rescue the state from the impending financial crisis. Thanks to a current $20 billion deficit, all sectors are being forced to deal with layoffs and the education sector is no exception. Having been in San Diego for the previous two years I have seen a moratorium on new hiring last year and that moratorium will continue this year as well as having additional teacher layoffs. Here we are, in the nation's eighth largest school district where a third of the schools are already failing and instead of giving additional support to these schools we are taking away valuable teachers from them. Again, another prime example of this country's bass ackwards attitude toward public education.

The problem them becomes which teachers get the ax. Measuring teacher performance has been one of the hot-button issues in education circles as of late. The idea of merit pay has come into question with some districts proposing the idea that teachers should be paid more based on how well their students do on standardized tests. This has raised an outcry from those teachers who teach in lower socio-economic schools as they would be very capable teachers but their students would most likely not do as well as the affluent counterparts. Just because a teacher's students have high scores is not necessarily a reflection of good teaching just as low scores are not necessarily a reflection of poor teaching. There are too many extenuating factors to solely use the idea of student test scores in evaluating teachers. So, if we can't use test scores, how should we evaluate teachers?

The next train of thought is that of teacher evaluations. Surely, this is even across all playing fields, right? Principals have fairly generic evaluations forms and teachers get evaluated at least twice a year. These evaluation forms look at various things such as teacher preparedness, the content being taught, the interaction between the teacher and students, as well as the overall effectiveness of the learning environment. Administrators have certain principles and philosophies that they feel mesh well with their school and they expect all their teachers to adhere to these philosophies. Teachers should be able to do all of the above things while being in line with the school culture and if they can, this should be positively identified on a formal evaluation. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

The problem is that often times these evaluations are simply ineffective. The first issue is that at larger schools, it is difficult for administrators to find the time to evaluate all their teachers as least twice a year. I am at a small charter school and our administrators are so busy that they themselves have yet to formally evaluate us and there are only seven of us currently on campus. The second issue is that evaluations based on two lessons out of hundreds a year is not an accurate depiction of a teacher. I remember getting formally reviewed by a mentoring teacher the day after a school wide assembly. Classes were extended for the day so I had my students for twice as long as I normally had them so I essentially had to do two lessons into one. My mentoring teacher criticized the overall continuity of the lesson and gave me extremely low marks. This was one of the two evaluations for that school year that went into my permanent file and there were no second chances.

So we cannot use test scores and we cannot use evaluations, so what is left? Experience. Number of years in the field. That's right, the bulk of school districts today when faced with having to fire teachers have resorted to what's known as the last-hired, first-fired policy. Thanks to teacher's unions, public school teachers receive tenure after three years. After those three years, these teachers are guaranteed a job unless they somehow make it to the headline news by being caught in a sex scandal with a student. These teachers are essentially immune from being fired, so who's left? That's right, the young up and coming teacher who has been in a classroom for one or two years. The teacher full of idealism, who is leading after school clubs, who is staying up late on nights and weekends to make really good and fun lesson plans is tossed off quicker than a dress on prom night. After all, since all teachers are the same, we may as well get rid of the ones with the least experience, right?

The problem with this line of thinking is that it fails in so many ways. First and foremost, the legality of the last-hired, first-fired policy has already come under intense scrutiny in Los Angeles, where there is an impending lawsuit against the district for implementing this same policy last summer. Secondly, as mentioned, it destroys the drive and vigor of a generation of educators who are ready and willing to work under difficult circumstances. These teachers are fresh out of teacher preparation programs and have learned how to work with students with special needs, English language learners, high-achieving students, as well as how to incorporate technology and the most up-to-date pedagogical methods into their teaching. These are the ones who are really going to go above and beyond and truly, genuinely believe that they can make a difference in the education profession. To give them the ax would crush their dreams and spirits and we would lose out on a generation of talented, dedicated educators.

The third, and perhaps most troubling issue that I see is the fact that these layoffs are not uniform across all schools. The more affluent schools somehow, some way will lose a smaller percentage of their staff as opposed to those schools who deal with students of lower socio-economic status. So, here we are in San Diego with a third of our schools failing and we are going to actually take away teachers from those schools. Not only are we going to take away teachers from those schools but we are going to take away those young, idealistic teachers. You know, the ones who chose to teach in difficult situations because they really thought they could make a difference and reach the students. Instead of having those teachers stay, we are going to remove them, leaving these failing schools with even fewer resources than they had before. This same mentality also doesn't help the schools who are on the cusp of failing as well. Removing teachers and ruining any kind of continuity these schools might have had is a recipe for disaster and will more than likely push a whole new group of schools into the failing zone in the coming year.

So, what's our answer? Unlike some of my previous posts, where I say there is no simple answer, there is actually a viable solution to this problem: We need to shift our view on education in this country. We need to make education a priority. We need to have political candidates discuss education. We need to remove it's entertainment section on its front page and replace it with education. The truth is that we as a society who prides itself on its education, should never find itself in this ridiculous catch-22 situation. The schools are failing but we need to cut jobs but if we cut jobs then the schools will fail... Complete and utter hogwash. Let's make education a top domestic priority and then go from there. Let's stop the cycle of stupidity by putting ourselves in these precarious situations. Some of my best friends are on the chopping block this year and it pains me so much because I know they are making a difference in young men and women's lives. Let's re-invest in our nation's future by first re-investing in our nation's teachers. Once we do that, we can then, and only then, begin to have a real discussion about where education is at today.

Friday, February 18, 2011

I.E.Please: Thoughts And Reflections On Special Education Today

"He ended with a 56. So I gave him a C."

I know what you all are thinking. Clearly, I'm terrible at math. How else then would you explain the fact that one of my students last semester ended with a grade that was 14 percentage points lower of what his grade needed to be to pass my class? First and foremost, just because my lowest grades in high school and college were in math doesn't mean I'm terrible at math. It just means that sometimes there are situations in the classroom where a final grade does not tell the entire story of a student. Here, the student in question wasn't as bad as his final grade indicated. However, he also hadn't done enough in my opinion to pass the class. I could see bumping up the grade to a 60, maybe a 62 or 63. However, the student ultimately got a C that he didn't deserve. Is this some kind of massive conspiracy? Hardly. It is simply a matter of working with a special education student in a 21st century classroom.

Thus is the dilemma that faces teachers in this day and age that work with special education students who have been mainstreamed. For those who aren't sure what I'm referring to, allow me to give a little bit of history. First and foremost, it should be noted that treating students with disabilities has improved by leaps and bounds in the past half century. Once upon a time, if you did not learn at the rate your peers did, you were automatically assumed to be "retarded" and ended up in special classes, a vocational career track already chosen for you. My own family has experienced this as my dear uncle had permanent hearing loss from birth. His only option for higher education in the mid-1970s was to attend the Oklahoma School for the Deaf. My uncle ultimately persevered and now works for Boeing, having withstood several layoffs in his department to become a stalwart in a very advanced field. As fortunate as he was, countless others during this time lost out on similar opportunities because they were placed in vocational training where it was assumed they couldn't possibly do anything other than rudimentary skills and simple professions.

Flash forward to today. Students today enter the classroom with a variety of learning disabilities. In fact, there is even a movement away from the term "disabilities" to refer to these students as ones with "learning differences." No manner how you define them, this is a group of students that is prevalent in public schools throughout the country. Some of them have physical impairments that make learning difficult. Others have undisclosed medical conditions that they come to school with. Others still have mental impairments that leave them with severe deficiencies as compared to their peers. These students might be as many as six or seven years behind their peers in areas like reading and math. The movement today has been to mainstream these students in a way that they are involved in the general school population as much as possible. It is a noble cause to help them live as normal a life as possible in a school setting. However, it places a great challenge on teachers who teach a wide spectrum of abilities within a single classroom.

These students in the classes are given what are called IEP's, or individualized education plans. These are confidential forms that each classroom teacher keeps in his or her desk. It describes certain expectations and accommodations for the student. These might include anything like preferential seating, modified assignments, additional time on tests or quizzes, use of calculators in math, or even modified grading. In short, these students are given a variety of resources to help ensure their success in the general school population. Thanks to No Child Left Behind, students with disabilities are a sub-group for all year end testing. That means that they are expected to be at the level of their peers by the end of each academic year. As I mentioned before, some of these students are years and years behind in reading and math. Despite all these accommodations, these students are the ones who generally score the lowest on any year end state tests. They are, without question, a target group that schools try to focus on. Recently, our own school added some new students and since our students with I.E.P.'s now make up 15% of our school population, we have taken on additional resource teachers to work with these students in an effort to help them acquire the skills they will need for the upcoming state-wide tests.

As noble as all this sounds, there is a sizable downsize to the world of special education as well. Unfortunately, one of the major pitfalls of special education is how it is funded. As a classroom teacher, I cannot recommend any of my students get tested for any learning disability, even if I have a strong suspicion that they might have one because "I am not a doctor." Even if a trained professional recommends that a student get tested for a learning disability, this test often costs a lot of money and many parents simply cannot afford the price. On the flip side, parents who can afford to have their child tested and qualify for special education services get a sizable tax break at the end of the year so they have an incentive to keep their child involved with these services even if they no longer need them. One of the brightest middle schoolers I taught had an I.E.P. This student was on my academic quiz bowl team and would read 400 page novels for fun. However, when our school special education teacher mentioned to his mother that he might no longer need services, she vehemently refused. That year end tax break was simply too valuable to pass up.

There is also the concern over students who might be taking advantage of their individualized education plans. For every student who genuinely needs a plan and utilizes it to the best of their ability, there seems to be another student who fully takes advantage of the situation. Many students feel that they will pass no matter what, so they do not put forth the effort they need to and are often disruptive in class. Did my student with the 56% work to the best of his ability this semester? In my opinion, no. However, if I had failed him then there would have inevitably been a protest of behalf of his parents. They would demand to see his I.E.P. implemented to the T. If they felt I hadn't done this, they would have the ability to take me and our school to the county board of education to claim that we weren't legally upholding our end of the individualized education plan. As much as I try to, I know there are components of I.E.P.'s that I'm not implementing as well as I should be. For me to keep track of every single accommodation for every single student on every single day is simply impossible. That is ultimately why, even after fighting the good fight, I realize I must submit and give my student a passing grade, even though they did not deserve it.

Ultimately, this begs an important question. Is special education beneficial to our children? Yes, they are getting opportunities that those like my uncle were denied thirty years ago. They are able to interact with their peers in a general education setting. They get to work with students who have superior abilities and get to see what it looks like when a student really pushes himself or herself to be great. However, I wonder if we are properly preparing our special education students for the real world. Sure they will get additional time here for assignments here in high school, but there are no I.E.P.'s in the real world. If our students can't type that report by the time it's due, it's sayonara to that secretary gig. If they can't install that new engine by 4 P.M. then it's adios from the repair shop. If they can't get the customer's order right and the chef rips them a new one then it's au revoir from the restaurant. A high school diploma will give our students amazing opportunities, but if they have acquired the skills they need to succeed with these opportunities is another question entirely. We as teachers will do everything we can with these students and, in the end, it still might not be enough.

Such is the nature of the beast.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Teamwork Makes The Dream Work: Thoughts And Reflections On Project-Based Learning

"Alright folks, if you would grab your things and head to the den for our project work please..."

Between 10:40 and 10:50 each morning you would hear me utter this exact phrase or something to that extent in my third period Spanish I classroom. The reason? It is at this time that the new material in my classroom has been covered and assessed and it is now on to time for students to work in small, collaborative groups where they must work together in order to complete a meaningful educational task. Long gone are the days when a "project" meant that students threw together a bunch of pictures on a large poster board and presented it as a way to show the culmination of their learning. This new model is known as project-based learning and it offers many exciting possibilities for fulfillment for both the teacher and student alike.

Before I get too in depth into the subject, I must offer a caveat. I am not an expert in project-based learning. In fact, this is my first real semester engaging in the learning model. I have read articles on the topic, but like most things in teaching, I have learned the most from seeing it in action. However, after using the learning model for only four months, I can already see many exciting applications for it. One of my earliest posts in this blog dealt with how discerning it was that we as educators do not have an agreed upon idea as to what the purpose of education is today in America. I still grapple with this question on a daily basis, but with project-based learning I have found a learning model that accurately gives students a glimpse as to what life beyond high school will look like. After all, isn't it our goal as educators to best prepare our students for life beyond the walls of our school?

In a nutshell, project-based learning is the idea that students need opportunities to collaborate together to create final products that can be showcased to someone outside of the school setting. It's one thing to hand in a report on genetics to your science teacher, it's another entirely to create a computerized model of DNA to show to local scientists and engage in discussions about the model with them. Students work in small groups (normally 2-4 people per group) and collaborate together on the brainstorming, design, and creation portions of the project. Students have a vision for an end product but have very little frame of reference as to how to get there. This helps spur investigations through both trial and error as well as internet-based research. Throughout this time, the teacher serves more as a consultant rather than an instructor. He or she is there to guide the students along, but does his or her best to give students the freedom and autonomy to both make their own errors as well as arrive at their own conclusions.

What I like about this model is that it is very indicative of the world that the students will enter after high school. No matter where students end up or what they will do, they will be engaged in several project-based learning type situations. In college, they will inevitably have to do some sort of group project with their peers. In the military, soldiers will have to collaborate on various training exercises. Heck, even at a fast food restaurant you are part of a team and you have your role which you must know and excel in or else the end product suffers. It seems that nearly every profession has some type of this learning model. If students sit in rows and take notes for eight hours a day how then will they be able to adapt to this model? The truth is, they won't. No matter where they end up, it will be essential that they be able to collaborate with others with an end goal in mind.

When project-based learning is going well, it almost feels like I am cheating as a teacher. Students will be doing their projects for half the period, and I will be around to check in with each and every student. Students tell me they're fine and that they "got this." Students work together and share what they have found and this sometimes is information that even I as a teacher did not realize. Decisions are made about who should be doing what instead of the teacher assigning roles. Another positive feature of project-based learning is that there is always more work than can be done. When we have a modified schedule (shortened periods) I dedicate each period to projects. When a teacher is out, the expectation is that students are working on their projects for that class. Being a charter school, we don't have the luxury of hiring substitute teachers, so this learning model works great for that situation. High school students need structure and the project-based learning model presents that to them on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

Unfortunately, this learning model does not always provide us with perfect rainbows, sunshine, and peppermints. First and foremost is the idea of collaboration. High school students are fickle. They either want to work with their friends or they want to work alone. Divvying up groups is always a challenge to a teacher and project-based learning is no exception. There is also the challenge of students who want to zip through everything quickly in a way that creates low quality work. These are my "Speedy Gonzalez" students as I have come to call them. It is always a challenge trying to instill a sense of internal motivation to these students. I struggle with them because I know I cannot do the work for them and I want them to be able to showcase a quality product to the community. However, that's not always the case and I will just have to hope that they have some (small) feeling of shame when their showcased work is clearly not up to par with their classmates or their capabilities. Lastly, there is the issue of my "mule" students. These are the ones who take a long time in doing their work. They are on task, but for a variety of reasons they just aren't meeting the project expectations or deadlines. These students are always difficult to judge because they often have IEP's or undiagnosed learning disabilities. With them, you just have to keep encouraging them and not rush them to get everything done. As is with everything in public education, it is much better to have quality over quantity.

Project-based learning is difficult. As our assistant principal told us during the early planning stages of our school, it often feels "sloppy." My project has changed dramatically from what I had initially envisioned. There have been hiccups along the way and constant tweaking of deadlines. New requirements have been added. Old requirements have been replaced. There have been many "A-ha!" moments. There have also been many students using Facebook rather than doing the project. Like a ceiling fan, I've been osculating back and forth from being encouraged to discouraged about the project. As of now, the final products are due in a week in a half. I have one student who is already done. I have two students who haven't even started yet. One group of partners has only been together for about half the days due to what seems to be rotating absences between them. As much as I get discouraged, the one thing I keep coming back to is this: Project-based learning is unpredictable.

Just like the real world.