Texas Legislature Chipping Away At Public Schools

The Texas Legislature has written two pieces of legislation, HB 2543 and SB 893, misguided companion bills that would give the commissioner of education free rein to mandate that local school districts base teacher evaluations largely on student test scores. This legislation also slashes minimum pay for classroom teachers down to a mere $27,540 for every teacher, regardless of experience or advanced degrees.

Teacher appraisal should be based on measures that are proven valid and reliable, confirmed by independent analysis based on empirical evidence. HB 2543 and SB 893 would allow the misuse of standardized tests for evaluation imposed by the commissioner of education statewide, negating local authority to rely on better measures. Promoting this guarantees excessive emphasis on standardized testing at a time when parents and teachers alike increasingly view the current testing obsession destructive to teaching and learning.

It’s difficult to imagine another way to lose high-quality, experienced teachers than to tell them their minimum pay under state law is now reduced to $27,540 a year; yet that is exactly what HB 2543 and SB 893 would do. This devaluation of teaching experience is a serious policy mistake and will deter efforts to recruit and retain the very dedicated and talented individuals we need in our classrooms.

In addition to these two bills, the Senate is scheduled to vote on SB 4 that funds vouchers for private schools. These schools are not held to the same accountability as public schools, and furthermore we should not be diluting public funds for private entities.

The hostility of this legislation towards public education is palpable. The Legislators promoting this travesty wish to erode the very foundation that allowed many of them to reach their current educational status.

Teachers deserve better. Students across Texas deserve better. Texas deserves better.

Cultivating Voluntary Reading in the Classroom

One of the greatest gifts my family bestowed upon me was the love of a good story. My mother read to me daily, as did my grandmother, and my father created stories in which I was the main character. Mom will still sit down and read 3-4 novels a week. (I usually finish 3-4 per month, but I’m not retired.)

Early in my teaching career it became apparent that not all families were like mine, and I dare say we are becoming somewhat of an anomaly. Finding this unacceptable, I have always incorporated free reading time into my classroom in addition to reading aloud daily to my students. Today, however, many teachers feel pressed to teach so many test-taking skills that the reading test has become a genre.

We have lost the idea of balance and as a result are losing a generation of readers. But how do we regain that balance and still maintain rigorous standards? Believe it or not, the research supports reading for choice over direct instruction.

Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) means reading because you want to. No book reports, no comprehension questions, and the book is one of your choosing. And while class novels are preferable over the reading passage/question worksheet, this will not have the same impact as FVR. Research has shown that FVR improves comprehension, vocabulary, spelling, writing, and grammar (Krashen, 2004).

Having students talk about their reading is critical. Sharing the books they’ve enjoyed through Book Talks, Reviews, and Journals promotes comprehension and is more authentic than asking low-level questions (Atwell, 2007; Miller, 2009). Teaching direct comprehension skills has its place, but it should not be the crux of your reading lessons.

So as you look at your classroom schedule, make time for silent-sustained reading, free voluntary reading, or DEAR time. Regardless of what you call it, just make the time.

Thinking about Shame and Empathy in the Classroom

“Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.” Dr. Brene Brown

Lately, I’ve been thinking about shame after a colleague related the following story: “One of my students has been dealing with a lot lately, more than most middle school students should be dealing with. His mother has been communicating with all his teachers via email, and these emails contain private information regarding this young person’s current emotional state. One of his teachers left her email open, a classmate read the email, then proceeded to spread the information throughout the middle school. Word got back to the student and naturally he was devastated.”

Many, many thoughts raced through my mind, the first of which was “Shame on you!” Shame on the teacher for not protecting this child’s privacy. Shame on the student for snooping where she should not have been. Shame on the students who spread the information.

Being raised in the South, I heard that phrase many times throughout my childhood and have used that phrase in my own classroom without really thinking about what it truly means to the child hearing these words. As an educator, it is my job to see that all students are treated with dignity. That means not just the victims, but the bullies as well. And that isn’t always an easy thing to do, but anytime you can approach a situation with empathy for all involved you will have a more positive conclusion.

Let’s step back and take a good look at this situation. The student experiencing mental stress is the victim here. He should not have to experience this humiliation, and fortunately there are experts in place continuing to help him deal with this most recent blow. The teacher happens to be in her first year. She is passionate about her craft and sincerely wants what is best for all her students. She is feeling remorse and has learned a valuable lesson from this egregious mistake.

Which brings me to the other students and what we know about adolescents. Their brains are not finished forming; the frontal and prefrontal cortices are still developing. This is the area that controls our executive functions including judgment, reason, and impulse control. As educators we must remember that just because they look like adults does not necessarily mean they are going to act like adults. Their classmate has been missing school, often for weeks at a time. Many have known him since elementary days and are sincerely concerned about his well being. Isn’t it natural that they would be curious to find out what’s going on? Isn’t it natural to want to share that information?

So what is the next step: do we blame these students, shame them into feeling remorse, or do we create a teachable moment? What would you do?

Happy New Year!: 2014 Education Reform in Review (your champagne break)

I speak from experience: there are some “teachers” at BASIS charter schools who have no clue how to teach, and some of the ones I met did not want to learn. Charters take funding away from public schools in the neediest districts. We do have the power to change this; spread the word.

ACLU sues Delaware over segregated charter schools

The ACLU has sued the state of Delaware for permitting segregated charter schools.

“As detailed in Part IV of this complaint, Delaware’s expansion of charter schools has led to segregated charter schools for students of color, students from low income families, and students with disabilities. Specifically, more than three-quarters of the state’s charter schools are racially identifiable.11 High-performing charter schools are almost entirely racially identifiable as White. In addition, low income students and students with disabilities (to the extent that students with disabilities are served by charter schools) are disproportionately relegated to failing charter schools and charter schools that are racially identifiable as African-American or Hispanic. Relatedly, the proliferation of charter schools has been accompanied by increased segregation in public schools located in districts where charter schools operate.”

This is plain and simple: open-enrollment charters are not only diluting public funding, diverting much-needed funds from public schools, but they are purposely keeping the higher-ranked students to boost their test stats.

View the court ruling here: https://greatschoolwars.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/final-compl-re-de-charters-signed.pdf

 

“How can I help my child be a better reader?”

This is the question I’m asked all the time, and oftentimes parents don’t like what I have to say. It’s really quite simple: good readers actually read. Every day. Like anything else you want to improve upon, it takes practice.

The question parents need to ask is: “How can I help my child enjoy reading?”

Remember the days when bedtime stories were the norm? Your mom or dad tucked you in and read you a story. This is how we learned empathy. This is how we learned to love a good story. This is how we learned to love language. Many parents today are not reading to their children.

So the child who is not read to enters school and all of a sudden this child is surrounded by print, sight words, stories, and expectations. This is when parents start to wake up and realize they may need to step in and help. Again there is no magic remedy for improving reading, you just have to make it a priority.

To invigorate a sluggish reader, you need to find out what interests them. Visit the library and talk with the librarians. They are the experts at finding good books. Spend money at your school’s book fair and order books when the teacher sends home the book orders. With tweens and teens, share what you’re reading with them and explain why you enjoy the types of books you read.

Assuming you, the adult, are reading…see, that’s the other problem. There is a large population of adults who don’t read. What’s happening here?

It’s easy to blame TV and the internet or the ubiquitous “I don’t have time” whine, but honestly it goes back to priorities. If you want to be a better reader, you need to read. Period.

Finding Balance in the Classroom Between Competition and Cooperation

Competition and cooperation – how do we find a balance in the classroom? As an educator, I am reminded daily that people like to win. As parents we boast of our child’s accomplishments, comparing them to others. Students are encouraged to go out for sports because it builds character. Even the youngest students want to be “the best”, “the smartest”, “the prettiest”. It’s a natural thing, right? Or is it?

In Po Bronson’s book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, competition is viewed as positive, driving learning and performance. “In finite games, you compete and then you let it go, and you have rest and recuperation – that’s actually really important for kids,” said Bronson. “It’s the continuous sense of pressure that is unhealthy for them.” As an educator, it’s the pressure that worries me because I feel today’s classrooms have become way too competitive. Students actually feel shame when they don’t win.

Here in the south, football is king. Millions of dollars are spent maintaining and improving fields and athletic facilities. Coaches typically make more than the average teacher, and they earn it by giving up their evenings and weekends to practices and games. If the coach does not produce a winning team, he or she is fired regardless of their prowess as an educator.

But competition exists in academics as well as sports. The NCLB test mentality has seen to that. Schools compete for the honor to call themselves “exemplary”. Charter schools weed out the special-need students in order to skew their results. Teachers are judged on how many students pass standardized tests. And while you won’t see cheerleaders at academic bowls or ice-cold Gatorade poured on the faculty sponsor leading the Chess Club to victory, there is still a winner and a loser. Someone walks out with a trophy and bragging rights while others are encouraged to congratulate the victor on a job well done.

Alfie Kohn, author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition argues “studies have shown that feelings of self-worth become dependent on external sources of evaluation as a result of competition: Your value is defined by what you’ve done. Worse — you’re a good person in proportion to the number of people you’ve beaten.” And y’know, I have to agree. While it’s important to remember that you are not defined by the win and that the only expectation is to try your best, society tells us otherwise. Self-esteem discussions take this further by saying “everyone’s a winner” and “we’re all special”. Even a child will be able to tell you there is no way we can all be special, so why do we continue with this illusion?

Tom Shadyac’s movie I Am explains that we are actually designed to be cooperative rather than competitive. It’s a natural occurrence yet societal norms perpetuate the idea that winning is the ultimate goal – the pinnacle of success. Our schools are a microcosm of society, so we continue to promote winning and being the best.

As a classroom teacher, I always promoted teamwork. We supported each other and worked together every chance we could, and honestly I didn’t think this was unique. Educators refer to this as “cooperative learning” and it’s been around forever. One day I picked up my class of 4th graders from P.E. The teacher was beaming, letting me know that my class was the only group to get the tennis ball over the roof. Seeing my puzzled expression, she continued to explain that each class had been given the task to bounce a tennis ball over the two-story building using teamwork and a parachute. She was thrilled to report that my students not only worked together, but were supportive in their conversation and sportsmanship. “They lifted each other up!” she exclaimed.

Again, why is this unique? I would hope this would be the norm, but I knew our class excelled because they knew how to work together. They also knew each other’s weaknesses and strengths and they were well-versed in encouraging others. I still smile thinking about that day.

So what do we want for our students? We want them to follow their passions. We want them to be resilient, well-adjusted adults. We want them to make educated choices in life. We want them to find a career that stimulates. We want them to get along well with others. How can we accomplish that by promoting competition at the expense of cooperation? Can we find balance?