Thursday, December 30, 2010

America's Uneven Terrain

Ok.  I haven't finished the book, but I have read enough to reflect on America's role as "Leader of the Free World."  This rhetoric is the pablum of my formative years in the Sputnik generation. We were charged with learning so we could assume a role as the forward-looking leader of a brave new world and leverage human inventiveness to change the world for the better.  (I remember Mrs. Mize's lecture to us in sixth grade about why we needed to learn our math!)
Our future centered on education.
For a time, we did just that--inventing and transforming the world through computers and other technology the world envied, copied, and ultimately mass-produced much cheaper than we could.
We remembered Rule #1:  Educate everybody.
Today we lag farther and farther behind other nations who have not forgotten Rule #1.  These nations know that educating everybody means recognizing that the best and most consistent resource is the human one (no matter which kind of human they are.)
Linda Darling-Hammond's book The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity will Determine our Future is well-researched and supported by studies and statistical evidence that left me feeling ultimately hopeful for the future of the education profession and frustrated with the picture of our current American personality writ large:  We are a backwater nation of arrogant rubes.  Not the picture of my youth. (Saviors of the world after World War II.  Youthful, energetic nation leaning into the future with hope in our eyes.)
Most every reform I hear or read about from the popular news has the ring of a stubborn We'll-do-it-our-way-business-is-best-America-is-great-work-harder-lift-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps nonsense.
The hope comes from this statement:  The teaching profession of 2010 is roughly in the same position as the medical profession of 1910.  During that time the science of medicine was well established but the education of doctors was not.  It was time to align the training of doctors with the evidence of science.
That is where we are now.
We know what good teaching and learning looks like.  It can also be taught to those who show the disposition and inclination to teach. But the pre-service education and induction of teachers in this country is uneven at best.  Other nations have standardized that.  Sorry arrogant America.  It is time to learn from other countries on this one.
The frustration comes from seeing a path to real reform while simultaneously being steeped in news about education reforms that merely nibble at the edges of our current swiss-cheese style education.  To those who take the task of educating everyone seriously, the widely touted reforms sound like naive fairy tales:

  • All we need is a Superman.  (A kind soul who doesn't mind throwing lots of money willy-nilly at any crazy idea?  A legion of superheroes willing to sacrifice financial stability, health, and personal relationships to lift up our poor and needy children? Sounds like something out of a comic book.)
  • We can privatize opportunities.  (Thus solidifying the swiss cheese method of education: Pockets of excellence surrounded by gaping holes.  More for those who have.  Less for those who have not. A promise to warehouse more and more of our youth for the duration of their lives.)
  • Get the best and the brightest to volunteer two years of a life to do educational triage.  A Peace Corps for the nation's poor.  (Never mind all the statistics that show that throwing unprepared adults in a difficult role is a prescription for perpetuating and even accelerating an unstable learning environment.)
  • Throw out the bottom 5% of teachers after you identify them by looking at standardized test scores. (And you will replace these teachers with whom?  More untrained adults who will have to be weeded through. Throw enough at the wall and some of them might stick. And the tests?  They are already narrowing, not expanding, our students' opportunities. China has dispensed with standard tests that limit critical thinking and creativity.)
  • Good teaching is hard to identify.  It's some kind of magic. (Fairy tale:  we already know the hallmarks of good teaching.  We also know how to train teachers to be excellent and to get better over time.  Look at exemplar institutions like Bank Street Schools, Teachers College, the National Writing Project, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.  Other nations have taken the model programs and run with them and ultimately outscored us in many measures.)

Sorry.  No quick fixes for this problem.
The teaching profession needs to be just that.  A profession where the members are well-trained, well-supported, continually learning and growing, stable, and trusted.  And available to every child in the nation.
What we really need is the hope and energy of the youthful nation that triumphed in World War II coupled with the stability and maturity of an adult who knows that the work will be painful at times but that it is the right thing to do.  For the children.  For the nation.
Time to grow up.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Yes Men

Here's a daydream:
We call a press conference and announce to the public that, starting tomorrow, all children in the United States will begin attending clean, fully staffed, and well-equipped schools where healthy meals will be served to all for both breakfast and lunch (at a table, in a dining hall, with time devoted to enjoyment and conversation--a lesson in living a civilized life.)
All children will be able to attend equally well-staffed, clean, well-equipped pre-schools beginning at age 3, earlier if parents have a voucher for state supported child care.
At the end of the day, students can return home or stay-on to receive enrichment from para-professionals in the arts, sports, literature, receive assistance or supervision for homework or projects, take museum trips, hikes, culture walks, work with the elderly, in libraries, or participate in organized crafting or games.
Services to students in need will be provided by intinerant dentists, opthamalogists, and health officials who will come on site to provide routine eye examinations, dental work, or health screenings.  Also on site will be social services personnel and a open closet to equip students for any needed weather related clothing or for special occasions where more professional attire is required.
School will be conducted year-round, with regular breaks of two to three weeks for rejuvenation (a longer break in the warmer months), further enrichment or tutoring, or time with family.
Teachers will spend two-thirds of their day in front of students and one-third of their day working with their peers to conduct lesson-studies, prepare plans for collaborative projects, brainstorm solutions to building-level issues, meet with parents, confer with community leaders for real-world projects serving community needs, locating volunteer opportunities for secondary students, or observing their colleagues.  At least one of the extended breaks will involve teachers in professional development or leadership opportunities that serve the teaching profession.
All decision making will be child-centered.  Professionals will control delivery of curriculum, making flexible adjustments in the classroom to meet the needs of individual learners.  A raft of paraprofessionals will provide one-on-one instruction to students who need assistance in meeting curricular goals.

Like the Yes Men, the announcement should be made.

Let the public consider their own feelings when it is declared a hoax.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Need for Retreat

The Annual meetings of the NCTE and NWP (National Council of Teachers of English and National Writing Project) were held last weekend at Disney World in Orlando.
Every year I wonder at the numbers who flock to these meetings and, as I pack my bags, why we must gather face to face in this age of web 2.0 forums and other platforms for connectivity.
And then I go and am reminded.
Like any profession, these meetings are important for the intense exchange of ideas and the re-cementing of personal relationships.  It is easy to forget that there are many like-minded people who remember what the work is and why it needs to be done when we a mired in the day-to-day of public schooling.
The digital world cannot adequately replace the energy of over a thousand people writing their thoughts in a ballroom of the Contemporary Resort, as we do annually at the general meeting of NWP. It's the same cognitive hum from the classroom, amplified.
No ning can replicate intensity of a discussion on microagression in perhaps the most culturally diverse room I've ever been in. We explored race in the classroom and the need to engage our students in a discussion of their experiences and how they shape their perceptions and sense of self.  It was an energizing and difficult discussion for the adults.
Donalyn Miller was the keynote speaker at NWP and the perfect spokesperson for a room of writing teachers.  A classroom teacher with a sucessful book, The Book Whisperer - one I've shared with many colleagues - she touched us all with her surprising confession of how much she "hates to write." She hit all the right notes for classroom teachers and, best of all, showed us the faces and personalities of the sixth graders she teaches.  She credits the NWP, which she only found in 2007, for making her into the writer/teacher she is today.
But more than the programs, the human connection proves to be the most valuable.  As the kids say, it's great to know that somebody "has your back" when it comes to explaining the importance of pedagogical decisions that are proven remedies to motivation, memory, and depth of understanding.  And the ones who make the trek, each represent at least another hundred who could not.
Though the meetings are often hard to get to (finding funding, sacrificing time away from students, family holidays looming) they are an important links in the growth of educators who are first and foremost in the learning profession.
I always feel like my brain has been put through a "re-boot."

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The disposition to teach

A good friend and colleague recently, and unexpectedly, lost her husband.  Though the event was a shock that has undoubtedly already sent tremors throughout her life (their marriage stretched from college to grand parenting), at the viewing she was the same compassionate, steadfast person I admire and respect as a model educator.
She’s tough, but not in a let-me-get-my-gun kind of way.  She’s tough like an oak unbowed by a strong wind.
Though most feel that teaching is a job that anyone can do, this event underscored for me that those who excel share common traits. 
And those traits inspire my frequent “Teachers are my favorite people” comment.
Steel Magnolias
The good teachers have the same mix of warmth, strength, and humor that makes learning possible.  And the qualities are understated.  None of this larger-than-life, super-hero, come-to-save-the-day status.  These teachers labor steadily, often surprising others with their potency in trying times.
Since most teachers are women, their supposed frailty as the weaker sex often leads to an outsider's view of teachers as clueless, sheltered idealists, out of touch with the world.
Nothing of the sort.
A career teacher has seen every permutation of human behavior and dealt with it at eye-level: students who have been abused, students who abuse others or drugs, incidents of criminal behavior, mental illness, extreme poverty and homelessness, sexual aggression, bullying, breakdowns, violence, along with smaller matters like broken hearts, illness (think everything from vomit and bloody noses to a shocking death), fire drills, bomb threats, lockdowns, extreme weather, car accidents—the whole panorama of human conflict. 
Teachers cannot afford to be cowed.  No flinching allowed.
They plow in to find the source of a problem then model the strength and skills to move students beyond those realities to imagine a  different life.  Just part of the job.
It is a balancing act that excellent teachers--like my friend--make look very easy.
It isn’t.  Not everyone can do it.
It means hearing about student struggle without blinking. Or running away.
It means acknowledging situations with compassion while exhibiting confidence.  Kids need to see adults who can handle “whatever” without wigging out.
And then insisting, even assisting, kids to cope and continue learning.
Teachers who fail make mistakes of two kinds: coddling hard-luck kids and expecting less than their best, or going overboard by ignoring hindrances and focusing solely on curriculum.  One text put it this way:  Some teach kids.  Some teach their subject.  The best teach their subject to kids.
And the sense of humor?  That is a must.
We laugh in the face of puke or public breakdowns – both extremes every teacher faces in the classroom at one time or another.
We feel the emotional tenor of a building as it ripples through the school year, and shrug off both up and down days to face the next day with the same equanimity as the previous day.
It is a tightrope walk teachers – primarily women – enact in full view on a daily basis.
Good teachers know more about the realities of their community than their sheltered friends in business.
Good teachers are about as real as they come.
Good teachers are smart, and flexible, and ruffle-proof.
Good teachers are tough – and warm – and funny. 
Like my friend.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Talking amongst ourselves

Michelle Rhee's resignation sparked comment on the AP listserve I belong to.  I'm told there are 6,000 of us on the list.
One teacher objected to the tone of the comments about the resignation.
I responded and that has prompted an extended conversation.  An important one I think for several reasons. First, that the group is quite impassioned.
Second, that the argument that some teachers are bad and must be fired is effective in turning us against each other.  Part of the plan, I fear.
Since others may not wish to be publicly blogged, I offer only my responses in this post and others to follow:

After being chastised for speaking too harshly:

I have to say that I respectfully disagree with the tone of the "debate" on education reform in this nation which has conveniently NOT invited educators to the table for much of the discussion (outside of Randi Weingarten, who seems to be present at most forums only to provide the necessary live stand-in for those intractable teachers' unions.)

 Having said that, I feel that my tone has not really been forceful enough, though I am doing what I can.  

Though some may feel that Michelle Rhee's two years in the classroom is all the experience you need in order to make sweeping reforms, I do not. 

Rhee admitted that she taped her students' mouths shut and was alarmed when their lips bled after pulling the tape off.  She also went on a field trip with second graders without taking along emergency contact information.  She only became concerned when she could not find the home of one of her students - who was too young to provide the information.  But, when you are teaching those children, I guess it is OK to experiment on them.  

And that, I really feel, is the attitude that pervades her "get tough" reforms.

By all measures, teaching is a complicated affair and takes at least three years to gain confidence with the curriculum, manage student learning, and function within the sometimes paradoxical systems in which we find ourselves.  
Michelle Rhee feels she can fire 241 teachers and put another 735 on notice, as she did this summer, because she does not value the time it takes to create a teacher who can get more out of students than good scores. After all, Teach for America gets GREAT scores, and they don't need to have any more than a six-week training program. 
(And new teachers are cheap, cheap, cheap.)

I have taught since 1978.  A Nation at Risk was published in 1983.  That document recommended what Finland has done: put your money into developing your human resources.  Create a strong profession.  
It wasn't done.  
Since that time the most successful teachers in America have been educating themselves on best practices, for the most part, with their own time and money, and risking careers through insubordination if they skirt the current testing climate in order to see real achievement for their students.  We are simultaneously sold the insidious argument that : "You didn't get into the profession for the money...." so that apparently any abuse of teacher time, energy, or financial resources is just part of that missionary zeal we are supposed to accept.

And NOW we want to blame the teachers?  Ha.  Kind of like blaming the wife who is being beaten nightly by her husband.

If you want to know what Michelle Rhee and her cronies have in mind, investigate how a KIPP school is run:  no accumulated sick days, no personal days, teachers are shamed when score targets aren't hit, teachers are chastised for taking sick days, school hours extend from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (and that's in front of students), no guaranteed contracts, no pension, etc.  Children who do not live up to standards are shamed (must turn their shirts inside out and are ostracized from the group), test scores - those bubble-in kind, not the critical thinking kind - are the measure of all success.  (KIPP founders are former Teach for America corps members--just like Rhee--and proudly model their disciplinary code on most prisons.)

What happens?  A friend who works in one in North Carolina says the turnover is 59%.....a year!  But that's OK if you don't think teachers need any experience, or if you don't feel its important that students need any consistency in their lives.  If you can get 22 year olds to burn out in less than two years, then you know you are plowing them under.  (No matter - more where they came from.)

I have three grown children and two grandchildren.  I would no more send my children to a KIPP school than I would leave them abandoned on the street corner.  Any yet, this kind of treatment is OK for "other people's children."  It's also OK to ask small children to sit through lotteries knowing that if you lose, you (they say) are doomed to a life of failure.  

Children are not being considered in this current debate.

The plan is to end teaching as we know it - and turn public schools into a place for "those other kids."  See New Orleans for the model.

And it just might work because I will find some other place for my grandchildren if they have to go to a school which has standardized testing in every grade, beginning in kindergarten. 
This is the last part of the Rhee plan, yet to be implemented. 
Of course those yearly tests are intended to measure teacher effectiveness (you gotta have a test) and has nothing to do with what is good for kids.  It's important to be able to identify who needs to be fired, even if it means five-year-olds are subjected to standardized tests.  
If you've been in a school where getting better scores is vital (AYP and all that) then you know that those tests breed more tests just to make sure that the kids can pass THE test.  

It makes much more sense to spend your money on developing and implementing tests than in developing a strong teaching force. (Hiring more teachers? Reducing time in front of kids for collaboration?  Insisting on a Master's Degree?  Screening pre-service teachers for a disposition to teach - so you don't end up with adults who think its OK to tape everybody's mouth shut? Making it competitive to get into a teaching program? Guaranteeing a job in a safe, clean, well-supplied workplace?  Naw.  Just buy a bunch of tests.)

Make no mistake, the argument is being posited that WE are the reasons our students do not achieve: not crushing poverty (even the Promise Neighborhoods have been unable to overcome the weight of poverty), not the fact that this nation has shown little interest in seeing that children are well cared for prior to starting school (how many of you have discovered how hard it is to get reliable child care for YOUR children while you teach other people's children?), not the fact that we have been asked to do more and more while we get training on the fly (or not), not the fact that more and more of us are being pushed out of the middle class while we work harder and harder so that the top 1% can control 42% of the wealth (as of December 2009).

Speak up. They are coming for you next. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

An NBCT until 2021

My letter came yesterday, opened and left on the counter in the midst of a pre-wedding flurry for my daughter's best friend, a much more important moment for us.
My NBCT status is assured until 2021.
I doubt if I'll still be in the classroom by then.
Sometimes I wonder if there will even be a classroom to be in by 2021. (Lot's of reasons for thinking that. This medium being just one of those.)
Anyway, the letter seemed oddly anti-climatic.
It was the doing of the thing that seemed momentous.
As Aristotle said "For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them."
So the process taught me more than the letter meant, if that makes sense.
The board process is entirely reflective and the renewal process was more of the same.  
There are three components and a reflection.
You are first asked to identifying areas where you influenced the profession, used technology, continued to include parents, and perhaps resolved an issue identified in the first certification process.  Then two additional components require an in-depth explanation and substantiation of two of the PGE's (Personal Growth Experiences) outlined in the first component.  Finally there is a reflection of the previous years of growth.
All of this, reviewing and selecting from eight years of work, took a surprisingly long time to research, write, and assemble.  I sent two videos for my two in-depth components.  Though I planned those tapings well in advance -- one was done over the summer, the other planned from my routine instruction--just getting them edited down to the required time limit and on a disk for mailing took an entire day.
Luckily for me the entire mid-Atlantic region was socked in for nine days under three feet of snow in February!
I used the time well.
So what does the doing of the thing teach?
The same thing I hope my kids get out of their reflective writing:  what you have learned over the time we are together (in my case, what I had learned in the previous eight years) and what you plan to do next.
The reflection at the end requires that you think about next steps.
So mailing that box of at the beginning of April felt like I had already done the big job.
The letter yesterday just felt like acknowledgment of - Hey, you did that.

P.S. Renewal costs $1,150.  Out of pocket for me since schools do not subsidize this.  Return on investment?  No guarantees.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Manifesto on Union Busting

Two opinion pieces in today’s Washington Post Outlook offer solutions to the current “teacher problem” in the United States.  (Still more supplied by those who aren’t teachers, but who continue to extend and control the current discussion prompted by the media blitz set in motion by Waiting for Superman.)
One goes too far and the other, not far enough.
Too Far: A “Manifesto” signed by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, Paul Vallas of the “New Orleans miracle” (ick), and others of that ilk. 
Their statement is nothing new.  They want latitude to hire and fire bad teachers based on (in)effective performance. 
As if they didn’t already have the latitude they need. 
This summer Michelle Rhee dismissed 241 teachers and put another legion (735) on notice.  All of this was achieved even with tenure and a strong union in place. 
Joel Klein has pretty much had his way in New York for years under Bloomburg.  And yet, he didn’t fire himself when the city’s own measures of achievement were proven to be overblown public relations hype.  (Pretty ineffective performance, if you ask me.)
The “manifesto” (I’m thinking Unabomber here) is merely an effort to paint the teachers’ unions as the big, bad enemy. 
Big Business has done a good job of eliminating the worker’s voice in all other areas of the workplace beginning with Ronald Reagan’s bold salvo that set the anti-union movement in motion after he removed the Air Traffic Controllers in 1980. 
The teachers’ unions as a political force are about the last hold out.
Time to push them under the bus too.
The basis for the hiring and firing of teachers, according to the signers, all boils down to student performance on the standardized tests now commonplace in every school system.
These are the same tests that teachers have railed against for years as a vehicle which dumbs-down curriculum, and results in drill-and-kill rote instruction, test-taking-strategy-driven instruction, scripted lesson plans, elimination of  the arts and recess, and promises to standardize our children into non-thinking drones.  (Coincidentally, just the kind of complacent worker you want if you’re only interested in turning big profits over to the select few.)
Not far enough:  As a companion piece, Paul Kilhn and Matt Miller of McKinsey & Company (eh? Never heard of them.) advocate for truly professionalizing the teaching force by selectively targeting top students who show the disposition to teach and offering them affordable (or even government subsidized) tuition, with a guaranteed job at the end of that scenario.  Increased salaries and clean, safe working conditions will sweeten the pot to the point where teaching will become a valued, respected profession that will attract top performers.
The authors say this will cost taxpayers far less than doing nothing, which will surely result in the stagnation of our historic role as world leaders of innovation.
I agree, but the writers stop short of expanding teaching into what the top performing nations cited in the article (Finland, South Korea, and Singapore) have done to achieve a meteoric rise in student achievement.
Here’s what they left out: Reduce the amount of time in front of students so that teachers can continually collaborate during their working days—which means a higher per capita of teachers.  Fund embedded professional development so practicing teachers continue to learn—which means dollars spent on continuing education, like other top professions.
Now that might be costly.
The money for providing this expansion is easy to find:  Raid the coffers of the standardized testing industry (The College Board, Pearson…etc.) by eliminating the raft of tests our students face annually and which are purchased by taxpayer dollars.  Right out the door immediately behind the pile of bubble sheets will be those who must chart the data collected from the tests, monitor the teachers, institute the next test-driven curriculum framework… short, all those non-teachers who currently pull in large “professional” salaries.
How will we know how well our students are doing?
Let the highly professional teachers evaluate their student strengths and weaknesses in a variety of ways, both informally (through observation and daily interaction) and formally (through portfolios, conferences, student products).
You know, the way we used to trust our teachers.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Town Hall Teachers: What a bunch of cuties!!

Gosh darn it those teachers are cute!  Just look at them lining up at the microphone for a chance to speak.
Golly, we could be here all week if we gave all these teachers the chance explain their work to the rest of the nation.
Hey.....there's an idea.  How about an Education Nation that features educators? Clearly they can hold their own on national television.  And just as Brian Williams said (several times) they could talk all week.
But the microphone will be handed off to Very Important People who have the REAL answers to the problem of education in America. None of whom have walked the talk they are selling.
Lucky for us, they will probably provide some real simple, business-like solution that will wipe away all the problems in a single pass.
Whew.  We gotta get this problem resolved in between corporate messages or we might lose our audience.
I wonder how many who tuned in (did anyone watch this program besides educators?) were surprised to find that the teachers who spoke -- and those who fruitlessly hammered away on the online chat only to find their missive disappear into cyberspace-- were articulate, thoughtful, and controlled rather than raging, slobbering idiots.
If you've read newsmagazines or watched pop t.v. lately, I don't know how you could imagine anything else.
In just the few minutes provided (hurry up or get a blog), each teacher was able to provide a reasoned argument about the problems of holding teachers accountable for test scores, how standardized testing cheats our students out of a meaningful education, why teachers need tenure so they can continue to advocate for children without fear of dismissal, the crushing burden of poverty in this country, the need for equal access to great educators, supplies, and resources, and a plea to the media to stop sending impoverished children the continual message of failure.
Yay teachers! You made me proud.
Too bad we won't be permitted to explore each of the issues named in a deep, meaningful conversation.
And for those who argued that we must teach HARDER (Eat, breathe, sleep teaching?  Is anyone supposed to have a family, home, or good health?) or that tenure is unnecessary (Sorry kids, you only showed your naivete.  Clearly you have never been afraid to speak up and risk losing your job, your house, your livelihood.) that view of teaching in America is unsustainable.
By Friday, these teachers will be long forgotten.
But by Tuesday, I predict the Sleeping Giant will have awakened.
What I heard Sunday afternoon were committed adults largely speaking with one voice: Education needs to be re-formed and WE are the ones who want to lead that reform.  The kids and the teachers were victimized by the last reform.  We can't afford to let that happen again.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tears of Frustration

I should be grading papers at this very moment but I can't stay away from the train wreck that is about to occur in the national media.  It's called Education Nation and has been ginned up for more eyeballs on the screen.  There will be a week long festival of Bashing Teachers, always good for ratings.
It has already begun.
As I scour my links where teachers are expressing their frustration at being shut out of yet another reform effort, I feel more like crying than grading.
I can see how the argument has already been framed.
Teachers are bad.  Any expression of what it is really like to teach in our current system will be attacked as more complaining from a group of entitled professionals who do not want to be held accountable for the obvious failures in our system.
We cannot win.
To get a sense of the mood, read this letter to Oprah.
So, Oprah, Arne Duncan, Brian Williams and others have not invited classroom teachers to the table to discuss the failures of a system that has imposed impossible poor teaching methods on legions of teachers and then turned around and blamed teachers for the reform that was imposed.
Also cut out of the discussion are leading reformers with real suggestions on how to build a professional teaching force (Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling-Hammond, Forum for Eucation and Democracy.)
But who is the Superman we are waiting for?  Apparently our hopes lie in Teach for America teachers like Michelle Rhee, who admits that her own first year of teaching was a disaster.
The new teacher in my building has better sense than Michelle when it comes to handling children. Apparently, if you are a missionary to inner city schools, it's OK to treat the natives inhumanely by taping their mouths shut or shuttling them off on a field trip without emergency information (like where they live or forms with emergency contacts if something goes wrong.)  Flying by the seat of your pants is okay for OPC (other people's children) but would bring a law suit and outrage from most parents.  (Plus, even the least PC among the crowd can recognize a stereotyped view of inner city African Americans in Rhee's comments.)
These are the unresearched programs about to be foisted on our most vulnerable citizens.
Teachers do know what needs to be done, and it doesn't include leaving our children with misinformed novices, teachers who are short-timers of two years or less, a haphazard professional development program, dismantled neighborhood schools for a "get-tough" policy that will also conveniently wipe out systems for classroom teachers to organize, and minimizing the importance of education in our country.
The most successful teachers in America have been educating themselves (by-and-large) on best practices and risking careers through insubordination in the current testing climate in order to see real achievement for their students.
These are the teachers who will be removed under "new reforms."
The plans are to wipe out the professional side of education.
It's time to get active.  Join the real teacher town hall on Tuesday by following this link.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Education Nation

NBC has promised a week long focus on Education.  Everyone will be there except the teachers.  Join us for a real Teacher Town Hall by joining the Teachers Letters to Obama Round table on Tuesday, September 28 to Stop Griping and Start Organizing.  We are about to be overrun by the media circus which is ignoring facts and going with the current narrative to dismiss teachers and put corporate group-think in control.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Crafting Reform without the Experts

Wish I had more time to write.  But if I did, I'd just do pretty badly what Alfie Kohn has already done quite clearly.  Check it out.
If you don't want to be left out of the discussions, be sure to sign on to the Teacher Town Hall at NBCs Education Nation.  Currently, this media event is catering to the large money stakeholders and have largely left teachers out of the reform discussion.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Teaching in America - under assault

Occasionally, because I live in a community that continues to support public schools with public funds and other outward signs that education is still central to building our community (like renovating schools and building new ones), I think that perhaps I over-inflate what I see as an attack on public education in this country.
And then I am brought to my senses by others in the field who are witnessing very real, and very alarming changes in the tradition of public schools.
We all need to pay attention.
They will be coming for us next, particularly if (when?) the Race to the Top goals are realized.
Last week I participated a Round Table sponsored by the Teachers' Letters to Obama facebook group.  Guests for the night were three teachers:  A history teacher from a reconstituted school in Los Angeles, a blogger who came in to teaching to "save" a failed school from "lazy" teachers and received an unexpected education instead, and a classroom teacher in a high performing (by current standards) KIPP school.
Today are just a few facts learned from the Los Angeles high school:
The reconstituted school was required to fire 50% of its teachers in order to get funding.  The teachers were summarily fired. Who was hired?  Currently there are 30 substitutes working in this high school and many of the other teachers are Teach for America--twenty-something newbies who promise only two years to the profession - if they make it that long.
But the teachers were lazy and deserved firing, right?  Our guest, Chuck Olynyk, described his working conditions.  One class of 49 AP students and four books.  Few working computers.  4900 students in one building built for no more than 2000.  Rotating schedules to accommodate all the children.
And with all of that, the teachers had recently organized smaller schools so they could mentor students, forming relationships they hoped would pay off in increased student achievement.
And it was working.
Now the school is reopened, with fresh paint on the walls, and perhaps more computers which actually work.  Only the teaching force has been decimated and those who are teaching are largely non-credentialed.
This cannot be good for the students.   But this is the promise made by RttP as the preferred turnaround model for challenged inner city schools.
Seems to me that the best method for improving the school would have been to support the students and teachers already in the building with the new paint, computers, and lower class loads.
But new, young, un-credentialed teachers are much easier to control if you want to make sweeping changes without resistance.
Is this the true goal of current reform?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Best summer read

Sheridan Blau's The Literature Workshop has been sitting on my shelf for several years.  Two weeks ago I toted it along on a driving vacation.
This was definitely not a beach book.
Anyone who considers teaching as a profession for lightweights will be disabused of that after a read through Blau's carefully crafted and supported pedagogy for lifting students' reading, writing, and thinking skills to the next level.  (I became intimate with three new terms: hermeneutic, fallibilism, and desiderate: all of which I now understand thanks to Blau's careful elaboration.)
The book is built around a series of workshops Blau regularly conducts with students, teachers, and pre-service teachers.  I recognized one I participated in at a recent NCTE convention.
Though teachers can follow the instructions and recreate the workshops in their own classes, as I hope to do, the real benefit is in the argument supporting the methods.
Central to Blau's thesis is the idea that traditional literature classes consisting of lectures on important works merely offer students an opportunity to take notes on another person's read of a text.  This sends the double message that some texts are impenetrable to average readers and that the student must rely on more accomplished readers for interpretation.  Blau's goal is to engage learners in the work of struggling with and interpreting text independently, hence his workshops that lay bare many of the skills that accomplished readers must access in order to make sense of difficult text and form fresh and cogent readings of their own.  Though texts are important to the workshops, the real subject is the reader himself.
The National Council of Teachers of English awarded Blau the Richard A. Meade Award for Outsanding Research in English Education for this 2003 publication.  And with good reason.
Each activity is well-researched and presented with such logical clarity that it would be difficult to escape the idea that time spent on close reads of intellectual thought (rather than texts) is a worthwhile use of classroom time.  However, there is no area of English practice where he will not threaten the traditionalists.  His research paper, for example, employs other students in the class and their papers and discussions as the cited sources in lieu of established critics of literature.  In my opinion, a brilliant solution to the wooden papers where students attempt to incorporate the voices of academicians and that also supports his philosophy that students are not incapable of developing their own interpretations.
Most refreshing are Blau's admissions of personal weak readings or classroom blunders.  And in a nod to the inspired work of effective teachers, Blau argues for sticking with a practice that seems to work -- as he did with his own habit of encouraging the 'pointing' to text that resonates -- until the underlying reason for its success in student achievement is revealed, rather than awaiting a theory to then develop into practice.
I'm sorry I waited so long to read this (though I could only take in one chapter at a sitting, so rich was the  train of thought).
I plan to experiment with several workshops as I continue my quest for a classroom that's an engaging place of authentic inquiry.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Agrarian calendar

School begins next week for teachers. Well, for me, anyway.
I've had a nice break. Two long out-of-town vacations and time for a four-week, intensive workshop with teachers.
Lots of time off.
Yesterday it felt like it was way too much time off, especially when I ran into a student and asked him what he was reading.
"Nothin'. I don't read."
The agrarian calendar has outlived its usefulness. It seems that the world is runs at 3 times the speed of my youth, with accelerated, instantaneous, 24-hour communication.
We can't afford to leave our kids unchallenged, unsupervised, uneducated for two-and-a-half months. Everybody else is getting their hooks into them: television, twitter, Facebook, and hours of dulling sleep on the couch.
Even the manager at a part-time job is having more influence than we are.
Time for some real reform:
A year round calendar.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Hayward gets life back, teachers get unemployment line

Is it just me or does today's news just look like more of the same wide divisions between the haves and the have-nots? It was announced today that BP executive Tony Hayward will be asked to step down for the gaffs in handling the oil spill in the Gulf. I will be waiting to see what his severance package looks like.
My guess is it will just provide Hayward with more free time and plenty of resources to enjoy the yacht races for which he has already revealed a fondness. Top screw-ups often leave with all the stock dividends and hefty cash buyouts in place.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Michelle Rhee fires 241 teachers while putting an additional 735 on notice to improve their practice. The fired teachers do not have a golden parachute, of that I am sure.

OK, what's the problem? Poor performers should be fired whether they are Tony Hayward or classroom teachers, right?
But for the past 30 years, teachers have been at the bottom of a top-heavy system that has often scripted what should be taught and when, has either provided professional development or not, given teachers latitude to select class loads (Oh? Not.), provided support for strugglers in the form of mentors and time to collaborate (oh, wait a minute, not.), asked teachers how to resolve problems in the classroom - wait, not. Teachers have been able to demand textbooks, classroom supplies, heated buildings.
Not. Not. Not.

Are teachers professionals with control over their workplace or their own development as professionals? Not. Most survive on what business-types would consider entry-level salaries that cap, after thirty years, at the bottom rung of what executives would expect in the early stages of a high powered career.

But maybe Tony Hayward and the teachers have something in common.
He said he was never a part of the decision making process either.
For sure, though, he will not be standing in an unemployment line facing financial ruin.
Not. Not. Not.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

TFA - Missionary work in Public Schools

A debate is now on going about Teach for America in the New York Times. Stroll on by and see how this is shaping up.
Two programs are currently in widespread use that encourage people to join the teaching profession. Both seem noble and worthwhile on the surface but send worrisome messages when looked at in 3-D and surround sound.
They are Career Switcher programs and Teach for America.
First off, I want to admit that both of these programs have resulted in teachers who are quite excellent in the classroom. That's my disclaimer. I know some of these people and they are wonderful.
The problem, however, lies in the underlying message of TFA and Career Switcher program: Teachers are Born and not Made. And that is where I find fault with the general principle of the two working programs--AND with the way our traditionally prepared teachers are thrust into the intense work of working with children.
First, both programs let adults take command of a classroom after a brief preparation program in the summertime. Secondly, the new recruit has a full time load that they must then balance with further course work in evenings and weekends. This is essentially two full time jobs.
Finally, many of new teachers flame and burnout in short order. If not in the middle of the first year (and I've seen that happen memorably in recent years) then more often by the end of the second year.
Here's my problem: It implies that it is OK to experiment this way with children's lives. Ultimately, it's the students who will suffer if a year of instruction is lost due to a poorly performing teacher or the disruption caused by teacher turnover.
The two programs have been offered as a panacea to teacher shortages.
It is the wrong fix to reforming teaching.
The exact opposite view of teaching needs to be assumed by those who want to see real reform in public education. Current fixes imply that teaching is so approachable that "anyone can do it." Or that there are only so many good teachers out there, and we just need to throw enough of them at the wall and see how many stick.
If we want a stable, effective teaching force then we need to do the heavy lifting of supporting and building that workforce. This would mean strong mentoring programs in schools that provide any novice teacher - adequate access to master teachers and resources during their working days. It means a basic restructuring of how our schools work. It means ensuring that a year of a child's life is not left to chance.
We know that a year with one bad teacher can set a child back two years. Do we care about that or not?
We also know that the worst performing schools have the highest number of transient teachers. The programs described here do nothing to help stabilize the teachers in the community. In fact, TFA doesn't even expect more than two years from its recruits.
When we put our children, all of our children, front and center then we will begin to do what is right for them and not for the comfort of the adults.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


The Teachers Letters to Obama would like to encourage you to get your voice heard about the reauthorization of ESEA (No Child Left Behind). The time is NOW. Congress is considering the reauthorization as we speak. Please read the joint statement of the group and then pass it on - to your congressman, to your colleagues. Sign the petition. And then choose any of the bullet points to write about, expressing your experiences as a teacher, parent or grandparent.

Dear President Obama Secretary Duncan and Members of Congress:

Several members of our Teachers' Letters to Obama (TLO) group of educators recently had the honor of sharing with Secretary Duncan our concerns with the direction of federal education reform's Race to the Top initiative.

Subsequently, various publications reported Department of Education assertions that teachers support RTTT. This claim is expressly contrary to this group's position statement and does not reflect the sentiments of thousands of teachers who have reported corresponding with you, Mr. President. We would like to clarify our position as follows:

We believe:

1. Meaningful education reform must embrace a range of assessments. The RTTT emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing necessarily reduces the education of our students to "test prep" focused on passing multiple-choice tests of unproven reliability. We oppose the use of so-called "merit pay" based on standardized test scores.

2. Teachers must be held accountable through rigorous in-classroom evaluations by trained evaluators. Schools must hold teachers to high and meaningful standards of performance.

3. Teachers must work collaboratively to improve pedagogy and create thoughtful curriculum. Basing teacher evaluation on standardized tests is a pseudo-accountability strategy that divides teachers as a result of variables beyond their control and misconstrues how best to motivate them. Teachers must share in the process of defining their own work and accountability should never be arbitrary or divisive.

4. Teachers become invested in their work when they are given the opportunity to participate in school-wide decision-making and to be creative and thoughtful in their classrooms. Many public schools work well and are resources to guide us in the improvement of all schools.

5. Our public school systems must be fully funded. Charter schools must be held accountable to the same regulatory oversight and should not be inequitably funded at the expense of our most challenged public schools.

6. Any vision of effective education reform must assume that skills be taught in a way that induces critical thinking, encourages curiosity, inspires the imagination, and emphasizes discussion. Music, art and technology are an essential part of this vision. Students should love learning, feel empowered by their educations, and should not experience schooling as something punitive.

7. Improvement or “turn-around” programs for struggling schools must be flexible and participatory. Teachers, students, and community members need to be involved in discussions and problem-solving. Moreover, we do not believe the current four options are adequate and recommend instead the strategies in the Strengthening Our Schools proposal now before Congress.

To give all of our children the quality education they deserve, we must honestly confront the challenges of the classroom in a society characterized by deep social and economic inequality. The reality of classrooms and schools is complex and requires the knowledge and expertise of teachers who have the experience to know what works. Curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment are integral to our daily classroom experience and qualify us to help formulate education policy.

Teachers who have participated in TLO want to join with this Administration to implement a progressive vision for education. We want to engage in constructive debate about the best way to teach students and to organize schools. This national discussion needs to move beyond the panaceas and shortcuts that have characterized it thus far.

In this, we ask no less of our political leaders than we ask of our students. We are eager to participate in the hard work of creating great and transformative schools.

Sign the petition here:

Post your letters of support here:

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Long Goodbye

Few occupations are like teaching. At some point, the work that we do just stops. It is a pleasant experience that other adults likely envy, their work continuing on unabated--only slowing to fit into vacation time, rising and falling in intensity with the seasons of the marketplace or other cyclical demands.
We are at the stopping point now and have shifted into the last ritual of teaching -- saying goodbye.
Besides bidding farewell to students, the last week of school is a season of goodbyes to colleagues who are retiring--often from decades of teaching.
As those who mentored me leave and take their wisdom with them, I suffer. When two or three colleagues leave, hundreds of years of experience goes with them. I'm left wondering who will model the calm efficiency of an art well learned for the newest teaching generation.
Each time one of these seasoned educators leaves the scene, there are fewer and fewer long term educators to take their place. In addition, all that they learned about how to transmit their subject to young people walks out the door with them.
There are few opportunities in the teaching workplace for sharing to go on in a meaningful ways. So while most may think we celebrate our long summer vacations, I often see them as an institutional slap in the face that implies that the work teachers do is not of value to the institution itself. We are dismissed. Any enhancing of our skills is caught on our own, on the fly. I would have liked to learn from those I work with who do it best.
I am at the young end of the baby boomers and see a gulf between my age group and the next group of educators in the system. In a few short years, young teachers will not have professional models of a life built in education. Teaching to the test, following a curriculum in lockstep is going to soon look like the norm, not a dangerous exception.
Just as I feel the pressure of time to get certain skills and dispositions in place for my students in the time I have with them, I am getting a rising sense of panic as more and more trusted educators get fed up, walk out, and leave the rest of us stranded.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Brooks Celebrates a Race to Nowhere

David Brooks' recent Op-Ed Race to Sanity underscores again his enthusiastic support of using the models of big business to reform our public schools.
As a former Wall Street Journal opinion writer, it isn't surprising to find him aligning himself with the only paradigm he can wrap his head around: Competition Makes Everything Better.

But competition really only makes things better for those who are already starting out well ahead, and therein lies the problem with treating Education to a heavy helping of free-market group-think.
The ones who will benefit from this program are sure to get more, better, best--while those without resources are being promised nothing but punishment (again).

What is wrong with competition in schools? After all, it already exists to some degree. Don't we celebrate our Valedictorians? Our top athletes?
Brooks' argument appeals to the practical nature of many. He celebrates the Duncan plan which dangles RttT Funds in front of states competing to meet qualifying "scores" on a scorecard devised by the DOE. Clear "winners" and "losers" will be identified and then the top states win bucket-o-money to enact the reforms.
It appears to be working.
States are lining up to lap at the trough of education reform dollars.
So what is the problem?

The problem is the scorecard devised by the DOE. It includes ideas that are unproven and even dangerous for the children in our classrooms.
Take Pay for Performance for instance. Brooks justifies this process with the hollow statement: "In every other job in this country, people are measured by whether they produce results." In light of the recent banking failures which were followed by bonuses, and the huge national disaster in the Gulf brought on by BP executives entrenched in their own mindless Race to the Top in Profits, this is the most ridiculous claim I have ever read in print.
Give me a break!
But regardless, paying teachers based on their students' performance in a given year, besides being statistically difficult to prove, would bring a climate of competition into the classroom which would be decidedly unhealthy and counter-productive to the central role of teachers - supporting and extending the learning of every child, no matter where they begin their own particular race for a better life.
Imagine the world from a child's point of view if the adults in their lives begin looking at them as possible bonus checks versus a spot in the unemployment line.
Imagine teachers fighting over resources, access to materials, students who perform better than others. Imagine those who might consider cheating, brow-beating, spending inordinate amounts of time teaching to the final test so that scores go up, regardless of whether it is what is best for the children in the room.
In short, imagine the cut-throat world of business --which created the motivation to take short cuts in order to realize deep-water drilling designed to amass big profits, for instance -- transferred into the lives of our youngest citizens.

What should we do instead?

Teaching needs to be a collaborative effort. Rather than competing for ideas, we need to be sharing what works. Our charge is to educate all children. We need to work together on this goal.
Rather than pitting one state against another, one district against another, we need to ensure that all students have equal access to all the methods and supports of good teaching and learning. In other words, the federal government should be helping to level the playing field in terms of access to quality teachers and materials.
Rather than filling teaching slots with short-term "volunteers" or concentrating on developing assessments, we need to spend resources on building a professional, well-educated and mentored teaching profession. When the quality of teaching is assured the rest will follow.

My dream school would be year-round, with short breaks throughout the year. (If we want real reform, why haven't we started with throwing out the antiquated agrarian calendar that suggests learning is a part-time occupation and that results in documented learning-loss year after year for the least able?) Students who come from limited resource homes could spend some of those short breaks in enrichment activities (museum trips, book clubs, video production courses, art programs, civic outreach and volunteer programs, internships, intensive sporting programs etc. etc.) while still gaining access to important nutrition programs. And why have a break at all? Children, and adults too for that matter, gain from periods of play. Structuring some of this time for students who lack resources would overcome some of those learning losses now well documented.

In addition, teachers could engage in the professional development needed to keep classroom practice fresh and in line with the latest research. Rather than sending the "13th Grade" home for months at a time, teachers would be considered part of the leadership of every school, helping to shape policy and curriculum for the school. Usually, teachers are dismissed along with the students and have no part in recommended changes for the next school year. A waste of energy and talent in most schools.

And speaking of research, most of the initiatives in RttT are unproven, untested, or failed practices. Do we really want to race into uncharted waters and risk the development of another generation of children?
Why aren't we spending federal dollars on Research and Development?

If you want to read some real common-sense on education, look at the comments posted after Brooks' editorial.

And don't buy into this quick fix. It could spell more years of damaging practices enacted on our children.
Join Teachers' Letters to Obama to join other teachers nationwide in creating a NewPrint to counter the DOE Blueprint for Reform.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Taking off the gloves...

Sometimes you just have to pay attention to your gut. When you think you have been played, maybe you have.
Read this compilation of moves by Arne Duncan and the DOE to avoid actual listening and learning while he is on his Listening and Learning Tour.
The "conversation" described by Stephen Krashen and the NCTE could have been the exact same one I joined through NBPTS for NBCTs interested in sharing concerns about the Blueprint. No opportunity to talk, an interactive webinar with no interaction, questions selected from a big pile by the speaker Judy Wortzel. Adherence to a strict 30 minutes where 15 minutes is taken up covering ground that the well-informed listeners are already familiar with. Blah, blah.
Time to step over the DOE and go straight to Congress otherwise we are going to get even more of the worst of the worst.
The secretive nature of the activities of the DOE sound a lot like Dick Cheney's "energy talks." Talking with who knows who about who knows what behind closed doors.
Please get informed and get vocal. If you don't know what to do, get on Teachers' Letters to Obama. Big noise is the only way to get attention.
There's three million of us. We could make a really big noise.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Leaving no Multiple Choice Footprint Behind

Friday, before the memorial weekend holiday, my students posted their "Footprints" outside our room.
My co-teacher had taught the poem "Psalm of Life" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and invited them to write for a few minutes about what they hoped they would be leaving behind as their own "footprint in the sands of time." Then he read their visions aloud, without naming names, to the entire group.
The class reacted with spontaneous applause. There were sighs. Exclamations of "I agree!" or "Oh, that's sweet."
The class decided that the messages were so inspiring that they wanted to share them with the school, so they went up on the wall outside of our class, "walking" down the hallway in a footprint graphic I quickly located and printed for them so they could revise and post their footprint the next day.
The lesson was on poetry, and we also learned the literary terms for the upcoming reading test. But that was just the smallest part. The biggest part, reflecting on what they hope their life will mean to others, will not be tested on June 10.
This sort of decision-making - quickly shifting a lesson based on student behaviors - goes on all the time. It is teaching based on affect - helping students learn through personal connections to the material.
What is wrong with testing?
I test my students regularly. I need to know what they learned, what they still have to learn, or what mis-conceptions they have. I assess my students daily through a variety of means - sometimes just by looking over their shoulder, sometimes through questioning, sometimes in the letters we write back and forth, sometimes more formally through a quiz or essay.
I also teach them how to assess themselves. They set goals for themselves and match their goals against their achievements. They even have to write about it at the end of the course in a Change paper.
And then there's the "TESTS" provided by an outside authority, asking questions I do not prepare, choosing reading my students have a hard time caring about, distilling all their thinking and questioning down into four multiple choice answers often devised in language that flummoxes them, and providing results that aren't particularly helpful in reaching their goals or even in gaining the skills they need to know NOW.
For example, I have remediated ESL students for our reading test. It is an exercise in frustration for all of us. Most of the ESL students who struggle with the reading tests do not have cognitive issues. They are quite bright and adaptable. But they do have language issues.
Example: In reviewing an ESL students' answers to a test, we looked at a poem. She had the main idea question wrong. When I asked her if she knew what the poem was about she said: "I knew the poem was about fall, but I could not find the answer [in the multiple choice selections]" So she took a wild guess. Of course the answer WAS there. One of the choices was autumn, an English word she did not know. In a simple one-minute conversation I had assessed my student's reading comprehension in an oral interchange. She had understood what she read.
This is just a small example of being constrained to the test. I have many more (just try to teach a literary allusion to a newcomer. The vast cultural literacy required for the one answer would take a half-hour to explain. I know. I've done it. It is an exercise in futility since I have no way of prediciting what literary allusion my students will be asked to respond to since I DID NOT MAKE THE TEST and do not know what they will be asked.
How can I prepare them?
Is this fair?
Our school is in danger of falling into the realm of failing schools. The stakes are getting higher. The distraction of preparing students for these tests consumes more and more instructional time.
It will only get worse if teachers are assessed on how well students do on these assessments.
Imagine beginning of the year benchmark tests, mid-year predictor tests, final high stakes tests in every year of a student's life. Ugh. It might just make a student want to drop out.

There are better ways to teach children and to identify effective teachers.
Join the conversation at Teachers Letters to Obama. The month of June will feature discussions and webinars focused on this and other issues. We are determined to get our voices heard and affect policy for the better. Please join the discussions here.Teachers' Letters is not just for teachers. It is a grassroots site for anyone who wants to make America's schools the seedbed for the innovative thinkers and active citizens of tomorrow.
Find out other reasons why testing is not the answer to reform. Visit Anthony Cody, Marsha Ratzel, Renee Moore, Nancy Flanagan, Chuck Olynyk, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, to find out what else is missing in the testing mania. And see David Cohen's brilliant satirical piece on testing from last month.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dialing for Duncan

Following our truncated, technology-challenged call on Monday, the phone rang in California and Kansas on Tuesday afternoon. At the other end of the line was Arne Duncan.

Anthony Cody in California and Marsha Ratzel in Kansas were receiving a follow up from Duncan. He wanted to hear what they didn't have the opportunity to say. Marsha had just finished an intense day in front of sixth graders anxious for the last day of school this Friday and spent 15 minutes in dialogue (at least half the time we had as a group on Monday)
Visit their blogs to see exactly how those conversations progressed.
And progressed is the key word.
There may be opportunities to pick up where we were cut off.
That is our focus right now. What are the next steps?
It appears that this question is back on the table.
While we all regroup, I urge you not to cut yourself off from these discussions. The teachers at the other end of the line represent the entire geographic spectrum of the United States.
And we are all on a similar page (perhaps with minor divisions on the details.) The twelve cover the gamut from Special Education to Advanced Placement.
From Alaska (Bob Williams) to Florida (Rian Fike).
Five are in the battle weary California (Anthony Cody, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Eleana Aguilar, Sandee Palmquist, and Chuck Olynyk). They are facing massive layoffs and closures.
The middle section of the country is well represented by Renee Moore in the equity starved Mississippi), Nancy Flanagan (Michigan), and the passionate, bold, persistent Marsha Ratzel in Kansas.

We represent only teachers.
We are looking only for an opportunity to be heard before the accusations of failure and the firings go up another notch.
We want to be the reform we can see so clearly that has a real potential to lift up the children of the nation and quite possibly set the entire country on a new path.
You may be needed in the near future.
There may be time to pass the baton on to other classroom teachers. Get ready for the pass.
Because your voice may be needed if we are to influence changes in the law that will affect our professional lives for a very long time.
Educate yourself. Join Teachers' Letters for Obama on facebook and check in regularly. Teachers are posting their hopes and dreams for a program that makes sense for children.
Yep. You've got a homework assignment.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Monday Chat with Duncan

It was over too fast.
No, it really was.
Over. Too. fast.
Nine teachers of the original twelve were able to make it in on the phone dialogue with Arne Duncan at 5:30 p.m. eastern time. Well, actually it was 5:34, but who's counting?
We were. We each had about two minutes of suggestions for the Blueprint.
As it turned out only four of us were able to speak.
First we had a little semantic issue. We were invited to ask questions but came only prepared with suggestions - hoping to spur a discussion.
After Heather Wolpert-Gawron and Marsha Ratzel spoke to the issue of College and Career Readiness, where I could only hear her third word because of the feedback and echoes (feedback and echoes? really? when you can Skype halfway round the world?) I spoke - on behalf of Renee Moore and Jane Fung who were unable to join us. Renee was traveling - again on behalf of teachers - and Jane was working with her kindergartners.
We do have day jobs.

Here is the Renee, Jane, Mary portion of the Teacher Blueprint for improved schools:

We need great teachers in every classroom and an effective force of teacher leaders to guide and inspire them. Uniform teacher quality is not just a matter of redistributing a few excellent teachers, but rather maximizing the professional potential of all gifted and dedicated educators. The talent is there, but we have underused the expertise and drive of much of the current teaching force.

The Blueprint is unnecessarily vague on defining teaching effectiveness. Stating the goal, “readiness,” does not describe nor prove support of the possible processes to achieve readiness. Some programs already exist that have been proven to help develop teachers and leaders of excellence, such as National Writing Project and National Board Certification. Both of these programs, with proven, positive results for student achievement, were initiated, designed, and are currently sustained by classroom practitioners, all prior to endorsement by national programs. Given the latitude to design and implement reform, teachers can affect real change. Yet some of these same programs are slated for Federal funding cuts. This sends a very mixed message: our goal is continuous improvement of instruction, but we're unwilling to pay for it.

It is also paradoxical to insist on excellence in teaching on the one hand while encouraging short-term, quick fixes to our teaching shortages on the other. Alternative preparation programs provide minimal, insufficient preparation for the complex 
work of teaching, particularly teaching in high-needs settings which requires
even more advanced pedagogical skills.

A well-trained teacher helps to create better prepared students. Therefore, we suggest the following: one way the teaching profession can be enhanced is by creating more Federal scholarships for pre-service teachers in certified programs, including promising urban and rural teacher residency programs. In addition, expanding funding for programs such as Teacher Quality Partnerships and improved training and collaboration time for existing staff in struggling schools could erase years of punitive measures and build a community of excellence in our most difficult schools. Developing and keeping effective teachers in 
high needs schools will also require policymakers to address the great inequity in working conditions for teachers and the great inequity in learning conditions for students in those schools.

Without great teachers: continuously supported, trained, dedicated teachers, our students cannot fulfill the goals of the Blueprint or live up to their potential. A great teacher is not an isolated figure who has magically appeared with those skills--great teachers learned how to be effective, and all teachers can improve. Truly exceptional teachers, those who are capable of reaching out to lift up our students from our most high-needs settings, need the support of a great administration behind them.

Sandee Palmquist was followed by Elena Aguilar and both were able to address "Diverse Learners."
But then. That was about it.
No opportunity for Anthony Cody,and Chuck Olynyk to speak to "Safe and Successful Schools" or Bob Williams, Nancy Flanagan, and Rian Fike, to speak to a "Complete Education" and "Fostering Innovation."
My compatriots will be posting what they were both able or unable to say.

Link to all of them for a complete read of our message from the Teacher Letters to Obama group. And comment. And share with your colleagues.

There are 3 million teachers in America and most of us have the summer free -- especially since needed summer programs for our youth have been axed across the nation. Read up. Pay attention. Make your voice heard.

And keep up with any developments by joining the Facebook page Teachers' Letters to Obama.