Sunday, June 24, 2012

UVA tumult highlights reform divide

The following editorial was published in the local paper The Winchester Star on Monday, June 24.  The downside to print: none of the hyperlinks can be included.

     While the paroxysms at UVA still have the public’s attention for the next five minutes, let’s use this as a window of opportunity to clarify the education debate argued over the past decade and already resulting in a fundamental shift in our here-to-fore national treasure: a free and public education for every child. 
      Rector Dragas has accused President Sullivan of not moving fast enough or enacting bold moves mirroring those of a top CEO like herself. Though the charges against Sullivan have been vague, the allusion to operating a public institution as a business hints at the larger argument.
      Whether the public is aware or not, a concerted effort is in process to impose Milton Friedman style, free-market forces on the education of the nation’s youth.  Though the general public seems to buy the argument that competition will foster excellence, competition in education will result in nothing less than the destruction of public schools and a further division in our populace we can ill afford.   Those with money and power will, of course, be able to afford and locate the best.  And those without?  Picture Dicken’s London.
      The push toward privatization has already affected instruction in the state of Virginia and diverted taxpayer monies from the classroom to private industry.  Pearson, the testing giant that continues to tally record profits even in an economic downturn, holds a $110 million contract with the state for administering the SOLs. These are tests teachers may neither see nor question on terms of validity but which determine many high stakes decisions. While public employees are held to “high standards,” online, private contractors are held to none. 
      The largest for-profit online provider in Virginia, K-12 Online, reported third quarter earnings of $178 million (all taxpayer dollars), all without any supporting research on the effectiveness of online instruction.  Meanwhile teachers have lost positions, had salaries frozen and seen increases in class sizes.  Governor McDonnell recently signed into law a new graduation requirement that all students must have one online course, yet another unfunded mandate thrust on localities—again without research. (It is notable that moving toward online instruction has been cited in Sullivan’s dismissal.)
       No sports enthusiast would agree to the unleveled playing field in this contest.
       Currently, the College Board – another testing entity—has used its resources to set up a visual: 857 empty desks on the National Mall representing the number of dropouts every hour.  Though this is unquestionably a national shame, the real irony is that the drop out rate has soared in the face of the current testing mania which has drained resources, narrowed curriculum, and turned classrooms into test-prep, data-collection boredom.  In contrast, high achieving nations test minimally and use results to drive improvements in instruction and teacher training.  We use tests to erode real teaching and vilify public employees—and then recommend more testing.
       What is at stake is this: a shift of public monies into the hands of private entrepreneurs who are currently rewriting rules in their favor.  Across the nation this has taken a variety of forms, (charters, vouchers) most untested but always at the expense of children.
       As the faculty of UVA seems to be currently arguing, education is not a business.  At its fundamental level, education is an act of sharing. The collective knowledge of one generation is passed on to the next.  When competition enters the arena, knowledge becomes the property of the elite, to be bought and sold at the discretion of a limited few.  Losing a free, public education cannot be tolerated.  Starving the public system while bludgeoning it with rules appears to be the plan.
     Thomas Jefferson, founder and spirit of UVA, said it best: "The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations."

     Our cherished--and most frequently exported--model of public-education-for-all is halfway there.  

Thursday, June 21, 2012


For the first summer in years the Northern Virginia Writing Project's Summer Institute in the Valley is not meeting.  Sad face.

Though it is a long commitment for teachers, the month-long experience is usually described as invigorating.  It has been for me.  Each year teachers lead each other through successful classroom lessons and ultimately learn to lead each other.  We share, read, discuss, write, and share again.  The synergy is amazing.

I'm going to miss it this summer.  Though I direct the work of the teachers, each year the influx of ideas restores my energy and engagement in the classroom work throughout the school year.  The relationships formed between committed teachers is uplifting.  This experience, often cited as the among the best offered in professional development, has proven repeatedly that facilitating discussions among professional teachers is where the real reform in education resides.

But I don't have to miss out on the conversations and insights of my colleagues.  Part of my plan for the summer is to continue learning, from home.

If you haven't taken advantage of the multiplicity of resources that have exploded for teachers who want to learn from and with each other, then you are missing out on opportunities to "steal" from the best.

Here's a list of resources that I'll be accessing on long summer afternoons to refresh my teaching next year and stay connected with teaching professionals.  Some have a minimal cost.  Others are free for the taking.  All are Language Arts related.  If you have great resources you access regularly in your subject area, please share in the comments below.

Low tech:  A pile of books have accumulated.  Two I hope to tackle are Doing Literary Criticism by Tim Gillespie (been eyeing that one since December) and The Digital Writing Workshop by Troy Hicks (still working on getting more kids digitally literate.)  Already read, with new Virginia SOLs and Common Core Standards in mind: Teaching Argument Writing, Grades 6-12 by George Hillocks.

If you are into learning from books, both Heineman and Stenhouse (links above) are consistent producers of teacher written and tested professional books. Most are written with busy educators in mind (clean, approachable text), frequently include student stories, and almost always have extremely useful appendices.

For the digital natives Stenhouse is reviving its summer Blogstitute.  Starting on June 25 teachers can log in and start learning from some of their well known authors.  All free.

One of my low tech go-to sources is the Advanced Placement list serve.  Though this dinosaur in the current connectivity world of blogs, twitters, and social networking is about to be upgraded (one course at a time) the daily deluge of emails from AP teachers all across the nation is invaluable.  Of course you'll need a method of organizing this flood.  I learned my organization method from monitoring two other early list serves, both of which connect teachers from all over the nation: The Journalism Education Association and the Teacher Leaders Network.

If you really want to get cutting edge, set up a twitter account and start reading and following the feeds on your mobile phone.  Here's a guide to getting going: Twitter Handbook for Teachers.  And if that's not enough to blow your mind, go back to paper and read Sheryl Nussbaum Beach's new book The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in the Digital Age.  The text takes you one step at a time further into the world of online learning, teaching, and sharing.

Finally, here is the future of PD:  Web 2.0 Discussion Boards.  The best example of a connected community of learners is Jim Burke's English Companion.   If there are other subject-area discussion boards out there, chime in.  This is clearly the way professional discussions are headed.  In the interactive forum, teachers ask questions, find answers, share blogs, learn in book discussion groups-often with authors as part of the group, and even post handouts and other materials.

For those who want to follow policy or education related issues (or anything else of that matter) I highly recommend Zite.  This app acts as an aggregator of the web and - on an iPad - has a clean magazine feel.  You simply select your own sections and the app delivers the latest to your phone or iPad--a quick and easy way to keep track of your favorites.  By indicating whether or not you liked the source, the aggregator adjusts to reflect your interests.  Blogs, news articles, online magazines are all included.  A good way to find out what is happening in cyberspace.

Still, in spite of all the free online forums there is nothing I've found to replace the immediacy and intellectual stimulation of teachers working together around classroom issues in a face-to-face setting.  But in the meantime I'll continue to learn from the best without letting geography get in the way.

Now, if I could only get recertification points for all this new knowledge....

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Year Round School, please?

I've been on summer break for six days and already feel like a new person.

After clearing the clutter from a year's worth of classroom activity, I started in on my home.  And my health.  In six days I've resumed a daily habit of exercise and zoomed through closets in every room and the basement removing the clutter from nine months of running in and out, all things household having been tabled because teaching means a twelve-hour day, plus weekends.

In between running and cleaning I've read three novels and a professional book.

It's refreshing.  I feel great.

And yet, I still face ten more weeks of unstructured time before returning to kids and the classroom.

It's too long.

A school year is intense.  Even more so as kids and teachers face the current climate of testing.  For the classroom teacher, testing has meant the added stress of consulting data and making sure every child receives services to improve scores. It is high pressure work.  Sometimes if a task takes 30 seconds  to complete that can be too long.  The next expectation/need/focus of attention is already flying full throttle at classroom teachers.

For kids, it means cramming in multiple college-level courses or sitting for days on end and bubbling in answers on high-stakes tests.  (And then re-testing, remediating, re-testing).

So a break is welcome.  Unfortunately, eleven weeks is a ridiculously long break for both kids and teachers.

We all know about summer loss.  But what are we doing to learning and health when we cram a year's worth of instruction, sports, music programs, field trips, and make-or-break testing into nine months?

For the top students the intensity of the year can mean sacrificing health for grades as a recent New York Times article revealed students resorting to snorting amphetamines to garner the stamina to keep up with schoolwork--all at the cost of a developing brain and good health.

For struggling students, the long summer break is a wasteland.  With working parents (or parent) most low income students are confined to their block, their television, and a poor diet.  None conducive to learning.  The loss to learning over the extended summer break has long been documented.

I'm not a fan of a longer school day.  More cognitive work piled on top of more cognitive work does not mean that kids will advance.  In fact, our brains need some down time in order to make sense of what has been happening in our minds.  Only when we rest after learning is our experience processed by the brain.  We need rest in order to move learning into long term memory. (Here's an argument against teaching courses in a semester block.  Ninety-minute blocks everyday allow little to no time for processing.)

Some of these things we've known for years.  Others are just becoming apparent through continued brain study.  I'd love to give our Education system an 'A' for applying our new knowledge about how we learn to the school calendar.

Year round schooling could accommodate shorter breaks (two-three weeks) interspersed throughout the year.  Imagine students and teachers alike feeling, at regular intervals, as I do now. Rested and restored.  It might also improve the health of educators and reduce other costs.

Believe me, the tourism industry would adjust.

What's your take?  How long is your school break?  And wouldn't everyone benefit from rest?

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Appreciation Season

We have just come through the month of May when every service group enjoys its season of appreciation, among them soldiers, mothers, and teachers.

I wish it would stop.

The rhetoric surrounding these days or weeks of honors are hollow and as substantial as a magnetic yellow ribbon on the back of a gas-guzzling SUV.  Offering those who do the grunt work of a nation--defense from enemies, tools to fight poverty and oppression, providing and maintaining life--merely elevated lip-service and a ceremony is the height and breadth of cynicism.

I have not been in the military service nor have I been a police officer or a firefighter -- occupations that could result in the ultimate sacrifice, the loss of life -- but I have been on the receiving end of many, many days and weeks of "appreciation."  Personally, I find them to be a barrier to real progress in valuing service.

Mother's Day came to be reviled even by its founder Anna Jarvis, who saw it commercialized and a boon to greeting card companies--the previous century's magnetic ribbon.  Our current display of support is most likely to be made in China.

With three children of my own I am no stranger to the demands of a role that requires years of sacrifice and compassion.  Raising children was so important to my husband and I that I left the workforce for a dozen years to ensure an enriching environment.  I feel "appreciated" on a daily basis when I see how well they turned out, when they thank me by choosing to spend time with us or by asking for advice for their own children.  I also feel lucky to have been in a position to provide this full time mothering.  Few mothers today are as fortunate as I.

Teachers, on the other hand, are afforded an entire week of appreciation.  This usually involves notes in the teacher mailbox, some food, maybe a knick-knack like (another) tote bag or a coffee cup.  All of them stating some form of "We LOVE our teachers."  Most of this is meaningless to the teacher but it somehow assuages the givers' conscience.

My true "teacher appreciation" is a file I keep just for myself with meaningful notes from students or parents who have felt that something I have done has been beneficial in their lives.  Now that means something.

Well-meaning citizens are often involved in these sometimes laborious displays of support.  Why would I object to extensions of kindness?

The very act of extending appreciation to a group is one that places the receiver in a subordinate role, perhaps one who thrives on prizes or rewards, like children.  It keeps us dependent and subservient.  ("Well we thanked you, didn't we?")  When we state we'd rather be paid more the comeback is always "You knew you'd never be paid much when you started this gig."  Funny that no one says that any more. After the economic downturn our pittance is now decried as living fat off the state dole.  Sigh.

Meaningful appreciation would be displayed everyday and reveal a society which honors the values that it claims to uphold.  Those who are compensated fairly for their worth do not need a day or week of appreciation.  Have we every honored doctors or lawyers or upper-level management?  Who needs to?  Their needs and self-worth are more than met.

Drop the facade and do what is right when those who expend their lives doing what others cannot or will not.  Here is what real appreciation looks like:

  • affordable, safe child care and preschool for working mothers
  • affordable, accessible health care for growing children, veterans, teachers, firefighters
  • retirement that ensures that those who served our nation do not die in poverty (mothers like myself who are out of the workforce for an extended time sacrifice more than time.  Lifetime earnings and contributions to social security are also reduced.)
  • salaries that reflect the importance of the work done.  At the very least, employees should be able to afford to live where they work.