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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

No Child's Behind Left

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is looking for a new name to replace the soon to be

defunct No Child Left Behind law. I certainly hope this administration does not change it into something like “No Child’s Behind Left”. With the newly proposed national “core standards” initiative, it’s no wonder why many dedicated teachers feel that the latter, farcical name (NCBL) could become “reality” as a non-intended consequence.

Moreover, according to data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, eight of the 10 top-scoring countries have centralized education standards. However, so do nine of the 10 lowest-scoring countries in math and eight of the 10 lowest-scoring countries in science.

One might then ask, shouldn’t we be interested in students’ depth of understanding as well as their motivation to learn, and not just test scores alone? I have not seen an iota of data to support a claim of superiority for countries with nationalized education systems.

Therefore, it’s no wonder why so many classroom teachers and education researchers are opposed to this “core standards” initiative — which, to some degree, has been driven primarily by politicians and testing companies (for more money).

Saying that our kids should receive a high-quality education is not the same as saying all students should get the same kind of education. A one-size-fits-all approach to education does not produce excellence. Furthermore, it certainly doesn’t further the cause of equity.

Leaky Bucket

The current teacher supply in America has been compared to a leaky bucket. That is, every fall, new recruits pour in, while in the spring, many teachers pour out for early retirement or look for higher paying careers and more congenial working conditions. In fact, approximately one-third of our nation’s teachers leave the profession within their first three years of teaching, while almost one-half leave within five years.

Teaching is very tough work. If you doubt it, visit our schools and see for yourself. Maybe you will understand why we are experiencing crisis-level teacher turnover. Some critics conclude that public education has failed. Perhaps the question should not be “Has public education failed?’ but rather “Have we as citizens failed public education?”

The reality is we fail when we do not hold our elected officials accountable. According to their campaign ads, they have promised to support a quality public education for all children, but have not delivered.

Therefore, the first step to ensuring a quality public education for every student is to focus our attention on those elected public servants who are committed to funding academic excellence in public education. We need those public servants to keep true their promises of ensuring that every public school is as good as our best public schools.

Next, we must aggressively recruit intelligent, high quality teachers who know the subject matter to be taught and how to teach. Quality teachers are trained in how children learn and develop. They are mentored and prepared to make teaching their life-long profession and passion. The sooner we begin treating those teachers that have “earned their stripes” as respected professionals, the sooner we will attract and retain quality teachers.

Also, like other professionals, quality teachers need the opportunity to grow professionally, to ensure that their skills and knowledge are honed to become better practitioners. Consequently, our students will be the beneficiaries of the wisdom and insight gained by the devoted teachers who will work to leave no child behind.

Furthermore, before any elected body initiate any major education policy changes, it would be logical and wise to consult with the “front-line” professional teachers—because they know what works. Likewise, public officials need to divert their attention away from “things” and turn their attention to the task of adequately funding the effort to recruit and retain highly dedicated and quality professional teachers. The rhetoric must stop if we want the “leak in the bucket” to stop.

More on Race to the Top

President Barack Obama has stated that the selection of states to participate in the $4.35 billion Race to the Top school improvement program will be based on "whether a state is ready to do what works." He continues, "States that outperform the rest will be rewarded with a grant." Between 10 and 15 states will be selected in April 2010 to receive federal RTTT grants.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan chimed in by saying, "Race to the Top is the equivalent of education reform's moon shot."

One must keep in mind the several “strings attached” to receiving this money:

• Creating data systems that includes linking student progress to individual teachers

• Improving bad schools

• Creating tougher academic standards

• Boosting teacher quality

States also need to be receptive to charter schools and alternative teacher pay (i.e. “performance pay”). An emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) also will receive more consideration.

However, many of the “new school” acronym programs haven’t always improved student achievement.

Some of the best educators will tell you the uncomfortable truth that some of our supposedly struggling schools are not that way solely because educators are somehow not motivated, trained, mandated, paid or worked enough.

In fact, veteran teachers may tell you that some of our students fail because they choose not to do the work and because some parents are unwilling or unable to help or make them do the work and because our culture apparently no longer instills values that are essential for success at school, such as work ethic, personal accountability, persistence, resourcefulness, innovation, and pride.

No amount of reform, schemes, new programs with catchy titles like Race to the Top, or snake oil will ever substitute for joint and honest effort among everyone (i.e. “the whole village that raises the child”).

Hopefully, scapegoating others, rejecting shared responsibility, and trumpeting questionable solutions like merit pay for teachers will not win out in today’s culture over the hard work needed for our students to gain knowledge and wisdom. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor eloquently stated, “We don't accomplish anything in this world alone... and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one's life [or system of education] and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that creates something.”

Race to the Top

President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative has recently suggested “merit pay” for teachers—paying teachers differently based on the results they produce in the classroom. The National Education Association (NEA) reportedly opposes merit pay; but, is it an idea whose time has come?

Recently, the Washington, D.C., school board, with the help of school Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s leadership, has successfully contracted with teachers unions to implement performance pay. Reportedly, the agreement offers teachers more compensation in return for greater accountability in their students’ academic achievement. Significant bonuses will be offered to teachers who demonstrate “positive” results in the classroom. Bonuses of up to $20,000 to $30,000 will be given to teachers whose students show better-than-projected growth in test scores—one of the main criteria in the performance pay teacher evaluation system. However, this controversial teacher evaluation system will also allow principals to base their employment decisions on performance instead of seniority.

Rhee had this to say about the performance pay aspect of the new contract:

The new union contract passed unanimously by the City Council means students will have more effective teachers in the classroom and teachers will be rewarded monetarily for increasing student achievement. … It also tackles three of the perennial problems that have plagued school district agreements over time—lock step pay, seniority and tenure.

So, are we opening up a can of worms to define standards of success for our nation’s schools when the stakes are cash in the pockets of real teachers? Or, with some American schools in “crisis” and some of the old lockstep ways of running schools and motivating teachers aren’t working, perhaps maybe it’s time to think “outside of the box” and try a system that has the potential to dramatically improve our education system and make teaching careers more attractive by treating educators as “true” professionals.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bumpy Road

Once a leader in education, the U.S. now ranks 21st in science, and 25th in math according to recent studies of 30 industrialized nations. Our students reportedly spend 40 fewer days in school each year than kids in China, and seem to be losing 22 percent of what they learn during summer vacation. Fewer than 8 out of 10 U.S. kids graduate high school: a rate much below that of some European countries with equivalent rates of 95 percent and higher.

So, is the system irreparably broken? Not according to the Obama administration (if it has its way)--by targeting reforms in early education, teacher tenure, merit-based pay, and the addition of more charter schools found in The Race to the Top initiative.

However, true education reform takes place once the classroom door closes. A recent report by the National Council on Teacher Quality (“Human Capital in Seattle Public Schools”) reinforces this point. The most effective education reform begins and ends in the classroom. Nothing can replace the value of a superior teacher.

This sentiment is echoed by the number one school in New York: Harlem Village Academies. They have thoughtfully designed every aspect of their schools to support, develop, respect, and empower teachers. They are people-driven, not program-driven; and, apparently, the difference is profound. They chose not to replicate any of the multitude “silver bullet” programs (e.g. GEAR-UP) or invest heavily in technology. Instead, they deliberately and carefully set out to create an ideal environment and rich intellectual life for “great” teachers—teachers who believe that every child can learn and that that belief was contagious. They wanted an atmosphere where teachers were open and approachable, able to relate to all as individuals. In essence, they wanted a mind-set in all teachers that they were catalysts incarnate, capable of sparking learning and ensuring a world-class education for every child.

So, in the ensuing days, start the school busses, hold tight (it may be a bumpy ride), embrace the “great” teachers—the Race to the Top has begun!

Monday, August 23, 2010

The first step on a journey----

Teaching has been my passion. Working with young kids has taught me a lot about myself as a person, as a father, and, of course, as a teacher. These all have been blessings. However, I have many "wounds" in my back--mostly from administrators, board members, and back-stabbing "colleagues." I will tell my story--I will speak out.