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Can We Keep it This Simple?: A Response to Amy Weisberg’s Huffington Post Article on Education

shutterstock_109809197The simplest solution may be the best…unless it really isn’t that simple at all.

Recently, a 32-year veteran teacher, Amy Weisberg, wrote an article for the Huffington Post outlining five necessary steps for improving education in this country.  She never claims that the solution is simple, and rightfully so.  Furthermore, her claims are based on her long experience as an educator, watching the ups and downs of the fads in educational theory.

Lastly, she points the finger of blame squarely at the so-called “experts” outside of the field of education, as she begins her article:

“It seems that everyone has an opinion about what is wrong with our educational program today…but few have solutions that are organically designed to meet the needs of the student population we currently teach in our nation’s public schools.”

That a blueprint for solving our education problems would come from a veteran teacher makes all the sense in the world.  Yet as she explains her necessary 5 steps for improvement, you can just sense that each one seems a little too easy:

“1. Start Young. Early Education is a fundamental factor to children’s school success and funding it adequately gives more children a chance to learn curriculum, early skills and about the world of school. Smaller class size has a profound impact on both classroom dynamics and the amount of attention a teacher can give to students and by reducing class size in kindergarten-3rd grade to 20 or less, and grade 4-12 to 25 or less we could see a dramatic improvement. Private schools and privately funded Charter schools provide this. We cannot compare public and private schools until the class size issue has been resolved and the scales are even.”

This is really two solutions, not one: funding early education and limiting class size.  Early education funding has had an extraordinarily rocky history in this country: starting with Head Start in the 1970s, controversy has raged about the funding, curriculum, scope and accountability of early childhood programs.  Pumping money is one thing: establishing the right atmosphere that allows a young child to thrive in the school environment is another matter—one that isn’t so easy to solve.

Class size is one issue where I echo Ms. Weisberg’s concerns.  This year, I taught close to 90 kids, three sections of at least 30 kids a pop.  To be honest, some kids fell through the cracks, not because I was mean or malicious, but because I had so many kids to keep track of I had to prioritize between those who really needed a lot of help and those who needed less.  It’s a tough balancing act with ONE classroom, let alone three.

“2. Treat Teachers as Professionals. Respect the training, education and experience teachers have in the field of education and pay them accordingly. A student’s test scores are not the sole indicator of a teacher’s worth and teachers are not motivated to further their education solely for the joy of learning. Most professionals are compensated for their expertise and given opportunities to further their knowledge in their professional field. Teachers have an extremely important job and huge responsibilities and we like to be respected, taken seriously and able to afford the cost of living in the cities we teach.”

This really is beating a dead horse.  Yes, teachers are underpaid.  Yes, teachers should be compensated for the education and training we receive and utilize.  Yes, teachers should be treated like professionals.

However, this can only happen if the teaching profession treats ITSELF like a professional.  Today, education is prone to self-abuse; the land of broken toys for those who can’t hack it in the real world.  This is the common myth because teaching treats it that way—if anyone can be a teacher, with lax rules of admission and lack of rigor in instruction, then it is NOT a professional career choice.  Professions develop by weeding out the chaff at the VERY BEGINNING.

This can only be done through massive reforms at the university level, propelled by government guidance.  How many education schools in this country are willing to change their diploma mill status—and take the requisite revenue cut—to make teaching a truly professional calling?  You tell me.

“3. Hold Parents Accountable. Parents must be held responsible for meeting their childrens’ basic needs and supporting their children in their educational program. We need to teach those who do not know, how to become better parents, in order to provide a supportive home environment that complements the educational program. Parenting is a life long responsibility and providing education and training for parents can have a positive impact on our students.”

In the areas that are struggling the most, this is absolutely important.  Many parents are barely kids themselves, and struggle raising children not out of any malice, but out of sheer ignorance.  They never learned about real parenting, sometimes never had real parents as role models, so they do the best they can with the knowledge that they have.  To bridge this gap is essential to keeping a home life that supports school.

However, the role of the parent as educational partner with the teacher is often ill-defined.  In today’s universe, it has come to mean that parents have final say in everything, no questions asked.  If teachers are to be professionals, they must be treated as masters, absolute experts whose advice may be ignored, but should be questioned openly.  If # 2 is implemented and teacher training made more professional, then the parent-teacher partnership can be most effective.

Both parents and teachers require a little more professionalism, in that sense.

“4. Fund Education. Our priority must be education because our students are our country’s future wage earners and tax payers. By funding education we are insuring our own future. We need to establish a permanent source of government funding for our public schools to take the stress off of the parents and individual schools currently forced to fundraise endlessly in order to provide a basic, quality educational program. Funding should include the arts, sports and physical education, and trade skills as well as the academic program.”

A permanent fund for education?  Wow.  Now were you thinking one national fund or 50 separate funds for each state plus one for DC?  Where would the revenue come from?  Property taxes, as they are now in many states?  Payroll taxes?  Direct government expenditures?  Oil money?  Gold bricks from Fort Knox?

The funding issue is NEVER as simple as it sounds.  The tie between schools and property taxes, in particular, is problematic.  To give an example, certain districts in Rockland County, NY are populated by Hasidic Jews who send their children to private religious schools.  The public schools are populated by Hispanic, black, Asian and some white families.  However, the school boards are often packed with Hasidic residents with little or no stake in the public school system, and they are determining education spending.

These situations where spending is misaligned and mismanaged need to be addressed.  Permanent funds, for the immediate future, seem like a pipe dream.

“5. Provide Support. Financial and personal support is needed to educate special needs students, lower class ratio and size, and to support the physical, intellectual, emotional and social development of all students. Schools need full-time nurses, psychologists, counselors and support staff to allow equal access to education and academic success for all students.”

See all of the above, particularly numbers 2 and 4.

I don’t want to belittle Ms. Weisberg: after her many years as an educator, her recommendations, on the surface, should be Gospel by now.  The sad fact is that they are not, and they aren’t because the microscope shows the complex and often nasty realities that need to be addressed that have no clear solution.

It shows school districts packed with children from broken homes, teen parents and families hovering the poverty line.

It shows diploma mills where teachers are cranked out regardless of intelligence or ability, along with alternative programs that throw idealistic young people to the lions of high-needs educational reality.

It shows parents that are confused, frustrated, underinformed, overinformed, brow-beaten, and talked down to when they should be seen at eye level.

It shows teachers that are treated the same way, if not worse.

It shows an incredibly misaligned funding scheme where property taxes are tied to education, even if the property owners have little if any stake in the public education process.

It shows issues of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, socioeconomic class, and political affiliation.

Can these issues and others be addressed using these five points?  Ms. Weisberg seems to think so in her closing, where she states that governments must “own these suggestions and form working committees to dedicate time and energy to developing a funding method that begins with our youngest students, limits class size, educates parents, compensates educators, and provides the support needed for all students including those with special needs.”

I really wish it were that simple.

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Calling out all Teachers “converted” by Public Education!

Like St. Paul on the way to Damascus, many of us undergo a “conversion” experience.

We enter the world full of lofty goals, high-minded principles and some complex vocabulary. Sometimes, we even attempt to make those goals real, entering the “real world” to “inspire young minds” and “do some good in the world.”

Yet when the cold backhand of reality comes crashing across our faces, the sting often exposes a greater truth—a truth often masked behind the rhetoric.

I am not immune to this. When I began as a teacher, visions of gleaming charter schools and smiling faces with vouchers to private academies danced in my head. I couldn’t sing the praises of privatization and Teach for America loud enough—as well as shout my disdain for veteran teachers “not doing their job.”

It didn’t take long into my first year for reality to sink in. The magic bullets, the fab theories and the rhetoric of the NCLB crowd were smoke-and-mirrors in the everyday grind of an inner city classroom. The handbooks—TFA, NYC Teaching Fellows, or otherwise—had no answer for the problems I faced each day in that place. The best help I got was from (Surprise, surprise!) veteran teachers who long ago discarded the guidebooks to best educate their students.

My mind changed when I encountered the realities of public education. And I am sure I’m not alone.

At the recent Save Our Schools Conference, I had spoken with fellow blogger James Boutin about our experiences, and we got to thinking about people like us—people who “crossed the floor” as it were on public education. One workshop we attended involved two Teach for America alums. They quit the organization over their tactics and approach in regards to teacher training.

Surely, we thought, there are many others like them—and us—who also had an epiphany about education and the real problems in our public schools.

There’s a very public example of this “epiphany” in Diane Ravitch, the former assistant Secretary of Education and co-author of No Child Left Behind who saw the dangers of the monster she helped bring to life.

However, what could be even more powerful are the stories of everyday teachers—be it from TFA, Teaching Fellows, or anywhere else—who had once bought into the rhetoric of education “reform” and have been transformed by their experiences in today’s classrooms.

James and I are collecting stories of similar individuals, those with similar transformative experiences as us. If you have a story to share, please contact James or myself. Include your contact info, as we’re not sure how to best use your information, and we want to keep in touch with you.

Finally, please send this to anyone whose life was changed by teaching in a public school classroom. Your stories are important and incredibly valuable. We look forward to hearing from you.

 

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Reminder to RSVP/Register for Save Our Schools March in DC July 28-31

Aerial view of the White House and the Ellipse...

Image via Wikipedia

Those more observant members of the Neighborhood may have noticed a large new yellow button to the right.  Its funny-looking, I know, but its there for an important reason.

The Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action will be coming up at the end of July.  The conference covers July 28-29 and 31 and feature many well-known speakers on education like Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, Valerie Strauss from the Washington Post, our good friend Sabrina Stevens Shupe and many others.  The workshops offer activism techniques, curriculum strategies and other useful tools in advocacy in education.

The march will take place July 30, where we will meet at the Ellipse on the Mall at noon, followed by a march to the Department of Education at 2 pm.  It should be a raucous time, especially in that roasting DC heat of late July–of which I am painfully familiar.

Of course, besides the obvious reasons involving educational fairness, true accountability and general saving of the public school system, you should be heading to DC that weekend to meet me!  I’ll be at a bloggers’ event the evening of the 29th, where we’ll watch The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman (hopefully in Rocky Horror mode).  Also, I’ll be at the march myself, and hopefully gathering a cadre of the Neighborhood to march along.

I’ll be easy to spot in my Hawaiian shirt and straw hat 🙂

The conference costs $80 to register for Thursday’s and Friday’s events.  But make sure to register before June 15th, otherwise the price jumps to $100 a head.  Click here for registration info.

The march is free…bring as many people as you want!  However, it’s nice if we have a head count of how many people are coming.  Its no obligation to go, but even if you plan on coming please RSVP here.

Remember, the other guys like to fudge numbers–we want to be honest.

Lastly, if you plan on going and would like to join me as a contingent of the Neighborhood, especially for social studies advocacy, please e-mail me so we can coordinate a meeting spot.  The Ellipse is big, so plan on being there around 10 am so we can meet, greet and get our chanting voices ready.

Hope to see you all there.

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Join Mr. D at the Save Our Schools March in DC July 30

While others may soak up the sun this summer vacation, Mr. D will be sweltering in the swamps of the Potomac–for an important cause.

This summer, the Neighborhood will be joining educators across this country in a nationwide call to save public education in America.  The Save our Schools March and National Call to Action will take place in Washington, DC this July 28-31.  It is a gathering of educators, concerned parents, activists and journalists demanding an end to the destructive policies of the education establishment–policies placed in the guise of education “reform.”

In specific, the goals of the March are (according to their website):

  • Equitable funding for all public school communities
  • An end to high stakes testing for student, teacher, and school evaluation
  • Curriculum developed for and by local school communities
  • Teacher and community leadership in forming public education policies

Now these are goals we can all get behind.  Unfortunately, much of the policies of the education reformers like Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan (both covered here at the Neighborhood) have hindered, rather than helped our goal of a quality education for ALL Americans.

The weekend features seminars, workshops, lectures and a get-together for education writers and bloggers on July 29–and yours truly will be there IN PERSON to greet all his colleagues and fans.  Join me the next day as the Neighborhood will be marching to the Ellipse at noon, where education heavy-hitters like Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Maier, Jose Vilson and many others will rile up the crowds.

At two, we then head to ol’ Arne’s office at the Department of Education, to give him a taste of that old time religion known as “public education.”

Now, Mr. D doesn’t mind tooting his own horn and beating his own drum…but if he did it alone, it would make him look like a lunatic.  Here’s where you come in.

Linked here is an RSVP site to join the March on July 30.  If you want, you can also register for events on the other days of the conference.  The RSVP doesn’t obligate you to go, but it helps the organizers get a head count so they can print numbers that would make Arne soil his enormous jock strap.

At any rate, I want the Neighborhood to have a strong presence on the Mall July 30.  Join me and thousands of others in fighting to save public education in America.

At the very least, you can meet me in person–and tell me what a bullshit artist I am right to my face 😉

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When Lunatics Control the Asylum: The Battle for Control of the Classroom

A meeting of doctors at the university of Pari...

Meeting of Doctors at the University of Paris. Image via Wikipedia

Imagine a world where the inmates dictated the routines of the guards and wardens of a prison.

Parishioners at church mandated certain sermons for the minister on Sunday.

Crowds of spectators made on-the-field decisions for sports teams.

(That last one was tried once in baseball. It may even work for the New York Mets this season, but that’s another story.)

Such is the situation in many school systems across America. In the march to vilify teachers as a hindrance to progress, “reformers” have “empowered” parents and students into making decisions largely left to teachers and administrators.

Discipline little Johnny for not doing his homework? Don’t hurt his feelings, or reports of “verbal abuse” will mark your resume for years to come. Little Cindy not working to her potential? Parents demand assessments and data that even they can’t understand—and ultimately lead to the same conclusion. And don’t you dare exclude Timmy from a field trip due to his reign of terror over little girls: such exclusion can (and often has) been interpreted as “corporal punishment.”

Reformers, administrators and naïve parents have worked to strip power from the very people that make school effective in the first place. Not only is this a gross sign of disrespect to the teaching profession, but runs counter to over 800 years of scholastic tradition in Europe and America.

Yes, that long ago.

In the development of scholastic education in Western Europe, two main systems emerged in the Middle Ages. One, the older of the two, was the Bologna system patterned after the University of Bologna, which is still the oldest continuously-running institution of higher learning in the world. In this system, a school was a corporation of the students. The students organized the government of the school, hired the faculty, and managed the faculty for the needs of the students. In essence, the students had all the power, and the faculty served at their pleasure.

This system made sense in Bologna, because it was primarily a professional school that granted strictly doctoral degrees in law and medicine. Thus, only the most dedicated and rigorous students would even apply in the first place. Yet there were flaws: students became difficult to control, drunken orgies were commonplace, and civil authorities could do little as students claimed the same rights and privileges as clerics.

(This is why you wear funny robes on graduation—it’s based on medieval monastic and academic dress.)

In the University of Paris, a new system of school governance emerged, not long after Bologna’s founding. Under the Paris system, the power was shifted from the students to the masters. The university would be a corporation of the faculty, which set down rules and governance, established the curriculum and guidelines for graduation as they saw fit, and maintained order and discipline among the student body.

(Sound familiar?)

Again, this made sense in Paris since the student body was comprised of many young students, often as young as 8 or 9. The curriculum was based more on the arts and theology, although law and medicine were also offered. Furthermore, it offered more than one degree, the baccalaureate (or bachelors) and the doctorate.

In 1167, King Henry II of England banned English students from studying at the University of Paris. It wasn’t their fault, just good old European politics, and they’d be invited back in the mid 13th century. The now-displaced Paris students established the English universities of Oxford and Cambridge (along with that important legacy of English smugness). 500 years later, the descendants of the Oxbridge alumni would establish other universities in the New World along the lines of the Paris system (with an even more insufferable brand of smugness).

Finally, the graduates of the bastions of learning in the United States helped to form America’s public education systems. That system of K-12 learning still utilizes the Paris model to an extent. While a high authority establishes the curriculum, and a separate administrative body handles general school governance, it is the corps of faculty that manages the day-to-day needs of the students in the best way possible.

The teachers, like the medieval masters of Paris and Oxford, were considered “experts” in their field. This allowed them a degree of flexibility when planning lessons, establishing routines and procedures, and managing the classroom. Parents listened to their counsel with the same respect due a doctor or even an ordained minister, and trusted that teachers knew what was best in the education of their children.

So what went wrong?

After numerous reports showing the ruinous state of our children’s education, one factor became paramount among “reformers.” The “expert” in education, the teacher, was almost solely to blame in America’s downward educational spiral. Thus, it was important to give parents more control over their child’s education. Home schooling, charters, vouchers—all were designed to make parents (and in a subversive way, students) the principal actors in their learning.

Along with the “parents first” approach came a noticeable uptick in litigation over perceived abuses in the system. Parent-teacher conferences and visit to the principal’s office now require phalanxes of attorneys ready to serve on any perceived slight by the child. What’s worse, administrations on the district level set up protocols and controls that make teachers virtual whipping boys in even the most frivolous complaints.

Both of these developments due, unfortunately, have some basis in fact. Teacher training and education has long been an Achilles ’ heel in developing quality education. It’s hard to be an “expert” when there’s little scrutiny or rigor in selecting and training great educators.

Furthermore, one cannot overstate the very real abuses that take place in many classrooms. Verbal, emotional, and often physical abuse did, and still does, occur. No good teacher should engage in such negative behavior with students. Excesses in the system need to be controlled, even by legal means.

However, education is not served by handcuffing teachers with burdensome regulations, litigious parents and administrations quick to blame a scapegoat instead of standing firm with the faculty for the good of quality education.

Parents should be fully involved in a child’s education. Yet rather than sit parents and teachers together to solve common problems, reformers have set parents against teachers like rabid dogs in a fighting pit. Thanks to half-truths and hypercharged rhetoric, parents see the teacher as the enemy, with no room for compromise.

If a parent thinks they can teach their kid better than a teacher, by all means, go ahead.

If a parent thinks a charter school or a private school can educate better than a regular public school, best of luck to you.

But be warned: parents, if you choose to send your child into a school, any school, be prepared to surrender some of your power and discretion for the best interests of a child’s education.

In all schools—public, private or charter—parents need to trust that teachers are doing the right thing. All the teacher programs in the world, TFA, Teaching Fellows and the rest, are efforts in futility unless teachers are again regarded as “experts” who demand respect and discretion (to an extent, of course). Second-guessing teachers rarely helps a child, but rather gives more anxiety to an already tense situation.

Maybe education in this country never fully resembled the Paris model to which the lads of Harvard and Yale aspired. Yet it was a model that set the standard for Europe and America for almost a millennium.

Who are we to doubt its effectiveness now…

…unless, of course, you’re one of the inmates running the asylum. (Mayor Bloomberg, I’m looking in your direction.)

 

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Greetings!

Funny enough, I have the distinction of stopping and starting more blogs than I care to remember.  This blog, in particular, is about the perils of public education, as well as the successes.  Let’s just say that in my world, anything can happen.

What is my world, you ask?  A public school in the South Bronx, where 800 students hang on to my every word, especially about William Pitt’s strategy for the Seven Years’ War (Okay, this is probably where they fall asleep, but who cares.)  Through my own experiences, I hope to show what is happening…and what needs to happen…in public education.  Wow, I should stop pontificating; I sound like a Teach for America alum.

Anyway, I hope this blog is not only resourceful, but also humorous and enlightening.  Any suggestions are welcome.

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