More tasks, little time for teachers…

It is all about “time”.

For educators surviving the pseudo-accountability of the post-No-Child-Left-Behind world, “time” has devolved into just another four-letter word.

Former Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) President, Jane Stern, has inserted as her electronic tagline, “Every task takes time.” 

For as long as any perennially overworked educator can remember, all proposed methods for improving schools are remarkably consistent in their approach: Assign More Tasks to Teachers. Of late, policymakers might as well add, “…Without Regard to the Limits of Human Endurance.”

Bureaucrats labor mistakenly under the misconception that only time spent “on stage” with an audience constitutes “teaching” even though two of the four Domains in Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching are described as “off stage“, half of the teaching effort occurs when children are not in the room.  Still, most of the contractual day is devoted to the direct supervision of children. This is how all the “other-duties-as-assigned” systematize the inevitable intrusion of our chosen vocation into our personal time. When did sleep and leisure become optional? How did 12 hours of work for 7 1/2 hours of pay become a reasonable expectation?

Once upon a time, that intrusion was merely “inconvenient“; today, the encroachment on personal time is closing in on “intolerable“.

Why do more than half of all teachers leave the profession in five years? Could it be the desire for “family life” to evoke more than “Mommy’s grading papers.”? Eventually, a priority other than work arises that should not receive short shrift, a health concern for self, spouse, or parents, for example, and the workplace must become a secondary consideration. Disillusion sets in in direct proportion to the duration or frequency of such events and the propensity of supervisors to roll their eyes at any request for consideration of the circumstances.

Our communities provide some of the material resources needed for instruction, but it is left to teachers to find the time to plan lessons and correct assessments of learning because little-to-none will be forthcoming in their place of employment.

For newcomers to the profession, the time required simply to plan a lesson may exceed the time it actually takes to deliver it to students. Several well-organized lessons a day is a killing pace for even the most gifted educator.

Even experienced educators must continue to revise and update their lessons daily to remain current.

The minuscule amount of time allotted from the contractual day for actual lesson-planning is all too often usurped by the non-instructional vagaries of the school day. Filling in for a colleague; contacting a parent; a call to an unscheduled meeting ; workarounds for the broken down photocopier; data entry; an urgent letter of recommendation; any one of these events will far too regularly consume, in entirety, the so-called “planning period.”

The number of tasks assigned to teachers have increased relentlessly in recent years while untold instructional hours are lost to test prep and test proctoring. Teach more effectively and accomplish more with children in fewer instructional hours? Does that really sound possible to you? It is well past time to return to the old labor motto: “Eight hours for work; eight hours for sleep; eight hours for what you will!”

Our popular folk wisdom suggests that “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”.  The endless hours contributed by this nation’s educators are probably not the sole cause of dull instruction; however, we know that excessive workload creates far too many “former educators”.

Further Reading: The Prince George’s Sentinel

[This Commentary originally appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on September 18, 2014. Photo found at:  May Day]

Beware the Potholes on the Road to Educational Reform

ford-model-t-pics-17837Some years agos, a story appeared about the efforts undertaken by a certain midwesterner to keep his antique Model T running. The tires were increasingly difficult to find. He lamented that, even in junkyards, it was nearly impossible to locate spare parts. More than once he had been obliged to improvise temporary repairs. The gentleman so loved his old car that he would take broken or worn parts to a local machinist and have them rebuilt from scratch for what might be considered extravagant prices.

He was frustrated that he could only take his car out late at night or early Sunday mornings because it could no longer compete with the faster automobiles of today and their increasingly impatient drivers. Even tractors had more acceleration than his carefully maintained relic.

He confessed an irrational inability to let go of reminders of the halycon days of his youth.

His situation is an apt metaphor for the perils of Public Education in our time.

In my father’s days as a student, and to some degree even my own, the goal of Public Education was to supply an adequate education for all students possessing the will to avail themselves of the opportunity. A high school drop out rate of twenty-five percent was acceptable. Another twenty-five percent placed in college was a laudable goal. Fifty percent of students went out into the world with no more than a high school diploma.

Generally speaking, dropouts were consigned to menial or manual labor a century ago. If students left school able to read well enough to follow instructions and if they knew enough math to balance their checkbooks, then they could find a job in the industrial manufacturing base where the wages, if not conducive to comfort, were at least livable. Those who furthered their education found positions in leadership and management.

It may not have been the best possible system in educational achievement. However, the need for unskilled labor was great, so it was deemed generally utilitarian.

Recently, however, there has been a precipitous drop in the number of industrial manufacturing jobs. In the never-ending quest for profits, Capital is taking advantage of an increased reliance on robotics here at home or cheap labor overseas. Hence, the set of skills required by our young people to compete in the post-industrial society has changed irrevocably.

More importantly, the compendium of human knowledge has doubled in size every seven years during the same period.

Children entering school today will have to know more upon receipt of their high school diploma than college students needed to know upon graduation a couple generations ago.   Furthermore, the base of children who will have to meet such standards in order to be considered “educated” has widened to exceed 90%. Today, the goal is to educate very nearly every student (even those unmotivated to learn!).

The goals of Public Education have changed immeasurably in the last fifty years. Our schools are beset by ever increasing responsibilities and expectations. Unfortunately, the models of the school day and school year have changed negligibly. The allocation of resources as a percentage of the Gross National Product remains stagnant.

This nation still employs the 42-week agrarian calendar although our children-of-the-cornucopia no longer typically spend their summer in the fields.   We still place too many children in front of too few teachers for too many minutes of the teacher’s workday with minimal resources at hand. Working conditions for our educators are scarcely adequate to execute appropriate custodial care, much less so when it comes to setting rigorous and meaningful academic standards.

There will never be an educational model that solves this nation’s academic woes if it does not address the following:

  • more reasonable caseloads.
  • fewer minutes of direct teacher/student interface time for teachers.
  • more time-on-task for students across the calendar year.
  • compensation & benefits packages that will attract more of our best minds to the teaching profession (and, hopefully, keep them there!).

Any proposals that do not address these four fundamental issues are akin to tinkering with a model that has moved beyond obsolescence toward the status of an antiquity.   Educators continue to point to the absurdity of it all, but few policymakers elect to process the message.

Bureaucrats and policymakers pretend that holding teachers and/or students “accountable” will improve performance. In the meantime, our schools are on the verge of becoming little more than Standardized Test Administration Centers.

If tests improved education, teachers would give a test every day. Meanwhile, psychometricians are driving educational policy while teachers watch still more instructional days disappear from the calendar. What is achieved via testing? An old Model T on a modern dynamometer is still going to exhibit the emissions of an old Model T, isn’t it? Only so much improvement can be coaxed out of an archaic technology.

  • Boost the octane to improve engine performance? The engine breaks down.
  • Replace the engine with a more modern one? The transmission fails.
  • Load it with too many occupants? The suspension collapses.
  • Enter it in the Indy 500? It will finish dead last.
  • Blame the driver? A résumé will go out in the morning.

This is what it is like to teach in the Public Schools today. Teachers endure every day the unbearable prospect of being expected to accomplish the improbable with the often unwilling while supplied next to nothing to perform the task, and all the while being publicly ridiculed by certain conservative radio talk-show hosts for “failures” that are due to circumstances entirely beyond their control. Do you really wonder why half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years?

How long would you drive a Model T before you decided it was time to try another mode of transportation?

The former president of the National Education Association, Bob Chase, beseeched our membership not only to teach students the Pledge of Allegiance, but also to teach America to pledge allegiance to her children. It is clear to many educators, however, that too many citizens prefer to drive the Model T instead and just complain about the lack of performance. Let’s cover it up, put it in the museum where it belongs, and figure out how to finance a better performing model.

[The original version of this commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette circa 2014. It has been slightly revised.]

Where will children learn life’s lessons if not in the classroom?

“Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult.”   The Road Less-Travelled by Scott S. Peck

Teachers wear many hats. They are at once advocates, analysts, coaches, counselors, detectives, disciplinarians, instructors, mentors, motivators, social workers and sometimes surrogate parents. Still, there is one role that many teachers would prefer to shed; that is the role of edutainer. Teachers are not here to entertain their students; the very suggestion demeans the noble labor they have undertaken.

Suffice it to say that there was not one course in comedic improvisation required for a Master of Education diploma. If teachers could sing and dance and tell jokes, they would be in New York or Las Vegas. Yet, the most egregious mistake teachers can make today is to “bore” their clientele. Kindly read “bore” as a failure to entertain.

The children of today have watched MTV, Sesame Street and commercial programming to the point where the attention span of average high schoolers renders them incapable of reaching the period at the end of the sentence you are currently reading without the onset of acute somnolence.

Today, education experts urge teachers to change activities every ten-to-fifteen minutes to cope with this phenomenon. It is recommended that each activity appeal to a different sensory mode (visual, auditory, tactile, spatial, etc.) Teachers are encouraged to include games and student-centered group activities. The emphasis now is on how much “fun” can be generated in the classroom. Is it wise to always cater to what can be perceived as an intellectual frailty?

It is not my purpose to malign any of these strategies. They are, in fact, a part of my instructional repertoire. Every teacher should strive for an eclectic blend of methodologies and offer diverse strategies to their learners, but somehow it seems a disservice to our children to convey the idea that a “good time” is high on the list of inalienable rights.   After all, the founding fathers only saw fit to guarantee the right to pursue happiness! The realization of happiness is our personal responsibility.

Where, if not in school, are students going to learn about mental discipline, intellectual focus, short and long term goal-setting and overcoming adversity? Do we not risk spawning a generation of intellectual butterflies that flit ceaselessly from one train of thought to another without pursuing any to competency and mastery.

For my students, the unthinkable occurs every day in my classroom. They are expected to work (that most dreaded of four-letter words!). Every single day they must learn a new skill or perfect an old one. Decades of study may not suffice to truly master a second language, but real glory arrives with the attainment of improbable goals. Knowledge, though, is not a gift to be bestowed; it is a prize won through perseverance and tenacity. Unfortunately, these values do not mesh well in a society that tacitly endorses instant gratification as a lifestyle choice.

One morning before school, one of my promising students arrived early in my classroom. He had acquitted himself rather well in his first two semesters. He professed an undying love for the French language. He asked what it would take to attain fluency. He stated that his goal was to major in French. He wanted my advice. He pushed all the right buttons; he said that French sounded musical; he praised my teaching. He insisted adamantly that this was his dream and he would not be denied.

Then, I made my first mistake. I told him the truth.

“If you are really interested in becoming fluent in this language” I began, “then you must find a way over the next decade to dedicate 4,000 to 6,000 hours to the study of French dividing them more-or-less equally between the skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking. You will be obliged to wear headphones until your ears are sore. You will probably need to spend a year in the target culture, preferably after acquiring the rudiments of the language. You will have to live several years with a dictionary in your hand and be prepared to be the object of hopefully good-natured laughter as you make your first million mistakes. Fluency is seldom acquired prior to the completion of six years of daily study.”

This earnest young man calmly looked at me and replied, “Whew! I guess that eliminates being a French major.” He stood up and departed.

My answer, however truthful, was not the one he wanted to hear.

It would be undeniably more comforting to students, at least initially, to have the amount of work required for great accomplishments purposefully understated. Heck, learning to conjugate and spell accurately is just mindless drill after all! There’s really no need to practice your scales to automaticity in order to play an instrument well! Practice is just a sadistic form of perpetuated tedium! However, except for genuine prodigies, this attitude is the roadmap to mediocrity.

It seems today that we have placed the cart before the horse. We try to teach our children to hold themselves in high esteem before they have properly earned the right to do so. We attempt to protect them from the slightest notion of adversity while forgetting that the hardest steel is forged in the hottest fire. Where will our children develop character and tenacity if the classroom becomes an extension of the playground?

The path to the summit of Mt. Learnèd is a long and torturous climb fraught with trials, tribulations and sometimes even peril. It is a worthy undertaking because the higher we climb the farther our eyes reach to new horizons and the perspective from such heights is gloriously illuminating.   How will we inspire our children to depart the beaten path of all that is base in this world and make the ascent toward enlightenment?

Addressing the challenges of another generation, John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Our students today need to know that nobody is going to carry them up a slippery slope cracking jokes along the way.   They need to appreciate that hardship is involved in the acquisition of knowledge. Granted a helicopter ride to the top might be more diverting, but would it induce sufficient wisdom to appreciate the view?


[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal in August of 1999. Slightly revised in 2016.] 

Uncertain Future for the Teaching Profession

In an old behavioral psychology study that remains relevant today, scientists placed a canine in a 30′ X 30′ foot room. The floor was covered by 3’ square electrified panels. The scientists  delivered small electrical charges at random intervals to each of the thirty panels, and for six hours Man’s Best Friend dutifully rose and moved to another panel after each shock.

Merely six hours later, the “subject” recognized the inevitability of the punishment and realized the futility of moving to avoid the discomfort. The old dog had learned a new trick: lay still, and passively accept the random charges whenever the shock occurred.

In 1986, a professor of Cognitive Psychology asked a room full of soon-to-be-teachers what this behavioral study meant to us. The consensus in the room was that the dog represented children in the classroom, and that teachers need to avoid the “pain” of negative feedback as a behavior modifier or children would eventually just shut down and accept the shocks. Most of us resolved to work on providing positive and dignifying feedback for children during instruction as frequently as possible.

Teachers need children to be willing to “move” with them toward cognition. The emotional pressure cooker that exists in the modern classroom would sometimes offer challenges to the resolution to be “kind” for those of us with a tendency toward “tough love”.  

Now, the end of my teaching career is approaching at blinding speed. Perspectives do change with time. Today, for me, professional educators have become the test subjects, and “burnout“, although still surprisingly infrequent, is the logical extension of a prolonged negative feedback loop.

Simply to survive in the modern classroom entails some coping mechanism for all the thousand different shocks to which teachers are heir.

Teachers are subjected to unforgivably long hours, marginal compensation and lack of professional respect, lack of autonomy, inadequate facilities, scarce material resources. Parental support, recently listed as the single most important driver for academic achievement, is too frequently in short supply. All of these conditions, together, can eventually drive a classroom teacher to adopt an attitude of complacency.

However, throw in business-model accountability standards, top-down policy-making, negative portrayal in the media, attacks on collective-bargaining from the far right, the occasional bullying supervisor in the workplace, too many students held to too few behavioral standards, and yes, that new passing fancy of an exciting instructional model barely arouses a yawn at the bi-weekly faculty meeting.

Are there any hopeful signs on the horizon? It appears that many of the twenty-something Teach for America candidates are starting to grouse in the union hall  about their exploitation as a labor force after just a few years in the classroom. One such young man called to ask a question a while back, “Can they really expect me to do this much work?” Much to the chagrin of the “No Excuses” sect, we can be sure.


[The original version of this Commentary first appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on November 07, 2013. It has been slightly edited. ] 


‘Test-and-punish’ philosophy is flawed

A dozen years have elapsed since the United States adopted “test-and-punish” as a national philosophy of education reform. March Testing Madness will soon be upon us in Maryland.

Ironically, most Americans perform quite poorly on the simplest of tests. According to the Center for Disease Control, 69.2% of us step on a scale and find that we are overweight. Would more efficient scales or more frequent weigh-ins solve this problem?

So, where are the calls to action? Where is the legislation threatening to rescind medical licenses and close clinics unless 94% of the population attains a Body Mass Index lower than twenty-five?

The absurdity of such a proposition is readily apparent. Can you imagine if those diagnosed with malnutrition were denied access to healthy food?

Despite the sage counsel of my physician, a passion for fine food thwarts every effort at weight reduction. She warns of the longterm health risks at every office visit. Then, the local restauranteur offers a special of gorgonzola-stuffed, pecan-encrusted pork chops.

Can we agree that my General Practitioner should be absolved of any responsibility for my selection of such calorie-laden fare?

Educators advocate daily that students should adopt habits of lifelong-learning to ready themselves for life, career or college. Teachers work to instill the discipline required to achieve distant goals. In class, students usually apply themselves with alacrity. However, when presented with the choice between advancing an academic project or firing up the X-box, for instance, instant gratification frequently seizes the day.

Very few will dispute the importance of tests as diagnostic tools. The medical community employs any number of tests to determine the health of patients and to develop a treatment plan, when required. If the best interests of children are to be served, educators must adhere to similar protocols.

However, employing test results as metaphorical stocks-and-pillories for educators is as counter-productive to the education process as once was the humiliation of dunce caps for students, a long-abandoned practice now considered excessively harsh.

Further Reading @ The Prince George’s Sentinel

[The original commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette in February 2015. The graphic is from]

“Improve Test Scores, or else!” is not Education Reform

[A not-so-fond look back at the error of our educational ways during the Age of Accountability measures. Now that NCLB has been replaced by ESSA, how long will it be before the states move toward policies that allow assessment data to inform instruction rather than drive evaluation.]

The orders were clear and, at first blush, Sergeant Nickelby did not question them.

“Take your platoon and reconnoiter the town codenamed “Misfortune” prior to the arrival of the main force. Rumors are circulating that, in the chaos of enemy withdrawal, many families have been separated and your mission is to Leave No Child Behind.”

“This sounds simple enough!” the Sergeant said to his Corporal. “Perhaps a little good can come out of this mission and provide a little meaning in the absurdity of war.”

So, they packed up the gear in the troop carrier and set out.

It became immediately apparent, however, that leaving no child behind would be, at best, problematic. The enemy had taken all the adult “human capital” into forced labor, and the children had been on their own for some time. Sergeant Nickelby could not even get a firm count on the number of children, but there were many, many more than he and his men had the resources to handle. He got on the radio to the local commander.

“Major Shrub, there are too many children here for us to evacuate. We need some medical supplies, food, water and transports up here pronto…”

Major Shrub replied, “Line those children up and march them out of there on the double, hop to it!”

“But, Major Shrub!” the now befuddled Sergeant Nickelby began, “Some of these children no longer have any trust for us grown-ups, many are malnourished, some are ill, and still others are injured. Few, if any, of these children are prepared to keep up on a forced march.”

“Sergeant Nickelby, malingering is not permitted during this operation. Start physical training for the injured! Take their temperature and withhold milk and cookies from those with a fever. You are accountable for getting every one of those children where they need to be…”

Sergeant Nickelby could not believe his ears and, for the first time in his career, questioned the sanity of those in charge.

Major Shrub, growing increasingly impatient informed Sergeant Nickelby that if he could not accomplish this mission then he would be demoted, his men would receive fewer provisions and mercenaries would be brought in to replace them.

Sergeant Nickelby slammed down the headset, turned to his corporal and said, “This is no way to run a rescue effort!

…nor is it any way to regulate the Public Schools.


[I believe this Commentary originally appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal in December of 2005.] 

A Test a Day Keeps Good Teaching at Bay!

nurse_readingWhen one is ill, one goes to the doctor for tests to be done.

The tests are not a cure for what ails you. A test is simply a diagnostic tool. After the test, some protocol (a change in diet, lifestyle, medication, or even surgical intervention) needs to be undertaken in the hope of alleviating the symptoms.

We would never assume that a test cures the disease it diagnoses.

Except, that is, in the field of education. Politicians and bureaucrats tend to invoke a mantra of accountability buzzwords to address our concerns about academic achievement as though fear and trepidation about new assessments will somehow magically inspire all our young people to achieve at heretofore-unimagined levels. However, if students are not getting motivated for tests and quizzes administered by their teachers, with whom they have a personal relationship in the classroom, what makes a politician or bureaucrat think that these students will suddenly find their motivation to excel on a one-size-fits-all test written by strangers?

This is but an introduction to a perplexing conundrum.

Mention standardized testing in a room full of teachers and the reaction is quite likely to be visceral. Many teachers have come to mistrust the motives of those who mandate tests and to question the competency of the psychometricians who create them, and at times, yes, even to doubt the relevancy of what is being measured.

Many teachers contend that this rage for standardized testing is not really about improving education. Improving education would mean decreasing class size, paying teachers competitive salaries and supplying those teachers with adequate resources. Mandating tests is more about appeasing the three-quarters of the electorate that does not have school-age children with the “appearance” of doing something to improve education.

Furthermore, teachers are growing weary of threats of further “accountability”  (read that: punishing schools and teachers that fail to raise test scores) while being systematically denied adequate resources and working conditions necessary to perform the task. We may as well adopt a policy that punishes employees for falling ill as a result of their employer placing them in unhealthy working conditions.

It is certainly not that teachers are against tests per se. Teachers, this writer included, have been known to administer rigorous exams. One colleague said a while back, “If I thought testing would improve my students’ performance, I’d give them a test every day.” But “standardized” tests will not improve educational outcomes. Improved instruction in scenarios more conducive to learning will.

What follows is a cautionary yarn about the outcomes of high-stakes testing. Let’s play a game called “So Who Wants to Get Into Graduate School?” Here is an actual question from an actual diagnostic exam administered at a local four-year institution. It is in the form of an analogy.

“Too” is to “Loose” as “Low” is to:
A) Also
B) Tight
C) High
D) Trek

How many otherwise exceptionally talented people might be denied access to higher education because they were unable to make the necessary link to Nineteenth Century French Impressionism and the painter Toulouse Lautrec, or some other set of equally trivial factoids? Granted, this is but one egregious example of cultural bias in the world of “Gotcha!” testing, but it may be the subtle, less-transparent biases that are truly the more dangerous.

Admittedly, no test will ever be perfectly unbiased. The very act of choosing a topic to be questioned is a form of bias. But many tests are not even close to being adequately screened for cultural bias.

For example, this writer sat for the French section of the National Teacher’s Exam in 1986. Not one mention was ever made of Rabelais, Montaigne, Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, Rousseau, Baudelaire, Zola, Sartre or Camus; all of whom were on the required reading list for a Master of Arts in French Literature. No, at the height of the Political Correctness craze, every selection was from authors relegated to the “the supplementary reading list” such as Colette, Sand, Duras, Senghor and Dadié, undeniably wonderful authors all, but hardly the mainstays of French Culture and Civilization and certainly not the primary focus of my instructional program.

A good score did not prevent me from being perturbed that the test writers were more interested in punishing the test takers for what they had not studied than in rewarding them for what they had mastered. One is reminded of a quote from Charles Colton “…the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer.”

Still, increasing awareness of bias and poor test design has resulted in significant improvements in our mass assessments. There is still a long way to go, but we appear headed in the right direction.

Of more concern to those involved in Public Education is the leaching of resources from classrooms by those fixated on the assessment of academic accomplishments.

First, these tests cost money. Standardized tests are, in fact, cash cows for the companies who design and grade them. Regrettably, for all this money we spend on these tests, the testing companies only tell us what we have, or have not, accomplished. A doctor does not just tell you that you are sick; he tells you how to get better. Unlike your doctor who tells you what you need to do to improve your health, the testing companies are not forthcoming about what classroom practices will facilitate improved cognitive development. What is garnered from all these millions funneled into standardized assessments?

The principal by-products remain finger pointing and blame-game scenarios.

While many teachers place their hard-earned dollars on the counter to buy such staples as pencils, papers and other supplies for their classrooms, the state mandates and funds standardized tests to the tune of millions of dollars. How many teachers, aides and counselors are sacrificed in the name of testing? How many textbooks, audio-visual supplies and computers are line item vetoed to pay for the design, administration and grading of standardized tests? Tests that in no way increase the yield of academic outcomes.

Second, testing has become a drain on the already overloaded educational calendar. We keep increasing the number of tasks our schools are to accomplish, but the number of hours in a school year has been virtually constant for over a century. Welcome to your neighborhood “Standardized Test Administration Center”!

While teachers contribute countless hours beyond the “contractual” day just to keep things running, they see their instructional program disrupted for days, and sometimes weeks, as they themselves become over-qualified test proctors instead of just underpaid teachers. Students and teachers, alike, are caught up in innumerable sessions of re-teaching concepts because for days-on-end half the class is somewhere else taking some mandated test. Over-testing has an irrevocably deleterious effect on the instructional program.

Let the Maryland State Department of Education go get the funds to bring in children and test them on as many Saturdays as they wish, but no more instructional time should be sacrificed on the altar of standardized assessments.

Our children do not need to be tested ad nauseum.  Students need every instructional minute that can be squeezed into a calendar.

Teachers do not need the results of “standardized” tests to write a prescription that will improve academic achievement. Educators need to assess learning in the classroom day-to-day , perhaps even a minute-by-minute. That may not be possible when three dozen “clients” are in the room.

Children need to interact with an energetic and committed teacher for more than 1.5 minutes per hour of instructional time. Children need instruction delivered in adequately resourced classrooms with adequate resources without the risk of becoming anonymous souls lost in the crowd. It is high time to return resources to the classroom instead of enriching for-profit educational testing companies.


[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal in late January of 2001.]

No time for two steps forward and three steps back!

“An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal.”   Letter from a Birmingham Jail Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ultimately, how our state chooses to address the educational needs of all children concerns us not only as citizens, but as immortal beings. Our fates are wrapped up in the fates of the most powerless among us, those who cannot vote. True equity and adequacy of educational opportunity for all children is in both the spirit and the letter of the Bridge to Excellence Act. However, it must be noted that the Free State still allows “difference” to be made legal in the schoolhouse and it would honor Dr. King’s memory if that could be changed.

Because “class size” is not classified a “working condition” in the state of Maryland, neighboring school systems can have different staffing ratios that create vastly different learning environments for children. Equity does not exist when our school system can only afford to hire forty-seven teachers per thousand students and their school system is able to afford more than sixty teachers per thousand. Delivering instruction to thirty-plus economically disadvantaged students will never be the same job as teaching twenty, or fewer, affluent students with access to a superfluity of resources.

Nor is there adequacy when our school system must choose gasoline for the school buses OR books for the media center and their school system manages to budget for both. Such inequities have existed in Maryland for decades and the cascade of effects all roll down on student achievement as a result of teacher burnout and teacher turnover in the understaffed and inadequately equipped jurisdictions.

Half a century after Brown vs. the Board of Education, it is simply unconscionable that this society permits children-of-color and children-of-poverty to attend schools that are ill-prepared to deliver the services mandated by both the state and the nation and that misguided business model accountability measures threaten to do even further harm. This practice constitutes “difference made legal”.

It is no longer a mystery that the most effective schools tend to be blessed with greater resources – both human and material – the only mystery is why our political structure cannot achieve consensus on how to make those resources available to every child in every school. This despite the mandate of Article 8 in the Constitution of Maryland “The General Assembly, at its First Session after the adoption of this Constitution, shall by Law establish throughout the State a thorough and efficient System of Free Public Schools; and shall provide by taxation, or otherwise, for their maintenance.”

The passion that helped fill the streets of Annapolis in support of the Thornton recommendations must be rekindled, and we must call on our legislators to have the courage to stand for all children. Article 8, too, is a promissory note, not unlike the one described in Dr. King’s most famous speech. Maryland has made great strides in moving toward equity in the schoolhouse, though to be truly just on the moral plane, a thorough and efficient system of free public schools must render “sameness” legal for all parties.


[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the Prince George’s Gazette in 2015.]

Proctoring the Pre-test to the Practice Test before the Standardized Test?

At the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, the oratory of President Obama achieved inspirational heights! His comment about educational opportunity was incisive, “…we do expect equal opportunity, and if we really mean it, if we’re willing to sacrifice for it, then we can make sure every child gets an education suitable to this new century…”

The overwhelming majority of those who devote their lives to children fondly embrace the sentiment expressed in that rhetoric. However, we also wish that fewer plutocrats and oligarchs had the President’s ear when the subject becomes how best to achieve that goal.

Business-model accountability measures are effectively strangling Public Education.

Even a cursory examination of the data from 2000-2012 suggests that NCLB/RTT have been abysmal failures as education reform policy. It also confirms what the education community knew all along: our nation has done little to reverse what Jonathan Kozol called the Savage Inequalities in schools that serve economically-disadvantaged students.

As for closing what is becoming known as the Poverty Gap in academic achievement, more than a decade of the “test and punish” philosophy has failed to move the needle one iota. That gap has actually widened. The assessment craze has resulted, however, in much improved profit margins for testing companies and purveyors of curricula.

Every year, the disruption to the school calendar increases as schools cede ever more days to the delivery of federal & state mandated assessments. The testing schedule in Prince George’s County now comprises four pages and, nationally, school systems average 51 days of testing each year. Factor in “test-preparation” and interface training for the new, computerized PARCC platform and at least one-third of the school year is consumed by assessment related activities.

At a recent televised meeting of the PGCPS Board of Education meeting, a member of the Board asked if the system has any special activities planned to mark “Math Month” in April. Within seconds my iPhone buzzed with an incoming text message from a rank-and-file teacher. It said, “Sure, more tests.”

How could the sacrifice of so much time from teaching-and-learning reasonably be expected to improve student achievement?


[This commentary originally appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on 3/26/2015.]

Increasing focus on schools decreases use of prisons


To paraphrase the catchphrase from David Simon’s gritty portrayal of a year-in-the-life of a Baltimore detective squad: “The perpetrator is almost always poorly educated.”

Consider for just a moment this tidbit from the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Statistics: “About 41% of inmates in the Nation’s State and Federal prisons and local jails in 1997 and 31% of probationers had not completed high school or its equivalent.”

Compare that to the approximately 18% of the general population that does not graduate from High School and it suggests a strong correlation between the abandonment of educational pursuits and the commission of crimes punishable by incarceration. Only about one-third of those serving time behind bars obtain high school diplomas while imprisoned.

Studies also indicate a strong correlation between low educational attainment and criminal recidivism. This is a by-product of failing to meet the needs of the 1-in-5 socio-economically disadvantaged children that attend our public schools.

California spent $62,000 per prison inmate last year, no doubt much of the spending budgeted for remediation of reading and math skills. How many potential inmates might avoid poor life choices if spending in the public schools exceeded, by just a little, the current $9,600 per pupil on the left coast?

Nationally, we average about $5.00 per inmate for every $1.00 spent on children in school. How has our nation become so penny wise about education and pound foolish about rehabilitation?

Conservatives and Liberals need to unite around the cause of Public Education as the foundation of a sane and rational society. Investing in the welfare of all children and prioritizing education spending would likely decrease expenditures for prisons in the long run.

Might it be more cost effective if we, together, closed the valves in the schools-to-prison pipeline by hiring teachers instead of turnkeys? Our nation seems, instead, to have forsaken the wisdom of Frederick Douglass who wrote a century and half ago, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Further Reading…

[This Commentary originally appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on October 2, 2014.]