Tell your neighbors to do the “write” thing

It has been suggested that, shortly after its inception, the Académie Française engaged in social engineering as it codified the rules of French grammar.

Some contend that the institution of complicated agreement patterns constituted a concerted effort by elitists to insure that members of the lower classes would never master the subtleties of the written language thereby denying the poor an opportunity to improve their station and securing privileges for the rich and powerful who, coincidentally, had a nearly monopolistic hold on access to schooling.

Centuries ago arcane grammatical inventions served to stratify society and maintain the economic status quo. Today, similar ends are achieved by inequitable school funding that assures the perpetuation of a privileged class maintained by educational advantages over the competition.

The strategy has evolved in the 21st Century. Remember “The Golden Rule”?  Those with the gold always make rules that favor those with the gold.

No school system willingly increases class size or pretends that it is beneficial to children. Overcrowding is reserved for jurisdictions that are unable, or sometimes unwilling, to foot the bill for educating all children. Children suffer the consequences of such parsimony as they depart school ill prepared to compete at the next level.

In very general terms my students, even those who could read fairly well, exhibited deplorable writing skills. Penmanship seemed a forgotten art and legibility remained an elusive goal for too many. Mastery of capitalization, punctuation and accurate spelling eluded an absolutely horrifying percentage of my students. The “fine” points of thesis statement, topic sentences and writing objectively in the third-person baffled all save a few of the strongest.

What was a high school foreign language teacher to do when, in a class of thirty students, not one child could name the parts-of-speech or the parts-of-a-sentence? How are students to comprehend the complexities of grammar in a second language if they do not grasp even the rudiments of the ambient tongue? The committed educator is, therefore, obliged to remediate students and often at the expense of what might be deemed the “essential” curriculum of the target language. Consequently, these students still end up in arrears academically despite having advanced somewhat on the road to competence.

When will our community demonstrate the will to confront this crisis and deal with it in a meaningful way? What can be done to prevent our children from joining the half of the freshman class that drops out in the first year of college? Why do our students, many of whom exhibit high intelligence and academic potential, lack foundational skills to such a degree that future collegiate success is already in jeopardy?

How has it come to this? Blame it on what you will…

Blame it on insufficient intellectual stimulation during early childhood. Blame it on the conditions that prevail in classrooms dominated by the economically disadvantaged. Blame it on bland basal readers and a dearth of materials to enrich the curriculum during the elementary school years. Blame it on spending an entire academic career in overcrowded classrooms staffed by a largely itinerant workforce.

Blame this culturally induced dysgrafia on what you will. Casting blame is easy; funding the solutions is the hard part.

Why do our students write so poorly? That is addressed by a simple axiom: As the number of students in a class approaches infinity, so the number of writing assignments approaches zero.

The addition of merely a few students to each class adds exponentially to the time spent correcting papers. The grading of sixty – or more – daily quizzes represents easily a total of three hours of grading, logging and data entry each and every day. That, however, is the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Because writing is a “process” and not an “event“, teaching students to write well is time consuming.

First, students produce a draft. Then, teachers read the assignment and offer suggestions for improvement. Next, students revise and resubmit the document for re-evaluation.

Ideally, the teacher and the student should repeat this procedure really until both agree on the “final” product (although few writings can ever be considered edit neutral). Consequently, appropriate, meaningful and timely feedback on longer essays often demands hours for each assignment.

Excellent writers are notorious for obsessive revisions to text. In the notebooks of Gustave Flaubert, there are over 300 versions of one sentence from the scene at the ball in Madame Bovary. As soon as Montaigne received new editions of his Essais, he would begin adding revisions in the margins for the next edition leading one of his biographers to the title “Words in the Corner” for the book describing his process. 

What do you think really happens when teachers have a caseload of 180-220 students?

Regrettably, the amount of individualized attention that a child receives from a caring teacher remains directly proportional to the mean wealth of all the families that attend a particular school. Schools with a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students typically have the most overcrowded classes and the most overworked teachers. Therefore, the teaching of writing likely suffers more than any other discipline in such schools.

Teachers do not love multiple-choice assessments; most would prefer to assess student learning through writing. The logistics, however, render that impossible. Bubble sheets simply allow a teacher to grade 180 papers, compute grades and turn in results within a stipulated 48 hours.

Unfortunately, college professors and future employers will no longer evaluate students by their ability to identify the correct answer from a list of four possibilities. They will pose pointed questions and anticipate cogent and expansive answers that demonstrate precision of expression and clarity of thought. No pity for the unprepared will be forthcoming.

So, when neighbors ask why they should invest more money in our schools to lower class size, tell them the truth. It is simply the “write” thing to do.


[The original version of this “Viewpoint” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal on January 17, 2003. ]

Are schools and teachers really the problem?

More than a decade ago, the so-called No Child Left Behind legislation declared that all children would be proficient in reading and math by 2014.  Less than a decade later, Race to the Top promised a trickle of financial support to states that agreed to include student growth data in new models for teacher evaluation. Following more than a decade of business-style reforms to the nation’s schools, the achievement gap between affluent and disadvantaged children has actually widened. 

Many in the education community assert that the legislated “expectations” are unrealistic, if not completely unreasonable, as long the current model of the school day remains in use. We might as well say to highly effective oncologists that, in order to be considered successful, no patient must ever die, or that renowned surgeons must attain Johns Hopkins results from a battlefield triage tent. 

The public is regularly regaled with tales about the positive influence of individual teachers on the lives of their students. While inspirational stories abound, they remain anecdotal and constitute an inaccurate portrayal of the reality educators confront in the schoolhouse. In a society too dependent on soundbites, it is impossible to comprehend the chasm that yawns between an anomalous performance and the statistical trend. 

The uncertainty endured by educators, especially those in communities with a high concentration of poverty, is troublesome. Should a teaching career last long enough, existential tragedies will invariably populate the timeline. My high school experienced a little more than a decade-long run of burying a member of the student body every year, a couple years it was more than one: drive-by shooting; murdered girl found in woods; car accidents; gang related violence, just a couple by “natural causes”. 

Not all the stressors in a teacher’s life are so grave, though… The woes of the survivors are no less disconcerting. We shall dub my signature tragedy with the pseudonym of “Linda” because she possessed a singularly beautiful mind.

In a career that comprised several thousand students, she was among a “handful” of the most gifted children ever to grace my classroom. Innate inquisitiveness and a penchant for language learning were her trademarks. A sponge for language, she possessed an effortlessly imitative ear. She seldom needed to hear a word, expression or structure twice. She faithfully maintained a dialog journal, experimented in  poetry and prose, performed well on all written assessments, and effectively tutored her classmates. “Linda” was the  ideal student.  

She is also the “one that got away.” Her story haunts me to this day.  

We had backward-mapped her route to Advanced Placement French, and she acquitted herself remarkably on every challenge. All indicators were the proverbial “green” and she was working toward the goal of college credit in French out of high school. Unexpectedly, one day in the middle of her third year, she simply “disappeared” from school.

  • A phone call home? Disconnected
  • A query to the school resource officer? Have not heard anything. 
  • A visit to registrar? No request for records. 
  • Questions to classmates? Oh, she’s moved.

In a school system with high mobility, it was not unusual for students to depart suddenly. It was unusual for a high-performer to depart without even a “goodbye” never to be seen again. 

Over a period of months, the resource officer pieced together the story of an adolescent abandoned by her mother as a consequence for the daughter’s testimony regarding abuse in the home and the consequent jailing of a family member. So much for the furnishing the needs of “safety” and “familial support.”  Soon thereafter, on her own at the tender age of 16, “Linda” had married a young man seeking respite from life in the gang.

It remains a national tragedy that such wretched narratives of squandered human potential are permitted to proliferate in our land of plenty. Alas, nationally, we are too preoccupied by attributing blame to schools and teachers regarding student achievement when, as a colleague recently posted in a online forum, “How can teachers really get to work on Bloom’s taxonomy before they begin to address Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.”

[The original version of this “Commentary” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on Thursday, July 31, 2014. It has been revised for content & style. The photo of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes from ]

Our public education system is being undermined

The determined enemies of public education currently are working, mostly behind the scenes, to undermine the public’s confidence in what once was, and still should be, among our most revered institutions: the public schools. 

Certain ideologues will argue that the education of children does not fall within the purview of government, and that education is far too important an issue to be entrusted to those in public service. However, the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States directs our representatives to “promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty.” One would be hard pressed to name one human endeavor that will better bestow prosperity on posterity than facilitating  a complete education for all citizens. 

Is there any more reliable way to oppress a people than by fostering conditions that permit ignorance to fester? The Founding Fathers were abundantly clear on that topic. The very survival of our democracy – perhaps even the survival of our species – depends upon our collective resolve to deliver an adequate and equitable education to all children. To paraphrase Anne Sexton, the dissemination of knowledge must remain the awful rowing toward justice. 

Our most challenged schools are wrongly touted as representative of failed education policy and reforms. Frequently, corporate reformers propose solutions that favor private institutions and choke off the funding for public ones; vouchers, charters, tax credits, and accountability measures deliver advantages mainly to more affluent citizens and condemn the most disadvantaged of our society to a fraction of a complete education. One conservative radio talk show host likes to speak dismissively of the “public screwels“, and his colleagues on the airwaves echo the Big Lie, ad infinitum,  by inculcating listeners with anti-public school propaganda. “The schools are failing! Teachers are not teaching!”

Ample evidence to the contrary remains invisible to eyes that refuse to see

Researchers have clearly demonstrated that economically disadvantaged children in so-called poorly performing schools arrive in pre-school already lagging behind their peers. Typically, such children make gains during the school year and then lose ground again during the summer hiatus. In other words, their teachers are teaching but systematic reinforcement of acquired skill is lacking outside of the classroom. The evidence suggests that the better-equipped schools and extra-curricular educational enrichment programs furnished to economically privileged children skew the performance curve on standardized assessments across the scholastic career. 

As for the teacher retention issue, the 38-week school year and the 7.5 hour school day are always used as a justification to summarily dismiss demands for professional compensation for educators.

“What are teachers complaining about?” the naysayers ask. Well, even a cursory investigation reveals that an overwhelming majority of committed educators devote 10 to 12 hours-a-day to the required tasks of delivering effective instruction with little hope of finding any respite. Meanwhile, teachers are also required to implement new top-down reforms du jour, and to obtain an advanced degree that maintains certification for a compensation package that renders it impossible to support a family without a second job…

Is it really any wonder that more than half of all newcomers to the profession find themselves unable to endure more than five years in our overcrowded classrooms? Teachers have long advocated for lower class size to permit more individualized attention for every child , but the current funding structure based on property values virtually guarantees that school districts dominated by poverty will experience unfavorable staffing ratios. 

Ironically, critics of public education praise reports that show home-schooled children outperform their peers from the public schools on standardized assessments. No public school teacher managing classes of more than three dozen students is shocked by this statistical tidbit and would likely claim that it supports the argument in favor of reducing class size.  However, home schooling will never be a realistic option for a working, single mother of two seeking a brighter future for her children. Her children deserve to be nurtured in a well-funded, adequately-staffed neighborhood school.

A truly just society would allow no lesser school to exist; it is simply inexcusable that the wealthiest nation on the planet continues to shirk the duty of nurturing the intellectual growth of all children. 


[The original version of this “Viewpoint” appeared on April 23, 2003 in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal.]



Which comes first: the child or the curriculum?

Our nation remains engaged in a profound philosophical debate about the overall direction that education reform shall take, and two intransigent factions have yet to find a workable middle path. However, it is difficult to achieve a compromise when legislators lend credence, first and foremost, to those who are able to fund political campaigns rather than to those who spend their professional lives with children. 

Educators tend to believe that curricula must be shaped to meet the needs of children and business model reformers tend to believe that children must be shaped to meet the demands of the curricula. Educators tend to devote their efforts to inspiring children to become lifelong learners; the corporatists tend to covet short term results on the acquisition of necessary job skills. Thus far we have been engaging in arguments of “either/or” when we should be finding a path to “both/and”… 

For those in the education community, the views of corporate reformers might hold a bit more sway if young people arrived in our classrooms like identical little widgets manufactured in controlled environments with exacting mechanical precision, or even if learners simply were shown to process knowledge in much the same way and at the same pace. Neither assertion, however, applies to children at all.

The wide variance in acquired skills and knowledge of students manifests itself in classrooms at all levels, but it originates between the cradle and pre-kindergarten, well before children meet their first teacher. A kindergarten teacher may supervise between 15 to 30 students who, during the first five years of life in the home, have been exposed to as few as 3,000,000 or as many as 15,000,000 spoken words in the years preceding registering for school.

That one variable, alone, likely affects the academic progress of students and causes repercussions throughout an academic career.

Groups of children, however, present a host of variables of nearly equal scope and gravity. Every day, the classroom teacher must deal with standard deviations above and below the mean for any number of traits, such as: native intelligence, intrinsic motivation, curiosity, the care and attention of nurturing adults, the influence of appropriate role models, English as a Second Language, access to educational resources and adequate nutrition. Children are as infinite in combinations and permutations as are snowflakes, and little people are very nearly as fragile.

As a nation, we appear to love cute slogans like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top. However, “To the victor goes the spoils!” and “Winner takes all!” are poor drivers for educational achievement. We seem to forget that only one person wins a race. Affluent children tend to start their schooling with an enormous head start in that race long before they ever meet their first teacher, and too many disadvantaged children start that race with their legs bound together at the starting line.  

“No man is an island…” wrote John Donne. Rather than succumb to pressures to subject children to endless competition and social darwinism in the classroom, we must remember that great accomplishments in life are usually the products of cooperation and collaboration. Finally, until our social policies more efficiently ensure that children begin their schooling with all requisite skills for academic achievement, educators will need to focus on adapting curricula to meet the needs of children and not the other way around. 

[The original version of the “Commentary” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on Thursday, March 20, 2014. It has been revised and updated.]

Lack of Stability in the Teaching Force Harmful to Children

In 2007, the Maryland State Education Association added the following language to its Resolutions, “MSEA believes all children possess a fundamental civil right to have access to a high-quality system of public education, grounded on the principles of adequacy and equity.”  To this very day, newcomers to the teaching profession are far more likely to avail themselves of the proverbial “revolving door” than to achieve mastery of the art and science of instruction.

While our schools have improved dramatically in the last decade, this community still faces some critical decisions every budget year about recognizing the importance of retaining effective educators. As Linda Darling-Hammond opined a few years ago, “You cannot fire your way to Finland.” Retention and making a viable career choice of teaching   need to become our priorities.

What kind of teachers do we want to deliver instruction in our Public Schools? Do we prefer education “journeymen“, possessing marginal pedagogical preparation, who see a couple years in the classroom as a steppingstone to some other line of work? Or, do we want highly-qualified professional educators, well-steeped in pedagogical principles, and committed to a career in the classroom?

Since 2008, the Prince George’s County Public Schools have hired 8,100 teachers in a workforce of 9,600. The cost of on-boarding new employees can reach, according to some estimates, nearly $50,000 per employee. 

Teachers depart for a host of reasons. Chief among those reasons, of late: the inability of the employer to honor the terms of the Negotiated Agreement. Teachers who have remained loyal to the school system remain three years in arrears on the pay scale. 

Lack of appropriate logistical supports for those new to the profession, and an excessive workload that intrudes upon every waking hour, follow closely behind. Far too many teachers are so soured by the experience, here, that they abandon their teaching license and/or the profession entirely.

It takes time and persistence to become an effective teacher and to develop an expansive instructional repertoire. The learning curve is long, and most educators really hit their stride somewhere between their sixth and tenth year. Ironically, less than half of our new-hires will arrive at a sixth year in the classroom. It is the children of Prince George’s who suffer the consequences when the next new-hire begins the process of acquiring an instructional repertoire mostly through trial-and-error. “Sink-or-swim” is not even an appropriate way to teach someone to swim…

A half-dozen neighboring jurisdictions are quite content to improve their teaching force by enticing teachers away from a financially-strapped school system that, out of sheer necessity, invests so heavily in professional development. Lured away by significant increases in compensation and a lower caseload, is there any doubt in your mind that those departing teachers are among our most highly-effective educators? To achieve the vision of the Thornton Commission and the Bridge to Excellence Act, Prince Georgians need to shift that paradigm and fund the schools so that younger siblings have a decent shot at having the same great teacher their older brothers and sisters experienced. 

[This much revised version of “Commentary” appeared in the Prince George’s Gazette on April 30,2015.]

When did Upkeep Become Cost Neutral?

All too frequently these days some member of the medical community offers sage counsel about how best to fight back against the ravages of time as though a reminder is needed that my “youth” has left the building…

Granted, such advice might have proven more useful a half-dozen concussions ago, or more utilitarian had it preceded the inhalation of acids and asbestos while working in the industrial sector, or more beneficial had I been made aware of the effects on my bladder of “holding it in” for decades during the teaching day. Having grown up in orchards in the age of DDT lingers at the back of my mind; my first adolescent “health crisis” coincided with the introduction of Teflon in the family kitchen. So, adhering to a recommended spartan regimen of diet-and-training  has been imposed to forestall the further ravages of Father Time… 

The age of inevitable decline is an ordeal, but it beats the grim alternative.

All things have a life expectancy. Some achieve it; some fail to do so. Some might even surpass it, but nothing in the material world avoids the eventual crumbling into dust. One day, even the pyramids will be a distant cultural memory should the species be so fortunate as to survive that long… 

So, pardon this grizzled, old veteran of the classroom for taking exception with our political leadership and their admonishments reported in The Baltimore Sun Times during the budget cycle in 2015: “A message to Maryland school districts from the Board of Public Works: take better care of what you have.”

A fine sentiment when resources are available, but when Superintendents are compelled to choose between “the maintenance of the physical plant” or “the delivery of instruction”, the immediate welfare of children should be our highest priority. Still, the projected cost of the backlog of much needed renovations in our public schools tallies well in excess of $2 billion. Two decades at the current rate of spending for the Capital Improvement Plan would not take care of the backlog, let alone address new needs.

The maintenance of physical plants requires sufficient resources in the line-item for Capital Improvement Projects. Much to the detriment of the architectural integrity of our schools, planned maintenance has too long been considered a legitimate budgetary “cost avoid”. Most physical plants can sustain one bad year of budgeting; a decade of postponed maintenance can take a building past the point of no return. 

Every homeowner knows the devastating effects of sunlight on exposed painted surfaces and that the actions of the universal solvent – water – will eventually lead to roof replacement. In too many years, extreme cold wreaks havoc on plumbing fixtures and exposes critical weakness in climate control.

Maintenance of a physical plant needs to be systematized beginning when a building opens. Postponing of proper maintenance – as has been the practice for decades – leads to the lunacy of contemplating a facelift when the projected date of obsolescence is at hand, or worse, in the distant past. Some of our schools buildings have nearly doubled their anticipated lifespan.

Shivering children have difficulty concentrating in classrooms where visible vapor is exhaled and active Classroom Management should not entail arranging desks around the drip buckets. Let every classroom offer respite from the elements!

Merely attending school should never become, for any parent’s child, another experience suitable for classification as an Adverse Childhood Experience.

[This Commentary originally appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on March 2, 2015. It has been slightly revised for readability and to keep it current. ]

Maintenance-of-effort law still shortchanges students


[The original of this Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on February  13, 2014. It has been slightly revised for the purpose of rendering more current.]



Children Should Never Be Left to “Sink-or-Swim”

Regular readers may have noticed the tendencies of this writer to favor the omniscient perspective in persuasive writing and to eschew the use of the first-person singular whenever possible. Thank you, Mr. Russell Sellers, for incorporating that into your 10th grade English curriculum! Your multi-colored editing pens and constant encouragement worked wonders.

Just this once, though, kindly indulge the author a moment of personal privilege for making use of the subject pronoun “I”.

As you may have guessed by now, I am a child of poverty. I employ the “present tense” purposefully, here, because surviving poverty irrevocably shapes the way my inner child perceives the world.  While never hungry or destitute, I grew up hand-to-mouth poor. The child of two high-school drop-outs, my parents held subsistence jobs until fairly late in their adult lives. Early on, they managed to provide basic material needs and lots of love. The so-called “extras” were few and quite far between. Any request for something beyond the necessities of life was invariably greeted by the mantra, “We don’t have that kind of money!”

Unfortunately, a decade of acute marital strife for my parents coincided with my adolescence. I will spare you the graphic details, but as the Owen Wilson character offers in the movie “Armageddon”, “Pretty much the scariest environment possible.”  Emotional safety was not to be found at home when domestic violence entered the fray. A therapist’s couch may be the only appropriate venue for sharing what passed for my home life between the ages of nine and fifteen. For an accurate depiction, a nom de plume would definitely be in order. 

Suffice it to say that on top of those challenges, as a consequence of long hours in their respective workplaces, my years as a latchkey child also furnished access to a world of temptations with too little monitoring by my frequently absent parents. Increasingly “bored” by school and ensnared by the counterculture, truancy ensued. Due diligence for the neighborhood school back then was a phone call to my parents to inform them that I had not attended school for a number of months and was about to be withdrawn.

So, following in my parents’ footsteps, I left the nest early and dropped out of high school to support myself. A few years of hedonism followed in tandem. Those ended when an armed thief very nearly took my life for the few dollars in my pocket.

The loss of employment due to a long recuperation, and the lack of a diploma, would lead me, eventually, to a four year stint in the Navy and what Herman Melville aptly called “the promiscuously vile company of the forecastle”. Not all of the lessons learned in the military were of great benefit, but the rediscovery of discipline worked to my advantage.

Government Equivalency Diploma while enlisted and an education stipend from the GI Bill made it possible for this ne’er-do-well to attend junior college upon discharge and, then, the University of Maryland. The last year of graduate school was funded by the Christa McAuliffe Scholarship awarded by the state of Maryland for those seeking to teach in the public schools. The rest, really, is history.

So, what did the greater society receive in return for its investment in my college education? For starters, it yielded a highly-successful, activist-educator who would return to spend an entire teaching career in the majority-poverty school that he had abandoned twenty years prior. A couple hundred students left that majority-poverty high school with college credit in French through the Advanced Placement program, and those that did not score three or above left high school with some experience of college level rigor. Furthermore, the parents of every truant student were always contacted and the administration always informed in triplicate.

Would any of these fortuitous events have occurred had my early childhood been scarred by my parents’ travails instead of my adolescence? Probably not, according to Paul Tough in Why Children Succeed. Too many Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) too early in life inhibit the formation of “resilience and grit“. 

Nor can there be any illusions about the likelihood of this high school dropout achieving any of these outcomes had I, as a caucasian, not belonged to the privileged class of a stratified society, an advantage that should no longer exist in an inclusive world.

Social justice begins in the schoolhouse. We must reach all children earlier to optimize the path to self-actualization. A couple decades ago these chronicles began by quoting Aristotle and the citation bears repeating,  “The fate of empires shall be determined by the education of youth.”

[This slightly re-worked piece appeared as my last Commentary in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on 6/30/2105.  It was my last piece written as President of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association.]

Does classroom ambiance contribute to student achievement?


[The original of this Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on September 22, 2014. It has been slightly revised for the purpose of rendering more current.]

Another tale of two school systems


[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on September 12, 2013. It has been slightly revised for the purpose of rendering more current.]