There is more to school than reading, writing or math

In his Remarks on the Youth Fitness Program in 1961, John F. Kennedy proposed that, “The Strength of our democracy and our country is really no greater in the final analysis than the well-being of our citizens.” That was more than fifty years ago, and the healthcare paradigm in this nation still reflects a preference for a pound of medical intervention over an ounce of preventative measures for illness or injury.

The decades-long trend of increased childhood obesity, and the chronic maladies associated with it, should cause alarms to sound across this country. Even President Kennedy’s proposed minimum of “fifteen minutes of vigorous activity daily” was inadequate to the task of raising fitness levels. Our failure to address this issue will likely result in a generation of adults needlessly dependent on an already-strained healthcare system.

The ancient Greeks maintained that strong minds are improved by strong bodies.

Basic survival requires the presence of clean air, pure water, nutritious food and shelter from the elements. In order to thrive, the offspring of sentient creatures also require access to time for “play” that nurtures survival skills and general fitness. Feline “play” is ultimately a rehearsal for the hunt. For human beings, “play” is crucial to the awakening of imagination and intellect. 

Both structured and unstructured play time are absolutely essential to the physical, social and intellectual growth of children. Adequate time for play is critical to their physical and mental well-being. Thirty minutes a day at aerobic threshold is a bare minimum to maintain health. So, why are we still stuck with a fifteen-minute minimum recess for children in a place called “school”? Do we have a crisis in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)? Or, might it be that children simply have insufficient outlets for pent up energy? 

We no longer allow children the time to be children. The time comes soon enough to set aside childish things…

For starters, in the dozen years since the enactment of the pernicious No Child Left Behind legislation, school schedules have been compelled to strictly narrow the curricular focus to reading and math skills. Schools are devoting ever more of the school calendar to test preparation and test administration because their very survival depends on achieving “acceptable” results on standardized assessments.

Instructional programs, especially in schools serving the socio-economically disadvantaged,  have therefore experienced reductions in enrichment programs, physical education, recess, and even nap-time for pre-Kindergarteners. Such regimentation ignores the needs of the whole child.

In the current climate of test-based accountability, it will be no small task to allot time in the school day to provide an opportunity for children to achieve the recommended minimum of 30 minutes at aerobic threshold required to maintain optimal human health. So far, only a handful of states have achieved that goal.

We ignore national goals for physical fitness at our own peril.

Further Reading: It works in Texas!

[The original version of this Commentary appear as There’s more to school than Reading, Writing & Math in the Prince George’s Sentinel on July 01, 2015.]

Has the village abdicated its responsibility for raising children?

*The West Wing character

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

Ready to be a teacher? There will be a quiz…

Welcome to the hot seat. So, let’s play Who Wants To Be A Teacher?

You know the rules, of course. There are no free calls or lifelines. Here is your piece of chalk. You are on your own

Answer fifteen straight questions correctly and you will win the grand prize of a Teaching Certificate. This certificate will guarantee you the privilege of struggling against impossible odds for three decades to win the hearts and minds of the 5,700 children likely to enter your classroom.

Now, let’s answer the first question for which the prize will be the much-coveted reduced-interest-rate on your mortgage. If you miss at any time, you will revert back to the consolation prize of a ream of paper. So, let’s get to the first question!

 “A person described as a Jack-of-All-Trades is also characterized as a Master of …”

A. Nun
B. One
C. None
D. Education

There is a lot riding on this. So, think it through carefully.

The contestant wavers. “A” and “B” are obviously the distractors. It seems a fairly sure bet that item “C” is the answer, but our contestant knows some teachers and item “D” remains a troubling possibility.

The audience is in suspense as the contestant wrings her hands and wipes her forehead and fervently wishes she could call a friend or poll the audience.  

So, let us discuss her quandary.

Teaching is not just one job. Classroom instructors hold a panoply of part-time jobs that require them to engage in frenetic multi-tasking simply to survive.

Teachers are part-time clericals, part-time security guards, part-time detectives, part-time counselors, part-time administrators and finally, by sheer necessity, part-time instructors.

“Part-time clerical?” you ask. From Advanced Placement to Special Education, most teachers drown in a morass of paper: endless corrections with no hope of reprieve, data-entry, Individual Education Programs, letters of recommendation, requests for daily individual progress reports, quarterly progress reports and gradesheets (and the computation thereof!), to name but a few.

Other professionals staff out various tasks; teachers carve time out of their evenings and weekends to do it all themselves.  

“Part-time security guard?” you ask. The assignment of insufficient support personnel in the building leaves teachers with the responsibility of being in the hallway before school, between classes and for some portion of their so-called “planning” period supervising children in passage. Instead of organizing as one class departs and preparing for the next to arrive, potential instructional time is lost at the beginning and end of every class because keeping a lid on the pressure cooker in the hallway is a much higher priority in most schools.

“Part-time detective?” you ask. Because much of the information in the school database is obsolete within months of being acquired, it can take weeks to make the “required” parental contact prior to administrative intervention for attendance or behavior problems. Negotiating the labyrinth of disconnected phone lines, prior employment, changed addresses and serial guardianship can be a daunting task, especially in schools where 30% of the student body rotates between the ninth and the twelfth grade.

“Part-time counselor?” you ask. Go ahead and scold your students about missing assignments only to discover that one is living in a homeless shelter, or that another is living in a home for unwed mothers with an ailing six-month infant and no health care. Just luring some of these children into the schoolhouse constitutes a daily miracle as they confront the onset of adult consequences during adolescence. How does the school deliver meaningful supports to such students when teachers routinely have 190+ students and guidance counselors may advise 480 students?

 “Part-time administrator?” you ask. The administration, too, is consistently understaffed. Teachers are enlisted, therefore, to help manage the school. Ostensibly, this serves to train future administrators, but such time would be better-spent planning lessons if better instruction were the primary function.

The inevitable desire to see increased academic performance leads teachers to accept unpaid committee assignments and underpaid department chairmanships that invariably consume far more time than foreseen.

 “Part-time instructor?” you ask. Invariably, it is instructional priorities that suffer as typical teachers struggle to satisfy the myriad responsibilities that comprise their workday. Do you want your child’s teacher perfecting a lesson plan, providing feedback on some written work, OR standing in front of the school counting the school buses as they arrive? Which of these sounds like an optimal use of the talent pool?

The time has come for teachers to perform the task for which they are trained.

In most cases, teachers just want to teach. Teachers need the time to plan & deliver instruction and, then, assess whether learning has taken place. If the improvement of learning outcomes is the goal, then respect the act of teaching by severely reducing, if not entirely eliminating, non-instructional duties.

The community must find a way to furnish adequate human resources in support of teachers and children.

Much ado has been made in recent months about the projected teacher shortage. That much-discussed shortfall of educators is a figment of our collective imagination.

There is no shortage of persons certified to teach in this nation. There is a shortage of people willing to accept a 60-hour workweek for a 35-hour paycheck.

Former teachers do not disappear from the face of the earth. They quit the profession for just cause after dispassionately examining the ratio between heartache and reward. Teachers come into the classroom for the opportunity to teach children, and they leave because they are systematically denied the opportunity to excel at their chosen endeavor.

Our children deserve more than a frazzled Jack-of-All-Trades in their classrooms. They require the focus of a Master-of-One-Trade and until such time as the primary functions of teachers are delivery-of-instruction and assessment-of-student learning, we must anticipate a dearth of contestants for any game show called “Who Wants to Be a Teacher?”

Further Reading: The situation has not improved… :

Further Reading: Teacher Retention in Georgia?

Number of Future Teachers Reaches All Time Low

[The original version of this “Viewpoint” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal on December 19, 2001.  The photo is from the game show “Who wants to be a Millionaire”]

Fear and Loathing in the American Classroom: Debunking the the Myth of the Teacher Shortage

Exodus 5: 10-11 — “And the taskmasters of the people went out, and their officers, and they spake to the people, saying, Thus saith Pharaoh, I will not give you straw. 
Go ye, get your straw where ye can find it: yet not aught of your work shall be diminished.

Human willingness to endure suffering has limits. When subjected to an unreasonable workload, those who labor will eventually seek any alternative to ceaseless toil. The burden of national expectations — the edict to leave no child behind, for example — have been placed squarely on the shoulder of educators with predictable results. Educators pose the question, “Where are the increased human and material resources to meet this vastly expanded goal for our Public Schools?” Our society has mostly responded with Exodus 5: 11, see above

Recently, the media have shared the concerns of school systems struggling to recruit educators into their classrooms. Nationwide, teacher preparation programs also report insufficient enrollment to furnish the replacements for the looming wave of baby-boomer retirements. Do the math: educators are leaving the profession faster than we can prepare their replacements. 

These stories are becoming a rite of autumn as schools open, and the trend is no longer sustainable. 

Late each spring, thousands-upon-thousands of teachers — most of whom are effective practitioners in the classroom — pack up their materials one last time, raise the white flag of surrender and tender letters of resignation. The issue is most apparent in regions with high concentrations of poverty; it is not uncommon for such schools to experience a complete turnover of the faculty every few years. Dr. Richard Ingersoll established long ago that in excess of 50% of teachers do not make it to a sixth year in the classroom.

It is true that not all teachers leave the profession. A tiny portion will receive promotions. A larger group will migrate to greener educational pastures. Too many, however, succumb to the despair of unwieldy demands in the workplace and simply find another line of work. Recently, during an impromptu exit interview, an about-to-be-former educator responded tearfully when asked what she would do next. “Anything else!”  She doubled her salary and works in the IT industry, now.

What is it like to teach in 2015? With but the rarest of exceptions, the teaching profession is characterized by lack of professional autonomy in addressing the educational needs of children, excessive intrusions on personal time, archaic resources, unreasonable caseloads, inadequate facilities and, to top it all off, vilification by the punditry and the political class.

Working conditions are so generally abhorrent that slightly more than 9% of the nation’s teaching force of 4.5 million fails to survive even the first year in public education. Every single year, several hundred thousand teachers simply walk away from a teaching credential that required several years to obtain. Across this thirty year career, a surfeit of educators has only existed during severe economic downturns when other work was scarce. 

So, the shortage of teachers does not really exist. The nearly constant churn in the teaching force suggests, instead, the more intractable problem of economically-challenged school systems lacking the capacity to place committed educators in a position to effect positive change in the lives of children. Change that dynamic and a horde of former educators stands ready to return to the classroom. 

The National Center on Teacher Quality has proposed five ways that school districts might stem the constant hemorrhaging of potential career teachers. NCTQ proposes the creation of improved career pathways, addressing inequities in teacher placements, embracing teacher-led professional development, supplying more job-imbedded time for collaboration and untethering teacher evaluation from tests. The impediments? Cost implications abound.

Unless the community is content to stifle the aspirations of educators and squander the dreams of children, the focus must soon shift attention away from annual recruitment of novices and over to the retention of more experienced, highly effective educators. Making every classroom a manageable workplace must become the national priority. Our children deserve nothing less.

The annual exodus of teachers from the profession should result in the sounding of klaxons across this nation because it places the next generation of children at risk. Turnover, however, is the only logical outcome of abrogated contracts, classroom overcrowding, obsolete materials, lack of support and leaking roofs. All who abandon the vocation of shaping young minds are declaring forthrightly that they simply refuse to gather their own proverbial straw.

Further Reading: neaToday…

[This is a much revised version of a commentary that appeared in The Prince George’s Sentinel on November 8, 2015.]

Looking at Schools Through Rose-Colored Glasses?

A reader once asked, “Why don’t you ever write positive articles about the good things that good students do in our schools?” Rest assured, dear readers, that motivated students are among the principal reasons that many teachers endure, despite daunting challenges, for decades.

One such young lady grew up in El Salvador. Witness, at a very tender age, to the armed barbarism of the Death Squads along her neighborhood street, she persevered in her newly-adopted country. She might have withdrawn into precocious nihilism, but instead remained  bright and ebullient despite her early introduction to the unspeakable horrors of humankind. With an elementary grammar and a reader, she had taught herself to speak French, virtually unaided, to just short of near-native fluency prior to her arrival in my classroom while still learning English as a second language. 

In her second year of French, she memorized and performed recitations of La Fontaine’s “Les Animaux malades de la peste” and Perrault’s “Le Petit chaperon rouge” for the advanced classes. The memory of this intellectual feat still stupefies me. She hugged and thanked me when she got the best possible score on a competitive National Exam though my contribution had been, at best, that of a pedestrian giving directions to a passerby. Later, she received a full-ride scholarship and graduated with honors.

Many are the remarkable reminiscences that teachers might share.

Such recollections, however, also plant the seeds for the second career crisis suffered by many a teacher. The first? Teachers quickly realize that they are expected to deliver far too much for far too many young people with far too few resources. The most heartfelt and patient ministrations are spread too thin on a clientele of overwhelming number.

Later, usually between the third and fifth year, teachers begin to question their relevance in the educational process. The strongest students succeed admirably no matter who is teaching; the weakest students fail to thrive academically despite even herculean efforts; and finally, an overwhelming number of average students are content to slide by with meeting minimal requirements. If internalized, this can lead to feelings of professional impotence and futility akin to the feeling of walking up a very long escalator in rapid descent.  

Teachers must frequently accept on faith, alone, that their efforts are producing desired effects on the academic achievement of students. Occasionally, students return years later to inform teachers that instruction has borne fruit, but such anecdotal evidence often fails to overcome a feeling of futility. Let’s call this feeling “Instructional Dysfunction Syndrome”. Even though it is more perception than reality, it ends too many teaching careers prematurely.

As tempting as it may be, taking too much pride in the high achievers that cross our thresholds is pointless. As the French are so fond of saying, “Even a blind pig occasionally finds a truffle.” Chances are that the high achiever’s successes are more accurately attributed to familial support and personal motivation than to inherently superior instructional practice. Such students likely succeed no matter who delivers instruction.

Students at the other end of the spectrum tend to command more attention from teachers in the public schools. Low achievers tend to exist in greater numbers. Their needs are immeasurably greater. If left unattended, their effect on the learning environment can be indescribably detrimental. While simple human concern for weaker students is involved in attending to their varied needs, motivated self-interest is also a factor in tailoring instruction to suit that demographic.

Fairly early in my career a defiant student admonished my efforts to inspire him, “You can’t teach me, cuz I won’t learn.” How does a student arrive in High School capable of such an observation? How are the Public Schools going to overcome willful and obstinate ignorance? What resources will be required to surmount such negative socialization and how do we persuade legislators to allocate them? These are questions that deserve answers soon.

Once, a student endured my panglossian lecture on the concept of cause-and-effect as related to grades. He was informed that if he did not study he would not be able to pass my quizzes and tests, and that if he did not pass quizzes and tests and neglected his assignments, then passing the class would be, at best, a dubious proposition. This student very calmly responded, “I’ve failed classes before. I’ll fail classes again. I hate school.”

Frankly, this mindset has always been impenetrable to this lifelong learner. While never the “best” of students, self-directed learning was my passion long before knowing the term “autodidact“. Early on, school represented my escape from the endless chores of farm life. Four decades later the names of my primary school teachers still resound: first grade, Mrs. Keller; second grade, Mrs. Haines (no relation); third grade, Mrs. Stickley; fourth grade, Mrs. Turner; fifth grade, Mrs. Houghton; six grade, Mrs. Marden.

Middle school brought new challenges: French, Mrs. Barbara Russell; Music, Mr. Harold Fox; Math, Mrs. Gensler and Mr. MacKenzie; English, Mr. St. Clair; Social Studies, Mrs. Holmes; Physical Education, Mr. Lindquist and Mr. Proctor. Regrettably, the synapses that held Industrial Arts and Science are lost. It was a shock that my school transcripts did not record the teachers of my classes.

Four decades ago came High School. Each of my teachers, even those few whose names fail to come to mind, helped instill an indelible love of learning: English, Mr. Sellers; Biology, Mrs. Moore; German, Herr Reger and Frau Benson; N.J.R.O.T.C, Chief Tarasuk; Geometry, Mr. Arnold; History, Mr. Tom Walsh and Mr. Miller; Drama, Michelle (Don’t call me Miss) Busti.

The Fates were less than kind in my junior year. The vicissitudes of life compelled me to drop out of school in my senior year, but by then learning was a lifestyle. Each of the names mentioned here merits an article in tribute for having kept that passion alive. Herein resides their apotheosis. 

To this day, I still cherish the memory of virtually every person I have ever called my teacher.

-Too frequently, my students called me… Mr. Ummm.

-On a good day, they called me Mr. Ummm-Haines.

-On a bad day, they called me by the name of the teacher down the hall.

-On test days they muttered expletives….

It is a challenge not to take it personally.

While researchers have proven that students genuinely “do not remember” chattering in class even when shown videotapes of themselves doing so, it is nonetheless annoying that children will quarrel vociferously about whether they were talking in class even when instruction has been halted and everyone has been eavesdropping. Visions invade my dreams of students pointing a remote control my way while vigorously and repeatedly pushing the mute button. At other times, I feel like little more than a speed bump on my students’ road to a social life.

Acute disinterest in anything academic has become the norm. For many students, it is way cool to play the fool. A disquieting aura of “chic” envelops the state of vacuousness. We inhabit a world where bright students will systematically give incorrect answers they know to be wrong in order to avoid being labeled a “nerd”. This is a rejection of societal values that must be overcome.

How and when will this lofty goal be accomplished?

According to the precepts of psychotherapy, patients must first realize that a problem exists, and second they must want a cure. Only then are they ready for the arduous process of therapy. 

Looking at our schools through the rose-colored glasses of anecdotal success stories will lead some to the delusion that we have committed sufficient resources to the education of our children and that those left behind have none to blame but themselves. Both of those assumptions are erroneous. 

We must undertake the hard work of seeking the cure. Too little has changed in the two millennia since Epictetus proclaimed “Only the educated are free.” 

[This is a much revised version of a “Viewpoint” that appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal in June of 2000.]