Experience Matters for Educators, too!

Help children reach their potential

[The original version of the Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on May 22, 2014. ]

Checks on the power of big money?

Corporations, institutions that serve the interests of the financial elite, have been accorded “personhood” by the judiciary.  Unions, however, institutions that serve the interests of the multitudes, hear the tolling of the bells for the basic right to associate and bargain collectively over the terms and conditions of employment. It appears the nation has forgotten an essential part of Abraham Lincoln’s First Annual Message, “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

In case it has escaped your attention, the monolithic “power” frequently ascribed to organized labor is a hoax perpetrated by the investor class who uses immense wealth to fund legislation and litigation that will seriously limit the rights of labor. In the 1950’s just less than half of the American workforce was organized; today the number is around 11% and those are mostly public sector employees. The decline of earning power in the middle class has matched the decline in union membership. 

Those who own the gold are making the rules, and the first rule is they get to keep all the gold. So, the oligarchy lobbies for cleverly named legislation called “Right to Work” that abolishes collective bargaining and allows employers to pay subsistence wages and cut benefits for those who actually perform the labor. As George Carlin so cogently observed some years ago, “There are no permanent ‘Rights’ in America; there are only temporary ‘privileges’ that can be taken away at any time.”  

Allowing the rug to be pulled out from under organized labor dishonors the memory of those who laid down their lives for the ‘right’ to bargain collectively. 

The Vergara ruling on California’s tenure law is another case in point.

Blaming the well-chronicled disparities in education between affluent and impoverished communities on “teacher tenure” constitutes a classic red herring argument that attempts to distract the public from the well-chronicled issue of poverty-induced stressors on the readiness to learn of children. 

Furthermore, “tenure” for professional educators has never constituted a “guarantee” of employment, but merely a protection against the capricious dismissals that once were rampant in the schoolhouse for causes ranging from nepotism to political dissent.

Ultimately, the potential elimination of due process and just-cause termination for career educators is just as likely to prove harmful to children as we become overly focused on shedding the comparatively few incompetent instructors instead of retaining the overwhelming majority of potentially effective ones.

Taking responsibility for elevating the professional practice of all educators is of paramount importance to teachers if they are to re-establish the respect and prestige of the teaching profession. Teachers’ unions have been grappling with such efforts, successfully, for a number of years. If corporatist reformers focused on the financial bottom line have their way, however, budgetary considerations could soon hold sway over instructional priorities.

Experienced, well-compensated educators would be no more. After a lifetime of honing their professional practice and enhancing instructional repertoires, career educators could fall prey to “budget axes” and a younger, more compliant workforce. Where will such practices evolve? As always, financially-strapped school districts would be a great guess!

 

[The original version of this “Commentary” first appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on July 3, 2014.]

Seeking social justice for all children

There’s more than one kind of gender bias in the schools

The celebration of International Women’s Month is at hand. Now that we are more than a decade into the new millennium, it is long past time to join the struggle against what French feminists gleefully labeled the “phallocrats“. Women, most frequently charged with the care and custody of children in divorced households, still only earn 78% of what their male counterparts earn for similar labor. 

It is reported in Labor’s Untold Story by Boyer and Morais that men had difficulty supporting a family on $15 a week in the post Civil War economy. The years 1860-1865 had seen a 43% increase in wages but 116% inflation. 

One is mostly left to imagine the tales of woe and despair experienced by women and children of the same period working 18 hours-a-day at a loom for $3 a week. However, it is known that many thousands died yearly as a result of the unbridled exploitation of the labor force, and countless more were injured and maimed. Hence it should be reverentially recalled that the phrase “Equal Pay for Equal Work” was coined at that time by William H. Sylvis as he attempted to convince his National Labor Union to allow membership for women. 

Lamentably, not only would he never see this simple moral precept come to fruition, a century and half later and women are still waiting for simple economic justice. At the beginning of the 21st century, women have improved by less than “two-bits” from the 59 cents on the dollar they earned a couple decades ago. 

So, what hope is there for teachers? 

This is no idle question. What hope is there for adequate compensation in a profession dominated by an historically exploited class of worker?  It goes straight to the heart of the problem with teacher compensation. Women comprise 75 percent of teachers regionally (90 percent at the elementary level!). It is abundantly clear that this society declines to pay women at a level commensurate with male peers in male-dominated professions with similar requirements for credentials.

To date, the answer to that question has been short and sweet. There is not much hope at all. Ideologues offer the same tired alibis and excuses for not compensating teachers. How many of these have you heard? 

Teachers have it easy. Teachers already earn too much. Teachers only work 40 weeks a year. Teachers only work 7 ½ hours a day. Teachers are only earning “supplemental” incomes, what used to be referred to as “pin money“. Teachers are not here for a career, etc. 

None of these propositions is categorically true. In fact, they border on preposterously false. Still, they do play off popular beliefs and misconceptions about teaching as a profession, not to mention the cavalier attitude that some in this society have toward “women’s work” in general and the general undertow of anti-intellectualism  in American society. 

In his “White Paper Report on Education in 1988, Tom Brokaw said in his summation, “I don’t care who you are or what you do for living, you do not work any harder than a teacher.” Colleagues at the time expressed shock and amazement that someone from outside the profession had recognized this fact. 

Teaching is not an easy line of work and the hours are interminable. The reason new mothers frequently abandon the classroom, when they are able to do so, is that caring for babies virtually precludes being able to devote the countless hours needed for effective lesson-planning and correcting of student work outside the contractual day, nor is the level of financial compensation adequate to justify the hiring of secondary caregivers.

Those unable to take a hiatus – single mothers come to mind -often pay terrible prices in lost time with their children and the financial drain of day care. 

There has been a vast demographic change in recent decades. According to the Brookings Institute Center in “A Region Divided,” roughly 12.7 percent of homes in Prince George’s County were single parent households in 1996, which constituted a 27 percent share of such households in the metropolitan region. In 80 percent of those households the single parent was a woman. Furthermore, the average single father earned $36,364 in 1997 and the average single mother $23,040. 

We do not know how many single parents are teachers, but many of my colleagues are single with children for any variety of reasons. However, we do know that fewer men go into teaching, and inability to support a family on the prevailing wage is one of the justifications frequently cited. So it is not unreasonable to suppose that single mothers are disproportionately hurt by lower salaries for teachers, especially when computations are made for breaks-in-service for child rearing. 

Therefore, as our budgeting season is in full swing, let us realize that teacher compensation is also a feminist issue. This campaign must start with some small battle to be fought, and hopefully won. So what better way could there be to celebrate International Women’s Month than by joining in the struggle to eliminate gender-based inequities in compensation …

Furthermore, let us begin with the professions dominated by women, namely teaching and nursing. It would be good for women. It would be good for children. For if it is true that justice delayed is justice denied, this is justice that is far too long overdue. 

 

[The original “Viewpoint” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal on March 9, 2000. It has been revised and updated.]

 

 

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 about.com. ]

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.]