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Ravitch answers Gates

By Valerie Strauss

In a paean to Bill Gates, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter calls Diane Ravitch the Microsoft founder's "chief adversary."

It's the world's richest (or second richest) man vs. an education historian and New York University research professor.

Gates, through his philanthropic foundation, has invested billions of dollars in education experiments and now has a pivotal role in reform efforts. Ravitch, the author of the bestselling The Death and Life of the Great American School System, has become the most vocal opponent of the Obama administration's education policy. She says Gates is backing the wrong initiatives and harming public schools.

In the Newsweek piece, Gates poses some questions aimed at Ravitch. I asked her to answer them. Below are the questions Gates asked, in bold, and the answers, in italics, that Ravitch provided in an email.

Gates: “Does she like the status quo?"
Ravitch: "No, I certainly don't like the status quo. I don't like the attacks on teachers, I don't like the attacks on the educators who work in our schools day in and day out, I don't like the phony solutions that are now put forward that won't improve our schools at all. I am not at all content with the quality of American education in general, and I have expressed my criticisms over many years, long before Bill Gates decided to make education his project. I think American children need not only testing in basic skills, but an education that includes the arts, literature, the sciences, history, geography, civics, foreign languages, economics, and physical education.

"I don't hear any of the corporate reformers expressing concern about the way standardized testing narrows the curriculum, the way it rewards convergent thinking and punishes divergent thinking, the way it stamps out creativity and originality. I don't hear any of them worried that a generation will grow up ignorant of history and the workings of government. I don't hear any of them putting up $100 million to make sure that every child has the chance to learn to play a musical instrument. All I hear from them is a demand for higher test scores and a demand to tie teachers' evaluations to those test scores. That is not going to improve education."

Gates: "Is she sticking up for decline?"
Ravitch: "Of course not! If we follow Bill Gates' demand to judge teachers by test scores, we will see stagnation, and he will blame it on teachers. We will see stagnation because a relentless focus on test scores in reading and math will inevitably narrow the curriculum only to what is tested. This is not good education.

"Last week, he said in a speech that teachers should not be paid more for experience and graduate degrees. I wonder why a man of his vast wealth spends so much time trying to figure out how to cut teachers' pay. Does he truly believe that our nation's schools will get better if we have teachers with less education and less experience? Who does he listen to? He needs to get himself a smarter set of advisers.

"Of course, we need to make teaching a profession that attracts and retains wonderful teachers, but the current anti-teacher rhetoric emanating from him and his confreres demonizes and demoralizes even the best teachers. I have gotten letters from many teachers who tell me that they have had it, they have never felt such disrespect; and I have also met young people who tell me that the current poisonous atmosphere has persuaded them not to become teachers. Why doesn't he make speeches thanking the people who work so hard day after day, educating our nation's children, often in difficult working conditions, most of whom earn less than he pays his secretaries at Microsoft?"

Gates: "Does she really like 400-page [union] contracts?"
Ravitch: "Does Bill Gates realize that every contract is signed by two parties: management and labor? Why does management agree to 400-page contracts? I don't know how many pages should be in a union contract, but I do believe that teachers should be evaluated by competent supervisors before they receive tenure (i.e., the right to due process).
"Once they have due process rights, they have the right to a hearing when someone wants to fire them. The reason for due process rights is that teachers in the past have been fired because of their race, their religion, their sexual orientation, or because they did not make a political contribution to the right campaign, or for some other reason not related to their competence.

"Gates probably doesn't know this, but 50% of all those who enter teaching leave within the first five years. Our biggest problem is not getting rid of deadbeats, but recruiting, retaining, and supporting teachers. We have to replace 300,000 teachers (of nearly 4 million) every single year. What are his ideas about how to do this?"

Gates: "Does she think all those ‘dropout factories’ are lonely?"
Ravitch: "This may come as a surprise to Bill Gates, but the schools he refers to as "dropout factories" enroll large numbers of high-need students. Many of them don't speak or read English; many of them enter high school three and four grade levels behind. He assumes the schools created the problems the students have; but in many cases, the schools he calls "dropout factories" are filled with heroic teachers and administrators trying their best to help kids who have massive learning problems.

"Unless someone from the district or the state actually goes into the schools and does a diagnostic evaluation, it is unfair to stigmatize the schools with the largest numbers of students who are English-language learners, special-education, and far behind in their learning. That's like saying that an oncologist is not as good a doctor as a dermatologist because so many of his patients die. Mr. Gates, first establish the risk factor before throwing around the labels and closing down schools."

Gates: "If there’s some other magic way to reduce the dropout rate, we’re all ears.”
Ravitch: "Here's the sad truth: There is no magic way to reduce the dropout rate. It involves looking at the reasons students leave school, as well as the conditions in which they live. The single biggest correlate with low academic achievement (contrary to the film Waiting for Superman) is poverty. Children who grow up in poverty get less medical care. worse nutrition, less exposure to knowledge and vocabulary, and are more likely to be exposed to childhood diseases, violence, drugs, and abuse. They are more likely to have relatives who are incarcerated. They are more likely to live in economic insecurity, not knowing if there is enough money for a winter coat or food or housing. This affects their academic performance.
They tend to have lower attendance and to be sick more than children whose parents are well-off.

"The United States today has a child poverty rate of over 20%, and it is rising. This is a national scandal. The film compares us to Finland, but doesn't mention that their child poverty rate is under 5%. Mr. Gates, why don't you address the root causes of low academic achievement, which is not 'bad teachers,' but poverty. It won't involve magic, but it would certainly require the best thinking that you can assemble. And if anyone can afford to do it, surely you can.

I don't mean to suggest that schools as they are now are just fine: They are not. Every school should have a rich and balanced curriculum; many don't. Every child should look forward to coming to school, for his or her favorite studies and activities, but those are the very studies and activities likely to lose out to endless test preparation. Schools need many things: Some need more resources and better conditions for teaching and learning; all need a stable, experienced staff. Teachers need opportunities for intellectual growth and colleagueship. Tests should be used diagnostically, to help students and teachers, not to allocate bonuses and punishments. Teachers, principals, administrators, parents, and local communities should collaborate to create caring communities, and that's happening in many places. I know that none of this is the "magic way" that you are looking for, Mr. Gates, but any educator will tell you that education is a slow, laborious process that requires good teachers, able leadership, willing students, a strong curriculum, and willing students. None of that happens magically."

I also asked Ravitch about her reaction to the strange comparison Alter made in calling her "the Whittaker Chambers of school reform." She wrote:

"I wondered if Alter knows much about history. Whittaker Chambers renounced Communism and embraced American patriotism. Was Alter suggesting that Bill Gates is the Alger Hiss of school reform? I thought it was a weird analogy.

Taken from the Washington Post: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/diane-ravitch/ravitch-answers-gates.html

Graduation rates up -- thank you, teachers

Scott Maxwell’s
TAKING NAMES

I know it's not terribly popular nowadays. But I thought I'd take a moment to say thanks and congratulations to one of Florida's favorite punching bags — the public school teacher.

The latest reports show that Florida has its best graduation rate ever. And there will be all manner of politicians, bureaucrats and pundits heaping praise upon themselves for supposedly making this happen.
But I had a novel idea — thanking the teachers.

See, teachers have become the boogeymen in most of the efforts to dismantle public schools. They are portrayed as lazy incompetents who don't care about education, their students or anything other than collecting a union-protected paycheck.

We see these unfair portrayals in the halls of Tallahassee, from think tanks eager to siphon money away from public schools and into private ones, and even in the pages of this newspaper.

Quite simply, I reject it.

Most of the teachers I know got into their profession for the right reasons. They work hard. Some even change lives. And they don't exactly get rich for doing so.

Certainly there are exceptions to the rule. There are in every profession. But there's no denying that these most recent gains were made with the very same people leading the classrooms that many try to demonize.

Former State Sen. Charlie Justice — the husband of a teacher — once had a great line about school achievement in Florida. He said: "Every academic success we have in Florida, credit is given to some acronym-riddled program that's created in the halls of Tallahassee. And every failure is laid at the feet of our hardworking teachers like my wife. It's just wrong."

So today, I think I'll just say thanks.

Thank you, teachers, for doing the best you can with what little you get.

Thanks for making a difference in so many lives.

And thanks for doing it in spite of those who constantly try to tear you down.

Taken from the Orland Sentinel: http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/education/os-scott-maxwell-thanks-teachers-120120101130,0,136683.column

Respectful Reform That Makes Sense

By Chris Janotta

reform (noun): amendment of what is defective, vicious, corrupt, or depraved

This definition comes from merriam-webster.com. When I first read it, I was surprised to find such harsh words contained in it. When I read it again, this time out loud, I was taken aback at what types of cruelty, according to this definition, reform should be aimed at. It conjured up images of criminal acts, and I don’t mean just any old criminal acts. I mean the type where reform means twenty-years to life.

Then I thought a little more about this. Had the public school system become so defective, so corrupt, that a vicious system had been created by depraved teachers, administrators, and school boards? And, if so, was the only way to make it any better to institute a series of reforms that would take from twenty years up to an entire lifetime to have a positive effect?

Either way, I thought, we are all doomed. If the former is true then I, without even realizing it, am a part of the system. If the latter was the solution, then entire generations of
students would be receiving a shoddy education. I was beginning to get depressed.

Suddenly, though, I had an idea. What if I checked another site to see if the definition was the same? So, after checking thefreedictionary.com (anything free can’t be bad, right?), I came across a definition that, in turn, made a smile come across my face:
reform n.
1. A change for the better; an improvement.
2. Correction of evils, abuses, or errors.
3. Action to improve social or economic conditions without radical or revolutionary change.

Now this was something I could deal with! Sure, evils, abuses, and errors were still a part of the definition, but none of those words conjured up quite the images that the first set of words had. Besides, I am sure that somewhere within the public school system there are some sort of evils and/or abuses occurring (or maybe some of the evils and abuses are occurring at the upper levels of public education which are beyond the control of teachers, administrators, superintendents, and even school boards), and nobody can argue that any system is completely free of errors.

But it was that third definition that really made me smile. “That,” I said to myself, “sounds like the type of reform I can agree with. In fact, I might even call this type of reform ‘respectful reform.’”

Respectful reform. This had a nice ring to it, but what did it mean? For this, I referred back to the definition. “Action to improve social or economic conditions,” it started out. What more could public education ask for? If every school was fairly funded and every neighborhood had the resources it needed, “a change for the better,” as the first definition states, would surely begin to take place.

Instead of racing for money (and, in most cases, losing the race), schools could be funded based upon need. Instead of using a system where the richest schools get richer based upon where they are located, a disbursement of funds could be based on need.

If community leaders became involved in the schools that so desperately need them to become involved, “a change for the better” could take place. If services and supports were provided in the communities that so desperately need them, “a change for the better” would occur not only for the schools in those communities, but also for the communities themselves. Addressing needs instead of ignoring them; this was starting to sound like the true meaning of respectful reform, but what about the second part of this definition?
“Without radical or revolutionary change.” This was the part that really added meaning for me. Firing teachers to “fix” the system. Instituting evaluation after endless evaluation to the point that teachers have no choice but to teach to a test. Requiring every student, no matter his or her mental capacity, to pass a test at his or her grade level.
Instituting programs that punish teachers, rob students of a well-rounded education, and force schools to close because they aren’t “up to standards” (mostly because meeting these standards is a near impossibility in some schools due to funding issues, lack of resources, or other issues beyond the teachers’ and administrators’ control). Using movies, talk shows, and national publications to spread propaganda against public schools, public school teachers, public school teachers’ unions, and anything else having to do with public These are all radical and revolutionary changes that have come about over the last several years and have come about even more strongly over the last several months. This, by definition is not reform, and, by my definition, is definitely not respectful reform.

However, this is almost to be expected since most of those proposing these reforms are not currently, nor have they ever been, educators. It is for this reason that reform must come from those who are most involved in public education: teachers, parents, and students.

Let the responsibility for change come from within. Allow this triad to make decisions regarding how teachers should be evaluated, how students should be evaluated, and how schools should be evaluated. Allow them to allow time for more teaching instead of more testing. I have yet to meet a teacher, parent, student, or administrator who feels the over-reliance on testing is good for our nation’s students. Nor have I heard that pulling students from social studies, science, physical education, art, or any other class in order to provide even more test preparation is a good idea.

Yet this is exactly what is happening on a daily basis due to the current “reforms.” While I am not suggesting that teachers, parents, and students should make up their own rules and change them as they please, I am suggesting that they play a major role in the “respectful reform” that must take place because those currently taking the lead in this area are suggesting even more of these same practices.

Simply calling something reform doesn’t make it reform, just as calling something respectful reform doesn’t mean it makes any sense to apply it to public education. This is why we must be careful to use respectful reform that makes sense. Anybody with a loud enough voice can stand at the corner of any street in a big city and preach reform, but most of what I’ve heard, whether it be from the mouths of those on street corners or the mouths of those who hold some sort of power through their wealth or position in society, has yet to make much sense.

Even the reform I speak of wouldn’t make sense in a system that doesn’t need it. This is why many of the current reforms won’t work. Every district, every school, every student is different. The type of reform that works one place may produce terrible results in another. If a school is turning out successful students year after year, why must it go through reform? If a student scores at the top of his or her class on every test year after year, why must he or she be subjected to reform? After all, both merriam-webster.com and thefreedictionary.com state that reform is a change or an amendment. Why would one want to amend something that works?

Therefore, I call for respectful reform that makes sense. By having teachers and community members working alongside politicians, parents, and pupils, we can come up with changes that produce positive effects for both public education and American society. There doesn’t seem to be anything defective, vicious, corrupt, or depraved about that.

Taken from Ed Voices: http://www.edvoices.com/blog/2010/11/29/respectful-reform-that-makes-sense/

Maureen Downey: Limit the paper trail

By Maureen Downey

One of the surprises in talking to teachers over the years is that their biggest complaint is not unruly students or uninvolved parents.

What really discourages teachers is the paperwork, the ever-increasing and ever-changing litany of demands from the central office, state agencies and federal government to fill out this form and churn out that report.

Across grades, systems and states, teachers are overwhelmed by the pressure to submit detailed lesson plans, agendas and daily goals.

A survey earlier this year of 43,000 Maryland teachers found that while they are generally happy with their class sizes and teaching conditions, they despair over all the paperwork.

A 1987 study found that teachers on average spent eight hours a week on paperwork. The hours may well be higher now since many current school reform models seem to measure success by the stacks of reports produced.
The emphasis on relentlessly documenting their every move in the classroom whittles away at their autonomy and their discretion, teachers say. They also maintain that there’s no evidence that better record keeping inspires better teaching.

A top researcher once told me that his best advice to new teachers was ignore all the central office notices and directives in their mailboxes for the first three months and concentrate on their craft.
A mentor teacher shared with me that her inexperienced colleagues seldom come to her in frustration with students. It’s the impositions of the administration that brings them to her door.

What bothers me is that these paperwork laments also come from seasoned teachers, the pros in the classroom with long histories of success with students. I am stunned at the bureaucratic shackles put on even proven teachers.

I met a lot of effective teachers a few weeks ago at an Education Trust conference in Washington, D.C., honoring schools around the country making great strides with high need kids.

At the National Association for Gifted Children conference in Atlanta more recently, I listened to other acclaimed teachers talk about how they strive to accommodate the advanced learners. And in recent classroom visits around Atlanta, I watched as clever teachers engaged their students in innovative math and reading classes.

Struck by the commitment and talents of these high-performing teachers, I had a sudden idea for a reform that would be cheap, easy and could start tomorrow:

Leave the terrific teachers alone. Allow them to devote all their time to their students.

Decide which teachers in each school building are performing well. Most principals already know their stars, but student achievement data could also be used as a determinant.

Free those teachers from meetings, professional development, lesson plan submissions, data collection and every other piece of minutiae, paperwork and reporting that diverts them from their students.

Not forever. Start with six months and see what happens.

Enable these professionals to chart their own course, set their own goals and trust them to do well. Focus on the struggling teachers instead.
Don’t fret if the great teachers are doing it their way and departing from the systemwide script. If they’re succeeding with their students, who cares who wrote the script?

A friend in the computer industry has been through multiple reorganizations and has come to recognize two signs that a company is sinking fast:

No more free bagels in the break room and a sudden insistence on written and detailed records of time on task, forcing employees to devote precious time to writing about selling computers rather than getting out and actually selling them.

That insanity appears to be spreading to education where documenting classroom performance is preventing teachers from performing.

Yet, I can’t believe that Superintendents Cindy Loe or Beverly Hall want their best teachers harangued over incomplete lesson plans.

I don’t buy that J. Alvin Wilbanks or Fred Sanderson think their top teachers should alter successful practice because an off-the-shelf reform model calls for a different approach. Edmond Heatley can’t care if teachers write daily goals on the board if their students are learning.
The late British historian C. Northcote Parkinson aptly summarized the cost of focusing too much on paperwork:

“The man whose life is devoted to paperwork has lost the initiative. He is dealing with things that are brought to his notice, having ceased to notice anything for himself.”

Taken from the Atlanta Journal Constitution: http://www.ajc.com/opinion/maureen-downey-limit-the-757684.html

Like a broke clock sometimes gets it right so to did school board member W.C. Gentry

Like a broke clock sometimes gets it right so to did school board member W.C. Gentry. In case you missed it he wrote about how it is truly hard to quantify if a teacher is doing a good job in an editorial to the Times Union, Demagoguery no answer to problems of education. The truth is there are so many factors, many out of the teacher’s hands that come into play while teaching. Furthermore I can attest to the seeming randomness of teacher’s evaluation. Where I believe I do a pretty good job, in the last five years I have been high performing once, needs improvement once and satisfactory three times. Where I have had momentary ups and downs, I think overall my performance has been pretty consistent. Good with the kids, bad with the paperwork.

As an occasional critic of the school board I think it would be disingenuous of me to ignore it when they or a member get it right. Don’t worry though, since this is rare I am not hurting my hand writing these type pieces but I thought it was important I mention that I agree with and appreciate W.C. Gentry’s stance on this issue.

Now Mr. Gentry how about getting it right about discipline, curriculum, how we treat many of our disabled children and about a dozen other things that are holding back our school district too. The list is long sir; it’s time you and the rest of the board got working.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

Offended

As a teacher I get offended when non-teachers like Stephanie Hirsh, executive director of Learning Forward and Dawn Wilson Duval County’s director of professional development talk about improving teacher quality, (11/29 letter to the editor, Training Teachers). Sure teacher quality is an issue and we should always strive to put out best, brightest and most capable in our classrooms but they, like the editors of the Times Union, Bill Gates and many of the public are missing the real issues facing education.

Things will never truly improve unless we change the ways we do things. We can’t continue to under fund education, ignore discipline, socially promote children without the skills they need, have a one size fits all curriculum and put both teachers and children in situations were success is unattainable and expect to have success.

Teachers are just one part of the puzzle but recently they are the ones getting all the attention. Why does the public who refuses to adequately fund education by continuously electing politicians who don’t care about public schools, parents who abdicate their responsibilities, policy makers who hold teachers and children alike back with their inane procedures and the children themselves many of whom lack any sense of a worth ethic and an understanding of common manners get a pass?

All the professional development in the world won’t make a bit of difference until we work on the real issues facing education.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

While at work.

While at work today I saw three young ladies beat up another. During the fight they pulled hair from her head and bloodied her face and foot. I am not a prison guard.

While at work today I got hit in the head while breaking up a fight. I am not a referee.

While at work today I saw two young men rummage through a purse that had been dropped and they did so in the full view of several staff members. I am not a store clerk.

While at work today I read an e-mail about a gun that was recently confiscated there. I don’t work at a call center or at one of the big banking or insurance complexes.

While at work today I wondered if we got all the guns that were here but then I thought, I bet we aren’t even close. I don’t work for the police.

While at work today I was cursed out not once but twice, I was told to mind my own expletive business when I asked someone to get to work and called a mother expletive when I asked someone what they were doing. I don’t work at a gym.

While at work today I had somebody burst into my room to yell at somebody who was in there with me. I am not a doctor or a lawyer.

While at work I got frustrated because I didn’t have up to date materials and supplies. I am not a painter.

While at work today I got disgusted with the lack of civility, respect, and dignity. I don’t work at city hall.

While at work today I was surrounded by apathy and noticed an extreme lack of effort, I don’t work for the department of motor vehicles.

While at work today, there were moments when I didn’t fee respected and I didn’t feel safe. I am not a soldier.

While at work today I wondered how many lawyers, bankers, sales clerks,
computer technicians, construction workers, politicians and paramedics, how many white collar and blue collar workers alike can say they had the same type of day as me. I would guess not many.

So what do I do, and where do I work? I am a school teacher at a public high school and today was a pretty typical day, but not just for me but for thousands of my colleagues as well. The really sad thing is a lot of students, who want to learn, who want to succeed, who deserve better had a much worse day than I did.

Have you ever wondered why we have an epidemic of violence in our street unlike never before? Have you ever wondered why we have a hard time first attracting and keeping more first rate businesses and companies? Have you ever wondered where civility, courtesy and respect went? Have you ever wondered why so many of our schools are failing and why graduation rates are are so abysmal?

I’ll tell you why, it’s because we don’t care about our schools, and we don’t care about education and worse of all we don’t care about our children.

Now we say we do care, and we shake our heads and sigh when we hear the news reports of violence, failing schools and the loss of opportunity our city experiences, but then we turn away, I imagine hopeful our elected officials will take care of it. But all they really do is form committees and initiatives. But these things are designed to distract us, to give us the illusion that somebody in charge will eventually do something that the care, but they don’t and I can prove it.

Ask yourself a question, do you think things are getting better or worse. If you answered yes welcome to the group that is called everybody thinks that.

In the end it’s the citizens of Jacksonville that need to stand up and say we care; we want things to be better and that enough is enough, if things are going to change it will only happen if we demand it, because if not us then who.

Like other municipalities that are tired of seeing their children hang out on the street corners with little hope and even less opportunity, that have seen their crime rates rise and their graduation and achievement rates drop, we have to step up, even in these tough economic times, we have to tell our government we want to have a first rate education system, and then we have to do what it takes even if it means digging into our pockets to make sure it happens.

Jacksonville doesn’t have to agree with Tallahassee and their decision not to care about education, just because it’s okay with them that Florida is fiftieth out of fifty in spending on children it doesn’t mean it has to be okay with Jacksonville.

Our school system desperately needs programs that give students extra tutoring in reading and writing, and programs that teach skills to the students not interested in college, such as vocational or trade programs. Likewise teachers need to have manageable classrooms and adequate supplies to be able to properly educate our children. Again just because the state of Florida puts educating our children below tax breaks for people who one multiple houses and luxury boxes it doesn’t mean the citizens of Jacksonville have too.

Times are tough and everybody understands that, but if we continue to underfund education, the needs of our children, do we think things are just going to miraculously fix themselves? When something in your house breaks does it miraculously fix itself, or do you have to spend the money to get it working again. Well if we as a city don’t start sacrificing then it’s many of our children’s future that will be lost, and it’s our city that will continue to suffer.

We have to decide whether we care about the future of our city or we don’t and we do that by deciding if we care about our children or we don’t, and the first step is to follow the lead that several other cities have done and that’s step up and stop just saying we care and start acting like we do.

Version II

I’ll tell you why, it’s because we don’t care about our schools, and we don’t care about education and worse of all we don’t care about our children. Children without boundaries grow up with a false sense of how things are. Children who don’t receive consequences for their actions do not learn from their actions. Friends we don’t have to reinvent the wheel to take back our schools and our streets; if we want things to improve, we need to bring discipline back to the classroom.

Teachers want all students to do well if not we would have picked different professions; professions where we are not routinely disrespected unappreciated and threatened, however the sad thing is not all students care about learning. They don’t come to school to do so; they come to school to hang out with their friends or to see what trouble they can find. So many students have no idea what being respectful and courteous means, or even what making an effort means. Instead they feel entitled and as if they can do whatever they want whenever they want.

It’s no coincidence the city has had an increase in burglaries and violence perpetrated by young people. You rarely hear about honor students being arrested for carjacking or valedictorians arrested for robbery. It’s always, they had a few problems in school, which is often code for they were always in trouble and/or we can’t believe it took so long for them to get caught. There is a direct correlation between students who constantly misbehave in school and students who commit crimes in society. Who knows what would have happened had they children been disciplined or received meaningful consequences for their actions. Let me ask you this, Why don’t you commit crimes, or curse out your boss, why don’t you steal or vandalize things, is it because you know it’s wrong and part of that knowledge came from whenever you misbehaved you received consequences for your actions?

While we are trying to save a few of the bad apples the whole cart is in danger of being spoiled. Students that fight should be removed if not arrested; students that don’t come to learn, just to hang with their friends or to see what trouble they can find should be expelled. Teachers lament all the time if little Suzy or Johnny wasn’t in their classroom they could teach or they rejoice when they are absent. Think about this if a teachers spends just ten percent of their time disciplining the continuously unruly few that’s 18 days of instruction that is lost, and how much better do you think some students would do with that extra time and believe you me, a lot of teachers are forced to spend a lot more time than ten percent.

If some families are abdicating the responsibility to show their children how to be responsible respectful citizens, then we have to do it in the classrooms and the schools because if not there then where else can they possibly learn it?

Are violent streets, low graduation rates and failing schools not enough? Do we need a tragedy does somebody at a school have to be killed before we wake up and do something? No child left behind should be we are leaving about ten percent of them behind until they shape up; we have the other ninety percent to think and care about.

Schools chief returns Race to the Top money -- for his teachers

I wrote about this about six weeks ago. Jones County superintendent Bill Mathews is my hero and apparently others as well. -cpg

By Valerie Strauss

A number of school districts in states that won money in the Education Department's $4 billion Race to the Top competition have decided they don’t actually want the money because, in most cases, officials think it is more trouble to accept it.

In Ohio, which won $400 million in the Race sweepstakes, more than two dozen districts and public charter schools say they think it will cost them more than they will get from the federal government to implement the required reforms, according to Sean Cavanagh at www.edweek.com.

And then there is the Jones County School District near Macon, Ga., headed by Superintendent Bill Mathews.

Mathews has decided not to accept $1.3 million in Race to the Top money -- the district’s share of Georgia’s $400 million pot -- for reasons including his refusal to implement a value-added assessment system for teachers, based on student standardized test scores. (The county had signed up for the money before Mathews became superintendent last year.)

Assessment experts say these systems should not be used to evaluate teachers, pointing to new research that indicates they are not reliable and error rates are unacceptably high, but they are supported anyway by the Obama administration. Many of these systems are seen by teachers as ignoring other factors beside a teacher’s influence that can affect a student's performance on a standardized test.

And that’s why Mathews decided not to accept the money and why the county school board went along with his recommendation.

Mathews was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the research doesn't bear out the effectiveness of these systems, and that implementing one would be too expensive. He said that educating children in the county’s public schools is a team effort by all of the adults in the building, and that singling out the teachers in this way would be wrong.

“My philosophy has always been that from the front door to the back door, from the secretary to the lunchroom worker, [everyone] is responsible for the student achievement of every child,” Mathews was quoted as saying. “We set our goals and if we meet our goals, we all celebrate.”

We’d all be a lot better off if there were more Bill Mathews out there running our public school districts.
Taken from the Washington Post:
http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/schools-chief-returns-race-to.html

The Law of Parsimony

I am a big believer in the law of parsimony, which is the principle that entities should not be multiplied needlessly; others however may prefer Ockham’s razor which is a rule in science that says the simplest of two or more competing theories is preferable and that an explanation for unknown phenomena should first be attempted in terms of what is already known but actually both of those are just fancy ways of saying that good old common sense should prevail, which is something sadly currently missing from our education system.

You want schools to do better, instead of reinventing the wheel and taking away what precious little time teachers have to make an impact by forcing them to tedious and unnecessary things, why don’t we try giving teachers the resources they need and then bring discipline back to the classroom, those two things alone should be worth an extra letter grade. Instead of doing those two things teachers are told we must have our standards posted on our walls, something in my nine years of teaching no child has ever taken a look at, and we must have our classrooms uniform, with our classroom libraries labeled and our parent teacher logs and lesson plans easily accessible.

I teach at a “turn around school” a fancy way of saying mostly minority and poor and since I teach at a turn around school I was told all these things and a nearly endless list more had to be done. I was also told that I could expect routine visits from state representatives of the department of education and if they weren’t, I would get dinged or hit and a note would be put in my permanent file, my evaluation could suffer and I could even possibly loose my job, I wasn’t the only one told this as the same thing was said to the entire faculty. Presumably this same message was give to dozens of other “ under performing” schools.

I was also told that during these walk abouts they really wouldn’t be interested to see how I was teaching or to judge it’s effectiveness, no they just wanted to make sure I had my getting on the computer procedures posted or student work displayed, not that either of those things makes the first bit of difference in learning.

Furthermore say goodbye to innovation and creativity, as the department of education seems hell bent on eliminating those two things. They are replacing them with learning schedules, lesson plans and agendas that can’t be deviated from. Soon they may replace teachers with VCR’s and one trained chimp to hit play, after all that’s all education will need with this one schedule fits all system they are attempting to jam don our throats.

There was a palpable since of fear and trepidation at my school this past week during pre-planning as they were told about change after change that the state was requiring. When talking to other teachers, “how are things going” was answered at best with, “it is what it is” or “it’s going” but more often with, “I am afraid about what’s going to happen during the upcoming year” or “can’t talk need to go spend three hours creating a bulletin board”. Planning for the kids was replaced with getting the fore mentioned bulletin boards ready and making sure our desks were arranged in the state mandated way.

I can see how it started, someone in Tallahassee after reading an obscure article on education, shortly followed by a light bulb going off over their head, said to themselves, “I know how we can fix education, If only teachers would all have had word walls all these years then our state of affairs would be so much better”. Next thing you know it is in a bill and teachers are spending hours creating one.

Furthermore, today’s teacher is already sometimes a counselor, parent, big brother or big sister, guardian, friend, disciplinarian and ass kicker, but now we also now have to add statistician to the list as we were told the state is going to want lots and lots of data as well, we were actually told that they love graphs. This way they can see how effective our teaching it, strangely I thought that was what the almost universally reviled and discredited F-CAT was for. The F-CAT is so unimportant that they initially decided to eliminate the F-CAT writes section this year because they couldn’t afford to hire people to grade it, however flush with stimulus cash it may be back on.

When did they spring most of the changes that need to occur on teachers? If you guessed the Thursday of preplanning you have guessed correctly. Giving us two days to set up our classroom and plan accordingly for the upcoming school year.

People don’t become teachers to get rich or even acknowledgement. In fact in recent years because we have summers off, are often home by three or four and the state developed a grading system that called some schools successes and others failures there has been a bit of backlash against teachers, that they are under performing and part of the problem but nothing could be farther from the truth. Most people have no idea how much unpaid over time teachers work or how much of their own resources they pump int their classrooms. Furthermore, teachers today are better trained, more capable and experts at doing more with less than at anytime in history.

The problems in education here in Florida started when the state government began to siphon off money intended for education to give tax breaks to big businesses and people that owned second homes, and when they created a test, the F-CAT, which has become a pox on the whole education system. These things were further exacerbated here in Jacksonville with the creation of magnet schools which have created a two tiered education system, continuing, if you sprinkle in the fact that it is has become nearly impossible to get help for unruly students, then why things are such a mess becomes readily apparent. My question to you is, how are these things teachers’ faults.

Common sense should tell the powers that be the answer shouldn’t be to pile on tons of additional tasks on teachers already over burdened shoulders or worse to make them afraid for their jobs if all the new ducks dropped into their laps aren’t in the exact same row. Things would be much better if our elected officials looked up the law of parsimony in the dictionary and went with it, because it’s obvious they didn’t learn what it meant while they were in school.

Suspension Centers part 2

Suspension centers made the paper today, this is a piece I wrote about them at the begining of the 09-10 school year. -cpg

As the school year begins I think it’s time we revisited the suspension centers that the school board created last year and just so you know that as things presently are I think this is a terrible idea and the school board should be embarrassed for coming up with and implementing it.

To be fair, if we disregard the fact that being suspended is supposed to be a punishment, suspension centers in a vacuum doesn’t sound to bad. To me it’s kind of like getting the undercoating when you buy a new car. If you have lots of money and nothing else going on, then sure why not splurge. However, that’s not how things are in Duval County. The reality is we have very few resources and lots of serious problems. This means having suspension centers is like complimenting Nero’s fiddle playing while Rome burned to the ground. Sure the music might sound delightful but the city was experiencing a few more pressing matters at the time.

As a teacher I am constantly learning, trying to pick up bits of information or techniques that will help me in my classes. Last spring I learned something very important. I learned never to be eating or drinking when I read articles about our school district as I almost choked to death when I saw how much was budgeted for the four suspension centers that can at one time hold a maximum of 150 students. By the way that’s a number they didn’t come anywhere close to having, and most like never will. If they were run by nonprofits and didn’t cost the tax payer anything I might be okay with it but they aren’t, you see the suspension centers have a two million dollar budget.

Suspension centers are a new program designed to keep students when they are suspended off the street. This way they won’t fall behind in their classes and they won’t get in trouble, a pretty good idea right. Here is another idea, instead of asking them to go to a suspension center where they won’t have their class work anyway, DON’T SUSPEND THEM! What is the difference between keeping them in school and hoping they attend a voluntary and yes they are voluntary, suspension center? I’ll tell you what it is, its two million dollars.

At first I was flabbergasted but as soon as I stopped choking I knew I shouldn’t have been that surprised. You see this kind of misallocation of resources for our district this is pretty typical.

My friends sometimes plead with me not to write about educational issues. They worry that I may lose my job or there may be consequences for me being critical. Which I reply, criticism of the process should be encouraged. It can expose inequalities and the need for change, besides we should never fear the truth. And the sad, simple truth is suspension centers are an unnecessary luxury.

Friends two million dollars could pay for about 20 new teachers, or social workers over two years, or hundreds and hundreds of after school tutors and extended day workers or some combination thereof. These new employees would be in the position to affect thousands of children daily not just the 150 suspension centers would serve if they were at peak capacity. What do you think will make a bigger difference on education or in our community: Voluntary suspension centers that can be attended only by a few students or the options above?

Often kids act out because they don’t understand or fall behind on in their subjects. What would happen if we had smaller classes or intensive remediation for struggling students? Something we could have more of if we could hire new teachers?

Often kids act out because they are having troubles at home. What would happen if we hired social workers who could follow up on our districts troubled children and provide services and or referrals to other agencies?

Often kids act out because they run with the wrong crowd. What would happen if we had more after school programs where kids could be safe and cared for, and where they could get help with their academics?

Often kids act out because they are bored. What would happen if we had more classes they were interested in, what if we brought more art, music and vocational classes back to the schools and made attendance in these classes dependent on behavior?

Heck, I think the money would be better spent if we just gave it away. Why don’t we give it to the students who attend struggling schools and have worked hard and have done the right thing, perhaps the most underserved group in the county? They deserve to have the money spent on them so much more than the children who are constantly in trouble. Let’s divide the money up to the F schools and give two thousand dollar scholarships to a thousand needy, deserving students. This may even prove to be an incentive for the often suspended student.

The sad fact is we don’t know what would happen if we took the suspension center money and instituted any those programs, though I think we could guess if they would be more meaningful or not. The thing is we do know what happened at the suspension centers last year. They weren’t attended and we spent lots of money.

The law of parsimony says the simpler of two competing theories is to be preferred. Which theory do you think is simpler, let’s put discipline back in our schools and give students and teachers the resources they need to be successful or lets create voluntary suspension centers that students need to find their own way to, that cost an exorbitant amount of money and serve only a few children.

I grew up in Jacksonville and I attended the school I teach at now, though when I went there it was safe to walk in the halls, adults were treated with respect and students learned the basic skills they needed for life. I pretty much lived in the same neighborhood I do now and when growing up I could jog my streets safely at night and I if I forgot to lock my car door it didn’t matter. Years ago in Jacksonville reading about a young person committing or being the victim of a crime was an exception not an everyday occurrence, and all of these things have their roots in education.

It makes me sad when I see the county give lip service to special education students sacrificing the future of these children, because they don’t know what to do with them. It hurts me when I see resources stolen from the have not’s to set up magnet programs for the haves. It frustrates me when the district tries to fit all children into one go to college category whether they want to or are prepared to, and it angers me, when I see precious resources allocated to things like suspension centers, especially since Rome is burning down around us.

I have to believe if the people of Jacksonville knew and thought about these things they would care, I also want to believe the school board is capable of doing a good job and they just haven’t shown us (more evidence is that graduation rates and dropout rates are some of the lowest and highest respectively in the state) yet.

If I get out of teaching I think maybe me and a couple buddies will start a suspension center, it sounds like pretty lucrative and easy work, if you can get it, but that’s another story all together.

Teaching, would you

Within minutes of meeting me I will often find some way to bring up the fact I am a teacher and I work with disabled children in a local public school. I used to love my job, it brought me such a great sense of pride, and where I still feel that, I often now feel frustration and angst too. One of the reasons for this is because teaching is one of the most misunderstood and quite frankly disrespected professions around.

I am sometimes asked aren't you just glad you have a job and isn’t it great to have summers off, and my answer is always "yes very, however after a second or so, I throw in a, “but”. Now let me ask you a few questions.

Would you work a job where your bosses expected you to put in hundreds of unpaid hours of overtime? The modern teacher is supposed to be data driven which requires untold hours of data entry, this despite the fact most teachers can get the same information about their students by working with them for a few days.

Would you work for a job where you had to spend your money not just for the basic necessities that you needed but also to buy supplies for other people’s children too? I was given one hundred and seventy-five dollars in money to out-fit my classroom. A pencil sharpener, class note books for my kids and a scanner later it was all gone. Many teachers routinely spin hundreds if not thousands of dollars on their students and classrooms.

Would you work at a job where the powers that be piled on arduous and unnecessary task that had nothing to do with your job? The state makes teachers follow learning standards, schedules and curriculums but then requires teachers to spend hours writing lesson plans, why can’t we just use the aforementioned items? A colleague in a neighboring county told me how she was complimented on her lesson plans by her principal and as she walked away she thought to herself, well I write them just for you, I don’t use them for teaching and the kids never see them.

Would you work at a job where you were often disrespected and belittled by those you were charged to help, and then your higher ups looked at you like you were the problem? For consequences to be effective they must be meaningful. What can I take away from someone in my science class that will make them behave, what can I offer. If it gets to the point where my teacher look and me raising my voice doesn’t work there is not a whole lot else I can do, to get the defiant, disrespectful and disruptive student to behave. If I am forced to send them out, I often don’t often have time to call their parents or write the referral right then, after all I have other students who are willing to learn and listen that I have to take care of.

Would you work at a job where the higher ups blamed you when the things they tried to implement, without consulting you failed? Teachers did not get together and decided to socially promote children, nor did they add algebra II to the curriculum, take away art and music, reduce physical education, eliminate must vocational and trade programs, ask for Americas Choice or for the F-Cat. Yet when graduation rates drop and dropout rates rise teachers are the first to be blamed.

Would you sacrifice time with your family for your job? I have to leave my kids in extended day because I have to finish up my work and I can’t help my own child with their homework because I have to grade papers are things I have heard recently. Lesson plans and graded papers do not magically appear and there is rarely time during the day to do them.

Would you work at a job where you were paycheck to paycheck? My first year of teaching my contract was for twenty-six thousand six hundred dollars. By that winter I had four thousand in the bank. Fast-forward ten years and with prices rising and my student loans due, I am little more than paycheck-to-paycheck. Teachers everywhere live in fear of them or a family member getting sick, pray they won’t need new tires and more than a few have second jobs.

Would you work at a job where you received little direction about important things? A colleague of mine feeling overwhelmed, asked his administration to prioritize all the things he had to do and was told they are all equally important. Really, creating a word wall and making sure your bulletin board is standards based is just as important as teaching and engaging your students?

Would you work at a job where you were micromanaged about minutia? I was asked where my essential question was the other day, when I pointed to it on the board; I was asked why it wasn’t labeled essential question. The powers that be seem obsessed with how we have our boards set up, how our seats are arranged and if our lesson plans follow a certain format. I was told that during the state walk though that these are the things that they would be looking for not if students are engaged and learning.

Would you do a job where you were held responsible for other people’s performances? I would say the vast majority of students want to learn and want to do well. Sadly however there is a persistent ten percent or so that has no interest in school or learning, who’s main aim when they come is to cause trouble, yet teachers are still held accountable for their lack of effort and achievement as well as their behavior.

Would you work at a job where the powers that be scrapped one failed experiment after another without asking you what you need? Teaching in Duval County is like the weather in Florida, if you don’t like the latest county wide education policy wait a while and someone will read an article while waiting for a flight and we will be off to the next one; America’s choice or sophomores declaring majors and a half dozen computer programs anyone?

Would you work at a job where you ended up hurting the people you were supposed to help? I got a note from a former math teacher telling me how frustrated and sad she would get as she watched students who just wanted to be a truck driver struggle as they took algebra II. I myself often feel like I am part of the problem. All my kids I teach are getting special diplomas which are basically worthless; they won’t be able to join the military, go to college or be eligible for many jobs. I know they should either be in regular education classes and I should be providing them accommodations and modifications or they should be working on their GEDs but still I show up every day. Feeling like you are part of the problem is not a good feeling to have.

Teachers don’t do the job because they think they will get rich, but is it unreasonable for them to want to be able to pay their bills, help their children out and be prepared if an emergency should come up.

Teachers don’t do the job because they get the summers off. The sad fact is many teachers have to work second jobs over the summer to make ends meet; they also have to take classes and workshops, work on certifications and find ways to improve their crafts. Furthermore technically teachers don’t get paid over the summer, they are unemployed.

Teachers don’t do the job just so they can say they are happy to have a job. They do it because they want to make a difference. They do it because they care about children and that’s more important to them than all of the other things they have to go through combined.

In case you were wondering about what my “but” from the beginning was , its life shouldn’t just be about being happy to have a job

Turn around schools

Not only do I work at one of these schools but I am also a stake holder in the community and am very concerned about the direction education is taking, as we all should be. The article was very revealing, reading between the line it talked about the plight of teachers and the absurdity of how things currently are in education.

Teachers as a group are nurturing, they have a need to give of themselves and a desire to be helpful. Unfortunately the powers-that-be know this and shamefully take advantage of those traits. The Times Union article, I think quite accidentally emphasized this point.

Trina Anderson the teacher profiled in the article mentioned how she works from seven in the morning to five in the afternoon every day, something that is more typical than you might think. But friends o you realize that is a ten hour day and Ms. Anderson is only getting paid for seven and a third hours of them. However it’s worse because she mentions even when home, she is constantly working on lesson plans, digging into data and working on her craft.

Vicki Reynolds the district’s director of human resources said, when talking about all the educators who have resigned, “I think the theme is, I didn’t know how much work this was going to be.” She might as well have said, the theme for teachers who stay should be to expect to be given more work than they can possibly do and not expect to get paid for a lot of it. They should also expect to give up time with their families, expect to do meaningless task after meaningless task, and expect to be taken advantage of by their employer.

I have a friend at an A school who has been teaching for nineteen years and she told me, it’s gotten so bad that if it was just her (she has two daughters) she would quit and get a job at the mall. I have another friend who has to take a break from writing lesson plans most nights so she can read and tuck in her sons, and then she is right back to it. These stories aren’t unusual they are in fact fairly typical of how things are. How is this right? Well the answer is it’s not, it’s embarrassing and wrong and the school district, the teachers union and the community as a whole should be ashamed of itself for letting it happen.

It’s also not vacancies that are preventing these turn around and intervening schools from improving, it’s the system. The teacher in the article has 31 children in her class, these are children at low performing schools with few economic resources and social safety nets, yet we cram them into classrooms like we do sardines into cans and then wonder why a few get left behind or underachieve.

Overwhelming teachers with task after task is no way to improve student performance either. The powers-that-be scream data, data, data, that they want data driven classrooms. If the state is so interested in collecting data why don’t they get statisticians to come in and do it? The answer is they don’t because they can force teachers to do it. Furthermore and sadly, all this data probably gives the teacher the same information they would have by merely working with their students for a few days.

And finally, where is the data that says posting standards, creating word walls, spending hours creating complicated lesson plans and inputting data help facilitate learning; the answer is there is none. If you want proof of this look at Ribault; the state has been there for years yet they are still failing. I do hear however that their bulletin boards are amazing. That is no dig at the fine staff of Ribault, I have no doubt that if the state would get out of their way they would improve.

Next, lesson plans; if the goal of the county is to turn teachers into drones or trained monkeys devoid of initiative, creativity and flexibility as they give teachers learning calendars, schedules and curriculums, instead of forcing teachers to spend hour after hour creating complicated lesson plans why don’t they just give lesson plans to teachers. Many teachers especially those that have been doing it for a while, use lesson plans just as a template, a list of thing s that they need to cover and rarely refer to them when they are actually teaching. Teachers differentiate their instruction to students not because it’s on a piece of paper but because they know that’s what their kids need.

Learning schedules are also a big part of the problem. Teachers are told continuously not to fall too far behind and after a while teachers are forced to move along regardless if the students have mastered the material or not. That is the reality of learning schedules. I teach a special education science class at a turnaround school and I recently had a student transfer into my class from a regular ed. science class that she had been failing. Before long she had an A and I asked her why she struggled in regular ed. and then was doing so well in my class especially since I follow the same standards. She told me that I went slow and drilled and made sure we knew the material before moving on to the next subject and in her other class they covered something and then moved on regardless of whether she got it or not. Kids learn at different rates and of Ms. Andersons thirty-one students; I wonder how many have been forced to move to the next subject even though they hadn’t mastered the last one, and this is through no fault of the teachers but because of leaning schedules?

You want education to improve, bring discipline back to the classroom, if a teacher spends ten percent of their time disciplining unruly or unmanageable students all of the other students lose out on 18 days of instructions. Teachers in big classrooms at turn around schools often spend far more than ten percent of their day instilling discipline. Then let teachers teach. The state should give teachers a (manageable) list of what they want covered and the materials to do so and then get out of their way.

Teachers don’t mind being held accountable, teachers don’t mind working hard and teachers don’t mind doing a little extra after all it is in their nature. They would however like to get paid a fair wage to so, be able to spend a decent amount of time with their families and not be taken advantage of. Right now that’s not how things are. The deck is stacked against teachers, and what the state doesn’t realize, is that if the deck is stacked against teachers it’s stacked against the children too, make that, they don’t realize or they don’t care.

Suspended Belief

Suspension centers made the Times Union today, this is a piece I rote about a year ago about them. -cpg

“School suspensions drop dramatically” was the headline of the December 8th issue of the Florida Times Union. Good news right! Reading this the people of Jacksonville might think things are “dramatically better” here in Duval County sadly however that is far from accurate. All it is another case of smoke and mirrors propagated by the Duval County School Board. This time however they had accomplices as the Times Union and education writer Topher Sanders refused to bring up any issues of substance.

Such as how are suspensions down 71 percent but referrals down only 30? In the past were administrators just suspending students at the drop of a hat? How have teachers written over 19,000 referrals but less than fifteen percent have resulted in suspensions, are teachers writing students up for the most trivial of offences? The article said thirteen hundred children have been referred to the suspension centers, but it doesn’t say how many have actually attended? Even if they all attended which is extremely doubtful wouldn’t that mean the suspension centers are operating at less than five percent of their capacity? Did we waste two million dollars in their creation? If these students aren’t technically suspended and they aren’t in schools what are they? Why hasn’t the school board just said, refer all suspended children to the suspension centers. This by their computing process would eliminate all suspensions. A 71% drop is great but a 100% drop is even better.

Would you like to know some reasons why referrals are down here in Duval County? Well make sure your tables are in their upright position and you have strapped yourself in, because you are about to go on a wild ride.

The biggest reason there are fewer suspensions is because some teachers have stopped writing children up. Quite frankly nothing happens too many of them when they do so. Students rarely receive appropriate consequences for their behavior and even freshmen psychology students will tell you that often leads to worse behavior. Furthermore teachers are afraid to write up children. If they write to many referrals then their classroom management skills are questioned and that can affect their evaluations. So instead many teachers just endure little Johnny or little Suzie’s disruptive, disrespectful and defiant behavior. Sadly however they aren’t the only ones that have to do so; it’s the other children in the class who have come to learn who have to endure it too.

Suspensions are also happening less because suspending kids affect a schools grade. The school board would rather keep misbehaving children in school without real consequences for their behavior, again despite the fact this practically ensures the behavior will repeat and worsen. And it doesn’t matter to them that this also robs parents of the opportunity to be parental and steals instruction time from children to whom school is important. Meeting their self imposed benchmark and looking better in the eyes of the state, not teachers and students are apparently their chief concern.

Referrals are being ignored. Boxes of unprocessed referrals were recently found at my school and where I can’t say with a certainty this happens elsewhere I wouldn’t be surprised, but I do know that more than half the referrals I write I never get back.

Finally suspensions are happening less because the school board told principals to suspend less and they told their deans to suspend less, regardless of the consequences.

Who wins when these things happen? It’s not the teacher that can’t teach, the children that can’t learn or the children who don’t receive consequences for their actions? It’s the school board who can point to deceptive statistics pat themselves on the back and say; look we’re doing a good job.

Continuing, the principal quoted in the piece said, “If a teacher is talking to a child rather than stopping instruction to write them up, then you get better results and you’re building relationships.”

The thing is which she must have forgotten is that teachers are already talking to the unruly students and probably a lot more than to the students who care about school. Please have a seat, please stop talking when I am talking, please pay attention, please stop bothering your neighbor, please stop screaming at me, and please stop cursing at me usually follows, if you want to talk I am here for you and what can I do to help.

Furthermore all the teachers I know only write up kids when they are forced to, when a student’s behavior is so badly or their defiance is so great that teachers have no other choice. Also while the teacher is spending so much time on the unruly student, who do you think is being neglected? I’ll tell you it’s the students who want to be there that are.

If keeping little Johnny in my class means, Linda, Michael, Bob and Allen can’t learn, then little Johnny has to go.

I had a parent teacher conference a few weeks back where the parent was very angry with me accusing me of singling out her child. He had been written up nine times, seven by me, one by a sub and one by another teacher. This child, a second year freshmen also had six F’s and one D on his report card the first nine weeks and at the conference I brought e-mails about this student from all his other teachers, saying he didn’t do any work and didn’t behave in their classes either. I reasoned to the mother, who cares most about this student, the person who just accepts their behavior or the person who says enough is enough, you need to improve. At the mother’s insistence he is now in another class and his grades and behavior are as bad as ever.

Offering no consequences for behavior doesn’t seem to be working. If you want proof sit in on a tenth grade geometry class or ninth grade reading class at your average turn around school. Or look in the streets and jails of our city. How about we try the opposite and give some consequences including suspensions for bad behavior, it seemed to work for our parents and our grandparents.

When the Times Union prints these misleading puff pieces on behalf of the school board it does their readers, the citizens of Jacksonville and most importantly the children of Jacksonville a disservice. The Times Union should write an article about how the school board and the school system here in Jacksonville is in trouble, deep trouble and we need the help of the whole community to turn it around because if we don’t things are going to get worse much worse. That story would at least be accurate.

Call the parents first

There is a new discipline directive given to Duval county's teachers for its unruly students and that's before you write a referral or send them out of glass you must call the parents first. Instead of writing these children up, something most of us do as a last resort anyways, we are supposed to stop in the middle of class and call the parents before we do anything else. My grade book and attendance folder have been replaced on my desk with a list of contact numbers, and emergency numbers. I have to tell my class, hold on, I'll be back in as soon as I can, that is, after I track down the parent, explain the situation and ask for help, please be patient we'll start learning as soon as I get back, and you little Johnny just continue cursing me out, running around the room, refusing to do your work or doing whatever you were doing.

That's right, the student walks out of class we are supposed to call the parent first, the student curses you out, we are supposed to call the parent first, the student threatens to gut you with a lawn mower blade (something that happened to a colleague of mine just the other day) call the parent first. And do it right then and there, the other twenty-five students will just have to make do.

If we do write a referral the first thing we hear from an administrator is, and you probably guessed it, did you call the parent first before you wrote them up, though that's better than do you really think he was going to gut you with a lawn mower blade, to which I imagine my teacher friend replied, "…well now that I think about it, when he was screaming at me, spit flying out of his mouth, with his fists clenched, he may have been kidding a little, I guess." We never hear, how much is it going to cost to replace the overhead projector, sorry your family lineage was called into question, or if he does show up with a lawn mower blade what we should do, perhaps we should call the parent first then to.

A P.E. teacher at Paxon Middle school followed this directive the other day. He had a student who was reportedly out of control in his class, at some point he had enough and rather than write the student up on a referral, he call the parent. He asked the parent to come to the school to discipline the child, while doing this he reportedly asked the parent to bring his belt.

When the parent arrived the student was taken to a separate room, and was disciplined presumably with the belt his father was asked to bring, afterwards the student then apologized to the coach, and to many of us, who daily are cursed out and are threatened, who have children run amok in our classrooms, that when we write them up, are back either later in the day or the next day to repeat, for many of us even though we didn't know all the facts, we thought this was a victory.

Others though must have thought differently because later that day the teacher was reassigned to a non-instructional position, the child was taken by the Department of Children and Families and the father was arrested.

Now I wasn't there, I only know what was reported in the paper, an article every teacher in my department read with jaws dropped, not believing what had happened, at first stunned, as a colleague was in danger of loosing his job, and a parent who took the time to come out, when so many don't, was arrested, we wondered if what happened was excessive or not, we also wondered if the child was injured, but if not then we agreed what was happening to the teacher and the parent was a shame.

I understand why we want to have the parents involved, they can be a huge help and should be involved, but I also understand that a big reason we have a discipline problem in school, is because many parents have abdicated their parental responsibilities, they haven't taught their children what respect and responsibility are. They think I'll send them to school, there they will be straightened out, to which we now reply, call the parents they will take care of the problem, and in this catch twenty-two never ending circle, the children receive no meaningful consequences for their actions. This will ultimately lead to worse and worse behavior, perhaps behavior that will have tragic consequences. You see by doing nothing we without a doubt are courting tragedy either for them or for somebody else.

Sometimes when we call the parents, we do so with a wink and a nod, we know we can't put our hands on the child, but we also no if reason or time out doesn't work in our class room, we know it probably won't work at home either, and we hope the parent may have a harsher discipline they can employ. That means unless it was excessive, what the parent at Paxon middle did wasn't the problem, the problem was where he did it at.

In my seven years of teaching, when I have called the parents, usually after school or on my planning period, not when I was in the middle of teaching other students, for the most part they have been helpful and concerned, working with me to fix the problem, but problems with those kids that have involved, supportive parents are usually just a blip and easily correctable. But I have also heard at different times, can you beat the child, they are the same way here, I can't control them either, call the police when you have a problem because I am done, if you fail my child I will fuck you up, and more than a few fuck offs.

Discipline or the lack there of, is the number one problem that many of the teachers in the trenches, not classrooms but trenches of our public schools face. I wrote trenches there because that's how a lot of teachers feel day in and day out, like they are going to battle.

The unruly five percent of kids are ruining classrooms and schools throughout the district; they are taking away from the ninety-five percent of students who want to learn who want to do well. I hope parents understand that, most of teacher's time and energy go to those students who are most frequently in trouble, not the child who might be a little behind but wants to learn, those children who if they don't get he extra help will fall farther and farther behind, and these same unruly children are chasing teachers out of the field.

It comes down to this if they don't get any discipline at home, we are doing them no favors by not giving it to them at school either, for a consequence to have meaning it must mean something, if they get no consequences at home then calling home will mean nothing.

Hello Mrs. Doe, where I find Johnny very bright and engaging at times, when he runs around the room cursing, refusing to do his work, threatening me, it distracts from the learning environment of the other twenty kids who want to be there, and prevents him from achieving his full potential, oh it's my problem and I should deal with it, oh I should f**k off, well thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

While at work.

While at work today I saw three young ladies beat up another. During the fight they pulled hair from her head and bloodied her face and foot. I am not a prison guard.

While at work today I got hit in the head while breaking up a fight. I am not a referee.

While at work today I saw two young men rummage through a purse that had been dropped and they did so in the full view of several staff members. I am not a store clerk.

While at work today I read an e-mail about a gun that was recently confiscated there. I don’t work at a call center or at one of the big banking or insurance complexes.

While at work today I wondered if we got all the guns that were here but then I thought, I bet we aren’t even close. I don’t work for the police.

While at work today I was cursed out not once but twice, I was told to mind my own expletive business when I asked someone to get to work and called a mother expletive when I asked someone what they were doing. I don’t work at a gym.

While at work today I had somebody burst into my room to yell at somebody who was in there with me. I am not a doctor or a lawyer.

While at work I got frustrated because I didn’t have up to date materials and supplies. I am not a painter.

While at work today I got disgusted with the lack of civility, respect, and dignity. I don’t work at city hall.

While at work today I was surrounded by apathy and noticed an extreme lack of effort, I don’t work for the department of motor vehicles.

While at work today, there were moments when I didn’t fee respected and I didn’t feel safe. I am not a soldier.

While at work today I wondered how many lawyers, bankers, sales clerks,
computer technicians, construction workers, politicians and paramedics, how many white collar and blue collar workers alike can say they had the same type of day as me. I would guess not many.

So what do I do, and where do I work? I am a school teacher at a public high school and today was a pretty typical day, but not just for me but for thousands of my colleagues as well. The really sad thing is a lot of students, who want to learn, who want to succeed, who deserve better had a much worse day than I did.

Have you ever wondered why we have an epidemic of violence in our street unlike never before? Have you ever wondered why we have a hard time first attracting and keeping more first rate businesses and companies? Have you ever wondered where civility, courtesy and respect went? Have you ever wondered why so many of our schools are failing and why graduation rates are are so abysmal?

I’ll tell you why, it’s because we don’t care about our schools, and we don’t care about education and worse of all we don’t care about our children.

Now we say we do care, and we shake our heads and sigh when we hear the news reports of violence, failing schools and the loss of opportunity our city experiences, but then we turn away, I imagine hopeful our elected officials will take care of it. But all they really do is form committees and initiatives. But these things are designed to distract us, to give us the illusion that somebody in charge will eventually do something that the care, but they don’t and I can prove it.

Ask yourself a question, do you think things are getting better or worse. If you answered yes welcome to the group that is called everybody thinks that.

In the end it’s the citizens of Jacksonville that need to stand up and say we care; we want things to be better and that enough is enough, if things are going to change it will only happen if we demand it, because if not us then who.

Like other municipalities that are tired of seeing their children hang out on the street corners with little hope and even less opportunity, that have seen their crime rates rise and their graduation and achievement rates drop, we have to step up, even in these tough economic times, we have to tell our government we want to have a first rate education system, and then we have to do what it takes even if it means digging into our pockets to make sure it happens.

Jacksonville doesn’t have to agree with Tallahassee and their decision not to care about education, just because it’s okay with them that Florida is fiftieth out of fifty in spending on children it doesn’t mean it has to be okay with Jacksonville.

Our school system desperately needs programs that give students extra tutoring in reading and writing, and programs that teach skills to the students not interested in college, such as vocational or trade programs. Likewise teachers need to have manageable classrooms and adequate supplies to be able to properly educate our children. Again just because the state of Florida puts educating our children below tax breaks for people who one multiple houses and luxury boxes it doesn’t mean the citizens of Jacksonville have too.

Times are tough and everybody understands that, but if we continue to underfund education, the needs of our children, do we think things are just going to miraculously fix themselves? When something in your house breaks does it miraculously fix itself, or do you have to spend the money to get it working again. Well if we as a city don’t start sacrificing then it’s many of our children’s future that will be lost, and it’s our city that will continue to suffer.

We have to decide whether we care about the future of our city or we don’t and we do that by deciding if we care about our children or we don’t, and the first step is to follow the lead that several other cities have done and that’s step up and stop just saying we care and start acting like we do.

Version II

I’ll tell you why, it’s because we don’t care about our schools, and we don’t care about education and worse of all we don’t care about our children. Children without boundaries grow up with a false sense of how things are. Children who don’t receive consequences for their actions do not learn from their actions. Friends we don’t have to reinvent the wheel to take back our schools and our streets; if we want things to improve, we need to bring discipline back to the classroom.

Teachers want all students to do well if not we would have picked different professions; professions where we are not routinely disrespected unappreciated and threatened, however the sad thing is not all students care about learning. They don’t come to school to do so; they come to school to hang out with their friends or to see what trouble they can find. So many students have no idea what being respectful and courteous means, or even what making an effort means. Instead they feel entitled and as if they can do whatever they want whenever they want.

It’s no coincidence the city has had an increase in burglaries and violence perpetrated by young people. You rarely hear about honor students being arrested for carjacking or valedictorians arrested for robbery. It’s always, they had a few problems in school, which is often code for they were always in trouble and/or we can’t believe it took so long for them to get caught. There is a direct correlation between students who constantly misbehave in school and students who commit crimes in society. Who knows what would have happened had they children been disciplined or received meaningful consequences for their actions. Let me ask you this, Why don’t you commit crimes, or curse out your boss, why don’t you steal or vandalize things, is it because you know it’s wrong and part of that knowledge came from whenever you misbehaved you received consequences for your actions?

While we are trying to save a few of the bad apples the whole cart is in danger of being spoiled. Students that fight should be removed if not arrested; students that don’t come to learn, just to hang with their friends or to see what trouble they can find should be expelled. Teachers lament all the time if little Suzy or Johnny wasn’t in their classroom they could teach or they rejoice when they are absent. Think about this if a teachers spends just ten percent of their time disciplining the continuously unruly few that’s 18 days of instruction that is lost, and how much better do you think some students would do with that extra time and believe you me, a lot of teachers are forced to spend a lot more time than ten percent.

If some families are abdicating the responsibility to show their children how to be responsible respectful citizens, then we have to do it in the classrooms and the schools because if not there then where else can they possibly learn it?

Are violent streets, low graduation rates and failing schools not enough? Do we need a tragedy does somebody at a school have to be killed before we wake up and do something? No child left behind should be we are leaving about ten percent of them behind until they shape up; we have the other ninety percent to think and care about.

Suspension Centers

Duval county's suspension centers made the Times Union today. This is a piece I wrote about them almost 18 months ago. -cpg

The editorial praising suspension centers for misbehaving school children elicited a response from me; it was me slapping my forehead exclaiming, “Are you kidding me!” In addition to sending them there why don’t we pat them on the back and give them a big bag of gumdrops too?

Being suspended is supposed to be a punishment, have we forgotten that,
has our touchy feely, politically correct society gotten to that point? If done correctly suspensions can have several positive outcomes. If disruptive children are sent home for a few days it gives the other students an opportunity to have a positive learning environment and teachers an opportunity to teach. The teachers lament is, if little Johnny or little Suzy wasn’t here I could teach, most students that get suspended are little Johnnies and little Suzies. Bottom line, the suspension of an unruly child often gives other students a chance to learn and teachers a chance to teach.

More importantly however is a child’s suspension gives a parent an opportunity to act like one. I knew if I was ever suspended from school there were far worse punishments than that waiting for me at home. Too many parents have abdicated their responsibilities or left it to the schools to discipline their children, well society isn’t supposed to work like that, parents are supposed to teach children how to behave and schools are just supposed to teach.

If instead of sending them home all we are going to do is send them to a suspension center which sounds like a glorified coddling center to me what’s the point in suspending them in the first place? Where is the punishment? If schools are to become the discipline tool of the family let’s not play around and let’s do it right. If we don’t it’s only all of society hangs in the balance and if you think I am exaggerating or using grandiose terms for effect, just read the crime report or law and disorder sections of any paper.

Discipline has become a huge problem in many of our schools as evident by another teachers lament and that’s the inmates are running the asylum. When we don’t give children consequences for their actions, and remember for a consequence to be effective it must have meaning, we are in danger of creating more problems down the line. Violent, disruptive and disrespectful children often become violent, disruptive and disrespectful adults. When a student gets to the point they need to be suspended it rarely is the first problem the school had had with the child. Furthermore many students who are suspended are often the recipients of multiple suspensions, this is because suspensions aren’t consequences to them and now inexplicably we are watering down suspensions further with suspension centers.

I personally don’t expect the suspended student to learn anything from not being in school, all I expect is now I will have a few days of peace where I can make sure my other students do.

Instead of going to a voluntary suspension center for a few days something that will unlikely make a difference, why not send the repeat offending child to an alternative school for nine weeks. A school where there is no P.E. or art, no talking in the halls or in the cafeteria, for every day you miss a day is added on and for every bad day you get an extra week. We can have character education and social workers there and then they can get those services for more than an easily forgettable few days. Then let’s make the parents responsible for getting them there and hold them accountable when they don’t. Why not do something that will matter, that has teeth, that will make a difference, because if we’re not going to do that then what is the point, and friends what we are currently doing isn’t worth of a hill of beans to far too many.

If students know going to an alternative center is a real possibility how do you think this will affect their decision making process? Furthermore as I stated above, students who are suspended are often those students who are repeatedly in trouble, after nine weeks away from their friends in a very restrictive environment how much repeat behavior do you think they will have? I’ll tell you how much affect a three day suspension has on many of them, it’s none.

To be honest though I don’t think it should stop there. Once you turn fifteen if you get in two fights in a year thanks for coming but instead of taking the risk you might assault someone else you can go home and be your parent’s problems for a year. Threaten or hit a teacher welcome to the alternative school for the rest of your academic career. Get caught at school with drugs (I recently had an 18 year old student return after just three weeks) feel free to reapply next year.

I don’t particularly like the idea of having these students on the street, but to be honest keeping them in the schools scares the heck out of me and has a detrimental effect on the other students. If a kid comes to hang out with his friends or to see what trouble they can find, it’s time to tell them they are no longer wanted because keeping them takes resources away from the kids that want to be there that have an opportunity to do well. In other words a few bad apples are threatening to spoil all the apples in the cart.

Ask your son or daughter if they know any students who are always in trouble or who never do their work, I bet many of them will know a handful. If a teacher has to constantly deal with disruptive children then that’s time taken away from your child. I hope your child just doesn’t need that little bit extra to be successful.

We have to wake up, by coddling these children, by not giving them real consequences for their actions, by sending them to suspension centers, which are voluntary by the way, we are courting more tragedies. I say more because we already have tragedies in our streets daily. Young people are committing and being the victim of crimes at a terrifying rate and it’s just a matter of time before this violence invades our schools more than it already has. Do we need a student or a teacher to be gunned down in the halls before we stand up and demand something meaningful be done.
In the last few weeks at my school there have been several vicious assaults that probably wouldn’t have taken place if the perpetrators would have received real consequences for past behavior. I say again we are courting tragedy, I just hope it’s not me or one of my peers, or your son or daughter that it happens to.

Suspension centers are those ideas that sound good in a vacuum, that are created by far off academics or people brainstorming around coffee and doughnuts, not by the teachers and administrators in the schools on the front lines, and I mean front lines because with some of these students it’s like going to battle daily. Suspension centers are like putting Band-Aids on bullet wounds which we will have in our halls and our classrooms if we don’t start doing something.

Even in failure the St. Johns County school district gets it right

Even in failure the St. Johns County public school system got it right.

The Florida Times Union recently ran a story about St. Johns County’s lone failing school, St. Johns technical high school. This is a big deal for several different reasons. First because St. Johns County is the highest achieving district in the state and any news of failure is big news and second because even in failure the St. Johns County school district has gotten it right.

The vast majority of the kids that go to St. Johns vocational high school are unlike the kids in the rest of the county, they aren't going to go to college and quite frankly they have struggled throughout their academic carrers. “Most since the first day of kindergarten” the piece mentions, and perhaps the main reason for this is because many of the kids have disabilities. At this school however instead of just struggling as they would at a typical high school, they can also earn a certificate in a variety fields such as cosmetology, landscaping or culinary arts. They learn a skill that prepares them or life that far more than learning the quadratic formula and how to conjugate verbs does. This is how St. Johns County got it right.

Capable disabled students in Duval County have no such option and very little in the way of opportunity. Despite their disabilities we are in the process of shoving them into the same one size fits all, everybody is going to go to college curriculum that the district has deemed is appropriate for everybody. What’s the difference in curriculum between a highly motivated student at Stanton with an IQ of 120 who wants to be an engineer and a learning disabled student at Ed White who has an IQ of 80 and who wants to drive a truck? The answer is, there is none.

Also since we are doing away with special diploma options, I believe partly because kids that earn them will begin to count against a schools grade, we are forcing kids who after ten years of school and who can’t do their times tables into algebra classes where they will either fail or receive the “gentlemen’s C” that dominates so many teachers grade books. Also, you ever wonder why kids act out in class? Well one of the biggest reasons is the material is too much for them and it leads to frustration which leads to bad behavior. Many of our disabled children act out the most. See a correlation?

I get that the powers that be think that some of these students haven’t been given the proper opportunities to test their academic mettle and that they hope when put in these advanced for them academic settings they will be able to be successful. What they don’t get however is that if wishes were real we would all be riding rocket powered unicorns. Instead of blowing the system up, why don’t we here in Duval County do something realistic and put the kids in situations they can not only potentially be successful in but will also give them a tangible benefit like earning a certificate. Why don’t we do something like St. John’s County does? Though I guess there is a reason why they are considered one of the best school districts in Florida and Duval County is considered something different.

I am a special education teacher and it does my heart good to see one of my kids succeed in the regular education setting but likewise it breaks my heart to see kids thrust into those situations who have no real chance at being successful and it frustrates me to know end that we are teaching these kids things they most likely will never get and if by some miracle they did would never use. We should not just be okay with these kids learning a technical skill but we should encourage it and celebrate it when they earn them. However once again we have designed our schools around the kids we wish we had preparing them for the jobs we want them to do and in the process almost assured that the kids we do have won’t be successful post school.

Many of Duval Counties disabled kids will graduate ill prpared to continue their education and unlike their counterparts in St. Johns county without a skill. Well what do you think is going to happen to them? The best and brightest will get menial dead end jobs and the others will continue on the dole of society either recieving public assistance or for some who when faced with few options make bad choices a period of enforced residency at the behest of the state.

Perhaps what’s most frustrating in all this is it wasn’t that long ago that Duval County got it right. We had award winning skill centers that kids would go to half a day where they could learn the trades and skills that they and their parents thought would better suit them and the other half of the day they would be at their home schools where they would learn their academics. The skill centers have now sadly gone away replaced with academic magnets that many of our regular and most of our special education students cannot be successful in. Every year kids trickle away from Frank Peterson because they couldn’t cut the mustard, heading back to their neighborhood schools where they often continue to languish.

We desperately need an option or our disabled kids and our kids that either don’t have the aptitude or interest in going to college. Our one size it’s all curriculum, where we have devalued the teaching of the trades, skills and arts has led directly many of the districts problems. Furthermore I know we want every kid to go to college and that’s a laudable goal, sadly it’s also an unrealistic goal. Instead of having a school system for the kids we wish we had, I think it would do us, them and the district well to have a school system appropriate for the ones we do. Even though they knew it would be hard and extra work in St. Johns County, even though they realized they might not be successful when it was factored into the states cookie cutter system that rarely takes the concerns of the children into consideration, they did it anyways. They made a place for all their students, why can’t we.

In the end, even in "failure" because they made their special needs children a priority St. Johns County got it right.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher