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Thursday, September 30, 2010

My First Memory of Our Superintendant: More of the Same

Winter break 2007: Returning to school refreshed, with my sleeves rolled up and ready to concentrate on the business of education, it was almost a full five minutes before I received my first disappointment of the new year. I realized that despite the fact it was a new year, and with a new superintendent, all we would be receiving would be more of the same.

Now, it wasn't little Johnny cursing me out or little Suzie refusing to do her work which got me down - as a teacher I am used to that; besides, I know it's my job and my responsibility to get them to follow directions and learn. No, what got me down came from much higher up; what got me down came from those who were supposed to be helping me out, making my job easier; what brought me down didn't come from my students, it came from my superintendent and my school board. And I was only one of many who were feeling it.

After Ed Pratt-Dannals replaced Stephen Wise at the bargain basement price of $275,000 (plus our national reputation) I am sure many people - parents, teachers and interested parties alike - thought things would be different; that the way things were done would change. No longer would the school system be led from an ivory tower where mandates were handed down and subordinates without input were expected to carry them out.

We thought we were ushering in a new era where we would all work together as a team...(that's where parents, teachers and administrators alike would come together to make our school system one in which we could all be proud). The first few days after the change, we were all filled with optimism.

And then - right off the bat - the new superintendent (seemingly in an effort to prove things were going to be different) came to us and sought the counsel of all the school board employees. He came to us and asked us to help him solve one of the most pressing problems our school system had, (wait for it - *dramatic pause* - wait for it:) What Our E-Mail Address Should Be. You see, and no longer represented the direction in which we wanted to head ... (*sound of balloon deflating and spinning out of control around a room*) so much for our optimism.

Our administration must have decided, 'Hey let's get that one out of the way first, and then we can come back to the issues of discipline spiraling out of control and schools that are failing. That's right - before we tackle the problems of teacher morale, violence, truancy and dropouts, let's make sure we get the e-mail address right'.

Though I find it just as likely they thought, 'Hey, for the most part, teachers have no idea how to handle failing schools, violence in the classroom or truancy, but since we want to give the appearance of us being a team, let's throw them a softball that they may be able to help with - besides, if we give them two choices, (A or B) about something nobody really cares about, how can they mess it up?'

Either way, an e-mail was sent out asking us to choose between and, and we were asked to vote for which one we liked better. The address that received the most votes would then become the official one. (Perhaps they also thought that a byproduct of finally getting the right e-mail address that represented us would be that our FCAT scores would go up and the dropout rates would go down - two of the many, many problems teachers were not asked to help solve).
So, teachers voted... and even though this (in the scheme of things, when compared to dwindling supplies, dropping test scores, being threatened in the halls by thugs masquerading as students and so many other things) was basically a trivial matter, many of us were happy to do so. You see, for the last few years, so many things have been (and are still being) forced onto us and we are required to implement them without giving any input; America's Choice, Access Points, and ninth graders being forced to declare a major are a few of the more glaring boondoggles that the county has declared the next great fix - only to be later discarded. Even though it was the equivalent of being asked if we wanted two or three ice cubes in our water, it was actually nice to have our opinions considered.

The votes came in and as a group, we decided on We knew that with that burning issue out of the way, we would next be asked to help tackle the other problems facing our school system - and if you have forgotten some of them, they are: no discipline; failing schools; plummeting teacher morale; violence, truancy and dropouts. These are problems that teachers, parents and other interested parties initially thought may have been just a bit more pressing, but our opinions were not requested.

Except that wasn't what happened; instead of going with what the rank-and-file voted on (and mind you, this was after we were asked to vote, and we were told what we voted for was going to be the new address) we got a letter informing us they decided to forego our decision and head in a different direction; that the choice we made did not adequately reflect what we wanted to project; and that one of the reasons they decided to go with a different address from the one we had chosen was that it was going to be free. I guess after paying the previous superintendent's severance we couldn't afford the $9.00 the domain name we chose would have cost.
That's right - after being asked how many ice cubes we wanted, they decided to not even give us a drink. We couldn't even get that right. Read that again, parents; the school board doesn't believe the people who are entrusted to teach your children are capable of helping to pick an e-mail address.

I started to wonder why they even asked us in the first place, but it became a little too mind-numbing; and, to be honest, I didn't really care, because when compared to so many other things, what our e-mail address is doesn't really matter. However, what I do care about is the disconnect the administration has with its staff; the belief that these people (out of the classroom, in many instances for years) have - that they feel they know what's best, especially when many of us in the trenches feel like they have no idea what is going on.

I also started to wonder if they only payed 'lip service' to teachers and our opinions - or who else they might be doing it to. Maybe parents should be asking this same question.

Now, if you are wondering which one I voted for: I didn't. I was too busy getting little Johnny to take his seat and little Suzie to do her work, though I anxiously await the next time the administration has a pressing question (such as which number two pencil to use, or how many chicken nuggets should come with lunch); you know...something they might feel I am qualified to help with. Reply Forward

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The (education) circus comes to town

Florida Commissioner of Education Eric Smith’s traveling circus came to town the other day. (I say "circus") because that is what Education has become. We, as a society, have chosen not to fund it adequately. We have given teachers all of the responsibility but none of the authority to educate our children, giving a pass to parents, policymakers and politicians like Eric Smith. In many schools, 'the inmates (children) are running the asylum', and nobody can see to come up with any ideas but merit pay, early reading initiatives and mentors.

If you didn’t know the Commissioner’s circus was in town, don’t feel bad - very few did, and you are in the vast majority. Smith is traveling the state talking about teacher quality: apparently, at one point, there were a lot of good ones, but that was a long time ago. Now, he does admit there are still a few good ones, but it quickly becomes clear that Smith thinks we still have a whole lot of bad ones, too. Smith was the ringmaster, but along with him he had the Chancellor of Education, a State union head, and an education activist, who (if he mentions Finland again) is going to make me throw something.

They planned the town-hall style forum from 4-6 on a Tuesday afternoon, I believe to assure that as few people as possible could attend. You see, unless you are an education consultant, guru or member of an education leadership team, you usually have to work or take care of your children during those hours. At one point, Smith said to the 100 or so people in attendance, “this auditorium should be filled to capacity and then overflowing.” (Here is a hint, sir; next time, let people know). A group of parents said they didn’t find out about it until one of them got a random Google alert a few hours before it began, and if you didn’t get that and/or missed the five-inch column buried in the Florida Times-Union, the chances are you didn’t even know it was happening.

Though it was pretty obvious that this was just the powers-that-be going through the motions with this exercise; after all, why else would all of Northeast Florida (one and a half million people, three-hundred and fifty thousand of whom are children) get just two hours of face time? That’s right - because as soon as the clock struck 6 pm, a bell went off and they were done. I can just imagine the chaos that would have ensued had they cut off 350, 500 or 1,000 people from asking questions. They still had 20 or so questions from the audience of less than 100 people that went unanswered. And let’s talk about the questions, because I am of the opinion (an opinion shared with a few people I talked to) that none were answered to anyone's satisfaction; I know mine wasn’t.

I asked a question about not every kid being prepared for or interested in college, and since that’s the case, shouldn’t we start providing for their needs by developing curriculums based around skills, trades and the arts. I phrased it so they could either agree or disagree with the question (a trick I learned from watching "Papa Bear", Bill O’Reilly). Eight minutes later, my head was spinning, as they talked about how children had more opportunity than ever before and how more kids would be taking more AP classes than ever, too. They not once came off the mantra that we need to prepare every child for college, and that’s where every child could go if teachers just did things better. There answers had a few half-truths in them; kids do have more opportunities, more opportunities to take classes they aren’t interested in, that is. And because of continuous cuts in trades, the skills and the arts every year, their “opportunities” to take those classes will become fewer and farther between. Furthermore, yes - more kids are having “opportunities” to take AP classes - though, if we are being honest, fewer kids are prepared for them and less kids are passing them. It was almost as if they hoped they could bore me into not seeing what their answers were.

I wasn’t the only whose question was answered with a series of long, meandering responses that seemed to have very little to do with the actual question. Also, at some point during every question, not only did they mention Finland, (Friends, I kid you not - they must have talked about Finland for a good fifteen minutes, or one-eighth of the time) but somebody would always say, “good question.” Unfortunately, I don’t think anybody replied, “good answer.”

It was as if they were playing four-corners offense from an old basketball game. If you didn’t know, before the invention of the shot clock, some teams (once they got a lead) would slow the game down. Their meandering, long-winded answers where they talked for minutes at a time but said nothing reminded me of watching Villanova beat Georgetown in 1984 - one of the greatest upsets ever - and it happened a year before the shot clock was instituted.

Though, in the end, they were right; we do need reform and the reform we need to start with is them. They have run Education into the ground and then they have the hubris to ask for more time to try something new. They say they want our input and our help but then they schedule these meetings at times that guarantees only a few people will attend. It’s also obvious that they have their minds made up and it’s more of the same: "teacher quality must improve" and "everybody is going to go to college".

Friends, don’t take heart that the Commissioner of Education's traveling circus came to Jacksonville, Florida to listen to your concerns and suggestions and to answer your questions; instead, be 'mad as hell' and say, 'we’re not going to take this lip service, this going-through-the motions and this way of doing things any more'. Friends, at some point, enough has to be enough. How many kids are we going to see fall through the cracks, sacrificed on the altar of bad education practices? Don’t we have to make a change, and isn’t it reasonable to suggest that we start with the people who have brought us to the abyss, or are you okay with the circus that Education has become?

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

MAP Money, 20 pieces of silver

People have bought into teacher incentive pay like it's the savior of education. This is a piece I wrote three years ago. Coincidently the last year I got the MAP pay.

If you heard a few screams of joy coming from Ed White high school two Fridays ago it wasn't because a few pimply faced freshmen passed their first big test of the year, it was because a few teachers found a little note in their boxes notifying them they had been awarded the Duval Merit Award Program (MAP) performance pay bonus for the 2006-2007 school year, I was one of those teachers. If you don't know, the MAP bonus was given to the top twenty-five percent of teachers in Duval county and amounted to five percent of the average teachers pay or about 2200 dollars and change, even after taxes an appreciated and significant amount.

I was very excited to receive it, and more it was unexpected, you see when they announced the criteria for it very late last year, I thought there was no way I would get it. This despite the fact there were only two eligibility requirements and I met them both, having received a good evaluation and seen improvements in my students as well. The catch being they were going to use students F-cat scores to determine if they improved or not, and that was a problem for me, and not because like many teachers I feel it's an unfair assessment tool but because despite the fact my students are in high school, they don't take the F-Cat.

You see I don't teach math or science, or even English of history, heck I don't even teach art or P.E., no what I teach is life skills and personal safety, I sometimes jokingly tell people I teach the penny, the color brown, how to make popcorn, and the big hand on the clock, the joke however is, I am actually not joking, to (trainably) mentally handicapped (TMH) kids. How they were going to evaluate teachers in my area as well as art and P.E. and a few others was significantly vague, it seemed as if we were going to be left out, so when I left for the summer the thought of me getting the bonus, where it wasn't completely out of the question, it was nearly so.

So when I got it I proceeded to giggle like a little school girl while simultaneously doing a happy dance. After my giddiness subsided I went to share my good news with my colleagues, little did I know, I would soon be sneaking to my car with my head down.

I went to the classroom next store to share my good news with my good friend and fellow TMH teacher. He taught the same kids I did as they rotated back and forth between us and two other teachers, he was also my mentor at school (not only was 06-07 my first year at Ed White, but it was also a return to teaching for me, after some time in the private sector) and without him I would have been lost. I told him about my windfall thinking he probably received the bonus himself and he would be happy for me because in my mind he played a big part in me receiving it, but all I got was a rather cold "that's nice for you". He didn't get it and I later learned out of the four of us that literally taught the exact same kids, only two of us had received the bonus.

Not feeling the love I went and visited another friend of mine. She is the head of her department, teaches honors classes, sponsors clubs, and is regarded as one of the best teachers around, she had to have received it, and I thought we could bask in our greatness together, I felt I would be safe in sharing my good news with her. The problem was she didn't get it either and all I got was another cold "that's nice for you".

On my planning period I headed to the lounge, before I entered I overheard a few teachers talking about the MAP bonus, one said I can't believe this teacher got it, another said I can't believe that teacher didn't get it, when I finally decided to enter their conversation literally screeched to a halt, and after a moment they all got up to leave, on the way out one of them gave me a "that's nice for you" smile. The whole rest of the day I felt a bit like a pariah and all I had done wrong was to do my job well, something I had in common with the vast majority of teachers at Ed White high school.

So here I am the pride and excitement of receiving the MAP bonus earlier in the day quickly subsided, now it was replaced with guilt and instead of inviting kids out to celebrate our successes I was now trying to avoid my colleagues as I snuck to my car. I was afraid if I saw more of them, I would just upset them as well.

I felt bad on the lonely ride home but not because I didn't feel I deserved it, on the contrary I think I am a very good teacher and I definitely deserved it. When it comes to instruction and forming relationships with students, the two things I feel are the most important things teachers do, I think I am in the top one percent, though if I am being honest there are a few other areas that the modern teacher is responsible for that I lag behind in, no I felt bad because I thought a lot of other teachers, some who are just as good at the things I am good at and some who are good at the things I am not so good at, deserved it to.

A few years ago while taking a Learning Strategies class for my certification the teacher showed a video of a teacher, and we were supposed to rate her effectiveness on a scale of zero to four. She was dry and boring, a little haphazard with her classroom management and unfair with her discipline. I turned to a teacher friend who was taking the class with me and said "I am going to give her a zero, what are you going to give her?" He looked at me and said "I am going to give her a one."

"What" I literally shouted back, "she was unclear, uncaring, unfair and undeserving of even one point, how can you justify giving her anything." He then calmly replied, your right, about all that, but what you are forgetting about, is she showed up, she came in, when so many other people in society won't." I later changed my score of her to a one too.

And that's what teachers do, they show up, often to overcrowded classrooms, not enough supplies, rowdy students, apathetic parents, and demands on their time that far exceed the 7.5 hours a day they are paid, and the vast majority of them are a lot better than the teacher in the video, and the vast majority of them deserved better, than seeing a quarter of their colleagues rewarded for basically the same work that they had been doing.

Now I am not saying every teacher should have gotten the bonus, though if it would have been distributed equally among all teachers, each of us would have received about six hundred dollars, and I am definitely not saying I plan on giving the check back, under the system I earned it, also last year as a sixth year teacher I was making less than first year teachers do now, and right now my raise for next year is scheduled to be a whopping 219 dollars (which means after inflation my actual disposable income will go down).

Also I don't want to sound unappreciative or ungrateful because I am not, but I also think I am a bit lucky to. When teachers like ***** and *****, along with so many other great teachers don't get the bonus, it's obvious the system is broke and unfair and if we can't get it fixed by next year, I say unless your that one teacher in that video lets go ahead and split it up evenly, as much as I would like the extra money, I really don't want to have to sneak to my car at the end of the day again.

Her problem is…

She paced back and forth trying to hold back tears. She reached for a tissue off her desk and wiped the corner of her eyes. "It just sucks, G". (That's what my co-worker calls me, like in the movie Top Gun all teachers have call signs). "It sucks so bad", she said. I sat there and gave her a weak smile, nodding my head ever so slightly in agreement. At first I thought she had just become overwhelmed with being a teacher. Many work 12 hour days during the week and even more on the weekend. They leave their kids in day care as they attempt to get caught up with an endless list of tasks many of which only have a peripheral relationship to education. I also thought maybe an administrator had come down hard on her because a t wasn’t crossed on a lesson plan or she had dare write a referral. It turns out her problem was eve worse.

She came and sat across from me and put her head down on the table, a tear suspended on her cheek for just a second before it fell. "I am trying so hard, I want these kids to succeed so bad", she said, before closing her eyes and going silent. I nodded this was a sentiment I am practically all teachers has, after all we didn’t join the profession to be rich and recently the prestige of being a teacher had been severely tarnished as they had become the face and unjustly so of all that is wrong in education as parents, the government and policy makers had all gotten a pass.

I reached over to stroke her hair to give her some reassurance that it was going to be okay, that things were going to work out; but at the last moment, I stopped because I knew I could give no guarantee. Teachers are overwhelmed these days and there is no end in sight, but so to our kids as more and more who can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel are choosing to drop out. The allure of the street trumps the hopelessness that many kids feel at school. I wanted desperately to reassure my friend that her problem would work out...oh, and what is my friend’s problem? My friend's problem is that she cares.

I sat there looking at her. Her breathing was a little labored as she tried to hold back tears. I sat there wishing I had a magic wand or a time machine because I knew whatever I said, even if it was earnest, heartfelt and sincere, wouldn't be able to change things - not now, anyway. Even practical sentiment such as, 'move on', or 'all you can do is hope for the best', seemed inappropriate. It was made even more difficult because there I was, experiencing her pain first-person.

She has a student in her class that for some reason stood out to her, that she took an extra interest in. For whatever reason, this student was special to her and her doing right by this student was exceptionally important. Of course, she put time and effort into all of her students, but with this one she went above and beyond. For a while, they were making progress. This was a child who, for much of their young life, was unappreciated and uncared for - and now, finally, they had someone in their corner who would 'go to bat for them', 'go the extra mile', and all the other metaphors you can think of. This was working, too, because for a while, this child had prospered. For a while anyways.
But now, the student was gone; a snap decision, an impulsive moment had seen this student drop out, and this act devastated my friend. "Why didn't [they] come to me before quitting; do [they] know how hard it is going to be? What did I do wrong..." and a thousand other questions were swirling around my friend's mind, numbing it, overwhelming her. Sadly, these were questions I had no answers for; and, to be honest, I wasn’t even sure there were answers to be had.

I had not just sympathy for her, but empathy; in my life, I have also felt the same way a few times before - like when my mom was sick, or when a relationship that was special and important to me ended - and, yes, despite my best effort on the occasions I had let a student or two into my heart, as well, only to see them make bad choice after bad choice. I had recovered from those events, (well - as much as anybody ever really recovers from them) and I had no insight as to why. I mean, I didn't miss my mother any less, and I was still disappointed about this or that, but then one night I went to bed sad, and the next morning when I woke up, things were a little bit better and then a little bit better and then...

I just sat there with her silently until she looked up; her face was a little red and her hair was in her face. I reached over and pushed her bangs back, giving her a sympathetic smile as I did so. She gently grabbed my hand and leaned her head against it for a few seconds. She then sat back wiping her eyes. She looked at me and smiled back. I could tell it wasn’t a real smile though, just one of those fake ones we give so that people won’t know how upset we really are. (That never works, by the way).

A few moments later, I had to leave, as the planning period we shared was coming to an end. I walked to the door and before exiting; I turned and looked at her. I thought to myself, 'if I had a magic wand I would wave it; if I had a time machine, I would loan it to her, and if I had words that didn't involve clichés about time, I would say them'. But, despite my empty bag of tricks, I felt like I had to say or do something. After a moment, I said her name, to get her attention, and then for a moment we just stared at each other. I then smiled at her and nodded my head, my intent to at least let her know I cared. Which makes me rethink what I wrote, above - because if caring is the problem, well then, I have it too. And so do most teachers. It is a problem I think more of us should have. I think she got that as she smiled and nodded back; she seemed better, even if it was just a little bit, and just for a second. I then walked to my class, hopeful that her day would improve and if so, despite my silence, glad that I was able to play a part in that.

I wonder if all the teachers in all the schools who experience similar happenings (because many will - we’re losing so many kids a year to the streets and to hopelessness) have a friend who will give them a nod, too? Maybe it’s time society stopped pointing the fingers at teachers and gave them a nod as well.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

Monday, September 27, 2010

The smartest guy in the room (unedited)

I spent ten years in college. I picked my degrees based on the math (well, make that the lack of math) I would have to take. My mother would lament that I would have to make it on my looks because making it with my brains was out of the question. And nobody - nobody - mistakes me for the smartest guy in the room; however, when I hear these so-called education experts talk about what education needs, I can’t help but think I just might be.

Experts yell about charter schools and merit pay, but study after study indicates that nothing makes a greater impact on children’s learning than your run-of-the-mill neighborhood school taught by your run-of-the-mill teacher. They also talk about mentors and early literacy programs and paying our best teachers to go to our worst schools - but the reality is that we have been doing these things (to no avail) for about a decade now.

They come up with the same tired old answers to the same problems as if suddenly, this time, they will work. Well, friends - they will never work as long as we ignore the elephant in the room which is not every kid is the same. As long as we insist on treating them that way, then nothing will change. We might not like it, (and for the powers-that-be, it’s hard to admit) but not every kid is cut out for (or interested in) going to college - and that should be okay. We should strive to help all our children be as successful as they can, whether that means college or not. The simple truth is that for some of our kids, we should celebrate them getting a job with room for advancement as much as we celebrate other kids getting into an Ivy League school.

So many kids don’t enjoy going to school. They only do so because they are required to...and here is some more honesty - why should they enjoy or like going to school? We push them along until high school, where there is nowhere else to push them to, and then we overwhelm them with classes they both aren’t prepared for and aren’t interested in. Often, their schedules are crammed with remedial this or intensive that and they don’t have a break from their academics with classes they like. Also, many are sitting next to kids who don’t care at all; who turn learning environments toxic; who have been pushed along, too, never having received a consequence for their behavior. I think it’s a tribute to our fine teachers that we are doing as well as we are.

Friends, we don’t need charter schools, and merit pay is one of those ideas that sound good on paper, but in reality it’s nearly impossible to apply. First, we need discipline; but then, we need multiple curriculums that service all our kids' needs - not just the ones who are going to college. We need to bring back the trade and skills programs and make the arts just as important as science and math. You want to know how to improve student's grades? Well, tell a sixteen-year-old that if they complete an apprenticeship program in carpentry, plumbing or some other skill, they can start making $20.00 an hour upon graduation. That will improve grades. Just pushing college has the opposite effect, as many of them know that college is just a mirage. I am not saying that college isn’t important; I am saying it’s not the be-all/end-all, and many of our students aren’t even remotely ready for college upon graduation from high school. What would be wrong if they worked at a good job for a while and then went to college when they were ready?

I have written before that we don’t need to bribe our best teachers to go to the worst schools because, quite frankly, many of them are already there - and they have chosen to be there. They have chosen to show up day after day and put in the work under the most trying conditions. Often, their reward is to be overwhelmed with task after task that, at best, has a peripheral relationship with education. Volumes of data are nice and all, but there are diminishing returns and most of the information they need they get from working with the children for a few weeks.

Mentors are also important, but buses to take kids home after they stay at school to receive extra help (or a consequence for bad behavior) and for legitimate summer school programs (where kids can either maintain skills or acquire new ones), are so much more important. If we are bound and determined to pass students through, let's at least make sure they get the skills they need, and for more than a few kids, that requires extra time. Though we have to make summer school fun, let's trick them into learning by giving them a P.E. and art class at the same time we give them academic classes.

Then, of course, we need early literacy programs - but we need to make sure they don’t lose their gains in middle school, which is what typically happens. Why do they lose the skills then? Well, it’s probably because about then, many students are having their love of school stripped from them as more and more assignments and classes are pushed on them. These are kids, for goodness' sake, and they shouldn’t have hours of homework every night. If we want them to do well in school, then it wouldn’t hurt if we made them like school, too. One way to make sure that happens is by providing them with classes they like.

We also have to take care of their needs when they are not at school. Academic coaches are such a fad right now, and where some are great, we have more pressing needs. Hey, I have an idea - let's let each department pick their best teacher and give them an extra planning period so they can help plan and develop lessons to help the other teachers. Then, let's take the money we saved and hire some social workers and counselors to provide wrap-around services and get to the meat of the problems that our most struggling students are having. So often, kids not trying at school or acting up at school has nothing to do with school. We’re never going to solve their school issues if we if we continue to ignore their other problems.

How do the powers-that-be (the policy makers and politicians) not get it,? Well, maybe it’s because they aren’t in the classroom and society has gotten to the point where everybody but teachers gets a pass for the problems we have in education.

I spent ten years in college. I picked my degrees based on the math (well, make that the lack of math) that I would have to take. My mother would lament that I would have to make it on my looks because making it with my brains was out of the question. And nobody - nobody - mistakes me for the smartest guy in the room; however, when I hear these so-called education experts talk about what education needs, I can't help but think I just might be.

Even numbered Star Trek movies don’t suck

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, puppies are cute and the combination of chocolate and peanut butter was masterful. These are irrefutable truths. Another irrefutable truth is even numbered Star Trek movies don’t suck.

Star Trek First Contact was the second film with the next generation cast and is no exception to the rule. In fact some people think before the latest film it was the best the series had to offer. It featured a sleek new enterprise traveling in time to fight the, you will be assimilated, Borg.

If you don’t know, the Borg are like locus descending on a lush green field. Then once they leave it’s barren, devoid of anything meaningful. Their goal is to assimilate everything into their collective and to make everything the same.

During one dramatic moment where things looked particularly grim, it was suggested to Captain Piccard that they give up and run away. He however chose not to saying; I will not sacrifice the Enterprise. We've made too many compromises already; too many retreats. They invade our space and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds and we fall back. Not again. The line must be drawn here! This far, no further! And *I* will make them pay for what they've done. It’s an awesome, memorable speech if you haven’t seen the movie and it make me wish we had a Captain Piccard in charge of education.

In education we to have made too have made many compromises. We have allowed behavior to become a secondary concern. We have practically eliminated the teaching of the trades, skills and arts to appease the “everybody most go to college and be an engineer or doctor crowd.” Those that think every child is suited for and wants to go college, that every child should be lumped into that one group are the Borg of this little narrative and they have been just as devastating to educating, as Captain Picard’s adversaries were to his ship and crew. We have retreated into a one size fits all curriculum that sees so many children fall through the cracks and we have made teachers the scapegoats for all that is wrong in education and like Captain Piccard said, a line must be drawn, and why can’t we draw it here in Jacksonville, Florida.

The powers-that-be have long touted how they are on the cutting edge of education, what with their magnet schools, magnet programs and advanced graduation requirements. The thing is despite these innovations the district and the city as a whole have languished in recent years. Our graduation and dropout rates are high and are reading rates are low. Many of our graduates that go to college have to take remedial classes and those that don’t have trouble finding jobs that are appropriate for their skills. We have created a generation of children that is capable of taking one test, the f-cat but not much else. Why doesn’t Jacksonville say enough is enough and become a real leader in education? Why doesn’t Jacksonville say we’re no longer going to do it the way the experts who have led us to the abyss say we need to do it, we’re drawing a line here and we’re going to start with behavior.

Kids need consequences for their behavior and remember or a consequence to be effective it must be meaningful. If we don’t give them consequences at school then how are they going to know how society works, because society will give them consequences for their behavior? Then not everybody is going to win a trophy either and kids must be allowed to fail so they can have a second opportunity to succeed to get the skills they need. Pushing them along hoping they will somehow these lost skills will miraculously appear, only serves to compound the problem and like not disciplining them will, this too will have grave consequences when they enter adult hood.

We also can’t keep putting kids and teachers in impossible situations and then wondering why they don’t succeed. High school is eight classes, many kids have no electives and they are tested nearly into a coma. Students are in classes many aren’t interested in or prepared for too is it any wonder they don’t do well? How would you do? Also teachers are overwhelmed with task after tasks that only have a peripheral relationship with education, and they have had their creativity, initiative and moral all but destroyed. They are also held responsible for how a child does, regardless of the lack of support and resources they receive, or the ability and desire that the kids in their classes have.

Friends we need to draw a line in the sand and go enough is enough? We have to say we will not stand to have education eroded any farther because quite frankly we can’t have education eroded any farther. Ask a long time teacher if they think it has changed for the better and then ask an employer if they think society has changed for the better too. Captain Piccard said he would make the Borg pay, well friends our children and our city are already paying a step price for the lines that we have allowed to be crossed. How much more of a price are we willing to pay?

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, puppies are cute and the combination of chocolate and peanut butter is masterful and even numbered Star Trek movies don’t suck, these are irrefutable truths. Another is we are headed on the road to ruin unless we say enough is enough, unless we draw a line. Why not here Jacksonville? Why not here?

Friday, September 24, 2010

A bakers dozen of education topics

I was just following orders
Have you ever heard the expression; I was just following orders? It’s what people say over and over when they want to absolve themselves of any responsibility for their actions. How is that relevant to education you ask? Well in the case of education here in Jacksonville Florida, just following orders is destroying it

I have the luxury
I write about education issues a lot. Sometimes I try to expose things that are going on, other times I offer suggestions, and occasionally I point the finger and say it’s your fault and every time I do this I freely admit that I have a few luxuries. I have the luxury of writing about what’s right not about what’s easy, cheap or even always fair.

State of confusion (reading)
Over half our students in high school can’t read at grade level, well I have a solution; lets jam all the non-readers into reading classes and force them to read ninety minutes a day and lets have them take this class instead of classes they enjoy. Then lets incorporate reading into every class on the grade level they should be on not the level that they are on. If this doesn’t make them love reading and do it well then nothing will.

The art of the game
What does fifteen years of dedicated service running an award winning art program at Ed White get you? Well if you don’t want to teach reading it gets you a so long and don’t let the door hit you where the good lord split you.

Cooking the books
Some people call it, spinning the numbers; others use massaging the statistics and a few calls it cooking the books, but what you should really call it is, wrong. However the powers-that-be here in Jacksonville have to do it, how else could they say we are a B district despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. How else could they keep their jobs?

Twenty-two new faces
Every year there is turn over in a schools teaching staff. Some teachers retire, others transfer and in recent years more than a few have left the profession all together. This year at my school we had twenty-two new faces at orientation, that’s a sixth of the staff and I am now taking bets on who won’t last a semester.

Inclusion in education technically means putting regular education students and special education students in the same classroom, that way both groups can get a first class education. What it really means is something all together different.

No child left behind
I think the best teachers make it real for their students. They take a topic or a subject and put it in terms that the kids can understand, you know the opposite of what, no child left behind, the law that currently drives education, does.

Magnet Mayhem
The district received a 12 million dollar for more magnet programs today. I don’t know which program will be more successful, the coastal sciences or the museum sciences one. That’s right. I wrote, I don’t know which program will be more successful, the coastal sciences or the museum sciences one.

Chocolate Milk
F-cat scores got you down? Worried about children’s ability to read? Concerned about all the dropouts, poor graduation rates, graduating seniors taking remedial classes in college or employers not being able to find qualified workers? Well go ahead and stop because when the department of education gets rid of chocolate milk all our problems will be solved.

Slow down you move to fast
In my special education classroom last year I covered five topics. We drilled and we practiced and then we drilled and practiced again and then, if you guess drilled and practiced some more you win a prize. I like to think they got it. This year after five weeks in the regular education classrooms because of the pacing guide I have covered five subjects already. I like to think thy have gotten it too. Though which group do you think I feel more confident about?

The assault on teachers continues
Duval County was recently awarded two grants that will bring millions of dollars to the county. They both have components for improving teacher quality. Um I want to know wheres our grants for improving superintendent, school board and state government quality are? How come the powers-that-be get a pass. I guess it’s easier for them to point their fingers at teachers and throw money at the problem even if it doesn’t really exist. I am reminded of the Wizard of Oz, when he said, ignore the man behind the curtain

Just as a study was released saying merit pay for teachers doesn’t work, the county was awarded almost ten million dollars for and you probably guessed it by now for merit pay. Oh brother here we go again.

A prospective teacher asks

The following was sent to me by a reader, there is some humor in the madness after all.

After being interviewed by the school administration, the prospective teacher said:
'Let me see if I've got this right.
'You want me to go into that room with all those kids, correct their disruptive behavior, observe them for signs of abuse, monitor their dress habits, censor their T-shirt messages, and instil in them a love for learning.
'You want me to check their backpacks for weapons, wage war on drugs and sexually transmitted diseases, and raise their sense of self esteem and personal pride.
'You want me to teach them patriotism and good citizenship, sportsmanship and fair play, and how to register to vote, balance a checkbook, and apply for a job.
'You want me to check their heads for lice, recognize signs of antisocial behavior, and make sure that they all pass the final exams.
'You also want me to provide them with an equal education regardless of their handicaps, and communicate regularly with their parents in English, Spanish or any other language, by letter, telephone, newsletter, and report card.
'You want me to do all this with a piece of chalk, a blackboard, a bulletin board, a few books, a big smile, and a starting salary that qualifies me for food stamps.
'You want me to do all this and then you tell me. . .. I CAN'T PRAY!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

So long suckers

A version of this is in this weeks Folio!

When I was in elementary school my third grade teacher was in her mid thirties and that was as young as I got. Back then most of my teachers were considerably older. They all had years if not decades of experience. You won’t find that now. It’s possible today for kids today to go all through school and not have a teacher who hasn’t been on the job for more than five years. Teaching isn’t a profession like it was just a generation ago, it’s a just a job and a job with a fairly high turnover rate at that and that is part of the problem.

Teaching is also a job that has tenure, which means if you do it fairly well it’s a job one can have for life. Teaching is a job that starts at a pretty decent wage and is also a job that has every holiday off. Despite all this, sadly this is a job that fewer and fewer people want to do, a job that fewer and fewer people stick with.

When John Thrasher and his ill-conceived senate bill six made the headlines a few months ago, one of his selling points was that a first year teacher could be as good as a tenth year teacher and where this is true it’s also highly unlikely. It takes years for teachers to hone their craft and I don’t know any teacher that thinks they were a better teacher when they started.

First year teachers even the ones with teaching degrees often don’t know what to expect and they don’t know what questions to ask. This is often compounded by the fact that most first year teachers are sent to the most struggling schools and are often inundated with extra paper work and tasks to do. The first few years of teaching is less about teaching and more about surviving. I have said it and it’s the same thing I heard my first year; “Just get though the first year kid, it will get better.”

In Jacksonville at the start of the 2009 school year 27 percent of teachers had less than four years experience. This matches up well with the fact that forty percent of teachers don’t last five years and this at a job that many say with a smirk gets summers off while they sit in front of their televisions and think to themselves I could do that.

Starting in year five and going through year 22 the amount of teachers in each subsequent year declines, 509 495 419 329 279 264 237 227 226 196 148 129 157 135 130 117 124 115. Over half of our teachers have less than nine years experience. Now nine years is a long time but as I stated above the teaching profession has changed.

Why do teachers leave? Well many feel overwhelmed, they are given more tasks than they can possibly accomplish or do well. If it was just teaching more would make it but sadly teaching today has less and less to do with teaching than many might think possible. Furthermore teachers are put in unattainable positions, every year the pressure on teachers seems to grow, while at the same time, parents, the community, the administration and the government seems to get a pass. Then others quickly grow weary of having to raise other people’s children. Teacher’s sighed up to teach and when they did so they knew some mentoring would go with the job. They didn’t know they would have to teach manners, basic rights from wrongs and how to be respectful as well. Others and I personally think this is the biggest reason that many have left the field is a lack of support.

The first year teacher shows up bright eyed and filled with optimism, ready to change the world, and this is an incredible feeling to have, though it is fleeting as many first year teachers have to go into survival mode. They try all sorts of methods to get the children to take care of their responsibilities, which are simple enough, come to class, listen and learn; First they come in as a strict disciplinarian, as this is the standard advice given to first year teachers. They are told to come in tough and then they can ease up as the year progresses. If this fails with some students, the first year teacher often reverts to being a social worker, trying to figure out why they act the way they do and tries to help solve their problems, then with some students they try to become their friend, figuring if they were friends, the students would treat them better, that's treat them with some with dignity and respect. They do this because it takes different strategies to get through to different students.

And for the most part with one of these strategies they are successful, as ninety percent of all students want to be there, they want to learn, or at worse are followers, which means if there ring leader isn't there they fall in line with the children who do want to learn. After a while it's just that ten percent of students that no matter what they try to do continue to cause them problems.

They talk to their mentors, as every first year teacher is assigned one, and their colleagues and department head as well. They ask what they can do to get these last few students in line. The first year teacher laments when the unruly students are absent, "it's dreamy, I can actually teach". They veterans look at the rookies with sympathetic eyes but they also have problems of their own. Just survive the first year; we tell them, it gets easier. But how do I get through to them they ask, we shrug our shoulders and suggest, try and get the parents involved maybe they can help somehow, but in our hearts we know they are fighting an unwinnable battle with some students.

So they call the parents trying to set up parent teacher conferences, to discuss the child's performance both academically and behaviorally, because often-poor performances in these areas go hand in hand. Some of the parents can't be bothered figuring it was the teacher’s problem once the child came to school, others report having the same difficulties at home where they to are at a loss. The two parties might get together and try a few interventions and some students might actually turn it around, but just as often many students don't.

Backed into a corner the first year teacher writes the student up, only to find them back in class before the period is over or at best the next day and angry that they were written up, the problem begins to worsen. You see most likely the child received no meaningful consequences for their behavior, and thus continues it. The teacher writes the child up again and again the child is back in class the next day, except this time the teacher is paid a visit by an administrator or called to the office. Why can't you control this child, they are asked, they explain all that they have done and how none of it has worked. The first year teacher is then told, that referrals are only to be written for the most extreme circumstances and then only after every alternative has been exhausted. Most likely they aren't given any new alternatives as they slump their shoulders and heads back to the classrooms. Because of this lack of support many won’t make it.

When school starts up I will meet twenty or so first time teachers. Of those twenty a few won’t last through the first semester. I say this with some assuredly because this has happened every year that I have been a teacher. They just don’t make it, preferring to get a job at the mall or waitressing instead of sticking with the job that many of them spent years preparing themselves for.

Forty percent of teaches won’t last five, over half won’t last ten and probably less than a quarter of all first year teachers make it a career.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Save your money, please drop education funding lawsuits

Some concerned citizen groups and prominent citizens are suing the state of Florida to have the legislature fulfill its constitutional duty to properly fund education. I feel their frustration, and - in spirit - I am with them; but at the same time, let me say "Please, please drop the lawsuit - just in case you win". There is no reason for us to waste more of our money on public education and it is with great sadness I say 'waste'. Let us save it, instead, to spend on things we are really going to need more more public assistance programs and prisons.

We could double or even triple the amount of money we spend on education. We could go from 'worst to first' in spending. We could turn our schools into high-tech palaces and give every child a top of the line laptop, too. We could double the salaries of our teachers and put Wal-Marts in the schools, full of supplies - and not one bit of it would make a difference as long as we kept doing things the same way we are doing them now.

Where money (or lack thereof) is a problem, it pales in comparison to the real problem, and that’s what education has been transformed into over the last decade. Somehow, up became down; black became white; left became right and it became allright to jump on the furniture - basically, none of what we’re doing makes sense anymore. Take the F-CAT for instance: we have a high-stakes test that drives our curriculum. All through time, tests were supposed to be a component of education, not the whole "kit and kaboodle" - and that’s what the F-CAT has become.

Then there is our curriculum. We have a "one-size-fits-all" curriculum, despite the fact that kids come in many different sizes (and by sizes, I mean they come with a wide variety of desires, interests, and abilities). We have all but eliminated the arts, trades and skills as we force kids into remedial academics so they can be ready for a post-secondary education - an education many do not want and for which they will not be prepared. Friends, if they are in remedial academics...well, maybe there is a better road they can travel. Is it any stretch of the imagination to think that if we make school unbearable or irrelevant to kids, then they won’t do well - or worse, that they will drop out?

Our legislation has also ratcheted up the graduation requirements, which might sound good on paper, but this has had the unintended consequence of "dumbing-down" education. Rigor is destroyed as teachers are put in the impossible position of either failing a kid who doesn’t have the skills they need (because they didn’t have a firm foundation to start with), or pushing them along. Pushing kids along has become standard else do you explain that over half our kids get to high school and aren't able to read or do math on grade level (according to the F-CAT, that is)? It’s become nearly impossible, for numerous reasons, to fail a student; but perhaps chief among those reasons is that teachers are threatened with loss of merit pay - or even their jobs - if they do so. "Well, you must not be a good teacher if you fail so many [or any] kids", they are told, with a wink and a nod.

It’s not as if teachers can teach like they used to, anyway; many have their classrooms hijacked by an unruly kid or two. "Ignore behavior" has become the new mantra. Referrals aren’t always processed, and true consequences are rarely given when teachers dare to write children up. If a kid doesn’t respond to a teacher's "teacher voice" or "teacher look" and doesn’t care about what meager rewards (or consequences) a teacher has for them, then there has to be some back-up. Many of today’s schools have no back-up, and the teacher is forced to either risk their job or pay, or endure a toxic learning environment. Just like not everybody is going to go to college, despite the state's insistence that they all can, some kids aren’t suited for a regular teaching environment -and at some point, as contrary as we might feel about it, we should cut a few out to save the many. "No child left behind" should be changed to "we are leaving about five to ten percent behind until they learn how to behave". Though, if we had started with real consequences at school at an early age, that number could have been only one to two percent now.

Another reason not to fund education is that there is already way too much pressure on teachers. Teachers have become the scapegoats for the woes in education - can you imagine how bad it would be if we doubled the budget? There would be the occasional teacher lynching accompanying the weekly mass firings when teachers couldn’t meet what ever arbitrary number was in vogue. Teachers have all the responsibility but none of the authority to teach our state's children. They can’t discipline or fail kids, and they are put on schedules and given curriculums that rob them of creativity and initiative and practically ensure a new topic must be covered before an old topic is mastered. No thank you. I would rather keep my paycheck-to-paycheck existence than be put in that position.

It doesn’t matter to me that since 2001, only 37% of students taking the 10th-grade FCAT read on grade level. Florida ranks 47th in the nation in high school graduation rates with only 57.5% of the classes between 1996 and 2006 earning regular diplomas, that from 1997 to 2006, the white-black achievement gap among 10th-graders grew from 11% to 18%, and, that unsurprisingly, our state ranks 50th in total public education spending when compared to in-state wealth (statistics taken from None of that will change unless we change the way we do things. If we keep doing things the way we are then even if we threw an unlimited amount of money at education it will not improve.

I believe that education is woefully under funded. I believe that the citizens of Florida should be embarrassed that we value our children so little that we have allowed our leaders to fund education at such a meager level - we’re 50th out of 50, for goodness' sake. I also believe there is no greater duty than for the present generation to prepare the next. Furthermore it says it right in the Florida constitution that the paramount duty of the legislation is “to provide and fund a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system of free public schools”. I also believe this is a paramount duty that has been ignored for quite some time.

Because the state of Florida has been shirking its duties for quite some time, some citizens groups of Florida (Citizens for Strong Schools and Fund education and other prominent citizens have become angry enough to take the state government to court in order to get them to do what they should have been doing all along. While I find this very admirable, I also believe they are wasting their time and I believe if they won it would just mean we were wasting more money. Finally I believe we would be better off saving our money for jails and public assistance, because we’re still going to need plenty of money for those things if we keep doing things the same way.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

Only losers

I wrote this a couple months back whne Florida lost out on the first round of cuts with the race to the top grants. It still seems relevent.

See the list of winners, is one of the prompts on the site, about the Race to the Top grants. What about the losers can’t we see a list of them too? Am I the only one offended that the government is treating the future of our children like a game? I am personally glad we did not get any part of the Race to the Top grant. In theory, these grants created by politicians are designed to improve education but I think they are going to end up having the opposite effect. They are going to hurt education and do so dramatically.

This didn’t stop Florida from pulling out all stops to get a share of the grant and many education experts thought we were a shoe in and it came as quite a surprise that we didn’t. Maybe we didn’t win because we asked for 1.1 billion dollars or over a quarter of the grant for just us alone. In our fervor to get it, the legislature also put senate bill six and its house counterpart on the fast track to becoming a law. You might know the bills under their other name, the, we hate unions and everything is the teachers fault bill. Then again maybe we didn’t “win” because the nation knows the powers-that-be we don’t value education that much.

Isn’t it ironic that the states leaders, basically the Republican Party rail against practically everything the federal government does but then fall all over themselves in attempts to get money? I guess anything to avoid doing the right thing right? How about they fund education properly and then stay out of the localities way, at least until they get a clue as to what they are doing.

I voted for President Obama and I will even admit I got caught up in his hope and change speeches. I thought the country had gotten a little mean and selfish, I didn’t like the war. I felt it was time we went in a different direction. However after reading the provisions of the Race to the Top grants, this is not the change I had hoped for and even worse it has shaken my hope, my belief that things can change for the better, especially if this is the direction the government wants to head in. Politicians like used car salesmen have a way of making things sound good even bad things, but like my grandfather used to say, you can put perfume on a pig, but it’s still a pig. The Race to the Top grants is a pig of an idea.

It calls for Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace. This actually sounds good until you think about it critically. Florida already has a test, the almost universally reviled F-Cat. It is so high stakes for both children and schools that most schools just teach to the test. I hope some of these kids can get jobs where they just take the F-cat day after day because that’s all we have prepared them for. And where I can’t speak for everywhere in Florida what exactly is Duval doing to prepare them for the work place. We have practically eliminated the teaching of trades and severely curtailed the teaching of arts. I am also not sure if all the social promotions and the ignoring of discipline that we do, does our kids, who will eventually join the work place, any favors. What do you mean I have to do my work and I can’t curse you out, are questions I can see many of our children asking future employers.

Then when it says: Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals how to improve instruction, is a huge problem too. If the government was being honest it should have written, lets over work our already over worked and under paid teachers. Let’s give them more tasks than they can possibly do and then have them only play a peripheral relationship to education. For centuries do you know where most teachers got their data? It was from working with the kids and learning about them. They don’t need to spend hours creating bell curves and bar graphs to learn little Johnny needs extra time or little Suzy is more of a visual learner, the good teachers after a few days know it and do it.

The third point is recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most. Hmmm, where are they needed most? Oh that’s right they are needed most everywhere that children go to school. The race to the Top Grant with its winners and losers prioritize children. Now do some children need extra help and extra resources? Undoubtedly, should they get them, yes.

Finally the race to the top grant calls for turning around the lowest-performing schools. Wow what a great idea, if only the states and localities would have thought about that, then we wouldn’t have been sitting around doing nothing for all these years. The thing that most people don’t want to admit is that most of the worse schools are in the worse neighborhoods and where schools can be part of the plan to turn them all around they can’t be the only piece. Teachers who show up every day, spend their own money and make an honest effort cannot compete with what is going on in children’s homes and neighborhoods, they can’t and to blame teachers is just wrong. The school in Rhode Island that received a lot of publicity when all of their teachers were fired not only was in one of the worse poorest neighborhoods but had actually been making gains in reading and math and for all their hard work received pink slips. In the end they didn’t fail the community, the community failed them.

Schools are not designed to fix society, if a child does not want to learn they can be highly successful doing so. The thing is, if not careful schools can exacerbate already existing problems and there are some things they can be doing to make sure fewer kids fall through the cracks as well. This is what we should be working on fixing and improving.

I have a couple ideas to turn education around, ideas that won’t break the bank and won’t blow up the wheel. If a kid can’t master the material they aren’t passed until they can. If a kid acts up they get consequences. If a kid does either of those we get them some help to catch up or find out why. Then let’s lay off teachers, there is not some epidemic of bad teachers out despite what some right wing talk show hosts would have you believe. The vast majority of teachers are hard working, dedicated and sacrifice so much. If we want to put more procedures in place to check on this, as long as they are not too intrusive, then they are not going to mind.

My question is, how are the politicians in Washington D.C., Tallahassee and 1701 prudential Drive, supposedly the best of the best we have to offer as a nation not getting that this is what we need to do? Maybe it’s because they are in their ivory towers too far away from the problem or maybe it’s because they really aren’t the best of the best after all. Whatever the reason, this is not the change I hoped for and if it comes true, it will be change I dread.

More than enough blame to go around

You won’t find the right to a quality public education in the Bill of Rights but like the right to bear arms, worship how you please and to speak your mind, it has become one of the cornerstones of American society. Sadly there has been much debate whether all the children of Jacksonville are receiving a quality education.

Jacksonville has a long history of neglecting certain segments of our population, i.e. the African American community and even though we have been declared integrated for some time now, some people think now the city has just traded one form of segregation for another. They believe the school board just provides for the top students through academic magnet schools and other programs while neglecting the average or “special” student. But regardless if you believe that or not you must agree that the cities terrible graduation rates, our high dropout rates and the fact that 11-of the 19 area high schools are either failing or in a “turn-around” status are indicative that local public education is in big trouble.

There are many culprits, the school board in its various incarnations, the city and state governments and the citizens of Jacksonville to name a few. Instead of giving education the resources and nurturing it needs, often we have treated education and our children like a tree planted in the woods, that’s just crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. There is another offender to add to that list and that’s the local teachers union.

Now I am not talking about them like the talking heads, Beck, Hannity and Limbaugh do. Where they do have the right to speak their minds it’s just unfortunate how they do so. Instead of using the truth they use random statistics as talking points to prove their point that the teachers unions are to blame for the problems in education, but what’s even more unfortunate is that some people listen to them and actually believe them. They to think the union’s only job is to protect bad teachers and of course like the reality often is when the three mentioned above speak; there is nothing further from the truth.

The waters of the education debate are muddied when people claim the unions’ only goal is to protect bad teachers from losing their jobs, when in truth the only thing the unions are protecting is all teachers’ right to due process. Here in Duval county teachers basically have a three year probation period where they can be let go for basically whatever reason. It’s only after they pass this three year point that they receive protections that can stop them from just being summarily fired. After that point the administration just needs to follow a set of guidelines before they fire a teacher. I remind you that most businesses, even non-union shops have similar procedures in place.

The talking heads often complain about the teachers unions protecting bad teachers but you never hear them saying the same thing about police and fire unions. Wouldn’t it stand to reason if it’s true about teachers it would be true about the police and firemen too? It’s especially ironic when the people of Jacksonville and in the state of Florida blame teachers unions for the woes in education because here they don’t have access to what is traditionally the most powerful weapon in labor disputes and that’s the power to strike.

Furthermore if teachers unions are so powerful then why as a profession are teachers some of the most underpaid, overworked and unappreciated workers around? Why when they shout, hey we need some help, are they often ignored?

Are there teachers that should be replaced? I wouldn’t doubt it but there are procedures in place to do so. And for every teacher that should be replaced there are dozens and dozens more that are underpaid and over worked, who have dedicated their lives and many of their own personal resources to teaching children. These teachers are routinely told to do more with less and suffer in anonymity. These are the people that the union represents; and as dedicated civil servants they are routinely disrespected when people ignorantly repeat the talking point that it’s the teacher’s unions fault when discussing the problems in education.

Though that’s not to say the local DTU doesn’t bear some of the responsibility for the problems in education that Jacksonville is facing.

Every day the union allows the school district to violate Article 4, provision E, clause 1, of the teachers contract which states, for the 180 student-contact days, the employee workday shall be seven and one-third hours, including lunch time on campus. If reports or other assignments are given to teachers, the scope shall be that they can reasonably be completed during the workday, about nine thousand times.

That’s to say today’s teachers are assigned more tasks than they can possibly do in a day. They arrive well before the children do and then leave well after. They take home papers to grade and lesson plans to write every night. They work on the weekend and on their days off rarely getting ahead just avoiding falling too far behind. They do all this for free and away from their families and loved ones. Over worked, burned out teachers aren’t the best to have but that’s what the DTU has allowed the school board to create by the thousands.

Furthermore the DTU has tolerated the school board to creating a two tiered system of education with the creation of the dedicated academic magnet schools and it’s not just two-tiered for students it’s two tiered for teachers as well. Teachers at the highly successful magnet schools don’t have to jump through the same hoops as the teachers at the failing or turn around schools. They also don’t have the same type of child who isn’t interested in learning and who thinks they are entitled and can act however they want.

Then the union has allowed the school board to tie principal’s evaluations to suspensions. This not only takes a tool out of their discipline tool box but it has the added detriment of eroding discipline. So many teachers no longer right referrals because they are questioned or nothing happens. Instead they and the student who does want to learn and there are so many of them have to endure a toxic learning environment.

Finally the school board has allowed an environment of fear to be fostered. Many teachers don’t like to openly talk about the problems in the district because they are afraid there will be repercussions and their careers will be hurt. A bad evaluation here, a disapproving phone call there and suddenly a teacher is no longer eligible for performance pay, can’t transfer, is assigned the planning period or teaching assignment they don’t want and/or has to endure a hostile working environment.

When looking around there are many people responsible for the state of education. There is the school board who seems to be in over their head and whose policies often seem counterintuitive to improving education. Theirs the state government who refuses to fund education at acceptable levels preferring to finance tax breaks for a select few and to try and get education on the cheap. Then there’s the citizens of Jacksonville many of who have turned a blind eye and allowed the problems to fester placing their faith in people who either can’t do the job or who don’t care to. Then finally the local teachers union must share some of the responsibility as well though it’s not because like the talking heads would have you believe that they are protecting bad teachers, it’s because they aren’t protecting the good ones enough.


Generations of African Americans were robbed of their rights and a chance of a decent education here in Jacksonville and that’s not hyperbole that’s just how it was. Exacerbating matters, our cities leaders were resistant to change even as the writing appeared on the wall during the civil rights movement of the sixties. It was kicking and screaming that they agreed to bussing in 1971 when the best solution would have been to provide the proper resources to all the schools regardless of what side of town they were in. Though I can imagine any trepidation the leaders of the black community may have had if that promise would have come through after all they were the recipients of the systematic abuse and discrimination. Unfortunately bussing didn’t work as well as well as some would have hoped.

Children were forced to travel many miles from their homes to unfamiliar parts of town when there was often a neighborhood school close by. African American opponents believed it created problems with discipline and eroded away the cohesiveness of neighborhoods. White opponents claimed their children were being sent to dangerous neighborhoods. Both groups thought it hurt parental involvement and extra-curricular activities and some people think it worsened the problems of economic and racial segregation by encouraging white flight (white families moving to suburbs). It would be disingenuous of me to blame all these problems on the school district because bussing was the nations plan and like the rest of the nation Duval County gave it the old college try.

The next thing the Duval County School District tried was the creation of magnet schools to be located in predominantly African American areas of town. They thought specialized programs could recruit whites to voluntarily travel out of their neighborhoods and they were right. The magnet schools have been an amazing success that at the same time created a whole new set of problems.

They have created a two-tiered system of education of have and have not’s. And however the school board twists the facts they are basically glorified private schools financed by the tax payers dime. Where your students go to school in Jacksonville partly determines what type of education they receive and in a public school system that should be unacceptable. But worse than that the school board has come to believe the hype generated by the academic magnet schools and thinks they can duplicate that success at all the schools and the reality is they can’t, though the school board keeps on trying.

Which begs the question, why do we have academic magnet schools if the graduation requirements such as taking and passing algebra II are the same at all schools. Where preparing every student for college is a laudable goal, it’s also a completely unrealistic goal. Not every child is interested in going to college but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stimulate their growth, interests and needs too.

The county has practically eliminated the teaching of trades and skills despite the fact that’s a lot closer to what many students want to do and are interested in. Plumbers, electricians, mechanics, carpenters, chefs, cosmetologists and day care workers will never be outsourced to India and many of those professions make as much if not more than professions that require college degrees. Furthermore many of the kids that do go to college will get liberal arts degrees and why don’t we cater to them as well instead of just catering to the math/science crowd.

Somewhere along the way the School Board also initiated an unwritten with a wink and a nod policy of social promotions. If you want proof of this look at the eleven of nineteen failing or turnaround high schools. Children didn’t arrive there and suddenly forget what they had learned. On the contrary they never learned it and were pushed along. I don’t blame elementary and middle school teachers for this. It’s gotten so difficult to fail children and often teachers are called to the mat if they try and do so. Because of this some teachers have told me the C is the new F. The thing is once they get to high school there is nowhere else to promote them to and they are forced to sink or swim with a lot of sinking going on. Social promotions have in effect dumbed down the district, unless of course you are attending one of the academic magnet schools.

If you don’t daily see the frustration on lost children’s faces you might be able to get a sense of the reasoning behind it. Children that fail are more prone to drop out, though what the powers-that-be didn’t take into account was children that have fallen behind don’t always catch up, in fact it’s often the opposite that happens and they fall farther and farther behind.

At the same time the school board started their push to prepare every student for college or what I like to call put every peg regardless of shape into a round hole, they also went soft with discipline too. Like with so many other things they have done I can recognize there may have been some noble reasoning behind it. There was a whole movement afoot for a while, which called for a kinder gentler approach to discipline that the county got behind, unfortunately the county got that wrong as well and have nearly gutted discipline as a result. Many teachers have stopped writing kids up preferring the toxic learning environment rather than being called to the mat for having dared written a referral or have the children receive no consequences for their actions. It’s a waste of my time they often say. Furthermore it doesn’t help that Principal’s evaluations are party determined by how many children they suspend. That effectively takes a tool out of their box when it comes to discipline.

Short of selling drugs or beating up a school board employee it is nearly impossible to remove a child from a school even if they are a constant discipline problem and are failing all their classes. These children often hijack the learning environment and not only stop teachers from doing their job but other students from learning as well. And if you were wondering where civility went to, well you won’t find it at most schools because it’s no longer required. Instead of just preparing children for college, I thought schools had a higher calling and that was to prepare children to be good and productive citizens.

Each of the School Boards quick fixes resulted in even more serious problems. And that’s the problem; they are trying to come up with quick fixes which in some cases are flat out unrealistic as well. They are doing this instead of sitting down and coming up with a cohesive plan that looks at the long term ramifications. Where there are so many students who have been successful despite the school board at the same time the school board has contributed to an ever growing band of students who lack manners and basic skills. Time after time the school board has been filled with good intentions that have gone awry and we all know what is paved with good intentions. I don’t think we as a city can take many more of them.

Industrial Strength

I teach my classes in an old portable at the back of my school. It’s a bit smelly or so I am told by my students. It’s funny what you will get used to after a couple years. Though I guess it’s equally funny what you won’t. Sometimes at the end of the day after my students filter out, I cup my face with my hands and fight back a tear. Things seem to be getting worse and daily fewer and fewer things make sense. When I started teaching I wanted to change the world, after a couple years I decided if I could just make a little difference that would be good enough but now many days I am just interested in surviving and going home and I am not alone.

Mr. Smith (not his real name) teaches regular education math at the same school I work at, geometry, algebra and such. He has been a teacher for six years all of it here, which means this is our forth year working together. Even though we teach different subjects (I teach special ed. science) we have a fair amount in common. We’re both Italians from Ohio who relocated to Jacksonville, neither of us are big fans of the cold and two years ago we started a staff fantasy football league. We also have a daily routine which consists of me complimenting his shirts and him telling me the (I am sure made up) history behind them. Pretty silly I know but sometimes it’s the silly things that you have to grab onto to get you through the day.

I visited his classroom a while back and found him standing near his white board (a modern day chalk board) with a little tub in his hand. What’s that, I asked. He turned to me and sighed a little bit. Its board cleaner, make that industrial strength board cleaner, he then sighed again and added, I might finally be able to use my board.

I was a bit flabbergasted, as I said Mr. Smith is a math teacher and I always figured that math teachers had to use their boards more than any other type of teacher and I had no idea that for the whole year he had been unable to use his. I would be lost without mine, well the half of mine that works anyways.

He later told me that he let the administration (the same administration that kicked me out of my sixteen year old portable for three days so they could retile it), know before pre-planning had even begun (some four months ago) that his board was useless and that he had reminded them several times since. How have you been teaching math without it, I asked. He shrugged his shoulders and pointed at his over head projector and a small 3x3 portable white board. It’s been a struggle he said and then he added, like most things this year have been a struggle.

I could tell he needed to talk which was okay with me because I sincerely believe that teachers have to be there for each other, because if we’re not, then who will be. The district and even the administration are too far removed from the classroom; so far removed they really don’t seem to have a clue as to what is going. The public doesn’t seem to want to get a clue and all the union seems to only care about is teachers’ hours and pay.

If the district cared they wouldn’t give teacher more work than they can do. If the administration cared they wouldn’t send unruly children back to class without consequences for their behavior. If the public cared they would be in the streets clamoring for change. And if the union cared they would realize there are so many other things that affect teaching than just hours and pay. I however do care about my friend and his plight which I figured was most likely my plight as well so I asked him, what’s wrong.

He went on a rant, saying there was too much work and a lot of it that didn’t have anything to do with teaching. He felt the scrutiny on teachers was too great, he didn’t know how to make children care about themselves or school or how to get parents involved and those things reflected on him. Then the district with all their formatives and tests wasn’t giving him enough time to teach the material, his students, most of who didn’t arrive to him with the basic skills needed, had to be caught up before new material could be covered. He went on also mentioning a lack of support from the administration, his classes being too big and being filled with too unruly kids that made learning nearly impossible for those students who wanted to learn; he mentioned all those things and more.

He then looked at me and with a look of defeat on his face that I had never seen from him before and said, “Chris, the worse thing of all is I am afraid I am starting not to care anymore.” When he said that I knew I was right, our plights are the same.

I thought about saying, why should you. Like most teachers he comes to school every day and fights a losing battle. Kids uninterested in school as well as being defiant, disruptive and disrespectful are common throughout the city. The state and district are piling on teachers like never before, which means many teachers routinely work ten hour days just so they don’t fall to far behind and that’s on things that only has a peripheral relationship to learning. Mr. Smith doesn’t need a data notebook the size of several encyclopedia volumes to be a better teacher, what he needs are white boards that work.

I thought about saying why should you care when the state, the district, the administration, the parents and the union, entities with the power to make things better didn’t or at the very least didn’t appear to care.

Like I said, I thought about saying why should you care, along with those thing s above and I even thought about adding why should any of us, maybe it’s time all teachers stopped carrying and made making it through the day our only priority but I didn’t, instead I said, hey at least you got the board cleaner, I paused and added, the industrial strength board cleaner.

It’s all Magnet Schools Fault

Why do we have crime in our streets: magnet schools. Why are so many of our schools failing: magnet schools. Why are our graduation rates abysmal: magnet schools. Why can’t Jacksonville attract big businesses: magnet schools.

Swine flu, the Mayan “end of the world” calendar, your wife made the casserole you hate; it’s all magnet schools fault. I am at a loss to explain why we haven’t grabbed our pitchforks, lit some torches and headed down to the nearest one to put these artificial monstrosities out of our misery.

I exaggerate just a bit and I do so because in actuality I think the concept of magnet schools is a good one. If we had a school system that was thriving I think they would be a noble luxury, unfortunately our school district is not thriving, it’s languishing and despite the school boards recent pat on the back that they reached some goals they set for themselves, things seem dark for so many of our children.

Just so there is no mistake, I am not talking about magnet programs at neighborhood schools, nor am I talking about the Douglas Anderson School of the arts and the Frank Peterson Academy of Technology. Where I think some things about those schools are unfair, they are basically skills center where children can go learn about things they are interested in.

No I am talking about Stanton and Paxon the jewels of the Duval County school system, nationally ranked as some of the best of the schools around. Yes that’s whom I am talking about, and make no mistake despite all their accolades and all the powerful statistics that the district can muster that support their existence; they are a big part of the problem.

I recently participated on a panel discussion about magnet schools. On the pro magnet school side there was a principal of one, the counties director of magnet schools, the counties director of business operations, and two parents whose children attend magnet schools the opposing side, me, just me. I didn’t quite feel like Custard riding into the little big horn, but it was close.

They came at me with how it takes a lottery to get in, they didn’t mention that those two schools actively recruit the best middle schoolers to go there, and they also didn’t mention that it’s just the children of parents who apply that get to be considered. So in reality it is a lottery, just a lottery for a select few.

They said they don’t get extra resources, and that’s true they might not get extra money from the county, that is if you don’t include the extra money we spend on busses to get children there. They do however have a set of parents that other schools would love to have. Many are committed and helpful; they donate both their time and money. It’s just not the kids being siphoned away from the neighborhood schools to the magnet schools it’s their involved families as well

They said they handle academic issues the same way they are handled at the neighborhood school and that is any child drops below a 2.0 they get special help and have a semester to bring it up, before they are reassigned. (Below a 2.0!?! Really!?!) That’s my entire third period class. That’s a forth of the neighborhood school I teach at. Where should we start sending the kids that don’t turn it around? Oh that’s right we are obligated to teach everybody that comes through our doors regardless of grades.

They said they handle discipline the same way it’s handled at the neighborhood school. How many kids do they have that don’t want to be there? How many kids do they have that don’t care about academics? How many kids do they have that haven’t given one thought to the future beyond what they are going to do in the next day or so. I bet the answer is not many. Now ask the same questions about neighborhood schools and the answers would be a lot more than you might think.

They said it’s the parent’s fault and that the district can’t be held responsible if they don’t apply, to which I responded why couldn’t teachers make recommendations, is it because it we would somehow upset the delicate balance they have created?

Blaming the parents for a child’s behavior, a child’s academics and using it as an out to explain why magnet schools are fair, are all reasonable arguments, there are also tired and lazy arguments. It’s apparent that a significant amount of families for whatever reason are abdicating their responsibilities, but crime in our streets being committed by young people, the high drop out rates, and low graduation rates tell me it’s time we as a society stepped up and filled the void. If the parents aren’t going to do it, and the schools is not going to do it, then who is going to do it? It’s only the future of our children and our city that is at stake.

The bottom line is, what school you attend shouldn’t determine your fate. All schools should be safe intuitions of learning and all students and teachers deserve to have the resources they need to be successful. Having Stanton and Paxon even though they just take in a combined few thousand students makes that impossible. It makes the whole system unfair.

I remember thinking as they battered my opinions one after another, is this how you justify things, do these half truths help you sleep better at night, do they mitigate the fact we are leaving thousands of children behind, or are you just mouth pieces of the school board ho celebrate every thing written about the magnet schools and sweep under the rug everything written about our failing schools. The leadership in the county is okay with the two tiered system of education we have created and they are all right with the generation of have knots woefully prepared for life, that we are putting out into the streets. I am not, and I hope you aren’t either.

Despite all this I don’t think we should get rid of the magnet schools, we should just have different ones. I just think we should have magnet schools for the sixth grader that can’t read, the twelfth grader who is not going to graduate with a regular diploma because they can’t pass the f-cat and the capable special education student who with accommodations and modifications could graduate with a standard diploma. In short we should have magnet schools for kids who need extra help and services to become successful, not magnet schools for children who most likely would be successful anywhere they attended and that includes their neighborhood schools too.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Death of Duval County Public Schools

Things have really improved in the district this year. Last year the district lost 2000 students well this year it only lost 1800. The school district, which puts a positive spin on everything, would probably say, losses down a whopping ten percent.

Folks however you slice it we lost another 1800 kids and that’s not good but worse is it’s our third enrolment decline in a row. This has also happened during the same time our city has seen appreciable growth. If you weren’t worried before you should be worried now.

Also nowhere else in the state except Jacksonville during these trying difficult time are private school and home school enrollments going up. Then to make matters even worse businesses report they don’t want to move here because of our public schools. So what do we as citizens of Jacksonville do? Well thus far all we have done is to take a page out of the citizen’s of London during the blitz play book and solider on, well that and form committees, panels and study groups.

Friends our school system may not be dying, though in biology teachers teach if it isn’t growing it is dying, it is certainly sick and it’s effecting the rest of the city, making it sick too. Crime was out of control, unemployment is up and civility is down and all these things can find their roots in education.

There is hope though. We recognized a crime problem in Jacksonville, as we became the murder capital of Florida. We recognized the problem and then took the steps to correct it and where things aren’t great, there has definitely been improvement. The thing is it took a concentrated effort to make it happen. I think a lot of people see a problem in our schools but they don’t realize the depth of the problem and maybe that’s why the powers-that-be continually come up with the same tired old cures; more mentors, early reading initiatives and get our best teachers into our worse schools. Cures we have been trying for about a decade now to know avail; if anything things are worse now.

If we don’t recognize how sick our public school system is it will continue to contract until it does die and if that happens it will take the city down with it. I wrote last year the two biggest reasons I believe we are losing kids is we don’t enforce discipline and we have a one size fits all curriculum. I wrote it when we had just lost 2000 students, I did so in an effort to stop the bleeding. I hope I don’t have to write the same again next year when we lose a few thousand more.

Discipline Problems: Many students who miss a lot of days are not interested in school and are often disciple problems when they do attend. Did you realize if a teacher spends ten percent of time disciplining a child then all the other children in that class are going to miss out on eighteen days of instruction. What is the difference between being there and not being able to learn and not being there? If your student misses five days in a year and is in a class with an unruly student your child has now missed at least 23 days of instruction but probably more. You might not want to hear it but teachers all through the district smile when certain students are absent because it means they can teach and the other students can learn. Them being there is much worse than them not being there. Without a doubt the most under served and neglected group in the district is the average kid who just comes to school. To save this group the many we may have to sacrifice the few, the ones that show no interest in being there, who only come to disrupt and fine mischief. I don’t like it but what we’re doing now ignoring discipline is destroying our schools.

Curriculum: Students that want to drive trucks are forced to take algebra II, is just one example about how the current curriculum serves only a portion of the student body. A good number of children don’t plan to go to college and you know what, that’s okay; people can be good, productive members of society without a college degree, or they can go back to school in the future when they are ready. It’s time we stopped forcing every student down that one path, which is the only one available to kids unless you go to one of the exclusive magnet schools. The district has decimated the industrial arts program and replaced them with advanced placement programs that, not surprisingly, we don’t do very well in. Furthermore each year there is fewer and fewer art, drama and music classes offered and physical education classes have become massive. We wonder why children don’t attend school, while at the same time offering them classes that are above their heads, have nothing to do with what they want to learn or will better prepare them for their future. It’s a wonder more students don’t miss more days.

When I went to school you could miss nine days in nine weeks. You only got your make up work for an excused absence and it didn’t matter what grade you earned if you missed ten days, you failed. We had the option of taking art, music, and several other electives and if you took P.E. there were no more than thirty students in the class. Kids that were interested in the trades left for half the day to go to a skills center so they could learn about those subjects. Teachers could teach instead of being overwhelmed with task after task and if you acted up you were punished. Finally at the end of the school year we took a minimum level skills test that even if we didn’t do too well on, we were allowed to graduate if we had the grades.

Now it doesn’t matter why student’s miss class, teachers are required to give them the work and they can use compass odyssey or other grade recovery programs, which are often not as rigorous or beneficial as being in class to catch back up. If a student acts up they quickly return to the classroom usually without any real consequences. Students have more classes that they dread and fewer to look forward too, teachers now have more tasks than they can possibly do and we are losing kids hand over fist.

Say you have read my stuff before and have thought, oh man you got it wrong Guerrieri, it’s not our leadership and the way we do things that’s to blame, it’s the parents, the culture or this or that we need to change, well fair enough, reasonable people can look at the same thing and disagree. I just don’t understand how reasonable people can look at the cities declining public school enrollment and not see a problem, not see a huge problem.

Friends if it’s not growing it’s dying and if our public school system dies how long will it be before the rest of the city joins it. Agree or disagree with my points but please agree we need to do something and do it quick.