blame the teacher

Opinions on education and solutions to problems facing our schools today.

Wasted Money

wasted moneyBeware of outsiders shouting reform while trying to buy elections. Back in March there was a primary election for school board in Los Angeles. In May there was the runoff. Out of town and out of state interests spent millions of dollars to influence the local election. Why? Wouldn’t that money be better spent on educating students instead of trying to buy elections in the name of reform?

New York City’s billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent a million dollars, Michelle Rhee’s group spent over $250,000, and Rupert Murdock’s group spent more than $250,000. These outside influences raised about $4 million dollars to fight local teachers’ choices for the school board. The teachers’ union political action committee raised about $450,000. Howard Wolfson, a New York deputy mayor and counselor to Mr. Bloomberg, said:  “For years, the expenditures in these races were one-sided from the unions, now they are not happy there is a counterbalance to their efforts, but they are going to have to get used to it.”

Is almost ten times as much money a counterbalance? These are people who don’t live in Los Angeles and don’t care about Los Angeles, but could make money in many ways from charter school groups, testing materials, computer hardware, and software by stealing some of the billions of dollars spent on education in Los Angeles.

Have Rupert Murdock or Michael Bloomberg spent decades, years, one year, one week, or even one day teaching in an inner city classroom? They wouldn’t last a day in my former classes in Los Angeles. They don’t have the knowledge or ability. It takes a certain type of patient, caring, and dedicated person. Not a billionaire greed-head. What do they know about teaching or Los Angeles?

Most of the people in the teachers’ union have dedicated their lives to making Los Angeles a better place by working long, difficult hours teaching, preparing lessons, grading papers, being surrogate parents, and doing the thousand other parts of the job that aren’t on the test. In the meantime these union teachers are being underpaid, abused, and worn out by those who can’t teach. A counterbalance? Who knows better what is needed in the schools? Someone who spends half their life working in the schools or someone who lives in a mansion thousands of miles away?

The end result was that the big money won one and lost two school board elections. In the primaries, Steve Zimmer  won despite being opposed by big money for being a moderate. His major transgression was asking for a moratorium on charter schools. Michelle Rhee the failed school chancellor of Washington D.C. now makes huge amounts of money starting charter schools. The runoff election in the east San Fernando Valley featured a teacher, Monica Ratliff, who won despite the large amounts of money spent fighting her. The teachers’ union did not support her because of  a deal with other unions which sided with the big money. She won against the large odds because the people are getting tired of the political clout of big money.

Education can be reformed and improved. Spending big money on elections is not the way. The wasted money could be better spent directly in the schools. Why have these out-of-towners wasted their money? They have things to sell which would make up for their losses at taxpayers’ expense. They are selling charter schools, computers, tablets, software, workbooks, tests, and study guides for the tests. The so-called reform is greedy capitalism at work. If they want to improve schools, put the money into the schools, not buying elections.


Authority or Authoritarianism

Lesson 8

Last Friday at Forest Hills High School in New York, a student got arrested and suspended for five days for trying to have some fun. No one got hurt when students crowded into the foyer between classes to shoot video to put on YouTube. When the administrators found out that he had posted an announcement for the meeting on his Facebook page, they got  the student to try to stop the mob along with the administrators, but to no avail. Later in the day, probably in protest of the suspension, there was a food fight. How much freedom for fun should there be in high school?

When I grew up I learned to question authority and to question authoritarianism. During my fourth and fifth grade years my family lived in Alabama. This was during 1963 -1965 and discipline meant corporal punishment, which was usually accomplished with a large wooden paddle. It seemed as if school was a way to make you regimented. You’d say the pledge of allegiance, sit in your appointed seat, do your work, go to lunch, read aloud from the Bible, and go home. It was strange how the history textbooks that we had to buy had a completely different account of American history than the history I had been taught before. During summer I got to choose my own reading material. Fun was only allowed outside of school.

At the end of fifth grade I moved back to New York. There, in 1968 even parents started challenging the school dress code. How did it hurt education if a boy’s hair touched his ears or shirt collar? Why should girls not be allowed to wear pants to school, even during the coldest days of winter? We weren’t allowed free speech and the school newspaper was censored, so the underground newspaper was passed out on the street in front of the school. We had protests to try to allow our voices to be heard. We went through many changes by questioning the reasons for the stories we were told. What were the administrators so afraid of?

Many years later, I was the one with the larger desk facing down the mob with the smaller desks. One cannot teach without a certain degree of authority. Discipline must be fair and consistent but my style is to be rational, not regimented. I am a science teacher so what I am teaching has been proven over and over again. We do experiments to show some of these concepts. I explain the reasoning behind the experiments whether we do them or someone else did them. I teach the history behind human thoughts about science and how that has changed over time. If I don’t know an answer I say that I don’t know. I am one of the students’ authorities for science. I wear a nice shirt, pants, and a tie every day. No sneakers. I provide a role model for a mature adult. This doesn’t mean we can’t have fun. Jokes and witty comments are useful to break up too serious a mood in the classroom. A relaxed class learns much more easily. I make fun of myself and students have made fun (in fun) of me without consequences. I can remember playing an April Fool’s joke where we convinced a student that another student had hit me in the eye when all I had was a spring pollen allergy. All of us have had dreary authoritarian teachers that made learning dull. I try not to be one of those. It is very difficult and usually counterproductive to try to have total control over students. Still, one has to know when to end the fun and get serious. That is an important part of a teacher’s job.

Why do some teachers and administrators believe in strict regimentation? Freedom of thought is essential for critical thinking. Education should not be a power struggle between authorities and students. Many years back I would collect mistletoe from the woods just before the winter solstice. I would tape some up above the doorway and give some out for students to play with. I would have fun telling some of the historical reasons for its symbolism. Most of all, I would use it for a refresher lesson on symbiosis. Mutualism, commensalism, or parasitism? Even though mistletoe is green, it is still a parasite digging its hastoria into the tree for nutrients. The bromeliad Spanish moss, on the other hand is commensal, just using the tree to stay out of the dirt without hurting the tree. Of these three symbioses we find many more examples of mutualism. Organisms thrive when they work together. We will accomplish the most when we have the freedom to think and work together.


Tenure Enables Quality Education

Lesson 7

During my second year teaching, the teachers’ union, of which I was not a member, had a job action. I was advised that if I participated I could be fired because I didn’t have tenure. My political activity was denied because I had not worked long enough.

When I was a tenured teacher, I contemplated moving to a nicer environment. My friends in a small town in Oregon pointed out that all their teachers were not given tenure so that after two years the school district could dismiss the old teacher and hire a new teacher at less pay.

After sixteen years teaching high school, I switched coasts, moving back to where I grew up. I went from substitute, to teaching assistant, to tenure track teacher. Before I could get tenure, a new department chair was illegitimately put in place. Everyone without tenure ‘did not have their contract renewed’ so the department chair could replace them with inexperienced teachers connected to her friend’s university program, who would be beholden to her. I went to the union to ask if the administration could do this without teacher evaluations, but they would not back me up because I was without tenure. Needless to say, test scores plummeted. Later while teaching summer school, a former student whom I helped to earn an A in biology, begged me to teach him chemistry after he failed under that department chair’s regime.

These are just my anecdotes. Let us look at the concept of tenure. Tenure is a twentieth century idea designed to protect teachers from political control of education. It is only fair that teachers be safeguarded from administrators’ arbitrary or frivolous policies. Administrators are too far removed from the classroom to make objective decisions regarding teacher effectiveness. Only fellow teachers are capable of judging teachers. Because of the low pay that teachers get for the amount of training they need, it is worthwhile to work with poor teachers to help  them improve. Teachers should not be susceptible to the whims of any political forces around them — as a biology teacher I don’t need anyone judging my teaching who disputes the fact of evolution . Many people want to use test scores to judge teachers. This does not work so well either. If  test scores are to be used, “high stakes tests” are needed, so that the student is involved too. I have seen too many students ignore standardized tests because there was “nothing in it for them”. This is one of the reasons for the fluctuations of test results from year to year.

Tenure only means that a school needs just cause to fire a teacher. Why do teachers need two years to earn just cause to be fired?

Should tenure be done away with? No; it is important for the sake of education. Does tenure make it too hard to fire incompetent teachers? No; it is easy to fire incompetent teachers when there is sufficient evidence. Administrators are to blame for poor teachers getting tenure. Does tenure allow teachers to speak the truth without fear of reprimand? It helps.

To attack tenure is to attack quality education. Some people might want to attack tenure so they can reduce budgets by firing experienced teachers so they can replace them with cheaper inexperienced teachers. Other people attack tenure so that they can push their political agenda by getting rid of experienced teachers and replacing them with political stooges who spout their political line. But in the end, tenure is about educational freedom and insuring that students receive the best possible education.

.                                2/16/13

No Big Deal

Lesson 6

What is the big deal with charter schools? Lately I have been looking into the experiment in charter schools, and I have had to conclude that what once seemed like a good idea with many possibilities has become merely more of the same.

The charter school movement in the United States began about 25 years ago. As originally envisioned, charter schools would compete with public schools, taking public money, but they could be run like a business with less restrictions than public schools. Charter schools could benefit by getting waivers from the plethora of rules, regulations, and mandates of state departments of education. The amount and type of restrictions that can be loosened varies from state to state since education is one of the main functions of state governments. Charters determine their own staffing, curriculum, discipline, and allocation of their funds; some states even allow those without teaching credentials (certificates) to teach.

Charter schools tend to be judged by the same criteria as public schools: graduation rates, college acceptance, and standardized test scores. The biggest difference between charter schools and public schools is the length of the school day, week, and year.

When charter schools first started there were many illegal schemes in states like Ohio, Florida, and California. Most of these scams were weeded out and there has been a rise in Charter School Management Organizations (CMOs). These groups start new charters and guide the new schools. Many of these CMOs get extra funding from large foundations like Gates, Broad, Annenberg, and Walton.

Funding of charter schools can be a source of contention. The allocation of public funds for charter schools takes money away from public schools. Charter schools must accept everyone who applies and when they have more students than they can accommodate, they have a lottery to determine whom to accept. It would not be fair for charter schools to pick the best students and leave the problem students for the public schools. If a charter school can dismiss a student for discipline, this creates an unfair advantage. Special education students need about three times the average funding apportioned to other students. Charter schools have considerably fewer special needs students, yet they still get the same average funds per pupil.

At their inception, charter schools tended to embody progressive ideas, but over time, support for charter schools has shifted from progressives to conservatives. The main reason for this is that charter schools weaken teachers’ unions. Charter schools can do away with tenure and make teachers work long hours for the the same pay. Many states have gotten rid of collective bargaining rules for charter schools. Teachers’ unions are mostly made up of women and have a large share of minorities. It is a major focus of the Republican party to destroy the middle class by paying people who work in schools less that they are worth to society. That is one of the reasons teachers’ unions donate to the other political party.

So how have charter schools done so far? No better than public schools. Although some CMOs have have shown success, the majority haven’t. KIPP has had some success and so has Green Dot, which has started many charter schools in the Los Angeles area, as well as having taken over a few public schools. Having worked under the corrupt, bloated bureaucracy of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), it is easy to understand how Green Dot can manage better than the administration of LAUSD. Overall, one study by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) found charters lagging slightly behind public schools. Perhaps the best study of charter schools is the one from Stanford University titled Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). Based on test scores, this study showed that a few charters were better than public schools, more were worse, but most were the same. It seems evident that competition, utilization of a business model, and lack of regulations has not worked to improve education.

I personally believe that charter schools should still be allowed, but with regulation. State Departments of Education hand down many onerous mandates that interfere with everyday instruction. It would make sense if public schools could also ask for waivers from some of these. Then there would be less need for charter schools.