Monthly Archives: August 2016

Charters: The Center Won’t Hold

I’m pleased to see more articles agreeing with my assertion that ed reform as we know it may be over.

But as I mentioned in the previous piece, charters live! Choice is good! Even the Trumpster, who clearly doesn’t much care, offers up choice like puppy chow and–wisely–using it in his appeals to black voters, as a contrast to Hillary’s doubling down on teacher unions.

Why, in the face of so much rejection, do charters still have such great numbers?1

I offer this up as opinion/assertion, without a lot of evidence to back me: most parents know intuitively that bad teachers aren’t a huge problem. What they care about, from top to bottom of the income scale, is environment. Suburban white parents don’t want poor black and Hispanic kids around. Poor black and Hispanic parents don’t want bad kids around. (Yes, this means suburban parents see poor kids as mostly bad kids.) Asian parents don’t want white kids around to corrupt their little tigers, much less black or Hispanic. (White parents don’t really want too many Asians around, either, but that’s the opposite of the “bad kids” problem.)

Parents don’t care much about teacher quality. They care a lot about peer group quality.

They are right to worry. Before I became a teacher, I’d read other teachers talk about how just a few kids can really disrupt a classroom, moving management from a no-brainer to the primary focus of the day. Now I am one of those teachers. I’ve worked in several schools in which the overwhelming presence of low income students who didn’t care about their grades has utterly removed the “stigma of an F” from the entire population, causing panic in the upper middle income white parents who can’t quite afford private school yet live in a district that worries about lawsuits if they track by ability. Their kids, particularly the boy kids, start to adopt this opinion, and white failure rates start rising.

So charters become a way for parents to sculpt their school environments. White parents stuck in majority/minority districts start progressive charters that brag about their minority population but are really a way to keep the brown kids limited to the well-behaved ones. Low income black and Hispanic parents want safe schools. Many of them apply for charter school lotteries because they know charters can kick out the “bad kids” without fear of lawsuits. But they still blame the “bad kids”, not the teachers, which is why they might send their kids to charter schools while still ejecting Adrian Fenty for Michelle Rhee’s sins.

As I’ve mentioned before, education reformers are now pushing suburban charters with strong academic focus, which are nothing more than tracking for parents who can’t get their public schools to do it for them.

I really can’t stress this point enough: charters have succeeded because of their ability to control students, not teachers. 1

Most people disagree with me on the purpose of public education. The entire discourse of education reform begins with the conceit that public education is offered to parents instead of taxpayers. I think we need to do more to support parenting, particularly in two couple, employed families, but public education is what we do to try, at least, to ensure that the subsequent generation is functional, while minimizing the impact on taxpayers.

Ultimately, charters will be bad for taxpayers. Yes, yes. I know that right now, they’re cheaper than public schools, because they use a lot of philanthropist dollars and teach cheaper students. They also save money by using and discarding new teachers, so salaries stay low. Many charters use the same pay scale as the local district, despite all their talk of merit pay.

But bet on charter teachers unionizing, despite best efforts to stop the efforts. Along with LA, Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia and other cities, more charter schools are organizing. It’s going to be very difficult to stop charters from unionizing. What do charters offer? Maybe more pay if the principal likes you. But definitely longer hours. Moreover, if a charter school is short on teachers, it can just take away preps, add more classes to schedules without being the need for more pay. It’s no surprise that the charter union movement starts in urban environments. But it will spread, almost certainly.

And over time, charters will almost certainly be forced to provide more access, take more students who require mainstreaming, face legal action over expulsions. All the perks they now have will slowly siphon away, particularly in those areas that achieve their dream of total charter domination. Just ask the charter advocates in New Orleans, the first all-charter city. At first, charters were able to reject special ed students, or counsel them out. But a major lawsuit has set up some specialized schools and also required more of charters. Expulsions are down, too, once the process became centralized. More and more, New Orleans is facing questions about its “opportunity youth” (aka dropouts) and whether an entirely charter district makes it easier to lose track of students.

Charters simply can’t scale. Their success relies on traditional public schools picking up the slack. But their proponents are determined to kill those traditional public schools.

So urban public schools will continue to bleed the strongest students to charters, but will still face the higher costs associated with the most expensive students and the salaries that come along with teachers who stay put, rather than leave after a couple years. States will continue to foot the bill for both charters and district schools. So a state has X kids that used to be covered by A schools, B teachers, and C administrators. Now, the state will still have X kids, but M new schools, which means that B and C go up as well. Right now, some of those costs are covered by philanthropists, but that will change. Right now, some of those teachers are cheaper, but that will change. (The administrators get paid more than district schools.) Busing kids to their “choice” schools will cost more money if choice is required.

The lawsuits on special ed access and expulsions will continue. Data tracking on dropouts and “lost” kids will improve. Ultimately, the abuses will be curbed. And of course, despite carefully massaged talk about improved test scores, the public will realize that black and Hispanic kids are still doing poorly on college admissions tests.

All choice won’t offer any cost or quality improvements unless a) teachers are banned from unionizing, b) parents and advocacy organizations are barred from lawsuits, and c) schools are allowed to let unmotivated, low-skill kids drop out.

Yeah, good luck with that.

New Orleans is a decent indicator of the future “all-charter” paradise. Once all the schools are charters, the charters are forced to acknowledge that their secret was “better” students, not “better” teachers. Autonomy, decentralization, higher standards, parental contact, “firing bad teachers”–none of those close the achievement gap.

In fact, “bad schools” exist because black and Hispanic kids, on average, get lower scores than white and Asian kids for reasons that don’t involve superior teachers or even superior parents, for reasons that have thus far remained unrelentingly resistant to change. Kids with lower scores, regardless of race, are harder to teach and less interested in education, on average, and more likely to disrupt classes. Therefore, schools with disproportionately black or Hispanic kids are going to have lower scores and more disruptive classrooms.

While the low test score problem isn’t, as yet, fixable, the disruptive student problem is a different story. That’s the problem that charters actually address, while bragging about improving test scores, which they don’t (in any meaningful way).

The entire charter narrative is written by people who realized that public policy wants to ignore reality. The policy makers are pretending that schools can be improved. Charters allow them that pretense.

Meanwhile, the parents are intent on improving their childrens’ peer groups, and, if they can’t afford to use private schools or geography to achieve this aim, they’ll grab happily at charters, even though most are aware that the policy makers are hyping false promises.

One way or another, I don’t see the center holding. I think the end of ed reform will tilt the balance of power to public schools. But if it tilts the other way, if more cities follow New Orleans to all charters, then I expect things to get much more expensive, teacher scarcity to become even more of an issue, and a greater willingness to let kids fall through the cracks.

I’m really fine with being wrong, though.

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1This chunk of text through the second subscript was originally written as part of my response on the CTU strike, almost four years ago. The post is prescient, I dare say, in that I was starting to see the failure of the reform movement. But the second half of the post has nothing to do with the strike and is one I refer back to often. But I can never remember where I put it. So since it’s a slow month, I’m giving it its own post with some extra thoughts at the beginning and end.

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Graduating My Geometry Class

In the fall of 2012, I began my first year at this school. First block, first day, I met a group of 29 freshmen in their first high school math class: geometry.  From the beginning, we all clicked. A new school didn’t seem quite so intimidating because every day of that first semester started with camaraderie and good times–and some learning, too.

Three freshmen left the school mid-term. All but one of the rest passed. Eleven Asians (1 east, 3 south,4 south east, 3 mideast), nine whites, seven Hispanic , one black. Five Muslim. No long-term ELLs, one suffered from near-blindness. Ten athletes who played their entire high school careers,  including two who eventually got scholarships. The eventual senior prom queen. All those who passed made it through trigonometry, at least. Most made it to pre-calculus. Only a few made it to Calculus or AP Stats, although at least three talented students were derailed by an F from Mr. Singh , which I found frustrating. All of them are going to college. They reflected the school’s population writ large: diverse, athletic, not overly focused on academics, but smart enough to get it done.

One student I never saw again: the feckless, charming girl who failed all her classes by treating school as social hour continued to frustrate her father, who brought her away from the Philippines and her mother, hoping he could prevent a pregnancy before a high school diploma. Another student I just didn’t run into much.

Four others were likewise never in one of my classes again, but I saw them frequently; they’d always shout a greeting across the quad, identifying themselves because they know I never wear my glasses.

The remaining twenty saw me in at least one subsequent math class. Five saw me twice more. None seemed to mind.

In all our frequent chats, literally up through their June graduation, we’d regularly refer to “that first geometry class”.  Our touchstone memory, kept alive through four years of their education.

One of my “three-timers”, a sweet, tentative young man  who never had another math teacher until pre-calc, stopped by with his yearbook. As we thumbed through the senior pages, calling out familiar faces, he suddenly said,”Man, I bet you’ve taught most of the seniors at least once.”

We counted it together—of the 93 rows of four students each, I’d taught 288 of them, or roughly 75%. Many–at least fifty–more than once.

In the face of that percentage, I decided it was time to work around my dislike of crowds, speeches, and heat in order to represent on their big night. So at 4:30, I showed up to help assemble them for the procession.

At first, the seniors were gathered in informal groups outside the staging area, taking pictures, talking, dancing about impatiently. Many called me over or waved, shouting out their names because they know my sunglasses aren’t prescription.

As they moved into the cafeteria for the staging, I wandered around, touching base, asking about plans, saying goodbye. As I’d expected, they needed teachers to organize the alphabetized lines for the procession, so I took a list of twenty. Rounded them up, hollered them into line, while the fourteen students I’d taught before joked that in less than three hours they’d never have to listen to me again. “And that’s why you became a teacher!” a bunch of them chorused.

Finally, the graduation manager gave the sign for zero hour. Suddenly well-behaved and serious, they streamed out in order, paused for a few minutes at some inevitable delay, and then the music started. Their procession took them by the stadium’s fence along the security road; I stood about 15 feet away by a barrier and put on my prescription glasses, even in the sun, the better not to miss any face. Waved and cheered at brand new adults who waved and cheered back, glad I was there, happy to see me, happy that I was wearing my glasses and could see them.  And when the last student–one of mine–turned for one final smile, I decided that the graduation itself, the heat, the speeches, the names, would dull the joy I felt in this moment. Time to go.

As I walked back to the Starbucks where I’d parked my car, latecomers were hustling to the stadium, many holding signs and pictures. I saw pictures I knew, stopped to congratulate the parents and send them on their way. And suddenly:

“Hey, it’s my geometry teacher!”

I looked at the pretty, lively young woman holding a…toddler? infant? gurgling happily walking towards me, waving. Smiled, running through the names of the only other geometry class I taught and coming up blank.

“You don’t remember me? I’m Annie!” and I gasped.

“Oh, my god. Annie! I thought…I haven’t run into you for so long…you didn’t go back to live with your mom? I don’t think I’ve seen you in..three years? I didn’t recognize you. You’re all grown up!  How’s your dad? You look fantastic. And how’s this little guy? How old is he, fifteen months?”

“Nope, just nine months.”

“He’s gorgeous. How are you? Come to see the grad…well, duh, yes.”

She laughed, and hitched the baby to her other hip. “It’s great you came! I still think about that geometry class. It was so fun!”

“I wish I’d run into you more. Go, get going, you don’t want to be late. Take care of this adorable one. I’m happy to see you.”

“Me, too. Take care. Bye!” and off she went, striding confidently into her future. I watched her, thinking of all the questions I wanted to ask: did she graduate? Go to our excellent alternative high school? Is the baby’s dad in the picture? What are your plans? and being so very glad I didn’t.

I resist presenting Annie as a tragedy. I didn’t feel guilt, watching her walk away.  But I did feel…awareness, maybe? I’m good with unmotivated underachieving boys. Am I as good with girls? Could I be reach out more? Give them reasons to try, to play along?

“You should never be satisfied. You can always do better.”

I remember telling that ed school professor that the two sentiments don’t follow. I am satisfied. I can try to do better.

Goodbye, class of 2016.

Goodbye, geometry class. Next year is my first without my touchstone group. I’ll miss you.

I want you to go forth and live happy, productive lives. Please know that for the past four years, your presence has been a big part of mine.

Thanks.

 


What I Learned: Years 4-7

I was going to continue my year by  year  (by year) retrospective, but I decided that the last four years can be considered as a block. Which is good, because if I did a post per year I’d never catch up.

tl;dr Years 4-7 were all about happiness.

I began at this school in late August of Year 4, just a week or so before school began.  Utterly desperate for work, I would have accepted any offer, anywhere in a 35 mile radius and really, by late August, 50 mile drives weren’t out of the question.  That I got my first choice, a school that had actually offered for me the year before, seemed almost a miracle.

And really, I’ve been happy ever since. Teaching has always been a joy. The previous schools, with all the challenges, never dented my belief in my own abilities or the faith that kids were benefiting from my teaching. But at the other schools, the administrators didn’t agree. It’s not that they thought I was a bad teacher. I just wasn’t what they wanted–someone younger, ideally.  Here, for the first time since student teaching, my bosses also thought I was a darn good teacher. May this bliss last at least eight years more.

So in those four years, what changes and accomplishments can I point to?

Teaching Persona

As mentioned in Year 3 retrospective,  I’d begun to establish the same ambiance in my school classrooms that existed in my test prep and enrichment instruction classes. At this school, the process was complete and I never looked back. From day one, I was unpredictable, flexible, friendly, ruthlessly sarcastic, and damn funny, which is where I live the rest of the time. The second year there, I introduced a meme: I am the star of my classroom.  I get a guaranteed audience three or four times a day. It is in my contract. Students are the audience. Their job is to attend. If they’re lucky, they might get some lines. A walk on part. But mostly students are to watch. To listen. Eh…learning would be nice, but that’s up to them.

Someone somewhere is going to take this as a serious statement of priorities, rather than a mindset. Remember that I spend very little upfront time teaching. It’s more of an attitude. It allows me to be big, overblown, demanding attention, dammit, whether you learn or not. Students enjoy the spin on the usual pay attention because education is good for you. Hell with that, kids, your attention is good for me.

I count it as a good sign that I’m regularly in the Teacher Awards section of the yearbook, and for fun things: Storyteller, Unpredictable, Mostly Likely to Lose Whiteboard Eraser. May that, too, extend through the next eight years. I’m a geek; popularity is a nice change.

Building Curriculum–Never Be Satisfied

I vividly remember in the spring of year 4, my first year at this school, when I was looking ahead to linear inequalities. I was just about done with my new method of modeling linear equations which had now gone well twice in a row (remember, this school does a year in a semester and then repeats).

But at the time, I did little more than go through the procedures on linear inequalities, and felt a twinge of shame the first semester, as we moved from a unified modeling approach to…here’s how you test a value.  And suddenly, out of the blue, I remember my ed school professor saying “You should never be satisfied. You can always do better.”

At the time, I rolled my eyes. She was saying this in the context of our first year of teaching, to never feel satisfied. I think this is absurd. “Good enough” is fine a lot of the time. But at this moment, I realized it could apply to an entire career (and in fairness to the professor, that’s probably what she meant.)

So I challenged myself in that moment to come up with something different. How could I introduce  linear inequalities in such a way that would build on the linear equations, while showing their differences? I still use the methods I built that day, although I’ve developed them somewhat.

But from that point on, I always take that moment, that wince away from a piece of curriculum I don’t like. What can I rebuild? How can I make it better? I’m not a perfectionist, not a driving careerist, definitely not hard-charging in approach. (my affect and opinions, whole different deal.) Just one of many ways in which my pricey ed school degree has transformed me well after the fact.

I’ve written about many other curriculum improvements over time. All of these were done with that same spirit of yeah, the old way wasn’t working, let’s try this:

I’ve completely reworked quadratics and exponents as well, but haven’t written them up. It’s been fun.

I don’t have one approach to curriculum, but if I have a go-to process, it’s the “illustrating activity” or problem, which can be seen here in the Projectile Motion writeup, or this lesson on proving the pythagorean theorem and geometric mean activity. I began to write it up as part of this entry, but decided no, do a separate post. (I do apologize for my scarce blogging lately.)

Classroom Ambiance

allclassworking

This is the first time I had my students “work in the round”, which is how you’ll find my class at least 12-15 days a month since then. My current classroom has whiteboards all the way around. The walls have a 5 x wall-length strip of white board paint (which is really cool). I have small white boards with coordinate planes etched in. I also have a wonderful donor who sends me $100 worth of whiteboard pens every year, so the kids can always be working on a big surface, with plenty of room for mistakes.

There must be whiteboards.  Working constantly in class, moving around, reduces the risk of math zombies. Earphones are allowed to shut out the noise, provided I don’t see the student enjoying the music more than the work.

I sit my kids in groups, which has been true since my first year. I don’t do homework, which has been true for two years, but I never counted failure to do homework.

There must also be movies. Twice a semester in the fall, because Christmas means “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Always at the end of the semester.

Assessments

The December of Year 5, I got a look at the new Common Core tests and laughed, again, at the ludicrous notion that the new mean achievement would be centered around these ridiculously difficult standards. Except…..

I noticed that many questions required more than one answer. They weren’t simple multiple choice questions. “Identify all the solutions.” “Select all the equivalent expressions.”

Hey, now. That’s interesting. And my first multiple assessment test was born a week later.

Thanks, Common Core! sez I. My kids, not so much.The tests are really helpful for lower ability kids to show what they know, but the strongest kids have to be on their game to do well.

Here’s my first post on the topic, but I’ve revisited it often. They allow flexibility way beyond the usual multiple choice–I can mix and match between freeform and formatted response, or include both in the same question. I can create one question with varied procedural tasks, or one question that dives deep into one situation. They also allow me to greater access to student thinking.

I’ve also had fun redoing my quizzes in the past year. Typically, my quizzes have been straightforward affairs that contain no surprises. But I’ve started to mix it up. helicopterquest

These are nice stylistic changes, even if the underlying question is still straightforward.

Meta Teaching
While I mentioned that my third year saw fundamental .changes in my approach to teaching, I completely forgot to mention that the year also gave  birth to this blog.  While I began blogging at my last school, all but eight months of it have been here. The blog itself is a constant insight into my teaching practice–among other things. I’ve kept it primarily on education, whether it be policy, practice, law, or the reality, which often violates all the others. And occasionally Trump, of course. But then, a good chunk of my Trump support is also related to teaching.

I was not terribly popular with the head of my ed school, but on at least two occasions, she mentioned my gift for writing about classroom experiences. My second year out, I was telling one of my ed school professors about my administration woes, and he told me that he wanted me to keep teaching so I could write about it.

“You’re a very good new teacher. But writing about teaching will be your unique contribution to the field.” I was immensely complimented, and said so–wondering how I could possibly get someone to ever be interested in publishing my thoughts, and how I could get my thoughts down to 750 word chunks.

Turned out I could do first part myself, making the second (ahem) unnecessary.

I try to avoid doing too much with clubs or other school activities that involve stipends.Mentoring credentialed and student teachers1on the other hand, fits in well with my temperament. I’ve spent most of my life being paid for opinions. Consulting new teachers carries on that piece of my past. I’ll be doing induction this year, and hope to find another student teacher soon.

And so, I move onto years 8 and beyond. Looking forward to it.

 

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1My student teacher got at least two job offers from the district; I’m assuming he took one of them but haven’t talked to