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Friday, August 26, 2011

Pay me more.

A colleague asked me recently why it was that everybody seemed to have an opinion about what was wrong with public education and what should be done to fix it.

"Simple," I replied, "Everybody you talk to spent twelve years in schools and feels that this extensive experience has made them an expert."

It's true, in a way. If somebody spent twelve years in a hospital, they would know a considerable amount more about the practice of medicine related to their condition and the operating conditions of medical institutions, and anybody who's spent even a little time in prison can tell you exactly what's wrong with it. It's a human thing that we have where we induce the general from the specific and believe firmly in it.

We all think we know because we were there. And since we know because we were there, we are all justified in offering our opinions.

In the first of an occasional series on credulant and cuphinious fixes to public education, let's look at one of these great plans: Merit Pay

Occasionally, some well intentioned person will explain to me that, really, if good teachers were paid more then more highly capable people would want to become teachers and everything would be better.

Good teachers should be paid more? Cool. I'm a good teacher and I already top out the salary schedule, so I'm on board... or not.

Not.

You see, let's say it works and all the good teachers are paid a salary competitive with the private sector and all the loser teachers are told that they suck and they can stay and earn minimum wage to babysit or they can get out. Let's just say it happens. Let's say we can develop a metric that is fair and objective and acceptable to all parties involved while still being politically palatable. Let's say that it gets implemented. Guess what? Now we're fucked.

Why? You've just greatly expanded the cost of public education and we can have all the merit pay in the world on paper but I doubt if Joe Tea Patriot or Bob Libertarian or Billy-Jack Blue Dog are going to be willing to foot the bill. If the average teacher pay were $110,000, the cost of public education, which is already the plurality of most state budgets, would be overwhelmi­ng. In California where we have somewhere in the neighborho­od of 8,000,000 school-age children and 300,000 teachers, this would imply a $2,100,000­,000.00 increase in school funding to simply stay where we are.

My guess? Even if we did this and told people it would only cost them $140 per household in California (we have a lot of households), people would still tell the schools that we could find the money by cutting waste and abuse.

Oh yeah, another thing: I like money as much as the next guy, but the last thing I want is to have the money in teaching be enough to entice people to enter the profession for the paycheck. If one is going to get into teaching, it should be for love of teaching and love of society -- not for love of money. We earn enough to stay firmly in the middle class and we have benefits and summers off (save for professional development, classes, summer school, in-service days, classroom preparations, planning, and meetings) and, frankly, that's really all we need.

My district is implementing a merit pay system, by the way. It's called The College Ready Promise and is funded in part by the Gates Foundation. It has some innovative elements and I'm certainly willing to give it a go, but I know (and they know, too. Gates Foundation money is a deep well, but it will run dry) that in the end the money won't be there to make it work. I'll keep you all posted on its progress, though, and maybe there will be a sudden and profound upswell of people who shout a million voices at once, "Raise my taxes so that we can have better schools," and the money will flow in to make merit pay a reality and buy public schools enough toilet paper and handsoap, too. Here's wishing.


Oh -- here's a book I haven't read on the subject. If somebody's read it (or is willing to cough up the money to buy it and read it) I'd love to know what it says.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Truth About Charter Schools Part II

Somebody asked me with regard to my last post how charters came about and why American schools are so awful. So before I get to the rest of the charter post:

How did we get here?

A little background: First of all, believe it or not, public education, in general, is doing a much better job for a great number of students than it did 50 years ago. What? You heard me. Fifty years ago, in the "golden age" of public education, we provided a quality education for middle and upper class white students. We also provided a world-class education for a small minority of those students through the creation of college tracks and advanced science and math classes in reaction to Sputnik. The rest of the American educational system, though, lay on a continuum between mediocre, vocational and non-existent. We did not educate poor people very well and we all but refused to educate minorities in much of this country. Rural education was hit and miss and the end result was that the empowered classes were educated while nobody else was.

We, as a society, bought in to Andrew Carnegie's ideal that we needn't provide education for the poor and working class beyond basic abilities in reading and math. Carnegie paid for libraries and the thought was that anybody who was good enough to deserve an education would take care of it themselves.

We did, however, believe in giving young people job skills, so even if a child left school with limited academic skills, they would possibly be trained for cabinetmaking, metalworking, or some other vocation.

This three track system of collegiate, vocational, and dumb changed, slowly, through the 1960's and 1970's. As a society, we gave in to the demands for equal access to quality public education. We did so, in many cases, without being willing to spend more on education so, in effect, we redistributed the existing money. What happened? In the 1980's, the empowered classes still had greater access to quality education which they provided for themselves through local property taxes and selective housing and everybody else got a better education than they had had before, but it wasn't nearly as good as the empowered classes had always had.

"Our schools are in crisis!" The headlines read in the early 1980's, and the stories detailed campuses where drug-addled students couldn't identify Iowa on a map, separate the Declaration of Independence from the Constitution, or identify the square root of 25. The answer: cut funding for education as they are obviously wasting what we give them. The grand slide began.

Somehow cutting school budgets didn't make them better, so the privatization movements began -- vouchers and charters began in earnest in the late 1980's and early 1990's under the thoughts that, if schools were run like a business they would be more effective, if there were competition then public schools would have to shape up, and that if that didn't happen then students should have help with private school tuition.

So here we are in 2011. There is less money in education per pupil than at any time in recent history and society has mandated that we bring all students, regardless of starting point or deficit, up to a level of proficiency in basic skills. This is an admirable and necessary goal -- don't get me wrong -- but the issue remains, how best to do so.

Another note: My knowledge is specific to California, so please do not assume that what I say is true about charters in other states.

Alright, just as everything negative that is said about charters can be misleading, so can all the positives. Mostly, the positives I hear are these:

1. They are run more efficiently
2. They offer students a choice
3. They are freed from the burdensome bureaucracy of the larger districts
4. They are able to respond more quickly to challenges
5. They are more family-friendly
6. They are safer
7. They give more attention to individual students
8. They offer greater opportunities.

This one is much easier to deal with because the answer for each of them is the same: It depends on the charter school.

Charters can be more efficient, certainly, thought that efficiency often takes the form of being underadministrated which can then lead to even greater inefficiencies later. They do offer students a choice, though in many cases, the choice is between vanilla and french vanilla, or between vanilla and axle grease -- neither of which is a real choice.

Charters can be freed from burdensome bureaucracies, but they are also fully capable of developing their own triplicate forms and circular chains of authority -- and they are also capable of having too little bureaucracy (not something I ever thought I'd say) and therefore having no ability to consistently apply policies and procedures. They are, indeed, more capable of responding quickly to challenges, but they often lack the resources to respond effectively.

Independent Charters are small and underresourced. A small independent charter, when confronted with even an insignificant drop-off in student achievement as measured by the API will be forced into Program Improvement by the state. They will have a short window of time to produce an Improvement Plan that will then have to be authorized by the chartering district. This generally means choosing off of a menu of predictably approved choices for change and the end result is that small independent charters that try to create change in struggling communities end up looking very much like the neighborhood schools in terms of academic and curricular approaches. Chartering Organizations like KIPP, ICEF, my own GreenDot, and PUC are all now equivalent to small districts in their size and behave accordingly. In the end, the ability to respond quickly to student needs, because of the ways that the charter laws and national education laws are worded, usually means throwing out the original mission of the school and being forced to mimic the same one-size-fits-all approaches that are showing modest gains in all public schools.

With regards to being more family-friendly and safer -- there may be some truth here. Charters are assessed as part of their charter on how they will increase neighborhood and parent involvement. Also, charter families tend to be at least slightly concerned about the quality and safety of their child's schools. The exceptions for this are the district take-over schools like Locke, Jordan, Camino Real and Palisades. These schools are forced to accept whatever child lives in their district area just like any district school. Here, the improvements in safety and family involvement are generally due to the fact that, as a smaller organization than LAUSD, they have more riding on the safety records of these schools and therefore focus more highly on them. GreenDot has turned Locke High School into a very safe school. In order to do this, they have spent a considerable amount of extra money over the last four years on safety and security -- money that the district was not willing to spend.

Individual attention and opportunities are truly going to be school by school. If I had a choice between sending my child to Diamond Ranch HS, a high quality public school, or a small independent charter, I would choose Diamond Ranch unless my child was one who would benefit from being on a small campus where s/he felt known. The resources are greater at Diamond Ranch, the opportunities are better at Diamond Ranch, the systems themselves are better at Diamond Ranch and my child would be offered a consistent and high quality education.

Of course, I don't live in Diamond Ranch and my kid's local high school will be Belmont. This means that I will be looking at local charter high schools and inter and intra-district transfers. It all, really, depends on what is available. If she got into the magnet program at the Downtown Arts High School, an LAUSD public school, I would want her to go there. If not, then I would probably try to get her into Camino Nuevo or Downtown Values charter high schools.

To sum up: Charters are not the answer. Charters are an answer. There is no "The Answer," and until people stop trying to find silver-bullet style solutions to the education problems in our society, we will stay right where we are.

One final note -- something that has been unsaid in much of the modern controversies regarding public education: College is not, can not be, and should not be the goal for every child. Purely practically, if every child went to college, college itself would quickly become meaningless. Every child should have the opportunity to go to college if the choose, but they should also have the opportunity to choose against it without shame, without embarrassment, and with options. Right now, that doesn't exist for many of our children. If they are not on college track, they are on "high school completion" track where they are taking easier classes with little to no enrichment, challenge, or training for life beyond high school.

College preparatory curriculum is the easiest, cheapest, least challenging way for a school to look like a high quality option. Vocational education costs much more money. Arts education costs much more money. Technical education costs much more money. Career training costs much more money. The next time your district or a charter touts itself as being College Preparatory, ask yourself: "Is this because they truly believe that college is the best option for all of the students enrolled, or is it because being college prep is cheaper and more politically acceptable than actually properly serving all of the students in their community?"

The average intelligence is truly average. Let's not create a system where anybody who is not above average in either intelligence, ability, situation, or drive ends up unemployable. That would suck.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Truth About Charter Schools Part I

A friend of mine just asked my opinion on Charter schools and their relationship with traditional public schools. Fortunately, I happened to have one handy so I didn't have to go find somebody else's and pass it off as my own. While I was at it, though, it occurred to me that, as my opinion is credulant on the matter, that this would probably be the best venue for offering an answer.

Traditional public education does a reasonably good job for the majority of students, an excellent job for a minority of students and a miserable job for the rest. Charter schools were designed as a tool to encourage public schools to do better, to offer alternatives for students who were unsatisfied, and to offer an opportunity for students who were being underserved.

Charter simply means that a school has autonomy from district policies in terms of delivery method, but in most states is held to the same (and in some states higher) standard of efficacy as traditional public schools.

Charters, however, have been perceived as a threat by much of the traditional education community. I do not believe that they are. First of all, we need to stop viewing education as a zero-sum game with competing teams. While this might be an accurate model if the goal were to simply collect education dollars, if the goal is to actually educate students and improve society then, please, we're all on the same side.

But to more specifically refute some of the most common statements used by charter detractors to dismiss charters, I'll deal with them one at a time:
Here are the common complaints about charters:

1. There is no oversight.
2. They are anti-union tools
3. They exploit teachers
4. They divert money from traditional schools
5. They aren't any better
6. They get to pick and choose their students


Each of these is a partial truth. In this entry, I'll deal with the complaints and in a later posts, I will deal with the praises.

1. There is no oversight: I can only speak for California, but here that is far from true. Charters are strictly regulated and, unlike district schools who are only assessed officially by WASC every three years or so, charters are assessed by both WASC (on the same basic schedule as all schools) and by the chartering district each year, as well. Any issue that is out of compliance with the terms of the charter can lead to a non-renewal or, if egregious enough, can lead to the immediate loss of the charter. This is not the case for district schools who have only NCLB or a parent or teacher led charter rebellion to fear.

2.They are anti-union tools: I am a union member and I work in a charter. A charter where I worked for five years unionized the year after I left. While it is true that charters do not have to be unionized, they are able to unionize fairly easily. Anybody who says that unions are unnecessary in public education -- that teachers are professionals and should act like it -- needs to spend more time on the ground and working with some of the difficult working conditions, difficult schedules, difficult circumstances and difficult (and sometimes downright vindictive) administrators that populate public education. The union contracts that stipulate tenure, however, are not necessary and many charter unions eschew the traditional tenure protections in favor of strict dismissal due process and a two-year renewal cycle after the third year.

3. They exploit teachers: There is truth to this statement with regards to teachers. Charters tend to hire younger teachers and work them harder, piling on outside duties that in a traditional school are dealt with by administration. As a charter teacher, I have done master scheduling, discipline, security, lunch duty, recruitment, schoolwide data analysis, charter revisions for renewal, and many other tasks large and small that wouldn't normally fall on a teacher. I have had schedules where I was expected to be in front of kids for 6 hours straight without a break, and I have had work schedules where I was expected to be on-site and available for 9 hours each day. It is circumstances like these that are inspiring union efforts throughout charterdom. The flip-side, however, is that I have spent a teaching career free of pacing guides, district mandates, forced textbook adoptions, and tenure-enforced hierarchy. I've gained incredible experience which has shown me that I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in being an administrator, and I have had opportunities to teach classes that would never be given to me in a traditional school.

4. They Divert Money: The money follows the students. The state provides a set amount of money per day of attendance per student so yes, if a student goes to a charter school, the district loses money. They also lose the cost of educating that particular student, so it's a bit of a wash. Charters have been historically more aggressive and dynamic in the pursuit of private and grant money, too, which often gives the perception that charters are somehow better funded and therefore they must be stealing money from traditional schools.

5. They Aren't Any Better: Just like the schools in an a district, there is a great variation in quality in charters. Some are ridiculously bad and some are phenomenal. Most of them exist in the big part of the bell, just like everything else. Charters aren't the answer to education -- there is no one answer to education. I have worked in charters that struggled and I have worked in schools that have done brilliantly with students that the district had foresaken.

6. They Get to Pick and Choose Their Students No. No they don't. They do not. My current charter is a former district school -- we must take every single student in our district area, regardless of any factor. No charter school can refuse students if they are eligible for school. Many charters have waiting lists and lotteries, but they must take students by chance or by order of application. There is a propensity for charter schools to be attractive to parents who are more involved and therefore who possibly have children who are more educationally inclined, but in my experience, the net effect has been negligible.

Tomorrow: Part II: The reality behind common CS praise.

Just as the reality of the commonly repeated issues with charters are a mixed bag of credulance and reality, so too are many of their praises.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

I Don't Matter

I don't teach in a traditional school.   I work as part of a team in an academy designed for students who could not make it in traditional schools.  Some of our students come to us ready and willing to do the simple strenuous work of graduating and have the tools for doing so already installed.  The rest, though, do not.  My students are the ones that disrupted class, or didn't go.  My students are the ones who got pregnant or got arrested or got deported.  My students are the ones who slept in class or wouldn't take off their headphones.  My students are the ones that were better known by the security guards, lunch-ladies, attendance officers and janitors than they were by their own teachers.   My students are the ones that didn't understand that teachers don't need their opinions on their hygiene and personality and who insisted that calling the classroom leader a punk-ass bitch was simply an observation.  My students are the ones who missed the memo on the importance of getting in line, shutting up and being seated when the bell rang.  

My students were those kids and, some days, they still are. Now, though, they are older, more experienced, slightly less angry and less filled with self-loathing.  Many of them are on their own now, or are already budding heads of household, though they may still share the building with the rest of their original family.  Many of them have forged positive relationships with their probation officer, their social worker, their counselors or, more probably with me and the rest of us in the academy and now they come, almost every day so that they can be with us and be doing something that lets them feel that they are altering a life-course that oftentimes seems inevitable.

They want a diploma.  They want to accomplish.  They want to do better.  They want us to be proud of them. There are moments when what they want is to learn.

My students scare a lot of people.  The school administers a survey of students at the end of each year and one of the questions is "My teacher is afraid of me" and the students are asked to rate the truth of the statement on a scale of 1 to 5 with one being, "Absolutely" and five being "Not at All."  I got uncomfortable when I saw the survey for the first time.  The truth is that there were times in the course of the year when I was afraid of them, when I wasn't sure how far things would go or what they would do.   There were times in the course of the year when the dynamics of the academy shifted to the point where the thin and tender outer ring of willingness to change and desire for more that my students had grown seemed to crack and reveal the hardness of earlier days.  There were times when I caused that to happen by being too sharp, too critical, or too cranky.  There were also times when the steely undershells would break through and seemingly slough off all of the progress of years for reasons I didn't understand.

There were times when I asked, "why?"

"This is Watts."

I think I understand part of it.  I think I'm witnessing the product of having one's greatest truth being the same as one's greatest fear:  I Don't Matter.

I Don't Matter.  That is my truth.   I see evidence of it everywhere and it informs my reaction to every interaction.

"Why you want me to be quiet?  I ain't bothering anybody."
"Nobody cares if I listen to music -- it don't bother nobody."
"Why the fuck you so worried about what I do, anyway?"
"You all don't give a fuck about me 'cept when I get inconvenient"

I Don't Matter.  That is my deepest fear.  I see evidence of it everywhere and it informs my reaction to every interaction.

"What the fuck?!  I need help and you just walk right past."
"Why you  looking at me?"
"Fuck you, you just ignoring me."
"He's disrespecting me.  He needs to show me some respect."

So as the year gets ready to start and we dust off the chairs and tables and computers and files and cringe at all the little things that we didn't get done last year that we still need to do, there's one thing more important than any other that we need to arrange before the rising flood of students, angry at the end of summer, scared of the work ahead, embarrassed by their gratitude, and desperately in need of a structure return.  We must prepare ourselves to demonstrate in everything we do:

You are wrong:  You matter.
Don't be afraid:  You matter.

And they do matter.  Each and every one of them.  And until they believe that, until their personal narration is rewritten to reflect the new truth, our job isn't really done.

Interesting article.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What are eminently credulant musings?

I've started a blog so that I have a way to share with you all my thoughts and views on things that I care about, but before you invest too much time you should know that I tend to make things up.  Sometimes it's because I know something to be true and I just don't have the real facts handy.  Other times it's because at heart, I love fictions and fantasies more than reality, and sometimes it's just because what I really want to be true is more important than what, sadly, is actual.  Don't worry, though.  I always make sure that people know that I've strayed from the banal confines of the shared delusion and I'll make sure that I let you know, too.

What a minute.  Is credulant even a word?   What does cuphineous mean?  I've never heard either word before.  I made them up.  They're not real -- yet.

Credulant (adj): Something that is not fully credible because it is unsourced but it sounds true so it is accepted without argument.

Cuphineous (adj): An idea or a concern that is peripheral to the real problem but is dressed up in fancy clothes and trotted out for discussion instead of the real issue in order to preserve the feelings, work, or ideology of the participants.

Eminently Credulant Musings is where you will find my eminently credulant musings, along with some real ideas, on:

Writing
Education
Los Angeles
Politics
Economics
Family
and the Art of Bullshitting

Many of my musings will be of the eminently credulent variety and but nothing can be solved just by discussing the credulant cuphineous, so there will also be talk, with truth and facts, about the real problems, too.  Please, feel free to engage -- I am just as thrilled to believe your own credulant musings as I am my own.