Saturday, September 30, 2006

"Pot" calling the kettle black

You gotta love Ukiah.

Here is the picture that was plastered on the front page of Friday's Ukiah Daily Journal. For those of you that are from another planet, those are pot plants being grown indoors, something that is legal in Ukiah. The title of the article is Decade of Prop 215, that now infamous marijuana legalization legislation that the idiot voters in California made law.

This article is sort of "state of the bud" address in terms of Mendocino County. For instance,

The growth and sale of marijuana has been a cause of friction, especially in cities. In 2005, the Ukiah City Council passed an ordinance that restricted the number of plants a patient could grow within city limits to six adults or 12 juveniles.

Apparently the Supreme Court case Gonzales v. Raich doesn't have much merit in this neck of the woods. You might be asking "why indoors"? Could it be safety for the kids? Could it be the increase in crime (crime has gone up since the ordinance was passed)? Nope. It was the "skunk".

It also required that plants be grown inside because of a skunk-like odor that spread through the city during harvest season, prompting complaints to both law enforcement and air quality officials.

As you can see, weed is alive and well in Ukiah. However, this isn't as much of a rant about Mary Jane as it is the hypocrisy of the whole situation regarding drugs, Ukiah, and the school.

On the same front page of the same exact paper is this headline, "School Safety Meetings Begin". School Safety Meetings are the attempt by the administration to get parents more involved in dealing with safety issues on campus, a very good idea since the idiot paper makes the school out to be the Mendocino County version of Attica. Some of the comments were the standard issues about violence, harassment, and general safety. Then came the parents and specialists that were all of the sudden concerned about drugs on campus.

Suzanne Bentley, also with Public Health, attended the meeting "primarily as a parent," she said. "My main concern is drug use on campus, specifically marijuana, which seems to be being dealt with in a very cavalier way. I've heard that kids ... many students, are smoking on campus; that there are lockers filled with marijuana. And, if there are locker checks the students know about them in advance," Bentley said.

Anyone else see the irony of celebrating the legalization of marijuana, and the condemnation of the one place were drugs are least tolerated, all on the same front page? I laughed out loud when I read about the "very cavalier way" that drugs are dealt with on campus. Cavalier? You mean sort of like the entire attitude of the county of Mendocino? I dare you to find any institution in the entire county that enforces federal marijuana laws like the high school does. Obviously Ms. Bentley has little knowledge of California Ed Code in regards to drug offenses, or the idea of due process. She also must have no knowledge of the now deceased Norm Vroman, a district attorney who passionately advocated legalization and rarely prosecuted offenses. If Bentley really wanted to help out, she would go to city council meetings and address the real problem of the drug culture that is now ground into the entire social order of this town. You are preaching to the choir, Suzy.

I almost forgot the obligatory teacher-basher at the Safety meeting.

Sharon Govern, also a parent, feels not only are schools an
instrumental part of the process, teachers, too, need to be more involved in order to evoke change. "Unless teachers play a strong role in this, talk the talk, walk the walk, I don't think it will succeed," Govern said. "Teachers are role models and need to be involved in the meetings," Coren said.

Actually, you really don't want me to attend the meetings. One of my shortcomings (according to some people) is that I'm not much of a diplomat. I'll tell you exactly what I think the problem is, without much regard to the fluffy feeling you might want to get from educators. I'd say things like "What the hell do you think we teachers talk about at lunch? We talk about wanting your kids safe, that's what." and "We get your kids for an hour a day. How about you be the best role model for your child.", and the ever popular "Talk the talk, walk the walk? You just remember that when I fail your kid or suspend him or otherwise discipline him". Sorry, not very diplomatic, but very effective in getting the point across.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Teacher meme

I've seen this floating around and decided that it would be an interesting meme to fill out.

1. I am a good teacher because..........I honestly think that I was born to do this, and I will forever work to get better. I don't know if I will ever be "great" at teaching because I have seen great teachers, and I just look in awe at the impact they have on kids. I can only work and hope.

2. If I weren't a teacher, I would air traffic controller. Something attracted me to that job before I was teaching, and I still think that it is a fascinating job. I would either do that or maybe work as a research analyst for Goldman Sachs.

3. My teaching style is.................real, period. I bring my attitude to the classroom, meaning that I expect a lot from my kids, but I also express a caring and fun attitude when it is appropriate. Even though every teacher school doesn't recommend it, I use sarcasm and very whitty banter. Of course, I teach Seniors in Government and Economics, and they buy into the environment. The trick is making your attitude conducive to teaching, which I'm having fun doing.

4. My classroom little world. I have student projects and business models on one wall, a huge bookshelf "classroom library" in the back, a chalkboard, and a white board. My desk is a bit messy, but I know where everything is. I have a T.V., VCR, DVD on a cart in the corner, and a laptop with LCD in the middle. It is my newest, most wonderful toy. I have a Darth Tater on my table, a Darth Vader helmet on my shelf, and a 6' Darth Vader stand-up in the back corner of the classroom.

5. My lesson plans..............are nothing like what they teach you in the credential program. Government is now automatic, Economics finding new things, and International Studies is outlined for the year, but detailed on a week to week basis. The more detailed the plans, the easier it is to adjust and the easier to becomes down the road.

6. One of my teaching goals make students enact some kind of positive change, and to have some knowledge of what is going on "out there". Reading and writing is sort of also a priority.

7. The toughest part of teaching is..............the fact that society doesn't really buy into the importance of education. Students are only what we expect of them, and currently society doesn't expect enough. Kids are not apathetic by nature, they are only modeling behavior that they witness. For education to change, society needs to take it seriously.

8. The thing I love most about teaching is.............everything changes, and teacher's have the power to make things better. Despite everything that goes against teachers and education, we truly can make a difference in the classroom, where all the magic happens.

9. A common misconception about teaching is....................that we don't work as long as "working people". Bullshit. Most of us get to school early, leave late, and do a ton of work at home and on the weekends. As for those "summers off", I go to school (30 units last summer), run basketball camps and clinics, and then take weeks to prepare my classroom and curriculum. Until you actually step inside a classroom (especially a special education classroom), shut-up.

10. The most important thing I've learned since I started that you must pick and choose your battles, and those that you pick to fight must be done with the utmost professionalism and documentation. How you handle (or don't handle) things at the beginning of the year can have a big impact on the rest of the year.

Indiana, this is history..............unless you went to Berkeley, Stanford, Duke or Yale.

For some reason, these statistics does not surprise me in the slightest.

Out of 50 schools surveyed, Cal ranked 49th and Stanford 31st in how well they are increasing student knowledge about American history and civics between the freshman and senior years. Other poor performers in the study were Yale, Duke, Brown and Cornell universities. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore was the tail-ender behind Cal, ranking 50th.
Remember that focus on Math and Science? Well, it seems like it is having the predicted impact on the Social Sciences, as college students are missing the historically relevant studies in their college lifestyles. I'm just not as shocked as others are at this article, which is being circulated at many sites on the net, including Right on the Left Coast (see links). I saw this a couple of days ago and it simply echoed something one of my exchange students told me on Monday. He stated that Americans seem very advanced in Math, but are very slow with Foreign Languages, and should be embarrassed about their lack of Geography skills. I concur, especially in regards to Geography. I had my International Studies students attempt to study and find 15 different locations in Asia. During a map quiz, less than 40% could successfully identify Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Russia, China, Japan, North Korea, Philippines, and Indonesia. About a quarter couldn't plot half the countries. The foreign exchange student not only completed the required countries, but also completed the entire map.

Two of the examples that they stated were know the importance of Jamestown, and knowing Saddam Hussein's political party (Baath). College students should know the first question, but I don't see the Baath party as being THAT important, especially in this generation where the Baaths really don't exist any more.

Also, take a look at the election voter turnout numbers and it is easy to see why students don't feel like civics is important. With teenagers having more discretionary income than ever, having more access to media than ever, and being more active socially, civic responsibility is just not a priority any more. How do we change that? Once again, I think that school districts need to make school more important to the kids by extending the credits needed to graduate and implementing programs that instill civic and community pride.

Otherwise, get used to the 40% that vote representing you.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Education Carnival

The Carnival is back at Education Wonks.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A roller coaster week

I made a critical error this week; I gave way to much homework, therefore I made it a weekend full of essay grading that was less than productive from a relaxation point of view. I started Friday night and just finished at around 5 p.m. tonight. Note to all new teachers; remember that you have to think about yourself when dealing with your energy and mental state. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Don't make the "mass homework" mistake too often or you will get burned out.

Hugo Chavez's speech was a pretty large topic in my classes, with most students getting a good laugh at his comments. It wasn't a laugh at the President, but more of a laugh at the school bully that is picking on a teacher when his back is turned. For the most part, they didn't take him seriously. Many have also began to see the economic implications that Venezuela has on the United States, and vice-versa. When it was reported that Chavez hasn't changed a drop of oil exported to the U.S., students saw Chavez's words as hollow, thus rendering him a less important international figure. Students are very interested in Iran, Darfur, and more recently, Thailand.

The horror of Homecoming Week is approaching. I know, what a killjoy I am. However, Homecoming Week is now so big, so important at this school, that academics become a backseat assignment for the students. Hell, academics might as well be on the trailer hitch! I've of the unpopular opinion of ending the current homecoming format and winding it way, way down. There are class vs. class contests that end up dividing the entire school, two 2nd period assemblies that tear half of my Seniors out of my required courses, the campus becomes a zone of posterization and propaganda, and all the teachers greet this event with a smirk and a tired glance at the administration for letting it continue. Sure, it is nice that it happens, but it destroys the week academically. Then, if the wrong class wins the "Spirit Bell" (they have contests all week), most of the next week is a drone of complaining by the losers. Already, three weeks prior to the event, I've had students staying up into the wee hours of the morning working on their skit (done during a school assembly on Friday), and their float (showed off during a parade on Friday afternoon). The only real cool thing about this year's homecoming is that the theme is Fantasy Realms, and the Seniors picked Star Wars. GO SENIORS!!!

Back to school night went down on Thursday. Attendance:
International Studies= about 30%
Government= about 20%
Intro Government= 1 student's parents.
That's right. Out of over 50 students, only 1 student's parents showed up for the event. On the reverse end, I've already had one complaint from a parent that stated a concern that the class was not "challenging" enough. However, I've had over a half-dozen parents also personally tell me that students love the class and are getting a whole lot out of it. We'll roll with the good.

I found out on Monday that I'm still a target of some angry parents regarding my blog and some comments that were made over a year ago on another website. A reliable source told me that it is being used in conjunction with other issues that a band of coach-haters are using to try and clean house in the athletic program. Let me make it very, very clear on how I feel about my coaching. I love coaching basketball and I see it as a huge benefit for kids. Many will learn more about life and being a man than in any academic subject in school. My goal is to create a 5 star basketball program that puts out high quality, high class student athletes. Just so we are clear, and not to sound egotistical, parents should feel very fortunate that I'm coaching their kids. You should be thankful that I'm honestly concerned about the well being of their kids and want them to be successful individuals. That group that is on a constant witchhunt to nail coaches to the wall are doing more harm than good to the program in that you are distracting good coaches from doing their job. I'm going to remain in the athletic program, continuing to be a role model of consistent hard work and leadership. Please take your political agenda somewhere else.

Mr. Silva-Brown will be playing the part of a toga wearing Greek, a Cardinal, Martin Luther, General George Patton, and former President Bill Clinton this week. We will be investigating different historical International Systems. Should be fun!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

What's on your slate for Fall television?

Readers of this blog know that I'm pro-television. You know those weeks that a person is supposed to take to turn off the TV? I program extra shows into my Tivo just for those weeks. Everything in moderation, I say.

So the new season of television is off and running. What's on my Tivo and how long will it remain? Here is a list of my new hires, and some old favorites.

Imus in the Morning:
It is the mainstay in my television line-up.

The NewsHour with Jim Leher:
The news summary for my kids that is shown to them daily.

Frontline and Frontline/World:
Two excellent news magazines that produce some top of the line information for classes. Go to the website (link right) for online episodes.

60 Minutes:
Another classic news magazine that shows everything from Starbucks to Iran. A must for Social Studies teachers.

Back for Season 3, Lost is in full throttle mode in regards to the drama it produces. An excellent show.

Gilmore Girls:
In it's sixth (and possibly last) season, GG has become a has been in my book, but I'll watch it for a hopefully positive sense of closure.

The Amazing Race:
I still love the "Teams must now........." of network television. I guess that it helps that I know where the places are.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip:
Aaron Sorkin might have a another winner if the first episode was a sign of things to come.

I love good post-apocalyptic survival stories. This looked ok, but the music was way, way off. Make it Lost or X-Files spooky and you have a winner.

The Nine:
Sounds intriguing. I'll give it a chance.

Doctor Who:
Yep, I'm back for the next season. Let the inner nerd in me flourish!

Battlestar Galactica:
The best show on television, bar none. Hit the "catch-up" episode and then get on board for television's best!

You might ask, "When do you have time to watch?" The answer, we make time!

Education Carnival

The Education Carnival is up over at Median Sib. Give'em a look.

Monday, September 18, 2006

And what have we learned this week?

I'm currently in the throes of week #4.

I know that I've neglected my blogging duties as of late. Blame it on the fact that I'm just working my ass off trying to plan and organize stuff, mainly for the new International Relations class. The class seems to be going really well, even though the class gave me tongue lashing today when I presented them with an essay regarding Realism and Liberalism. I'm enjoying the flow of the class in that there is no pressure, and we are doing a whole lot of learning. Of course, we are talking about college prep kids that want to be there.

One of my students was a foreign exchange student from none other than Kandahar, Afghanistan. I say "was" because she has moved on to a different city, but her experience here was wonderful. In the short time she was with my class she discussed her views on Bush, the American perception of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the idea that the problems are based around the Taliban. She was elegent, well spoken, and a wonderful representative from her country. She will be missed.

I have a challenging class. I've nailed a variety of cell phones and IPods from the class, and have done two student moves to different parts of the classroom. The next rule breaker becomes an example because I can tell exactly who is just starting to test my limits. I have a half dozen that are thinging about it, and 2-3 that will probably act out on their unwise choice. Unfortunately, this group will also could dictate how the class reacts to perceptions to rules, which is why they need to be nailed immediately and fairly. For all you new teachers out there, the students will often do a good job telling you when students are getting out of line. I had a couple of eye rolls today from a group of ladies up front. It was a clear indication that they thought the troublesome group of students were getting away with too much and distracting the class. It is the sign that action must be taken.

Want to donate to the Ukiah High School Model U.N.? Hit up, it the Paypal button, then come back and comment about the site content. I always need feedback.

I noticed that USA Today has an article about teacher blogs, some of which (First Year, What It's Like, Get Lost, Shrewdness, Joanne Jacobs, Babylon, and Education Wonks) I read on a regular basis. Take a minute and check it out.

Finally, an exchange between the French teacher and myself, all in very good fun. His students were in the computer lab while a group of mine were at a lab table researching Federalist #51. He approached them and started talking about Montesquieu. I intervened.
"No, no. Don't start bringing France into the American political realm."
"But Mr. Silva-Brown, it is common knowledge that the great ideas in political thought actually began in France."
"Well, we try and avoid that part."
"Remember the quote by Thomas Jefferson, 'Every person should be a citizen of two countries; France and their native land'. Put that in your pipe and smoke it."
"Um, that's exactly what Jefferson was doing when he made that comment."

And the lab, and the teachers, roared with laughter. It's nice to have that kind of relationship with people you work with. It makes you think, "I love my job".

Now pass me some Freedom Fries.

Friday, September 15, 2006

And they say that teachers are out of touch????

About the only reason that I currently Tivo the CBS Evening News is the section called Free Speech, where all kinds of people, from Rush Limbaugh to Morgan Spurlock, take 30 seconds to spew forth a stream of quick consciousness.

Tonight, my wife and I were fixing dinner as we listened to the segment, only to bug our eyes out in surprise and make comments like, "Wow, what an absolute idiot". The segment was hosted by Joanne Lessner, a singer and writer from New York, and explained why her ideals as a mother superseded all the issues around the use of cell phones by students in schools. It could have been the most naive thing I've ever heard on public television.

Her thesis is that September 11, 2001 has now forced every child in America to consider themselves targets in the War on Terror, and cell phones are that shield against Al Qaeda.

There is no way I'm sending my 10-year-old son off to middle school without a phone. 9/11 happened on his second day of kindergarten. So for everyone who says, "kids have been going to school for centuries without cell phones," I would answer, "yes, but they didn't live in a world where they were terrorist targets."

I don't know what is worse; using 9/11 as an excuse for cell phones, or the fact that Lessner pointed out American children as targets of terrorists, and using that as a reason to have a cell phone. First of all Joanne, the next time a student brings his/her phone to school, has it go off in class, and states that he his testing his ringer in case of a terrorist attack, will be the first time. Hate to break it to you, but kids are text messaging, calling friends, and listening to MP3's, with little or no concern about the next 9/11. This argumentreeks onaivetety, with a hint of "fight the power"ism, and a handful of stupidity.

Here in New York, the mayor and the schools chancellor have categorically banned cell phones in schools because they say students use them to cheat on exams, sell drugs, and organize fights. Now I understand the Board of Ed's issue with cell phones, but what they're missing is that the basic function of a telephone is not what's causing problems in the schools

Hate to break it to you honey, but most states do not ban cell phones on campus. California has made it a law that they must be allowed on the person while at school. It is also obvious that Lessner has spent more time writing lousy novels than sitting in a classroom. Cell phones have become a functioning problem at schools, although they are certainly not the root of all evil. I have watched students scam tests, text drug deals, and make themselves a hugnuisancece by putting their focus on cell phones, not academics. Want to know how many phones I've taken in this, the third week of school? Nine. If it isn't phones going off in the middle of class, it's students that have to check the vibrating messenger to see which girlfriend called them. When I catch them, the answer is always the same, "My mom called me." Really? At 10:30 in the morning every week? Let me make it perfectly clear that when I was 17 years the last thing I wanted was Mommy and Daddy checking up on me at school. Either the kid has serious security issues or they are lying. Surprise! Students do lie!

The city should partner with a cell phone manufacturer and design a "city-approved" phone. Its only function would be to make and receive calls. Period. Those phones would be the only ones allowed in the schools. And one other advantage: Cities across the country could make money by selling these phones to students and pour the money back into the schools, which are dying for it.

Obviously we don't have a Mensa meeting leader here. Sure, let's partner the city and a cell phone manufacturer (whose contract will be through the roof) to make a cell phone that no kid will ever buy (yet cost the school billions). Yeah! And then schools across the country can loose money, and still have regular cell phones on campus! God knows, I see kids lining up for school t-shirts like crazy. Cell phones, here we come! Unbelievable.

Until there are working pay phones on every corner and in every school, my son will have a cell phone in his pocket when he goes to school, ban or no ban.

And here is an example why education is absolutely NOT a priority for Americans. Let me translate for you.
"I could care less for the rules of the school. The whole lot of them can kiss my ass. Phones rule."
Oh, Mr. President? Ms. Spellings? Anyone else out there that thinks that all teaching goes on at school? Are you getting this? Can we finally put a little accountability on the parents here?
FYI. At my classroom, there are four-five pay phones on campus, and regular phones in every classroom, and a couple for student use in the office.

Never mind that cell phones didn't work during 9/11. Never mind that parents are acting out against Education like idiots (we've had parents come in and complain that teachers won't let kids talk to parents on cell phones during class). Never mind that parents are not held to the accountability as teachers. Just remember, the cell phone will make it all better.

Update 9/20

My first post to be used in a somewhat, half-way major media blog. Blogma over at C-Net used my post as a pro-teacher point of view. From the reaction I've recieved, I'm not very popular over at C-Net, whose users seem to think that instead of getting the cell phone out of the classroom, schools should find a way to use them as educational technology. Hey, I'm the biggest supporter of educational technology that you will ever find. Saying that, the idea that teachers need to start looking at cell phones as educational technology is crap. Sure, and I'll be looking at my wall phone (landline) soon after.
Oh yeah, I was quoted at C-Net!!!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

More newbs doing the Carnival

The Carnival of Eduation is up at Current Events in Education, another rookie in dealing with the Midway. Say hello and be friendly.

I wrote exactly nothing this whole week (I teach, sue me), so there is a pretty good chance that one of my submissions will not be included.

Has it really been a week?


It must be those essays that I assigned at the end of last week coming back and biting me in the ass. For some reason I didn't manage my time in terms of assigning writing very well, which left me doing a lot of grading this week. My Intro classes wrote 9/11 reflections, my college prep did an essay regarding Morgan Spurlock's "Free Speech" piece on CBS, and International Studies wrote about Bush's Speech. Lots of writing.

Week two and the beginning of week three have shown me a couple of observations regarding year thus far. Probably the most significant thing that I witness is that I've become enormously reflective on my own teaching. I have been really critiquing nearly everything that I do and I'm in a better position now than ever before to fix it. I don't have to seriously lesson plan in Government, since I'm pretty set in curriculum. This allows me to focus on teaching styles and to eliminate weaknesses in my classroom management. I'm been much more into physical presence (moving around the classroom during lecture/discussion) and conserving energy for the day. I'm still pretty worn out by lunch, but I'm getting better and selecting areas to expand energy. Both these things are going to continue to remain a focus.

Another observation is that the honeymoon for the beginning of school is completely over. I've taken two IPods and three cell phones so far, a record for the beginning of the school year. One IPod and two of the phone problems were in one class during silent reading. There is definitely an issue with Intro level kids being allowed to act this way in other classes, because most college prep level students are not acting out. I'm not saying that they are stupid or childish, I'm saying that other people on campus are equating their lower academic levels with some permission to act like 6th graders. Some are beginning to run into the wall in my class and pretty soon we will see a select group try to seriously push me, to their detriment.

Finally, there is a great disturbance in the Force at the school. I really can't put it into words, and it is probably best that I don't, but I can only say that environment is more tense and edgy that in years past.....and I don't mean the kids. I've been asked by three separate people to be on committees for this and that, all of which I have declined because I'm getting a feeling that being outspoken at this point in time is not necessarily a good thing. I only know bits of pieces of information, all of it not very uplifting, which is why my focus needs to stay student based. In the end, the important stuff happens in the classroom.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Education Carnival

Get on the Bus has this week's Education Carnival, and it is currently being done Village People style.

Go visit and sing along!

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Hallway Show

After my first day of no energy, no drive teaching, the week did exactly what I had hoped and got much, much better. I can't totally figure out what the problem was, but it left the classroom very quickly and I ended up really enjoying my first week.

One of the things that I really noticed that kids like, and I'm going to be much more proactive in doing it, is greeting kids at the door before they come into the classroom. I stand outside of my door every passing period with a watchful eye and a smiling face as students stumble into my realm of politics and critical thought. Student reaction is 99% positive, and the administration loves it. Not only is it good practice for building relationships, but it also keeps another presence out for some of the trouble-makers to notice.

I'm also well known as the "crazy guy in the hallway" because I'll simply make off-handed comments to no one in particular. Some examples:
-someone listening to an I-Pod walks by, "Watcha listening to?". Great conversation starter.
-Kings and Giants jerseys get props, Dodgers and Lakers get hassled.
-"Good Afternoon".
-I'll start singing lyrics that pop into my head. One of the girls in my class mentioned Fleetwood Mac today and I started singing "Sweet Little Lies", which got laughter from the Seniors and looks of pure terror from the Frosh.
-Plenty of high fives, fist knocks, and the good old fashioned hand shakes.
-Kissing your significant other around my classroom? "Ahhhhhhhh, come on! Stop slobbering on the poor girl already!"
-Eating something? Offer a piece to any old student walking by. Licorice is excellent.
-Hacky sack with a group in an open area. Two years ago a group of use were like clock work every day.

But no matter what you do, stop and greet your students at the door, and smile.

I try to keep the attitude at my door fun and interesting. Some bad attitudes make snide remarks, but they are really very few and far between, and the worst I ever got was a couple that couldn't keep their hands off each other every day complaining to the vice that I was constantly harassing them. The way I look at it, standing in the middle of a crowded hallway, holding up traffic to suck face, is a either a Public Display of Affection (which has consequences), or a chance at entertainment. Last year I asked went up to them and politely asked if it was necessary to make a show of it. The response was pretty "mind your business". Ok by me. Means more fodder for the hallway show.

Students will continue to expect you at the door, and will even ask why you weren't there if you cope out. My recommendation is that every teacher should spend at least two weeks meeting kids outside the door and chatting in the hallways. I'm a ham, so my schtick is not necessarily the best for you, but a simple smile, "hello", and your presence, will go a long way.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Is John Stossel correct? A view from a sixth year teacher.

I watched the Stupid in America segment on 20/20 last night, hosted by the teacher's best friend, John Stossel. I figured that at this point in my career, I'm ready to give a realistic assessment of the state of Education in the United States. Here are some of the questions that Stossel asked, and my response. Chime in if you like.

There are some serious problems with education in America.

I'll say, and they encompass a huge spectrum of people that refuse to take responsibility for the problems. But when it comes down to it, the main problem is that the United States does not put a premium value on education. No, I don't mean that funding equals value, I mean that society as a whole refuses to take an active part in education, simply leaving the task to the government to take care of. Think it isn't true? Who do you like makes the rules that teachers are required to follow? It isn't the principal. It isn't the school board. It's the political establishment that is voted in by the constituents. In the end, many of things we can and can't do is based around Ed Code, something made by state and federal governments, which are ran by people that know little about education.
This is not to say that teachers, unions, schools, and parents aren't part of the problem. However, the country needs to stop talking about caring for education, and actually take part in a new educational process.

Test scores show that kids are failing in public schools.

I respect the idea behind No Child Left Behind; more accountability and a larger push towards real achievement in academics. But if you think that test scores are a true measurement in how kids are succeeding in public schools, you are very mistaken. The test are joke. Who says so? Why, you do. You blindly follow the government mandated tests thinking that they fairly measure the scholastic aptitude of students, while not taking any other variables into consideration when listening to the test scores being read off. For instance, parents can sign their kids off on taking tests. This means that parents alone can make a school miss their requirements. I've had plenty of students that will be going to major universities, Advanced Placement students, refuse to take the test because they felt it was redundant after the AP test. Students also refuse to take the test seriously, as many take out their displeasure on the answer form of the state tests. Schools have gone to insane lengths to get students to take tests; from ice cream sundaes to giving away I-PODS. If parents and students don't take it seriously, how are we supposed to influence test scores?

There isn't a link between money and student achievement

Yes and no. Yes, the amount of money spent at a school has little impact in student achievement. You can buy all the laptops in the world for kids, but it amounts to nothing if the kids don't learn. At the same time, plenty of statistics show that schools that are poverty stricken areas are less likely to have good student achievement. Therefore, every school should look and feel, and act, like a major academic institution. The problem is that the system is losing money somewhere in the chain from the Governor to the classroom. Fifty billion for the state of California should be enough. So where does it go? I'm not sure, except to say that I don't receive a major chunk of money to spend on my students, AND my district is constantly short on money at the end of the year. Is it the districts fault? Well, we have some of the lowest paid teachers, custodians, district administrators, and staff in the area. We are down custodians, barely have money for art and music, and have to constantly pay for health fees. Sorry, I don't buy the argument that the district wastes money intentionally. One way or another, it is still not reaching the school.

The schools should use the Jack Welch method and fire the bottom 10% of the teachers.

I absolutely agree. In the six years that I have worked as a teacher I have witnessed people that should not be in this profession. This job is too important to have incompetent fools teaching our kids.
But I have one question, who decides what makes a bad teacher?
Do you fire a special education teacher because she doesn't get her test scores up? Do you fire an AP teacher because more kids didn't pass the AP tests this year as compared to last year? What about the PE teacher who has more kids getting obese? Should they get canned?
And the worst would be the new teachers. Are you going to fire a new teacher who makes mistakes? You learn teaching by doing and making mistakes, but in our profession that can make parents and students angry. How are you going to protect the new teacher who is just getting their feet wet? It took me four years to find my grove, and I'm just starting to get really confident this year. Was four years too long?
Now, obviously the scum of the profession (sexual harassment, violence, etc) should be let go immediately, but if you run a school like General Electric, and fire teachers based on immediate results, you will be hard pressed to find people that will grow into great teachers.

Competition will improve education.

Actually, it will only hide the problem of not valuing education in society. We shouldn't need private schools or charter schools, and the idea of letting parents choose where students go to school will only allow kids with involved parents get the "better" education. Let's be honest, not every parent can afford to send their kid to a private school, and charter schools are not held to the same accountability standards as public schools. This will great the school for kids whose parents are not involved, and schools for parents that have a lot at stake in their child's education. But it doesn't solve the problem of actually getting society to value education. Instead, it leaves a population excluded because they are in poverty, or are Second Language Learners, or are disabled, or are simply unlucky (as in the lottery on the show).
If we truly want competition, then lets make the playing field level. Charter schools are to follow the same rules, have the same funding, and must admit all students without prejudice. Let the competition happen naturally, don't push the funding and political agenda to the side of the charter schools.

Does anyone else you know work only 6 1/2 hours a day?

I found it amusing that Stossel accused teachers of not working as much as the general public, and then shot to a group of KIPP teachers going home with cell phones answering calls from their kids "at all hours of the night".
Here is another example of society not appreciating education in that society doesn't want to pay educators. We are college graduate professionals that are often not paid a wage that allows use to buy a home or exists in many parts of the country. We often work many more hours than the average worker (lest you forget that many grade papers and lesson plan at home, and coach or have duty at school), and are held responsible by an enormous amount of people; the kids, the parents, the administration, the Board, the state, the federal government, and society in general. Would that make you want to start at $30K a year?
By the way, I give my e-mail to my students and I'm often answering their questions at all hours of the night.

The union is a monopoly that hinders education.

I was fortunate to have a principal that was an excellent mentor, and department that was supportive, critical, and motivating. Not all teachers are so lucky, and the union is often necessary to make sure that teachers are not trounced on my an inept administrator or held out to dry by an apathetic department. I've also been fortunate enough to have seen both sides of the union, and I'm as pretty middle of the road as it can get. I owe a lot to my local union for negotiating a strong contract, for supporting me during a natural disaster, and for being their regarding issues with parents. They are an organization that genuinely supports good teaching and helping kids. Are there union wackos that insist that the district is the devil? Yes, but they are a minority.
The CTA and NEA are another matter. I've had a rise in my dues almost every year since I was hired and have seen a negative return in terms my involvement in the process. My dues go to causes I disagree with, agendas I despise, and politicians who are less concerned about education and more concerned about votes. In my direct dealings with the CTA, I've sent in state legislation for legal advice regarding adherence by my district, only to be totally ignored on a variety of occasions.
I have no love for the state and federal unions, but without protection, we would be at the mercy of often irrational people. They are necessary.

What do we do about the problem of education in this country?

You want my 12 Step Program for Education Success? Here it is:

1. Conduct an independent audit of the entire Education program in California. The politicians, the parents, the districts, and teachers want to know where the money is going. The only way to accurately do that is to find the waste and begin to eliminate it, starting with the County level of education.

2. Build all schools up to the same standard, from building codes to athletic facilities, from classrooms to technology centers. No student should ever want to leave a school because it is run down. Every school should have the same academic, environmental standard.

3. Schools that receive private funding should get an equal reduction in government funding. Demanding achievement from all schools starts with not allowing one school to become elite, but all schools. You might call it socialist and un-American, but I would point out this quote from Stossel, "Money does not equal student achievement". If that's true, private funding is not necessary.

4. California immediately requires standards for administrators and conducts a thorough review off all administrators in state. Those that do not meet the standard are relieved of duty. If we are going to get serious about schools, then the schools need good leadership. I'm fortunate to work in a school with excellent leadership. Many of my colleagues that I went to school with are not so lucky. Administrators are responsible for the school, and should be held to the responsibility.

5. Fire the "bad" 10% of teachers immediately. I have no problem with the Jack Welch approach with a competent administration. I have total confidence that a professional administrator knows the difference between a struggling teacher is (new, tough population, rough parents), and a bad teacher. This will only work if #4 is implemented and working successfully.

6. Eliminate the CTA and NEA as unions, and keep the locals strong and organized. The state and national unions are simply political action committees that give little or no say to local teachers. It does no good for teachers to be forced into giving dues to an organization that is not for the best interests of teachers. If teachers want to give to their PAC, make it voluntary. I'll gladly pay mandatory local dues for all the hard work they do.

7. Penalize the parents for attendance issues, and go after public officials that refuse to properly address attendance problems in the community. The school can only do so much in making students show up to school. If the government is serious about education, fine parents for habitually tardy kids or enact community service or jail time. Too harsh? Not if we are serious about education. If district attorneys refuse to prosecute (like here in Mendocino County), they should be considered in violation of state law and removed from office, or thrown in jail.

8. Make all state and federal testing together, and make it mandatory for graduation. It makes little sense to have an Exit Exam and STAR testing separate, and on top of that make only one really count. Want to improve test scores, keep the Exit Exam a graduation requirement, and incorporate the STAR test with it. It can be done, and it would be more financially sound.

9. Eliminate funding by ADA, and only increase funding for schools with large amounts of Second Language Learners and Special Education. First, ADA is a massively flawed method of funding that hurts every school with declining enrollment. As for the argument that this goes against #2, the funding should come from the Federal Government, who is constitutionally obligated to deal with the problem of immigration. If they insist on allowing illegal immigrants into the country, they should pay for massive immersion programs (much like business travelers have in other countries) and Spanish-English staff. Special Education needs more funding than General Education. The law simply requires it.

10. Give local school the power to expel students that have no business being at the school. California Ed Code makes the process of expulsion a very long, expensive, and often fruitless task. However, if society is really serious about making school a priority, then they need to ignore rants of parents looking for babysitters, and allow schools to remove obstacles to learning.

11. Publicly make education a priority. All the talk in the world is not going to do anything for education unless parents and children see the government actively working towards positive change. This means that education should be encouraged by the government in greater volumes and with incentives for businesses to become involved in student's lives. Tax credits should be offered to corporations that are active in schools and the government should form a committee of corporate CEO's whose task it is constantly advice the government on what is needed from the next generation of students. After all, it is business that will be one of the main beneficiaries of a well educated population.

12. Treat all students like scholars and demand excellence. Not all students are going to go to college, and not all students are going to succeed, but that doesn't mean we don't give them the best atmosphere possible for academic success. Kids will achieve that what we expect of them. Right now, we don't expect enough.