Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Monday, August 30, 2010

Selective Data Analysis

I’ve seen so much pole dancing on the Los Angeles Times’ article regarding public information on teachers that it is starting to become nauseating.  The latest op-ed that I read came from the San Jose Mercury News, which wonders “what there is to hide” from teachers opposed to the article, and feels that the information “helps broaden our understanding of what ails public schools”.  

I’m wondering when San Jose Mercury News is going to actually go find all the statistics that go into what “ails public education”.  So does the Merc have the balls to go to San Jose Unified and ask for the attendance figures for each and every student?  Seriously.  If we are going to really go after the major problems within education, grow a pair and make a public demand for the names of the students and parents with piss poor attendance.  Compare the attendance figures with the test scores of the students and make those scores public.  As the article said, “disclosure may be painful”, but hey, a little humility to solve educations ongoing ills might be just what the doctor ordered.  Right?  In fact, how about we release all the student grades publically so we can actually show how serious we are about education.  That way, brilliant “policy-makers” can see that when a Second Language Learner is failing English, Math, Social Studies, and P.E., and is not showing up for school, it is probably still the teacher’s fault. 

Then I would like the demographics of each and every classroom made public too, because that Advanced Computer Graphics teacher in Tiburon should be judged on the exact same level as the Special Needs teacher in downtown Oakland.  Oh wait, my wife taught Special Needs kids for years in a Special Day classroom.  Almost no kids passed the standardized tests, but she actually got emotionally disturbed kids to take the test, work hard on the test, and more importantly, become functioning members of society.  But the value added data says that she’s fucked.   I’m safe though because I can get Advanced Placement students to kick the shit out of standardized tests.  I mean, my data is so damn good that the next step for me is sainthood in the cathedral of St. Angeles, the patron saint of ass-kissing society for subscriptions. 

No one is yet brave enough to reveal the real statistics though because that would actually mean self-criticism.  It would mean that accountability for kids would first rest with the parents before it rests with anyone else.  It would mean that all parties; teachers, administrators, policy-makers, parents, and students would be expected to educate society at a higher level. 

And it would mean that newspaper reporters would actually do research on societal problems because they would be more educated to do so, instead of whoring to populist crap.  

“What the fuck is the Internet?”

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And so the quote ushered in by Jay in “Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back” reminds us that not everybody has the same access to technology.  Take Jay.  He’s a stoned slacker that has issues with authority, trash-talkers, and his working knowledge of technology is relegated to the pay phone that he uses to make drug deals.  He would not be considered a “digital native”.

What I’m finding is that many in the public education world also fall into Jay’s technology paradigm.  At Ukiah High School, teachers fall into three categories; want to know, refuse to know, knowing while learning more.

A vast majority of teachers at my school are “want to know” teachers.  They have a decent grasp of e-mail and browsing, they can assign lessons that incorporate the use of a computer and the Internet, and they are waiting to learn how take the use of the computer into the 21st Century.  Blogging and social networking sound cool and the new world before them is exciting.

“Digital Natives” have a firm grasp of technology and use it daily in their classroom.  Phones don’t exist much anymore because everyone is e-mailing (which is passé), social networking, or using Skype.  Classrooms are only tools in the process, as websites are the norm and students keep track using Twitter, RSS feeds, and other Push technologies.  Natives know a lot and are more concerned with filtering through everything to find the most efficient way to teach, not necessarily incorporating new hardware and software.

Then there is the “refuse” crowd.  They refuse to learn about the computer because it is too complex anyway, and communication should be in person or by phone.  E-mail is a waste, Internet gives nothing to teaching that you don’t already know, and any extra energy that you give to something not directly related to teaching (ie technology) is wasted.  “Refusers” are usually older, nearer to retirement, and don’t want to take the time to learn something new after doing it a certain way for decades. 

Our school has these three groups, and while I feel I’m in the “Digital Native” crowd, most fall in the category of wanting to incorporate Classroom 2.0 into their teaching.  The problem is that, not unlike standardized testing, we can’t seem to find the resources to move those “basic” teachers into the more “proficient” category, while saying that we really are the entire time.  For the most park, the Classroom 2.0 model is arriving in a time when there is no money, little technological expertise, and intense public demand to prepare kids for the next generation of jobs.  During the remodel of the high school we received new fiber-optic cable, received money for new routers, and kicked into gear some new server equipment along with classroom projectors and hook-ups for a variety of media.  The problem?  There are very few cars for this Autobahn, and many of those are Datsuns.   I have a laptop that is my own, that I refuse to let anyone touch, and that is a decade older than almost anything at the school.  The newest acquisition has come in the form of an Apple grant that provided buildings with Apple Laptop carts.  However those are only for “trained” teachers that jumped through the grant hoops, and the carts are in huge demand.  Most of the computers in the labs are at least ten years old and very “used”.  Software that is purchased by the district can hardly be handled by the 256 mb of ram in the computers, and when it comes to selecting functioning software, well, whatever.  The projectors are nice, but if the bulbs go out we are totally screwed.  Replacements are hundreds of dollars and don’t currently exist on campus. 

I can’t say I blame anyone in this situation because a corporation would hire a technology specialist at the district and every site, and have the machine humming along.  Of course, that specialist would probably make twice the salary I would make and have the latest technology.  I feel for the current tech guys.  They make standard teacher level (sometimes less) salaries and deal with kids popping letters off of keyboards during the day.  No wonder most don’t stay around.  And our union would find some way to say that the tech guy was not a good investment, except that a good tech guy has the potential to make a teacher’s life much easier. 

Frustrations aside, Digital Natives do have it nice when it comes to using the tools in the classroom.  The district’s primary concern right now is the access to information for students online.  The district has provide a format and asked that teachers use it, but doesn’t hassle students that find a “better” way.  Professionals with good skill set are allowed to be professionals.  That’s cool. 

Friday, August 27, 2010

And I spent all that energy on the Los Angeles Times

Who knew that real research was being conducted in the education sector regarding Standardized Tests?


In The Know: Are Tests Biased Against Students Who Don't Give A Shit?

Thanks to @iteach4change on Twitter.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Musings of my 10th year, week one.

It would be simple to say that my 10th year of being an educator has started out just like any other year.  If we are talking from the point of the students, then the statement would make sense.  However education is far from being as simple as the students, it’s about the institution.  And the institution is very, very sick.

First the students.  My classes are slammed full, which is not at all unusual for college prep Gov/Econ classes.  At the moment: AP Comp Gov- 34, Gov/Econ- 34, 35, 36, and APUSH- 27.  Contractually, I can have 34 students in my room by the thirtieth day of the semester.  I pretty much ignore the contract, tell the admin that I’m always willing to take on more students, and in the end, it never happens.  Classes will level themselves as students transfer to the continuation school, go on Independent Study, and get sent off campus for disciplinary reasons.  People often complain about large class sizes.  Well, mine are always big and it works out fine.  And students are students.  They are good natured, a little down this week (the realization has set in), and a little squirrely when the weather is nice outside.

The problems reside outside of the realm of the students.  Here is a statement that says it all.  It was sent to me by a colleague. 

Ukiah High School Budget  years ago:  $125,000

Ukiah High School Budget this year:  $15,000

Ouch.  I got no supplies, no paper, no nothin to get the year going.  Now, I have to admit, foreseeing this problem a couple of years ago, I started to pack away some school supplies and I’m not going to run out of pencils any time soon.  But what I’m seriously concerned about is something like my projector bulb.  That sucker is hundreds of dollars, and I’ve been told there is no replacing it if it goes out.  I’m thinking of a sacrifice on the alter of the projector gods to keep the bulb going for the next few years.  How about the heads of both political parties in the California legislature?

I have my personal/professional goals set for the year.

-Make APUSH more engaging while maintaining the high standards.

-Don’t take work home with me.

-Work on maintaining energy after lunch.

-Go after squawkers (those that are a pain, but not enough to toss from class) early and consistently.

-Media, every day.

-Call on more students that are not raising their hands.

-Check for understanding more consistently.

We’ll see how it works out. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Los Angeles Times feeds the mob

I’ll be perfectly honest, if you tossed an Algebra test to me right now, I’d probably fail it.  In fact, I’m almost positive I’d fail it.  When I would get to the point of slopes and graphing, I would be completely and totally screwed.  Y = MX + B is the formula to figure out a slope, that’s the extent of my graphing knowledge.  In fact, my knowledge of math is so bad that it took my two tries to pass the Math portion of that easiest of tests, the CBEST.
If you think I blame my Math teachers, then you’d be wrong.
If you think doing poorly in Math makes me a bad Social Studies teacher, then you’d be an idiot. 
If you think that standardized testing is a valid determination of what makes a good teacher, you’d also be incorrect.  Yet the Los Angeles Times has taken it upon itself to promote the idea that a test that assesses bad information and that kids don’t care about somehow shows a clear indication of a bad teacher.  On top of that, the Los Angeles Times decided that the best thing to do in this situation is feed this faulty information to a public that refuses to take responsibility for bringing up its own children.  I’ve spoken before that in its current make-up, society has shown little or no real concern for the welfare of the kids, while being very supportive of pointing fingers at everyone else.  What the L.A. Times has done here is basically work up a frenzy at blaming teachers, again, for the problems with educating children.  It’s actually shocking to watch the reaction in the blogosphere.  “Shame them into being better”, “show them some humility”, “look, you can’t blame outside variables anymore”, all comments of people that aren’t looking for  solutions, they are looking for blame. 
Throw in the fact that all the supports seem to love the idea of the “value-added analysis”, including my own school board member, Friends of Dave (blogroll).  I don’t know what is more disturbing; the reliance on a “science” (value-added) that is so prone to errors that even the writers admitted that it shouldn’t be a major factor in determining teacher retention, or the disgusting way that the authors then used that analysis to become “professionals” at decoding the problems within the realm of education.  What’s funny is that I was just reading about economists saying that “value-added” is a horrid measure of “mastery” of any skill when it comes to the idea of developing human capital.  The variables, even classroom to classroom, are so different (even taking out the teacher) that the idea of actually measuring knowledge in a value-added format is ripe for errors.  And while knowing all of this, and fully admitting that the information had major faults, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES STILL PRINTED THE ARTICLE! 
I’m all for accountability and I’ve been very adamant about the removal of bad teachers from the classroom.  But the idea that public educators will somehow improve their practices by enacting them to public humiliation, and using bad information at that, is sick.  The L.A. Times has deemed themselves judge and jury in an area that have no expertise in, while potentially destroying the lifestyle of good professional educators.  Did you notice that none of the educators had been presented the information by the administration?  Did you notice that they were willing to make changes?  I’m not blaming the administration, but don’t you think that the boss should share the results with the employee well before some idiocy released for public consumption?  What does this tell new teacher? 
Hi, welcome to the profession!  Now, your future is based on a test that measures little and means nothing to the students.  Make sure you make good gains on your scores or the newspaper is going to place your name on a blacklist and allow the public make you the scapegoat of all of society’s problems.  Have a nice day!”
I’d like to thank all those teachers that inspired me in spite of the idiotic tests.  I could tell what a good teacher was because when I entered the teacher credential program, I went right back to my old high school and found that, yep, those that inspired me as a student, inspired me as a teacher, even those that taught Math.  And guess what, it had nothing to due with standardized test.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

California passes Rate-My-Teacher law

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Let me say that back in school I knew a PE teacher that I would have rated…

Oops.  Wrong kind of rate-my-teacher.

Let me introduce to California’s teachers Senate Bill 1422, otherwise known as the Rate-My-Teacher Act.  The bill, which passed the legislature, would allow student governments at schools to create surveys for teachers to give to students to complete.  Actually, it doesn’t have much.

-Teachers may choose whether or not to use the student surveys.

-Only the teachers may see the result of the surveys.

-Administrators or district officials are not allowed to see the survey results without written consent of the teacher.

-The surveys can’t be a part of any evaluation or be placed in a teachers record.

In essence, it is a law with nice intentions, but no real authority.  Oh, and in a move that surprises absolutely nobody, the California Teacher’s Association opposed the bill.

Like many teachers, I’m of two minds when it comes to student evaluations.  Students evaluate me every year on a form that I created and I have no problem sharing the results.  For the most part, they are pretty good.  They are pretty public too.  Just scroll down to around June of every year and check out what students have to say about me.  I do the form because I think students give some of the best feedback, although I’m also well aware that we are dealing with teenagers.  Still, a vast majority of the feedback is very valid, even if some of it won’t change my teaching.  I’m also required to have 15-16 year olds evaluate me for basketball, which is not made public and is reviewed by the athletic director, the principal, and the varsity head coach.  Now those evaluations are a sight to see.  A lack of playing time makes young teenagers rather irritable at the end of a season, and often very profane. 

Student feedback is very valuable for the teacher, but to assume that written feedback should decide whether or not a teacher should be retained would be incorrect.  Believe it or not, just about everyone in the school can point out the five best and five worst teachers, from the students to colleagues to administrators.  The need for that in writing is pretty unnecessary for justification reprimand or removal.  Oh, and the excuse that the “easy” teachers will get better reviews doesn’t hold much water either.  Students don’t want their time wasted, and the phrase “Dude, you don’t have to do shit in his/her class” is not one of respect.  Tough teachers that are good teachers get their props, and that is shown over and over again when talking to students, every kind of student. 

So thanks to the state legislature for passing a totally useless law while the state budget remains in limbo.   

The ACLU goes after school districts, because there aren’t enough ambulances to chase lately.

It is one of the most common rules that has been broken since the banning of “pay-to-play” in 1984; making athlete’s contribute money towards athletics. The “problem” is that according the American Civil Liberties Union (a hypocritical, bias organization), schools are pressuring student families to pay to be involved in high school athletics, something that is illegal in California because it prevents equal access to education, although it’s interesting that athletics are selectively considered part of the educational process when the situation benefits particular parties.  A recent story had Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines saying that he was “livid” when he found out that his schools were having kids pay to be a part of athletics.  I’ll take a stab in the wind and call “bullshit”.  Nearly everyone in the last twenty years has had to ask/borrow/beg/demand some sort of monetary assistance to keep athletics afloat. 

We were warned years ago that parents were hiring lawyers to go after schools that were demanding money.  For the record, Ukiah High doesn’t demand a thing, which is why freshmen sports could disappear this year.  I ask for money to help with tournaments.  Some years I get help with tournaments, some years I don’t.  What this creates is an attitude that makes me ready to say, “You guys pay for it or we drop it”, which will occur this year.  We clearly don’t have enough money to transport students to tournaments or even pay for all the basketball tournament fees.  So pay-to-play will happen in a different way, by donation. 

This creates an interesting situation for public versus private schools as well.  Schools like Cardinal Newman in Santa Rosa or De La Salle in Concord don’t have the problem of “pay-to-play”, because the students do pay to play.  That, and the filthy rich donations that alumni make to the schools.  The problem is that equity doesn’t exist for the students of, let’s say, Elsie Allen High School in Santa Rosa, or Ukiah High School.  Cash strapped systems have to make real decisions that end up taking kids away from some of the most influential lessons they might learn in school.  Wonder why the ACLU doesn’t comment on that.

I don’t like the idea of inequity in education (the reason behind the 1984 court case), but let’s stop with the hypocrisy and either call athletics a part of school or don’t.  With America getting more sedentary and quite frankly, fatter, physical education needs to reprioritized near the top, and athletics needs to be classified as an Advanced Placement style course.  It’s been proven that students in athletics tend to have much better grades, so let’s get cracking. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Frankly sir, you are boring the hell out of me

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According to Indiana University (and Joanne Jacobs), over half of students say that they are bored every day in school.

  • Just 41 percent of the students in the 2009 survey responded that they went to school because of what they learn in classes.
  • Only 23 percent said they went because of their teachers.
  • Around a third said they went because they enjoy being in school.
  • Being bored at school is nothing new, and the amount of energy spent on whether it really is a big deal is amazing.  I don’t mean that good teaching involves boring the hell out all of your students.  But let’s be perfectly honest, a vast majority of high school students want to be somewhere else, and many new teachers are being led to believe that classrooms have to be dens of constant engagement.  Engagement is good, but the term “engagement” is often misinterpreted as “edutainment”, the process of entertaining students while trying to impart them with knowledge.  New teachers then get wrapped up in complex lessons that can lead to classroom management issues and forget that students need some direct instruction that provides actual information.

    I totally admired my Master Teacher.  But the one thing we disagree on is the idea that you can’t lecture.  His idea was that lectures led to bored students, no engagement, and then the subject matter doesn’t get moved because students are doodling, texting, or snoozing.  I don’t agree.  I’ve seen students totally engaged in lessons where the teacher is imparting knowledge through lectures, whether it is personal anecdotes, story-telling, or use of visuals and power points.  Students can be riveted to a good speaker, and can be convinced that the term “lecture” isn’t necessarily bad.  I use power points all the time, but you need to make the presentations to-the-point, easy to understand, and mix in a little media.  Video clip, song clip, a cartoon, a picture.  And don’t call it a “lecture”.  Call it a seminar or a presentation, and constantly keep kids involved.  And remember that you are public speaking and there are good tips for that too.  Move around, keep differed eye contact, use different tones in your voice, act out certain parts of presentation……just be the show.

    In the end, it is about being “on”.  My old principal once made a comment that good teaching was like good theater; you got into character and at the end of the production, you should be damn tired because you were “on” the whole time.  There should also be an understanding that teachers will not be able to engage everyone all the time.  Students are occasionally be bored in class, that is just going to happen.  Hell, when Homecoming Week is upon us, everything is more boring than being out in the Tri throwing water balloons.  It is ok to be bored sometimes.  Those of  us that work for  a living know that boredom happens and part of character building is dealing with it.

    Just remember, students should always feel like it was worth coming to your class, even if for the smallest of things.   I tell my students that they will learn, money back if not, and they are for the most part, satisfied.  We are there after all to teach, not entertain.     

    Saturday, August 07, 2010

    CTA 800 decides to tax 300,000 in a recession

    With health care costs increasing, five days of furlough, having to spend more money on supplies, and a possible cut of my coaching stipend, I found out recently that my union, the California Teacher's Association, chose to throw forth its support by enacting an increase on taxation on its membership.

    Wow.  Thanks.

    I'm still trying to figure out how increasing dues is at all supportive of teachers, especially in the middle of greatest economic downturn since the 1930's.  I tweeted the CTA asking about the fee increase and was basically ignored for a week.  I asked again, but I stated that I was a dues paying member and a site rep, and lo-and-behold the CTA responded.

    The dues increase was approved by the 800-member State Council of Education in June.

    Interesting.   When I asked my local about an increase during the last meeting in the beginning of May, they insisted that they never heard of such a thing.  Now it comes out that some 800 members, that by-the-way do a piss poor job of representing the overall interests of teachers, reached their hands into a profession that has lost millions over the last couple of years. 

    Let's be real honest, the money is going towards politicking and President David Sanchez's salary.  David makes four times my salary when you add in benefits (conservatively), and obviously he needs more money to buy protection for those times when he bends teachers over for another dollar.  Then he'll take that money and give it to political groups that at least half his teachers don't agree with, all the while becoming one of the more detested special interests in society in California. 

    I would love a Texas style law that demands that the teacher notify, in writing, that the union is allowed to use X percentage of the paycheck for political issues, and I'd like that done without penalty.  I can become an agency fee-payer, but all that means is that I get a little cash back while my union negotiates my pay and benefits without my voice.  Sounds like a lousy deal.  In the meantime, I'm going to probably ask that my local union cut back the dues locally to balance out the CTA raise, and that our local send a letter protesting the rise in fees at this most inconvenient time.    

    Friday, August 06, 2010

    Back in the Saddle, and the away from the copier

    I failed to mention it earlier, but yes, I've already visited the classroom.  On Tuesday of last week I packed up my laptop, grabbed a bunch of books for my room, and headed back to my home away from home, room F-6.

    I don't know about your room, but when I return from the summertime a little housekeeping is always in order.  For the most part the custodians (who kindly wax the floor and clean the room) set the desks back almost exactly like I arranged them.  Here and there a few boxes lay out of place, but nothing that 30 minutes can't fix.  My time went something like this:
    -Enter classroom around 7:30.  Seem early?  My young cats have me trained for a 6 a.m. wake-up.  I also have my second coffee in hand.
    -I enter, put down my bags, plug in my iPhone to the room speakers, and toodle.  I move boxes here and there for about 30 minutes.
    -Head off to the main office at about 8:10.  Nearly all the admin and secretarial staff is already there.  Chit-chat with them, look at my final schedule, and head back to class.
    -By 8:40 I'm in the full throes of sorting books and prepping textbooks to be handed out.  APUSH and Comp Gov books are going to be needed this year.  However, I'm seriously considering blowing up the Economics book and paring down the use of American Government. 
    -By 9:15 I'm at my desk and starting to work on my calendar for this year.  Sure, the beginning of the year is always easier than the previous year, but I can't see how people need one day of prep and then can teach with ease.  I'm throwing in new and better things for the year, and I'm going to be changing around the time at which I teach it.  That takes time. 
    -I'm done by around 1 p.m., out of my classroom and satisfied with the half-day's work.

    Today I returned to my classroom to again get the jump on what needed to be done.  This time I was scouring the Internet for ideas (something I'll discuss later), continuing to make the calendar, and tweaking week one power points.  I also began the process that puts me in the perfect space for the first day. 

    I began to copy.

    To avoid the massive crowd around the copy machines and to give myself piece of mind, I start coping like a crazy during the week before school begins.  My syllabus is first, a document that makes everything clear and requires a parent signature.  It then takes a place in the front of their folder/binder/whatever, and is oft-referenced when a rule is broken or a question comes up.  While the document was copying, and I was in the middle of the Golf on my iPhone, I heard the sound no one wants to hear from a piece of technical equipment.  A beep.  I looked at the screen and found the message "Exceeded the amount minimum".  The wave of ice that went through my veins was not pleasant.  Contrary to popular opinion, most students will not go and read everything that is put online, and they must have a paper trail that, if anything, covers the ass of the teacher.  Then there's class hand-outs, tests, etc.  No paper is a sign that the pain is beyond here, it's straight it in my face.

    So I don't have my copying even half done, and that isn't good.  Then I received an e-mail that basically said that last years copying cost now double the funds allocated to our site.  Furlough days I can handle.  Not being able to have basic necessities is totally unacceptable.

    Dear State of California, you are successfully screwing the students.  Nice job.