Monday, November 24, 2008

Do I look powerful to you?

I've always thought of CTA as one of those big competition body builders -- always interested in looking powerful, but often fearful of using its power in a substantial way.

While California's state legislature meets in emergency session to solve California's budget woes, I'm still wondering when CTA is going to step up to the plate.  In the governor's "good" scenario, the mid-year budget cuts are going to amount to about 3%.  Because districts have already spent half of the year's money, that will feel like a 6% program cut; which will fall most directly on the services that support the students which need the most support.  The good scenario is tragic.  The bad scenario --  if the state legislature can't come up with some new revenue, we're looking at trimming more than 10% of the educational program -- is impossible to imagine.

Unfortunately, the state legislature is also broken.  A 60% majority of both houses is held hostage by the legislature's minority.  And despite the political shellacking that conservatives received in the election, they still "own" the state's budget process.  It's virtually impossible to raise revenue.

So I've been dreaming up some hard-ball tactics that my Union could take:
• Imagine a coordinated work action, like a work to rule, a sick-in or a strike aimed just at those legislative districts where the legislature refuses to raise revenue.  How will the people of those communities feel about their no-new-taxes-promising legislators when their whole communities are shut down.
• Imagine a statewide one-day strike.  It's kind of difficult to find 300,000 scabs  on the same day.
• Imagine a statewide extended strike.  Daycare options would be a little challenging for families who would normally bring their kids to school.  The state would functionally shut down.  How quickly would the legislature react in those circumstances?
• Imagine if CTA uses its relationships with the other state Unions whose workers are in the crossfires of the budget mess.  Time to start demanding that new state constitution.

Sure, there are more marginal responses.  I really only believe in using the amount of force that's necessary to allow our schools to serve our kids.  If writing letters works, I'm good with that.  It just hasn't worked with this legislature yet.

And what's the point of having all of those muscles if you're not going to use them?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Equity: Courageous Redirection of Resources!

Like most school districts, San Leandro Unified is facing the challenge of closing the “achievement gap” and helping students be successful regardless of race or gender.

San Leandro's administration would like you to believe they have taken an aggressive approach, hiring consultants who have focused their work in two directions -- having "courageous conversations" among staff about perceptions about race and student achievement, and developing "culturally relevant" teaching strategies. The focus of the work has mostly been on what happens at staff development meetings and what teaching strategies teachers use in the classroom.

Most of the teachers that I know have chosen to teach in San Leandro because of the community's diversity, even after considering the unfortunate promise of lower pay. They enter San Leandro's classrooms deeply committed to guiding all of their students to success, and reversing the trends of hundreds of years of racism. Despite this commitment, there has been a great deal of grumbling lately about the district's approach to equity. Teachers complain about too many meetings at which we talk about the same things over and over again and reconsider a handful of already-presented teaching strategies. It's time to have real courageous conversations in our district about the limitations of their approach.

The district's approach is not misguided, it's just not enough. While focusing on miracles that sometimes happen in the classroom, it doesn't consider or address many of the real causes of inequitable achievement. I agree with the district’s approach as a part of the solution. Teacher perception of student ability is important. Race absolutely matters. There's too much evidence to conclude otherwise. If a student is attending a classroom where she doesn't feel valued, encouraged, or a sense of belonging, she will likely not do her best work. So the work on culturally relevant teaching strategies is important.

However, we will fail our students unless we examine the other, more significant roadblocks to student success for our kids of color.

Most of the racism that keeps kids of color from achieving is not the racism of perception, stereotype and cognitive filters. Most of the racism that inhibits achievement is the racism of resource allocation, family support, and community support for student success. The only way to confront those challenges is by making changes to the educational program. We have to meet our kids where they are, and put more of our resources in the direction of the kids with the most need.

Issues of race, class and opportunity intersect on so many levels that it is foolish for school districts to take one-dimensional, consultant-driven approaches to closing the “achievement gap.” If a kid doesn’t go home to a place where there is parent or guardian who can sit and monitor homework, that kid is at a disadvantage. When English isn’t the first language, and the kid is pushed out of an ELL program too quickly, the kid’s at a disadvantage. Students with parents who didn’t complete college or high school are at a disadvantage. Kids in families that can’t afford college don’t as easily envision their own future as a college student. Unfortunately, these characteristics tend to be more often true for our kids of color.

To meet students where they are, we need to invest our resources in a way that gives teachers opportunities to work more directly with their students and families:

• More opportunities for after-school mentoring by teachers. The one-meeting-after-another approach to staff development is actually getting in the way of teachers meeting with students. Imagine if instead of attending all of those meetings, teachers could actually spend their after-school time working with students. Add a mechanism that encourages students who are struggling to take advantage of teachers who can stay after school to work with them, and you can finally reach students who don’t have sufficient academic support at home.

• Revitalize the ELD Program. ELL students need smaller class sizes with more individualized vocabulary work and more opportunities to communicate, much more support in their primary language, strengthened bilingual education program, and significantly more parent outreach. Since Superintendent Lim has been at the helm in San Leandro, the cuts to ELD (English Language Development) Programs have been dramatic, despite the fact that the population which requires the program keeps increasing in size. This year, the program was practically gutted, though a few ELD coaches still exist when budgeted for by school site funds. What used to be a team of eight great teachers is now a team of four, serving an increasing number of students.

• Better investment in real college-bound mentoring programs, like AVID. Give the program coordinators the necessary resources to expand the program, which focuses on kids who might often become the first generation from their family to attend college.

• More aggressive community and parent outreach efforts, directly connecting parents to the classroom, and expanding the school’s role in the betterment of the community.

Each of these strategies comes with a price tag. We’ll never have real success unless we’re willing to invest. But the potential future cost in lost opportunities for our students and our community is far greater than the real expense of any of these strategies. And sharing a vision is the first step towards realizing it.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Charter Blues

A writer on “San Leandro Progressives,” a Yahoo group that I hear from, has posed the question of whether San Leandro should develop another charter school. Here we go again. What masquerades as educational reform in the guise of a charter school really rips away at the fabric of public education.

In California, charter schools can only really exist at the expense of “mainstream” public schools. Every time a kid goes to a charter school, the neighborhood school loses money. The inherent difficulty is that every student does not cost the same to educate. But California’s emphasis on ADA doesn’t adequately fund the “more expensive” students (students in resource and ELL programs.) Also, neighborhood schools don’t often have the flexibility to easily shift students, teachers and classrooms. Unexpected shifts in attendance rip little holes into the district budget.

Charter schools get to pick and choose which students fit their charter. In other words, they can leave any kid behind. And they don’t usually accept the kids that cost more. Students with learning disabilities and physical disabilities, and students who are ELL (English Language Learners,) cost more because they require more staff support. (“We’d love to take Junie, but we just don’t have the facilities to accommodate her.”) Charter schools don’t have to take these kids. “Mainstream” schools do. The result is that the “mainstream” school is left with a higher percentage of students who cost more to educate, but are not compensated fully for the additional expense.

Charter schools often have required parental-participation responsibilities in order for their kids to attend. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of encouraging parent participation. But what about the families who are simply unable to fulfill these obligations? Parents in single-parent, double-job families, or families where someone requires long-term care often don’t have the option of meeting a charter school’s participation requirements. So, their kids won’t have the same school opportunities, and they end up being stuck in the school where there are no such requirements.

Finally, charter schools lean hard on their teachers and parents. Without Union approved contracts, teachers are often asked (expected) to work 50 - 60 hours a week, must often be available for evening phone calls or extra tutoring sessions (without compensation), and survive without a whole lot of administrative support. Sure, fresh-out-of-teacher-school, school-reformer-type teachers are often anxious to take on the challenge. They just don’t last very long.

For a school to have long-term success, there really needs to be a good balance of new teachers and veteran teachers. If teaching is a career, you have to find some out-of-school balance in your life. It’s hard to find that balance when you’re working 50-60 hours a week. Call me lazy, but I actually believe that I can do my best teaching if I have a life outside of the classroom.

And finally, there is the problem of administration. Somebody has to watch where the money comes from and where it’s got to go. Each school is a little different, so there’s not really a how-to manual. The same person has to be the boss (no favorites, please), politick the parents and keep everyone smiling. In a charter school, that’s usually one person. And that person is probably looking for another gig. When that person exits stage right, the new challenge is finding a worthy replacement, and maintaining a sense of school identity and organizational memory.

In the end, I can’t help but seeing charter schools as a means for the slow disintegration of the neighborhood public schools. I lump them together with No-Child-Left-Behind, vouchers, and the crisis of pathetic funding as direct attacks on our kids. But despite all of the attacks on our schools, I still believe that the public school is perhaps (or should be) the last great institution – the only place in a multi-racial, multi-cultural community where we can all come together with a common cause and support each other.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

So, What should we expect from a school administrator?

I thought I'd follow up on two of my previous entries, and start posing some questions that should be considered when evaluating a school administrator.  I'd be glad to hear anyone else's thoughts.

These are in no particular order.

1.  Does the administrator do a good job hiring quality staff?

2.  Does she/he hire staff which reflects the diversity of the student community?

3.  Does she/he do a good job retaining the proven/quality teachers already on staff?

4.  Does she/he facilitate a school-wide effort on developing a positive school climate in which all students feel safe and welcome?

5.  Does she/he facilitate a school-wide effort to create a schoolwide climate where all students can excel to their best level?

6. Is staff development meaningful?

7.  Are staff meetings well-used (as opposed to being wastes of time)?

8.  Are meetings with parent groups well-thought-out to encourage parent participation?

9.  Does staff feel like they are connected to school wide efforts?

10.  Do teacher concerns get adequately heard and dealt with?

11.  Do parent concerns get adequately heard and dealt with?

12.  Do teachers get adequate support for their initiatives?

I know I'm missing some really important questions, but this is a start.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Way Through the State Budget Crisis

Dear Progressive State Legislators,


So I understand that you folks in the State Capitol aren’t having any fun.  Budget stalemate, $20 Billion deficit, Republicans swearing not to raise taxes ever.  State programs already cut to the bone.  You need 60% of the votes to pass a budget, and you’re looking for a way out right about now.


Well, how about playing hardball.  If the Republicans won’t allow you to approve some new revenue sources (there are lots to choose from) then pass legislation changing the way that school districts are funded, stressing equity between districts.  You should be doing this anyway.


The way school districts are funded, you’ve got more money going to richer communities that have FEWER needs.  Meanwhile, more urban, diverse, working-class school districts are left trying to figure out how to do more with less revenue.    The difference is compounded when you consider a wealthier community’s ability to raise more money locally.  Wealthier communities are more able to pass local parcel taxes and bonds, and usually have very substantial community foundations that also support their schools.


Here are some Bay Area examples from 2006-2007.  Pleasanton, a suburban district with only four percent of their students on reduced lunch and only five percent of their students classified as language learners, received $6,199 per student in base revenue limit from the State.  San Leandro, also in Alameda County and adjacent to Oakland, has 50% of its students in the reduced-lunch program and 26% in a language learner program, yet only receives $5,517 per student.  The difference between how the state funds the two districts is $682 per student.  Add in other sources of revenue, and the Pleasanton USD is able to spend $800 more per student than San Leandro USD.


Not surprisingly, Pleasanton teachers make a lot more than San Leandro teachers, anywhere between 12 and 17 thousand dollars per year per teacher.  If you’re an experienced teacher with proven classroom success and you’re district-shopping for a new job, where do you apply?


So, dear state legislators, here’s your mission.  If the Republicans aren’t willing to approve some new revenue, then change the way the money gets spent.  Fix the disrict-by-district inequity. 


Here’s the new piece of legislation you should champion.  Rank districts by state revenue received through the last 10 years.  Flip the rankings.  Give more money to the districts that have received less. Then, give bonuses for the number of language learners, the number of resource students, and the number of students who qualify for reduced lunches. Of couse, you should allow for regional variation (obviously it’s more expensive to operate in the Bay Area than in Fresno).  In other words, give more resources to the schools with most need.  Dare anyone to tell you why this shouldn’t be the way that it works anyway.


At the very least, float this idea.  Use it as a bargaining chip.  Imagine the reaction in those rich Republican enclaves when they find out that their school districts are going to be sacrificed if their legislators don’t approve some new revenue sources.  

Monday, July 7, 2008

It's the "Principal" of the thing!

A few years ago, when a friend told me that he was going to get his school administration credential, I remember saying that was great, we need good people becoming prinicipals.  But I also told him he was out of his mind, that I would never wish the job on any friend.


Being a principal is an impossible job.  You get all the responsibilities of running the school, including student achievement, school climate, employee relations and community spokesperson, but very limited power.  Long hours, low budget, and everyone expects you to live up to their very specific expectations.


So, what qualities make a good principal?  How can we measure success?  In my head, the answer is we need some combination of circus skills in your basic principal – some combination of juggler, high wire act and ringmaster.  However, it’s best to avoid the people who see themselves as lion-tamers and dart-throwers.  Those are the types that can run a staff ragged.


I believe that a principal can do more harm in a school than good.  A bad principal can easily marginalize parent groups, divide a staff or shove students into a box.  Then run.  And leave Pandora’s box open for the next unlucky person to come on in and take the job.  But a good principal’s best gift to a school community is to simply encourage the good things that other people are doing.


With all that said, I think it’s the duty of people in a school community to expect and demand good principals.  I actually believe that experienced staff members need to take it on themselves to train principals how do their jobs, which is awkward, because the principal is the “supervisor” in the relationship. 


Awkward, but necessary.  The teachers, office workers, counselors, aides and custodial staff are the folks who have been in the school community the longest, and also the people who will last the longest.  Teachers carry school culture and remember school history.  Staff members develop working relationships with each other that last long past the principal’s tenure in a school. 


A good principal should inspire the people around her or him to add their talents to a mosaic – which becomes a shared vision for how the school should be serving the community.  That’s the basic job description for a quality principal.  The more you impost, the more the staff, parents and students resist. The principal who recognizes this basic truth about the way a school functions is the one who fits the school the best.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Evaluate Your School Administrator

Just before the end of the school year in a survey monitored by the San Leandro Teachers' Association, ninety percent of the teachers who participated voted "no-confidence" in the Superintendent.  The results didn't come as a surprise to many people, including some of the board members.  Our Superintendent has been in her position for five years, and has never been a staff favorite. But this is the first time we've actually quantified how 'un-favorite' she is.  

I generally think that school administration is an impossible job, with pressure from too many interest groups.  Every good administrator has to piss off someone with almost every decision, whether you're answering to state mandates, parent relationships, board relationships or Union relationships.  But when ninety percent of your staff won't follow your leadership, it's time to look at what you're doing that isn't working.

What's the lesson from this?  I think it's time for school districts to institute staff evaluation of their administrators as a normal part of the cycle of the school year.  Superintendents, principals and program directors could all benefit from a bottom-up evaluation.  In the education community, administrators often play musical chairs, moving from position to position frequently, and often burning their bridges as they go.  The teachers are often far more experienced than the administrators, usually much more firmly established in the school community, and an evaluation can lead to a better vision of where the school community has been and where it ought to be going.

Think about how teachers' insights could improve an administrators' performance in these areas:  the quality of internal staff communication,  staff (stakeholder) involvement in school-wide decisions, leadership development (remember that teachers usually last much longer than principals and superintendents), school climate and discipline, even new teacher orientation and support.

What's the catch?  Administrators might not go for it.  Why would they ever want to give their employees that much power?  Because it makes for better schools.  I wouldn't stop there, either.  I would also ask for leaders of the parent community to conduct an administrator evaluation.  These are the voices (teachers, faculty, parents) we say are important, yet they are excluded from the process of determining who runs our schools, and how our schools are run.

What happens when an administrator refuses to be evaluated?  Conduct the evaluation anyway!  Union leadership at a school should conduct surveys and share the results with the administrator (or the school board if the administration won't listen).  What message would be sent if the administrator didn't want to participate in such an exercise.  Think of the benefit to the school community of organized groups of people regularly meeting to talk about whether a school or a district is being well administered.

Here are the questions I have, which I invite your comments on.  What performance areas should a school administrator be evaluated on?  Which people should be involved in the evaluation?  What should be the process of dealing with the evaluation?

Every administrator gives lip service to involving parents and staff in school and district decisions.  An annual evaluation of administrators by teachers and parents would give a school community another important opportunity to talk.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Blog is Back!

Shockingly, I have readers!  A few people have actually asked me when I’m putting something fresh on my blog.  Now that our contract is ratified, and the 7th grade research papers have been read, I have no other excuses.

While I’ve been busily diverted, I’ve been thinking about how I want this blog to function.  I’m actually hoping that it serves as a forum with multiple participants on public education issues.  In other words, I’ll float a topic idea, then give folks a few days to think and comment, sharing experiences and opinions with each other. Also, feel free to propose topics for future blogs.

I’m developing a series of future topics.  Please e-mail me ( if you have a knee-jerk reaction for any of these ideas.  One of the ideas I’m working on is what should a Teachers’ Union be working on after the contract has been ratified for the year.  For another piece, I’m worried about the impact that the Federal Government’s ICE immigration raids in our schools will have on whether children attend class.  

I’m also thinking about the role that schools should play as the center of a community as keepers of culture, which might become a critique on cultural relativism.  In other words, I’ve heard arguments recently that we ought to just look the other way when black kids use the “n-word” while talking to their friends on campus.  Funny how none of the black teachers agreed with that viewpoint.


Meanwhile, I’d like to divert your attention to three links.

Raleigh McLemore sent me a connect to the Educator’s Roundtable comment on “closing the achievement gap:


Tammy Johnson sent me Chela DelGado’s comments about testing:


Gina sent me a piece from about the ICE folks using a school’s database to get information which would help them in immigration raids.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Pick up that Picket Sign!

The picket signs have been going up all over our district again.  Well, some of them.  We had a few loud and raucous events, but now that the fight is rolling into Act II, the angry expressions of fury have dissipated a little.  I think we had 12 of our 50 teachers at the last before-school informational picket.

People often think that Unions are old-fashioned and irrelevant.  I get asked almost as many questions about car insurance as I do about the contract.  And damn, they sure take a lot of dues!  When people discover how much they need a Union, it's often too late.  One of the problems with teachers' Unions is that every member is college-educated.  That means that almost every member grew up in a family that had the capacity (i.e. - upper middle class) to send them to college.  And they didn't grow up in a Union household.

I guess that makes me one of the lucky kids.  I grew up in a Union household, in a Union town; and I still managed to go to college.  Even though the Unions were being blamed for all of the economic woes of the entire midwest, I got to hear what my Dad was thinking about.  If you work hard at the factory, then you deserve the basics:  a house, a retirement, a vacation and health care.  And if you save up your money, you should be able to send your kids off to college.

While I'm writing, I better give equal time to my mother, who was not in a Union, but worked hard and also made sure I was going to get all of those things.  Her ethos was a little bit more conservative.  She believed that if a company treats you right, you don't need a Union.  And when Dad was layed off or on strike, it was Mom's paycheck that kept us in chicken noodle soup.

But here's my truth.  Without the U.A.W., I don't go to college.  Well, maybe community college, but no way can my parents pay for the University of Michigan.  Without the Union, I don't get to see the rest of the country with my family (family vacation = camping trip through some little corner of North America.)  And mostly, without the Union, my Dad's cancer bankrupts my Mom.  Its hard enough watching a spouse die.  But getting the bills ...

All these basics were brought to us by a Union.  They're all being slowly eroded because the Union movement is losing its momentum.  We've already lost our grip on health care.  And those of us who have it find out that it doesn't cover half of what we might get.  Now people are losing their ability to keep their homes.  

Look, I know life is expensive.  But in the end, my Dad was right.  You work your whole life for a school community, there are some things you ought to get from the deal.  A house.  a retirement.  A vacation.  See the Doctor when you're sick.  And send your kids to college.

Pick up that picket sign so we don't lose the basics.

Monday, March 17, 2008

I can leap tall textbooks in a single bound!

I’m going to have a difficult time teaching this week.  My superhero cape and tights are at the cleaners.

It's almost staff development season again.  Our school district loves to pay these miracle-worker education consultants thousands of dollars to come and speak to our teachers.  They come armed with videos and graphic organizers, and they model their lessons.  Each consultant advertises a gimmick -- some bottled miracle that they can make happen in your classroom. The last few years, it's all about the achievement gap.

A few years ago, one of these educational consultants showed a documentary about Erin Gruwell, that energetic, "idealistic" young teacher who started the Freedom Writers project in her Long Beach School.

The gist of her story is that if you can find a way to connect to the kids in the classroom, any student can learn no matter the hardship.  In her first year of teaching, her given-up-on students transformed themselves into college-bound kids.  Gruwell wrote a book about her miracle year, then she was featured on Oprah and Rosie O’Donnell.  Now Hilary Swank is playing her in a movie.

I’m all for miracles and connections in the teaching and learning business.  I even believe that they’re possible.  Could be Jaime Escalante, Coach Carter or that Dangerous Minds woman.  I just don't think that they are sustainable.  And I resent when administrators and politicians expect miracles without putting the required resources into our schools.  For some reason, I resent it even more when some carpet-bagging consultant pockets thousands of dollars to tell us how to make the miracles happen.

Here’s the downside to Erin Gruwell’s story.  As a first-year teacher, she had to work a second job just to pay for all of her classroom expenses.  She had to work ridiculous hours, and didn't seem to have a life outside of school.  She made a noble commitment, and I applaud her dedication.  But real humans who want to make a career out of teaching have to recognize that superhero teachers burn out.   Erin Gruwell doesn’t teach anymore.  She quit.  She actually cashed in.  Now she is an education consultant.

Some Erin Gruwell character teaches in every school.  Usually more than one.  The principals love them.  “Join the equity team…  How would you like to coach volleyball? …  We really need your energy in the PTA…   Maybe you could do a staff briefing to show others what you're doing.”  For a couple of years, she is everywhere; but then something changes.  She becomes exhausted, overwhelmed, or simply disillusioned when the hard work doesn’t seem to get her anywhere.

Every teacher wants to make a difference.  Many of us have even bought into the superhero notion.  You can put all the superheroes together and make a committee.  The committee can be the driving force to ensure that the education consultant's plan is put in place.  What's the strategy?  Give teachers collaborative preparation time.  Be available to students one-on-one at lunch and after school for hours, and visit homes of students when it’s required.  These are the strategies that do work miracles.

But nobody can make those kinds of commitments to our classrooms year after year for a career.  If every teacher in the school is expected to work sixty-hour work weeks, then most of them will be out of the classroom within a couple of years.  These strategies have to be planned-for and funded, and scheduled into a regular human's life.  More prep time for teachers, smaller class sizes, or community liaisons.  

Without the funding, we’re simply hoping for superheroes who work for free.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Substitute Blogger: Starla Mason

Testing Craze

What is it about teachers that makes us believe we must follow the rules at any cost, even when we know those rules are not in the best interest of those we are entrusted to teach and protect while they are in our care? Today teachers throughout the state administered a state writing assessment to ALL 7th grade students. I mindlessly went into this bothersome exercise that was taking away time from my ability to actually teach my students. As the day began, the assessment was like a pesky fly that continues to buzz and land on you; frustrating but tolerable.

My first class to be subjected to this NCLB nonsense happened to be a class of English Language Learners. Fortunately, this group is nearly proficient in English, and was able to take the assessment with confidence. My frustration came as a result of students who took the test with my class. The teacher for our "newcomers" (students who, for the most part, have been in our country/speaking English for less than a year) needed a 7th grade English teacher to administer the test to her seven 7th grade students, and since I had the room to accommodate these students, I welcomed them into the fold of our community. I read, with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, the scripted instructions for students; noting the blank stares of the newcomers as vocabulary to which they had not been exposed was read aloud. I did my best to explain the directions for completing the assessment in a comprehensible way before having the students begin the independent work of reading the prompt and writing a persuasive letter to the editor about "lengthening the school year." Reading the directions did not include reading the "prompt" which contained challenging and unfamiliar vocabulary, even some of my native English speakers asked the meaning or pronunciation of certain words throughout the day. 

As the testing began, I moved around my classroom to encourage and motivate students. When they asked about a word, I reminded them to break it into smaller parts they could understand or to use the context of words and phrases in the passage to better figure out the meanings of these unfamiliar words and phrases. Most of the seven visiting students worked quietly and independently to complete the writing task to the best of their ability. Early in the testing period, however, I noticed one boy whose personal information had been filled in manually by the teacher rather than preprinted, telling me he had been in our school community for less than an academic quarter.

This boy sat and stared at the blank lines of his test booklet for the entire testing period. I realized that he was the student who had come from China two months earlier; a true "newcomer" in our country. Yet there he sat taking the same assessment as every other 7th grade student throughout the state. Will the person who looks at his blank booklet realize that this boy did not stubbornly refuse to participate? Will they understand that he did not understand what he was supposed to be doing? Will the damn lawmakers that continue to reauthorize this flawed legislation called "No Child Left Behind" ever see beyond their ivory towers and look into a real classroom and see real students that suffer the consequences of their thoughtless testing rules? And most importantly, will we, the teachers of these young human beings, ever stand up and say, "enough is enough!"

As I watched this boy silently stare at the empty lines of his test booklet, my rage and resolve grew. I contemplated teaching him to write "FUCK YOU." Fortunately I regained my composure and resolved instead to speak out against the craziness of these test mandates. It is time that we teachers, the people on the front lines, stop playing nice and doing what we are expected to do. It is time for us to: stand up, speak the truth, refuse to subject our students to harmful legislation. If we don't speak for the students who can't speak for themselves, who will? It is time to pull our heads out of the sand, to stop feeling powerless and to start acting on behalf of our students. As the testing frenzy of spring approaches, we need to be prepared to do what is best and right for the students we know and work with each day. If they do not speak English, why should they be expected to take a test that is incomprehensible to them? The lawmakers are not going to change their minds, but if we stand united against this inhumane treatment of our students, perhaps we can make a loud enough noise to be heard or at least noticed.  The conversation about test mandates must include the voices of all stakeholders, and we, the teachers of these "newcomers," must help those who can't speak for themselves to be heard.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Teachers on Steroids!

I'm a little jealous of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds.  Cameras follow these guys wherever they go.  Government agencies want to hear from them.  Congress holds hearings.  But teachers can't even get local school boards to listen.

I keep wondering what it's going to take.  This week, 250 teachers (more than half) in my school district showed up at a board meeting - asking for a little attention.  It seems as though they were all fed up about the same things... low pay, low morale, low respect.  The crowd cheered support for speaker after speaker.

Official Board Response... A couple of smirks. 

Clemens has been the recipient of moral outrage and righteous indignation.  Congresspeople were tripping over each other trying to ask the next question.  The media is having a field day.   Don't get me wrong here, but Clemens is just a baseball player.  It's not like the future of our children is depending on anything that might have happened in those hearings.  Why aren't people all up in arms about the state of education?

Desperate times deserve desperate measures.  So, it's time for me to make some startling revelations about what goes on in our schools.

Teachers are using performance-enhancing drugs.  That's right, after numerous interviews from multiple sources, it's time to leak this story -- Teachers are on steroids.

A veteran teacher, who only spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, "The pressure is too high.  We face impossible test score expectations.  They're threatening to shut our school down."

Said another, "Those No-Child-Left-Behind expectations - every student above average - this isn't Lake Wobegon!"  

Yet another teacher who was interviewed for my story talked about the pressure of paying bills.  "I have to work two jobs just to pay the mortgage and health care.  I turned to steroids because I have no time to sleep."

These revelations bring every AYP and API ranking in the entire country under scrutiny.  It's unclear who is supplying our schools with steroids, though one teacher speculated that educational consultants who wander from school district to school district with their power-point staff-training presentations might be the source.  It's unclear the role that superintendents are playing in this, but it seems as though they have been knowingly looking the other way, hoping that those test scores would get the boost.

To do the important research for this story, I had to guarantee my sources that I would never release their names.  Subpoena me if you feel you must, but I will remain true to my word.  
Anyway, Bring on the cameras.  Schedule the hearings.  Call up the talk radio people.

Maybe our school board will pay attention to us now.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Show Your Legislator the Money

I thought It would be helpful, when you write your state legislator, to remind her  that there is money out there which can be used to solve the state budget "crisis".  Depending on what day you ask, the shortfall is between $14 Billion and $16 Billion.

CTA's Alcosta Service Center put together a handy guide to the budget crisis which included these potential sources of restored revenue:
• Reinstitute an 11% tax on people with incomes of more than $500,000 (a policy during the Republican Governorships of Wilson and Reagan) - would amount to a $3 Billion increase to the state coffers.
• Restore the Vehicle License Fee - $5 Billion.  (Beware those tax gifts that governments like to give out.  They're like those free vacations.  They cost you later!)
• Reverse Proposition 13.  I'm not suggesting going after the granny who lives on a fixed income, just go after businesses who have owned their land since before the 1970s and who will never die. - $4 Billion.
• CalPIRG's Education Fund reports that 46 Corporations in California with an income of more than $1 Billion pay less than $801 per year in taxes.  Closing those loopholes and special privileges for rich people could add billions every year!

Return these sources of income to the state, and "poof," the crisis goes away.

Show those potential sources of income to each voter in California and ask them if they would rather restore these sources of revenue or suffer un-imaginable loss to the lives of Medi-Cal recipients, and the well-being of schools and local governments. 

Honestly, I can't see where the crisis is.  A "crisis" is an unfixable problem.  The only crisis in Sacramento is a crisis of character.  The legislators have to get up the courage to ask the rich people to return the money that they have stolen from the state coffers over the years in special tax-cuts.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Why is the San Leandro School District Attacking Its Teachers?

(An open letter to the San Leandro School Board of Trustees)

As a 10 year teaching veteran of the San Leandro Schools, I am horrified by the district's recent attacks on its teachers and on our Union.

The biggest insult is the continuing saga of our pay scale.  The district has been dragging its heels at the bargaining table, despite knowing that teachers in San Leandro are among the lowest-compensated teachers in Alameda County.  The district has made no effort to improve the status of our pay-scale.  While neighboring district (Castro Valley most recently) have passed on  COLA increases to their workers, our District has refused to make a commitment to its teachers.

Several other districts in the County have lower revenue, but still manage to pay their teachers more than San Leandro.  As a Board, please examine how those districts succeed, and then instruct our Superintendent to make it happen.

Unfortunately, the disrespect shown to teachers by the District does not stop at the salary scale.  These recent events show the District's motives:
* Reduction of permitted release time for SLTA officers, and reneging on the agreement of how the release time should be compensated.  The district recently informed SLTA that it would significantly reduce the President's release time, and eliminate the release time for the Vice President altogether.  This is clearly a Union-busting maneuver.  The district has nothing to gain by this decision other than silencing the voices of teachers.  As a Board, did yoiu approve of this anti-teacher tactic?
* The Budget-Cut process, in which teachers (at staff meetings) were forced to state which vital student programs we could live without.  (District Office administrators' positions, perks, expense accounts and salaries were not listed in the menu of potential cuts.)  The Union's bargaining team represents teachers.  Talk with us at the table.  (That's the law.)
* Discouraging Union Input.  The SLTA President was given notice of his "invitation" to address the Board about budget cuts on the afternoon of the meeting that was scheduled later that night.  It's clear that his voice really wasn't wanted at your meeting.

While a cynical person might be able to dismiss some of the bargaining and budget-cut shenanigans as "business-as-usual" for a District that has never shown an interest in fairly compensating its teachers, the next insult from the district is unfathomable.
* Denial of Bereavement Leave.  A teacher whose spouse died was denied bereavement leave.  After the leave was denied, the grievance was rejected.  And now the district is going to fight this case all the way to arbitration.  Is the District really going to spend the $40,000 it takes to send a case to arbitration just to avoid spending a few hundred dollars?  Do you, as a member of the School Board, really approve the District's effort to deny leave for a grieving spouse no matter what the cost?  This is a dedicated, well-loved teacher in our District!

In the past, I had heard it said that even though teachers in San Leandro have always been under-compensated, that this was a good district to teach in because people are treated with respect.  Clearly, the spirit of respect has changed.  As Board Members, ultimately, the way the district treats its employees is your responsibility.  The Superintendents answer to you.

Thomas B. Morse

Wrecking Ball or Dynamite?

Seven years ago, George Bush's Department of Education drew up the demolition plans for our schools with "No Child Left Behind."  The crane with the wrecking ball in now in place, but now there is a race between Bush's "slow-death-by-testing" and Governor Schwarzenegger's dynamite, the proposed 11% across-the-board budget cut to our schools.

This month, teachers at my school sat through a briefing where got a doomsday glimpse of how Schwarenegger's budget mandates would tear our school apart, should the state legislature allow him.  In general, 80% of the cost of a school is paying for the people who work there.  An 11% cut would be almost entirely realized by eliminating the jobs of the people who work directly with our kids, especially teachers and support providers.

I teach in one of the most diverse communities in the nation.  The demographics span the American experience.  The income disparity runs from quite wealthy to very poor.  Along racial lines, we have roughly equal numbers of Latino, African-American, Asian and White students.  There are nearly 20 different primary languages spoken by students who attend our school.

Our principal was instructed to present the budget news to us as a menu of potential cuts.  We were asked, what programs could we live without?  For instance, we could cut library services.  (Libraries are so old-fashioned, anyways) or counseling services (middle school kids will just have to learn maturity on their own).  We could cut educational aides.  These are the people who give one-on-one support to English Language Learners (25% of our school population)  and kids with learning disabilities (5% of our population).

We could choose to live without campus security.  After all, by middle school, a thousand kids eating lunch with each other really should know how to be nice to each other.  Never mind that our campus security folks also serve as tutors, backup counselors, big-brother or big-sister, and sometimes provide the first smile of the day.

I suppose if we wanted to, we could increase class sizes a little more (35 teenagers in one classroom isn't already enough), or reduce prep periods for teachers.  The test-performance mandates which threaten to have our school taken over haven't been amended, but nobody's telling us that we get a free pass on that.

All I know is this.  The politicians love blaming the failure of our schools on teachers.  They love writing "accountability" measures into the law.  But where is the accountability for the politicians who would force our schools to even consider such institutional devastation?

Wrecking Ball or Dynamite?  Make way for the strip mall.

Thanks for Visiting!