Monday, November 24, 2008
Sunday, October 26, 2008
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
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
Friday, July 18, 2008
Monday, July 7, 2008
Monday, June 23, 2008
Friday, May 16, 2008
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVmPKvhsNVk
Tammy Johnson sent me Chela DelGado’s comments about testing:http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90167642
Gina sent me a piece from www.racewire.org about the ICE folks using a school’s database to get information which would help them in immigration raids.
Monday, April 14, 2008
Monday, March 17, 2008
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
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.