School Calendar Deja Vu

This year school began on Aug. 8.

Back in August of 2015, thousands of parents signed an online petition pleading with the Glendale Unified School District to begin the school year later.  For many, the early creep of the first day of school infringed on summer plans and enrichment programs.   Besides, it wasn’t that many moons ago when school began after Labor Day in September.

After months of meetings at school sites and the formation of a calendar committee comprised of teachers and parents, the new school year will start on Aug. 16 – a mere six weekdays later than the current start of school.

The new calendar, revealed before the Thanksgiving break, was approved by the school board with a 3-2 vote.  The end of the school year will be three days later meaning that the complete school year calendar remains at 43 weeks.

Summer vacation stays at 9 weeks, 4 weeks for those children enrolled in summer school.

So, what was the point of all the machinations of seeking input from all stakeholders and then coming up with basically the same plan that has been in place for the past few years?

That’s what parent Sarah Rush would like to know.  She and many others are dismayed that despite the protestation of starting school later, nothing changed.

“It was an overwhelming consensus that our 18,000 families wanted a longer summer and a start date after the third week of August,” Rush said.  “If public outcry is unheeded, then all of the meetings were a waste of our time and taxpayer funds.”

Board Member Greg Krikorian who along with President Armina Gharpetian voted against the new calendar sympathizes with those parents who are upset that the start of school wasn’t delayed later.

“We need to put students and parents first,” Krikorian said.  “Family time is crucial.”

Rush encourages parents who feel likewise to let their opinions be heard by emailing school board members and attending the Dec. 13 meeting.

Curiously, school districts neighboring Glendale have easily figured out how to plan 180 instructional days that accommodates the wishes of families.

While Burbank schools have pushed the start of school up to mid-August, they have kept the year to 41 weeks due to fewer days off, leaving 11 weeks of summer vacation.  Next year Burbank children return Aug. 14 but end May 24 before Memorial Day.

And La Canada schools while providing two additional days of instruction still contain the school year within 42 weeks.

Yet somehow Glendale can’t seem to keep schools open long enough between August and June so that school can start later and end earlier.

While the curious Friday day off before the Labor Day weekend has finally disappeared, the full week off during Thanksgiving does not help to shorten the overall calendar.   And as many educators can attest to, ever since GUSD has been closed for a full week, a teacher never quite gets the kids’ attention back since in a few weeks they will be off for nearly three weeks.

Think about this:  From Nov. 11 through Jan. 8, amounting to 55 calendar days, students are in school for 21 days, or 38 percent of the time.

Here is how the calendar can quickly be fixed.  By eliminating the three days off before Thanksgiving, school could start on Monday, Aug. 21, or end on June 1, cutting the calendar to 42 weeks, providing an additional week of summer vacation.

There.  Problem fixed.  No meetings needed.   A year’s time not required.  Less than ten minutes really.

In this space, I have proposed a joint meeting of GUSD and BUSD school board members to see if a common calendar could be agreed upon.   That never occurred.

For those parents who feel that their voices are not being considered should keep in mind another calendar, an election one that ends on April 4, 2017.  That’s 110 days away—without days off.

 

 

 

 

Absence makes the mind grow flounder

It used to be that going to school on time every day was a given.   Only truly sick children missed school.

Not anymore.

Six million children missed at least three weeks of school in the 2013-14 school year, according to the U.S Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection report.  That equates to 13 percent of all students.

Think of a business that could operate effectively without 13 percent of its workforce.

The bad habits students practice in kindergarten through 12th grade cannot simply be altered like a light switch once they enter the job market.

Name one job where people get paid for not being there.

“Even the best teachers can’t be successful with students who aren’t in class,” Education Secretary John B. King Jr. told reporters last June.

California has a Compulsory Education Law stipulating that “every child from the age of 6 to 18 be in school—on time, every day.”

A student’s education suffers when he is not in school.  Period.

There is a direct correlation between missing school and falling behind academically. According to the California Department of Education, “first grade students with 9 or more total absences are twice as likely to drop out of high school than their peers who attend school regularly.”

Last December, President Obama signed into law a revision of the No Child Left Behind act that requires for the first time that states report individual absences for all students.

It’s not just the learning that suffers when a student isn’t in a classroom.  Money is lost as well.

Schools derive much of their funding based on Average Daily Attendance or ADA.  In Glendale the ADA is $55 per student per day.  With an enrollment around 26,000, that adds up to $1.43 million if all students are present.

If 10 percent of students are absent for one day the entire year, that results in a loss of $143,000.  Multiply that by 180 school days and you have $25.7 million.  Quite a sum of money that could go towards hiring more teachers and funding more programs.

Last semester, I tracked the number of students present over a 78-day period and here are the results:

In my first period class, 25 percent of the time I had full attendance, second period had seven percent, third period had 17 percent, fifth period had 20 percent, and sixth period had 12 percent.

Looking at the numbers in a different way, 88 percent of the time I had at least one student absent in my Per. 6 class.   This makes it quite difficult for a teacher to maintain consistency in lesson planning as well as cooperative learning groups.

I had 25 students who had double-digit absences including one who had 24 (that’s a loss of 5 weeks of instruction in a 17-week period), plus five students with double-digit tardies (the highest 16).

When I returned to work last week, teachers were asked to do more to encourage students to get to class on time in order to decrease the number of tardies.   However, the bulk of the tardies come at the start of school; in other words, due to kids arriving late.

Unless teachers don Uber hats and pick up kids from their homes, the responsibility of getting children to school rests on the shoulders of parents.    Parents need to model to their children good work habits and work habit number one is getting to school every day and on time.

 

 

Tenure remains one of the few benefits of teaching

Teachers and their unions collectively exhaled last week when a California appeals court overturned the Vergara ruling in 2014 which struck down teacher tenure in the state.

As a teacher who has struggled with the virtue of tenure, this was the right call to make at this time.

I, too, am frustrated that ineffective instructors remain on the job in classrooms, negatively impacting young people’s education.

Barring heinous criminal behavior, you can’t easily fire a teacher. The amount of energy and paperwork required to remove a bad one is monumental.  However, if teachers had no job protection, it would cause harm to the entire profession.

The history of tenure in public schools dates back nearly a century when women could be fired if they got pregnant or married.

Without tenure, a personality clash between a principal and a teacher might mean dismissal.

With pressure from dissatisfied parents and students, a decent teacher might lose her job.

Teaching is not that financially rewarding to justify removing the safety net of tenure.

Teachers remain the lowest paid group of professionals despite half of them holding master’s degrees.  Tenure is a kind of substitute for the lack of financial benefits other professions offer.  That is the main reason it needs to remain in place.

California educators recently received a solicitation from the Educational Testing Service (ETS) to score the new Common Core assessments.  Pay?  $20 an hour—only $5 more than the proposed $15 minimum wage.   For ETS to think that such a low sum would entice teachers is quite insulting.

Think of workers who you can hire for $20 an hour.  And if you can think of any, please email me.

Actually, if administrators did their job properly, there would be fewer incompetent instructors. After two years of formal and informal observations, enough evidence exists to determine is a teacher is good enough to stay employed.

If an administrator overlooks deficiencies, then that person now has a job for life, possibly marring children’s learning for years to come.

No, tenure is not the real problem; it’s that the teaching profession looks the other way when it comes to the one thing that truly distinguishes one teacher from another, and that is quality.

If teachers are required to work without job security, then they should be compensated significantly more money.

In most other careers, people risk losing their jobs if they don’t perform well; however, with that risk, comes rewards if they do.   Such an environment does not exist in the teaching field.

The system pays everyone the same, adjustments in salary solely based on units in college and years on the job.

For those educators who provide a minimum effort, teaching is a cushy job.  But for those who work hard and tirelessly push themselves, teaching is quite frustrating.

No matter the “I’m here for the kids” slogan, an excellent teacher feels slighted.  No bonuses, no promotions, no recognition.

Whether or not a teacher designs effective lessons, communicates well with students, properly evaluates student work and returns it in a timely manner, arrives to the workplace on time, has no bearing on the employability of that individual.

So while I am all for making it easier to fire bad teachers, what has to happen at the same time at the other end of the spectrum is that teachers should earn more money for performing at outstanding levels.

Until that day arrives (which I have been waiting for since 1989), teacher tenure must stay.

If teachers are not going to be rewarded monetarily for a job well done, then they should feel secure that their career will not be in jeopardy.

 

Less Writing–Now a Requirement for College Entrance

Young people who attend school today may be the least read of any previous generation.

Well, life is about to get even easier.

In a sign of the attention-deficient times, the University of California (UC) has announced a change in the personal statements previously required in applications.

No longer will high school seniors need to write up to 1,000 words responding to the following two prompts:

  • Describe the world you come from — for example, your family,

community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your

dreams and aspirations.

  • Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution

or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or

accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person

you are?

This fall, the two personal statements transforms into eight “personal insight questions” whereby applicants respond to four of the eight prompts of their choosing, with no response longer than 350 words, and the total word count not to exceed 1,400 words:

  1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
  1. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
  1. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
  1. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
  1. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
  1. Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.
  1. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
  1. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

(At this point, I have just written the UC maximum of 350 words.)

The impetus to change the prompts came out of a desire to “better reflect [student] voices and personalities,” according to UC spokesperson Claire Doan.

Gary A. Clark, Jr., UCLA director of admission, told me that “far too often, students would respond to the personal statement prompts with information that did not provide the kind of personal insights” that was helpful.

“An applicant might have written about an inspiring family member and would share more about the family member than themselves,” Clark said.

With the maximum word count jumping from 1,000 to 1,400, how will this impact the workload of those reviewing applications?

Clark does not believe this will be a problem, stating that admission officers are committed to reading “everything a student shares with us.”

I asked my current sophomores, who will be the second class to write to the new prompts, what they thought about the change.

While more than a quarter preferred the older personal statements, the majority liked the new questions, one calling them “more precise and to the point.”

Overall, I applaud the University of California in developing more focused questions that cover a wider range of topics to pique a student’s interest. I lament, however, the demise of a longer piece of writing, a skill that needs mastering at the college level.

Here’s hoping that in 2020 the University of California does not further downsize the four 350-word questions into 12 140-character tweets.

 

CAHSEE: RIP

This year’s 10th graders have reason to celebrate since they no longer have to take the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE).

Last October Gov. Brown signed into law SB 172 suspending the test for three years through the 2017-18 school year.

Since 2004, the CAHSEE was administered to the state’s sophomores to test their ability in math, English, and writing.

Former Glendale superintendent Jim Brown served on the original committee whose intent was to develop a rigorous enough test to certify that a high school diploma meant something. If a student did not pass either portion of the test, he did not graduate.

However, when the test was piloted, it was discovered that half of all students could not pass the test.

Since schools could not have survived the public relations nightmare of a 50% graduation rate, CAHSEE was redesigned, or dummied-down, testing 8th grade level math and 10th grade level English to represent 12th grade competency.   The original two essays were downsized to a single piece of writing.

The writing prompts demanded little on the part of students, asking them to discuss a place they would like to visit or a toy from their childhood. And with such competency they are ready for college?

Even with a passing threshold of 55 percent in math and 60 percent in English, plus a host of free intervention classes and one-on-one tutoring, along with multiple chances to pass the darn thing, one out of every ten California seniors still did not pass it.

For those reasons, I never knew a single student who proudly proclaimed, “I passed the CAHSEE!”

State Sen. Carol Liu of La Canada Flintridge who sponsored SB 172 told me that she agrees “passing the exit exam in and of itself [did] not ensure students [had] mastered grade 12 standards.”

Think about the tens of millions of dollars and dozens of school days wasted on this endeavor. The biggest impact CAHSEE made in the past decade was enriching testing companies.

Besides suspending the test, the measure that went into effect the first of this year allows the 32,000 students who never passed the CAHSEE to now receive their diplomas. In other words, all the students who ever took the exit exam have officially “passed it” making the rationale behind it in the first place a very expensive joke, a high-priced feel good award akin to all kids on a sports team earning trophies regardless of merit.

Unfortunately, CAHSEE may return in a different form in the future.

One foreboding element of the law stipulates that “the Superintendent of Public Instruction convene an advisory panel to provide recommendations . . . on the continuation of the high school exit examination and on alternative pathways to satisfy the high school graduation requirements” as worded on the California Department of Education website.

Sen. Liu believes that future students could be looking at “multiple measures, such as an exit exam, coursework, and a project-based assignment” to prove they have earned a diploma.

Um, whatever happened to using a student’s course grades in determining achievement as colleges do? No college was ever interested if a student passed the CAHSEE or not.

The costly lesson of politician-produced initiatives such as CAHSEE and NCLB (which officially ended last month) is that elected officials need to stop thinking of themselves as experts on how to improve education.

 

GUSD Should Copy BUSD Calendar

January will be a busy time for Glendale Unified school board members as they tackle two of the most significant issues left over from 2015: the search for a new superintendent and a new starting date for school.

While the public has a minor say in choosing a superintendent, parents can have a major impact voicing their views on when schools should open their doors by attending one of the upcoming meetings: Jan. 11 at Glendale High, Jan. 13 at Hoover High, and Jan. 14 at Crescenta Valley High.

As reported before in this space, opening schools in early August makes no sense. The desire to finish the fall semester before winter break pertains only to 7-12th graders who have final exams.

And the idea that high school students need more time to prepare for Advanced Placement tests before the May testing period is just that—an idea. There is no proof that students have performed better on AP tests ever since school was moved up several weeks to early August.

In fact, AP test results have suffered in recent years ever since pre-requisites to taking AP classes were eliminated. Plus, this affects only a small portion of high school students. The majority of the K-12 student population does not need to follow a college calendar.

Thumbs up to parent Sarah Rush for spearheading an online petition to start school later that garnered 2,000 plus signatures. It definitely got the attention of GUSD more than this writer’s musings.

Thumbs down to GUSD for shelving this discussion even though parents expressed themselves back in August allowing plenty of time to alter next year’s calendar.   One school board member rationalized that they could not change the calendar because people already have made plans based on the Aug. 8th start date. Really?

Number one, how many parents cement August 2016 vacation plans in August 2015. And, number two, if they did, so what. School would not be starting earlier, it would be starting later.

Unfortunately, GUSD was not interested in renegotiating the already approved 2016-2017 calendar. Understandably Glendale’s school board members had their hands full with myriad issues this year including labor negotiations with employee groups, a proposed charter school (recently denied), future realignment of the district, as well as the continuing Sagebrush saga.

On the plus side, GUSD finally followed what Burbank Unified has done for years by posting an online survey for parents between Jan. 8 and 22 on this issue. And the district has formed a 27-member Superintendent’s Committee on Calendar Development that will meet five times (do we really need 27 people to devise calendar options?).

I find Burbank’s school calendar the most efficient. School opens Aug. 15 and ends on May 25. The 11-week summer allows more time not just for travel but for kids to enroll in enrichment classes or to get jobs. Conversely, Glendale schools start Aug. 8 and end June 1 with a 9-week summer.

I’m not sure why GUSD’s 27-member committee needs five meetings to devise a new calendar when their municipal neighbor already has one that they can adopt. Not having the Friday off before Labor Day, limiting the Thanksgiving holidays to three, and keeping Winter Break to two full weeks is how they do it, fitting the state-mandated 180 days of school within 284 calendar days instead of 298.

There, you can cancel four of the meetings right there.

Both cities share similar demographics and the same delicious bakery, Porto’s. So, to start the New Year right, hold a joint meeting of BUSD and GUSD and come to a consensus on the same school calendar. Potato balls, anyone?

 

How do you explain the Paris attacks to a youngter?

When my 12-year-old son asked me why the French flag appeared on Google last Friday, I knew I had to muster the best of my parenting skills to carefully answer his question.

This led me to thinking: With the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, just how much awareness should children have of what is going on in the world?

Ginny Goodwin, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and the director of Burbank’s Family Service Agency, advises that parents consider a child’s age and maturity when discussing these events.

“Withholding information needs to be considered [including] limiting television viewing and protecting them from images” especially for youngsters, Goodwin said.

For more social media savvy teens, parents should “answer questions and help them process their fears and concerns.”

“Children need to feel secure, that adults have some control [and that] our country is working hard to protect all of us,” added Goodwin.

Parents need to understand that their children may pick up on their own fears so it’s important not to share such anxieties within “earshot of children.”

I remember on the morning of the 9/11 attacks, my wife and I made sure not to watch television until we dropped off our two-year-old at his daycare center. When I picked him up that afternoon, I was aghast that the teacher and aides were talking about the planes hitting into the buildings right in front of the kids.   I told the center’s director about the inappropriateness of doing that.

LMFT Samantha Bookman of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Program at Kaiser Permanente in Woodland Hills agrees that “it is imperative [parents] be highly vigilant about what adult conversations are happening within earshot of kids and not show their anxiety in front of them.”

“They are always listening, even when they don’t seem to be paying attention,” Bookman said.

Additionally, since “children and teens have an under-developed pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain behind the forehead which calm fears,” explained Bookman, absorbing “scary information can be overwhelming and debilitating.”

The fears that exist today about unexpected horror that could happen in a flash harken back to what earlier generations must have felt during the Cold War with the potentiality of a nuclear holocaust hanging in the air.

Even today’s lockdown drills are reminiscent of the Duck and Cover drills school children practiced in the event of a nuclear attack during the 1950s and 1960s.

It makes one wonder when was the last time an American generation did not have the sense that the world could end or at least turn upside down in a moment.

I asked history professor Christopher Endy of Cal State Los Angeles this question.

“The 1920s and 1930s were the last decades when Americans felt free from fear of widespread catastrophic attack,” said Endy. When relations with the Soviets “soured in the late 1940s . . . Americans’ fears increased dramatically.” And have remained so ever since.

While we can’t control what course of action governments undertake to combat the threat of terrorism, experts say that the average citizen’s best action is to go on with normal activities while being vigilant.

“There is risk in our lives every day . . . but we forget about it so that we can live our lives happily,” said Bookman. “And guess what? We are almost always just fine.”