DeVos: The Anti-Education Secretary

There I was, using 20 minutes out of my 56-minute period on Jan. 20 showing my mostly non-native English speaking students democracy in action, the inauguration of a new president, when I felt slapped in the face from Donald Trump who said, “An education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”

As he seems to do with so many issues, Trump took the low road with a clichéd type of sentence that connects extremes—lots of money with nothing to show for it—that reflects his deprivation of knowledge about education.

It’s one thing when the public makes comments about schools without researching the facts.  It is quite another when the man holding the highest office in the nation makes such a remark, then appoints a person to head the department of education who may actually know a little less than he does about schools.

Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos has never attended a public school, never taught school, and it is doubtful that her children attended one either.

DeVos is a billionaire, Forbes estimating her family’s wealth at $5 billion.  And she and her husband, son of Amway’s co-founder, aren’t interested in making schools better, but in promoting school vouchers which takes money away from public schools and gives it to parents to spend on charter, private or religious schools.

In other words, taxpayer dollars end up funding private companies and religious organizations.   That runs counter to the separation of church and state edict of this country.

Yet Trump is entrusting her with the highest position in education to do what’s best for America’s public schools.   Does that make sense?

At her confirmation hearing, she exhibited, to borrow Trump’s language, a “deprivation of knowledge” about the federal law that funds special education which has been on the books for nearly three decades.   She also could not explain the difference between the terms “proficiency” and “growth assessment,” a distinction even an average-skilled teacher can clarify.

DeVos also argued against gun-free school zones saying that some schools like those near Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming should be able to arm themselves especially “to protect from potential grizzlies.”   Thus far, there have never been reports of grizzly bears attacking school children.  Besides, most experts agree that bear repellent is more effective than firearms.

I have long felt it inherently wrong for people who lack teaching experience to hold powerful positions in education, telling teachers how to teach.  Unfortunately, DeVos has company.

Since the Department of Education was created in 1979, there have been 10 secretaries.

Only Terrel Bell, Rod Paige and John King, Jr. were public school teachers before serving their post.  That means 70 percent of the U.S. Secretaries of Education had no first-hand experience of public schools, the institution for which they were setting policy and implementing mandates.

Since Trump thrives on having the biggest, the best, the largest, he has succeeded with DeVos in appointing the most unqualified individual as education secretary.

In fact, she is the anti-education secretary.

As Stephen Henderson wrote in the Detroit Free Press, “She’s not an expert in pedagogy or curriculum or school governance.”

Until her nomination, she was chairman of the American Federation for Children, a pro-school choice advocacy group whose website refers to DeVos as a “national education reform pioneer.”

In a speech given at the South by Southwest education conference in 2015, DeVos listed “government really sucks” as an “inconvenient truth” about public education.  Nice language coming from the soon-to-be top “educator” in the land.

Some senators requested a second hearing on DeVos, but the request was turned down.

Her confirmation is expected to happen this Tuesday.  If only that were fake news.

 

 

Remembering an Educator

Don Duncan who passed away on Dec. 15 at age 82 is someone whose work in Glendale schools should be remembered.

Mr. Duncan (I can’t let go of the formal title) graduated from Hoover High School in 1952, then taught in Glendale Unified School District (GUSD) in 1957.  He became principal of his alma mater in 1974 and remained in that position until he left in Feb. 1995 to recruit students for California’s first full-time evening high school in order to ease overcrowding in Glendale schools.

By May when it became clear that was not materializing, Mr. Duncan expressed regret in a News Press interview that “if I had any feeling that it was not going to work, then I would have preferred to stay at Hoover.”

His tenure in Glendale ended without much fanfare even though he and his brother Charles combined for nearly 80 years of service to Glendale’s schools, and their father owned Duncan’s Variety Store in Kenneth Village.

I interviewed with Mr. Duncan for a teaching job when I earned my credential.   While there weren’t any openings, he kept me in mind, and when the 1989-1990 school year began (in Sept., by the way), and a position opened up, Duncan called me and asked if I was still interested.

The problem was that I had just started my first teaching job for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles.

It was two weeks into the school year and Don’s brother, who was in charge of Human Resources for GUSD, was able to get me out of my LAUSD contract, and in Sept., 1989, I made my debut at Hoover.

Mr. Duncan came across as paternal, always in the main office in the morning greeting teachers as they arrived, his height and gray hair adding to an “in-charge” presence without an air of intimidation.  He was even-tempered, “cool as a cucumber” according to granddaughter Nicole, never tipping off if things were going well or not.

Often not going lockstep with the district, he used to joke that we were the Hoover Unified School District.   One example of this was back in 1987 when the school newspaper wanted to publish an ad for condoms right before the prom.   And Mr. Duncan supported the publication of it.  Unfortunately, district officials heard about this and put a stop to the ad before it was published.

In my 24 years of doing the school newspaper, I have had my share of run-ins with principals about stories.  I only had one with Mr. Duncan and he supported my decision.  In fact, he loved the school newspaper.  He often would come to the journalism class and tell the students “nice job” which meant so much to the kids.

Mr. Duncan gave all teachers a generous present of a one-hour coupon for him to cover a class period anytime someone wanted to run an errand or take a walk.

He enjoyed dressing up as Santa Claus on the last school day before Christmas vacation, and would host staff Christmas parties at his house.  He also enjoyed speaking on the P.A. about historical days on the calendars so that students understood why school was closed.

City Halls memorialize councilmembers.  Schools should have a way to honor teachers, administrators, clerks, and custodians who dedicate their careers to education.

Here is a man who devoted his adult life to Hoover, the longest tenured principal in the school’s history (almost 21 years), yet his name is nowhere to be found on campus.

Before another street is named for real estate developer Rick Caruso, consideration should be given to the Duncan family in ensuring their legacy does not disappear from Glendale’s history.

You Can’t Judge a Historical Figure by Today’s Standards

Some people take it upon themselves to make wholesale changes to history by applying contemporary sensibilities to those who lived in the past.

Matt Haney, San Francisco School Board President, made headlines a couple of weeks ago when he recommended that George Washington High School be renamed due to Washington being a slave owner.  He suggested replacing Washington’s name with Maya Angelou’s.

As much as I admire Angelou, she worked as a prostitute and a madam when she was young, not exactly noble professions.  However, overcoming these obstacles as well as a childhood rape makes her story of survival and success quite compelling.   There should be a school named after her, but not at the expense of removing the name of the father of our country.

Back in the 1770s, wealthy men typically were slave owners.   To his credit, Washington had written in his will that his slaves were to be freed.  The Mount Vernon website states that Washington was “the only slave-holding Founding Father” to do this.

Think of all the schools, streets, and cities named after George Washington.

Since half of Washington, D.C.’s population is African-American, should that region be renamed as well?

It is wrong to judge a person from the past based on current mores.

One could make the case that all historical figures have something in their past that would not pass the 2016 litmus test.

John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, probably would not have been in favor of same-sex marriage in 1960, but that was not even an issue in his time so it is unfair to judge him on it.

Who is to say that something people do now may be viewed as abhorrent 50 or 100 years from now?

Some people protest the teaching of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in schools because of the frequent use of the n-word.   Those ignorant of the book might even label Twain a racist without understanding that what Twain was writing back in 1885—a white boy sharing a raft and a life’s journey with a black man who serves as a surrogate father—was quite progressive in 1885.

Flash forward 130 years later, and people wish to denigrate Twain’s legacy.  However, he was not living in the 20th or 21st century.

This weekend the National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in Washington, D.C. with artifacts about Bill Cosby including a note about the current sexual accusations against the entertainer.

Some people wanted all mention of Cosby to be expunged from the museum.

If he is convicted, should he be wiped out of history?

Evidently there are not enough legitimate issues for the San Francisco School Board to grapple with, allowing them the luxury to raise issues that do nothing but put their district in the news for the wrong reasons.

Ask students what they want from their school and changing the name of it probably does not appear on their to-do list.

Mr. Haney and others like him should cease the high and mighty posture and stop altering with what people did before they were born.  That’s not their job.

Let’s hope removing George Washington’s name from the history books does not appear on the next school board meeting’s agenda.

 

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.

 

 

Have Separate Classes for Kids of Different Abilities

“I find rowdy kids intolerable and just plain annoying.”

This is not a teacher talking, but a student describing what it is like for a smart kid to be in a class with kids of lower ability.

About 15 years ago, a shift began in high schools instituting an open door policy that allows any student access to an advanced class regardless of prior achievement.  No more prerequisites.

This experiment has not worked.  In fact, little evidence exists proving that lower ability students succeed at a higher level when sitting next to their higher ability counterparts.

Gone are the days when all my “honors” students earned A’s and B’s.   Now I have students all over the grading scale.

In following an “all classes for all students” policy, all students are harmed by a system where competition is de-emphasized.

When I began teaching, there were English courses tailored for each ability level:  high, middle, and low.   That makes sense.

A teacher can do a more effective job tailoring lessons for homogenous groups rather than having to differentiate for all levels within the same class period.

Students who struggle need a properly trained teacher for their needs just as special ed kids need specially trained personnel.  Many low ability learners feel inadequate so having them sit next to geniuses is not to going to raise their self-confidence.  And gifted kids gamely sit through redundant lessons that their peers can’t handle.

More than 80 percent of advanced students believe strongly in having separate classes for high ability learners and low ability learners, according to a survey of my students.

The reasons they oppose grouping all abilities together include the harm it does to the advanced student due to the slower pacing and the disruptive environment.

“They frustrate you because they aren’t understanding what everyone else is talking about or they won’t do any work,” says one.

“The smarter people who understand the lesson have to wait for the others to understand the topic before moving forward which is wasting their time and keeping them from having harder and more challenging problems,” says another.

“I dread coming to class.  The concepts are dumbed down, the students are less mature, and they make a lot of noise and interrupt the lesson.”

Several students don’t feel their needs are being met.

“It is unfair to treat us as a collective body rather than teach each students’ personal needs.”

One exasperated student wondered, what’s wrong with “rewarding those who work for” high achievement?

How ironic that the higher achieving kids which school administrators love to spotlight as evidence of a school’s excellence actually are short-changed in their learning.

A long-running belief among education officials is that they don’t have to worry about the smart kids, and because of that view, they do nothing for them.  Funding for gifted students barely registers a sliver on the education budget pie chart.  In other words, the children who become  contributors to society are held back from even greater achievement.

In a way, public school is the antithesis of the American economy where competition does not exist.  Some schools have done away with ranking students which means there no longer is a valedictorian for graduation.  For an institution that is supposed to educate young people about the real world, this anti-competitive approach fails kids.

The one area in school where competition is allowed to thrive is athletics.  The coach is not forced to provide equal playing time for each athlete.  The same philosophy should be applied to academic classes.

If it weren’t for the College Board’s Advanced Placement courses, schools would not even offer any of those classes.

Probably the most help higher-achieving students provide for lower-achieving ones is by supplying free paper and pens.

 

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.

 

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.