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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

Evidently Reading is No Longer Fundamental

Kids don’t read that much today whether the material is e-books, online magazine articles or student newspapers; in fact, some don’t read at all.

This is not a scientific fact. I have no Gallop poll or think tank report to prove my point.   This conclusion is based on my first-hand observations along with nearly the unanimous view of fellow teachers.

Teachers have a tough decision to make with students who don’t read: go ahead and test them on material knowing that they will fail, dummy down the assessments so that even those who didn’t do the reading can still pass a test, or cut down on the amount of reading.

After years of resisting change, I have succumbed to the last choice. For the first time in my 27 years of teaching, I have lowered the amount of reading I expect students to do on their own.

Instead of asking students to read 30 pages in a book each night, now I have them read 20 pages. Let’s say it takes two minutes to read one page; that would translate to 40 minutes of homework.

During a recent short story unit, I discovered that a good one-third of my advanced students felt incapable or uninterested to read an 8-page story that would have taken about 15 minutes of their time; for them, this was a mountain to climb, a task they could not or would not complete.

And this assignment was for an honors English class where students receive an extra grade point like an advanced placement course.   These kids are considered to be at the top of their class, a cut above the rest, the type who will graduate college and end up in good paying professions.

What this tells me is that it is not about how many pages kids have to read, it’s that they just don’t want to read.

When faced with a hardbound book without pictures versus a handheld device with streaming video, there is no contest.   Devices rule.

The dilemma is, do schools continue doing what they have long been doing, handing out printed books and assigning nightly reading, or do they go in a different direction?

I had a colleague who didn’t trust that his students would do the reading of “Hamlet” so he read the whole text out loud.   Some would say that this was not the best use of precious classroom time, but others would say that at least the kids gained knowledge about the Prince of Denmark.

Years ago students who did not want to read books used Cliffs Notes. In today’s Internet age, it is Shmoop.

But there are students who don’t even put forth the minimum effort to read these so-called study aids.

It makes me wonder if reading is on the way out along other modes of increasingly anachronistic abilities such as writing in longhand and speaking over the phone.

Remember the old public service announcement slogan, Reading is Fundamental? Well, the organization behind it is still in existence.   Julie Rodriguez, vice president of literacy services, told me that an important aspect in getting high schoolers to read is explaining “how it will help them” in their future.

That is quite a challenge in a world dominated with emoji and emoticons as the modus operandi for communicating.

Nevertheless, teachers should not give up on expecting students to read.   Of the myriad services schools provide, let us not underestimate the refuge reading offers students from the electronic devices that consume their time outside of school.

Every so often, like the re-emergence of El Niño, the topic of a teaching shortage reappears on op-ed pages and talk radio.

California needed more than 21,000 teachers to fill positions this school year because the number of teacher candidates has declined by more than 55 percent, from 45,000 in 2008 to 20,000 in 2013, as reported by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

With fewer people going into the teaching field, shouldn’t the powers that be examine how to increase interest in it?

Working conditions and salary clearly are not selling points.

Much of the negative aspects of teaching stem from the lack of control teachers have over their own profession.

Schools are still structured top-down as they have been for a century, with teachers viewed more as factory workers, not master-degreed professionals who can problem- solve without the intervention of those outside the classroom.

Teachers know how to improve their profession but do not have a voice in the matter, impotent in their subservient roles. How many college students would gravitate toward such a future career?

It wasn’t that long ago that the concept of site-based management was seriously championed as a way to involve teachers in the decision-making process at a school. But that grand idea vanished.

So, education bureaucrats continue to mandate so-called reforms such as Common Core standards and standardized testing that teachers are expected to deliver with little input.

Meanwhile, everyone goes about business as normal, not questioning why people don’t want to become teachers or why so many who do end up leaving within the first few years.

Clearly, there is a disconnect between those who work in the classroom and those who do not. Overlooked is the daily energy drain on interacting with upwards of 200 kids.   Taken for granted is the amount of secretarial tasks performed by teachers: taking attendance, uploading homework, inputting grades, getting supplies, making photocopies.

And then there’s money. Teacher salaries do not reflect the education and training required nor the level of responsibility an effective instructor shoulders.

In fact, beginning teachers in Glendale can’t afford to live in the city.

Consider that the median price of a house in Glendale today is nearly $700,000, according to Zillow. After a 20% down payment, the $560,000 loan would result in a $2,500 monthly mortgage payment.   The starting salary for a teacher in Glendale is $43,000, meaning the monthly take home pay is around $2,800. Add in property taxes and the teacher ends up in the red.

Harjot Kaur, my student teacher from Cal State University, Northridge, teaches three classes, then takes three classes on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, plus an online course—all unpaid.

So why does she make the financial sacrifice to train as a teacher considering she would not be able to live in the community in which she teaches?

“The low pay is devastating, but this is my passion so I push the reality aside and go on,” Kaur said.

Let’s face it. We all hope that selfless people join the military to protect our country. We all hope that decent people become firefighters and police officers to protect our society. And we all hope that quality people join the teaching ranks to mold our future commodity—children.

But hoping will only get so far.   An overhaul of the teaching profession is long overdue.   And it will take teachers themselves to blast the clarion call since those in the upper echelon of education show no interest in changing the status quo.

Is there any chance of that happening in our lifetime?

One can only hope.

Sept. 11 quickly turning into a page in a history textbook

Fourteen years ago today an incomprehensible tragedy struck the United States—a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

When the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, those who were watching the news on television assumed it was a horrible aviation accident. But when a second plane struck the South Tower, the unimaginable became real.

In 102 minutes, both skyscrapers had collapsed as did the idea that America was immune to foreign terrorism.

Like many, I went to work the morning of Sept. 11 in a daze not quite knowing how to begin my first class. Obviously, I would have to acknowledge what transpired.   And I knew that I wanted students to have a way to express what was going in their minds.

So I did what any English teacher would do, had them write down what they were feeling.   Then I offered my lectern to any student who wished to share with the class. We spent the whole period talking about it.

As the day wore on, I spent less time discussing it with students for when Period 6 came, the kids had pretty much their fill of the disaster.

For those of us who lived through that time, it may be incredible to realize that more and more young people have no first-hand recollections of it.

The 15-year-olds currently in my classes, while alive in 2001, only learned about the tragedy in the fifth or sixth grade when a moment of silence took place at school on the anniversary date. To them, 9/11 might as well be the assassination of President Kennedy.

How quickly a flash point for some yellows into a page in a history textbook for others.

That is a key role museums play in bringing to life a historical event so it remains relevant.

My wife and I visited the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York over the Labor Day weekend. We were fortunate to have Mark as our tour guide because he was a young teen when 9/11 happened and now as a man in his 20s shared personal experiences.

He talked about how New Yorkers were friendlier to one another immediately following the event, recalling how neighbors who were strangers joined in a spontaneous candlelight walk.

Equally emotional are the museum exhibits including the curled up front of a fire engine that had melted from the heat, and the chapel-like room which projects a victim’s photo on a wall with the voice of a loved one remembering that individual.

Then there are the walls with all of the faces of the nearly 3,000 people lost, most of whom were in the prime of their lives and, if still living today, would still be middle-aged.

And then there is another wall to a room that contains the unidentified remains of over 1,100 people.

According to the museum’s website, about “40% of the WTC victims” have not been identified, with the most recent person being identified as recently as this March.

Walking through the museum and viewing videos of a time that I actually lived through makes for an eerie sensation, a reminder that those of us with first-hand experiences will one day pass away, with only this museum to serve as an eyewitness.

I wonder if future generations will fully grasp how unsettled we all felt during 9/11 as it unfolded.

The Sept. 11 Memorial comes close to bottling those terrifying moments.