How many papers does it take an English teacher to grade before he collapses?

For the first time in several years, I feel exhausted.  Fatigue is normal for the first few weeks of the school year, returning to work after an extended vacation.

It takes a month or so for a teacher to get his “sea legs.”  Then, a certain comfort level sets in, and the teacher locks into a rhythm that can carry one through the rigors of a school year.

Well, after eight weeks, I still haven’t found it, making me think about Father Time.

Similar to an athlete whose body can’t work or heal as well as it ages with a lot of usage over the years, I must be experiencing the cumulative effects of being in the game of education for over 28 years which is why I’m still seeking my footing.

Besides, without disparaging my colleagues in other disciplines, the work of the English teacher is formidable.

I have four classes of 10th grade English: 35, 36, 36, and 32 in numbers.  This means that every time I give a test or assign a paper, I am collecting 139 handwritten papers—all with unique printing; some legible, some not.

Within the past two weeks, I have graded 139 tests and 695 one-page essays.  No wonder I am having stomach problems.

I often ask myself, do I really have to work so hard this late in my career?   Why push myself?  I certainly do not get paid by the pound of papers I take home.

If I were to add up all the days off I have had in close to three decades, easily one-third of the days were mental health ones, where I just needed time to breathe, time not to assign any more work, time to get through the pile of papers that like a landfill can easily rise as tall as a mountain.

GUSD used to support English teachers with two programs to help ease their paper load.  One was the lay reader program and the other was paper grading days.

The lay reader program worked like this.  Teachers would farm out class sets of essays to college students majoring in English.  Instructions would be given to the student evaluators to correct all grammar and spelling errors.   Within days, the essays would be returned, and the teachers would then focus on more specialized areas such as organization and content.   Not having to fix mechanical mistakes saved time on the grading.

Additionally, the District used to allocate a certain number of substitute days, labeled paper grading days, to each secondary school with the idea of relieving the teacher from the classroom in order to grade essays.

Both of these programs were wonderful not just for the assistance given to teachers in getting their work done, but the recognition by GUSD that English teachers do have a higher amount of student work to evaluate than other teachers, an acknowledgment rarely given.

Unfortunately, several years ago funding for both programs stopped.  Yet, English teachers’ assigning writing did not.

The bulging briefcase I bring home every night and every weekend remind me of what I need to do before I read a book, watch a show, write this column.

Overwhelming?   There must be a stronger word for it.

I know colleagues who give multiple-choice tests and envy them a bit.  Within minutes, their grading is done, the numbers of correct answers printed on a silver platter.

Others like me who have students write detailed responses written in multiple sentences with supporting evidence have hours ahead of us to read handwritten work and to evaluate the merits of each response.

Ultimately, teaching requires faith that what one does is going to benefit young people.   I still believe I’m doing the right thing.  Even if it kills me.

 

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.

 

 

More Like High School Completion Than Graduation

“Graduation rate at Glendale’s high schools tops 90%” read the Glendale News-Press headline recently.  On the surface, this statistic is celebratory, something Glendale Unified should prominently display at the top of its website’s homepage.

Before we pat each other on the back for a job well done, keep this in mind:  many high school graduates are not ready to start college or get a job.

For too many, a high school diploma only confirms that an individual met minimum standards.

If the purpose of a high school graduation is to give a thumbs up for job accomplished, i.e., you attended school kindergarten through 12th grade, then we should call it “completion” rather than “graduation” because disturbing trends lurk beyond high school.

There is a high remediation rate in colleges.  Some surveys say 20 percent of those attending 4-year colleges and 60 percent attending community colleges take at least one remedial class, meaning that whatever knowledge and know-how students were to absorb and practice through their high school career is not evident.

Such retraining often continues when college graduates enter the workforce.  According to Washington Post reporter Jeffrey J. Selingo, employers say that young people lack “problem solving, decision making, and the ability to prioritize tasks,” skills needed to excel on the job.

Somewhere in the education pipeline, especially in high school and college, young people are just getting by with underdeveloped abilities that delay future success.

Much of the hype surrounding the Common Core standards is that its higher expectations on what skills teachers should be teaching at certain grade levels will produce a higher caliber of student.  In reaching for an elevated learning level, we should see a drop in graduation rates due to students struggling with the more rigorous work.  So what accounts for the rise?

A push to ensure that every last senior crosses that stage at the end of the year.  No district official or principal wants a less than stellar grad rate for it darkens the reputation of a school.

At the high school level, there is pressure on teachers to pass students (a grade of ‘D’ or higher).

Some administrators contact teachers who have too many students with failing grades.  In other words, the teachers are questioned why they are failing the kids rather than the kids being questioned why they are failing the classes.

Then there is the wide variation among educators on how they evaluate student work and calculate grades.

Teachers are permitted, rightfully so, to determine their own amount of work to assign, and what percentage of a class grade is based on participation, homework, and tests.

But when some ingratiate themselves with their pupils by grading easy, the result is that an ‘A’ in one teacher’s class does not signify the same level of achievement as an ‘A’ in another.

Years ago when California developed the High School Exit Exam its original intent was to make a diploma not attainable but meritorious.  It didn’t work.   Soon after piloting the test, results showed more than half the students not passing it.  So, the test was whittled down to the point that it would merely rubber stamp the diploma not elevate it, adding a bureaucratic hoop for students to jump through, wasting millions of tax dollars and hours of classroom time.

School should not be the place where kids survive but where they thrive.

All of us—educators, parents, children—need to accept the challenge and work towards meeting higher expectations so that more young people finish college and perform well on the job.

Maybe if students knew that there was a realistic chance they may not cross the graduation stage, more effort would result so that the diploma would not simply be a piece of paper.

 

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.

 

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?