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?

 

Sinatra’s Centennial Matters

New Year’s Day. 1994. Las Vegas. Frank Sinatra.

A moment when my life changed for the better.

That was the only time I saw Sinatra perform live.   And because of it, I have learned why Frank Sinatra is considered by so many as the greatest popular singer of all time.

What amazed me about the show was that at age 78, a time when he could have just sat on a stool and read off the teleprompter, he moved gracefully about the stage singing the songs as if it were the first time he sang them.

I went from buying the first “Duets” album that came out in 1993 (which was the number two album in the country on Billboard’s 200 right behind Pearl Jam’s “Vs.”) to now owning 70 CDs, 14 LPs, 7 box sets, 24 books, and 18 DVDs and videotapes.

As a teacher, you want to share your passions with your students, so I have infused lessons on connotation and tone with Frank Sinatra’s work.

When I teach Shakespeare, I use Sinatra’s rendering of the Gershwin classic “Someone to Watch Over Me” to show the importance of the proper reading of a line.   Just as some actors struggle making sense of the Bard’s iambic pentameter, others can make even the most novice viewer understand what the character is saying, retaining the musicality of the words.

In “Someone to Watch Over Me” the lyric goes “even though I may not be the man some girls think of as handsome.” Sinatra purposely links the words “man” and “some” to create the non-existent word “mansome” so that it rhymes with “handsome” the way George and Ira intended when writing the song. When other singers pause after “man,” the rhyme is lost.

To demonstrate how the same words can have different meanings depending on how they are said, I play two versions of Rodgers and Hart’s “Where or When,” one recorded in 1958, the other performed live in Las Vegas in 1966.

In the earlier Capitol Records session arranged by Nelson Riddle, Sinatra narrates a wistful tale of love emitting a melancholy tone accompanied only by longtime pianist Bill Miller until an orchestra comes in during the final forty seconds.   And when it does, Sinatra, who was practically whispering the words with the solo piano, expands to full voice louder than the instruments. The effect emphasizes how the speaker cannot remember when this chance encounter will happen again.

While only eight years apart, the two versions vary so much in approach that they almost sound like different songs. With the tempo tripled, the 1966 translation arranged by Billy Byers is swinging, upbeat, sung by a narrator without a care in the world.

Horns not strings are prominently heard along with a driving percussion with the signature Count Basie sound beneath Sinatra’s carefree tone.

Playing one of the lovers, Sinatra interprets the lyric that if they were to meet again, okay; if not, that’s okay, too. No hard feelings. Move on.

He halts before uttering each “before” in “it seems that we have met . . . before and laughed . . . before, and loved . . . before” emphasizing the deju vu element of the couple’s feelings. Sinatra’s interest is more in the playing with the words rather than exuding the emotions in them. He then holds the final “where or when” as long as he can, emphasizing more of an end than an open-ended question as in the 1958 take.

This interpretation was the one that Sinatra continued singing in live performances the rest of his life.

And while that life ended in 1998, next week marks the centennial of his birth, an apt moment to reflect on why Sinatra matters in the history of American popular music.

 

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.