"A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops." Henry Brooks Adams

Monday, November 29, 2010

School Safety and Spending Tax Dollars

School safety has been much in the news lately--and, not surprisingly, Dr. Ackerman (Philadlephia's School Superintendent) has recently been in the news for that reason.
Apparently, Dr. Ackerman's extreme concern for the safety of all her students led her to take a few shortcuts and award a no-bid contract for camera installation in an improper manner. Ackerman's actions with taxpayers' money and her imperious attitude are disturbing enough, but the really bothersome part of this whole issue is that the camera installation was scheduled and paid for ONLY because the State Department of Education was about to release a report saying that many of our district's schools remain dangerous. It does not seem to me and many others who work in schools that Ackerman was truly concerned about the safety of those students in her care--what she was concerned about was the appearance of action. She wanted to be seen to be doing something--it does not matter if the cameras will really help keep kids safe, just as long as it seems that way. As the Metropolis blog discussed this morning, looks appear to be paramount to this administration. Will cameras, which will only record what is happening to identify perpetrators after the fact, really make schools safer? Or, is it just a way to put money in the pockets of school district cronies and place a band-aid on the deeper, more systemic problem?
Anyone who works in a school knows that the problem of school violence is incredibly complex. Almost no student comes to school wanting to wreak havoc and hurt other people. They do come to school, however, very angry and sometimes bewildered with the circumstances of their own lives that are out of their control. Kids act out in school because it is a safe place to do so. Cameras do exactly NOTHING to help these situations. What does help is creating a climate of safely, accountability, and acceptance for all our students. What helps create this climate? Good administrators who are not running in fear from an autocratic leader, stable school staff and teachers who have time to get to know their students and families, and support staff who can work with students. These things all cost money, but they are not machines that can be trotted out for the media to prove that the powers that be are truly doing something. That is not to say that cameras and other security measures are not important and helpful, but they really are only a very small part of the solution. Ensuring safe schools takes time and a schools chief who respects her people and students enough to ask them to collaboratively create good school climates and supports them in the complicated effort to do so.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Trouble With Scripted Curricula (part I)

Well, we are in the first full week of school with the Empowerment Schools in Philadelphia using a new, heavily scripted reading curriculum. The K-6 Students are using Imagine It! and grades 7-8 are using Glencoe Literature. Arlene Ackerman is convinced (or at least she says she is) that these curricula will spur our students to new heights of learning. This system was implemented even for schools (such as mine) that achieved AYP last year. Our Reading Specialist posed an interesting question today: If we made AYP using Trophies and Elements of Literature (our former, well-regarded reading programs), WHY do we not get to keep using them?? Why are we instead using a repetitive, mind-numbing set of books that even young kids can see the flaws in? The most obvious explanation seems to be that Arlene has no faith in her teachers OR her students. Good teachers, using the core curriculum and the Pennsylvania State Standards can teach reading very well, and differentiate instruction without reading from a script. Most of us have been doing this for years--all the while providing for the differences and idiosyncrasies in our students' interests, strengths, and weaknesses. Much current reading research that has been done in challenging, urban classrooms like many of Philadelphia's, reaches the conclusion that great and successful reading instruction is cross-curricular, culturally sensitive and relevant, and makes use of students' experiences. Scripted curricula are antithetical to most of these goals and best practices--they do not engage students or give them credit for their intellect. A recent study on African-American and Latino boys' disengagement from school found that these young men need to feel they are not disrespected in order to be engaged in learning. Believe me, most of my middle grades students feel disrespected and devalued by a scripted curriculum. Students in the most impoverished neighborhoods still have thoughts and dreams and ideas that they want to read about, talk about, and write about. That reading, writing and talking IS learning, and it usually includes higher order thinking--something that scripts do not allow for. I do not believe that many parents will be in love with these scripts, either. Today, as a second grade parent stopped by a colleague's classroom to drop off his son from a medical appointment, he paused and said, "WHAT are you doing?" The teacher replied that it was the new reading curriculum and that she would explain more during back-to-school night. If his comment is any indication of the reaction of the rest of our parents, it is going to be very interesting. We are always being told that ALL students deserve their teachers to have high expectations for them--and good teachers truly believe that and try to honor it daily. It is the scripted curricula and the people who promote it that do not have enough respect for and belief in our students to trust that they can learn without being condescended to.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish?

I have been spending the summer tutoring and doing professional development (and vacationing), and I have been thinking about school staffing issues. I am wondering if Dr. Ackerman's consistent hiring of more and more administration (perhaps to insulate herself) at the same time she is letting school support staff go is a wise decision. It is very easy to fire or lay off school support staff--this is mostly because, to people who do not work in schools every day, their titles and duties seem to be rather nebulous. Many people might ask what a "non-teaching assistant", or a "parent ombudsman" or a "community relations liaison" actually does. Well, they all do something vital for the life and smooth running of the school. The most well known community liaison currently may be Violet Sutton-Lawson , recently laid off from South Philly High, the woman who used her body and formidable personality to protect an Asian student from being beaten during the horrible events of December 2009. Sutton-Lawson's actions were certainly heroic, but truth be told, there are many unheralded support staff personnel in schools who work heroically with students every day. Sutton-Lawson's work with pregnant teens has probably helped many of them stay in school--kids can't get an education if they do not attend school and feel safe while they are there. Support staff can listen to, protect, advise, and help discipline students every day. Non-teaching support staff help make the smooth and safe running of schools possible. Many non-teaching assistants (NTAs) help keep order in large school hallways and other common areas, and they also give students another adult in the building who can support and mentor them. That kind of support and continuity is invaluable to all students, but especially to those who come from deprived circumstances.
In my K-8 school this year, our parent ombudsman and student advisor were crucial in helping the teachers and counselor help get a student removed from an unsafe situation at home and put with a relative who could give the student proper care. Our support staff was able to arrange appointments, follow up on phone calls and inquiries, and do home visits and gather data that teachers just do not have time to obtain. Because these two people did their jobs well, we were able to work together to turn this student from a child with 3 absences per week into one who attended school every day. If we did not have these two people in our school to help teachers and counselors, it would have taken us much longer to help this child. Stories like this one may not seem important in such a grand plan as Ackerman's Imagine 2014, but it is the thousands of small successes that support staff help us with that will help make the plan come to fruition.
I suppose Arlene would say she is saving money with all these cuts of crucial school personnel, but a beginning NTA makes just over $19,000.00 per year, and the top salary is a little over $39,000.00 per year. In a 3.2 BILLION dollar budget, the pay for these important positions hardly seems excessive. However, Arlene would rather keep hiring administrative staff at salaries of about $180,000.00 per year (yes, SIX figures), than keep students safe and cared for and her actual schools running well. I know that any teacher, principal, or student I talk to has a very clear idea about the great value of our support staff, what we are not very clear on is what a six figure salaried "chief" or "communications officer" sitting at 440 North Broad Street (SDP headquarters) actually does to make the lives and education of our students better each and every day.
+++Update: More administrative positions, more SIX figure salaries.
+++New Update: Arlene and her minions make more than the mayor, governor, and the superintendents of NYC, LA, and Chicago (not including bonuses). http://www.philly.com/philly/news/homepage/20100729_Phil_Goldsmith__Ackerman_and_SRC_tone-deaf_to_Philadelphia_taxpayers__financial_plight.html

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Did Saliyah Cruz Steal Arlene's Thunder?

This post is quite Philly specific, but I feel it needs to be discussed. Did Saliyah Cruz, the successful, dynamic principal of West Philadelphia High School, lose her position this week because she was simply too successful (not to mention received good press), and was stealing the spotlight from her boss, Arlene Ackerman? For those not familiar with the story of West or Saliyah Cruz, West Philadelphia High is a large, comprehensive neighborhood high school (meaning no entrance requirements) that was in total chaos a few years ago. Since Cruz has become principal, West has come off the "persistently dangerous" list, the climate has improved dramatically, and everyone truly involved in education (not those in the "echelons above reality") has been convinced that West was on the road to great things. In fact, Cruz had accomplished that Holy Grail trifecta of principals: She had the loyalty and admiration of her staff, her students, and their parents. West also had another unique and stunning accomplishment--its well regarded car club had progressed stunningly far in the Progressive Automotive X Prize (even beating out MIT). But, according to Ackerman and her minions, West's PSSA scores had not come up enough and Cruz had to go. It is true that West's scores are not good, but reading had improved, and let's face it, climate has to be good before real learning can take place. Cruz and her staff had improved climate--real learning gains would have followed. Sadly, Cruz and her team will not be given this chance. First, West was named a "Renaissance School"-- and the parents diligently went through the district mandated process to pick a "provider" (read outside company). But, when it came time for the School Reform Commission to approve West's choice, politically connected people (including a city councilwoman) literally whispered into the ear of the SRC chairman and had the vote tabled. Many people feel this was a violation of Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act, but, hey, it's Philly.
What is the REAL reason that West was put into more turmoil and is now losing its dynamic and dedicated principal? Well, people, it certainly is not for the good of the children as Arlene and her people would have you believe. I think that the real reason Ms. Cruz finds herself exiled from the community that had come to love her is that she was too successful. She is successful and beloved, and getting good press--and, in addition to all of that--she was making a real difference in the lives of her students. In Arlene Ackerman's cock-eyed world, this can simply not be tolerated. In Arlene's bizarro world, she will defend you practically to the death if you are the principal of another geographically named high school and you allow the climate to deteriorate to the point where one group of students prey upon another group of students and beat them practically senseless. If your incompetence and inaction as a principal lead to a federal civil rights lawsuit, you can keep your job for months and Arlene will defend you until it is discovered you have no principal's certification. But, if you are a dedicated, dynamic principal like Saliyah Cruz, and you put your heart and soul into your job every single day thereby making the lives of hundreds of children better, you will be replaced! This is Arlene's world, and unfortunately, many of the schoolchildren of Philadelphia must live in it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Continuity, Community, and Change

Our school had a retirement party last week. We had a great time celebrating the careers of two wonderful teachers and visiting with school staff that had moved on. What our celebration really got me thinking about,though, was the nature of a school community and how change and continuity can act on that community. Our two retirees were kindergarten and first grade teachers who had taught at our school long enough to now be teaching the children of some of their former students. They are well-respected and beloved by both staff and members of the community. Aside from being great, enthusiastic teachers, Bobbi and Cheryl have influenced a generation of teachers with their generous hosting of student teachers and their mentoring of new teachers in the building. Our school community will be the poorer for their loss, but their influence will live on in our school. The same cannot be said for schools in the Philadelphia School District that are losing their entire teaching staffs to the Renaissance process. A school community is a delicate and intangible thing, and wholesale change of people is not usually healthy. The longer I teach, the more I realize that relationships with parents, families, and students are a crucial if ineffable part of teaching. Having everyone in a school change at the same time will leave a huge gap in the kinds of relationships that help students thrive. As I have been at my school since 2001, I am now teaching many brothers/sisters/cousins of students I have already taught. My seventh graders love telling me if I have taught their siblings, and I enjoy reminiscing with them (and sometimes teasing them) about their brothers and sisters. This familiarity means that my relationships with parents (and theirs with me) are already established--and that we have a level of trust that can help us work together to benefit the child. Sometimes, when there is difficult information to convey to parents, a long-standing trust is what wins the day. This year, a colleague needed to recommend a student for testing for a learning disability and the parent was understandably worried and unsure. But because the teacher recommending the testing was someone the parent knew, trusted, and had taught the siblings of this child, the consent was given. Trust is crucial in schools--parents need to know that the teachers have their children's interests at heart. They do not just need to be told this, they need to have experienced it firsthand. Trust and caring take time to build. When school staffs change naturally, through age and attrition, the parents can see new and experienced teachers working together and come to accept and trust new faces. When schools are faced with an almost totally new staff in September, I wonder how isolated the community will feel? Where will that teacher who knows all the members of a family and taught most of them be? Where will the counselor who always asks about your older son or daughter be? How will the level of trust that students need to learn and grow be established? I believe that continuity is crucial to building trust with parents. How will it feel to students and parents to be in the old, familiar school with none of the old, familiar faces?? Change is good and sometimes necessary, but I do not think decimating whole school communities is good for kids or parents.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Boy We Knew

Again we found ourselves at a funeral that happened much too soon. One of our former students (only 19), and brother to children still in our school, was brutally shot and killed last week. We can go over and over this, and we will never find an answer. This young man with a huge smile was a promising student, a good athlete, a happy and sunny boy--a kid universally liked by his teachers. He worked hard, tried to do right, and was a good big brother. Those of us who taught him in seventh and eighth grade could no more believe this happened to him than we could believe we'll fly to the moon tomorrow. But it did happen, and who is there to blame?? A culture that glorifies guns and denigrates hard work, that glorifies "gangsta" life (such as it is) leads to the death of too many young black men. Some buy into this mythical, destructive culture, and some are just caught up in the peripheral violence. None of them deserve to die this young--leaving behind more sorrow than they could imagine. What can we at schools do to stop this? I truly despair of finding an answer. We give kids a safe haven all day and an education--but sometimes they still have to go home to communities that have too many guns and not enough jobs. Many of us like to think these are not "our" problems, but ultimately they are. A community robbed of its most precious resource--its young--is a community in crisis. This crisis needs to be stopped by ALL of us--starting with the members of the community and moving outward to envelop and involve all of us.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Knowing Your Kids

This week, for just about the first time all year, I saw T get excited about something. T is one of my reading and social studies students who has been "a tough nut to crack". He is usually sort of quiet, even sullen--and does just enough work to get by. It has been hard to get to know anything at all about him--he does not seem to find enjoyment in much of anything. But this week, I got a glimpse of something he cares about and it has given me a whole new perspective on T and his life. We were walking from one building of our school to the next, when I heard T's excited voice: "Mrs. Luebbert, Mrs. Luebbert can we stop and look at that?" His voice was so urgent, I stopped and said, "What is it, T?" It was trash and recycling day in our neighborhood, and T had spotted an old aquarium tank someone had put out. "The tank, can I see the tank?" "OK, but what for?" T informed me he had a turtle, and that the turtle needed an bigger tank. He was thrilled at the possibility that he may have found that tank. Unfortunately, taking a closer look, we realized one side of the tank was cracked, so it would not work. But, I learned something important about T--he had a pet that he likes to care for. On the way into class I asked him a little about his turtle and he was happy to tell me. This short exchange was the first real personal thing I knew about T outside of school--and it gives me an "in"-- subjects he may be interested in, or something to talk about or ask about when I see he is in a bad mood or getting ready to fight.
This small incident led me to reflect on how important it is to teachers that we have a chance to get to know our students. It makes a great difference in the lives of students and in the life of the classroom if teachers can form relationships with their students. It saddens me that this time is less and less available to us as we think about testing and documenting results all the time. Not all things that help a child's education are quantifiable in numbers and test results. We used to have an "advisory" period--time that we did attendance while kids read independently or got ready for the day. This was a good time to talk to kids and to find out about their lives. Now, however, we have a "do-now" activity that has to be kept track of for the region. Instead of getting ready for classes, or discussing a problem or issue with teachers and peers, kids now have to do another activity that will be graded. I've had kids tell me all manner of things during advisory ---they range from just showing me photos of things they are proud of--family members, get-togethers, etc..., to telling me they had a fight with a sibling or parents, informing me a family member is ill, or even that they were upset because a brother was "going away" (a common euphemism for prison).
I always figure that my students tell me things because they need to, and it is my job to comfort, advise, or sometimes just listen. It also helps me teach my students better when I know them better. I can give them slack the days they need it and tough love the days they need it. If I know them , I know what might get them interested in a subject, or what they might like to read. Teachers need time to foster these relationships--and in our crazy "Race To The Top" world--we are losing it. Of course, most of us still carve it out somewhere---in the walks between classes, on the way to lunch, and after the bell rings. But what all the education reformers need to realize is that kids need trust and relationships as much as they need math and reading and science and social studies. Letting teachers foster relationships will lead to students who flourish in other areas as well.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Can Charter Schools Compete On A Level Playing Field?

Well, In the Philadelphia School District we are going to be opening MORE charter schools. This decision by Dr. Ackerman comes during the same week that we have learned that six or seven Philadelphia Charters are under federal investigation for "financial irregularities". Three of the charters even hired a super accountant who (according to her) works between 400-600 days per year! (http://www.philly.com/inquirer/home_top_stories/20100331_City_Controller_questions_payments_to_charter-school_accountant.html). Even during all this turmoil, the powers that be have decided that most of the "Renaissance Schools" (schools that are deemed persistently troubled) will be given over to charter operators. Nine schools will be converted to charters, and Ackerman is keeping six for herself and her cronies--those will be turned into "Promise Academies". The interesting, little discussed part of all of this is that the charter operators will have to deal with a new twist: SUPPOSEDLY, they will be obligated to keep all the students already in the school. This is a complete game changer for charter schools. Anyone who is at all familiar with charter schools knows that they specialize in turfing out any kind of problematic student. The "problems" might consist of a mild to severe discipline problem, an attendance problem, little to no parental involvement, or a child who desperately needs an IEP that the school simply does not want to deal with. For years charters have sent these sorts of students back to their neighborhood public schools with nary a second thought. One of my students lasted exactly 10 DAYS in her charter school, another was given the cliche "the school is not a good fit for you" before they sent him packing. This is classic charter school speak--it is the school equivalent of "it's not you, it's me." The issue for regular neighborhood public schools is that we are open equally to all comers--bad attitude, bad attendance, uninvolved parents, the works. Of course, that is the stated and sacred mission of public education--so we do not really mind. What we DO mind is being compared to schools that get to select students. We also mind entities that spend public tax dollars being exempt from the rules of public schools. However, if you can believe the School District (and I'm not betting the farm on their veracity), the charters that take over the Renaissance Schools will have no choice but to deal with all the students in the catchment area. So, it will be quite interesting to see how this plays out: How many students will be "encouraged" to apply for a voluntary transfer or an extenuating circumstances transfer? What will charter operators do when parents refuse to show up for meetings, or tell their kids it is a good idea to get involved in fights? How will charters deal with the myriad problems that already exist in the schools they are taking over? The charter school toolkit for dealing with difficult students is not really very large--it mostly consists of saying "see ya" to the problems. How will they be able to cope when the difficult students are theirs for keeps? OR, will the district--in a desperate attempt to prove that their initiative is a success--manipulate the students and the numbers and quietly allow charters to conduct business as usual (getting rid of the students that are hard to work with)?? It will be very compelling to see how it all plays out, and I (as well as many other teachers I know) will be watching closely to see what happens.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Another Modest Proposal

My compatriot "Mick-of-the-Moment" (I don't know him, but he/she is a frequent blogger on Philly.com) had the following take on the Obama/Duncan/Bloomburg/Ackerman idea to improve public school education, Mick would like to carry the great educational reform ideas over to crime fighting: "Areas of the city with consistently poor crime statistics should have all police officers fired and only 50% can successfully re-apply for their jobs. These districts would be forbidden to join any FOP (union) type organization and officers who work in areas of the city with good crime stats can be moved into a Renaissance police district at any time. Hooray for the Renaissance model!! We all know the way to fix struggling communities is to hold the public employees 100% accountable and the community itself completely unaccountable." Does this sound crazy to you? Of course not! After all, a similar idea is about to save public education. All we have to do to make sure that children being raised in poor neighborhoods that are trapped in an unceasing cycle of generational poverty do well in school is FIRE THEIR TEACHERS! That's right, the very people who have dedicated a great portion of their lives to urban education, who feel called to work in places with legions of problems, who feel privileged to offer a safe haven to kids from tenuous neighborhoods everyday, ARE THE ONES TO BLAME for educational failure! Yes, the test scores and achievement levels that the government measures ARE lower for poverty-stricken students, but that may just be because of poverty and deprivation itself. And, yes, some schools have been able to make astounding achievements in extremely poor areas--but they are usually charters that are able to self-select for very motivated parents and children. The children whose parents are unable or unwilling to participate in their education are the children who we work with every day. Not all teachers are great or even good, but wholesale firing of entire school staffs are certainly not the answer. The Unions have already agreed to newer and innovative methods of evaluations and training for teachers. Most teachers put heart and soul into their work--we do not deserve the sole blame for a large, intractable societal problem. The way to come to a true solution for educational reform is to ask parents and teachers what they need. Society and political leaders need to have the stomach to hold parents and communities accountable for their children. We need to attack poverty and make sure children are safe and well-cared for. Only then will we be able to truly institute educational reforms that work.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Who Are "THESE" Kids??

As I read many responses to education articles (in the Inquirer and Daily News) lately, I have become slightly dispirited. Although many comments can be helpful and germane to the larger conversation on educational reform, there are a depressing number of comments that refer to "these kids". "These kids" the rant goes, are irredeemable, not able to be educated, worthless, beyond saving..... So, WHO are "these kids" in regular (non-magnet,low SES) Philly public schools? What are they like? Well, if a demographer walked into my seventh grade North Philly classroom here is what he or she would see: A class that is over 90% minority and 75% "poor" (judged by the number of children who qualify for free lunch), a class in which only one or two children live in a home with both parents, a class in which 25% of the children receive Special Education services. Those are simply the facts; it is no more the sum of my students than any set of numbers could be. Here is what I see: A group of boys and girls who can be, on any given day, funny, engaging, heartbreaking, infuriating, hard-working, insightful, lazy..... In other words, kids who are like almost any other group of twelve and thirteen year-olds in the country! In my advisory (homeroom class) I have several talented cartoonists, three or four students who read at a 10th grade level, several who read waaay below grade level, an aspiring nurse-midwife, boys crazy for basketball, some kids with worries too big for a seventh-grader, four drum students, kids who are well taken care of, kids who are neglected, and worlds of potential. Most of my students (and the others in our school) truly want a connection with their school and teachers. It never ceases to amaze me how eager they are to say hello in the morning (even if they were reprimanded the previous day), open doors for me, carry bags, and in general seek out positive interactions with adults. That is what I see and experience every day. Others have shown, through words or actions that they see something or someone to be fearful of. One of the funniest and saddest things that ever happened when I was with my students was this: We were walking as a class between our two school buildings to the gym. Many of my seventh graders--especially the boys--are quite a bit taller that I am, so it may not have been apparent to passersby that the students were supervised. We were walking down the school sidewalk, a little noisy but generally in good spirits when a man who appeared to be about 25 or so (and Caucasian) decided to wander down the side walk with his rottweiler. When he saw and heard my students (mostly African-American) he visibly flinched and recoiled. A hale and hearty 25 year old man was intimidated by a bunch of twelve year-olds. One of my boys said, "Mrs. L, what's up with that dude?" I professed not to know, and we headed to the gym. This man, had he known my students, may have found them as endearing and/or fun to play basketball with as their phys ed teacher did. But he saw "these kids" and was afraid. The truth is that "these kids" are really the same as our kids. In fact, in a very true sense, they are our kids.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Why Don't Liberals Really Like Poor Children?

First of all, I am a liberal--so this post is following common societal mores for truth telling--you are allowed to criticize your own group. Here is what is bugging me lately about people who call themselves liberals: they don't REALLY like poor kids. Oh, they like them in theory, they don't mind tax money being spent to help them, they believe that the children deserve a good education, they just don't want poor children sitting next to their kids in a public school. Oh its OK if there are some really interesting poor families in the school: in other words families with compelling/heartrending up from nothing stories (up being the operative word), or--even better--newly arrived immigrant families with an interesting language or cultural perspective to contribute to the school. That way, they can pat themselves on the back about diversity while not being made uncomfortable by the reality of true poverty. The children they really do not want to have to deal with on a daily basis are the children of entrenched, generational poverty that live very close to their own neighborhoods. THOSE children might have problems, THOSE children might come to school hungry or not have stable housing, THOSE children might cause their children to ask uncomfortable questions. Being poor does not make you a bad parent any more than being wealthy makes you a good one--but being poor probably makes it harder to do everything that good parenting requires. And it definitely makes you more tired.
Liberal parents will say they make many herculean efforts to keep their kids out of certain Philadelphia neighborhood schools (applying to the nominal public schools called charters or trying to transfer to a public school in a high socioeconomic status neighborhood) because they are searching out the best possible education for their children. In many ways that is true. But the truth is that liberals are like everybody else--they are most comfortable with their own kind. If you are a middle class liberal it is really very comfortable to talk to other parents in the schoolyard if your main topic of conversation can be which $500.00 stroller to buy, which house cleaner is the best, or which art/dance/sport class to enroll your kid in. If, however, you are faced with having to relate to a parent who is rushing between two low-wage jobs and may not make rent--well, that might be awkward. And, you might be revealed NOT to be the wonderful, egalitarian, liberal that you thought you were.
The very best, most productive thing that middle-class liberal parents (I'm not criticizing conservatives here because they don't tend to be disingenuous about their educational motives) can do for poor children is to allow their own children to attend school with them! All schools would be improved by the presence of a really diverse student and parent population, society would be improved because children would learn how to move gracefully in many kinds of circles from a young age, and--because a rising tide lifts all boats--I don't believe that any children (liberal middle to high SES or not) would lose out educationally or socially by this arrangement. Perhaps, just maybe, this could put our society on the road to a truly meaningful education for all.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"P" is for Parents and Powerful

One of the things that can drive teachers crazy is that we are NEVER permitted to mention the "P" Word. When we are in meetings talking about how to improve things in schools and for students, the "P" word is not allowed to be spoken. What, you might ask, is the dreaded "P" word? Well, it is "PARENTS". Parents, we have all been told, are their child's first teachers. Parents are the ones who spend the most time with their children before they go to school, and parents are the ones who transmit (either obviously or implicitly) their attitudes towards school and education to their offspring. Every classroom teacher knows that if you need to do some special or extra work with a student, you must get a parent on your side before it can happen. However, school administrators and government officials who deal with education are extremely reluctant to call some parents out on their neglectful behavior. If a child does not come to school, or comes to kindergarten woefully ill-prepared, or is tired and/or hungry everyday, WHO is responsible for that?? Well, logic would tell you it is the parents, but school districts will tell you that the school (meaning teachers) MUST find a way to overcome all this and make sure the child becomes proficient or advanced in all subjects.
What would happen if we told the truth to parents? What would happen if we said, "You are the single most powerful person in your child's life. Nothing I do can work without your support."? Would parents step up, own their power, and use it to propel their children towards success? I think they would. I hope they would. We know that some parents have always done this. This kind of parental involvement and power does not always tie into to socio-economic status, we have all known poor parents who make sure their children excel in school and wealthy parents who are quite neglectful. However, too often, poorer schools are the schools that lack sufficient parental involvement. There are many reasons for this, but maybe we need to stop listing the reasons, and just ask parents to accept their power. Being a parent is the most important job we will ever do, and we all must realize that it is critical for our children that parents own up to their influence and make sure their children take advantage of all school opportunities open to them.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Turnaround or Boondoggle??

Once again, the School District of Philadelphia seems ready to turn over some of its most struggling schools to outside managers. Will this work? Have we learned NOTHING from past experience? Last time we gave a bunch of schools to Educational Management Organizations (EMOs), the results were less than inspiring. In fact, the results were so bad that most of the schools were returned to the management of the district. Here is what the School District's website says about the new "Renaissance Schools":
There are three major components of the Renaissance Schools initiative:
1) identifying chronically low-performing District schools that are not likely to achieve dramatic improvements without transformative change, 2) identifying individuals and organizations that are capable and prepared to turnaround around failing schools in Philadelphia, and 3) empowering school communities to play an active role in the turnaround and ongoing support of their school. The District believes that these components must be implemented with rigor and transparency in order to create an effective and lasting process for turning around failing schools in Philadelphia.

SUPPOSEDLY, these EMOs and Charters will have to retain ALL the children currently in the school. But will they really do this? What about parents who want to opt out--where will their children be sent? Instead of bringing in outside managers, why not have a series of thoughtful, exploratory meetings with the current staff and parents? They are the ones who intimately know the school and its students--and believe me--they probably have plenty of useful ideas about how to improve the schools.
Many EMOs and charters come in with many preconceived ideas and cookie-cutter plans that will not fit every school and student. The way they traditionally deal with this is to turf out the kids and families that do not get with the program. The district says they will not do that this time, but can we trust them? Probably not. Will EMOs and Charters be required to treat special education students fairly and legally? I am not the only one worried about this--The Education Law Center's Len Rieser blogged about his concerns on the Philadelphia School Notebook's site: http://www.thenotebook.org/blog/102243/something-can-be-said-school-districts
EVERYONE concerned about children and schools should be worried about how the Renaissance Schools will be doled out. Will they go to Arlene's friends? The SRC members political cronies? Will we really see "rigor and transparency" in this process?
I do not teach at either a Renaissance eligible or alert school, but I am concerned about the students who attend them and the staff who work at them. I hope all these students are not simply handed over to money-making companies to experiment on.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

More Scripts

My last post had an interesting comment from Sandy, a Title I reading teacher. They, too, are under lots of pressure to use scripted programs because they must justify the expenditure of federal funds to help kids read. "Research-based" is the new buzzword--but what does it really mean? Just like with drug and medical research, it matters WHO is sponsoring the studies. Can we really believe in a study that is sponsored and paid for by the publishing company that stands to gain millions from the sale of the program being researched? The common sense answer is no, but school districts seem to be suckers for these kinds of sales pitches. In Philly, and maybe in other places too, teachers often wonder if the programs are being selected because the sales people have some kind of "in" with the district. Are the people in charge buying programs (spending taxpayers' money)from their friends, relatives, former colleagues??? I know that this would surprise NO ONE in Philadelphia if it turned out to be true! How can the process be made more transparent? How can teachers become a part of the process, that after all, should be about helping our students--not lining the pockets of publishing companies?

Monday, February 8, 2010


I've tried to give it my best effort, truly I have. But it all came to a head for me one day last week when one of my students (an engaging, interesting 8th grader) said to me, "Mrs. L., why are they doing this to us?" The "this" she was talking about was the "Corrective" reading and math programs that many School District of Philadelphia schools are now forced to use. Philadelphia Magazine reported inaccurately last month that the corrective programs are used in after school remedial programs. The truth is that the "Empowerment Schools" must use these programs for EVERY STUDENT two periods per day. That is 90 minutes of scripted, rote programs, and many students are feeling punished by it! My student asked "what did we do to deserve this, are we that horrible?", and she is not really a drama queen--she truly feels that these two programs (corrective reading and math) are sucking much of the creativity and interest out of her day. My student--an 8th grader from a semi-poor neighborhood in North Philly--could clearly see what the PhD in charge of the district apparently cannot: these programs are not helping her learn, or engaging her interest, or helping her with higher order thinking skills that she will need to fulfill her life goals. When I had this student for social studies last year, she participated enthusiastically in discussions about the problems of disease and colonialism in Africa! This sort of teaching--which students actually find engaging--is being swept aside for robotic scripted programs that most students find mind-numbing.
For years, the district has been telling teachers we need to engage students and differentiate instruction. All of that is true--kids learn better when they are interested, and not every kid learns the same way! So, what are we doing now? Pushing every kid into a scripted program! As usual with large corporate-type entities, the District is talking out of both sides of their collective mouth! We need highly-qualified, innovated, committed, dedicated teachers. Yes we do! And we have many! However, highly-qualified, innovative, committed, dedicated teachers DO NOT want to read from scripts. We know how to teach, we know how to remediate, we know how to raise test scores! LET US DO IT!

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Other Stuff

Many teachers know that the hardest part of their job is "the other stuff". By that we mean everything that does not have directly to do with instruction and teaching, but has a HUGE, practically incalculable amount to do with whether our students are ready to learn. How can kids be expected to learn well and receptively when they are tired or hungry, or do not know what or who will greet them when they go home that day? Even if school is the best, safest place that they will be that day (and for many kids it is), how can they learn when the rest of life is so upsetting and unsettled? Today, a great teacher at my school saw one of her former students "steaming" through the halls upset and angry. She knew that this child probably was upset because of an unhappy and tenuous home situation--but the kid could not cope with school right now. My friend was able to take the child aside, calm her down and make her feel a little better for the moment. The child went back to her class ready to learn--for the moment. This is an everyday occurrence for many teachers, but it is really only a salve for the underlying problem. Kids need stability, kids need love--until they get that, they cannot fulfill their potential. This costs society in many ways, and for many years--but what can all of us do about it?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

One Thing

When we got the news, of course it was--as it always is--shocking and sad. One of our former students, only a high school senior, had died. She had been sickly off and on, and she died of natural causes. But, at just 18, no causes can really seem natural. The other 7th grade teacher and I went to the funeral to represent our school. I was prepared for the funeral, I have been to too many funerals, though not to any of former students. I had steeled myself to be strong, to "keep it together", to say a few words to the parents and grandparents. What I was not ready for when I entered that room was the sea of faces I recognized--dozens of our former students looked up at us. How could I have forgotten that her friends would be there? Dozens of young, sad faces--not quite ready to take this step into adulthood, but knowing that this--their presence to honor their lifelong friend--was necessary and important, that was the sight that brought me to tears. They looked so young, not fully formed but determined--one foot right into adulthood, and one still back in childhood somewhere. They took comfort in each other, and they remembered their friend, and they made us proud of how they are growing up.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Challenge to Dr. Ackerman

This is a Letter to the Editor I wrote to the Philadelphia Inquirer--it appeared in June. Surprisingly enough, Dr. Ackerman never responded!

As a Philadelphia Public School teacher, I am very disheartened by some of the opinions about her teaching staff that Dr. Ackerman has voiced lately. While all of us are not perfect, I daresay a huge percentage of us do our utmost to teach our students well everyday. We do this work because we are called to do it, and we believe that we make at least a small difference in the lives of our city's children everyday. We do this work in crumbling, leaky, rodent, insect, and mold infested buildings. We do this work with some children who haven't slept or eaten or been cared for in any significant way by the people who are supposed to raise them. Most of us take classes outside of the school day to better our instruction and learn new ways to help our students. We love our students and care for them in a way that many, many parents and students appreciate. If Dr. Ackerman thinks that we are doing such a poor job, I challenge her to run a series of "Master Classes" for teachers starting in September. Walk into a school in the morning with a lesson prepared (pick a different grade each week) and walk into a random classroom to teach the class. Rules: no calling the principal ahead of time, no culling the difficult students from the class, come without an entourage--just pick a class and show us your magic. The district could make a podcast so all teachers can learn from it. Perhaps you could teach us something, Dr. Ackerman.

Just A Day

First high school report card day: As seventh and eighth grade teachers at our neighborhood public school, we can be sure of this one thing: We will have visitors. One of the lovely things about our school is that no one ever really leaves--most of our graduated kids will come back to visit. Today they come back to show us their first high school report cards. Some are proud, some are chastened, but most come back to tell us that we were right (we knew that): high school IS harder, there IS more work. We look at the proffered report cards, congratulate on As and Bs, encourage "Work harder, you know you can" on the Cs, and look rueful and scold a little while encouraging greater effort on the Fs. We ask about families, clubs, sports, etc... This day is a good day, we get to see a small bit of the fruits of our labors, we get to see that even a knuckle-headed, goofy seventh grader matures, we get to look at the students we have now and remember that they, too, will grow, mature, sometimes take our advice. And, we get to hope, and see that hope in them.